Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Serious" Homesteading

Local Food Report
Not much on the local scene this week in the way of fresh produce. Our weekly visit to Three Rivers Market turned up only shiitake, oyster and lion's mane mushrooms from Brewer's Mushrooms in Sevier County.

"Serious" Homesteading
One reviewer (posted at www.facebook.com/NewAmericanHomestead ) says The New American Homestead is "too broad" for anyone "SERIOUSLY" undertaking homesteading. I could not agree more.

Recycling: basic urban homesteading skill
Our intent from the book's inception was to provide a solid overview of the basic skill sets for self-sufficiency, with a stong bias toward horticulture. The book is an introduction to a topic that literally can encompass any "technical" aspect of daily life. We had no choice but to omit some detail. Anyone with the determination to go completely off the grid is probably also intelligent enough to dig up the in-depth, site-specific data they would need to pull it off. This book nevertheless offers all the basic information anyone might need to get started with home food production, togehter with an overview of projects that require a larger investment of time and money, such as keeping bees or chickens. For each topic covered, the existing literature is vast and accessible.

Who's the serious homesteader? I point out in the book that giving up life in or near a city to strike out into the wilderness and live off the land is a romantinc fantasy for all but a few of us. My aim in writing this book is to encourage more people to do more for themselves with the resources available in a urban or suburban setting. I assume, for example, that every household will have utilities and acess to a decent transportation system. Being connected to the municipal water supply does not necessarily imply, however, that I need not trap and conserve rainwater for irrigation purposes.

Living in a high-rise does not, similarly, imply that one should ignore the possibilities for sustainable living. Wheat may be out of the question, but not wheat grass for the cat.

Look for small, slow solutions; one of the principles of permaculture.

The heavy emphasis on horticulture in The New American Homestead stems first from my greater level of knowledge and expertise in this area, compared, say, to apiculture. Secondly, the single most important step anyone can take toward greater sustainability and self-sufficiency is to grow vegetables, herbs and fruits to the extent that climate and resources permit. Commercial production and transportation of food is enormously costly to the environment. By encouraging America's 100 million households to produce whatever they can themselves, we can reduce energy consumption while simultaneously re-awakening our society to the enormous value of wholesome homegrown food. In so doing, we "value the margins," another basic permaculture principle. Suburban and urban landscapes that now consist either of exotic ornamentals or grass are actually in many cases the remnants of land that once grew crops. It is time we reclaimed these spaces for something more useful.

Who, then, is SERIOUS about homesteading? Hats off to the brave souls who head out to the wilderness; their courage is admirable. The rest of us, hoping to achieve a more sustainable existence without giving up our home and community, we're pretty serious about that, too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Strawberry Time

Local Food Report
We continue to have a dearth of local vegetables. Checking Three Rivers Market this week revealed NO local produce at all. Fortunately, we still have local and regional eggs, milk, cheese and cured meats.

Our greenhouse is now yielding spinach, kale, mache, lettuce, scallions, parsley and cilantro. Why are no commercial growers supplying this niche? Maybe next year....

Strawberry foliage can be decorative, too!
Strawberries
Now is the time to think about starting a strawberry patch. Strawberries are one of the easiest fruit crops for home gardens, and there is a variety for every location and need. Good selections for this area include Surecrop, Tristar and Sequoia. You can purchase bare root plants or containers. Bare root plants should soon be appearing in garden centers as they are best planted in late February or early March. Container plants will arrive later, and are a better choice for the novice gardener.

Plant all strawberries so that the crown (the point at which the roots and stems meet) is just at the soil level. Planting them too deep will prevent proper growth and may lead to a crop failure. Planting too shallow will allow roots to dry out and possibly kill the plants. If planting from containers, simply set the plants at the same level they were growing.

Strawberries require full sun and slightly acidic soil that has been enriched with organic matter. They need plenty of water during the early part of the season, then drier conditions as fruit is forming. Too much water when fruit is colored up leads to poor flavors.

Do not plant strawberries in soil that has grown any member of the potato family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or potatoes) for the past five years. These plants have many of the same diseases, and your strawberries may not do very well.

Strawberries are subject to numerous viral and fungal diseases. For this reason, a patch typically gives a good yield for about three years before it needs to be renewed. You can start new plants from runners and move them to a new location, or replace worn-out plants with new stock of a different variety. Container platns can be propagated from runners which can then be potted in fresh, sterile growing mix. This may sound like a lot of trouble, but the flavor of perfectly ripe strawberries is well worth it, in our view.

If you have limited space, consider the new Dutch strawberry varieties that are bred for container growing. They have names like Tristan, Loran and Merlan. Besides producing delicious fruit, these plants have glossy, dark green foliage and flowers in white, pink and hot pink. The flowers are much larger than those of other strawberries, about the size of a half dollar coin. The plants are quite decorative even when not bearing fruit. Best of all, they are day-neutral, meaning you will get a small crop all season, with peaks in spring and fall. During the first year, we recommend removing all blooms that appear before May 1. This helps the plant to establish roots, and will lead to a better crop later on.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Weather Tools for Gardeners

New Hardiness Zone Map Available

The USDA recently released new plant hardiness zone maps. Anyone can download maps like to one at left at no cost. With a broadband connection, you can use a nifty interactive map.

Find all the new maps at this USDA site. 

The interactive map has multiple layers that can be altered to provide different views. You can choose a simple physical map like the one at left, or a 3D image of the terrain, or a satellite photo, with or without street and place names. Hardiness zones are shown in an overlay that can be adjusted to different transparency levels. The level of detail is incredible. Looking at our own site at the highest resolution, we can see that the high ridge to our north is typically half a zone colder than we are.

Besides the maps, the site has plenty of useful tips on how gardeners and farmers can use the data.

Backyard Weather Stations  


Having good weather information makes gardening a lot easier. Weather Underground has been a great resource for us for several years. In addition to weather forecasts for anywhere on the planet, the site has feeds from hundreds of private weather stations. Anyone can install a weather station in their backyard and share the data with weather enthusiasts all over the world via Weather Underground. The site has a cool feature that allows you to create a "weather sticker" to embed on a web site or blog, showing current conditions for any of the stations in the database. Check out the weather for Knoxville on the right hand side of this page.

Setting up your own weather station can be great fun, and the data from it can help you plan your garden with site-specific information. You can spend anywhere from a few dollars to several thousand on a home weather station. Here are a few tips if you decide to purchase one.

The lower priced models can be accurate. We have several and all seem to agree when placed side by side. I have also compared temperature readings using a research grade glass thermometer. All the digital ones are within a few tenths of a degree of the actual temperature, which is plenty accurate for gardening needs. For example, we have an indoor outdoor thermometer consisting of a base unit and wireless remote. Each day, the base unit displays the high and low temperatures for the previous day automatically. It also displays indoor and outdoor relative humidity. This device cost about $20 at our local DIY store.  These units typically lack the ability to record much information, however, leaving you to track trends with pencil and paper or a spreadsheet.

A few years ago we bought a fancier weather station for about $200. We ordered online. Several competing brands sell home weather stations and the price can range up to several thousand dollars. Ours came from Oregon Scientific, and while we could, shall we say, suggest some improvements, overall it has been quite satisfactory. Some friends purchased a more sophisticated system from OS, and have generally been pleased, as well. What these units feature is a USB port that permits capture of data to a computer. This feature vastly simplifies recording trends, and makes possible sharing your data via the Internet. The external sensors in our station require batteries, while the more upscale station our friends bought features solar powered external sensors. In both cases the sensors transmit data wirelessly to a base station.

Both units came packaged with software that proved to be out of date and hardly intuitive to use. Fortunately, we were able to upgrade the software online, and often find answers to our questions from the manufacturer's web site. Oregon Scientific, however, is useless if you have questions, in our view.

Changing batteries in the outdoor sensor for temperature, humidity, and wind data could not be simpler. You twist the plastic housing a quarter turn and it pops away to reveal the battery compartment. Done in 30 seconds or less. The rain gauge, on the other hand, has the batteries encased in a waterproof, gasketed housing that requires removal of eight tiny screws each time the batteries need changing. It is a genuine pain, and the reason we will go with solar-powered should we buy another station.

We have found another problem with all of the stations that feature wireless sensors. When the package states a maximum distance between the sensor and the base station, it means under ideal conditions. Depending upon the construction of your home and the presence of obstructions like trees and outbuildings, the actual range of the device can be much less. We are told by others with experience that more costly, professional quality weather stations typically feature much more powerful transmitters in their remote units.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Out-of-Season Season

This time of year, everything seems to be out of season locally. My most recent visit to Three Rivers Market turned up no local produce items, other than storage sweet potatoes. Given that I am harvesting herbs and greens from both outdoor beds and my cold frames, you'd think someone would be doing this commercially.

Last month, there were plenty of local green crops on the shelves. So why now a dearth? I can think of lots of possible explanations. All of which boil down to a matter of timing on the grower's part. Hopefully, some enterprising farmer will realize that he or she could sell local produce during February and plan accordingly next winter.

Cabbage plants under artificial lighting
In all fairness to our astute local growers, it is much trickier to produce a winter crop around here owing to the sporadic availability of sunshine. Short days in December and January cause crops to slow down and stop growing. I have experimented with various types of supplemental lighting for years. Given our relatively low electric rates in the Tennessee Valley, about 9 cents per kilowatt/hour for residential customers, growing winter crops with supplemental lighting might be cost effective for an efficient operation.

It would be interesting to compare the carbon footprint for producing local crops with supplemental lighting, versus trucking the same crops long distances. I know, for example, that lettuce can be grown to harvestable size entirely under fluorescent lights. The photo at right shows sturdy lettuce plants now about a month old. And below, Ashley lettuce, grown under lights, has reached leaf lengths of about five inches, big enough for a salad. These plants are going out to the cold frame soon, but if they were potted up and left under the lights they would mature. Lettuce produced indoors has a much more tender texture. The leaves are thinner. We are experimenting with air movement to get a crispier lettuce. By using a small fan to gently circulate air around the leaves, we encourage them to become sturdier, and hence more palatable.

Lettuce 'Ashley' under fluorescent lighting
Home and commercial growers alike should experiment with supplemental lighting. New technologies, such as LED lighting arrays, offer promise of space-saving designs that use a fraction of the electricity of currently popular equipment, such as fluorescent and metal halide lighting. The biggest drawback to LED systems for home use is their high initial cost, but the price should come down as the equipment gains in popularity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

First Harvest of Overwintered Lettuce

I am going out to the cold frame this afternoon to pick the first lettuce of the year. The plants were started in October and transplanted to the cold frame after 30 days in cell trays. They only had time to establish themselves before the short days and cold temperatures stopped their growth. Now that the days are getting longer, and with the help of the January thaw, they have grown enough to pick.

We are especially happy with the performance of the cultivar, Ashley, the frilly red one in the middle of the photo. Michelle, the bright green one in the foreground, was the second best performer. Less inspiring was Rougette de Montpelier, a red-tinted butterhead type that apparently does not like to overwinter.

As a general rule, lettuce varieties with red in the leaves, and those with extremely "savoyed," or finely divided, leaves, have the greatest cold tolerance. Given our experience with these three, savoyed leaves may trump red pigment.

Last month, we started more seeds of Ashley. After the plants shown here are harvested, we will add some cottonseed meal to the bed and replant. We will soon start more seeds, of some different lettuce cultivars, to be transplanted outside the cold frame in March.

The oblong plastic planters at the left of the photo above represent an experiment we began last fall. We purchased our cold frames late in the season, because we waited for the store to put them on clearance. They did not go up until November 8, 2011. The planters were handy, and there was some space on the foundation of the cold frame to accommodate them. Therefore, we sowed seeds of anything cold tolerant that we happened to have on hand. As you can see, the cilantro sown in the upper planter germinated profusely. It has just begun to grow again after pausing for the winter. In the lower planter, arugula--described on the package as a "wild" form--barely germinated. A patch of the same seeds sown a month earlier outdoors germinated very well, but to date is no more than two inches tall. We will wait to see if more seeds germinate in the planter this spring, but so far this variety has been a disappointment. Two others, Parsley 'Krausa' and Dill 'Dukat,' were also sown on November 8, and barely germinated. On the other hand, Corn Salad 'Vit,' sown the same day, sprang up everywhere, grew well during the coldest weather, and transplanted successfully into the ground bed. New transplants flank lettuce 'Lollo Rossa' in the image above right. This is another good lettuce for overwintering, although it does not grow as large as it does during spring.

The blue flowers in the photo are violas. We like to use them to divide our cold frame beds into planting blocks. They bloom all winter and the flowers add a welcome note to salads, too.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Happened To Pickalot?

Pickalot produces lots of pickles!
Last season I grabbed a package of cucumber seeds off a store seed rack. I was snagged by the cultivar name 'Pickalot' for a hybrid cucumber. It so happened I was looking for a good pickling cucumber. This one offered a special benefit for my limited-space garden: lots of cukes on compact plants.

True to its name, this cuke gave us many batches of pickles from three hills grown on a nylon net trellis in one of our raised beds. Althgether we canned 17 pints of pickles and had plenty of additional cucumbers for eating fresh and making gazpacho.

Now this year for some reason I can't find the seeds. Burpee, from whose rack I purchased the seeds last year, lists it as "Out of Stock" in its online catalog this year. Since they advertise it as a "Burpee Exclusive," another source may not exist. One can only assume the problem lies with whomever is the source of the seeds. Perhaps they suffered a crop failure or suspended this line of plant breeding. I hope they bring it back next year.

If you happen to notice someone offering this cucumber for 2012, grab a packet. It is a great plant.

And please let me know where you found them!

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