Saturday, October 30, 2010

Solar Challenge

Well I finally took the leap and sprung for my first set of solar panels yesterday. I'm starting small as I learn more about the equipment. (They're quite heavy!) My plan right now is to harness enough solar energy this winter to power the grow lights for my indoor vegetable garden. The initial outlay of money was a bit daunting, but when offset by the cost of fresh organic produce, the purchase was well worth it. In the long run I'll come out ahead and remain in control of the quality of my food source.

I challenge my readers (which according to stats hail from around the globe) to buy at least one solar light in the coming year, even if only a tiny garden light for a pathway. You can pick those up for under $10. As market demand increases, prices will continue to drop and technologies will improve.

Solar lights for the yard are not only a terrific way to bring beauty to your home and make walkways safer at night, they are also a great resource in a blackout. During the last blackout in my neighborhood my whole house remained ablaze with light as night fell. I merely ventured outside and dragged in a few solar charged garden lights.

Check out this development on photovoltaic solar leaves. Very exciting stuff!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Salsa Verde

This is a fresh mild salsa which is a nice addition to burritos, tacos or simply as a side dip for tortilla chips. My ingredients all came from my garden, but most can be purchased from a grocer. Like just about anything made from scratch, the taste of fresh salsa verde is nothing like the bottled variety. It has that special toothy crunch that makes it worth the effort.

Remove husks from tomatillos and wash. (The tomatillos are slightly sticky when you remove their papery husks.)

Chop finely. Then seed a jalapeno pepper. 

Mince together with:
1/2 a jalapeno (or more if you like your salsa with a kick)
clove of fresh garlic finely chopped
1/4 onion finely chopped
cilantro (a handful) chopped
add juice of half a lime
pinch of salt

The taste is fresh and well, green. Hence the name - salsa verde.

My tomatillo crop has been a steady source of deliciousness for the last two weeks but this was the first day I finally had the chance to make a salsa. The plant has been loving its new home inside the comfy hoop house, which is warmed by candles inside at night. It's quite a sight to see. A single candle in each bed has transformed each hoop house into a giant luminary. An unexpected and magical delight. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Afflicted by Barnheart

I laughed when I read this article, Barnheart: Yearning to be a Farmer, by Jenna Woginrich because it described me so accurately. According to Woginrich, I fall into a category of dreamers who are afflicted by the "disease" she calls Barnheart - sudden onset yearning to farm.

I am most definitely in the research phase she describes because I spend hours daily perusing data about septic systems, tractors, animal husbandry and cultivation techniques. I even have Scott Nearing's seminal book The Good Life on hold at the library. The television is rarely on these days. Gardening and farming blogs are far superior entertainment, filled with new frontier stories. What a rich world the blogosphere has become.

Homesteading while maintaining a creative career isn't out of the question. Woginrich herself (a former design student) holds down a 9-5 corporate job while homesteading, according to her YouTube video.

My homestead dream is more along the lines of that of writer Susan Orleans'. A few low maintenance chickens and an expansive garden. Although I wouldn't balk at a couple head of miniature Dexter cattle and a nubian goat or two for milk and cheese.

I do have a bit of farming experience. My uncle ran a dairy farm that I spent time at as a child. The smell of fresh cut hay, the moist warmth of the cattle in the barn, scrappy barn cats lined up at milking time for a squirt direct from a teat. These are rich memories.

We'd come in from the fields sweaty and exhausted from a day of baling and be greeted by bowls of steaming potatoes and hearty pot roast that my aunt set out for us on a harvest table. Nothing ever tasted as good. My aunt was a true farm wife (now she drives a Lexus) but back then she was right in the thick of it.

Mucking stalls, lugging milk and grain cans and braving a finicky pressure canner as she put up the harvest for winter. It was hard work that started early and ended late in the day. For me it was a wonderful departure from my suburban existence. I recently asked my aunt, who now lives in a condo, if she missed the farm. Her answer, "Every day."

Only one member of my large extended family has followed in their footsteps. A cousin who now operates a buffalo farm of all things. But like my uncle, he too has to hold down a second job to make ends meet. A foot in both worlds is the only way, it seems. As Kermit the frog says, "It's not easy being green."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Candle in the Wind

Here's a nice tip I picked up from

Placing a candle inside your greenhouse (or hoop house) on cold days will raise the temperature inside a couple of degrees. Sometimes that's all you need.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pollution Scorecard

Ever wonder how your city stacks up for pollutants? Type in your zipcode and get the skinny at:

This website offers statistics on water, smog, lead, chemical releases (yikes) and animal waste in your environment. It also names names when it comes to who is polluting your community. I don't know how accurate the data is, but some of the info I read certainly gave me pause.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I used to just be a writer who liked to garden. Now apparently I'm also a locavore, foodie, urban farmer into green sustainable living using permaculture principles. It's all getting so complicated, the simpler it gets.

After an easygoing Sunday meandering through apple orchards and the countryside with my family I find myself searching the MLS again for properties with land, streams and barns. I may be entering my Thoreau stage.

This summer I saved the clippings from the garlic harvest to put to use in the cob oven project I've been planning. Unfortunately I haven't been able to tackle the project given my ever increasing decrepitude. Looks like it will have to wait till next season.

Cob ovens seem to be suddenly cropping up everywhere. They are on everyone's hip list. There was even a multimedia slide show of a 36 hour dinner party cooked in a cob oven in the New York Times this weekend. That was one dinner party I wish I'd been a guest at. The earthy breads, root vegetables and the pudding. Yum. The rustic pizza with a raw egg on top reminded me of the wood fired pizzas I ate on the streets of Dusseldorf's Altstadt back in the 70s when I lived there for a year. It was the first time I'd ever seen an egg on a pizza. So delicious!

See link below for the inviting NY Times slide show. (Warning: some photos may be offensive to vegetarians.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Plants Play!

According to plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso plants not only communicate, eat, sleep and adapt to environmental challenges but they also play! 

Don't you just love this concept? Watch his wonderful talk on the roots of plant intelligence at Ted Talks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hoop Dreams

An eyesore to some, a thing of beauty to others. Seven hoop houses constructed in a flash before an unexpected late night cold snap. 

I used PVC, 6 mil plastic (construction grade) and binder clips. I merely shoved the PVC into the soil, as deep as it would go. Bent it to the other side of the bed and repeated. Draped the plastic over, cut it with scissors and secured plastic to PVC with large binder clips. That way, I can deconstruct them just as quickly for higher daytime temperatures. Clip, clip and the plastic's off. I have 65 tomatoes ripening (not including the ever-flourishing cherry tomato bush.) There's now a second crop of lettuces. Tons of arugala (below), raspberries, strawberries, tomatillos, peas, beans and various and sundry root crops and herbs. A few green peppers have small fruits on the plants too.

Meanwhile, inside, on the kitchen windowsill... the TPS (true potato seeds) from this year's abundant crop of potato berries are now happy seedlings. I hope to have success growing them inside in pots this winter. It's an experiment. I have faith though. The store bought potatoes just don't hold a candle to homegrown.

I would love to have a huge rambling greenhouse. Two. No, three! But this will do for now. Baby steps.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dining Al Fresco

A fall harvest meal on the lawns just seems so right, doesn't it? The grass under your feet reminds you there's no hurry. It's okay to linger at the table as the conversation follows its course. The food satisfies. The wine warms. The companionship relaxes.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tomatillos, Turnips and Tatton

I've enjoyed a really beautiful crop of tomatillos this season. Tiny, but tender and flavorful.

There's not been a chance to make a single batch of green salsa though, because they are so delicious they are devoured whole within moments of being picked! What sweet, crunchy little morsels of heaven tomatillos are. I will plant more next season.

It's that time of the season to take an accounting of how your garden fared and how well you used the bounty. I'm making decisions now about how to structure next season's garden. Tomatillos are a definite increase, as is cabbage, potatoes, beans and peas. Next year, squashes will go in earlier, and lettuce will take up less space, since it grows so quickly. I'll also add more turnips.

Seems like I planted the turnip seeds only weeks ago. Surely it is longer since I've already been able to harvest greens that went into a stew Tuesday, and a few baby turnips to eat raw as a treat. My first introduction to the turnip was as a raw snack. I was playing with the children next door, and their mother handed me a raw turnip to eat along with her kids. The others munched happily on them, like apples. I'd never even seen a turnip before, purple and white and mysterious. It looked like a very pale beet. But I was instantly enamored of the peppery, crunchy, full bodied flavor. To me, it was exotic. I've loved them raw, ever since. Turnip greens came to me later in life. I find when eating them raw you can detect a slight hint of seaweed. The greens are just loaded with calcium. A healthy choice for the lactose intolerant.


I listen to podcasts daily. Mostly literature podcasts, but also some gardening ones. Gardening Tips From Tatton Park is a video podcast which I enjoy a great deal. They tend to run approximately five minutes, It's like a calming little interlude in the day. I've learned a ton from Head Gardener Sam Youd. Here's the link to the RSS feed. I subscribe to his twice monthly video podcast on iTunes and encourage you to do the same. Enjoy.

Paste this into your browser or click on the link below:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ode to the Northern Spy

Northern Spy
For the perfect pie. Slice up eight Northern Spy.

These apples are poetry in a pie shell. The Northern Spy still tops the charts as one of the best pie apples. I'd have an orchard full if I could, and with that in mind, saved every single seed from the apples I peeled. The apple grower at the orchard where I purchased these beauties told me that Spys produce a bumper crop one year and a meager one the next. Perhaps that is why you don't see them on every growers' top ten list. But isn't that just the way with heirlooms. They resist being common. I'm wondering if staggering your plantings could balance the harvest out.

I had planned on a trip to the county fair with my cohorts this weekend but a rather spectacular tumble down the stairs headfirst put the kibosh on that. There was no way I could wade through crowds with a sprained ankle and wrenched knee, no matter how badly I wanted to see the prize pigs and preserves. As it stood, it was a happy decision to bail, because instead I took a drive into the country alone, gloriously alone, to buy some freshly picked apples. There I was surrounded by the best of nature. Vibrant foliage, fresh air and the sounds of wind in the trees, not the rumbling masses.

I let my car carry me down unfamiliar winding roads, brilliant with colorful foliage, stopping only when I felt inclined. A winery, a farmer's corn roast, at two separate pick-your-own-apples orchards and a farmer's yard for fresh eggs. On my travels I had face time with all the goats, rabbits, chickens, pigs, sheep and turkeys I wanted.

I came home with bushels of crisp Macintosh, Spy, ears of peaches and cream corn, farm fresh eggs and bags of rhubarb and black raspberries. Happiness.