Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Buddah's Hand

This is a Buddha's hand, also known as Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis. I stumbled on it while at my local Jewel's store. Rob the nice produce manager (pictured above) told me they come from Asia and torn off a tip of one of it's fingers for a couple of shoppers to experience. The fragrance was truly amazing. While it doesn't have the juice or pulp you'd expect from a lemon it can be used for drinks, juicing, and to make candy. Can't wait to try one soon.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Starting Beekeeping?

H2 and Art have had two hives, tended by beekeeper Noam, on their roof for the past couple of years. Since they started, I've been thinking about tending my own hives on my roof.

I'd like to have feral bees, ones that have by their very existence, shown that they have the genetics to survive without treatments, pesticides, or other human intervention. The philosophy is outlined in books like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, sites like Michael Bush's, and by the Backwards Beekeepers.

Here's a nice video of Backwards Beekeepers Kirkobeeo demonstrating how to capture a feral swarm.

I'd like to find a local beekeeping group that does this kind of work. 

I'm not sure how interested I am in doing this -- bees don't have any special hold on my imagination, and I'm a little unsettled by the prospect of a steady dose of bee stings.  Then again, I felt the same way about chickens this time last year, and look how well that experiment turned out.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Urban Beekeeping Video

H2 sent me this link.  I thought I'd share it with you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Agretti Chronicles

We stared our agretti seeds in March and they sprouted in June.

Later in June, getting a foothold...

 And on July 13...

I mostly nibbled on the raw agretti while tending the roof, letting it grow and looking toward fall for a robust seed harvest. By September it was setting seed nicely.

And in October, drying under cover in the sun-warmed greenhouse.

Won't be long before we're germinating it again in spring 2012. It did very well in a SIP, with easy access to water, but I'd like to also try direct-planting some seeds in the new raised bed.

Via Cherry Gal...
GROWING TIPS: Easy to grow. Plant as soon as ground can be worked and cover with 1/2" soil and space 4-6" apart, thinning to 8-12". This must be planted in cool weather. It will not germinate in warm soil. Germination in 7-10 days and you can start cutting from the plants when they reach 6-8" in height. Cut the green tops or sections - it will regrow (my favorite kind of green). Generally used in the Spring when leaves are tender. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chickens as Pets?

I don't see mine that way, but can understand why some people do. I'm partial to dogs.  That said, they're very curious animals.

I'm still getting plenty of eggs. My dog can't do that.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Growing Cool-Weather Greens Indoors

In Chicago, growing anything during the cold winter months makes us happy. Previous years we've experimented, with good success, in growing cool-weather greens upstairs in full-south light with auxiliary lights over the plants. One year we tried it without the lights

This year, we're going to grow again without auxiliary electricity. We're using EEZY-GRO sub-irrigated pots we got at Menard's, a big-box store. Plants don't drink much in winter, growing slowly with no need for a large water reservoir.

The greens--tatsoi, kale, mustard, all the usual suspects--have a nice start. Somehow these little ones always taste sweetest.

A Low Tunnel for Greens in Fall-Winter-Spring

The next logical step for the raised bed Art built for my birthday in spring 2011 was to structure a low tunnel over it so cool-weather greens can grow in winter...or at least thrive longer in fall and start earlier in spring.

We looked to Johnny's Seeds for the bits we'd need. First, a bender to turn conduit into hoops-- worthwhile, easy to use, and eminently shareable with your neighbors.

Art holds up hoops so I can visualize where we'll position them. Then he secures them. I need to be able to get inside to clip greens.

You can see the sun on that nice southern brick wall below, our neighbor's building. All credit to Eliot Coleman and his Four Season Harvest, which opened our eyes...
Eliot Coleman introduces the surprising fact that most of the United States has more winter sunshine than the south of France. He shows how North American gardeners can successfully use that sun to raise a wide variety of traditional winter vegetables in backyard cold frames and plastic covered tunnel greenhouses without supplementary heat.

Now for the Agribon, which we laid out on the deck to cut and then tossed over the arches.

We used these Johnny's snap clamps to attach the fabric to a long run of conduit to weigh down the edges.

The conduit concept worked well, and I hope to be able to lift the edge as a single unit when I want to get in there or give the plants some air.

The clamps also keep the fabric taut on the hoops, to hold snow.

I probably wouldn't purchase these plastic clamps again. In the cold weather they're difficult to manage and apply...even in not-so-cold weather they were a pain. Got to be an easier way.

First Chicago snow (late for us)
Dec 8-9, before I got the plastic on

Looks cozy in there

Art decided to make a low tunnel on the roof
for storing buckets in winter.

It might also come in handy this spring for starting seedlings.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chickens Dig Compost

They like to scratch in my compost bins.

They're remarkably docile.  Happy to perch almost anywhere.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Power of Compost

Outside air temp = 25º F, Compost Pile Temp = 120º

I'm really interested in the work of Jean Pain.

Let’s look at Jean Pain’s methods and try to assess what sort of legacy he has left us as we enter the 21st century.

Pain lived in Provence and realized the limitations of what Alan Savory has called “brittle environments,” those charac­terized by extended seasonal drought. Absent herds of large animals to process the biomass into a form available to soil organisms, organic matter tended to cycle more often through fire than through earth, exaggerating the loss of carbon from soils already depleted and subject to high temperatures for much of the year. While Savory, and his intellectual predecessor Frenchman Andre Voisin, emphasized intensive grazing by herd animals, Pain faced a dry mountainous landscape where resinous plants were dominant. Unsuitable for most grazing animals, the brush-wood, which amounted to as much as 50 ton / hectare (20 ton / acre) was a huge reservoir of volatile fuel for an ever-increasing number of human-caused fires scourging the Mediterranean littoral (seashore).

A modern Prometheus, Pain sought to domesticate this demon for human use. His studies had revealed the essential mystery of humus and its role in soil fertility. The creation of long-chain carbon molecules by a biological alchemy made soils and the environments based on them, more supple, better capable of holding magic substance could be “cultured” by providing supportive conditions for bacteria and fungi to digest plant material: ample mois­ture, controlled atmosphere and temperature and the continuous diffusion of oxygen into the mass were sufficient.

But though the raw material was abundant in the Provencal forests, its collection required chainsaws and motorized transport, and its processing required grinding to increase the surface area and hasten break­down. Collection and grinding required industrial fuels and machinery, albeit simple: trucks, tractors, power saws. How then to close this economic and energy loop? By capturing energy from the composting process.
I love how he took forest underbrush, and with the help of bacteria, made hot water, methane, electricity, and garden compost.  The man was a genius.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chickens in Early Winter

It was 15º (F) last night.  They seemed a little subdued when I let them out of the coop this morning, but were all frostbite free.

We've had no snow here until December 9th, unusual. H2 took these pictures a week or two before that.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Drying Out Potting Mix in Fall

Like El over at Fast Grow the Weeds, we sometimes wonder if it's all been said before. Does anyone really care what we do with our SIP potting mix in autumn? Based on a few emails we've received, it's possible. The photo above, sadly bereft of green, tells the story: after the last harvest in early fall we dump all our 5-gallon SIPs and get the potting mix into the warm air and sun to dry it out as much as possible.

Look at all the roots at the bottom of this top bucket. Should they be freezing and then decomposing come spring? We reserve a bin for all this vegetative matter, load it up, and send it down to the compost heap.

Drying out the mix is a quiet practice done over time, but worth it for the health of the mix and next year's plants. We also rotate the potting mix so the same plants aren't growing in it the following year. If you're not growing on a roof (or even if you are), there are many ways to accomplish the same idea we show here.

By the way, earthbox instructions say you can plant and replant the following year without removing the mix. As you'll note from these photos, that's not possible with the smaller 5-gal SIPs. Roots end up occupying virtually all available space. As for our two adopted earthboxes, we empty them too, but in the spring.

Step by step...

1--Clip all top-growing foliage and compost it.

2--Turn SIPs on their sides to drain water from the reservoirs.
Once they're drained, I stand them up and remove the shower cap covering so the top can breathe. It's worth noting that over the period of weeks it takes to dry out potting mix you'll inevitably get some rain. Toss a tarp over the SIPs so they don't get soaked again.

3--Empty the top grow bucket into a large bin or onto a tarp.
We use a livestock watering trough with a hinged wooden lid Art made for it to keep rain out (check the first photo to see it). Below you'll see the glorious root system from one of our smaller SIPs. Jab at it with a shovel to loosen the mix and grab the stem at top and shake. A lot of mix will come off. You know what to do with the plant material...

Now you'll have some likely damp or even wet potting mix in your large trough.

4--Shovel out the damp mix and lay it into the bottom of plastic bins like these. 
Or, if you're not growing on a roof as we are, you could just spread it out onto tarps. The key is to maintain a thin layer of mix, positioned so the sun gets at it. Once the top is dry, mix it up to expose the damp underlayer and keep at it until it's all dry.
Yes, it's a process. Once we get the mix dry in the smaller bins, we add more damp mix to it and re-expose to sun and air. Soon these bins fill up with dry mix. We then position on top a square piece of treated plywood with a brick to hold it down and keep rain out. Remember, it all stays on the roof over our Chicago winter.
5--Keep track of what grew where.
I emptied all the potting mix from the tomatoes and, once dried in the smaller bins, poured it all into the large trough. Next spring, when I'm ready to plant the young greens (around St Paddy's day), I'll start with the tomato mix in the trough--avoiding any potting mix that grew greens this year.

Someone (probably my snarky brother) asked: wouldn't it be easier to grow in the ground? The answer of course is yes, if you have a planting area that gets full sun.

But we don't.

SIPs are astonishingly productive and there are lots of approaches you could use to dry your potting mix. However you proceed, we recommend it.

Here's to a healthy growing season in 2012!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Homemade Arugula Pesto: In 3 Easy Steps

Last week I was lucky to be gifted a pound of fresh organic Arugula grown at the Plant, a vertical farm in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. As a volunteer/intern it's a nice little perk for some fun work.

Here's how I preserved my precious pound of Arugula...

The key ingredients: Here's my fresh organic Arugula and some homegrown hardneck garlic which I harvested a few months ago. I like growing a garlic called "Music", it's easy to grow, stores well (for at least 9 months) and I love the intense flavor. Once you start growing your own garlic you'll never go back to the store bought stuff!

Arugula Pesto Ingredients:

4 cups of Arugula which is approximately a 1/2 lb.
1 cup shaved Asiago cheese
10 to 12 cloves of garlic with their skins on for toasting
1 cup of walnuts

1 fresh lemon

1 tsp. Kosher salt

Pepper to taste


1) Toast walnuts in heavy pan till golden brown.

2) Separate garlic cloves with skins on and toast in a heavy pan for about 10 minutes, let cool, then remove skins.

3) Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix till smooth and creamy.

You can enjoy your pesto now or freeze it for later use. Here's how I prepared mine for the freezer:

I used styrofoam egg cartons to freeze my pesto. This works well when you don't have an extra ice cube tray handy.

I froze my pesto in the freezer overnight (10 hours) and the next morning I packaged them. I found that the pesto cubes released from the carton easily when you soaked the bottom in warm water for about 5 minutes. Egg cartons are also great for making ice cubes or freezing herbs.

You can also freeze your pesto in a plastic bag. Just lay it flat on a cookie sheet or small pan till frozen. It's easy to store, just break off what you need then place it back in the freezer.

Hope you'll try this delicious recipe. Thank you Carla for sharing your organic Arugula!