Saturday, October 25, 2008

For What It's Worth


More info. More images.

(above image via.)
Not Dark Yet

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Winding Down

If I could only put one thing under the heading of What I Learned On My Summer Vacation My Roof, it would be that Greens-- mesclun, lettuce, arugula, spinach, swiss chard, kale, and mustard/collard greens--are the best plants to put in SIPs. Best? Meaning they are easy to grow, produce large quantities over a long season, and while readily available at most markets, they're relatively expensive. As a cook/eater, the real reason to grow them is that they taste good and they're good for you.

I'm also growing broccoli and brussel sprouts. As a kid I hated both of them. Now I'll go out of my way to eat them if they taste good--a great recipe makes all the difference in the world.

When you grow the plants yourself, it's striking how big the leaves are compared what makes it into the produce section at the store. It seems a shame to waste all those greens, which are similar to kale and chard. One idea I came across is to toss the broccoli or brussel sprout leaves with pasta and cheese.

In keeping with the decidedly amateurish pedantic tone that I started with a few months ago, I'd like to pass on my steps for closing up shop for the winter.

Last fall I didn't do much, just cut down the dying plants and put them in the compost pile. Then I drained the containers, in what seems to have been an unnecessary effort, to keep them from cracking due to freezing/expanding water. Because I didn't cover the planters completely, rain and snow found its way into the reservoir where it mixed with the decaying roots to create a funky stew. On the plus side, none of the tubs cracked. Of course I only found this out in the spring.


This year I drained the tubs using a little hand siphon. The one shown here is normally used to transfer kerosene to a space heater.

Next was tearing off the old plastic bag, removing the old fertilizer strip, and digging out any large roots.

The last step was to cover the whole thing with a new plastic bag.

I'm hoping that all I'll have to do in the spring is take off the bag, add some new fertilizer, put the bag back over the planter, and after cutting small holes in it, drop in the seedlings.

That might be a little optimistic, but it's a plan.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Favorite Greens 2008: Renee's Stirfry Mix

Renne's Garden
Renee's Stirfry Mix
growing in sub-irrigated planters (SIPS)

If you want to grow a flavorful selection of greens, you can't do better than this. Especially easy to grow in a SIP, Renee's stirfry mix gives you red mustard, mizspoona, pac choi, and Asian red kale. It's a plain and spicy, multi-textured extravaganza.

Click on the photo to view a close-up of these nutrient-packed greens.

We've been cutting greens for salads and stir-fries for weeks. And I just planted some more seeds that will start outdoors but come inside this Chicago winter and live on our second floor, unheated but in the 40s due to a leaky first-floor ceiling.

We'll see if they grow inside and keep us in fresh greens this winter--that's the hope.

I'm buying more of these seeds for next year, that's for sure.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Financial Argument for Planting a Garden (in SIPs)

With most of our retirement portfolios worth about sixty percent of what they were two months ago, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of “boot strapping” both in the corporate sector and at home. People will hold off large expenditures and start watching what they spend on everyday items, like, most appropriately here, food.

People will weigh food costs against quality; which may impact the commercial supply chain. The big box grocers will be running sales on produce that don’t seem possible until you realize the direct correlation between cost and quality. The niche markets, focused on organic or higher quality produce may suffer, since their food is often more expensive to grow. The farmers may feel a pinch as well with their commercial buyers but also the farmers markets and CSAs since spending four or five dollars a pound for tomatoes may seem like a luxury to some people.

Please take a breath and gather some perspective. High quality, locally sourced, organic food is probably much better for your health than the high volume, commercially grown, low quality produce alternative. What is your health worth to you (please factor in rising health care costs before answering)? Some people believe that since the “good stuff” has more concentrated flavor, a person is more likely not to overeat or need as much of it. Maybe less is more?

This seems like the perfect time to start planning your own garden. You’ll reap the benefits of locally grown, high quality, organic produce for next spring, summer, and fall. Perhaps, you’ll be enterprising and think about canning and freezing for next winter.

Gardens can seem expensive – turning a yard into a serviceable, organic garden takes a lot of hard work, tools, and time. Let alone watering everyday and weeding and fighting off insects.

Yes, the “traditional way” can be difficult but I use SIPs (Sub-Irrigated Planters) in my rooftop garden that I feel paid for itself this year alone. Friends and family are surprised to see the yields and the ease of use. I use the commercial Earthbox planters but you can make your own (plenty of options on this site alone). Besides for the initial set-up (fill with potting mix, fertilize and plant your crop), all there is left is daily watering. That will be taken care of next season with an automatic watering system from Earthbox but you can build your own as well from instructions on our site. There is very little weeding and watching for pests (I sprayed organic solutions for about a week this past year). The most labor intensive thing you may have to do is build trellises and supports for all of your plants.

To give you an idea of why I feel good about my garden investment this year, here’s an example. I planted four boxes of tomatoes (actually five but the last box was a late season addition of donated heirlooms tomatoes – I want to keep this fair). My investment for the boxes was $34 each (I bought twelve at once). I figure the potting mix and fertilizer cost another $12 per box and starter plants were about five bucks each (two per box). That’s about $224.00 for tomatoes this year!

But wait. Some claim that they can get yields of 40lbs of tomatoes per box per season. I didn’t count but I would estimate that, on average, I was pulling about 5-10lbs of tomatoes per week since mid July (I’m still pulling 5 lbs a week in mid October). If we take an average of two pounds of tomatoes per box per week for 13 weeks, it’s about 26lbs of tomatoes per box, per season (a conservative estimate) or 104 pounds of tomatoes. At my local organic grocer, organic tomatoes cost about $4 per pound in season. At the farmers markets, they average about $3 per pound. That’s $300-$400 if I were to purchase my yield and quality at the store or market. That’s a significant savings and don’t even get me started on my lettuce! On top of the cost difference, I have the pleasure of walking upstairs to pick my “fresh off the vine” tomato for my BLT. I will track the costs better next year. This year was my “R&D” phase to see if growing vegetables on my roof was possible.

I feel that we’ll see a significant grassroots movement back to vegetable gardening. In order to do that, especially in an urban setting, people will need information resources. Our goal is to supply them here. Before next spring (planting season), we will be offering information on how to plan your garden along with tips we’ve learned along the way. We’ll try to include local suppliers of materials and cost-effective tips. If you have any ideas, please feel free to forward them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

More on Melons

If you read our post Melon Mania, you know this was our first try growing melons in the recycled bucket sub-irrigated planters (SIPs--for info on how to make one, click here).

In the picture above, you'll see they grew happily, resisting the powdery mildew that decimated our summer squash and lemon cukes. What a fun, easy crop.

We kept the water reservoirs filled and the melons kept coming.

Above is the Ha Ogen. My nephew couldn't believe these 4-pounders were able to hang on by an apparent thread, but nature knows her business.

The Ha Ogen interior, sweet as sugar with exceptional flavor. We'll grow them again in 2009.

Below are the Renee's Garden Icebox Watermelon/Rainbow Sherbet. This is the only hybrid we grew in 2008, and we'll replant it next summer. Luscious fruit.

The melons never climbed high enough to claim "Hanging Melons of Division Street" status, but you can see below the Ha Ogen started on its way. We have some ideas for next year.

Stay tuned...