17 July 2011

Garden(s) update - July 2011

It's been a very busy gardening summer. I'm still caring for 2 community garden plots, and I'm starting gardens in my backyard and in the "rental" lot that I'm currently tending with a friend. The latter project is progressing slowly but beautifully. After the asphalt removal, we began building beds. The owner of the lot had dozens of cinder blocks he allowed us to use, so we didn't have to spend any money on constructing raised beds. We shelled out some money for compost, hauling in 2 tons of organic goodness from the Fairmount Recycling Center.

We built three beds that are each approximately 2' x 16'. Two more beds along the fences measure approximately 3' x 20' and 3' x 17'.

Here are some photos of my backyard in progress:

I added wood chips to the pathways. The beds still need a lot of compost, but it's taking me a while since I have to transport it 30 gallons at a time from the municipal recycling center.

I'm growing perennial flowers around the fence.

Roses! I've always wanted a rose bush. I can't wait until it gets big and lush

Container plants along the brick path.

20 June 2011

I'm going to be a tenant gardener

A couple of months ago, after a series of forwarded emails, I met a guy in my new neighborhood that was seeking a tenant gardener or farmer. In exchange for a percentage of the produce I grow, I can maintain a garden on the lot adjacent to his house. This is basically like a yard share, and I'm so excited to be taking on this project.

Over the weekend, he invited several of his friends to help rip out the asphalt that covers the entire lot. It took 1 full day and another half day of jack-hammering and hauling asphalt scraps into a dumpster, but all of the asphalt is now gone and the ground is ready for some raised beds. Since I can't afford to buy wood for a bunch of beds, I will be using recycled materials as much as possible (including leftover cinder blocks from his home renovation project).

I'll start documenting this project -- along with my other normal posts. Look for the label "Tales of a Tenant Gardener." In the meantime, here are some pictures of the lot in progress.

05 June 2011

the start of a backyard garden

I haven't posted in a while because my husband and I have been consumed with moving to our new house. We bought a house in the North Philly neighborhood of East Kensington. It's exciting, but now we have a lot of work in front of us.

My first project to tackle is the garden. We have a small lawn -- about 12' by 18' -- on top of which I'm building 3 raised beds (sized 4' x 8', 2' x 8', and 4' x 6'). I'm leaving enough room around the beds to give our dog a little space of his own. I'm also planting perennial flowers around the fence. It's going to take some time to fill the beds since plan to take advantage of the free compost at the Fairmount Recycling Center. Since you can only take 30 gallons at one time, I'll be making a lot of trips.

I've sent a soil sample to the soil testing lab at UMass Amherst. I'm pretty sure the results won't be good. Apparently, there was a shoe polish factory not far from me. I can only imagine what contaminants live in the soil.

Here's what the garden-in-progress looks like.

(I'm lining the beds and the rest of the lawn with cardboard. I'll add wood chip to mulch the paths. -- Next to the beds are potato and strawberry plants).

I'm still maintaining a small container garden. I've transplanted sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme, oregano, peppers, and basil -- all which I started in late winter at my South Philly house.)

26 April 2011

Moore St. Community Garden - update

I hadn't been to my community garden plot in South Philly in over a week, so I was ecstatic to see how well my spinach and lettuce were doing. Actually, the entire garden looks great, and I'm so proud to be a part of it. I will give up my plot at the end of the year since I was able to get another community plot in North Philly; it's going to be a bittersweet time.

Here are some updated pics:

(Everyone's plots are looking beautiful.)

(My lovely plot.)

(My lettuce and spinach before harvesting. The cabbage is also getting big. I also have mesculun sprouting and two strawberry plants that I transplanted last week.)

(Those are peas on the left. The rest are scattered arugula and mesculun. Some dill, beets, and radishes too, I think.)

(On the menu today: lettuce and chives from the garden with some chickpeas and feta and a balsamic vinaigrette.)

(The spinach is beautiful. I'm freezing it today for later use.)

Oh, and I got some great news. I may have access to almost 30' x 30' growing space! I met someone who's looking for a tenant gardener for a lot adjacent to his property. I expressed great interest, visited the lot, and I think I may be able to plant at the end of the summer (just in time to put in fall crops!).

21 April 2011

seedling update and quick kale chips


My seedlings are getting big. Some of the tomatoes are getting too big, actually, and I'm still hardening them off. Hopefully, they won't become too leggy or root-bound before I transplant them. The biggest plants in this picture are tomatoes. The others are leeks, pepper plants, and various herbs.

More tomato and pepper plants. I also have some basil and eggplant outside, hardening off at this very moment. See the arrow? That's sage! I finally got one sage seed to sprout out of the scores, maybe even hundreds, that I sowed. But all it takes is one. :)

All this seed starting makes me hungry, and kale chips hit the spot. I'm not a huge kale fan, but kale chips are a whole different beast. Break up the leaves into 2" pieces; toss them with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne; and bake for up to 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven (watch carefully that they don't burn, since ovens vary).

10 April 2011

plot in new community garden

Since I'm moving very soon, I'm bummed that I will not be able to spend as much time at my community plot in South Philly. Although I plan to garden there this season, I'll be giving the plot up at the end of the year. I feel so proud of what we accomplished there, so it's sad to think about leaving.

Still, I received some wonderful news that I got a plot at the Emerald Street Urban Farm, which is this AMAZING project in my soon-to-be new neighborhood of East Kensington.

I'll be posting updates and pictures soon about the crops I'm growing this year.

26 March 2011

Seed starting 2011 and garden report

Before I report on my seed starting efforts this year, I did want to update you on our house hunting adventures. We're buying a house in East Kensington, which is in North Philadelphia, for my non-Philly readers. We've had our inspection (which went well, over all), and assuming all our loan paperwork goes through and we meet all deadlines, I will be a homeowner! I'm very excited, but also nervous about such a huge commitment. More later, I'm sure. Now, back to sowing seeds.

I'm not starting a huge amount of seeds since our future move will make it difficult to transport seedlings from one house to the other.

Above: I decided to experiment with multiple seed-starting containers. In these re-purposed toilet paper tubes, I've sown parsley, thyme, and oregano. All sown on March 20.

Above: These are two views of the same tray of seedlings, all started on March 6 and sown inside a plastic flat (Burpee brand, but made from recycled plastic). I used a mixture of coconut coir and vermiculite to start my seeds. I'm trying to avoid peat moss, since it's not a renewable resource. This flat contains leeks, cauliflower, basil, several varieties of tomatoes, and mini eggplants. I also sowed a bunch of peppers, and they're finally starting to peek out of the soil. The largest seedlings--which you see in the 4 lower-right cells--are cabbage. They're starting to grow too large for their cells, so I transplanted them into larger containers this morning.

Above: I used yogurt containers to transplant the larger cabbage seedlings.

Above: This is the rosemary that I started in January in Jiffy pots (peat moss, I know, but I had these from a while ago). I used organic potting soil rather than seed starting mix, and they seem to be holding up fine. The sage seeds I started at the same time never germinated. I'm trying again, though, and sowed a few sage seeds inside toilet paper tubes.


I also sowed several seeds directly into my community garden plot in South Philly; spinach, arugula, snap peas, dill, lettuce, beets, and radishes all went into the ground last Saturday. I checked today, and it looks like only 1 snap pea is poking out of the ground. We did get to several nights of freezing weather, so I hope most of the seeds make it.
Unfortunately, we still have no reliable source of water for the garden, so I pay careful attention to the weather forecast. When there's no rain predicted, I will need to drive from my house to the garden in order to transport buckets of water. We hope to build some sort of water harvesting system, but that's made difficult by the fact that there are no accessible drain spouts.

Above: Two views of the Moore Street Community Garden. There is still a lot of work to be done: several beds need to be filled with compost; we need to mulch the walkways; we need to find a reliable water sources; and a few beds are still waiting to be built.

Above: Potential rain barrels, waiting to serve a purpose.

28 February 2011

House hunting

I swear I have an excuse for my lack of posting. . . . We're house hunting, and it's taking up a lot of time. Neither I nor my husband has ever owned a home, so we're both freaked out by the whole process. The commitment! The money! The fear of making the wrong decision!

Since our budget is limited, we don't have many neighborhood options. I still don't understand how anyone not wealthy can buy a home in Center City, University City, or Mt. Airy--areas in Philly that are uber-desirable both for their locations and their amenities. Although we're not poor--indeed, we've climbed our way into the middle class--so much of Philadelphia real estate is completely off the table for us.

So, we're looking at the still-fairly-affordable neighborhoods. We're especially curious about Fishtown and East Kensington, which are considered either vibrant, up-and-coming areas or among Dante's circles of hell, depending on whom you ask. The larger area in which they're located--Kensington--has a pretty bad reputation, though it seems like the negative perception largely comes from people who either don't live there or who equate any signs of poverty with some sort of moral failing. I find myself repeatedly defending a neighborhood that I don't even call home. East Kensington in particular is wonderfully diverse--culturally, ethnically, and economically. And, it's the locus of tremendous revitalization efforts.

We're also looking in a Philly suburb called Lansdowne. It's a charming town that is really close to the city--just hop on a bus or trolley, and you'll soon be there. Its proximity to the city means I'd never have to drive, which makes me happy both as an environmentalist and as someone who simply hates to be in a car. Plus, many of the houses come with big yards, and I drool as I imagine the 20 or so raised beds I could potentially call my own. Still, the thought of living in a suburb--even the very un-suburban Lansdowne--make me die inside, just a bit.

No decisions have yet been made. And, we have a few conditions that must be met. The house 1) must have some sort of a yard that can be turned into a vegetable garden; 2) must be located in a relatively violence-free area (most crimes, we can deal with; murder and frequent assaults, not so much); 3) must be in move-in condition and structurally sound (we're willing to make cosmetic changes, but would rather not deal with a roof caving in); 4) must be easily accessible by bike and/or public transit; and 5) must be, without any shadow of a doubt, free of any roach infestations (one here or there, we can deal with. More than that, and we will both lose our freakin' minds).

Can it be done? We shall soon see.

29 January 2011

Grow light set-up and rosemary seeds

This is my first year growing seeds indoors. I was tempted to begin this new venture with an elaborate set-up but decided to starts slowly and cheaply. That way, if my plants fail, I won't be quite so upset.

I purchased a shop light and 2 fluorescent light tubes (1 warm and 1 cool). I also bought adjustable shelving, leaving the top of the unit shelf-less so the shop light could be perched there, since I didn't feel like hanging it from the ceiling. That's it! Now let's hope it's warm enough in my basement. I know I could buy a heated pad for the seedlings, but I want to try a minimal set-up first and adjust as needed next year.

It's still too early to start most of my seeds. However, I plan to grow several herbs indoors, so I decided to start with the notoriously slow-germinating ones: rosemary and sage. My sage has not yet germinated, and I've read that sometimes it takes well over a month.

As for rosemary, most sources (online and print) suggest that you start it from cuttings. I nevertheless decided to try growing it from seed, and purchased a packet of Franchi seeds (rosemary seeds are not that easy to find). Since I don't have my seed starting mix yet, I filled three pots with organic potting soil. I planted several seeds in each pot, which I loosely covered with plastic to keep everything moist. The seeds went in on Jan. 16, and last night (13 days later), I noticed the first signs of life -- all three of my pots had one germinated seed! Today, I moved them into my grow light set-up, which is pretty sparse at this early stage. Here's hoping they make it!

(I used a box to raise the tray of pots closer to the light.)

(Signs of rosemary life!)

13 January 2011

New domain name

I just got a brand-spanking-new domain name. Now I feel like a professional blogger. Except without the skills or reputation. :)

Even so, you can now find me at domesticefforts.com

Please update your links and such.

Vegetable stock - deep, dark, and rich


Since my last post about veggie stock, I've perfected my technique quite a bit. Although I never make it quite the same way twice, I do follow a few consistent steps: I always slightly brown my base vegetables (onions, celery, and carrots), and I always add herbs and spices (see my suggestion in #3 below).

My directions are for a (preferably large) pressure cooker (which, imho, makes all the difference). I actually use a pressure canner since it's huge and can handle a lot of stock. If you don't have one, just simmer all of your ingredients in a large stock pot for about 45 minutes to an hour.

It's a good idea to start saving your vegetable scraps in a freezer bag. My freezer bag tends to include scraps of leeks, onions, random herbs, sweet peppers, and mushrooms. Once the freezer bag is full, I start a new batch of stock.

Rich and Deep Vegetable Stock
yields up to 10 pints, depending on how many vegetables you use

1. Coarsely chop 1 onion, 3-4 carrots, 3-4 celery stalks, and 1 leek (the last is optional, but oh-so-yummy). In a large pressure cooker or pressure canner, saute the veggies over 2 TBS of olive oil for about 5 minutes or until some have lightly browned.

2. If you've been saving veggies in a freezer bag, dump them in now. If you haven't, add coarsely chopped vegetables of your choice (but avoid brasiccas or add only tiny amounts). I typically add a handful of mushrooms, a sweet pepper, a handful of chives and/or green onions, and a tomato (either fresh, if in season, or canned).

3. Add water just to cover the whole lot. Then throw in 4-5 whole peeled garlic cloves, a dash of soy sauce, about a tablespoon of nutritional yeast (a trick I learned from Deborah Madison), about 2 teaspoons of peppercorns, 2-3 dried bay leaves, and several sprigs of fresh herbs (I've used various combinations of thyme, parsley, oregano, rosemary, and sage).

4. Pressure cook for 20 minutes.

5. Pour the stock through a strainer. Allow the stock to cool completely and pour into freezer-safe containers (I use wide-mouth Mason jars), leaving some headspace for expansion.

6. Freeze the stock.

7. You can discard (or compost!) the vegetables, although sometimes I puree them and throw them into a soup or stew recipe. My mom taught me this trick, and it works well for a number of soups. Plus, you don't waste the veggies that way.

8. Thaw stock as needed for recipe, and eat your heart out.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursdays