Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Helpful books for the winter blues

Starting in January, when I’ve tired of winter and begun to dream about sun lotion, bugs and weeds, I start trolling the web for new garden planning books. Here are some great reads that I’ve found indispensable for garden planning, seed starting, and mental health this 2010 season:

  • Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces by Patricia Lanza- Great ideas for creative, affordable and simple garden planning and planting in containers and small spaces.
  • Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte- Companion planting can reduce your pesticide use and increase your vegetable yield; this book tells you how to do it with an easy to read index of dozens of edible plants.
  • Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner- step by step techniques for collection and growing more than 100 vegetables, flowers and herbs
  • The Plant Propagator’s Bible by Miranda Smith- A step-by-step guide to propagating every plant in your garden

All are available from the Edmonton Public Library.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Creative Ideas for Small Gardens or Busy Gardeners

Don’t think you have the yard space to grow veggies? Or perhaps you don’t feel like you have the energy. Here are a few creative garden planning ideas to accommodate the smallest yards or balconies and craziest schedules.

1. Where there is soil and sun, there can be veggies. On the south side of my home, I have a strip of garden 1.5 by 30 feet. I’ve planted all kinds of veggies and begun to fill this bed with perennials like grape, kiwi, and oregano. I have dill, coriander and parsley that reseed every year.

I like this bed because a sidewalk contains it. It’s accessible and easy to fill with plants. Also, because it’s set so close to my walkway and water supply, I never forgot (read: too lazy) to water it.   

Assess your space- Do you have a skinny strip of south facing yard against your house? Your fence? Your garage? In your alley? Do you have pots and a balcony? All you need to plant fruit or veggies is sun and a foot wide strip of dirt. To build a fertile bed, either use Lanza’s Lasagna method (see below) or mix lots of organic matter, grass clippings, compost, or leaves into the dirt. Add peat moss if it doesn’t drain well, then plant. Try: vine tomatoes, pole beans, basil, peas, zucchini (though it will overrun a walkway if there is one close), cucumbers, and/or peppers.

2. Convert lawn into veggies with a No - Dig Garden. There are lots of variations of this method, but however you do it, it’ll save you hours of back labour and rototilling. Patricia Lanza’s ‘Lasagna Method’ is a simple option:
o   Lay wet (read: soaking) layers of newspaper on the area you wish to make into a garden. Use entire sections so that the newspaper layer is thick. Overlap the paper so grass/weeds can’t slip through. Then layer:
§  1. Straw or peat moss or compost
§  2. Organic matter like chopped leaves, composted manure, composted kitchen waste
o   Continue to alternate the last two layers until the bed is high enough for the plants you are planting (3 to 12 inches depending on the size of pot or root ball).
o   Plant (don’t cut into the base layer of paper).

I used this method in a particularly weedy part of my yard (its the strip to the left of the sidewalk, in the photo opposite) and thought it miraculous how effectively the newspaper killed the underlying weeds and grass. I scattered seeds over the whole bed but you can plant seedlings or already established plants too. This method can be used in a container, replacing potting soil.

3. Think theme garden.  Lanza has some great ideas for one garden area or large container (read: bathtub size) or multiple pots:
o   Taste of Italy- Plant tomato, basil, garlic, onion, oregano, sweet peppers, zucchini and parsley.
o   Taste of France- Plant peas, beans, baby carrots, rosemary, tarragon, French sorrel and garlic.
o   Taste of Mexico- Plant basil, bell and chili peppers, garlic, onions, oregano, thyme, tomatoes and cilantro.
o   Salad fixings- Plant lettuce, basil, carrots, parsley, chives, spinach or other fave salad fixings in pots. Plant the fixings together in the same pot or plant singles in each pot then set in a sunny spot close to your door.
o   Oregano (or any beloved herb) bed- I’ve a whole bed dedicated to the perennial herb oregano. I love the flavour in my food and there are so many varieties to try!

4. Plant what you eat- Plan to plant only what you’ll actually use. Do you eat lots of onions but never really liked Swiss chard? Then forgot the chard and plant buckets of onions.  Forget the kale and throw in extra bean seeds. You can never eat enough peas? Plant your whole garden in peas, trying some different varieties (and perhaps throw in some parsnips to control the pea aphids). While diversity benefits your garden because of opportunities for crop rotation and companion planting, don’t be paralyzed by the overwhelming number of plant varieties and possibilities. Simplicity is a virtue for the busy gardener or small garden. 

Happy planning and planting!

Remember to RSVP for the ‘Homesteading the Avenue Workshops’- check out http://avenuehomesteader.blogspot.com for more details. This month, learn how to graft fruit trees on March 14 from 2 to 5pm.  

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Basic Bread Recipe

For many years, bread making has been a form of therapy for me. When frustrated, depressed, lonely I'd knead some bread. It always proved cathartic.

As my teen years passed I discovered that my Kitchen Aid mixer also could knead my bread. Now, making bread is more about saving money ($5 for nice bread these days!), controlling the stuff I ingest, and making my house smell mm-mm good. I have other therapy tools- about which I won't go into here!

Bread making requires you to use your senses. Taste, touch, see- even hear! The more you bake and experiment with the following formula, the better your bread will become. I keep a small note book and when experimenting with the Basic Bread Recipe, I make a note of different things I do so that if I like the final result I know what I did right (or alternatively- wrong!)

Making bread. The only ingredients you need to make a nice loaf are:

- flour
- salt
- yeast
- water

Of course there are plenty of variations of the above ingredients. Do I mean soy or wheat or buckwheat flour? Kosher or table salt? Will any leavening agent do? Is that tap water or filtered water?
For our purposes in keeping this basic recipe simple, use:

- All purpose white flour (bleached or unbleached, organic or not, whatever suits you)
- Table salt (substitute kosher salt if you want, but add a little more)
- Quick-rise yeast (I buy it bulk at Save-On foods for very cheap)
- Luke warm tap water (body temperature... but if you're in doubt remember- HOT WATER KILLS YEAST- so err on the side of cool)

 Now you have your ingredients, here's the formula I use (there are many variations of this- check out Artisan Breads in Five Minutes for other possibilities). 

I remember it by: 6 / 2 = 3. Write it like this:

6 C- White Flour
1 T- Instant Yeast
1 t-   Salt
3 C- Luke warm water

1. Mix your dry ingredients together, minus 2- 3 cups of flour.
2. Add water and mix.
3. Add remaining flour (you may use a little less or a little more than what you keep back- USE YOUR SENSES) until a soft dough forms. It shouldn't feel like playdoh. It should feel quite tacky. 
4. Once dough forms, leave it in the bowl for 20 minutes  and cover it, if you want.
5. Next you can do one of two things:
      a. Shape bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon buns, pizza dough etc. Let rise about 40- 60ish minutes then pop it in the warmed (350 degree) oven for 25ish (buns) to 45ish (loaves) minutes. I rarely use bread pans. I usually shape dough into 2 round or oval loaves, score the top with a knife for a fancy artisan look, then bake it on a pizza stone with cornmeal to keep it stick-free.
      b. Let it sit for up to 2 hours on the counter then put it in a container or bag in the fridge. It can stay in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Simply rip off dough and cook it as you need it! When you take it out, shape the dough into preferred form then let it warm to room temperature before baking (about 20 min). Over time in the fridge the bread's flavours will become more complex (more like sourdough).

After you perfect this recipe, then the fun starts. Get creative. Add different flours, different liquids, add seeds, grains and cereals. Add sugar! Continue to use the 6 / 2= 3 formula but it becomes more like:

6 C- Solids (whole wheat, soy, rye, buckwheat, rice flour, cooked quinoa, cooked brown rice, oatmeal, Red river cereal, poppy seed, flax, millet, sunflower seed)
1 T- Instant Yeast
1 t-  Salt
3 C- Liquids (lemon juice, milk, egg, oil, honey, molasses, soy milk)
          - sweetener (brown or white sugar, stevia, sucralose)
          - herbs (oregano, thyme, caraway seeds)

When I substitute, I keep some basic rules in mind.

1. Don't substitute more the 1/4 of the solids from basic wheat flour (whole wheat or white)
2. The more whole wheat and seeds you add, you will need to add more gluten. Try out Bob's Vital Wheat Gluten (available at most health food stores or in the organic section at the grocery store) to help your bread rise.
3. The more whole grains, wheat, seeds you add, you will need to add more water. Use your senses, but for every cup of whole wheat, add another 2 Tablespoons of water.
3. Rye, soy and buckwheat flours have no gluten so I usually use white flour with these (white flour has lots of gluten which helps your bread rise).
4. When using a lot of seeds, usually you will add more flour than the 6 Cups of solids.
4. Don't substitute more than 1/4 of the liquids from water or milk. For instance- when you add oil, egg, molasses, honey, make sure these total 3/4 C or less.

Of course you can defy all these basic rules and experiment as you wish. I have had only one loaf, of many many many, that I just couldn't eat. Fresh bread, whether soft and light or heavy and dark, has character and flavour that's always a delight. Never mind the added satisfaction you get from doing it yourself.

Happy experimenting! Let me know what additional tips you learn in the process.