Monday, March 23, 2009

Raccons and Garden Beds

Well I had quite the weekend. First I would like to thank the Garden Gods for giving me some great weather to work in on Saturday and Sunday. Second I would like to ask them what do I need to atone for? What was it that was so bad that they sent a raccon, a flea infested one I might add, to live not more than 12 feet from my garden beds?

Well at the moment I can't think what it might have been but needless to say I need to figure out a way to remove my bandit faced friend from my backyard and into some open land space. I have dealt with them before and a live trap with some simple garbage like food seems to work the best. Also if you can get your local village or town to remove the pest for you. Raccons are disease carriers and many towns and cities have ordinances to remove them due to this reason.

I thought about this scraggly guy a lot this weekend as I worked out side to extend our raised beds. This project by the way seemed much simpler in the planning stages than it actually turned out. Suggestion to readers, fully plan your garden and do it that way the first time and don't try to add on. And if you do decide to extend your garden be ready for some tough screws and a bit of frustration. Of course the idea to add on was all mine for Naomi built the orginal raised beds all by herself and thought they were more than big enough. Then I come along with some "great plans", that were surely laid out by some mice and men, and altered it just a bit. This alteration will hopefully help us to become a little more sustainable.

First we had to remove the fence from around the garden plot. Then we began to change out the connectors that held the side boards together. This is where my troubles began. For you see four years of being under the dirt and quite wet made the boards swell and the screws rust. Making it nigh impossible to remove all of them with a screwdriver. I next tried a bit of finesse that got me exactly nowhere. After a few minutes of stomping, muttering, and humphing. I decided to rely on a bit of force and a trusty hammer to pry these screws away from the boards. This of course did bend the connectors a little but not beyond reuse. Luckily this side adventure did not set us back to far time wise, since I was still able to change out the corner connectors and to add on the new side boards to make our two new raised beds. These new beds will give me room to grow onions, potatoes, and some more musk mellons. Yum!

Well on the schedule for this week, fill in the beds with some wonderful compost from the backyard, some mushroom compost (a must have in my opinnion), and lastly a bit of chicken manure and coffee grounds. This delightful mixture is just what the farmer ordered for some healthy growing plants.

For anyone interested I ordered my raised bed kit from Gardeners Supply Company. I used the raised bed corners and in-line connectors. The corners cost 16.95 for a set of two and the in-line connectors cost 22.95 for a set of two. For the extension I had 4 corners and 4 in-line connectors. Costing me about $80 for all of them. I also bought untreated cedar which cost about another $80. Making the cost of the extension around $160. In my opinnion a great deal for some healthy fresh vegetables.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Victory for Backyard Gardeners Everywhere

Well the Obama's are installing another personal touch to the White House right next to the girls swing set. Their 1,100 square foot organic garden, while not a first, is a long over due improvement to the White House lawn. On Friday Michelle Obama broke ground on the garden with the help of 23 students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington D.C. Mrs. Obama stated that children enjoy eating food that tastes good and vegetables taste the best when they are fresh.

The food that is harvested from their garden will go towards feeding the Obama's and some of their formal dinners. This will hopefully be a strong message to Americans that food starts at home and not at a drive thru window. I believe no matter what your political stance or lean you have to see this as a win for all of America. If more families follow the Obama's lead then this will hopefully be the beginning of a food revolution. Americans will start to value food and see it as a commodity that is best when it is local and fresh. It will also be a lesson to children who will be less likely to waste food. For they will have seen first hand what goes into the production of that food and hard work always tends to make us appreciate things to a greater extent.

As for the plants that made the cut in the Obama's "Victory" garden. Well Mrs. Obama joked with us that beets did not make the cut (due to President Obama's dislike for them), but arugula did. Wonder if they will serve it when McCain comes over for dinner. They will also have cilantro, tomatillos, hot peppers, kale, spinach, red leaf lettuce, romaine, Thai basil, and a bunch more. They will grow the crops in raised beds with compost from the White House, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. They will also use insects such as ladybugs and praying mantis to control harmful bugs. And as the final touch they will have two hives on site that will polinate the crops and produce honey for the Obama family.

So lets all follow suit, have our own gardens and eat as locally as possible. Remember, Be the Change for a better tomorrow!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Growing with Nature: Organic Plant Sale

The Prairie Crossing Charter School and Learning Farm are partnering up again for their 4th annual plant sale. This year's theme for the plant sale is "grow your own groceries". At the plant sale individuals will be present who can offer advice and expertise on which plants are the best to buy for your garden plot. Also recieve professional advice on composting and vermicomposting and making it work for your garden space.

Earthwild Gardens of Prairie Crossing will also be at the plant sale offering a wide variety of native plants. If you haven't gardened with native plants I suggest that you try. Native landscaping over the longterm is more cost effective than traditional landscaping. A gardener can potentially save several hundreds of dollars in maintence costs annually. Natives also live in harmony with the environment and therefore need less time in care and maintence giving you more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor and love.

So come down to the plant sale on Saturday May 9th. It is located at Station Square at Prairie Crossing 977 Harris Road, Grayslake IL from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm. This even will benefit both the school and the learning farm.

To Raise or Not to Raise: The Pros and Cons to Raised Beds

You've probably seen raised beds around your neighborhood, and possibly wondered what are the advantages of those. Well raise beds have been around for quite some time. In fact, some cultures have been using raise beds for centuries. In the US, raised bed gardens have become more popular in the last decade or so.

Of course nothing in life is perfect and everything has its pros and cons. So here is a little list of pros and cons to help you make your decision.

1. If you have poor soil a raised bed allows you to prepare your own soil and ensure that it is rich so that your plants will thrive.

2. Additionally since you add the soil, you can prepare special beds of soil or tailor your beds to specific plants.

3. The raised level makes it much harder for creeping grasses to make their way into your garden plot.

4. The raised level also makes it easier to access them and will hopefully limit your fatigue as a gardner from bending over.

5. Also through successful planning you can keep the garden narrow enough to allow you to reach the plants on both sides of the bed.

6. The raised beds are ideal for tuber plants or plants with longer root systems and need several inches of quality soil.

7. In heavy rains, there is less chance of soil erosion and root rot.

8. You can easily organize plants and put them in specific beds that are developed to their needs.

9. Some plants can be started earlier due to the fact that the raised beds warm up faster than the ground.

10. Raised beds can be ideal for elderly or disabled gardeners who are unable to reach all the way down to the ground (Raised beds can be constructed to almost any height to meet the needs of the gardener).

1. Any tilling of the soil needs to be done by hand. Since it will be difficult to nigh impossible to use a rotary tiller in a raised bed garden.

2. Raised beds have the tendency to dry out quickly in very dry climates. Hence, it is necessary to water the beds more often than you normally would.

3. Raised beds have a greater intial cost associated with the construction of the beds compared to simply tilling a traditional garden into your soil. However, there are some raised bed gardening kits that can be purchased for a relatively inexpensive price online.

4. The edges of a raised bed garden must be reinforced and constructed very well, or they may start to come apart as time goes on.

5. The materials for the construction of the raised beds should be carefully considered. Treated wood or railroad ties covered with creosote should not be used. The chemicals in the wood will leak out into the soil, poisioning your plants and you.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Scrumptious Squash Serving

Not too long ago those winter squash that were havested in the fall by the CSA turned into quite a tasty meal. Naomi and I were having some good friends over and decided to experiment with a recipe we had never made, winter squash raviolli with an orange balsamic reduction sauce. The end result was a sweet and savory treat that felt almost like eating a dessert. In fact if I was to make this meal over I would tweak the sauce in order to tone down the sweetness. However here is the recipe. Make it for yourself and enjoy.

for the filling...
1 butternut squash (about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 clove of garlic, minced
about 5 sage leaves, minced
pinch of nutmeg
2 to 3 tablespoons grated pecorino-romano cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

for the ravioli dough...
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil

for the sauce...
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

Cooking Instructions
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and brush the entire surface with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and bake, cut side down, until completely soft (about 1 hour). When cool enough to handle, scoop the soft flesh out into a bowl, mash lightly with a fork and set aside.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sage and cook until warm and fragrant without letting the garlic brown. Add the butternut squash and cook, stirring frequently, until the squash has dried out some (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and season with the nutmeg, cheese, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Cool to room temperature before using in the ravioli.

Sift the flour and the salt together into a large mixing bowl and make a well or shallow pit in the center. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and the olive oil. Pour the eggs into the well and start incorporating the flour into it with a fork. Once enough of the flour has been incorporated to keep the liquid from being too runny, transfer the contents from the bowl to a clean work surface or counter dusted with flour. Start kneading the mixture to finish blending it all together. Knead for another 5 to 10 minutes, dusting the counter with more flour, if necessary, as you go. At this point, the dough should be satiny and elastic in texture. Wrap the dough lightly in plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature.

Using a pasta machine, follow the manufacturer's instructions and roll the pasta dough out to one of the thinnest settings. Cut the strips into lengths that are easy to handle (about 12 to 16 inches long), lightly dust each with flour, and set the strips on top of one another. Work with one strip at a time and keep the others covered with a kitchen towel. Dust the counter and sheet of dough with flour. Drop tablespoons of the filling onto the bottom half of the pasta sheet, about 2-inches apart. Fold the top half over the filling. With your fingers, gently press out air pockets around each mound of filling. Use a sharp knife to cut each mound into squares and crimp the edges of each with a fork to make a tight seal. Dust the ravioli and a sheet pan with flour to prevent the pasta from sticking and lay them out to dry slightly while assembling the rest.

To make the sauce, combine the orange juice, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar in a small pot and simmer over medium heat until slightly reduced. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Melt the butter into the sauce and keep warm over low heat as you cook the ravioli.

Cook the ravioli in plenty of boiling salted water for 3 to 4 minutes (they'll float to the top when ready). Lift the ravioli from the water with a large strainer or slotted spoon. In a large warm bowl, gently toss the ravioli with the orange sauce and serve garnished with the chopped hazelnuts and minced parsley.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Big Plans but No Go

This past week my plan to extend our vegetable garden was thwarted by rain, rain, and even some more rain. Naomi and I are hoping to work on it this weekend, so we can enact our expansion plans. The plan is to add two more raise beds to our vegetable garden so that we can increase the amount of food that we are able to grow at home. In the new raise beds we are planning on growing potatoes and onions.

Over the fall we planted garlic for the first time. We planted two varieties a German Hardy that is supposed to be easy to store and keep and one called Georgian Fire. The last one is supposed to have a nice white hot garlic flavor that should be good in salsas and in marinara that needs a little kick.