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Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! If you find one of these in garden, let's hope it's with your eyes first (from a distance), and not with your face!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Halloween story idea

Here at Backyard Farming one of my goals is to find joy in the seasons and share it with others. Join me in taking a break from gardening chores to create this Halloween story. It is fun to do one-on-one with a child or with a group of children, such as for a Halloween party.

I first heard it years ago from a library storyteller, and so charmed was I, I went through stacks of paper sharing it with all the littles in my life. (And bigs, too, who are young at heart.)

Tell the story as you do the cutting, and be prepared for all your listeners to want to recreate the tale themselves.

Here is my own version of The Witch's House:

A little witch was traveling home after visiting her friend. It suddenly became so windy that she couldn't continue flying on her broom. She decided to make herself and her cat a house for the night.

The first thing she found when she landed was a piece of paper. Now, to you and me that might not seem special. But witches are magic!

1. She folded the paper in half so she could go inside. (Fold widthwise.)

 2. She cut off the top corners to make a roof (non-folded edge).

3. Got to have a door! The witch started to make one. When she got to the top she decided the door should be pointy so her pointy hat would fit.

4. "Meow," said the cat. He wanted his own door, the silly thing! The witch cut a very small door next to hers, just the cat's size.

They both went inside. The house was warm, but oh, so dark!

5. The little witch went back outside and cut out a window in the shape of a half moon -- just right for letting the moonlight shine in. (Fold paper between witch's door and left edge up about halfway. Cut window farther left than cat's door -- near where thumb is in photo.)

The witch loved her new house. Can you see why?

Seeing your audience wide-eyed in wonder will make your day. I promise.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Poor-man's vacuum sealer, and freezing tomatoes

The demand of my time to preserve the garden's bounty greatly decreased when I discovered how easy it is to freeze tomatoes. There are two methods: whole without peeling (for real!), or by first blanching to remove skins.

I did the latter method for the tomatoes in these pictures. I dipped the tomatoes in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then removed to an ice water bath. The peels slip off easily. I cored and cut the tomatoes into slices before packing into zipper freezer bags. I find that slicing helps me fit them into bags more efficiently.

My poor-man's vacuum sealer is a straw. Put the straw against one edge of the bag, taking care not to submerge into liquid. Close the zipper all the way against the straw, pushing against the bag to squeeze out air. Be careful not to splash! If desired, you can do do a final, gentle inhale on the straw to draw out any remaining air. Watch as you go so you don't suck up any liquid.

This works great to pull out air. It is especially efficient with items not packed in juice, such as green beans. You can pull the sides of the bag right next to your food, eliminating the air pockets that invite freezer burn.

I fill quart-size bags with 3-4 cups of tomato slices with their juice. Lay the bags flat on a cookie sheet and transport to the freezer. This helps them freeze flat without molding to the shelf. The tray also corrals any drips as you walk to the freezer (not that I would know about this!). Once frozen you can take bags off the tray. I like to store them upright, like books on a shelf. You could also do smaller amounts in a bag to create a thinner sheet of tomato goodness that you can easily break off when you want to throw some flavor into what you're cooking.

The other method of freezing I mentioned is to freeze tomatoes whole. First remove the core. Then place on a sheet for flash freezing (so they don't stick to other tomatoes). Place in bag once frozen. You can do the straw method to remove extra air from the bag.

When you want to use a frozen tomato, run it under warm water to gently remove the peel.

Freezing tomatoes whole is a huge time saver but does take more freezer space than blanching and slicing.

I still can tomatoes, but I don't always have enough tomatoes at once to do a full batch. And oh, the time canning takes! Freezing tomatoes instead is a fantastic option. Canning tomatoes takes more time and energy up front; freezing is simple but of course requires energy to store them. I've had them store well in the freezer for a year. No matter which preservation method -- freezing or canning -- these tomatoes are ideal for use in soups or sauces.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

One man's story of gardening an abandoned lot

A Nebraska man converts abandoned property into training grounds for garden ideas -- and bestows his community with the harvest.

Dave Bentz raises tomatoes, onions, corn, pumpkins, peppers, green beans, watermelons and cucumbers on an Omaha parcel of land he calls Terra Nova Gardens. The plot is 168 feet by 160 feet which includes parking and storage areas. He raises a garden 64 feet by 64 feet; his friend tends one that is 30 feet by 60 feet on the same site. The rest of the plot is a steep bank of trees, which provides a welcome wind break. Terra Nova boasts two feet of rich black topsoil. Neighbors say the garden sits on the former bottom of the Missouri River 100 years ago, before Corps of Engineers changed its course for flood control.

Courtesy of Dave Bentz, http://www.grit.com/blogs/adventures-of-old-nebraska-dave.aspx

Courtesy of Dave Bentz, http://olddavesgarden.blogspot.com

Terra Nova Gardens is where Bentz -- who goes by Nebraska Dave -- experiments with garden methods on a larger scale than the four raised beds for vegetables in his backyard. He loves to nibble on the summer harvest, sure, but his real motive in gardening is simply the joy of growing things, and then getting better at it! He gives most of his produce away, even polling neighbors for crop requests at the start of the season. He also shares the harvest with an area shelter.

Dave pinpointed why he likes to garden. "Is it to save money? Is it to become more self sufficient? Is it to have more healthy food?" he wrote. "Any one of these would be a good reason to garden but after some soul-searching none of these came to the surface. What then drives me to keep expanding my gardens? I just have this deep-rooted desire to till the soil and grow things. It has nothing to do with the harvest or the preserving but the growing and finding better ways to accomplish that. It surprised me to come to that conclusion."

Dave retired six years ago from a 41-year electronics career at the telephone company, and found he wanted to fill his time with more gardening endeavors. About Terra Nova Gardens specifically he said, "Helping others is my main goal in life with gardening as a way to bring a positive presence into a neighborhood eyesore."

He follows this maxim from Lou Erickson: "Gardening takes a lot of water. Most of it in the form of perspiration."

This is certainly the case at Terra Nova Gardens. Before he could wage the war with weeds, Dave first had to remove trees, vines, concrete slabs, even tires and other car parts. After a large initial outlay of time with big projects, Dave now works in the garden about six hours a week. Early spring he starts seeds under fluorescent lights in his basement. He regularly repairs fences, tries to outsmart critters, refines water delivery methods and installs new and improved garden structures. He does nearly all of the work himself, with occasional visits from interested passersby, including an elderly man who brought over his heavy machinery just for the fun of it.

When looking for property for his garden reclamation project, Dave learned his city is willing to let anyone garden on vacant lots without having to purchase the land. However, in such instances the city can decide to take back plots for development at any time. Because he didn't want to lose a garden mid-season, Dave decided to buy the lot. He owns another property, 40 feet by 60 feet, that has been undeveloped for 25 years. This has been site to a wedding and other neighborhood events. He plans to continue this use and add flowers around the edges. This property is about 15 minutes away from his home.

Dave recommends those interested in gardening on vacant areas consult their cities for lists of foreclosed properties.

Below is a Backyard Farming interview with Nebraska Dave:
(The name Nebraska Dave came from when he joined disaster-relief trips with a Baptist group of men who used chainsaws to clear damaged trees after a hurricane. The group also did electrical and dry wall repairs. The other guys were from Kansas; as the lone man from Nebraska the handle stuck.) 

BF: What motivated you to turn abandoned areas into gardens? 

ND: I didn't really start with vacant lot gardening in mind.  I remember being in the garden with Mom at an early prior to school years age but never remember helping her with it. Later in life I had a desire to garden but never had the time or the family interest to make much happen. After retirement six years ago I started gardening in the back yard with one raised bed then two then four.  I went on trips to help with disaster cleanup after tornadoes or hurricanes so I would be gone for a week to ten days at a time.  To keep the garden watered an  automatic watering system was built to keep the garden from drying out. My original garden was in my backyard and consisted of four raised beds. An old 400-gallon horse tank was used to catch rain water to supply my automatic irrigation system.  The watering system has been tweaked every year and has finally come to a place where it just works without intervention all summer long. The garden experience for me is as much about engineering and building as it is about the gardening. 

BF: What is the reaction of neighbors to these gardens?

ND: Ha, neighbors, yeah.  I am always experimenting with brainstorm ideas. So when I dumped a foot deep leaf/grass mixture on the soil by sleuthing through the night before yard waste pickup and carrying away almost 1,000 bags over the month of October, encouragements came like, "If you put that too deep it will catch on fire, don't you know?" or "That will kill the soil by putting that much
on the ground." But when I started covering the pathways between the beds with old apartment tear-out carpet and putting down wood chips .... Well they didn't have any comment on that except for the rolling of the eyes. After four years of gardening now they ask what I'm going to do next. Since I live 
nine miles away the neighborhood has taken up the responsibility of watching over the property and has run off those that aren't supposed to be there.

BF: Tell us about your own garden story, how you learned to love the land. Did your family growing up raise a vegetable garden? If so, what gardening changes have you observed over the years?

ND: Mom always had a garden but I was more interested in the row crop farming side of the farm.  As I moved away from country living and became a city dweller with a career, I dabbled in gardening but just never had the time or family interest in helping or eating any of the produce.  I'd say it was just in my DNA from the beginning to want to grow things.  I can't say that I had a green thumb or any thing like that but I just enjoyed growing things.

Early 70s I discovered "Organic Gardening" and "Mother Earth News" magazines.  I had always been taught to till the soil, plant in rows, hoe out the weeds in gardens.  I started learning about mulch, compost, raised beds, square-foot gardening, no-till gardening and  all sorts of new ideas about gardening.  Terra Nova Gardens has all those ideas rolled up into one garden. It's more experimental than any other garden I've ever tried to have.

BF: What do you see as the benefits of gardening?

ND: The benefits of gardening are as I see it three-fold. There's the obvious of completely natural fresh food.  Then there's the exercise that keeps the body in shape. All the lifting, raking, weed pulling, hoeing, and other activities are better than a fitness center workout. And then there's watching the world wake up as the sun comes up over the horizon in the early morning.  For me there's just nothing more calming than to be in the garden as the birds sing to me.

BF: What is your favorite blunder? (After all, I think the blunders teach more than the successes. Certainly, they're more memorable!)

ND: Ha, yeah, my biggest blunder.  A couple come to mind.  The first was in my 20s and I was taught by my Dad that animal manure was good fertilizer and to spread it on the land in the fall and plow it under in the spring.  So I thought it should work for a garden as well.  If it was good for the garden why not the yard as well.  It so happened in the town I lived at  the time there was a stockyard that had a huge pile of .... well .... stuff they cleaned out of the pens free for the taking. I couldn't believe my great fortune.  I won't say what my wife at that time thought of the idea but she did let me bring some home and spread it on the yard and garden area.  It was well into the cold fall weather so it didn't smell much.  I'm not sure what kind of animals the stuff came from but I do know what they ate before coming to the stockyards. The next spring my yard and garden area was covered with thousands of sprouting tomato plants.

About 10 years after that experience I made another attempt to have a garden. I really liked
those cherry tomatoes so I planted 20 plants. By mid August, I was harvesting five-gallon buckets full of full tomatoes.  

BF: If you could give just one piece of advice to a new gardener, what would it be?

ND: My advice for new gardeners is first to find a good gardener that you like and help him/her for a year or two. Then when a new garden is started make it a small one that can be taken care of very easily. The most important thing about gardening is grow what you like to eat. There's no point in growing something that the gardener or the gardener's family don't like or none of the friends or neighbors like. I have intentionally asked neighbors and friends what they like so I can grow it for them.

Read more about Dave's adventures and tips at blogs in Grit magazine and Old Dave's Garden. (This article, for instance, highlights an interesting project watering with rain gutters.)

These blogs paint Dave as a hard-working, open, practical man who respects the land, but who also doesn't take himself too seriously. Hey, when raccoons ransack his corn he takes pride that it must have been tasty but also dreams of sending those masked diners to a "happy raccoon heaven."

Consider this garden wish from Nebraska Dave:
"May every single seed you plant grow to an abundance of harvest. May the pests get indigestion from your plants and any form of disease or fungus spore die when it crosses your property line." 

That's Dave!

Thanks for sharing your story, Nebraska Dave, and for helping us have a great garden inspiration day.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Another use for parking strip: grape vines

Here is another idea for planting edibles in the narrow piece of land between sidewalk and street: grape vines. (Click here for a post about strawberries in raised beds in the parking strip.)

These homeowners live on a corner lot and have devoted the side yard between their driveway and the neighbor's driveway to grape vines. There are three vines in the parking strip, about four feet apart. Two cedar posts with wires running between them support the grape vines. The strip runs north-south.

On the other side of the sidewalk are four rows of vines running east-west. The vines are spaced around utility equipment and provide a screen from the neighbors' vehicles and also hide trash and compost bins. (Do you even see the bins? There's a pop of green at the back.)

This is the view facing the front, right side of the house: Look for the cedar posts to orient the position of the vines, toward the middle of the photo.

The big, beautiful shade tree is on the northwest corner of the property and will not block light to the vineyard. I applaud such a great use of space!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bird Counts

Even though birds sometimes nibble at the produce I raise, I would never want a backyard farm without them. Their presence in my yard assures me the eco-system right outside my door is diverse and robust.

Conservationists likewise value birds as a barometer of the landscape, and seek the help of "citizen scientists" to help track birds in their own yards. The website ebird.org provides a format to submit observations any time, or people may participate in organized bird counts over designated time frames. One such is in Australia next week. An international backyard bird count is slated for Feb. 12-15, 2016 -- we will write about that more here closer to then. 

Have you ever participated in a bird count? This seems a fascinating activity to do with children, students or scouts. If you've participated, what did you learn and enjoy most?

Here is a release about the Australia count:

  1. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is back, and the aim is to spot a million birds in seven days. A key celebration of Bird Week 2015, it will run from 19-25 October.

    Last year, BirdLife Australia’s first-ever Aussie Backyard Bird Count confirmed that our backyards—in all their shapes and sizes—continue to attract a range of birds, giving us hope that even as the iconic Aussie backyard shrinks, many birds remain.

    The birds—and their counters—came out in record numbers for the first Aussie Backyard Bird Count, with more than 800,000 birds spotted and many different species seen in backyards across the country. Colourful Rainbow Lorikeets led the national tally, being the most spotted birds in NSW, WA, SA and Queensland, while the Australian Magpie led the flock in Victoria and the ACT. In the NT the Budgerigar was the most common bird, while the House Sparrow led in Tasmania.

    The national focus on birds is extremely important with data showing Australian backyards have been shrinking since the 1990s, and populations of some of our most familiar birds, such as Australian Magpies and Laughing Kookaburras, have also declined. With growing national and international concern for the welfare of these iconic birds, it’s critical that all Australians take the time this October to participate in the second Aussie Backyard Bird Count.

    BirdLife Australia is hoping to build on the success and momentum of last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count, encouraging more people to get involved and count their local birds during Bird Week 2015, 19-25 October. If you’re an early bird, you can register your interest as a counter now at aussiebirdcount.org.au or join the #AussieBirdCount conversation.

    To get involved all you need is 20 minutes, your ‘green patch’ of choice, and some keen eyesight or binoculars. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or an expert—we’ll be there to help you out along the way. Simply record the birds you know and look up those you don’t on our updated Aussie Bird Count app (available for download early October) or our website. You’ll see live statistics and information on who is taking part near you and the number of birds and species counted across your neighbourhood and the whole of Australia!

    And to help you on your way, as part of National Bird Week, BirdLife Australia and the Birds in Backyards program will help Australians create more bird-friendly backyards, with advice on which trees and shrubs to plant. It’s amazing what a difference native trees make.

    For more information about Aussie birds visit birdlife.org.au 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lord of What Flies

Said 8-year-old Samuel: "I like the way grasshoppers jump out of my way and clear a path for me. It makes me feel like a king!"

Ah, to have the joyful perspective of a child.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Check tomatoes for damage after heavy rains

A rain-guage adage:

Summer showers give gardeners hours
(that would otherwise be spent watering),

but what does too much rainfall bring?


My area had a huge rainstorm yesterday that, while a welcome respite from my having to drag the hose around, delivered too much water at once for the tomatoes. Nearly every red and orange tomato I picked today sports a gaping crack that wasn't there two days ago. It's not a loss; these tomatoes are perfectly edible as long as I use them right away, but when does a batch of "do-or-die" produce ever fit neatly into the day's itinerary? These tomatoes cannot be stored for another day (I generally avoid refrigeration), because the split skins invite rot. And fast! 

Some of these tomatoes show small white cracks that formed earlier in the growing season and closed over. They are likely the result of other periods of excessive water -- it's been a doozy of a rainy summer this year, as my twice-flooded basement can attest! The difference between the old, healed cracks and the new ones is that the former occurred when the tomato was still growing. Once the green tomatoes reach full size and start to ripen, split skins will not close over and will instead be a gate for ravaging insects.

If a big storm is in the forecast, it is worthwhile to harvest ripening tomatoes ahead of time to ensure the plants don't get overwatered and cause the fruits to split. Any tomato with a hint of color can ripen off the vine just fine. A pre-emptive harvest gives you more control over when to use the ripening tomatoes. Removing the fruit also lightens branches and spares them from damage when winds and rain are fierce. Worse than a split-skin tomato is a tomato that a storm pushed to the ground off a broken branch. Guess I'm off to make sauce!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Eat the Seasons: Roasted tomato sauce and soup base

Small tomato varieties -- such as grape, cherry and yellow pear -- get typecast as salad fare. Harvest some greens, throw in these little tomatoes, BAM! Done.

Last year I had way more little tomatoes than salads in my future. I experimented with ways to cook and preserve the bounty.

My favorite was to roast the tomatoes with olive oil, salt and garlic, and then puree the mixture for pasta/pizza sauce or as the start to a delicious tomato soup. These are guidelines rather than specific quantities.

To make, spread tomatoes in a single layer in a pan or on a cookie sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, then stir. You want enough oil to coat the tomatoes, but not so much that the tomatoes swim in the pan. If desired you may also add garlic cloves and herbs, although I like to throw the fresh herbs in at the end of cooking. Don't chop garlic, because the smaller the pieces, the more likely they will burn.

Cook in a 350 degree oven, checking after a half hour. You want the tomatoes to be wrinkled and release their juices, but only barely start to caramelize and show a bit of brown on the skin. Once they reach this point they can burn quickly. Behold, the pan of tomatoes that was almost there, and for which I decided to turn off the heat but leave in the oven when I picked up a child from school:

Oops! In the oven too long.

All the juice and olive oil cooked away, and the skins were papery. It was a mess! Not good.

In contrast, here's what you want the cooked tomatoes to look like:

Ah, perfect.

Roasting tomatoes will fill your home with the most tantalizing aroma. Puree in a blender or food processor to make the sauce. You may choose to run the sauce through a strainer to remove seeds and larger skins. I list this as an option, for if I plan to use the sauce on pizza I don't bother to do the straining step.

For sauce: Adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste. Some sauces made from larger tomato varieties benefit from the addition of sugar, but I have found that the grape tomatoes especially impart just the right amount of sweetness.

To make soup, add more liquid (water or broth) to desired consistency. Depending on how fine your strainer is, you may find it easier to strain the seeds AFTER adding more liquid instead of pushing the initial puree through a sieve.

When your soup start is nicely blended, season to taste with salt and pepper; place in sauce pan to warm. Add chopped fresh basil and a touch of cream (about a 1/4 cup per quart of tomato mixture) and serve as soon as cream is warmed through. OK, this makes a fine soup all by itself, but the cream sends it over the top on the yummy scale.

The roasted tomato puree freezes well.