Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: Fresh Food from Small Spaces

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sort of a 'quick guide' that leads the reader to visualize the possibilities they have for producing some of their own food, R.J. Ruppenthal packs a lot of ideas into this simple, short read. He takes a refreshing look at growing food in VERY small spaces. I say 'refreshing' because I've read so many wonderful gardening books loaded with ideas that stop me in my tracks once I realize how much SPACE is needed. Through his own trial and error he has learned to maximize his small apartment and patio to produce a good portion of his own food.

He has nice descriptions of effective containers for veggies, where to place them, and how to care for them. He provides many good ideas for helpful tools like homemade coldframes that are small enough to fit on a balcony or patio, which can provide year-round leafy greens. He doesn't just focus on veggies, however. I was enlightened by his chapter on sprouts. I really had no idea that sprouts are so nutritious and are so simple to grow. The author grows pounds of sprouts of many varieties each week on top of his refrigerator! His chapter on fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi and saurkraut made me want to try the processes out for myself. I was astounded by the idea of housing some chickens in a tiny yard, but he explained his ideas for a chicken 'tractor' (a pen that is moved around the outdoor space), vertical chicken coops, or miniature coops. He explains the possibility of keeping a beehive in an urban outdoor space, and of growing mushrooms just about anywhere.

What I liked about this book is that it was realistic and yet hopeful. The author admits that it is really not possible to be completely self-sufficient in an urban lifestyle. He writes that an urban gardener could probably grow 20 to 40 percent of his nutrition needs. However, he also describes scenarios of specializing in one food production within your space and then bartering with someone else who specializes in another (the oldest and purest form of free trade!). His main point is that no, in an urban setting with lack of land/space, you will not become completely self sufficient, but you can at least depend on yourself for a portion of your food and keep your food costs down. He is not alone in his opinion that food prices will inevitably go up as we face an energy crisis, so learning some ways to grow at least some of your food is a good idea. The author emphasizes that the techniques he describes are not new, and that before the last couple of generations who have grown up in our cheap-fuel-lifestyle (which includes cheap, albeit not always healthy, food), growing as much of your own food used to be just a normal part of life. He feels it is imperative that we reconnect with that spirit of our not-so-distant ancestors.

The author describes some of the uncomfortable changes we might be facing in a society that has built this cheap-fuel-lifestyle, once that source of energy is depleted, and once food production is also affected by climate change and the harmful effects of industrial farming. He approaches the possible changes with amazing hope, however. Though he doesn't describe himself as a survivalist, he has some practical thoughts on getting prepared for looming shortages in food and energy.

Though not incredibly detailed in every topic, I found this book very useful and it has inspired me to look further into some grow-it or produce-it-yourself methods beyond just vegetable gardens.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Surprise by the Sidewalk!

Rewind about 7 months. The sidewalk leading to our front door looked like this:


Five carved pumpkins, fall leaves, an unusual character posing for the camera...ah yes, Halloween! My favorite time of year! Anyway, you see those pumpkins? This year I took my sweet time getting them picked up after all the autumn festivities. And when I say I took my sweet time, what I mean is that I didn't pick them up until...February. They sat through a long, cold winter, buried under ice and snow. They slowly shrunk, rotted, and became nearly unrecognizable as anything we had ever decorated. When I finally decided maybe they should move away from that spot (they didn't make the most attractive landscape decor at this point), I tried picking them up and their guts spilled out. Piles of cold, half frozen seeds stuck to the ground, and I scraped them up. At least, most of them. Whatever few were left, I just stirred around in the mulch so I couldn't see them anymore.

Well. A couple of days ago I glanced down as I was walking toward the front door, and thought I saw some weeds growing. This is not unusual, and I normally have to pull a few weeds from this very spot a few times a week. I paused, and thought the leaves of this 'weed' looked oddly familiar....


Oh wow...this is no weed...we have pumpkins growing!

A few inches away...another one! And it's just starting to sprout true leaves!


I have no idea if anything will grow from these plants, because more than likely the pumpkins they came from were hybrids of some sort (they were just the run-of-the-mill carving pumpkins we bought at the grocery store). Since I've read that planting seeds from a hybrid plant will usually not produce anything, I don't have super high hopes.

BUT...I still have a little hope! You bet we are going to try to tranplant these babies!

Simon was just as excited as I was, and he has been misting them with water each day.


I have pointed the plants out to each of the kids, and the reactions they had were more than I could hope for: they were ecstatic! They remember the jack-o-lanterns (well, how could they forget them, since we had the pumpkins sitting there through 2 SEASONS)! They are thrilled that something is growing from those guts (yes, they remember the pumpkin guts Miss Andrea had to clean up).

I didn't even have to initiate this point, because 2 of the kids noticed it right away: the pumpkin plants look EXACTLY like our zucchini plants. In fact, Maggie asked me "Why did you move our plants to the sidewalk???" when I first pointed the pumpkins out to her.

What a perfect teaching moment! I was able to explain to the kids that both pumpkins and zucchini are in the squash family, and their plants do look very similar. We will be able to compare our zucchini plants and now these pumpkin plants as they grow together.

Check back here SOON, because...

This coming week we will finally have our garden beds built, ready for all our growing transplants, including these pumpkin plants. Hopefully we'll be able to pull them from their home in the sidewalk carefully enough to avoid damaging their roots.

The determination of seeds to grow anywhere they can--even after enduring the elements for half a year--amazes me! It makes me realize that this is exactly how the cycle works in nature. Looking down to see a gorgeous baby pumpkin plant, rather than a weed, growing from an old rotted pumpkin just as nature intended....well, it was enough to make my whole day. We'll see what happens as we try to keep it growing!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Peas in a Pot

I keep forgetting to show everyone where 11 of our pea plants now live! Peek behind the big red wagon and you'll see 4 lovely pots lined up in a row:


With the help of my oldest two boys, we transplanted the peas into large plastic flower pots and put them at the end of our porch. Our porch has a nice chain-link trellis at the far end, which has always been grown over with clamatis vines. Here is a photo I found online of the type of clamatis I have:
Only mine never look that full and beautiful...WOW. A couple tea-rose bushes also use the top of the trellis for a little support. Now, back to the peas.


Is this spot perfect spot for some peas? We'll see! The chain link trellis could prove to be just what they need to climb on and thrive. But, I have a couple of concerns.

1) There are still a couple vines of Clamatis growing up the center of the trellis. Will the peas vine up and live happily with them, or will there be a losing fight?
2) While sunlight does come onto the porch, it is not all day. Will there be enough sunlight for the peas to survive?

The only way we are going to find out if we've found a great pea-home is to let them grow and see what happens. This is one of the fun things about learning how to garden: the EXPERIMENTING!

We have a few more pea plants (wow, those babies did good in the greenhouse, didn't they?) that we plan to place in our garden, where there is more sunlight. We can then see how they do compared to the peas in the pots.

Here are a couple shots I got during the process of getting those peas in the pots:

Photobucket Photobucket


After just one day, we looked carefully at our pea plants, and saw tender vines already reaching out to curl around the chain link!!! So far, the peas seem to like their new home!


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

True Leaves

Right before we transplanted our seedlings the other day, we noticed that a new leaf had appeared on several of our zucchini plants. It had started out with two small round leaves, and suddenly a tiny, more jagged leaf was poking out:

WOW! Where did the little leaf come from? Isn't it beautiful?

Well, what we see poking out is the zucchini plant's first 'true leaf'. When a seed first emerges from the soil, it has a set of two leaves called cotyledons (the beautiful round leaves that we watched unfurl from each of our baby plants). The cotyledons are actually a part of the seed, and act as a food source for the sprouting seedling. At this time the seedling does not conduct photosynthesis. It gets all its food and nutrition from the cotyledons.

Cotyledons and True Leaf of a Seedling

As the seedling becomes stronger and healthier, it will begin to form two more leaves that look very different from the cotyledons. The true leaves will look more like what the plant’s leaves look like when mature. Once the true leaves are present, the plant is now actively photosynthesizing. Eventually the cotyledons will wither and fall off as the true leaves take over the job of feeding the plant.

What an exciting milestone! Our baby plants are one step closer to actually producing vegetables!