Sunday, March 18, 2012

Preventing Leggy Seedlings

Part of learning is going back and realizing mistakes that you unwittingly made. While browsing last spring's seedling pictures, I saw these:
and realized that those tall spindly looking teenager plants are not necessarily the sign of the healthiest plants possible. They show classic symptoms of being LEGGY, and I don't mean they have beautiful gams. (my other 'mistake' was starting from seed several plants that would probably have done better being directly seeded outside during planting time--but I think that the kids really enjoyed seeing the different types of babies, so we'll let that one slide ). Leggy seedlings are tall, thin-stemmed, and sometimes bent over.

Why Do Seedlings Become Leggy?
Seedlings start seeking light as soon as they pop out of the soil. Very eager to soak up that light so that they will survive, they lean and bend toward the light source. If the light is dim, they will start to grow tall and spindly in their efforts to reach up. What they sacrifice with height is stem width. Long, skinny stems will not do as well holding up to the conditions outside, and your plant will not be as healthy and strong as it needs to be to combat pests and diseases, wind, rain, and all of nature's other challenges.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Legginess?

One of the best ways to grow seedlings indoors is to use a 'growlight'. Here is an example of a growlight setup. You can make one yourself, using a florescent light that has both a 'hot' and 'cold' bulb, and building a mechanism which raises the light up as the seedlings grow.
Here's my problem, though...i don't have a growlight setup and I don't plan to make one this year...if ever! If you've got the resources to make one, I say go for it. I am being stubborn and would like to try my luck at windowsill seedlings. After all, what did gardeners do if they wanted to start seeds before they had electricity? Maybe that's a stretch, but it's never far from my mind that if I ever needed to survive without electricity, I could. So knowing how to grow strong seedlings without extra gadgets or power can't do any harm. I'm not saying never, and maybe as I get really into this gardening thing, I'll try fashioning a growlight. But for now, it's good old fashioned sunlight for the Little Hands Garden!

Helping Your Seedlings When you Don't Have Growlights
Here are some tips I found from various sources while browsing the web and gardening books:
1. Place your seedlings in a south facing window.
*make sure your indoor animals are either kept out of the room, or watched carefully. They adore knocking over fragile, precarious-looking objects from sunny windows. Although...this furry love is not looking very threatening.

2. Turn your seedlings daily so that they are not 'reaching' toward the sun in the same direction every day.

3. Try to urge seedlings that are too tall to grow thicker by brushing your hands over them a few times a day or placing an oscillating fan to blow gently on them for a few hours every day. This tricks the plant into thinking that it is growing in a windy environment and releases chemicals in the plant to grow thicker stems to be better able to withstand the supposed windy environment.

4. Keep your seedlings happily watered! Keep their soil damp, misting them once or twice a day (I have found that being in a south facing window warms their soil considerably, and I mist them twice a day). You don't want soaking wet soil, just damp and airy. If you let seedlings go dry, they will put effort into survival and you'll lose potential growth and strength. Baby the seedlings for now, and save the toughening up for later, when you harden them off.

With these tips in mind, come back soon to see how our seedlings have done! In this mini greenhouse we have 3 types of tomatoes: Brandywine, Yellow Pear, and Super Sweet 100 Hybrid. We also have 3 types of marigolds: Jaguar, Lemon Drop, and French Dwarf. The marigolds will be our superheros in the garden when they help us deter pests!

The rest of our veggie seeds are patiently waiting for warmer weather in order to be planted directly into the garden!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mushroom Barley

I love, love, LOVE barley. This is a great side for just about any meal. Or if you love barley like I do, it's a great lunch all by itself. No matter how hard I keep trying, one of the littles still does not enjoy mushrooms at ALL...but I can tell you first hand that the mushrooms in this recipe are easy to pick out. So that mommy can steal them and add them to her share. ;)

Mushroom Barley (Serves 4) 

2 T. Olive Oil
1 Small Onion, diced
1/4 t. Sugar
1 c. mushrooms, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 t. Salt, divided
1 c. pearl Barley, rinsed
3 c. chicken or veggie stock

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the sugar and cook for another 5 minutes or until onions start to caramelize.

4. Remove the onions to a plate and add the mushrooms, garlic and 1/2 tsp salt to the pot. Cook for 3 minutes or until the water from the mushrooms start to evaporate, then remove to a plate and set aside.

5. Add the chicken stock into the same pot and bring to a boil, add the barley, 1/2 tsp salt, reduce to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes or until tender.*

6. Add the onions and mushrooms to the pot to combine and cook until heated through.

7. Serve.

*Cooking in the same pot allows all of the flavors to combine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Milkjug Cloche

"Cloche" means "bell" in French. There are a variety of uses for the word in English, including a bell shaped hat, a musical instrument...and, our most relevent definition here at LHBH, a protector for plants from cold temperatures. A cloche acts as a mini greenhouse, usually covering one individual plant, trapping moisture and heat, protecting the plant from strong cold winds. Some people spend good money on these beautiful, glass cloches for their gardens:

They really are gorgeous! But here in the Little Hands Garden, I see two problems:

1). They cost money. We don't have a lot of that to go around.
2). They are GLASS. With a handful of curious, learning, tiny children who are welcome to touch almost everything in the garden, a big glass bell seems like a--well, pretty HORRIBLE idea!

I had heard about using a milk jug as a cloche, so we decided to give it a try. Here, Bennet carefully cuts the bottom of a plastic one-gallon milk jug:

We placed it over one of our cabbages (we were pleasantly surprised that three of our cabbages survived the bulk of the winter with no protection at all! Adding a cloche was more of an experiment to see if it would help through the early spring).

For good measure, Simon taped some bubble wrap around it.

After monitering our cabbages for a few chilly weeks, and keeping the cloche on it (a couple of times we had to chase it down after a strong wind, once we had to completely replace it after a VERY strong wind), we saw that the protected cabbage was definitely bigger and more robust!

What a great way to reuse plastic mik jugs! We are saving some up to use more extensively in the garden!

I later saw a picture online of a garden that used milk jugs with a stake through it, to hold it down and to allow the jug to be moved up and down on colder or warmer days. Genius! We will remember that idea.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: Farm City

You will get a very real, entertaining, touching, sometimes maddening view of urban farming when you read this awesome book! As I mention in my review, the death of animals is involved, but in a respectful way. I can't wait to check out Novella Carpenter's other books. She is full of passion, knowledge, and gritty determination.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This Novella chick is tough. Refreshing, hilarious, full of heart--but tough as nails. Setting up an urban farm in a large vacant lot in the ghetto of Oakland, she weaves a fascinating tale of the joys and frustrations involved. Stolen produce (when she is more than willing to share), massacred, lost, or escapee animals, a wide assortment of crazy neighbors, mysteriously vanishing bee colonies...her frustrations are many. Yet she also has a deep love for her neighborhood and all its quirks, even if she is realistic about its fleeting existence. Through all the relationships forged and hard work done, she and all her neighbors may ultimately move on/be evicted/flee. As attached as she becomes to her little piece of community and land, she must have the grit and strength to start over in a new part of the urban landscape if needed. I really enjoyed her hopelessly optimistic, yet slightly jaded attitude.

Novella Carpenter's sense of community is just the kind of model I think is needed for successful urban farms. She wants to share, deeply wants to get any and all neighbors involved. Many of the books I've read about growing food focus heavily on self-reliance: growing your own food, putting it up for later. But Carpenter wants to spread the wealth, connect people to the garden. Aware that the plot she's gardening on is not even hers, she can't conceive of the idea that she'd own all the food. She considers her neighbors her family--albeit a strange one. Even after nearly being mugged and watching a junkie shoot up right across the street, she is resolved to stay put and make her mark--and not as an outsider, as a real member of this odd, dysfunctional community.

Now, about the animals. They are central to her farm; ducks, chickens, geese, rabbits, even pigs. I will warn you--if you are a vegetarian, you may be horrified. Novella is definitely no vegetarian.

For all the dreams I have of transforming the empty plot across the street into a urban farm/permaculture/secret garden, animals have rarely entered those dreams,except the vision of peaceful egg-laying chickens eating up the bugs and nibbling on discarded greens.

The animals that I've never daydreamed about are central to Novella Carpenter's urban farm. While showing touching respect and love for her animals, she also has the will to do them in when the time comes. I think that if one eats meat, she should have this ability--but reading first hand accounts of the actual process made me realize I just may not have the guts face my meat-eating in such a personal way. Though... I really do love chicken. Let's just leave it at this: I'll never view pruners in quite the same way again after reliving the fate of Novella's meat birds. Not to mention the fate of her rabbits and pigs. Her animals are not pets, and she makes it clear.

Every part of this book holds importance, even if the animal harvesting makes me a bit squirmy. Novella Carpenter is a living example of a true urban farmer, and her experiences and insight are priceless to anyone considering the endeavor.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Growing, Older

I think Joan Gussow has a lot to offer to those trying to grow their own food. Her experience and personal stories promise to inspire!
Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have a complicated reader relationship with Joan Gussow. I want to say that I love her writing all the way to the end of the earth, but I do recognize some of her quirks that many might find irritating. In some ways, she seems to be a nit-picking old lady, the type you don't want to be neighbors with, for fear that she'll make your life hell. She is very opinionated, a right we all have but especially at the ripe age of 80-something, and there are many times while reading that I get the distinct impression that whatever she says, GOES in the lives of anyone around her.

BUT. That is all the negative I will say. Because, darnit, I can't help it. I really, really love her stories.

She writes with pure heart, holds nothing back, and openly shares everything she's ever learned about food, gardening, our food system, our environment. She is full of facts and important knowledge, and she's not afraid to stick her neck out with unpopular ideas (she wrote and researched many facets of our current agricultural systems long before the topic became mainstream, often facing tough critics). She also shares very personal stories about her sons and late husband, and shows time and again her humanness.

Growing, Older, is a book I will read often. Gussow ponders many of the issues a human being faces as they grow past 'old' into 'elderly', yet maintains her fierce independence and continues to grow most of her food in her (granted, huge) backyard. The Hudson River lies directly behind her, and throughout her insightful chapters there is the constant background threat of her garden being flooded.

Flood, it does. More than once Gussow's gardens have been utterly destroyed by the river's rising banks. The work she must do to repair the damage is exhausting to read about, and yet she's had to do it more than once, and she willingly does it. The answers to the question "Why don't you just MOVE?" emerges in her reflections. For one, she respects what nature has to dish out, and feels she needs to work with the forces around her. Two, the view of the river is so beautiful to her that she's willing to do what she must to live with such a gorgeous natural presence that fills her soul, even if at times it wreaks incredible damage on her livelihood. Many people wouldn't even have the option to move, so to see her succeeding in raising lots of food in a not-always-very-ideal environment is encouraging.

This 'old lady' has a lot of good knowledge to offer, and I feel her words on a personal level. There is so much focus on the negative aspects of growing old that it's no wonder everyone's so terrified of it. Joan Gussow is not terrified of age, but ecstatic about what the years have given her. I've adopted her as one of my role models, hoping I have the wonderful opportunity to also grow old, along with my gardens.