June 13th, 2013
Wednesday in the Test Garden

Yesterday, I drove out to the Rodale Institute near Kutztown, PA, to the home of the Organic Gardening Test Garden, where I spent the morning working with senior editor Doug Hall, who runs the test garden.

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a beautiful day at the test garden

A normal Wednesday for me involves working at my computer in the office, writing newsletters or making social media posts, making webpages in the content management system, working on the iPad issue, going to meetings, et cetera. Sure, I’d be thinking about gardening, writing about gardening, generally existing in a gardening head-space, but I would not physically be in a garden. Instead my hands would be noisily clacking away on this keyboard, making Nancy in the cube next to me wonder what the heck that keyboard ever did to me.

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The best fertilizer is always the gardener's shadow.

But yesterday was such a different story. It was total immersion of body, mind and spirit in the garden. My hands were in the soil, pulling weeds, planting melons, squash, and broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, scooping compost, spreading mulch, harvesting turnips, spinach, broccoli, and kohlrabi.

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getting started

I am looking forward to going back again next week. My plan for my blog this summer is to share with you, Dear Reader, what’s happening at the test garden. I will select one bed each week and show and tell you what’s growing and going on in said bed.

Stay tuned.

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March 12th, 2013
Daughters in the Garden

The little one says the bok-boks are in the garney. And she’s right. They are. She says she’s going to dig for worms in the garney, too. And she does.

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My daughters will never remember a time when there wasn’t a garden in their lives.

I mean, think about it. What are your earliest memories? How old were you?

Summer of ‘76. I was three and a half and it was Forth of July when my family hitched up the pop-up camper to the old brown station wagon and dragged it down to Virginia where we set up camp for a week and spent the bicentennial in Colonial Williamsburg.

I was just a little kid, practically a toddler. A little older than my youngest is now and a little younger than my oldest.

These girls will simply grow up with a garden in their hearts and dirt under their fingernails.

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They’ll know how and when to start their seeds, when to harden off and put the seedlings in the ground, what to do with kitchen scraps, when to harvest, how to can tomatoes, how to make sauerkraut and pickles. They’ll be steeped in the idea that we can grow their own food. All it takes is patience and love—and hard work.

What’s my contribution to this world?

I’m doing my part for world peace.

I’m raising my daughters in the garden.

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March 4th, 2013
Acts of Gardening

My second official act of gardening of the season occurred Saturday when I dragged the chicken tractor to the garden, rerouted the fence, and let the three hens have free access to the garden.

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Three very happy hens.

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We acquired these birds at the tail end of summer, so this is our first spring with chickens. Seems like the perfect time to incorporate the birds into the seasonal machinery of the garden.  With their continual scratching, hunting, and pecking, they will eat the bugs and prepare the ground for planting.

My first official act of garden happened two weeks ago when my daughters and I started our onion seeds in the basement under lights. I love the way these perennial rituals act as a yardstick. My youngest (almost 2) stands on the milk crate that my oldest (4) has stood on for the past 2 years to see the top of the seed-starting table but now no longer needs.

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Soon we’ll be planting peas.

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October 10th, 2012
For the Love of Hats

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My family fell in love with hats a few weeks ago. Not just any hats. No, we fell in love with Wallaroo Hats. In a serendipitous turn of events, the same day my wife bought a cute little sun hat for my 4-year-old’s first day of school, I was contacted by a representative from the Wallaroo Hat Company in Boulder, Colorado, who sent us a couple of samples to try out. And Oh My God—these are the best hats ever. Here’s why:

1. They are super-cute.

2. They stay on. A lot of hats we’ve tried to get our kids to wear fall off as soon as the girls start running or swinging. But Wallaroo hats are designed with a smart drawstring inside the headband that keeps the hat snug without being too tight.

3. They protect my girls’ faces from harmful UV rays. The brims of these hats are nice and wide, but not floppy. We live a pretty rural lifestyle at our house, and spend a lot of time outside—digging in the garden, walking in the meadow, feeding chickens, picking flowers, running around, swinging on the swing set—so it’s important that we protect our kids from too much UV.

4. Did I mention they’re super-cute? OK, I know that as a dad, I am completely smitten with my kids and I think they’re super-cute all the time. But these hats have a way of harmonizing with the kids’ natural cuteness, thereby raising the cuteness factor exponentially.

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My oldest is wearing the Petite Nantucket and my youngest has on the Sophia. But don’t think that Wallaroo only makes kids’ hats. No, they have a full line of women’s and men hats too.

And check this out: Next week, right here on this blog, I will be giving away three hats to three lucky winners. Stay tuned.

For more info, check out The Wallaroo Hat Company.

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Photos courtesy of Heather Hurlock.

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September 21st, 2012
Birds of a Feather

We still don’t have names for the birds yet, but we finally started getting some eggs. My kids are totally in love with these birds. My oldest is very good at feeding them, while my youngest points and nods.

chicken-hats-kiddos2Check out these hats the girls are wearing. They’re from Wallaroo Hat Company. I’ll be hosting a hat giveaway on this blog in a few weeks, so stay tuned.

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September 13th, 2012
The Chickens Have Landed

I feel like I’m always in a hurry to get things done, but some projects just take their good old time. My chicken tractor, for instance. I started this in early June. It was going to take me a week to build it, and then I was going to get some chickens.

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A work in progress.

And then it was July. The coop was sort of finished. Like 75% done. But still no chickens.

Then it was August. The coop was about 95% complete. Just needed a little more cage wire, a door, and some kind of ladder to let the bird get in and out of coop.  Oh, and wheels. And, of course, chickens.

There it sat in the yard. A daily reminder of every other half finished project in my life. If only some chickens would fall out of the sky. If only i had the motivation and time to finish the coop. I was tempted to tarp the whole thing and start over with peeps in the spring.

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The weeds are growing tall.

But then last week, my wife got a message from her friend Ruthie, asking if we wanted a few chickens, that they were down sizing their flock and would be willing to give us a few birds.

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Chickens!

It was super short notice and exactly what I needed to finish the chicken tractor. So last Sunday, my daughter and I got to work. And just when we had the cage wire and door in place, Ruthie and her family pulled down the driveway. Her husband Jeremy handed me a burlap sack containing 4 hens: one Leghorn and 3 Golden Comets.

What amazed me Sunday evening was when the chickens put themselves to bed. One by one, they hopped up the little ladder I made, right into the coop. I went out and closed the door, and learned first hand that chickens do indeed go home to roost. It’s not just a figure of speech.

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When in doubt, use your boot to open the latch.

We’re still waiting for our first egg. The birds are probably a little stressed by the move. And our dog is not helping the situation. He’s so excited about the new family members that he runs laps around the coop. My kids are pretty excited too. My 4 year old is very keen on feeding them and really wants to hold a chicken. She’s still working on the names. Two of her early name choices were Leafy & Rainbow, but she’s since withdrawn those and is working on new names. Stay tuned.

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August 23rd, 2012
Garden Update in Pictures

If it weren’t such a cliche to say a picture is worth a thousand words, I would say something like: Here’s the equivalent of 7,000 words. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just share some recent photos from my garden and kitchen.

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At the garden gate.

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The gourds are inspired by the sunflowers to climb higher and higher.

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This was corn and potatoes not too long ago, but now it's peas and beans.

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The best peppers I've ever grown. Corno di Toro from High Mowing.

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Three rows of turnips, three rows of carrots, intensively planted (i.e. too close)

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Two words: homemade sauerkraut.

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Amish paste tomatoes are the gateway fruit to home canning.

August 9th, 2012
Making Sauerkraut

Continuing on my path of discovering fermentation, last night I started my first batch of sauerkraut.

The hardest part of making sauerkraut so far has been finding a crock to let it ferment in. I found expensive crocks online. I found utensil crocks from China at a nearby kitchen store. But it wasn’t until I visited a place called Good’s Store on the edge of Amish country that I finally found the crock of my fermenting dreams. For $13 I bought a new one-gallon clay crock made in the USA by Burley Clay Products.

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The rest of the process was easy.

I sliced up two heads of cabbage—one purple, one green—and mixed it up in a large bowl with 4 or 5 tablespoons of sea salt. Almost immediately the salt began pulling the water from the cabbage through osmosis. When all my cabbage was chopped, I packed it tightly into the crock, and watched in amazement as the brine developed.

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I placed a small plate on top of the cabbage and placed a bottle of water on top of the plate, which all works to keep the cabbage below the surface of the brine. I covered the whole thing with a dishtowel and put it aside to let the fermentation begin. I’ll check it everyday and in a week or so I’ll start tasting it.

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As I mentioned before in my post about pickles, my fascination with fermentation is a result of my hearing Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Sandor Katz. I bought Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation, which has inspired me to move beyond pickles. The book is an amazing collection of stories, techniques, and recipes that have given me a much broader understanding of the fermentation process, as well as the courage to put that understanding into practice.

But I won’t stop at sauerkraut. In fact, after I set the crock of kraut aside last night, I began boiling raw milk to make a simple farmer cheese, another astoundingly simple process.

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I brought 3 pints of raw cow’s milk (from nearby Camphill Village Kimberton Hills dairy) to a slow boil. After removing from the heat, I slowly stirred in 3/16 cup white vinegar, which caused the milk to curdle. I poured the separated curds and whey through a basket strainer covered with cheesecloth into a bowl. The whey ended up in the bowl and I was left with the curds, which I sprinkled with some sea salt. I took the corners of the cheesecloth and pulled the curds into a ball to expunge the excess whey. And there you go: Farmer Cheese.

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I’ll eat some tonight for dinner with a delicious tomato salad.

Speaking of which, my garden is pushing tomatoes now. Here’s what I harvested last night after putting the kids to bed. Brandywine, Cosmonaut Volkov, Green Zebra, Indigo Rose, and Amish Paste.

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There is a lot of real estate opening up in my garden lately. The zukes and cukes are done, the victims of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. The corn is finishing up this week, and my carrots will be coming out this week too. So what’s next for this imperfect plot? Fall brassicas. Please join me in welcoming this year’s Brussels, Broccoli, Cabbage, and Kale. We’ll also be planting more peas and more bush beans.

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And maybe, just maybe, this will be the year I set up a cold frame.

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July 19th, 2012
garden update, late-july

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What was supposed to be a bean teepee is more a gourd teepee now. Although, the gourd vine has outgrown the bamboo and is making it’s way toward the sunflowers.

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I fully expect at least one ear of corn to explode with smutty goodness, and although they say it’s a delicacy, I’ve never tried it.

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We harvested our taters a few weeks ago. We got less than I expected, but I am thankful for what we got. My lesson with this year’s potatoes is that i should have watered them more.

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These onions were the first seeds I started inside this year, way back in early March, yet they were the last thing I actually put in the ground. I need to keep them better weeded.

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Tomato hornworm! I know that parasitic wasps will eventually lay eggs on this guy, but I wasn’t taking any chances—I picked him off and left him out where a hungry bird would easily find him.

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A blurry picture of my least favorite thing—squash bug eggs. Smash them when you see them, but expect that you won’t find them all. Brace yourself for squash bugs. A sure sign that summer is here and won’t last forever. Nothing does.

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Overall, it’s been a great gardening season for us. Our most productive, most well mulched, weeded, and watered garden ever.

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Oh, the joy of tending your own garden.

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Beans. Blanch ‘em for three minutes, plunge them in ice water, and freeze them.

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And finally, here is my chicken tractor. Almost complete. I’m buying the cage wire today and should be getting our birds next week.

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July 17th, 2012
Making Real Pickles

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Driving to work a few weeks ago, I heard a Fresh Air podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Sandor Katz, the author of The Art of Fermentation. He talked about how fermentation is the “the flavorful space between fresh and rotten” and just how easy it is to ferment your garden harvest.

I was instantly hooked on the idea.

It turns out that a lot of what I eat and drink everyday is made possible because of the fermentation process. Coffee, beer, yogurt, bread, cheese—all sorts of things are fermented. And for thousands of years humans have been preserving their garden produce by fermenting it.

When we got back from a few days at the shore, the cucumbers in our garden were perfect and plentiful, so I knew it was time to join the ranks for my fermenting forbearers by making pickles..

Real pickles. Not those vinegar-soaked refrigerator pickles. I’m talking about lacto-fermented, homegrown, organic, ripe-on-the-vine, pickled-in-the-brine, super-duper cucumber pickles.

Here’s what I used:

‣ 5 tbsp salt
‣ 2 quarts water
‣ 8 medium cucumbers
‣ 8 to 10 grape leaves
‣ a few horseradish leaves
‣ onion
‣ garlic
‣ dill
‣ string beans
‣ chard stems
‣ mustard seed
‣ 4 quart-size ball jars

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And here’s how I did it:

I add the salt to the water, heated it up (not boiling), stirred it, let the salt dissolve, and let it cool.

Meanwhile, I cut the cumbers in half and sliced the halves into spears.

I put a grape leaf on the bottom of each jar. Grape leaves are a very important part of the process, because they give the pickles their crunch. Without the tannins that are present in grape leaves (or other leaves such as horseradish or oak), your cucumbers will be disgustingly mushy. And nobody likes a mushy pickle. Nobody.

Then I filled the jar with cucumber spears, jamming them in good and tight, along with onion slices, green beans, dill, garlic, mustard seed, and chard stems. And I rolled up some more grape and horseradish leaves and jammed them in too, leaving about two inches from the top of the vegetables to the top of the jar.

Next I poured the brine into the jars. Everything I read about this online said you should leave about an inch from the top of the brine to the top of the jar, not sure why, but that’s what I did. The trick is getting the veggies to stay submerged. I put another grape leaf on top to help hold the cukes down.

After I poured the brine, I tapped the jars on the table to release any air bubbles. Then I put on the lids, not too tight, and left them on the table for a few days, each morning opening the lids and sort of burping the jars.

Once the brine started getting cloudy, I knew the fermentation process had begun. I waited a few more days.

When we finally tried them, my 4-year-old daughter declared these pickles to be the best pickles ever. And she’s right.

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