March 12th, 2012
a good start

My garden and my blog have a lot in common these days. Both have been dormant and inactive all winter, showing only the occasional sign of life—a post about Christmas trees here, some winter kale leaves there.

And my mind has a lot in common with my compost pile. I’m always adding to it—kitchen scraps of pop culture, grass clippings from the internet, armloads of leaves from my family tree—and slowly the process of composting and composing continues.

Let this blog post be the first of many for the season. Let this short essay be the potting mix in the seed tray. Let this little story be the newspaper pots all filled up and ready to plant. Let today’s post be the first of the onion shoots poking through soil.

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Yes, I feel it. I am waking from my hibernation—as a writer and a gardener.

Two months ago I posted a list of my gardening goals for the year. My first two goals are intrinsically connected. The first was to grow only what I start from seed myself. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No. My second goal was to grow only High Mowing Organic Seeds. When I wrote to High Mowing, they graciously agreed to supply my seeds this year.  So you can imagine how happy I was when the big envelope from Vermont showed up in my mailbox.

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Last week my daughter and I started our onions, ‘Siskiyou Sweet Walla Walla‘ and ‘Dakota Tears,’ and this morning we saw the first little green shoots. This week, we’ll start even more.

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And yesterday, I was lucky enough to spend some time in the garden. I’m trying out a Sun Joe electric tiller and was able to get a nice patch of garden ready to plant. That little machine has some kick to it. In a few weeks, I’ll be posting a review of the tiller and giving one away to some lucky reader. Stay tuned.

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And so this imperfect plot continues….

January 12th, 2012
My Top 10 Gardening Goals for 2012
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My garden at sunrise, early January, as seen from my bathroom window.

Let me be clear: I’m not a New Year’s resolution kind of guy. Which is why this post isn’t really a list of New Year’s resolutions, but more of a list of My Top 10 Gardening Goals for 2012. Ready? Here we go:

1. I will start all of my own seeds.
Last year, I had great luck with the seeds I started indoors and most that I sowed directly. But I also supplemented my plantings with seedlings from the Rodale Institute’s Spring Plant Sale. And what really overcrowded my garden last year were the extra seedlings I brought home from work, things that Doug Hall started in the greenhouse for the test garden, things like tomatoes and peppers, and celeriac. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate free stuff like you couldn’t imagine. But this year, I’m taking a less-is-more approach—a Thoreau-like tact of simplistic self-sufficiency: If I didn’t start it from seed, then it’s not going in my garden. One possible caveat: Strawberries (see #6).

2. I will only grow seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds.
I love their seeds. I love their company.

3. I will not over-plant tomatoes.
Every year, I seem to have too many tomato plants. Not this year. No, I will have the exact right number. Whatever that is.

4. I will grow more flowers in my garden.
Last year, I grew zinnias, calendula, nasturtium, and moonflower. This year, I will grow these and more. And I will interplant them among my other crops.

5. I will plant a sunflower house for my kids.
Last year’s fun project was a bean teepee. I might do one of those again, but we’ll definitely grow a sunflower house.

6. I will grow strawberries.
I love strawberries. Why haven’t I grown them before?

7. My garden will be productive earlier in the season.
How? By starting my own seeds indoors, I’ll be able to start my greens and whatnot in February and get them in the ground in March. I might even start some peas indoors to get a jump on fresh peas. Ah, fresh peas. I can’t wait for spring. It’s been a long winter and it’s only early January. Yep, I’m starting to champ at the gardening bit, as it were.

8. I’m going to buy (or make) a rain gauge.
I know how much rain we got last August and September: way too much. But this year, I’d like to be a bit more in touch with my precipitation.

9. I’m going to keep a detailed garden journal.
I have a good memory. For some things. I can remember people’s birthdays like Rain Man can count toothpicks. For instance, today is my Grandmother’s 90th Birthday. Tomorrow is my cousin Emily’s 25th birthday. Sunday is my friend Kevin’s 39th. The Monday after next is my nephew Calvin’s birthday. He’s turning 13. Ok. You get the point.

But there are some things that just seem to slip away. When did I plant my potatoes last year? What kind of beans did I plant two years ago? How much rain did we get last June? When did those Mexican Bean Beetles first appear on my bean Teepee? OK, you get the point there too. Yep—garden journal. Count me in.

10. Keep my hopes high & my expectations low.
Not sure if this counts as a goal. But it’s my M.O. and I’m sticking too it.

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December 12th, 2011
8 Reasons to Cut Down Your Own Christmas Tree

A few weeks ago, we loaded the kids in the car and drove 2 miles to our local tree farm to tag our Christmas tree. It didn’t take us long to find the perfect Scotch pine—not too big, not too small. We tagged it and will go back in a few weeks to saw it down, tie it to the roof of the car, and bring it home.

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Once the business of finding the tree was out of the way, we played hide-and-seek in the tree field. My 3-year-old daughter is sort of new at hide-and-seek, so there was more giggling, screaming, and running than any actual hiding or seeking. It was a great way to spend the morning, and at nap time she slept soundly.

Some people think that getting a live-cut tree is wasteful or bad for the environment, but in fact it’s neither. No, artificial trees are the real environmental Grinch at Christmas time. Artificial trees are usually made from PVC and metal, and most likely imported from China. And there is evidence that artificial trees can lead to dangerous levels of lead exposure. Yeah, no thanks. I’ll take a real tree any day, preferably one that I cut down myself.

Here are my reasons you should cut your own Christmas tree at a local tree farm:

1. Pine-scented air
There’s nothing quite like the smell of a fresh evergreen as it permeates the air of your house. It’s a smell that your kids will love and will forever associate with the holidays and feelings of home.

2. Sustainable agriculture
Christmas tree farming is actually a pretty sustainable business model. The trees that are cut down this year will be replaced by new trees this spring and the cycle of life continues.

3. Support the local economy
When you buy a tree from a local farmer, you are keeping your money in the local economy. Think about how connected our communities would be if we bought everything from the people who actually grew it or made it.

4. Good for the environment
The average Christmas tree is in the ground for up to 15 years before it’s harvested, all the while providing habitat for wildlife and improving air quality by emitting oxygen. Christmas tree farms are a much better use for the land then, say, strip malls or housing developments.

5. You can recycle a live Christmas tree
There are lots of great ways to reuse a Christmas tree
: Chip it up and add it to your compost pile; use the branches to mulch your roses; set the tree up outside and decorate it with bird-friendly treats. Use it as a trellis for your peas or beans in the garden next spring.

6. Fun for the whole family
What a great excuse to go tromping through a field with your kids. Fresh air, sunshine, holiday spirit—It’s a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday morning in December. Plus, most local tree farms give out cookies and hot chocolate.

7. Save Money
Trees are generally cheaper when you go to a U-cut Christmas tree farm—sometimes by as much as $20 or $30.

8. Did I mention the pine-scented air?
Yes, I did. But it’s worth mentioning again.

You may be tempted to buy one of those precut trees that you see at roadside stands or supermarket parking lots. These trees are generally trucked in from far away, which means they have a slightly larger carbon footprint than a locally raised tree, so if you can, make the trek to your local tree farm.


This was originally published on Kiwi Magazine’s blog, November 30, 2011.

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December 1st, 2011
Playing Catch-up

Where does the time go? December all ready. Let me try to catch you up.

My fall garden, for which I had high hopes in early September, never really came to fruition. I planted a row of beans, a row of kale, a 6×4 bed of carrots, a 4×4 bed of turnips, I planted a few rows of mache, and a few rows of spinach. A pretty good fall garden, right?

Well, I guess I can be too disappointed. I should listen to my own advice. This is my standard piece of advice for new gardeners: Keep you hopes high, but your expectations low.

I’m not sure of the exact rainfall totals, but I know it felt like it rained on my garden everyday from mid-August to late September. My little seeds never really had a chance to do their thing.

Sure, some did. I have exactly 7 carrot sprouts, 2 turnips, about 7 kale plants (I planted three varieties, but only one sprouted), zero beans, zero spinach, and a handful of mache.

I am thankful for what I have. And there is a chance that my seeds will over winter and I’ll have some good things growing early next March.

That’s’ the update on the garden. So much more has happened that you may or may not be aware of or actually care about, but nothing is stopping me from giving you a quick photographic tour of the past few months. Follow me.

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We found this bold-faced hornets’ nest hanging in our apple tree. These critters get aggressive in the late summer and early fall, so your best bet is to keep your distance. But once a frost hits, the hornets die off and you can collect the nest for a unique conversation starter. This nest is hanging in my barn now, but I might haul it to work to hang in my office.

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I’m proud of the parsley we grew. This is all from the seeds my daughter and i started in the basement last April. We spread it all out on a large sheet of paper. It took a few weeks, but it’s dry now. It should be enough to last us through the winter.

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Here’s my fall garden—after a freak October snow storm!

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Sadly, we lost this giant oak tree in the October snow. Wet snow on autumn leaves throws off the balance of things.

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Click to view a larger image.

We have an old summer kitchen behind our house. It’s been overrun by trumpet vine, a native, yet aggressive vine. It gets beautiful reddish trumpet-shaped flowers that attract humming birds, but I felt compelled to take it down a notch.

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And finally, here’s me and my kiddo at the Christmas tree farm near our house. Check out my guest blog at Kiwi Magazine for my 8 Reasons to Cut Down Your Own Christmas Tree.

OK, now you’re all caught up. I’ll try to be more regular with my blogging. -eh

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September 30th, 2011
Brown Bag Challenge Final Week

The operative word this week in the Brown Bag Challenge is the word Challenge. By that I mean it has been a very challenging week for lunches, mostly due to my own absentmindedness.

Monday
Monday started out strong: Avocado, tomato & cheese on thick slices of organic whole wheat Italian bread, with a handful of organic grapes and a small bag of Late July peanut butter crackers. My wife prepared this for me, but it required on-site assembly. I sliced the tomato and avocado and started building what turned into what I call a Zoinks! Sandwich. (If you don’t get that reference, you probably didn’t watch enough Scooby-Doo back in the day.) It was very good and wholly fulfilling.

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Tuesday
Tuesday, on the other hand, was an utter failure. Not only did I not bring a lunch, but I also forgot to make a lunch. It’s one thing if you make it and leave it on the counter, but it’s something else entirely when you just plain forget about it. I felt like such a failure. How could I possibly live with myself after this? How could I face all of you on this blog, knowing that I let you down?

Hungry, I slinked into the Rodale café with my head hung low and built myself a small salad at the salad bar, avoiding all eye contact with the cafeteria staff and fellow diners. I had fallen so far and wasn’t sure if I could go on.

But as I ate my green leaves, I found hope. I thought back on the past month and began to feel an egg of pride hatching in my soul. And you know what? I had done pretty well up until now. I will go on. I will see this challenge to the end. Every hero must go through bad times, must fall from grace. And everyone loves a story of redemption. I will be that hero. I will redeem myself. I will see this Brown Bag Challenge to the end.

Wednesday
And yet our hero somehow manages to almost forget his lunch again, but at the last moment, he grabs from the fridge what he hopes is the remnants of last night’s chicken cutlets wrapped in foil. It isn’t much, but it will certainly count as a brown bag lunch.

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It was a small lunch and I was very hungry and totally grouchy when I got home. Hunger always makes me grouchy. My wife asked why I didn’t supplement this measly meal at the café. But I was so grumpy that I couldn’t answer her—I just furrowed my brow and grunted. To make it worse, the power was out when I got home, so I ended up cooking dinner in a quickly darkening kitchen. Luckily we have a gas stove. I made tortellini with sausages and broccoli. It was good and we ate by an eerie combination of candlelight, flashlight, and iPhonelight.

Thursday
Of course I was going to have leftover tortellini with sausages and broccoli on Thursday. I set it all out on the counter—the container of leftovers, a glass bowl to heat it up in, a little bag of Locatelli grated Romano cheese, and piece of bread. You can imagine my surprise when I got to work and had no lunch. I had left it on the counter.

This time I didn’t feel so bad. I had, after all, made the effort of preparing my lunch. I ate another salad from the café and I enjoyed it with my head held high.

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Friday
As I sit and write this final Brown Bag Challenge entry, I have a full belly of leftover butternut squash soup. I made it last night. I skinned and cubed the squash and brought it to a boil in vegetable broth. And then as it simmered, I added some halved Brussels sprouts. I caramelized some onions and threw those in too. I crushed up a few of our remaining Black Icicle tomatoes and chopped up a generous handful of fresh parsley. I thought I was done, but my wife had a good idea: Add the leftover tortellini and sausages that I forgot to bring with me for lunch. So today’s lunch contained yesterday’s lunch, sort of like a play within a play.

As this challenge comes to an end, I can safely say that I am a changed man. I will no longer just assume that I’ll grab lunch from the cafeteria. Instead, I will think about my mid-day meal more deliberately. I will exercise a control over my food intake that I had previously given away. Thank you to Healthy Eats for getting me to change the way I think about my food.

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Brown Bag ChallengeI’m taking part in the Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.

September 23rd, 2011
Brown Bag Challenge Week 4

At the end of week 4 of the brown bag challenge, I have a few observations to make:

1. I eat a lot of pasta.

2. I will often forget about packing my lunch until right when I’m walking out the door in the morning.

3. I somehow managed to lose that Pyrex bowl. I may have left it in the little kitchen up here on the second floor.

4. I may have lost a little weight, too. I’ve been fastening my belt in the second position for a while now, but on Monday, I had to move to the third hole.

5. According to the Internet, the holes in a belt are just called belt holes. They have no special name.

6. I am slightly disappointed that belt holes don’t have a special name.

Here’s my recap of the week:

Monday
Fusilli with sweet potatoes, sausages, and various other veggies.

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Tuesday
Here’s the thing about Tuesday. I packed my lunch, but I never ate it. You see, my wife had a meeting in the building, so she brought the kiddos with her. I entertained the girls while she had her meeting, then we went out to a local coffee shop for lunch. So I give myself credit for packing a lunch of leftover pasta, but I give myself a fail for not eating it. I had a tasty sandwich of salami, asiago cheese, and some kind of special relish from a place called Baked in town.

Wednesday
I ate a leftover cheeseburger. Technically, it was a patty melt. What’s the deal with that? A hamburger on a bun is called a hamburger, but a hamburger on slices of bread is called a patty melt. I don’t get it.

I didn’t pack anything else so I was starving by the time I got home. Starving.

Thursday
I found another leftover hamburger in the fridge. This one had a bun. I also brought some leftover potato wedges. Sort of like steak fries, I guess. And a cookie.

Friday
Another bowl of Fusilli with sweet potatoes, zucchini, onions, broccoli, and Italian sausages. And a cookie.

Sorry for the lack of images. Hopefully, next week I’ll be better at snapping photos of my food before I eat it.

Brown Bag ChallengeI’m taking part in the Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.

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September 19th, 2011
fall garden kale seedlings

Planting a fall crop and seeing the seeds sprout is like experiencing a mini-spring. The onslaught of autumn can be overwhelming if you let it. Fall is beautiful, what with the crisp air and colorful leaves and all, but let’s face it: the implication of autumn is nothing more than winter. Cold. Dark. Winter.

Ah, but the planting of a few seeds in late summer gives your garden a new lease on life. Or at least a seasonal sublet.

With this in mind, let me introduce you to the vernal soldiers of the fall: my kale seedlings.

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September 16th, 2011
Brown Bag Challenge Week 3

I read somewhere a long time ago that if you want to start a new habit, you have to repeat the behavior 12 times before it will likely stick.

Well, I’m not quite there yet. I have only packed my lunch 10 times in a row. But I feel good about it. I am confident that I’ll complete this brown bag challenge and make it to the end of the month. And who knows—I might just continue to brown bag it after that, saving trips to the corporate cafeteria for special occasions and dire emergencies.

Last week, I mentioned that one of the unlooked-for benefits of packing every day was that our fridge didn’t fill up with orphan leftovers and moldy containers of last week’s suppers. But this week, I report on the downside. My wife and daughter would usually eat some of those leftovers for lunch and this challenge has been depriving them of some quick lunches. Hmm…what to do, what to do.

Here’s my Brown Bag wrap up for the week:

Monday.

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Another leftover i-oy: Fusilli with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. In this picture, you get a glimpse of how I sometimes spend my lunch break: reading Paul Krugman in the Times and compiling a list of semi-obscure holiday tunes to record this year for the annual family Christmas record.

Tuesday.

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Leftover Frittata. This meal was inspired by a recipe in next week’s Garden to Table Newsletter.

Wednesday.

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A roast beef sandwich with horseradish, cheese, and a tomato from the garden. And a side of organic grapes. This is a leftover sandwich because my wife actually cooked the roast the night before. Local, grass-fed beef. Plus a cookie from Kimberton Whole Foods.

Thursday.

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Another excellent chicken soup. With corn, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli and who-knows-what-else. My wife makes good soup.

Friday.

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I swear this was a bowl of tortellini. With a red sauce made from Eden Organic crushed tomatoes, strained tomatoes, & tomato paste, cooked with onions and fresh parsley from the garden. I was so hungry today that I simple forgot to take a picture until it was all gone.

Brown Bag ChallengeI’m taking part in the Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.

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September 12th, 2011
defeated or defiant?

That’s it.

I give up.

I’m done.

I’m going to rip everything out, scatter grass seed, and never garden again.

Or at least that’s how I feel. In a word: defeated.

Was it the weather?

First there was the super soggy spring. Then came what felt like months of blistering heat, followed by weeks and weeks of hurricanes and rain.

Or was it the dark armies of garden pests—the wilt-wielding cucumber beetles, the nectar-of-life-sucking squash bugs, the alien Mexican bean beetle larvae that transform into skeltonizing oversized yellow-spotted merchants of death? Or perhaps it was the stupid plodding stink bugs or the colonies of swarming ants. Did I mention the slugs? And forget about the green worms on my broccoli.

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Forget about it—I’m done.

I’m guessing the weather had at least a little bit to do with my bugs. These swings in temperatures and conditions undoubtedly caused my poor plants much stress, and as we all know, stress affects overall health. Once the health of your plants is compromised, your garden falls easy prey to those garden-wrecking hexapods from hell.

I thought I had a handle on the bugs, what with my daily diligence of leaf inspection and insect-smashing. But once the rains set in, my routine collapsed and it all veered toward oblivion. And now I just want to rip it all out, plant grass seed, and be done gardening forever.

But there is a garden in my heart and I know several things:

Next year will be better, or at least different.

And:

To garden is to have a hand in Creation, to be a part of the giant wheel of the world.

Bugs and all.

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September 8th, 2011
Brown Bag Challenge: Day 5

ehurlock-60One week ago today, I started packing my lunch, instead of buying my lunch from the café downstairs. My first lunch was a glorious chicken salad sandwich made by my loving wife. My subsequent lunches have been reconfigurations of leftover dinners.

Friday, September 2, was leftover homemade chicken soup with lentils and vegetables.

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Monday was a holiday.

Tuesday was leftover Pasta Fazul. That spelling looks weird to me, but then again, I’ve never tried spelling it before. It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe and it’s good. A little Locatelli cheese and some red pepper flakes and you’re all set.

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Wednesday was leftover i-oy. What? Yep. I-oy. That’s what my wife’s family calls aglio olio. Maybe it’s a regional dialect thing, but whatever it’s called, i-oy is always good. I made this one the night before with onions, beans, garlic, basil, parsley, and tomatoes from the garden. Plus I added frozen organic spinach, broccoli, and peas. I also made meatballs from some local ground pork. Again, a little Locatelli and some red pepper flakes and you’re good to go.

Of course, I forgot to take a picture of the i-oy, but I did manage to remember to take a picture of the homemade cup cake I had for dessert.

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When I heat these meals up in the microwave, I use a Pyrex bowl. I never put plastic in the microwave, because I’m sure that microwaving plastic leaches all sorts of toxins into your food.

And today, I had another chicken sandwich. This time made by yours truly, so it wasn’t quite the sandwich event that last week’s was, but it was still pretty good: Leftover chicken cutlets with a slice of cheddar cheese on multigrain bread. I brought a whole avocado and a tomato and sliced them up right on the spot.

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Why do i like the Healthy Eats Brown Bag challenge? Yes, I’m saving money. Yes, I have complete control over what I’m eating. But there is something else: the dinner leftovers aren’t piling up in the fridge. Our refrigerator is sort of famous for being the place where leftovers go to die. So the surprising benefit of the brown bag challenge? A cleaner fridge.

Brown Bag ChallengeI’m taking part in the Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.

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