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The Great CSA Experiment

20 Aug

For years I’ve wanted to join a CSA, or community supported agriculture. Basically you help support the farm by paying a lump sum in the spring for weekly deliveries of fruit and veg through the summer and fall. Some may also include the options of meat, eggs, or dairy. This year I was finally able to sign up because I had convinced enough of my neighbors to join as well. We have a group drop off spot in our building, and every Wednesday morning, nine of us get a delivery of fresh, local produce from Great Country Farms in Bluemont, VA. They use organic and sustainable practices in their farming.

There are several CSAs in the area. We’re lucky to have a number of farms that are close enough to be able to provide this option. Some offer home delivery, some deliver to designated group spots.

I love my roof garden, of course, but sadly I can’t rely on it for all of my veg needs. This year my tomatoes have been fabulous and cucumbers have found their homes in pickle jars. It really is more of an experiment than a subsistence garden. I like the idea of supporting a local farm, too.

We started out in June with greens, mostly kale, chard, onions, then moved into asparagus, broccoli, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, berries, cherries, peas, beets, peaches, potatoes, plums, beans, and corn. For a while we got tiny herbs, including chives, mint, basil, and parsley. Each week the basket changes slightly as the land gives up its goodies. Tomatoes and peppers are just starting to come in, and apples are next.

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Photo Jun 03, 2 37 28 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The positives:

  • I’ve been eating a LOT more fresh things than I would at this time of year normally. I’ve accepted that I will eat what comes in the basket, supplementing my basket with mostly garlic and onions. I do still buy buckets of salad, but mostly for my rabbit.
  • It has been easier to eat fresh, as I now have no excuse. It’s delivered right to me!
  • I’ve enjoyed pulling out veg and throwing together a healthy meal. Today’s lunch was sauteed chard and corn with shallots. Took about 10 minutes. (I had cooked the corn yesterday for dinner.) A few weeks ago I made corn chowder, and before that I made tasty broccoli pot pies with cheddar and potatoes. Photo Jun 12, 7 50 16 PM Photo Jul 06, 4 40 28 PM Photo Jul 30, 1 36 26 PM
  • Going out to the farm, where you can pick your own of what’s ripe, is fun. I went out with a group of friends last month and we picked peaches. Thanks to my CSA membership at the farm, I got in for free, got some bonus fruit for free, and a discount at the neighboring winery.
  • It is no more expensive than the farmer’s market, and the farm bonuses actually make it cheaper in a sense.

The negatives:

  • It’s a lot for one person. Kale. So much kale. I mentioned in an earlier post that I wound up dehydrating it and making chips. I just couldn’t eat any more. I do love to sautee it with garlic, chili flakes, and a squeeze of lemon or white balsamic vinegar and have it over pasta or chicken, but I can only have that so many nights. I’ve had many friends over for dinner to try to go through my basket.
  • You have to have someone willing to make sure the baskets are in a safe spot when they are dropped off. We have an entry vestibule where we receive our deliveries, but it is an oven. One of us needs to be around right after they arrive to pull them inside the secure building area to make sure the contents don’t bake. Right now we have a few people home during the day, but that’s more of a summer thing. Let’s see what happens in a few weeks.
  • It’s a lot for one person! I have three quart sized freezer bags full of corn now. One week I got 7 ears and I just couldn’t deal with it. It came in really handy a few days later when I made corn and cabbage slaw as a side for a picnic dinner. Just dumped it out of the bag, ready to serve. Last week I gave away 6 of my 8 ears. This week, I gave a ShmErin 4 ears, and I still have 4 left. She was growing corn in her garden, too.

Photo Jul 22, 7 30 28 PM Photo Aug 05, 2 08 02 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In short, I’ve really enjoyed getting the box of produce. I love to cook fresh things, and I love supporting local business. Perhaps next year I’ll split a share with a neighbor. We have a few months left, so I’ll share an update soon.

Tomato Time: THE RIPENING

29 Jul

If you’ve been following along for the last three years (and I know you have been), you know that I haven’t been successful growing tomatoes. Until now, that is. I started plants from seed myself, and the 5 gallon buckets I have them in have worked out very well. My red cherries and yellow pears have been moving along very nicely, even with some branches yellowing, curling, and dying. I think it’s because of uneven watering and the intense heat upstairs. The deck radiates heat, so I lose more water.

Here are a few gratuitous beauty shots of my growing tomato babies.

Photo Jun 14, 8 09 41 PMPhoto Jul 12, 7 06 17 PM

 

Photo Jul 11, 8 05 11 PM Photo Jul 23, 8 08 44 PM

 

Yesterday we had a MASSIVE rain storm that last lasted about 15 minutes. I collected 40 gallons of water, which was great. We haven’t had rain in over a week, so all of the plants were happy. This afternoon I noticed that several tomatoes had suddenly ripened and were actually starting to crack. I picked nearly 2 1/2 pounds of tiny tomatoes! They each had one of three destinations:

1) Ripe ones went to the jam pot. Today.

2) Almost ripe headed to a paper bag to finish ripening. 1-4 days.

3) Green (no color, very hard fruit) were sent to the pickle jar to become cocktail garnishes. 2+ weeks.

Photo Jul 28, 1 10 40 PM

So then I made tomato jam. I used this basic recipe for cherry tomato jam from Jordan’s Kitchen. I had about two pounds to work with. Then I canned them in a water bath. Wound up with 4 perfectly filled 8 oz jars. WOW. I’m so excited to use it. Goat cheese and crostini. Or maybe just a spoon.

tomato jam collage

I hope that I’ll be able to harvest at least the same amount again in a few weeks. I now feel very comfortable with tomatoes on the roof. Keys are small varieties and keep them watered.

Of Pickles and Preservation

8 Jul

Good news, bad news.

First, the bad news, because it’s quick. Pepper plants never really took off. All three look scrawny, never settled in. Leaves are still green, but they just didn’t grow. Yeah, that scrawny thing in the middle is a pepper…that should have fruit on it by now. Because it didn’t grow, everything else around it had a chance to get big. Debating pulling them now.

Photo Jul 02, 4 14 17 PM

Now, the good news. I have lots of cucumbers, herbs, and onions! I actually discovered a few cucumbers today that I hadn’t seen before. I picked 7 of them last week, and I’ll probably get another 5 or 6 again this weekend. Might have been a few too many at once, sooooo……

IT’S PICKLE TIME!!!!

Photo Jun 26, 1 17 25 PM Photo Jul 01, 9 32 25 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the pickle recipe I put together after reading some others online:

1 1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cup apple cider vinegarPhoto Jun 26, 2 26 03 PM
1 T kosher or sea salt
1 T sugar (2 T if you like sweeter pickles)
1 tsp whole peppercorns
2 tsp dill, dried (or 1 T fresh, chopped)
3 cucumbers, 5″ to 6″ long, sliced into 1/4″ chips
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, chopped

Microwave water and vinegar until hot, not necessary to boil. Add salt and sugar and stir until dissolved. Add peppercorns and dill. Allow to cool for a few minutes.

Layer cucumber slices and garlic in a sterilized 1 quart jar. Pour in brine mixture and tap the jar or gently stir with a skewer to remove most of the air bubbles. Seal the jar and refrigerate.

Pickles will be ready after 24 hours, but are tastiest after at least a week. This batch is two weeks now and is really good.
Photo Jun 26, 2 34 14 PM
Another fun preservation method, and possibly my favorite, is dehydration.

I planted the roots of organic green onions I had purchased from the grocery store, and a few weeks later I had huge green onions. One even split into two! I chopped those up into rounds and used the screens that fit on the trays to prevent smaller leaves from falling through. I set my dehydrator to 135 degrees, and after a few hours, I had dried onions that I can use for anything! Dip, soup, bread. Whatever.

Photo Jun 28, 8 42 50 PM Photo Jun 30, 3 07 34 PM

 

 

Photo Jul 01, 3 45 19 PM Photo Jun 30, 2 59 16 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also made kale chips in the dehydrator. First time I’ve used it for kale. In the past I’ve made them in the oven, but it’s super hot out now IN JULY, so dehydrator it was. Am I growing kale on the roof? No, no I’m not. Kale has come in my CSA box from Great Country Farms in Bluemont, Virginia for the past month, and I finally got tired of it. Plus, chips last longer and are fun to eat! After cleaning them very well, I spun them dry and added some extra virgin olive oil. Then I spread them out on the trays and sprinkled on some sea salt. Wound up about 10 hours at 125, which I thought was a long time. Next time I’ll put it up higher. I did rotate the trays after a few hours.

Photo Jul 02, 9 59 47 PM

I’ve also been drying herbs. They take a few hours on about 110-120. Sage, rosemary, basil in this batch and yes, I did dry them all together. Used the screens here as well. Worked nicely. I’ve also dried mint and oregano.

Photo Jun 30, 3 02 57 PM (1)

Gnome Watchers

22 Jun

A bit of catch up here.

First, I’d like to introduce my gnome friends. They do a good job in the garden.

You may remember Norman and his watering can and sleepy Winston from earlier seasons. They got face lifts, courtesy of some acrylic paint and UV spray. They are in the tanks. My neighbor refers to Norman as…..Gnorman.

Photo May 24, 5 32 51 PM   Photo May 28, 2 36 52 PM

Because the tomatoes and more herbs are now on the other side of the roof, we needed some workers over there. Pierre is doing well tending to the basil with his snail. Maurice is a bit timid and won’t let go of his frog though. I think it’ll take him a bit longer to get comfortable.

Photo May 28, 2 42 47 PM   Photo May 28, 2 43 37 PM

Next, my cucumbers are doing very well, spreading out and grabbing everything they can. Tomatoes need daily watering, but they look much better in the buckets than they did when they were in the tanks. I am starting to get some nice looking veggies, including my first yellow squash!

Photo Jun 21, 5 54 29 PM   Photo Jun 20, 6 09 03 PM

Photo Jun 16, 8 54 52 PM   Photo Jun 21, 5 55 13 PM

Oh, yeah, so we may possibly need to have to have the whole deck redone. Not good. But, from this I learned that it’s not as hard as I thought to move the tanks. They will slide fairly easily. The guys were very careful moving everything around.

Photo Jun 22, 11 07 10 AM   Photo Jun 22, 11 02 31 AM

Step 3: Dirt

21 May

Dirt. When you have a yard, you think you’re the queen of all dirt. Why on earth would you need MORE dirt when your empire is already full of it???

Well…as I found out removing grass from a 25 by 10 foot spot in my yard, when you dig up grass, it takes 3-5 inches of dirt with it.  And this is 100 square feet of dirt that you’ll need to replace so that you don’t have a giant unsightly hole in your lawn.

So…off to Lowes!

dirt

In case you were wondering, that’s what $200 worth of soil looks like from Lowes. It took me 2 trips in a Ford Escape to get this home, and A LOT of help from the staff at Lowes with loading it all into my car (seriously, the staff at my local Lowes are ridiculously helpful. I love it there).

I got 33 bags (33sq feet) of a good mulch-y top soil, and 12 large bags of vegetable-specific garden soil (30 sq feet). I supplemented all of this with 6-7 additional bags of topsoil and organic garden soil we had lying around the lawn from other projects.

If you’re doing the math, you’ll realize this means I only got around 70 square feet of soil.

But don’t despair! I have 6 cubic yards of mulch in my driveway thanks to the city of Alexandria! That’s wayyy more than I need for this project (in fact, way more than I need for anything…anyone want some mulch???).

This is my dirt, in my garden.

dirt2

Side note: I had wanted to try organic garden soil, but it came down to a cost issue—it cost me $80 for 30 sq feet of high quality vegetable garden soil I purchased, but it would have cost meat least twice as much to get the same amount in organic soil. I am all about organic gardening, but for a project this size the start-up cost is enormous, and wasn’t possible within my budget.

Step 1 and 2 of building a garden: Finding and Digging out a Space

18 May

Hi, I’m Erin (aka schmerin). And this is my first post about building my garden in Del Ray, Alexandria. This is cross posted from my blog, Garden and Gears.

In years past I’ve done windowsill gardening in Arlington–mostly herbs like basil, oregano, and some ill-fated pepper plants, and last year I used containers to garden on my fiancé’s townhome’s back porch.

So moving on to this year—WE RENTED A HOUSE WITH A YARD! Did I tell you? It HAS A YARD! That gets lots of sunlight! So this is my first post on how we built our garden.

Step 1 and 2 of building a garden: Finding and Digging out a Space.

Task 1: Find a location. Our backyard is a decent size, but has some weird bushes, a shed, and an odd cement path. All of which we’ve been informed by the landlord cannot be moved. So we looked around for a spot that had four qualities:

  1. Wouldn’t be an eyesore for the neighbors.
  2. Got plenty of sunlight during the day.
  3. Large enough to be around 20 feet long and 5-10 feet wide.
  4. Was easy to block the dog from getting into.

The spot that fit all of these qualifications ended up being on the west side of the lawn, behind the shed.

Task 2: Realize there is grass where the garden should be, but no grass in the center of the lawn (?!?!?). In case you were wondering, digging up and moving grass is really tough. Day 1 and about 6-8 hrs of work resulted in a 10×10 foot hole, and a nicely patched spot in the center of the yard.

Day 1 of digging

Day 1 of digging

Task 3: Add fencing. This step I’d actually recommend doing after digging the hole since the fencing blocks the shovel from getting to the right angles, but my fiancé and neighbor went ahead and did it at this point anyways. The green fencing is from Lowes, and is attached to 8-10 green stakes. It looks nice, and isn’t an eyesore for the neighbors. The gate was not built yet at this point.  The total size of the fenced in space is 25 by 10 feet.

Chris and Dave building the fence

Chris and Dave building the fence

Task 4: Keep digging.

Still digging...

Still digging…

Task 5: FINISH DIGGING! Digging took 3 days of 6-8 hrs each, spread over 3-4 weeks. Digging up grass is really tough work, especially on 80 degree days with full sun, which seemed to be every weekend.

FINISHED DIGGING!

FINISHED DIGGING!

Next post…DIRT.

Lean On Me: A Support Story

14 May

I’m dedicated to updating at least once a week, more if possible. Lots of exciting things going on upstairs!

ShmErin and I went to Campbell and Ferrara on Rt 1 in Alexandria a few days ago to pick up some strawberry pots that were on sale…50% off! We got pots and plants. The guy who took care of us was VERY friendly and helpful. I feel like a dope for not getting his name, but I’m going to tell them he was great. I got two strawberry plants, two peppers, and two yellow squash plants. Now, the squash were really four, as each one had two little guys in the pot. I knew that separating them might not be the best idea and I could damage both, but I thought that if they were apart they’d do better. Also, tearing the roots a tiny bit would stimulate new growth, but I didn’t know if this would be too much for them. I risked it. It worked. The morning after planting, all four squash plants were happy and looked great. Here they are in their new tank with two red bell peppers and one hot pepper. Marigolds all over to help keep bugs away.

Photo May 12, 7 49 46 PM

This is the first year I have strawberries. They also like their new pots. The guy at the shop said they have shallow root systems, which is why they do well in pots. I don’t know if i put them in correctly. I basically put their runners through the soil and into the other holes in the pot. I think I was supposed to plant the actual runner itself so it develops its own root system, as that’s what happens when they’re in the ground. We’ll see what happens. I might have to do some plant surgery in a few weeks. However, the few little berries that were there earlier ripened quickly and both plants have made new leaves in the last three days.

Photo May 12, 6 08 20 PM

Tomatoes REALLY like their new buckets. They look much better now that they’re in their new homes. I debated staking them vs caging them. Cages would go out too much and take up too much room on the roof. I decided to use 6′ bamboo stakes and tie them on top. Not quite a cage, not quite a stake. It won’t do much until the plant is larger, but it will keep them mobile and I won’t take up too much space from my neighbors. We are excited about having greenery in another corner of the roof.

Photo May 12, 7 58 57 PM Photo May 12, 5 47 44 PM

Finally, I couldn’t figure out how to trellis the cucumbers and squash. In the past I’ve allowed the cucumbers to just hang over the sides of the tank, but this year I want to keep them up. I couldn’t really find anything that would work well in the tanks, so I eventually figured I should build one. I used last year’s tomato stakes and came up with this. (Really glad I’m able to reuse some of them, they were $3 each and I had a bunch of them.) I put nails in to two 6′ stakes to act as “shelves” and then tied on horizontal posts using coated wire in a cris-cross form. worked really well. The vertical stakes are very secure and will hold a lot of weight from the plants pulling on them. I’m going to redo it and make it slightly larger to get the outer plants, and then I’ll make a second one for the cucumbers in the other tank.

Photo May 12, 8 18 46 PM Photo May 12, 8 36 48 PM

Finally, I don’t really have a need for something like this for herbs right now, but how perfect would this set up be for a small garden space or even a balcony? Saw it at Lowe’s. Pretty self explanatory. Plastic pots drilled onto a folding trellis.

Photo May 11, 5 44 29 PM Photo May 11, 5 44 34 PM

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