Mar 31, 2012

The 1,000 Pound Challenge- North versus South

Well, the gauntlet has been thrown down! As I prepare for my 1,000 pound challenge (500 square feet, 1,000 pounds of produce, 1 year), a writer friend of mine, Brad Sylvester, has chosen to take on the challenge too! Brad lives on a 5 acre parcel in New Hampshire and is no stranger to vegetable gardening. He will be trying to coax the same 2 pounds per square foot from his garden as I will be doing with mine. You can see Brad's challenge progress over at his Living With the Land blog.

We both have advantages and challenges:

Team Brad
~ Challenge: short growing season (around 120 frost free days) limits what he grow on either end of the summer season
~ Advantage: Brad's garden is mature which means the soil has been conditioned for years

Team Angie
~ Challenge: July and August are so hot in coastal Georgia that few veggies will grow
~ Challenge: brand new tilled bed that will have to be amended from scratch
~Advantage: with only a few light frosts in January and February, I can grow year round

Join us on our blogs throughout the year to keep up with our experiences and to see the growing tally of harvested produce. While both Brad and I love the concept of a good old fashioned north versus south challenge, the main goal is to see how much food we can put on our families' tables with a small garden plot. We'll share with our our successes and failures and, hopefully, inspire you to take shovel to soil and start growing your own food. Game on!

Mar 29, 2012

The 1,000 Pound Challenge

We have been living here in Georgia for five years now. In that time, I have had to transform from a hard-core northern gardener into a southern one- not as easy as you might think. Instead of not being able to grow from January to March, there's little that will grow here in July and August (except peppers, watermelon, and an alarming amount of okra). What I haven't had here yet is a full-on garden. I've dabbled in container gardening and food forest concepts but it's time to put in a "real" garden.

My opportunity arrived suddenly last week when my neighbor generously offered me the use of his rented tiller for a couple of hours. How can one say no? So, I spent the next 90 minutes trying to control a mack daddy tiller (yes, you need Southern terms for a southern garden) and sod-busted a 20 foot by 25 foot garden bed. Right now, it's nothing more than broken grass clods, sand, and a bit of topsoil. It looks rather sad. As I build the soil in future years, it will look better but we all start somewhere.

So, as is typical with me, I'm not going into this project lightly. I have decided to try to get the absolute most amount of food out of this tiny plot. I want to encourage other prospective gardeners to just get out and turn the soil. Just plant something. I want to see exactly how much I can feed my family out of this small spot of land. I come from a long line of gardeners and I'm hoping to channel some of my genetic material. To keep me on track and accountable and to share my experience with everyone, I have committed to the goal of producing 1,000 pounds of food from this plot from April 1 to Mar 31. Hubs thinks I'm insane, and I very well may be. But I think it's possible and I'm going to try.

As a southern gardener, I have, of course, the benefit of being able to grow at least something for the entire year. We have a few light frosts during January and February but that shouldn't deter many greens or brussel sprouts or carrots. I will be growing all the usual suspects, including tomatoes (enough for canning), peppers, eggplant, zucchini, winter squash (my personal obsession), lettuces, cabbages, fennel, onions, garlic, peas, beans, cucumbers, celery, okra, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, watermelon, spinach, swiss chard, and anything else that tickles my fancy throughout the year. I will use many of the biointensive practices of John Jeavons and as much passive watering as possible, including rain barrels and Spanish ollas.

I will blog about the progress of the garden and will weigh and document everything that comes out of it. I may even do a few videos. 1,000 pounds. 500 square feet. Let's see what's possible.

Mar 27, 2012

Solar Oven Bread

We've had bright sunny days around here lately- perfect for hauling out the solar cooker and baking some bread.

I've tried a lot of solar cookers and this Sport is my favorite. It came with the graniteware pots (they have lids too) that fit perfectly inside. It's not heavy at all and can easily be taken to a picnic or the beach.

On this day, I made a rye bread and an Italian garlic and herb bread. Because I make bread often, I cheat a little with most loaves. I let my breadmakers (yes, I have two of them!) mix the dough and perform the first rise. Then I give it a knead and set it into the pans, which have been warmed in the solar oven. Bread dough hates the cold! Then I put the lid on the oven and let the loaves do a final rise as the oven heats up and then bake. The dough is pictured above right after it was placed in the pans.

The day was cloudier than I expected so there were more fluctuations in temperature than I would have liked. Nonetheless, after 2 hours, the bread was light and fluffy and fully baked. Had I known it was going to be a bit cloudy, I would have put the reflectors on the oven to concentrate the sun's rays and raise the oven temperature. Today is going to be another beautiful day outside so I may make a Moroccan stew and some cous cous.

If you don't have a solar cooker, consider getting one. It's another alternative if the electricity goes off and it's perfect for beaches and parks that don't allow cooking fires.

Mar 26, 2012

The Self-Watering Planter Project

A friend of mine commented last week that I should be taking pictures of some of the interesting gardening and homesteading projects I'm working on around here and post some how-to blog entries- so here it goes!

Yesterday, I built my first self-watering planters from materials we had around the house. In the hot Georgia summer sun, containers can get dried out very quickly and I often have to water twice a day. A self-watering planter has a reservoir at the bottom to allow the plants to take up only as much water as they need to keep the soil moist and the roots happy. They are expensive to buy in the garden store but really easy to make at home. Here's what I did:

1. We buy cat litter for our five cats in large buckets and have a number of the buckets hanging around the house. Stacking two of them together gives a space (the reservoir) between the bottom of the top bucket and the bottom of the second. The buckets we're using are around 3 gallons and I wouldn't use smaller ones if you're growing a large plant. Two five-gallon round buckets will also work great for this project.

2. In the bottom of the top bucket, I first made the largest of the holes for the reservoir pipe. We had 1 1/4 inch PVC pipe laying around, so that's what I used, but it could be a little smaller or larger diameter. You will be pouring water through it, so don't make it too small. I used drill bits that are used to drill locks and handle in doors (I'm sure there's a more technical name for them but I have no idea). Ours are called "Blu-Mole". Remember that the PVC size relates to the inside diameter so you will need a drill bit a little bit larger. I found that a 1 3/4 inch bit made the perfect size hole. I then drilled several smaller holes (mine are 11/32 inch only because that was the drill bit I had handy). The smaller holes will hold the wicks and a few should be left over to drain the soil into the reservoir if you get torrential rains.

3. The next step is to drill overflow holes. If the reservoir overfills, it's important that the water can drain out and not flood the roots of the plant. Put the "holey" bucket into an intact one and note where the bottom of the top bucket is. Drill four holes (again, I used the 11/32), one on each side, of the bottom bucket just below the bottom of the top bucket. This ensures that the reservoir can never be fuller than that level.

4. The PVC reservoir pipe has to be a little bit longer than the two buckets stacked together. I had a 4 foot piece laying around and found that cutting it in half made the perfect size for my buckets. You can cut the pipe by hand but using a mitre saw makes it so much easier. Cut two notches into one end of the pipe about an inch long so that water can flow out and into the reservoir.

5. I rummaged around in my rag bag to find material for the wicks. Be sure to use cotton or some other type of absorbent material. I used an old pair of track pants but old t-shirts or dish towels would work just as well. Cut five wicks for each planter. They don't have to be pretty! They have to be long enough to dangle into the reservoir from the bottom of the top bucket. Mine were about 10 inches long and about 3/4 inch wide. Thread each wick through two adjacent holes in the top bucket so that the ends dangle evenly through the bottom of the top pail. Make sure that you have drilled enough holes so that there are two or three left over without wicks to allow drainage into the reservoir.

6. Fit the top bucket into the bottom and insert the watering pipe, notch end down. Fill the top bucket with a light soil mix and plant. Fill the watering pipe with water until you see a trickle coming out of the overflow. That's all there is to it! I made two at the same time yesterday and it took a while because I was figuring it out as I went, but it would probably take less than an hour to put one together now.

 A couple of notes: How often you have to fill the reservoir depends on the type and size of plant, the weather, and a number of other functions. Start by refilling every other day until you can assess how much you have to put in to top it up. I expect I will have to fill the reservoir twice a week for the large tomato plants I put in mine. Also, the soil will often look a little dry on top because the water is wicking up from underneath. Keeping the top of the soil mulched will help keep the top moist as well. These are great planters for the deck. In hot climates like ours, shading the bucket itself from the harsh sun will keep the soil cooler. In northern climates, keeping the planter in full sun will warm the soil nicely. If you are the Martha Stewart type, I suppose you could paint the buckets and make them look pretty, but I'm all about function over form, and it doesn't matter to me that the buckets still say "Tidy Cats". :)