My neighbor across the alley recently told me that another neighbor of ours was contacted by the city to remove the empty milk jugs he was saving from his backyard.
My first thought was “Whew! Glad it wasn’t me!”
My neighbor who unwillingly drew the ire of city inspectors is, like me, an avid gardener and urban homesteader. We know how plastic milk jugs, two-liter soda bottles, cardboard egg cartons, plastic produce and deli clam shells, and newspaper can make excellent mini-greenhouses and biodegradable pots to start young seedlings for the garden. It also saves a few bucks from having to buy peat pots and regular pots.
After reading about and experimenting with winter sowing methods using plastic containers, I've found this technique to be a great way to germinate seeds in the extreme weather conditions we have here in the Great Lakes region, especially since I don’t have space for an indoor light system or an outdoor hoop house.
I remove the caps from the milk jugs and punch drainage holes in the bottom, and then cut around the middle, leaving about an inch intact near the handle for a hinge. This creates a flip-top. I fill the containers with about three inches of compost, and then plant the seeds. Then I simply close the tops, tape the tops down, and neatly place the jugs outdoors on an old plant stand. Putting the jugs outdoors allows the seeds to freeze and thaw with the weather, which helps loosen the seed coatings. It also toughens them up for the challenges of the up-and-down spring/early summer weather. On mild days, I remove the tape and open the tops of the milk jugs for extra air and sun.
I do have some space for indoor starts, also using milk jugs and egg cartons. My old house has radiators that heat the home, but don’t get too hot; thus providing warmth as well as a handy stand for my houseplants and the tender seedlings. The houseplants don’t seem to mind sharing the pad with the young'uns for a while, and my upstairs sun porch has also been taken over by dirt-filled plastic and cardboard cartons that normally would have gone into the recycling bin. The inspectors won't see them up there!
With these little homemade greenhouses in any shape container imaginable, everywhere indoors and out holding seedlings in various stages of growth, my fiancé, Doug, and our busybody hound, Lenny, have to watch every move, step, gesture, jump or sniff. But it’s only temporary, and the harvest at the end of summer will be worth it.
And I plan to share some starts with my neighbor, whose yard is now empty of milk jugs. He has to start all over again.
Does any else use the winter sowing method or cartons as containers to start seeds? What are your results?
When I told some people that earned a “Best in Home Economics” ribbon, awarded to me at my eighth-grade graduation banquet in 1984, those people erupted into snickers and giggles. Those same people laughed harder when I told them that I took home economics through all four years of high school.
“Had some hours to fill?”
“Needed some easy credits?”
Some people in my circle saw home economics as brainless fluff, but I ignored their chiding, as I did not consider nutritional education, healthy eating, and home finances as “fluff.” And can’t everyone benefit by knowing how to sew a button back onto a garment rather than to just discard it and buy a new one, or how to cook a healthy meal from scratch? Then there was the nutrition, as well as life skills like balancing a checkbook or changing a baby’s diaper (but we never did the “carry a pretend baby around” assignment).
As time went by, big box stores grew, offering ready-made anything and everything. That, along with cuts to public school education, brought the demise of home economics programs in many schools. I found it sad that the skills taught in home economics classes were considered disposable.
Sewing skills I learned in home economics rewarded me throughout adulthood. I created Halloween costumes that won cash prizes in contests, and I operated a part-time costume and sewing business that brought extra money into the household. My use with needle and thread saved me a few bucks by repurposing cast-off clothing from resale shops into unique garments that had a custom fit.
Then there’s the food. By studying the alchemy of cooking and baking, I mastered the process of turning a pile of milled grains into a scrumptious loaf of bread. While I can’t say that I’ve never consumed instant macaroni and cheese or used a boxed cake mix, through home economics I learned how to fine-tune and polish the cooking and baking arts I learned at home, giving me an appreciation of real food. But some kids don’t learn those skills at home.
Photo: Fotolia/Alex Tihonov
With the resurgence in food awareness and sustainable living that we are fortunate to experience today, I was pleased to hear that some schools have added urban agriculture and homesteading classes into their curricula, as well engaging students in community garden projects. Several farmers in my region I spoke to over the last couple of years have developed programs and classes for kids and have welcomed hundreds of students to learn farming and food growing basics.
Some day soon, I hope to see a new generation of “Best In Home Economics” winners - or maybe “Best In Urban Agriculture,” or “Best In Consumer and Household Sciences.”
I’m willing to bet the last of my frozen summer berry stash that anyone who lives in a cold-climate state is seriously suffering from cabin fever by now, especially after this unusually harsh winter. While I’m starting to tire of wearing what feels like 20 pounds of clothing every time I step outside, the worst thing is that we’re reaching the end of our preserved summer food stash. We finished the last jar of my canned tomato sauce, and the berries that I stockpiled from farmers' markets over the summer and stored in the freezer are dwindling.
But there is a cure, as winter farmers' and growers' markets have been increasing in my area, thanks to advancements in hydroponics and indoor growing methods, as well as hoop houses and greenhouses. There are several winter markets in the Milwaukee area, with growers selling sprouts, winter spinach, mushrooms, pasture-raised meats, apples, winter squash, alliums, herbs, and root vegetables at these winter markets. As one could expect, the quantities and variety of produce are more limited, but the produce is of fine quality, local, and reasonably priced. The growers are often willing to share their techniques and offer ideas to increase indoor food production.
Also present are local bakeries, artisan cheese makers, and vendors selling small-batch salsas, jams, olive oils, and sauces. Some markets have booths with direct sales vendors peddling cosmetics or kitchen goods, but for the most part, these winter farmer markets are a foodie’s cure for the winter blahs, providing fresh and locally produced food.
Has anyone else noticed an increase of winter markets in your area? What produce or artisan food products are available?
As a child, I scarfed down bowlfuls of the commercial breakfast cereals endorsed by all of those lively animated monsters, ship captains and talking birds. I savored the sickeningly sweet, faux fruit flavors and the artificial crunch that only partially hydrogenated oil could produce. In the 1970s, education and awareness of what went into our food products was still a long way off.
As an adult, I leaned toward, well, adult cereals; the boring kinds that make kids groan, with flakes or wheat biscuits or O-shapes not coated with anything remotely sugary, promoted by just a picture of wheat stalks, and not some silly rabbit.
Time went by and I learned more about food ingredients and sources, as well as the agricultural methods used on commercial crops. Even a few of those supposedly healthy adult cereals were made from crops that had been sprayed with who-knows-what, or the corn or rice had been genetically modified.
So for years, I’ve made my own granola, which is a fine complement to the morning coffee and paper (or even if I still want to catch a Saturday morning cartoon). My sister, Nancy, provided me with an excellent base recipe that can be altered to produce a variety of flavors:
3 cups large flake oats
1 1/2 cups barley or rye flakes
3/4 cup oat bran
1 cup shredded or flake coconut
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup raw pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
1/2 cup flax seed
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup water
2/3 cup honey or maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups dried berries
Sugar or brown sugar to taste
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine all dried ingredients except berries. In a smaller bowl, whisk oil, water, honey, vanilla and cinnamon. Combine wet and dry ingredients. Spread mixture onto making sheets. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Can bake longer if more crunch is desired.
I’ve made a cherry-almond version using dried cherries for the berries, slivered almonds for the nuts, and almond extract instead of vanilla. I’ve also substituted wheat germ for the oat bran, sunflower seeds for the pumpkin seeds, and I’ve made a hearty fall variety with maple syrup, brown sugar, raisins and dried apple bits.
This recipe makes the equivalent of three 10-ounce boxes of granola cereal. I buy the oats, seeds and most berries in bulk from my local natural foods co-op. I’ve found that making my own granola is a very economical way to have good quality cereal.
But I do kind of miss the cartoon monsters.
Here in Wisconsin, we’re in the midst of yet another Arctic blast. Many schools and businesses are closed, energetic housebound kids are driving parents bonkers, games of fetch with our canines are played indoors (oops, there goes the lamp!), and it’s even too cold to partake in our fun winter activities like ice skating or sledding.
Yet being shut in for a couple of days gives me time to examine the seed catalogs that have arrived; a sign that warmer days are ahead. During my first read through the catalogs, I have my trustee Sharpie to mark everything of interest. I begin slowly, placing an “X” next to items I wish to order.
It wasn’t long before I had three varieties of bok choy, Calabrese and purple sprouting broccoli, and four types of carrots marked with a large X. Resembling a student attempting to finish a test before the bell rang, I hunched over the catalog, fingers firmly grasped around the Sharpie, as I rapidly marked more and more veggie varieties that looked good, or that I’ve seen in tasty recipes. I wanted to try anything and everything.
By the time I got to the Greens category – not even halfway through the alphabet – I was over $100 in, and I would need two more backyards. Yet I kept going: oasis chrysanthemum greens, salad rocket arugula, Endive di Rufec (don't know what that is, but it's sounds tasty and exotic), Italiko Rosso Chicory, Southern Giant Mustard Greens ...
As the wind howled outside and rattled the panes of glass in the windows of my 1925 home, I envisioned warm summer days surrounded by the greenery from my bountiful garden. Not price, nor lack of space, nor climate conditions could stop me and my Sharpie as I madly kept going: Genovese basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, cilantro, bouquet dill, lemongrass, sage, thyme, baby lettuce blend, organic lettuce blend, buttercrunch lettuce, romaine lettuce blend.
Peas! Peppers! I marked golden sweet peas, Oregon sugar pod II pea, Jupiter bell pepper, early jalapeno pepper ...
By the time I got through the Tomatoes section, every seed variety had a faded “X” next to it as my Sharpie ran dry. Had I ordered every X’ed item, the bill would have been a few hundred dollars and I would have needed a couple of greenhouses or hoop houses to get the seedlings started. Oh, and about three more acres of land.
Another blast of wind blew against my window and rattled the pane with all its might, shaking me from my Supergarden fantasy. I sadly realized that I would have to grab a new Sharpie and start Round Two; a reality round based on my budget, space, and the growing climate of the Midwest.
But that can wait until the next day I’m housebound.
While planning yummy eats for Christmas and New Year's get-togethers, I use a number of different cookbooks and online sources for researching new and unique recipes. However, one book that has been right under my nose, yet has eluded me, is my mother’s copy of The Settlement Cook Book, fifth printing, copyright 1965. She received the harvest gold, clothbound edition as a wedding shower gift in 1969.
Mom lent to me her worn, stained edition of the book with its cover held on by a vertical strip of clear carton tape. Little figures in long gowns and chef’s hats dance across the bottom of the cover. At the proclamation of “The way to a man’s heart” on the cover page, I braced myself for some antiquated recipes and instructions.
As I read the preface and researched the history of The Settlement Cook Book, I was pleased to learn it has progressive origins that began right in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A neighborhood house called The Settlement provided a resource center for European immigrants seeking assistance with learning English and citizenship, cooking, and sewing. A dedicated Settlement volunteer and social reformer, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Black Kander, ran the cooking classes and came up with the idea of printing the lessons and recipes, rather than having the students laboriously copy the recipes and instructions repeatedly. The book could also be sold to raise funds for continued Settlement operations.
The men of the Settlement board scoffed at the idea of spending money - $18 - on such a project, so Kander and her fellow volunteers began raising the money to print the book on their own. In April 1901, the first copies of The Way to a Man’s Heart...The Settlement Cook Book rolled off the presses.
OK, so that’s where the “way to a man’s heart” came from.
My mother’s 1965 edition contains diverse recipes from many cultures, as well as vegetarian (yes!) recipes and a section dedicated to serving persons with special dietary needs or restrictions.
The cake baskets sounded fun: make sponge or cupcakes in muffin tins and when cooled, cut off the tops, make a well inside each one, and fill with berries or ice cream.
Petits Fours ... hmm. I like to cook and bake, but I confess that I do not have the time or patience for those. Maybe in the future.
While I skipped the haggis, hominy grits, steamed raisin puff, and fig pudding, those dishes still intrigued me in the sense that they shed much light on our history of food and using what ingredients were available at the time and in the regions from where the recipes originated.
A pea and nut-based vegetarian loaf recipe caught my attention, and it made me reconsider paying several dollars for the tiny meatless holiday loaves I buy at my local health food co-op. Sections dedicated to low fat, low cholesterol, and “invalid cookery” for those on liquid or soft diets showed how, even in 1965, people were attempting to become more educated and inclusive in the diverse universe of food.
I spent nearly two hours going through the book cover to cover, as I found it a great resource to learn of past food traditions, and it was full of advice useful today, especially for those who want to avoid processed food. The cheddar cheese sticks, Russian tea, and sparkling wine punch I made with recipes from The Settlement Cook Book were hits this holiday season, and I’ll likely borrow the book from my mother more often.
Happy Holidays, and cheers to a healthy and bountiful 2014!
No, not those kind. I’m talking about your tasty - and legal, non-hallucinogenic - standard White Button mushroom variety that can be savored in soups, salads, pizzas, and casseroles. I can also say magical, because the growing process is quite engaging.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Rose, owner of River Valley Ranch & Kitchens, in Burlington, Wis. The farm specializes in mushrooms, not only White Button but also varieties such as Portabella, Crimini, Oyster, and Shiitake.
Until then, I was unsure of how mushrooms were grown. I was intrigued to see that they are grown year-round in cool, dim growing houses that are ventilated and temperature-controlled. As we walked in, Portabella and Crimini mushroom’s poked their domed tops out from a combination of 80-percent compost and a mixture of peat moss and limestone.
And the best part was when he told me that River Valley Ranch sells home growing kits. I could grow mushrooms right in my basement!
I picked up a White Button mushroom kit. There were two bags, one with compost and mycelium (a thread-like vegetative part of a fungus), and one with casing soil. I prepared the compost and soil per enclosed instructions. Everything was done right in the box; easy-peasy and very little mess.
After about five days, I noticed a threadlike growth of mycelium on the surface, just like the instructions said. Only slight watering was required; just enough to keep the compost moist.
White button mushrooms pop their dome heads from compost in my mushroom kit.
But the real rush happened several days later when pinhead-sized tops developed and rapidly puffed into the mushrooms that I later enjoyed in so many of my vegetarian dishes. Growth happened rapidly once the mushrooms surfaced (they seemed to grow by the minute), and the kit yielded plenty of those White Button beauties for a couple of months.
These harvested white button mushrooms will soon find their way into my homemade cream of mushroom soup.
Like most gardening and farming, seeing the many stages of food grown from soil to table really does feel like magic. I’ve found the mushroom kits a convenient and economical way to produce food indoors during a harsh winter climate like we have in Wisconsin. With all of the agricultural advancements in recent years to extend the growing season and sustainably grow food indoors, does anyone grow other produce indoors? What methods are used? Window greenhouses? Aquaponics?