I’m constantly challenged by the limited gardening area in my yard, so I’m always perusing magazines and talking to other growers to come up with creative ways to maximize space. Even raised beds would likely take up too much room.
So when my neighbors gave us some faux terra-cotta window boxes they weren’t using, I brainstormed more ways to garden up, better known as vertical gardening. I also want our lettuce and spinach up off the ground and away from the ravenous critters who snack on our greens.
The plastic window boxes clash with the slate blue-and-white color scheme of the house, so I didn’t want to actually use the window boxes by the windows. But the boxes did look nice against the six-foot-high wooden fence that surrounds the backyard. My mother (who lives downstairs in the lower flat of our duplex) and I put our heads together, and we came up with a way to mount the boxes decoratively onto the fence. We chose a fence panel that gets the most sunlight for the project.
We found a bracket in the basement, and my fiancé, Doug, purchased another bracket to match. After spray painting the brackets black to give them a decorative touch, we mounted one bracket inside each sturdy post at each end of the fence panel. A board in the garage was trimmed to fit the length of the fence panel. We rested the board in the brackets and secured it with screws.
With the board in place, we drilled mounting and drainage holes into the backs and bottoms of the window boxes. We lined up the mounting holes against the board and marked and drilled the holes for the screws. We then screwed the window boxes to the board. Again, it was the neighbors to the rescue, who provided large washers we didn’t have on hand. (Note to self: check supplies next time before starting another D.I.Y. project!) Once the lettuce flourishes into healthy green bunches, I will share it with the neighbors.
Then came the fun part – planting. To reduce weight in the window boxes and provide extra drainage, I scattered foam packing nuggets in a single layer on the bottom of the window boxes. I topped that with a few inches of organic soil, sphagnum peat moss and compost. I planted butter crunch and romaine lettuce varieties, and spinach.
We’ll likely mount more window boxes for planting other leafy veggies that tempt furry intruders. Now, to use that extra garden space....
Happy Earth Day!
Earth Day isn’t my absolute favorite holiday on the calendar, but I do get excited by its approach every April. My biggest hope is that, like Christmas, more and more people will keep the spirit of Earth Day by celebrating its principles all year long.
We all know how recycling water with rain barrels, reducing plastic use, taking reusable bags to the store, or planning driving routes to use less fuel are all great practices. In honor of Earth Day, I’m sharing some less common ways in which I try to be kind to both the planet and my wallet:
1. Most dentists say we should change our toothbrushes every three months. I’m not usually one who ignores the advice of my doctor or dentist, but I get away with stretching the life of my toothbrushes longer by alternating between two brushes, which extends the use of both. (And so far, my choppers are in good shape with no cavities in recent years!) When it comes time to switch, the old toothbrushes make great scrubbers for tile grout or for cleaning those tiny crevices in faucet fixtures. Preserve Products makes great toothbrushes, all from recycled #5 containers: https://www.preserveproducts.com.
2.Spring and fall brings lots of birthdays among my circle of family and friends. Instead of purchasing store-bought wrapping paper, I like to have fun with old maps, the Sunday funnies, scarves, and scrap fabric to wrap gifts. My local thrift shop usually has a good selection of used children’s books, and when I find one with colorful illustrations, I tear those pages out to wrap gifts for kids. I also collect spools and remnants of fabric craft ribbon to pretty up the packages, instead of using store-bought bows.
3. My house is occupied by coffee lovers. We often buy from a local roaster who works directly with growers’ co-ops, earning them a fair wage. But what about those darn filters? We’re aware of the bamboo and biodegradable filters available for most drip coffee makers, but we found a reusable mesh basket brew filter for just a few bucks. After brewing a pot of coffee, we empty the grounds and set them aside for the garden, rinse the filter, and that’s it. This jobbie has already lasted over a year and is still in great shape, even with all the coffee we brew. We also have a percolator with a permanent basket for small batches.
4. There are many well-known green cleaning methods. Is there anything the fun fizz of baking soda and vinegar can’t clean? But for extra scrubbing boost, I add a tablespoon or two of Borax to my vinegar and baking soda mix, along with essential oils or lemon juice. But those items have other great uses. A cut lemon or lime (after I squirted the juice to freshen my glass of water or to use in a recipe) can remove most odors and kill bacteria when rubbed on cutting boards and counters. Two to three tablespoons of baking soda added to a bowl of water makes a great fruit and veggie wash and removes dirt and residue. A half-cup of baking soda, when added to the usual cleaner in the washing machine, will add extra cleaning power.
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.