Sunday, January 29, 2012

Well, Keep Me in the Dark and Feed Me Lots of ...

For the longest time, I've been fascinated by mushrooms.  The sizes and shapes and colors I would find walking along the creek always gave me pause.

I had to stop, look, pick, dissect, and wonder just what kind this thing was.  I did research online to learn more.  Found out the mushroom was actually the bloom of a "plant" that was growing inside the tree or under the leaf litter level of the ground or in the manure deposited by the horses, that it would produce billions of spores that would be dispersed in the air all around, an invisible cloud, to fly on the wind or be carried off completely unawares by a little animal.  A precious, lucky few would take up residence somewhere similar to their "mother", grow unnoticed until conditions were right, then bloom and start the whole cycle all over again.

Fascinating.  All the time that I've loved them on the trees, I've loved them on the ground, and I've loved them on my plate (nomnomnom), I never knew they were truly all around us.

When the bug would hit, I'd read about how to grow them and dream dreams of becoming a mushroom farmer, spending my days tending my logs, inoculating new ones, and collecting my harvest.  Some mushrooms grow in manure, but others grow in wood, and still others grow in soil rich in organic matter.  So my dreams were populated by raised garden beds full of shit, bursting at the seams with 'shrooms, all lined up next to my veggies (that also produce mushrooms popping up in between the tomatoes).  And logs hanging from the trees above the creek, just waiting to be dunked down via their rope hangers to soak in the creek.  And, my favorite dream, an entire gazebo made of oak logs growing shiitakes.  I even thought of just inoculating everything in and around the creeks to let Ma Nature do the work for me (This dream almost became an obsession when I once found morels growing in a cedar break.  Yes.  Morels in Texas.  My Michigander brother in law confirmed it, but I still waited 'til he ate some and didn't die before I did.).
Portabellas up top, Oysters at bottom

But, like so many things, I never found the time.  So I put "Growing Mushrooms" on my "To Do Someday" list and went on with the "To Do Today" portion.  Every few years, the idea would pop back up and take over my imagination for a while.  I'd read some more online, thinking maybe I could do it now if I rearranged some things, or found an easier way.

About a year ago, the mushroom bug came back.  I reread what I'd read before, but this time happened upon a post on some mushroom growing forum or another about growing ones from the grocery store on coffee grounds in a jar.  I could do this!  I got my jar, I got my grounds, and I got my grocery store mushrooms.  I picked ones like the post said, ones whose butt end wasn't trimmed, ones that looked like there was still some compost and mycellium on there that wasn't all dried out.  I even paid for pieces of the stem that didn't have a cap on it.  I got them home, put them in my jar and waited.  Little white things started growing horizontally from them, about an inch below the surface of the grounds where I'd "planted" the pieces, out to the edges of the jar.  Then stopped.  I added more water.  Still nothing.  I aerated them by taking the lid off for a while.  Still nothing.  I got busy with other things in life, neglected them, and gave up.

A month or so ago, we got a mushroom growing kit in at work from a business who wanted us to buy them to sell.  It was a brick of coffee grounds wrapped in a plastic bag and inoculated with oyster mushroom mycellium (the growing body of the fungus).  It was white and orange and all manner of shades in between.

What's left of a Portabella butt a couple weeks later
Nancy at the info desk cut lines in the bag as was directed, soaked it in water (had to weight it down to keep it from floating), then put it on the info desk shelf in a bowl with some water in it and kept it misted with the little mister bottle that came with it.  In a few weeks it actually sprouted mushrooms!  Not a lot of them, but enough to make a lot of us talk about it.  And enough to pique my interest.

She gave it to Auscencia to take home, but before it went I broke off a little corner of it, took it home, put it in a new jar of coffee grounds and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Little white areas grew to the right and left of the piece I'd added, but then just stopped.  I did all the same things I'd done before, but still no 'shrooms.  I was nervous because this was a type of mushroom that I hadn't been able to find untrimmed at the grocery store, so knew it would be harder to get a culture of it again.  I didn't want to lose it and have to pay a hunk plus shipping for another start.  I'm frugal (what a fancy way of saying I'm cheap) and this was a free start, so I really didn't want to give up on this this time.

I got to thinking ~ the culture at work was growing on a brick laid kinda' horizontally, not a vertical mass in a jar.  Maybe that's the way they preferred to grow?  And maybe the verticalness of the mass of grounds in my jar was making the water I added drain down to the bottom, so the part above would be too dry and the part below would stay too moist.  I mean, the mycellium in the jar was growing to the right and left instead of up and down.  Even over a couple months, it didn't grow anywhere other than to the right and left.  Maybe down was too wet and up was too dry?  And the mycellium on the brick seemed to be closer to the surface than an inch.  Heck, it was on the surface, from what I could see, and a little bit underneath it.  Maybe I was "planting" them too deep from the beginning.

The Oysters, and maybe some green neighbors?
I thought, "I'm going to lose this culture anyway if I don't do something, so why not try it."  I got a clear plastic shoebox, washed it out well, dumped in the contents of my jar containing the mushroom culture on one side, saved coffee grounds from my own morning ritual as well as from work on the other, put the cover on the box and waited.

This time I didn't have to wait long.  Within a week, there was quite a noticeable difference in the culture.  There were white areas growing all over and in the grounds!  Not at the very bottom, but all over in the top inch or so.  Woohoo!!  I'm growing mushrooms!!

Buoyed by my success, I headed back to the grocery store for another round of Portabella butts.  I trimmed off the bottom inch of stem and set them up in another plastic shoebox with a couple inches of coffee grounds.  This time it took a bit longer to see a difference, but a couple weeks later and man, they're growing crazy!

I think I've finally figured this out.  I can't wait for them to fruit.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Seed Starting Illustrated

It's that time of year again, when seedlings are (usually) taking up space on the kitchen counter, tools spread all over, trays in the way, soil and watering making a big mess.  This year, I solved that problem by setting up my handy dandy new seed cabinet.  I am in LOVE with this thing!  No more are my seeds spread all over the house.  No more are my supplies tucked into all sorts of out-of-the-way places.  No more are my seed saving attempts thwarted by being knocked over while I'm trying to make dinner.  And no more are my seedlings neglected from being out-of-sight-out-of-mind.  This is heaven.

Peppers up top, tomatoes on bottom.
BUT: Every year I try to start seeds and every year I have a problem.  This year's problem was letting them dry out at the critical sprouting stage, caused from too much bottom heat and too little attention.  I bought one of those heat mats from work and set the tomatoes on it to get a jump on their sprouting, leaving the peppers to their own devices since they can go in a little later than tomatoes and still produce.  Turns out I should have done the reverse.  Well, really, I should have watched the soil in the tray on the mat closer ~ it dried out much faster than I thought it would, WAY faster than the peppers.  A week or so later and the peppers are almost all up, yet the tomatoes sprouts are still spotty, as you can see in the picture at right.  Lessons learned from this: watch your seedlings closer than you think you should, or don't get too fancy with your seed starting attempts.

Every day at work, I'm asked the question: "So how do you start seeds anyway?"  I LOVE explaining it!  And will do so in depth here, with gusto (and much loquaciousness, like that's new).  Getting someone hooked on seed starting is almost as rewarding for me as helping them get started growing veggies in the first place.

Let me start by saying no matter how long you've been doing this, you'll have failures (see above).  You're going to screw up.  But these screwups teach you the best way for you to start seeds.  There are almost as many ways as there are seeds.  Some people start them in peat pots, some in egg cartons, some in sifted compost, some in commercial seed starting medium.  You should try them all to find out what works for you.  Here's what works for me (usually... ).

First, gather your tools.  Must-haves are containers to start the seeds in, "soil", labels, marking pencil, misting bottle, watering can, and seeds.  Lights are nice, but you can certainly do this in a window IF you have a bright enough one (most aren't).  Bottom heat is nice, too, but not needed (I learned this year...).  And a cover for the tray to keep it moist is also kinda' handy, but not imperative if you just watch the soil closely to keep it from drying out (if you want to use a cover, plastic wrap works great and it's cheap).

What to start the seeds in: After trying butter tubs, tuna cans, egg cartons, newspaper pots and just about everything else out there, I've settled on one thing as The Best for me: fifty-cell seed starting trays and solid (hole-less) bottom watering ones in the picture at left.  We sell them at work and they're cheap (less than two bucks apiece) and last for years.  The cells in the fifty-cell trays are big enough for the seedlings to stay in until they're ready to plant out so I get to avoid transplanting/potting up (see? Told you I was lazy) and have a crimped edge that adds strength, so they whole thing doesn't collapse as easily as the other non-crimped style when you lift it in and out of the bottom watering tray (click on the picture and it'll open bigger so you can see what I'm talking about).  They hold enough soil that they don't dry out in minutes, and being plastic it helps the moisture stay in, too (newspaper pots dry out pretty darn quick, relatively speaking).  The solid tray is for putting the seed tray in to hold the mess so it doesn't get all over your counters and floors, and it's even better for bottom watering.  Buy one more solid tray than you have seed trays.  I'll tell you why in a minute.

What to fill the containers with: I love the seed starting mix we have at work.  It's called The Germinator (Try saying that with an Austrian accent. *snicker*).  It's finely sifted compost, coir fiber, worm castings and vermiculite.  It's soilless and very lightweight and fine, which is important: regular garden soil, most potting soils, and many other heavy mixes form crusts on top when they dry out, making it hard or impossible for tiny seedlings like lettuce to break through (one of the reasons why we start seeds indoors ~ garden soil spells death for many seedlings).  I also like that The Germinator has a little bit of nutrition from the compost and worm castings.  You don't want a lot of fertilizer in your seed starting mix as it encourages funguses and could harm your new babies.  Feeding them full-strength fertilizer would be like trying to feed a week-old human infant chili.  Not good.  But a little, weakish food like the 1-0-0 of the worm castings?  Good.

Labels are IMPORTANT.  Man, are they ever.  What's the definition of frustration?  Finally finding The Perfect Tomato after years of trying, one that produces extremely well, tastes great, and is resistant to disease, then looking at the label to find out what kind it is so you can Never Forget, and recommend it to all your friends ... only to find the label illegible, blank, or worse, no label at all.  (Cue Famous Actor on his knees, screaming, "Why, God, why?!")  Garden maps, though a really good idea, get lost, or are rendered useless when a plant dies and you replace it, but forget to update the map.  Lists in garden journals are great, but not when you're planting more than one type of red slicer.  And relying on your memory to know what was planted where?  Especially when you're of A Certain Age like me?  Well ... don't.  Just don't.

I like to make one label that will follow the seedlings from starting trays to the garden (more evidence of laziness...), so tough ones are needed.  I've tried just about every kind out there and the best I've found are old vinyl window blinds cut to six inches or so long written on with a wax pencil (aka grease pencil or China marker).  Our intense Texas sun fades out everything, even the supposedly permanent Sharpie marker (!).  Regular pencil writing lasts a little while, but even that fades or gets washed off eventually, usually before the season's over.  The wax pencil on the other hand holds up well, hence why they're used extensively in the nursery trade.  That aforementioned Texas sun also renders most regular labels so brittle that they break when you touch them after just a few months, but not the blinds ~ think about it: they were made for being in the sun for years.  Popsicle sticks rot REAL quick, sometimes before your seedlings are even transplantable size.  Also, they wick up water, soaking and blurring your writing.  So just go for the blinds and wax pencil from the get go and you'll be much happier.

Middle seed has been gently and barely pushed into
the soil with the pencil.
So, you have your tray filled with soil, seeds at the ready, labels standing by.  Now for the planting.  If you heed two pieces of advice, you'll do well: don't plant them too deep and don't let them dry out until the seedlings are an inch or so tall.  You can see why to not let them dry out from my experience this year.  Not only did many of the seeds not sprout, but some that did promptly died, poor little things.  So 'nuff said about that.  But how deep?  About twice as deep as the seed is big.

Tiny seeds contain tiny embryos, ones so small that they won't have the energy or ability to push up through an inch of soil.  Seeds contain plant embryos and enough food for them to reach the top of the soil where they can unfurl their leaves in the sun and start making more food.  If the food in the seed runs out before they reach the sun, they're done for.  Think about bean seeds.  Go get a pinto bean from your kitchen cabinet and break it open.  See that tiny little thing at the very end of one half?  The only "mark" on two otherwise quite smooth seed halves?  That's the plant embryo.  Now look at the two halves of the bean seed.  That's the food store for the seedling.  There's plenty there for it to use to push up through an inch of soil, even one topped with a fairly hard crust.  Now open up those tomato and pepper seed packages.  See the little seeds?  You can imagine how tiny the embryos are and how little food is there for them.  Lettuce seeds are even smaller.  And tomatillos seeds even more so.  So remember that when deciding how deep to plant.  

I plant more than one seed in each cell.  Not all seeds sprout, and not all that sprout are healthy.  Room under the lights is a precious commodity, so don't waste the space on empty cells.  Ensure you'll have a healthy seedling in each cell by planting more than one seed in each.  You can thin them later with a pair of scissors (it's better to cut off their little heads than to pull them out since you'll disturb the roots of the one you want to keep that way, and just might kill it, too).

The following is very important: label each type of seed immediately after planting.  Ask me how I know. *slaps forehead*  Go slow.  Take your time with this.  Plant one type of seed, write the label, stick it in the tray, then double check that the label matches the seed package you just planted from.  Ask me how I know that, too.  *sigh*

After the seeds are all sown, gently ease them into the soil with the butt of your pencil and cover them with soil (remember: only twice as deep as the seed is big).  Be sure to wipe off that pencil butt (heh, heh ... butt) in between types of seeds.  Sometimes seeds will stick to the bottom of the pencil, and when you go to the next cell, it'll plant it in that one.  And you know how Chance goes.  That seed will be a Roma you have six cells of, transplanted into the single cell of of your favorite Black Giant slicer, and that transplanted seed will sprout into a healthy little seedling that will be the only one left standing after you thin.  But you won't know any of this until it's too late, and you see cute little plum-shaped bright red tomatoes hanging off your supposed-to-be-fat-round-purple "Black Giant" plant.  (Cue Famous Actor again.)

Now time for watering them in.  Bottom watering is good.  I fill one of those solid trays a little over halfway with water, gently set the seed tray full of soil and seeds down into the water, and let it sit overnight 'til the water's wicked all the way up to the top.  If it's not wet all the way to the top, I mist it 'til it is or gently water with my watering can.  And here's why I told you to get an extra solid tray: I lift the wet seed tray out and put it directly into an empty solid tray to contain mess and drips.  Handy!

Whatever you do, DON'T use a big watering can.  Buy yourself a cute little one like the yellow one in the picture above.  If your local garden center doesn't have one in the kids' section, I'll bet you could find them in ToysRUs.  Big cans are unwieldy, and you WILL accidentally pour out too much water at one time or another, deluging your seeds with a tsunami that will sploosh your anchos over into the jalapenos.  There goes all the careful effort of labeling.  And if the tsunami doesn't come until the seedlings are already sprouted, it'll still do damage, plastering them down to the soil and causing injury and fungus.  Using a pitcher or glass measuring cup will do much the same.  So just get a little can so you can put small amounts of water exactly where you want them ~ on the soil around the seedling, not on the seedling itself.  And make sure it has a long spout so you can get in between those labels easily.

About lights:  you can certainly try this in an east or south facing window IF it's bright enough.  You need quite a few hours of completely unobstructed sunlight.  Most of us don't have a window like that, so our seedlings will get leggy (really tall with long stems in between sets of leaves).  You can move them outside early on if this happens, putting them in a spot that gets morning sun and evening shade, but unless you have a cold frame to put them in, you'd better watch them close ~ they can dry out fast, get too much sun, not get enough, or be upended by a curious squirrel or pain in the ass dog.  And then there are those days that are just too cold for them to be outside, and the cold nights that will zap them if you forget to move them back in.  Plain old florescent shop lights work just fine so do yourself a favor and get some.  For a more in depth explanation of what kind to get and why, see the last half of my seed cabinet post ~ basically, any cool white fluorescent with as many lumens as is available at the home improvement store.  Cool white bulbs give light in the blue spectrum and that's what's needed for vegetative (green) growth.

Put them up close to the lights.  An inch above the soil isn't too close.  You want to keep them about that close as the seedlings grow or they'll get leggy.  Mine are already doing that a bit, getting tall and skinny from reaching so hard for the light.  Sadly, they'll just have to deal since I can't get the lights any closer due to the labels.  They'll get tall enough soon enough and grow out of that legginess.

When the seedlings get their first set of true leaves, it's time to feed them.  Use whatever liquid fertilizer you have, but only half strength.  I highly recommend an organic one, such as fish emulsion, seaweed, or John's Recipe (has both in it).  The nutrients in the blue stuff are immediately available to the plant, so it's easy to burn them if your math is off when you use that.  Organic fertilizers aren't like that, so it's much harder to overdose them (a nice failsafe for us who are math challenged).  Plus they usually have many more nutrients than just the Big Three (N-P-K), so it's like giving your seedlings a Flintstones vitamin along with their dinner.

When to plant outside:  Most advice says to plant them out once all danger of frost is passed, but if we do that here in Texas, it'll be too hot for them to produce once they're mature enough to.  So I like to get my tomatoes in super early.  Last year, I started planting March 2nd, and this year I'm hoping the seedlings are big enough by the end of February.  Of course it's still cold then and freezes are extremely likely, so I cover them with tomato cages, hang incandescent Christmas lights on the cages, and cover the whole shebang with floating row cover, leaving it on unless temps are above fifty at night and sixty during the day.

Even though temps in the forties won't kill your tomato babies, they won't like it.  It'll stress them out and they won't grow during this time.  If you cover them like I do, you'll get temps much warmer than the outside temps (row cover gives you eight to ten degrees more and the lights add at least another five or ten, if not more than that), warm enough for the plants to actively grow.  Last year, I had almost thirty tomatoes on two Red Brandywine tomato plants by the first week of May.

And that's all you need to know to get started and even have some success.  Seed starting is a bit involved, but for those of us adventurous sort who really love trying not-so-easy-to-find varieties, it opens up a whole new world.  And if you want to save your own seeds, it's a skill that's a must to have.  Remember: you'll likely fail a time or two before you get the hang of this.  That's normal.  Everyone does it.  Even me, years after I started.  Just don't give up and you'll be fine.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My New Pretty

I've always wanted a pretty row counter.

I knit for the relaxation and indulgence of it.  It's my happy place.  I have a Pavlovian response to it: all I have to do is pick up my project and I calm down.  But when I'd see a cheap piece of crayon-colored plastic hanging off it, it kind of ruined it for me.  Nothing against crayon colors.  I'm just more of a jewel-tone girl.  And am definitely anti-plastic.

I've decided to splurge on some knitting stuff.  I'm normally loathe to spend much on anything non-essential, but I thought I'd treat myself.  It's a mental-health expense.  (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)  And I'm worth it (*she says as she throws her hair around like the commercial lady in the '70s*).

So I got on Etsy in search of the Perfect Pretty Row Counter to go with my soon-to-be-here rainbow-colored double pointed sock needle set and all the squooshy yarn I'm getting (yeah, I'm getting used to this spending thing).  I did a search and found all sorts: abacus bracelets and beaded chains and numbered circles and things I couldn't figure out how to use.   But none of them seemed quite right.  The bracelets were beautiful, but I know me: if it wasn't right in the way of my knitting as I passed the end of the row, I would forget to add one.  The beaded chains were equally as beautiful, but loooooooong: too big for sock knitting and probably likely to get caught in lace.  The numbered circles were adorable, but the black numbers on white backgrounds reminded me of the cheap plastic things I was trying to get away from: far, far away.

Then I found this.  A tiny little, rainbow colored row counter.  No numbers, no plastic, no crayons, and PRETTY!  I got all excited, thinking of how good it would look hanging from my sock-in-progress, all colorful and functional and tiny and PRETTY!

Then I noticed ... it only counts to ten.  Bummer.

But I didn't want to give up on my Almost Perfect Pretty Row Counter.  I got to thinking ... if there were only something to clip between the units rings to denote tens.  Oooooh, they have other pretty beads they use in other pretty things.  And there are those clippy-jobbies I would learn later are alligator clips.  That would do it!

I messaged Susan and Todd, who I didn't know were Todd and Susan yet, and commenced the explanation of what I had in mind.  They knew what I wanted even though I didn't know all the right terms for it (clippy-jobbie equals alligator clip), made suggestions to make it better (like substituting this counter since it was smaller and smaller was what I was going for), and due to differences in computer monitors and the like, I had to trust their judgement on color matching/coordination (not hard to do, judging from their other items).  Aaaaaand they nailed it ~ it's tiny, it's functional, and it's pretty.  SO pretty.  I love the purple wire better than I would have loved the silver, and even though the bead they suggested looks almost black in my pictures here, it's actually a beautiful deep purple that goes oh-so-well with the purples in the counter.  Just look how well it goes with the sock I'm working on now.  Serendipity, how I love you.

The whole thing, from my first message to them to having it in my hands, took only two weeks, and one week of that was because I couldn't find the message notification thing on Etsy to know they had answered my original note in less than 24 hours.  Derp.  It was only five days from finalizing what I wanted to having it in my hands, packaged wonderfully in a little metal tin, complete with candy!  Yes, they sent me candy.

Unfortunately, since this was a custom order I couldn't leave a glowing review on Etsy, so I've done it here.  Thank you Susan and thank you Todd for giving me more than my money's worth.  And the candy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What a Difference a Day (or Two Weeks) Makes

Once cauliflower gets growing, you'd better stand back!

January 8th:

January 22nd:

It's now sitting in my fridge, awaiting it's creamy fate: boiled to within an inch of it's life, beaten to a smooth white pulp, and mixed with heavy whipping cream and chopped walnuts.  Nomnomnomnomnom.  Snow Ball is the variety.  It's a good one, too, one I'll most definitely be growing again.  All the others are barely budding.

Some months ago I found a wild beehive in a hollow tree down by the creek.  They were a welcome sight considering the state of bees lately, what with colony collapse disorder, varroa mites, the drought, and all the crap we've been spraying in the environment that they have to deal with.  While out taking the cauliflower pictures today, I noticed some of the Asian greens were blooming.  I looked closer and saw ...

...the new neighbors!  Can you see all five?  At first I thought there were only three, but when I enlarged the picture I saw another one flying by between a couple blooms.  

And I then looked even closer and saw a little bee ass sticking out of a bright yellow bloom.  Man, he was digging to China, all upside down and shit.

Can you see him?  He's hiding really good.

Little cutie pie.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Nine Hundred Onions

Sounds like a bluegrass song title.

L-R: 1015Y, White Bermuda, Southern Belle Red,
Yellow Granex, & Texas Early White
It's onion planting time!  We got the sets in at work from Dixondale farms the other day, and I've been chomping at the bit to get some planted.  I've had two of the three rows ready and waiting for a couple weeks now, all nice and turned and amended with Minerals Plus, humate, 8-2-4, Flower Power, and oodles of compost.

Nitrogen is a good thing for onions.  The bulb isn't a root structure, but an enlarged part of the leaf, and since each leaf corresponds to a ring of the onion, you want leaves.  LOTS of leaves.  Which means nitrogen and planting early so they have time to make as many leaves as possible before the daylength triggers bulb production.  The other macronutrients are important, too, but nitrogen is key.  And planting early.

We didn't get Contessa this year.  Instead, we got Texas Early White, an open-pollinated variety new to the market this year that's supposed to be disease and bolt resistant and a really good keeper.  The sets looked nice and small and the open pollinated part turned me on, so we planted quite a few of those.  I'm looking forward to seeing how they do.

The other types were 1015Y, Yellow Granex, White Bermuda and Southern Belle Red.  The Yellow Granex outdid the 1015s last year, but the 1015 sets were big and they bloomed a lot.  This year the reverse is true, so I'm betting the 1015s will do better.  Last year, Contessa did a bit better than the White Bermuda, but I think those sets were also large.  This year, all the sets but the Yellow Granex looked really good, all nice and thin.

In case you were wondering why I'm seeming to say that big sets are bad, here's the scoop.  Bulbing onions are biennials, which means they'll bloom in their second year.  Unless you want to save seeds, blooming in bulbing onions is bad.  It takes energy away from bulb production, forms a tough flower stalk that is a pain in the ass to cut out of the middle (and a pain in the ass to pick out of your teeth if you don't), and bloomed onions don't keep as well ~ they tend to rot from the middle out.  So you don't want blooms.

After you plant the sets out they'll be exposed to cold over the next couple months, and when temps warm up, the large ones will think they're two years old and will be more apt to bloom.  Small ones, smaller than a pencil diameter, will be a lot less apt to do that.  It's counter-intuitive to do this, pick the small ones.  One would think that you'd want big ones to get a jump on the growing.  Nope.  Little ones.  Size does matter here.

UPDATE 1-22: The day after I planted them, it rained.  I hurried out after work to look at them and they were all standing straight up in little lines like little soldiers.  Too cute!  And here they are two weeks later.

Those are the Southern Belle Reds in the bed in the front.  You can see that they've already started elongating present leaves and putting out new ones.  Exciting!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Learn to Knit

I've been absorbed in my knitting lately, so I've been doing a lot of it at work and people have noticed.  Quite a few said they wanted to learn, and I'd love to help them.  Hence this post.

It's hard to know where to start.  There are so many choices, so many methods, so many yarns, so many needles, and so many people who say their way is The Only Way.  It's all so overwhelming.  I hope what I write here will help guide you through the maze of choices and information to a place where you can be happy learning.  It's certainly not meant to be The Only Way.  It's definitely not going to be The Best for everybody.  But if you've never tried knitting, then you have no idea what's the best way for you.  Therefore, this will be a great jumping-off point for most people, and good enough for everyone.  After you get some experience, try different things.  Eventually you'll find out which is the best way for you.

First of all, you need yarn.  One skein will do for now. In a nutshell, pay the few extra bucks for a good quality, plain old, pure wool yarn; a plain, three or four plied, light-colored DK or worsted weight.  Things to avoid: eyelash "fun fur", lumpy homespun bits, itchy acrylic, hard cotton, single ply, five plies or anything other than 3 or 4 ply pure wool that feels soft and not a bit itchy.

Second of all, you need needles.  As for needles, get size US 6, 7 or 8 24" circulars.  Wooden ones or bamboo are good because they're grippy and don't let your stitches slip off, metal are good because they're slick and let your stitches slip off, and plastic are okay because they're a happy medium.  Get whichever ones you like.

Third of all, you need demonstrations:'s Tutorials

Fourth of all, you need a project and pattern for it:
A Simple Scarf
CO 30
Rows One through Twenty: Knit.
Row Twenty-One through Forty: Purl.
Keep alternating these blocks of rows until you think you have the hang of knitting, until the scarf is long enough, or until you almost run out of yarn.  Bind off and weave in ends.

And eventually patterns and camaraderie with and advice from other knitters: = Knitting Heaven.

And that's all you need to know.  Oh.  And booze is good.  Booze is very good.

If you want to know more, here's more (a lot more) on each subject:

More about yarn:
Fiber content (what it's made of): I would advise you to not get the cheapest you can find.  Most cheap yarn is acrylic, but you may find cotton or a scratchy wool blend.  Don't fall for it.  For just a couple bucks more you can get lovely, soft, squooshy, dreamy wool that has an inherent inner warmth and is a joy to play with.  A yarn so soft that you just want to rip your clothes off and roll in it.  DO EET!  (I mean buy it, not the getting naked part.  At least not yet.)  That extra two, three or even five bucks will be money SO well spent.  Think about it ~ when you're learning, you're already having to put up with your fingers doing all sorts of weird motions to make the needles go where you want them to go and the yarn to do what you want it to do.  At times it can seem a bit of a trial.  Why add to that discomfort with scratchy yarn that rubs your fingers raw?  You want something so lovely that you just can't wait to pick it up and get all wrapped up in it.  Just like a favorite blanket ~ soft, inviting, and squooshy.  I just love that word: squooshy.  I want to say it again and again and again: squooshy, squooshy, squooshy, squooshy, squooshy.

Some acrylic yarns are soft.  Some acrylic yarns are inviting.  But I have yet to meet an acrylic yarn that is squooshy.  Yes, acrylic yarn has come a loooong way since the seventies when your grandma would make those harvest gold and avacado green zig-zag afghans with it.  You know the ones: the ones that stayed firmly on the back of the couch because they were so itchy and cold you'd never actually want to cover yourself with it.  Nowadays, it's not always that bad.  Some modern acrylic yarns are actually soft, at least at first touch.  But no matter what they've done with it, it isn't as nice as a good quality pure wool yarn.  Go ahead, treat yourself.  You'll be glad you did.

A note about wool allergies: most people are actually allergic to the chemicals used in processing the wool, not the wool itself. And still others are actually sensitive to cheap wool, wool that hasn't been processed in such a way that it avoids sticky cut ends or stiff guard hairs.  Nowadays people are truly allergic to all sorts of unusual things, so it's not hard to believe that there are people out there who really and truly are allergic to wool.  But I'd bet that most of those who think they are really aren't, and it would be SO incredibly sad if you were one of those who avoided all animal fibers for years; then, one day, near the end of your life, you found out you really weren't allergic in the first place.  You'd have missed out on so many glorious years of knitting with wool, llama, cashmere, alpaca, and ... gasp ... qiviut.  Makes me want to cry.  And you don't want to make me cry, right?  SO, just humor me ~ if you've always thought you were allergic, try going to a specialty knitting shop instead of Michael's or Hobby Lobby and have them help you find a naturally processed wool yarn of good quality.  If that doesn't work, try alpaca or some other animal fiber.  If it still doesn't work, then you are one of those really and truly allergic people.  Get the softest acrylic you can find.  And know you have my deepest sympathies.

Type: Get a nice plain yarn, one without fancy bits, hairy "eyelashes", extra fur or knobby lumps.  You want a nice, plain yarn so you can see exactly what you're doing.  If you get a novelty yarn, those extra fun bits will obscure the stitches and you won't be able to see clearly what you're doing.  And you need to see clearly what you're doing.

Plies: Plies are the number of single strings twisted/spun together to make the individual yarn.  Generally speaking, the more the plies the stronger the yarn, and the fewer the plies the softer the yarn.  A single-ply yarn may be quite soft, but it pulls apart easier than a plied one, so avoid those.  A two ply would be okay, but some kinds of those make for an unevenly-sided yarn so make it harder to see your stitches.  A three or four ply yarn has nice, smooth "sides" to it, so make it much easier to see your stitches while still being quite soft.  Any more plies than that and it can be rather hard and definitely not squooshy.  Remember, squooshy is important.  You want squooshy.

Size: I'd get a DK or worsted weight one, though you may prefer a bulky.  This refers to the size of the yarn, how big around it is.  This is also so you can see what you're doing and actually be able to work with it.  Sport weight or fingering weight (those "baby" yarns) are many times too small and fiddly.  Even though they are my favorite to knit with, when I'm learning something new I prefer at least a DK size so I can see easily what I'm doing and so the stitches and associated "holes" where you put your needle are bigger.  Believe me, it's quite the pain in the ass to try to knit a tiny little stitch when using lace weight yarn.  That's just a step up from sewing thread.  You can hardly even see where to stick your needle.  Conversely, bulky yarns are just so big that it makes me feel like I'm holding one of those giant pencils we used to use in kindergarten.  It's so big that sometimes the yarn actually gets in the way of what I'm trying to do, and it tires my hands out holding all that weight.  But you may think differently, so if bulky works for you, go for it!

Color: get a light one.  Trying to see what you're doing when knitting with black is a nightmare.  You need to see those subtle shadows around the stitches since those are the holes and where you put your yarn.  When knitting with black yarn, everything is a shadow.  You can't tell a hole from the yarn itself and will end up trying to stick your needle through the yarn.

More about needles: 
Type: get circulars.  Most straight needles are a pain in the ass to knit with since they're so long.  For learning to knit, you'll only be using the first six or eight inches of the needles.  Most straights are much longer than that, so that leaves the ends out there flopping around. getting caught on things, and propping themselves on places like chair arms making the points of your needles where you're working have to sit at a weird angle forcing you to shift yourself into a weird position.  Not good.  Circulars are the first five or so inches of the pointy end of a knitting needle mounted on a "string" or cable, making them all bendy and stuff.  That's a good thing.

Length: The length of the cable isn't really important right now, but can be later, so get a 24" long one.  Those are easily used for a multitude of projects: flat knitting of most any size except a full-blown blanket, socks using the Magic Loop technique, or even a sweater knit in the round (yes, one day you WILL be able to knit a sweater! Trust me).  Shorter than that and it cuts out much flat knitting (pieces wider than a few inches, like a cardigan or sweater front) and circular knitting (like that aforementioned sweater body).  Longer than that and they can get tangled a lot, and that's a pita.

Material: I like metal because they're slick.  Most new knitters tend to knit tightly, so metal ones will be easier to force into those aforementioned holes.  But they're easier to drop stitches with (let them slide off the points of their needles accidentally).  New knitters tend to do this a lot and it always ends in tears, and not a little frustration.  Picking up those dropped stitches is a skill better learned later, after you've got the basics down pat, so it's really important to avoid dropping any now if you can.  Wooden or bamboo needles are grippy and help avoid that, but that grippiness works against you when you knit tightly ~ it's harder to slide the needle through a tight stitch.  Plastic can be a happy medium from what I've read.  I hate plastic in all it's shapes and forms since it just feels fake and dead to me, so I avoid it whenever I can (I'm funny that way).  Sometimes those cool looking, see-through, purple ones call to me, but I haven't fallen yet.  So I don't know much about plastic needles and can't tell you whether they're really good or bad except, like I said above, I've heard they are that "just right, in the middle" kind of grippyslick.

IMHO, wooden or bamboo is the best to learn with because you avoid those dropped stitches AND it forces you to learn to knit loosely.  So I'd say get those.  And a bottle of wine.  When you find yourself all a fluster because you're knitting so tightly that you can't get the needle through, put the knitting down and go drink a glass of wine.  Once you come back to the knitting and you'll miraculously find yourself relaxing enough to start knitting loosely again.  Trufax.

Size: Sometimes the needle size is crucial, but for learning it's not.  Whatever feels right to you when you're knitting is the right one, so if the needles you bought don't feel "right", go back and buy another size.  Once you start knitting in earnest, you'll use different sizes for different projects, so having many sizes is a good thing.  Plus, you'll likely have more than one project going, so having many sets of needles is a good thing that way, too.  I like a US 6 or 7 for DK yarn and a US 7 or 8 for worsted.  Look on the label of your yarn (the "ball band").  It should say the recommended needle size on there.  It's usually two numbers: one US and one metric ~ needles will also have both of those numbers listed, or usually do.  If they don't, you're up shit creek.

Nah, I'm kidding.  If you can't tell from the labels, for instance if the yarn only lists one kind of size and the needles only list the other (a rare occurrence), look for a something called a "needle sizer" in the knitting notions and tools section.  It's a little piece of plastic that looks like a fat ruler with holes in it.  Those will list both numbers of needle sizes and you'll be able to translate whatever your yarn and/or needle package says.

So, you've got your tools and you're raring to go.  Now for the good stuff: ~ knitting videos!!!11!!elebenty!  The most wonderful thing to ever happen to a beginning knitter.  These are so great because you don't have to feel like you're imposing for asking the teacher to repeat what they just did for the seventh time.  And you will have to ask.  For the seventh time, and the twelfth time, and the forty second time.  The video doesn't care.  You can also pause it right in the middle.  No feeling bad because you're asking the teacher and the entire class to wait on you while you catch up.  Again, the video doesn't care.

Which ones to watch: all of them.  Eventually.  For now, start with the casting-on videos.  Casting-on is simply getting started, making those first loops on the needles, the ones you'll eventually knit into.  Watch all the videos and pick which one looks easiest to you.  KnittingHelp recommends the Long Tail Cast-On for beginners.  I don't know if I agree.  It takes a while to learn that one, and you want to get knitting right away, right?  It's kind of like those old Cat's-in-the-Cradle string games we played as a kid, the ones where you take a piece of string knotted into a circle, wrap it around your fingers just so, get a friend to stick their finger in the middle, then let it loose and have it either trap or not the finger.  Took a while to learn that, didn't it?  If you were good at that, then try the Long Tail Cast-On.  If you weren't, try it anyway, but if that's taking too long, then try the Single Cast-On.  Like the website says, it's easier to do but trickier to knit from (to knit your first row after doing that).  If you just be absolutely sure to do the cast on loosely and then knit it loosely, it won't be as hard since you'll have more yarn there to move around.  But if you try that one and knitting that first round just frustrates the hell out of you, then try one of the Cable Cast-Ons.  I like those a lot.  But, there are two versions: English and Continental and you'll have to pick one.  Let's stop right here and discuss what those are.

There are many ways/methods to knit, but three are the most prevalent nowadays: English, Continental and Combined.  In all styles you hold one needle in each hand, but in each of the methods you hold the working yarn (the yarn feeding into your project) differently.

English is where you hold the working yarn in your right hand.  English is seemingly the most popular, but not necessarily the fastest or best.  It's the way I knit since it was the most prevalent 25 years ago when I was learning.  Those "I Taught Myself to Knit" books taught you English style.  That's probably why it's the most popular nowadays ~ most knitters who've been doing it for years didn't have the benefit of being taught by a grandma from the Old Country who knitted Continental, so learned the only way available at the time.

Continental is where you hold the working yarn in your left hand.  I wish Continental was more prevalent back when I was learning as I think I would like it better.  From everything I've seen and read about it, it seems easier and faster (so better for a beginner it seems).  But after so many years knitting English I'm having a hard time learning it. *sigh*

Then there's Combined, which is just what it says: a method that combines English and Continental.  I'm thinking I'll try to learn that one one day.  Might make the transition to Continental easier.

It would be good to learn or at least be familiar with all of them, but for now pick the one you're most comfortable with.  To do that, watch both English and Continental Knit Stitch and Purl Stitch videos, just watch not do, and see which one looks the best to you.  Later, if you find it's just not working, try the other.  But don't give up on your first pick too soon ~ it might not be working not because of the method but just because it's knitting, and knitting is just new to you.  So stick with it for a while at least.  Then try the other.  

If, after all this, you're still stuck, or if you just want more information, here is another place you can read up on knitting, see still pictures of each step, and watch more videos:'s Tutorials.  Those are really cool because they combine a text description and photos of each step with videos.

Now go forth and knit.  Start with that simple pattern above, more fully explained below.  ProTip: Never underestimate the power of booze for getting past a frustrating spot.  Seriously.  You wanted to take up knitting to help you relax?  Well, there's one way it'll do it.  It also not only loosens you up, but the knitting.  Most knitters knit quite tightly.  It's hard to not do that when you're grasping those needles and that yarn to keep it all from falling into your lap.  It takes a while to get the hang of doing that without hanging on to them for dear life.  Try to relax.  Really try.  If you just can't ... booze.

And don't give up.  Taking a break is different than giving up.  You may find that to preserve your sanity you must put the knitting down for a while.  Do it, go outside for a long walk, watch tv, go to work ~ then pick it up again tomorrow.  Just don't put it down only to never pick it up again.  Finding a friend who wants to learn and doing it together might help avoid that.  They can give you those constant reminders to pick it back up and keep going.  If you do this, try not to be upset if they seem to catch on quickly and zoom right on by while you sit in the slow lane and struggle.  People learn differently, and at different speeds.  Just imagine wrapping your yarn around their neck and pulling tightly, then go back to your own knitting (booze helps here, too).  So long as you don't give up, you'll get it eventually.  I promise.

 A Simple Scarf
Cast on 30 stitches, all onto one needle.  Watch the cast on video you picked as you do this.  Once you have the stitches cast on, hold that needle in your left hand with the point pointing to the right.  Grab the other needle in your right hand, with the point pointing to the left.

Row One: Knit.  You may also see this as "Knit across" or "Knit even" in some patterns.  This means knit every stitch, all the way across.  Watch the video as you do it.

When you finish this row, all the stitches will now be on your right needle.  At the end of the row, you'll turn your work (most patterns don't say this, but it's what you'll do at the end of every flat knitting row) ~ this means transfer the needle with all the stitches from your right hand to your left, with the point pointing to the right.  Put the empty needle in your right hand, point pointing to the left.  You're right back where you were when you started.

Row Two through Twenty: Same as Row One. Knit every stitch, all the way across.  Turn your work.

Row Twenty-One: Purl.  Just like that first Knit row, this means to Purl every stitch, all the way across.  Watch the video as you work.  Turn your work.

Row Twenty-Two through Forty: Same as Row Twenty-One.  Purl across.

Keep alternating these blocks of rows until you think you have the hang of knitting, until the scarf is long enough, or until you almost run out of yarn.  Then, Bind Off, aka Cast-Off ~ that's finishing off those stitches so that you can remove your needles and they don't unravel.   Just like with Casting-On, you'll need to look through all the Cast-Off videos and find one you like.

You're done!  And you have a scarf!  You are ah-MAY-zing!!!

One last note: try not to let what others say sway you.  If you knit in public, there will be people who will comment.  Period.  They can be lumped into three main groups: The Whiners, The Teachers and The Entitled Snots.  The Whiners are the ones who say, "Oh, that's sooo haaaaaaard/takes so much time! I could never find the time/learn that!"  Well, with that attitude, of course they can't.  And won't.  Don't let their attitude make you feel like it's not worth your time, or it's too hard.  If you want to do it, it IS worth your time.  And it's not that hard ~ they're just that dense.  Some of them may point out that you can buy socks at the store.  Just smile and nod, knowing that no, you can't buy These Socks at the store, socks you spent many a blissful hour knitting.  All the money in the world can't buy These Socks.

Some people you at first may think are Whiners are really just Commenters, people who just want to make conversation and use the unusual thing you're doing as the ice breaker.  You can tell the difference in the two by the presence or absence of That Annoying Tone.  In the absence of That Annoying Tone, you might want to ask them when it was that they tried, or mention something you tried and just couldn't get in to: you know, make conversation.  These people can sometimes be nice.

The Teachers are those sometimes kind souls (sometimes not) who only know of one way to knit and think that if you don't do it that way, you're doing it wrong.  They'll snatch your project out of your hands and cluck about how you're supposed to do it this way because this way is The Only Right Way.  What the hell ~ do they think that if you don't do it The One Right Way the freaking scarf you've already knit a beautiful foot of won't keep your warm?!  Just smile and nod, maybe thank them because most of them really are just trying to help (though those will usually ask for your knitting instead of snatching), and go back to knitting the way you were once they're gone.

Then there are The Entitled Snots.  Oh, sigh.  These are the ones who see you knitting and immediately put in orders: "Hey! You can knit me/my kid/my girlfriend a scarf/hat/socks/sweater. You'll do it for twenty bucks of course since you love doing it, and besides handmade is always so much cheaper.  And I'll expect it in a couple days, since knitting doesn't take any time at all!"  Sigh.  Just sigh.  These people would be entitled twats no matter what, but they seem to ramp it up when near handiwork of any kind.  I have a theory about that.  I call it The Grandma Principle: because their grandma loved knitting, did it all the time, had gobs of yarn everywhere, seemed to finish things really fast, and lovedlovedloved to give those things to them, they think that's The Reality of Knitting.  It's not.  The reality is that yes she loved knitting, and she also loved them (despite their twatty twuntiness), so was happy to give them things she spent untold hours making.  And they were kids, and kids don't pay that much attention to things that don't interest them, so what did they know about what yarn costs and how long it really took grandma to knit that blanket?  Sorry, asshole, but I don't love you that much.  What to do about them: nothing.  Really.  There's nothing that can be done.

Don't confuse Entitled Snots with Well-Meaning Sweethearts.  Well-Meaning Sweethearts are the non-knitters who mean well and love what you make, but just really don't have any idea of the time, effort and expense invested in even small knitted things (The Grandma Principle might apply to them, too, but the entitlement part is replaced by a heap of kindness and sincerity).  Even after you tell them the yarn for the scarf you're knitting that they want a copy of costs $32, they may offer to pay for that and your time because they admire your work so much and really think it'd be worth it.  Then they find out it took you eighteen hours to knit that scarf, so even at minimum wage that would set them back a really pretty penny.  They're probably shocked and might try to cover it by agreeing to pay whatever you say since they went on and on about how gorgeous your work was and how it's really worth a lot, so how can they NOT offer to pay what it's worth since they just kind of said they would?  Don't do it.  They really had no idea, and if you did agree to do it, thinking you'd make some extra cash doing something you love, it would be taking advantage of someone nice.  Or maybe you'd rather spend that eighteen hours knitting that hat and those fingerless mitts you've had your eye on.  If Well-Meaning Sweethearts knew this, along with how long it'd take, they'd have simply Ooooohed and Aaaaahed and that would be that.  This is what makes it so hard to turn them down ~ they really are well-meaning, and it is nice to hear that they think your project is so gorgeous they want one, even if it would be expensive.  Who doesn't like hearing something like that?  But, unless you really don't mind putting off other projects you want to make so you can knit for other people, you'll have to say no, maybe easing the blow by thanking them for the compliment and offering to help them learn.  Start practicing crafting that kind and friendly refusal now so when the time comes you can do it without inadvertently hurting their feelings.  They really don't deserve that.  Entitled Snots do, but certainly not Well-Meaning Sweethearts.

Now that I think about it, there is a fourth kind of Commenter who you should let sway you: the Warm and Fuzzy Reminiscer.  The these are the sweet old lady or kindly old man who, when you catch them longingly staring at your knitting, they tell you they used to sit at their grandma's feet when they were a kid and watch her knit, that they sure miss her, and they're sorry for staring but they just got lost in the memory for a bit. *sniff*  These people make me want to hug them.  What to do about them is obvious: ask them about their grandma.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!


Greens and Hamhocks

A mess of collards and kale
Hamhock pieces to taste

Thoroughly wash greens, remove ribs and chop into large pieces.  Put into a large stock pot, add hamhocks, and enough water to set to boiling.  Boil for three hours and see if they're done.  If not, keep boiling.  

Salt to taste and NOM.  Don't forget the pot liquor.  It's the best part!

Hoppin' John and White Cornbread
Black eyed peas
Brown Rice
Mix all the above and eat with ...

Make the above recipe (with sugar for people with sweet-tooths ... uh ... sweet-teeth? ~ without for me), but instead of a regular baking pan, put a cast iron skillet into the oven for ten minutes, take it out, melt a tablespoon of butter in it, then pour in the batter.  If you can find a cornbread pan like mine, you, too, can have cute little pieces already pre-baked.  I LOVE that pan.
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