Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Spicy Kind of Post

I have this bad habit of bringing in the harvest from the garden and not doing anything with it.  I have a few things I know exactly what to do with (I'm looking at you, collards and ham hocks...), but I keep doing those same things over and over again, rarely varying.  Can you say "Boring!"  I think it's because when I do try to vary, to expand out and stretch my recipe repertoire, I have more misses than hits.  So the veggies sit and wait, and wait ... and wait ... 'til inspiration strikes me.  By the time that happens, the veggies are past their prime, making for a rather lackluster performance in the pot, through no fault of their own.

I think part of the problem is not knowing what to do with them.  I think, "I really should find a recipe and try something new."  But I know that finding a recipe is only part of the process ~ there's also wading through that mess of a spice cabinet to find something suitable that might enhance the dish.  Trying to find inspiration by digging past the bottle of cardamom with a teaspoon left in it, behind the hard red lump in a jar that used to be fajita rub, and between the two bottles of ancient turmeric (from Mom's cabinet, and she's been gone nine years. Ack!) just sounds worse than cleaning out the junk drawer.  It seems such a daunting prospect that I just give up before I even get started.

You know exactly what I'm talking about.  Admit it.  You know you should get rid of that pumpkin pie spice that's been sitting there since 1983, the last time you tried making Thanksgiving dinner completely from scratch.  Then there's that jar of cream of tartar your neighbor gave you after she found out meringue just isn't her thing.  And you know all those envelopes of dip mix and soup seasoning should be thrown out, but you just can't because they came free with that bottle of mayo!  And it's a sin to throw out something free!  Almost as much of a sin as throwing away something that's still good!  So you can't get rid of anything in there!  Not today!  Maybe tomorrow! When you have time to go through it all and see what's still good!

Here's the thing: They're not still good.  Really.  They're not.

You, like me, likely know that most herbs (the dried leaves of seasoning plants) really start to go stale after about a year, and spices (ground seeds, roots, bark, etc.) after two.  Whole spices last longer than that, but not nearly as long as we've been hanging on to them.  So I'm giving you permission to chunk them, and some helpful tips on the easiest way to do it.

First, go to the bulk spice aisle at the grocery store and stand there for a while. Admire the organization, look at the colors, drink in the scents.  I was there yesterday, looking at all the containers containing all the lovely scents and flavors, feeling the possibilities.  Oh, the possibilities!  Steaming plates of ... warm bowls of ... aromatic spoonfuls of ... .  I made up my mind right then and there: Nigella Lawson here I come!

After I chose the things I was familiar with (celery seed, dill weed, Italian seasoning, thyme...), I picked a few things that I knew a bit about, but seemed a little different (sweet smoked Spanish paprika, herbs de Provence...).  I thought I was done and started to walk away, but stopped.  I wanted to be free, adventurous, gutsy.  I wanted to expand my cooking skills.  I wanted to be Nigella, right?

I went back and reached for the pretty colors.  I picked them up and smelled them, letting the aromas decide for me.  It's the bulk aisle ~ I could get a little bit of anything I wanted for less than a buck, sometimes way less ~ so I let myself go.  Anything that smelled good, I got some of.  What fun it was once I really let go and just did it!

Nineteen little baggies, twelve little dollars, and forty-five little minutes later, I was done.  I wheeled my cart and my new determination over to the canning aisle to get some jars.  If you keep your herbs and spices in airtight containers, they last a lot longer.  Plastic doesn't cut it ~ it's gas permeable.  And I didn't want to have a pile of baggies to look through.  I wanted easy-to-find.  And pretty.  I found some 4 ounce jars and got two dozen (eight bucks a dozen ~ cheap), along with a few larger jars for the things I bought a lot of (minced garlic, onion flakes).

Once I got home, I grabbed an empty box and headed for the spice cabinet.  I took everything out.  Once it was all there, sitting on the counter out of it's normal home, most of it looked like what it was ~ stuff that needed to be chunked.  It was wild ~ just getting it out of the cabinet made all the difference.  Suddenly it seemed easy to get rid of.  But as I took each jar in hand, looking for things to put in the box, I started wanting to keep things I knew I shouldn't.  So I changed my outlook and started to look for things to keep.  That's the ticket!  I picked out half a dozen envelopes and three jars to put back in the cabinet, washed out the shelves, and put everything else in the box.  Done.

Helpful Hint Time: If you normally have a hard time getting rid of things, tape up the box and put it in the closet for a month or three.  Then, before taking it to Goodwill, try to think of anything that's in the box that you want to keep.  If you can think of something, you can have it, but nothing else, no matter what. NO. Matter. What.  Thanks to that hoarding gene that runs in my family. I have a tendency to keep things too long.  This strategy has helped me immensely in getting rid of things I never thought I could.

Now comes the fun part: putting all the treasures in the jars and lovingly labeling each one.  The jars came with cute little labels, but I got some different ones I liked better.  Whatever works for you.  Just make sure to also date them.  I didn't want to write that on the label on the front of the jar since I'd have to cross it out as I refill the jars.  After a while, there wouldn't be any room left on the label, and it'd make it look messy.  So I put more labels on the bottom of each jar for dates.

It's so nice now!  When I open that cabinet, I see all the pretty colors all stacked neatly on top of each other, ready to be used in my next masterpiece.  I feel like I just might be capable of making that masterpiece now, or at least capable of not screwing up as much as I used to.

Wheeeeeeeee!!!!!  I can't wait to cook now!  So I'll see y'all later.  I'm headed out to the garden to find something to pick.

UPDATE: It's been a little more than a week and MAN what a difference this has made!  I haven't had one flop in the kitchen since!  Some things have been better than others and one thing that wasn't all that super great, but it was still good.  So, DO EET!  Change out those spices NAO!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How To Make Row Cover Frames for an Existing Raised Bed

I'm asked every day at work how to make frames to hold up row cover, so I thought I'd make a separate post about it.  This is the last part of the Building a Raised Bed From Existing Soil: Illustrated post with a few more details and ideas added.

Frost bitten kale. Kinda' pretty when it's all  frozen and
sparkly.  Not so much when it's all thawed and droopy.
For those who don't know, floating row cover (aka Remay or frost cloth) is a lightweight cloth specially made for covering plants during winter for frost protection.  There are lightweight types that are used as a pest barrier, but for this post we'll be talking mostly about the heavyweight type.  The heavyweight that we sell at the Natural Gardener makes the temperature under the cloth eight to ten degrees warmer than the ambient temperature outside, while allowing rain and plenty of sunlight for actual plant growth to come in.  Due to those last two things along with the fact that it lets excess heat out, you don't need to take it off and put it on again every day like you would plastic.  Handy!

It's great stuff and I highly recommend it for covering newly planted things in a light freeze, most everything in a hard freeze, and newly planted seeds no matter the temperatures (it keeps the wind from drying out the soil so fast and beating up your new babies).  I've even been able to keep warm season things going through the first few freezes of the year (Ahhhhh, Christmas tomatoes...).

Speaking of tomatoes, this row cover is essential in getting those tomatoes in extra early to beat the heat.  I've even had success planting them as early as Valentine's Day if I hung some incandescent Christmas lights on the cages under the cover.  I leave them covered from planting to the end of March or early April, rarely if ever taking it off, and the combo of incandescent lights giving off heat and the cover holding it in makes it nice and toasty under there, warm enough for the plants to actively grow, even on forty degree days.  No, 40 degrees won't kill your tomatoes, but it'll sure make 'em pout.

The row cover works by trapping the Earth's heat radiating up at night, creating an insulating air space around your plants, a sort of warm-air "bubble" like a miniature greenhouse.  And just like a real greenhouse, the sides are as cold as the outside, so any leaves touching the cloth (or the plastic in a greenhouse) will be susceptible to freeze damage.  

Hence the frames.  They're not that hard to build.  Really!  They're cheap, easy (don't even need any power tools), and they last for years.  Come to think of it, you don't need any tools at all if you're handy at hammering with a rock.  Ha!

Here's the step-by-step:


Materials for a 4'x8' bed with approximate costs including tax (Note: My beds are 12' long, so the pictures show 8 rebar stakes and 4 pvc pipe ribs.):
  • Six 3/8" thick rebar stakes, 18 inches long .......................... $11
  • Three 10' lengths of 1/2" schedule 40 pvc pipe ................... $6
  • Row Cover: 18' heavy duty ...................................................$25
  • Six heavy duty clamps OR large binder clips ........................$20

  • Total for frames only ........................................................................... $17
  • Total for frames, cover, and clamps...................................................... $62

Photo 1
1. Install rebar stakes at all four corners (Photos 1 and 2).  Just pound them in with a hammer.  3/8" thick 18" long rebar stakes are about about a buck fifty each at Lowe's.  Ones 18" long will go at least nine inches into the soil below the box and still have three or so inches sticking up above the box for the pvc to easily slip over.  I used some 18" long ones since I had them already, but when I bought more I got 24" long ones since they were only twenty or so cents more, but would go farther into the soil, making them even more sturdy, especially if the beds are tall.

Photo 2
If your box is bigger than 4' x 4', you should put some stakes along the sides as well.  My beds here are twelve feet long, so I installed them every four feet.  For an eight foot bed, that would be three on each long side.  If you want to install them closer together, that's great ~ the closer they are, the more ribs of your frame you will have, and the stronger the overall system will be once you cover it with the row cover.

6. Install the pvc pipe by simply slipping it over the rebar stakes, as in Photos 3, 4 and 5.  I used 1/2-inch pvc, ten feet long.  This gave me 4' tall frames, perfect for covering even the tallest broccoli plants and most shorter green peas even when on a pea fence.

Photo 3
7. Cover the frame with floating row cover and clip into place (Photo 6).  Row cover usually comes on a roll and is sold by the foot from that row.  The size we sell at the Natural Gardener is 12' wide (plenty for covering the width of your bed, across those pvc ribs), and the length needs to be the length of your bed plus ten feet to allow it to hang down over the ends and cover them well.

You can use any kind of clip so long as it's STRONG.  I bought some of all the clips I found at Lowe's when I bought my stakes.  You can see the black ones in some of the pictures, and here's a better picture of them.  They're great for the corners as they can open up wide to grab a lot of bunched row cover in their "mouths".  The bad part is they're kind of expensive at $14 for a set of twelve in various sizes, some of which I don't need. 

Photo 4

You may also be able to see the big binder clips along the sides of the covered beds in Photo 6.  You can get them from an office supply store and they're fairly cheap.  Drawbacks are they aren't as strong as other clips and they rust, but if you have a lot of beds to cover like me, they're a more economical alternative at least along the sides.  So far, they've held in 15 mph winds (Update: They held in those hellacious winds we had not long ago, gusts way past 40mph with a 65mph gust clocked in Burnet, but I only used them on the sides ~ used the big black ones on the corners. And a caution: a row cover next to that one that had some holes in it was shredded, so patch your holes! Duct tape maybe.).  I don't think the binder clips would work at the corners since they'd  have to clamp over multiple layers of the row cover, but along the sides where they just have to clamp over one layer, they work great.

Photo 5
I've also had people tell me they used three-inch sections of pvc pipe, the same size as the ribs, that they've cut along one side lengthwise.  They just open the cut side enough to slip it over the pvc pipe rib, sandwiching the row cover in between.  I haven't tried this yet, but plan to, and I hope it works as that would be OH so cheap.

That's really all there is to it!  Easey-peasey..  And they'll last for at least five years, including the row cover if you keep it folded and put up when not in use.  Speaking of that, if you ever need to wash it, you can put it in the washer, but don't put it in the dryer.  It melts into nothing.  Weird.

These frames are great for row cover, bird netting and shade cloth as well, so you'd be able to use them year 'round.  You can even use the lightweight row cover for pest protection, or if you're a seed saver the lightweight works great for isolation, too.  The tomatoes will likely get too tall to still fit under them and some peppers may also, as well as corn and okra, but you could still use more pvc to make taller frames.  Investigate the pvc pipe fittings aisle for elbows to make something that looks the shape of a roofline instead of the curve shown in the pictures here (three elbows ~ one on each side and one in the middle-top).  You might could find twenty foot sections of the same diameter pvc and bend them into taller hoops, though I haven't tried that yet.  If anyone does, let me know how it works in the comments here, would you?  And if I try it, I'll update this post.

Again, they're cheap, easy, and useful.  What's not to love?  Do it!  You'll be SO glad you did.  

Photo 6

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