The Backyard

The Backyard

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Eve of the Sustainable Food Budget Challenge

Tomorrow it starts -- a full month of staying under $176.00 for locally produced, organic, family business, or local business food. For some folks, this will truly be a challenge. For others, it will be a practice in learning what local food and organics is all about. No matter what the turnout, you succeeded if you are trying it because it will teach you a ton about local and organic food production. What can I get locally? Where is the best place to get it cheap? How far can I travel to still call it "local" (that varies -- most say within a 100 mile radius and it's worth it to drive 60 miles to save $3.00 a pound on organic chicken. I don't eat chicken, but if I did, this Eberly Brothers is where I'd go to get it). Is there such a a thing as "cheap, affordable" organic food (yes! -- Shiloh Farms in Lancaster -- buy in bulk. Shiloh falls into the "local business" category. Be careful though, some of their organics are grown and shipped from afar. If you ask, they will share the country of origin. You will learn a lot -- it will be an education AND you'll change some habits because we all know it takes only 20 days to change a habit. The Crunchy Chicken (the orginiator of the Challenge) posted some clarifications of challenge. And the Challenge itself, with the guidelines, is here. Have fun with it! There's 90 or folks joining you on this quest (on the Crunchy Chicken blog). Post your comments/updates -- would love to hear what you found.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Delightful Dandelion

Dandelion? Delightful? With that sea of yellow polka-dots all over your yard? Some folks have stock in chemical companies trying to rid their lawn of this "pest." But is it? This "weed" is far from useless. The tradition of picking dandelion greens early in the spring, and making a hot salad dressing to mix with them, and layering some hard-boiled eggs on top lives on. Well, not entirely -- my mother used a hot bacon dressing -- but I skip the bacon part. Loaded with nutrients, dandelion greens have iron, calcium, Vitamins A and C -- all in a mere 25 calories per cup. It is said dandelion is a "healthy" plant, known to cure liver diseases, aid in weight-loss, prevent or lower high blood pressure, amongst many other health benefits. Dandelion wine is popular amongst the wine-makers, and some folks use the root for tea or as a coffee substitute. The tea is known to be a body detoxifier. And the best part? It's free - as much of it as you have time to go digging. But you gotta get it now - today - because once you see flowers, it's too late and will be bitter. What more you could ask for? Free, healthy, and nutritious. Oh, you say you want a way to get rid of it? Sorry... can't help you in that department. In a couple weeks, my lawn will be a sea of yellow -- and I'm ok with that! Hubby complains about it, but I'm ok with that too. Give dandelion a chance!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Garden Helper

My dear husband isn't a big fan of helping in the garden, but there ARE a couple things he likes to do -- like running the rototiller and putting the fence up for me. I think he does the fence 'cause I never get it straight and it makes him crazy. There was an uneven side to the garden, so we rototilled it to even things up. and last fall, I decided to "join" the grape arbor and the main garden to eliminate mowing a small, odd section of grass between the two. I laid down a thick layer of horse manure and let it rot all winter, killing the grass underneath it in the process - ala 'natural without the aid of any chemicals. This spring, I found the soil rich and moist, with more worms than other areas of the garden. So we rototilled that section too. And with mother nature doing her thing in taking down the grape vines, I now have one hell of big vegetable patch -- its about 70 x 25 feet. Add that to my two adjacent (one on each side of the main garden) 3 x 70 foot raspberry/blueberry/rhubarb/strawberry/asparagus patches, and you have 2,170 square feet of garden -- about the same size as Michelle Obama's white house garden. Nice. I wonder if her staff will come and take care of mine too? That's the hard part -- maintaining it all summer. Beyond the seed planting, is weeding, mulching, composting, staking, harvesting, weeding, mulching, composting, harvesting, etc. etc. until frost in October. I believe my summer activities are already planned for me! It's my almost-daily therapy sessions -- combine that with my weekly therapeutic mountain bike rides, and I have the cure for stress.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Countdown to the Sustainable Food Budget Challenge

On Wednesday, April 1, the Sustainable food Budget Challenge begins. For the entire month of April, the “challenge” will be to stay within public assistance budget numbers -- $176.00 for an individual – while keeping the food local and/or organic. That’s the challenge – can we eat organically or sustainably on a budget. Most folks complain about the prices of organics, but I’m out to prove them wrong – especially my husband. Local isn’t much of a factor for me at the moment living in a cold climate, and not eating meat or dairy products. Eggs, honey, dandelion, spinach, apples/applesauce, spelt flour, and maple syrup are about the only local products I’ll include that are available right now. I’m complicating the challenge a bit more by mixing in the nutritional factor. Since I had more notice than the day before (actually, I went into the Eat Local Challenge 4 days after it started), I’ve been planning, making spreadsheets to track the dollars spent, and generally thinking about how to go about this (planning the menus is a big factor) and I feel confident it 1) can be done and 2) be done with good, nutritious food. Organic lentils are only $3.69 a lb! How much cheaper and nutritious can you get than lentils, and a pound goes a long way – at least 8 meals. My dear hubby is doing his own challenge since we eat differently.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Overwintered Spinach

Last fall, I left a couple spinach plants in the ground simply because I was lazy and didn't get them out before the freeze and snow. This spring, I noticed they sprouted and are growing! I hadn't realized that spinach can be overwintered -- even with single digit temperatures and no protection. The ground was frozen for months this year, and our snow cover was minimal -- but obviously enough the help the spinch live through the winter months. Mother Earth News claims spinach is one of the easiest plants to overwinter if you select the right varieties and let them grow to the right size before the ground freezes. They also claim mulching only rots the plants -- just let them out in the elements. That's what worked for me, by accident. I learned something new.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seed Planting

The early spring seeds are in the ground -- snap peas, snow peas, kale, spinach, carrots, radishes, turnips, red beets, lettuces, fennel and parsley. The ruby red rhubarb was moved to make way for the strawberries and the compost pile was started. And I was entertained today by my neighbor's horses (my parents). They don't often venture near my property -- its the far end of the field and lthey typically ike to stay closer to the food, water and hay. Today, they decided to run, play, and jump across the field and I couldn't help but watch and enjoy them -- it was a beautiful day and I have the best of neighbors!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More on the Food Alliance

After finding Food Alliance and studying their certification a little more, they are truly a group to look for in Pennsylvania as the PA Sustainable Agriculture Association ramps up their marketing of this certification, and gets farmers, food processors, and distributors on board with certification and using their seal of approval. As of today, there are no PA certified Food Alliance businesses, but they'll be coming, I'm sure as this new certification takes off. I took the Self-Assessment test to see if my "farm" would pass the certification. (I hardly classify my backyard a farm, but that's the only category I fit). I mainly wanted to see what criteria they were looking for in comparison to the USDA organic certification criteria which focuses mostly JUST on the organic aspect -- seed, soil, no pesticides, buffer zones, non-GMO, etc. Food Alliance goes a little further and gives the seal of approval that you care about the environment too. I love that! There were numerous questions in the Wildlife Habitat Conservation Section and I passed with flying colors given my backyard is a registered Wildlife Backyard Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Important aspects of wildlife gardening are letting "wild" areas remain, letting dead trees stand (for bird nests), putting up "perches" for birds, growing native plants - keeping a check on invasive species, growing plants/crops for wildlife and a host of other questions related to the native wildlife. As long as I keep saving the birdies, I'll keep passing this section. They also had a huge section on Integrated Pest Management which also is an important of an organic garden. It all works together -- if you look at what's going on and let it happen, or help it along. For example, I grow many plants in the umbrel family (dill, fennel, carrots, parsley), which attract the braconid wasp which kills the horned tomato worm. And in some areas, I let the weeds grow for the flea beatles to munch on so they don't munch (as much) on my vegetable plants. And of course there's the composting/soil management section. I can't say enough good things about composting. Food Alliance rocks... they are my new heroes. I may get the certification for my CSA (maybe) in two years. The certification costs $400 for 3 years -- much cheaper than the organic certification which I think is based on the sales of your food and for me, would be about $500 for a year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Food Alliance - Who They Are and Why They Are Important

Little known (at least they were to me), is a group called the Food Alliance, a non-profit group based in Portland Oregon who's mission is to:

"certify farms, ranches and food handlers for sustainable agricultural and business practices."

And why is that important? Because while organic certification certainly has its benefits, it's lacking in areas like preserving the environment and protecting wildlife habitat. The big guys get their organic certification, yet ship their organic products thousands and thousands of miles around the world. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. They also play some games in treatment of animals which is a REAL problem for me - they can still have a feed lot for an organic farm, or house thousands and thousands of chickens in too-tight quarters. Step in Food Alliance. They are a sustainable agriculture certifier, and looking at the certification standards, isn't all too bad - especially when it comes to the part of reducing energy, conserving water consumption and resources, and humane treatment of animals. I've read where many small farms practice organic methods (sustainable methods), yet will not seek organic certification because of red tape and how some feel the organic standards are not what they could be. Once again, step in Food Alliance. I truly believe they are the label to look for in the future, and smaller farmers will go this route, rather than the USDA organic certification route, and this certification will be just as good, if not better. In Pennsylvania, The PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture recently announced a partnership with the Food Alliance, to promote and educate farmers on Sustainable agriculture certification. That's quite a step forward for PA and Eastern Farmers. And what does this all mean to you, the consumer? You are what you eat! Start looking for the Food Alliance Seal of Approval and think of it as important as the organic label. From the Food Alliance Website:

Food Alliance Certification
Why Food Alliance is the most comprehensive certification program for sustainable food in North America. Food Alliance certified businesses are audited by an independent third-party inspector to determine whether they meet program standards and criteria.

Farm and ranch standards:
Provide safe and fair working conditions
Ensure the health and humane treatment of animals
No use of hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics
No genetically modified crops or livestock
Reduce pesticide use and toxicity
Protect soil and water quality
Protect and enhance wildlife habitat
Continuously improve management practices
Learn more about farm and ranch certification -->
Food handler standards:
Use Food Alliance Certified ingredients
Provide safe and fair working conditions
Conserve energy and water
Reduce use of toxic and hazardous materials
Reduce and recycle waste
Ensure quality control and food handling safety
No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives
Continuously improve practices
Learn more about food handler certification -->

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Planning for the April Sustainable Food Budget Challenge

My husband and I differ in our eating habits and there’s no way I could talk him into the Sustainable Food Budget Challenge in April eating what I eat. His comment was, “sure, I’ll go in on the budget part and keep it under $176.00 for the month; but I’m going to do it by shopping where I shop now – Walmart and Giant stores (an East coast food chain that gets a bunch of their product from overseas).” That’s not the point hubby, but whatever you want – that’s fine. (You learn after a couple years not to argue with them!) So I’m on my own. The Eat Local Challenge in October was a last minute decision – actually it was about 4 days into October when I decided to try it, so there was little planning or preparation that went into that one, but I learned immensely from it. This challenge, however, is vastly different and I've got enough time to plan the budget, the menus, the shopping list(s), the nutritional value, and of course keeping it all sustainable and/or organic. Since I live in cold country (Central PA), there’s not a whole lot going on on the local scene, so most of my budget is organic with a spattering of local foods. I started by putting the most expensive, and can’t-live-without foods at the top of the list, and filled in from there. I’m hoping some of the backyard produce will start sprouting in April and I can use those things also (counting on it toward the end of April). The local farmers may start having early vegetables too by the end of April - so I'll make the list of fresh vegetables as I go (keeping track of the $$). My plan is to not use anything from the freezer, and only things in the cupboard that last months (spices, baking powders/sodas, oil). Here’s the preliminary food list so far - it comes out to about $140, leaving $30 for the fresh stuff. I think I can do it.

Organics and/or Local:
Coffee – 4x7.50 each = $30.00
Instant Oatmeal
Whole Oats
Baby Limas
Black Beans
Local Maple Syrup
Local Honey
Local Apples
Local Applesauce
Loan organic spelt flour
Local free-range eggs
Organic Soymilk
Organic fresh onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli
Canned Tomatoes, paste
Soynut Butter
Margarine (non GMO)
Spelt Flour
Dried Fruit Bars

From the garden (end of April)

And hubby? He has Diet coke at the top of his list, and Laura's package beef from the Giant. Well, I'm not sure what he has in mind, but I know it'll include the diet coke and burgers I love him, but he has a way to go to eating a little better (I DID rub off a little - very little!).

Broccoli and Celery Seedlings

They're both growing up nicely to be very well-behaved children. Every year, hubby asks if I started the broccoli too soon... that they are getting big to quickly. And every year I assure him, while the leaves look ready to go in the ground, the roots are not - they'll be just fine for another 3 weeks or so. I'm now up to 20 celery plants! Every cell pack now popped up a sprout (or two) and I believe I'm on track to growing celery this year.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sustainable Food Budget Challenge in April

A new challenge is on the horizon. Not a whole lot different than the Eat Local Challenge, this one is eating locally and/or organically while on a budget. Interesting concept given most people (my husband!) complain about the high cost of organic. But I'm fairly certain you CAN eat on a budget if you keep it local, keeping in mind you are eliminating a bunch of foods you may have gotten used to (i.e., cereal!) Soo.... below are the guidelines, and here is the post from the originator of the Sustainable Food Budget Challenge. Wanna try it? Think about it before you sign up. Eating local IS a challenge. These items are pretty much off the menu to name a few: cereal, pasta, rice, coffee, chocolate, and sugars. But the saving grace for this is buying organic (which likely isn't local), family farm/local business - all the while keeping it low cast. Interesting. Challenge is for APRIL.

Challenge Guidelines (from the Crunchy Chicken - the orginiator)

So, here's the skinny. Based on the following allotment chart, you are to stick to the corresponding amount for food for the month of April. The challenge is that you must buy according to the following guidelines (from Locavores). Do not include non-food items or home grown items into your budget, but do include seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat. Make sure you include all the food costs from eating out, trips to coffee shops, etc.These are fairly loose rules, but the goal is to buy sustainably grown food:

1. If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
2. If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
3. If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
4. If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Terroir: purchase foods famous for the region they are grown in.
5. Hit the farmers market before the supermarket.

Household Maximum Monthly Allotment Chart:
1 person - $176
2 people - $323
3 people - $463
4 people - $588
5 people - $698
6 people - $838
7 people - $926
8 people - $1,058
Each additional person - $132

Yup.... those numbers are tight, aren't they? That's the idea. But we can do it. I'm in - how 'bout you??

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Crazy Celery Seed and The Food Business is Booming

They say every experience you have is for learning -- be it good, bad, or something in the middle. I knew I was taking on a challenge starting celery from seed, but I knew from the very beginning it would be educating - and it certainly is. Last week, at the 14 day marker, I had 6 babies sprout and they immediately began leaning toward the light. So what about the other 12? I knew I couldn't let the cover on and the first six had to get under the lights. So I opted to remove the cover, get them lit up, and take may chances on the other twelve. 6 would be enough, so I thought. I've been keeping the first 6 nice and moist and pretty much left the other 12 cells dry up. Earlier this week, I noticed two more tiny sprouts, so I started spraying them with water. I guessed the other cells could stand a squirt or two too -- just in case there's a couple more lurking under the top layer. Low and behold, today there are 3 more. It's now 23 days after they were first planted. The first 6 are already starting their 3rd set of leaves. This season will be a true learning experience.

Booming Food Business. I just read an interesting article written by an organic farmer who doubles as a Board Member of the PA Assocation for Sustainable Agriculture, about how last year was his best year ever and this year will likely be the same or better. Rick and I noticed the same thing at our local farmer's market (although not organic). It was packed last night! Folks are definitely making a shift to the farmer's market vs. the grocery store. I'd think locally, its more the low prices than the need or understanding of the importance to buy local and/or organic. I'd say the farmer's market and local farmers are going to do a really good business this year.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frozen Ground Yet? And Should You Put Up a Fence?

For Central PA, March 7 and 8 were delightfully and unseasonably warm -- mid 60's and 50's. Of course the gardener in me got out and started digging. The broccoli and onion patches are ready to go. Remember the blown over grape arbor? I had thought I'd dig up the remains of the grapes and a couple sea oats plants (native grasses -- excellent plant for natural settings -- the birds love the seeds, but I always cut them off because they sprout everywhere). Low and behold, about 8 inches down the ground was frozen solid. Digging in the remains of the mushroom soil pile I ran into the same thing. It was rather surprising given the warmth we had and no snow cover. The winter must have been much colder and for longer than I thought to have the ground still frozen deep down.

Fence -- if you are toying with the idea of should I or shouldn't I put a fence around my garden, ask yourself a couple questions. Has anything eaten or dug up your plants in the past -- Deer? Rabbits? Maybe a raccoon or skunk? Or maybe your neighbors cats are using your garden as a litter box. If any of the answers are yes (even only once), absolutely put in a fence. Are you hesitating because of aesthetics? But you know something might get at your plants? Well stop worrying about looks and opt for practicality and save your plants. That's the dilemma I'm having right now -- should I fence in my rose garden which will look absolutely awful with chicken wire around it. If I do, it'll save my onions from getting dug up by my mother's peacocks who LOVE digging in one spot of the rose garden where the onions are going, and my broccoli which the peacocks ALSO love eating the big, luscious leaves. My husband asked me the question this morning and I realized I was being stupid and going for the looks. But when he reminded me of the rounds the peacocks make all summer, I opted for practicality and this weekend we are getting fence for the rose garden. So don't expect to come to my place and see a beautiful landscape -- you'll see a hodgepodge of doing what we need to make it work and save the plants!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Spring Gardening - Avoiding That Sinking Feeling

That first warm, spring day when the garden is calling can easily be met with the crushing negativity of the amount of work that needs done. Perennials to cut back, winter-kill to cut off/dig out, vegetable beds to turn and prep for early seeds, new beds to prep for additional fruit, raspberries canes to cut off, digging out dead roses, re-vamping the rose garden to a kitchen garden, expanding the vegetable patch, making compost, spreading straw to prevent weeds and on, and on, and on. It can be daunting -- if you let it. One of the blogs I read said they were "overwhelmed" and it can be, no doubt. So what to do? How to fight off that sinking feeling when you have no idea how you will ever get it done? First, only think of what you are doing at the moment and enjoy it! That's why we do it in the first place -- to be out there in nature and actually growing something we can eat. A little prioritizing helps too -- what is THE most important thing you MUST do before anything else? Water your seeds so they don't die? Get your early herb seeds in - your peas planted? Focus on time-sensitive things -- everything else can wait. Cutting back the dead stuff can wait until June if it must - digging out the dead roses can also wait until June (unless you need the space for something else). Garden prep is fairly important too -- especially if you need to fertilize with some horse manure or other potentially "hot" fertilizer that needs to cool a little before you plant something in it. I have too many gardens -- roses, herbs, vegetables, fruit, perennials, native plants, and a shrub border. And they all try to make me crazy every year. The past couple years I've learned the above -- only do what's really important and for me, it was the food production. The rose garden got overgrown (and some died), the shrub border became a weed border, and the herbs started intertwining with each other that I now have a hodge podge of all kinds of things (not exactly attractive when a dill grows up the middle of a sage). But do you know what? It doesn't matter. I know the vegetables and fruit are getting the attention the need along with the compost and soil they are growing in, and I pull the weeds in the herb/rose garden best I can -- but the rest just doesn't matter. The birds are in heaven! They have more to play in and find to eat with a couple extra overgrown roses and shrubs (and some weeds). The beneficial insects find the care-free areas a haven. So relax... enjoy the moment, and don't worry about it. You have all summer!

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Have Celery Seedlings!

If you've been following my posts, I complained a couple posts back about the difficulty I read about growing celery and I'm in the midst of experiencing that difficulty in trying to get my celery seeds to sprout. Well, I have 6 babies! Oh the excitement to raise children like these. When I found them, they were leaning heavily toward the light, so they are all cozy under the lights as we speak. Tiny Farm Blog has an interesting post on celery with several comments from fellow celery growers. Seems my challenge is just beginning and raising these kids will be a tad more demanding.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Getting In The Garden - Maybe This Weekend

This is the time of the year the gardener-types get antsy to get out and start digging. The biking types also start squirming in their bike shorts to ride outside after a long winter of biking indoors. Oh, and the kayaking types like my husband ALSO get excited when they see a 50 or 60 degree weekend temperature. This weekend coming up is going to be a busy one. I like to start cutting back perenniels and do a little spring cleanup on weekends like this and I may start cleaning up the grape arbor mess left by mother nature a couple weeks ago. In just two weeks, the peas are going in the ground and they couldn't be happier now that we were spared any more snow and the ground is fairly thawed. I still think about a cold frame of some sort, but that would require me convincing my hubby to build me something and that may not happen. And the biking and kayaking? Well that's getting squeezed in there too. We plan to ride mountain bike on Saturday, and kayak roll on Sunday. I can't say I enjoy indoor kayak rolling when its 60 degrees outside! But there's only two roll sessions left, so I'll deal.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Footprint Chronicles - Patagonia

One of my favorite companies for many years has been Patagonia, albeit pricey, but environmentally aware:

Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. We've awarded over 31 million dollars in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots enviro groups making a difference in their local communities.
Just reading their website (before you shop, of course) is an education. Not surprisingly, they've added a cool section to their website on "The Footprint Chronicles" which traces the footsteps of select products they manufacture and sell. They start by telling you, "there's no such thing as a sustainable business" which in their world and products they sell, may very well be true. They know the carbon footprint left in their business and production line is massive, so they focus on recycling, making sure their products are made in fair, safe, legal working conditions, and practice resource conservation along with assuring their buildings are LEED certified (including building their own solar power plant for one of their buildings!). Following the footsteps of a garment is interesting -- it made me realize even the organic garments aren't necessarily the best choice (distance traveled - water consumption to grow the organic cotton). The one that truly astounded me was the distance wool travels -- 16,200 miles. How do you put a carbon pricetag on something like that? Scary thought. Maybe we should all stick to 2nd hand clothes, and just skip the underwear?