Friday, December 30, 2011

Build a Cold Frame for Ongoing Winter Harvest

Although they have not need its protection yet this winter, my lettuces and spinach are happily growing inside the cold frame while we wait for cold weather.  I planted them inside the box in September with the lid open so the warm weather did not roast them.  Now, when freezing weather threatens, I can close the lid to the box in the late afternoon, the glass lid will hold the heat inside, and I will have fresh greens the next day that are unharmed by frost. 

My husband and I made my cold frame cover from a discarded shower door.  Any glass or Plexiglas door or window would work; the glass allows sunshine and heat to reach the plants inside the cold frame.  My shower door came with the hinge attached which we use to open and close the frame.  If yours does not have a hinge, you could slide it up and down as needed and prop it with a stick; a covering that is lightweight, like Plexiglas, would probably be the best choice.  When the lid is raised, make sure to attach it to the ground in some way so that strong gusts of wind do not suddenly close it; the glass on one of my frames shattered last winter and I will have to cover the frame with plastic this winter. 

Winter greens grow inside the cold frame

We made the sides of my cold frame out of treated lumber.  We caulked the joints and put some weather-stripping along the top of the frame to prevent drafts.  The back of the cold frame is about 18 inches high, and it slopes down to the front at about a 40-degree angle toward the southern sky; the front is about 8 inches high.  This slope is supposed to maximize the amount of captured sunlight.

Options besides boards include stacked hay bales, concrete blocks, or landscape timbers.  Plug as many cracks as you can.  Gardener’s Supply Company carries prefabricated cold frames; harvesting your own salad greens instead of buying them will offset the purchase price quickly.

 Place your cold frame directly on the ground, fill your cold frame with compost-enriched soil, and plant the seeds or transplants.  Because of the greenhouse-like moist environment, seeds sprout quickly and are the most economical choice.  Water the soil when it begins to dry out and fertilize the plants as you would in your garden. 

If the weather forecast is for temperatures in the high 40s or above with sun, prop open the lid of your cold frame to vent excessive heat that might burn the plants.  I have two sticks, one to open the lid just a crack and the other to open it wide for harvest and for very warm days.  If you will not be home, prop the lid open a crack; they have a better chance of surviving the cold weather we get than an afternoon in with temperatures in the sixties closed inside the frame. Lettuce and spinach tolerate temperatures down to the mid-twenties without harm in the open garden; I close my cold frame on nights when the temperature dips into the low twenties and teens.   

The best plants for a cold frame are lettuces, spinach, collards, and other cool-season greens.  Carrots, beets, and parsnips also like the protected environment.  Depending on your cold frame’s interior height, you might also be able to grow broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.  I also “harden off” transplants, or provide a protected area outside for plants to become gradually accustomed to the outdoors, before I set them out in the garden in the cold frame.
Happy salad greens

When you are home during the holidays, maybe you can find time to make yourself or the gardener on your list a cold frame as a belated Christmas gift. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I Don't Think I Will Eat My Chickens

My husband, Scott, and I have had many discussions about the fate of my chickens once they stop laying eggs.  We bought nine chickens, assuming that a couple of them would die in the hands of an inexperienced chicken-keeper, but they all lived.  When I bought them at the feed store, they were a couple of weeks old, so the weakest chicks in the batch had probably already died. 
My fortified chicken coop has kept predators away, although I am aware that one could gain entrance any night, especially if the power goes out to the portable electronet fencing.  We deliberately did not name the chickens, although I didn’t know how I’d feel about eating the chickens after they quit laying, because I don’t need more pets to live in my house and require veterinary care.  I have two very spoiled dachshunds. 
A Barred Plymouth Rock and a Buff Orpington chicken finishing off the pea crop

I told Scott that some of them would probably die of natural causes anyway, and he said, not, I don’t think, intending it to be a compliment, “The way you take care of those chickens they’ll live forever.”   I make sure they have fresh food and water, and clean ground to explore as often as possible.  I love seeing any creature doing what they were meant to do, which in the case of chickens is scratching for bugs and tidbits of food on the ground.  They scratch first with one foot, then the other.  Their eyes are on the sides of their heads so they must turn their heads to the side to see the ground, and they search the ground for something to eat, peck at it, and move on. 

They love loose, dry soil, and they dig out a hole, scratch dirt into their feathers, wiggle and adjust their feathers to move the dirt about, and bask in the sun while taking a dust bath.  They are unhappy when, after a rain, there is no dry dirt in which to bathe.   Watching contented chickens is like seeing children playing, deeply involved in some imaginative game of their own invention that does not rely on electronics or cartoon characters, or a dog snuggled in his bed asleep before a fire.   And just because the chickens are not pets, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make them happy and give them opportunities to do what they’d do if they weren’t in captivity.  They love fresh green grass this time of year, and they rush towards the new grass made available when I move their pen.

Chickens, when allowed to experience natural cycles of light and dark, lay fewer eggs as the days shorten.  Their bodies are very sensitive to daylight and to darkness; as the days shorten when the Winter Solstice approaches later this month, they lay fewer eggs, and as the days lengthen as the Summer Solstice approaches in June, they lay more eggs.  During the summer, they laid seven eggs almost every day; recently, I have been getting up to four eggs daily.

The eggs we get are plenty for us even during the winter, but some chicken-keepers keep a light on in the coop for part of the night to make the chickens continue to lay eggs.  In commercial chicken houses, where farmers keep chickens in cages so small they cannot spread their wings, the lights are on all the time to trick the chickens into laying constantly.   If you buy your eggs at the farmers market, expect the farmer to have fewer eggs in the winter; get there early to purchase yours.  Chickens also molt, during which time they lose their feathers, regrow new ones, and cease laying entirely before resuming laying a couple of months later.

Scott says he wants to put them in the stew pot when they stop laying eggs in a few years.  I doubt I will be able to eat a creature I have taken care of daily for so long, and I do not know if he would be able to either.  I know that my grandparents would laugh at that notion, but I didn’t grow up eating chickens from the yard as they did, either, and my family will not go hungry if we don’t eat the chickens. 
I won’t take them to the veterinarian if they become sick, although I won’t allow them to suffer, but until they die of natural causes, I’ll give them the best care possible.  Maybe we’ll get some more chickens that we will designate as birds for meat from the beginning, and we’ll harvest them when they are a few months old, before they’ve been around very long. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A few weeks ago, I attended the South Carolina Agriculture Council meeting to hear a discussion about “GMOs, Organic Farming, and Organic Certification.”  Readers of this column know I am biased against the use of GMOs or, genetically modified organisms, in agriculture.  It seems somehow wrong to insert the genes of a flounder, for example, into a tomato so that the tomato will tolerate colder temperatures, and then to eat this “Franken food.”

 Dan Pitts, the Technical Development Representative from Monsanto, the company that was one of the pioneers of GMO agriculture, gave presentation on using GMOs in agriculture to “grow better crops and use less resources to do so.”  With GMO corn, for example, scientists insert the pesticide BT, or bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn genes so that when a caterpillar eats the corn, it also eats the pesticide, which kills the caterpillar.  Farmers do not have to spray pesticides on the fields, and, as Mr. Pitts illustrated with statistics, farmers no longer put millions of pounds of chemicals into the environment.  Corn yields have increased.  With Roundup® Ready Soybeans, farmers do not have to till the soil and cause erosion; they spray the herbicide, which kills the weeds but not the soybeans.

I asked Mr. Pitts about reports I have heard about pollen from GMO plants blowing into fields of plants that are not GMO, and producing plants that have the GMO genes.  He said, “Coexistence of different agricultural production methods working effectively side by side is well established and has a long, successful history in agriculture.”  He also says, “according to USDA’s organic rules, the inadvertent presence of GMO in an organic canola field would not constitute a violation of the organic program regulations nor render the canola ineligible for organic certification.” 

One of the arguments in favor of using GMOs is that we need increased food to feed our increasing population, and without GMOs to increase the yield, people will starve.  What has always been interesting to me about this argument is that the commonly produced GMO plants: field corn, soybeans, cotton, and tobacco are not edible in their unprocessed state.  Field corn is fed to animals on feedlots or turned into high-fructose corn syrup; some soybeans may be turned into tofu but most of them are turned into oil or other processed products.  Mr. Pitts said that Monsanto has recently developed a GMO sweet corn that will be edible in its natural state.

For a different perspective on farming, Eric McClam, a Tulane graduate in architecture and manager of City Roots farm in Columbia, discussed their farming practices.  The three-acre farm, in the Rosewood Neighborhood of Columbia, on property owned by the City of Columbia, “produce[s] clean, healthy, sustainably grown products while enhancing and educating our community about the benefits of locally grown food, composting, vermicomposting and other environmentally friendly farming practices,” according to the website 

City Roots won the 2010 Downtown Pinnacle award from the International Downtown Association.  More than 600 cities competed for the award, which recognizes innovative development in downtown areas of cities.  City Roots Farm and the City of Columbia are proud of this recognition of their partnership in using land that might otherwise be wasted in an urban area. 

Not only do they use no GMO seeds, but they also use no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers except manure produced by the laying hens and compost made from crop wastes and vegetable refuse from grocery stores and restaurants.  Although they follow organic farming practices, McClam says, “Organic certification does not make sense for us because we know our end user and can talk with them about farming practices directly.  Organic certification for 60 varieties of plants is a lot of paperwork.”  The farm sells at farmers markets, local stores, and local restaurants. 

Through succession planting, where there is another crop ready to go into the ground as soon as one comes out, and organic, sustainable practices, City Roots produces copious amounts of locally grown, nutritious food for the people of Columbia, without using GMOS or buying and applying pesticides and fertilizers.  Not buying pesticides or fertilizers keeps their costs down, and gives the farm more money to spend on its biggest expense: human labor to care for the plants.    

What a contrast City Roots is from a sterile Midwestern cornfield where nothing but corn grows and farmers have to tend the crop in machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I do not know the solution to feeding the world, but GMOs scare me.  Mr. Pitts says that Monsanto did many safety tests to make sure the GMOs will not harm the environment or people, but the technology has only existed since the 1980s.  How often have things we thought were safe turned out to be dangerous after the passage of time?


Friday, November 18, 2011

Farm-to-Table Dinner at Doko Farm

A few weeks ago, my family and I enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner at Doko Farm, in the Cedar Creek area of Blythewood on the DuBard family land.  Amanda and Joe Jones, owners of the farm on land that has been in Joe’s family since 1839, joined Chef Brian Dukes, executive chef of the Blue Marlin in Columbia, and many volunteers, who worked for their supper, to put on a wonderful autumn meal that celebrated the bounty of our local food.
The tables await diners

Chef Brian Dukes braised Doko Farm's pasture-raised Plymouth Rock heritage chicken legs and thighs with leeks in a rich broth and he grilled the breasts with wood from Doko Farm's pecan grove.  He also grilled the chicken’s legs, which are much longer than the legs from ordinary chickens.  The menu included roasted local sweet potatoes and turnips with herbs, fennel and beets with lemon vinaigrette and City Roots arugula, and bread and homemade apple pie from The Company of OHS in Ridgeway.  The brisk air, brilliant autumn leaves on the trees, and conversation with fellow diners made the delicious food taste even better.
Plymouth Rock chicken on the grill

Guy Noir, a blue Jersey Giant rooster, greeted us as we wandered the farm before the tour of the farm, led by Amanda, began.  Meandering around the farm were members of the laying flock of chickens.  They are an assortment of breeds including Buff Orpingtons, Americanas, Jersey Giants, and combinations of breeds, also known as chicken mutts.
Guy Noir

Four Guinea hogs, developed in the Southeast, which once lived on most homesteads but now are endangered, rooted in the soil in their area of the woods and took delight in burying their faces in the soil as they searched for treats.  These hogs are allies for the Joneses in their battle to retake the pasture from the sweet gum sprouts and sumac; their rooting destroys any vegetation in the way and tills the beautiful black soil.  Because Joe’s ancestors did not plant all the land with cotton, but instead had a diversified homestead with various animal and vegetable crops, the Joneses have thick black topsoil instead of clay or sand, devoid of topsoil, like many old home places. 

I am glad the Joneses are reclaiming the farmland of their ancestors instead of allowing the beautiful house and grounds to fall into disrepair and to be overtaken by weeds.  The grandparents and great-grandparents must be watching them with pleasure knowing that their hard work has not gone to waste and that another generation will farm and love the land.
By attending a farm-to-table event, the diner understands the origin of food.  The same chicken we were eating once roamed in a neighboring pasture, and the vegetables came from nearby.  The meal, albeit with a few gourmet additions Joe’s ancestors did not enjoy, might have been similar to a meal they ate one beautiful November day a hundred years ago. 
Because of the success of this sold-out event, the Joneses hope to have other similar events in the future.  Motor Supply Company Bistro, in Columbia, is hosting Harvest Week November 15-20.  The restaurant will feature Doko Farm’s heritage meats November 17.  Other farms featured during the week include Caw Caw Creek, City Roots, Wil-Moore Farms, and Freshly Grown Farms.  Call the restaurant at 256-6687 or find Motor Supply Company on Facebook for more information.  To find out about upcoming events at Doko Farm, visit or find them on Facebook.   

Monday, November 14, 2011

Make Time to Garden

People often tell me they don’t understand how I have time to garden.  I enjoy working in the garden almost more than anything else, and I prioritize my time so I have time to garden.   Gardening does take time, but it’s also a forgiving hobby:  if I don’t have time to do something today, it will usually be okay if I wait until tomorrow or next week, as long as it’s not watering a shriveled plant or moving plants inside and away from impending frost.

Most folks have hobbies to which they devote their spare time.  People have favorite TV shows, video games, or they play golf or tennis.  People shop or go to movies.  They train for marathons or make crafts.  To make time for gardening, I have had to prioritize my hobbies and interests, and I have had to eliminate some things I used to spend time doing, before I had children, in favor of gardening.
Now that the weather is pleasant and leaves are abundant, it’s the perfect time to start a garden.  If gardening is a new hobby, start small, just as you would if you decided to take up golf or running marathons, and work up to a large garden, if you enjoy the work.  A garden no bigger than 10 square feet gives space to grow a variety of plants, but is small enough to remain easily manageable.  If you are starting with sod or weeds, and don’t want to dig, layer newspaper (don’t use the shiny ad slicks because they might contain toxins) on top of the sod or weeds,  put compost or soil on top in as thick a layer as you desire over the paper, and top it with leaves.    Leave it to rot over the winter, and in the spring you’ll have a nice bed, ready for planting and full of earthworms.

If you want to forgo your usual gym visit for today, get out a shovel, spading fork, or a mattock, and dig up the sod.  One thing I gave up when making time for gardening is regular deliberate exercise like walking or going to the gym.  Digging up 10 square feet of sod burns enough calories to make up for skipping the gym.  Shake the dirt out of the sod or weeds, and compost or discard them—if you have weed seeds or invasive grass, don’t compost them.  Then mix in mushroom compost and organic fertilizer, and your garden is ready to plant.
Save some fall leaves to mulch the garden, and you won’t have to pull weeds.  Many people give up their gardens because weeds infest them.  The only way I am able to have as large a garden as I have is by using a lot of free mulch.  In the fall, I pick up bags of leaves from the side of the road, and, of course, I save my own leaves.  Leaves don’t necessarily look as attractive as purchased mulch, but they are free, lightweight, and easy to spread. 
Mulch applied several inches deep is critical to keeping the weeds down.   A few weeds might penetrate the cover of mulch, but they will be easy to remove during a stroll through the garden.  When I deadhead plants or cut back dead ones, assuming they aren’t diseased, I often stick them under the edge of the mulch, which saves me a trip to the compost pile and puts the compost right where I want it: on the roots of the plants.  In the vegetable garden, I use rotten hay from a round bale my father gives me.  If you have a small suburban lot, you don’t have room for an enormous bale of hay in your yard, but those of you with more land could contact a local farmer about getting a bale of old hay, or even buying a new bale of hay.  It isn’t very expensive.

The late Margot Rochester, who wrote “Earthly Delights,” lived in Lugoff, SC, and said she bought a large round bale of coastal Bermuda grass hay every year and used it to mulch her garden.  Coastal Bermuda grass contains no weed seeds, allaying fears that you might inadvertently sow seeds in the garden.  I haven’t had many problems with weeds from my hay, primarily because I keep it thick enough, several inches, to prevent seeds from germinating.  Ruth Stout, who wrote “How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back,” also used thick layers of hay to keep her garden’s weeds under control.  Both of these women gardened into their older years through both determination to pursue the hobby they loved and by making things as easy on themselves as possible. 
If gardening is a hobby you would like to pursue, it’s a great time of year to start.  Prepare your bed and give the earthworms time to work over the winter to improve the soil further, or plant it immediately.  Now, I am off to run the tiller over the site of our future orchard.  The calories I burn off wielding that machine will make up for the consumption of all the Halloween candy I steal from my daughters.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My family and I visited the SC State Fair when it was in town a few weeks ago, and although my children loved the rides, of course, I would have enjoyed exploring the animal and agriculture exhibits the entire time.  Visiting the fair is a great way to see farm animals that are otherwise only visible out the car window or on an organized tour. 

Sometimes, the visit was a little too close for comfort for me: in the cattle area, visitors can walk among the cows, alarmingly close to the rear end of the cow.  My father raised beef cattle for many years, and my parents trained me from earliest childhood to make a wide berth around the backside of the cow, not only to avoid unpredictable emissions but also to avoid suddenly kicking hooves.  Apparently, the cows at the fair, and milk cows in general, are much tamer than my father’s cows, although one cow-keeping teenage girl at the fair delighted in telling me about the hoof mark her friend sported on her forehead at school.  I am glad the friend was not in a hospital. 

I enjoyed the poultry barn the most, of course.  The cacophony of dozens of roosters, confined in stacks of cages for everyone’s safety, crowing at adversaries both seen and unseen, was nearly deafening.  One Barred Plymouth Rock rooster, in a cage above his hen, was apparently tired of crowing, and, between crows, yawned widely and closed his eyes in heavy blinks.  We came by again later and he was asleep with his beak tucked under his wing. 

I had not seen many roosters before these, and the size of the roosters in comparison to the hens awed me.  As I have mentioned in this blog, I have had some adventures catching my relatively tame hens, which are small and do not have spurs.  Trying to cajole one of these huge roosters into going somewhere he was not inclined to seems like something I’d rather not tangle with.  I do like the idea of having a rooster, the resulting baby chicks, and a self-sustaining flock of chickens, though.  He would also protect the hens.  Until my children are old enough to defend themselves and to escape an attacking rooster, though, we will just have hens. 

I admire the dedication of all farmers, and especially farmers of animals besides poultry.  Chickens are relatively independent as long as their needs for food, water, recreation, and shelter are met.  A farmer has to milk a dairy cow or goat, though, every day, usually twice a day.  If the farmer misses a milking, the animal will suffer the pain of an overfilled udder, may develop an infection, and will eventually stop giving milk.  Farmers cannot go out for the evening with friends and sleep late the next morning; they have to be home to milk in the evening and up to milk in the morning.  I understand that dairy animals do not like just having anyone milk them, either, and so getting someone to fill in might be difficult.  Chickens do not care who feeds them.

I visited my aunt’s neighbors at the milking time for her goats.  She milked her goats, which behave sort of like hooved dogs that give milk, and took the still-warm milk into the house to strain it and to make cheese.  We sampled some of the milk and goat cheese.  The idea of having my own milk and making my own cheese does sound like fun, but I think I’ll let someone else make the commitment to the animals and to cheese making.  I can keep my commitments to my chickens. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

About three o'clock this afternoon, the weather changed.  We've had rain, wonderful, slow, steady rain, over the past day or so; the kind that soaks into the soil and does not cause erosion.  The kind that chickens and children want to play in.  And the temperature has been warm enough for shorts. 

This afternoon, after a brief period when the sun hinted that it might make an appearance, dark clouds appeared and I expected storms.  Instead, the wind arose, and the remaining pine trees and hardwoods began folding over and rippling in the wind.  Then the power went out.  At first, it flashed off and came back on, and I could almost see a wayward tree branch applying pressure on the line, then lifting up.  A few minutes later, I imagine, the branch snapped and took the line with it on its journey to the ground, because the electricity went off. 

Even though I called the power company to report the outage, I still walked into darkened rooms and inexplicably flipped the switch to turn on the light.  Habit is powerful.  My bewildered two-year-old wondered why her fan turned off during the middle of her nap (I use a loud box fan to drown out the sounds of barking dogs and her yelling sister) and tried, in vain, to turn on the lights.

I am thankful we had all the trees near our buildings cut a few weeks ago.  I did not have to worry about them falling onto the house.  My girls, of course, thought the windy weather was great fun, and so I instructed them to stay away from the remaining trees in the woods in case branches decided to fall.  Hours later, the wind continues to blow, and the temperature has dropped twenty degrees or more with such rapidity that I felt foolish, an hour after I left my home appropriately dressed for the weather, when a store clerk asked me why I was wearing shorts in the suddenly chilly temperatures.

Monday, October 10, 2011

We Have Been Killing Pine Trees

I will never forget going outside one morning when my youngest daughter was a newborn and I was unable to do much work to find that a pine tree, which looked perfectly healthy the previous night and indeed still possessed green needles, had fallen across our patio. It knocked down part of the fireplace chimney and crushed part of the retaining wall. I sent my older daughter back inside the house to inform her father that he was going to be removing the tree, by himself, from the patio that morning instead of pursuing other activities.

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we played in the back yard under the shade of the pine trees one morning.   A wind arose, and during the afternoon, the house shook. I went outside to find an enormous pine tree lying across the area in which we had been playing. It was safely on the ground without damaging any structures. As I recall, it, too, appeared green and healthy. We stay away from trees when it is windy.

Although we carefully surveyed the area for dead or dying trees before we put in a new shed, a large pine, in the inexplicable way of pine trees, suddenly died a couple of weeks after we put in the shed. Its rapid death might have had something to do with the loud chomping from the thousands of pine beetles that have infested our woods. Their chomping was loud enough to compete with sound of the crickets’ songs at night, and they were quickly moving from tree to tree in the forest and had killed or were killing several trees.

Repaired patio with more trees waiting to die and fall onto the patio; the chimney blocks the view of the shed.

The tree was too near the shed, the house, and other obstacles for anyone besides a professional to cut the tree.  Because we would have to have someone in to cut the dead tree, we decided to cut some more trees. In the back yard, there were trees near buildings and they stole nutrients and water from my perennial beds.

My vegetable garden lies in an area that was previously forest. My father cut down those trees, many of which were entirely too close to the house anyway, and stopped when he felt he was too close to the power lines to continue cutting the trees. The remaining trees, however, shaded the garden and their roots soaked up nutrients and water that might otherwise go to the vegetable plants. They were just waiting for an opportunity to fall across the garden or the power lines.


The vegetable garden before trees were cut.  We cut the line of tall pines at the end of the garden, and I plan to put in a fruit orchard there.

We had the trees cut a couple of weeks ago by professionals that had all the necessary equipment and insurance. Tree cutting is very dangerous; I will not forget the sight of the man who bravely climbed 60 or more feet to the top of a pine tree, cut all the limbs out of the top, and then cut the tree down above him in sections about 10 feet long. When he cut a section, a rope tied to the section he was cutting and to another tree or a backhoe pulled it away from him and he hung onto the new top of the wildly swaying tree. I am thankful that neither people nor buildings were injured during the work.

At the bend of the tree is a man who has cut off the tree piece by piece, and has now cut off the top.  

God finally answered my prayers for rain, but in His time, as usual. As the men were getting ready to leave, I heard the first peals of thunder of the monsoon that gave us some of the season’s rain, about 4 inches, within a few days. I am thankful that the rain waited until the heavy equipment left; while they worked, the soil was dry and dusty.  Digging up soil with hand tools bulldozers have packed down is not fun.  I have fought erosion by moving some of the two enormous piles of mulch into the areas the soil washes, and I will plant cover crops as soon as I can to stop the erosion and to improve the soil. 

I have plans for my new garden space, and even though the size of the task is a bit overwhelming at times, I will eventually get the work done.  I would like to have more fruit trees, blueberry, blackberry, fig, and raspberry bushes, and grape vines. I will replace some of the pine trees and sweet gum trees with dogwoods and other ornamental trees that don’t have the pesky habit of falling over for no apparent reason, or, in the case of sweet gum trees, strewing balls covered with sharp points all over the yard. Next spring, I will enjoy the exuberant growth I expect from my existing plantings now that they no longer have to compete with pine trees for nutrients.

I do hate killing trees. Many of these trees were older than I am, and they are majestic, at least until they die and fall over on their own. I am going to replant the area with trees and shrubs that will provide us with beauty and food. It’s not as if I’m putting in a parking lot. I have enough mulch now to last me for years, and the tree service gave the trees to a pulpwood company that will turn them into paper and other products.  We have two large piles of firewood.  There is little waste.
It will take some time to transform the cleared area into the fruit orchard I want, and in the interim, I will continue to give myself the pep talk I gave myself that encouraged me to begin the process: “I’d rather have apple trees than pine trees.”  We still have plenty of trees in the woods, and many of them are beautiful oaks and maples, trees that don't usually fall over dead one morning with no warning. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Put Away Your Cell Phone and Enjoy Real Life, Please!

Last Saturday, my husband and I got a babysitter for our two girls and ate dinner at a nice restaurant:  one with a long wine list and without a children’s menu.  The food was superb: locally foraged wild mushrooms fried in a tempura batter, hydroponically grown local lettuce, local tomatoes, and shrimp caught off the coast of South Carolina.  Because the weather was cool enough for the first time in months, we sat on the restaurant’s patio while we dined.   We had a leisurely meal, talked, did not have to get up to get anyone more milk, and didn't have to tell anyone to leave her sister alone. 

The folks dining at the next table were about our age, and I presumed, although I did not ask, that they also had someone looking after their children that night.  Instead of talking to each other and savoring their meal, however, they used their cell phones to text or to surf the Internet between courses and any time they were not actually eating. 

Maybe they were doing something important that really couldn’t wait at 8 PM on a Saturday night, but I imagine they were texting other friends, updating their Facebook statuses, or shopping for shoes.  No wonder half or more of all marriages end in divorce, and no wonder families don’t know each other.  How could they if everyone is attached to individual cell phones and no conversation is deeper than one communicated by text message?

I use the Internet too, but I don’t take it to dinner with me.  I enjoy many hours free of TV, computer, and cell phone, and I feel somewhat like a rebellious child when I am unreachable; of course I had my cell phone with me in case the babysitter needed me that night.  I irritate people by forgetting my cell phone is on vibrate and not realizing it’s ringing, or by escaping to the garden during the girls’ rest times without the phone.  Technology enables me to be in contact with everyone, all the time, but that doesn’t mean constant contact is necessary.  Life will go on, even if people have to leave a message that I return later.

Cell phones and the Internet were supposed to make our lives simpler, but they complicate our lives.  These technologies capitalize on the quickly changing minutiae of people’s lives, whether it is the latest celebrity gossip, computer games, or your friend’s status update.  None of this will matter by the next year, and much of it won’t matter in the next hour.  Is it really worth sacrificing time with a real person to find out that someone you graduated high school with but haven’t seen in years cleaned out her garage today, or that another friend had his picture made with a celebrity?   

If you’re going to the expense of having a nice meal out with your spouse, please put the cell phone away.  In fact, maybe your cell phone should be put away any time you eat.  Go to the garden or for a walk and leave the phone at home.  Talk to your children and to your spouse in person, about real things, with no electronic distractions.  The Internet will still be there, that important call can wait, and you might find some peace.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I Worry More About the Calories in Juice Than the Arsenic, Dr. Oz

Perhaps you have heard about the controversy surrounding arsenic levels in apple juice discussed a couple of weeks ago on the “Dr. Oz” show.  Without getting into the details here, Dr. Oz had different brands of apple juice assessed by a laboratory and found that most of them had levels of arsenic, a poison, many times the FDA approved level for drinking water.  The FDA and some of the juice companies say that the type of arsenic found may not be harmful.  They also say that it is inaccurate to compare arsenic levels in apple juice to levels in drinking water because people drink much more water in a lifetime than apple juice, and arsenic has to build up in the body over time before it reaches toxic levels. 

I am not too concerned about the levels of arsenic in apple juice because my children don't drink juice very often.  When they are with me, they drink water and milk unless there is a special occasion.  I consider juice a treat, not a staple beverage.  I gave my babies water when they were ready for something besides milk, and I don’t keep juice in the house.  I know it is strange to refuse my children this staple of childhood.

Juice had not been a part of my life for a very long time before I had children.  My parents did not buy it when I was a child because of the expense; we had plenty of fruit, which was much cheaper.   I never became accustomed to drinking juice, other than an occasional glass of orange juice, and I didn’t want the calories it contained when I could buy my own groceries. 

I became concerned about giving my children juice because of the calories, too.  Childhood obesity is an epidemic; some researchers believe the life expectancy of the US population in general might decrease as today’s children become adults and die of weight-related diseases like heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes.   These diseases are real: I imagine you, like me, know many people who have died from or been disabled by diseases they would not have had if they were not obese.  I try to teach my children proper eating and exercise habits while I still have control over the foods they eat and whether or not they spend hours in front of the TV instead of running around outside.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a child, I imagine most parents gave little thought to obesity in children.  My parents made me eat my vegetables and limited sweets, but I don’t think they ever really worried about me becoming obese. It was easier to prevent obesity when food was more expensive, especially those “snack” items.  When I was a child, entire aisles of the grocery store were not devoted to juice and “juice drinks.”  There were three channels on TV, most shows were for adults and older children, and there were few cartoons except for Saturday morning.  Today, my children could live off convenience foods and watch cartoons all day if I let them.    

I looked at juice containers at the grocery store last week.  A “juice box” containing 100% juice has 100 calories and 22 grams of sugar.  An apple has 65 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 13 grams of sugar.  Fruit has naturally occurring sugar, but in juice it’s more concentrated than in an apple.  An apple does not contain as much Vitamin C as the juice, which is fortified with ascorbic acid (you can get the same effect by giving your child a multivitamin) but it also contains small amounts of other vitamins and minerals, and 3 grams of fiber, if eaten with skin, and 1 gram of fiber without skin.  An apple actually fills your stomach, and it takes a long time to eat compared to the, in the case of my child anyway, minute or two it takes to drink a juice box.  The fiber in the apple helps your body cope with absorbing the sugar.  Children aged 4-8 should consume about 1300 calories a day.  If a child sucks down a couple of juice boxes a day, that’s using up a lot of the calorie allotment.  Anything called a “juice drink” is nothing more than water, sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, and perhaps 10% juice.  You might as well serve Kool-Aid or soda.    

Apple juice is expensive: a common national brand cost $3.29 for about 32 ounces divided into 8 juice boxes; a 46-ounce jug cost $3.39.  A 3-pound bag of apples, containing about 15 apples, cost $2.99.  When I was a child, I don’t think juice boxes had been invented, and food cost more than it does today.  In general, families could not afford to allow their children to drink as much juice as they can today, and so it was not possible to allow one’s child to drink much juice.

Many folks cut the juice with water, which reduces calories, but the practice also trains the child’s taste buds to want a sweetened beverage and to be unsatisfied with plain water.  I believe children’s taste buds become accustomed to enjoying what they are served.  Children in India like curry and children in Japan like sushi, foods most American children would not touch.  Mine don’t much care for those foods either, because I don’t serve them often, but if I fed those foods every day from infancy I imagine they would.  Children who will drink only juice-sweetened water may become teenagers or adults that drink gallons of soda.  

It is always better to eat the whole food, like the whole apple, than part of the food, like the juice.  It is always better to eat a food than to drink it.  Your body has to work harder to digest it, and you remain full longer.  When my children have juice, I think of it like a cookie: okay for a treat, but I have no illusions about it being a great food they should consume whenever they want.  By not having it in the house, they cannot nag me for it and I do not have to set limits about when they can drink it.  It is simply not an option at home, normally.  I give them all the whole fruit to eat and water to drink they want.  If you want to reduce the amount of juice your children drink, cut the juice with water, and increase the amount of water while decreasing the amount of juice.  If you go slowly enough, they might not even notice.    

Monday, September 5, 2011

It's Time to Save Seeds for Next Year

If your garden managed to survive the hot, dry, summer, it is time to save seeds for next year.  Saving seeds is an economical way to garden from year to year, and it is the best way to preserve varieties that do well in your garden.

Seeds from open-pollinated plants are the only ones you can save and expect that they will produce the same plant again next year.  Hybrid plants produce seeds that are sterile, or else do not reproduce plants identical to the parent plants because the original seeds were grown in forced circumstances.  Open-pollinated plants produce fertile seeds that grow plants like the parents.  Hybrid seeds usually have “F1” on the package; open pollinated ones may have “OP.”  Plants labeled “heirloom” are not necessarily open-pollinated, and an “organic” designation has to do with the growing conditions of the plant that produce the seed, not whether or not the seed is open-pollinated or hybrid.  If you know the particular variety of plant, but don’t know if it’s hybrid or not, try looking it up online or in seed catalogs. 

To find flower seeds, allow blossoms to die and examine them.  Various coverings contain the seeds depending on their method of dispersal.  Some, like zinnias and daisies, are like flattish triangles and form in clusters in the cone in the middle of the flower.  Others, like spider flower and annual salvias, are round or oval and form in pods.  Butterfly weed, like the dandelion, attaches filmy white material to its seeds so that the wind carries them away, and poppies form seeds in little containers out of which the seeds pour like pepper from a peppershaker. 

Seeds from tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables are generally inside the vegetable.  Squeeze out the seeds and let them dry on a paper towel, then scrape them off and save them in a dry container.  I wait for beans and okra to dry on the plant, and I open the pod and shake the seeds out into a container.  Choose a container in which to remove the seeds from the pod.  Shake the seeds loose from the pod while it is inside the container, and discard the pod.  Some seeds, such as zinnia seeds, are difficult to separate from the dead flower; I pull off the dead petals, break apart the flower head, and save the whole thing for planting next year. 

 Allow the seeds to dry for a few days in a well-ventilated area.  To store them, put them in an old medicine bottle or zip-top bag, and keep them in a dry, cool, place until it’s time to plant them next year.  I usually save open-pollinated vegetable and herb seed, zinnia, annual salvia, cleome, poppy, larkspur, sweet William, foxglove, and columbine seed.

If you save seeds from perennials, you can sow the seeds in potting mix in a place where you can take care of the seedling all winter, preferably outdoors if you live in a suitable climate like I do, and get an extra 6 months of growth ahead.  Just protect the seedling from temperatures in the teens and below by putting it in an unheated garage or similar space, or sow the seeds in a cold frame. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Adventures with Snakes and Chickens

I had not seen any snakes this summer, and I thought I was fortunate not to encounter them, or any other wildlife, in my chicken pen. My good fortune began to change after a discussion one night earlier this month at the book club of which I am a member.  All the ladies shared their snake encounters and I, somewhat smugly, realized I had no story to share. 

When I arrived home that night and went to check on the chickens, no eggs were in the nest.  I found that odd, and gently scolded my lazy chickens as I plucked them from their perch on the roof of the chicken tractor, where they like to roost when it’s hot outside, and began to put them inside the chicken tractor for their safety.  Then, in the dim flashlight beam, I noticed a black snake slithering among the nine pairs of chicken legs on the roof and off the side of the tractor.  The chickens were in the usual almost-comatose state they enter after dark, and the one the snake nearly knocked off the roof as he exited didn’t even notice.  I ran to the house to get my husband, Scott, who said, “What do you want me to do? I know you don’t want me to kill it.”  I replied, “I don’t know, but you should just be out there with me!”

I am not afraid of snakes, but I respect them and I want them to tend to their snake business away from me. The snake sped under a gap underneath the electrified netting fence, and Scott and I arrived just in time to see it disappear under his man shed.  We looked for it, and our plan was to catch it and release it somewhere far away from any chickens if we saw it again.  Black snakes are helpful to have around because they control rodents, and are not poisonous, but I couldn’t have one eating my eggs.

A week or two later, my neighbor found two large timber rattlesnakes in her yard, and as far as I know, had them killed.  I would have killed them if they were in my yard too because of the danger they pose to people and pets. 

On Sunday afternoon, I checked on the chickens and noticed that the nest egg, a large wooden white egg from my daughter’s play kitchen I put in the nesting box to encourage the chickens to lay their eggs there instead of on the ground, was missing.  I lifted the straw on one of the nesting boxes, thinking the chickens might have buried the nesting egg, and found a large black snake curled in the box.  It had a bulge just the size of the nest egg, which is larger than a normal egg, in its body.  If a snake can smell the eggs and come from the woods into the chicken tractor after the eggs, I do not know why he can’t tell the difference between a real egg and a wooden one.   I suppose I scared the snake as much as he scared me, and that’s why he didn’t bite me.  I dropped the straw and ran to get Scott. 

Again, Scott wondered why I was bothering him, but I told him that because as far as I knew, snakes could not digest wooden eggs, the humane thing to do was to kill the snake instead of letting it suffer, and that snake killing was definitely his job.  My daughter, Ella, 5, wanted to see what was going on, so I showed her the snake and explained to her that the snake had eaten her wooden egg and we’d have to kill it so it wouldn’t suffer.    

My grandparents always kept a good sharp hoe around for snake killing, but I lack a suitable one, or at least could not locate it in the melee.  The snake was coiled inside the nesting box, and inside the chicken tractor, so hoe chopping was not possible.  Scott used a shovel.  I let the fence down to encourage the chickens to leave the area, but they preferred to see what we were doing in their house.  As the snake killing progressed, I had to shooing them away to keep them from pecking at the snake and possibly becoming victim of a misplaced shovel-blow. 

Scott managed to kill the snake without destroying the chicken tractor, although there are a few new holes in the plastic siding.  It is surprisingly hard to kill a snake in a nesting box.  He left me the job of burying the snake.  After I answered all of Ella’s questions about the snake’s death and showed her the dead snake, at her request, she said she did not want the egg back.  I buried the snake, containing the wooden egg, in a gully. The chickens seem very unconcerned about the entire experience, I tried to fortify the chicken tractor further against snakes, and I will scatter mothballs around our property as a snake repellent.  I have also designated a sharp bush axe as the future weapon of choice to use against snakes inside the chicken tractor. 

A few days later, I smelled dead snake and discovered that some animal had dug up the snake, and, apparently possessing more intelligence than the snake, had eaten the snake but had left the wooden nest egg in the woods nearby.  I also left the nest egg, which reeked of dead snake, on the forest floor, but I covered it with some leaves to reduce the odor.  Ella did not want it back.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seed Savers Exchange

Gardens in front of the barn at Seed Savers Exchange

 Decorah, Iowa, is a beautiful town near the Minnesota border. Norwegians apparently settled the town, and their influence remains in the food and culture. After driving more than 100 miles north of Iowa City, where my family and I visited my sister, we arrived at Seed Savers Exchange, a seed purveyor.   Visit them at  They specialize in selling heirloom seeds, and their goal is to help prevent the extinction of the seeds our great-grandparents grew. People used to save seeds of plants that did well in their gardens and pass them along to other people, and they developed varieties especially adapted to their gardens. With the advent of hybrid seed and the decline of gardening, many of these varieties have been lost. Seed Savers, along with other similar organizations, hopes to prevent further demise by growing and selling the seed.

Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Ott in 1975 with some seed her grandfather gave her that he brought from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. Heritage Farm, where Seed Savers Exchange is headquartered, spreads for 890 acres and includes antique apples, fields of heirloom vegetables, and endangered cattle. The farmers at the Heritage Farm, as well as gardeners across the country, work together to preserve heirloom seeds by growing, sharing, and selling the seeds. Seed Savers Exchange donates seed to national and international seed vaults and preservation programs.  


Unfortunately for me, we visited on a Sunday, when many of the buildings were closed, and we went there at the end of a very long day of driving and touring other places. Although my visit was brief, it was long enough to determine that the place is just as beautiful as the seed catalog and the website,,  depict it.

The soil is the rich, dark land of the Midwestern cornfields. I am perpetually envious of the richness of the soil and the abandon with which plants grow. My sister reminds me, though, that the weather is only pleasant less than half the year, and while I am at home, contentedly enjoying a 70-degree day in January and picking lettuce, the soil in which she might hope to grow lettuce is frozen solid and covered with snow.

But on that July day, the coneflowers grew in enormous clumps, as did the hollyhocks. Insects ravaged neither, and the colors in the petals were vibrant instead of faded by day after day of temperatures at or near 100, as my flowers are. Plants look like they do in pictures in magazines, instead of hot and tired.

Trial gardens at Seed Savers Exchange

In the vegetable garden, beans and tomatoes shared space with lettuce, potatoes, carrots, and beets. In Iowa, gardeners have only one season in which to grow their crop, and nature seems to cooperate to provide abundance in the short time. With the rich soil and extra hour of daylight gardens receive there, usually without the temperatures high enough to stop plant growth and fruit setting that we have regularly, plants grow and produce enough in the short season to sustain the gardener for the winter.

As I always do when I visit another garden, I left inspired to work harder in my garden. I cannot do anything about the heat, but I can continue to work on the soil so that my plants have a thicker layer of black loam in which to grow every year. I told my husband and sister I could just summer in Iowa, with a nice garden, and move back to SC when the snow falls. Then again, I would miss home and the sounds of our birds and insects. I guess I will stay where I am, and cope with my gardening challenges. At least I can garden nearly every day of the year here.

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To buy products from Seed Savers Exchange or to request a catalog, visit or call (563) 382-5990.  If you have some seed you have passed down in your family and want to make sure it is preserved, or if you want to share it with others, they might be able to help.  In addition, if there is some variety of plant you remember from your grandmother’s garden but you cannot seem to find anymore, check their catalog for it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Garlic Math

I finished cleaning my garlic, weighed it, and saved out the biggest bulbs for seed today.  I even braided some of the soft-neck garlic, although my first attempt, using cloves of various sizes, is not as neat-looking as some I have seen.  I harvested about 17 pounds of garlic total.  An average grocery-store sized bulb weighs about 1 3/4 ounces, so that means I harvested about 200 bulbs.  I think I need to go into the garlic-selling business...

The Summer Herb Garden

If you use herbs when you cook, you can quickly go broke trying to buy them. In the produce section, stores carry tiny wilted packets of “fresh” basil, oregano, parsley, and other herbs for about $2. If you are lucky, you will find some truly fresh herbs at the farmers market for a reasonable price. Many of the dried herbs, I noticed, are products of China. No matter how small your garden, it is easiest to grow your own for fresh consumption and to dry some for use the rest of the year.

If you have a sunny spot big enough for a pot, grow some herbs, even if you don’t have room for anything else. I used to have an herb garden, but now I mix the perennial herbs in with my flowers and shrubs and I plant the annual herbs in rows in the vegetable garden. They are easy to grow, and with the exception of mint, behave themselves.

Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it’s happy you will not have to worry about it. The upright type seems to be easier to grow than the prostrate, or creeping, type, and it forms a nice evergreen shrub. Rosemary likes hot dry sites; my mother has tried for years to find some shrub that will grow across the front of her brick home that the afternoon sun bakes all day, and rosemary thrives where many other shrubs died.

I water rosemary often until it is established. I make sure the soil dries some between waterings, but I don’t let it dry out so much that it begins to wilt. Many plants tolerate this treatment, but rosemary does not. Rosemary will also die in soggy soil. I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants. If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot. They like sandy soil.

Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences. My mother has a patch of sage growing in the same baking sun the rosemary likes that is older than I am, but she gave me several starts of her sage before I got one to grow in my garden. Using my own sage in recipes instead of that jarred “rubbed sage” is worth the trouble. Thyme and oregano like more consistently moist, but not soggy, sites.

Basil is very easy to grow as a crop among your other vegetables. Sow the seed directly in the ground and cover it, and you will have a crop in about 2 months. Six plants or so should give you plenty to eat fresh, to dry, and to make pesto; freeze the pesto and you’ll have a supply all winter without having to pay the exorbitant prices for pesto in the grocery store.

Unfortunately for us, cilantro, a crucial seasoning in fresh salsa, tends to bolt to seed in our heat before any tomatoes are ripe. I managed to nurse ours along this year by planting a bolt-resistant variety and cutting off the flower stalks as they appear so I had some around to put with the tomatoes to make salsa.

It’s best to dry herbs when they are actively growing. Pick them on a dry morning, and shake off any bugs. I do not use any pesticides on mine, and I do not wash them; I suppose that if you wanted to wash them, you could, and then spin them dry in a salad spinner. I spread them on a wire rack or on paper towels on a cookie sheet, and I make sure there is ample room among the leaves for air circulation. When the leaves are crunchy, I store them in zip-top plastic bags in the cabinet.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Farmers Market, Iowa City, Iowa

For such a small town, about the size of Sumter in SC, Iowa city has a wonderful Farmers Market
Although there was no okra, there were plenty of other vegetables, many of which would have been burned in SC's heat by now
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

One Dozen Eggs!

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Nothing Starts the Day off Right... looking out the back door and seeing a chicken stroll across the driveway.  I moved them to greener pastures yesterday, but apparently the wings I trimmed about six weeks ago have grown back sufficiently to allow them to fly over the fence in search of even better food. Achieving another developmental milestone, Ella, 5, helped me catch those it was possible to catch, and helped hold the wings out for me to trim them.  Presently, seven of the nine are back in the pen, and the other two, which were too wild to catch, were decorating the porch of my husband's newly built Man Shed with their droppings.