SproutRobot / AlexRobot

A friend recently told me about a new website that promises to help gardeners schedule when to plant plants based on zip codes/zones. Just like Ouch Pouch toe pads and Cubism, someone has gone and invented my invention before I had a chance to do it myself. Part of my overall plans in starting this blog, including but not limited to world domination, has been usurped by a website cleverly named SproutRobot.com.

Visit the website, put in your zip code, and the robot will populate a planting schedule based on your zone. Now, you can do this yourself by buying seeds, reading the packet’s directions and then organizing the seeds in order of their planting dates. But if that is two too many steps for you, Sprout Robot may be your answer. Once you create an account, you can check the vegetables that you are planning on growing and the robot will customize your planting schedule for you.

With every website (or really anything) that promises to solve all of your problems, there are always drawbacks. Some problems to start:

  1. I am pretty certain that the Robot promised to email me when I was supposed to start my tomatoes and bell peppers but I don’t have an email. (Come on, Robot! Automatic reminders that I don’t have to put in my calendar? Don’t fail me there!)
  2. The Robot doesn’t know about every single herb that I want to plant so I’ll still have to supplement my Robot generated schedule with my own herb planting schedule.

Besides the little issues listed above, I think it’s a helpful site and hopefully will only get better as time goes on. According to the site it is time to plant my tomatoes and bell peppers indoors! We’ll see how Jordan and I do with planting seeds–it can’t be that hard, right?

Sprouts, e.coli, and food safety

Yesterday, I read an article from the NPR food blog about an outbreak of illnesses among people who ate sprouts on their sandwiches at Jimmy John’s restaurants. Read the full article here.

This is scary for so many reasons. With more and more people eating out on a daily basis and expecting to purchase safe meat and vegetables at restaurants, it leads me to question whether our food is actually safe enough or if we putting ourselves at risk by eating out.

It’s not as simple as just choosing to forego sprouts on your sandwich. Visit the Food Safety and Inspection Service section of the USDA website and just take a look at the current list of recalls. Already in 2012 there have been 7 recalls. I clicked on the Cobb Salad entry warning of possible Listeria contamination. The description of the disease is enough to knock your socks off and discourage you from eating packaged Cobb Salad ever again:

“Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease. Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis. However, listeriosis can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea. Listeriosis can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.”

I wanted to read more about e.coli outbreaks and lucky me, there was a recall on December 16, 2011. 40,948 pounds of ground beef were recalled. That’s a whole lot of ground beef to go to waste. Also, question: when meat is recalled, where does it go?

I don’t think we should just have to deal with these food safety problems. Contaminated meat and vegetables should never even make it to the shelves for consumers to buy. But until the FSIS inspects every food processing plant and shuts down the ones that are pumping out 40,948 pounds of contaminated ground beef, we’ll be buying our meat from sources we can trust and growing our own, non-contaminated vegetables.

Will research how to grow sprouts and post knowledge here.

Easy Calzones – Repurposed Cheese Finds Home

The other day, a kitchen quest to find missing plasticware led me to some leftovers hidden way back in the back of the fridge. With all the composting we’ve been doing lately we’ve rarely had to use our disposal and he was getting hungry. I fed him some sad leftovers and wept a solitary tear that I hadn’t been able to save the eggplant salad or the dill dip. Then I decided I should tackle all the shelves and drawers in the fridge, just for fun.

Lucky for Jordan, there wasn’t any rotting food, just 9 different containers storing bits of different cheeses. I really think cheese is the reason we could never go vegan.

I recently learned that Americans eat about 31 pounds of cheese per year; the majority is probably consumed on pizza and hamburgers while most of ours is lovingly sliced and eagerly consumed via cracker. I just hope our love of cheese doesn’t end up with our bodies looking like the ones on the PCRM billboards (see above link).

These are the cheeses we had in the fridge in varying amounts: Provolone, Mozzarella, Feta, Parmesan, Goat, Cheddar, Trader Joe’s Toscano, Pimento and of course, Cream Cheese. Lucky I had some of those cheeses around, because it’s exactly what I needed to make delicious calzones!

I used the first four cheeses from the list, shredded them, and mixed them up in a bowl. I can’t say it enough: everyone needs to learn how to make bread because bread baking is key to making dinner up on the fly. I used a calzone bread recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, but you could use any pizza dough recipe. Once you mix together the bread ingredients (flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt), beat it up a bit, and let it rise, you just roll out the dough into 5 or 6 circles, add some cheese and sliced garlic, fold, and crimp the edges with a fork. They baked at 450 for about 24 minutes. It’s really that easy, I promise.

I also happened across a small container of leftover marinara sauce from a previous spaghetti dinner and it served very well as a dipping sauce for the calzones. I can’t decide what made me happier: using up the leftovers and not wasting food or biting into the warm and cheesy calzone…yum.

 

Valentine’s Day flowers, to give or not to give…

Once upon a time, I told Jordan that I didn’t ever want flowers for holidays because they just die and you don’t get to enjoy them for very long and then it’s not fun to get rid of old flowers because they smell bad and they literally fall apart as you carry them to the trash and you have to vacuum up after them and if you’re really lucky you touch a slimy stem or drip stinky green water on your bare feet.

But they’re so pretty, and I like what the giving of flowers symbolizes, and I love love. Sigh.

Unfortunately, most cut flowers that you buy at the grocery store are not very good for the environment or for you. They are usually imported and thus carry a large carbon footprint and are most likely coated with pesticides because they aren’t usually grown organically. And the first thing we do is sniff them! (!) When we talk about buying locally, it seems like the conversations begin and end with food. But shouldn’t we extend the same rules to buying flowers on special holidays?

If we did try to buy flowers locally and seasonally, we probably wouldn’t have access to red roses. When did red roses became standard gifts at Valentine’s Day anyway? Is there a Society for the Preservation of Red Rose Giving on Valentine’s Day dot org or something? We should be giving each other plants that are blooming right now like daffodils and winter irises. If only we could escape our offices for an afternoon and take some time to run around in the woods, we could probably create a beautiful winter plant bouquet for free! At least in NC, where we don’t have winter winter.

The question remains: Would I say no to a beautiful bouquet of imported flowers on Valentine’s Day from my one-and-only? Probably not. Should we spend the next afternoon running through the woods looking for winter flowers? Most definitely yes.

Purchasing Seeds for Container Gardening

Another beautiful Saturday and we couldn’t stand to stay inside. We also happened to run out of coffee so instead of just going to the store to buy new beans, we went out for breakfast. Yay!

Since we were already out and since we hadn’t purchased any seeds yet, we decided to visit the coolest hardware store on the planet, Blackhawk Hardware (I didn’t get paid to say that, I just love the store). It’s probably not the cheapest place, but at least it’s locally owned with friendly, helpful workers who can point lost puppies in the right direction. Plus, they carry lots of heirloom varieties and no GMO seeds.

Upon reaching the seed aisle, after the fast-panting and tail-wagging subsided, we looked at all the vegetable seeds and chose the ones that would work best for us. I really wanted to buy the weirdest stuff like kohlrabi, amaranth, bok choy, and multi-colored beans but I was convinced to stick with what we actually eat the most often. Sigh, it’s good advice but not nearly as fun.

Here’s what we ended up with:

PEPPER chile, Early Jalapeno, Capsicum annuum
We buy jalapenos all the time for use in soups, salsa, and guacamole and we always have to buy too many at Trader Joe’s. We’ll probably just have one plant and use the leftovers to make hot pepper jelly to eat with cheese and crackers. Mmm.

TOMATO bush, Better Bush, Lycopersicon lycopersicum (hybrid)
This was a no-brainer. Everyone knows that tomatoes from the store are just gross. They’ve been genetically modified to withstand long bumpy rides across the country and to be the same size (huge) and same color (orangey red). I’ll probably sneak back to the store and buy three more varieties because I like tomatoes so much.

RADISH, Easter Egg Blend, Raphanus sativus
Totally succumbed to the drawing of purple, white, pink and red radishes on the packet. Radishes with a little bit of salt are like heaven to me. These will be eaten as a snack at work every day that they are available.

PEPPER bell, Jewel-Toned Bell Peppers
Bell peppers cost $4 each at Harris Teeter. Nuff said.

LETTUCE leaf, Salad Bowl Blend, Lactuca sativa
The lettuce we buy always gets slimy before we have a chance to eat it all. I hope this will particular mix will work as a cut and come again plant so we have lettuce all season long!

CARROT, Carnival Blend, Daucus carota sativus
Again, the yellow, pink, white, purple and orange carrots on the packet made me do it. I’m not sure how well these will do in a container but I’m willing to give it a whirl for pink and purple carrots.

CUCUMBER, Spacemaster, Cucumis sativus
“Spacemaster is the solution!” I will keep my cukes in their own container so they don’t overrun my garden and harvest small guys to make pickles and eat the others raw with my radish snack.

SQUASH Summer, Black Beauty Zucchini, Cucurbita pepo
I wasn’t originally going to get zucchinis but the packet said, “this highly productive bush type plant takes up little garden space” and I’m a trusting person.

PARSNIP, All American, Pastinaca sativa
I think parsnips are underrated. I like them best in chicken soup with carrots, but I also plan to mash or fry them up with other root vegetables like rutabagas, beets, and potatoes. Why not?

BRUSSELS SPROUTS, Long Island Improved, Brassica oleracea (Gemmifera group)
I couldn’t resist! I don’t even know if this is possible. I just love brussels sprouts so much that I had to try it. If I can get one stalk with a handful of little sprouts I’ll have succeeded. I want everyone in the world to love brussels sprouts as much as I do and I am on a mini-mission to convince the world that brussels are the best. That should be a bumper sticker.

One question remains: did we bite off more than we can chew? I haven’t even started planning the herb/edible flower portion of the garden. Eek.

Compost Recipe

Now that we have a DIY compost bin that cost us $15 and about a half hour of our lives, largepuppy and I need to start cooking. After we combine the right ingredients, mix them together and layer them like a cake, sprinkle the goods with a bit of love (and water), and put the whole mess into the oven to cook, we should have some delicious “black gold” to call our own. Wealthy in a whole other sense of the word.

Ooey Gooey Crispy Damp Paper Food Scrap Compost Recipe
yield: cooks down to about half the starting material

INGREDIENTS
Browns, divided:
1 large bag of dry fall leaves, preferably chopped or minced
A weeks worth of junk mail, shredded into strips**
5 cardboard containers, torn
Leftover paper napkins from last night’s takeout
A few twigs and branches
Sticks to taste
*Optional
Sawdust (who has that lying around?)
Hay or straw (again, who has that lying around??)

Greens:
5 coffee filters + grounds
4 banana peels
8 eggshells, rinsed to prevent rats
Onion scraps, potato peels, old celery, carrot tops, chopped into small pieces
An apple core or two
Pinch of green yard waste, weeds, or grass clippings
*Optional
Manure from the imaginary farm animals in your backyard
Seaweed, from the sea

**There are differing views about whether or not to compost junk mail and newspaper because of the dyes and chemicals in the paper. I don’t have very much material to work with so I’m going with what I have. Less to send to the recycling center and hopefully more compost for me!

PREPARATION
Prepare compost bin by punching holes in the container or dig a hole in the ground (see How to Make a Compost Bin Out of a Trash Can for reference.) Collect browns (carbon-rich) and greens (nitrogen-rich) materials in a ratio of 3:1 browns to greens. Put down half of the browns and give it a little sprinkle of water to slightly moisten the dry cardboard, then add the greens, followed by the rest of the browns. Give the layer cake another sprinkle of water as icing and cover the whole mess with the lid of your bin or the soil you dug up from the hole (this is your oven.)

Give the whole thing a roll to aerate and mix all the goodies together. Add more browns and greens and roll around every once in a while to cook. Compost will be ready in about 3 months. Enjoy!

How to Make a Compost Bin out of a Trash Can

Ok, so I’ve given up on making a compost “pile” because I don’t have a shovel and I fear the squirrels that think they own my backyard. It’s our fault because largepuppy and I don’t really venture outside on the back deck very often. So the squirrels think they own the place and sometimes when I peek out my back window, there they are, staring right back at me with an expression that says, “We run this s***!” just like a bushy tailed Missy Elliott. I can just imagine them digging in my pile, messing with my layers of browns and greens, and being the mischievous little hip hop critters that they are.

So we decided to make our own compost bin out of a garbage can. Here we go!

  1. Grab a plastic garbage can with a tight fitting lid. Round ones are good for future rolling, also known as aerating.
  2. Poke a bunch of holes in the sides using your teeth (or a hammer and nails or a drill, whatever works best for you.)

        

DONE. Compost bin ready to receive our browns and greens and magically transform said browns and greens into beautiful humus-rich compost that will magically help my plants grow into magical vegetables.

(magic!)

Frugal Gardening Tips: Recycled Containers, Water Conservation, & Natural Insect Repellant

I’ve been doing a lot of aggressive reading lately. Reading becomes a sport when you check out too many books at once from the library. Trigger happy and manic, I reserved all these gardening books in about 2 minutes, not bothering to think, “Alex, is there really enough time to read all these books before they start costing you a precious $0.25/day/book?”

Now, faced with a looming deadline, I can’t afford to waste any time leisurely meandering my way through my stack of pretty books. If I put as much energy into exercising as I do into reading, I might be a really good athlete instead of someone who is overly educated on very specific topics like how to make your own worm poop. But believe you me, that information is going to come in handy soon and the ability to run for longer than a minute–well, that could be handy too… Moving on!

I did finish You Grow Girl and it’s as I feared: I love it. I love everything about it. If I were to write a book on gardening, it would be this book. If I could live inside a gardening book, I would nestle between the section on growing edible flowers and the entire chapter on how to combat evil, nasty bugs and diseases. And although it is clearly written for the female audience, I do believe men would find it helpful too. Jordan may want to skip the chapter on sewing a gardening tool belt, but otherwise it’s got amazing bits of information on every single page.

Here are some things I learned that I never knew before:

  • You can use pretty much anything as a container for seed starting and growing.
    When I first started this project, I thought I would need to buy lots and lots of expensive containers and gardening gear. That is not true! I have begun to collect pretty much anything that can have holes drilled into it. My seeds will be started in toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, yogurt cups, butter containers; tin cans, plastic buckets, trash cans, old tupperware–all kinds of junk will be repurposed into suitable housing for my veggies and herbs!
  • You don’t have to buy an expensive rain barrel to conserve and collect water.
    You can buy a rain barrel if you want to, or you can make your own. However, there are lots of ways to collect water throughout the day. We can save the water from our showers and sinks that runs while we wait for it to warm up, rain water can be collected in buckets placed on the porch, we can reuse our pasta, leftover tea, and laundry water. Who says our water bill has to be high this summer? I laugh in the face of the water company!
  • You can combat insects and woodland creatures naturally without expensive and/or environmentally harmful sprays.
    You can use companion planting, i.e. planting something that attracts good bugs that will eat bad bugs next to a plant that attracts bad bugs, to go on the offense for you; you can lay down copper pennies to keep slugs and snails at bay (I feel slightly bad about this one because the copper shocks the poor guys); and burning frankincense, yes the stuff that the wise men brought to baby Jesus, discourages birds, squirrels, and cats from taking up residence in the garden.

FYI, I am not looking forward to plotting ways to murder the bad insects that will inevitably invade my sweet garden. I already know that I will be a ruthless killer. And isn’t gardening supposed to be peaceful?