Thursday, November 29, 2012

"My" Bees Are Gone

They disappeared from the rooftop hive about a month ago.  Given the state of the hive and environs, we don't think they absconded. That leaves Colony Collapse Disorder.

The maddening thing about all this is that I'll never really know.  This state of confusion is actively manipulated by the makers of neonicitinoids, like Bayer.

The regulatory process in Europe, much as it is in the U.S. is useless.

Evidence submitted to parliament cites a long list of failings in current regulations. Perhaps most serious is that it is only the effects on honeybees that are considered, despite 90% of pollination being performed by different species, such as solitary or bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and others. Another is that the regime was set up for pesticide sprays, not systemic chemicals like neonicitinoids that are used to treat seeds.

Even the National Farmers Union (NFU), which argues that there is no need for change, admitted: "It is very well known that the current pesticide risk assessment systems for bees were not developed to assess systemic pesticides."

Nigel Raine, at Royal Holloway, University of London, highlighted other failings in a recent study. First, insecticides are tested singly, despite the European regulator reporting that "pesticides are often applied in tank mixes (two to nine active ingredients at the same time)".

Tests also wrongly focus on individual insects, according to Connolly: "For social insects, it is the colony that is the breeding unit and the most important."

Goulson said as little as 2% of the neonicitinoids applied to the seeds actually ends up in the plants. "There is an urgent need to establish the fate of the other 98% and to find out what impacts they might be having on the environment," he said.

I ended up with a quart of honey from the lifeless hive.  My beekeeping friends (Hi Michelle and Karen!) and I will try again next year. We plan on adding an extra hive or two while we're at it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A True Garlic Story:

I was planting garlic cloves and it started to rain hard. I decided to call it quits and put the few extra large cloves in my pocket but I forgot to check my pockets before washing my clothes. I realized what I had done after I opened the dryer and was overcome with a strong garlic fragrance that filled the room. I couldn't stop laughing when I saw one of the garlic cloves tumble out of the dryer! Ahh… another memorable gardening moment! 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Oct 2012: 80-Degrees Roof Clean-Up (?) + Flowering Tomatoes

It poured yesterday, but 80 degrees is predicted for Wednesday (with temps in the 70s bookending it), making this a good Chicago week for roof clean-up, which entails cutting back plants and getting damp potting mix out of the SIPs to dry.

I'm letting those tomatoes up there ripen on the vine, hoping a kiss of warmth this week will sweeten them further.

Amongst the detritus Oct 22:

Cleaning the growing roof involves lowering down tubs filled with spent plant material to the compost bin on the ground. It's the very antithesis of in-ground organic growing, where end-of-season plants can simply be knocked down and left alone or dug under.

On the roof, we cut off and pick up every last bit to keep the gutters clear and prevent a layer of compost from developing on the roof's reflective surface. That old adage is true: compose happens.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Still More Tomatoes Oct 2012

Picked another 6 pounds this week, each one a gift. Heading to the roof now to see what else might be dangling from the withered vines.

Friday, October 12, 2012

At Last, Tomatoes 2012

We snarked and moaned, inundated you with Chicago's early heat stats straight from Tom Skilling's weather center, and just about entirely missed the first round of tomatoes due to the unbelievale heat this summer.
But by virtue of a little good luck, accidental planning, and tenacity--yes, we didn't give up watering the scorched-earth-looking tomato plants--we've had a beautiful tomato harvest over the past eight weeks. I've just been too busy to post about it.

The uber-reliable for our climate

How to describe the joy of finally having enough of this queen fruit to worry about what to do with 'em all? Eight words do it justice: Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. For my time and effort, this is the easiest and most flavorful sauce to make with a load of tomats. After cutting into chunks this size and letting them cook down, we freeze it.

Mostly we've been returning from the roof with small to mid-sized 'maters. Happily, we planted Glacier, Stupice, Black Prince, Brazilian Beauty, and Crnkovic, the last not small by any stretch but early and clearly good for the long haul (the plant looked devastated two weeks ago but was loaded with large maturing fruit). What Bountiful Gardens says about Brazilian Beauty:
Forty years ago, Gordon Brown was at a nursery when a hippie van full of tomato plants pulled up. All the tomatoes were rare types from Brazil, and they were for sale. The nursery owner didn’t want them, so Gordon bought some, and this variety was the standout. He’s kept it going to this day, a rare and unbelievably tasty tomato. Unusual, mahogany color with green shoulders. Very good yields. Closest non-hybrid we’ve seen to that sweet, tropical “sungold” flavor.
Brazilian Beauty at lower right. 
Continuing clockwise: Glacier, Stupice, 
the tiny Whippersnapper, Crnkovic, and not sure

Some turn up their noses at small varieties. Not in this house. Yes we had a few BLT monsters that outsized the bread they sat on, like this one (hard to believe, given our growing season).
But the small intensely flavored heirlooms are right for so many reasons: they got started and thrived even in the early heat, delivering fruit when no larger tomato could.

And they kept on delivering.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

It's Been A Long Season

It's been a long growing season here in Minneapolis. The picture above was taken this afternoon and there are still plenty of tomatoes on the vines. We've been lucky to have a pretty good crop of tomatoes this year, especially our Black Cherry plant. For about a 3-4 week stretch, we were pulling off 5 lbs of cherry tomatoes off of that one plant, every 4-5 days.

The one thing that was frustrating this year were the really hot temps. That killed some early flowers but when the weather returned to "normal," the flowers came back, so now you see all of the green tomatoes on the vines in late September. I'm leaving them on until the temps really dip. This weekend is supposed to be in the 80's so maybe I'll get a few more to blush before I pick my last harvest.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the chipmunks were eating their fair share of my tomatoes. They live in the boulder retaining wall that divides my yard with my neighbors. Apparently, they liked the tomatoes so much that they've started growing their own, probably from my tomato's seeds. Here's a picture of a 20" plant growing out of the rocks. I've never seen this before and actually thought it was a weed until I noticed the little yellow flowers. It's about 10 feet from the closest tomato plant so my best guess is that the little rodents left some seeds in the cracks or something.

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Fermenting

We wrote earlier about Sandor Katz's new book, The Art of Fermentation. Buoyed by his reassuring tone and Permission to Ferment Anything, I threw together this one last Sunday after plucking a beautiful organic cabbage from the farmers market. Ingredients? Cabbage and organic lemon (mostly rind after I cleaned out the seeds).

With a rooster spur pepper for color and any slight heat it might impart. And salt.

I wanted to try a clean, clear set of flavors and spoon a little out each day in an effort to more clearly taste the fermentation process. Also, my boyfriend doesn't love the extreme flavor of an aged kraut-chi. A couple spoonfuls of this one in a bowl with a little olive oil sauces our rooftop greenie beans perfectly.

Today Mrs Homegrown at Root Simple waxes poetic about Katz and calls herself a fangirl.

Pretty sure I'm one too. The simple concoction pictured above tastes like the ocean, like spring, like heaven. And the rooster spur is gathering strength...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mad for Melons

We love watching them grow in SIPs...and eating them too. Above, Tigger on the vine.

 Golden Midget (1 3/4 lb), Tigger (1 1/2 lb), Renee's icebox rainbow sherbet (1 1/8 lb)

Such pretty interiors, and sweetly flavorful too. The Tigger was loaded with seeds.

We dutifully washed and dried to save them all for next year. Imagine how precious if this were your only sugar source.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Harvest 2012: Provider Beans and Little Bells

Chicago absolutely fried earlier this summer, stopping much of the growth on all plants. But the weather's moderated and the harvest has been up and running in full force for the last several weeks. Even the second wave of tomatoes is coming in strong (after the first flowering was lost to nighttime heat), but more on that in another post.

Striking Chicago teachers wear red:
please support them

This summer we're singing the praises of these Provider bush beans from Bountiful Gardens. They've thrived in the heat and regardless how long they get (you always miss a few when picking) they're reliably tender. Other beans seem to set up their seeds earlier, so that this time of year the purple and yellow bush beans are more seed than good eating. Honestly this is my new favorite variety.

Provider bush beans

Picking lunch from the roof is one of the great joys of growing. Steamed Provider greenie beans with rooftop tomatoes and golden beets from the farmers market. That's a pretty typical summer lunch for us, with herbs and other seasonings.

Waiting for protein

Melons, eggplant, Jimmy Nardello and Little Bells sweet peppers plus a handful of tomats. Grab a knife and a fry pan and...lunch.

Love those Little Bells, from Wild Garden Seed. Check 'em out at the link: nice squat plants with small sweet peppers. They love growing in SIPs and this picture shows part of their color range.
Great pepper for northern climes with short seasons. Before fall's killing frost, we clip whole plants with remaining fruits attached, trim leaves and hang in a cool place. Fruit will continue to ripen on the stem for weeks.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


We've been seeding greens in previously planted SIPs up on the roof. I like to give them a good start in the full, late-season sun before bringing them down and replanting in the raised bed/low tunnel with winter cover. Up top, lotsa mustard greens and some arugula.

Ruby red chard from Bountiful Gardens,
still awaiting their first true leaves

I've always savored these intensely flavored tiny greens, and apparently there's also every nutritional reason to love these babies:
Gene Lester, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his colleagues at University of Maryland, College Park, have conducted the first scientific analysis of nutrients in microgreens. The results, Lester tells The Salt, "totally knocked me over." The researchers looked at four groups of vitamins and other phytochemicals – including vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. But there was variation among them – red cabbage was highest in vitamin C, for instance, while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E.
 Fetal kale

As young as these mustards are, they explode with flavor and make an ideal bed for just about anything on the menu.

Add a few roof tomatoes.

Top with some sauteed Jimmy Nardello peppers, garlic, and scallops and you get...

My idea of a perfect lunch

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fermenting Vegetables

"Getting the vegetables submerged is the most critical factor 
for success in vegetable fermentation."

Oh, this is a beautiful book.  Bruce loaned me his copy for a quick scan and we decided to try Katz's kraut-chi, a hybrid of German suaerkraut and Korean kimchi. At this most basic level, Katz has a nice way of making you feel that even if you stray from the step-by-step, your fermentation will turn out OK.
"...fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce."

Chop, salt, pack, wait: that's Katz's shorthand on how to ferment vegetables. So we did. Bag of organic carrots not shown.

I used electricity to chop small...
...while Bruce worked a Sabatier to slice.
Katz recommends 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of veg, a bit salty for our taste. Next time we'll cut back.

Not in Katz's quick list, but he recommends it to produce enough juice to submerge the vegetables.
Bruce's large-mouth funnel makes this step easy.

In the past, we've used the crock method, in which the vegetables and their juices are placed in a bowl or other vessel and weighed down with a plate and brick. I liked the idea of skipping this step, but Katz reminds us that the fermenting process produces considerable CO2, which creates pressure inside the jar. "Jars have been known to explode," says he.

The solution is to release any build-up daily, and while I did this several times on the first day, on Day 2 I wasn't so attentive and when I finally got to it the contents burped and overflowed their jars. ("Why does it smell in here?" Art asked.)

Leaving the lids slightly ajar for a couple days did the trick.  And now we wait. How long? Katz suggests tasting after a few days...and then again after two weeks and two months.

Look at what science is discovering about all this:
The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.
Yes, you can buy probiotic supplements, but seeding your gut flora with fermented foods is more fun and delicious.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Urban Gardening - Minneapolis edition

It's been a while since I had my own garden. Many may remember my Chicago rooftop garden, where I used Earthboxes to grow a variety of vegetables with much success. I am a fan of Earthboxes as well as other SIPs - homemade or store bought. SIPs offer the urban gardener with a zero soil footprint an option to grow something on their roof or balcony. They work, they conserve water, and are relatively easy to maintain.

Two years ago, I moved to Minneapolis at the end of the summer. The summer in 2010, I was in Paris and although a great food city, I really missed the fresh, out-of-the-garden produce I had in Chicago. Last year, I rented a place while my house was being built, knowing that I had to move out August 1st, typically when all of my garden produce would be, well, producing. So I skipped trying to grow something and instead bought tomatoes at the farmer's market for about $4 per pound. This year, I'm in my new house and have a little land but not a lot of time. I had a multitude of little projects and two little guys that take up much of my free time.

By the end of May, I knew I had to get something in, so I planted six tomato plants - three cherry sized (Black Cherry, Sun Gold, Super 100's) and three large size (Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Better Boys). I had zero experience growing anything in the ground, zero experience with sandy soil, and zero experience with the zone 4 growing season, so I opted for a mix of hybrids and heirlooms and hoped for the best. Using my knowledge of SIPs, I knew that the soil was important. I have sandy soil - check that, I have sand for soil basically. Although I thought it would be great for the root systems of my tomatoes, I knew it wouldn't provide the nutrients or hold water well enough.

I amended the soil with some organic black dirt with manure. Easily enough, worked it into the sandy stuff and then placed my tomatoes where they would get full sun. I added some balanced organic fertilizer and some gardening lime to each area where the tomatoes would be planted and went for it. I then thought that I needed a staking system so I went the old fashioned route - tomato cages. I built simple cages out of concrete wire - about four or five feet high and staked those into the ground with rebar. I watered through the heat and realized how much I loved my automatic watering system and conservation of the SIPs but the plants were doing pretty well.

How well? It's August 15th now and I can't control these guys. The Brandywine is about 7 feet tall and the Black Cherry is about ten feet tall - yes - 10 FEET TALL! It has grown up and over the cages and onto the ground again. This is something I was not prepared for but certainly don't mind. The others are producing and I can't eat enough tomatoes. Gardening on the ground is different than in SIPs but the principles are the same - good growing medium, plenty of sun and water, maybe a nice fertilizer and watch out for pests. I didn't have many in Chicago, 40 feet in the air but here things are a little different.
The one thing I have to figure out next year is if I want to also keep feeding the chipmunks!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Many Melons Do You Count?

Always a delight, three seeds growing into melons in sub-irrigated planters (SIPs).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

All You Need Is Lunch

2012 summer is a lesson learning to be thankful for what we have. Like this perfect lunch box, picked from the roof a couple weeks ago...and many days since.

A definite shortage of tomatoes could make one mororse (OK, trust me it has), but there were serious weather reasons for it. We think the hellish heat early in the season caused tomato flowers to drop before fruiting occurred. As a result we missed the first round, except for a few early ones--Whippersnapper, Glacier, and Stupice among them--that somehow got established before being blasted.

Locally, my brother's in-ground garden and Debbie and Little Green Girl's tomats tell the same story: very low yields.

Eggs from Bruce's hens and a Jimmy Nardello pepper remind us: 
all you need is lunch

Plus, the eggplant are prolific, and beautifully so.
Two weeks ago it was nearly 100 degrees F again with enormous humidities. Today 79 and heaven. The tomatoes have set up a nice crop of flowers and fruit at last. Will they flourish in the late-season light? Stay tuned.