In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Complete Organic Fail

Well, I shouldn’t say “fail”. But using COF – “Complete Organic Fertilizer” – didn’t exactly go according to plan!

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

As I mentioned a few months ago, this year I opted for a more proactive approach to my garden’s health. Rather than waiting for pests and disease to strike, and then doctoring the plants to restore their vitality, I am trying instead (or more correctly, in addition) to fertilize my garden on a consistent basis.

I used the “complete organic fertilizer” recipe from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. Here is a copy of the recipe online. Problem was, not all the ingredients were available in my local DIY hardware stores. I had to order bat guano and cottonseed meal from Amazon. And the box of cottonseed meal was really small. And I am trying to purchase less if I can, or purchase locally if I must buy something. I mean, is eating from your own garden really “local” if you had garden amendments shipped to you from Amazon?

I called the local feed stores to see if anyone had seed meal. Seed meal is what remains after squeezing oil out of the seeds; the leftovers get fed to livestock. Buying seed meal bulk is more cost effective, if you can find it.

I couldn’t find it.

Everyone I called knew what I was talking about, but nobody still carried seed meal. Finally on the third try, the voice on the other end said, “You might try the farmer’s coop in town.”

(I guess this area still counts as the “country” if there is a farmer’s cooperative located downtown.)

Sure enough, they had seed meal in 50 lb bags, for less than $30. Versus the $50 for a 20 lb bag from Amazon. Flax seed meal, to be exact. Like you open the bag, inhale, and it smells exactly like the flax seed meal you buy at the grocery store. I don’t think it’s “graded” for human consumption though.

I schlepped the bag home, whipped up a fresh batch of COF, side-dressed my veggies and kicked back with a cocktail to await the amazing results of a healthy garden.

What I got was … flax. Everywhere.

Flax Says Hi

Flax Says Hi

I checked the label on the bag. According to the label, rather than flax seed meal, it was ground flax. Apparently viable seeds lingered in the mix, and flax loves the growing conditions I’d carefully cultivated for the vegetable garden. I mean seriously. I learned that flax might as well be a weed, it grows so vigorously in locations it isn’t wanted.

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Other things I learned from this experience:

Flax seedlings can be turned under like a green mulch. Sometimes that’s the only way to combat them.

Flax seedlings are edible raw, and make a nice garnish on salad or fried eggs. Yes, really. Don’t judge.

Mmmm Flax Garnish

Mmmm Flax Garnish

I also learned that when you give up on weeding all the flax, and just let them grow, the flowers bloom a beautiful blue. Also, you can harvest the seeds … yay, just what I want, more flax seeds! But flax seeds are edible by both humans and livestock (isn’t that what got me into this mess?). I might even have a few friends crazy enough to process the flax plants for fiber, although apparently if you let the plants mature for a good seed harvest, the fiber will be very coarse.

And most importantly, yes – your garden really does perform better with regular fertilizer. I know that should be obvious, but it took me eight years to really grok this.

Will I keep applying COF, despite the hassle? I think so, although maybe I will rename it to “Complete Organic Flax”!


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Berry Grateful

Welcome to my new series: how to suck at gardening and still feed your family!

One of the greatest disappointments we face when producing our own food is a scrawny, mangled harvest.

Mangled berries are still edible!

Mangled berries are still edible!

It’s important to keep trying, and not let your spoils, well, spoil.

Those mangled berries are edible, so use them! They are great in shakes, fruit leather, jams and syrups.


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Garden FAIL

You guys … I think I need a new blog. Or maybe a new series on this blog.

“How to totally suck at gardening and still feed your family.”

potato_fail

About half my potato plants are dead. And they were growing so beautifully too! *sobs*

I planted the seed potatoes in a 12″ deep, 4′ x 4′ garden box (with metal wire mesh across the bottom to keep the voles out), and hilled dirt around the stems as they grew. And then I added more and more soil as the plants got taller and taller. We eventually added a second 12″ tier to the box, and kept adding dirt. Potato tubers actually form on the stems, so the more stem you bury, the more potatoes. Right? Right!

Well, unless in the process of adding dirt, you damaged the stems, and then when you piled on more dirt, it compacted everything around the original injury, and then it RAINED LIKE NOAH’S FLOOD, crushing the dirt further and rotting the poor potato stems.

At least, that is what I guess happened. It could also be bacterial wilt due to the very wet conditions over the past few weeks. Or some other mysterious potato affliction I have never even heard of.

Yeah, I think I have mastered “how to suck at gardening”. Now, if only I can figure out the “and still feed your family” part!


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The Mother Earth News Fair

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, I attended the Mother Earth News (MEN) Fair this past weekend in Frederick, MD. This was the first time the MEN Fair had visited Frederick.

I was only able to attend for a short while on Saturday, due to family visiting from out of town. The weather Sunday was abysmal anyway, cool and rainy, although I’m sorry I missed hearing Michael Judd and Joel Salatin speak.

Since I only had a limited time, I had to be very selective with the presentations and vendors. Of the presentations I attended, I most enjoyed Jessi Bloom’s “Perma-what?”. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why, exactly, but it inspired me to start dreaming up ideas for my own tiny little paradise. I would have loved to see some presentations on foraging (surprise) or focused on the gardening challenges specific to the mid-Atlantic.

I didn’t purchase much. Well, I didn’t purchase as much as I could have, let’s put it that way! I was excited to find a lion’s mane mushroom spawn kit from Sharondale Farm.

Lion's Mane Mushroom Log Plug Spawn Kit

Lion’s Mane Mushroom Log Plug Spawn Kit

I also picked up some asparagus bean seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as an impulse purchase. I normally order from their catalog, so when I found their booth I had to fan girl and buy something, anything!

The MEN bookstore was a major eye opener for me, when I realized how many books I already owned! Did I mention I’m on a book diet at the moment? Uh oh, I might have brought two new books home. (Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden, and Home Grown Pantry by Barbara Pleasant. Because I don’t have enough foraging, gardening and preserving books … oops?)

The last acquisition of the day was June, my new serviceberry. (Yes, I name my plants. Don’t you?) The vendor, American Native Plants, had pawpaws as well but sold out of them Saturday morning within 30 minutes of opening.

I’ll be curious to see if the MEN Fair returns to Frederick in future years. The Frederick News Post boasted of the thousands of people who attended, but I saw a LOT of empty seats in the presentations I attended or walked past. The only long line I encountered was for food, and it wasn’t really that long of a wait. Even the ladies’ restrooms had little or no line! Crazy, right?

I am evaluating whether I can attend the session in Seven Springs, PA, later this year, so I can enjoy more of what this Fair has to offer. I am particularly excited to see Sara Bir listed as a speaker. And yes, I am aware of the irony in driving 146 miles, each way, and paying for a hotel, to attend to a conference on sustainability topics… shhhhhhhhhhh.


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Future Foraged Fruits, Week Ending 6/3/2018

It’s early June. The air is drenched with humidity and honeysuckle fragrance.  Between the sticky heat and afternoon thunderstorms, the last thing anyone wants is to spend time outside. But now is the time to start locating the fruits that will feed us this summer and into the fall.

Blackberries (Rubus spp.) carpet the edges of meadows with white flowers. Last fall I also found black raspberry canes closer to these woods. Unfortunately, in late spring the thorns, ticks and poison ivy are so thick I couldn’t get closer to check on them.

Blackberry flowers

Blackberry flowers blanket the horizon.

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are an invasive cane species that are also flowering now. Unlike blackberries, which flower and ripen over a period of several weeks, wineberries ripen all at once, and then they are gone.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

Wild roses (Rosa spp.) rub elbows with the blackberries and wineberries; they are equally thorny. Most of the local varieties I have found produce small rose hips, barely worth harvesting in the fall and winter, but still a good source of vitamin C in times of need.

Wild roses

Wild roses

Now is also the time to scope out wild grapes (Vitis spp.). They can be harvested young for verjuice – not this young obviously – or allowed to mature for eating, juicing or jelly making.

Wild grapes

Wild grapes

Mulberries (Moraceae spp.) are starting to ripen, but due to the erratic weather this spring the flavor is… um… lacking? Definitely worth continuing to check as the weeks go by. Mulberries grow around this area like weeds, so there are plenty to be had if you just keep your eyes open.

Mulberries

Mulberries

Back in the forest, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), which we saw a few weeks ago, are setting green fruit – just one per plant. The fruit will be ripe when they turn yellow, hopefully in a few more weeks.

Mayapple Fruit

Mayapple Fruit

This very afternoon, I found a new-to-me berry at eye level behind large, glossy leaves. Curious, I crept in closer for a few photos. Turns out … THIS IS POISON IVY (Toxicodendron radicans)! Luckily I didn’t brush any leaves aside to take the photo (I think).

Don’t eat the poison ivy.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Berries – DON’T EAT THESE

(I didn’t really need to say that, did I? Please tell me I didn’t.)

The one photo I don’t have is a fruiting serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). Its berries ripen in June which is why the shrub is also called juneberry. I have been unable to find any of these wild, so I bought one of my very own at the Mother Earth News Fair in Frederick this past weekend!  Hope to have pictures to share next year!


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Stalking the Wild … Oh, Oops

OMG, YOU GUYS!

I found a feral yellow salsify (Tragopogon major)!

A Feral Salsify

A Feral Yellow Salsify

I knew they grew around here. And by “knew”, I mean I researched them on the Maryland Biodiversity Project website. And by “researched”, I basically mean stalking.  That’s what I do.

Unfortunately, by the time you spot the flower to find the plant, the salsify root – like other biennials, including wild carrot – has turned tough and unpleasant to eat. So I left this one alone. I have domesticated salsify seeds for my fall garden, and hopefully the experience growing them will improve my ability to spot them in the wild… you know, before the flower appears.