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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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.


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Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27

I’m not going to debate climate change with you.

Either you believe that the earth is warming, leading to increasingly erratic global weather patterns – in which case I don’t have to convince you.

Or you don’t believe it – in which case nothing I can say will make you believe otherwise.

After all, the climate change debate inspires more devout and feverish faith than dietary preferences. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, make some room for me under that rock of yours!)

What I do know is that the Maryland weather this spring has had more mood swings than my 15 year old daughter, which REALLY says a lot. April averaged cool and dry, punctuated by occasional days with temperatures in the 90s. May brought with it more warm and muggy temperatures – it was like we skipped straight from late winter to summer – complete with flooding and a hailstorm that shredded everything green and leafy in my yard.

To be blunt, my spring garden is in shambles. Which is why today, I am showcasing the weeds to which I find myself turning in the absence of the vegetables I should have been harvesting by now. (Yes, I’ve covered many of these before, but it doesn’t hurt to showcase them again!)

Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) – used raw, it makes a tasty, peppery addition to salads. Bonus: high levels of vitamin C.

Yellow Rocket

Yellow Rocket

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is just starting to come up. Yes, in my garden beds. No, I will not remove it … yet. Purslane is also an excellent salad edition – leaves stems and all – and is a great plant source for omega 3 essential fatty acids.

Purslane Seedling

Purslane Seedling

New colonies of chickweed (Stellaria media) continue to crop up around my garden despite the heat, and continue to find their way into my salad bowl.

Chickweed

Chickweed

Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) (or lambsquarter if you prefer) – another nutritional powerhouse. Currently my go-to green for cooking, since something fluffy, brown and hopping decimated the kale that managed to grow despite the weather.

Lambsquarter

Lambsquarter

And of course, spring’s dandelions seeds (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into any available space. This little guy is small enough to still enjoy raw, but I might let him grown a little longer to use in sauteed greens.

Dandelion

Dandelion

Hopefully the weather calms down some … hahahahahahahaha! OK, I couldn’t type that with a straight face. What I meant was, hopefully wild edibles will continue to adapt to the crazy weather faster than I and my garden can, so there will still be local, fresh vegetables to enjoy!


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Weathering the Weather

This week, I should have been enjoying my first real strawberry harvest.

This year, one of my gardening goals was to take better care of my plants, making sure they had plenty of space and healthy dirt and fertilizer. Taking a more proactive approach to gardening, as it were, rather than always playing defense against my garden foes. For instance, aphids often infest my strawberry plants, but if the plants are healthy they can still produce decent fruit.

They loved the attention. My strawberries were healthier and happier and thrived.

Strawberry Bed

Strawberry Bed

And then the storms and rain hit last week. Tuesday night, the hail drummed our house for 45 minutes. The storm Tuesday night resulted in local waterways flooding, and Catoctin Creek literally washed away parts of the road I live on. (Luckily, we live further uphill so weren’t impacted by the flooding.) The streets of downtown Frederick, MD gushed with water.

My strawberry crop is, in a word, ruined.

Sad Strawberry Mush

Sad Strawberry Mush

In a brief break in the rain yesterday, I cleaned out as much of the damaged, diseased, and rotting fruit as I could. Removed leaves clinging to broken stems. Even plucked off unripe fruit that was already showing water spots. (PSA: half rotten mushy strawberries may be the grossest things to touch. Ever.)

I shouldn’t complain, right? My livelihood doesn’t depend on these berries; my family won’t starve as a result of a lost crop. And many people suffered much worse as a result of the weather.

But it’s still a humbling reminder that whatever humans might think we control in the world, we are still entirely at the mercy of – and ultimately dependent on – the good will of Mother Nature.