A furry pest in the garden

I’m starting to think it might not have been the birds that ate our strawberries.

Let’s backtrack.

Perhaps you have heard of our family pet, Schnauzer Cheap.

We’ll call him SC.

SC loves to eat. The highlights of his day are breakfast and dinner. He also loves fruits and vegetables. He happily munches anything we drop on the floor: an occasional almond, a piece of carrot, bell pepper, a bit of apple, onion, cucumber, corn … loves it.

In fact, he gets almost as excited when he smells that we are peeling a carrot as when we are preparing meat. Sometimes we give him carrots for training treats, and he will eagerly perform his repertoire for a bite of veggie.

So, the other night, I was knitting on the couch downstairs. SC came thundering down the stairs. He stopped in front of me and looked at me proudly.

With a mouthful of green beans, freshly plucked out of our garden, dangling from the sides of his muzzle.

It was pretty funny. SC and I can communicate without words, and I’m pretty sure he was saying, “Look, ma — I’m doing my part to eat local! 100-foot diet and all!”

But of course, I was thinking, “My haricots verts! I didn’t even eat any yet!”

So, I took SC up and scolded him, took his beans away, and first thing in the morning we redecorated the garden to keep him out.

Also at that time, Mr. Cheap confessed that he caught SC earlier this year, with part of a pea vine dangling from his furry black lips. Thus, the lack of pea harvest just might be explained. Yeah, right: The “birds” ate the baby pea plants. The birds that SC obsessively chases out of our yard. Inspector Poirot, I’m not.

Some people have elk, we have an omnivorous schnauzer.

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Moving into jungle mode – garden update

Things are getting a little crazy in the garden.

I figured after the last few weeks of beautiful close-ups, I’d show you the ugly (and growing) truth. We tried so hard to space things well and leave plenty of room this year.

Really, we did!

But here you can see the Brussels sprouts in front (still with some elbow room), the green bean patch to the left, half covered with flowers and half covered with beans, and the Juliet tomato in the back taking over the territory. (Longtime readers will remember that last year’s Juliet tomato developed more than 100 feet of vines.) In addition to a poor shot of the wall and utility box, the compost bin, which is about waist high, can give you a sense of the scale.

That plant to the right, creeping in front of the compost bin? At first I thought it was a cucumber. In fact I even saw a baby cucumber on the plant, which is what gave me that impression. But now look at the size of those leaves. I think it’s a stowaway butternut squash. Perhaps there’s a cucumber plant hidden beneath it just to throw me off track.

To the left of the beans there is a novelty in our garden: a little path covered with a couple of books of hay. This path is a wonderful innovation, which give me space to pick beans yesterday.

Here is the other half of that bed. At the far left are the okra plants. I think they’re the only plant that have been enjoying our three weeks of 90-plus degree temperatures.

At the right side of this picture, beside the path, are five peanut plants. They are growing pretty well and have such beautiful green color.

And in the middle? That’s a tomato plant. It’s taking over almost as much as the Juliet is. The only difference? This particular tomato is a Roma. It’s supposed to be a determinate variety, which doesn’t grow very large. It doesn’t understand destiny, however, and has designs on taking over this bed.

Other than that, the story of the week is heat stress. This picture shows two sad, wilted little baby butternut squash. Most of the newly formed squash have not stayed on the vine long enough to open their flowers. That means no pollination, and of course, no squash. We have two nice hearty squash set on the vines, and we’re waiting to see what will happen this week, when the weather is forecast to be much more favorable. We also have one pumpkin set on our vine in the front yard, and we’re waiting on that too.

First CSA delivery

CSA1Thursday was an exciting day: Our first CSA delivery arrived.

We stopped by our lovely host’s home and picked up our giant box, in which a couple of the ballyhooed-by-e-mail crops (garlic scapes – 4; Vidalia onion – 1) looked particularly pitiful.

The contents of our small share (half-share) were:

  • One lovely head of Bibb/butter lettuce.
  • One head of red leaf lettuce.
  • One head of green leaf lettuce.
  • One giant bunch of spinach.
  • One very nice sized bunch of cilantro.
  • Four radishes (this is about right – we are not crazy about radishes; but Little Cheap likes them).
  • Three stalks of rhubarb.
  • One Vidalia onion (these are a trade with a Georgia grower).
  • A bunch of organic celery (not fit for market, but still usable; a “toss-in” from some other farm).
  • Garlic scapes — the tops of garlic, which have been praised wildly by a local food blogger and again via our CSA newsletter — we got four of these. Pretty slim pickin’s.

We have lettuce coming out our ears from our own garden, and we’re a little bit spinach-ed out, with tons of kale to come, so I will be sharing some lettuce and spinach with my sister.

The garlic scapes went into a stir-fry last night with some baby bok choy and delicious enoki mushrooms from HMart (thanks, Mr. Cheap!).

I’m going to come up with some kind of rhubarb goodness this weekend. And other than that, I am looking forward to lettuce season’s passing.

Plan CSA & farmer’s market now

June is exciting in these parts. It’s time for the farmer’s markets, CSAs and the like to swing into action.

Last year, we only went to one farmer’s market and I was not impressed. In the spring the tables were full … of goods brought in from other, warmer states. I wanted local produce, and there was hardly anything. (It was mid to late June, and I know our garden already is or could be producing lettuces, spinach, radishes, carrots, peas, onions … so why not the pros?) Our grocer stocks a lot of local produce, so I gave up easily.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort. If you would like to find a local farmers market in your area, you can check Local Harvest. Better yet, search for “farmers market” and the name of your state or city. Many states have a farmers market association with listings of local markets.

And, exciting for me — I found a local (within 100 miles) organic CSA to join. We purchased a half-share, which was still available last week. We’ll get about a big sack of produce every week through December.

Bulk/advance buying changes your whole grocery-budget mindset: This spring I will have forked out over $800 for food I can’t eat right away (our local beef and the CSA). But if I divvy those bills out over the course of now through December, it comes to about $23 per week for our produce and meat — not too bad at all. We will of course be supplementing with our home-grown produce. The CSA farm mentioned that it anticipates having extras available — like roasted green chiles and tomatoes — for members to put up for the winter. Our first pickup is next Thursday – I can’t wait to see what we get.

Have you signed up for a CSA? Are you a farmers market regular?

Organic food IS healthier

Last week I came across this blog looking at whether organic food is healthier than conventionally grown foods. I missed the story on NPR, but it sounds like organic fruits and veggies just might be more nutritious than “regular.”

(Regular, of course, is a relatively modern invention — “conventional” foods WERE organic for, oh, thousands of years.)

Every so often, I see contrarian opinions saying that it’s a big waste of time to buy organic foods, and that conventionally grown foods are just as good as organic, if not better. For instance, this person has written a couple of columns in our local paper that make my head spin (not because I am confused; I mean in an Exorcist-like manner). Among other things, she writes,

The USDA Organic label does not mean that there is any difference between organic and regular food products. Organic farms simply employ different methods of food production.

To me, “different methods” means there IS a difference. That author also wrote,

Organic milk certainly is not fresher than regular milk. Regular milk is pasteurized and has a shelf life of about 20 days. Organic milk is ultrapasteurized, a process that is more forgiving of poor quality milk, and that increases the shelf life of milk to about 90 days …

Anti-organic folks love to jump to conclusions — such as that because some organic producers ultrapasteurize their milk, it means the milk is poor quality; or that people choose organic milk because it is perceived as “fresher,” rather than because of the food and raising methods of the milk cows.

Argh! Head spinning!

For a fairly balanced look at organic milk production, check out this article from The New York Times in 2005. And, for the record, it notes that

Many connoisseurs say the best milk comes from cows who eat mostly grass. The flavor is more complex, and varies with the seasons. In addition, a grass diet leads to milk with as much as five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, which some studies using animal models show can help fight cancer. And grazing is better for the cows’ health than a diet of grain.

Not that all cows who produce organic milk are grass-fed. And as far as ultrapasteurization, I bought my milk about a week ago, and its expiration date is June 3.

Fruits and veggies really healthier?

And as for fruits and vegetables?

Last fall, an article in the London Times claimed irrefutable evidence that organic produce is healthier, citing a 12-million pound EU-funded study.

The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants, which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers. They also had higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.

A 2003 New York Times article pointed to earlier studies:

A study in the January 2003 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found 52 percent more ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, in frozen organic corn than in conventional corn, and 67 percent more in corn raised by sustainable methods – a combination of organic and conventional farming. Polyphenols were significantly higher in organic and sustainable marionberries compared to conventionally farmed ones.

A three-year study in Italy, reported in the August 2002 issue of the same journal, found higher levels of polyphenols in organic peaches and pears, and about 8 percent more ascorbic acid in organic peaches.

And a study in the February 2002 European Journal of Nutrition found more salicylic acid in organic vegetable soup than in nonorganic soup. Salicylic acid is responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin, and bolsters the immune system.

Critics criticize the studies for various reasons. Believers cite well-conducted studies showing higher levels of minerals and vitamin C.

The Mayo Clinic has a balanced overview on its site, although it leans away from suggesting people choose organic (it says pesticides pose a “very low health risk,” not no risk, and it doesn’t deny that organic is better for the environment).

What’s your take?

My opinion, as you might have guessed from the headline, is that organic foods are at least somewhat healthier. After all, pesticides are chemicals designed to poison living creatures. If you get used to eating organic apples and then taste a conventional apple, you can taste the difference.

If you can afford organic — and especially if you buy locally and in season, or grow your own, there is no reason to think you can’t afford organic — I think it’s a good idea. It supports farmers trying to do the right thing, it supports the environment and it supports your health.

If you can’t afford it? Don’t beat yourself up. It is, after all, more important to eat than to eat organic. Just do the best you can.

But this kind of evidence is swaying me toward buying more and more organic produce.

And for starters, check out this list of the most important foods to buy organic.

What do you insist on buying organic? Do you think it costs more? Is it worth it? When is it not worth it?

How does your garden grow?

CherriesThis weekend marked the official start of spring — our garden is in! And those are *real* cherries growing on our tree. There must be a dozen of them growing … enough for a Barbie-sized pie. Maybe a cookie.

Here’s the what, where, how on our garden:

What

We just harvested all our spinach and froze it, totaling three pounds from a good-sized patch. A few more spinach plants are scattered among the lettuce.

We’ve had many good salads from our lettuce, which went in early, and now the lettuce is about to bolt.

We are gradually expanding our vegetable garden into our front yard. We have two pumpkin plants in the ground near our front drain spout (probably just jack-o-lantern pumpkins). Soon, we will carve away some more grass for a small bed to grow cantaloupes. And today we bought three wine barrel planters (not formerly my favorite “look” — but they are recycled, and so large!). In one of them we have planted scarlet runner beans that I hope will climb up and disguise our unattractive porch railings, and in front of the beans a bell pepper plant. In two more barrels in front of our house (on an also not-so-lovely bed of rock) we installed two Roma tomatoes and some basil seed.

In the back yard, we’ve got going:

  • Butternut squash (2)
  • “Sweet olive” cherry tomato, two “celebrity” tomatoes, one “Juliet,” one “Big Boy,” four more Roma (altogether three slicing tomatoes, seven paste and one cherry)
  • Peanuts (6)
  • Beets
  • Jalapenos (6)
  • Ancho chiles (2)
  • Bush green beans (6 square feet)
  • Brussels sprouts (6)
  • Potatoes (organic fingerlings from the grocery store that are growing fast in two separate containers)
  • Parsley
  • Dill
  • Onions that are going to seed from last year
  • Strawberries (about 10)
  • Cherries
  • A so-far-barren apricot tree
  • 2 new baby apple trees
  • Kale (about 8 square feet)
  • Napa cabbage (only one survived).

Yet to come are cucumbers (about 8 … last year’s 14 was way ambitious), new lettuce and radishes.

I think we even have some baby apples growing …

apples

Where

Our backyard garden includes an herb garden where the apricot tree grows, a side garden with the cherry tree and strawberries, a previously abandoned corner measuring about 90 square feet (that we’re giving to the squash, one container of potatoes and I plan to squeeze lettuce and radishes into the shadiest area), a regular bed about 48 square feet, and a triangular bed carved out of our lawn that measures about 40 or 50 square feet.

The apple trees are growing in two circular holes Mr. Cheap actually hacked out of our back driveway with a sledgehammer. Two tomatoes will grow in the recycling bins the city used to use, and the three whiskey barrels and two front yard spots are similar size.

Altogether, I think we’re gardening about 215 square feet. Hey, it’s .4% of an acre — and 3% of our lot.

How

This year, I tried to be very organized. I plotted out our garden carefully using graph paper. We planned ahead and didn’t overbuy at the garden store. I grew many of the seedlings (butternut squash and peanuts are from our saved seed; I also grew the pumpkin, cantaloupe, scarlet runner beans and okra). The only “extras” we sprang for at the garden store were a bell pepper and some basil seed, which I had overlooked in my planning.

What we learned last year

  • We learned we wanted more paste tomatoes and didn’t like yellow pear tomatoes nearly as much as we thought.
  • We learned the watermelon was a bust again.
  • We learned carrots aren’t worthwhile.
  • We learned to give the winter squash PLENTY of room.
  • We learned we could save squash all winter, which makes it worthwhile.
  • We learned we could make okra work.
  • We came thisclose to getting brussels sprouts off our plants and want to try again.
  • We learned to love the wasps and spiders that ate so many bugs, we experienced virtually no pest losses.

Tell us about your garden! What, where, how, and what did you learn from last year?