Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Winter Garden

We have had many days below freezing but my winter garden is still doing very well.

Winter winds are terrible in my area of The Netherlands. I live in an elevated area, the Schimmert Plateau, as it is called. I re-emplaced this plastic several times until I finally got it weighted down enough to stand up to the winds. I also had to come up with a way to keep the plastic up off the plants. You'll see in the next photo that some of the carrots were burned by the cold from where the plastic, which in some cases had ice on it, touched the greens.

So I used some galvanized wire I found to make hoops to raise the plastic and create a better environment for the plants. In between the carrot plants are plastic bottles filled with water. These warm up during the day and slowly release heart during the night to keep the plants above freezing. The soil also absorbs heat during the day. I pulled one carrot out last week when I was checking the plants. It was about as big as my finger and very sweet and crunchy.

I should have planted more lettuce than I did. It is growing very slowly so I only get enough for one serving a week. But it is still a nice treat to have fresh, home-grown greens in the middle of the winter. In the early spring when there is more sun it will grow faster. We just don't get many hours of sunlight in the winter. Shorter Days. Because we are so far north we enjoy very long days in the summer and correspondingly short days in winter. The Winter Solstice, 22 December this year, is the shortest day of the year. In December daylight lasts for less than eight hours.  It is dark when everyone is driving to work and it is dark when everyone is driving home from work. On the chart below you can clearly see this. Also notice how long the days are in summer.  We get 19 hours of sunlight in June, which really helps things to grow nicely.

I still have some transplanted onions struggling to survive and I am hoping they will start to grow in the spring. I haven't had great success with growing onions from seed here, the soil stays too cold too long. But onion sets grow really good. Last year I couldn't find any but I'll look sooner this spring. I had a green pepper plant growing indoors, over-wintering, put it died while I was in the States on vacation. That's too bad because it would have had a great head start in spring. 

If I had more space I could probably raise all the carrots, lettuce, other greens, and onions that I would need through the winter. When I retire and finally move to my home in Pennsylvania I will probably do this on a larger scale.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Snacking Patterns of US Adults

Over the last 30 years, the average number of snacks consumed per day doubled, and the percentage of adults snacking on any given day rose from 59 to 90 percent. The high prevalence of overweight and obesity among the U.S. population has led researchers to evaluate possible associations between specific dietary patterns and weight status. Snacking is one dietary pattern which has been analyzed in this context. Previous research has indicated that snacking may contribute to higher intakes of calories, which in turn could lead to obesity. Besides the obvious risks of over-eating associated with snacking, there is also the issue of cost. Commercial snack foods (chips, pretzels, cookies, candy, etc.) are typically expensive and nutritionally empty.

Snacks provide on average about one-fourth of the daily calories, greater proportions of alcohol, carbohydrates and total sugars, and lesser proportions of most other nutrients. Overall, the foods and beverages contributing the most calories at snacks are not the most nutritious options. Between 1977-1978 and 2007-2008, significant increases have occurred in both the mean frequency of snacking (up from 1.0 to 2.2 snacks in a day) and the percentage of adults snacking on any given day (up from 59 percent to 90 percent), as shown in figure 1. On any given day in 1977-1978, most adults (73 percent) snacked only once or not at all. In 2007- 2008, about two-thirds of adults (65 percent) snacked two or more times in a day.

SOURCES: Nationwide Food Consumption Survey 1977-1978 and What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008,

How many calories do adults obtain from snacks in a day?
Based on the WWEIA 2007-2008 survey, foods and beverages consumed at snacking occasions now contribute a daily average of 586 calories for men and 421 calories for women. Adults age 60 years and over consume fewer calories overall, and calories consumed at snacking occasions are lower for people in this age group than for younger groups (see figure 2). In addition, the proportion of daily calories provided by snacks is significantly smaller for older women (but not men) than for their younger counterparts.

On average, 24 percent of adults' total daily calories are consumed at snacking occasions. However, for some individuals, snacks provide a substantially larger proportion of daily calorie intake. Nearly 1 in 6 adults (16 percent) obtain over 40 percent of their total daily calories from foods and beverage they report as being consumed as snacks. Relative to their caloric contribution (marked by line X in figure 3 below), snacks provide higher proportions of adults' daily intakes of alcohol, carbohydrate, and total sugars (a subgroup of carbohydrate); similar proportions of vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium; and lower proportions of most other nutrients.

Higher snacking frequency is associated with higher total calorie intake. Adults who have 4 or more snacks in a day consume almost one and one-half times as many calories as do adults who report no snacks. However, the study also showed that the mean number of snacks consumed in a day does not differ significantly by weight status (see definition below) for either men or women.

Weight status: Adults were assigned to weight status categories based upon their calculated body mass index (BMI). As defined by the National Institutes of Health. Weight status categories and their associated BMI ranges are the following: Underweight, <18.5; normal weight, 18.5-24.9; overweight, 25.0-29.9; and obese, 30.0 and over.

So that must mean there is a difference in what healthy weight and overweight people eat for snacks. The categories of food/beverages used in this study include the following:

From this list the "Good" snacks would be: Fruits and Fruit Juices, Nuts and Seeds, Milk and Milk Drinks. Everything else on the list would be considered empty calories of little to no nutritional benefit.

Eating a nutritionally complete snack is not by itself a bad thing. In fact, one of the best things you can do if you are trying to lose body-fat and/or gain muscle mass is to eat a high-protein snack in between planned meals. There quite a bit of evidence that by spreading out your nutritional intake by eating every two-three hours you stabilize your blood sugar, prevent insulin spikes, and increase your metabolic rate by feeding your muscles. These are all good things.

So what can we conclude from this study? First, the rate of snacking and the percentage of our daily caloric intake attributed to snacking has increased significantly in the past thirty years (Coincidentally the same period that the national obesity rate started climbing.). Second, since there is little difference in the rate of snacking between "normal" weight and overweight adults, there must be a difference in what they snack on. My conclusion: Eating healthy snacks, up to several times a day, can be integrated into your diet with no corresponding gain in weight. It is not how often you eat but rather what you eat. 

Healthy, nutritious snacks help you to avoid over eating during normal meal times. Since this balances out the cost of eating there is no net gain in your food budget if you integrate snacking into your daily nutritional intake. Swap out a half of a peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread for a handful of cookies, for example. Have a sliced apple instead of a cupcake. I use an apple slicer/corer, as seen below, to prepare my daily apple. It takes just a moment and then I have sliced apples in a plastic container to snack on during the day. If I am craving something a little more "unhealthy" I spread a little Hazelnut spread (Nutella in the states) on a slice.

Much of this information came from a report published by:

Agricultural Research Service
Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center
Food Surveys Research Group

Friday, January 6, 2012

Fast or Slow Composting Part 3

Want compost without the fuss of turning? Then slow composting is for you. Slow composting is nature's way of breaking down organics over time.The below extract is from Washington State University:

Slow Composting
    Employing slow composting is an easy and convenient way to turn yard wastes into a useful soil amendment. It is often the best method for people who do not have the time to tend a hot compost pile. Simply mix non-woody yard wastes into a pile and let them sit for a year or so. Microorganisms, insects, earthworms, and other decomposers will slowly break down the wastes. A mixture of energy materials and bulking agents provides the best food source and environment for decomposition.
    Add fresh wastes to the pile by opening the pile, placing fresh wastes into the center, and covering them. This helps aerate the pile, and also buries the fresh wastes so they do not attract pests. Fruit and vegetable wastes are particularly appealing to pests,. such as flies, rats and raccoons. To avoid pests, bury these wastes within the pile. If you bury the vegetable wastes in the pile, and pests are still a problem, you may need to screen the pile or keep vegetable wastes out.
    You also can bury vegetable wastes directly in your garden. Dig a hole or a trench about a foot deep, add a few inches of vegetable wastes, mix them with the soil, and refill the trench with soil. Another way to avoid pests is to compost vegetable wastes in a worm bin.
    Slow composting does not produce the heat needed to kill many weed seeds. It is best to pull and compost weeds before they go to seed. If you put seeds in the compost pile, be prepared for more weeding.

As you can see there are some distinct advantages to slow composting, namely less work, but there are also some serious disadvantages (pests, weed seeds, and unmentioned but existing - the possibility of smells).

 A slow compost pile tends to have a higher ratio of fungi to bacteria and more of the larger organisms such as pill bugs and worms. These creatures mix up the compost pile by themselves (less turning required) and it some believe there is a wider range of nutrients being created because of this increased diversity. Compost with a high fungal content plays a very different role in the garden than high bacteria compost. Compost with a high bacteria content (from fast or hot composting) is good at releasing nutrients into the soil in a form that plants can best use. This is particularly good for annual flowers and vegetables that don’t have the time to establish complex root systems.
However, perennials, shrubs and trees have the luxury of a little more time, and compost with a higher fungal content inoculates the soil with beneficial fungi that can work symbiotically with these plants’ root systems. Either by encasing the root or, with some species, actually growing into the root tissue, the fungal hyphae dramatically extend the reach of the plant’s root system. In exchange for sugars from the plant, the fungi increase the plant’s ability to find moisture in times of drought, draw from a much deeper and wider range of soils to access micro nutrients and also metabolize some compounds to make them more accessible to the plants. The microscopic fungal threads can even form a giant mesh throughout the garden soil that moves nutrients and moisture from plants with excess to those in need.

A lot of these fungi are the ones that break down woody and leafy matter. Letting larger chunks of high carbon material (wood chips, saw dust, and piles of brown leaves) spend many months breaking down in the compost. It encourages the ratio of beneficial fungi in the final product. Have you ever heard of "leaf mold"? Leaf mold is a form of compost produced by the fungal breakdown of shrub and tree leaves, which are generally too dry, acidic, or low in nitrogen for bacterial decomposition. 

You may be wondering why you shouldn't just make compost. Why bother making a separate pile just for leaves? The answer is that while compost is wonderful for improving soil texture and fertility, leaf mold is far superior as a soil amendment. It doesn't provide much in the way of nutrition, so you will still need to add compost or other organic fertilizers to increase fertility. Leaf mold is essentially a soil conditioner. It increases the water retention of soils. According to some university studies, the addition of leaf mold increased water retention in soils by over 50%. Leaf mold also improves soil structure and provides a fantastic habitat for soil life, including earthworms and beneficial bacteria.

How to Make Leaf Mold

There are two popular ways to make leaf mold, and both are ridiculously simple. The one thing you'll need to keep in mind is that leaf mold doesn't happen overnight. Leaves are basically all carbon, which takes a lot longer to break down than nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings. The decomposition process for leaves takes at least six to twelve months. The good news is that it's basically six to twelve months with very little work on the gardener's part.

The first method of making leaf mold consists of either piling your leaves in a corner of the yard or into a wood or wire bin. The pile or bin should be at least three feet wide and tall. Pile up your leaves, and thoroughly dampen the entire pile. Let it sit, checking the moisture level occasionally during dry periods and adding water if necessary.

The second method of making leaf mold requires a large plastic garbage bag. Fill the bag with leaves and moisten them. Seal the bag and then cut some holes or slits in the bag for air flow. Let it sit. Check the bag every month or two for moisture, and add water if the leaves are dry. After six months to a year, you will have finished leaf mold. Impatient? There are a couple of things you can do to speed up the process:
  • Before adding leaves to your pile or bag, run over them a couple of times with your lawn mower. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly.
  • Use a shovel or garden fork to turn your leaf pile every few weeks. If you are using the plastic bag method, just turn it over or give it a firm shake. This will introduce air into the process, which speeds decomposition.
  • If you are using the pile or bin method, cover your pile with a plastic tarp. This will keep the leaves more consistently moist and warm

How to Use Leaf Mold

Leaf mold has several uses in the garden. You can dig or till it into garden beds to improve soil structure and water retention. You can use it as mulch in perennial beds or vegetable gardens. It's also fabulous in containers, due to its water retaining abilities. Leaf mold is simple, free, and effective. If you're lucky enough to have a tree or two (or ten) on your property, you've got everything you need to make great garden soil.

A slow compost pile will take at least a year to produce compost and that will be formed on the bottom of the pile first. This then requires a way to dig out from the bottom of the pile and screening the compost before you can use it. Some of the commercial bins like this one have a small access door at the bottom. Fresh material goes on top and semi-finished compost comes out the bottom.

If you have a source of coffee grounds, you can make better slow compost. Why? Because worms love coffee! Coffee grounds have a 20:1 carbon/nitrogen ratio, which is almost ideal. They also have residual caffeine and I swear the worms get hooked on the caffeine. When I was a kid growing up in Allentown, my mom made a big pot of coffee every day  and tossed the used grounds into a flower bed just outside the kitchen door. Whenever I wanted to go fishing I'd dig in that bed and always found lots and lots of fat worms. If there is a coffee shop near you or if your office makes coffee, ask to get the grounds and add them to your compost. The worms will dig their way up through the other material to get the coffee grounds.

Because I am not currently living at my house, I am forced to slow compost. When I go home each summer I fork out an entire 4'x4'x4' bin, screen it through a 1/4 inch screen, put the screened compost in my finished compost bin and the larger material goes back into the composting bin mixed in with fresh material. This will quickly heat up and be a hot pile while I am home to maintain it. Through this method, over the past three years I have produced four cubic yards of compost with very little effort. Screening a 64 cubic foot bin of material is no small effort but it is once a year and then done.

I had a separate bin for slow composting of wood chips and leaves a few years ago and once I move home for good I will re-establish a "mold" composting set-up. I think leaf mold and composted wood chips (which takes 2-3 years) are excellent additions for my blueberry and raspberry patches. My main garden, which isn't being used right now, has been buried under six inches of wood chips for three years. The bottom layer is rich, black, mold composted wood chips and once I till it under will be great soil. I will need to add lime though since this tends to be acidic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Beans and peas are almost ideal ingredients for the frugal cook. I use them very often to extend my food and add additional nutrients and fiber. There are a million bean recipes in books and on the Internet. Why? Because beans and peas are grown around the world. Since they are legumes, they fix their own nitrogen and can, therefore, grow in poor soils. This makes them ideal for gardeners since they grow easily, add nitrogen to the garden soil, and certain varieties (mostly the peas) are cold hardy and do well in early spring and the fall. 

Beans and peas are high in protein, plant protein that is. When combined with small amounts of animal protein and grains they provide complete protein. Lets look at the nutritional value of beans.

This label shows the nutrition provided by one cup of plain, canned, baked beans. Obviously each brand will have small differences but this gives us a general idea. Now I think a cup of baked beans is probably more than the average person will eat in one sitting so these numbers are probably higher than what you will actually take in. Baked bean provide Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats but as you can see there is very little fat in beans. It is the pork fat often added to baked beans that adds fat. I almost always get the vegetarian style beans with no pork fat added. Beans are a great source of fiber; one cup provides 42% of your daily requirement according to this label. The high sugar content is what creates the gas usually associated with beans. And as you can see there is a good amount of protein.

What I especially like about beans are the vitamins and minerals they add to your diet. Short of a multivitamin you would be hard pressed to get this variety of both in one food. Beans digest slowly so these nutrients are introduced into your system over time so they are not just expelled in your urine, which is what happens when you take supplements.

I often eat baked beans as a side dish with pork, sausage, and fish. But I also prepare a dish that features the baked beans as the main course. I put two cans of baked beans in a slow cooker and add half to three quarters cup of rice. The rice absorbs the excess liquid, locking in those nutrients. I like my beans in a thick sauce so this takes care of that. I cook them in the slow cooker (crock pot) for 30 minutes and start testing the rice. Once it is soft I cut up an onion and a sweet pepper and add those to the pot. I let this cook for another 15 minutes. A one cup (more or less) serving of this and a tossed salad makes a complete and cheap meal. This will feed four people for about $5.00 - $6.00.

Another thing I like to do with beans is add them to other slow cooker meals. The product I use, because it is available in my store, is Hurst's Brand HamBeens (15 Bean Soup). I am sure there are many other brands that are similar. Hurst's 15 Bean Soup has 15 different beans in it. These include: Northern, Pinto, Large Lima, Blackeye, Garbanzo, Baby Lima, Green Split, Kidney, Cranberry, Small White, Pink, Small Red, Yellow Split, Lentil, Navy, White Kidney, and Black Bean. You would have to look up the nutrition values for each of these varieties to get exact numbers. But I am only using these beans to improve the nutrition of a dish. 

I don't much like bean soup and I really don't like pea soup, but I do like to add beans to other soups and stews. I make my own soup fairly often, once I have accumulated the ingredients, but just as often I buy a can of soup when it goes on sale. To that can of soup I add 2/3 a cup of frozen mixed vegetables, any additional leftover pieces of meat I have on hand, and a half cup of these mixed beans. This will double my soup, so I get two meals from it, and the additions greatly increase the nutritional value of the meal.

As I said, there are plenty of recipes available for this cheap, nutritious, and easy to store food. Dried beans and peas are ideal for long term storage. Buy them in bulk when on sale and store them in a cool, dry, dark place. They will keep for months if not years. As long as no moisture or insects get to them they won't spoil. If you are a survivalist, you know that the free packets of silica that come in many things you buy can be "recharged" in your oven and then placed in airtight containers of beans, peas, and rice to protect them from moisture. That is food security.

One after thought. One of my favorites snacks is a toasted whole wheat bagel smeared with roasted garlic humus. I also eat this for breakfast from time to time. It's high in carbs but also has enough protein and fats to make it filling and nutritious.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fast or Slow Composting Part 2

My bin, which I have been using since 2004, is a four bin setup I made out of used treated deck boards. I got the boards for free after someone disassembled an old deck.  The good 8' boards were used whole and damaged boards were cut to four foot length.

Side View
Top View

So now that you have a place and a bin of some sort you need to collect the materials you want to compost. In the fall and winter the bulk of your material is probably going to be leaves. I usually use my lawn tractor to windrow the leaves and partially chop them up. If you keep cutting in one direction the leaves and some grass will blow into one long row. Then I rake them up and run them through my shredder but if you don't have a shredder you can just run over them a few more times with the mower. The finer the material the faster it decomposes into compost.

The only way to get a hot compost in the colder months is to add manure or some other high nitrogen material and keep it well aerated. Horse, cow, or poultry manure are good for making cold weather compost. Mix that in with the leaves, wood chips, grass, and kitchen wastes. It is always a good idea to sprinkle in finished compost or screened soil to add the micro-organisms needed to start the composting process. Cover the bin with clear plastic to create a mini-greenhouse and create more heat during the day and keep it warm at night. You'll need to turn the pile every 2-3 days to keep it well oxygenated.

Turning the pile. What does that mean? Simply put it means re-mixing the materials and aerating it by "fluffing" up the material. I usually use a pitchfork to take everything out of one bin and toss it into the next bin while twisting the pitchfork side to side. This breaks up the clumps and get lots of airspace into the pile. Usually, after turning a fairly fresh pile, the temperature will spike in a couple hours as the biological activity increases. With the proper mix of materials and aeration your pile should get to 140-160 degrees warm on the inside.  Of course the outside layer will not be as warm but that is why you turn the pile every couple days.  This brings the outer layers to the inside of the pile and feeds the micro-organisms fresh material.

During the party season there seems to always be left over soda, beer, and sweets.  These are all good to add to a compost pile. The sugars feed the micro-organisms and give them a quick burst of energy.

Unfortunately, if you live in a cold weather area your pile will eventually cool down and freeze but in the spring you'll have a jump start on an early batch of compost.

If it is already too cold to compost in your area you can use this time to stockpile materials. Pile all your leaves out of the way and cover with a tarp or plastic. The wire fence surrounds are ideal for storing materials for later use.

During the winter you want to cover all your compost materials, especially finished compost, so the nutrients aren't leached out by rain water. My four-bin system has one covered bin reserved for storing finished compost. Even finished compost can break down further during the "curing" process. My curing bin is usually filled with earthworms and they contribute more nutrients through their digestive cycle.

So what if you have neither the time nor the inclination to work on a hot compost system? Well, you can still produce good compost but it just takes a longer time. We'll look at that next.