Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shopping the Dollar Stores

Live Off the Dollar Store for a Week on a $50 Budget

By Tahirah Blanding,

College, unemployment, or an unexpected change in your life situation can mean learning to live off the dollar store. These are times when a major cut in spending is required as you plan how to survive from week to week. We found that it's possible to take care of the essentials, with a dollop of comfort thrown in, for less than $50 a week by shopping at the local dollar store.

Sure, the dollar store is a pit stop for cheap snacks, cooking supplies, toys, and other small items, but it's also a source for food at one very low price. And yes, there may be a stigma attached to dollar store shopping for all your needs, but it's time to get over it.

These super-discount chains can sell items cheaply because they follow a strategy that involves buying non-brand items that aren't backed by enormous advertising budgets, stocking items in smaller sizes, and buying products in bulk from companies that are going out of business. Most goods sold in dollar stores are perfectly fine, and you'll often find reputable brands such as Minute Maid, Del Monte, and Suave. Do shop wisely, however: Some items, such as electrical products, may be knock-offs that don't meet quality standards. A few dollar stores now sell meat, so be sure to carefully inspect the packages, just as the Ohio Department of Agriculture suggests.

Dollar store product generally come in smaller sizes than items sold at retail grocery stores, but the small servings still suffice for the average person (most dollar store food items serve at least one). Dollar store cereal, for example, typically comes in boxes that serve at least four; oatmeal in individual packs of six; small bags or boxes of pancake mix that serve up to 11; instant coffee that can make up to 50 servings. About 30 products used in various combinations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (with a snack here and there) would cost less than $50 and keep you going for a week -- and then some.

A dollar can go a long way.

Breakfast for seven days would cost about $10 using combinations of coffee, apple juice, oatmeal, bread, eggs, milk, cereal, pancake mix and syrup. Outlays for lunch and dinner foods would total slightly more than $30 and involve mixing and matching tuna, pasta, frozen meat, premade pizza crust and sauce, canned soup and vegetables, etc. Our suggested menus and shopping list presume you have some staples on hand, such as mayonnaise and condiments like pickles.

Below are a suggested dollar store grocery list and menu for a week. Most of these items are sold in-store, but inventory varies at every dollar store.

Day 1: Bowl of oatmeal, coffee
Day 2: Pancakes, coffee
Day 3: Bowl of cereal
Day 4: Toast with jelly or peanut butter, scrambled eggs
Day 5: Waffles, coffee
Day 6: Bowl of cereal
Day 7: Bowl of oatmeal, cup of apple juice

Lunch (accompanied by water or iced tea)
Day 1: Tuna salad, potato chips
Day 2: Soup, crackers
Day 3: Hamburger Helper, canned vegetables
Day 4: Pizza
Day 5: Tuna pasta salad
Day 6: PB&J sandwich, granola bar
Day 7: Soup, crackers

Dinner (accompanied by water or iced tea)
Day 1: Spaghetti, canned vegetables
Day 2: Mashed potatoes, barbecue chicken, canned vegetables
Day 3: New Orleans-style rice, beans
Day 4: Tuna pasta salad, canned vegetables
Day 5: Pizza
Day 6: Hamburger Helper, meat
Day 7: Tuna pot pie

Granola bar, toast or crackers with peanut butter, jelly
1 box cereal - $1.00
1 6-ct pack oatmeal - $1.00
1 bag coffee - $1.00
1 loaf bread - $1.00
1 box pancake mix - $1.00
1 bottle imitation maple syrup - $1.00
1 jar jelly - $1.00
1 jar peanut butter - $1.00
1 12-ct. carton eggs - $1.00
1/2 gallon shelf-stable milk/1 gallon fresh milk - $1.00
1 32-oz. jar apple juice - $1.00
1 2-ct. pack premade pizza crusts - $1.00
1 jar pizza sauce - $1.00
1 container grated parmesan cheese - $1.00
2 boxes Hamburger Helper - $2.00
1 bag pasta - $1.00
2 cans meat sauce - $2.00
5 5-oz. cans tuna - $5.00
1 box instant oatmeal - $1.00
3 1-lb. cans soup - $3.00
4 10-oz. cans vegetables - $4.00
1 box crackers - $1.00
1 pastry crust - $1.00
1 box New Orleans-style rice - $1.00
1 can beans - $1.00
1 bag potato chips - $1.00
1 6-ct box granola bars - $1.00
1 bottle barbecue sauce - $1.00 Total: $43

Save money by following these tips.
Plan out meals, rather than snacks, and purchase items that can be used in at least two different meal settings; bread and eggs work for breakfast and lunch, for example, and tuna and soup do double duty for lunch and dinner. Some dollar stores contain a frozen foods section (the Dollar Tree, for one, recently began installing freezers) stocked with items such as meat and TV dinners, and some have a refrigerated section filled with dairy products. Canned and boxed goods dominate dollar store shelves, however, so fresh fruit and vegetables will have to be put on hold.

Living off the dollar store requires careful planning and discipline. Make a list of your needs (and commit to sticking to it) before setting foot inside. Avoid the non-food aisles. All too often a quick browse down the wrong aisle can lead to an impulsive choice of something that seems essential but under the circumstances just isn't. After purchasing all the necessary food stuffs, you may have a few dollars left over for a 6-pack of tissue or a stick of deodorant. Some dollar stores accept manufacturer's coupons, so don't be shy about checking the store's policy. Saving a few extra cents here and there adds up to dollars that can be allocated towards other expenses, such as bills or transportation.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Self-Help Postings

I will list all my self-help postings here so you can access them easier. Just click on a link.

Cutting firewood for heat 

Splitting Firewood safely

Building a Cheap Woodshed from Pallets

Replace a Tire Valve (one hour for two)

Build a Small Cold Frame

Dressing Metal Tools

Replacing a Tool Handle

Making Jelly

Composting - My Results

Fast or slow composting Part-1

Fast or slow composting Part-2

Fast or slow composting Part-3

Replacing a Tire's Valve Stem

This is another of the "How To's" to help you save money and learn how to be more self-sufficient. If you have been reading my blog for the past couple years then you know that I am an organic gardener and that I use the material from my property to produce compost and also to put my garden to bed each fall.  So Saturday, three days ago, I was planning to cut my grass and at the same time vacuum up the fallen leaves and pine needles with my DR Lawn Vac system. When I hooked up and pulled it out of my equipment shed I noticed that the tires were flat. So I towed it to my garage to pump up the tires. I filled one tire and went around to fill the other. By the time I returned to the first tire it was flat already. I refilled the tire and put my ear close and heard air hissing out the valve stem. 

So I pulled the tire off and pushed the valve stem with my finger and it snapped off. Apparently it had dry-rotted. What to do what to do? My first inclination was to take both tires over to Walmart and have them fix it. Taking a look on-line I found I could expect to pay $5.00 to $10.00 per tire on the low side and up to $20.00 per tire on the high side. Wow, too much for me. So I thought I would give it a try myself.

I drove over to the local AutoZone and not surprisingly found that there are several sizes of valve stems. Luckily I brought the broken off section and could match it up with the right size. This pair only cost $2.99 and the instructions are right on the back.

The first thing to do then is to deflate the tire if it isn't already, not an issue here since the valve stem broke off. Then you have to break the bead. The bead is what seals the tubeless tire onto the rim. I used a pry bar turned at an angle and then my weight (200 lbs) to break the bead seal. Once any section comes loose, the whole thing sort of peels off the rim. It took me some time to get the broken-off inner part of the stem out of the tire.

Once the old stem is out you can place the new stem in the hole from the inside of the rim. 

I lubricated the stem with a little saliva and with one hand I pushed from the rear and with the other I pulled and wiggled it back and worth until the flanged seal popped through. It was not too hard at all. I made sure the valve was seated evenly and fully sealed all around the base of the stem and then inflated the tire. Everything sealed up properly.

Once it was done I remounted it on the Lawn Vac and then did the other side, which wasn't leaking but why not do both at once? 

This was a simple enough job that saved me somewhere between $10 and $40 had I taken it to a garage. It took me no more than an hour to complete, not too bad for a first time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Eating Cheaply While at a Conference

A week ago I attended training at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. At the lunch break I spent over $10.00 for a tasteless, un-filling, and certainly not healthy lunch. That wouldn't do. So that night I went to the Weiss market in town (I have a Weiss shopper's card) and bought supplies to provide my own lunch.

For a little over $12.00 I bought three rotisserie chicken breasts, a block of Sharp Cheddar cheese, canned fruit, a half loaf of all-grain bread, drink powder, and cookies. This, supplemented with some items from the hotel breakfast bar fed me quite well for the rest of the week. This saved me at least $28.00 and was much healthier and tasty.

My room had a refrigerator and a microwave so I also bought food for supper. I carried the same insulated lunch bag that I use for work with a small ice pack that I refroze every night.

Every little bit helps...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Garden Excess - What to do

Most decent gardens eventually produce more than you can possibly eat at the time; mine is no exception.  So what do you do with the excess vegetables that you can't immediately eat?

1. Give some away: I keep my in-laws pretty well supplied with cucumbers, tomatoes, and green beans. They appreciate the fresh, organic produce and I get some "brownie points" with my wife's family.

2. Freeze:  I freeze prepared green beans to eat later. Since my kids don't eat them I freeze them in "two-portion" size bags. I put the date on the bags so that I eat them "first in first out".  I picked out the beans that were a little too ripened to eat plain and cut them up for soup ingredients. I make a lot of soup in the winter.

3. Pickle: I have made conventional pickles several times in the past but this year I just don't have the time to do it. So I tried a couple short-cuts.

    a. I sliced up cucumbers, Hungarian banana peppers, and onions and dumped them into a pickle jar. I saved the jars and pickle juice from three different flavored pickles I had bought. Now I have to say here that no respectable canning guide or food expert will recommend that you do this. But I have done it many times successfully. Make sure all the vegetables are fully covered and at least twice a day give the jar a good shake to mix the juice around the veggies. Give the mix at least a week and you'll have some nearly free pickled vegs.

    b. Onion and cucumber salad. This is an easy recipe: I  use two thinly sliced cucumbers, one thickly sliced onion (a large one or two small ones), and a thinly sliced pepper. Mix together one cup of apple cider vinegar, two cups of cold water, a half to one cup of sugar (to your taste), salt and pepper to taste, garlic if you want. Mix the vegetables in a large bowl and the pour the liquid over the veggies. Cover the bowl and refrigerate. You can start eating the mix after a couple hours but I like to wait at least a day. You can store this in the fridge for a couple weeks but mine never lasts that long (I eat it every day).

4. Dry: I dry my onions, which then lets me store them for maybe 2-3 months. I grew 50 onions and have eaten ten or so of them so I'll dry the rest and store them in mesh bags hanging so they get good air flow. I have dried excess tomatoes in the past using a food dehydrator. Then I crumble them up and add them to dishes when I am cooking. It adds a hearty, tomato flavor to any dish.  M<any people dry beans but I never have. I don't eat dried beans very often, though I do add them to soups, and I would rather eat the beans green. Maybe next year I'll grow some to dry since I did have a big open area in my garden this year.

5. Store in a "Ground Cellar": I haven't harvested my potatoes yet but I will have a pretty good crop I think. Most of your root crops can be stored in a cool (almost cold), dry space. I have an unheated cellar so I will select the best, unblemished potatoes and store them there. Properly prepared, potatoes will easily last 3-4 months and then they tend to start sprouting.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Garden 20 August 2013

My garden keeps putting out bucket after bucket of fresh, organic food. Weeding is not much of a problem since the vegetable plants cover most of the ground. 

I planted a second smaller patch of green beans a couple weeks ago and they are doing very good. At the same time, I just picked a gallon of green beans from the original patch. If you picked early and often the plants will continue to produce but at a slower rate. This picture is actually from two weeks ago, before I left for my camping trip. The patch is completely filled with flowering plants now. I should start getting beans from these plants in about two weeks.

I have already picked seven nice cucumbers from these vines. I trained them up three ladders to save ground space. I have always raised my vine fruits above the ground. They stay cleaner, have less pests, and it is easier to see the fruits.
This picture shows the last of my fifty onions still in the ground but they are all picked now. For best storage you should always wait until all the foliage is brown and the bulb is loose in the ground. Then, set them out where it is dry with the roots facing the sun and any breeze you have. It is important to dry the roots quickly to stop growth. That takes about 3-5 days. Once that is done the bulbs need to be further dried on all sides. I usually use some sort of screen or net so that warm dry air can get to all sides of the bulb.  Dry them this way for two weeks and then put them away in a cool dry place and they will last for weeks.

The three blueberry bushes got completely out of control. We picked about four gallons of berries and they just kept coming. I will prune these bushes back hard this winter to make them more manageable and easier to work around. If I had been home more than on the weekends I could have picked at least another four to five gallons of berries. I opened up the netting and let the birds have a feast.

My strawberries produced a bowlful of berries, very tasty too. But the main activity this first year is to send out runners and produce "daughter plants".  In this way, you can triple the number of plants you have for the next year, the main year for producing berries. This is an earlier picture, the bed is now full of new plants. The plants will do this with no help but I find it useful to place the daughter plants where I want them, properly spaced apart, and held in place with small twigs stuck in the ground.

I got peaches for the first time in five years. My father-in-law had planted this tree at least 15 years ago and it did well for him in the early years. But it was over grown and plagued with pests and hasn't produced full-sized fruit in many years. Last winter I pruned it pretty hard but you should never remove more than one third of a tree's branches in any given year. This winter I will cut it back some more and give it a more "open" form. Peaches need to be open on top for sunlight and air flow. So hopefully next year it will do even better.

This has been a good year for my garden.  I have plenty of produce, berries, and cut up peaches in my freezer to feed me later in the year. I should probably harvest my potatoes in about two or three weeks. I am expecting at least a bushel from the ten seed potatoes I planted. The foliage is huge and must have been feeding the tubers (fingers crossed).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Garden 13 July 2013

I missed a couple weeks blogging my garden so here is a catch up.

In the past couple weeks I have picked:
         one and a half gallons of green beans
         one gallon of blueberries
         three quarts of raspberries
         23 radishes
         7 spring onions
         lettuce and spinach
         one Hungarian pepper

The three blueberry bushes I have are out of control this year. Winter and spring weathe must have been near perfect. We have already picked a gallon of berries and there are still twice as many on the bushes. I do not eat blueberries but my family does so we are freezing them in two cup incriments for later baking.

The green beans are fully mature.  Two weeks ago I noticed that something was eating the plants; all the tips were nipped back. Both rabbits and groundhogs love beans and bean plants. So I brought my new .22 rifle up from the gun locker and allowed it to warm up (my basement is always cold). The next morning I quietly crept out to my garden area and there was a young groundhog. I made a standing head shot at 30 meters; no more groundhog.  I'll eat groundhog, as I have mentioned way back in  previous blog post, but I didn't think my wife was ready for me cooking down a groundhog in her crock pot this particular day. So instead, it became worm food in my compost pile.

My tomato plants are doing good and there are many small, green tomatoes forming. I buried them deep and my soil is rich so they should produce a good crop. My dad's tomatos, three miles west of my place, are showing some early signs of disease. Hopefully it is not moving down the valley and I will have to be sure to avoid those plants.

My peppers and onions are also doing great.  The onions are very large and strong smelling so I'm hoping they will be sharp and powerful tasting. I have two bell peppers and two sweet Hungarian peppers.  All four have young fruit on them.  I ate one Hungarian pepper in salads last week and it was very tasty. I have not tried any of the onions yet.
I planted six old, (at least five years old), cucumber seeds two weeks ago. Five seeds germinated but it appears that one was eaten. I was only going to grow three plants anyway so this is fine. I obtained the three ladder sections from a neighbor's burn pile. I always grow my cucumbers up off the ground. This takes up less space and keeps the cucumbers cleaner and away from slugs and other ground critters. The fruit grow straighter and are more visible hanging from the vine.

My new strawberry patch is doing okay but not great. I planted 24 plants, there were supposed to be 25, and several died off. Luckily, strawberries send out runners with "daughter" plants growing from them. I am manually locating the daughter plants to fill in the gaps and to keep them from getting too close and crowded, a common problem. You can usually triple the number of plants you have by doing this correctly. You would have  look real closely to see that I use tiny twigs stuck in the ground and crossed over he runners to hold them in place where I want them. I also expose the soil under the daughter plant so that it can root more easily.

Lastly, I have replanted radishes and spring onions in my cold frame. I raised it up off the ground with a brick at each corner and replaced the plastic lid with a mesh lid. This will increase air flow, keep the temperature lower, and partly shade the plants. They are both cool season crops so I am hoping this will allow them to grow properly in the heat of the summer. We shall see...

As you can see there are very few weeds in my garden. I do pick some weeds each weekend but my tillage techniques and close cropping of plants to shade out the soil prevents most weeds from starting. The grass mulch I put down also helps quite a bit.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Restaurant Dining - My Ten Rules

I highly recommend you do not pay others to cook and present your food. The added cost is enough that you could easily prepare two additional meals at home for the same price. But sometimes it is sort of unavoidable for social reasons. So what can you do?

First.  Try to eat out at lunch if at all possible. Lunch menus are typically less expensive than evening meals (supper or dinner depending on where you come from).

Second. Avoid the popular all you can eat buffet places (Old Country Buffet, Golden Corral, etc) on weekends; they all jack up the prices on weekends.

Third. Look for coupons and dining specials. My wife and I used to eat at a very nice steak house in Sierra Vista, AZ called "The Beef Baron" on Thursday nights because they had a "Two for one" special to bring people in on the least popular night of the week. Unfortunately they closed and were replaced by yet another Chinese Buffet.

Fourth. Fill up on the endless salad and breadsticks that some chains offer, eat a tiny bit of the main course, and take the rest of it home for a second meal.

Fifth. Avoid alcoholic drinks, they are always way over-priced.

Sixth. Ask for water. Water is free. We take single serve drink packets, those handy little tubes of powder, and add them to the water. I buy mine at any one of the Dollar Store type shops or Big Lots. One dollar buys me anywhere from 8-12 16.9 ounce drinks. A soda or tea at any restaurant will cost $1.59 at least.

Seventh. Share a desert if you must have one. Restaurant deserts (as delicious as they are) are full of empty, unhealthy calories and are expensive, so cut it in half.

Eighth. Look for smart "add-ons". I sometimes treat myself to Peruvian Chicken at work when I must have a "Working Lunch". They charge $5.99 for a 1/4 chicken with two sides (I always get mashed potatoes and coleslaw). For just one dollar more I can get 1/2 a chicken instead of 1/4. So I eat the thigh and drumstick with the two side items, a very filling meal, and take the chicken breast home for supper. It is hard to buy a large cooked chicken breast for a dollar anywhere. I bring my own drink in a cooler bag and take the chicken breast home in the same cooler bag.

Ninth. As mentioned above in eight, I almost always bring my own drink and desert when I eat on the road. I travel a lot and while I usually take a cold lunch with me I often am on the road for longer than one meal. So I bring drinks that I froze at home, which thaw and are available still cold later in the trip.

Tenth. Breakfast is always the cheapest meal you can buy at a diner. You can get a good breakfast at Ikea for less than two dollars.  I often eat at Ikea if I see one and need to eat. For $5.99 you can get 15 meatballs with gravy, mashed potatoes, and a mixed greens salad. That is hard to beat.

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Garden 26 May 2013

Well I found both good and bad in my garden this weekend.

The good is that all my seed potatoes have sprouted and are growing strong. There are twelve plants growing in this staggered row. I have never grown fingerlings so I don't know what to expect when harvest comes. When I grew russets, this row would give me about 15-20 pounds of potatoes. I usually only recommend growing potatoes, which are generally cheap to buy, if you have plenty of garden space and/or you want to eat a certain, special type of potato. I have the space and I have a knack with potatoes so they are a "go to" vegetable for me. I save my own seed potatoes so after this year I won't have to buy any. I also like to keep in practice growing them since in a worst case scenario they are one of the best vegetables to grow since they store so well. I've said before that I am not a "Prepper" and this site is not specifically for "Dooms-dayers" but as an old Boy Scout, I do like to be prepared.

The bad this weekend? We had a very late-season frost last week. It wasn't a killing frost but it did do some damage. If you look closely at my bean plants many of them are "frost-burned" and the leaves are very damaged. All the seeds sprouted except one and I reseeed that one. Actually it did sprout but something nipped it off at the root. So more than half my beans are damaged. I watered them heavily and will give them a week to see how well they recover. It is still early so I can always reseed them. My plan is to plant a batch of beans about every two to three weeks anyway so I have a constant harvest.

My peas are growing slowly but surely. As they get more growth and more leaves they will grow faster. Again, all but one seed sprouted. Most of them are already attaching tendrils to the cages so they will start to climb. I probably could have planted them earlier but we had such a cold, wet spring I couldn't get the soil tilled and prepared.

The onions are also doing quite well. I weeded both the peas and the onions, which took all of ten minutes. I try to weed early and often so that the weeds don't get deep roots. I still need to mulch thse plants and hope to do that next weekend.

I have enjoyed several bunches of radishes already. These have grown very well. I could start picking lettuce and spinach anytime. I ate a couple spinach leaves while weeding and they are crisp and tasty. I probably will not plant anything else in the cold frame until the fall. I will let what I have growing in there mature and harvest as it does. I will need to prepare a anding seedbed to plant these plants outside the box since the weather is (hopefully) warming up enough at night.

I turned my compost and both working piles are too dry to decompose as fast as I would like. We had a pretty good rain this past week but I think I will have to drag the hose down to my compost bins to wet them down and get them cooking again. You must maintain a good balance of moisture and aeration as well as the right balance of carbon and nitrogen levels in your materials.

Happy Gardening!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Apples - "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

Everyone knows that old saying but just how healthy are apples?

An ingredient found in apple peels has been found by a team of researchers to help prevent muscle weakening in mice.

Muscle weakening often occurs in humans as a result of illness and aging. But so far, it has not been well understood nor has a medicine existed for it. Ursolic acid, also known as pent acyclic triterpene acid, is present in plants that include apples, basil, bilberries, cranberries, elder flower, peppermint, rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme, hawthorn, and prunes.

Apple peels contain large quantities of ursolic acid and related compounds. Ursolic acid commonly is used in cosmetics and is capable of inhibiting various types of cancer cells.

Animals given ursolic acid became leaner and had lower blood levels of glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides. The findings therefore suggest that ursolic acid may be responsible for some of the overall benefits of healthy eating.

Americans eat lots of apples, and the food industry produces a lot of applesauce. However, many people are unaware that most of the health benefits are found in the skin, or apple peel. Apple peels are chock-full of special phytonutrients, like phloridzin and phloretin xylogucoside, that give apples their unique and potent antioxidant and anti inflammatory qualities.

Apple polyphenols also can help prevent spikes in blood sugar through a variety of mechanisms.

Flavonoids such as quercetin found in apples can inhibit enzymes, like alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase. Since these enzymes are involved in the breakdown of complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, the blood sugar in our bodies has fewer simple sugars to deal with when these enzymes are inhibited.

The polyphenols in apples have been shown to lessen absorption of glucose from the digestive tract, stimulate the beta cells of the pancreas to secrete insulin, and increase uptake of glucose from the blood via simulation of insulin receptors. All of these mechanisms can make it easier to  regulate blood sugar.
It is hard to grow trully organic apples in the US because there are so many pests. Just be sure to thoroughly clean your apples before eating them. I like to put a small amount of peanut butter on slices for a healthy mid-day snack.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My Garden 19 May 2013

Just a week since my last post and my garden has grown nicely. There were two sub-freezing nights this past week, one night  in the 20's. I was worried about my young plants but everything I have growing now is cold tolerant. The spinach and lettuce are protecte by the cold frame. Ther wasn't any rain this week so I soaked the garden with the sprinkler.

The green beans have aleady sprouted, probably just 2-3 days ago. They do not yet have true leaves but they should by next weekend. They are vulnerable at this stage and hopefully they will make it through the week. The nights are not supposed to get so cold but birds and rabbits are the new threat. The wire grates should help out.

The peas look good, it looks like one failed to sprout but we'll see next week. I can always pop another seed in the round there. The onions are up and growing fast. I said last post that there were 25 planted but there are actually 50 planted sets.

My potatoes were planted deep so they took quite a while to emerge. Now that the leaves will receive sunlight they will grow much faster. I counted nine plants breaking the surface. Hopefully the whole staggered row will sprout.

Inside my cold frame the first radishes I planted are ready to harvest and the second planting has sprouted. I still only have one lettuce plant but I have four spinach plants growing. I will have to reseed next weekend.  Unfortunately, I am only home on the weekends and can't regulate the temperature in the box or water the plants when they need it. But in spite of that some things are growing very well.

I picked half a dozen radishes to take home. I already ate two of them though and they were tasty and mild. This variety is the "French Breakfast" radish and they are mild. I'll grow some sharper ones later in the season. Tasted great with my lunch!

I turned both my compost piles and they were warm enough to steam. They were a little dry so today's light rain should do the piles good. By the time both bins "cook" down, they will leave a little less than half a bin of good compost each. More than enough for my needs.

What are you waiting for? Start growing some food.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Garden 12 May 2013

In just a week, or two, there has been some good progress in my garden. It is still far too cold at night to transplant warm season plants like peppersand tomatoes. But I have onions, potatoes, peas, radishes, spinach, and lettuce growing. I also just planted green beans but they won't sprout for 7 - 10 days since the ground is still cool.

I thought I would use tomato cages for my peas this year. I planted peas around the bottom of the cage and they will climb the cage. This will give them a sturdy trellis to climb and plenty of air circulation and access to sunlight. My intent then is to plant peppers and/or tomatoes in the cage after the peas are harvested. That will take advantage of the nitrogen the peas (as legumes) fixed at the roots and deposited in the soil. WheneverI harvest legumes I always cut the plant off at the ground and leave all the roots in the soil to maximize the nitrogen available.

As you can see the onions came up very well. There should be about 25 plants started here. A couple were pulled out by birds but I pushed them back in the soil and they seem to have re-started. I had wanted to mulch the rows but didn't get around to it this weekend. My mom died last week and we buried her on Wednesday. So I have been tied up with family activities.

Protecting the seeds from birds
Green Bean Planting Bed
I have used this technique for planting seeds for many years and it has always been successful. I prepare the seed bed and then scratch out the rows with a stick or trowel. I set the seeds in the dug row and space them slighty more apart then the seed package instructs because the rows will be half the distance apart than the package calls for. Then, instead of pushing the soil back over the seeds, I fill the row trench with compost. This does several things for me. First, it clearly marks the rows. Second, it gives the plants a soft, loose soil to sprout through. Third, it is dark so it warms up faster by absorbing more sunlight, which is converted to heat. Fourth, it will absorb water faster and hold more moisture for longer beause of the high organic content (100% organic material). Lastly, it will feed the young plants with a slow release natural fertilizer.

I have problems with birds pulling out the sprouted seeds and other night-time critters digging up my seeds and young plants. I salvaged about 60 of these one-foot square wire panels from a dumpster and they work great to protect the seeds. Once th plants are a couple inches tall I can pick them up and store them or use them on other areas.

I like raised beds and eventualy want to convert my whole garden space to a series of raised beds. But for now I till the whole garden space and then use pavers to set off small growing spaces. It does waste some space but it has been a very successful method. I like to use pavers as stepping stones. This keeps my shoes clean and prevents compaction of the soil since I am not walking on the dirt.

 I usually clean up my raspberry patch in early March but had too many other chores to get done. So I finally got to it this week. I cut out the previous year's dead canes to prevent disease and clear space for new growth. Most raspberries fruit on one year old canes and then the cane dies off. If you don't clean the dead canes out the patch gets choked with dead canes and the new canes are crowded out. The dead canes make up about 33% of the plant material in a patch. Once the dead canes are cut out I run them through the chipper/shredder and toss the ground up material on my compost pile. Then I fork in new mulch (mulched yard material picked up with my yard vacuum) to feed and protect the patches' soil.

I did not take any pictures of what is growing in my cold frame this week. I have a good crop of radishes, which I will start picking next weekend, a couple spinach plants, but only one lettuce plant is started. I reseeded onions, radishes, and lettuce.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Garden - 21 April 2013

It was cool and very windy this weekend but I was able to get some work done on my garden anyway.

I had covered my garden with about four inches of mulched grass and leaves in the fall and that had rotted down to less than two inches. There was much more mulch left than in previous years; usually there is barely a trace of material remaining after the six months have passed.  That could be because it was so cold this winter and it was a long winter. 

So I tilled it all under, which took three passes with my tiller. Mixing the remaining material into the soil should speed up its final decomposition. While this is happening though the nitrogen levels in the soil will drop. The good bacteria in your soil use nitrogen as fuel to decompose organic materials. So I will give it two weeks before I plant anything in the main garden bed. But I did plant some things this weekend. How will they grow in a low nitrogen soil?

First, I have to remind you that I have an active three-bin composting set-up. Right now I have one 64 cubic foot bin full to within inches of the top. I have one full bin that is about half way through its decomposition but is cold right now (no active decomposition) and one 3/4s full bin about half way through its decomposition. I cut my grass with my lawn vacuum attached, which sucked up and mulched grass, twigs, pine needles, and leaves. I added this to a half full bin and mixed it all up to aerate and level out the moisture content. Within 12 hours it was a hot, active compost pile. This Saturday I mixed it again to get oxygen into the mix and it was steaming hot. I will mix it once a week and it will cook down very quickly.

So I have no shortage of aged, rich compost and that will supply all the nutrients new plants will need until the rest of the garden soil breaks down and is stabilized. I also saved all my wood ashes from my fire place and have five gallons of ash to add potash to the soil. Potash is very water soluble and it washes out of the soil with rain.

I like to add walkways in my garden to keep it clean and avoid compacting the soil. It is true, I do lose some growing space but the soil under the pavers holds moisture and nutrients for the plants that grow near them. Secondly, I can pick them up and move them at any time, which I will do with successive plantings. The two blocks I set up here did not have a mulch cover on them all winter. In this area I amended the soil in the fall and then covered the space with clear plastic. So it had all winter to break down. It the rear-most block I planted Yellow Onion sets. There are fifty onions planted four inches apart and one inch deep.

In the front bed I set in four tomato cages and planted pea seeds around the base of each. The peas will grow and climb the cages. Peas are legumes. Legumes take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it to their roots. When the peas are finished and harvested I will cut the plants off at the ground and all that free nitrogen they collected will remain in the soil for the next (successive) plants I put in there.

I laid plastic down to warm the soil and speed up the decomposition process. I will plant potatoes there next weekend. I bought seed potatoes for the first time in maybe twenty years. I normally just store 15-20 small potatoes from one year over the winter. I keep them in a cool, dark space in a paper bag and they sprout at each eye. Then I plant them deep and the sprouts convert to roots and top growth. How they know to do both I have no idea but it works. However, since I lived in The Netherlands last year I have no carry-overs and am starting from scratch. Seed potatoes must be conditioned before you can plant them. On Wednesday I will cut up the seed potatoes so that each piece has two eyes. Then I will set them out in my apartment to dry. They will be ready to plant on Saturday. If you just cut them up and plant them, many of them will just rot in the cold, wet soil.

This picture isn't great but you should be able to see radishes on the left and spinach on the right lower parts of the bed. This is inside my new cold frame. Unfortunately, I don't live at my house full-time and the soil is a bit dry. I watered the ground Saturday and Sunday so hopefully the onion and lettuce seeds will sprout soon too.

This is my strawberry bed. I planted 22 plants on Sunday. I am a little disappointed with Gurney's, they shorted me three plants. I paid for 25. I planted them 15 inches apart and used a cup of compost in the bottom of each plant hole. Now I am hoping that we don't get a serious freeze before the plants are set and growing.

These are my three blueberry bushes. I planted them five years ago and they are now about four feet high and three feet in diameter. They will produce about a gallon of berries this year, maybe a bit more. When the berries actually form, in June, I have to cover them with bird netting to keep them from being eaten by the birds and other small animals.

Here is a money-saver for you; free plant propagation. I have two raised beds, in wood boxes, that I used two years ago to root cuttings from some trees on my property. I rooted a dozen willow and a dozen hybred-populars. I hope to plant these around my property this spring. This could also be done with fruit trees, berry bushes, and decorative plants to save you money and grow more food. On Sunday I also "heeled in" a dozen hemlock rooted seedlings.These came from The Arbor Foundation. My mother-in-law made a donation to the foundaton and received 12 seedlings.  I did not have time to plant them in the yard so I did a temporary planting in my box. I can then pull them and plant them when I have more time. 

Grow your own for a secure supply of clean, pesticide-free food. Stay tuned for updates on my garden.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Build a Cold Frame

What is a cold frame? In its simplest form it is just a box with a transparent cover, which allows you to start seeds or plants outside when it is still too cold to plant in the garden. The transparent cover lets in sunlight, which warms up everything inside of the box and the soil. While the sunlight is not as direct or as strong as it is in the main growing season, it is enough to get plants started or even to grow cool season crops like lettuce, spinach, radishes, and onions, to name but a few.

I have wanted a cold frame for many years. My dad had one when I was a kid but I don't remember how successful he was with it. I used plastic sheeting in The Netherlands to create something similar to a cold frame and it was very effective.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I wanted to build one for as little cost as possible. Below is my project.

Keeping cost in mind, I choose to use 5/4 inch deck boards for my box. 2x6s or 2x8s could also be used and would have a better insulating value but they would cost twice as much. I bought seven 5/4"x6"x8' boards for my project. What I have found over the years is that these boards are saturated and if you build something and let them dry quickly outside they will warp and split something terrible. So I now stack them in my garage with slats between them and the top board weighted down so that they dry slowly and evenly. The weights, in this case pavers, keep them flat as they dry. It took three weeks to dry them and I put a fan on them for the last couple days.

To cut down on waste and to get the biggest number of square feet inside the box, I cut my boards so I had a five foot piece and a three foot piece. That would give me 15 square feet of soil surface once the box was put together. If I had cut the boards in half, two four foot pieces, I would have 16 square feet of soil surface but it is very hard to reach to the back of a four foot box. You should always cut treated lumber in a well vented area so that you aren't breathing in the fumes and saw dust. I used my garage with all the doors open. It gave me a flat work area and plenty of fresh air.

Always use a square to get 90 degree cuts and accurate measurements. It is not fine cabinetry but it will certainly look better and be stronger with accurate cuts. I used my battery powered circular saw, one of the best free scavenged items I have found. It was perfect for this project. But you could do this with a plug in circular saw, a table saw, or even a hand saw. I did finish a few cuts with a hand saw so that I wouldn't have over-run cuts.

I used two inch deck screws to attach all the parts. Treated lumber, and being outdoors, will rust plain screws or nails in a short time. I prefer screws to nails because they hold tighter, stay tight longer, and can be taken apart easier if you make a mistake (which I did) or you need to make an adjustment. Deck screws are self tapping but I always pre-drill screw holes. That eliminates splitting. I used a bar clamp to ensure the boards were tight together. The box should be as air-tight as possible to retain the heat.

Each corner was braced with a 2x2 instead of trying to screw the flat boards together. This is much easier and far stronger. The long sides had a third brace in the center, which you will see in the next pictures. My boards were not perfect, they seldom are, and so I chinked between the boards with sisal twine, much like wooden ships were chinked, or lapped, in the old days. When the twine gets wet it will expand and completely seal the small gaps. I used a putty knife to force the twine into the hair line gaps.

 As you can see in the photos I set the box on a foundation of brick. It is not necessary but I like the look and it helps to protect the bottom of the box when I am working the soil with tools.

Here you can see the two center braces to strengthen the long side of the box. The front brace is on the inside and the rear brace is on the outside. The rear brace is on the outside because I installed a long mirror inside the box, as you'll see below.

For this spring I just used a plastic bag that I had in the garage to cover my lid. It came from a large poster my son bought. Perfect fit. The lid is another 5/4x6x8 that I ripped to two inches and then cut to length. The center piece is one inch wide. The top frame is glued and screwed together and is quite sturdy. I attached the lid to the box with four small hinges. You can see the mirror inside. This will reflect light from the back of the box to the front during the early part of the day. This lights up a shadowed area.

And here is the finished Cold Frame. I will install a latch on the lid so the wind doesn't blow it open and I have ordered an automatic opening device so that the box doesn't over heat and cook the plants. Everything combined was less than $50 plus the opening device was another $44. It wouldn't be necessary if I lived there full time; I could raise and lower the lid as needed.

Last weekend, after placing the Cold Frame in my garden, I planted onion, radish, lettuce, and spinach seeds using the square foot gardening method. I should have some plants growing by next week. I'll keep you posted.