Container Gardening – Potatoes and More

A few weeks ago, Will checked out a book for me from the library called the “Bountiful Container: Gardening in Small Spaces”. Unfortunately, I got sucked into some other books and only managed to read a couple chapters before it was due back. (I would have renewed but there was a waiting list; it’s obviously a popular topic.) From what I read, it’s a great book and it definitely fanned the flames of my gardening urges even higher.

Chinese take-out container with plantsSo far I have just a few plants going – peas and basil outside on the porch, tiny tomato seedlings safe in the kitchen, and two trays of seedlings ready to be transplanted to Maggie & Nathan’s garden next week. I tried to get creative and plant some herbs in little take-out Chinese containers but most of the seeds didn’t sprout. I suspect the problem is that I didn’t poke drainage holes, although I did put a bunch of peanuts in the shell at the bottom to provide some drainage (I didn’t have any rocks handy), and some of seeds sprouted quite well. So perhaps the other seeds were nonviable or there wasn’t quite enough light for some of the containers.pot with tomato plants

My next project will be potatoes. The main thing with potatoes is that you want to keep adding soil on top of the plant as it grows so that it will produce lots of potatoes. Normally this is done with a trench-and-mound system in the garden where you dig a trench, plant the potatoes, and then add more soil every week or so until it’s mounded up above ground level. I have seen two container versions and am not sure which to use. Both involve our arch-nemesis, plastic.

Maggie holding potatoFor the first method, you start with a heavy duty garbage back and fold over the top to make a really short bag – kinda like cuffing your jeans instead of hemming them. There need to be some holes in the back and some rocks (peanuts?) for drainage. Plant the potatoes in a few inches of dirt to start and as they grow, you unroll part of the bag and add more dirt or leaves or straw. By the end, you have a bag full of dirt and hopefully potatoes.

The other method is basically the same thing except you use a big trash can with drainage holes and just keep filling it with dirt as the potatoes grow. The possible advantage to this method is that my parents donated an old trash can with wheels to my cause, which might make a nice transportable planter for future projects.

I need to make up my mind pretty soon, as I have a pound of organic seed potatoes waiting patiently in my living room. On the other hand, they’ve been pretty patient so far…

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When Should We Buy Organic?

Baby Eating An AppleI try to eat organic foods when possible. I believe we need to lobby for organically, sustainably produced whole foods and that it’s important to put my money where my mouth is but it can be challenging to follow my ideals and still stay within our grocery budget ($240/month). There are times when cheap and healthy align well (oatmeal is cheaper than PopTarts) and times when they conflict (organic cheese costs a lot more than Velveeta).

I was excited to read what Get Rich Slowly had to say about An Easy Way to Go Organic. J.D. referenced a New York Times article that suggested switching to the organic version of five common foods – milk, potatoes, peanut butter, ketchup, and apples.

I love the list but would change it a bit myself. I am currently taking a cooking class called “Healing With Whole Foods” that is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and the idea that eating the right foods can strengthen the body and immune system, while eating the wrong foods can tear us apart. The instructor, Andy Reed, is very good about constantly reminding us that nobody’s perfect and it’s all about compromise. He tries to eat mostly organic but can’t afford to, like many of us, so he suggested prioritizing which items we buy organic. His number one suggestion?

Buy organic butter. This was a new concept for me but it really made sense when he started to explain. Conventional butter comes from cows that have been given antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed made from pesticide-filled grain. Most pesticides are lipophyllic, meaning they bioaccumulate in fat, so butter is one of the most important things to buy organically.

He also suggested buying only organic meats and dairy products for the same reason. Most of my motivation for buying organically raised meat comes from my belief that we should treat animals well but I also enjoy eating meat that is free of pesticides and antibiotics. I am currently reading “My Year of Meats,” which is a fictional novel by Ruth Ozeki but it includes some factual and disturbing information about the dark side of conventional meat production (thanks, Dana).

Get Rich Slowly had another post about Organics versus Ethics and how to decide how much environmental health or personal health or food quality is worth to us, in dollars, and how to tell if organic is really “worth” it.  That’s a big question that I personally am not quite ready to tackle.  I believe we need to move towards a food system that produces nutritious, affordable food while keeping our environment in good shape, and the organic label is at least one step in that direction, so I’ll do what I can.

We buy organic butter, meat, peanut butter, rice, beans and a random assortment of other products. (Sometimes I wonder if there’s really much of a difference between organic crackers and conventional crackers – I definitely doubt the benefits of choosing organic Cheetoes.) We buy a mix of organic and conventional produce. And so far we seem to be fairly healthy and happy.

I think the next step will be switching to organic cheese. We looove cheese and it’s hard to afford buying the quantities we want at organic prices. Anybody know of any good sources of cheap organic cheese? And ice cream? Mmmmm, ice cream….

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Five tips for reducing packaging

Time to Buy Girl Scout Cookies!Crinkle.  Crinkle.  Rustle.

“Maggie, are you eating cookies?”

Curses!  Foiled again, by the excessive plastic packaging that is separating me from my beloved Girl Scout cookies!  I started in Girl Scouts when I was six and was an active participant all the way through college and even led a troop for a couple of years so I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m also admittedly addicted to the cookies (especially Tagalongs and Samoas).  Alas, I am not a fan of the packaging.  Usually I would choose not to buy a product with this kind of unrecyclable, unnecessary packaging but we all have our weaknesses.  I did visit the Little Brownie Bakers website to file a request that they make their packaging more recyclable.  It didn’t feel like a very powerful step but if enough people comment on the packaging, they’re bound to change it.

For items other than Girl Scout cookies, here are some tips for reducing packaging

1. Buy in bulk using your own containers.  There are a couple of smaller grocery stores in Bloomington that offer a variety of foods in bulk bins.  There are lots of grains (rice, oats, flour) and dried foods (fruits, nuts, spices) but also items such as peanut butter, dish soap, and laundry detergent.  Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re filling up plastic bags and throwing them away, so I’m getting better about packing up my canning jars and tupperware containers to refill them.  (It also tends to be cheaper).

2. If the packaging is ridiculous, don’t buy it.  I have been volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, one of our local food pantries, and they get a really interesting variety of surplus food.  Last week a big shipment came in of South Beach Diet Chicken Salad Lunches.  Each little box contained a plastic spoon, a plastic bag of croutons, a plastic dish of chicken bits, a plastic packet of salad dressing, and a tiny plastic container of jello.  It was ridiculous.  This is the kind of item I find easy to avoid.

3. Contact the manufacturer about unnecessary packaging. I honestly believe this is the way to get manufacturers to change their ways.  Consumer demand, folks!  It’s supposed to play an important role in our market-driven economy!  Make your voice heard!

4. Bring your own reusable grocery bags.  I have an embarassingly large collection of tote bags, mesh bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, and other cloth containers for holding things but darn it, they’re incredibly useful!  I do occasionally get the odd look from grocery baggers but I have learned to smile sweetly and thank them for helping me support the environment.  I also try to take my own plastic bags to the produce department to bag things like lettuce that are often soaking wet.  (I’ve also found that the bags worth washing out and reusing hold up a LOT better than the ones they tend to give you.)

5.  Buy the big box.  Will and I recently joined Sam’s Club so we can stock up on cheap food in large quantities.  It goes against the grain a bit for me since I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses and quality food.  However, I believe it can be a good choice for us both economically and environmentally so we’re giving it a shot.  (We would have preferred Costco but there is not one in Bloomington.)  The two main challenges are finding products that really do have less packaging (as opposed to the big box of cereal that is in fact many smaller boxes of single servings all packaged together) and finding products that meet my criteria for nutrition and sustainability.  (There’s also the fact that buying the giant bag of Chex Mix does not in fact save money or packaging volume if you go home and eat the entire thing in one serving just like you would with a small bag.)

And a bonus tip….

6. Grow your own, for the ultimate reduction in packaging. I’m getting ready to start some seedlings for a little herb garden on our deck and maybe a couple of tomato plants.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Preparing for the Gardening Season

Working in the GardenWill believes that some folks just aren’t gardeners and he may be right but I’m pretty sure I’m a gardener. I’m a little behind; January is the peak season for snuggling up with some great seed catalogs and sketching out the awesomest garden layout ever. But I have a HUGE stockpile of seeds already and it looks like I’ll be playing the supporting role in three gardens this year rather than running a garden of my own so it’s probably just as well that I’m not looking at the catalogs. (My favorites are Seeds of Change and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For those who are not gardeners, there’s always the Murray McMurray poultry catalog or the ever-popular Heifer International catalog of gift animals for families in third world countries.)

I just find gardening really fulfilling. It is a pleasant form of exercise, it’s an excuse (and motivation) to get outdoors, I feel like I’m contributing to something worthwhile, and in the end I get to eat something yummy! Usually, anyway. There have been a few unpleasant surprises like the melons that smelled deliciously sweet and tasted like dirt and a few times that my lovingly tended crop was eaten by voracious wild animals but usually there’s something good to eat.

Alas, it is snowing here so I will not be headed outdoors soon. This week I am practicing my sprouting skills. I just got a sprouting jar and some alfalfa seeds and I also recently learned that it’s possible to sprout most beans so I have a batch of adzuki beans going. I am also going to coordinate with a friend who is starting seeds indoors for the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard garden that I’ll be helping with this spring. And I’ll probably break down and check out a few seed catalogs so I can advise my mom on what to include in her garden, which I helped install a couple years ago.

Some green tips for seed selection:

1. Heirloom varieties are awesome and help preserve biodiversity, as well as frequently providing superior flavor and nutrition. Baker Creek is a great source and here in Bloomington I love to get seeds from Wiley House, a museum with a historical garden.

2. Even if they’re not heirlooms, it’s great to get open-pollinated vegetable seeds so you can save your own seeds for the next year. If you save your own seeds you can develop a variety that is perfectly suited to your neighborhood. Pretty cool!

3. Buy organic seeds when you can. Besides being free of the fungicides and other chemicals sometimes applied to conventional seeds, organic seeds were grown by farms that are using environmentally sustainable methods. I think it’s important to support them.

4. Share seeds with friends and neighbors. One seed packet generally contains a lot more seeds than you will actually need (you don’t need fifty tomato plants, I promise) so share the wealth. I hear there are stores where you can buy seeds in bulk by the teaspoon but I haven’t found those stores yet.

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I’m Doing Laundry!

My college roommate Erin used to say she loved to do laundry because she could feel like she was being productive the entire time the washer and dryer were running, even if she spent that time plunked on the couch in front of the TV. I must admit, I do think of her logic every time I throw in a load…

Really, though, I want to steal an idea from Student Doctor Green, a blogger in Texas who is trying to “green” her life and decided to tackle one room of her house at a time (she started with the kitchen) and do a thorough green-ness assessment. I am going to modify the concept a little and focus on tasks instead of rooms – my first target is doing laundry. Here are my green tips:

1. Do less laundry. We all have our own comfort zones but I think it’s healthy to re-evaluate them periodically. I personally only wash my bathroom towels once a week unless they smell bad. Socks, underwear, and t-shirts get washed after each wearing but sweaters, pants, and jackets are generally worn three or four times (I hang them on pegs in my bedroom during the “slightly dirty” phase) before washing. Cloth napkins, rags, and kitchen towels get hung up in the laundry room when they look or smell gross to await the next load of laundry. I recently purchased some cloth menstrual pads from etsy but I don’t quite have a routine down for those. The package suggests storing them in a bucket of water until it’s time to do laundry or washing them out by hand. I’ll keep you posted.

2. Run full loads using cold water. I tend to do two loads of laundry every two weeks unless I’ve been especially dirty. I have washed my clothes in cold water for the last five years at least and it always seems to work just fine.

3. Use environmentally sound detergents in small quantities. Read the box! It takes less detergent than you might think. I used to throw in a little extra for good measure but I tested and it didn’t make a difference so now I use the minimum amount of Biokleen or Seventh Generation or whatnot. I did get some very nice detergent from Mugwort Maggie’s but she cashed my check in November and didn’t send me the detergent (or respond to any of my e-mails) until February. Not cool. Even if you make awesome handmade products, you have to respect your customers or they will tell everyone you’re a jerk. A friend just sent me a link about soap nuts, some kind of naturally soapy nut sold by a different Maggie. I guess there are women named Maggie all over the internet doing crazy green things!

4. Dry your clothes efficiently. This means not overstuffing the dryer and maybe using some of those little dryer balls (we don’t have them yet – wedding gift perhaps?) although as Treehugger points out, they’re made out of polyvinyl chloride, which is not eco-friendly at all. It’s also important to maintain your dryer – you know, clean that lint trap! If we were really hardcore we would dry our clothes on a clothesline. I must confess, I will probably only ever get around to that one if it’s extremely convenient and I will still want certain things (underwear, towels) to have that dryer-soft feel. (On the other hand, I *hate* dryer sheets. I’d rather have the static cling.)

5. Upgrade your washer and dryer. Our rental home comes with a washer and dryer so this seems unlikely for us in the near future. We have toyed with the idea of getting a handwasher and a drying rack just to see if we could get used to the super-efficient method. Perhaps a wedding registry with Lehman’s is in order…

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Giving green

Green giftIt’s slightly past the prime gift-giving season, but Wise Bread has a good post up about green gifting strategies. It’s a nice basic overview, but two of my favorite strategies didn’t make the list.

I’ve found that most of the people I feel obligated to gift (friends, family, coworkers) are happy to sign up for a “gift pact.” Pick a rule that makes sense, like a dollar limit or a theme, and require that all gifts follow that rule. If you’re clever, you can get everyone to give green gifts without even talking about it! For example, your theme could be “an experience,” which encourages people to get services rather than goods. Or, you could make a rule about “nothing new.” Several members of my family have swapped lightly used items for Christmas in the past several years. For his birthday, I gave my brother an old video game that he wanted but that I’d already played through twice. He was just as happy as if he’d gotten a new game and I now have slightly less clutter.

For large groups, you can also cut down on consumption with a gift exchange rather than individual gifting. This might not seem literally as green, but even if there are only five of you, a gift swap means 15 fewer new items purchased! The actual act of swapping is also a lot of fun. Maggie’s family now has a tradition that involves unwrapping new presents or stealing already unwrapped ones and everyone loves it.

And if none of these strategies work, you can always get things that will help your recipients go greener. This year, Maggie and I got my brother and his fiancee an Earth Aid Kit. Not only will it reduce their footprint, it’ll also cut down on their utility bills. And that’s a present that any young couple would be happy to get!

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