Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Long-term Food Storage

We prepared some beans and rice for long-term storage this weekend. We'd purchased a 50-pound bag of each about two weeks ago, and then ordered some mylar storage bags with oxygen absorbers online. The bags came in last week.

The hubster found this tutorial online that shows how to properly seal the bags. One point that doesn't seem to get emphasized enough (at least in my research) is that you don't want to have any wrinkles in the bags when sealing them, as this could make for an air leak.

Most of the tutorials you can find online (on YouTube, for instance) seem to focus on bags large enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket. However, once you open the bag, time is ticking. We opted instead for one-gallon bags. This makes for some extra work, but will be better in the long run. One "gallon" of rice is a LOT of rice for two people, but not so much that we can't eat it before it goes bad or gets infested, as grains are wont to do. I'd be worried we couldn't use up a 5-gallon bucket of rice in time. By using smaller bags, our food storage will last longer. Plus, a one-gallon bag of rice or beans would be a nice bartering tool, if things came to that.

One thing to keep in mind when using oxygen absorbers is that as soon as you open the package, the absorbers are activated. You want to seal them up in the mylar bags ASAP. A good plan is to have all your bags filled and ready for sealing, and your iron on and heated, before you open the absorbers. In our case, we received one package of 50 oxygen absorbers, but we weren't planning on using all 50 of them. We got our bags and iron ready, opened the absorbers, counted out how many we needed, and vacuum-sealed the rest in a Food Saver bag. So far, the absorbers seem to be remaining good (they change color once they're spent).

Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers will protect your food from decay, but not from rodents. That is why most people store their food in mylar bags, inside a bucket. Buckets are cheap (sometimes free--ask at your local grocery store deli/bakery if they have any buckets they could give you) and protect your bags from bugs or rodents that might chew through them. We could have put our one-gallon bags in buckets, but opted instead for a large plastic tote.

One additional change we made was to seal each bag twice. We sealed it the first time using an iron. For a second seal, just in case we left a tiny air hole with the iron, we used the sealing mechanism on the Food Saver machine. Why not use the Food Saver exclusively, you ask? It was a logistics thing. Once the gallon bags were filled, it would have been too difficult to hold the bags at an angle without spilling the contents, and still get a good seal with the Food Saver. If you don't have a Food Saver, you could seal each bag twice with an iron as well--you'd just have to be sure to leave enough room at the top of the bag.

Next, I plan to amass some herbs and spices, and seal those in mylar as well. Another trick I learned online, is to take a one-gallon mylar bag, cut it in half, and reseal the cut half with an iron, creating two, half-gallon bags. These will be a good size for herb storage, I think.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Day-cation

The hubster and I took a break last Saturday and went canoeing. The North Canadian River enters Oklahoma from New Mexico and flows southeast, eventually joining the Canadian River in southeast Oklahoma. We put in near a county road bridge halfway between Yukon and El Reno. Recent rains had lifted the water level, or else we would not have been able to put in so far west; the river is typically very shallow in that area and would not have floated the canoe. As it was, we scraped bottom a few times on our trip, but never had to actually get out and drag the canoe. The cottonwood trees are flowering, and their little wispy seeds were lying on top of the water, forming a telltale sign of where the current was strongest.

If you've never done any flat-water canoeing, I encourage you to try it. It's a great way to get outdoors and experience a little bit of nature. Depending on the location where you choose to paddle, it can be a quiet, peaceful experience, or a noisy, fun time with a group of friends. I typically prefer the former, and look forward to seeing wildlife and enjoying the break from everyday societal responsibilities.

I learned to canoe with my first job after college. In fact, I began working for Hurricane Island Outward Bound School as an intern, and stayed on after graduating. While being an instructor responsible for 11 adjudicated teenagers in the wilderness for 30 days is not what I would call relaxing, I did still find it enjoyable. Well, most of the time. Some of the time. Whatever. I did learn to love canoeing because of that job. Nowadays, everyone wants to jump in a kayak, but I prefer the slow, steady, comfortable canoe.

The hubster had not done much canoeing before we met. His hobby had been rock climbing, but due to back problems, he had given it up shortly before we started dating. While he's still not as crazy about it as I am, I think canoeing helps fill the niche left open by rock climbing. It's a slower pace and definitely not as physically demanding, but still gets him outdoors and in to nature. It's a wonder he's stuck to it, though, because not long after we began dating, we took a canoe out on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. To say that things didn't go as planned is an understatement. We eventually found out the canoe had a leak. That, coupled with an overloaded boat in low-class rapids, led to much flipping and swamping. At the end of the trip we were both covered in bruises!

But, I digress. Our paddle on Saturday consisted of 14 winding miles through mostly forested areas. The wind did not whisper, but roared through the trees, sounding like rushing water. We saw plenty of birds, like the not-so-little little egret at left (no, I didn't take this picture). I've always found their dark legs and yellow feet oddly fascinating. I believe it's the only egret to possess that characteristic. At any rate, they were plentiful along the river and I enjoyed seeing them.


We also saw several great blue herons. As we came around a bend in the river, the hubster pointed at a huge nest in a tall tree with two large babies. It was neat to see--and probably uncommon.

We saw a little blue heron, which I've since learned only migrates through Oklahoma, so that was kind of special, too. Having grown up in Florida, I sort of took wading birds for granted, because, well, they're everywhere. Now I don't get to see them as much, so I really enjoy it when I do.

I kept an eye out for the belted kingfisher as well, and finally saw one sitting on a cattle fence. He just watched us paddle by. I was hoping he would fly above us and give his trilly shout, but no such luck.

Other wildlife we saw included several water snakes, lots of turtles, dragonflies galore. But probably the highlight was a very large beaver. We somehow (without trying) managed to sneak up on him. He dove under water as we passed. We were as startled as he was. That was my first time seeing a beaver.

As we got closer to our take-out point near Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge, the water level deepened, the river widened, and the current slowed. The last two miles or so were a hard paddle into the wind for the two of us. The combination of sun, wind and a little more exercise than we normally get had worn us out.

I can't wait to do it again.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's more difficult than I thought it would be to find time to update here. Things in the garden are coming along swimmingly.

We were expecting a big rain last week, and I was worried that my plants would be uprooted and the soil displaced again, from the rain pouring off the roof. The hubster solved the problem, though. He did some research and found a company that would let us buy a piece of gutter, and then meet their team on a job site, where they would shape it for us. We then installed it ourselves, which was easy. It cost less than $40 when all was said and done. Now I just need to replace the displaced Mel's mix with some compost and I'll be able to transplant my two largest tomato seedlings, which really need to be removed from the small cups they're in.

 
My chard is doing great. I have a couple of plants that have really taken off. I just planted some more seeds right before the rain, so I've got some small seedlings too. That stuff is supposed to grow right through the summer and fall, so I'm sure they'll have plenty of time to mature. I recently realized, though, that I'm not quite sure what the best way is to harvest the leaves, or any of the leafy plants, for that matter. Do you cut at the bottom of the stem? Is it best to cut straight or at an angle? I need to research that, and soon, because the leaves on my largest plant are shading out one of the other plants. Plus, I can't wait to eat it :)

 
Spinach and lettuce are both finally starting to take off. Spinach is not a good summer crop, though, so it may bolt too soon. I plan to keep it well watered and possibly mulch it to help keep it cool. It's planted on the east side of the house, next to the privacy fence, where it can get the least amount of sun allowed. Hopefully that will help it last longer.

 
The strawberry plants look healthy, but they're only producing a berry here and there. I'm wondering if they just don't produce a lot the first year; maybe next year they'll do better.

I harvested my first radish the other day. It was small, but tasty. I'm hoping the others will be bigger.

It's my first time ever growing beets, and I'm not sure how big beet greens are supposed to get. Mine are not very big, which makes me think the beets are growing slowly. I can't remember right now how long it's supposed to take a beet to mature. I've had some in the ground for two months now.

 
I've got tomatoes! A plant called "sugary" that I picked up at a local nursery is producing. The fruit are elongated and remind me of miniature plum tomatoes.

 
I also have baby poblanos. The plant itself is not very big. I don't know how big it's supposed to get, but poblanos are a good-sized pepper...unless I unknowingly got a smaller variety. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

 
I planted quite a few seeds about two weeks ago, and now I have quite a few seedlings. They have germinated better this round. I figure it has to do with two things: the soil and weather are both warmer now, and they've been getting some natural watering with the weekly rain showers we've been getting. Perhaps I wasn't watering enough previously. I'm paying more attention to the soil now and making sure the seeds don't dry out.

 
I'm not having much luck growing herbs from seed this year. The thyme in the square foot garden is doing well, but the basil seedling that I transplanted, died, and the one that's still in a cup indoors is barely growing. I'll probably transplant it soon, and start some seeds outdoors simultaneously, and maybe buy a plant also, just to be certain I get some basil this year. It's my favorite herb. I've tried several times to start oregano indoors and outdoors, but so far no seedlings have survived. Both the mint plants that my coworker gave me and the ones we bought from a nursery are doing well. We'll have mint this year, if nothing else!
 
The "tomato patch" around the back yard tree needs weeding. A couple of the seedlings are fighting for sun and water, I think. One died. Luckily, I have more in the house :) Three of them are finally starting to grow, though. We may even get tomatoes from them this year! Haha...I have to make fun of myself for getting a late start on the planting.

 
Speaking of planting, a coworker of mine is also square-foot-gardening it this year. She was telling me the other day how great her garden is doing, how wonderful everything tastes, etc. I told her she must have started planting earlier than I did, to be harvesting so much stuff already. She told me she started her cold-weather crop seeds in February! I didn't know we could do that, but apparently they survive a few frosts. I jotted it down in my notes for next year. I'll be starting much earlier!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Problem(s) with Thunderstorms

We received a hard downpour two days ago and while I'm not complaining about the rain--because we really need it--it created some new problems in the garden. One of the raised beds that sits partially under the roof overhang received the brunt of the water pouring off the roof. It hit so hard that it displaced about half the soil in part of the box, and uprooted several plants. This happened once before, but the rain must have been less intense because it only disturbed about two square feet of gardening space. I thought that by no longer using that two square feet, that would solve the problem. Not so, apparently. So now we are looking into installing some gutter over the boxes. I hope it's not too expensive.

In other gardening news, we've had a few stray animals running around the neighborhood. No, really--it's related to gardening. I've been attempting to grow some herbs and some new flowers in the flowerbeds in front of the house. I planted several different mints, basil, oregano, echinacea, and some irises. Some things are doing better than others. The echinacea has seemed to take quite well to the new environment and had even started blooming.

The first stray to appear was a young cat. I posted her picture on craigslist and one person responded, but she had lost a male. We've been feeding her because we feel sorry for her. But, the other day as I was tending to my basil seedling, I discovered that she's turned our flowerbed into her litter box. Hrmn. Not a pleasant development. I put an empty yogurt cup with the bottom removed around the basil plant, to protect it from being accidentally buried by her. But it must have blocked too much sun or something, because the plant wilted. I'm not sure it will make it.

I have a friend who mentioned a few months ago that he was thinking of adopting a cat. I told him about this one, and he's considering adopting her. I hope he does, because otherwise we may have to take her to a shelter. We can't take in another pet, and I can't always protect her from the 5-year-old boy next door who likes to be mean to her.

Two days ago I was driving home from work when traffic suddenly stopped, just a few feet from my neighborhood. Then I saw two boxers slinking through the vehicles that had braked to avoid hitting them. They headed south, parallel with our housing addition. An hour later they came trotting through my front yard. I called them over to look for tags and such, but they were collar-less. Again, I put their pictures on craigslist, but no one came to look for them. The next morning when I left for work they were still hanging around the neighborhood, but by the time I got home that afternoon, they were nowhere around. Then I saw my flowerbed. Apparently they had slept there. I could see the imprints from their bodies in the mulch. I could also see the damage they did to my echinacea and one of the irises. Half of the echinacea plant was broken and withered, and the leaves on the iris were broken as well. I think both plants will survive, but it's still a bummer.

I don't know what happened to the dogs. I know they had annoyed some of my neighbors; one who is terrified of dogs in general, and another family who didn't trust the dogs around their small children. I also saw them chasing at least one cat (the stray). The day they appeared was the day of the storm. They probably were scared by the thunder and broke out of their yard. Maybe they live nearby and the owner came looking for them and found them. At least, that's what I'm going to tell myself.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Tomato Patch...or, Never Grow a Tomato whose name you can't pronounce

We have a (young, large) dog. She likes to dig*. And chew. We planted a tree in the back yard, and put a small fence around it to protect it from her. As soon as a limb from the tree grew to within her grasp, she grasped it. And broke the tree.

So, we bought another tree. And the hubster built a better fence around it.For the last nine months or so, it's been a grand arrangement.

We also have a small, suburban yard, so gardening space is at a premium. Thus, the space inside the tree cage has become the tomato patch.

As I've mentioned previously, I started most of my plants from seed this year. Fresh tomatoes are the crop both my husband and I are most looking forward to. (I knew I got started late with the seeds, so I bought three tomato plants to tide us over, and planted those in the garden). I purchased seven different varieties of tomato seed:

Amish Paste
Arkansas Traveler
Black Krim
Cherokee Purple
Lime Green Salad
Mama Leone
Tonadose des Conores

Some are good for pastes and sauces, some for sandwiches, and some are cherry tomatoes. There are orange ones, red ones and green ones. I stopped myself at seven varieties, but if I had room, I'd plant as many different kinds as I could. I love fresh tomatoes!

I digress.

For the most part, the seedlings are coming along--just not as fast as I'd like. It's akin to the saying, "A watched pot never boils." But three of the varieties--Mama Leone, Lime Green Salad, and Tonadose des Conores--have been somewhat of a challenge.
See that speck of green near the center of the photo? That's my Lime Green Salad seedling. (For scale, those two larger pieces of green to its right are sprigs of Bermuda grass). It's the largest of the three trouble-makers. I don't think the Tonadose des Conores or the Mama Leone are going to make it. Luckily I have another seedling of each, still growing in cups indoors, but I'm loathe to transplant them. The first transplants were the healthier ones when I first moved them.

It's a little demotivating.


Maybe some types are just more difficult to grow. I've researched the TDC and Mama Leone online, but haven't found any planting or growing info specific to those varieties. The TDC is supposedly an endangered cherry tomato from Italy, but I found some websites that refute that (also, I found that sometimes it is called Tomadose des Comores). Perhaps it's just not a very hardy plant, or maybe it doesn't do well in Oklahoma wind and heat--though it hasn't really even gotten hot here yet; today was the first day it reached the 90s.

At any rate, the hubster and I (but especially the hubster) are anxious for tomatoes, the sooner the better. I may have to give in and buy some more plants, to make sure we have a good crop. It will limit the variety (unless I buy hybrid plants, but I really want to stick to heirlooms), but it will give us more tomatoes. It will also give me more time to research the TDC and Mama Leone. I can freeze the seeds I have left, and hopefully next year I can: a) start the seedlings indoors early enough; and b) have a better idea of how to keep them growing.

Live and learn.

*For those of you with dogs who dig, we've tried several suggested remedies, and found that the best thing to do is keep your dog's nails well-trimmed. This has helped tremendously with our girl. We use a dremel tool on her nails once a week. Here is a good explanation of how to do it.

Here we grow

Turns out there's not always a whole lot to blog about with a garden. On top of that, I've had a busy schedule lately. I'm having fun, though, and learning as I go. I've "met" some nice people in the square foot gardening forum, and on several blogs I follow. Today I thought I'd share some garden photos.

The hubster installed a soaker hose across all the garden beds for me, even burying it where it crossed the walking aisle so I wouldn't trip on it :)  Notice how green the grass looks right next to the boxes. Also, notice the arrows we found in a field near our house, which work great for staking the tomato plants. I'm all about free!
















In general, the soaker hose makes watering much easier. But when I plant new seeds in a box, unless the seeds are right under the hose, I don't think they'll get enough water.  There are a couple of places (like in the photo at left) where the hose travels over ground between boxes. I usually put a basin under the hoses there to catch water, which I use to water the seeds not reached by the hose.















Here's a shot of my largest chard plant looking happy. You can see some smaller chard plants, too.















I planted two squash seeds here, and they both came up. I hate "thinning" seedlings. I have a hard time killing a perfectly healthy plant. I haven't decided yet if I will pull one up or try to let both grow.











One of my tomato plants is flowering! But, it's the only one so far. Can tomato plants self-pollinate?















I started a lot of seeds indoors this year, including oregano and basil. Basil is easy enough, but the oregano seeds are tiny, and I'm having a difficult time getting the seeds to even germinate, and beyond that, not accidentally killing the tiny plants when watering. I decided to wait and plant thyme seeds outdoors after the frost date. I was worried the seeds would be blown away, so I planted a pinch of seeds together. Wouldn't you know it, it looks like every seed germinated! I probably can't get away without thinning these down.




 Lastly, I planted a square with half onion and half chive seeds. So far, I have one lonely chive.






















Most of my other plants are doing well, too. The jalapeno plant I started from seed has survived two transplants and still seems happy. The pea plants are developing tendrils and soon I'll have to start training them to grow up the fence. I have transplanted broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings outdoors and they are all doing fine so far. Radish, carrot and beet plants look good (at least the above-ground parts). I haven't had much problem with pests, which may be a perk of living in a newly developed neighborhood, where every yard has new sod and all the trees are young.

How does your garden grow?