Saturday, March 2, 2013

Prepping for Spring

Even though the latest weather system moved across our area just yesterday dumping a ton more rain, at least the temperature shot up. This is what is known (affectionately or not) as a "pineapple express" here.  Warm air from Hawaii surges across the Pacific soaking up gallons of moisture only to dump it on fretful and already soggy Northwesterners. Happy side effect is the air is warm. So out we trundle, dressed in rubbers and hats to muck about. The warm air stimulates gardeners as much as it stimulates bulbs, trees, and yes, even bees!

This stimulation results in a flurry of seed orders, trips to Seedy Saturdays or Sundays, and general drooling over catalogues rich in the romance of this summer's garden potential. It helps to be an optimist when you are a gardener.

In order to be ready for the sudden onslaught of gardening weather, I have started a bunch of seeds in order to have transplants ready for plant-out season. Here on Vancouver Island, I still use May long weekend (typically around the 24th) as sure-fire date that seedlings can be transplanted. It is a good date for most of Canadian gardeners, with some farther north and east of us a bit more wary of sudden, devastating frosts. By May here the fruit trees have pretty much finished blooming and we are getting into serious outside weather. 

There are a lot of options for people wanting to start seedlings inside. There is the tried and true windowsill method. I used this for years when money was tightest, but it does tend to provide long, leggy and ultimately not very healthy seedlings as they reach for the light.  Replanting is common to try to catch up when some of the seedlings wilt over.

I have noticed recently at gardening and feed shops a variety of ready built, shelf size grow set-ups. These little wonders come with the plastic trays and peat cups, a clear greenhouse lid, and a grow light that fits right into the lid. Great option for people with small spaces or less ambitious goals for starting seeds.

A couple years ago I wanted a bigger set up. My daughter had left a shelving unit in the garage and I reclaimed it with the idea of creating a purpose-built and productive seed starting system. The shelving unit is black plastic and comes apart into many pieces, shelving, upright poles etc. which makes it super convenient if I want to take it down late season and use the room as a bedroom again.

Each shelf of this unit is full of holes through which I threaded some thin gardening wire to attach the grow light to. These lights, tied firmly to the underside of each shelf, mean that the seedlings don't reach so far becoming leggy but instead develop sturdy, thick stems. Not bad for under $100 for the whole unit (the cost of which was entirely the three grow light bars purchased at the local hydroponics store).

All the lights are connected to a power bar that has a built-in timer so each day it switches on and off at the same time giving the seedlings consistent and reliable light.

Last weekend, I planted tomatoes, Amish paste for sauce, Ernie's Plump and Bison for canning and storage, and Early Large Red for eating. Two types of onions are sprouting in a recycled plastic croissant box- one for eating early and one for storage. I also planted a bunch of herbs, horehound, rosemary, anise and regular hyssops, valerian, woad and indigo (for a fabric dye project I am wanting to try). They are all in stages of sprouting. If I had more garden space safe from deer, I would definitely be sowing more types of tomatoes. I seem to have quite a collection forming and love the rich, acidic taste of summer to be found in a jar of tomato sauce eaten in February.

This weekend poblano, banana, two types of paprika, and some chichuale negro (nice dark brown) peppers have been sowed. As the grow lights click on and off, life surges out of small peat cups and hints at the warm days to come.

Now, since it looks like it may be stopping the downpour, its time to head outside and turn over the garden so we can plant peas!

Happy gardening!


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pop goes the soda

I have to confess. I like pop (or soda for our friends south of the border). I grew up with Coke as my Uncle Al was a GM at Coke in Saskatchewan. To this day an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle reminds me of that sweet giant of a man who left us far too early.

One of the things I love about the way we live is the inventiveness of it. When looking at what we eat and drink to figure out if we can be more DIY with it, we often find people who have boldly gone there before.

Commercial soda pop is made with sugar, water, flavouring and carbon dioxide gas in water (carbonated water) . Once thought to be a healthy practice, the drinking of carbonated water now mainly occurs through commercial soda pops -- highly laced with sugar and other sweeteners and mostly artificial flavours.

So when reading through Rachel Kaplan and Ruby Blume's book "Urban Homesteading" (highly recommended!!) I was thrilled to find a way to make our own soda. This lacto-fermented treat is right up my alley (and literally the pop started is sitting on my counter next to the milk Kefir and the Kimchi -- both lacto-fermentations of different food types.) So I thought -- why not!?!

The recipe begins, as all fermentations do, with a starter culture. This starter consists fermenting ginger root and sugar in water. Starting with a tablespoon of finely grated ginger and two teaspoons of water, you then 3/4 fill a mason jar (1 gallon) with un-chlorinated water (actually I used a two-gallon mason jar and doubled the recipe). Put a lid on it, but not too tight. Over the course of the next seven days, continue to add two teaspoons of grated ginger and two teaspoons of sugar to the liquid. You will notice it will get quite active.

Once you have a nice lively starter, you simply mix 2 c of the starter (saving two cups to begin a new starter) with fruit juice, water, a1/2 tsp of salt, and 1 c of sweetener (honey, agave, or maple syrup). I put this into a 2 gallon jug with a fermentation lock. You want enough liquid in the jug to fill it to the neck. Once everything is mixed and you put the fermentation lock on, sit the jug in a warm spot for 3-4 days to get bubbly.

Once it is bubbly, you put the liquid into pressure bottles. I got some at the supermarket with some other drink inside and we used  a few that were beer bottles. Once bottled, store it in the fridge (or outside if it is winter) but make sure you relieve some of the pressure on the bottles every couple days. Lacto-fermented foods can pack quite a punch if allowed to build up too much.

The first batch I made I used the recipe in "Urban Homesteading" for Lemon-Grapefruit soda. I also put a bit more grated ginger into the jug for the final fermentation. It made it a bit too strong in the ginger department for me so I have omitted it in my next batch of apple, orange and mango soda.

Really the options are endless for experimentation with fruit juices. This method might also be nice using some vegetable juices that need a bit of a "lift' out of their often thick stodginess.

The result isn't even close to the cloyingly sweet concoctions you buy called soda and the ginger base may take a little getting used to, but this is a very refreshing and light drink. I am going to try it with the juice of some frozen blackberries that I have and maybe even some of the blueberries will find their way into a fruit syrup for this drink. 

If you give this a try, let me know how it goes for you. Would love to hear about your combinations.