Building a Greenhouse for Next to Nothing (Compared to Buying One)

greenhouse1

I can’t believe I never did a post about our greenhouse. We’ve now been using it for at least a year and a half and I’ve been oddly silent about it. I guess it’s probably because it’s not 100% complete. We have one small area that still needs a permanent covering, the windows need new glazing and it is in desperate need of new paint. But it’s still functional and gets a lot of use. And it only cost us about $300.

$300 may sound like a lot of money until you consider that this greenhouse is 8′x12′ and uses glass glazing. Buying a glass greenhouse that size will generally run you  around $5,000.

Why a glass greenhouse? Why not just make a hoop house to save money? Hoop houses are great, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t stand the test of time. While they are cheaper to make up front, there are some concerns you have to take into consideration. The material usually used for hoop houses is plastic sheeting, which doesn’t last more than a few years, even if it is UV resistant greenhouse plastic film. I’d prefer not to have to add more plastic to the landfill and also spend the money replacing it. Also, special consideration must be made regarding the hoop structure. PVC pipe (most isn’t UV resistant) will degrade the plastic through chemical reaction faster than it would normally degrade, so you have to either wrap the pipe or use another material, like galvanized pipe, which increases the cost.  Also, we have a very windy site for most of the year and plastic sheeting just wouldn’t hold up.

Polycarbonate greenhouses also degrade from UV but lasts substantially longer than poly film. It is a plastic and even though it my hold up for 10-20 years if properly treated with UV stabilizers, it will discolor and become more opaque after time. It also becomes brittle. Double walled polycarbonate, however, adds a benefit of being more insulating than both glass and film. It can be quite pricey though. Not as expensive as buying glass specifically for a greenhouse, but if you can do glass, which is superior to both film and polycarbonate, for less than either, why wouldn’t you?

windows

It’s all about the windows. It is amazing how many people are trying to offload free windows. Craigslist is where we scored the majority of them. We also scored a free door that was 1/2 windows from my best friend who had just bought a house and wanted to replace the front door. We stockpiled old windows until we had what we felt was enough to start building. Before starting we laid out the panes on the ground so we could get the right configuration to fit the walls of the greenhouse. Do this carefully as we had a few casualties while doing this, but fortunately we had enough windows to make up the difference. We made sure that we got some windows with their frames so we could open them as needed when it got hot in the summer.

leveling

Next, we had to figure out how the greenhouse would be sited. We had a space on the north edge of our property that wasn’t shaded, and it wouldn’t shade out anything. We made the long 12′ wall be the south facing wall to maximize sun exposure. We also decided that since the north facing wall is facing a fence we could just use plywood for it. We framed up the structure with new lumber, which is where a good portion of the money we spent on the greenhouse went towards, however the most costly part of this job was actually the roofing material. We used some of the extra pavers we had to level the structure since our ground slopes. It was also imperative that add extra bracing since the weight of the windows can be quite substantial. 

windows going in

The biggest score from the window search were these two 6′ long windows that someone had purchased and then never bothered using. The easily spanned the whole lower half of our south facing wall. It was a tight fit but we got them in. We also got more narrow windows from our next door neighbor that flanked the door (seen in the first photo). 

Greenhouse

Once we got most of the windows in on the south facing wall, we started  framing the door and getting the roof joists up. Sexy ain’t it? We decided to just do a simple sloped roof, rather than a gable roof so the south side was getting even more sun exposure, especially in the winter when the sun angle is lower and when we need the greenhouse the most. It’s important when you get the door that it comes with the jamb for easier framing. 

greenhouse2

Once the door was in, we were able to finish up adding windows. And then the roofing, which we used the clear corrugated plastic sheeting. It’s not a particularly pretty greenhouse and it does need a coat of paint, but it’s definitely functional. 

greenhouse

Of course, what you also have to think about is the interior. Where are you going to put plants? And what about the floor? We scored some pea gravel off of Freecycle and it was enough to put down a nice 3″ layer. We first put down weed cloth though so we wouldn’t be fighting the never ending onslaught of bindweed and Bermuda grass inside. Tom build a fantastic 8′ long potting bench out of scrap wood and then we bought some heavy duty utility “baker” racks for putting the plants on. We will be probably switching the locations of these and put the potting bench on the east facing wall and the racks on the south facing wall so we can add another one. We also are using an old unused compost bin (our chickens do all of our composting now) as a soil storage. 

 

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Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Everywhere Tomatoes

Spring Fever! 

Everyone has it. The nurseries have been selling tomato starts for weeks already even though it is still so, so early. With the unseasonably warm, dry weather I think we’ve all started getting the garden itch earlier than we normally would. 

The last week of March is the earliest I’ll even consider planting tomatoes here. Our average last frost date is February 29th, but I like to play it safe. Along with that, even if frosts end early (or not even show up for the second half of winter like this year) the soil temperature and the nighttime temps won’t be high enough for good tomato success. What you want is nighttime temps to be at least 50 F and the soil temp to be 60 F. 

Planting tomatoes can be relatively straight forward – just dig a hole and plop them in the ground. Or you can take a little more care in planting them which will give you bigger, healthier, more productive plants. 

plant

First you want to start with a healthy plant that isn’t root bound. If it has flower buds developing it’s probably been in the pot for awhile, has run out of root space and is now trying to reproduce because it believes it has reached it’s full size. Turn the plant over and if you can see roots dangling out of the drainage holes it’s most likely out of space. If the pot it is in is very firm you’ve got a severely root bound plant. 

roots

When you pull the plant up out of the pot it is OK to see the roots, but you don’t want them circling the soil medium. This plant has good root development without being root bound. We generally up pot our tomato seedlings into these deep pots planting them as deep as we can so that we start with nice deep root systems like the one above. 

hairs

While a lot of plants are sensitive to being planted deeper than where they began, tomatoes relish in it. See all the little hairs on the stems? Those can develop into new roots and the deeper you plant the deeper the root system will be. This is beneficial especially this year with the drought because you can focus on deeper, less frequent watering because the roots are deep in the soil. When planting deeply just pinch off the lower leaves and branches before burying it. 

oystershell

If blossom end rot is an issue for you even with proper watering, now is the time to make sure that your tomato (works for peppers and eggplants as well) has access to plenty of calcium. We use either crushed egg shells or oyster shell (the same oyster shell that we feed our chickens). We have some salinity issues in our soil, which effects the ability of the tomato plants to uptake calcium. Sandy soil can also be a problem since it has low water retention. 

sprinkles

When planting the tomatoes I dig a deep hole in well amended, loosened soil that can take not only the roots of the tomato, but also the stem that I’ve plucked the leaves and branches from. I then sprinkle a couple tablespoons of oyster or egg shell into the hole and then plant the tomato. The oyster shell will break down over time releasing the calcium for the plant to take up. 

planted

Once the plant is in the ground just cover with soil and give it a good watering to reduce transplant shock. Overcast days will also help reduce shock as will handling the roots gently. 

cage

Tomatoes generally need support. The standard tomato cage is a pathetic attempt at support. They almost always collapse from the weight of the plant. There are now more sturdy ones but they are really pricey. Instead we use concrete reinforcement fabric which is a welded wire grid that comes in 7′ sheets. We just pull it into cylinder and wire it together. The grid is 4″ square which is a great size for getting your hands in and getting big tomatoes out. They last for years. We still have the first ones we made 8 years ago. 

Tomatoes are pretty resilient and don’t need a lot of care, which is probably why they are the #1 garden vegetable grown. But add a few extra steps to planting and you’ll get bigger, more productive plants that can handle the drought with even more resilience. 

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The Cute

The kids are getting close to weaning. The oldest ones are now 13 weeks old and the youngest are 11 weeks old. Time sure does fly. It seems like it was just yesterday when Tom was trying to get the first two to take the bottle.

1424442_10152026285748826_1730113105_nAnd then it was their first time outside for a romp.

And then their first time figuring out that stairs were the best thing ever.

It’s been such a ride with these guys. No one is safe around them. 

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Attack!

 

They grow up so fast.

Tanq2

Tanq likes to talk

 

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Abby: “What’s that strange black thing on your face?”

 

abby2

Abby and Trouble, who is looking extra mischievous

 

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Abby, Kahlua and Betty

 

Betty and Emmy

Betty and Emmy

 

emmy1

Emmy is amused

 

Kahlua Trouble

Trouble and Kahlua

 

 

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Surviving the Drought in Your Garden

The biggest question garden-loving Californians are asking right now is “Should I even grow a garden this year with this drought?” It’s a responsible, well meaning question. I asked it myself a few weeks ago. I went back and forth about it. A garden increases your water use, but at the same time you don’t want to let all your hard work die.

And then it dawned on me as I was driving by agricultural fields being irrigated by overhead spray in the middle of the day.

I’m going to be eating food anyways that requires water use. If I grow it I can control how much water is used better than a large scale farmer can. I can actually reduce my water use through food consumption more if I grow it myself. The LA Times recently had an article about how much water is required to grow certain foods (if you eat meat, goat takes the top spot for least amount of water needed per pound of meat). An apple requires 18 gallons and an orange requires 13 gallons. That’s quite a bit of water for just one fruit. Potatoes require 119 gallons of water for a pound. Yikes.

My guilt of growing a garden subsided a bit. Now it was time to figure out what I can do to reduce my water footprint even more. I hope these tips can help you as well.

Know Your Soil

soilstructure

One of the keys to water wise gardening is to know what kind of soil you have. If you have raised beds you most likely have a soil that is high in organic matter and maybe even has a bit of topsoil. If your beds aren’t brand new you’re going to want to get your soil tested so you know what nutrients you need to add. Plants that are getting enough nutrients are going to be hardier and will weather the drought better. If you plant in the ground like I do you are also going to want to know the soil’s structure. How much sand, silt and clay does your soil have? Sandy soil doesn’t hold water very well while clay soil has a tendency to hold onto water too well.

In addition you can check out the Web Soil Survey through the USDA (push the green button). This will give you an idea of how deep your soil is, which directly effects how much water it can hold. It will also tell you the water holding capacity of your soil. For the record, our soil is 20-40″ deep but only holds 4.5″ of water, which means that if it rained 6″ the soil would only be able to hold 4.5 of them and the remaining 1.5″ would run off or flooding would occur. Also, the water table is over 80″ deep so I can depend on trees being able to access it, as most tree roots actually only go down 2-3′.

Amend Your Soil

compost (2)

Adding compost to dig in

Starting from the ground up we first want to make sure our soil is well amended with a lot of organic matter. Organic matter will help absorb and hold onto more water. It will also help provide enough nutrients for the plant to develop strong root systems. Organic matter helps fast draining sandy soils hold onto water and helps heavy clay soils distribute the water deeper to the root zone and makes it more available to the plant. If you have tested your soil through A&L Agricultural Laboratories they will offer you recommendations of what to add to your soil to grow the desired crops.

Control Your Water

tomato

A tomato planted at the emitter location on drip tubing.

Fortunately for us, we are already on the right track. Our entire property is on drip/micro irrigation. If you don’t have your vegetable beds on drip, now is the time to invest. A drip system does several things.

  • It reduces the amount of water you use while watering by 50% or more.
  • It reduces diseases caused by overhead watering.
  • It reduces problems with weeds.
  • It reduces the amount of time you spend watering.
  • It reduces runoff and erosion.

If you don’t have a drip irrigation system yet and don’t know how to put one in, I’ve got a pretty thorough tutorial that can help you.  Once you have your driplines in, situate plants so that they occur at an emitter so the plant can fully utilize as much water as possible. And instead of watering a little bit every day, water heavily but less often. You want the roots to travel as far down as you can get them to go. Plants with shallow roots are more likely to get dried out and stressed. Most plants require an inch of water per week. My aim is to water with drip 30 minutes twice a week. Of course the length and frequency of watering depends on the drip components you use. Many manufacturers offer calculators to determine how long and often you should run your irrigation. In addition, to reduce evaporation, schedule your irrigation to come on between 7pm and 7am. Early morning hours are preferable.

Keep Your Water

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Mulch the hell out of everything you plan to water. And I mean MULCH. Lots of it. Go for at least 4″ if the plant’s height allows. Straw is a cheap mulch that you can use though it does get slick when wet and has a tendency to blow around. Bark mulch is heavier and longer lasting but can be expensive unless you get it from a tree service. However, getting it from a tree service can limit you to getting mulch from whatever tree they just removed. Some tree species can cause problems in the garden such as black walnut and eucalyptus. So far, one of the best mulches that I have found for water retention has been old livestock bedding. It’s heavier because it has absorbed urine and feces (which also increases it’s fertility) so it doesn’t blow away and it’s finer in texture from being broken up by hooves so it doesn’t have as many air spaces to allow evaporation. If you don’t have livestock you can get old bedding from horse stables, which are usually giving it away for free. Just be careful about weed seeds. Horses that are stabled tend to have less weed seeds in their feces than pastured horses. I’ve used rice hull bedding from a local stable before and this stuff was fantastic. You can also save up dried leaves and use those as well. We tried out plastic mulch/sheeting one year and found that it helped hold onto more water than expected. It also helped heat up the soil for plants that preferred warm soil. Melons and watermelons really thrived with the black plastic. The more drought tolerant plants such as tomatoes, didn’t fare quite as well.

Make sure to lay the mulch over your irrigation lines. You don’t want to actually water the mulch because it will absorb all the water and not allow any to reach the soil and water your plants. You also don’t want to have mulch right up against the stems of most plants (onion family and potatoes plants tend to be the exception) as it can cause problems with rot. An inch or so away is fine though.

Make the Right Plant Choices

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

Not all vegetables are created equal. Some, like celery, onions, green beans, carrots, lettuces and melons require a lot more water than other vegetables. Squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and dry beans, especially Tepary beans, chard, and arugula are better choices for gardening when water is restricted. Most plants also have critical periods where they will require more water than normal. Most of the time this is during flowering and fruit production.

If you really want to grow some of the higher water need plants, put them together on a separate water valve. That way you can have part of your garden getting more water than the rest rather than the entire garden getting more water than some plants need. Also space the plants farther apart so they aren’t competing with each other for each precious drop. You may end up with fewer plants, but you won’t have to water as much.

The above picture with all the squash is a perfect example of how water wise gardening can still be productive. All of that squash – each weighing approximately 20lbs – came from a single volunteer plant. It sprouted in our old chicken yard so the soil had lots of organic matter and a high nutrient content. Because it was a volunteer we didn’t have irrigation going to it and only ended up giving it two deep waterings early on in it’s growth. It was a wetter year then compared to now, so the soil had a larger water capacity than this year, but it goes to show that if done correctly and mindfully very little applied water can still result in a big harvest.

We have a lot of volunteer vegetable plants that grow in our yard. Most of the time they are in our beds, but sometimes they are growing elsewhere that won’t be getting any water. These vegetables are the ones that do best in drought conditions because they don’t need the extra water. Chard, squash, arugula, and tomatoes are the most common ones growing about our yard. Also artichokes are very drought tolerant. Their growing season is in the winter and spring and then they die back in the summer and go dormant until the rains return. We rely 100% on the rainy season for our artichoke plants. We’ve never watered them until this year. They and the trees are now getting the water we save.

A Word on Container Gardening

If you have a small yard or balcony and still want to grow some of your food, container gardening can be done even in a drought. Follow many of the same guidelines as outlined above but you also want to take care regarding the type of container you are using. Terracotta planters are going to dry out a lot faster than plastic or even glazed pottery. Also, utilize saucers under your pots to catch excess water. An even better system would be to invest in or make self watering containers. These only release water as the plant needs them and are low water use.

Save Your Water

We now have several 5 gallon buckets in our kitchen and bathroom to collect water that can be used for watering perennial plants and trees. One of those buckets is in the bathtub specifically to catch the cold water before it gets warm. This is perfectly fresh, clean water that shouldn’t be wasted. In addition we are now saving some of our kitchen water. If you cook pasta, don’t salt it so you can use that water in the garden. If we’re rinsing off produce, we save that water. We save some dish washing water based on what we are cleaning and what soap we’re using. If it has touched raw meat, raw eggs, etc. it goes down the drain. All this water is getting used to water our artichoke plants, fruit trees, and various shrubs. I don’t use it on annual vegetables where we eat the leaves or roots. You can also save laundry water if you aren’t washing diapers.

Besides saving water we’re also just reducing the amount we use. The saying “if it’s yellow leave it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” is being said quite often around our house now. We also turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth (which we all should do anyways) and turning it on only to rinse the dishes. Also, while washing dishes we run the water a lot lower. It seems that it rinses them just as quickly at a lower flow than at full blast so I hope to see a savings in that regard. Showers have also been shortened to just 5 minutes. I’m planning on getting a valve to add to the shower head so we can turn it off while we’re soaping up.

By reducing the amount of water your garden and your household uses and by saving it, you can reduce your overall use of water enough to not have to feel guilty. And remember, the agriculture sector uses 75% of the total water so if you’re growing your own and following water wise guidelines you are helping reduce more water than just what you see on your bill.

 

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Seed Starting 101

seedlingsBeginning gardeners tend to rely mostly on transplants purchased at their local garden center. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Seed starting can be intimidating and failure does occur. Letting someone else deal with that and just getting your hands dirty when you start gardening is a great way to limit discouragement among new gardeners. But if you’re feeling particularly brave, have some gardening experience under you belt, or just want to try new types of vegetables that just aren’t available as transplants, starting your own plants from seed is a fantastic way to go. And really, it’s not as scary as it sounds. There are just a few rules you need to keep in mind.

Getting Started

Have you ever been to a big box store or even just a hardware store and perused their garden center? Lord knows I have, even though I know better. They are a good place to start dabbling in growing plants, but definitely not a good option when you want to get serious. If you want to get serious you need to go to plant nurseries or start getting stuff online. Basically you need to buy your growing supplies from people that actually know what the hell they are doing.

Here is the ubiquitous seed saving kit. It has a bottom tray, cell packs that go inside and then a clear cover that fits over the top. Now I have a greenhouse to start all my seedlings in so there’s no need for me to use the top cover. Also, because it’s outside, I don’t need to have the bottom tray to contain the water. But that bottom tray isn’t harmless. the problem with it is that it holds the water. That’s the intended purpose of it after all. But with seedlings, holding water isn’t really a good thing. You want that water to drain away from them. If the cells stay even partially submerged in water they’ll develop fungal problems (even when using sterile seed starting soil) which invariably lead to:

Damping Off

Damping off can wipe out all of your seedlings if you aren’t careful. Of course this doesn’t mean you should let your seeds go bone dry but you should allow the top surface of the soil go dry between watering and don’t allow them to sit in water. It can also help to put a layer of perlite on the top of the surface of the soil.

If you do need to start your seedlings indoors and can’t just let the water run all over you will need to make sure to empty out the water from the tray after every time you water so you don’t have them soaking in it.

Light is also an important aspect of seed starting. Placing your seedlings next to a bright window just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with weak seedlings that become leggy. What you will need is a grow light. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wander into a shady hydroponics store to find one of these. They are readily available at any local hardware store or online. A fluorescent hanging light with plant or full spectrum bulb is all you need. You will need to make sure that the light is on a timer and that it hangs just a few inches from the tops of the plants. As the plants grow, adjust the height of the lamp.

If you don’t have space in your house, garage, basement or shed to start seedlings another option is to get a mini greenhouse or use cold frames. I used one for years with great success until I outgrew it. If you have just a standard home vegetable garden, though, these should work fine for you. If you live in a cold climate your best choice will be ones that use polycarbonate greenhouse panels which are insulated as opposed to the plastic sheeting that some of the cheaper versions use.

A Word on Soil

What you choose for soil can make all the difference in the success of your seedlings. Garden soil, that is, soil pulled right out of your garden beds is probably the one you definitely don’t want to go with. As mentioned above, damping off is a serious concern for seedlings. If you are doing a small amount of plants from seed you can get bags of sterile seed starting mix. Peppers are the exception. For whatever reason, pepper seeds, which are temperamental to begin with, don’t like a lot of peat moss in their seed mix. Instead, I start them in Orchid mix (not the same as orchid bark) which doesn’t contain peat or sphagnum moss. If you are doing larger amounts of seedlings I just use Rose Care mix to get them going and have had great luck with it.

Starting the Seeds

There are several ways you can start seeds. For some plants like carrots, beets, parsnips, radish and other root vegetables (not including onions, leeks, etc.) and corn, arugula, looseleaf lettuce and beans direct sowing, or planting them directly in your garden soil, is the best way to start them. Carrots require a bit more consideration due to being planted near the surface but also needing to stay moist for germination to occur. The best way to handle this is to cover the bed right after sowing and watering with either cardboard or plywood until they start to come up. Parsnips also require something a little different. They tend to have poor germination rates so I start them on a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or tupperware container. Once I see the little tail of root popping out from the seed I will carefully plant it in the garden. I’ve found that this gives me much higher rates of success.

Squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers can be either direct sown or started. Care should be taken when starting them indoors as they have very sensitive root systems. Never allow them to become root bound and when transplanting them, do not disturb their roots. If you want to get a jump start on the season start them in 4″ pots and once they germinated and break the surface plant them very carefully. This will reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.

For plants like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants you can either start them in 4″ pots if you don’t have many, or if you produce hundreds of them, like us, start them in flats and then transplant them into 4″ pots.

For smaller plants like head lettuce, spinach, onions and chard (beets I also like to start this way) and also for peas (to get them nice a big before exposing them to slugs and snails), and brassicas, you can start them in flats. Make sure that the flats have holes in the bottoms so they can drain. I prefer the flats because I can plant a bunch of plants all together and then just tease them out when it’s time to plant. I almost always end up with extra plants which I then pass on to other people. Generally the cool season vegetables don’t get put in the greenhouse and are fine being started outside.

tomato

When it’s Time

I’ll admit that I’m bad at hardening off. A combination of being busy and being lazy I never get around to doing it. For the more frost tender plants I’ll just leave the greenhouse door open in increasing increments until I am sure that the last frost has come and gone. Since the cool season vegetable are started outside, I don’t really have to worry about them. If you want to be a bit more methodical than I am with hardening off, simply ease your plants into being on their own outside. Let them spend a few hours each day in a sunny spot. Increase the amount of time they are outside on their own until you have them out there almost the entire day.

Try to plant out when it’s either overcast or later in the day if it’s warmer so as not to completely shock the seedlings. Don’t try to over handle the roots and only plant out the plants that have a nice large healthy root system but are not root bound. The exception is to transplant squash, cucumbers, watermelons and melons before they have a large root system.. Also it’s key to water them well right after planting them out. I don’t use any B-1 or transplant starter because you don’t really need to. Don’t over water either. They will get wilty no matter how much water you give them. Just offer them some shade if you can and let them bounce back on their own.

Starting your own seeds is rewarding, will save you money and expand your horizons. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you the nursery will still have what you need.

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Workshops are Back!

People have kept bugging me about whether I will be teaching more workshops. I would say “yes, there are some in the works” but never really got further than that. Friday, Brande and I finally sat down and worked on our schedule.

Garden Planning Workshop

421704_366072500090494_1182708223_nSaturday January 18, 11-2 p.m. at the Hub Vallejo 342 Georgia Street, Vallejo CA 94591
$30/person

Learn what, how and when to start planting for a well-timed and productive year-round garden here in the Bay Area. We will talk about concepts like companion planting, cover crops, perennials, and choosing the best varieties to grow.
We’ll go over what your soil needs to get through the year, and the proper methods of bed preparation and crop rotation to prevent pests and diseases. This workshop will involve developing a garden plan that you can use for the year.

Instructor: Rachel Hoff of Dog Island Farm www.dogislandfarm.com
Stop by the Hub this weekend to sign up, or sign up online at www.luludeuxmillinery.com/workshops

Homebrew 101 – Malt Extract Brewing and Hard Cider

February 15th, 11-2 p.m. at the Hub Vallejo 342 Georgia Street, Vallejo CA 94591
$30/person

Learn the basics to making your own homebrew and hard cider including the equipment you’ll need, different types of ingredients, the different types of homebrew and hard ciders, recipes and kegging and bottling procedures. We will get you started using the easiest form of homebrewing with premade malt extracts which make quality control much easier for the beginning homebrewer. Must be at least 21 years old to attend.

Class Instructor: Rachel Hoff has been making homebrew and hard cider since 2002 and has been making homemade sodas since 2009. She’s made a vast variety of different types of  ales, stouts, and ciders over the years.

Chickens 101
hens
Saturday, February 22nd 11am – 1pm in Vallejo
$25/person or $40/couple
Learn everything you need to know about basic chicken care. We’ll talk about the different breeds and reasons for raising chickens. You will learn about feed, supplements, and their dietary needs in general. We will go over how to handle your birds properly, examine them for issues, and take care of their physical and social needs.

Class instructors: Rachel Hoff has been raising chickens for eggs and meat for 8 years and has been teaching beginning and advanced chicken workshops for the past 2 years.  Brande Wijn has been raising chickens for both eggs and meat for 4 years, and currently runs a small urban egg CSA.

You can register here or email us if you would like to pay at the door. Contact Rachel or Brande at classes@dogislandfarm.com

Refund Policy:
You will receive a full refund if you cancel at least 7 days in advance. Refunds will not be given if you cancel with less than 7 days before the class, however, you are free to send someone in your stead.

Goats 101

goats

Saturday, March 15 11am – 1pm in Vallejo
$25/per or $40/couple

Have you ever considered raising goats but don’t really know if it’s for you? Come learn about what it takes to have your own milk-producing (or not) family goats. Meet a few, see where they live, and learn what goes into keeping them happy and healthy. Learn about how milk production works, and about how much work goes into daily life with goats. Also get a chance to play with some baby goats.

Class instructor: Rachel Hoff raises dwarf breed goats for dairy and is a member of the American Dairy Goat Association.   Brande Wijn has her own small herd and has assisted with care and kidding of others’ as well.

You can register here or email us if you would like to pay at the door. Contact Rachel or Brande at classes@dogislandfarm.com

Refund Policy:
You will receive a full refund if you cancel at least 7 days in advance. Refunds will not be given if you cancel with less than 7 days before the class, however, you are free to send someone in your stead.

Gardening Tips & Tricks

yard1Sunday, April 6th 11am – 1pm in Vallejo
$15/person or $20/couple

The growing season is just starting to ramp up but it’s also the time when we have the most questions. Bring your questions and learn some new things. We’ll have a question and answer session about general gardening. We will also discuss soil fertility, planting schedules, how to be as productive as possible and how to garden on a budget. There will be starts available for you to purchase afterwards.

Class instructors: Both Brande Wijn and Rachel Hoff have been gardening for over 20 years each and teaching gardening workshops for the past three years.

You can register here or email us if you would like to pay at the door. Contact Rachel or Brande at classes@dogislandfarm.com

Refund Policy:
You will receive a full refund if you cancel at least 7 days in advance. Refunds will not be given if you cancel with less than 7 days before the class, however, you are free to send someone in your stead.

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Tomato, Pepper and Eggplant Varieties for 2014

We will soon be starting our eggplant, pepper and tomato plants in the next month or so. They will be available in late March until we run out (which is pretty quick, so make sure to come early).  We won’t be offering as many hot peppers varieties this year, mainly because I’m having a hard time locating seed for them from a single source (prefer to not have to make a bunch of small orders, which drives up shipping costs). We will be offering more tomato varieties though! We’ll have some of the old favorites but will also be adding in some new interesting varieties. I don’t have photos of them all since it’s a work in progress.

Most varieties we offer are ones we have grown successfully. If there are varieties you want I will be taking pre-orders so you are guaranteed to get what you want before they are sold out. Just email me at rachel at dogislandfarm (dot) com or leave a comment and I will email you.

Eggplant Varieties

Caspar – I adore this eggplant. It’s a long Japanese style eggplant with white skin and very creamy white flesh. If you aren’t a huge fan of eggplant (like myself), this is definitely one to try. It may just make you a convert.

Diamond – A good, productive Japanese style eggplant. Very good sliced, marinated and grilled.

Pepper Varieties-Hot

anaheim peppers copyAnaheim (Nu Mex Joe E. Parker) – These are the perfect roasting peppers. The thick skin easily blisters and can be peeled away after roasting. They are mild to medium heat. Not quite as productive as the smaller hot peppers, but they do give a good harvest when picked continuously.

 

 

PoblanosAncho Gigantea (Poblano) – Relatively mild, productive pepper that is great dried or roasted. This is the standard pepper for stuffing. Green peppers are called Poblanos and red peppers are Anchos.


 

Cayenne Slim - Very productive plant of HOT peppers. Walls are thin so they dry quickly. We dried the peppers (they readily dry on the plant) and then ground them into red pepper flakes. We now call them Satan Flakes because of their excessive heat.

Cayenne Slim – Very productive plant of HOT peppers. Walls are thin so they dry quickly. We dried the peppers (they readily dry on the plant) and then ground them into red pepper flakes. We now call them Satan Flakes because of their excessive heat.

 

 

Habanero - If you want your peppers to be spicy make sure to grow them next to a habanero plant. This was a trick I learned from a friend and was surprised to find out that it works! These are productive plants with EXTRA HOT peppers.

Habanero – If you want your peppers to be spicy make sure to grow them next to a habanero plant. This was a trick I learned from a friend and was surprised to find out that it works! These are productive plants with EXTRA HOT peppers.

 


Pimiento de Padron (not pictured) – This is a new variety for us that I’m really excited to try. They are usually a mild, small Spanish pepper that is traditionally fried. Sometimes you’ll get a hot one. They are fantastic stuffed with a bit of goat cheese before frying.

serrano peppers copySerrano – Another very productive pepper with thick walls that are perfect for making hot sauce. The original variety used to make Sriracha Hot Sauce. Also very hot, but not as hot as the Cayenne Slim.

 

 

 

Pepper Varieties-Sweet

California WonderCalifornia Wonder – The standard green and red bell pepper for California. Good production with thick walled fruits.

 

 

Italian Sweet Pepper – This is a new sweet pepper for us. From the descriptions we’ve read, I’m hoping that this will be thicker walled than the Corno di Toro or the Red Marconi peppers we’ve done in the past.

Orange Bell – As the name suggests, this is an orange bell pepper. Not as productive as the California Wonder but hands down the sweetest pepper I’ve ever eaten. They got gobbled up too fast before I could get a decent photo.

Quadrato Asti Giallo – This will be a reboot for us. I got some seed last year but it was too late in the year for them to mature enough before the coming frosts. The plants did do very well and I’m sure we would have gotten a good crop if we had more time to allow them to mature. This is an Italian bell pepper that is green slowly ripening to yellow.

 

 Tomatoes (all tomatoes are indeterminate)

Ananas Noir (Black Pineapple)- This is another reboot variety. I had bought this as a start but I suspect it was mislabeled because I didn’t get any tomatoes that were even remotely close to this very unique variety. If you can’t make up your mind about what color tomatoes to grow, this might be the one for you. Green, red, orange, yellow and purple all rolled into one tasty beefsteak-type tomato. Rumor has it each color has a distinct flavor.

Black Krim – A purple-black beefsteak with a hearty, rich flavor. Fruits get darker when exposed to sunlight. Productive.

Brad’s Black Oxheart – Similar in flavor to Black Krim but a large oxheart shaped tomato. Large productive plant.

Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) – The beefsteak that all beefsteak tomatoes should be judged by. Big, red fruits commonly over a pound but can reach two pounds are rich and intense.

Cherokee Green – A green beefsteak that has a bold, bright flavor with acid. My husband says it’s “zingy.” Best flavor of the green tomatoes. Very productive plant. Just keep an eye on it so you don’t wait too long to pick the fruits which will have a yellow hue with ripe.

DrWycheesYellowDr. Wychee’s Yellow – Big, beautiful yellow beefsteak with green shoulders. Productive plant of 1lb fruits or larger. Rich tomato flavor with a meaty interior.

 

 

Green Zebra – Small 2-1/2″-3″  salad tomato that is green with darker green stripes. Fruit is sweet and “zingy.” Very productive plant if you can find all the fruit! The light green will have a yellow hue when ripe. Makes a really good green pesto bruschetta.

HillbillyHillbilly – Big yellow orange beefsteak with red streaks. Husband describes it as “rich, meaty, tomato-y goodness.” The favorite tomato around here. Few seeds and very fleshy.

 

 

Indigo AppleIndigo Apple – A very high anthocyanin (good stuff – antioxidant) producing tomato. Fruit that has been exposed to sunlight is dark purple to nearly black. If not exposed the fruit will be red. Medium sized fruit is sweet and productive with a long harvest period.

 

isis candyIsis Candy – Orange cherry tomato with red starburst. Very productive of small sweet, fruity tomatoes that you can just pop in your mouth.

 

 

Kellogg’s Breakfast – Big orange beefsteak tomato. Similar in flavor to Dr. Wyche’s Yellow but with a bit more sweetness.

Mortgage Lifter – Red beefsteak tomato that produces a good crop of 1-2lb tomatoes. Meaty and rich with a good tomato flavor.

Opalka – This will be a new variety for us. It is a red paste tomato from Poland circa 1900. Said to have excellent flavor and few seeds.

pineapple heirloom copyPineapple Heirloom – An orange beefsteak with red streaks that often reaches 2lbs. Productive plant of rich, old-fashioned tomato flavor with hints of tropical fruit.

 

 

Rosso Sicilian – Another new variety for us. This is an Italian heirloom with medium sized ribbed fruits that are firm and meaty and perfect for making sauce and paste. Bruises easily.

Speckled Roman – A new variety for us and hope that it is as good as Roman Candle, which we couldn’t find seed for this year. Very productive plant is said to produce large orange fruits with yellow stripes that are perfect for processing and eating fresh.

Stupice – This very early tomato blew me away this year with it’s productiveness. Small tomatoes, but not quite cherry size are born as early as late June and continues through until the frost. Sweet and flavorful.

WPeach2Wapsipinicon Peach – A small yellow tomato with an unusually fuzzy skin. Productive plant of very, very sweet, mild fruit with a hint of peach. Husband says “sweetest tomato I’ve ever eaten.”

 

 

 

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What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Vol. 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4′x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

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The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

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Canning Season is Almost Here – Stay Safe Out There

packed in jarsWe just planted our tomatoes, eggplants and tomatillos this weekend. In a couple of more weeks we’ll be planting peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, beans and corn. In just a few months we’ll be busy harvesting and preserving our bounty through drying, freezing and canning.

Preserving has been gaining in popularity and I see some really great recipes out there on the interwebs. I also see some dangerous ones that kind of scare me. I’ve seen so many bad ones, in fact,  that I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to judge canned goods at events anymore unless the recipe and canning process is included with the sample. You can’t simply shoot from the hip and make up recipes that “sound about right” and expect for them to store at room temperature for extended lengths of time.  There’s a science behind canning to ensure safety that I can’t stress enough. So I figured that with canning season fast approaching we should discuss some guidelines to canning to help everyone stay safe.

The Rules

1. Just because it’s on the internet does not automatically make it a safe recipe. 

Be critical of every recipe you see on the internet.  Check to make sure it has enough acid and is processed long enough if it’s not pressure canned and uses low acid ingredients (especially if it is raw packed). If it’s high acid make sure it is water bath canned long enough. The USDA has safe canning guidelines through their National Center for Home Food Preservation site that you can cross reference from. Also avoid recipes that have dairy, eggs, and pureed low acid food (such as lemon curd, pumpkin butter and pureed bananas) and don’t also say that it is to only be kept in the refrigerator for a limited amount of time (usually for a month) or to freeze the finished product.

2. Books are *usually* a safe bet. 

I only say “usually” because I’ve seen some questionable and downright dangerous recipes even in published books. Check the book to make sure it says the recipes have been tested for safety. The most reliably safe books (though I can’t testify to the flavor of all the recipes in these books) are:

cans

These are refrigerator-style pickles that have a finite shelf life.

3.  If you find a safe recipe do not alter it, but if you do, know the guidelines. 

Even adding a bit more onion to a recipe can alter the pH enough to make it unsafe. For water bath canned products you want the pH to be 4.6 or lower. However, unless you have a super deluxe Vitamix blender, chances are just blending and using a litmus strip isn’t going to give you an accurate reading of the acidity. The safest way to test is to send it to a food lab, but that can get expensive so just stick with a tested recipe. Always follow the basic safe guidelines if you do change the recipe. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t alter it. The canning recipes I have on this blog always follow the safe guidelines and I almost always increase the acid when I don’t need to just to be on the safe side. I will not post low-acid recipes that require pressure canning. And recipes that don’t follow the safe guidelines, like our oven-baked heirloom tomato sauce, will always be for eating immediately of freezing (which is why we don’t include canning instructions with it).

4. Not all fruit is created equal. 

While many fruits are high acid and relatively easy to can, some are either borderline or low acid and must have acid added. Figs, bananas, white peaches, Asian pears, watermelon, mangoes and tomatoes all fall into this category of not acidic enough to can on their own without added acid. Be sure to follow the USDA guidelines if canning these items. I have posted tomato canning guidelines that are based on USDA guidelines and the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

 5. If it’s a low acid food and you don’t add acid don’t even think of water bath canning it (same goes for recipes with meat in them even if you do add acid).

I’m serious here. Botulism will fucking kill you. Adding loads of salt or sugar won’t save you here.

6. If a recipe says to pack pint jars don’t pack quart jars and increase the time to what you think it should be. 

Sometimes you’ll come across recipes that only give you the processing time for a specific jar size. Don’t pack into larger jars because you don’t know what the processing time is for them to be safe. Tomato paste is a good example of this. Due to it’s consistency it’s best to only can it in 8 oz jars. And never can using jars larger than a quart unless the recipe calls for them (tomato juice can be canned in 1.5L jars per the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving).

7. Don’t create shortcuts.

  • Cut fruits or vegetables into the indicated size as this ensures that the center reaches the correct temperature and acidity if using low acid foods.
  • Don’t “eyeball” the amounts of your ingredients – think of this as a science experiment rather than an art project.
  • Start your processing time after the water has come back up to boiling if using a water bath canner or after you reach pressure when pressure canning.
  • Pack hot food into hot jars that were slowly brought up to temperature, not cold jars (the sudden heat from the food will stress the glass causing breakage).
  • Don’t reuse lids (Tattler lids are the exception). You can reuse rings though.
  • Follow head space rules for a recipe – don’t over or under fill jars.
  • Always make sure there is at least 1″ of water covering the jars when in the canner.
  • Do not skip the water bath for acidic foods. The water bath heats up the food in the jar to kill microorganisms. The heated food increases in volume (why you need to follow rules for head space) pushing out air. The water covering the jars doesn’t allow air to reenter the jars. The air also is heated making it expand and escape the jar. Less oxygen means less oxidation and less spoilage (except for anaerobic microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum, many other microorganisms require oxygen). You’re much more likely to get mold if you don’t properly do a water bath. Mold changes the pH of the product making an acidic food more basic which opens it up to C. botulinum, which causes botulism.
  • Remove air bubbles after packing hot jars. Sometimes the food can contain enough air in it to alter the head space. Plus extra air means extra oxygen and more chances for spoilage.
  • Always wipe the rim with a clean cloth before putting the lid on. This will help ensure a good seal while also removing a vehicle for contamination to get inside the jar.

8. Take the rings off your jars after they seal. 

The rings are really just designed to keep the lid on while canning and should be removed after they seal. This will help reduce corrosion and rust on your jars but more importantly removing the rings help you avoid a false seal. A failed seal would indicate spoilage but if the ring keeps the lid down you wouldn’t necessarily know the food has spoiled – smell, taste and looks can be deceiving for some types of spoilage. However, you can put the rings back on once you break the seal to avoid creating a mess.

9. Remember to adjust for altitude. 

Find out your altitude and then adjust your canning time. Please note that the time difference may vary depending on the product you’re canning.

10. Use the right equipment. 

Steam canners and oven canning are not recommended and cannot remove the risk of all types of spoilage. A stock pot that is deep enough for your jars plus 1″ of cover is fine for water bath canning. Make sure to use a rack on the bottom of your pot though. The rack helps keep water moving all the way around the jar and helps prevent the jars from breaking. Use a pressure canner, not a pressure cooker, when canning low acid foods and meat. Pressure cookers don’t have as reliable gauges if they have one at all. Also make sure that your pressure canner is in good condition. Old or poorly taken care of pressure cookers are dangerous and can explode. Your county extension can test your pressure canner for you or direct you to somewhere that can.

Canning isn’t something that should intimidate you by any means, you just have to follow some rules to make sure your finished product is safe. Properly canned foods are delicious and most times are much healthier than what you can purchase at the store. So get out there and start canning!

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