Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Harvest fresh salads all winter!

Photos courtesy of Trey Parsons

Want to harvest fresh salads all winter? In Oklahoma City's mild climate, a little protection will often enable you to grow lettuce, kale, spinach, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, and a whole range of cold-hardy crops far past the first freeze, even into the spring.

Transition OKC recently hosted a workshop for gardeners to share tips for fall and winter gardening. The workshop was facilitated by Joseph Glosemeyer, Master Composter and Biodynamic Gardener with over 30 years experience, and Shauna Struby, successful winter gardener. Shauna presented her how-to tips from the previous two winters, when a sheet of plastic held up by a simple stake system enabled her family to save $236 on organic salad greens each year. Participants donated $5 to support the work of Transition OKC and Sustainable OKC.

The gardening group examined the many advantages of fall gardening, such as less labor (watering, weeding), fewer insect problems, increasing the use of your garden real estate, and of course, harvesting fresh salads all winter. Workshop participants discussed vegetables that perform well in our Zone 7 fall and winter, including garlic, bok choy, kale, arugula, mesclun mix, and Egyptian onions. Other topics included planting times, watering tips, and types of protection such as deep mulch, plastic and floating row covers, cold frames, miniature hoop houses, and the tricky question of where to find freshly harvested bamboo. After the discussion, the group adjourned to creating a miniature bamboo hoop house.

Host Christine Patton readily admits that the miniature bamboo hoop house is an experiment based on diagrams sourced from Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest. The mini-hoop house is a simple construction of green bamboo bent into hoops and secured by the edges of the raised bed (and possibly industrial sized staples if the edges don't keep the bamboo in place); a floating row cover or plastic, and bricks to secure the row cover. Bamboo was selected because it is a renewable, local, low-energy, non-toxic and free resource; but if it is not available, PVC or metal hoops can also be used.

If winter protection seems troublesome or confusing, don't let it stop you from planting your fall garden! You can be harvesting fresh salads until December in our mild climate, even without a hoop house, cold frame or floating row cover. Check out this handy document for fall planting dates, or pick up a planting guide from Horn Seed!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fall Garden Incoming

Oklahoma gardens look like hell in August. Scorched, blistered, and withered - despite mulch and constant watering. The two bright spots are my okra plants, which are still pretty and prolific, and the crop circles that we installed during the Permablitz, which have exceeded my hopes. The two watermelon and two Black Futsu winter squash vines have gone wild and covered almost the entire 300 square foot area between my driveway and our neighbor's driveway, and quickly growing watermelons and squashes dot the plants (shhh ... don't tell the squash bugs!).
Luckily, every year, while the garden is burning up in August, I can look forward to September, when we plant the fall garden. I love fall gardening in Oklahoma. A lot fewer weeds, a lot less watering - a lot less effort overall. And then, when frost nears, we can protect the crops a la Four Season Harvest and harvest fresh salads all winter.
Actually, I confess, I've never protected the fall garden before - just watched as the kale survived and everything else perished in the snow. This year, however, will be different! We are building a miniature bamboo hoop house to cover the crops and, based on the experience of my friend Shauna, we'll be eating well through the winter. Although Shauna used insulating cold frames covered in plastic, we'll be using row cover held just above the bed to extend our season. Closer to winter, we'll cover the hoops with plastic instead of row cover to provide more protection. I hope this will do the trick - like most of my gardening, it's an experiment.
I have one garden bed that we will be planting with fall and winter crops that like cold weather. I'll plant garlic, onions, bok choy, three kinds of lettuce, spinach, carrots, kohlrabi, Chinese mustard, arugula, beets, and maybe some kale. Last year everything loved our fall weather and grew easily until frost. After frost, only the kale survived over the winter to explode with growth in March. This year, we'll protect everything with the miniature bamboo hoop house over our garden bed except for the garlic, which doesn't need protection.

My husband and I harvested the bamboo for the hoop house from our friends who live four blocks away. The bamboo is an experimental substitute for the metal and PVC hoop houses that I've seen. Bamboo is strong, not to mention free, local, renewable and toxin-free. The smaller bamboo poles are more bendable than the larger ones, and we've already installed them in the beds so that they will dry in the hoop shape.
Then, in the spring, I'll replace the plastic winter covering with netting. I use netting to protect my seeds in the spring from birds and squirrels. In the past, I've used simple stakes to keep the netting off the plants - but they do tend to poke holes in the netting, so I hope that the bamboo hoops will work better. Stay tuned for pictures next weekend!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Burgundy Okra

Okra is coming in by the handful. The "Burgundy" variety okra plants are beautiful, with burgundy stems and creamy yellow flowers, and crimson-veined leaves. They make a good front-yard garden plant, if your backyard garden space has reached full capacity.

Besides the beauty, I also love okra because it is pest-resistant, a major plus in an area wracked by squash bugs and spider mites. Did I mention the drought resistance, which means that I only have to water them every four days instead of every day in the middle of this August dry spell?

Okra is also quite nutritious. It contains the antioxidant glutathione, important for the immune system and liver detoxification, and contains more fiber than cereal - 4 grams per 35 calories (about one cup). All that, and quite a lot of protein for a vegetable - 3 grams per cup! According to Jonny Bowden's "150 Healthiest Foods on Earth," calorie for calorie, "Okra is high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin K, and folic acid."

But despite the beauty, nutrition and toughness of okra, many people are not familiar with this easy-to-grow-in-Oklahoma vegetable. What DOES one do with okra? Here's a short list:

  • Skewer and grill them whole with Cajun seasonings (I took this to a potluck recently and people were swearing off fried okra forevermore)

  • Roast sliced okra in the oven / Sun Oven

  • Add to minestrone

  • Use in gumbo

  • Use in Indian-inspired dishes and curries

  • Saute okra, pepper, and tomatoes and serve over rice

  • Freeze it for use in the winter and spring

  • Pickled okra

What are your favorite ways to cook okra? Ah, ah ah - fried okra doesn't count!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Locavore stories

Our Going Locavore group wants to expand and support our local food movement, and we have a plethora of ideas from our brainstorming session. But.... which ones would be the best investment of our time/attention/money? Which ones would have the greatest effect?

One of the ideas that evolved from our meeting last month was to sponsor a "Transition to Ten" percent local food purchases, similar to this challenge sponsored by Transition Colorado. I also like the 80/20 challenge, sponsored by a Transition group in Britain, which promotes buying 80% local and 20% organic and fair trade - for both local food security and international solidarity. That one may be too ambitious for us, though.

When I think about my own (partial) transition to local food, I realize that it took me several years just to increase our percentage to 15 - 30% local food (eggs, beef, in-season fruits and vegetables, wheat flour, cheese, yogurt, honey, beer). The main factors in my transition were:
  • an increasing awareness of the importance of local food, (motivation)
  • realizing that many of my friends were dedicated to local food, (social support)
  • expanding my own garden and mini-orchard, (skill/knowledge)
  • learning to preserve some food, (skill/knowledge)
  • learning to eat more seasonally, (skill/knowledge)
  • finding a local source for eggs and beef, (supply) and
  • a much improved farmer's market (supply).
So my question for you is: How much local food do you eat? Is there something that encouraged, inspired, or supported you to make the transition to eating locally? What did you have to do to make the transition?