It is beyond incomprehensible to me that I have never posted a Sandy Denny video here. She was the lead singer for Fairport Convention, but perhaps more importantly, she wrote “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” which has to be one of the three greatest songs ever to come out of the ’60s folk revival. (“Both Sides Now” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are, of course, the other two. And yes, I know “Both Sides” isn’t technically folk, but I bet there’s not a folkie alive who couldn’t sing every word of it by heart. If there is, I call No True Scotsman.)
Anyway. Sandy Denny. Gone way too soon, but her work remains to bless us all. Enjoy.
I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.
What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.
That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.
In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.
Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.
Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:
1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)
2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.
3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.
4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)
You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.
In assessing how much space we need in our home, I find it valuable to consider three questions:
1. How much time do I spend indoors?
2. What am I doing there?
3. How much of that could be done outside?
The answers to those questions will help you determine what kind of square footage you need and how comfortable you’re likely to be in a small space. Most of the things I like to do in my spare time — read, write, surf the internet — takes up very little room and could be done just as easily outdoors when the weather is decent.
On clear days when it’s not terribly hot and humid, I like to drink my coffee and eat my breakfast on the deck while the dogs play in the yard. On cool evenings when I have a little time off, I might sip a craft beer next to the pond, where I have a little concrete bench just big enough for one person to sit and think, and on drizzly days, the papasan chair parked at one end of our wide front porch makes an inviting place to curl up and read a book amid the scent of petrichor and the sound of the rain. A couple of years back, I added a little tile-topped plant stand that’s just big enough to hold a glass or a small plate, and next year, I’m planning to add a small table and chair to the other end of the porch to create a sort of outdoor office suitable for writing or working on other projects.
I’ve put a lot of time into customizing my yard, turning it into the kind of place where I like to hang out, and I imagine that will only increase when I get to New Mexico, where nothing indoors is ever going to be as pretty as anything outdoors, and where the weather is generally much more favorable for spending time outside.
If you’re trying to figure out how much space you really need, do yourself a favor and try spending more time outside. You may find you don’t need as much room as you thought — or you may find you can keep your climate-controlled space to a minimum and swap some of it for a transitional space that doesn’t have to be heated or cooled, such as a sunroom or conservatory with big windows you can open to let the breeze through on nice days.
Tucked away at the end of a back road outside Ava, Illinois, is a microbrewery so good, in such an idyllic setting, it has managed to elevate my entire perception of the region where I grew up.
I first learned about Scratch Brewing Company last fall, when I attended a friend’s birthday party at Hangar 9 in Carbondale, and his sister bought me a hickory-based sour beer from Scratch that was easily the most glorious thing I’d ever tasted.
Ron and I finally made it out to Scratch’s tasting room this summer and proceeded to fall in love with the brewery and its surroundings.
The first thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they make everything from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, many of which they grow on-site or forage from the nearby forest. This practice leads to far more diverse and interesting flavors than you find at breweries that rely almost exclusively on hops to flavor their beer.
The second thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they aren’t afraid to experiment with less common types of beer. This means you’ll almost certainly find a sour or two on tap when you walk in, and they might have a rauchbier, a heavy or some other less-common variety available as well.
The brewers’ commitment to local ingredients extends to the yeasts they use: Instead of commercially produced yeasts, they use sourdough starter to ferment their beer and make their pizza crust rise. This not only guarantees a unique, hyperlocal flavor, but it allows me to drink Scratch products without triggering sinus headaches. (Apparently I’ve developed an allergy to certain strains of yeast in the past year or so, but I’ve been exposed to Southern Illinois’ indigenous yeasts for 41 years, so my immune system doesn’t freak out when it encounters them.)
After three trips, however, I’ve found my favorite thing about Scratch might not be the excellent food or the world-class beer, but the surroundings. The tasting room is tucked into the woods, with a big, rambling herb garden out front and tiny lizards darting between the rocks in the retaining walls next to the walkway that leads into the building.
Indoors, a beautifully rendered mural of a Piasa bird graces one wall, dried herbs hang from the rafters and fill jars lining another wall, and local artists’ influence can be seen everywhere.
It’s a remarkable place, and one that has the same effect on me as a trip to Dave Dardis’ not-so-secret garden in Makanda: It makes me more aware and more appreciative of what my home area has to offer. Between Scratch and a recent trip to Shawnee Trails in Carbondale, I’m just about ready to invest in a pair of trail shoes and let my next New Year’s resolution revolve around exploring the forests of Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri every chance I get.
I built my first worm bin on New Year’s Eve in 1999. No, I wasn’t drunk; I was just bored at the office (holidays tend to be slow in a newsroom) and decided to kill time on the Cityfarmer website. I’d made a resolution to shrink my environmental footprint as much as possible while living in a second-story apartment in town, and when I ran across an article telling me I could install a functioning compost bin under my sink, I knew I needed one RIGHT THIS MINUTE.
One might reasonably question the feasibility of acquiring redworms at 10:30 p.m. on a holiday in the middle of winter, but at the time, I lived in Belleville, Illinois, where a nice older couple ran a 24-hour bait shop out of their house. I called, and the lady said of course I could stop by on my way home to pick up 200 red wigglers for my New Year’s Eve vermicomposting project.
Worm bins are an awesome winter project, because they allow you to do something nice for the garden without going out in the cold. Worm compost is great for starting tomatoes.
Here is what you need to construct your own worm bin:
Plastic storage tub with a lid
Container to use as a drip tray
Small blocks to elevate the tub
Shredded newspaper or wood shavings (don’t use cedar; worms hate it)
Small handful of potting soil
Redworms, sometimes called “red wigglers”
Fruit or vegetable scraps
Drill holes in the sides and bottom of your plastic tub for drainage and aeration. I drilled about 50 holes in mine.
Put a couple of wood blocks in the drip tray and set the tub on top.
Put the newspaper in the tub and douse it with water until it’s about as wet as a wrung-out washcloth. Add the worms at one end and the fruit or vegetables in the other. Don’t feed your worms anything too harsh, like citrus or hot peppers.
Don’t overload the bin. Start with a couple hundred worms (this should cost about $10 to $15 at the bait shop) and a handful of food. Check your worms once a day to make sure the bin is still damp inside and they have enough food. When the bin contains mostly castings (a fancy word for worm poop), shove all of it over to one side and put some food, fresh bedding and potting soil in the other. The worms will all go to the side with the food, so you can scoop out the castings the next day and use them in your garden or on your houseplants.
Your worms will breed. If you end up with more than the bin can handle, you can build a bigger bin, start a second small bin, sell the excess worms to a bait shop, or put the worms in the garden and let them aerate the soil.
If your worm bin smells weird, it’s probably too wet, or you’ve put too much food in there.
I spent part of today working on my pond filter and starting a few small indoor projects, including some sprouts and a worm bin.
While I was outside, I took a few pictures of the garden in its more-or-less dormant state. Fall and winter always make me sad, because I hate saying goodbye to the garden, but I’ve got a few projects planned out there for this winter, and I think we’ll be in good shape come spring.
So far, I’ve bought four 36-inch fire rings to use as compost bins this winter, with the intention of planting directly into the compost this spring to make incredibly rich, easy-to-manage raised beds for my tomatoes.
That pond filter I built out of an ice-cream bucket looks as if it’s going to work pretty well. Time will tell, of course, but so far, it seems to be working. I’ll have a tutorial for you in an upcoming Eco-Saturday entry. The picture above delights me; I can’t believe how big that lemon balm has gotten. The oregano, meanwhile, apparently thinks it’s an aquatic plant — I found some of it growing roots right down into the water. Leave it to a mint to be audacious enough to try to compete with water hyacinths on their own turf.
The arugula I allowed to bolt this summer has scattered seeds all over the small bed in the center of the yard and halfway across the yard around it, so I’ve got salad growing all over the place without having to do any late-season planting. The sage and chives are still hanging in there, too, although my Genovese basil succumbed to the light frost we had the other night. I’ll have an Eco-Saturday entry on Darwin gardening sometime in the next month or so. If you’re willing to let Mother Nature run the show, you can have a remarkably productive garden with virtually no effort.
For the first time in about 30 years, I harvested black walnuts this weekend.
We had a tree in our yard when we were a kid. Mom and I used to go outside in old shoes we didn’t care about and stomp the soft outer hulls off of them so we could bring them in, crack them and pick out the meat. Then the tree died, and I didn’t have access to walnuts again until last year, when we moved here. The tree in the yard next door overhangs our driveway and throws sap and nuts all over our cars.
We didn’t get any walnuts last year, because the squirrels stole them. This year, we gathered the nuts as they fell and kept them in a basket in the garage.
Black walnuts are a pain to process — you have to stomp off the outer hulls, let them dry for a week or two, crack them with a hammer, and pick out all the meat, which takes foreeeeeeever — but the payoff is pretty good, as you know if you’ve ever had black walnut beer or chocolate-chip cookies with black walnuts in them, and it was kind of satisfying to do something I haven’t done since I was a kid. I might pay someone else to process them next time, though. We’ve got another 250 I stomped the other day, and I’m sure another 50 to 100 have fallen from the tree since then. There’s a limit to how long I’m willing to spend processing walnuts in one season.