Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 Garden Reflections

I am just giddy as I start to think about what my 2011 garden will look like! On these cold, winter days I like to sit and fantasize about all those fresh veggies and herbs growing just outside my door. But, as not to repeat gardening sins of the past, I first need to reflect on lessons learned from the 2010 garden.

Since I was on a blogging break in 2010, I never did share my 2010 garden plan. I was attempting Square Foot Gardening, and I found Microsoft Excel very helpful to plan out how I would plant. I found this to be very useful to manage my time and also this made it very easy to adjust as reality interfered with my original vision. 

Here is a view of the whole garden.  There are 6 smaller beds (2'x5' and 2'x6').  Then there is a larger berry patch (4'x10') and an additional bed (4'x9').  Each cell in Excel represents 1 4"x4" square in the garden.

This is the blow-up of what I consider the main garden beds.  This was the original size of the garden.

Here is the berry patch and the potato trash can.  I had anticipating getting the berry patch all set in 2010, but as it turned out, I didn't get the plants in until the fall.

Finally, this is the large bed.  In 2011, I use this for squashes and melons.

So, what did I learn in 2010?  So much!
  1. I need deer protection!  In the smaller garden area we didn't have a problem with deer - I think this might have been because the space was too small to jump into.  In our larger garden area this year, the deer just helped themselves on a daily basis.  They ate squash blossoms, whole tomato plants, lettuce, and parsley.  This year, I need to have a proactive solution for keeping the deer OUT!  Any suggestions?
  2. Aggressive de-bugging works.  I made finding aphids into a game for my boys.  They would come out there with me early in the season to gently look under the leaves playing "who can find the most aphids".  Then I could just smush them before they could do much damage.  This allowed my broccoli to mature beautifully for the first time providing both a spring and fall harvest!
  3. Garlic really needs to be planted in the fall to mature properly in my area.  So, this time, I have already planted tons of garlic.  I really hope it does well.
  4. I need to fungicide the pear tree.  We have a mature pear tree in our back yard.  We have seen some years with nothing and some years with a wonderful harvest.  I have noticed for the past 2 years how the leaves all get black dots underneath them and fall off.  With no more source of fuel, the immature fruits fall off.  After talking to some local farmers, I learned that my problem is fungus.  Apparently it is nearly impossible to grow pears in this humid mid-atlantic climate without using some fungicide.So, now I have to research the most eco-friendly fungicide.
  5. Prepare beds for the winter - it will make the spring much easier!  In 2010, it was a big pain to de-weed my beds in preparation for planting.  This year, I prepared (mostly) in the fall and covered the beds with a bunch of oak leaves.  I hope this will leave me in better shape come March.
OK, there are a lot more lessons learned, but this post is getting too long.  Dreaming of gardens past in present is definitely a finer thing in life. This post is a contribution to Finer Things Friday at Amy's The Finer Things in Life.

I would love to hear what you have learned in your 2010 gardening experience... 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cre8-ing Electricity: Results from 1.5 years of Solar

So far, I've shared how we decided to invest in a Photovoltaic Solar System and how the installation went.  Many people ask me how the system is performing and how it affects us on a day-to-day basis.  Let me start with the easy stuff...

How Does Solar Affect Us on a Day-to-Day Basis?
Not at all.  In fact, we could just forget about this until our electric bill comes and it is lower than expected (if I didn't obsessively check the performance on a daily basis).  In our installation, the solar panels are only visible from the back yard, so we don't even look a them.  There is no change to the way the electric system works within our house.

How Did We Prepare (Reducing Electricity Usage)?
Before we went ahead and invested in this system, we took many steps to reduce the electric usage in our home.  Some of the biggest impact items were: using a programmable thermostat to lower the usage of AC/Heat Pump, add weather stripping, and lower the temperature on our hot water heater.  Some other items are:
  • put vampire energy hogs (such s the cable box) on a timer, 
  • not using dry cycle on dishwasher, 
  • switch to CF/LED lighting
  • and washing clothes in cool water.

How Much Do We Produce?
Yeah, this is where I get to show my graph.  I am a geek for Excel!  There is a lot of information in this graph.  The bars represent our total electric usage each month.  The "green" section of the bar shows the amount each month that our solar generates.  The "red" section of the bar shows the amount of electricity that we use from BGE.  The line on the graph shows the percentage of our total usage that comes from solar each month.

What Affects Production the Most?
The biggest barrier to production is 2 feet of snow covering the panels!  In fact, the only times we have had zero production is when the panels are covered with snow.  The other factors that affect this are the season (number of hours of daylight), how cloudy the sky is, and the temperature (solar panels are more efficient in cool weather rather than in very hot weather). 
What Percent of Our Electric Usage Comes From Solar?
Here's another (far more simplistic) graph.  BGE is our electric company.  We have no gas in our area, so all of our heating and cooking needs are met by electric.  To date, about 46% of our electric usage comes form our solar system.  When we first looked into this, I was very set on having a system that provided 100% of our needs.  After evaluating the investment, it was just not feasible for us.  Also, there was not enough room on our roof to support this.  If you look at the first graph, you can see how this percentage varies over time.  In the spring and early summer, almost all of our energy can be supplied by solar.  In the winter, it is a very small percentage.  This is not just because we generate less electricity in the winter, but because we tend to use the heat in the winter a lot more than we use the AC in the summer.

What Kinds of Issues Have We Had?
I hate to say this, because I don't want to jinx it, but we have not had any issues so far.  I am hoping that keeps up because maintenance expenses would really delay our return on investment (ROI) timeline.

What is the Return on Investment (ROI)?
Based on the tax incentives we have seen so far and based on what we can expect to save in electiricity costs in the future, our system should pay itself off by 2015.  We should break even within 5.5 years.  After that point, all that annual savings  is just money in our pocket (or in 529 plans as the case may be).  I was willing to pursue this with a 10 year ROI, so I am very pleased that it looks like it will come in under 6 years.

How Has This Changed Our Electric Usage?
I was really hoping that once we had the system installed we would continue to cut our electric usage (motivated by the desire to see that meter run backwards).  Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Our usage has  been creeping upwards.  With only 1.5 years of data to look at, it is hard to say if this is because of the extreme weather we have been having (extremely hot and extremely cold) or just because we have become lethargic about reducing our usage.  Time and data will tell!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pass the Weeds, Please (Episode III): Winter Weed

Once my pre-ordered copy of John Kallas's Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate arrived, I completely devoured it in a day.  One of my favorite finds in my backyard this year was chickweed.

Chickweed (Stellaria Media)
Chickweed is a delicious winter weed.  It grows all over the planet, so there is probably some i your area.  I have read from a few different sources that it gets its name because chickens love to eat it.  Depending on your zone, you may see it start showing up in February or March.

How to Identify Chickweed

Nutrition Information for Chickweed
Chickweed contains vitamins B6, B12, C and
D, plus beta-carotene, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and
manganese.  It also contains the flavinoid rutin.

This is what my garden looked like in early April (however, many regions will find Chickweed starting to arrive as early as February) as I was going to get started with my spring planting. It was totally overrun with Chickweed, although I didn't know what it was at the time. So, as I often do when I find weeds growing in the garden, I identified it to see if it was something worth eating. I liked what I found!

These pictures are what chickweed looks like in the early spring in my zone. Look how much is there!  I needed to clean it out of my garden, so why not put all these free veggies to good use.  This plant changes a lot throughout the season. It gets very tall and grows very aggressively. The good news is that it is very easy to pull up. I look forward to cleaning up my garden this year and cooking up some nice Chickweed quiche for dinner.

How to Use Chickweed, Some Ideas
  1. Add to Tomato Sauce/Spaghetti Sauce ( I do this all the time.  I just throw it in the blender with the tomatoes and basil).
  2. Sautee in some olive oil and butter with Diced Onions
  3. Toss with a table salad
  4. Include in a pesto
  5. Wash and Eat it raw - it is a really tasty weed
  6. Add it to a veggie lasagna
  7. Chickweed Quiche or Frittata
Free fresh veggies in my own backyard?  Now that is a Finer Thing.

Note: I am not a biologist, nutrition, or herbalist.  I am just sharing my own appreciation for foraging and nutrition based on my own research.  I strongly encourage you to conduct your own research before eating wild food.

This post is a contribution to Finer Things Friday at Amy's The Finer Things in Life.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Cre8-ing Electricity: Our Solar Installation

    In August of 2009, after we had taken efforts to reduce our electricity consumption and done a lengthy analysis on the feasibility of acquiring a Photovoltaic Solar System, we had a 7.7 kW Solar Electric System installed on our roof by a local mid-Atlantic company called Standard Solar

    We were giddy with excitement the day of the installation.  The truck pulled up, the workers unloaded all the materials and gear and they got right to work up on the roof.

    Some of the Panels anxiously waiting on the deck to be installed
    The Specs
    Size: 7.7kW Solar Electric System
    Panels: 44 Suntech 175 Watt solar modules.

    Type of PV Cells: Crystalline
    Monitoring: Sunny Webbox.

    The Installation
    Overall, the installation was completed in two days.  The process was very painless for us - not so much for the installers being up on the roof in 95 degree weather!!  But, I did my best to keep them hydrated.

    The installation involved putting the mountings on the roof to securely hold the panels, installing the panels, installing the inverter, tying into our electrical system, and upgrading the meter to a digital meter which can run forwards and backwards.

    Our New Meter
    Wiring through Attic to Inverter

    Laying the Groudwork to Secure the Panels
    Installing the Last of the Panels

    It was about 2 weeks between when our system installation was completed and when the electric company approved our Interconnection Application so that the system could be tied into the grid.  Rather than having a battery backup, our system is tied into the electric grid.  This means when we are producing less than we use, we pull electricity from the grid and our meter runs forward.  If we are producing more than we use, we push electricity back to the grid and our meter runs backwards.  Being tied into the grid means that when there is a power outage in our area, we still experience that power outage.  We are okay with that, because it doesn't happen too often for us.  Standard Solar has a great little video on how the Solar System works in this setup.

    So far, after a year and a half, everything has been working just as expected.  We have not had any issues or problems so far.  In the next Solar Post, I'll tell you how we track the performance of the system and how it has been doing with all this extreme temperature in the Mid-Atlantic over the past two year.

    How about you?  Do you have a solar system?  Are you considering alternative sources of energy?

    Grateful for My Local Home & Garden Information Center

    I just didn't expect something like this to exist! The University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center has a program where you can call or email your gardening questions and a Master Gardener will respond with an answer. They advertise on their site:
    Ask the experts! We answer plant
    and pest questions.

    So, I did just that. I want to know why I can't seem to grow bell peppers, which are supposed to be so easy to grow. So I asked...

    Next business day, they responded...

    This same organization also brings one of my favorite gardening blogs called "Grow It! Eat It!," where I get lots of good gardening advice.

    What a great free, local resource! Do they have something similar in your area?

    I am sharing my gratitude. Join us for Gratituesday at Heavenly Homemakers!

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Chocolate Chip Cookies Cockaigne - An Adaptation

    The Joy of Cooking is my "food bible". I would say I use this at least 5 times a week and it shows! The pages are covered in flower and butter and chocolate smudges. Until recently, I thought the word "Cockaigne" after some of the recipe names was some type of French cooking technique of which I had never heard. So, after a little research, I learned that this is not the case at all.

    Apparently (according to Wikipedia), Cockaigne is a "medieval mythical land of plenty, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist." Cockaigne is also the name of a family estate of Irma Rombauer designed by her architect husband, John Becker. Recipes in the Joy of Cooking that are designated with a "Cockaigne" ending are a family favorite of the Beckers!

    And this Chocolate Chip cookie deserves to be a family favorite. Since I am grinding my own flour now, I needed an adaptation of this cookie that would work with only whole grains. I also threw in a little coconut flour for the extra sweetness and fiber.

    This is a double recipe  I included volume and weights on the flour for those of you who weigh your flour for baking.  I always like to freeze half of this for "cookies on demand".

    • 2 cups White Whole Wheat Flour (10 oz.)
    • 2/3 c. finely milled Oat Flour (4 oz.)
    • 1 c. coarsely milled Oat Flour (5 oz.)
    • 1/2 c. Coconut Flour (4 oz.)
    • 2 1/2 tsp. Baking Soda
    • 1 1/2 tsp. Baking Powder
    • 1 tsp. Salt
    • 1 pound butter (soft)
    • 1 1/2 c. sugar
    • 1 1/3 c. brown sugar
    • 2 large eggs (room temp)
    • 1/2 c. milk
    • 5 tsp. vanilla
    • 1-2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (depending on your preference)
    • 6 oz. milk chocolate grated or chopped

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
    2. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together Wheat flour, Coconut flour, finely-milled Oat flour (retain the coarsely milled), Baking soda, Baking powder, and salt until evenly distributed.
    3. In your electric mixer bowl (or a large bowl for hand mixing), beat butter with medium speed until it is creamy and light.  Add sugars and beat until fully combined.  Beat in eggs one at a time; scraping the bowl in between.  Beat in milk and vanilla.
    4. Stir in the flour mixture gradually until everything is well blended.
    5. Stir in the coarsely milled oat flour, chocolate chips, and grated milk chocolate until evenly distributed.
    6. Prepare your baking sheet by greasing, laying parchment paper, or a silicone baking sheet
    7. Use a small disher or your hands to drop 1.5" balls of dough about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.
    8. Using two fingers, slightly flatten out each ball of dough.
    9. Bake for 8-12 minutes until lightly browned.
    10. Cool and Enjoy!

    You never know when you are going to NEED a chocolate chip cookie.  I take about half the dough and form it into a log.  I then roll up the log in parchment paper and twist the ends like a giant tootsie roll and put it in the freezer.  When you want to make cookies, just use a steak knife to slice off about 1/2" discs and cook at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

    Let me know if you try this one out! What are your FAVORITE Joy of Cooking Recipes?

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    The Garden My Husband Built

    I often come up with lots of great ideas that create a good deal of work for my husband. Over these 16 years of togetherness, we seem to fall into these roles as a couple. I come up with some crazy plan and he makes it happen.

    After a successful summer with a container herb garden on my deck, I thought we definitely needed a garden. The problem was, I am a very inconsistent "maintainer" (is that a word). I tend to have a ton of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project and then fizzle out as I get bored or discouraged. So, if this garden was going to work, it had to be pretty self-sustaining.

    After a lot of research (thanks, Internet!) I decided we would need a raised bed garden with a drip irrigation system on a timer. Following much of the advice in Mel Bartholomew's book, Square Foot Gardening, we found a sunny spot in the yard and made a plan.

    Cedar really would have been the best option for the beds, but it was out of our price range. We didn't want to use plain lumber because of the toxins it would leak into the ground. Although it is less than ideal, we settled on painted lumber (I LOVE the paint color - husband? not so much).

    We put river rocks around the beds to keep weeds down and some flagstone for a walkway through the garden area. We put chicken wire underneath each of the beds to try to keep out digging varmits from beneath.

    The drip irrigation on a timer has really been a life saver. If I go on vacation, the garden still gets watered. If I forget, the garden still gets watered. This is the number one thing that has turned my black thumb at least military green.

    So, after two years of gardening, we have had some great successes (such as an abundant strawberry harvest, beautiful herbs, and lots of broccoli) and we have had many failures (2 years of failed eggplant, spinach destroyed by aphids, and deer eating all our tomato plants). But each year we learn a great deal. It brings me so much joy to tend to the plants with my children and to "pick" our dinner at night.

    The Garden My Husband Built is a Finer Thing

    This post is a contribution to Finer Things Friday at Amy's The Finer Things in Life.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    ReCre8 Old T-Shirts


    I have WAY too many T-Shirts. I rarely wear them, but I love the memories of special events and times in my life that the T-shirts represent. Being the beginning of the New Year, it is time to clean out some of these unused items from my closet. Rather than just trashing them, here are a bunch of projects to ReCre8 these t-shirts.

    1. T-Shirts as Rags. (Instructions: Just cut them up - any shape or size)
    2. T-Shirt Handkerchiefs/Wipes (Instructions)
    3. T-Shirts as Reusable Napkins. (Instructions)
    4. T-Shirt Pillowcase: (Instructions)
    5. The T-Shirt Quilt. (Instructions)
    6. T-Shit Laundry Bag/Tote Bag (Instructions)
    7. T-Shirt Memory Scarf (Instructions)
    I plan to try several of these. What about you? Do you have any ideas to add?