The Mess Hall

Rants and ramblings on all things edible, wearable, doable, or usable with a focus on Home and Health. Home is fun, easy on the wallet, and “gool” for the greatest game of tag ever (Life). Welcome to my home, the Mess Hall. Get in the Mess!

19 Mar

Mo’ Grow! Garden time.

Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 19.03.11 by Octopi

Yo yo peeps! It’s that time of year!  Whether you’ve never grown food before or are looking to tweak your growing plan for the season, now’s the time to be thinking about it.  I was at the Family Farmed Expo yesterday and got totally psyched to grow some stuff. 

Why grow?  Because it’s fun, you learn cool stuff when you do something you haven’t done before, it’s satisfying to eat something YOU grew, it tastes better than store-bought stuff, and it’s economical once you have the hardware in place (the physical garden space created is more of a one-time capital expense – the annual upkeep isn’t all that much).

I attended some workshops led by some inspiring folks and thought I’d share some thoughts with you for the “Plan” mode of your gardening scheme.  Consider these in conjunction with some stuff posted on The Mess Hall last year.

1) Why Grow – what’s your goal?  Is just to see a seed turn into something big?  Is it to create a fun experience for some family/friend quality time?  Are you trying to maximize the amount of food you get out of your gardening space?  Are you an heirloom nerd?  Think through what you REALLY want to get out of the experience.  I’ll share my goals: 

  • Have fun!  A and I had a blast last year watching our peas grow, bitching about the broccoli plants, and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
  • Try something new.  While the broccoli was a pain in our asses, I had never grown broccoli before and was eager to see what it looked like through the stages. I have a greater appreciation for what I see in the grocery store now.  This year I want to create some self-watering containers because it sounds like something busy girls would appreciate.  I mean, who has time to do ALL that watering?!  So keep your eyes peeled (what a gross expression) for a how-to post on making self-watering containers!  Also, we’re going to try carrots this year too.  Stay tuned!
  • Get more food out of the space and harvest it at the right time.  We let the arugula grow too long last year, didn’t start early enough to maximize the already short season, etc.  Trying to improve on some of that.


2) Where to Grow: hola urban gardeners.  I feel your pain. I really do.  But there’s GOTTA be a way to grow.  Even if you’ve got a shit-ton of space, why do more work than is necessary?  I’m still an advocate of square foot gardening to use the smallest space in maximum efficiency.  Also, remembering the hours of weeding our row garden growing up, I’m all about options that cut down on weeding.  The University of Illinois-Extension Hort Center has some great ideas for home gardening, including space considerations and plant selection / garden planning ideas.  Here are some basic considerations.

  • Sun: do you have any places with at least 6-8 hours of sunlight?  That’s your sweet spot.
  • Soil prep: at minimum, you need aerated soil, compost, and organic granulated fertilizer.  In keeping with square foot gardening, we used a combination of peat, compost, and vermiculite.  The vermiculite helps with aeration and keeping the mix lighter.  You’ll want to consider weight if you’re growing on your roof or other elevated area.  If you’re planning to shove seeds straight into your backyard, make sure your soil doesn’t have any nasty things like lead or arsenic in it.  If you live in the city, that may well be the case.  You can send in a sample of soil to UMASS – Amherst and get your soil tested for pH, heavy metals, etc. for only $10 or so.  Also, leefy plants will be more likely to suck up nasty stuff like lead than fruiting plants.
  • Paths: if your garden is large enough and at grade, consider paths through your garden space so you can easily get to plants (within arm’s reach).  Consider wood chips, etc.  This is also something to consider if you are creating a garden that is part of a greater ornamental scheme.  Don’t go hide your garden.  Make it accessible, embrace it and show it off to others!
  • Irrigation: Got hose?  If not, how much are you willing/able to haul from your bathtub (which we do for our porch plants).  You may want to create an irrigation system for at-grade gardens or self-watering containers.  Also consider a rain barrel to collect water for your garden.  For example, if you’ve got sun on the side of your garage, throw a barrel there and collect the water from the roof of your garage. 
  • Protect your assets:  Got critters?  Squirrels and bunnies can be pretty ruthless.  Consider how to protect your plants so the critters don’t benefit from your bounty before you do.  Chicken wire can do the trick to keep the bun buns out, but you may have to consider other ways as well.  One guy at the expo mentioned that you can just get dog hair from the local vet clinic and sprinkle it around the perimeter of your stuff.  Who knew?  If anybody tries that out, let me know. 
  • What defines a gardener or a garden?  There was a guy on the small-space gardening panel discussion whose name I didn’t catch, but had a great point.  What’s a gardener?  Do you have to plant, maintain, AND harvest in your own space?  If you don’t have space, perhaps your neighbor does and you can offer to help plant and maintain a garden for use of their space in exchange and share the bounty.  Also, what’s a garden?  Do you have to have it at home?  Perhaps your work location has some space that you (and your colleagues) could jump on for a gardening project.  Or perhaps there’s a nearby community garden to share space in.  This guy helped organize the creation of a community above-ground garden in a freakin empty asphalt parking lot.  Lesson learned: be creative and rallying as a group can be very rewarding!


3) What to Grow: I know, it’s a bit overwhelming.  I suggest cheating.  No, really.  Just use the experience of others.  For example,

  • Did you have any nearby friends or family that grew anything last year?  What worked really well for them?  What was a fail?  Then ask key questions:  What did they plant in, when did they plant, did they plant seed or did they plant seedlings (already started somewhere else).  What kind of soil did they plant in and when were they able to start harvesting?
  • What are some of your favorite things to eat?  Pick one or two things and google up or read up on the back of seed packets, etc.
  • What are the experts doing?  Some CSAs have pretty good lists of what you’d get out of your share.  For example, Tomato Mountain has a listing by month of what you’d typically see.  So take a look at what a local CSA is doing – if you see that you’d be getting lettuce pretty much every month of the season from them, it’s a good bet you can grow something similar at home.  The Local Beet co-produces a guidebook of Chicago-area CSAs with links to websites.  Check it out! 
  • Sometimes it helps to work backwards: be realistic about what you CAN’T grow.  Not to be all glass-half-empty and stuff, but we’re not growing fruit trees on our porch.  Nor will we be growing space hogs like pumpkins, squash, and broccoli (lesson learned).  Know the amount of sun you’re going to be working with, how deep of soil/mix you’re using, etc.  And, realistically, how often you’ll be watering.  If you think you’ll miss a day here or there, pick some heartier varieties and consider self-watering containers.


That should be enough to get the brainstorming going.  Keep on keepin on!

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19 Aug

The “R” in F..FEVER: Repeat Crops

Posted in Urban Farming / Gardening on 19.08.10 by Octopi

So the letter of the day is “R”, and if Cookie Monster was singing a song about it he’d be singing about the Repeat crop of spinach on our porch.

We got going a little late in the season growing our plants from seed, but we still harvested our first batch of spinach a while ago. A number of weeks ago I took a spin by our neighborhood garden store and picked up a last packet of spinach seeds in hopes that we can squeeze out one more crop this year.  Luckily they still had seeds this late in the season, Home Depot didn’t. 

Survey says: looks like it’s working!! The image is from when we first planted, but now we have one more fresh salad. And it’s fun to watch grow on the porch! Spinach or leaf lettuce is perfect for container gardens because of their fast growth and shallow root systems.  There are different varieties of spinach though, so check the back of the seed packet and choose one that has one of the shortest growing periods.  We’ve got Bloomsdale Spinach that is ready in 39-60 days.

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07 Aug

We built a farm….or a small urban forest

Posted in Urban Farming / Gardening on 07.08.10 by Octopi

We posted a pic back in May post-construction of our garden beds we made for the side of our building.  After lovingly starting plants from seed in our kitchen (they LOVED hanging out under the kitchen table ’til it came time to plant”), we dropped them into the garden and watched. And waited. And watered. And waited. And watered some more.  And then the plants started to grow. A LOT.  Hence the new image. 

Have we had fun with it? Hell yeah.  Did we learn anything? Hell yeah.  And we’re going to tell you.

First of all, you’ve gotta figure out WHERE you can grow stuff (we’ll be posting some details on how to construct above-ground beds soon). 

Then figure out WHAT you wanna grown in the space you have.  Here are some of our pointers for choosing plants if you’ve got the Growin F…FEVER!

  • F is for Flavor and Fun: Which veggies taste better from home?  Everybody’s gonna say tomatoes, right?  Because they ARE better home-grown.  Hands down, so much better Flavor. Pick some Fun plants.  Peas are fun. They grow so fast and they’re such happy little plants. Bob Ross would approve.
  • Expensive to buy.  Herbs, arugula, etc.  If you pick it up at the grocery store only to set it back after you look at the price, that’s a good candidate to grow.  Arugula grows pretty fast too and it’s better if you eat it when it’s young or it gets “too” spicy.  We couldn’t believe how spicy the older plants were.  They were almost hotter than we are.
  • Vitamins.  Gotsta get your nutrients.  Pop-eye would approve of that spinach in your garden plot.
  • Efficient use of space.  That broccoli that we thought would be great to grow? Yeah, space suck.  I’d never planted broccoli before and didn’t know what too expect, but they’re kind of like tiny redwood trees.  They crowded the adjacent plants from the sun.  Poor little scallions. 
  • Repeat crops. Meaning, you can get one more crop in a season. If you start the spinach, arugula, etc. early you can probably plan on getting another cycle of seeds in there for some tasty fall salads.  

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