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!

02 Oct

Green tomatoes….red, not fried

Posted in Urban Farming / Gardening on 02.10.11 by Octopi

Hi Mess Hallers!  Hope you are enjoying some lovely fall weather!  The brief little diddy that follows is suggestion for making any green tomatoes you may have still clinging to the vine a lovely shade of red.  Enjoy and let me know if it works for you too!

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10 Apr

Sunstealer: Gardeners without a Garden

Posted in Urban Farming / Gardening on 10.04.11 by Octopi

Like all of you, A and I were PSYCHED to get outside today and enjoy the beautiful weather.  We’ve been talking for months about how we were going to do up our garden.  It was a Man (or woman) with a Plan, but as the saying goes about best-laid plans….

We made our spring dash to Home Depot for some gardening items and headed home.  As we open the gate to the side of our building where our above-ground garden is we see this…

Posts.  Posts that weren’t there before in our neighbors yard.  “Hmmm, posts.”  We realized that our neighbor was putting up a fence.  A fence that looks like this…

As all of this comes together in my head and I realize the full ramifications….our neighbor has stolen the sun.  We were SO proud that we figured out a way to garden in that little, narrow space last summer.  But we need the sun and his new fence will COMPLETELY block the sun from our garden space.  In those few seconds our neighbor pulled the rug out from underneath us. 

So here’s the rub.  He’s totally within rights to do this.  It’s his property, he pulled a permit to complete the work.  But it is by far the most un-neighborly thing I’ve experienced.  His property is already secured by fencing, yet he puts up more.  You’d have to know the history this neighbor has had with previous people who lived in this building to fully appreciate what’s going on here, but he apparently holds a grudge against the property itself and any new people who come in.  Who could hate a garden?  This guy. The Sunstealer.

So, lessons.

Lesson #1.  If you are looking for ways to make two women incredibly sad and upset on a beautiful spring day, this would be one.  The time and energy that went into figuring out how to build an above-ground garden seems all for nought. 

Lesson #2.  You can’t control everything.  And that sucks.  

Lesson #3.  Try to overcome.  Once A and I get past our :>( feelings, we’ll probably try to figure something out.  Just not sure what that is.  Perhaps we’ll try to find another place to use them or just give them away on Craigslist.   Right now I’m wondering how likely one of our other neighbors in the hood would be to share some of their garden space or if we can do something in the parkway (the space between the street and the sidewalk in the front of our building).  Or maybe there is a community garden nearby.  Whatever we do, we’ll keep you posted.  And if you have any suggestions for us, please let us know. 

 In the meantime, I’m gonna go pour one on the curb for our little garden.

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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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17 Aug

The “E” in F..FEVER: Efficiency = Square Foot Gardening

Posted in Growin' F...FEVER, Urban Farming / Gardening on 17.08.10 by Octopi

So you’ve got the Growin’ F…FEVER?!  Let’s focus on the “E” in F…FEVER, or one of them.  E fficient Use of Space.  Some of you may have a big yard to accommodate an equally large garden (my family did when I was growing up, which my bro and I had the, um, honor?, of weeding all summer). City livin’ can present some challenges though. We don’t have a yard. We’ve got a string of concrete on either side of our building and parking in the back. So what’s a girl to do?

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is one approach to gardening that seeks to maximize the efficiency of your gardening space.   It’s been around for a while but it’s new to us so we thought we’d give it a whirl.  SFG was popularized by a guy named Mel Bartholomew back in the early 1980s.  Mel generally promotes SFG as an alternative to “row” gardening, reducing the amount of space required so you only use 20% of the space you’d need for a regular garden. 

SFG overview:

  • Uses a strategically sized area (4′ X 4′ squares at the largest), which is broken down into 1 foot squares.  In our case, we were working with a narrow area along the building, so we built two 2′ X 4′ above-ground gardens.
  • Each veggie has its own efficiency ratio, if you will.  That is, the number of plants that can most efficiently go in one square.  Tomato plant is one per square, spinach is nine per square, etc.
  • There is a specific combination of mix to use for planting.  The rich mixture (vermiculite, compost, and peat moss) reduces the amount of depth you need for your garden.  In our case, we were able to create an above-ground garden that sits on top of our concrete sidewalk, but only 6 inches deep of mix is needed to have healthy, growing plants.  I was pleasantly surprised by this.  I though there was no way a big ol’ tomato plant was going to grow in 6″ (OK, maybe 5″ for us) of mix.  But it did.  It’s also lighter than straight soil, which helps if you are creating above-ground gardens.  Dirt is heavy, man. We got a work-out just with the mix.
  • Oh yeah, and there’s very little weeding.  Except for a couple trees that started trying to make a home in the garden, we haven’t had to weed.

I’m sure Mel B wouldn’t want us to give up all the secrets to his method, so you can consult his book and website for details.  Go ahead and assess your space situation now, which will help prep for next year’s garden!  If you are ambitious or bored, you could even create your space this fall.  Then all you need to do is drop in your mix and plants in the spring.

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13 Aug

You say toe-MAY-toe, I say toe-MAH-toe

Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 13.08.10 by Octopi

image from the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA)

Image from the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA)

Tomatoes:  mmm, mmm good! Especially home-grown!  But, honestly, I’ve never taken the time to really give the T in BLT some TLC.  So, talk to me Tomato.  Tell me a story.

Once upon a time there were some Tomato Gangs.  The Determinates and the Indeterminates.  The Determinates are kind of a short and bushy bunch, typically fruiting from the top of the vine and producing fruit in a short period of time (two weeks or so) before dying off.  The Indeterminates are a lanky, tall viney bunch.  They’ve got complex personalities and could be blooming, growing fruit, and ripening all at the same time (and all through the season). 

Big Boy was an Indeterminate.  He and his cousin Beefmaster were out one night and got entangled with a group of Determinates in a showdown of garden knowledge on the sidewalk.  Beefmaster dealt a high sucker (pruning) to the  Determinate gang’s leader, Roma, to get away. Determinates HATE to get suckered (pruned) above the first flower cluster, and Beefmaster’s suckering reduced Roma’s fruiting potential later in the season.  Needless to say, all hell broke loose and a raucous fight ensued; tomato juice and seeds flying everywhere.  Some old Heirloom Tomatoes, old Brandywine and Persimmon, finally stepped in and broke up the fight, but tensions were running high in the Veggie Garden after that Monday night mayhem.

In the meantime, Roma’s sister, Celebrity, was working with his fiance in a garden supply store.  One night at a neighborhood dance Celebrity and Big Boy meet each other, and it’s love at first sight.  They lock stems, but Roma is furious that Celebrity has the hots for an Indeterminate and declares a Food Fight.  It’s all set up for Roma to fight Beefmaster (cuz Big Boy’s officially not a gang member anymore).  Celebrity freaks out and asks Big Boy to get the Food Fight cancelled before somebody seriously gets hurt.

Big Boy shows up to the big showdown (secretly planned back by the pea plants) and tries to stop the fight.  Roma taunts Big Boy, calling him a Vegetable.  Beefmaster gets furious while defending his cousin, shouting “He’s no Vegetable, he’s a FRUIT!” and pulls his paring knife.  Roma pulls his too and they start circling each other like tomatoes in a homemade spaghetti sauce.  Big Boy tries to hold Beefmaster back from killing his beloved’s brother, but Roma takes Beefmaster’s vulnerable moment and deals a deathly blow straight into his locular cavity (where the seeds of the tomato are found).  Big Boy is enraged, grabs Beefmaster’s paring knife and slashes Roma across the petiole (where his leaves and branches connect), killing him too.  Both Gangs go crazy and before all is done, the streets are running red with, well, tomato juice.

In the meantime, Celebrity has no idea that any of this is going down.  Roma’s best friend, Rutgers, arrives to deliver the terrible news that her bro is dead.  Big Boy arrives later, and at first Celebrity is beyond the moon furious.  But their love is still strong and they make plans to run away to escape the Veggie Garden and move to a Container Garden far far away (though as a Determinate, Celebrity will handle container living better than Big Boy). 

However, Rutgers is still enraged that his bud Roma has gone to the Veggie Patch in the Sky and decides to hunt Big Boy down with his garden clippers in revenge.  At the same time, rumors get out that Rutgers has clipped Celebrity at the stem, but it’s not true.  Big Boy doesn’t know that, thinks his true love is gone, and seeks Rutgers out so he can get clipped too.  He finds Rutgers and then sees Celebrity coming down the vegetable patch.  But it’s too late.  Rutgers draws his clippers and fatally cuts Big Boy at his main stem.  Celebrity sees it all happen and can do nothing about it.  Both Gangs see her grief and come together to make amends, finally, though too late for Big Boy and Roma.

Additional Info:

Pruning Tomatoes

Parts of a Tomato Plant

Heirloom Tomatoes

Types of Tomatoes

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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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