No Grapes? No Problem!

When you think of wine, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Did you say grapes? Well, of course you did. After all, that’s what wine is made from, right? Well, you’re partially right. Those who make wine have traditionally made it from grapes. But not all wine comes from grapes. In truth, wine can be made from just about any kind of fruit, vegetable, or herb you can imagine. Growing grapes is a luxury that not everyone can afford. And purchasing expensive wines made from the finest grapes grown in France or California is outside many of our budgets. So if those of us on the bottom half of the wealth scale want wine, we have to get creative and make it out of whatever is growing in our gardens, orchards, or lawns.

In her wonderful book, Drink the Harvest, authors Nan K. Chase and DeNeice C. Guest, further clarify this concept.

With its origins lost in the furthest reaches of time, winemaking has always tapped into local plant life. People have made wine from bountiful harvests of dates, rice, palm, bananas, yucca, potatoes, plums, pomegranates, and other staple crops. Gardeners and cooks can use what they grow to make the leap into fermented beverage production, turning their harvest into fresh new wines that will age beautifully in the pantry.

So how about it, fellow gardeners? If you’ve ever thought about making your own wine, but can’t afford to purchase or grow grapes, then why not try to make wine from what’s growing in your very own garden? How about a tomato wine? Why not a carrot wine? Maybe even a pumpkin wine? You’ve got a bumper crop out in your yard or in your kitchen. You’ve eaten fresh as much as you can eat, and you’ve given away as much as you can give. If you don’t do something with what you have left, it will rot and go to waste. So why not try turning it into wine? As the old commercial used to say, try it; you’ll like it!


You Gotta Get Dirty!

Several years ago, my young niece and I were helping my father with my parents’ vegetable garden. On more than one occasion, my niece kept asking, “Grandpa, will you wash my hands?” Now traditionally, the washing of hands is performed after the work is finished. But it soon became obvious that my niece did not like dirt clinging to her hands for any length of time. She wanted to help in the garden, but did not like getting dirty.

With apologies to my niece, it just doesn’t work that way. Being a gardener is a lot like being a gossip columnist, because both have to wallow in the dirt if they want to do their job. To be a successful gossip columnist he or she must wallow in figurative dirt – lies, smut, scuttlebutt, innuendo, etc. To be a successful gardener you must wallow in the real thing, although I prefer the word soil. There are no two ways about it. Gardening gets you dirty – and sweaty. If you want to grow vegetables, flowers, or mushrooms, at some point in the process, you are going to have to sink your hands into the soil, and some of that soil is going to stick to your hands. To be sure, you can wear gardening gloves, but they will not completely keep your hands completely dirt-free. Not only that, but your clothes and shoes are also going to get dirty. And you’re going to sweat with a capital S! We’re not talking wisps of perspiration here. We’re talking great drops of moisture dripping off of your forehead and careening off of your nose!

If you’re willing to accept dirt, sweat, and stink, then welcome to the club! It’s plain to see that you like fresh air and sunshine, and the thought of remnants of Mother Earth sticking to your hands and clothes does not deter you from your desire to grow bumper crops of delicious, wholesome, fresh vegetables or beautiful flowers. On the other hand, if the merest thought of a speck of soil contaminating your digits makes you scream with horror, then may I suggest that you try another hobby? Perhaps stamp collecting is more your speed.

The Mushrooms You Set Will Depend On What You Can Get

Previously, I wrote about mushrooms and how some species can be particular on what media they will grow. So whether or not you can attempt to grow a particular mushroom species will depend on what is available to you that you can turn into a mushroom growth media.

Do you know an arborist who can acquire freshly cut logs for you? Then you can use those logs to grow shiitake mushrooms. But if you want to grow maitake (a.k.a. hen-of-the-woods) mushrooms, then those logs will have to be oak.

Are you able to get your hands on sterilized sawdust? Or maybe that same arborist can provide you with sawdust that you can sterilize yourself? Then you might be able to grow morels – although morels can be tricky to grow, as they require a flooding, a freezing, and a sclerotia stage, which is necessary to form the compact mycelium.

Is there a bakery in your town that would be willing to let you haul away their food waste? Then you can grow oyster or shiitake mushrooms

Do you have access to wood chips or other hardwood debris? Then you can grow king stropharia mushrooms. In fact, as long as you keep feeding that wood debris, those mushrooms will continue to grow year after year.

In my August 1st blog post, I said that it doesn’t matter what you’ve been given, it’s what you do with it. With mushrooms, however, it’s just the opposite. To be sure, you can grow mushrooms on just about anything. But if you want to grow a specific species of mushroom, whether or not you can grow it will depend on whether or not you can acquire the right kind of growing media. So choose your media and choose your mushrooms.

It’s What You Do With What You’ve Got

It’s not just what you’re given
But what you do with what you’ve got

            -Si Kahn

Many of us labor under the false notion that in order to grow a successful vegetable garden, we must have a large backyard – or even a large front yard. Those who don’t possess one many times often believe that they cannot grow any kind of garden. Well, I’m here to tell you that that is not so. One can grow a garden anywhere as long as one has access to a growing medium (soil, potting mixes, hydroponic chemicals, etc.), water, and light.

Have you been given (or purchased) a home with a small backyard? If so, you can build a raised bed or two, fill it with a commercially bagged potting mix (or mix one up yourself), and grow your vegetables there. If you use techniques such as square foot gardening, vertical gardening, succession planting, etc. you can maximize the yield you get out of that raised bed. You may even get a larger yield than your arrogant brother-in-law with his big backyard!

Do you have a deck, balcony, or patio? You can purchase containers, fill them with growing media, and grow your vegetables there. I once saw a video of someone who was growing a variety of vegetables and herbs in planters, bottles hung upside down, etc. on the balcony of his downtown Manhattan apartment. And I, myself, grow vegetables in grow bags and self-watering planters on the patio of my townhouse.

Do you have an outside wall that isn’t doing anything? You can set up hanging wall planters and grow your vegetables there. And how about your roof? You may even be able to grow something there. And as a last resort, you might even be able to use Other People’s Space (OPS). Perhaps you may have a friend or family member with a large backyard who might be willing to let you set up a garden on part of it. Sound farfetched? Well, I, myself, make use of OPS. My friend and musical partner Jean and her husband Dan have let me grow a garden in their backyard for years. So it can be done. The whole point is that, like in the words of Si Kahn’s wonderful song, it’s not what you’ve been given in terms of space that determines whether or not you can grow a garden and how successful it can be. It’s what you do with that space you’ve got. With a little creativity, you can turn a brick wall into a bountiful source of fresh fruits and vegetables for you and your family.

Creating the Garden Of You

Every one of us is a unique individual with personality traits, desires, hopes, and dreams that are yours alone. We all wish to express our heart’s desires in our own unique way in everything we do – the clothes we wear, the way we style our hair, the car we drive, etc. And if you’re a gardener, you want to grow a garden that reflects your own personal style. You want to grow what you want the way you want it. So how do you make this happen?

Start by building your vision of your own unique garden. Ask yourself some questions to set the mood. What is your garden vision? Perhaps it’s to grow a food garden to provide vegetables and fruits for fresh eating. Or maybe it is to grow a garden of native plants to support native insects and animals. Or perchance you wish to plant an herb garden to provide plants for culinary or medicinal uses.

Next, determine how you are going to bring your garden vision to life. Do you have space in your own home territory (backyard, front yard, patio, or deck)? Perhaps a friend or relative would be willing to let you “sharecrop” a portion of their backyard and let you garden there. I like to call this OPS (Other People’s Space)

Will your vision fit your constraints (e.g. space, finances, time)? If not, can you move beyond these constraints? If you work a part time job that interferes with you taking care of a garden, then maybe you can adjust your working hours so you can devote more time to that garden? If there are trees, shrubs, or other plants in your yard that limit your space, can you remove them to make room for your garden?

Are you fully aware of the effort needed to bring this vision to life, and are you prepared to put in that effort? Remember, gardening will require some labor on your part. If the thought of getting sore, dirty, and sweaty makes you blanch, then gardening isn’t for you.

Now it’s time to firm up that vision. Write it down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Some examples:

  • “I want to create a garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the community.”
  • “My vision is that of a garden that will provide a peaceful sanctuary where I can relax and unwind from everyday stress.”
  • “I desire to plant a garden of poisonous plants that kill people when eaten or touched.” (Think I’m making this up? Check out The Poison Garden at The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, UK) —

After you’ve firmed up the vision, you will want to plan it out. You can either draw a rough sketch on paper or, if you’re the anal type like me, you can draw it to scale on graph paper.

Once you have it all planned out, you can then begin executing the plan. Measure and stake out the site, dig up any existing grass, prepare your soil, plant your seeds or transplants, and ta da! Your garden vision has come to life!

And that’s all there is to it. Build it, ink it, plan it, and execute it.

So what’s your garden vision?

Where Do We Find The Motivation?

I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big one

  • From the song “Home Grown Tomatoes” by Guy Clark

Gardening is hard work. Turning over the soil, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, taking it all apart in the fall – all of this labor has the potential to make your body sweat and your muscles ache. So why do we do it? Where do we find the motivation? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but here’s what motivates me.

I am motivated by being out in the fresh air and sunshine and getting some exercise that doesn’t require me to pay exorbitant health club fees. I am motivated by the awe and wonder of putting a tiny seed into the ground and watching it grow into a beautiful plant that delights the eye and provides foliage and fruit that nourishes the body. I am motivated by knowing that I’ll be eating produce that hasn’t been contaminated by harmful chemicals or fresh animal manure (e.g. poop on tap) from a nearby animal farm. I am motivated by seeing the delight in a fellow gardener’s eyes when I share some gardening wisdom that helps him or her to grow more and better vegetables.

But most of all, I’m motivated by knowing that all of that labor will soon result in fruits and vegetables that are sweet, crunchy, fresh, flavorful, and nutrient-rich in ways that store-purchased fruits and vegetables can only dream about.

How about you? What’s your motivation for gardening?

It Doesn’t Have To Be Elaborate

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Henry David Thoreau learned from his time living in a cabin near Walden Pond the value of living an uncomplicated life. We dwellers in the twenty-first century can learn a lot from these wise words from Mr. Thoreau.

It’s also a lesson that is worthwhile to us gardeners as well. A huge backyard garden teaming with ten varieties of tomatoes, a plethora of beans, ten other kinds of vegetables and herbs, and an entrance framed by a trellis overgrown with roses is a beautiful sight to behold. But many of us don’t have the space to plant such a garden, nor the time to take care of it.

Gardens do not exist only in large spaces and they do not all team with twelve different kinds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It is possible to simplify our vegetable gardens. You can grow a small raised bed just off your patio and fill it with lettuce, a few pepper plants, and a cucumber on a trellis. This is a garden. A few tomato plants in containers on your patio – this is also a garden. Some greens in bottles on the balcony of an apartment in the city? This too is a garden. Some tomatillos in a small raised bed? This is a garden; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. At a motel I once stayed, out in the back, I saw some used tires filled with soil which had vegetables plants growing in them. Yes, this is indeed a garden. So if you desire to have a garden, but think that the lack of a big back yard is hindering you, take heart. You don’t need a big backyard. You can grow a garden almost anywhere. Do what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Take a lesson from Henry David Thoreau and simplify, simplify, simplify. Even better, take a lesson from Ralph Waldo Emmerson, who told Thoreau that one simplify would have sufficed.

From Black to Green

Whenever I talk to people and mention that I’m a gardener and a garden coach, I often hear, “Oh I wish I could grow a garden, but I kill every plant I touch. I have a black thumb.” Well, that may be true today, but I’m here to tell you that a black thumb is not a permanent condition with no cure. It is possible to turn a nighttime thumb into a greentime thumb.

Well, for starters, have you considered that maybe you’ve been going about it the wrong way? Perhaps you’ve been growing the wrong kind of plants for your particular garden. For example, do your tomatoes always succumb to diseases like verticillium wilt or late blight? Then perhaps instead of growing an open-pollinated cultivar of tomato, you should instead grow a hybrid tomato that has been bred to resist those diseases. Or maybe you should grow something other than tomatoes which is not susceptible to any of those aforementioned diseases.

Have you been trying to start seeds in your house using soil from your garden and placing the pots, seed starters, or whatever you use near a sunny window? Bzzzzzz! Wrong techniques! Seeds should never be started in soil from your garden, because garden soil can be hard, blocky, and full of weed seeds and disease organisms that can kill developing seedlings. Start your seeds in a good starter mix instead. Oh yes, and that sunny window? Not sunny enough. The glass will absorb ninety percent of the sun’s foot-candle power leaving you with only ten percent of the light energy that the plant needs to grow. And seedlings that receive insufficient light will grow thin, weak, and leggy, and be less able to withstand outside conditions when transplanted into your garden. Instead, grow your seedlings under a good grow light. Keep the light close to the seedlings when they are small, and move it up as they get bigger. This will give you strong and stocky plants that withstand outside conditions and grow vigorously and productively.

There are many ways to go wrong when attempting to grow a garden, but there is a solution to every problem. Your thumb does not have to stay black forever. With a little detective work, a little research, and a willingness to try new things, even the blackest thumb can be turned to the brightest green. And if you find that you need the help of a coach to solve your garden woes, I know just the person – hint, hint!

The Coagulation Situation

The process of making cheese is quite simple. Take some milk, separate the solid portion from the liquid portion, compress then age the solids, and ta-da! You have cheese.

But now comes the tricky part. Just how do we separate out those milk solids? The answer – use a coagulation agent.

A coagulation agent is any substance that, when added to milk, causes the calcium to unite with the casein (milk protein) to create calcium caseinate, an insoluble solid, better known as curd. The curd is then separated from the liquid portion of the milk, better known as whey. The curd is then compressed and aged to create the wonderful food we know as cheese.

But what kinds of substances exist that coagulates milk in this manner. There are several.

Bacteria – will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and expel it back into the milk. This lowers the pH of the milk (makes it more acidic) and creates the right conditions for the calcium to unite with the casein.

Acid –Instead of waiting for the bacteria to create acid, you could instead add some of your own. Acids used to coagulate milk include citric, acetic, and tartaric.

Rennet – the most common coagulation substance used to make cheese. Rennet is a combination of enzymes – pepsin, lipase, and chymosin, the latter being the key component. Rennet comes from the stomachs of ruminant animals – usually slaughtered cows.

Other substances – several different substances have milk-coagulating abilities. These include vegetable rennets (derived from the Rhizomucor miehei mold), thistle (first used by the Romans), and chymosin (the main component of rennet created by laboratory fermentation)

Various combinations of the above – for some cheeses, you have to first add the bacteria and give it time to lower the pH of the milk. This will prepare the milk for coagulation and multiply the coagulation effects of rennet or other coagulation substances. However you do it, if you want the affectation of coagulation, you will need to use one or more of the above if you want to make cheese.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

“You’ve got to start from scratch, work your way on up
Every old hound dog once was a pup”

            – from the song “One Step At a Time”, written by Hugh Ashley and sung by Brenda Lee

So you’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to plant a garden. Congratulations! Gardening is a wonderful pastime that yields incredible rewards to those who undertake it. Fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and, of course, fresh, flavorful, mouth-watering fruits and vegetables.

“I’m excited,” you say. “I’m going to tear up my entire backyard and turn it into a fresh fruit and vegetable-lovers paradise!” Slow down, tiger. You’re trying to do too much too soon. And don’t you dare utter that stupid phrase “go big or go home.” First of all, you’re already home. Second, odds are excellent that if you try to do too much too soon, you’re going to end up losing a lot of money with nothing but a backyard full of dirt and weeds to show for it. Go big or go home? More like go big and go broke. Or go big and go down to defeat.

No. If you are completely new to gardening, you want to start slowly and aim for small victories. Start with a tomato plant in a container. A small 25 square foot backyard in-ground garden or raised bed where you plant some lettuce, some beans, and maybe a tomato plant or two. Something that’s easy to care for.

Your initial efforts may not be very successful. That’s quite all right. Did you successfully ride a bicycle on your first attempt? I imagine not. You probably fell off your first few times and gave yourself plenty of cuts and scrapes. But did you give up? Once again, I imagine not. You picked yourself up, got back on the bike and tried again. And again. And again. And then, one day, you got on the bike, and rode it like a motocross champion.

It’s the same way with gardening. Your initial efforts may not yield very much – perhaps a few beans and a tomato. But if you got something – anything at all, you can revel in this small success, and gain the confidence to try again. Perhaps the second time, you harvest more. And after several more attempts you wind up harvesting great bucketfuls of fruits and vegetables. And this success gives you a feeling of confidence that, yes, you can do this. And now you are ready to build on this success. So you double the size of your garden or add another raised bed. And now you’re smokin’! You’re hauling in great bushels of tomatoes, squash, beans, and anything else you’ve planted. You’re now a successful gardener who is the envy of all his or her neighbors!

This, my friends, is the way to become a successful gardener! Not go big or go home. Start small and grow big! Or, to once again quote Hugh Ashley and Brenda Lee…

“One sure way to get all you need
Is to start out slow and pick up speed
One step at a time, boy-oy
Just one step at a time.”