Friday, March 28, 2014

Gardening in the Dark: Surprisingly Not Impossible!

Last week, while I was out for a jog, I came across garage sale in my neighborhood where the majority of the things seemed to be seeing sunlight for the first time after a fifteen year imprisonment in the attic. Me, being the anachronistic sucker that I am, immediately jumped head-first into the pile of things and stumbled across a ridiculously awesome set of finely engraved clay flowerpots. When I questioned the owners as to why these pieces of art were being sold and not prominently featured in their yard, they informed me that they were moving into an apartment with no real sun access and couldn't afford to ship the pots safely if they weren't going to be able to grow food in them.
I realized at that moment that the concept of growing food in sun-deprived environments doesn't often occur to your average apartment dwelling gardener, and I’ll have you guys know that I was seriously presented with a heavy moral choice. These pots were absolutely beautiful, and the asking price was beyond reasonable. I could have easily kept my mouth shut and walked away with a wallet that was only slightly lighter and a set of flower pots that would be the envy of the neighborhood. I walked up to the counter with my money practically in my hand when I noticed that neither owner seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of selling the pots.
My conscious kicked in and I ended up informing them of the easiest things to grow in a mostly shaded environment; and we actually had a rather pleasant conversation on the different types of lettuce we enjoy and why.  It was disappointing for sure, I could have done wonderful things with those pots, but I knew it would be better for them if I dispensed of the belief that you need 10+ hours of sun a day to even bother gardening.
When I was younger I moved into fairly crummy apartment, and I was tired of spending all of my hard-earned paycheck on spinach. I’m being completely serious, my local markets had experienced a shortage and it was seriously getting to the point where I was going to have to choose between gas and spinach. In a fit of desperation, I started researching the plant, looking to see if I could convince my mother to grow it in her garden for me. Much to my surprise, I saw that spinach is just one of the expansive list of things you can grow in a mostly sun-less place.
So, without further ado, here are some tips for how to plant a garden in minimal sunlight:
  1. What do you have to work with?
    1. I had buildings on three sides of me with quite a bit of shade coverage on all windows. If you have similar issues, then you’re going to have to learn to maximize the amount of light that you have.
      1. If you don’t have windowsills, you can install shelves under the window, or use end-tables.
      2. If you have indirect sunlight - you’re in luck, there’s a wide array of plants that don’t require constant sunlight.
    2. The temperature outside when I started was just cooling down, and the leaves were just starting to turn.
      1. Different plants grow during different seasons. It may seem silly to say this as though you don’t know, but you would be amazed at the amount of people who tell me that they get discouraged because they can’t grow tomatoes indoors during winter!
      2. Temperature’s can be controlled using heating lights, in case you have the option or desire to grow things out of season!
    3. I drowned absolutely everything the first time I tried my hand at indoor gardening.
      1. Do your researches before you turn your mint into a mess. Look up exactly how much water your plants should get by size for indoor planting. It could mean the difference between having a successful indoor garden or having a desolate ghost-garden, populated only by the wails of the ghost celery.
      2. Water-logged plants are still save-able. Simply drain the pot of excess water and leave in a warm spot for a few days, re-pot if needed.
  2. What can I possibly grow?
    1. Indirect light of 6+ hours a day granted me access to the following list!
      1. Arugula.
      2. Asparagus (this is a “plant it and forget about it” vegetable, it can take a few years to get yield).
      3. Spinach!
      4. Broccoli.
      5. Strawberries.
      6. Lettuce.
      7. Thyme.
      8. Aloe… and more!
    2. No direct sunlight still afforded me a few more
      1. Mushrooms.
      2. Mint (I was actually wary to keep this plant in the house, with how invasive of a species it is, I was sort of worried that I would wake up to it trying to depose me as head of the household). But no worries, I’m still here!
        1. Smells good, too!
  3. How can I possibly keep up with this?
    1. As with regular gardening, indoor gardening is a very “plant as you need” concept. Don’t plant a dozen heads of lettuce if you don’t plan on eating a dozen heads of lettuce.
    2. Look up how to “force” certain plants to sprout faster in the shade, this makes it possible to have a yield that will be smaller, but get to maturity faster.
    3. Learn the timetable of your plants, and schedule accordingly. If done right you can have an almost non-stop supply of veggies, provided that you keep up on your calendar
    4. Chin up! This is gardening, not “Instant-Gratification-Veggie-Time”, it’s gonna take a while to get into gear.

My first indoor garden almost ended in tears, and I’m going to end this the same way I've ended most of my articles: do your own research before trying to grow anything. Research things specific to your area. And if you have cats or dogs, learn about which plants could be toxic to them, or could attract them to muck up your potted plants.
I didn't do my research beforehand on the difference between watering an outside plant and watering an inside one, and I actually killed my marjoram.
R.I.P.  Marjoram.

About the Author:

Damien Marty once tried to be a pioneer in domesticated Yellow Jackets; now he and his horrifically swollen face sit at home and write informative articles about food and science, other other fascinating topics. If you ever need a helping hand with a hard-to-remember factoid, or are interested in having him (terribly) sing at your doorstep, simply yell loudly out your window and he'll be there when he can.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pink Slime

Chances are that if you own a television and occasionally click through the news stations, you've heard this term thrown around in the last couple of years. If you’re extra astute you may have even seen the television special where the cocky chef “makes” pink slime in front of a bunch of horrified children. And if you’ve seen that then you are more than aware of the unfortunate reality that kids don’t care what food looks like before it looks like food.

Seriously, the next time you have a glimmer of faith in humanity go ahead and watch this video, and it should clear things right up. The look on Jamie Oliver’s face after he asks who would still eat a Chicken Nugget, and receives his soul-crushing answer, is priceless.  
Today I want to talk about FSOs, or Food Shaped Objects.  Now I don’t mean wax fruit, or those things that they include in Beef Jerky that are decidedly NOT seasoning packets. I’m referring to things that routinely feel the need to inform us that it is a “product” after what it supposedly is.
Cheese “product”.
Chicken “product”.
Beef “product” (I’m looking at you, Taco Bell).
I love reading these labels on food, because it’s generally the only indication that what you’re about to shove in your mouth was destroyed completely and then repurposed to mostly taste like what it originally was. The process behind the scenes is often an unpleasant one, but suffice it to say that calling a chicken nugget “Chicken” is basically the equivalent of saying that your skeleton is a “Human”.
Recently, a McDonald’s supply chain manager in Canada did a little “Video Tour” ad for the Super Bowl, showcasing exactly how Canada makes McNuggets. What is important here is the understanding that just because something isn’t coming out of the grinders looking like pink slime in Canada doesn’t mean that this is the same way things are being done everywhere. Processed meat is a disconcerting thing for more reasons than just the color or amount of bone it contains before being hammered into something food-shaped; processed meat has the potential to be anything that they toss in the machine.
Literally anything.
Bone, gristle, skin, white meat and dark meat and all the colors in between, fingernails, claws, beaks, teeth, and as was the case last year with Interstate Meat, people who work there.
Processed meat is a scary concept because we are sacrificing certainty, “If I eat this steak, I am eating from one cow and will be able to know if it makes me ill,” for convenience - “If I eat this hamburger, I am taking a “bite of a thousand cows”, and any number of them could have had bleeding cow-butt disease.” While you certainly have your “meal” on hand much sooner than it would take to go to the store, get a fine cut of meat, and prepare it yourself; you have also increased your risk of eating mystery meat.
I won’t try and throw numbers at you saying how Jack In the Box killed 4 kids back in the 90’s due to negligence, or how Federal Law doesn’t force slaughterhouses to check grinders for E-Coli; I won’t even end on some high note about how processed food is the Devil and fast-food should be stopped. If you want to eat a burger from your local fast-food joint, then who am I to say that you are wrong?
Just don’t call it “food”, and do your research before putting something in your children’s mouths that may make them very ill.

About the Author:

Damien Marty once tried to be a pioneer in domesticated Yellow Jackets; now he and his horrifically swollen face sit at home and write informative articles about food and science, other other fascinating topics. If you ever need a helping hand with a hard-to-remember factoid, or are interested in having him (terribly) sing at your doorstep, simply yell loudly out your window and he'll be there when he can.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Backyard Gardening: How I learned to stop worrying and start growing tomatoes!

We all know those woes of the grumbling stomach; the way our insides tighten and coil as we glare enviously at the television screen while it plays what must be the 102nd commercial of the hour involving food-stuffs flying through the air (and often times water to “bring out the shine”) in slow motion. How many times have we looked longingly at our backyards and thought to ourselves how much simpler life would be if we could grow a magical tree that dropped money instead of acorns, just so we would have enough spare cash to go and grab a bite to eat? 
The first time this train of thought hit me I immediately knew that something was amiss in my life. So conditioned was I to be nothing more than a consumer that I didn't even acknowledge the absurdity of the “Money Tree” for the more sinister overtones it presented; I had taken my fantasy of food and directly applied it to my wish for wealth, and in not being able to have said Money Tree I had immediately dismissed the shockingly simple (and logical) solution.
Say it with me: “You’re going to have an easier time growing (and eating) food than you are with money.” As obvious of a statement as that is, you would be amazed at the amount of people who go through their day-to-day lives with massive, beautiful backyards, who just pay unbelievable prices for “apples” that have been passed from hand to hand, state to state, and sat in cold storage for up to a year. When you take into consideration that the cost for starting (and maintaining) a garden is exponentially less than the cost of purchasing your veggies on an “as needed” basis then it seems like a mystery as to why every family doesn't have a garden!
At least, that’s what I say now after having done research on the subject. Suffice it to say if you go into your backyard with a garden hose, a shovel, and the results of a sporadic 3AM trip to the Online Seed Catalog, you may either have a terrible time because you’re not entirely sure what you are doing planting a garden at 3AM, or you may have a fantastic one because you are trying something new. Failure is powerful experience to have, and when you’re sitting on the edge of your roof looking down at what is essentially a mud-hole, it’s hard to not feel discouraged.

Dear Reader, allow me to share my gained knowledge with you.
  1. Super-Duper Basics:
    1. What are the legal ramifications of your plan?
      1. Every city, county, and state has different laws regarding what you can (and cannot) do with your property and the things you choose to grow/raise on it.
        1. If you don’t want to have your hard-work ripped out but you suddenly have seven chickens when your county has a “5 chickens only” rule you can apply for a special exception called a “Variance”, just check with your local county representatives.
    2. How many people are you realistically going to feed and for how long?
      1. Chances are that if you live in the United States you have 3.5 people in your immediate family (that .5 isn’t as tricky as it looks) in which case you’re going to want between 10-12 rows for a single season.
    3. Do you want to use the soil already present, or do you want to build your garden up with a raised bed?
      1. If your soil is crummy, or your state’s version of “soil” is rocks mixed with sand and broken dreams, then you may want to do a raised bed.
        1. No seriously, if you have toxic soil you will have a toxic yield. Your local City Hall should have the ways listed to get a free soil sample (which should be done regardless).
      2. If you have good soil as it is, then you may want to till it and save yourself some expense and time.
  1. Placement:
    1. You’re going to want to find a spot with consistent sun exposure, at least 6 hours a day.
      1. If you can manage 8-9 hours of direct sunlight you’re golden, Ponyboy.
    2. Don’t plant too close to trees
      1. The shade will kill your garden.
      2. The trees themselves will kill your garden.
      3. The animals in the trees will kill your garden.
      4. Pretty much everything will kill your garden.
  2. The Research:
    1. As my briefly-alluded-to experience with a sucking mud-hole can confirm, you’re going to want to do your own research before jumping in.
      1. Ask your family what they like to eat and see when those plants are in season.
      2. Your specific part of the world has a specific harvest calendar -- learn it in regards to what you want to grow.
    2.  Everybody likes animals… Right?
      1. I touched on this earlier but it bears repeating: find out what you are, and are not, allowed to have on your property as far as farm animals are concerned (if you are planning on having any).
      2. My assertion that “Everything will try and kill your garden” especially extends to small animals that are often considered cute. Before you go coating your entire property in rabbit-poison (which I’m pretty sure is probably a thing) do your research and find alternative concoctions you can whip up that aren't likely to make your cabbage glow bright green once the sun goes down.
        1. Same goes for insects.
    3. Oops, you accidentally planted an invasive species!
      1. There are plenty of ways to safely remove a species from your garden without destroying the other plants, go surfing before you go digging! There we have it, a comprehensive list where nothing is ordered in any semblance of importance! This is not meant to be a go-to guide to starting your own garden, but rather a culmination of the things I wish somebody had asked me before I created a sinkhole. Always do your own independent research before you plant anything, and have a fantastic time growing delicious foodstuffs for yourself and your loved ones!

About the Author:

Damien Marty once tried to be a pioneer in domesticated Yellow Jackets; now he and his horrifically swollen face sit at home and write informative articles about food and science, other other fascinating topics. If you ever need a helping hand with a hard-to-remember factoid, or are interested in having him (terribly) sing at your doorstep, simply yell loudly out your window and he'll be there when he can.