Sunday PM: Harvesting and Delivering for the CSA

Sunday was a big day of gardening for me! After my neighbor and I built raised beds for the garden we're starting behind our apartment buildings, I went to my friend's house in Altadena to help in her garden.

My first task, as usual, was to clean the chicken coop. It went very smoothly, as we were able to tempt all ten hens to leave the coop for their adjacent enclosure - using stale tortillas. My friend actually has eleven hens, but only ten live in the coop. The little black hen, "Suzie Q," is a different breed, and much smaller than the others. They tend to pick on her, so Suzie Q gets to live outside the coop, truly free-range! I rarely see her, but she was out and about in the garden on Sunday. Here she is below, laughing at her confined would-be-tormentors!

The garden has been growing fast, and we were able to harvest many things on Sunday. Look how far the chard has come since April:

We left the chard to grow a bit longer, but I began pulling up beets. Below, you can see the beet greens, with curly kale leaves in the background. The kale is ready to go, too, but the CSA members don't care for it, so I'll harvest it for personal use next weekend.

Many of the beets were much larger this season than my friend had previously produced. It's hard to tell how big they will be until you pull them out, but some of the tops were already bulging above ground, which gave me a clue! I swished the beets in a bucket of water and pulled off any small, brown, scraggly leaves in order to make them presentable for the CSA customers :)  

I actually found the green plastic laundry bin on the curb a few houses down as I was driving to my friend's house that day.  One side is slightly cracked, but overall it's in good shape.  We hosed it off and scrubbed it a little, and now it's a perfect vegetable-harvesting crate!

I also pulled up a bunch of medium-sized carrots, swished them in a bucket, and cut off the tops. While they look gorgeous with the lush leaves, the CSA members never actually eat them - so I saved them (along with any particularly gnarly-looking carrots) as a treat for my grateful horse!

There are plenty more carrots ready for harvesting, but the afternoon was wearing on, and we already had a lot of other fruits and vegetables ready to deliver. We picked every last orange lingering on the tree, as well as a few lemons.

The biggest part of the afternoon was spent harvesting peaches! The little tree out front was heavy with small fruit. Although they were not ripe by normal standards, they needed to be picked before they were too soft, or else they would rupture while being transported.

We harvested the peaches in "upcycled" wire baskets that my boyfriend had donated to the garden from a broken shelving system:

In all, we delivered almost 30 kilograms (more than 60 pounds) of peaches to the CSA members! That's not counting the basket of "rejects" that we kept for ourselves.

Here's a shot of the beets, oranges, lemons, and some fava beans, ready for the CSA members to come pick up. There were also a few heads of lettuce, artichokes and kohlrabi, not shown.

The CSA consists of 8 families that all live in the same neighborhood of Pasadena. My friend leaves a list so that they each know how much of each type of item to grab when they come to pick up their produce. There is a scale for bulk items like the fava beans, while larger fruits and vegetables like the lettuce are indicated by number of units.

This was only her second CSA delivery of the season - but there will be many more to come. Hopefully I'll be there to document and take photos :)

Sunday AM: Raised Beds

On Sunday morning, my neighbor and I got to work on the vegetable garden we're starting in the yard of the vacant guest house behind our buildings' shared parking lot.

Two weekends ago, we had intended to start covering the empty plot with aged horse manure and wood shavings to begin enriching the hard soil. It turns out that the reason the ground was so hard was because our landlord had filled it with decomposed granite (the same material used in horse riding arenas in our area). We decided that we would make life easier by building small raised beds. Since we have free access to aged compost, we'll continue to add it to the garden to use as mulch and ground covering, but building raised beds would allow us to get started planting right away.

We used Mel Bartholomew's All New Square Foot Gardening book as a reference, and built two 4' x 4' raised beds out of wood. The beds will be only 6" deep, which Mel claims will be sufficient for all but long carrots. The potting mixture is equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. We used our free compost, but purchased the peat moss and vermiculite. Vermiculite, like Perlite, is a mineral used to improve soil drainage. It's more expensive, but not as lightweight, so it won't float away as easily as Perlite (which for a long time I thought was actually styrofoam!).

Here are some photos of our new raised beds, at around 1pm. They do get some sun in the hours surrounding noon, and we plan to prune back the tree branches soon to allow our future garden more sunlight.

Over Memorial Day weekend, we plan to add grids so that we can easily visualize each square foot. Mel recommends using thin strips of wood or even old venetian blind slats for durability, but we plan to scavenge plastic twine from our horses' hay bales.

We are also going to make a simple compost enclosure using chicken wire. Now I'll have three types of composting operations at home - Bokashi, vermicomposting, and traditional yard waste composting!

For our first planting, we plan to purchase seedlings. Meanwhile, we'll start the cooler season's plants from seed indoors.

I use Smartpak supplements for my horse*, and recently saw a neat idea for reusing the empty plastic wells to start seedlings. I wish I could find the photo!

*Since I have only one horse, it's actually not more economical to buy bulk containers of supplements, since they lose effectiveness after being exposed to air over time, and I can't use them up fast enough. Also, the Smartpaks are made of recycled plastic. I would prefer to reduce and reuse rather than simply recycling my empty containers, and now I have a good use for them!


Worm Bin: Take 2

I now have not one, but two mini-vermicomposting bins ready to house worms!  

After my initial failed attempt to construct a small worm bin from some clear Sterilite containers, I took a trip to my local OSH and found the small Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs I was looking for.  They were relatively pricey ($5.99 each for the 3-gallon size, while the huge 18-gallon size was only $8.99), but they were the perfect dimensions (16"L x 10.75"W x 7"H), and opaque as well.  

I picked up three tubs and lids - the worm bin only needs one lid, but I got spares in case I messed up while drilling again!  The Rubbermaid material is soft and easy to drill.  I successfully made 1/4" holes in the bottom of two tubs (the third has no holes, as it goes on the bottom to collect liquids), and 1/8" holes on the sides and lid.

My new worm bin fits perfectly under the kitchen sink.  I filled the top layer with shredded newspaper - and now I'm ready to bring in some worms!

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I actually have two homemade worm bins now.  My mother read my recent blog post about how the Sterilite containers I initially bought to construct the bins cracked while I was drilling them.  I hadn't thrown them out yet, and she encouraged me to just patch them up with duct tape.  

Moms do know best!  I bandaged the more broken tub, and carefully finished drilling holes.  The sides and lid were actually pretty easy to drill - it's the bottoms of the tubs that were the most brittle. 

I would still recommend going for opaque Rubbermaid Roughneck containers instead of clear Sterilite tubs if you have the choice.  The Roughnecks are a lot easier to drill, plus the opaque material will protect the worms from light, so if you wish, you can store your worm bin somewhere out in the open rather than under the sink.

I know I'll be able to make use of both bins.  Maybe I'll put some worms in each and see if I notice any difference between how they perform!


More on How Bokashi Works

I just did some more quick digging online to follow up on my post from a few months ago on how Bokashi composting works.  

It's still an issue of constant confusion for my friends when I try to describe why I bother to buy Bokashi bran to help dispose of my kitchen waste.  Why not just bury it directly?  Why do I have to buy a product to help me pickle it first?

As I mentioned in my older post, my understanding is that two-stage composting using this method of fermenting, then burying waste, is a lot faster than traditional outdoor aerobic composting.  Additionally, this system allows you to compost all kitchen scraps, and not just vegetable matter.

Below are a couple of explanations that I find helpful.  The first, from the Seattle Post-Intellgiencer, basically reiterates what I said above - but with one important addition, which I've underlined:

"EM bokashi is a lot faster than traditional composting and works in an entirely different way.  Instead of rotting, bokashi ferments food waste, then breaks it down into enzymes and amino acids directly usable by plant roots.  The fermentation stage takes about two weeks, and the composting phase takes between two to four weeks."

I also found a comment thread from a blog post by author Amy Stewart, where a representative of EM America (a Bokashi bran and bucket producer) said the following:

"Materials actually break down faster when they are pre-treated with bokashi. The fermentation breaks down the lignin in the vegetables. Added benefits are that during the fermentation vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are produced and secreted in forms that plants will readily suck up. You can see growth spurts when plant roots hit the bokashi buried in the soil!"

To me, these quotes clarify that Bokashi composting is advantageous to simply burying food scraps in that the decomposition is much faster, and the presence of beneficial nutrients for plants is increased by the fermentation stage of two-stage Bokashi  composting.

DIY Worm Bin: Failure to Launch!

Today, tragedy struck my attempt at making my own mini vermicomposting bin.

I had excitedly shredded newspaper into strips to use as bedding material, and had cleaned out an area under my kitchen sink where the worm bin could stay away from sunlight, and have a bit of airflow around it.

Then, I borrowed a drill from my neighbor so that I could create 1/4" drainage holes in the bottom of the top two nested tubs, and 1/8" air holes on the sides and lid as well (as suggested by this DIY tutorial). 

I had a very hard time with the first three drainage holes, and had to apply a lot more pressure than I expected.  Upon trying to make a fourth hole, the bottom of the tub cracked, and a little piece of plastic even came out entirely!  The difficulty turned out to be because I had the drill set to "reverse" :-P 

I decided not to worry too much about it, since I only needed two tubs to start with anyway - one for the worms, and one under it to collect the drained worm juice.  The third tub only comes into play when all the bedding and scraps have been converted to castings in the original worm layer.  I figured I would just go to Target later and get another tub.

I corrected the direction of rotation on the drill, and began drilling drainage holes in another tub. I quickly learned that I didn't need as much pressure now that the drill was working in the proper direction, but I guess I weakened the plastic with the force I used in making the first hole, and this tub cracked as well!

I decided to just save the third tub and its intact lid for some other purpose around the house.  

Back in the fall when I made my own Bokashi bucket, the plastic buckets I used held up just fine to drilling.

If you're trying to make your own worm bin, I would NOT recommend the Sterilite "RE-organize ShowOffs" for this purpose!  I had high hopes for these Target tubs due to their modest shoebox-like size, but the plastic seems too brittle to withstand drilling.

Now I am back to square one, and in search of small containers I can use to build my worm bin.  I know that people have had success with Rubbermaid brand tubs, which are made of a different plastic than the Sterilite containers - with the added benefit of being opaque.

I found this 3-gallon Rubbermaid tub online that would probably be small enough, and is marketed as "shatter-resistant."  Does anyone know where these are available for purchase?  I haven't seen this size at either Target or Home Depot around here. (Oddly, one of the top Google hits for the 3-gallon roughneck tub is for Blain's Farm & Fleet, which we have in my hometown in Illinois.  Unfortunately, I'm now 2000 miles from there).


Burbank Farmer's Market

This morning I went to the Burbank Farmer's Market around 10am, and had trouble finding parking.  I was shocked at how much more congested the area was than last weekend.  The streets surrounding the market were blocked off, and it turned out there was a big street fair that combined the annual Burbank Fire Department's "Fire Service Day" with other events.

My gardener friend is out of town this weekend, and I missed the South Pasadena Farmer's Market, so I picked up a dozen eggs this morning at the Burbank market ($2.50).  The previous sentence reflects my order of preference for where I obtain my eggs.  

The eggs at the Burbank market are from Mike & Son's Eggs in nearby Ontario.  They are simply marketed as being "chemical and hormone free" - suggesting they come from caged hens.  In searching for more information on Mike & Son's Eggs, I found that this fellow local LA blogger shares my preference for free range eggs instead - both in terms of ethics and egg quality.

I also picked up two cucumbers for $0.75 each, a bunch of carrots with tops for $1.00 (for the horse), three small avocados for $1.00, and five large carrots (for me) and three small tomatoes for $2.60 total.  My total spending this morning was $8.60. 
This week, I noticed several vendors offering sweet corn for the first time this year.  Many vendors are still carrying asparagus, and broccoli, which are done for the season in my friend's garden.  I also saw a lot of cauliflower, parsley, beets, leeks, artichokes, brussels sprouts, zucchini, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, and of course lots of strawberries and citrus.  

I did not do a good job with my menu planning this week.  I had intended to browse around the farmer's market and remind myself of what was in season or coming into season, buy a couple kinds of vegetables, and work out a dish from there - while not buying so much that it would go to waste.  
I went over to a friend's house last week.  She was going out of town the next day, so she loaded me up with things from her fridge that would expire in her absence.  Some of it was already going bad.  I managed to sort the items into things I could still eat, things I would feed to my horse*, things I would freeze and save for my worm bin, and lastly, items that would go in the Bokashi bucket.  When I buy fresh produce, I obviously want to eat as much of it as I can, and let the animals (and microbes) do disposal duty - and not buy so much that it goes directly to compost. 

While I did get fresh veggies for snacking on at work (the carrots and cucumbers), I somehow left the farmer's market this morning without any asparagus, zucchini, or other vegetables I could use in cooking a main dish!  I got too carried away with taking notes, and lost sight of my goal of finding ingredients to cover my week's meals.

I was trying to avoid picking a dish from my cookbooks and going on a scavenger hunt for ingredients that were out of season, imported, or expensive.  But today's (lack of) strategy did not work for me.  Before next week's markets, I need to browse my cookbooks and mark recipes that use ingredients that I know are in season, and make a shopping list.  

While I was browsing the market today, I also took a closer look at the information on the Burbank market's cheese vendor.  Spring Hill Cheese is located in Petaluma, near San Francisco, and about 400 miles from Los Angeles.  I was pleased to be able to find additional information about Spring Hill's farming practices online, at the "Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture" (CUESA)site.  The cheese is produced in-house from the milk of Jersey cows who freely graze on pasture from January - July.  The feed they consume during the dry months is also grown on-site.  I will definitely be buying more cheese from this vendor.

For reviews of farmer's markets in other regions, check out the Farmer's Market Report, too!

* In case anyone needed clarification - my horse gets plenty of his own hay and grains daily.  The things I save for him (like pieces of watermelon rind and apple cores) are just treats! They are never frozen, or kept in the fridge longer than a couple days - unlike the scraps I save for the Bokashi or worm bins.


Bucket Emptying: 3rd cycle

Last night I finally got my Bokashi cycle moving again, after a temporary backlog. My freezer was about to explode!

My landlord recently gave me permission to start a vegetable garden on the premises. Last Saturday evening, my gardener friend came over and gave me some suggestions for the plot. The ground is very hard and barren (surprisingly, there aren't any weeds), so we watered it before trying to dig in. The water initially pooled up and started flowing downhill, so we turned off the water and let the puddle soak for more than an hour.

When we returned, the water had been absorbed, and we stuck a spading fork in to see whether we could actually break ground. Thankfully, we were relieved to find that it was indeed soil at least a foot deep, and not concrete!

My gardener friend advised that we cover the plot with as much compost as possible, both as a mulch to retain moisture, as well as to attract beneficial worms to come loosen and enrich the soil. She also suggested that we prune back some of the branches from the trees surrounding the plot, to allow the vegetables some sun. Shade-tolerant plants that we're considering growing include greens, cucumbers, and potatoes, but we'd like to give them at least some sunlight.

This Sunday, a neighbor and I plan to collect some aged horse manure and stall bedding to mulch the plot. We both board horses in the neighborhood, so we have a convenient, local source for free compost. After we let the plot rest for a while (keeping it moist with periodic watering), we will prune back the trees. I want to keep the shade cover for now, to reduce evaporation - especially since the weather is starting to warm up a lot!

In any event, last night I decided to empty Bokashi Bucket #3 which has been sitting, full, in my kitchen since March 31. This time, instead of transferring it to my terra cotta planter, I decided to bury the waste straight into the ground, as various Bokashi resources have suggested.

I didn't have the liberty to do this before, as I had no access to an empty plot of dirt. Now I do have an empty plot of dirt - and one that desperately needs enrichment from compost!

Breaking ground to bury my compost was very difficult, even though I watered first. I ended up using the same spot where we had tested the ground with the spading fork last weekend. My hole was not quite a foot deep, but we managed to fit the contents of the Bokashi bucket (interspersed with thin layers of dirt), cover it completely, and tamp it down firmly. Hopefully it won't get unearthed by curious neighborhood animals right away!

I'm hoping to continue burying my waste directly in the ground from now on. The plot is large, and I'm sure we can dedicate a section for composting purposes. This will allow me to keep my Bokashi cycle going more continuously, rather than waiting for the material in the planter to finish decomposing before I can empty the next bucket.

Now I can put my planter to good use growing basil. Not only do I use fresh basil frequently for Italian dishes, but my my mother also recently recounted a nice anecdote about my late grandmother's fondness for the herb.  The Sweet Basil variety isn't readily available in Taiwan, where she lived, so my mother brought her seeds to grow her own potted plants. So now when I plant basil, I will think of her :) Happy Mother's Day, everyone!


Worm Bin Reconsidered

I recently became re-inspired to explore vermicomposting, partially due to reading the Bokashi Slope blog. I had previously ruled out keeping a worm bin in my studio apartment due to space constraints, but I am now planning to build my own worm bin in smaller dimensions than the prefabricated tubs tend to come in.

I am certainly happy with the results of my Bokashi composting so far, but the backlog of food scraps in the freezer (which are waiting to be added to my Bokashi tub, which is waiting to be emptied into my outdoor planter, which is waiting to be taken to the garden)...(phew!)...has been one factor leading me to reexamine other apartment composting options. Another factor is that I just have a natural curiosity about other types of composting, and would like to see how well I could keep a worm bin going.

Today I bought three small nesting tubs (for $4 each) and a matching lid from Target. The tubs are each about 8"W x 12"L x 6"H, with the bottom of each layer resting 1-1/2" above the one below it. The side handles flip up and down, so the lid unlatches easily, which will make it more convenient for adding fresh food scraps frequently. My homemade Bokashi bucket's lid is very difficult to open, which is actually good because that means it has a tight seal, but it also makes it inconvenient to open it frequently to add scraps - which is why I store scraps in the freezer and only add them to the bucket about once a week.

I read through this tutorial on putting together a homemade worm bin for some guidance. It specifies that you should use an opaque container, but all the opaque bins I've seen at both Target and Home Depot are way too large for my apartment. So I'm planning to keep it somewhere dark, like under the kitchen sink.

My next step is to borrow a drill in order to create ventilation holes, shred some bedding, and get some worms!


LA Farmer's Markets: South Pasadena & Burbank

Thursday evening after work, I made my now-routine stop by the South Pasadena Farmer's Market. This week my mission was very specific, and I did not stop to browse as I had on previous visits, because I planned to check out the Burbank Farmer's Market on Saturday.

The South Pasadena market is laid out in a T-shape, with the cooked-food vendors lining both sides of the base of the "T", and the fresh produce vendors branching out to form the top of the "T". At the intersection is the largest produce tent - the vendor from whom I bought Swiss chard and heirloom tomatoes previously. Their tent has appeal due to both the wide variety of vegetables they offer, and also the way they merchandise their products. Every type of vegetable has its own laminated description card with the price clearly shown - very helpful!

This week I was in search of zucchini to use in making zucchini bread. They had a bin of baby zucchini labeled at $2 per pound, with some much larger zucchini on the side. I asked the vendor to weigh one of the larger zucchinis for me, and to my shock he said that the big ones were only $3 each - even though they were clearly over 1.5 pounds each. I happily bought a humongous one (see photo below - it was the size and weight of an infant), along with two one-dollar bags of basil, and a small red onion, which he threw in for free!

I also made a quick stop by the J&J Grass-Fed Beef tent to pick up a couple one-pound packs of ground beef ($5 per pound). One of the packs was for my gardener friend, who plans to make a goulash. I had also told a co-worker about the beef last week, which he bought to add to a soup. He gave it a big thumbs up for taste and texture! This stand has become one of my favorites, along with Bill's Bees, as both offer a unique and superior product.

When I returned home, I noticed that this week, the little bags of basil had labels on them that showed the vendor's website, along with a claim that they were "Beyond Organic - 100% Sustainable!" That's certainly quite an assertion! I went to the Jaime Farms website, and while there were some nice blurbs about the qualities of each type of vegetable they grow, there was unfortunately no information on their farming practices, and what makes those methods sustainable...

Saturday morning I went to the Burbank Farmer's Market for the first time! It's held in a parking lot at the intersection of Orange Grove and Third Street, from 8:00am - 12:30pm. Almost all of the tents were produce or flower vendors, in contrast to the cooked-food/street fair focus of the South Pasadena market.

J&J Grass-Fed Beef was there, although the stand was attended by a different man than the one who is always in South Pasadena on Thursdays. There was a larger number of produce tents offering more than one type of crop - a much better selection than South Pasadena. There was also a cheese vendor and an egg seller.

There was a very long line for the eggs, which were $2.10 - $2.50 a dozen, or $3.50 for 20 eggs. This price was better than the $3.00 / dozen for Jaime Farms' eggs at the South Pasadena market. However, there was nothing indicating that the Burbank vendor's eggs were free-range - they were local, but simply labeled as being from chickens fed "natural feed." We bought 40 eggs anyway, since we were preparing for a party, but for my regular needs I will probably be sticking to my gardening friend's truly free-range eggs, or Jaime Farms' eggs, which also claim to be free-range.

I also picked up three types of cheese - white cheddar, goat cheese with sage, and smoked gouda - for $16 total. This vendor's tent had a laminated card indicating the mileage between their farm and Los Angeles, and some information about their practices. Next time I return to the market, I'll be sure to take better notes so I can report back in more detail!

In addition, we picked up a half-flat (6 baskets) of strawberries for only $9, a bunch of carrots for $1.25, potatoes for $1.25 / pound, tomatoes for $2.25 / pound, and a $2 bunch of asparagus. Our haul cost us $39.25 - very reasonable considering half that amount was gourmet cheese!

I definitely plan to return to the Burbank farmer's market. I liked that there was a wide selection of produce, as well as locally produced cheese. However, none of the vendors seemed to offer heirloom tomatoes, and I really like the ones from Jaime Farms. I also like Bill's Bees, which is always at the South Pasadena market, and wasn't in Burbank today. I might not visit both markets every week, but intend to visit each on a regular basis from now on.

For reviews of farmer's markets in other areas, check out the Farmer's Market Report, too!