The Brown Gold Roadster

Having a mentor to advise and teach you is a wonderful way to advance your skills in any given area. My first gardening mentor was someone I never met in person, but every week I eagerly welcomed him into my living room via the magic of television. James Crockett was the original host of PBS’s The Victory Garden. In addition to being a knowledgeable gardener, Crockett was a big advocate for composting. He called the finished product ‘brown gold’, and his three bin composter was called the Brown Gold Cadillac.

pallet composter, aka Brown Gold Yugo

pallet composter, aka Brown Gold Yugo

I’ve never made Crockett’s composter, but thanks to his inspiration I’ve been composting ever since I planted my first garden. My early compost piles were made inside a ring of metal fencing, which was inexpensive and easy to make. I also used bales of straw in the past to hold in the organic material. When my wife and I moved to Happy Acres, we decided to make some compost bins from pallets we picked up for free. I called this arrangement the Brown Gold Yugo, since it was a low-cost composter but got the job done with few frills. It worked well for about five years, but eventually the wooden pallets started to rot and the compost bins began falling apart.

cedar composter

cedar composter

It was time for a new composter, one I could build myself, and my wife and I decided to locate it on a concrete pad that a previous owner had made for a dog pen. I also decided to make it from rough sawn red cedar, which is naturally rot-resistant and should add years to its useful life. I came up with a plan, based on ideas from other compost bins I have seen, and construction began last week. I worked on it for three mornings, and you can see the finished results in the above photo. The composter is 8 feet long, 4 feet deep and 4 feet tall (more or less), with two bins. I sized the project so it could easily be cut from 8 foot long boards, and so the bins would have enough mass to build a ‘hot’ pile  if I wanted to.

beveled top of posts

beveled top of posts

I chose 4x4s for upright support posts, and 1x8s for the sides. I decided to cut a bevel on the top of the 4x4s to help water drain off, as well as to provide a decorative touch. I used my table saw for all the cutting on the project, though a miter saw or even a circular saw would also get the job done.

side panel for composter (sitting sideways)

side panel for composter (sitting sideways)

Once I had beveled all the posts, I assembled the sides of the bins. I spaced the 1×8’s about 1/2 inch apart, to allow for air to get into the compost pile. Then I moved them out onto the concrete pad, and attached the 1×8’s for the back. I used #8 coated exterior deck screws for attaching all the pieces. I also gave my cordless drill a workout by pre-drilling holes for all the screws before driving them in. Cedar has a tendency to split, and I am happy to report that not a single board split on me for this project.

front slats with guide strips

front slats with guide strips

After attaching all the back boards to the three side pieces, I cut 1×8’s to size for the front, which has removable slats. I ripped narrow strips from a 1×4 to make a guide for the slats. You can see that detail in the above photo.

screws used as spacers for slats

screws used as spacers for slats

Borrowing an idea from Crockett’s Brown Gold Cadillac, I drove screws into the edge of the front slats and left them protruding about a half inch to serve as spacers. The slats slide between the guides, and can be added or removed as needed. I had also planned on giving the bins a removable wooden top, but the prototype proved to be too awkward to lift and maneuver. If we have a problem with animals getting in the bins, I will come up with something from hardware cloth or chicken wire.

filling the new compost bins

filling the new compost bins

We started putting the bins to use as soon as they were finished. I’ve been moving the contents of the old bins, layering the partially composted material with fresh ‘green’ material in the form of weeds and kitchen scraps. I hope to break in the new bins with a nice hot pile of steaming compost.

the Brown Gold Roadster

the Brown Gold Roadster

My wife and I are both pleased with the new compost bins, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about how I went about building them. As for the name, I’m calling it the Brown Gold Roadster, since it’s a ‘two seater’ with no top!

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Monday Recap: Second Chances

Sometimes patience pays in the garden. It appears the pole beans have finally decided to start producing here. For the last couple of years we’ve had more beans than we could eat, but this year they have been very shy producers. Last week I actually got two nice harvests. One weighed a pound, and we cooked those up and ate them. The other was twice as big, and I processed those for the freezer. I’m growing Fortex, Gold Marie and Musica (same as last year), plus Trionfo Violetta and a couple of ‘greasy’ beans (Robe Mountain and Lazy Wife). All wound up in the harvest basket last week.

mixed pole beans

mixed pole beans

It’s not likely to be our best year for tomatoes either, though we’ve had enough for processing and eating. One of the best slicers has been the Chef’s Choice Orange. This 2014 AAS winner was developed from the heirloom Amana tomato, and it’s my second year growing it. Celebrity, Early Girl and Better Boy have also done well, and they remind me why I always grow a few plants each year of these dependable hybrids. The o/p slicers have done terrible this year, and have basically given us nothing. I have fond memories of how they have done in past years, but I can’t put memories on a sandwich!

Chef's Choice Orange tomatoes

Chef’s Choice Orange tomatoes

I can (and did) put both Chef’s Choice Orange and Celebrity on sandwiches in the last couple of weeks, including the BLT on Whole Grain Bread in the below photo. I actually found a few leaves of Slobolt lettuce for that one, though that was the last of the summer lettuce.

BLT sandwich

BLT sandwich

Doing much better than tomatoes are the peppers and eggplant. I harvested a ripe Flavorburst bell pepper and a couple of Jimmy Nardello peppers to use in a bean salad. Many of the peppers are starting to ripen now, and we are surely enjoying them. Another bell pepper that colored up early for me is Orange Blaze, a 2011 AAS winner.

peppers and parsley for bean salad

peppers and parsley for bean salad

Something else we have enjoyed is the Honeyboat Delicata squash. I lost a few of them to rot, but the ones we did harvest have been exceptionally sweet and tender. This is my first time growing this variety, but I will plan on growing it again next year. It has a copper colored skin instead of the usual cream color most varieties of delicata squash have.

Honeyboat Delicata squash

Honeyboat Delicata squash

One of my favorite things to do with the delicata squash is to cut it into slices, toss with a little olive oil and bake until crisp. The Honeyboat is especially tasty prepared this way. It made a nice accompaniment for some planked salmon we had for dinner one night.

roasted Honeyboat Delicata

roasted Honeyboat Delicata

I harvested all of the Bush Delicata squash too. It seemed to hold up better to the wet conditions we had in July than the Honeyboat, though I’m not sure why. The plants are all gone, but that is usual for them here.

Bush Delicata squash

Bush Delicata squash

The trial planting of tepary beans has been blooming and setting pods. Since I’ve never grown them before, I have no idea now long the pods will take to mature. Considering we are 60 days away from our usual first frost, I believe they will make it. You can see the beans beginning to swell in the pod in the below photo.

tepary bean pod

tepary bean pod

Also in the ‘patience pays’ department, the first Thai Rai Kaw Tok squash is setting on. The first female bloom was quickly followed by at least two more. They are all on vines hanging off the fencing that goes around the outside of the main garden area. That was where I found most of them last year, and I was harvesting the last of them in late October.

young Thai Rai Kaw Tok squash

young Thai Rai Kaw Tok squash

I hope you have enjoyed seeing a bit of what’s going on here in late August. To see what other gardeners are harvesting and cooking up, visit Daphne’s Dandelions where Daphne hosts Harvest Mondays.

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Rain Makes the Fall Garden Grow

We got a little over an inch of rain yesterday and last night, which certainly was timely and saved me from having to water new plantings. It was the second nice rain since I planted the fall brassicas back on August 5th. I had two adjacent empty beds where the spring brassicas and garlic had been growing, and decided to put them back in use. I was hesitant about growing the same crop twice in the same year, but I did mix it up a bit. I planted the broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi where the garlic had been growing, and planted kale where the above three were planted earlier. I prepped both beds with as much compost as I could find and gave each a good dose of fertilizer as well. And I’m mulching with shredded paper topped with straw.

young plant of Coalition Mix kale

young plant of Coalition Mix kale

I don’t think kale is as heavy a feeder as broccoli for instance, and as you can see in the above photo it has really taken off in just two weeks. I’ve become a big fan of many of the open-pollinated kale varieties, and this year I planted a few old favorites plus a couple of new ones to try. Last year I grew Coalition Mix from Adaptive Seeds, and they describe it as “diverse genepool mix of 17 oleracea kales & their crosses.” It grew quite well here, and the kale was especially tasty. The year before I grew the Wild Garden Mix from Wild Garden Seeds, which is a mix of B. napus that “originated as a cross between ‘Red Russian’ and ‘Siberian’ ca. 1984.” It was a keeper too, and this year I planted quite a bit of both these mixes and we will see how they compare.

Wild Garden Mix kale plant

Wild Garden Mix kale plant

Of course you never know quite what you are going to get with any mix, but these two are truly diverse since they are ‘genepools’ that are in no way stable. And even though they are open-pollinated, they seem to have a hybrid vigor since they have not been inbred for many generations like o/p varieties that breed true. It is certainly fun to grow these mixes, and I can’t wait to see what they give us this year.

turnips coming up

turnips coming up

Another fall planting coming along nicely is the turnips, though I am sticking with tried and true varieties this year. I have Hakurei and Oasis white turnips, plus Tsugara Scarlet and the old standby Purple Top. I grow Purple Top as much for the greens as the roots. My wife and I both love turnip greens, and I find the Hakurei and Oasis are both somewhat shy producers of leaves, though they are smooth and tender. The bright red skin of Tsugaru Scarlet makes a lovely turnip kraut, and I’ve grown it for several years now.

Apollo arugula

Apollo arugula

Two things I am not growing this fall are carrots and radishes. I will miss both of them, but I need a break from gardening and they wound up on the chopping block. I will be starting lettuce and spinach later in the season for both the greenhouse and cold frames. I already have some arugula planted in one of the cold frame beds, half of it Speedy and the other half Apollo. Both are good producers here and a little milder tasting than your average arugula.

young K-Y Cross cabbage

young K-Y Cross cabbage

I also have plants of True Siberian and Western Front kale to plant in the greenhouse. I grew True Siberian there last winter, and it gave us an early start on the spring planted kale. Western Front is supposed to actively grow through the winter months, so we will see how it does in the greenhouse environment. I’m trying another new one in the main garden called Smooth German Kale I got from SSE. It is an annual variety, so if it does well I can plant it again next year and let it go to seed. In the meantime it will be fun to trial a few easy to grow kale varieties which should keep us supplied in kale this fall and early winter!

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New Work in Progress

I mentioned in my last post that the #1 project currently on my list is to build a new composter. Our pallet bins are falling apart, and it is high time for a replacement. We want to locate the new ones on a concrete pad on the north side of the shop building that a previous owner used for a dog pen. Of course there are both pros and cons to siting the bins on concrete, but after much consideration it seemed like the best place for us. The area needs a little cleanup before we turn it into a composting center, and it also looks like the siding could use a good power washing while we’re at it! Doesn’t it seem like one project always leads to another?

site for new compost bins

site for new compost bins

The trash cans in the above photo are where I put finished compost to store before using.  As for putting the bins on concrete, I always add a shovel of old compost to each layer as I am building a new pile anyway, so I don’t think the materials will suffer from a lack of microorganisms. I do think sometimes the experts make composting sound a lot more complicated than it needs be. I always say ‘compost happens’, and in my experience it usually does! I know that seepage from the pile may stain concrete or decking material, but in our case the concrete isn’t exactly pristine to start with, and any rain runoff will easily drain into the yard. Frankly, I think that a homemade cedar composter will be an improvement in how the area looks, plus the bins will be closer to the house than the current ones.

stack of cedar 1x8's for composter

stack of cedar 1×8’s for composter

I came up with a plan over the weekend, worked up a material list and headed off to the lumber yard this morning. It has been a while since I last bought lumber, and I had a bit of sticker shock when the sales clerk totaled up the bill. In this case, $500 bought some lovely rough sawn red cedar, enough for a two bin composter that will be 8ft long, 4ft deep and 4ft tall. I also plan to fashion a removable lid for the bins. I’m using 4x4s for upright support posts, and 1x8s for the sides.

marking cedar board for cutting

marking cedar board for cutting

I hope to begin work on it tomorrow morning. I will have to work early in the day, before it heats up, so it will take a few days to complete. My try square might be a little rusty, but I am really looking forward to this project. After construction is finished I will move the contents of the current pallet compost bins, which will take a little effort to be sure. But with any luck, by this time next week we’ll have a brand new composter! I’ll be back later with more photos when it’s all operational.

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Photo Friday: The Dark Side

Every once in a while it’s fun to show things that aren’t exactly going well in the garden. I’ll start with the hosta in the Shade Garden. Around here we call it ‘deer lettuce’, since the local deer seem to think our plantings resemble an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Back in June I shared a photo of the Big Daddy hosta we planted near the base of our mulberry tree. There are a couple of other hostas in front of it.

Big Daddy hosta in June

Big Daddy hosta in June

It looks a bit different today, as you can see in the below photo. The two smaller plants are pretty well eaten down, as well as the one to the left of the tree.

hostas in August

hostas in August

There’s a Big Bare Spot in the Big Daddy plant. I spray Liquid Fence deer repellent regularly, but the rain washes it off and the deer can mow things down overnight. I’m thinking they spared the rest of the Big Daddy because they were getting full!

deer damage on hosta

deer damage on hosta

In the greenhouse, the cucumber plants have been taken over by spider mites. This is an annual event, and sometimes the whiteflies join in the party, though it seems to be only the mites this year.

spider mite damage on cucumber

spider mite damage on cucumber

It’s been a good year for the cucumbers, but it’s time to move on. I need to rip out the vines, remove the support cages and prep the beds for fall and winter veggies like spinach and lettuce.

spider mite damage on cucumber leaf

spider mite damage on cucumber leaf

Outside the greenhouse, some of the cold frames are starting to deteriorate. I believe I built the first ones back in 2009, so I have gotten seven growing seasons out of them. The one in the below photo has some definite rot issues going on with the side wall. I hope to be able to replace it this fall, but my to-do list is already getting crowded!

cold frame needs repair

cold frame needs repair

My #1 project this fall is to build a new composter. Back in 2010 I called it my Brown Gold Yugo, but today it is falling down and an eyesore! The old one is built out of pallets, but the new one I am planning will be made from rot resistant red cedar. It will give me a chance to sharpen up my carpentry skills, which have gotten a bit rusty of late. The new one will be a bit closer to the house, and built on a concrete pad where a previous owner had a dog pen.

pallet composter needs to be replaced

pallet composter needs to be replaced

Another project will be to remove the willow tree that is hanging down over the garden fence. We had the area at the back of the property selectively cleared a few years ago, leaving some trees to grow larger. Unfortunately this one wanted to go sideways instead of upwards, and is now shading the garden. It’s hard to tell in the below photo, but it is actually touching the fence in one spot. I think a single pruning cut is in order, applied near ground level with my trusty chain saw!

willow tree hanging over garden

willow tree hanging over garden

I’ll close with something from the bright side. The Thai Rai Kaw Tok squash has vined all over the garden fencing but has yet to set any fruit. Yesterday I found the first female blossom coming on, which is certainly a good sign.

female blossom on Rai Kaw Tok squash

female blossom on Rai Kaw Tok squash

I hope you have enjoyed the photo tour of Happy Acres, warts and all!

 

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Monday Recap: Getting Saucy

It seems like the last couple of weeks my wife and I have spent a lot of time processing tomatoes. We have made two batches of Homemade Tomato Ketchup, a batch each of Freezer Tomato Sauce and unseasoned Vitamix Tomato Sauce, plus a batch of Freezer Marinara Sauce from a recipe in my well-worn copy of The Victory Garden Cookbook. Actually my wife made one batch of ketchup and I made the rest of the things, and I appreciate her help because making the ketchup is a marathon event. It is made easier by processing the cored tomatoes skin and all in the Vitamix blender, which saves a bit of time up front. But then it still takes several hours to cook it down to the right consistency.

paste tomatoes for sauces

paste tomatoes for sauces

I used a mix of tomatoes for the above processing, including paste tomatoes like Viva Italia, Health Kick, Rio Grande, Big Mama, Golden Rave and Quadro. I also used my favorite Juliet, plus a few of the smaller slicers like Early Girl and Eva’s Purple Ball. For the unseasoned sauce I’ll really use any tomato I have, including cherry, grape and plum types. The smaller ones are nice because you don’t even have to core them, just rinse and throw them in the blender.

Green Tiger and Blush Artisan Tomatoes

Green Tiger and Blush Artisan Tomatoes

We’ve also gotten our first taste of the two Artisan Tomatoes I’m growing this year, Blush and Green Tiger. Both these o/p varieties are from the Tiger line, and they are great tasting as well as colorful. They also have the Bumble Bee series of cherry tomatoes which I have tasted but not grown. The size is hard to judge in the above photo but they are slightly larger than Juliet. I can see me trying more of the Artisan line in the years to come.

Mexico Midget cherry tomatoes

Mexico Midget cherry tomatoes

A newcomer here is the o/p Mexico Midget red cherry tomato. This prolific variety has given us lots of 1/2-3/4″ deep red tomatoes so far, many of which I snack on while outside working in the garden. Some of them do make it in the house, like the ones in the above photo. They have a nice flavor, sweet but not too sweet, and are great for salads.

White Bean Caprese Salad

White Bean Caprese Salad

The Mexico Midget tomatoes joined Sun Sugar and Black Cherry in a White Bean Caprese Salad I made one day for lunch. The tomatoes had the starring role, along with Runner Cannellini beans, fresh Mozzerella cheese and Profuma di Genova basil. Happy Acres doesn’t have quite the ambiance of the Piazza Umberto on Capri, but the salad was tasty anyway.

Tolli's Sweet Italian and Jimmy Nardello peppers

Tolli’s Sweet Italian and Jimmy Nardello peppers

Some of the peppers are starting to ripen here. That’s a trio of Jimmy Nardello in the above photo, joined by a Tolli’s Sweet Italian on the left. I grew Tolli’s for the first time last year, and I liked the peppers well enough to give it another go this year. They have a little thicker wall than the Jimmy Nardello peppers, and are almost as sweet when cooked. So far they look to be productive here as well. The Tolli’s pepper went into a 3 Bean Salad my wife made on Saturday. Actually it wound up being a 2 bean salad, since she used Runner Cannellini and Red Nightfall beans to make it.

Ambrosia melon

Ambrosia melon

Something else that ripened is another of the Ambrosia melons. So far none of the melons this year have been as sweet as usual, which could be due to getting a lot of rain as they were sizing up. At any rate, the Ambrosia is still as sweet as anything we could buy at a farmer’s market, and much sweeter than what we see at the grocery (which usually have very little flavor).

Nadia and Calliope eggplant

Nadia and Calliope eggplant

Once again I am amazed at what a difference a year can make when you are growing your own food. Last year we had lots and lots of pole beans, but very few eggplants. The flea beetles got to the eggplant early on, and they never seemed to get over it. This year I did a better job of spraying for the beetles, and as a result the plants look great and are fruiting nicely. And the pole beans are giving us almost nothing this year! I keep hoping the beans will put out some new blooms when the temps moderate a bit. That’s the dark purple Nadia eggplant and the purple and white Calliope in the above photo.

grilled Reuben on marbled rye

grilled Reuben on marbled rye

We’ve been grilling a lot of the eggplant. I sliced up one the big purple Nadia and grilled it last week, with a little salt and homemade paprika for seasoning. I also grilled a sandwich that day on marbled rye bread topped with kohlrabi kraut, Swiss cheese and prosciutto ham. I believe this is similar to what Michelle is calling a Carmel Valley Reuben, and I have to say it was delicious. The dark coloring in the bread comes from cocoa added to the dough. The marbled bread was pretty but it wasn’t any better tasting than the recipes I usually make. The same dough did make some tasty marbled rye rolls.

trio of Tatume squash

trio of Tatume squash

Most of the summer squash are done for now, giving in to stem rot and the squash bugs. The vining heirloom Tatume gave us three more nice sized fruit last week. Those vines are still going so we might see more before the end of them.

Gold Nugget squash

Gold Nugget squash

I harvested all of the winter squash Gold Nugget. This variety matures early, and is a dependable producer for me year after year. The squash are just the right size for cutting in half and baking. That’s right at 12 pounds of them in the above photo.

mint for drying

mint for drying

I started drying mints and herbs for tea last week. I generally dry spearmint, peppermint, orange mint, chocolate mint and lemon verbena. I’ve tried drying lemongrass, but I think it loses most of its flavor, so I pot up a plant of it to keep us supplied during the winter. The dehydrator stays busy this time of year, as I also dry calendula which pretty much blooms here non-stop all summer long.

calendula

calendula

And speaking of lemongrass, those stalks I rooted and planted behind the greenhouse in May are now four foot tall clumps. It’s such an easy and inexpensive way to grow lemongrass. I spent about $1 for the stalks, and now I have all the lemongrass I want.

lemongrass planted behind greenhouse

lemongrass planted behind greenhouse

Right next to the lemongrass is the Mexico Midget tomato plant. Or the plants, since I set two plants per over-sized cage. There’s no splitting or cracking, and I will be growing this prolific variety again.

Mexico Midget tomatoes on the vine

Mexico Midget tomatoes on the vine

That’s a look at what’s happening here in late July. To see what other gardeners are harvesting and cooking up, visit Daphne’s Dandelions where Daphne hosts Harvest Mondays.

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Featured Cooking Bean: Rio Zape

This year I am on a mission to cook and eat as many different varieties of beans as possible. This is another in a series about my observations about those beans.

The origins of today’s featured cooking bean are a bit murky to say the least. According to Slow Food USA, the Rio Zape bean was found in the ruins of the Anasazi cliff-dwellers in the American Southwest. Better documented sources claim the bean was found in a cave near the Rio Zape in Durango, Mexico. And to add to the confusion, Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, says that Rio Zape is also known as the Hopi String bean, and was used by the Hopi as both a green bean as well as a dried one.

Rio Zape beans

Rio Zape beans

Regardless of its true origins, the Rio Zape beans I bought from Rancho Gordo are about the size of a pinto bean, but with much more flavor. The dried beans are a lovely dark purple color, with blackish striped markings. After cooking the beans lose some of the vivid purple coloring, and though the stripes are harder to see they do not completely disappear. The cooking liquid (aka pot liquor) is dark with a rich flavor.

cooked Rio Zape beans

cooked Rio Zape beans

Rio Zape is one of those beans I fell in love with at first bite. It’s also one of the few beans I’ve tried that is so flavorful I could sit and eat a bowl of them all by themselves. Sando classifies these as pot beans, ones that are good served simply as a side dish, with perhaps a splash of lime juice or a bit of chopped onion. In the book Heirloom Beans: Great Recipes for Dips and Spreads, Soups and Stews, Salads and Salsas, and Much More from Rancho Gordo they are featured in the recipe for Rio Zape Beans and Sweet Potatoes. This recipe is so tasty I’ve made it twice now, and just looking at the below photo makes my mouth water. I’ve made it with both orange and purple sweet potatoes, and that’s the Purple variety in the below photo. It’s topped with toasted pine nuts and some fried sage leaves.

Rio Zape and Sweet Potato Salad

Rio Zape and Sweet Potato Salad

Even though the beans hold their shape well for salads, they also make good refried beans. A couple of weeks ago I refried some and used them to make bean enchiladas. I made a sauce from some of last year’s frozen tomato sauce and some of my Homemade Chile Powder, then topped the Rio Zape enchiladas with some Queso Chihuahua. I made a meal of these one day. The refried beans are also good as a side dish or as taco or burrito filling.

Rio Zape Bean Enchiladas

Rio Zape Bean Enchiladas

So far I have only cooked these beans, and haven’t tried growing them. Rio Zape beans for eating are available online from Rancho Gordo, Purcell Mountain Farms, and Native Seeds/SEARCH. Rio Zape seeds for growing are available from Victory Seeds and Native Seeds/SEARCH (listed as Hopi Purple String bean). I hope you have enjoyed this review of the Rio Zape beans. Our bean tasting continues at HA, and I will be back soon with another bean review.

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