Saturday, December 31, 2011

Advantages of Vacuum Sealing Food

We've been using a vacuum sealer to extend the shelf-life of food for several years.  We got the idea from friends on the competition barbecue circuit.   Brisket, pork butts, ribs, and chicken thighs are cooked for the competitions. It's not uncommon for contest cooks to prepare two pork butts (14 - 15 lbs), two beef briskets (25 - 26 lbs), six or nine racks of pork ribs, and 20 - 24 chicken thighs. After a weekend bbq contest, there is a lot of leftovers. Vacuum sealers make preserving the extra meat quite easy and the meat can be safely frozen for several weeks and eaten at a later date without losing much of its' flavor.

This method also works well for buying meats, vegetables, and other food items in bulk.  Due to a lack of freezer space it's not very practical to store plastic containers of food in a normal sized freezer. With vacuum sealing, you can save a lot of space in the freezer. Plus, normal plastic containers store oxygen inside the container with the food. Oxygen inside the storage container gets the process of breaking down the food started quicker, which will lead to eventual spoilage. By removing the oxygen from the storage bag with a vacuum sealer, the food remains fresh for a longer period of time. The food will eventually decline even if vacuum sealed, but it will remain viable for a much longer period of time.

A vacuum sealer can be a handy tool for eating home grown or locally grown foods.  You can purchase fruit in bulk when it's "in season" and preserve it 3 - 5 times longer than by popping in a regular plastic container and storing it in the refrigerator.  We recently ate some strawberries that were vacuum sealed and frozen for four months. They tasted great on several bowls of ice cream.

We bought a commercial vacuum sealer like to one in the link at the beginning of this article, but there are less expensive sealers available at most of the big box discount retailers.

Eating For Energy - Raw Food Diet For Weight Loss

Friday, December 30, 2011

Hydroponic Spinach

One of the advantages to growing spinach hydroponically....You can eat freshly harvested spinach for supper, even if the outside temperatures are much too low to grow it in a traditional outdoor garden.  It was 24 degrees last night outside, but 68 degrees in the spare room I use for my basement gardening project.

I grew this spinach in my basement. 

We sauteed the spinach in a small frying pan with a little vinegar and salt. 

Eating For Energy - Raw Food Diet For Weight Loss

Gardening to Reduce Hunger

According to, "an estimated 100 billion pounds of food, enough to totally eliminate hunger, is thrown away annually in the United States." is working with food pantries to help put extra produce to work helping to feed those who are hungry, improve health, and help the environment. 

There's a nice tool on the website to help gardeners find food pantries near their home that accept donations of extra food. You can search by zip code to find contact information for these local organizations.

And since we live in a litigious world, I wanted to look into the potential liability considerations. provides a link to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act passed during the Clinton Administration that addresses the issue. Here is an excerpt from the USDA website:

A person or gleaner, shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the person or gleaner  donates in good faith to a non-profit organization for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.

(I hesitate to add the following, but feel that I must.) 

I am not a lawyer. I don't play a lawyer on TV and I didn't sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night (badumbump), so please do your own due diligence regarding the potential liability issues.

Eating For Energy - Raw Food Diet For Weight Loss

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2012 Gardening Plan

To go along with my 2012 New Year's Resolution post from yesterday, I decided to make an Excel spreadsheet to plan our garden for the upcoming season.

It will likely change two or three times before I order my seeds in early March, but it feels good to put it down on paper.

Eating For Energy - Raw Food Diet For Weight Loss

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

'Tis the season for goal setting and sometimes it actually works. 

This time of year many New Year's Resolutions are made and, unfortunately, within a few weeks they're usually crumbled and broken. Simply setting a goal seldom works, but if we establish a step-by-step plan and implement it the chances of success increase dramatically.

A few years ago I decided that I would catch up on my reading instead of watching television. I resolved to read a book per month off the 100 most popular novels list published by the New York Times. For 10 months, I actually did it. I read for 1 hour per night while my wife watched her favorite television show that I did not enjoy.

This year my resolutions are going to be a little different.

I hereby solemly resolve that I am going to get serious about improving our household food security.

1. I'm going to learn to can vegetables. Canning is almost a lost art, but jars and instructions are readily available at most of the big box stores. A couple of Google searches later and it looks like I can be off an running lickety split.

2. I'm going to grow more vegetables. Afterall to preserve food for eating later, you've got to actually grow more of it.

3. I have 6 Earthboxes. I plan to purchase 6 more before growing season arrives.

4. We had 2 above ground beds last year. This year I plan to have 3.

5. I plan to extend the growing season and get 2 plantings from my efforts. By planting warm weather vegetables in spring time and then cooler weather vegetables in late summer, we'll be able to harvest food from our backyard well into the fall and early November. We might need some frost protection late in the fall, but that's relatively easy to overcome with some old bedsheets.

6. I plan to plant only heirloom varieties next season. I plan to avoid GMO's whenever possible.

7. Continue my home made hydroponics basement gardening project and add a basement aquaponics system to my spare room in the basement to begin harvesting fish too.

8. Build an outside aquaponics system using fish that can withstand the winters we get here in Michigan. This will take a little more effort, but after talking to a local backyard pond builder today it's not out of the question. Finding blue gill or yellow perch to use in this project may be harder than I thought.

Build an Aquaponic System

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hydroponic Vegetables for Christmas Week?

We've been out of town visiting in Tennessee for the past week.  On the drive back today I began to wonder how the basement garden had fared in our absence. I was pleasantly surprised to say the least.

Kale close up
 The kale exploded with growth while we were away.  I think we'll be eating kale chips later this week.

Collards and Spinach

The collards were a little late getting started, but while were away they kicked it in gear. The leaves are now palm sized.

Four tub home made hydroponic system
I harvested lettuce and spinach 10 days ago. After a water change, some more nutrients, and some time under the lights, it's ready to harvest again.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Michigan Gardening for Growth Program

The State of Michigan has made a few properties available to lease as a part of the Gardening for Growth Program.  Canton Township, which is very near my home in Belleville, has several properties available for lease. If the application is approved, the property is available for 1 year for $25 or 3 years for $75. 

Since I living in a subdivision, it's exciting to learn about the possibility of gardening on a little larger piece of property. Of course the soil would need to be tested before an in ground garden could be cultivated, but I could use aquaponics, hydroponics, or above ground methods to overcome this issue if necessary. I have been aware of the program in Detroit for several years, but until today I knew nothing about the possibilities in other communities.

I need to figure out how to build a temporary structure, a method for securing it against intrusion, and a way to operate it off the grid.  Any ideas?  I have a feeling this might be the difficult part for aquaponics usage, but traditional in ground or above ground methods should still be possible.

Next though, I need to prepare a property plan so I can submit my application.

Eating For Energy - Raw Food Diet For Weight Loss

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Living without Money?

How many us wish we had more money? I find myself falling into this way of thinking from time to time. But do we really need to have lots of money to live a meaningful life?

Earlier this week I was telling a co-worker about the One Red Paperclip website where Kyle MacDonald documented his methods for trading a simple paperclip and 12 trades later he traded for a house. These trades were all conducted without using traditional money to buy and sell things.

I'm not ready to give up on money just yet, but I think there are lessons to learn from those that have made the effort to find creative ways to trade and barter to obtain needed goods and services without using traditional money. There's a nice lady in Germany who has lived without money for several years and a blog about living without money.

With a little creative thinking, I bet we can all come up with ways to barter for things we want without using money to purchase them.  How about using our existing knowledge to teach others valuable skills, or trading elbow grease for items? 

After hearing that many of the employees in my office enjoy gardening, my wife suggested establishing a "trade table" where those who are interested can bring extra or unwanted vegetables to exchange for other vegetables they want or need. I mentioned this to a couple of the gardeners at work and they both agreed it's a nice idea they are eager to pursue. One said they always have extra tomatoes and another has extra ear corn. We had extra cucumbers last year as well that we would have traded for a few tomatoes.

Another idea...what if the three of us helped each other plant their gardens? With three of us working on it I bet could all add a few extra rows of production next year. I think we could reduce the overall time we spend doing it too. More for less sounds pretty good to me.

Rockwool for Seed Starting

I have been using Jiffy peat moss seed starter pellets to start seeds for my basement hydroponics experiments.  I've made several efforts now to use rockwool, but my success rate is terrible. 

I get a 90% germination rate using the peat moss pellets, but I have only achieved a 40% success rate with rockwool.  I don't have an explanation for the significant difference between the two methods, but until I figure it out I guess I'll be sticking to peat moss starter pellets.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Low Carb Dieting

In grade school I was in the high school section of the library and picked up a biography about Jim Ryan, the high school track star from Kansas. It was called Jim Ryan: Master of the Mile. I'm pretty sure it's been out of print for several years, but 28 years ago it was that book that spurred my enthusiasm for running. I dreamed of being a high school track star who would go on to participate in the Olympic Games.  I did earn several varsity letters in track and field and cross-country, but I never achieved elite status like Jim Ryan. I was fit and trim tipping the scales at 162 pounds as a college freshmen. 

I am no longer a runner due to years of arthritis damage and two knee surgeries. I now deal with knee pain on a daily basis.

Unless you know me outside of this website, you may not realize that I've put on a few extra pounds in the last several years. Every year after the holidays I promised myself that I would go on a diet and lose weight, but I never actually did it until this summer.

I picked up a copy of The Dukan Diet and I was losing weight in no time. Dr. Dukan promotes a low carb diet for weight loss wannabes and it actually works. During the first jump start phase I lost nearly 8 pounds in the first week. A friend of mine who has been diabetic for 20 years told me that she could have saved me the  $24.99 and put me on her diet for free. (If I'd only known.)

You don't need to buy a book or even follow a fad diet plan to lose weight. You simply need to reduce the amount of carbs you eat. You can do that fairly easily by increasing the amounts of vegetables you eat and dramatically reducing the amount of bread, rice, pasta, and soft drinks in your daily food intake while drinking more water. 

I can't promise you that you will lose 30 pounds like I did, but I predict you will lose some weight and feel better too. And besides, it will be a good excuse to start growing your own vegetables in the backyard, balcony, basement, or garage!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Willie Nelson's Editorial on the Food System

I have enjoyed listening to country music since the days of eight track tapes, a.m. radio's, and first generation Sony Walkman.  Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Tom T. Hall were regulars on Kansas City's 61 Country station that we listened to all day long whether in the car, in the workshop, or inside the house. We didn't get very good reception on television and for several years didn't even own a working television, so we listened to lots and lots of radio.

Willie Nelson was never a true favorite of mine as a kid and even less so as an adult, but I do recognize his achievements as a song writer, performance artist, and celebrity personality. I don't really agree with his stance on recreational use of certain botanical products, but his recent guest editorial article published on The Huffington Post hits home. 

Mr. Nelson was one of the first supporters of the Farm Aid movement in the 1980's and has launched his own brand of biodiesel, but I didn't realize he has become somewhat of a food activist as well...until today.  His article on Arianna Huffington's popular political blog titled Occupy the Food System sheds light on a problem that has grown into a legitimate threat for the country.  As he explains, with a concentration of the food supply among a handful of companies, it's now more important than ever that we begin to develop our own independent sources of food and that we support others involved in the effort.  The organic famers, CSA proprietors, backyard gardeners, and small farmers deserve our support. It's a double edged sword of sorts.

While the monopolization and, some might even say, exploitation of the food supply has helped bring new products and choices to market for consumers, it is also bringing with it some negative side effects. I think there are benefits to be gained from genetically modified seeds, but I would like to see more disclosure in the market place.  I would like to see retailers offer more choice to consumers that want to have the option to purchase non GMO foods too.  I'd like to see the commericial seed companies ability to dominate certain food crops like soy beans and corn reduced. I'm not convinced that allowing them to patent a food is a good idea. I also think it's unfair that organic farmers farming their land and minding their own business are threatened by GMO seeds and crops that the wind and birds transport into their fields and affecting the independent organic farmer's ability to compete fairly.

Thanks to Willie Nelson for using his notoriety to bring this discussion toward the forefront of the media.  I hope he continues discussing this issue in the media.  I urge you to forward this article and others like it that you run across to your friends and family to encourage them to consider these issues and make their own decisions about the foods they purchase and whether they want to begin growing a portion of the food they are eating.

I don't think we need to eliminate agri-businesses or corporate farming, but I think consumers deserve more input into the process and more choices in how they spend their hard earned money at retailers.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Basement Gardening Project - Day 13

It's been 6 weeks since I started my hydroponic-lettuce-kale-collard-spinach-growing-system in my basement.  The kale and collards are not quite ready to eat, but today we harvested 3 servings of lettuce and spinach for a nice healthy lunch.

Here are some pictures:

Lettuce in the salad spinner
Spinning out the water after washing

Fresh lettuce home grown in Michigan during winter

With some additional toppings and a little Light Rasberry Vinegrette

Friday, December 16, 2011

Worms for Your Garden

I ran across this video tonight on You Tube, but before you watch it I need to add a short disclaimer. I haven't actually tried this method of attracting worms to my outdoor gardening efforts, so I can't say for sure how well it works.  Judging from the video below though, it must be working pretty well.

Collard Greens With Bacon Recipe

I moved to Tennessee from Missouri after college graduation.  Being new to southern style food, I was amazed at the large number of "meat and three" restaurants in the Nashville area. In some areas of town, they seem to be on just about every street corner.

I was in the Army Reserves for 12 years and had drill once a month at a facility located on White Bridge Road in West Nashville behind Nashville Tech.  A group of us often ate lunch at a nearby restaurant that served a choice of meat and a choice of three side items for something like $6.99 for lunch.  The meat was usually country ham, roast beef, and meat loaf.  The side choices were typically black eyed peas, red beans, green beans, rice, corn on the cob, and collard greens. The first time we went there everyone was ordering collards for one of their sides, so I decided to try them too.  I had never eaten them before, but after trying them that first time they became a regular favorite for my monthly lunches on drill weekends.  When in the South, do as Southerners do...or is that Rome?

In the past 20 years, I've eaten collards prepared many, many ways.  They are all basicallly the same with a twist here and there according to the particular region of the country.  My wife has been making collards with bacon pieces using the recipe below for several months. I've found it on many of the typical recipe websites, but I've recently learned that the basic recipe was originally printed in the Wall Street Journal

Here's the version from Simply Recipes:

  • 4 strips thick-sliced bacon, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 TBSP sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Several dashes hot sauce (we leave this out)
  • 1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
  • 2 pounds collard greens, stems removed, sliced into 3-inch-wide strips (can substitute kale or chard)
  • 1 cup chicken broth (or water)*
This can be prepared easily and quickly in a skillet on the stove top.  (Remember to fry the bacon first.)  It's good!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Learning to Grow Collards

My wife and I live in Michigan, which is several states away from our families in Tennessee and Missouri.  We generally exchange gifts with my family during the second weekend in December each year. This year I spent an hour catching up with my eldest uncle, who also does some amateur cattle ranching to supplement his retirement income. We talked about his growing herd of black hereford cattle (who knew?), politics, and eventually the conversation turned to food.

We don't always agree with each other, but we generally gravitate toward common ground during our talks. Putting it all together, so to speak, we ended up agreeing that some of the stress for families who are less fortunate financially than we are, could be reduced if more people learned to grow some of their own food.

It doesn't take a lot of land to grow enough food to supplement several meals a week. And...if you want to get serious about it, you could grow a substantial amount of food in the backyard to reduce the family grocery bill significantly.

What strategy could you use to get started on a small scale to learn the how to's and why not's for growing your own food? Plant some collards.

Collards are easy to grow.
If I can do it, anyone can. They grow like weeds almost.

Collards give you multiple harvests.
You can harvest them once and they'll grow back in a couple weeks.
You can harvest them a second time, a third, or maybe a fourth before they become a little bitter.

Collards grow well in cool weather.
You can plant them early in the spring and again in the late summer to get eight harvests per plant.

They are easy to cook.
Boil them. Cook them in a crock pot. Saute them with some bacon (my favorite). Use your imagination.

Once you get some confidence growing collards, it's easy to add lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, and much more to the backyard food distribution system.

I'll leave out some of the colorful language my uncle used, but to summarize in politically correct terms...growing some of your own food really can save you money and stretch the money you have just a little farther.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

European Nightcrawlers vs. Red Wigglers for Home Composting

Eisenia foetida
I have been composting with worms for almost 3 years in my home.  I started with 1 lb of eisenia foetida and in a two year period I grew that amount to more than 19 lbs. I supplemented my composting efforts with rabbit manure purchased locally from a rabbit farmer to help multiply my worm population faster. If you have lots of worms you also need lots of food for them :-)

After our move from Florida to Michigan, I started my worm composting efforts over from scratch with 1 lb. of eisenia hortensis worms.  If you have never compared the two worms up close here's a quick description based on my experience and observations.

  • 2-3 inches long
  • small and skinny worm
  • eat almost anything
  • tendancy to ball up and group together in the bedding
  • multiply quickly, 1 lb can double in size within a couple of months
  • will compost and reproduce well in temperatures up to 100 degrees air temperature
  • lots of room for error in bedding, they will tolerate poor bedding conditions for short periods of time
  • commercially viable for vermicomposting ventures
  • 5-6 inches long (even longer when extended)
  • fatter worm than EF's
  • a very active worm compared to EF's
  • do not multiply as quickly as EF's, 1 lb can double in size in 5 or 6 months
  • tendancy to roam and will escape if conditions do not suit them
  • favor cooler temperatures
  • favor lots of neutral material in their bedding
  • do not like bedding that heats up
  • do not like bedding that is too wet
  • appear to do well in paper and cardboard bedding with small amounts of food material
  • commerically viable for retail and wholesale sales as a fishing worm
  • less desireable for vermicomposting and home composting, but acceptable
I have no plans to switch back to eisenia foetida for my home composting efforts, but if I do decide to get back into the business of selling worms to other home composting enthusiasts on a small scale I will add EF's back into the equation.

Using T8 Flourescent Lights for Hydroponics

I've been using T8 flourescent lighting in my basement gardening project. I chose T8's because they are inexpensive. At 36 watts, they also use very little electricity. After using the lights for 5 weeks, I have a few observations I'd like to share.

  • Inexpensive price
  • Easily accessible
  • Low energy usage
  • Little heat build-up

  • Low light intensity
  • Short coverage area
  • Low heat build-up
You may have noticed that I mentioned heat build-up as a positive and a negative characteristic of the lights. A larger light with more intensity sometimes requires a cooling fan to ensure safe operation. The T8's low heat characteristics help make these lights safer to use indoors. I am using the lights in my basement where it does tend to be on the cooler side with temperatures in the mid-sixties or sometimes lower during the winter months. A warmer light would probably promote faster growth for my lettuce, spinach, collards, and kale in my deep water culture system, but in my own personal view I'm not sure the increased purchase price for the fixture, long term energy cost, and risk of excessive heat build-up would be worth it. I am personally satisified with the T8's so far. But, as you can see from the picture of the kale and collards below, I need to purchase additional lights to get proper light coverage for a wider area.


These pictures demonstrate growth, but at a much slower rate compared to the spinach and lettuce that are located more directly below the four T8 light bulbs that I am using. I have no doubt that if the kale and collards were located more directly below the T8 bulbs, the growth would be greater.  I plan to add two additional T8 fixtures in the future to improve my results.

Basement Gardening Project - Day 12

We have been out of town for a few days visiting family for the holiday season. The lettuce, spinach, collards, and kale have grown quite a bit while we were gone. Here are a few pictures I took this afternoon.

You can see from these pictures that the net pots are not seated down in these storage containers very far.  That was not my intention when I started building this cheap hydroponic growing system. I purchased a 3 inch holesaw and 3 1/2 inch net pots, so there is a mismatch. When I made this discovery during the construction phase I made the decision to go ahead and use the net pots "as is" rather than spending more money to get 3 inch or 3 1/4 inch net pot (if there is such a thing). I did wrap a single width of electrical tape around the lower portion of the net pot to keep light out of the growing chamber in hopes of reducing potential algae growth. In retrospect, I should have delayed starting my project a few days and purchased the correct size net pots, but I doubt the growth has been impacted much at all.

This photo gives you some insight into how close the vegetation is to the 36 watt T8 bulbs I am using in these inexpensive fixtures purchased at Lowes.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Catfish in a Barrel Tomatoes

If you do a Google search for "catfish in a barrel" you will likely find an article from a 1973 issue of Organic Gardening and Farming about a farmer from Alabama who raised catfish in a barrel doing frequent water changes to keep them alive.

I recently ran across a modern version of this concept on You Tube. The first video shows the system shortly after it was set up.

The second video shows the growth on the tomato plant after two weeks. 

You can read more about this project / experiment at Clark's Homestead on the web.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Basement Gardening: Vermiponics

If you have been following along with my budget minded hydroponics project, you have probably wondered whether buying nutrients really qualifies. For $20 a quart, I've been wondering that too. Rest assured that my long range plan does not include purchasing nutrients. I plan to add vermicompost (i.e. worm castings) to my deep water culture beds in place of the expensive hydroponics nutrients. I simply started with the nutrients to validate that the other parts of my system (lights, aeration, etc.) would work properly.

I have a spare deep water culture bin that I'm not using at present and a spare air pump so it's time for a vermiponics experiment. Rather than starting my project by putting the worms directly in the bins, I'm going to let the worms reside in the vertical worm bin tray system I have been using for a few years, and place the worm castings in a paint strainer bag inside the aerated deep water culture bins. I think it will work, but I won't know for sure until I try it. I love experiments!

Stay tuned for future updates.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter Gardening with High Tunnels

In many areas of the country it's too cold to garden after mid-October.  A few hard core enthusiasts move their gardening efforts indoors to a basement or garage, but most put away the rakes and hoes until spring time. It doesn't have to be that way. By using a 'high tunnel' it's possible to garden year round (most places).

Johnny's Seeds wrote a recent blog post about using commonly available chain link fence metal poles to build a tunnel over your garden to extend the growing season. Think of it as a version of portable greenhouses.  As an additional source of information including a cost sheet and estimates for monetary return for farmers is provided by the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Basement Gardening Project - Day 11

My deep water culture hydroponic bubbler project just passed the fourth week. Things are really growing now.  It took a little while to get the momentum moving, but weeks three and four have been tremendous.  

Lettuce in the foreground spinach nearest the camera

(Here are some pictures from Week 3 for comparison purposes.)

It's hard to know exactly, but I think this round of growth has been influenced by several factors:
  • Root Rrowth - the roots are beginning to extend far below the water line
  • Lighting - last week I lowered the T8 lights to within 1/2 inch to 1 inch of the vegetation
  • Air Bubblers - I adjusted the timing cycle so that the bubblers are on 24 hours a day
It shouldn't be too long before we have the first lettuce and spinach harvest, but the collards and kale are a little behind the curve. I attribute the lag to the lights not reaching far enough with enough intensity to penetrate the outer edges of my growing beds. When I replant this spring I'm going to re-configure the overhead lighting and add an additional light T8 light bar to get proper coverage over all 4 growing beds.