Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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How to Deal with Extremely Root Bound Plants

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First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others.  Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellant. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short.  You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.

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Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves.  In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts.  These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually  a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off.  Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently,  to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up.  If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

[ETA: One of our readers reminds me that another way to up your chances of success is to trim back the foliage of the plant. Fewer leaves means it will need less water, and can spend more energy growing new roots.]

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

Food Preservation Disasters

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It’s ain’t 24/7 kittens and rainbows at the Root Simple compound. We do have our homesteading disasters. I was reminded of this after I emptied a box full of failed home preservation projects and contemplated a stinky trash can filled with a slurry of bad pickles and too-loose jams.

Of course you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet and, in the interest of learning from mistakes, I thought I’d review two lessons learned.

Not Using Tested Recipes
I vow to use tested recipes from trusted sources. Both for food safety reasons and culinary reasons, it’s a good idea to use trusted sources for home preservation projects. Some of the recipes I tried were from unfamiliar books and dubious websites. Some sources I’ve come to trust:

Between those two sources I’ve got just about all the recipes I need.

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One Ring to rule them all
When you’re done processing jars and they’ve cooled down, remove the screw bands. Why?

  • So you can clean underneath the band to prevent spoilage and bugs.
  • The screw band can create a false seal.
  • Leaving the screw bands on can cause corrosion.

That’s advice from our own blog and yet I failed, for some reason, to remove the bands on many of the jars I emptied. I found all three of the above problems as a result.

Have you had any epic food preservation disasters?

Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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On Shoddy Workmanship

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An engraving by William Morris. Note the skunk proofing.

You’re in a hurry. You’re frustrated and impatient. You say to yourself, “I don’t really need to secure this skunk proofing, my vegetables will be fine.” You might call it shoddy workmanship. I call it half-ass-itis. I’d say it’s the number one sin of the DIYer and I always know when I’m doing it.

There are those whose personality tends towards careful and elegant craftsmanship. You’ve probably met such a person. They craft their own musical instruments and win the blue ribbon at the county fair for their perfectly textured quince jam. I’m not that person (I’m more like this NSFW video). But we have freedom of choice. That’s what makes us human. We can change.

I had a rude reminder of my shoddy workmanship the other night when skunks breached poorly secured bird netting that protected a newly planted bed of vegetables. But at least I can do a better job of securing my skunk proofing as a start. Step by step, I vow to pay more attention to details. Otherwise they’ll be no home grown vegetables this winter.

Craftsmanship is not to be confused with perfectionism. A craftsperson is not afraid to make mistakes, to fail and to learn from setbacks. But to cut corners and know you’re taking an easy shortcut is to fall into halfassitis mode.

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Morris’ craftsmanship was a reaction to the newly industrialized world. I can’t think of a better role model for countering halfassitis thinking.

Do you suffer from halfassitis or are you a detail person? Comments!

Gardening Mistake #12: The Annual That Ate Your Backyard!

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Is that a lavender bush cowering under the monster squash leaves?

I just thought of another mistake: allowing annuals, whether they be volunteers or valued vegetables, to overrun the garden and smother your perennial plants. This happens to us more than we’d care to admit.

It’s really easy to miss. In the spring, you’re so happy to see lush growth erupting all over your yard, that you’re not looking at it with a critical eye. Also, plants are sneaky. One day they’re nowhere near that little sage seedling you planted, the next day, they’ve swallowed it, and you’ve forgotten it was even there– and you won’t remember until you find its sad, withered skeleton when you’re cleaning out the faded annuals at the end of the season.

Generally, our worst culprit is the rampant nasturtium. This year, though, the serial killer prize goes to our meandering squash plants, which are doing their best to cover everything in our yard less than knee high with their 15″ leaves.

This morning I wanted to cut back a squash vine which had done some damage to a patch of yarrow and was reaching for my succulent zone. Erik threw his body across it and said I’d have to prune him first. As we all know, he’s a little crazy when it comes to squash.  I want a plaque inscribed above the garden gate: “Perennials Before Annuals. That is the Whole of the Law.”

Have you lost plants to rampant annuals?

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And by the way, I’ve given up on entering our back shed ’til harvest.

Make that 11 Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

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In my post, Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes, several readers and Mrs. Homegrown pointed out that I left out “inconsistent watering.”

I plead guilty. I would also suggest an “absentminded” watering category, such as setting up a irrigation system on a timer and not adjusting it throughout the season.

And those of us in dry climates could also be better about selecting and saving seeds for drought tolerance. Gary Paul Nabhan and the folks at Native Seed Search are working diligently on this problem.

Now excuse me while I go check on my drip system . . .

Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

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Not ready for Martha Stewart: our front yard vegetable bed.*

Some of the worst meltdowns and temper tantrums of my adult life have their origins in failed vegetable gardening projects. I thought I’d list off my top ten vegetable gardening misadventures  so that you don’t have to repeat them.

1. Not paying attention to soil fertility
This is my number one mistake. Most vegetables suck up a lot of nutrients. They need lots of compost and a source of nitrogen (fertilizer, manure or a rotation of beans). The difference between our prodigious straw bale garden, which got a lot of blood meal and fish emulsion to get it going, and our obviously depleted front yard raised beds highlights this common error. I  have to do more soil tests and remember to add nutrients (most likely nitrogen) before even thinking about planting veggies.

2. Planting at the wrong time of year
It took us awhile to find the right sources of information to guide us as to when to plant in our quirky Mediterranean climate (see this calendar and this book if you’re in SoCal). Seed package directions are useless here (what’s a frost date?). But, in fact, all climates have their quirks. Even two sides of the same town might have different planting dates. You have to find experienced gardeners and sources especially in places with either year round growing seasons or very short growing seasons. Ultimately, all gardening advice is local.

3. Planting things that don’t do well in our climate
Yes you can grow almost anything here, but that doesn’t mean you should. Carrots don’t like clay soils and warm temperatures. Cabbage gets lots of pests here. Some veggies are best to outsource to the professionals at the farmer’s market.

4. Not having a plan
My brain, to put it politely, is non-linear. If I were to overcome that cognitive flaw and plan out how much and where things should be planted I’d have both a steady supply of produce as well as a more attractive garden.

5. Not labeling plants
What kind of okra is that? I have no damned idea. Too bad when I want to plant it again next year. All it takes is a sharpie and a plastic knife to fix this problem.

6. Not keeping a garden diary
The two most important things to know are when something was planted and when the first and last harvests took place. With this data you can plan out next years garden more easily. Some other things to note: how did it taste and were their any pest problems?

7. Not staggering planting
I guess this is why canning was invented, but it really would be nice to have a continuous supply of veggies rather than a ton all at once. Stagger planting by two weeks, for most vegetables and you won’t have the feast or famine effect.

8. Growing things we don’t like to eat
We had a hell of a lot of turnip gratin one winter.

9. Missing the harvest
This is the most heartbreaking for me. Suddenly there’s a bunch of tasty heirloom vegetables ready to harvest. But . . . I’m going on a trip, or I’m too busy to cook . . . or I’m just too lazy to cook form scratch. It reminds me of a quip beekeeper Kirk Anderson made about beekeeping. Beekeeping, Anderson said, is like going to the bathroom, “When Mother Nature calls you’ve gotta go.”

10. Meltdowns
Vegetable gardening requires the patience of the Buddha. Crap is going to happen and you just have to accept that. Bad weather, bug infestations, marauding skunks and absentmindedness will intervene in even the best planned vegetable garden. I have at least two major meltdowns a year. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to change.

Did I leave anything out? What mistakes have you made in your vegetable garden?

ETA: See Rule 11

*A note from Mrs. H. re: the top photo: Argh! Erik likes to be melodramatic with the pictures. Let me explain. This bed was indeed not a success. It needs soil inputs, and perhaps is hosting nematodes, so the seedlings didn’t thrive. This we realized way back in the spring. So we decided to just let that bed go for the rest of the summer and focus on the straw bales. That photo above is what a bed looks like after sitting neglected all summer long–it’s not the fruit of our best gardening efforts, or even the result of a pitched struggle. (But it did make a few tomatoes, bless it!) As soon as it cools down here I’m going to attend to that soil and bring it back to life.

Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

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