In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Ceci N’est Pas Une Diet Blog

I know, I know, I’ve been blogging about food and diet a lot lately.

Just a reminder, this is NOT a diet blog, even though it looks like one from time to time.  Or a lot, even.

This is a personal productivity and effectiveness blog.  It’s an exploring-ways-to-be-more-awesome blog. It’s a getting the most out of the short time we have on this planet blog. Finding ways to do things smarter, not harder.

The best way to know if things are getting better, is to have metrics that you can record over time. This allows you to make small adjustments, measure results, and then change accordingly to see if the numbers are reflecting the desired change. To do this effectively, you need to have a good starting baseline.

One my consistent failings in all my year’s gardening has been tracking yield. My beloved journal/calendar/diary keeps me straight on timing, but I have no way to know if things like succession planting or different vegetable varieties is really impacting my yield.

This year, I’m committed to better tracking to establish that baseline. To that end: behold! My first measurable garden output of the year!

Asparagus fresh from the backyard

Asparagus fresh from the backyard

(Note this is not “subsistence farming” or even significantly impacting my grocery budget – this much asparagus sells right now for probably 5 USD or less.  Frankly, if it’s in season for your home garden, it’s in season for the farmers around you, and they have economies of scale which allow them to sell the same produce for WAY less than it costs you to grow it yourself. But a backyard garden is noble and worthy for other reasons… probably that will be (yet another) future blog post.)


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Garden Progress March 2015

For some reason, I feel more urgency to garden this year than I have in the past. I was blaming the lingering cold and snow – nothing like being unable to start working to make you feel like you need to work!  I mean, it’s almost April. I am so. Far. Behind.

Then I checked my garden calendar from the past two years. Each of them, 2014 and 2013, had snows after March 21st. And in neither year did I even plant the first peas before the first weekend of April. So. This frantic feeling like I’m falling behind has it’s basis in… what? Possibly the shiny new detailed WVU Extension Service 2015 Garden Calendar I picked up for free at a local shop. (Local-ish, I’m near zone C in their map.)

The Calendar says right that I should be seeding things in cold frames or low tunnels, planting onion sets, seeding peas and radishes, and well, everything besides what I am actually doing: blogging about everything I haven’t started doing.

The fact that I did not “put away” my garden last fall is contributing to the panic because I am even farther “behind” considering all the clean up work I had to do. On the other hand, when I finally inspected the garden, I realized all was not lost!

Two caraflex cabbages survived the crazy winter in the cold frame. (The two left most plants in the photo – I still haven’t figured out what the rest of that is.)

Life lurking in the cold frame

Life lurking in the cold frame

I had a “low tunnel” – my first attempt at one – covered in plastic for most of the winter, though a bad storm in February shredded the plastic and exposed all the plant life. Somehow, parsnips (top) and leeks (bottom) survived the ongoing cold.  And yes, in the upper left, those are two carrots I pulled from the bed intact.  No, I didn’t try to eat them!

Life after the winter

Leeks and parsnips oh my!

This is all that remains of my strawberries. This is what happens when you don’t cover them with straw and deer netting (the netting you see there was added last week). The cold and the marauding deer population took their toll!

Nearly empty strawberry bed.

All that remains of my strawberries.

 

I have started some seeds indoors. Following the WVU Calendar. Apparently I started these tomatoes TOO soon though. I’ve got at least a month and a half before these guys can be planted in the garden, and they are already out of room under my grow lights.

Tomatoes outgrowing my grow rack

My tomatoes…compensating for my other inadequacies.

 


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The Limits of Repurposing Stuff

This spring’s lesson: don’t repurpose excess Dixie cups for starting seeds.

The wrong container for starting seeds

Man that’s gross

Seriously. Ewww. The last thing we want around baby plants is this much mold.

Now, emptied K-cups make a great holder for the hydrated peat pellets – they even have a built in hole, whereas I had to (carefully) punch a hole in the bottom of the water cups. But they were very small and all my baby plants quickly out grew them, making them almost more hassle than it was worth.

Maybe some year I’ll break down and buy some “professional” seed starting equipment… Naaaah, probably not.


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Annual Garden Update, The Third

I’m falling behind with my posts. Again. I have so much I want to write, and so little opportunity to sit still at a computer screen. Luckily (I guess?) I recently decided to make my blog more focused on content which is either informative or inspirational, because that’s what I like to read on other people’s blogs. Less of the navel-gazing, more useful content. At least, that’s my plan!

Anyway, this garden update will cover my various berries endeavors.   Starting with: blueberries!  (And a fig.)  Last year, these guys were all in containers.  Then the particularly cold winter killed them all… well, OK, truth in blogging – it was the cold winter plus the fact that the containers did not have any holes in the bottom for water to drain out. So the plants were already compromised health-wise, and then the winter basically did them in.  All but the “Farthing” blueberry in the back. The rest are replacements.

Blueberry bushes

Blueberry bushes

Same for the fig in front.  He is the only one planted in a container still, though sunken into the ground.  This helps constrain the root growth so the fig puts more energy into growing the branches, leaves and fruit. The previous fig also died from the cold winter.

Here’s a side view of my raspberries. This year I have much more aggressively pruned them and trained them in tight rows, held in place by wire. This approach has increased my harvest HUGELY because it’s so much easier to pick the fruit in the middle of the bed without getting scratched to death. I have had much fewer “raspberry kisses” this year than previously. “Raspberry kisses” is my term for those teensy splinters that you can’t see but make your flesh swell up around them so a day or so later you know exactly where they are.

Trellised Raspberries

Trellised Raspberries

I use a pruning method that produces two crops a year, described on page four of this article.  The spring/early summer crop just wrapped up, and the fall crop of  berries are already getting huge but not yet turning ripe. Any day now!

New this year: blackberries! Well, not technically new.  Last year we planted to blackberry bushes, and the instructions clearly said not to let them fruit the first year. So this is the first year with fruit. I tried training them the same as the raspberries, but blackberry canes grow in all sorts of weird directions from all sorts of unlikely places, so they became quite chaotic as the spring went on. Also, they were/are so heavily loaded with fruit that the branches often break and the fruit dies. Strangely enough, I haven’t found any sites about how to deal with too many blackberries!  Next year I may prune off the weaker canes so there isn’t as much fruit. Maybe.

Loaded blackberries

Loaded blackberries

The blackberries started ripening just as the raspberries started petering out, so the timing was impeccable.

Also: blackberries really are weeds. So wherever the canes grew so long that they bent over and touched the ground, that spot developed roots and became its own plant! So now I have two beds of blackberries, plus at least one plant in the walkway between.  So next year we’ll have as big an area producing blackberries as currently produce raspberries. Oh, and because of the chaotic nature of blackberry growth I have NO clue which plants came from the Navajo and which from the Cumberland.

New (volunteer!) blackberry plants

New (volunteer!) blackberry plants

Not pictured: my strawberries. The ones in front of the house started producing ripe fruit in mid-May; the ones in the garden, late May to early June. The crops weren’t great due to bugs and the very wet spring which created a lot of mold issues, particularly in the raised bed which never seemed to dry out.  The strawberries plants look awful this time of year – all sunburnt from hot days and chewed up by the terrible Japanese beetle infestation we’ve been suffering.  Next year we’re going to grow strawberries in elevated containers, so the fruit hangs from the side rather than sitting in dirt and ick. I need to start catching the daughter plants so we’ll have our own cuttings to help fill in the new structure.


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Annual Garden Update, Post B

It’s taking me a lot longer to post all my garden updates than I expected it would. Many of my photos are a week or two old now, and don’t really reflect how my garden looks it is ever evolving. I will try finish as many posts as possible in the next few days, otherwise it will be fall and I’ll be writing in the past tense!

Today’s post: Cucurbitaceae! The biggest change with squash this year was the varieties I planted.  Because Squash Vine Borers destroyed my yellow squash, zucchini and acorn squash last year, this year I planted solid-stemmed varieties, which gives the SVB nowhere for their larvae to grow, and (hopefully) preserves the plant. I still have seen quite a few adults, but mostly my vines seem unaffected so far.   ….which was the point!

First and foremost – the Trombetta squash.  Apparently this guy is actually a ‘gourd’, but if you eat the fruit when it’s still young, it works like yellow squash or zucchini in recipes.

Trombetta Squash

Trombetta Squash – Front View of Box

We’ve also got swanky new trellises for them to climb, made of PVC and plastic fence so it can be reused multiple years.  Here’s a few from behind the box – we added hemp twine between the trellises so the trombetta could continue to grow since it WAY outclassed the trellis!  (It has since passed the cucumber trellis, and is continuing to grow!)

Trombetta Squash

Trombetta Squash, making their escape!

This is a photo from a few days ago (as opposed to the others which were from over a week ago, so you can see a trombetta squash in its full glory.  (I have since planted some summer lettuce in the shade of the trombetta trellis.)

Trombetta Squash

Trombetta Squash fruit ready to pick!

It was picked shortly after this photo – 2 feet long, over 1 1/2 lbs of squashy goodness!

Here are the cucumbers. We planted a mix of ‘regular’ salad type cucumbers and picking cukes as I have determined that pickling and fermenting (rather than canning) is my favorite way to preserve produce. Well, or freezing. But frozen cucumbers? Ew.  I have almost enough cucumbers to pickle now, in fact, and plan on trying this recipe.  Mmmmm, homemade pickles!

Cucumbers

Cucumbers on a trellis

We have had some problems with the cucumber fruit not setting, probably due to fertilization issues. Not sure why, but there are very few honey bees in our garden this year.  The ones who do show up go for the cover in the lawn, rather than the yummy flowers in the garden. Oh well. The problem wasn’t so bad that I had to try fertilizing by hand.  We’ve had some issues with cucumber beetles also, but so far they haven’t done too much damage.

Underside of the cucumbers – nappa cabbage and cauliflower, which isn’t producing a head for some strange reason – none of them are. Topic for another post, probably!

Random cauliflower and cabbage under the cucumbers.

Random cauliflower and cabbage under the cucumbers.

We also planted a solid-stemmed winter squash: a miniature butternut squash called “Honey Nut”. The mature fruit are about the size of an acorn squash.

Miniature butternut - "honey nut"

Miniature butternut – “honey nut”

The butternut did need some extra hand fertilization, unfortunately. Probably more than I have actually given it!  Here’s a close-up of the fruit:

A baby honey nut butternut squash!

A baby honey nut butternut squash!

And what’s growing under the trellis:

Cauliflower and borage

Cauliflowers and borage flowers growing under the butternut

Last but not least, we bought a little pop up greenhouse, in which we’re trying  to grow yellow squash and zucchini, protected from the ravages of the SVB.  Unfortunately this also means protected from bugs that can fertilize them so these we have tried pollinating by hand.  …so far we’re not very good at it. It shouldn’t be that hard, but there seems to be a timing issue we haven’t gotten the hang of yet.

Regular yellow squash and zucchinis, protected in the greenhouse

Regular yellow squash and zucchinis, protected in the greenhouse


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Annual Garden Update, Part 1

One of my longest ongoing performance improvement projects is, of course, my garden. As such, I figured I should post a few updates about my garden, including how I’ve improved some approaches to make my garden “better” this year. “Better” as measured for my garden includes higher yields and better quality output.

Update 1: tomatoes! They have the most radical “improvement” – or at least, I am hoping it will be an improvement. I haven’t harvested any tomatoes yet, but I am hopeful.

I am following the radical guidance in the “Tomato Secrets” article from a recent issue of BackHome Magazine which promotes a very aggressive pruning strategy but only for the leaves. The suckers that grow in the “crotch” or join between the main stem and a leaf – those get to stay, because a lot of times they do produce fruit if you let them go long enough. This is backwards from most pruning guides and my tomatoes look very awkward and leggy as a result. But I’m happy to try anything (well, almost anything), at least once.

These jelly bean tomatoes are being woven back and forth through painted PVC bars for support. Last year we used a wooden trellis that had to be destroyed at the end of the year because it had weathered so badly. Hoping that the PVC structure can be reused over multiple years, reducing the cost and time to set up each year.

A jellybean grape tomato, woven between cross bars for support

A jellybean grape tomato, woven between cross bars for support

Here’s another view. All the “salad” tomatoes (three jelly beans and one sun sugar cherry) are trained up this trellis. Once they reach the top, they should trail across the top and perhaps even down the other side… maybe! Another big difference between last year’s trellis and this year’s – this one is short enough I can reach the top. Last year I had to use a ladder to reach tomatoes at the top. This year, yield should be improved just because I’ll actually be able to reach everything!  (Also, notice the peppers in the center of the structure.)

Weaving cherry and grape tomatoes through bars for support

Weaving cherry and grape tomatoes through bars for support

For the slicing tomatoes (a San Marzano roma, a Better Boy hybrid and a beefsteak hybrid), we re-used the “artificial fence” concept from last year. Although we did change it up, using plastic “chicken” fence with much smaller holes than last year. This gives me more options on where to tie off the tomatoes for support.  This view shows the San Marzano (which is indeterminate – all my tomatoes are indeterminate this year).

A San Marzano Roma tomato, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

A San Marzano Roma tomato, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

This view shows the Better Boy (left) and Beefsteak (right). Both are still very “leafy” because the BackHome article is very clear – once fruit has set and is about the size of a pea, you remove all the leaves below that. Well, each of these plants has only set a few fruit, near the bottom!

Two slicing tomato plants, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

Two slicing tomato plants, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

Last but not least, our other major change this year: a cute popup greenhouse. (Which may not survive the year, given the nasty storms we’ve already had this summer.)  Three tomatoes are in containers in the greenhouse, to protect them from the fluctuations of local rainfall and the ravages of the wind. Oh yeah, and tomato hornworms.

Another beefsteak, this one in the greenhouse:

A hybrid slicing tomato plant in the greenhouse

A hybrid slicing tomato plant in the greenhouse

A family portrait: two more San Marzano Romas.

Two roma tomato plants in our greenhouse

Two roma tomato plants in our greenhouse

There are two other tomatoes which aren’t shown here. One, whose variety I forgot, is in a container on our back deck. The other “volunteered” in the middle of our strawberry patch, and I didn’t have the heart to pull it up after it had grown big enough for me to realize it was there!