In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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The Philosophy of Salads

Company is coming for dinner. Which means spaghetti (to keep cooking simple), and a huge salad in the style of a “certain Italian chain restaurant” (which is not so simple).
The chickweed is long dead, thanks to the Arctic chill that has enveloped our area for the past two weeks. Plus, who feeds yard weeds to company? What will people think? My “lettuce bowl” attempt for indoor leafy harvests utterly failed too, so I am to buying salad fixings from the grocery store. Read: reduced to buying… yes, you guessed it… bagged lettuce. The horror! The shame! (I grabbed two.)
Next: tomatoes. One display featured tomatoes from Canada; the other, from Mexico. And I wondered, which option destroys the environment less? The produce from Canada, with a shorter shipping distance but more electricity for heat and light to grow out-of-season tomatoes? Or the ones from Mexico, closer to the tomato’s natural requirements for warmth and sun, but further away from me, the consumer? The conflict! The guilt! (There are no “good” tomatoes in January, so I snagged the three which looked least sad.)
Sad tomatoes in January

Sad tomatoes in January

This is a trick question, of course. The “right” answer is that in the Piedmont region of Maryland, in January, after two weeks of nighttime lows in the single digits and wind chills well below zero, one does not expect lettuce and tomatoes. They are not native to here and now. They would not be except for the cheap energy that fuels our modern American expectations and consumption habits.
Learn from my folly, dear friends! An equally delicious, much healthier (and much more sustainable) winter salad for company could include:
  • cubed, roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash
  • on a bed of torn kale,
  • garnished variously with goat’s cheese, pumpkin seeds, thinly sliced red onions, pickled beets, dried cherries, and/or chopped walnuts, and
  • dressed with a simple vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, walnut oil, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey and rosemary or other herbs.
All these ingredients could, could, be grown and produced locally to the Mountain/Piedmont regions of Maryland, and preserved in such as way as to be available for eating, even in this brutal weather.
Now, I just need to remember that for next time!
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My Cold Season Salad Greens

I forgot to mention that earlier this year, I swore off store-bought lettuce & salad greens, especially the prewashed-mixed-leaves-in-a-plastic-bag variety.

Let me be perfectly clear – these pristine baggies used to represent for me all that was healthy and good for you. Salads for all! No excuses, it’s so convenient! Look at this variety of dark leafy vegetables, what’s not to love?

After reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, bagged leaf lettuce in the store morphed from the ultimate health food to the posterchild for industrial agribusiness (organic or otherwise), and a symbol for what I am ever so gradually trying to get away from. Like so many “convenience” items, savings for me meant higher externalized costs elsewhere, namely in the consumption of fossil fuels. No more! During the summer, I got my fix through what I could grow, supplemented by the occasional head of leaf lettuce from one of the local farmers markets.

Let’s be brutally honest. No lettuce producers noticed my protest. No, my actions haven’t changed the world. It’s a purely symbolic move, but dammit, lettuce is one thing I can provide for myself!

At least, until I couldn’t.

Given the untimely demise of my winter garden, I had to find another way to boycott bags of leafy greens.

Behold: chickweed!

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Bountiful Beautiful Chickweed

Mild flavored, crisp textured – a perfect substitute for my salad green needs. Did I mention – extremely cold tolerant? And that it’s a prolific weed that actually grows in thicker when I harvest cuttings from several plants, rather than pulling individual plants up by the roots?

What’s not to love, indeed? Let the store-bought salad greens boycott continue!


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And Just Like That, We’re Done

Today I Learned … don’t ever, ever trust the weather forecast.

It said the low would be 32 overnight. Everything in my winter bed is hardy to 28 or so. Says I to myself, if they are wrong by a few degrees, no big deal. I chose not to cover the bed with a row cover.

I chose poorly.

They were wrong by NINE degrees. The outdoor thermometer says 23 F. The bed survived one night at 26 with really bad burns on most of the kale. I can’t even bear to look at it today.

*sobs*

Well, next year by this time I will have a low tunnel installed over the winter bed, with actual greenhouse film covering it so I can leave it in place during the day. (The doubled row cover blocks too much of the weak fall sun.)  No experience is ever wasted if you learn from it, right?

Right?

*sobs*


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Green Tomato Salsa

A.k.a., what to do with all the unripe tomatoes when cold weather hits.

Chop green tomatoes. Add diced garlic, diced red onion, hot peppers (another “harvest before it freezes outside crop”), and cilantro (also salvaged pre-freezing weather). Let stand for a few hours, stirring occasionally. Add additional seasonings to taste – more of any of the ingredients, and / or salt, pepper, lime juice. Whatever you like, it’s your salsa after all!


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The Reveal

Two days ago, the forecast called for temperatures to drop into the 20s. In fact, the low hit 16 at my house. I had only two layers of row cover on my winter bed… Each layer is maybe good for 4 degrees, so it might not have been enough protection since I’d prepared it for “just” a low of 20.

Last night the temps reached 26. To be safe, I left the cover on all day yesterday. I finally removed it today, once the temps had warmed above freezing.

Voilá!

Winter gardening - following our first hard freeze

The beets looked pathetic – we’ll see if they bounce back in a few days – but everything else seems to have survived ok! A few burned leaves here and there, nothing life threatening! Much better than I was hoping for, given how cold it really got.


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The Official End of… Wait, What?

November 10, and we still haven’t had a serious frost in my immediate area. (Average date of first frost locally is October 15.) Got close a few times, but even my cherry tomatoes and pepper plants are clinging to life.

No more. Tonight, the temperature is forecasted to drop as low as 20. According to the radio reports, “Gardening season is officially over.”

…or is it?

Meet my winter raised bed! This is my latest (and so far, most serious) attempt at a “four season harvest”. Blame / credit goes to Nikki Jabour’s book The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, which I found particularly inspiring as fall reading.

I planted the bed with cold hardy crops – shorter greens (like spinach and upland cress) on the edge of the bed, taller plants like kale and leeks in the center.

I’ve engineered wind breaks to help protect the box further – wind burn being even more damaging to plants than low temperatures – and tucked it in for the night with a double layer of row cover.

The pea gravel anchoring the fabric edges gave the tightest closure we’ve ever achieved. Landscaping staples always seem to leave slack which eventually loosens in the wind and allows deadly drafts.

Here’s hoping for mid-winter bounty!

P.S., the full list of plants is as follows: spinach, upland cress, beets, turnips, radishes (including daikon), lettuce, leeks and kale. I also planted carrots but they failed to germinate.