Category Archives: Growing and gardening

Putting gutter on the Greenhouse

This has got to be a crazy people idea:  Cover a whole bunch of plants with a plastic roof, that keeps the rain out, and then, pump water in to them.  Or in my case, carry water.  When you think about that, it just doesn´t make sense.

Last year I emptied a well into my greenhouse, by hand (off-grid), and it could have happily absorbed two more wells worth.

This can´t go on, I thought (dreading another summer of schlepping water).

So, I figured out how to put eavestrough on a greenhouse, to catch the water, to put it back into the greenhouse.  Slightly less crazy.  Easier than taking the skin off every time it rains, which honestly would be my first choice, if it were practical. Until they invent one-way 5 mil plastic.

I doubt I´m the first to think this up , but I didn´t google it because I preferred to figure it out for myself (go ahead and google it now).  I didn´t want to know how other people´ve done it.   Much as that might have made it easier or faster. This is how I did.

First unsecure the bottom of the long side of plastic and undo the wiggle wire up the side.

In my case I redid all the wiggle wire on the side/gables in order to take a layer of plastic off.  In my style of off-grid, I´ve got no business having an inflated greenhouse.  Although I made it work, it just never made sense.  Most of the time it wasn´t inflated.  Now I´m saving the second layer of plastic for when my greenhouse needs its next skin. 

Essentially I installed a lip part way up the wall, creating a drip edge to catch the water from.

I ripped 2x4s (all rough cut for me) with a bevel and screwed them on to the top of a 1×6.  2″ screws, from the 1×6 side into the beveled strip. I did this in advance- measuring the overall length, so that I could lift each piece into place.

I cut through the exposed wiggle wire track on the side- only had to remove one screw, and cut out a four inch gap.

It´s four inches because the top track comes down over the 2×2

That bottom piece of track gets screwed into the rib again

When I measured each end, I made a four-inch overall drop.  35″ inches from the base on one end, 39″ at the other end.

So I lifted my prepared 1×6 piece into place, propped it up to attach the end, and then secured it, and its mates, to the ribs of the greenhouse with plumbing strap, eyeballing for  a nice straight line.

Plumbing strap is a bit hokey; I´ll get some of the proper brackets next time one of us in the area is ordering greenhouse parts.

My three pieces of 1×6 (36´overall greenhouse) were set up to overlap, so that on install, I could attach them.  Then I didn´t have to think about where the ribs landed.

How it looks from the inside.

That´s the bulk of the work- the wood.

Back to the outside, I put 1×4 strapping under the drip ledge and screwed that down.  I chose 1×4 to have 4″ of surface to mount the gutter on, and to have some room to play with the slope. Hence 1×6 behind the plastic.

This tightened up the skin quite nicely.  The wiggle wire goes back in now too.

Then the base securing goes back in:

The addition for gutter uses up about 2″ more of the plastic, but if you have less than 2″ of plastic at the base, you´ve got bigger problems (unless you trimmed it, oh well).

When I built this, I dug a shallow ditch and buried a strip of hardware cloth against the base.  Some squirrels and chipmunks have dug around my barrier, but it´s holding up very well.  I haven´t seen that since I built it.

Install the gutter, and voila!

I used vinyl gutter with brackets that you can lift off of their little mounting hook.  I´ll definitely be removing the gutter before any snow comes!

The greenhouse has never looked so good, now the plastic is more taut.

I´ve got two downspouts (with two elbows each side), to direct water into a stock tank, with has a threaded plug, which with a pipe-hose adapter I can put a garden hose on, and then put the water back into the greenhouse.  The guineas are inspecting.

Doesn´t that look good?  I thought so too.

I felt good and smug for about two hours until the rain came.  I´d been racing the forecast, determined to catch all the mm that were on the way.

I got up in the night to go check on everything.

The water was running the wrong way!  That is, what little water it was catching.  Slope could be fixed (I do need the 4″ of the 1×4  to play with), but there was a bigger problem- the water coming down the plastic wall was turning the corner of the lip, following back (as water does) and soaking into the 1×4, not falling in the gutter.  I should have seen that coming.  I should have seen that coming.

I stayed awake for at least an hour until I could figure out how to fix it.  Not simple, but it should work.

The only way was to take off that ripped 2×2 and change the angle on it.

This time the base didn´t have to come off, just the gutter, and the 1×4, and the wiggle wire on the ends.

Significant wrinkle- on the inside, I was using 2″ screws for the plumbing strap, through the 1×6 into the 2×2, for strength.  But now the 2×2 had to come off.  All 13 ribs!

Clamps came in handy, I backed out the screws, and I marked the wood against each rib.  I took the opportunity to adjust it all for more slope while I was reinstalling.

Also because I didn´t undo the bottom (the better to keep curious chickens out), once I got all the 2x2s detached, I had to pass them out the end.  And back in.

I put them all through the table saw again and put a bevel on the second side, creating an acute angle for the drip edge.

Slid them back under the plastic and reinstalled.

Now the business edge is sharp and angled down.

Waited for rain, now with less confidence.  Still didn´t work.

These pictures don´t quite show it.  There is a full inch of overhang on that lip, and then the gutter mounting holds the gutter out 1/4″, so there is 3/4″ of lip hanging over the gutter.  Not enough.

The water comes down, turns the corner and travels for about 1/2″, now neatly dripping on the back edge of the eavestrough, or  right behind it. Don´t underestimate the power of surface tension.

One more tackle.  I thought about cutting ditches in the wood to recess the gutter mounting into, to suck the gutter right against the wood, but opted instead to screw on a strip of aluminum flat flashing, to kick the water farther out into the middle of the gutter.

Success!

Totally works.

Adding the flashing was the easiest part of all; took, like a blink.  I got a roll of 6″ flat stock, cut it in half lengthwise (to 3″ wide), and I meant to put a bend in it and screw it into the 1×4, but instead I left it flat, and in one length, and tucked it between the plastic lip and the top of the 1×4, and put in just a few screws, pointed up, into the twice-ripped 2×2 component.

My conclusion is that this is pretty ideal, and despite having made it up along the way, I wouldn´t do it over differently (except putting two angles on the 2×2 on the first pass- definitely do that).  It´s usually much more straightforward to cut the wood right in the first place.

With the wood alone, it would be next to impossible to get enough lip protruding to shed water well – wood is heavy and that would get too bulky to hang off the greenhouse ribs.  The flashing is essential, and the 2×2 is perfect for adding it to.

Cost of about $400CA for gutter, wood, and flashing.

 

 

 

 

 

The green mist

I´ve been waiting for this.  Our wonderful neighbour came back and gave the field another pass with the tiller, and brought his hand seeder too (which I loved!).

Now the green mist has appeared on the ground.  In this case the early spears are oats, which were supposed to be planted sparsely, for a shade cover.

If you look directly at it, there´s hardly any green to be seen. 

The before picture.

I knew, any day, there would be a dust of green across it, and indeed, it came nearly overnight.

I was casting seed by hand too, and it appears I have a heavy one.  One might notice in the top photo there is a distinct strip of thicker oats.  It´s almost strangely straight edged.   Oh well.

Planting in the greenhouse

This is from a month ago, May 1, but I  was so demoralized by how the day ended that I didn’t finish posting.  Until now.

The chickens no longer live in the greenhouse, and it’s time for the green things to go in.  I got in there with the broadfork, breaking up the rows.  Tomatoes first, against the north wall.

After having all the birds wintering in the “chicken dome”, the soil looks, well, awful.  It looks compacted and desiccated.  It would have fooled me.  But that´s not the case. 

The top quarter inch or so is dry, and compacted.  When I crack it with the broadfork, that top crust breaks up in scales, and right underneath, the ground is wet as anything, no harder than anywhere outside where chickens haven´t been trampling, and so very full of worms.

Worms everywhere.

Really big worms.

 

So the hens got very excited.  They were following right on my fork, poking their heads down into the holes to fish out worms, and vigorously scratching up the flakes of crust.  They were feasting.

Until I decided they were being a little too hard on the worms, who didn´t have a fair chance, and I evicted the chickens.

I hung up a sheet of row cover (if there´s anything else around I use for so many things it wasn´t intended for, I don´t know) the length of the greenhouse to wall off the side I was working on from the side I wasn´t going to get to today.  The birds can play on that side.

I let one chicken stay with me – my favorite low chicken. 

She can use some extra worms.  She was actually perturbed at being alone with the others on the other side of the cloth (they could see each other through it), but she was consoled by the worms.

You see, it was a rainy day.  A drizzly morning, forecasted to be a thundering downpour day, so I didn´t have the heart to shut my birds out of the greenhouse to crowd, disgruntled and soggy, under their coops.

The guinea´s thinking about it  Looks drier in there.

As it got wetter, the birds steadily found their way into the vast shelter of the greenhouse. 

Inside, I kept working, attended by low chicken, while the rain drummed on the plastic and the birds all trickled in, chirruping and shaking off, pleased to be let back into the greenhouse.

 

 

 

It was really very cool to spend all day with my birds.  It´s nice to listen to them chat, complain, brag;  I could peek over and see what they´re up to.

They´re always doing something funny: piling up on the hay sacks, trying to have a bath in the roots of the fig tree (naughty!)

Planting the tomatoes out is a big day.

From past experience, I just break up the ground a bit with the broadfork, and plant directly into the ground as is. No turning! After I drew the rows with the broadfork, it was time to plug tomatoes.

Here´s where I found out how well my newspaper pots made out: the answer- excellently.

I tore off the top ring where I had written in Sharpie the kind of tomato, and left that by or around the plant as a marker.  Then I tore off the rest of the paper and was left holding a tall root ball.

On the other side of the wall, the chickens had the time of their life shredding all that scrap newspaper that I´d put in a box, and littering it all over the room, the scamps.

Chickens, I´ve observed, spend a lot of time lounging.  Most of the afternoon is devoted to sunbathing, dirt bathing, combing their feathers, or napping.  On this rain day, they were piled up, murmuring, dropping their heads for a nap or settling right down into sleep pancakes.  Others would be active, picking at something – they never all fall asleep at once, but it seems like someone´s always contentedly napping in the afternoon.

 

At the end of the day, tired, with 70 tomatoes and a few pepper plants planted, I turned in.  It was still pouring rain and the chickens were awake, so I just them in the greenhouse.  There´d been no attempts on the wall, or breaches, so I was confident.

I was working on this post, before going out to close them up.  There had also been a surge in squawking I was wondering about. …

Disaster!  Carnage!

The wall was breached- one end down, and every single tomato plant was defoliated- not a leaf left!  Just a roomful of puny green stems.  A couple of hens not gone to bed yet, finishing off the devastation.  Next time you can get wet, you ingrates!

Before I went to bed I planted some more tomato seeds, but to say it was a major loss is a major understatement.  I had some spare plants, but not an entire spare crop.  I was NOT HAPPY.  Completely defeated, more like.

As it turned out, despite the significant trauma of being beheaded, the same day as transplanted, almost all the tomatoes survived.  Only five were broken off by the hens and therefore terminated.

It was a definite setback, but in the next couple weeks they regrew some awkward leaves, and then left that early bad memory behind.  Now you wouldn´t know it had ever happened, although they might be a week or two behind where they might have been.

Tomatoes today:

 

 

 

 

Peak Seedlings

My garden starts are taking over our tiny house.  A few have gone out, but more are still inside, and have just been potted up.  This is the maximum volume of starts in the house – peak seedlings.   The bulk of them are due now to go out to the greenhouse, and then the starts will steadily be on their way out the door.

This is just the downstairs windowsills

Some of the fastest-growing tomato varieties have grown legs in just a couple days (you know who you are, Ropreco).  It seems I just can´t avoid getting leggy tomatoes, unless I adjust seeding dates by variety – not sure I´m that dedicated.

I can now announce the newspaper pots a success.  They hold up just fine. I´m totally going to do this every year.  However, it´s the slightly stiffer (or more impregnated with coloured printing ink)  advertising paper that comes in the middle of the paper that works best- I made a couple with normal newspaper and they sort of melted.

Future pasture

Our neighbour surprised me by showing up in his tractor to till some of our pasture.

Our “pasture” is more a memory of a field.  Abandoned for a decade, there´s very little actual grass left in the former field.  It´s choked with goldenrod, berry canes, scrubby bushes I don´t know, and the local invading species scourge – glossy leaf buckthorn.  Plus the incursion of poplars from the edges.  If we hadn’t cut down 100’s of seedlings the last few years, the former field would be entirely closed.

As it is, we have about one third of the total former field cleared. The other two thirds are worse off.  Two summers ago, we moved the pigs around on this part, they dutifully rooted, and I followed with seed.  I got some clover established but that was about all.  So, our neighbor came and tilled for us.  He says that he will till once more to smooth it out some, I´ll seed, and then we´ll see how much of the “unwanted”s grow back from the roots.

 It always amazes me how much work can be accomplished with petroleum energy.  Massive change to the surface of the earth in a matter of hours. Now, the field is transformed.  For one thing, the view across it is uninterrupted by a bunch of twigs growing.  I look forward to the green mist of germination over it.

Eventually, we’ll get this pasture back to graze-able.

Newspaper “pots” for tomatoes.

Another experiment.

I hate plastic; I might not have enough plastic pots anyway; they wouldn´t be deep cylinders.  So I tried making some pots out of newspaper to pot up my tomatoes into.

I rolled them around a bottle (half-sheet each), crunched in the paper on the bottom, slid the cylinder off the bottle,  and then turned over the half inch at the “brim” to the outside.  That´s what keeps them rolled.  Takes about 20 seconds each.  They kind of try to unroll anyway, but they hold together great once a little soil goes in them.

It remains to be seen how well they hold together once they have a plant in them and get watered.  But if all goes well, I can write the variety right on the paper with a Sharpie, and I suppose I can put them directly in the ground as is (that´s a lot of newspaer ink, though).

Ready to accept transplants.  We shall see.

So far, so good

First Real Garden Day

I´m going to be so sore!

We were attacking the garden today, replacing fence posts; the old ones were rotten and broken (“these should last for a year” – three years ago!).  Shaping garden beds out of the remaining areas of our fenced space.  These spots have been covered with waste silage plastic (as seen in background) for a year or more, and the earth is awesomely root-free.

In other words, digging shallow trenches.  Which immediately filled with water.  Digging that is like wet concrete, clumping and dragging on the boots and shovel and resisting being dumped out of the wheelbarrow.  Especially since I´m digging to the clay layer, which will be filled in with wood chips.  Getting that topsoil off to pile on the beds, instead of supporting weeds in the aisles.

This…
…will look like this after an infusion of wood chips

But the bugs aren’t out yet!  So it´s all glorious.  Any day now, the bugs, the peepers, and the tree buds will all pop out at once, so it´s time to enjoy the peaceful working conditions.

Can you tell I´m really into mulch?  So nice, though, to just peel off the mulch blanket and sow.

My first planting!  Spinach, two weeks late, according to my planting calendar. I felt like I should start gardening like I mean it, so I put some brain work in in the winter planning the planting schedule for starts and direct sowing, and it sure feels good now to have a simple schedule to follow.

I mapped the garden in seven areas, for crop rotation, estimated how much of X thing I want to grow, and then calc’ed back/forward from frost date and made a calendar.  Now all I have to do is follow it.  Far less thinking.  It´s nice to not be mapping each little bed for “what was in here last year/previous two?”  Tedium.

Provided my last frost date projection (guess) of May 21 is not wildly off (actual date fluctuates between Apr 30 and Jun 1 in the last five years), the planting calendar will be a wild success.

Inside, the starts are thriving.  Again with the calendar, I shouldn’t have too-leggy tomatoes and too-late celery when it´s time to transplant out, thanks to my planned and staggered starting.  Yes, I´m just now figuring this out. 

Atlas melon sprout is pushing up a huge chunk of dirt on that tiny stem
All of them like to lift up a little dirt, but not that much!

Seedy Saturday!

I got all the seeds I needed for the year (including tobacco!) at Seedy Saturday, hosted by Helping Nature Heal, in Bridgewater.

Nova Scotia’s  “big” organic seed companies were all there vending seeds – Hope Seeds, Annapolis Seed, Cochrane Family Seeds, plus more – Twisted Brook,  Yonder Hill, Storm Cast, and the South Shore Public Library’s Seed Library.

Then there was the free seed table, where attendees dropped off their surplus saved seeds for others to take- lots of flower seeds!

Since I was saving so much on shipping costs, I came home with a few “flights of fancy” seeds (peanuts?!) that will make this year’s experiments.

I met Nikki Jabbour, local celebrity author and year-round gardener, who gave the morning lecture, and there was a delicious soup or chili lunch with bread and popcorn, donations accepted for the food bank.

This was Helping Nature Heal‘s 11th Seedy Saturday, but the first time I made it.  It was packed, unsurprisingly.

 

Garden plan!

My brain is melting!  I’ve been working on my garden plan for 2017.

What do I want to grow?  When do they go in? (Work backwards from last spring frost date- a wild guess semi-informed by the average of the last 7 years)  When do they need to be started inside?  How much to I hope to produce, therefore, how many plants?  How many starts should I attempt to be sure to get enough, and how many square feet do I need to allocate?   Gah!  I’m not even at examining crop rotation and where they will be placed this year yet.  I don’t have a clean system for that yet.

After a page full of tiny digits, math, and an eraser, I’m sure this is the sort of thing I should definitely do a spreadsheet for.  Then all the dates will adjust to an input frost date, and the square feet will output from a desired quantity.  But it just feels wrong to do it with a spreadsheet, and I don’t need to spend any more time staring at a screen.

This is the right time to be doing a garden plan, since the first seeds need to start inside on Feb 2, apparently, and I know for sure that if I don’t do this possibly too-meticulous planning, that half my starts will be ready to go out too early, the other half not early enough, and I’ll get not enough potatoes and far too many spaghetti squash.  What is up with spaghetti squash?  They grow like zucchinis! 

If I do do this detailed planning, then climate change will sweep through to put me 2-4 weeks off; slugs, rabbits, and other emergencies will happen and it will be all thrown awry anyway, but, it won’t be my fault:)

How to be a Dumpster Diving ninja

Wanna join the craze, feel the rush, get utterly depressed by the unavoidable awareness of this society’s pointless waste?

Dumpster Ninja Skills 101 – A Comprehensive Guide to the Cold Hard Precautions
Think like a ninja, dress like a ninja
1. Casing the joint

Case your local grocery stores, very sneakily.

First, outside in the daytime , find the garbage bin.  Does this store have a crusher?  Well, you’re done there.  Does it have a locked dumpster?  Some days those are filled too full to be closed and locked.  Sometimes employees get careless.  Many times it appears to be locked and isn’t (the padlock hang).

Are there loading hours posted on the dock?  Then you can expect there to be workers in the store at least an hour earlier than that.  Is there a bakery in the store?  Then the bakers are there in the very very early morning.

Are there security cameras?  Then you might go hardcore and wear balaclavas or headsocks like real robbers, and if you have vehicle assistance, make a good parking and loading plan so your vehicle doesn’t get ID’d.  Keep checking for cameras, btw, in case they install some after noticing that someone is sifting through their garbage.

Take a casual stroll by a couple times at night to sess the scene and plan your timing. Between 11 and 3 or 4am are probably the best hours, but that’s really up to your location.  Is your dumpster well lit?  That makes your work easier but gives less cover.  Are there cleaners working in the store?  Determine their days and hours.  Any security?  Note cars in the parking lot. What else is going on in the area?  What businesses are around?  Diving right when clubs are closing or getting going is not great.  Are there late night restaurants where employees, or cleaners, could come out the back doors to smoke and bust you?   And probably most important, is this open dumpster in a “bad” part of town where there’s a remote possibility of garbage other than the store’s getting tossed in there?  By that I mean sharps.  Don’t ever take a chance like that.

Why all the cloak and dagger?

Because if you find the motherlode of all dumpsters, it could feed you for months, and you won’t want to lose it.   I had one location produce insane amounts of food for over a year, then they got a crusher.  It was heartbreaking.  If you don’t take precautions, that wellspring could all be carelessly lost in one embarrassing evening.  If you get seen, but escape, you probably wont want to go back, and if you do, I bet there’ll be a padlock on that dumpster now.  So BE SNEAKY.

Trust me, it’s fun.  The whole thing is hilarious.

2. The gear you need:

Wear dark clothes that you won’t mind getting dirty, but also don’t “stick out” for approach and leaving the scene (dress like a normal ninja person, not crazy dumpster diving ninja person), and good shoes.  For jumping in.  Feet first;  dive is a figure of speech.    If you’re squeamish, bring work glovesHats or hoods cover your hair and face.  A flashlight is absolutely essential, bc even if the area’s lit, the depths of the bin will be shadowed. Ideally, a headlamp. Bring backpacks and/or fabric shopping bags on bike or foot missions.  There will be zillions of boxes around to use if you’re going by vehicle.

3.  Taking the plunge:

Going with someone else is way better than going alone.  Some things can be really heavy, you can keep watch for each other, and it helps with the paranoia.  It almost seems normal when you’re not alone.  And it’s definitely funny.  You want to share that.

Whisper to each other, keep rustling and banging to a minimum, keep eyes and ears open for anyone approaching.   Try to keep yourself in shadow, or tucked near the bin, or between bin and building.  Or in the bin, if you jump in, which is often necessary.    If strangers happen to pass by, don’t bolt, just crouch and freeze wherever you are, and chances are  they will pass right by and never know.  Remember, people usu. don’t expect to see people in dumpsters, and won’t be looking for you.  Do not stand tall atop the dumpster wading through and hollering about your discoveries.   They’ll notice that.

Do not ever start ripping open black garbage bags.  The really bad garbage is in garbage bags- bathrooms and deli garbage – you don’t even want to know.  The good garbage is usu. in boxes, sometimes closed, sometimes top open.  Sometimes tipped over, but that’s what washing is for.  Another reason to not rip bags is the Golden Rule -don’t make a mess.  This is for your sake.  You want to protect your interests in this gold mine.  Don’t make it obvious that you were there.  Especially if the area is all swept clean.  If you start strewing trash about at night, the poor sap who has to clean that up is going to gripe about it, and then they’re paying attention, and then you’re busted.  Employees are not likely to notice there are fewer carrots there this morning than they threw out last night, but they will notice if the whole bin has been torn apart.  And if you’re sharing a dumpster with other ninjas, then you know what they say about bad apples.

Move carefully and quietly.  Speed is less important than stealth. It takes some time to really maximize a dumpster visit, if there is a lot of food.  The best way is to pack boxes as you go through the buffet, then shuttle them quickly to a staging area, around the corner, ideally in shadow where you can drive up, load up in a minute, and take off.  If on foot, then go through it all and neatly set aside what you want to take.  If you make a return trip to pick up it’s a quick stop.

4. At home

When you get home with the bounty, wash your hands, hoot and exclaim how you can’t believe you just did that, (take pictures to share) and sort and assess all the happy food that you just gave a second life to.   Some of it might not be as good as it looked at the scene, and that’s part of the game.  Some food is perfect, some is spoiled.  Check over any packaging for cleanliness and signs of compromise.  Wash all the food  before you eat it, just in case.

Now you’re a pro…

Dumpster diving is a little addictive, because you never know what treasures might be there any given night, but going every night is near impossible.  Some nights just feel risky, or there’re cleaners or delivery trucks, besides, you’d be exhausted and soon have a full time job processing and preserving food and then trying to find people to give it away to.  It is nice to try out different days of the week though.  You’ll learn their dumping and delivering schedule and find some food comes in patterns.  Speaking of sharing your bounty, I operate on informed consent.  I can’t give someone food without telling them where I got it, so my beneficiaries are pretty tight (and amused) friends.  But that’s your call.

Dumpster diving will increase your household garbage a little with the packaging you’re carting home.  If you don’t have  compost, you might want to take more care examining food before you bring it home.  I drag it all home and then sort it out, bc I have a (flourishing) compost box.  On the bright side, if stuff goes bad bc you can’t eat or process it fast enough, well, it’s guilt free, because it was headed for the landfill anyways.  You saved it once already.  BTW, if you have pigs, then you pretty much can’t not dumpster dive, even if you’re squeamish about eating the food yourself, because it is free high quality pig feed.

And then, eat eat eat, for free, free, free.

Here’s some more tips from Rob Greenfield.  I like #4, master the fear.  Jumping at your own shadow is a real buzzkill.  This is some furtive ops, but not actually very risky.

the_sneaky_ninja_by_kirillee-d2m052r

 

Ninja art by Kirilee on Deviant Art.

 


This article first written in 2008.

Dumpster diving need not stop at food.  I was convinced that my future husband was for me when the two of us were regaling a table of “Oh I could never!” fascinated normal people with our Ultimate Score tales of Dumpsters Past.  HW thoughtfully offered that everything he was wearing was out of a dumpster.  A man at the table sputtered “What!? You look like a fucking REI model!”  It was all true.  HW looks like a fucking REI model (that’s MEC, for Canadians), and routinely dresses like one, and everything he was wearing was out of a dumpster, including the technical hiking shoes.

Dumpster diving: reports from the food waste front

I just found out about a 2014 movie, Just Eat It, investigating food waste in America.  It looks fantastic; I can’t wait to see it.  The premise as I grasp it, is following a couple as they search for food in dumpsters and explore the epidemic of North American food waste, living on only food that would otherwise be wasted.

Is this dirty, shameful, disgusting?  Those people are, gasp, eating garbage!?

It shouldn’t be.  Because even if you don’t want to get in it yourself, you should know what’s in the dumpster behind the store you shop at.

Why? Because the cost of that food that’s getting thrown out is part of the cost of the food that’s getting purchased, and there is a great deal more food thrown out in North America than should be.  As consumers, we should all care.

We’re not talking about finding a half eaten sandwich with a soggy napkin stuck on it or an apple core in a garbage can.  We’re talking about unopened bushel boxes of fruit, still banded (never opened since leaving the farm).  Frozen foods in complete packaging, still frozen. Boxes and boxes of mixed vegetables with tiny flaws, or no flaws.  Bags of apples, carrots, baked goods, onions, potatoes, still in their boxes and bags.  Bread by the giant clear garbage bag full.

This is the hidden cost of your food.

At least 10 cents from every dollar of yours spent on groceries is walking out the back door and getting thrown in the trash.  The “official number” is 11%.  I suspect the reality is higher, far higher.  That’s like throwing a tenner in the trash can on the way into the store every time you spend a hundred.  Food banks don’t do that well at Christmastime.  Speaking of food banks, grocery stores almost never give their waste food to food banks, because it’s a liability.  The most progressive stores compost, but for the majority, hundreds of pounds of edible food go to landfill.

When you see the produce boy sullenly picking peppers out of the display and putting them in the cardboard box on his cart, that box is going to be closed up and thrown into the compactor. Often, when you return something to customer service, say at Walmart or Canadian Tire, it goes straight in the dumpster, not back on the shelf.  When inventory expires, or won’t be stored ’til the next holiday-appropriate season, ditto.  When everyone looks behind the front row of milk for the better expiry date and there aren’t enough suckers to take the milk in the front, it goes into the dumpster when it hits the sell-by date.  A bag of dog food gets snagged by a shopping cart and torn a little, or a box of cereal falls from the top shelf and gets a corner crushed, it goes in the garbage. When the purchaser screws up and the replacement stock arrives prematurely or in too great a quantity, the excess goes straight to the dumpster.  Every time the truck comes with the new fruit before the old fruit sells, guess where the old fruit goes?  Sometimes food goes directly to the dumpster without passing within eyeshot of the consumer.  If there are too many bananas warehoused to ever get sold – into the bin.  I’ve been told that at times, distributors sell food in combination (if you want bananas you have to take these coconuts too), and the less popular food will go directly out back.

Shall I even mention the manipulation of marketing?  Lots of exotic food (starfruit, anyone?) is stocked in produce just to give the impression of variety and possibility.  The store never expects to sell all the pink striped lemons and pluots, but their presence evokes feelings of abundance, progressiveness, and cosmopolitan choice!  Plus they make the normal lemons look much more affordable.  Guess where all that unsold showy food (imported from a great distance) ends up?  I’ve noticed a higher percentage of organics in the bin than conventional.  I guess they cost more, so sell less, so… get chucked more.

Extrapolate this across over 36 000 grocery stores in the US, and the waste of food is in the millions of tonnes.  Eleven percent of saleable produce, wasted before it’s sold.  It’s an obscenity that this much food is being wasted.  Specifically, destroyed, compacted behind grocery stores while people go hungry all over the same cities (more stores have compactors than still have open dumpsters that can be filched from and reported upon). There doesn’t seem to be much talking about it, nor lobbying against it, probably because so few people really know about it.

Ask a dumpster diver, though, and they will go off about all the great stuff they’ve hauled out of a dumpster.   They may even start rambling rhapsodically about those ultimate scores.

Funny thing though, not so many people want to admit to eating out of the garbage.

I know all about what I’ve described here, firsthand, because I’ve seen it.

Once I pulled up to our usual dumpster with my partner, and another truck was already there (yes, a truck is appropriate for the quantity of food).  The pig farmer it belonged to was standing atop the dumpster with a hayfork, stabbing 1-3 plastic bags of potatoes at a time and pitching them into his pickup bed.  The dumpster was too full to shut, with five pound bags of Yukon Golds.  He filled his truck, then we took all we could imagine eating and giving away, and left the dumpster still far from empty.

One time a Walmart dumpster right after Easter was filled with individually bagged one pound solid milk chocolate bunnies.  I mean filled.  It looked like a wharf-side container brimful of fishes, only with chocolate bunnies.  We tired of scooping them with our hands into the truck and left to drop the first shipment and return with shovels.  Yep.  Shovels.  Those rabbits exceeded our chocolate “needs” for over two years.  Chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate fondue, shaved chocolate, chocolate cakes, chocolate trail mix… you’re picturing Forrest Gump now, right?  Ok, moving on…

One time the open dumpster was mounded high with banana bunches.  Perfect bananas, even slightly green.  The bananas were piled a good 3 feet above the lip of the dumpster, and littered liberally around on the ground, like a dump truck had dropped them into the dumpster and many had spilled.  It’s a strong possibility that a forklift did dump a palletful straight into the dumpster.  Inside the store, there were multitudinous bananas for sale  as well.  They were even greener.  What can a person do with that many bananas?  Banana bread, banana muffins, banana creme pie, banana…well, that’s about it.  I tried to dehydrate the bananas and unintentionally made banana jerky.  That is not as good as it sounds.

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A 100% dumpster salad

We’re still using extra virgin organic olive oil from Trader Joes, because one jar in a case of 12 obviously had broken, oiling the labels of the other 11 bottles in the box.  Unsaleable; into the dumpster, conveniently still in the box they were delivered in.

I’ve been in a lot of dumpsters, since the early 90’s.  I’ve been flabbergasted at the quantity of food I’ve found.

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One half of one night’s good haul (the frozen foods half). Must have been a freezer-cleaning day.  Food not expired, all still frozen.

Yes, I was introduced to the bounty of back alleys when I was a messed up homeless kid and needed to eat, but that was a long time ago.  My on and off dumpster diving adventures for the last 20 years have had little to do with not being able to afford what’s inside the front door,  and everything to do with curiosity and fascination with what’s out the back door.

It’s just too damn interesting and easy; it’s straight up fun, with a dash of social subversion!  Coming next: a piece I wrote in 2008 on how to be a dumpster diving ninja.

Let me say that I am effing fortunate to be able to brag that I don’t need to dumpster dive; I do it for kicks.  Many people do need to.  It’s a social crime that 1 in 10 people are hungry in this culture of bounty and perfection that throws out so much.  Hunger is a tragic aspect of this story.

A modest night's haul of fruit (packages opened for display)
A modest night’s haul of fruit

This story of food waste is a layer cake of problems.  We garbage food instead of sharing it with the needy, because it’s too legally risky. It’s inconvenient to separate waste on the commercial scale and compost.   We’ve made salvaging food from the garbage illegal (it’s theft or trespassing), and employees are forbidden to take the waste food.  We use fossil fuels to grow the food, then more fossil fuels to transport the food 100’s of miles to throw 11% of it in the garbage, and then burn more fossil fuels driving it to the landfill where it creates more carbon emissions rotting.  Food prices are high, and rising, while a thick slice of the percentage of food produced is garbaged!  The expectation of food waste is built into the planning of the grocery store so that the shopper can have a certain experience – how is this ok???   How did we get here?

And this is just the post-retail waste.  Waste happens at the harvest point, in transportation, and if it is sold, is also wasted by the consumer, spoiling in the fridge and going uneaten.  With all the tiers of food waste, it’s possible 40% of edible food is wasted in North America.  I’m not even touching the extravagant waste that happens before food even reaches the grocery store, and after, when I talk about dumpster diving.  The film covers that(My numbers are old.  It’s closer to 50% )

Every time I’ve furtively approached a dumpster, opened the heavy lid with a metallic creak, and gasped with delight and shock when I look in at a mountain of food treasure, I’ve simultaneously felt a heart-sinking sense of the tragic imbalance of things.  This should not be!  Our culture is seriously sick, to have arrived here, where beautiful, fresh, edible food is discarded for no legitimate reason.

A typical box of "culls"- flawed veggies picked out of the displays
A typical box of “culls”- flawed veggies picked out of the displays.  Sometimes the flaws are hard to discern.

 

What to do?

I’ll be the first to admit that dumpster diving is not for everyone.  That’s why those who do should report from the front.  What (else) is there to do about food waste? Talk to your grocery store and ask what they do with food waste.  Ask for a percentage.  Pester the stock boy and the grocery manager.  Do they give their produce waste to pig farmers?  I was once told No never, store policy.  Why?  Because of all the pesticides on the produce (What?  But what about the people eating the food?).   Just like fair trade policies and worker benefits on the food production end, retail stores should brag about their low waste percentages, food bank donations (Maranatha does it), composting programs, and discounting past due date foods, because we should care about these things!

Here in Nova Scotia now, I’m thrilled to see the practice of reducing food at it’s due date by 50%.  This is unusual.  Pink 50% off stickers pop up all over the Atlantic Superstores, from produce to dairy to deli to bakery to natural foods.  That is all food that I’ve seen in dumpsters elsewhere in these two countries.  Good job Superstore.

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If I didn’t know better, I’d be confused. Is this food ready to shelve, or ready to throw out?

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About this article.  After writing most of it in 2012, and then editing it in 2015, inspired at the time by the discussion popping up in the media and the Just Eat It movie, I somehow continued to fail to post it despite friends begging for it and the importance of the subject.  Until now.   I’ve lost many of my “great score” pictures due to hard drive breakdown and still have not recovered them, but am posting anyway.

I’ve seen Just Eat It.  It’s fantastic.  It’s super fun to watch new dumpster divers learn the tricks, and they totally capture the delight of discovery, comingled with the stomach sinking disgust that this is what our society has come to, that can only be experienced standing on the brim of a dumpster filled with clean, packaged, edible food.  They also discuss the other tiers of food waste, and present some happily encouraging alternative types of food handling.  I beyond recommend it!

The movie:  Just Eat It.

Rob Greenfield says all that I just said here, only better and faster.

Flawed fruit and veggies for sale – what a notion!

wastedfood.com

utne reader on dumpstering

Tristram Stuart

 

Honey part two

The Eastern Seaboard of North America is getting snowed on tonight.  Mostly it’s a question of how much snow are we getting? In our particular spot the forecast is “not as much as some”.   It started about five hours ago here, and a thick blanket has already settled on the world.   Outside the light flakes are floating straight down and piling up with determination, and are predicted to keep at it for another 12 hours.  So on this snowy night, let’s visit some stored sunshine from earlier this year:

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After the honey extraction comes filtration.  Have to get out all the bee wings, wax caps and bits of leaves.

See my super high-tech filtration system.

Wow, it takes a long time!  The honey has to be warm enough to flow, but not too warm, then it’s not raw any more.

The wax is something else.  It acts like glue gumming up everything, especially your filter fabric, but if you can leave it set long enough, it almost hardens into a block sitting on top of the liquid honey that settles out from it.  I have about a one pound chunk of wax, sticky with honey and kind of dirty, from my first year’s honey operation.

My fancy setup worked, but it was pretty clearly less than ideal! Embroidery hoop, sewing pins, nylon mesh, and rigid styrofoam blocks.

Next time (there’s always a mythical next time when everything will be better), I’m going to have all the honey out of the extractor in one large vessel, and filter/fill it into gift/sale ready jars in one step.

Aha!  I just figured it out! A bucket with a tap at the bottom.  The wax will float to the top.  Decant the honey from the bottom, and there will be little wax to deal with;  the minor other detritus will filter out easily.

 

2016 Canned food tally

I think I’m finished with canning for the year.  I think!

I have to make a habit of tracking my annual canning.  I’m curious to know what the ideal #s are for two people for one year.

  • 6 pts Plumsauce
  • 24 pts “V8”, or, attempted tomato sauce that came out as juice, and after that much work, I canned it anyway.  We drink a fair amount of V8, so that’s a few we won’t purchase
  • 24 pts Tomato sauce (that did work)
  • 21 pts Grape or Cherry tomatoes
  • 6 pts Pickles
  • 21 pts Pears
  • 36 pts Applesauce
  • 78 pts Peaches
  • 6 halfpts pickled garlic
  • 41 qts Tomato “soup” – just the tomato part of the soup, aka tomatoes between juice and sauce – they will make many good (tomato basil, cream of tomato, chili, did I mention tomato basil?) soups and stews.
  • 46 more pts Applesauce

I hoped to do more “convenience foods”, like ready to eat soups.  I also hoped to have most of a month to focus on preserving, but it turned out  the opposite.   It was a very busy Sep/Oct: I had to fit preserving in at the end of workdays and it was a weary, onerous task.

That’s a total of 309 jars; 42 canner batches (! – now I’m kind of impressing myself).

I canned no pumpkin this year, because somehow I have quite a bit left over from 2015, and I think I did far fewer apples, because it was an awful apple year.  Edit-I purchased apples, and canned two more bushels.

Trash the rack!

This is the canning game-changer of the year – a silicone canning mat.  Not only does it make everything quieter (no rattling), wayyyy less frustrating (those wire lifting racks are simply awful), but the water stays clear (no rusty lifting rack rusting into the water), AND nine pints fit in the canner with this mat, as opposed to seven!

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Available at Lee Valley Tools

2015 Canning inventory

Since I thought I should make a habit of documenting how much I can every year, I looked back into 2015, which was Year One for canning serious quantities.

I found my list alright, but for the big ones – peaches and apples – the number is left blank!  Argggh!  So, I have to estimate, based on 2016.  I canned two bushels of peaches each year, but I did more apples than I did peaches, sooo….

  • 15 pts beets
  • 2 pts plumsauce
  • 3 pts blue plums
  • 3 pts red plums
  • 3L pickles
  • 3 pts pickles
  • 14 pts pears
  • 5 pts pineapple (grocery store sale!)
  • 5 pts cherry tomatoes (whole,  with a Tbsp of vinegar and pinch of salt – SO good)
  • 7L peaches
  • 60 pts peaches (approx)
  • 70 pts applesauce (approx)
  • 7 pts pie-ready pumpkin
  • 28 pts pumpkin
  • 4 half pints peach honey (not really canned, just jarred)
  • 18 half pints pesto (ditto, jarred, and frozen)

So that’s (approx) 30 canner loads, including 6 double loads in the pressure canner for the beets and pumpkin.

 

 

Orchard Essentials

Two things from Lee Valley Tools have made all the difference to orchard interaction this year. VERY worthwhile orcharding tools.

  1. The pole pruner.  It has interchangeable heads – a saw and a snip pruner, and a telescoping pole.  HW used that in the spring to prune some of our five dozen apple trees.

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2. The apple picker bag.  Here it is shown being used in combination with the telescoping pole of the pruner, although they are not designed to work together.  The bag unclips from the two part frame.

You scoop an apple and twist and push or pull, and the apple detaches into the bag.  The bag will hold about 5 apples, but that gets heavy to swing around in the air.

I won’t go so far as to say it is enjoyable to pick apples with a basket on a pole – one gets a headache and a squint from looking up so long and manipulating a tool on the end of a long stick – but if you have old, tall trees, and the apples grow high, this makes it possible to pick them.

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2016 was a terrible apple year.  No trees distinguished themselves as heavy bearers, and the apples that made it were high on the trees and held tight on their stems.

With the picker, I was able to get about 5 buckets full of apples for cider.  Without the picker, I’d have about 5 apples.

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There are a couple clips unhooked in these pictures

Like I said, this pruner pole and the basket aren’t made to work together, and sometimes they don’t.  After cooperating like a charm for several days, one evening they suddenly refused to work together and the basket parts came sproinging apart and getting hung up high in the trees.  Fun!

Experiments of the year: sweet potatoes and cucamelons

What fun is gardening without some wacky experiments?

  1. Sweet potatoes.

I got six vines from Vesey’s, which arrived in rather pathetic condition (the packaging disclaimed wretched looking vines as “normal” and claimed they would perk up.  To be fair, they did.  Five of them made it).  Since they supposedly like under-watering, I left them mostly alone after initial establishment, although the underwatering got a little extreme in this terribly dry summer.  The vines were small, but had lovely purpley-green leaves.

I dug ’em up in September.  No idea what to expect.

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Vine 1 – Uhoh.  Off to a bad start.

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Vine 2 – Oh, that’s more like it.

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Vine 3 – That’s actually a real sized potato.

Unfortunately, there were no more potatoes still in the ground from these vines.  One vine = one potato.  NOT an impressive yield.  No efficiency points for area:productivity.  That’s the gamble with experiments.

But they made one very tasty meal.

2.  Cucamelons

These took off in the greenhouse.  Three vines swarmed up their strings and headed across the cross-ties, producing loads of these weird little grape-sized melons.

cucamelons-intro2Aptly named!  It tastes like a cucumber, or a melon, or is it a cucumber?  Totally bizarre combination of tastes.  If you’re like me, you probably haven’t had cucumber and melon in the same bite before.  Crunchy skin, like a cuke.

I have no pictures of my own because the guineas in the greenhouse enjoyed many more than I did.  This pic is from James Wong, who waxes more enthusiastic about the cucamelon than I do.

I’ll grow them again next year, though; they grow so easily, and I’ll try to find more to do with them.

Fall is here

After a terribly dry summer, the temperature suddenly dropped and it seems fall is here; the hot days are gone.

Week after week this summer the weather reports have been tantalizingly forecasting possible showers, but those much-talked-about teasers always vanish the day before they happen into the blazing sun icon – again – a whole row of full suns, week after week.

The apples are small, the grass is dry, we’ve already had a frost, and now, the weather has shifted into the third season and is plotting a course of decreasing temperatures – signalling to all that the last push of work – the last chance to do it, is on.

It’s time for toques in the morning – wardrobe change!

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Eggplant

This is my favorite way (pretty much, only way) to prepare eggplant.

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Eggplant sliced a 1/2 inch thick, sliced fresh tomatoes, and grated or sliced cheese.  Grind black pepper liberally (I added sliced green olives to this batch).   Hose down with olive oil and bake until the cheese bubbles.

Really, it’s like mini-pizzas with eggplant for the “crust”.

Finally rain!

Real rain.  45mm!  We’ve had a handful of sprinkles in August, just enough to dampen the crust, but scratch the surface and it’s dry dry dry for inches.  Our wells are dry, but our caught rainwater is keeping up with our drinking needs.  Nothing can be watered – only the greenhouse gets our grey water, and it is holding out surprisingly well.

But now, real rain!  All the barrels are full!

Waiting for rain

It’s that kind of day.

It’s been so hot, for so long.  Everything is parched, tired, thirsty.  Fire risk is high.

Every day I haul water to keep the greenhouse and garden residents alive.

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My broccoli is thriving!  A surprise.  Cabbages utterly failed last year, so I thought cruciferae didn’t agree with my garden.

Also I have 5 asparagi! (yeah yeah, asparguses).  Asparagus is the first thing we ever planted, our first month here, but that attempt didn’t take.  The asparaguys wanted a more prepared bed.  Now they seem happy.

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A honeybee working a blackberry cane by the well.

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We’re standing on a pile of sticks. What’s it to ya?

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I tried to add my fingers for scale. didn’t really help

I found this enormous spider.

She was bigger than my cell phone is wide.

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Everywhere, snakes.  Snakes like it hot.

Solar granola

We’ve been making a steady supply of granola in the wonderful Sun Oven.

This stems from a compound realization:  1. We both like granola.  A lot.  We eat it very often.  In spite of the risk of being called granolas.  2. It’s bloody expensive!  Analyzing monthly expenditures turned up an alarming number on bulk granola.  Oh, but it’s so good!  Can’t stop! (see #1).   3.  Rolled oats- not so much.  Very cheap, or relatively so for these days. Really, it beggars belief how much the price for an oat can inflate if you drip some sugar on it and toast it.

We can make it ourselves!

So we’ve been mixing up big batches of granola and toasting by the panful on sunny days, which have arrived in abundance in April.

Our granola kicks a** on the granola we used to buy, and HW even muses that what makes it really special is he can “taste the sun in it”.  We won’t be going back.  Making enough to last through the winter might be a challenge…hmmm.

Our recipe:

(we usu do twice this much at a time, and amounts are approximate, but this is the basic)

  • 3 cups oats
  • Cinnamon, and often the usual pumpkin pie culprits- nutmeg, ginger, and cloves.
  • Dash of salt
  • Optional 1/2 cup of some deluxe optional additions, like sliced almonds, pecan pieces, hazelnuts, flax seeds or pumpkin seeds; finely chopped dried pineapple, or candied ginger, or dried strawberries.  This is what adds the wow!

These are the dry ingredients.  Stir ’em up.

  • 1/3 cup coconut oil
  • Splash of maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 Tbsps brown sugar
  • 1 Tsp vanilla

These are the liquids.  Heat them, together, and drizzle them over the dry while rapidly tumbling the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon.

Bake.  Normally this might say 15 min at 350F? or some such.  It’s about twenty minutes in the sun oven, and then stir it up and leave it another 10-15.  Watch the oven!  If it gets to dark brown, it could be just fine with milk, but there might be too much sun in it.

 

 

Out with the green, in with the brown

Anticipating a big rain, I pushed through pulling nearly everything out of the garden and planting it in cover crops.

We already had a frost, so the squashes come out – their plants are fried despite covering them.  Covering only saved the fruits.  Of course the potatoes, already late, have to come out avant deluge, or they will all rot.

Now everything is bedded in mulch where garlic will go in before too long, or else seeded.  Not a speck of green where I don’t want it to be.

In no time, it will all come up in a fine green mist of mostly winter rye.

There are few tactile pleasures to rival plunging a hand into a sack of seed and hand broadcasting it:)

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