Archive for June, 2009

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Yes, it’s that time again.

It’s solar cooking time.

I’m not a hot weather person by nature. Give me blowing snow and 15 below any day–any day!–over the temperatures we’ve been having the past week.  I guess my Iowa blood just never did adjust to Kansas City.

So when the outdoor temperature shows signs of becoming unbearable, I try to make it fun.

I cook. In a box. In our driveway.


The solar cooker pictured above is our “deluxe” model. Mike made it according to instructions in a now-out-of-print book called Cooking with the Sun, by Beth Halacy and Dan Halacy (1992, Morning Sun Press).  It has real wood, glass and audio insulation we had to special order from Corning. (Not because our cooking sings. Other types of insulation warp and melt in the heat or may give off unwanted gasses.)

Inside is a cheese and lambs quarters quiche–my first solar meal of the season.

I started solar cooking a few years ago as a goofy experiment. My first cooker was a small cardboard box inside a larger one, fitted with bubble wrap for the insulation and a reflector which is a bent piece of cardboard propped up by a wire coat hanger. Over the years, we’ve kept experimenting and refining. I have one cooker which is essentially a piece of folded cardboard with silver reflective backing. On that one, you put the food in a dish in the middle, inside an oven bag.

But this one is the best one because it has a hanging rack that adjusts when you tilt it and because it is the most like a regular oven. I’ve measured temperatures of 325 to 340 in there and the food gets nice and brown, if you leave it long enough.

I’ve cooked all kinds of things, over the years. Seasoned hamburger balls for gyros, corn bread, cherry cobbler, fish en papillote, chicken and rice (hint: use Uncle Ben’s converted). I just never get tired of opening up the lid and seeing the steam roll off. (Although my family does get tired of me talking about it.)

Solar cooking is only tangentally related to gardening. But it kind of goes along with the whole “saving the earth” thing. And it’s a fun way to cook those vegetables while reducing your carbon footprint even more.  Speaking of which, here’s a plug for Solar Cookers International, a group that encourages solar cooking here and to improve life in developing countries. SCI sells the reflective cardboard cookers, books and other supplies.

This weekend I’m hard at work coming up with more recipes that can be adapted to the cooker. Looks like it’s going to be a hot summer.

Posted by: Roxie


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Christmas in June

We’re conducting a little experiment in the garden this month, thanks to a suggestion from a reader of my ever-so-popular local news column in The Kansas Star.

To wit: We’re hanging Christmas ornaments on our tomato plants. Bright red ones.

Gardening is not a regular theme in the column. But this spring, I wrote a piece about the kitchen garden that Michelle Obama has at The White House. It’s the first time there’s been a victory garden at the executive mansion since WWII.

And I wondered in print how the First Family was going to contend with the many squirrels that live on the grounds and across the street in Lafayette Park.

I went onto describe the difficulties that Roxie and I had with the bushy-tailed moochers, which sparked several comments from readers.

Among the emails I received was this one from reader Steve Roberson:

I grow tomatoes each year in my back yard and also have a plentiful
collection of gray squirrels. As you experienced, the squirrels scoffed at
my attempts to keep my tomatoes out of their furry bellies by sprinkling
red pepper all around.  They generally ate more of my tomatoes than I did.  A friend gave me a tip prior to last year’s growing season that I thought I
would pass along.  Hang red Christmas ornaments on the tomato cages when
you set out the plants.  By the time tomatoes begin to ripen the squirrels
are already convinced that those round red things are not edible.  I don’t
think I lost one tomato last year to my squirrel friends.

Ok, Steve. I’m game.

And since I just happened to have several extra red ornaments in the attic that I was willing to sacrifice, we’re giving it a go.

We’ll see if the squirrels are that easily fooled. And if not, hey, at least the sight of those Christmas ornaments will give the folks next door at the church education building something to wonder about.

Ho, ho, ho.


Posted by Mike

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Time out

The problem with writing a gardening book and a gardening blog is that it leaves precious little time to actually garden.

Yes, we’ve neglected our posting of late. Here’s what we’ve been doing instead.

Picking and processing bags of strawberries. Despite the fact that some mysterious rot or fungus killed off half my plants a couple of years ago, we still get lots from the other half that seems to be doing fine.

Picking and processing bags of cherries. By far the most successful of the fruit trees we planted, the sour “pie” cherry gives us bags and bags, even in the off years. So far I’ve put aside some in brandy for next Christmas’s chocolate-covered cherries, and made others into juice for cherry jelly. We gave some away and yet there are still more waiting to be pitted (a rain poncho works well to protect clothing). I’m giving serious consideration to an experiment with the food dehydrator.

Picking, shelling and freezing sweet peas. Between the shelling and the cherry pitting, my hands ache. Thank goodness this part of the season is almost over.

Freezing the last of the spinach. It was late this year.

Picking and wondering what to do with all those red currants. I have my eye on a currant-raspberry pie I found on line. Maybe I’ll freeze the rest. I’ve never tried that.

The good news is the berry/early greens part of the season is coming to an end. I can already see tiny heads on the broccoli and inch-long babies on the green beans.  (But what about those holes on the leaves? Should I take action or let them go?) And tomatoes! Yesterday I spotted the first marble sized ones.

Other news:

So far we’ve had no luck trapping the groundhog with the live trap. But our puppy, Einstein, did give hima good scare this morning. Chased him right up a tree. Mike was afraid for a second Einstein would catch him and get bitten. He’s still too young for a rabies shot. Good work, Einy. Here the varmint is, waiting patiently for us to go away.


The Topsy Turvy tomato is growing upwards, just as I predicted. In fact, I’ve seen some others out at the Kansas City Community Gardens much farther along than ours that also made a U-turn and headed towards the sun. Here’s ours.


Mark your calendars. The Kansas City Urban Farms & Gardens Tour is coming up Sunday, June 28 from 11 am to 5 pm.

This will be preceded by other tours, films, classes and tours from Jun 18-27. Check the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture for details.

And finally, from the You Tube files. Think all rabbits are cute, cuddly and non-threatening? Watch as this one kicks a snake’s skinny butt all over the lawn and up a tree.

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It’s a question that has occurred to just about every gardener, at one time or another. You’re out there pulling up the nut grass and the nettles. Your fingernails are dirty and sweat rolls into your eyes.

Why–when the weeds are so robust and the seeds you planted so puny–why don’t we just give up on tomatoes and corn? Why don’t we eat the weeds instead?

We posed this question to weed expert Chris Conatser this week. His answer may change our lives. (No, not that kind of “weed.” People, please.)

Conatser was until recently a horticulturist at Powell Gardens. Because of his allergies, he now tends bar at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, in Smithville, Mo. Part of his job there is to forage for wild plants for use in the bar and kitchen. In fact, when Mike and I caught up with him, he was coming off a late-night gathering  honeysuckle blooms for infusion into vodka. The aroma is stronger at night, he explained.

Conatser has made a lifetime study of plants, especially the wild ones that no one seems to want. Many of them, he says, are not only edible, but delicious.

As proof, he took us on a walk through the Kansas City Community Gardens.

Not the garden plots, proper. They looked so weed-free we wondered if some of them were scheduled for a television show. Just looking at them made me feel contrite and repentant about my own weeding.

We walked toward the grass between the gardens and into some empty spaces that had not been claimed. Before we got much farther than the garden office’s front porch, Conatser had already bent down to pick up a wide-leaved, flat plant that I remember as being prolific between the curb and sidewalk at my grade school. It was plantain, he said, and if you peel out some of the stringy veins from the back, it’s a good green.

Then it was on to the empty plots. What looked like a vast expanse of useless grass was apparently filled with good eating. Dandelion and purple clover were no surprises. Then we went on to the henbit and amaranth. Shepherds’ purse was filled with tiny edible seed pods that I thought tasted a bit peppery.

We also looked for lamb’s quarters, which Conatser said were an excellent green both cooked and raw. It’s quite common in the garden this time of year, he said.

Not sure that I’d ever seen lamb’s quarters, I asked if it was fuzzy. “No, you’re thinking of lamb’s ears,” he said. Then he bent down to one of dozens of plants with green, somewhat scalloped edges. “This is it.”

Oh. My. Lord. That’s lamb’s quarters?! I’ve been casting that out of my garden by the truckload each year. You can eat that?

Yes, you can and I did. And it tastes…like spinach, kind of. Not bitter like dandelion. Nice.

That was it for me. From there on, I was hopping around like a kid. “How about this one? Is this something? What about over here?”

We looked and picked. The tiny pods of wood sorrel became my new favorite weed. They make a pleasantly sour taste explosion as you pop each one. We didn’t find any chickweed or purslane, but I know both those plants from my years detasseling corn and walking beans as an Iowa teenager. Together with lamb’s quarters, they make Conatser’s top three favorite edible weeds. Believe me, I never dreamed they had any redeeming social value.

Conatser had two cautions for us, or anyone else who decides to go foraging. Study and know the plants you intend to eat. And don’t forage someplace if it might have been sprayed with weed killer.

Beyond that, though, I intend to have fun.

Only one problem: Now I can’t pull a weed out of the vegetable garden without feeling conflicted.

Here’s a pic of some lamb’s quarters in my garden this morning.


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