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Bettie Page Photo by CMG Worldwide

By now you’re probably conjuring images of lusty tomato plants wearing pasties.  Fuck yes.  What a pleasant daydream, and also a great business idea (note to self…).  So go ahead.  Take a moment to really let that image sink in.

Ready to move on?  Oh, okay, I’ll give you another minute.

You guys are twisted.  I like that.

WELL, my twisted little misfits, I got a question via Twitter from one of the darlingest misfits I know–@pinecone99.  Here’s what she had to say:

“Dear BMG, what is the best edible to grow in an alley in a narrow patch alongside a garage?”

Well, first off, this is awesome because she’s now abbreviating “Bad Mama Genny” to “BMG,” which naturally makes me “The Notorious BMG.”  At least, I hope it does.  ‘Cause I’m kinda diggin’ the street cred that no doubt comes along with such a badass name.

Secondly, it’s awesome because HELLO, misfits, she’s interested in capitalizing on an unused strip of land and homesteading the shit out of it!

And really, that’s what we’re all about here: homesteading the shit out of things.

So after some clarification about the size of the strip and the amount of light it receives, we established that she’s dealing with a 2 foot by 10 foot strip of land on the west side of the alley, which translates to plenty of morning sun exposure.

Misfits, she could do a lot with this space.   She could do a hell of a lot with this space.

So after I finished wetting myself at the prospect of additional land to exploit (sexy!), I got to work.  Let me show you how you can grow a ton of food in a small space.  Here’s what I had to say:

2 feet by 10 feet?  Hardly a challenge!  You can grow a lot there; things you wouldn’t want to grow include plants that get insanely bushy and spread out, like indeterminate tomatoes, vine-style squash, or conventionally-grown fruit trees.  But since it’s morning sun, let’s put your less heat-loving plants there.  That way they get everything they need early in the day and can recover in the afternoon and evening if they were overexposed.  I’m thinking things like lettuce, cabbages, cauliflower, chard, peas and green beans (both bush and vine type). While you could technically fit some bush-type squash in there, I wouldn’t recommend it.  They have spines on the leaves that can irritate your bare skin, so you may get a temporary itchy rash if you brush past them in bare legs.

Other ideas include dwarf blueberry bushes (no thorns, stay nice and compact, gorgeous ornamental coloring), onions, and garlic.  Strawberry patches are a great idea, too (why not plant a mix of early-bearing, late-bearing, and everbearing for a continuous harvest?).  Grape vines and fruit trees are entirely possible in that space as well–if you grow them espalier style and train them to snake along the wall.

If you think you’ve got the sun to support heat-loving plants (we’re talking at least 6 hours of direct sun per day), peppers and eggplants stay compact and actually produce more when they’re “holding hands,” or packed fairly close together.  Another heat-friendly idea–a wall o’ cucumbers.

Let’s think about how some of these things can be executed:

*Cabbages and Cauliflower–Each require about a square foot of space–a 2 x 10 foot space laid out grid style means you can grow 20 cabbages in that strip!  Your very own cabbage patch.  Plant some anise around it if you want to keep cabbage moths at bay naturally.

*Bok Choy–Each plant require a six inch square…so 40 bok choy!

*Beans and Peas–Depending on the variety, you’ll plant these between 1 and 2 inches apart, with poles or a nylon net strung up for support.  That means you’ve got room for A TON of beans and peas!  Plus, you’ll be able to say that your “STRIP” is flashing some “SERIOUS LEGUME.”  Get it?!  Get it?!?!  Ahaha, I’m totally killin’ it.

*Fruit Trees–When trained espalier style, these require lots of horizontal spread, but not much depth–let’s say two dwarf pear or peach trees for that 2′ by 10′ space.

*Peppers or Eggplants: Give ’em eighteen inch squares to grow in–so only 1 row, but spaced a foot and a half apart like that, it’s about 6 or 7 eggplant/pepper plants!

*Onions: Sure, spring onions are space-efficient, but bulbs are, too, and even a large, crazy-sexy specimen like Heirloom Red Wethersfields only need 4 inches of space in each direction.  A strip as large as yours could accommodate enough onions to braid and hang in your kitchen come fall!

Those are just a few thoughts, and there’s an endless number of combinations you could pull off.  How about a pickle garden, with cucumbers trained up the trellis and alternating garlic and dill in front?  Or peas and pearl onions, which can and freeze (and cook!) so well together?  Or a root vegetable patch, with baby radishes, exotic carrots, and golden and red beets?  A kraut garden with cabbages, carrots, and onions?  A gourmet salad patch with baby greens, sugar snap peas, cut-and-come-again leaf lettuces, kale, radishes, and edible flowers, like nasturtiums?

Any questions, just ask!

Bad Mama Genny

Well, misfits, I’m not gonna kid myself–I kicked the shit out of that question.  But there are so many more ideas out there–really, we’re just grazing the tip of the iceberg.  What would you do with that kind of space?  What are you considering doing with your teeny strip of unused land?  Anything you’d like to try, but you’re not sure if it’s possible?  (Hint: it probably is, I’ve probably tried it, and you should probably ask me.)

Much love and big red kisses to every one of you adorable, huggable weirdos!

Bad Mama Genny

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Hang onto your fishnets, misfits–it’s time for another installment of “Ask Bad Mama Genny!”  And today’s episode is likely to pull at the heartstrings of all you sweet-toothed yet lactarded gals and fellas out there.  Read on for Michelle’s query:

Caramel! I miss it as a lactard, have you found any suitable alternatives; or even better, a way to make the real thing?
Thanks a million!
Michelle

Caramel is a tough one, misfits.

Hey, hey, hey, come back here!   I didn’t say it was “impossible,” misfits!  I said it was “a tough one,” okay?  Thereby causing you to realize the enormity of the task I have undertaken and increasing my glory tenfold when you watch me do it BECAUSE OH HELLZ YES I DID DO IT.

So as we’ve discussed in the past, I am lactose-intolerant.  This does not mean that I no longer live like A Rock Star.   Not living like A Rock Star is totally not an option for me.  Therefore I need caramel.  Everybody knows that rock stars and caramel go together like gin and tonic water which IS REALLY FUCKING WELL.

Me=Rock Star.

Stop laughing.

In any case, Your Bad Mama Genny does not possess the inner fortitude to give up things like ice cream and cream soups and caramel.  Simple as that.

But, uh, let’s be frank here: I also LITERALLY do not possess the inner fortitude to eat them.  So I find ways around it.  Coconut ice cream.  Almond milk.  Hallucinogenic substances.  You know, the usual.  I tweak my recipes until they’re just as satisfying as the original, and YOU, yes, YOU reap the benefits.

So let’s talk caramel–technically speaking, caramel can just be, well, caramel, as in caramelized sugar.  Sugar plus heat equals caramel.  But right now you’re all, Oh, Bad Mama Genny, that is SO NOT what Michelle meant.  And I so know you’re right.  What Michelle meant is that gooey, creamy stuff you could eat out of a jar with a spoon–that stuff you drizzle on ice cream, over cakes, or all over yourselves for a bizarre photo shoot that will probably surface in Sweden someday.

I canz handle that challenge, my wittle misfittles.

So onto the dang quesadillas! (Please tell me you got that reference.)

I mean, the dang caramel!

Dairy-Free, Vegan Caramel Sauce

Ingredients:

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar or evaporated cane juice
3/4 cup full fat coconut milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract (seriously, misfits, vanilla bean paste is my MSG–use it, and use it liberally)
2 T. vegan Earth Balance spread–or butter, if you can tolerate it (I can) and don’t have a problem with dairy on principle
1 dash sea salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons cold water

Directions:
Put sugars and Earth Balance in a medium saucepan over low heat.  Meanwhile, set the coconut milk in a small saucepan over low heat to get steamy.  Now cook the sugars and butter, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until it’s smooth and melty and sugars have dissolved (about 5 minutes).  Now toss in the vanilla bean paste or extract and stir quickly to incorporate–be careful, the mixture may froth up at this point.  Now slowly add the steaming coconut milk while stirring.  When it’s incorporated, mix the cornstarch with the cold water in a small bowl.  Add it to the caramel mixture while stirring, and let the mixture bubble until thickened, about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.  Then transfer it to a jar or airtight container and OM NOM NOM NOM NOM start over again.

Enjoy, Michelle!

And for all of you lactarded misfits looking for a lil’ more non-dairy love, check out a few other recipes I’ve posted for your nomming pleasure:

Dairy-free, Soy-free, Vegan Macaroni & Cheese

Dairy-free Creamy Spinach Artichoke Dip

Swedish Meatballs with Dairy-free “Sour Cream” and Mushroom Sauce

(Remember, misfits, you can submit your own question for your Bad Mama Genny to answer by clicking right here.)

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Photo by Dontworry

So remember how a reader asked me how to feel more like a farmer in the city, and I answered her and said now this meant I had an advice column and you would all be justified in having fear feelings about this?

Yeah, well anyhow, remember how after that I answered a question about my potting mix recipe for tomatoes in containers and raised beds?

Are you starting to get the feeling that this advice thingy might be for real, and not just some passing fancy I entertained after 3 gin gimlets and a handful of tookies?  By which I mean, cookies?  By which I mean, tookies?

Good!  ‘Cause the questions keep coming, my adorable little misfits, and Bad Mama Genny ain’t one for leaving you in the homesteading dust, ‘kay?

Or any other kind of dust for that matter.  Who leaves people in dust?

So lest we all forget what this post was supposed to be about, (oh, honey biscuits, THAT SHIP HAS SAILED), I received a question from a Chicago reader named Mary yesterday, and it’s a query that I just know you city farmers are itching to hear all about:

“I keep reading that avocado trees are easy to grow.  I’ve heard that you can take them in the house in the winter and they’ll keep growing.  Do you agree?  What kind of tree is it that you said you have in your apt.?  Oh I would so love to have an avocado tree!” -Mary

Well, look, it’s out of the question for me to turn my back on a fellow guac-lover.

That’s just about the cruelest thing you can do to a person.  Deny them guac, I mean. That, or rip a run in their fishnets.  That’s pretty evil, too.

So here’s my answer for Mary:

Dwarf Avocados are entirely possible to maintain in containers in our Arctic corner of the Midwest, though they have a reputation for being finicky and many people can never get them to produce fruit.  If you’d like to do it, remember that quality plants can also be expensive.  If you’re looking for shade, starting a tree from a storebought avocado pit via that god-awfully tedious process with the toothpicks that we all learned in kindergarten (Shoot me.  Shoot me now.) is fine, though the growth habit may get out of control. This is not the way to go if you want fruit.  That’s because most storebought avocados come from hybrid stock that doesn’t produce true-to-seed: in other words, you won’t get the same avocado you got the pit from.  You may get a rock-hard, low-fruit avocado, or you may get none at all.

For fruit, contact a reputable nursery and get a quality plant, preferably one that has a year or two under its belt.  Little Cado and Holiday are a few of the varieties I’ve heard recommended; Don Gillogly is a variety that seems to a problem for just about everyone, so I’d steer clear.  A 5 gallon pot is usually sufficient for these guys, and they cap off at about 8 to 10 feet.  Thankfully, I capped off at about 5 1/2 feet, but then again, I don’t make avocados.  Dammit.

I don’t recommend investing in one of these unless you have a very sunny spot INDOORS.  These guys, like dwarf citrus trees (I have a dwarf Cara Cara orange tree), will happily go outdoors in the summer, but will need to be in a sunny, preferably southern-exposure spot in the house during the winter, or whenever nighttime temps are going to drop below 55.  At this point, the plant will be in dormancy and its water needs will be less–its feeding needs will be around zero.  In the spring, you’d start to fertilize here and there and increase watering to break the dormant period (but only if you have the sunlight to support new growth).  You’ll notice it taking off shortly after it’s moved outside.  Speaking of moving it outside, do this gradually–a few hours to start–and increase the outside time over the course of a week.

If space is limited and you just want to grow something tropical that makes you feel like a rockstar, I’d recommend Mayer Lemons or another dwarf citrus variety–they produce more reliably in containers than avocados.  But if you’re up for a challenge and an adventure, go for it!  Just remember that my advice here entitles me to a one third share in all resulting guacamole.  Sorry.  I don’t make the rules.

Well, whaddya say, misfits?  Have any of you successfully grown avocado trees in containers indoors?  If so, don’t be shy with the details–we wanna know how you did it and what varieties you grew!

Also, whether the resulting guac was mildly kick-ass, appropriately kick-ass, generous with the ass-kickage, mind-blowing ass-kicking, or leg-pulling mind-blowing skirt-flipping ass-kicking.

What?

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Monitorpop at en.wikipedia

Hey, there, sugar donuts!  Today, I’d like to draw your attention to a comment left on this post by The Other Girl:

Hi Gen! As I prepare to plant my tomatoes, I have to ask what you use as a growing medium in your pots? One could spend a small fortune on potting soil and a lot of the commercial mix has chemical fertilizers added – something I’m guessing you shy away from.

This is a great question that I’ve gotten multiple times via my Twitter, text, and private message.

Seriously, people, as I mentioned here, you have nothing to lose by leaving these messages as public comments.  The Gen Person will not allow anyone to tease you on Her Almighty Comment Board!

I answered The Other Girl’s question in the comments section, but I’d like to post it for you here. It includes a basic and relatively inexpensive recipe for a homemade tomato mix, should you not be into expensive pre-made mixes or some of the involved processes I get myself into.  And I get myself into a lot of involved processes ’round here.

Here’s my answer:

Hi, The Other Girl!

If you’re buying a ready-to-use potting mix, I like the ones by Happy Frog and Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest Blend (both are, yes, pretty pricey). The Ocean Forest has been giving me GREAT results…it’s natural, with organic plant food materials in the mix, along with microrhizae (a beneficial fungus) that colonizes along the plant’s root structure and aids it in nutrient uptake. This year I’m really big on symbiotic relationships and beneficial bugs, so I’d try that if you’re looking for a ready-made thing. In some of my larger containers and the raised beds I built for my mother, I made a layered mix that turned out very well. It was a layer of pine straw (acidifier, soil lightener, drainage, etc.), then “organic” cow manure (well-rotted), then a light and fluffy very basic soil mix, with healthy amounts of bone meal, blood meal, and microrhizae mix turned into it (Espoma is a good brand for these). Then I repeated the layers and topped the whole thing with more straw for mulch. Put your stakes/cages in, dig your hole, crumble some eggshells into the bottom, and put in your plant, with a few of the bottom sets of leaves under the soil line. Then fill and firm the planting hole, make a mix of epsom salts and lukewarm water, and water the tomato thoroughly. The tomatoes I’m putting through this process are LOVING it. Every day they look bigger. And that’s saying a lot, consider the storming and fluctuating temps we’ve had.

Hope that helps, and keep me posted! Let me know if I can help with anything else!
Gen

So while you can make it more complicated than that, this is a great and simple way to start your tomato plants off right.  So they can grow healthy and strong and eat their metal cages and then cause you to have fear feelings.

I like having fear feelings caused by overzealous tomato plants.  But that’s just who I am these days.

What are your tomato secrets?  Are there any super special soil recipes floating around out there?  You KNOW how I feel about sharing recipes…

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Hello, Greenie Beanies,

I recently got an email from another satisfied customer.  That is, someone who read and liked my regular column on Urban Homesteading, which runs in every issue of MaryJanesFarm Magazine.  Her name is Linda, and she wanted to pick my brain about urban homesteading.

Linda has been living in a rural home in California, and 2 years ago she moved into a city apartment with her adult daughter.  Linda is not used to cramped city apartments.  Linda does not like to feel cramped.

Oh, we can feel that pain, can’t we, sugar dumplings?

In any case, she’s having a hard time adjusting, and she’s finally looking for some ways to bring out her inner farmgirl.  But how to do it in the city?

Oh, sugar pies, YOU JUST KNOW she came to the right place!

Since I get questions like Linda’s fairly often via email or text message or Facebook nudge or secret message (seriously, people, if you have a question, ain’t no shame in postin’ it for all the guacamole-lovin’ world to see!  We won’t tease you!  And I kick jerks off my comments board, which makes “The Alchemist” the fun-lovin’, free spirited, totally tolerant, non-judgmental, warm and fuzzy, rolicking good time encouragin’, dictatorial palace of blogs.  Or something like that.).  Okay, I forgot what I was saying.

Oh, right.  Since I get questions like Linda’s fairy often, I’m going to print a piece of my response to her here.  Benefit from it, add to it, improvise, my sweet pets!

…It sounds like you’ve had to undergo quite the adjustment, you poor dear!  I was born and raised in Chicago, but have lived elsewhere–always in major cities, including Honolulu and New York.  So the crunch for space and land has always been an issue for me, and boy, do I sympathize.  I think one huge perk about city-living and small spaces is that they make you creative.  It is, of course, far easier to homestead on forty acres than it is in a 600 square foot apartment.  So you get plucky.  You get creative.  You become less wasteful and more ingenious.  You will, too!  Embrace it, and give it time, Linda.  But maybe I can help you to hurry things along….

Most of what I grow is in containers.  People have no. Idea. How. Easy. This. Is.  Really, I’m astounded at all the naysayers who will tell you vegetables can’t be grown in pots.  [Readers: remember when I showed you how easy it is?] Listen, you can grow colonnade apple trees in pots!  Almost any plant, given the proper space, soil, water, and nutrition, can be container-friendly.  A great beginner’s book I’d recommend is McGee & Stuckey’s The Bountiful Container. I’m not sure what kind of balcony space you have, but I say, load it up, girl!  A big part of urban homesteading is seeing what you can get away with.  The answer, in my experience:

a whole lot.

Think lettuce in window boxes that hang over your balcony railings.  Patio tomatoes in pots.  Strawberries in hanging baskets.  Peppers and eggplants are extremely container-friendly–mine are very productive in a mere 8-inch pot.  Zucchini are notorious for a reason–they are practically reproductive machines.  Though I’m a big fan of heirlooms, you might try the Raven Zucchini hybrid–it’s container-friendly and produces loads of fruit very quickly.  Tea gardens are a great offshoot of the herb gardening thing, and mint and chamomile do very well in confined spaces.  Make use of vertical space, too, with plants that climb.  Just be sure that your landlord is okay with all this, and that you’re following the necessary safety precautions for balcony weight limits and such.

The great thing is, I think city neighbors, while they may not know much about what you’re trying to do, are usually pretty receptive and curious.  You may have been no big deal to your far-off rural neighbors, but you’ll probably be a sensation when you cut pumpkins from a vine twirling around your fire escape.  Try to make friends with your new neighbors, if you haven’t already, and let your garden be the icebreaker if need be.  Share your produce, try not to drip water onto your neighbors below (I said “try”…it won’t always be possible), and if you make friends with people who don’t really use their space, go ahead and ask if you can put a box or two on their railing.

Remember, mushrooms are a great edible crop that you can grow indoors in low light–why not try a mushroom kit?  Several issues ago, I wrote about the process in my “Urban Homesteading” column in MaryJanesFarm Mag.  In another piece titled “Bunnies in ‘da Hood,” I wrote about raising indoor angora rabbits for their knitting fiber (they shed it naturally).  My very first article for that column was about community gardens and yard shares.  If your ambitions outstrip your land, you might try to find for-rent gardening plots nearby.  You’re likely to meet new neighbors who share your farm fantasies.  Try to cultivate online relationships, too–I like to do a little seed swapping on the forum at www.gardenweb.com.

Homesteading for me goes beyond gardening.  I cook, I bake, I sew, I knit, I ferment, I pickle (I’ll be teaching pickling and fermenting workshops during MaryJanesFarm Day at this event in St. Paul in September–why not attend?!), I bake my own bread, brew beer and wine, make cheese, and am generally engaged in any nonsense I can lay hands upon.  Now The Boy and I are getting into roasting coffee.  We also subscribe to a local CSA or farm share box, which connects us to great local produce that we can’t or don’t grow ourselves (try www.localharvest.com to find one near you).  It helps to make us feel like part of a community.  We satisfy this urge by visiting our local farmers markets, too.  Perhaps you could start a weekly farmers market habit and hobnob with farmers and foodie neighbors?  These little things can help to put you in touch with a local, land-loving community that you didn’t even know existed.

…Lotsa hugs,
Gen

Well, whaddya think, my little custard tarts?  Did I just about cover it?  Did I give you any fresh inspiration?  Can you add anything to help Linda’s transition go a little more smoothly?

Duh, you totally can!  Do so in

3…

2…

1…

GO TIME!

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