Pandemic Gardening

A border garden, with trellis.
You don’t have to garden in the middle of your yard.

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything on my blog, but now that I hear that people are stockpiling not only masks and toilet paper but garden seeds, I thought it might be useful to share some info with newbie gardeners.

My grandparents grew a Victory Garden during WWII, and during the Depression before that. For them it was not a big deal. My grandfather was a farm boy and continued his tradition on a smaller scale after he moved to the city and took a factory job. And as I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, most of suburbia used to be farmland, so why not take it back?

So now we have Pandemic Gardens, and the epidemic has providentially hit us right at planting time. So if you are a beginning gardener, here are some tips.

Start small.

The urge to buy a packet of seed from every vegetable you have ever eaten is entirely understandable. However, starting a garden from scratch is work. Sod will not turn itself into a garden all by itself, and chances are, if this is your first gardening attempt, that your body is not attuned to that level of physical labor (gym rats may feel free to ignore this comment.) But even if you are a finely-honed physical specimen, a garden requires daily attention that needs to be squeezed into your existing schedule, and the bigger the garden, the more maintenance it will require. Consider talking to friends and neighbors about specializing and swapping produce. You grow tomatoes, he grows collards, she grows green beans. Properly cared for, gardens can be hugely productive.

Don’t over-plant.

There’s a style of gardening called Raised Bed Intensive, which crams plants together and produces huge yields. However, it requires serious applications of compost, which, as a beginner, you don’t have, plus soil amendments like blood meal, greensand, and rock phosphate. Also, in my experience, the giant yields are a year or two down the pike, so when planting this year, respect the guidelines on the seed packets. You might even plant things a bit further apart to reduce competition. For example, we have a friend who plants a dozen tomato plants each year, two feet apart, in a row. They each get about 2 feet tall. We plant two tomato plants each year: a paste tomato and a slicer. They get planted at opposite ends of a 20 foot long bed, outgrow their tomato cages and produce more than twice as much as all his plants combined.

Plant in beds, not rows

You have to leave walking space between the rows. This means 1, that most of your garden is paths, and 2, that you are walking on the roots, compacting the soil and making life difficult for your little green babies. Make your beds twice as wide as your reach (4 feet works for most people) and leave a couple of feet between beds for access. By all means, plant in rows within the beds for optimal spacing and a tidier appearance. (Neighbors, oy!)

Grow the easy stuff.

Some plants are just pickier than others, requiring more consistent watering, and some need special handling.


Lettuce, mesclun, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, collards, kale, broccoli, hot peppers, garlic

More demanding

Onions, celery, cauliflower, bell peppers, melons, carrots

Grow up!

This is not a judgement on your character. This is a suggestion that you build a trellis and train your vining crops to climb it. A row of pole beans will outyield a row of bush beans any day of the week.

This set of beds is tucked in between the fence and the end of the driveway.
Yes, a fence counts as a trellis.

Buy sets, rather than seeds for the warm-weather crops.

If you’re starting tomato seeds now, you’re about two months late. The baby tomato plants will magically show up at your local hardware emporium or garden center at just the right time to be planted. 

Warm weather crops include tomatoes, squash, cukes, sweet potatoes, and peppers.

90% of gardening is maintenance.

Check daily for soil moisture and water as needed. You can stick your fingers in the dirt or buy a moisture meter.

Look for bugs and little green caterpillars munching on your plants. The quick and dirty way to deal with them is a spray of water hard enough to knock them off the plants. Consider buying diatomaceous earth or using wood ash if you have access to it. (Not the ash from charcoal briquets, which frequently contain petroleum-based accelerants.) Sprinkle some around the base of the plant and on the leaves. You can also make a home made repellent spray: 1 TB cooking oil, 1/2 tsp liquid soap, 1 quart water, a couple of cloves of garlic, crushed, and 1TB ground cayenne or other hot pepper. Shake well and let stand overnight. Strain out the solids. You don’t need to buy a sprayer. Just hold on to the spray bottle next time you run out of Febreeze or Windex. Wash it out well and use that to spray. (And it’s a good idea to wear some eye protection and maybe a long-sleeved shirt when spraying hot pepper juice. Just saying.) Japanese Beetles are a special case. If you find one, run to the hardware store and buy a pheromone trap.

You’ll also need to deal with weeds, and the best way to do that is early and often. This does not mean rise at dawn. This means pay attention and zap them when they’re small and have little, tiny, tender roots. Big weeds will fight back. And there’s another technique that nearly eliminates weeds:

This garden makes use of a corner of the yard, out of the way of the rampaging dog, and utilizes the shed as a trellis support for green beans.
Mulch is your friend. Also note the trellis attached to the shed eave.


A neighbor once said to me, “Mulch! That’s so expensive!” Meanwhile her husband was piling a dozen bags of grass clippings on the curb for the trash truck. If you live in suburbia, you have a lawn. If you have a lawn, you have a weekly supply of grass clippings. Keep a layer about 3 inches thick around the bases of your plants and the weeds don’t stand a chance. You will probably need to replenish every week or two. They shrink as they dry and very quickly decompose into topsoil. Any leftovers can go into the compost heap. If grass clippings are not an option, sheets of newspaper will work. Just make sure you use only the black and white pages. Colored inks are toxic to plants.

There are more hints and tips on my blog. Feel free to explore.

Any questions? Ask them below.

Snow Day Soup

IMG_1320 (2)It’s snowing, so it’s Soup Day. Here’s what I’m making. How about you?

Brazilian Black Bean Soup (Feijoada)

1 lb black beans, washed and picked over

2 qts water

8 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

1 orange, cut in chunks

1 bottle spicy V8 (or regular V8)

salt to taste

Additional water as needed.

Bring water and beans to a boil. Simmer on medium high for 20 minutes. Let stand overnight.

Combine all ingredients except salt in crockpot. Cook on high until beans are tender. Remove bay leaves and blend. (Yes, grind up the whole orange, peel and all.) Add salt. Serve, topped with sour cream.


If you’re in a hurry and using canned beans, simmer until the orange peel is tender. The smaller you cut it, the sooner that will happen.

Spicy V8 is spicy. If you prefer something milder, use regular V8 and add hot sauce to taste. Don’t have any V8 lying around the pantry? Tomato juice, puree, or paste, canned tomatoes or tomatoes with chilis will do.

Pork is traditional in this dish, but optional. Either way, it’s amazingly tasty and sustaining, especially when paired with some nice, hot cornbread.

Suburban Garden Planning 103

Collards and broccoli, just set out.

Collards and broccoli, just set out.

So, remember how I said not to order anything yet? Hope you were paying attention, because this time we’re going to talk about an important piece of the gardening puzzle: seeds or sets?

Should you start your plants from seed, or wait until, say, April or May and buy them from your local hardware palace or farmer’s market? Well, having been through this far too many times, let me give you some guidelines.

How available is it?

Planning on growing Early Girl tomatoes? You can buy sturdy little starts almost anywhere. How about Pimentos, as opposed to Red Bell Peppers, or Armenian Lemon Cucumbers, as opposed to Straight Eights? Good luck finding sets, unless you have access to a v trendy farmer’s market. If you have your heart set on some obscure vegetable, you’ll probably want to get the seeds. Otherwise, it’s a whole lot easier to pick up the plant at a garden center.

How much window space do you have?

You’ll need a good south-facing exposure, possibly supplemented with grow lights. Indoor-grown veggie plants tend to turn out rather spindly. (Unless you click the first link at the bottom of the page.)

How much patience do you have?

Starting from seed takes consistency and attention. They need moist soil, but wet soil will grow mold that will kill the baby plant. About a week before you plant them in your garden, they will need to be hardened off: spending time outside during the days, (the first two in the shade) and brought inside each evening, then graduating to nights outside, perhaps under a plastic sheet for the first few nights, with the plastic removed each morning lest you come home after work to wilted plants. They’re babies. You have to baby them.

If you buy sets, they’ve already been hardened off and can go directly into the garden.

Is starting from seed necessary or desirable?

Some plants have a longer growing season than your location may provide. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, are tropical in origin. Direct-seeding them after the soil has warmed to 70 degrees will give you maybe two ripe tomatoes by first frost. Other plants dislike being moved around: root crops, beans, and corn are notorious for this, so direct seed them.

Succession planting means that as one plant is harvested, another goes in its place. So the fence or trellis that held peas in the Spring gets winter squash set in when the peas give up in Summer’s heat. You’ll want to drop nice, sturdy squash sets in, rather than planting squash seeds, in order to get a crop in before frost. Plant broccoli or cabbage, which can take Summer’s heat, in the place of the Spring lettuce and spinach after those cool-weather crops have been harvested. Likewise, plant lettuce, spinach, or peas in the Fall, in spots vacated by the heat-lovers.

Will you succession plant?

This means grow replacing plants as they are harvested. For example, planting winter squash by the trellis that held the Spring peas after said peas have succumbed to Summer’s heat. You can either buy the squash sets or plant seeds 3-4 weeks ahead, growing little plants close together in flats or pots to save space, and then putting them into the larger garden space to mature. You can also start cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach in August in flats in a shaded spot to have them handy to drop in when your cukes and summer squash give up the ghost at Summer’s end.

And a couple of hints:

Seeds don’t care what time of day you plant. Just keep the soil moist. I like to sprinkle a handful of grass clippings over each newly-planted row or bed. Not enough to prevent emergence, just a sunscreen to shade the soil and keep it from drying out.

Sets will go through transplant shock. To minimize that, plant in the evening or on a cloudy day. Fill the planting hole with water, then set in the plant and fill in the hole. Mulch immediately and heavily around the stem, letting the leaves show through to catch the sunlight.

I hope this is helpful. For other posts on starting plants, you can click here and here.

Collards and broccoli, a month later.

Collards and broccoli, a month later.

Suburban Garden Planning 102

After. This article is about the before part.

After. This article is about the before part.

So there you are with your hot cup of tea (or coffee, hot chocolate, cold beer, whatever) and the newly arrived seed catalogs, or your computer browser is pulled up to one. Look at all those plants! They’re beautiful! Every variety, and I mean every variety, is BETTER THAN EVERY OTHER VARIETY!! My hat is off to the people who write these things. I don’t know how they do it.

So how do you decide what to grow?

What to Grow

Look in your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. What’s there? Lettuce? OK, put that on your list. Tomatoes? Ok, grow them too. Arugula, Sea Kale, Salsify? Um, maybe not. But you get my drift. Rule One: plant stuff that you will want to eat. As you progress, you may want to add a new plant or two, but don’t waste a lot of time, effort, and space on stuff that will make your kids look at you funny and end up in the compost heap.

Which Variety?

Look carefully at the descriptions in the catalog. “Vigorous” is code for “Will try to take over your entire back yard.” “Determinate” tomato plants will set all their fruit in a short time, good if you plan on canning. “Indeterminate” plants keep bearing and bearing, and bearing until the weather cools. More useful if you just want a tomato or two a day for salads and sandwiches. (Okay, you’ll get a lot more than that.) Likewise, “Everbearing” strawberries will set fruit in small batches from late May until the weather cools, while “June bearers” will give you buckets o’berries over a few short weeks and then just sit there. Do you plan on making jam or freezing them? Go with June bearers. Prefer a daily bowl of fresh berries to top your morning cornflakes? Everbearers are your ticket.

Think about your yard, your preferences, and your available space. Maybe you have an unmowable space on a steep hillside. Prep a little (3′ x 3′) spot with a hill of compost or well-rotted manure on the north edge of it and plant, say, pumpkins or winter squash, yes, those “vigorous” vines. Watch that annoying landscape feature get entirely covered with big green leaves and harvest your crop when the vines start to die back.

Why am I not suggesting that you cover that big slope with vigorous cucumber or melon vines? Because then you’ll have to climb that hill every day looking for the ripe ones. Much easier to go with the stuff that all ripens at more or less the same time. Got a teeny little space? Go with bush squash, cukes, or zucchini.

How much bang are you getting for your buck?

In other words, we grow shallots, because they are delicious and expensive and we don’t grow equally delicious onions because they are cheap. Same thing with potatoes. I’ll throw a few sprouting potatoes into the compost heap in the spring and harvest them when the vines die back, but generally won’t plant them in the garden, since they are fairly inexpensive. If I’m going to invest garden space in potatoes, I’ll plant the pricey ones like Yukon Gold, or weird ones like purple potatoes so I can freak out my kids with the resulting potato salad.

How Green is Your Thumb?

Some plants are easier to grow than others, even though they may be closely related. For example, iceberg lettuce, that salad bar staple, demands close attention and lots of water. The fancy-schmancy spring mix is actually a lot easier to grow. (And also passes the pricey vs cheap test.) Broccoli is pretty easy, but its cousin cauliflower demands attention and lots of water. Beets are easy, but carrots want deep, rich, loose soil and can be very disappointing for beginners. Cucumbers and squash are pretty easy to grow, whereas their cousins, the melons, are picky, picky, picky. Hot peppers are easy to grow, sweet peppers more demanding.

I devoted a 5 gallon bucket to a red bell pepper plant this year and got three red peppers, plus about 5 green ones that didn’t have time to ripen before frost. Yes, they were delicious, but not any more so than the ones from the grocery store. I planted a Dragon Cayenne in another bucket and everybody’s getting Hot Pepper Jelly for Christmas this year.

Are You Building a Fence or Trellis?

If so, consider pole beans or peas. If not, plant bush beans/peas. Most squash, cucumbers, and the smaller melon vines will also grow up a trellis. Watermelons and big squash like Hubbards and Banana Squash, not so much. They’re just too heavy for the vines to support in mid-air.

So go ahead, work on that list, but before you send off your order, check back here for Suburban Garden Planning 103, next week.

Suburban Garden Planning 101

It's raining compost.

It’s raining compost.

Fall really is the time to start your garden. It’s just raining compost as the leaves fall from the trees. The days are cool and much more pleasant to work in than the muggy days of late Spring and early summer. Your soil needs to feed itself, and if you are starting a new garden, it needs time to make the adjustment from sod to garden soil.

Everybody knows what a vegetable garden looks like, right? It’s a square or rectangle in the middle of the backyard. That’s why a lot of people don’t grow gardens. They have kids who want to play in the backyard. Dogs who want to chase frisbees and squirrels.

So I’m going to suggest that you think outside of the box, or square, or rectangle. You have no problem with planting ornamentals in narrow beds next to the house. Why not put your veggies there?

Here are some thoughts on how to do it:


Veggies like sun, as a rule, six to eight hours a day. Look to the south side of your house for optimal exposure. Some crops, like lettuce, spinach, and peas, prefer cool weather. If you have a place in your garden with early morning or late afternoon shade, plant them there. On the one hand, they will grow a bit slower, but on the other, the shade will help extend the season for a longer

Land use

What path does your dog follow as he patrols the yard? Don’t plant there. Where’s home plate for your kids’ kickball games? Where’s the outfield? Put the garden behind home plate or along the baselines. (But set back, please.) Do you have a deck or patio? Consider planting a border of salad greens, herbs, and a tomato plant or bush cucumber along the edge. Leave a path or two to access the yard. (And put the paths where everybody walks anyway. It’s easier to teach plants where to grow than teach people or animals to change their habits.)

Or the end of the driveway.

DSC01065Maximize your growing space

In another article on this blog, I wrote about trellises. You can grow an amazing quantity of pole beans or cucumbers in a bed a foot wide if you give the vines support so that they grow up instead of sprawling all over the lawn. Trellises can be quite cheap and easy to make. We’ve made them from 2’x2’s, eyebolts, and string hung from the eaves; PVC pipe with fence wire held on with zip ties; old 2”x4”s and string; and 4”x4” posts sunk into concrete with wire fencing stapled to it. This last one will eventually have the wire removed and turn into the support for the south wall of our future greenhouse. You can put sticks or metal fenceposts in the ground, run wires between them, and zigzag string between the wires. Your imagination’s the limit.

2"x2s, eyebolts, and string.

2″x2s, eyebolts, and string.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.


Five gallon buckets with 5 or 6 holes drilled 2 inches from the bottom can each hold a tomato, eggplant, potato, or pepper plant. If you don’t like the look of a line of pails on your deck or patio, you can build a big box around them. (I’ll post pictures when we get ours done next year.)


This is up to you and your needs. Are your kids old enough to walk around things, or are they still in the “Damn the torpedoes” phase of child development? Does your dog dig? Rabbits? Squirrels? We’ve found the cheapest is 2′ chicken wire mounted on rebar with zip ties.

Getting Started

I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll keep saying it, but start small. If you overburden yourself with taking on more garden than your experience warrants, you’ll feel stressed and end up getting turned off by the process. If you have no gardening experience at all, keep your garden smaller than ten square feet. That’s a strip one foot wide and ten feet long, two feet by five, or three and a bit by three. If you can restrain yourself, you’ll have a garden that’s easy to manage and will leave you hungry for more.

If you go nuts and plow up a huge plot, (been there, done that) you’ll likely find that it’s more work than you bargained for. You’re simply not used to it and it becomes one more damn thing you have to do. Like any other activity, it takes time to work it into your schedule and make the few minutes of routine maintenance a day a habit. (Remember that exercise bike?)

You can always make it bigger next year. If you’re a normal suburban person with a job, a commute, a family and, well, a life, you probably won’t want to add more than ten square feet per year.

The Easy Way

Figure out where you want to plant. Build the fence, if you need one. Get your soil tested at Co-op Extension or buy a soil test kit at your local hardware palace. Sprinkle whatever minerals your soil needs over the top of your future garden. Cover it with a couple layers of newspaper. Wet the paper down with the hose to keep it from blowing away. Run the lawnmower, bagger attached, over your lawn, fallen leaves and all. Dump the chopped leaves and grass clippings on the future garden, the deeper the better.

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, spread the ashes over the leaves as you clean it out over the winter. The alkalinity from the ashes will neutralize the acidity of the leaves and help them break down faster.

If you do it the hard way, raking all those leaves and throwing them onto the garden whole, you’ll end up with an impenetrable layer of wet, slimy leaves. Chopping them up with the mower lets them decompose faster. Whole leaves can take two years to turn into humus. Chopped leaves, mixed with grass clippings or other nitrogen-rich material and neutralized with wood ash can rot in less than half the time.

If you don’t have wood ash, sprinkle dolomite limestone over the top. If you find you are gathering leaves with no grass clippings mixed in, you can add nitrogen by means of a weak ammonia solution: one tablespoon per gallon, poured on with a watering can. Add another layer of leaves on top to prevent the ammonia from evaporating. If you opt out of fencing, get some straw and put a thin layer on top, spread like a lattice to keep the winter winds from blowing the leaves back onto your yard.

That’s all for now. Put your feet up, make yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and check out those seed catalogs.

Just don’t get carried away.

Unexpectedly Happy Ending


Ralph discovered these things in our compost heap. Yikes! There were millions of them, it seemed, busily munching on a head of cabbage that had split and gone bad. We’d dealt with an earwig infestation earlier in the season. Was this a harbinger of future earwigs?

Ralph put a few in a jar and took it to the Master Gardeners at our local college. They scratched their heads and told him they’d get back to us. We got on the Net and decided that the most likely culprit was Black Soldier Flies.

A few days later a Master Gardener showed up and confirmed the diagnosis. Black Soldier Flies are beneficial. They lay their eggs in decaying material. If the heap is too moist to support earthworms, the BSF larvae take over. They eat things (like cabbage leaves) too solid for earthworms to feed on, and poop out earthworm chow. The adults are pretty unusual, too. Most flies eat by barfing stomach acid, then lapping up the resulting slime. (This is why they are disease vectors.) BSFs eliminate this problem by not having mouth parts.

You read that right. Adult BSFs have only one thing on their minds: making more BSFs. They do all their eating  as maggots, and boy, do they eat! A few days after this photo was taken, Ralph emptied a vacuum cleaner bag  full of dust and dog hair into the heap. The maggots (having run out of cabbage, I suppose) rose up through the heap and started eating the dog hair.

But here’s the really neat part. The Master Gardener looked at our garden and said, “I’ve been gardening for 30 years, and this is the nicest garden I’ve ever seen.”



Oh, SNAP! Living On Food Stamps

I did it for four years, feeding myself and my three children. We never went hungry, ran out of food, or had to hit the soup kitchen or local food pantry. Now, I know that there are people who will take what I’m writing here as “proof” that the program is overly generous and try to use my words as justification to cut the program further. (Probably the same people who think that JK Rowling’s success with Harry Potter means that every mother on welfare could write a best-selling book series, if she just wasn’t too busy being a parasite. Sigh…after you, Governor.)

I don’t mean this advice as a criticism.  I want to share these basic principles to help. Been there, done that. This stuff worked for me.

Start with Breakfast

Stop buying sugary cereals. Yes, if your kids are accustomed to them, they’ll probably complain, but stick to your guns. If they just have to have that sugar buzz, buy the sugar separately and sprinkle it on. It’s a lot cheaper. The cheapest breakfast of all is oatmeal (please don’t gag). In my experience, the 5 minute kind digests slower than instant, but oatmeal all by itself doesn’t stick to your ribs very long. Add a tablespoon of peanut butter or some sunflower seeds (The cheapest nut on the shelf.) to complement the oat protein and add a little fat. Brown sugar or a drizzle of light molasses goes a long way to perking it up. Oatmeal cooks up creamier if you add the oats to cold water, then heat to a boil. Got raisins? Throw a few in while it’s cooking.

Got stale bread, an egg and a little milk? French toast. Top with canned peaches.

There is such a thing as a free lunch.

If you qualify for food stamps, your school-aged children qualify for the free lunch program. That’s five meals per child, per week that you don’t have to stretch your food budget to cover. Mom and Dad, on the other hand, need to pack leftovers rather than hit the burger stand.


There’s a line from an old made-for TV movie called The Electric Grandmother. “When you get right up close, Love looks a lot like paying attention.” So does cooking. Even if you are thinking, “If it’s not heat-n-eat, I can’t handle it,” start small and just pay attention to what you’ve got on the stove until it’s ready to come off the stove.

As much as possible, cook from scratch. Trust me, the guy running the StoveTop machine (my brother-in-law) doesn’t work for free. The more basic the ingredients, generally the cheaper the finished dish will be. These days I buy store brand spaghetti sauce, but with a little elbow grease you can make your own with a big can of plum tomatoes and a little can of tomato paste. (Yes, like my Italian aunt.) Unless the jarred kind is on sale, you’ll save money. Saute some chopped onions and/or garlic in oil. Squeeze each tomato over the pot, then drop in the tiny bit of pulp left in your hand.  Think it’s gross to squeeze tomatoes? That’s why God made small children. They think it’s a hoot. Make sure they wash their hands first, and you might want to have them squeeze over a bowl (and maybe the bowl should stand in the kitchen sink) to avoid hot oil spatters, which is more of a howl than a hoot. Add the tomato paste, bring to a boil, then simmer for a bit. Boom! Spaghetti sauce! You can use dried onion or garlic. Italian seasoning is great, if you have it. In a real pinch you can just go with the tomato paste and enough water to bring it to a saucy consistency.

Same thing with most other things. Bisquick is cheaper than Mr. Poppin Fresh. Flour and baking powder are cheaper than Bisquick.

I have no illusions that everybody on food stamps is just sitting at home on their butts with hours to spend in the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to work for Walmart or McD’s (and I mean that ironically) you just might find it hard to have enough time to sleep and shower between the collection of jobs that keeps you off the streets. So plan a little. One afternoon a week is my cooking time. I’ll cook a big batch of something and divvy it up into old margarine tubs for my week’s lunches. Some of those tubs will go into the freezer, so I can alternate this week’s and last week’s leftovers and have a little variety. Make it a family affair. Parcel out the tasks. Many hands make light work.

And here’s a delicate discussion: If the macroeconomic grinder that put you on food stamps has left your family with an unemployed male former breadwinner and a working wife, for God’s sake, sir, just get over that whole ego trip about cooking being a “wifely” duty and beneath you. All the great chefs are men, dammit. Step up to the plate and support her with a home-cooked meal when she gets back from work, just like she did for you.

Beans are your Friends

Americans have this insane terror of not eating enough protein. Back in World War II the Army researched it thoroughly and found that a 150-pound man in combat required 150 grams of protein a day. That’s a serving the size of a hockey puck. And that’s per day, not per meal. Arnold Schwartzenegger, in his bodybuilding book, suggests 10% of your calories should come from protein, when in bulking-up mode. The UN says that 5 to 8% is about right for those not into ornamental muscle growth. Let me give you an example of a food that gets 10% of its calories from protein:


Yes, you read that right. By comparison, lentils hold 50% their calories as protein.

Cows, according to my local billboard, want you to eat chik’n instead. I’m pretty sure that if I bothered to ask a chicken, she’d suggest I go eat a cow. The seas are being over-fished. You can help with all of this, while saving money. Here’s one of my kids’ favorite dinner recipes:

Bean Dip

1 can refried beans (cheaper if you just buy a can of pinto beans and mash them)

1 cup frozen corn or drained canned corn

1 can diced tomatoes with chilis, drained

Optional: fat-free sour cream, sliced jalapenos

Grate or slice about 2 oz cheese

Layer ingredients in an 8 x 8 baking dish in the order given. Bake at 300° for 15 minutes, or until bubbly. Serves 4

Serve with corn chips, or if you want to economize, buy a bag of masa (tortilla flour) and follow the package directions to make tortillas. (I always have to add about a tablespoon of water to what the package calls for.) Press or roll them out between two layers of waxed paper or plastic wrap and heat like pancakes in an ungreased pan. (Get the kids in on this.)

I’d always let the kids scoop it right out of the baking dish with the chips, after carefully putting cut lines to delineate each person’s portion.

Here’s another simple one:

1 pound bag of mixed dry beans (or any type of bean you prefer.)

1 big bottle of spicy V-8 or tomato juice

2 quarts water

Sort the beans, discarding any stray pebbles. Put in a big pot with the water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about half an hour. Dump the water and rinse off any scum. Put the beans back in the pot or a crockpot and add the juice, adding onions and /or garlic, if desired. Bring to a boil, then cook on low until tender. You can take off the lid and let it thicken to make chili (add cumin) or leave the lid on to serve as soup.


Save stuff: gravy, the juice I just told you to drain out of the diced tomatoes with chilis, packing water from canned vegetables, cooking water from fresh or frozen vegetables. Add it to other stuff: make gravy from leftover cooking water, make soup from gravy, add cooking water rather than plain water to canned soups, and throw in your leftover veggies. The important thing is to refrigerate promptly and use within a day or two. You’re not saving money by conducting science experiments in the fridge. Here’s the world’s simplest soup, with gourmet cred, to boot:

French Onion Soup

2 lbs onions, sliced thin. (This is about 2 to 3 really big onions.)

2 tbs Butter, margarine, or oil for sautéing

Leftover gravy, beef is nice if you have it. (Stew gravy, too, or, after you remove the fat from the pan after cooking burgers, pork chops, or chicken, add water to the pan and cook the stuck bits loose. Add a bouillon cube if you don’t have enough. )

4 cups water or leftover veggie broth


Stale bread

Grated cheese

Saute the onions on medium-low heat. Let them cook into golden brown almost-mush for the best soup, but I’ve let them go until just wilted and then thrown in the liquids and it’s still good. The browner the onions, the stronger and more meaty the flavor will be, but they should be soft, not crispy. Cook them too hot and they will harden.

Add the gravy and water. Simmer on low heat for half an hour or so. Salt to taste.

Put a thick slice of bread (or 2 normal ones) in the bottom of each soup bowl. Cover with a layer of cheese. Ladle on the soup.  Serve with a salad and some crusty bread, if you’ve got it, or home-made biscuits. Seriously good eatin’.

What’s for Dessert?

Well, if you stop buying all that sugary crap, not only will you save money, you’ll be a whole lot healthier. (Don’t underestimate the addictive power of sugar and fat, particularly if you’re used to eating processed foods. But they’re treats, not daily fodder.) Fruit is always good, fresh or canned. Serve topped with yogurt or cottage cheese if the meal was light. Any store-bought baked goods should be rationed. In our food stamp days, we each got 4 cookies, when we had them.

Here’s a recipe from my mom, who as a teenager not only lived through the Depression but supported her family after her dad lost his factory job in 1929.

Bread Pudding

Save your bread heels and stale bread in a bag in the freezer. When you have enough of them to fill a baking dish, cut them in ½ inch cubes and put them in a casserole dish.

In a mixing bowl, beat an egg and add enough milk to cover the bread cubes. If you’re not sure, err on the scant side. You can always add more milk later.

Add sugar, about ¼ cup for each cup of milk you use.

Pour the egg/milk/sugar over the bread cubes. Wait a minute, then stir to moisten the top cubes and add more milk if needed. (Rinse the sugar dregs out of the mixing bowl with the additional milk.) The liquid should just come to the top of the bread. You never want to feed your family spoiled food, but if the milk is just starting to taste stale (not sour!) it will work for this recipe.

Dust with cinnamon or nutmeg, if you have it.

Bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes or until golden brown. It will puff up magnificently, but collapse as soon as you take it out of the heat. Poke it a little to make sure the liquid is all gelled. If not, give it a few more minutes in the oven. Let it cool and serve. You can top it with fruit or make a lemon sauce. Leftover, it’s good for breakfast the next morning.

Lemon Sauce

½ cup sugar

2 Tbs cornstarch

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup water

Put ingredients in a saucepan in the order shown, stirring between each addition.

Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium-low until it thickens. Let it cool enough to eat and serve over the bread pudding.

Shop Smart

If you’ve mastered the art of couponing, don’t stop just because I said so. Personally I think coupons are generally overrated. I’ve rarely seen a brand name come in cheaper with a coupon than the store brand at its normal price. There are exceptions to the rule, however: Any time you have a coupon that will give you a discount off your total order, no matter what you’ve bought, by all means, use it. Ditto for any double coupon offers. And that loyalty thing they do every Thanksgiving where you get a free turkey for shopping at the same chain every week for a month or two? Grab it with both hands.

Some other hints:

Never go shopping hungry. You’ll buy too much, and the wrong stuff.

Before you go, review your food stash and make a list. That way you won’t buy stuff you don’t need, and forget that one ingredient for the thing you were going to make for dinner.

Shop specials. If there’s a deal on canned goods, buy an extra can or two while it’s cheap.

Whenever possible, buy in bulk. If you’re using the hints above, you should get to the point where you can buy the family-pack of chicken or whatever, rather than paying 50 cents to a dollar more per pound because you can only afford the smaller pack. Get some sandwich or quart-sized bags or plastic wrap and divvy the big pack up and freeze it in meal-sized portions. (Even though I talked about eating beans earlier, I’m assuming you’re a normal American and you’ll be eating meat at least sometimes, if not most times.)

Forget lunch meat. It runs about $7 a pound. That’s why the prices are always listed by the half pound. Light chunk tuna is cheaper, and sardines are even cheaper than tuna, peanut butter cheaper than either. I found that you can mix crumbled tofu up to half and half with canned tuna to make acceptable tuna salad. Throw in some minced onion or pickle relish to amp up the flavor. Leftovers make better lunches than cold cuts.

Keep an eye out for markdowns in the produce section. Shop carefully. You’re not saving if you have to throw out a bigger percentage than the markdown.  You’ll have to eat them right away, but those slightly wilted greens could save you some green. (As soon as you get home, cut off any brown bits and stick them in water to rehydrate.)

And last of all:

Don’t take your kids shopping. Figure out something. Swap child care with a friend so you can both go shopping solo. Seriously. They will wear you down. They will want, want, want stuff. Why? Because they saw it on TV! I swear, they would want you to buy dog poop if a cute cartoon character told them too.

A Log in Your Path

You’ve got a lot of ways you can respond to this log in your path. You can trip over it and fall on your face. You can let it stop you cold. Or you can use it as a bridge to get you to a better place.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Cool Blog

Just a quick post today, as it’s a full-torque sewing day for me. If I get my projects done, I’ll post photos later.
I stumbled across this great blog yesterday, if you’re a DIY type like me. Yeah, it’s not from a little home blogger, but from the king (He prefers “Dean”) of DIY himself, Bob Vila.

A Riddle

Q:What’s made out of scrap wood, sorts dirt from debris, and is an incredibly useful addition to your toolshed? Answer: A riddle.
Yup. That’s all folks. Ba-dam-ching!
It’s pretty simple to make: 4 pieces of scrap 2 x 3 or 2 x 4 stood on edge, eight screws to hold the two-bys together at the corners, a piece of rat wire sufficient to cover the bottom of the resulting square or rectangle, and a bunch of staples (the kind you drive in with a hammer) to hold the wire to the frame. You can make it whatever size you like: big enough to cover your wheelbarrow, small enough to use over a plant starting tray.

Potato Experiment

One of the blogs I follow, and I wish I could remember which one, had a cool idea for maximizing potato yields in small spaces. She built round bins of wire, filled them with alternating layers of compost and straw, and planted potatoes in the compost. This would allow for four or five layers of potatoes in each bin. That reminded me of a couple of things.

The first was our compost bin, which happens to be round and made of left over 4 foot wire fencing. We’d put off turning it until we could find some pallets to make a new bin. After an entire spring during which I nagged my husband long-distance while he assured me that pallets were “everywhere,” he finally decided that it was time to turn the compost, at which point, pallets were nowhere to be found. Go figure. So we have a good-sized bin of cold, half-finished compost.

The other was my first compost bin, a pit, really, in my mother’s back yard. She lived on St Simon’s Island, Georgia, essentially a large sandbar barely above sea level. Rather than building a bin, I just dug a hole in the sand, and following the instructions in Peacock Manure and Marigolds acquired a bag of cocoa bean hulls and started layering them with kitchen scraps. (The lawn was so pathetic that grass clippings were not an option. I’m not even sure that we bothered to mow it.)

Mom, as usual, thought I was nuts, “on drugs,” or led astray yet again by “your little friends.”

Until the potato sprouted. It was a sweet potato, gone funky in the veggie drawer. I tossed it into the heap, expecting the bacteria to have its way with the poor thing.

Instead it grew luxuriously, producing the best sweet potatoes Mom had ever eaten.

Another day, another convert.

So there we were when my fellow blogger reminded me what to do with that bin. I planted 14 Yukon Gold potatoes around the edge, covering them with garden soil. It’s not the multi-layered maximized use of garden space of the original, but it is a way to turn non-garden into growing space. It seems to be working, as you can see from the photo below. I’ll keep you posted.