Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lil Tomato Houses

Girl in action. Lil tomato house inaction.
The first weekend in April, Olympia's Farmers Market opens (and I rejoice). That time of year around Puget Sound, even the best farmers don't have much produce, so they fill the gap with plants started in greenhouses (and all of us gardeners rejoice). 

But April, even May, can be a cruel time for plants to have their roots thrust into cold wet soil, tops shivering in the mist one day and wind the next. This is especially true for tomatoes, which might enjoy the occasional sunny days, but not the cool wet ones, and especially not the frigid nights (which tend to be even colder following a clear sunny day). They may not actually shrink, like mammalian maleparts may in such conditions, but they sure as heck don't wanna grow, and cannot summon the strength to fight blights and fend off fungal foes. 

So you either wait til it's warm, which may not happen til days are already getting shorter, or you give them shelter. Following Solomon's advice (conveniently reproduced for us moderns in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades before he took off for Tasmania, that devil), I grew them in a hoop house (instructions here) last year, which worked out very well. Even though the Spring was long and cool, a little bit of plastic allowed me to harvest photons throughout, giving the plants a big head start by the time Summer finally arrived.

This year, I decided to grow more, and to experiment with individual tomato houses, which are basically cages with a form-fitting plastic cover. This will let each plant get about twice as big in the warm confines of its home before it starts bumping into the plastic cover, demanding release.

This shot gives you the basic idea. First, make a wire frame (what does not show up well is that if you use fence like this, you should cut out a few 2 x 2 holes in the grid so you can reach in later and harvest). Then, cut plastic wide enough to wrap completely around and tall enough to close over the top. Slide this prophylactic over the cage, and wait for juicy tomatoes to burst forth. That's about it.

But not completely it. Already, I've learned of some flows in my brilliant plan. Try not to replicate my idiocy and inexperience:
  • Plant the tomato first, because it's a pain to reach inside to plant it. Literally, if your cutting left sharp wire nubs like I did.
  • Stake down the cage, or it'll blow over. I used the wire I cut out to tie the cage to a rebar pounded into the ground, and it has held so far.
  • Make the plastic slightly loose fitting. That way it is easier to slide up so you can water, or let the tomatoes breathe on the hot day that will inevitably follow your planting. 
  • Don't depend on tape to hold the plastic together. In the photo above, I did not remove the plastic to make the cage visible; it fell off. [I am leaving a couple like that as controls to test the efficacy of the remaining lil tomato houses. Ineptitude and laziness can be recast as science.]
  • Don't leave town. You can cook your plants in a hurry if you don't slide the plastic up several inches on sunny days, and make sure they are watered. 
  • Try and make the roof tighter than I did. All I did was clip the top, which does not make anything even close to a sealed envelope. I am pretty sure the heat flows out by nightfall,  but again am too lazy and inept to fix it. [Sometimes they cannot be called science, although I am able to rationalize that I'm probably not baking the plants during days when I am not there to coddle them.]
No doubt, as time passes, I'll learn more. Maybe I'll follow up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see if the covered plants outperform those left to the vagaries of the Puget Spring (as I write, they are enduring a cold rainy night). If nothing else, they are in nice cages, so I won't have to do anything more than guide a few branches through the holes to give them support. These plants won't be as crowded as their hoophouse sisters, which according to Solomon should pay off. We'll see. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


This post appears over a few blogs. I've been self-referential before, linking to old posts and between Mojourner blogs, but this time it's a matter of there just being two approaches to the same focal point: Spot Shrimp, Pandalus platyceros. Here, I'll do the heads--over at Mocavore, I'll deal with the tails.

In Hawai'i, shrimp tales involve the whole thing. Even though not everyone partook, every time shrimp or prawns showed up intact, some people could be counted on to rip off the head and suck down the juice before mocking non-partakers. But on the Salish Sea, that doesn't happen, and I can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that my manhood and epicuriosity won't be maligned for my reluctance to slurp green guts. A woman who grew up fishing and cooking Northwest critters and another whose husband fishes for a living both said not to eat the heads. One allowed as to how I could make a broth, but didn't sound too sure, much less enthusiastic. 

So what you do is snap off the heads and toss 'em. Unless you are friggin' frugal. In which case you make the shrimp-head broth, realize that not a single person you know will help you eat it, chicken out on eating it yourself, and decide to re-purpose. [In the interest of self-referentiality, may I digress and link here? If you can figure out why, I'll, uh, give you a prize, maybe.]

The broth I recognized as the far superior aromatic kin of that weird shrimp ramen stank, a single waft enough to dispel my 30-year befuddlement over why anyone would want shrimp-flavor. But I still didn't eat it; I fed it to an apple tree. No particular reason. 

Then I was left with a kettle o chitin and shrimp sludge. The dog was beside herself wanting to eat it, roll in it,...whatever it took to immerse herself in the smell. I figured raccoons and rats and various vermin would be similarly attracted if I were to compost it, or even work it into the garden. In the end, I decided to bury it in a pit near the base of a Japanese maple that decided to come up a couple of years ago. Then put a rock on top to keep the dog out. If the rats tunnel into this cache, no prob. They'll transport pieces and transform the rest into poop. It'll return to the earth, if not that particular maple.

The tides sent the plankton. The shrimp incorporated the plankton. The fisherman plucked pots of shrimp from Hood Canal. And I traded some cash and a stash of willow bark and red ochre for a few pounds. Thus flows the migration of primal sea life into an Olympia garden.

This ain't natural, I suppose, but a pulse of shrimp protein into urban soil a few dozen miles from where it was caught falls far short of bizarre. Unlike the petrochemicals flowing year-round from the other end of the globe, this fertilizer was an unexpected gift. That smell my family couldn't stand will feed flowers some day. Shrimp stripes will echo in maple bark.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

DIY Salt

One gallon of ocean, dehydrated.
As long as I'm behind on the seasonal updates, I may as well talk about something that can be done pretty much any time you can turn on a stove. Yeah, I'd like to make salt under the sun, but that's hard to arrange in the maritime Northwest. Making pa`akai ('solidified ocean) is a different matter. It would be a shame to make salt on a stove with the Hawaiian sun available, and one of my favorite memories from the island was pouring the kai into bowls carved into the lava by ancient Hawaiians, and coming back a few days later to peel off flakes of Kona crystal.

But here I am, next to Puget Sound, Spring hiding in the most somewhere. So I fire up the stove and start cooking. 

There's not so much a recipe for salt as some techniques. Like once you have the water, you should filter it, unless you want the added flavor or plankton. Then while you cook it (in a stainless steel or enamel pot, because iron rusts and aluminum gets skudgy), stir now and then, because you can actually burn it if the salt starts to cake on the bottom of the pan. Eventually, this gets impossible, and you want to scrape the salt slush onto a plate or pyrex dish, so you can spread it out and bake it in the oven. This you do at very low heat--all you're trying to do now is evaporate, not boil. I'd turn the oven on, pop in the plate, and then turn it off. Do not rinse, but repeat, until the moisture is gone.

And you have salt. A gallon of sea water (I got mine up near the Strait--the far South Sound is less saline) yields a cup or so of salt. Enough to last a while, unless you're in a rush to increase blood pressure.