John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Three Green Tomatoes and a Long Green Onion

January 3rd, 2010

Something that distinctly resembles winter has come upon us in Jacksonville – finally.  The weather has been at or near freezing and we may actually see some more frosts in the next week or two.  On Thursday, there might even be brief flurries of snow (even if its doubtful that any will survive long enough to hit the ground.)

This summer, we decided to start up a backyard farm of our own, but as you can see from the title of the post, our yield wasn’t too significant before the really cold weather came to settle in.

I don’t feel too bad about the effort though, because we didn’t really spend much money or time on the project.  Aside from a few seeds and a few plastic pots, I don’t think we actually bought anything like soil or fertilizer or pest control.

We also went in with a pretty wild yard.  Whoever lived here before us never really took care of the place (renter!), and we inherited something that resembles a sub-tropical jungle.  The potato vines and dollar weeds are everywhere, and any spot that wasn’t picked regularly would soon be overrun by the established plants.

Well, after a summer, fall, and now a winter of hacking away and rooting out those pests, we actually have a few spots that will be freed up for future planting.

In addition, we’ve got some sort of relative yardstick for measuring and comparing the sun and rain situation of various locations.  The tomato vines originated on one side of the deck rail, but they ended up growing toward a different side of the rail.  The next ones will be closer to that final spot, especially since that’s where the three tomatoes grew – yeah, on the spot we didn’t plant them!

If the frost is done by February, we may be able to get 10 months of growing this year.  With a bit of luck and the knowledge gained, this might actually have a significant impact on my annual food budget!

First Summer Farm – More Lessons than Food

September 18th, 2009

It was about six months ago that I got the bright idea to try growing some vegetables in the backyard, and if I wasn’t such a patient person I’d have to call it a miserable failure.

The rainy weather never let up, and most of what got planted ended up drowning.

I learned a few things though.

When an onion sprouts in the refrigerator, you can’t suddenly put it outside in the hundred degree heat.  Apparently, they sprout differently based on what time of year they think it is.  Needless to say, what looked like a green and healthy onion with multiple long leaves, really just made great food for bugs and worms and other agents of decomposition.

Another thing I learned is that pokeweed sprouts don’t look very different than pepper sprouts – and that someone without too much knowledge & experience might not know the difference until those darn black berries start popping up. This also reinforces the importance of using soil that isn’t already contaminated with various seeds – at least until I can recognize my plants better.  Pictures on the internet aren’t enough to make one knowledgable either, who would have guessed that peppers and pokeweeds both have small white star-like flowers with yellow stamen?

Also, berries are as picky about growing conditions as they are delicious.  Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries – no luck.  I was warned that most grocery berries would be sterile, but a few sprouts did pop up.  Where they weeds or actually berries?  Who knows, the non-stop rain flooded them out and killed off anything in those pots other than the dollar weeds.

Luckily, it hasn’t been a total loss.

We did have some luck with the tomatos.  OK, at least one plant of the original ten seedlings is doing well.  They’ve got their own place in the yard next to the deck, and the tallest one has already used up four feet of lattice in its quest to reach the sky.  It might be too late in the season to get fruit from the plants this year, but we do know that tomatos like our combination of heavy rains and brutal sun.

There’s also been some luck with the long green onions.  Those guys are doing great in just a small container.  That’s going to be great next time I’m making nachos!

Next spring, we’ll have a slightly better plan in place before digging in to the dirt – and hopefully, it works out a bit better.

Swampy Summer Threatens the Farm

May 20th, 2009

It seems like there are two kinds of summer-time weather in Jacksonville – constant rain resulting in swamp-like conditions, and scorching sunlight resulting in fires & smoky air.

If this week is an indicator of the year’s trend, its going to be a tough one for my little backyard container farm.  The green bell pepper plant was really growing strong, but the last few days have provided absolutely zero sunlight and way too much rain.  The onion is holding steady and the other peppers & strawberries were just starting to sprout.

Now they’re treading water in swampy mud, and I’m wondering if I should be trying to grow some kind of really thirsty plants instead.  Lettuce?  Cucumbers? I sort of doubt if they could handle the dark and soggy environment here.

Of course, this could just be a freak storm before a dry, hot summer.  With just a few plants, it wouldn’t be too hard to keep ’em going under the arid heat.  But just the few prior days of cold, wet, darkness are draining the vitality from the more advanced plants.  The green pepper was adding a leaf a day and starting to form little buds for the peppers – now the leaves are sort of slumping and nothing is getting any bigger.  A few leaves on the onion had to be pruned as they turned darker and darker and ultimately brownish-black.

The dollar weeds are stubbornly enthusiastic about the local climate – despite an utter lack of sunshine they’re sprouting every day.  When we were clearing out parts of the yard, these things had roots running laterally underground a good two feet.  A single underground root system was connecting a hundred square feet of round lilly-pad looking things.  No wonder they love the swampiness.

Of course, all the plants that taste good are a little bit pickier.  We’ll see if they survive the season, but I’m getting a little skeptical if some sun doesn’t peak through the wall of clouds soon.

Pepsi Throwback – Real Sugar?

May 19th, 2009

I had heard rumors of market testing real sugar in the soda business, and I’ve been on the lookout.  Today, I finally found a couple eight-packs at the neighborhood Wal-mart.

Now, I’m not averse to high fructose corn syrup for health reasons.  There’s a little bit of evidence that corn is valued for its availability rather than its nutritional content, but the only good scientific research I’ve seen specifically looks at corn oil and protein meal.  The sugars themselves aren’t chemically different from sugars from other sources.

But the corn sugar just tastes terrible.  I got hooked on caffeine about twenty years ago, drinking soda, and back then the stuff actually tasted good because they used real cane sugar.  Where I once drank 2 liters a day, I might have a one soda a month because its conveniently available around town.  At home, I can’t stand the so-called fruit juice that relies on corn sweeteners and I’ll spend the extra buck for Juicy-Juice or pure orange + pineapple mix.  Again, I don’t claim its healthier, it just tastes so much better.

The cost is fairly steep – eight cans of Pepsi or Mountain Dew Throwback cost $2.50.  Usually, you can get a twelve pack of sugar-sweetened cola for that price. The cans sport a retro design that gives me a 1990s flashback, but I think they were using corn since the late 1980s.

So… how is it?

The first thing I did when I got home was toss a can in the freezer.  From there, it spent another hour in the fridge.  I wanted to make sure it was nice ‘n cold without forming chunks of ice.

Wow… if the packaging was a flash back, the taste is a full blown time-warp.  The first sip isn’t much different than most sodas, but the aftertaste is a completely different experience I had forgotten about.  It doesn’t have that slightly bitter flash, it actually seems to get sweeter throughout the gulp.

My taste buds are thanking Pepsi right now… and I usually prefer Coke!  If I have any complaint, its how quickly 35 cents worth of soda just disappeared.  Rather than the sticky, thirsty feeling I had come to associate with pop, this has actually left my mouth watering and ready to drink another.

The verdict?  I’m gonna have to highly recommend Pepsi Throwback for all you other junk food snobs out there.  Buy enough and they might actually continue making the stuff!

Can this McDonald Grow a Backyard Farm?

March 13th, 2009

Don’t let the song fool you – I am not particularly good at keeping any sort of plants alive.  I’m not old either, I just act like it sometimes.

Anyway, the economy is terrible and that means sales have been slooow.  (Do you know anyone who needs a coupon for website hosting?)  I’ve got some free time and sunshine, so I’m going to try to turn this into a reduction in the grocery bill.  Fresh vegetables have been getting pretty expensive lately, and the quality of the produce available at the nearby supermarkets hasn’t been that great. It looks like a lot of things are force ripened and generally beaten up & bruised during transportation and storage.

So, why not put some of these seeds and cores back into the dirt and give them a second chance at feeding me?  Heck, someone in the neighborhood has chickens – I’m just trying to grow a couple of veggies.

The first problem is the soil.  Its pretty sandy and it doesn’t drain well.  If it recently rained, its like swamp.  If it hasn’t rained in a day, it gets pretty dry pretty quick.  Also, the weeds around here are used to the extreme variation from swampiness to arid – so they don’t have the problems that most of the more expensive veggies suffer from.

While it the soil works great for sweet onions, it isn’t very good for peppers or anything that drowns easily.  Luckily, Aisling has a pottery wheel and that means access to custom built pots!  Currently, I’ve got a pepper core & seeds in a small pot – we’ll see if it manages to sprout.  The pots should also help keep the weeds down to a managable level, so the last thing to worry about is the swarm of birds and squirrels that ate our grass seed last spring.

Unfortunately, I’ve never had much luck in the past growing anything green. I don’t hold high hopes for a big crop from this McDonald’s farm.