Posts Tagged ‘indoor gardening’

How to Grow Vegies in Containers

Monday, March 24th, 2008

Growing vegetables and herbs in containers in Australia is ideal for people who are renters, live in apartments, townhouses, or houses without much backyard – a lot of us!

It is possible to grow your own vegetables and herbs without a quarter acre of backyard that you can rip up for a vegie bed. It requires a little attention, but you can grow a lot of delicious and nutrious kitchen ingredients for not a lot of effort or expense. Here’s what I’ve discovered in four months of growing in containers (and surreptitiously) at my rental property.

(No space at all? Try growing sprouts.)


Which Containers To Use

It’s entirely up to you and how much you want to spend. All have their advantages and disadvantages; though I use a combination of black plastic pots (cheap and readily available, though light and a little aesthetically challenged) in unobtrusive spots and more terracotta pots (heavier, prettier, but they dry out faster) where I can see them (ie on the balcony in line with the back door).

You can also buy fancy and complicated self-watering pots from garden centres (expensive, small and still plastic), or scrounge foam boxes from the fruit and veg shop (a good size, light and with automatic drainage, but they crumble with age and smaller folk may not be able to resist breaking pieces off).

Another alternative for the DIY handyman: buy plastic storage containers and drill a few holes in the bottom. It all really depends on how much space you have, how much you want to spend to get set up, and how much you value aesthetics in food production.


What to Grow

Growing Lettuce and Salad Greens

The easiest are salad greens. You can grow them in foam boxes from the fruit shop, large black plastic pots from Big W, even an old (and clean) kitty litter tray. Eden Seeds sells a mesclun mix which will give you weeks and weeks of fresh salad and asian greens – mignonette and cos lettuces, mizuna, tatsoi, pak choy – for $2.80 a packer.

If you want to choose your own varieties, pick a looseleaf type rather than hearting lettuce like Iceberg. That way you can snip off leaves as you want to eat them, rather than pulling out the whole plant.

Growing Tomatoes

Every vegie gardener wants to grow tomatoes. They are a little more challenging to grow in containers, as you need to make sure they don’t dry out totally in Australia’s hot summers. They also need an adequate supply of nutrients in the pot, as they the roots can’t travel in search of it as they would in the ground.

The good news – cherry tomatoes can provide a good source of tomatoes in a minimal amount of space. They also handle a bit of neglect better than the larger varieties, and produce a lot of fruit for salads, bruschettas and pasta dishes.

You can also try bigger varieties like the Roma (good for pastes and tomato sauces) or the salad varieties like the regular tomatoes from the shops, but they’ll need careful attention and nurturing, as they’re more susceptible to pests and diseases. The big advantage with the smaller types like cherry tomatoes is that if a few of your fruit become lunch for fruit fly or caterpillars or the many pests that love to snack on tomatoes, there are still plenty more left for human consumption.

Growing Other Vegetables

Try dwarf beans (they grow on bushes rather than twining up a trellis), lipstick capsicum, or birdseye chilli. Chillis are productive and handy to have for Asian dishes and stirfries.

Growing Herbs

Many culinary herbs can easily grown in pots. Rosemary, oregano and thyme are the most forgiving of neglect and are a handy addition of flavours to the kitchen. Basil in an essential for pestos, spaghetti sauces,

Choose either perennial or Vietnamese basil for a longer-lasting plant, or the more familar Italian green basil. The Italian type is an annual and will go to seed after a lack of water, but the seed is easy to collector and re-sow – or just shake it off into the pot and small basil clones will soon appear.

Mint is nice for teas, and is so prolific and invasive that it really only should be grown in pots. Plant it in the garden and it will be appearing in unexpected places for ever.

One other herb, though not of any culinary use, that I always keep around is aloe vera. It’s great for sunburn; just slice a leaf lengthways and rub on the burned area.

And even if you have a black thumb and can kill any plant, put a container of this in a shady spot of the garden or balcony and you will have spiny aloe leaves for forever and just when you need them. It’s the most forgiving container plant I own – it’s lived in a small container pot forgotten in the garden at my previous house, and in a corner of my balcony without direct sun or water and still produces more baby plants.


What Not To Grow

There are some vegetables that I don’t consider really suitable for containers, due to size, time to harvest, or the ease and cheapness of buying in the shops. Six foot tall, hungry corn plants that produce two ears each, two foot wide cauliflower or broccoli plants that take five months to grow, pumpkins that have dinner-plate sized leaves and like to sprawl. Carrots also will also take months to grow and they’re cheap to buy.

That said, by all means try them if you want to – gardening is nothing without experimentation – if you have the space, love them, or want to try an unusual variety that is expensive or doesn’t travel well.

When to Water

Plants need water, and in containers they need to be more regularly watered than if they were in the ground, as the roots can’t go very far to seek it.

Ideally the soil should be just slightly moist to the touch, not sopping wet and not bone dry. Try not to let the containers dry out entirely as it will stress the plant and harden your soil, but don’t kill them with over-enthusiastic waterings either! Like many things, it’s a balance.


Fertilisers to Use

You can pour expensive chemical fertilisers all over your plants, and eat them later. Or you can turn your food scraps and lawn clippings into compost or worm juice and solve two problems at once.

Whichever fertiliser you choose, make sure you feed your container plants regularly. The potting soil leaches nutrients fast – out the drainage holes every time it rains or you water them, and hopefully into your plants and vegies.

Making Compost

Composting can seem a bit of an arcane science but it can be created by the non-expert. There are plenty of fancy composting systems available from Bunnings, the simplest and easiest of which is the large open-bottomed plastic type. It’s the best if you have a large lawn and a big family producing lots of fruit and vegie scraps.

I live in a two-person household so wanted something smaller and more portable (next time I move I want to take my compost with me, not leave it behind). Instead I bought a 60L black rubbish bin for $10 and drilled a few holes in the bottom and placed it on the dirt.

Find an out of the way spot that isn’t too far from the back door (if you put your compost bin in that far distant corner, you’re less likely to be motivated to put your scraps in it). Choose one preferably with some sun rather than deep shade, to keep the heat up and encourage the compost to break down. If you’re using a small bin like mine, try to put it in a nice, sunny spot, as the smaller amount of materials it can contain don’t always generate enough heat on their own.

To get your compost going, put a few scoops of wettish dirt (or scoops of a previous batch of compost) at the bottom of the bin. This adds the bacteria and micro-organisms that break down all the organic matter and turn it back into soil. Then, you want to add about one third food scraps to two-thirds clippings. Collect your fruit (no citrus), vegie and bread scraps in the freezer and every few days empty it all into the bin. Cover with the same thickness of lawn clippings, and put the lid back on.

Dig under the top clippings layer every so often to see if the scraps are breaking down. If nothing seems to be happening (or moving) and it looks dry in there, add a bucket of water. If it smells bad, add more lawn clippings to cover it. In the beginning they might take a few weeks, but if you keep adding scraps, clippings, and water if it needs it, you’ll have a thriving compost that smells like living humus and can break down old scraps inside a week.

Worm Farms

The alternative is a worm farm, which only requires feeding with food scraps and newspaper and a little more attention, so might work better for the apartment dweller or lawn-free household (you environmentally friendly people). The worms require more attention and more careful feeding than composts, so are probably best if you have partners or children keen on caring for the worms. I don’t and don’t find them especially appealing pets so stick to making compost, though the eventual worm juice is a fantastic liquid fertiliser.

Useful Links to Get Started

Planting Guide – What’s best to plant in your area and when. In general, temperate areas like Tasmania grow different things and different times to, say, sub-tropical areas like Queensland.

Eden Seeds – Order your seeds and sprouts online. They have a big range of organic and open-pollinated (true to type seeds that you can save and replant) seeds and deliver in the mail within a couple of days.

Compost Worm Supplies – Order the worms for your worm farm over the Internet.


Other People’s Thoughts on Container Gardening

Containing Your Container Garden – Information adapted from the Container Gardening For Dummies book, available for free online.

Factsheet: Container Gardening – Gardening Australia’s rather brief guide to growing plants in containers.

Container Gardening How-To – A question and answer session from Yahoo Answers. Some more informative answers are down the thread.

Container Gardening Guide – Thorough and informative, a good guide on gardening in containers.

Guide to Container Gardening – A quick guide with a focus on growing flowers.

Enjoy growing your fresh vegies and herbs in your own home and backyard. It’s satisfying and delicious, and you’ll never be entirely reliant on the supermarket again.

How to Make Yoghurt

Friday, March 14th, 2008

To begin – what actually is yoghurt?

Yoghurt is basically milk fermented with a specific strain of bacteria (usually Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus thermophilis), that turns the lactose into lactic acid and so the milk into yoghurt.

This is a simple process in theory, milk is just heated to a warmish temperature, the starter bacteria culture added, and its left at a constant temperature for the bacteria to do their thing.

In practice, it might be simple, but there are lots of slightly different ways of doing it.

How I discovered this method

I’d been wanted to start making my own cheese for a while, and yoghurt making seemed the 101 place to start to get the hang of the very basics (ie it has three main steps in the process, instead of fifteen).

So I looked online for how to make it, and then got very confused by the millions of recipes and methods people used.

Some used powdered yoghurt strains, some used frozen, some mixed in milk powder, some used hospital levels of cleanliness with consistent results, some didn’t. Some people heated their milk, others didn’t.

Then there was keeping it warm – some kept it warm in the oven, others wrapped towels around it, put them on heating pads or hot water bottles, and yet others were put in a cosy bath in an esky and topped up with hot water.

Then there’s what seems to be the most popular method, a brand name set up called the Easi-yo. I’ve heard they work pretty well, but I wanted to try it without buying specialised equipment, thermometers or sachets etc (and I couldn’t find an Easi-yo for less than $30). So I combined bits of all the recipes to find the easiest way for me to make it.

Which starter to use

I use Jalna Biodynamic as my starter. I bought a 200g container of their yoghurt for about 4 dollars, and froze it up in ice cube trays to keep as a starter.

Some people say you can’t use frozen starter and its needs to be fresh each time, but it works for me. I think cleanliness comes into it – ie don’t handle the cubes with your fingers.

One jar of starter makes enough starter for me for about 10 batches of yoghurt, so it works out pretty economically. I worked out that it costs about $1.50 for the milk, 40 cents for the starter and 50c for the powdered milk, so you get a litre for less than $2.50, and you know exactly what is in it.

Yoghurt Recipe

  • 1 litre milk
  • 5 tablespoons of powdered milk
  • 2 tablespoons of fresh yoghurt (or roughly 4 ice cubes of frozen yoghurt starter)
  • Boiling water
  • Double boiler (or a mixing bowl over a saucepan containing boiling water)
  • Measuring jug (for pouring milk into the thermos)
  • Thermos (preferably wide-mouthed)
  • Towel (to wrap the thermos)

Method

  1. Take out the starter to defrost on a saucer if you’re using frozen starter.
  2. Fill the thermos with boiling water to sterilise it and pre-warm it.
  3. Use some boiling water to pour over the jug, and any saucers or utensils you’re using. Set them aside in a clean spot.
  4. Mix the milk and powdered milk. This is optional but I do it because I like thick yoghurt and it increases the calcium content. You can also use gelatine apparently.
  5. Put it over the double boiler. You can heat it directly but this way you don’t have to stir it constantly or worry about it burning, just check it occasionally.
  6. Heat it up to near boiling – ie once the milk starts steaming and collecting bubbles around the edges.
  7. Take the saucepan off the heat for a few seconds so you don’t burn your fingers with steam and transfer the bowl to the sink.
  8. Let it sit for 20 minutes or so to cool down. The technical temperate is 41 – 48 degrees C, but ‘comfortably warm’ is the non-technical temperature and the one I use. Just check the bowl now and then until it feels nice and warm – not uncomfortably hot or cold.
  9. Don’t worry too much if it cools down too much while you’re watching tv – just heat it back up again and let cool to the right temperature.
  10. Pour a bit of your warm milk into the measuring jug and add the starter. Mix well without frothing it up too much to get rid of any lumps.
  11. If using frozen starter – drain off the excess water from the starter – don’t mix it in.
  12. Pour the yoghurt-y milk into the rest of the milk. Mix well.
  13. Pour into the thermos to a level below the seal and close it up. Don’t let it touch the seal, they’re hard to clean and if it has any mould it will affect the yoghurt.
  14. Wrap it in a towel and leave it in a quiet spot without disturbing it for 6 – 12 hours. Times vary a bit depending on the temperature you added your starter – if it’s on the cool side it will take longer – and the amount of starter you used – if you use more it won’t take as long.
  15. You can tell if it’s done by the feel – it will have a more solid feel in the thermos.
  16. After that time it should be set. Scrape or pour it out of your thermos depending on thickness (if you bought a wide-mouth this will be much easier!) and put it into the fridge to chill. It will get a little bit firmer once it cools down as well.

That’s it. It’s a simple process but can take a bit of experimentation to find out how much starter you need balanced with the right amount of time and right taste.

Possible Problems in Yoghurt Making

Onto possible problems you might encounter with yoghurt making. The two major problems that I’ve found to cause failures are the lack of cleanliness and old starter.

This is because what you’re really doing with all this heating, cooling, and keeping warm is providing the right environment for the culture of the yoghurt bacteria to breed for a few hours – and not any other bacteria strain.

Cleanliness is REALLY important, as you don’t want to breed other strains of nastier bacteria in there with your lactobacillus. If you do, you get runny yoghurt or strange tasting yoghurt.

As for old starter – yoghurt usually only lives for ten days or so, so if your batch is old it isn’t going to work. You can also only use the same strain a few times before it gets contaminated, meaning you can only make yoghurt from your yoghurt a few times before you need fresh starter.

Leaving it too long can cause issues too – it will get too tangy with some strains, the whey will start to separate, or with the Jalna, which doesn’t have as strong a taste, will just form small chunky bits instead of being a really nice smooth thickness like custard.

Uses For Yoghurt

If you’re keen and have heaps of yoghurt, you can also make a yoghurt ‘cheese’ called Labneh, which is used a bit in Middle Eastern dishes and can be a dip or dessert or cream replacement.

All you need to do is have a fairly thick yoghurt and then draining it in cheesecloth over a bowl (to catch the whey).

This isn’t really like cheese in my opinion, but more of a heavy-cream with a yoghurt flavour and less of a fatty taste. It’s absolutely delicious with desserts and I’d guess a lot better for you than real cream.

Though you do lose a lot of the weight of the yoghurt in the whey (the liquid that drains out) and it makes a surprisingly small amount of cheese.

Anyway, there are a million ways to make yoghurt; this is just mine. Feel free to experiment and tweak the method to whatever suits your equipment and taste.

Other People’s Ways to Make Yoghurt (Or Yogurt)

Making Yoghurt Without a Yoghurt Maker – Recipe from About.com.

Homemade Yogurt – The Hillbilly Housewife’s method of making yoghurt.

How to Make Yoghurt – A brief primer on home-made yoghurt from cuisine.com.au.