This past Saturday, I attended the Madison Food Camp where food, cooking, and gardening enthusiasts gathered together to exchange knowledge and tips. The day was broken into five time slots offering 36 different presentations. It was difficult to select only one session each hour with so many interesting choices. I decided to go to four sessions that would enhance my current projects (vegetable gardening and composting) and one session where I would learn something completely new (eastern sourdough tradition).
At the Raised Bed Gardening session, Megan Cain (the Creative Vegetable Gardener) taught part of her longer class entitled “Design and Install Your Own Beautiful + Abundant Vegetable Garden.” She went over removing sod, fencing, building a raised bed, filling it with soil, and mulching. Some new things that I learned were:
• a tool called a sod cutter can be used to remove grass
• black locust wood (locally sourced) is great for making a raised bed
• a compost/soil mix which works well for raised beds can be obtained from Purple Cow Organics
• raised beds should be filled to the very top with compost/soil as it will settle
• mulch should be added around a garden’s fence so that weeds and long grass don’t take over at that edge zone (we’re going to have to do this!)
• mulch (e.g. hay/straw) can be put on top of the vegetable garden (unless you’re waiting for seeds to germinate) to protect the soil from heavy rainfall and erosion and to keep the soil moist, as raised beds warm up and dry out quicker.
• the city of Madison composting pilot program is going well and going to be expanded to the rest of the city (see http://www.cityofmadison.com/streets/compost/organics.cfm for more information)
• the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability collects campus compost and has a couple dorms with “pulpers” that add water to paper and food waste to be composted
• compost can be purchased from Purple Cow Organics or at the West Madison Agricultural Research Center (compost produced by UW-Madison)
• one attendee had heard of someone who used a blender (designated just for compost) to shred their kitchen scraps before they compost them
Hoop Houses and Other Season Extenders was led by Sara Herpolsheimer, a Madison resident with a number of vegetable garden beds and a hoop house. She talked about vegetables that survive the colder Wisconsin weather, methods for creating microenvironments around your vegetable gardens, how to build hoop houses and cold frames, and tips for caring for those plants. Although I don’t do much extended season gardening at this time, I took notes and am sure to find this information beneficial in the future. For example:
• “cutting celery” is a useful plant to grow for both its celery stalks and parsley-like leaves
• broccoli and cabbage can be picked throughout the fall if the weather is mild
• overwintering plants mulched with hay (carrots, parsnips) become sweeter over the winter and should be picked when the ground thaws in the spring
• covered plants don’t need to be watered during the middle of winter, but should be kept moist as temperatures come back up around the end of February
• plants should be kept from touching the covering plastic as it can get hot
• double coverage should be used from Thanksgiving to Groundhog’s Day when the days are short and the plants are in stasis
• milk jugs can be used to temporarily cover plants if there is danger of cold weather
• a remote thermometer is handy for staying on top of temperatures in a cold frame
• univents can be purchased to open cold frames as the temperature rises
• the Habitat Restore is a good place to look for materials to create cold frames
• only three knives are needed in a kitchen: a long chef’s knife for meat and vegetables, a long serrated knife for bread and tomatoes, and a short paring knife for coring apples
• use a pinch grip with index and thumb to grip the blade at the balance point and then wrap the rest of your fingers around the handle
• knives work best when going in two directions (e.g. forward and down, back and up)
• with your left hand, curl your fingers into a claw to hold the food
• cut round foods in half or cut off part of an end so it sits flat on the cutting board
• when chopping a vegetable, don’t cut all the way through for the horizontal and vertical cuts so the vegetable retains its shape until the final 90 degree cuts are made
• when slicing a vegetable (e.g. onion), cut against the grain in a semicircle
• put a wet towel under a cutting board so it doesn’t move around a lot
• don’t use hard cutting boards like bamboo or it will dull your knives
• a honing steel (or a “hone”) can be used to pop microserations back into alignment and is better to do frequently than sharpening knives, which makes the blade smaller The Eastern Sourdough Traditions session peaked my interest since I have been experimenting with baking bread this year. Although my breads are European-style round loaves, presenter Trevor Brown showed how to make flatbread sourdough dosas. From South India, this type of bread is made by soaking rice and lentils, pureeing them into a paste, stirring in some salt, fermenting them for 2 days, and then thinly spreading on a griddle to fry. They made some during the session and they were good. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe and eating them with some other Indian food.
The day proved to be very valuable. Whereas I usually learn about a topic by digging through books, this opportunity to hear personal experiences and mistakes provided details that books just can’t tackle. For example, reading about how to build something always sounds easy, but hearing about the pitfalls and difficulties of building something is more realistic. A list of materials for making a raised bed looks as simple as a grocery store list, but finding sources and products for what you need is like finding a needle in a haystack without recommendations. And seeing vegetables in books is pretty, but hearing about people successfully growing and making use of those vegetables here in Madison is more helpful.
Thank you to Slow Food Madison for organizing this event and I’ll look forward to attending again next year!