Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chicken Wire Beds

So as many of you know, we are always trying to find new ways of making raised beds. I have already tried straw bale beds, tire beds, and the traditional wooden beds. Here's a quick rundown of everything we've tried. You can skip to the last one if you just want to find out about the chicken wire beds.

Used Tire Beds:
We've covered this in a previous post, so I'll keep this short. The advantages are that the tires are free, and don't fall apart. The disadvantages are that they don't look very good and are a fairly odd shape.Wooden beds:
This style of raised bed is the backbone to most community gardens. They are sturdy, long lasting, relatively simple to build, and don't make your garden look like a junkyard.
The big issue with these beds is that they are expensive. Very, very expensive. They are twice as expensive as any other bed.

Straw bale beds:
These beds are quick to assemble and the materials are fairly simple. Note that I did not say inexpensive. Straw bales are simple looking enough, but they are pretty expensive to obtain in a city. Additionally, none of our straw bale beds have lasted a year. The straw based beds fall apart far too quickly. They have provided great compost, but they break down too quickly to be cost and time effective.

Chicken Wire Beds:
Finally, the beds you are here to learn about.

This method was thought up by Raul, one of our most dedicated community members. We built our first bed of this style last year. We wrapped some metal mesh into a circle, linked it to itself with some hog rings. We then padded the inside with a few inches of straw, and filled the inside with dirt. It was about a foot and a half tall and 3 feet in diameter. It was a small investment in time and supplies. We assumed that it would collapse over time because it is just being held together by mesh.
The picture above is a picture of that first bed today, over a year after we first built it. As you can see, it is still standing and not even beginning to show signs of slumping. It is heavily mulched on top so it's hard to tell that it is full of dirt, but trust us there is soil in there.

Since our first experience with these mesh beds was a success, we decided to attempt a larger version. Our second bed was made out of 2.5 ft high metal mesh that was even thinner than the first bed. Also, this bed's diameter was over 4 feet. We then lined the bed with straw and filled it with fresh compost. (So fresh that we kept finding surprises in it, like banana peels)

As you can see, two months have passed and it is still standing. Plus the Early Girl tomatoes we planted are growing like weeds. Since we were once again successful, we decided to really get creative. We knew that if we made the diameter over 5 feet, we would start to have trouble reaching the inner plants, so we decided to attempt a different shape.

I would describe this as kidney bean shaped and it really looks unique. Also, it adds the challenge of a concave area. That is why we invested in some pieces of scrap wood to add a little extra support to our newest bed. So far, after a lot of test watering (and a few scientific test kicks) it feels like it is holding up quite well. We are letting the soil settle a little and then we will be putting transplants into it this Saturday.

At this stage, I am very excited about chicken wire beds. Compared to all the other beds we've built, this has been the least expensive and seems very durable.

All you need for a wire bed is:
-A length of chicken wire, old fencing, or any metal mesh. All of these are frequently seen on the sides of roads or can be bought in 100 ft. lengths (~$35) from the local hardware store.
-Part of a bale of straw. Even our biggest bed barely used a whole bale. Also, I have a feeling that other materials would work (old grass clippings? leaves? palm fronds? very coarse wood chips??).
-Something to attach your mesh to itself. Hog clamps are ideal and inexpensive (under $10), but I am sure there are lots of different ways.
-Less time than it takes to build a lot of other beds.

As you can see, most of the above are inexpensive and can frequently be acquired for free as long as you keep your eyes open. Plus, this construction style is very flexible. Did I mention we made a gigantic kidney bean?

The Downsides:
The potential downsides to this bed are durability and drainage.

Although none of our beds have fallen apart yet, we are assuming that one of two issues will occur. Eventually the straw will break down and the soil will start falling out of the bed OR the wire will corrode and the whole bed will break open. However, neither of these have occurred yet and do not look as though the beds are starting to do either. We have the advantage of the dry environment here in the desert. The straw stays dry enough to slow down decomposition and it also keeps the metal on the outside from rusting apart.

This brings us to the downside of our dry environment. These beds have very porous edges and may require a lot more water to keep moist in the Arizona summer. Only our oldest bed was in place last summer and the plants in it did not do well. However, in our defense, that is because they were strawberries. It also was the smallest bed so it had a very high surface area to volume ratio. Ideally our larger circle should hold water very well. The straw on the outside of the bed acts as a very thick layer of mulch.

Overall, this is my new favorite method for bed construction. This passes up the old wooden beds because it is much, much cheaper and durable enough to last multiple years. For a lot of communities, it is hard to start a garden because of the high start up cost. Nobody knows if they will want to make a huge investment into something that might not work out. So these beds make it much easier. You can build a group of these beds for a fairly low start up cost and I wager they will last at least 2 years. In the next two years, you can find out how much your community likes gardening. If they like it, you can invest in the more durable wood beds.

Thanks for reading and let me know how your beds turn out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April Fools' Cooking Class

The cooking class has not been getting much attention on the ECG blog, which is a shame because the garden and the cooking classes have been working together a lot recently. The cooking classes have been using a lot of the fresh produce from the garden and many of the recipes have been seasonally influenced. The cooking classes have also been emphasizing some of the vegetables that are less common in grocery stores. We're looking at you, chard.
By teaching recipes that use more whole vegetables, instead of canned veggies, the cooking classes have increased demand for the garden vegetables.

But on Monday, in honor of April Fools' day, we decided to change things up a little. I decided that it was time to teach class members how use one of the ingredients universally reviled by health conscious Americans:
Oh yeah, ramen noodles. The package you are looking at provides roughly 75% of the salt you need in a day along with some delicious MSG.

Other than the entertainment factor, there are a few reasons I wanted to teach a ramen noodle themed class. First, the TCAA food bank has a pile of ramen noodles taller than I am. They are definitely giving them out to neighborhood families, so I might as well create a curriculum for "responsible" ramen usage. Second, the cooking class emphasizes healthy food on a budget. In calculating a budget, I try to take into account time as well as the dollars and cents. Fortunately, ramen is great at both of these. The noodles cook faster than it took me to type this sentence.

The largest drawback to ramen, as I mentioned earlier, is the high salt content. Fortunately enough, all that salt comes in a convenient packet so that you can easily throw it away. So, to review, the first step in all of these recipes is to pitch the little salt packet.

Now then, on to the recipes we whipped up during our class: I ended up finding recipes that use ramen for a main course, a side dish, and a dessert.

Ramen Noodle and Vegetable Soup
This dish is not exactly a surprise. The cheap ramen noodles you find for fifty cents in a store are actually based on a style of soup that has existed for generations. In fact, there is a resurgence in ramen and many cities now have high-end ramen shops. We aren't attempting anything fancy with this recipe. If you want a truly traditional ramen recipe, google it. The recipe below is based on what was in the garden at the time, and a smattering of vegetables left over from previous cooking classes, as well as a few necessary additions (ginger and a little soy sauce).

In a large soup pot, begin to heat up:

· 6 cups stock (any stock will work)
· 4 cups water
Meanwhile, in 2 tbsp oil, sauté until soft:
· 6 garlic plants, chopped finely
· 1 leek, tough dark green end removed and finely chopped
· 1 onion, coarsely chopped
· 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
· 6 green peppers, finely chopped
Add sauteed vegetables to stock as well as:
· 3 tbsp ginger root, peeled and cut into very small pieces
· 4 bell peppers cut into bite size pieces
· 1 tbsp soy sauce
· Radishes, whole
· Mushrooms, whole
· 4 carrots, finely chopped
· A handful of turnips, trimmed and quartered
· 4 sliced chard stems
Boil above vegetables until they are tender (10-15 min.), turn off heat and add:
· 4 leaves of chard, coarsely chopped
· Spinach leaves, whole
· Radish greens
· 4 packets of ramen noodles
When leaves are wilted and the noodles are softened, serve topped with:

1 bunch of cilantro
· Limes, to taste

As you can see, this recipe is very flexible and was based on what we had at the garden and kitchen that day. Although it was delicious, I would not suggest trying to replicate it in any exact manner. However, you could take the idea and substitute out any vegetables in season in your area.

Ramen Cole Slaw
I have always found cole slaw a little boring. It is an easy way to use up cabbage, but hard to really do the cabbage justice. That is why I was surprised by this dish. Even without the ramen, this slaw was excellent. With the toasted ramen and almonds, this cole slaw recipe was worth putting on the fridge next to the picture of your kids.

Also, fresh cabbage helps much more than one would expect. I think there are more sugars in freshly picked cabbage and all that time on the shelf causes the cabbage to use them up. Now then, on to the recipe:


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 package ramen noodles, crushed, (seasoning packet can probably be used to prop up a wobbly desk)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/2 medium head cabbage, shredded
  • 5 green onions, chopped


  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to create a dressing.
  2. Place crushed noodles and almonds in a frying pan. Roast in pan for 5 minutes until lightly brown.
  3. In a large salad bowl, combine the cabbage, endives, green onions crushed ramen noodles and almonds. Pour dressing over the cabbage, and toss to coat evenly.
Judging by how much of the slaw we went through, the cooking class members agreed with me.

Ramen Kugel
I am proud of this one. This Jewish dessert/side dish is the rare noodle-based pudding. It can be savory, but I went the sweet route. I did my best to keep the recipe healthy, which explains the yogurt (instead of traditional sour cream) and apple sauce.

I also substituted out the traditional egg noodles with ramen. Since ramen is actually cooked and then dehydrated noodles, this recipe is much faster than traditional kugel because you can mix in uncooked broken up ramen noodles instead of cooking a batch of noodles and adding them to the mix.

Also, for the sake of fitting the recipe into the class period, I made these in a muffin tin. If you pour the mixture into a square pan, the kugel should bake for 45-60 minutes.


· 4 packets of ramen noodles, flavoring discarded
· ½ cup melted butter
· ½ cup yogurt
· 3 eggs
· 1 cup sugar
· 1 tbsp lemon juice
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 1 15 oz can applesauce
· ½ cup raisin (or figs, for our recipe)
· 1 teaspoon cinnamon


· Preheat oven to 350°F.
· Break the noodles into smaller pieces and soak in enough water to cover while you assemble the remaining ingredients. (They should soak for at least 5 minutes)
· Butter the muffin tins.
· Mix the butter, yogurt, eggs, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, applesauce, and raisins in a mixing bowl.
· Drain softened noodles and add to mixing bowl.
· Pour mixture into muffin tins and place in pre-heated oven.
· Bake for 25 minutes. Edges should brown slightly.

I hope you have found these recipes useful, or at least unique and entertaining. When planning this class, I was worried that the the dishes would be boring but all the food in the class turned out much better than I anticipated.

Cumin Harvest

Over the last few months, we've been growing a new crop at the garden: cumin. I have always liked this spice so I decided that it was about time to try and grow it.

We planted the seeds last February in the back quarter of one of our beds. They were a little slow to get started.
I was confused initially because the young plants look and smell like dill. I was worried that I got my seeds mixed up.

Fortunately, after the first month, the cumin patch really took off. Slowly the feathery branches began to form into a dense canopy.
They also started producing many clusters of pink flowers that were a huge relief because they smelled like cumin. From there, the cumin patch just kept producing more and more flowers.
The picture above was taken about a month before harvest. In it, you can see that some of the stems were starting to yellow and many of the flowers were now seeds. At this point, I found that you could harvest green cumin seeds to use fresh and they are delicious.

One issue we had was that these cumin plants had a pretty substantial aphid population. The did not look like they were hurting the plants, but I did not want to have aphids in the garden's cumin container.

I was also worried that the early maturing seeds would fall off the plant too soon, but that certainly did not happen. In fact, I ran into the opposite problem. Threshing was pretty difficult.

When the cumin plants were almost entirely yellow and dry, I decided to pull them and let them hang to continue to dry out (also, the aphids made themselves scarce during this stage). After two days, I put them in a bag and beat the bag against our fence to try and knock the seeds off. This had next to no effect. Therefore, I had to go with the slower method of knocking the seeds off by hand. (Note: I found that the best method was rolling a bundle of cumin plants between your hands as if you were shaping a cylinder of dough.)
The result was pretty stemmy. Therefore, as you can see, I tossed it into a big colander and shook the seeds through.
This worked well, but I then had a lot of small leaves and chaff in with my cumin seeds. I then walked outside on a nice windy day and tried my hand at winnowing seed. This involves dropping the seed from about a foot or two above your container. The lighter leaves and sticks get blown away by the wind, and the more dense seeds drop safely back into your container.

Or at least that is how it is supposed to work. I lost a lot of my undersized cumin seeds this way and this was probably my most wasteful step. However, I happily ended with over 2 cups of cumin seed. I definitely grew more, but lost a lot while threshing and winnowing.