Sunday, April 21, 2013

Greenhouse and Hydro Update

My greenhouse has become my refuge, my space, my little paradise. I am also realizing that it is a lot of work as my relaxing sessions sitting among my plants always lead me to chores such as watering, bug hunting, dead heading, fertilizing, adjusting the pH and nutrients in the hydroponics, shutting vents, transplanting, moving plants around, etc. It's all worth it though as I know my next session will allow me to sit among plants that are happier than they were the day before, at least for a little bit before they again call me to more greenhouse chores.

Since my last greenhouse post, I have made some changes to my hydroponic system. It didn't take long to realize that algae can be a big problem in a hydro system. I liked the flexibility of using open gutters in my NFT system for being able to move plants around and to adjust their spacing. However the strong spring sun and warmer temps quickly left everything in contact with water covered in thick algae. This led to other issues such as unhealthy roots and root rot. Healthy roots in a hydro system should be bright white not brown and certainly not green. 

I realized that I needed to cover the gutters as best as possible so I cut some strips of leftover greenhouse siding to fit into the gutter, cut holes in the strips and reinserted the net pots. I used my skill saw so the strips are a little rough and don't fit as well as they could. Adding some spacers under them to keep them out of the nutrient solution solved this easily enough. This seems to be working pretty well but I think I will eventually want to replace the wood strips with plastic to prevent mold and rot and for easier cleaning.
Cucumber Inserted into Cover Strip
Another part of cleaning up the gutters was to remove my spinach as the roots were covered in algae and the plants were beginning to bolt. Most of the spinach was replaced with some head lettuce, more chard, some peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil and collards (peppers and tomatoes will probably go into another hydro system when I get time). I did not replace the collards and rainbow chard as they seem to be doing well. In fact, the collards do amazingly well in this type of system and three plants have produced more smoothie greens, salads and wraps than my spinach and chard combined.
Collards and Chard
 I would also have to say that the lettuce is doing extremely well also. I have one plant that is nearly 15 inches across after only about 30 days. 
Or should I say, was doing extremely well? As time went on, I noticed my lettuce wilting. At first I thought it was because of the heat but then noticed that it seemed to be wilting earlier in the day while still cool. After some research, I concluded that my problem was probably due to lack of oxygen caused by water damming in the system and that I was drowning the roots. This was also aggravated by some of the larger plants like the collards and chard which had huge root masses causing water to build up behind them. I therefore had to rearrange all of my plants so the larger ones were at the upper end of the gutter leaving the younger plants down stream to have only a thin film of water passing under their roots. I also got a timer to turn my pump on and off throughout the day so the gutter would have time to empty completely allowing the roots needed exposure to oxygen.  

I wasn't sure what the best timer settings should be but finally decided to have it on for an hour then off for an hour all day long except that it would run constantly for 5 hours during the hottest hours of the day. This seems to be working fine. I will probably play around with the settings more in the future.

The timer actually solved another problem as well which was to allow the aquarium heater time to heat the water in order to circulate warm water over the roots at night. Without the timer the reservoir temperature was only a few degrees warmer than the air temperature as the water flowing through the gutters would quickly cool off through exposure to the cool gutters. Now it warms up nicely between circulations. I am hoping that this does not shock the roots as they are constantly cooling down an being heated up every cycle. The plants seem happy so I guess I won't worry too much.

After these changes, I noticed that the plants were quickly growing healthy roots, taking in more nutrients, and that most of the lettuce plants seemed to be doing better with less wilt. 
New Root Growth
In fact it was time to have a head of lettuce for lunch. This is the cool thing about hydroponic lettuce as I brought it in and placed it in a bowl of water, roots and all so it would be super fresh for the salad. It turned out that my wife couldn't make lunch that day so I decided to put the lettuce back in the gutter for another day (Try picking a head of lettuce out of your garden and then putting it back). Then...

Looking into the bowl I noticed several small "wormy" things. This wasn't good. Could it actually be that something was eating the roots of my plants that would be causing them to wilt? Back to the computer for more research. I quickly realized what my problem was, fungus gnats. 
Fungus Gnat Larvae
I had heard that this could and probably would be a problem in my greenhouse. It seems that I've been tempting fate all along with this project and have had  to pay each time. I had noticed these little guys for awhile and figured they were probably harmless. I was really more distracted by the left over fruit flies that had come from the worm bin (which I removed way too late!).

If you start plants in your greenhouse or have house plants, you've probably seen these little guys. They are the small 1/8 inch flies that flutter around at the base of your plants. 
Fungus Gnat
They don't fly well and prefer to run around when disturbed. They lay their eggs in moist areas and the larvae hatch and eat the decaying matter in the soil and, at times roots and the base of young seedlings. I had noticed such damage to some of my potted tomatoes.
Fungus Gnat Damage in Tomato Seedling
Now what? It seemed that my potted starts were mostly unaffected by these little guys except for one stevia start that is probably damaged to the point of no return. I still didn't like the idea of all those hidden larvae eating away under the soil's surface. But my real concern was my prize lettuce that was getting damaged as the larvae didn't have any other food in the hydro system other than the roots of these plants. I proceeded to remove the affected lettuce, harvest many of the large leaves, trim the roots and rinse off the larvae. I then sprayed the roots with neem oil, re potted and put them back in the hydro system.

This was only a short term fix. How to get rid of these guys so I'm not perpetually plagued by their presence was the question. I researched solutions and saw that there were lots of products available to kill them. However, most were not available locally and my nearest hydroponic supply store is over an hour away. After much thought and research I decided to try something called BTI or Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis which is a microbial larvicide which kills the larvae of many variety of Diptera. I have read that this would include fungus gnats. This was available at my local garden supply store in several forms. One is in the form of doughnuts and the other is in small packets like tea bags. The former is used in fish ponds and the latter is for watering troughs for farm animals. 

I opted for the tea bag variety which will supposedly treat 500 gallons of water. Seems like a bit of overkill but why not. 
BTI Packets
I placed the tea bag in a 5 gallon bucket of water to make a concentrated solution which I let steep overnight. The next day, I took out a gallon and added it to another 5 gallon bucket and topped off with water. I then proceeded to water all of my plants in the greenhouse with the "killer" solution. I also topped off my hydro reservoir with it as well.

Only time will tell. The BTI supposedly will kill the larva in 24 hours and will continue to work for up to 30 days. It will however not kill the adults which live for about a week. So hopefully in a week or so I won't see anymore of those guys skittering around my lettuce or my starts. I will then be able to cross off one more chore from my list of many allowing me to sit and enjoy my paradise for just a bit longer next time.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wild Edibles

After a winter of store bought fruits and vegetables at off season prices, I look forward to having fresh produce from my garden. I especially look forward to things like kale, spinach, collards and chard of which we devour large amounts each day in our morning green smoothies.

Over the past years, I've done everything possible to get those greens as early as possible. This year, things are looking pretty good. I have some kale, chard, collards and chicory that wintered over.
Overwintered Kale
Spring Collards
Spring Chicory
In early March, I planted some beets, peas, chard, collards and lettuce which are making good progress. Last fall I even built a greenhouse to try to grow greens over the winter which was a great help with salad greens but just couldn't really produce much in the way of smoothie greens as the  winter days are too short and the temps are just too cold for things to grow very fast.

Well after all the stress of trying to get things growing early, I've had a little bit of a revelation - wild edibles. These are the wonderful things that you see turning green and growing with vigor every spring in your yard and local countryside. Don't knock them until you've tried them as they are super healthy and have detoxifying properties for the body which we need after a long winter without fresh greens. Here is a list of my favorite wild edibles and ones that most of you probably can find in your yard, lining your driveway or in the vacant lot or field nearby.

1. My favorite and one of the most healthy greens in this category would be the dandelion.  I used to hate these and cut them out of my lawn. Now I embrace them. Dandelions are included as one of the top 6 herbs in Chinese medicine and are great for our general health. Here is a paragraph about the health benefits of dandelions from the book "The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine" by Peter Gail.
Suppose your doctor tells you, on your next visit, that he has just discovered a miracle drug which, when eaten as a part of your daily diet or taken as a beverage, could, depending on the peculiarities of your body chemistry: prevent or cure liver diseases, such as hepatitis or jaundice; act as a tonic and gentle diuretic to purify your blood, cleanse your system, dissolve kidney stones, and otherwise improve gastro-intestinal health; assist in weight reduction; cleanse your skin and eliminate acne; improve your bowel function, working equally well to relieve both constipation and diarrhea; prevent or lower high blood pressure; prevent or cure anemia; lower your serum cholesterol by as much as half; eliminate or drastically reduce acid indigestion and gas buildup by cutting the heaviness of fatty foods; prevent or cure various forms of cancer; prevent or control diabetes mellitus; and, at the same time, have no negative side effects and selectively act on only what ails you. If he gave you a prescription for this miracle medicine, would you use it religiously at first to solve whatever the problem is and then consistently for preventative body maintenance?
He goes on to claim that Dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. If only part of these claims are true, it seems like a good thing to consider adding to ones diet. Further research on Dandelions will show similar claims.
Dandelions for the morning smoothie
I use Dandelions as a green for my smoothies and am able to use 3 or 4 large plants without noticing any bitterness. I usually supplement with other greens but think you'd be surprised at how well they smoothie up! I also save the roots and cut them into small pieces which I toast in the oven. They can then be ground in your coffee grinder and used to make espresso or dandelion tea which tastes surprisingly like coffee.

2. Wild Violets have been something I've enjoyed a lot this spring as well. They make a great green for salads or smoothies and you can eat the flowers too. Try using the greens and flowers to make a beautiful, tasty salad. Wild violets are a good source of vitamins A and C.
Wild violets in my yard
3. Mallow is that darn weed with the huge root that you can never seem to pull up when weeding your garden. Mallow leaves have are a little bit uncomfortable to eat as they have small hairs on them. They do, however, make a great base for a smoothie an have a very mild taste. Mallow tea, made from the roots, is good for soothing sore throats and can be very cleansing for your body as well. Mallow is said to be good for helping boost your immune system and is also anti parasitic and has anti inflammatory properties.
Mallow - "To weed or not to weed?"
4. Lambsquarters are another weed that seems to be everywhere in your garden. I love lambquarters in smoothies and the greens can be good in a salad. The tender stocks remind me of young snow peas and could be steamed or sauteed like asparagus as a tasty dish. I usually use them in smoothies or munch on them fresh as I'm weeding the garden. Lambquarters are high in vitamins A, C and K (with a serving providing more than 100% RDA of each), riboflavin, niacin, clacium, manganese, potassium an iron.
5. Purslane is that little succulent type of weed that grows low in your garden. I used to let it grow as ground cover before I knew what it was. Purslane, being high in vitamin A and C, has a nice fruity flavor. It is also a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids having as much or more than some fish oils. I have never been able to find enough of this in my yard to do much more than nibble on it. I leave it in my garden as ground cover but end up walking on it. However, if you could find a good supply of it, I'm sure it would be great in a salad, smoothie or soup.
6. I usually find plantain in my yard among the dandelions. And no, this is not the banana type of plantain. Rather it is another healthy, green leafy plant that most of us have in our yard. One of the main uses of plantain is as a topical application for insect bites, stings and cuts. It  contains allantoin which is an anti-inflammatory that kills germs an speeds healing by encouraging growth of new skin cells. For this reason plantain is used in many commercialized creams and ointments found at your local drug store. Plantain is even said to be able to soothe poison oak or poison ivy rashes and can also be made into a tea to treat a cold or sore throat as it also has "pain killing" properties. I use plantain in my smoothies when I can find it. It is not the best green to eat in salads but reminds me a lot of chicory in taste and texture. Plantain is a good source of calcium, minerals and beta carotene.
7. Chickweed has recently shown up as a local weed in my garden and along the edges of my lawn. It shows up early in the season with dandelions, mallow, violets and clover. Young chickweed tastes amazingly like spinach. It has a pleasant texture and is great in salads or as a supplement in smoothies. Chickweed is also a medicinal that has historically been given to people to aid in their recovery after serious illness. It can be mixed with clay as a poultice for healing sores as well. According to the Livestrong website
Chickweed is taken by mouth to treat stomach problems, intestinal complaints such as constipation, disorders of the blood, arthritis, lung diseases including asthma, kidney disorders, inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract, rabies, and scurvy or vitamin C deficiency. It is also used to relieve extreme exhaustion. Chickweed is applied to the skin to relieve various skin conditions such as skin wounds, ulcers, burns, arthritis pain an symptoms of eczema.
Jackpot! Dandelions, violets an chickweed all together.

8. Clover seems to be everywhere and red clover is especially good for you. Clover can be eaten in salads, as a steamed vegetable or made into tea. Red clover is used in treating many medical conditions such as cancer, mastitis, gout, coughs (as an expectorant and suppressant), and asthma. It is also a potent detoxifier of the blood, lungs, liver, kidneys and lymphatic system. Red clover is high in protein and a good source of calcium, lecithin, chromium, magnesium, potassium, an vitamins A, E, and C.
Young sweet clover
So get out there and see what you can find to tide you over until your spring garden begins to produce. You may be surprised at how many plants you can find and how tasty and healthy they are. So in the meantime weed with purpose and green up!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Greenhouse Update

It is starting to feel like spring and spring has certainly arrived in my greenhouse. Recently we have had some sunshine and outside temperatures in the 50's. In the greenhouse, I've been opening two of my windows and am able to keep it from getting much warmer than 70 degrees which is a great temp for my greens and for comfortably spending time with my plants.

I am excited that I have most of my garden plants started and doing well on a shelf in my greenhouse. I have peppers, tomatoes, basil, stevia, eggplant, kale, chard, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli going and an experimental pot of snow peas which is already looking like it will start producing some soon.
Basil and Stevia
Starts for my garden
Snow peas started in January

I also have been dabbling a little in my garden too with a  row of beets, green onions, mixed greens and a variety of small head lettuce. The last couple of years, I have taken some old storm windows and put them over my newly planted seeds with good results. I find that things usually germinate quickly, don't get washed around in early rains and can get established enough so that the birds won't peck off all the tops before the secondary leaves emerge.
Storm Windows over Seedlings
The NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) hydroponic system is still producing awesome spinach and the chard, kale and collards are almost too big for it. I had to add some of the blue painter's tape over the net pots to keep them from toppling over. I have recently added some small head lettuce to one of the gutters and am planning on putting in some basil and a couple of cucumber plants that I will trellis up the far end of my greenhouse. The chard and kale are now bolting. Knowing that these plants usually don't flower until the following spring leads me to believe that my "somewhat" warm greenhouse was not able to fool them into believing that winter hadn't come yet.  As for the collards, they are huge but, as of late, I have been having a tough time keeping them happy. On hot days they have been wilting and are also showing signs of nutrient deficiency. I have recently replaced the water and nutrients in the system and they seem to be doing better.
Hydroponic Collards and Spinach
Collards. Note the nutrient deficiency but new center growth looks better
Newly Planted Hydroponic Head Lettuce
After this episode, I realized that I needed to get a little more high tech to manage the hydroponics so I bought a ppm (parts per million) meter to measure the amount of nutrients in the water. This allows me to have enough for optimum growth but not too much so that I will burn the roots. I also got some solutions to raise and lower the pH of the system as needed. I think that the collards were probably sensitive to having the solution a little too acidic which can prevent nutrient uptake.

I am also realizing that algae in my gutters is probably going to be a problem at some point. Most NFT systems don't allow sunlight to reach the solution like mine does. I have seen people use pvc pipe and drill holes in it to hold the net pots. I have also seen systems built with pvc post covers which are meant to cover a 4x4 post. When starting my system, I was hoping that the plants would grow quick enough to shade the gutters and prevent an overgrowth of algae. This has proven somewhat true. The main reason for using gutters was for the flexibility of plant spacing. I figured I could do like I do in the garden and thin plants as they got too big, allowing more space for the others. I have found this to be difficult as the roots become so intertwined that you risk damaging the plants through this process.

Yes. I was warned. Bugs will be a problem in any greenhouse. And I was in such a hurry in the fall to put some greenery into my greenhouse for my winter sanity, that I brought in all my outside herb pots, potted some cold and weary plants from the garden such as a tomatillo, pepper and eggplant. To make things worse, I got the bright idea of having a worm bin for compost tea and worm castings for my plants. In doing so, I needed worms quickly so I dug up some from my compost pile. Yes, I got worms and a whole lot more. I began noticing centipedes, earwigs, all kinds of maggots and grubs. After a short warm spell, I began to see that there were all kinds of flies and gnats coming out of the bin. The system uses stacking bins, so I eventually removed the lower ones with all the mystery creatures in them and this seems to have eliminated most of the problem.
My Nesting Worm Bins
The bug story does not end here as I have found aphids on my spinach and kale plants. So far, it's not too out of hand but I've been keeping an eye on them daily watching for new infestations as they break out. I have also been spending a lot of time with my magnifying glass looking for eggs, etc on all the plants in my greenhouse. I have since learned that aphids give birth to live young and do not lay eggs. Each mature aphid can give birth to up to 12 aphids per day!

However what I noticed in this process was quite surprising - predatory insects feeding on the aphids! I love this as I am a firm believer that nature will eventually come into balance if given time. I carefully inspected the tray of spinach that I planted last fall expecting to find a lot of plants infested with aphids yet only one plant was infested with aphids and the rest were clean. The infested plant had some eggs on it and several predatory midge larva on it. I was seeing some of these midges on my hydroponic spinach as well as some lacewing larva. So, in retrospect, maybe the compost pile and other plants being introduced into my greenhouse have helped create a "somewhat" balanced ecosystem setting the stage for summer. We'll see. I will post further on this later as I hope to have the same symbiotic balance in my vegetable garden outside.
Predatory Midge Larvae
Lacewing Larvae
So what's next for the greenhouse? I am planning another hydroponic system for several tomatoes and peppers. We'll see if we can get a ripe tomato and pepper before the 4th of July. I will also be struggling with heat management as I'm not sure what the temps will be on a 95 degrees summer day. Wish me luck.

Have a great spring and thanks for reading!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hydroponics in the Winter Greenhouse

This time of year I get really anxious for spring so I can grow more of my own produce. Eating healthy can be expensive, especially in the winter. Yesterday I bought a bunch of kale (no, not a whole bunch, just one bundle) for nearly four dollars. This makes for a pretty expensive habit when I use nearly the whole thing in my morning smoothie. It is for this reason that I built a greenhouse last fall hoping to grow more of my own greens throughout the winter.
My Winter Greenhouse
So I'd like to share some things about having a winter greenhouse. First of all, I live in North Central Washington State where the winters can be pretty cold and gloomy  for days or weeks due to inversions that form during the shortest days of the year. Temperatures can be below 0 F. but are usually more likely to be in the teens at night and 20's or 30's during the day. This winter was no exception as we probably had about average temps for our location.

I completed my greenhouse last October in hope of having greens all winter long. Having had some coldframes going for the last several years, I realized that the key to having greens during the winter is getting them started early in the fall so that, when the weather gets colder and the daylight hours are short, you are able to still glean some fresh greens from time to time as things just don't have enough daylight to grow much during December and January.
Winter Cold Frames
So I was able to take a couple of large trays about 20" x 40" and maybe 3" deep and plant them in late September in anticipation of putting them in my greenhouse when it was finished. I rooted some cuttings from my garden tomatoes as well just for kicks. Upon completion of my greenhouse, I realized that I had plenty of space so I decided to plant some spinach, collard greens and kale, each in their own container.

Well the winter started out pretty mild and I had some good results from my plantings. I was able to pick greens from the large trays several  times for a few salads and the other greens seemed to be coming along nicely.
Trays of Greens
In December, the weather turned cold and cloudy and my greenhouse went from having sunny days and 75 degree temps to cloudy days and 50 degree temps. Things almost quit growing altogether. I had to put a space heater in there to try to keep things from getting too cold. I even tapped into our central heating system to pump some warm air into the greenhouse (thank goodness it is attached to the side of the house!). Even with all this, temperatures got a little colder each night until it was getting down to 40 degrees at night and only warming to 50 degrees on cloudy days. The thermal mass of 20 five gallon buckets of water  was not able to warm up enough to make a difference and probably even kept things a little cooler during the day in spite of possibly moderating the temps somewhat at night.

I knew this would be a year of experimentation so I had to ask myself what I could do to get more production from the winter greenhouse. My initial goal was to keep things simple and inexpensive but I'd already cheated by using a heater and pumping heat into it from the house. I thought about purchasing grow lights but decided that the cost of setup and electricity would be more than I wanted to deal with my first season. This is when I began to experiment with hydroponics.

Hydroponics in a nutshell is the process of growing plants with nutrient rich water in a soiless medium. Given this definition, there are all kinds of options for how to set up a hydroponic system in a small scale greenhouse like mine. I didn't want anything too complicated so I started with a simple system called deep water culture (DWC).

 DWC is really a pretty simple system for anyone to set up. My setup consisted of a five gallon bucket and an aquarium air pump and airstone. I made four three inch holes in the bucket lid for my plants which were placed in plastic cups full of gravel (actually, three holes were for plants and the fourth was for me to insert the air tube and airstone)and later an aquarium heater). I melted quarter inch holes in the cups to allow the water to circulate through the rocks and to the roots. I placed the airstone in the bottom of the bucked, filled the bucket with water and a light solution of Miracle Grow fertilizer to about an inch of the top. I then put the lid on and placed the plants in the holes so the roots were about halfway in the water and turned the pump on. The principle of this system is simply to aerate the water so that the roots don't drown and plants really thrive.
DWC System
With this setup, I had another bright idea which was to heat the water in the bucket with a submersible aquarium heater. The hole for the air tube was big enough for me to insert it into the water. After all, it was easier to heat five gallons of water than it was to heat my whole greenhouse. My plants began to grow and the roots soon were poking out of the holes in the cups into the water below. This was pretty amazing yet  I was realizing that this system would only grow three plants and I really wanted a system that would produce enough plants to make a difference in my grocery bill! After further research, I decided that I could upgrade my hydroponic system to a nutrient film technique system (NFT) and grow even more plants.

In a NFT system, a shallow flow of water with a hydroponic fertilizer added moves across the roots of the plants which are in some sort of a tray or trough placed at a slight incline.  A pump is used to pump the water from a reservoir at one end to the other end where it gently flows across the roots via gravity back to a reservoir. This process constantly recycles the water providing roots with ample access to nutrients and water for efficient growth.

I scrounged around and pretty much found what I needed for this system lying around my house. I already had the reservoir, the air pump and airstone and the aquarium heater. I needed to add a water pump and a rain gutter and some plastic tubing, all of which I just happened to have. I did have to purchase the ends for the gutter which weren't too expensive. The submersible water pump went in the bottom of the bucket surrounded by a nylon bag to keep anything from plugging it up. The tube came out a hole in the bucket lid and ran along the ground to the far end of the gutter where it was placed through a hole so the water would run into the gutter and flow back toward the bucket. I drilled a hole in the end of the gutter so the water would drain back into the bucket to be recycled again and again. I did have  to add an in line valve to control the flow as it needed to be a trickle, not a gush.
NFT System with second gutter. Note that the spinach in the gutter was transplanted from the tote in the upper left of the picture. See the difference!

So within a couple of hours, I had my system set up as a new home for my three plants from the DWC system but I still needed another 25 or so plants to fill up the gutter and make full use of its capacity. And, rather than dealing with cups, gravel, melting holes and the wrong fertilizer solution, I ended up buying three inch net pots, hydroponic fertilizer and soiless medium (similar to pumice stone) from a local hydroponic supply store. The net pots are just small plastic pots which allow water to pass through them and over the plant roots. The roots ultimately grow out and along the gutter preventing plants from becoming root bound.

Since I already had some container spinach and collards in the greenhouse, I decided to transplant some into the net pots for my system. To do this, I gently removed them from the soil and submersed the roots in water to remove most of the soil. I then dangled the roots in the net pots so they were touching the bottom and placed the grow medium around them and base of the plant until each plant was supported. These went directly into the gutter where the flow of water would supply them all the nutrients for growth and hydration.
Nearly two months later, in spite of colder temperatures and short daylight I got some pretty amazing results.
NFT System
Now that it's February, the days are getting longer and we are getting some pretty sunny days. The plants in my hydroponics system are over twice as big as their siblings left in cold soil. I think the hydroponics helped but also believe that the warm water on the roots made a huge difference
Non Hydroponic Collards
Hydroponic Collards
Non Hydroponic Kale
Hydroponic Kale
Hydroponic Swiss Chard
I am realizing that this system will be great for this spring and I have even added a second gutter to further increase my production. I may even be adding more gutters soon and am planning on a somewhat different system this summer for tomatoes and peppers that I hope to be eating well into the winter months. And who knows what it will evolve into next winter, but I have hopes of more greens and smaller grocery bills in the future.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Carob Date Truffles

Well here I am still blah blah blogging. And if you're still reading, then you are to be commended either for being such a loyal follower or someone who is truly serious about making some healthy lifestyle changes. Whatever the reason,  you're still here and you deserve to be rewarded with a blog about a great, healthy treat.

I am on month 11 of being vegetarian and have seen some great changes. I rarely get sick, and if so it's only for a short time. My fitness still seems to get better each month and I may be in the best shape of my life. I have more energy and seem fine with less sleep than what I used to get. My weight is stable and never seems to change no matter what I eat (but it's rarely ever processed food or snacks). And my cravings for that sweet treat every night has diminished greatly. But I do still get a craving from time to time and have realized I need to listen to my body and trust my cravings now as they seem to be telling me what my body truly needs rather than me telling my body what to eat as I used to do. Make sense? Anyway, now when I get that desire for something sweet, one of my favorite treats is a carob, date truffle.

You'll love these. Really! I mean if you've ever eaten a date recently, you know these things are super sweet and make a great natural sweetener. I love eating dates for a snack or after a workout as well as they are loaded with natural sugars and lots of vitamins and minerals that help your body recover quickly.  Dates are a good source both soluble and insoluble fiber, helping with digestion and possibly lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. They are also a great source of magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin A and iron. You just can't go wrong putting such a wonderful, natural food in a treat such as date truffles.

Another ingredient in these truffles is raw coconut oil which has now become my favorite "healthy" oil. Coconut oil is a good source of short and medium chain fatty acids which are easy to digest as they require no bile or pancreatic enzymes to be broken down.  Rather they are passively absorbed through the digestive tract into the blood where they are used an an immediate source of energy. It is for this reason that coconut oil can boost your energy and increase your metabolism helping promote weight loss. Also, coconut oil has amazing antiviral, antibacterial and anti fungal properties.

Nuts, the other important ingredient in these truffles, are also a healthy addition to one's diet (just a note that, for nuts to maintain many of their healthy qualities, they should be consumed raw rather than toasted or roasted). Nuts such as walnuts contain essential Omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for brain and nerve function. Just 25 grams of walnuts will give you 90% of the recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3's have anti-inflammatory properties which may help lower blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol and reduce the risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers. Nuts are also high in antioxidants, vitamins B and E, and are a great source of minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.

Let's add another healthy ingredient to round out the healthy benefits of these truffles, carob powder. Carob is high in antioxidants, vitamin E, is antiviral and antibacterial and is considered a digestive aid. Carob is naturally sweet so that helps too!

So no more "gut bombs" for dessert. Instead make and eat some of these raw, healthy, delicious and easy to digest truffles that won't give you heartburn. Your body will thank you.

Here's the recipe for Date Truffles:
(approximately 15 truffles)

10 large Medjool Dates pitted and chopped
1/4 cup chopped nuts such as walnuts, almonds or pecans
2 tablespoons melted coconut oil
2 tablespoons carob or cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of sea salt.
Extra cocoa or carob powder for coating the truffles. You could also use chopped nuts or coconut.

Mix ingredients well. This can be a sticky job but well worth it. Roll into small balls and coat with carob/cocoa powder. Refrigerate for a bit to firm them up or eat them right away if you can't wait. I'm not sure how long they'll keep in the fridge as mine never last more than a couple of days : )


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Get Alkalized!

As technology and our lifestyles have changed with the times so have our diets. We are now eating stuff out of boxes, cans, cartons and bags, most all of which are highly processed.  Most likely in the last week you have had several of these: coffee, bread, rice, pasta, steak, wine, beer, pizza, fast food, chocolate, soda, chips, cookies and medications of some sort. I'll bet that if, you're like I used to be, you probably have 3 or more of these each day. Eating foods like these coupled with our daily stress are sure things that will cause our bodies to become too acidic. Over time, this high pH (acidic) state of our body will most likely cause us health issues at some point in the future.

So why is pH so important? The main reason is the simple fact that our blood needs to maintain a nearly constant pH of around 7.35-7.45. If our blood strays just a bit from this, the result will be serous damage to our body and even death. But never fear, our bodies are wonderful creations equipped with systems to maintain our blood's pH even while having bad eating habits.

A healthy body is able to maintain our blood's pH through the systems of elimination of acidic residues and toxins or by adding buffers to adjust it. The elimination of acidic residues and toxins is done through our urinary tract, our skin and through respiration. If we are not able to eliminate all the excess acid residues and toxins in this manner, our body will move them to our extremities or put them in fat cells (and even create more fat cells) to protect vital organs such as our heart and lungs from becoming too acidic. At the same time, a healthy body is also able to produce its own buffers to adjust blood pH. If our bodies are too acidic and no longer able to keep up then blood pH is adjusted through the removal of calcium and magnesium from our bones and muscles. The result of either system being overly taxed results in an overly acidic body eventually causing health conditions such as bone and muscle loss, muscle fatigue, bone spurs and bone pain, inflammation, arthritis, chronic skin conditions and fungus or even cancer - all pretty scary stuff.

If you want to test your body's pH, you can get a pretty good idea by simply using pH test strips that you
can buy at most drug stores or health food stores.
Product Image
You can either test your saliva or your urine. Of course, test your saliva between meals and before drinking any liquids. It is good to test yourself two or three times a day over a period of several days to get an idea of whether or not you are overly acidic. Also, it's a good idea to take note of your diet during these times as well to see how different foods may be affecting your body's pH. A healthy pH reading for saliva would be 6.5-7.5 and 6.0-7.0 for urine.

 Now comes the challenge of what to eat. Many health experts are recommending that we adopt an alkaline diet, rich in foods that help make our bodies more alkaline. A good place to start would be a diet with 50 to 75% alkalizing foods. Such foods include most fruits and vegetables, especially dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli and avocados. 
Also, fruits like lemons and limes are very good "alkalizers" as well (I know this is counter intuitive, but many acidic foods become alkaline in the body due to the minerals left in the body after digestion). And we should also limit foods that are acid forming. Unfortunately, these foods are probably the ones that we include in most of our daily meals. A short list would be most grains and grain products such as pasta or bread, meats, eggs, nuts, sweets, coffee, black tea, carbonated beverages, dairy and any processed foods including most canned foods. Also, most medications and supplements are acidifying as well.

Where to start? Don't go crazy and try to change everything all at once. I suggest adopting one or two things from this list and see how it affects your pH. Keep adding until your pH is where you want it to be.

  • Green Smoothies - Green smoothies are a great way to change a typical acidic breakfast of eggs, toast or cereal with a super alkalizing drink.
  • Limit Acidic Beverages - I know we have to have our coffee or carbonated beverage, but try keep it to a minimum and switch to alkalizing drinks such as herbal teas or fresh lemon or lime juice in water. Also, if you have to add sweeteners, use stevia which is alkalizing. Substitute milk with unsweetened almond milk.
  • Raw Apple Cider Vinegar - Mix a teaspoon or two of raw apple cider vinegar in a glass of water 3 times a day between meals will help you become more alkaline..
  • Juice- Juicing fruits and vegetables can be a great way to alkalize. Limit sweet fruits and stick with mostly vegetables for best results. Also, wheat grass works wonders for me.

  • Adopt a New Grain - Experiment with grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth and teff. They are all gluten free and much healthier choices than grains such as wheat and rice. Also, sprouted sprouted grain bread is much better than traditional bread. Sprouting makes grains more like vegetables and unlocks many nutrients. Ezekiel bread is a good choice but I really like Dave's sprouted wheat bread. 
  • Snack Better - Try carrying a bag of dried dates or figs or raw nuts such as almonds, sunflower or pumpkin seeds with you for when you want something to get you by until the next meal. Or an apple or some veggie sticks work too.
  • Eat a Salad - No, not that little one that's iceberg lettuce and mostly croutons and ranch, but one that fills your plate with dark, leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, avocados and sprouts (sprouts are super good for you!). Include some raw nuts or dried fruit if you'd like and top with your favorite "healthy" dressing. Remember to eat the rainbow! 
  • Find some Alternatives - Instead of eating that big "gut bomb burger", check the menu and have a veggie burger instead if available. Also, sweet potato fries are a healthier choice than traditional fries. You might be surprised at how good they are. Or make your own veggie burgers at home. Try meatless tacos with seasoned quinoa, potatoes or spaghetti squash. Also, nut cheese can be a tasty alternative to other cheeses. For condiments, choose Vegenaise instead of mayo and try Bragg's line of products. Finally, use Himalayan or Celtic sea salt instead of processed salt. Both have alkalizing minerals in them.
                                          Original Vegenaise      Liquid Aminos 10 oz (New! Glass Bottle) - Click Image to Close
If you are like me, I'm sure you most likely need to work on your diet and add some healthier choices. Try some of the suggestions from above. Best wishes and get alkalized!