Monday, November 29, 2010

Chili paste ferment

A glass container with fermenting chili puree mixed with water, sea salt and a small amount of sauerkraut juice held under the liquid surface by a water filled flask.

A few weeks ago I harvested several pounds of various chili peppers from one of our college gardens.  There was a variety of tobasco, jalapeneo, and who knows what else (I forgot what they were a long time ago).  This was far more chili's than anyone of us wanted to consume.  So the stems were removed and the chili's were pureed with some water until I had a fine chili paste.  Sea salt was then added to taste.  Several ounces of sauerkraut liquid was added in an attempt to speed the fermentation process.  Nothing was exact, I just made sure there was enough water to submerge the paste under the flask.  The submerged paste was then left at room temperature to ferment for several weeks.  Currently, it is still fermenting and hopefully next week sometime I will taste it.

I became interested in fermenting chili's a few years ago when I started growing bumper crops in both the spring and fall.  Being we can grow chili plants year round in Phoenix I have several plants that are many years old.  A few of these plants have developed into bushes, one of which gets to six feet tall before I have to trim it.  That said, I produce pounds and pounds of chili's annually and need something to do with them.  I've never actually fermented them before so this is my first attempt and it seems to be going quite well.  The process of fermenting chili's should be the same process as making sauerkraut.  Salt and anerobic conditions prevent harmful bacteria from growing and encourage healthy fermenting lactic acid bacteria (probiotics).  This then preserves the food, preventing spoilage.  The only difference between the chili ferment and the sauerkraut is that the fermentation process appears to be much slower for the chili's.  It is possible that the capsaicin slows or prevents some bacterial growth.  Capsaicin is the substance found in chili's that makes them spicy. 

Tobasco chili sauce is fermented in a similar way for three years in oak barrels.  See here how Tobasco produces its famous chili sauce:  While I don't expect to have results comparable to the Tobasco brand name, hopefully something good will be produced.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Growing ginger in a microhabitat

Ginger plant hidden away in a safe greenhouse microclimate where it can grow protected from intense sun, heat, and cold.

I'll admit, I'm pretty obsessed with figuring out how to grow things.  There is so much that can be learned through simply trying to grow new plants.  Even if its not something particularly or immediately practical, figuring out how to grow it can teach you about how to grow other more practical things.  Ginger is an excellent example of this.  Ginger: not practical where it is cold, or where it is hot, or where the sun is intense.  Being we are in Phoenix Arizona, the sun is too intense and hot during the summer and too cold during the winter.  One of my coworkers tried growing ginger plants from store bought roots (or stolons) several times before he finally figured out how to protect the plant.  It turned out to require moist rich soil, and a shaded, cooler, and wetter portion of the greenhouse.  Even here though the plant dies back during the hot part of the summer and cold part of the winter but comes back each fall and spring for several months.  The goal is to eventually get it to flower, which may require a slightly different set of conditions.

The problem and reason why most people have "brown thumbs" is that they try once, it doesn't work, so they give-up.  I have seen people grow things very productively in circumstances where they in no way should grow.  The rule is, as with most everything, if at first you fail try again.  The key is in growing the ginger... Microhabitat!  A microhabitat is a small area in the landscape where conditions are slightly different from the rest of the habitat.  For us to grow ginger successfully we had to find the microhabitat of temperature and light intensity different from the surroundings.  The same goes for growing just about anything else, you must create or find the ideal light intensity, soil, and temperature for that plant to grow in.  The same exact principle holds true in the environment.  Why do most all plants grow in the desert?  Microhabitat!  Without plants like Palo Verde creating a shaded, cooler, moister, and better soil environment under their canopy very few desert plants would grow at all. 

While growing ginger is an interesting lesson in microhabitat, ginger itself is a pretty interesting plant.  Supposedly it has been found to have anti-viral, anti-bacterail, and anti-cancer compounds in it.  If you want to read more about ginger click here:

If you want to figure out how to grow your own ginger, purchase a ginger root from the local grocery store and plant in potting soil.  The ginger root itself is actually a stolon, a sort of underground stem that also functions as a root and stores nutrients for the plant.  The stolon will require moist but well drained soil and sunlight.  While I don't know exactly, ginger doesn't seem to like temperatures above 100 degrees or below 40 degrees, and prefers humidity and partial shade.  You will have to play around with the conditions to create the "perfect" microhabitat.

Ginger root, actually a stolon, which is a modified underground stem the plant uses for storage of nutrients.  If you want to figure out how to grow your own ginger, purchase one from the local grocery store and plant in potting soil.  The photo is in the right orientation to how you should plant the stolon.  You may have to try several different things before you find the correct microhabitat. 

Cider vinegar final product

Our final cider vinegar product, pre-filtration and pasteurization.  Pretty gross stuff, but as for vinegar ferments this is the least gross I've seen.  The white film on top is known as "mother of vinegar" and is a mat of yeasts, molds, and bacteria that carry out the production of vinegar. 

So the finished product of our cider vinegar experiment is finally complete after a month of waiting.  As you can see from the above picture the finished product is quite gross and you probably wouldn't want to drink it straight.  All those microorganisms, though not dangerous in themselves, might not be good for your stomach!

To start this project, all I did was place apple juice in a one gallon jar, cover the opening with panty-hose, and let it sit at room temperature for four weeks.

So during the past four weeks this is what happened: Atmospheric yeasts and molds fall into the apple juice and ferment sugars into alcohol (ethanol).  This process of making alcohol is anerobic, meaning without oxygen, and is called fermentation.  Once the yeasts and molds converted all of the sugar to alcohol, Acetobacter sp. of bacteria metabolized the alcohol into acetic acid (vinegar) aerobically (with oxygen).

1. Sugar + yeast -->Ethanol
2. Alcohol + Acetobacter sp. --> Acetic acid

If this process is allowed to continue the Acetobacter sp will begin to convert the acetic acid into water.  If the process of making vinegar is carried out perfectly, the percent alcohol in the juice will produce the same percent of vinegar.  So if 10% alcohol is produced this should make a 10% vinegar.  

Above is a media plate that was inoculated with vinegar before pasteurization.  The large circular colonies with black specked centers are some sort of mold that may have aided in the fermentation of the apple juice.  The tiny white dots outside of the large mold colonies are Acetobacter colonies.  These microorganisms were filtered out and killed through pasteurization before consumption.

As you can see from the above picture, the vinegar is loaded with all kinds of gunk, which are bacteria, yeasts, and molds.  In order to clean up the vinegar I filtered it though a coffee filter to remove the large chunks as much as possible.  Then the filtered solution was pasturized by heating to about 180 degrees to kill the remaining microorganisms.  

Filtered vinegar solution on left and unfiltered on right.  Note how much clearer the filtered solution is.  The clarity of the filtered solution is due to the removal of microorganisms that cloud out the original solution.

After this entire process I finally tasted the vinegar.  Unfortunately it was quite watery which means I let it set out for too long.  The alcohol content probably never got too high because I didn't add any sugar which also led to a low vinegar content.  So I am trying vinegar making again.  For this next batch I used 1/2 gallon of gape juice, 1 cup of sugar, and mixed it with the slurry left over from the first batch of vinegar.  This time I am only going to let it sit for about two weeks or so to see what happens.  If this batch doesn't work well, I'll just try again.  Trial and error is a rule for science as well as success in life...

My next try at making vinegar.  1/2 a gallon of grape juice, 1 cup of sugar, mixed with about 1 cup of slurry from the last batch of vinegar I made.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Growing a coconut tree

Coconut seed planted sideways and half buried in potting soil.
Apparently starting a coconut tree is pretty easy so we are trying to start one in our greenhouse.  You simply need a fresh coconut seed from your local grocery store.  (In case anyone doesn't know the coconut is a huge seed itself.)  You should be able to start a coconut tree in any warm sunny window in some potting soil, or outside during the summer.  We placed a coconut half buried sideways in a five gallon bucket full of potting soil to see what would happen.  make sure the top and bottom of the coconut are about even with the soil surface or just below and keep the soil well watered.  You can tell the bottom side of the coconut by the three "eyes", make sure these are about even with the soil surface or just under it. See the photos below of the "eyes".  The root will first appear out from between these "eyes".  This method of half burying the coconut mimics the seed being washed up on the shore by the ocean tide and partially buried in sand.  The coconut I found out is a fairly interesting plant.  It moves throughout the world by floating through the ocean until it is washed up on shore.  Coconut trees are limited to the tropics due to their inability to withstand frosts but even so, the seeds have been found washed up on shore as far north as Norway!  There is all kinds of crazy-cool facts about the coconut, including during WWII coconut water, from the immature coconut seed, were used for blood transfusions. 

For more information on the coconut check out Wikipedia:

We planted the above coconut seed about a month ago and a root nub appeared after a few weeks.  The nub hasn't grown much since that time but time will tell if its alive or not.  From what I've read coconuts grow well in hot humid environments that have no freezing temperatures ever, such as the tropics.  Unfortunately for us in Phoenix we get frosts about every three years, so our tree will have to remain in the greenhouse.  But at this point we don't even know if we can get the seed to sprout into a tree.  We'll report back if and when it actually works.

The three "eyes" on the bottom of the coconut.

This coconut is laying on its side, in the orientation it is to be buried.  The left side to the coconut is the top and the right is the bottom with the "eyes".  The line down the middle is a cut mark the grocery store puts in the shell to make it easier to break open.  Bury the coconut about halfway and in this orientation.

Growing pineapples

To the right are three pineapple plants we started about a year ago in our greenhouse.  Anyone can start their own pineapple plant in a warm sunny window, a one gallon pot or larger, some potting soil, and a store bought pineapple.  Simply cut off the pineapple top so you have about 1 inch of the pineapple attached to the leaves and let is dry for several days.  Then bury the 1 inch remaining portion of the pineapple in the potting soil and water.  Make sure the soil stays wet and the pineapple will eventually start to root in a week or two.  Not all tops will root and you may have to try this with a few different pineapple tops before it will work.  You can pull up your pineapple in the first few weeks to see if any roots are growing, but be gentile as to not break any roots.  You will know your pineapple rooting experiment is working if the very central leaf in the top is growing.  The top center leaf is the leaf growing from the plants apical meristem, which is growing tissue at the apex or top of the plant.  All plants have an apical meristem which adds height or length to the plant.  If the apical meristem is growing your plant is healthy.  We are going to keep our pineapples growing indefinitely.  We have heard that it is possible to produce fruit after about three years, but we'll see.

Growing plants of all types is an important and easy learning/teaching tool, or skill for that matter.  All kinds of things can be learned about plants as you grow them, everything from botany to agriculture to history and culture. Growing a pineapple in this way teaches plant propagation as well as about apical meristem growth.  Another interesting thing about pineapple fruit is that they contain an abundance of protease, an enzyme that digests protein.  Which makes me think... maybe there is some cool protein digestion experiment we can think up of using pineapple.

For more information on the pineapple check out wikipedia:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Vertical potatoes in a barrel

While I generally do not like growing potatoes in the garden because they take up a lot of space and are a low value crop, I will be trying to grow them vertically this winter in an old barrel.  By growing potatoes vertically in the barrel, hopefully we can produce a barrel full of potatoes.  Potatoes are remarkably easy to grow and a simple web search yields numerous ways to grow them such as in old tires, bags, straw, cages, and others.  We have an old half of a plastic 55 gallon drum on hand which I have tried to grow potatoes in before but have failed.  Last winter the potato barrel failed I believe because of too little and bad soil.  So this winter I am trying again.  To begin, a plastic 55 gallon barrel half with many 1/2 inch holes drilled into the bottom for drainage was filled with 12 inches of a well draining soil mix.  The barrel was elevated off of the ground to improve light exposure and drainage (The barrel was elevated above the shadow of a wall).  12 potato "eyes" were then planted in the soil and watered.  12 eyes is way to many but I over did it in case some don't come up or don't grow as vigorously, the extras will be thinned out later.  To obtain sprouting eyes you can simply cut a chunk of potato out from around an eye from a store bought potato.  Once the chunk is cut out let it dry for about a day.  A lot of gardening resources advise against this due to transfer of diseases but I never had a problem (yet!).  Unfortunately, for us in Phoenix our potato growing season begins in the fall and ends in May or June and seed companies usually don't sell certified disease free seed potatoes until March.  So this is currently the only way I know of planting potatoes for the Phoenix growing season.

Some of the potato eyes I used to start my potato barrel.  There are red, russet, and purple potatoes for starting.  They were cut from store bought potatoes and dried for one day before planting.

Once the potatoes sprout and are about four to six inches tall the plants will be bury with four inches of soil.  This will be repeated until the barrel is full of soil.  Potatoes are supposed to grow in each layer of soil, thus filling the barrel.  Then the potatoes will be left to grow in the barrel until May or June.  Hopefully I can get it to work this winter but we'll see.  I already think there may be a problem with the barrel shading much of the soil due to the low angle of the the winter sun.  Hopefully, the potatoes will still grow partially shaded.  Once the potato plants reach the top of the barrel and it is full of soil, shading will no longer be an issue.

Potato barrel made from half of a plastic 55 gallon drum with many 1/2 inch holes drilled in the bottom.  About 12 inches of well draining potting soil was placed in the bottom and the potato eyes were planted about an inch deep.  Note the barrel is shading some of the soil due to the low angle of the winter sun.  When the plants are about six inches tall, four inches of soil will be added to partially bury the plants.  This will be repeated until the barrel is full of soil.  Hopefully potatoes begin to grow in each of the soil layers and we'll have a barrel full of potatoes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

November Garden update

The gardens have been in for slightly over a month now.  All (or nearly) of the hard work of tilling and planting is done and seeds are sprouting.  Hopefully in a month or so we will begin to harvest some of our first produce.  Now that we are well into November, hot 90 degree plus weather is (hopefully!) behind us so watering and seedling monitoring can be minimized.  We did have some problems with predation and a heatwave killing some of our seedlings but now with the cooler weather and the plants established that is (hopefully) behind us.

What we planted: Leeks, green onions, Tohano Odom Multiplier Onions, Snow Peas, Sweet Peas, Carnival Carrots, Dragon Carrots, Easter Egg Radishes, Plum Purple Radishes, Cabbage, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Ruby-red Swiss Chard, Chichiquelite Greens, Black-seed Simpson Lettuce, Freckles Romaine Lettuce, Australian Yellow-leaf Lettuce, Early Wonder Beets, mixed Romaine Lettuce, and several types of Garlic including Sonoran, Chilean Silver, French Mild, Asian Tempest, Californina Early, and Shilla.  All are heirloom seeds with the exception of the Cabbage and maybe the Green Onions and the Simpson Lettuce. 

Here are the stats for this garden "economics" project for both my home and work garden.
                              Home     College
School garden with sprouting garlic in foreground.
Hours of work:        5.25         4.5
Calories burned:      1334        1143
Food produced:       0 lbs.        0 lbs.
Calories produced:   0               0 
Seed cost:               $35          $35
Soil amendments:    $10          $10
Nu-ban FG:             $16          $16
Total Cost:               $61          $61

Calories burned was estimated using  Hopefully we will catch up on calories once we start producing vegetables but since we are not growing high caloric value crops like potatoes or wheat we may not.  Also not included in this is the cost of equipment since we already had all the tools on hand.  I could estimate that a shovel, hoe, rake, hoses, and hand trowels cost about $60 but we have been using them for many years now.  Cost of seeds is way over estimated because of seed saving and exchanging we have done with other gardeners.  Seeds actually cost us only $35 but we will assume I bought all of my seeds.  The reason my home garden required more time is simply because I have to hand water everything and the school garden has an automatic watering system (also not included in cost).  So in all, I have eliminated start-up costs from this budget and have tried to include only what a typical gardener would have to purchase.  If I were to try a little harder I could eliminate even more of the seed costs by seed saving, making more compost of my own, or finding a cheaper pest control alternative to Nu-Ban FG.  Theoretically I could see costs getting close to $0 with some work. 

I will have another update in December sometime. The majority of the time, money, and effort has already been put in so hopefully in December we will see some produce to pay back these costs.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Make Your Own Sauerkraut

Whether you know it or not, if you are of European or Asian decent, your very presence on this earth may be due, in part to... sauerkraut!  Yes, it is a fact, sauerkraut is thousands of years old and has been (or one of its varieties) a European, Asian, and later even a North American staple for much of that time.  Sauerkraut is in-fact German for "sour cabbage".  Cultures stretching from Europe, through the Middle East, and all the way to Japan have all had their versions of fermented cabbage.  Besides German sauerkraut, Korean fermented cabbage and vegetables are probably the most famous and are known as Kimchi.  Some of the first records of fermented cabbage come from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and slaves building the Great Wall of China.  So yes, depending on your decent, your ancestors probably ate some form of fermented cabbage and owed their well being to it.  Unfortunately, sauerkraut has fell out of favor in recent decades in much of the Western world, but for no particularly good reason.  So today we are going to discuss how you can make your own sauerkraut, a fascinating biological process that is far cheaper, better tasting, and healthier then any kraut you can buy at the store.

My cabbage fermentation container.  One head of shredded cabbage mixed with sea salt.  This can be done in a much larger container like a crock with many heads of cabbage.  Salt pulls the water out of the cabbage and a weight is placed on-top of the cabbage to keep it submerged.  After a little over a week, or after it stops bubbling, the sauerkraut is ready to eat.

The process is very easy and only requires sea salt and cabbage.  You must use sea salt or canning salt, otherwise your cabbage will not ferment.  Simply shred your cabbage and them mix with the sea salt in a glass or stoneware container.  Avoid plastic or metal containers as they can degrade in the fermentation process.  Cabbage and other vegetables are traditionally done in a stoneware crock.  I typically use gallon pickle jars or two liter beakers.  The key is finding a container that you can place a weight in to keep the cabbage submerged under the liquid.  Typically strait edged jars or crocks work best, jars with tops that curve inwards make the cabbage difficult to weigh down.  When I mix the cabbage with the salt I usually add a handful of cabbage and then sprinkle it with salt (not too much!), then mix by hand (clean hands!) and repeat until I have filled my container or have no more cabbage left.  The amount of salt to add is not an exact science, you can add to taste and usually less is better.  You will need just enough salt though to remove enough liquid from the cabbage so it can be submerged.  Also, make sure to mix very well so the salt is evenly distributed in the cabbage.  Once you have finished mixing you must weigh down you cabbage, which will also help in extracting moisture, and then let it sit.  Your weights can be any clean thing that you can find.  People use rocks, glassware such as cups filled with water, wood, and even plastic bags filled with water.  Check on the ferment everyday or so and press down on the weight, this ensures the cabbage remains submerged and releases carbon dioxide that forms as a result of fermentation.  After a week or slightly more, or after the bubbles stop, your sauerkraut is ready to eat.

The process of making sauerkraut is known as lactic acid fermentation.  Similar to alcohol fermentation with an input of sugar but different in that the output is lactic acid as opposed to ethyl alcohol.  Several species of bacteria are responsible for sauerkraut fermentation.  These bacteria are controlled by sugars in the cabbage, salt content, anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) by submerging the cabbage, and pH (acidity).  During the first several days of fermentation coliform species of bacteria quickly consume all of the oxygen in the liquid and ferment, producing lots of carbon dioxide bubbles and dropping the pH from about 6 to around 4.5.  The salty, anaerobic, and acidic conditions (pH~4.5) kill off coliforms around day four and are Leuconostic sp. bacteria quickly populate the cabbage.  Leuconostic bacteria then produce lactic acid, dropping the pH to about 4.2 which kills them off and allows Lactobacillus sp. bacteria to replace them.  Lactobacillus sp. continues production of lactic acid, dropping the pH to about 3.9 or so where it will stay for up to several months.  It takes slightly more than a week for this process to happen depending on temperature and salt content.  The sauerkraut is safe to eat at this point and full of healthy probiotic organisms (Lactobacillus sp.).  In a week or two I will report back on the results of this sauerkraut experiment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Growin' 'shrooms

Growing mushrooms is something I have been interested in doing for a long time.  It is also kind of something I have been scared of, fearing I might grow some sort of poisonous mushroom by accident.  Finally, after reading up on mushroom growing I overcame my probably unfounded fear and purchased Espresso Oyster mushroom spawn from Fungi Perfecti for $26.  Mushroom spawn is simply a mass of mushroom mycelium growing in some type of medium.  Mycelium is a mass of fungal hyphae which are similar to plant roots but for fungi.  Mold is the most common way of referring to mycelium or hyphae.

A mass of oyster mushroom spawn growing on sawdust.
Fungi, though often associated with plants are in-fact not plants at all.  I suppose they are somewhere between a plant and an animal.  Plants use sunlight to photosynthesize water and carbon dioxide into sugar for energy to live.  Animals must consume food for energy, which is similar to mushrooms.  As we know however, animals eat food and digest it internally in our stomachs.  Fungi are weird in that they actually digest their food outside of their body first and then consume it.  This is exactly what mushroom (fungi) mycelium is doing in dirt, on your bread, in wood, or as in the spawn above. 

Supposedly, growing mushrooms is pretty easy.  They don't need a lot of light, they just need some sort of growth medium or "food", and some water in a semi-sterile environment.  So I chose two growth mediums or "foods" for my spawn, used coffee grounds and toilet paper.  According to what I read both are excellent growth mediums for oyster mushrooms.  Both mediums need to be sterilized and fortunately used coffee grounds are sterilized in the process of making coffee.  Toilet paper on the other had needs to be sterilzed with boiling water.  I simply boiled tap water and poured it on top of the role of toilet paper to sterilize it, amazingly it absorbed about half a gallon of water.  Once the paper cooled I removed the cardboard cylinder from the middle and filled the hole with spawn.  Then the toilet paper role and spawn were closed up in a gallon sized plastic bag with the bag left slightly open to allow for breathing.

My sterilized toilet paper roll with spawn filling the middle hole.  The brown specks are pieces of saw dust.  The core of sawdust spawn appears white in this picture because it has been covered with white mycelium.  Normally this gallon size plastic bag would be nearly closed to prevent contamination and to hold in moisture. 

As for the used coffee grounds, eight holes were drilled into the bottom of a five gallon bucket and about three gallons of coffee grounds were mixed with about 3/4ths gallon of spawn.  The spawn and coffee grounds were already pretty wet so no water was added.  Eight holes were also drilled around the surface of the mixture to help drain off carbon dioxide.  Lastly, a plastic bag with holes in it was used to cover the bucket to help hold in moisture and prevent contamination.

Mixture of about three gallons of used coffee grounds and 3/4ths gallon of sawdust spawn.  Holes in bucket around surface of mixture were drilled right after this picture was taken.  Bucket was then covered with a plastic bag with holes to hold in moisture and prevent contamination.
From what I read mushrooms should be growing in about three weeks from both of these mediums.  Hopefully that is the case but you never know.  I have botched up my fare share of experiments in my life.  Botching is a normal part of the scientific discovery.  If it is botched up hopefully I'll discover something awesome.  I'll report back on the results in several weeks.