Saturday, May 23, 2015

Grow a Sicilian/Italian kitchen garden in as little as 6' x 6'


Traditional Italian vegetables-peppers, zucchini, eggplant, basil, beans and tomatoes

Saturday, May 23, 2015

If you have ever wanted to plant an Italian kitchen garden, but weren’t sure if you had the space, you may be surprised.  You can grow the staples of an Italian kitchen garden in as little as 6’ x 6’ space.  To entice the little ones, an Italian garden is also a "Pizza or Spaghetti Garden."

It is common for Italians to have a small kitchen garden where they grow herbs, greens and vegetables year round.  It is amazing the amount of food you can grow in a very small space!
You only need a 6x6', 4'x9' or 3'x12' space to grow
a productive kitchen garden

If you have only a 6’ x 6’ space, a Sicilian kitchen garden could include the following:
Herbs (1 each)-thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, and flat leaf parsley
3 basil plants (for pesto and seasoning)
2 tomatoes-1 Roma type for sauces and 1 slicer type for salads
2 sweet pepper plants
1 zucchini
1 eggplant
8 red onions
8 garlic plants
Arugula, spinach and lettuce scatter sowed

If you also have room for pots on the patio, you could grow the zucchini, eggplant, and cucumber in pots  (only 1 plant in each pot) and add 3 bush or 6 pole bean plants in the garden bed.  Traditional bush beans would be lentils, Romano, Capitano, Cannellini, fava; pole beans-Roma, Helda, Supermarconi.  Personally, I would stick with the beans you eat whole as shelled beans you do not get as much food per plant.

If you have more room, you can add almonds (yes, they survive Midwest winters), beets, chard, fennel, chickpeas, figs, chicories, radicchio, endives, broccoli, cauliflower (all grow well in a pot too), asparagus, cardoon, or annual artichokes.

Don't be afraid to interplant your veggies with your flowers.  Flowers not only look great, but they also attract pollinators, increasing your yields, and insects that take care of the dreaded veggie eating insects.  It is a win-win all the way around.

I tuck onions between my day lilies and plant marigolds all around the perimeter of my flower and veggie patch.  Day lilies are edible and marigolds are a great pest deterrent.

Seed catalogs that have a good selection of Italian vegetables and herbs-Johnnie’s Selected Seeds, Renee’s Garden, Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Company, Cook’s Garden, Seeds from Italy, Italian Seeds & Tool Co., Botanical Interest, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Baker Creek is a new favorite for me right now.  They have an amazing collection of unusual and heirloom seeds from all around the world, including Sicily.

At the big box stores and hardware stores, I have seen displays for Italian seeds.  Big box stores and local nurseries have the summer favorite plants available right now.  They carry many heirloom varieties, too.    Plants are a great way to get started.  Now is the perfect time to put in your own Sicilian kitchen garden.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Eggplant-add this native from India to your garden


Potted Black Beauty eggplant with petunias

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Eggplant is easy to grow in our Zone 6 garden.  It is happy in a pot or the ground.  There is an amazing array of varieties of eggplant.  I thought for years that eggplant only came in the large, dark purple Black Beauty so popular in Italian cuisine.  In fact, there are long, skinny fruits, apple sized fruits, hourglass shaped fruits, and yellow, orange, white, green, purple, red, lavender colored fruits.  The fruits can be grilled, smoked, chopped and roasted, or stuffed.

Eggplant is a staple in Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, and many Asian cuisines.  This fruiting vegetable originated in India and has been cultivated there for thousands of years.  It had made its way to the Mediterranean region by the Middle Ages.  It is used as a substitute for meat in many dishes like eggplant parmesan we see so often in our local Italian restaurants.  
The variety in eggplants
Eggplant contains fiber, antioxidants, vitamins C, K, folate and minerals potassium and manganese.  For more details on the health benefits, check out SELF magazine’s SELF magazine nutrition table

Eggplant should be started indoors 6-8 weeks prior to the last frost date (for Zone 6, this is end of Feb/first of March).  Or you can buy plants and transplant after all danger of frost has passed 18-24” apart in full sun.  

They are heat loving veggies that require a long growing season so it is important to get seedlings started indoors or purchase them as plants.  Fertilize when transplanted with a balanced fertilizer and then monthly after first blooms appear.  Being part of the nightshade family, tomato fertilizer works well for eggplants as well.  I have not experienced any pest issues when growing eggplant.

Eggplants grow every well in pots.  The soil in pots warms up quicker in early summer and stays warmer than garden soil, giving these heat lovers an early boost.  When planting in pots, look for dwarfs or patio types like Casper, Listada de Gandia, White Egg or Fairytale or use a large container.  

We have also grown the Rosa Bianca and Black Beauty in a large pot and both did well.  When growing in pots, keep in a sunny location, fertilize every other week and keep soil moist.  
Turkish Orange eggplant in a container

A tip when growing eggplant is to harvest when the fruits are young.  As they stay on the vine, they produce more seeds, their skin becomes tougher, and the fruit more bitter.  In addition to loss of taste, you will also have loss of productivity.  Harvesting often keeps the plant focused on producing more fruits.

Eggplant can be smoked, baked, steamed or grilled.  My two favorites are stuffing them with sausage with my homemade tomato sauce and baking or brushing on olive oil, seasoning with sea salt and grilling.  Our favorite varieties so far have been the smaller white eggplants andTurkish orange for grilling and Black Beauty for stuffing. 

This year, I am going to try smoking some fruits and making into baba ghanoush.  We had this in a Turkish restaurant with pita bread and it was quite tasty.

Since eggplant is a tropical perennial, you can bring it indoors at the end of the season to overwinter.  This gives you a 6-8 week head start on harvests next year.  This is a great way to keep your favorite.  You can also save the seed from your best fruits to use next season.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Peppers are for every taste and garden


Saturday, May 16, 2015


No matter your taste buds, your style of cooking or the type of food you love, there is a pepper for you!  Besides that, peppers are pest free, come in beautiful colors, are easy to grow, and look great on the patio.
There are hot peppers, there are sweet peppers, there are smokey peppers.  There are peppers of a multitude of colors-white, yellow, orange, red, purple, brown, black, green.  They come in all shapes from the size of a blueberry to 6”, straight, crooked, puckered.

Peppers originated in South America.  Their use goes back to at least 7500 BCE and were domesticated at least 8000 years ago.  

Pepper’s heat is measured in Scoville heat units.  Some of the hottest peppers measured was a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T at 1,463,700 and a Naga Viper, at 1,382,118 SHU’s.  Now that is smokin’ hot!

Quick reference Scoville values:
*0 Sweet peppers like the classic bell and Italian sweet peppers.  
*100-900 Mild peppers such as pimento, banana and pepperoncini peppers
*1,000-2,500 Anaheim, Poblano, Peppadew peppers
*3,500-8,000 Jalapeño, Anaheim peppers
*10,000-23,000 Serrano, Peter peppers
*30,000-50,000 Tabasco, Cayenne peppers
*100,000-350,000 Habanero/Scotch bonnet peppers

One thing to keep in mind, peppers are natural plants and their heat can vary widely based on growing conditions and their pepper neighbor in the garden.  If you place a hot pepper and a sweet pepper next to each other, the sweet pepper can become a spicy pepper through cross pollination.

Once you get in the range of cayenne peppers, you should use gloves when handling.  Washing your hands with water after handling the pepper does not wash away the heat!  Transferring some of the pepper’s heat to the eyes can be extremely painful!  The best way to cool the heat is to use whole milk.  

The center of a pepper’s heat is in its seeds and ribs.  If you want a milder dish, clean the seeds and ribs from the pepper before using.

We typically grow our hot peppers in pots as they seem to do best in a container.  I try to grow enough peppers to last us all winter for salads, chili, salsa, and pepper seasonings.  The hot peppers like Jalapeños and Cayenne are prolific in pots.  One plant of the hot, smaller varieties is all we need.  We have found that the smaller sweet pepper plants like banana peppers and Nikita did equally well in pots.  The large sweet peppers like California bell and Pimento do better in the garden bed.

For planting in the pots, we just use a good organic potting soil purchased from our local garden center and placed one plant per pot.  To help maintain moisture, I mulch around the peppers after planted in the pot.  We water them once/week in the summer.  Converting your favorite pot to a self watering container really helps in cutting down how often watering is required.

If you want to give your pepper plants an extra boost, they favor phosphorous (bulb food or bone meal works well), sulfur (a book of matches in the hole does the trick), calcium to prevent blossom end rot (a half dozen crushed egg shells works well), and magnesium (which is contained in epson salts, a diluted spray when the flowers appear).  Some say if the leaves pucker, this is a sign that phosphorous is needed.  Tomato fertilizer is also good for peppers as both are fruiting plants.

You should put out pepper plants after it is nice and warm.  Peppers are in the nightshade family with tomatoes and eggplant.  They should be planted outside when night time temps are above 55 and daytime temps in the 70’s consistently.  If you buy pepper plants with peppers already on them, remove them before planting so the plant can focus its energy on developing a strong root system. 

If you are going to grow your peppers from seeds, start them indoors 6-8 weeks before you will transplant outside.  You can get unusual varieties not at your local nursery in seed catalogues.  Baker Creek Heirloom Seed company has some very unique varieties from around the world.  Although the spectrum available today in stores is quite nice.  You can also order plants as well from most seed catalogues.

Surprisingly, peppers don’t like extremely hot weather.  They get sunburned when the temps get into the 90’s consistently.  Their sunburn looks like dark spots on the exposed fruits.  If you can, move them into the shade when temps are extreme.  They won’t croak, but they are stressed during periods of high heat.

Almost all veggies love fertile soil and consistent watering.  Peppers are no exception.  Some swear that stressing the plant will increase the heat of the pepper.  Now, the current Guinness winner thinks the secret to getting the world’s hottest pepper was run off from a worm farm.


Peppers will get flowers on them that, if pollinated, will grow into a pepper.  If you look into the center of a flower, you can see the emerging baby pepper.
Pepper flower with baby pepper forming
Anything that produces a seed or fruit needs a visit from a friendly pollinator, like the honey bee, mason bee, bumble bee, predatory wasps, hover flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, and many other insects.  It is important to not use insecticides as they kill the pollinators along with the bad bugs or to use very sparingly and not on the flowers themselves.

I plant the peppers in a pot with nasturtium or petunias to attract the pollinators and to look good on the patio.
Pepper plant with petunias

This year I am growing several peppers:
*Cayenne, jalapeño, and sweet bell peppers for the salsa
*Sweet peppers yellow, orange and red banana, Corno di Toro, Topepo Rosso
*Pimento peppers for “Pasta House” salad
*Poblano to dry for chili powder  (the dried pepper is called ancho)
*You can make chipolte seasoning by smoking your jalapeños in your smoker

*Pasilla bajio for mole sauces.  It is also called chile negro because of its black color.
                                  Pimento at top, jalapeño on bottom      Red and green cayennes
Peppers all start out green.  It is as they ripen that they turn colors.  Jalapeño will turn red if left to ripen on the vine.  The sweet banana peppers I am growing from seed this year will turn yellow, red or orange.  They can be eaten either when green or after they have turned.  Their flavor, and heat, will intensify as they ripen.

The trick to keeping the pepper crop going is to harvest often.  It’s like the plant knows when it has its quota of peppers.  The blossoms will fall off until more are picked.

Peppers have many great nutritional benefits.  They contain high amounts of vitamins C, A (carotene), K, potassium, manganese, B6 as well as a good source of fiber.  Its antioxidants help the body combat free radicals.  For more details, SELF magazine has a nice compilation of nutritional information of fruits and vegetables:  SELF magazine nutrition table

The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains.  A tablespoon of ground chili pepper would contain between 0.8 to 480 mg of capsaicin.  In Ayurvedic medicine, capsaicin is used for digestive and circulatory health support. 

Peppers come in so many different flavors and heat intensity.  There is a pepper out there for everyone.  Combined with their carefree horticulture, they make a great plant to add to your garden this year.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Insect control through plants


Late summer pic of marigolds around veggie garden

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Different types of plants have been used throughout history to discourage “bad” insects.  Add some to your garden to help control undesirable insects.


Here is a list of the veggies and herbs in my garden and the insects they deter:

*Basil-flies and mosquitoes
*Borage-tomato worms
*Catnip-flea beetles
*Citronella-mosquitoes
*Garlic-Japanese beetles, aphids, weevils, fruit tree borers, spider mites
*Horseradish-potato bugs (plant at corners of plot, these plants get big)
*Hyssop-cabbage moths
*Lavender-clothes moths (use dried herb in closets)
*Marigold-Mexican bean beetles, nematodes, and many others (I have this planted all around my flower garden).  Best are the old fashioned marigolds.
*Mint-white cabbage moths, dried-clothes moths
*Nasturtium-aphids, squash bugs, striped pumpkin beetles, wooly aphids
*Pennyroyal-ants and plant lice
*Peppermint-white cabbage butterflies, ants
*Petunia-beetles
*Rosemary-cabbage moths, bean beetles, carrot flies, malaria mosquitoes
*Sage-cabbage moths, carrot flies, ticks
*Spearmint-ants, aphids
*Summer savory-bean beetles
*Thyme-cabbage worms

You can also use flowers and other plants as "decoys".  Nasturtiums attract flea beetles.  Plant them away from the rest of your garden to lure them away.  Peonies attract ants.  I'll even plant lettuce away from the main garden to keep the bunnies away.  For other tips on bunnies  

Note of caution-horseradish, catnip, mint, peppermint, pennyroyal, and spearmint are all aggressive.  Horseradish propagates via seeds so to control it, remove flowers prior to going to seed.  For the rest, either grow in a pot or surround with a metal ring in the soil to stop their underground runners from overtaking your garden.  Or, if you are like me, I let them run and then pull up the extras every year for use in teas and potpourri.

I use marigolds all around the parameter of my garden.  They add great summer color and are a proven insect repellant.  Strong fragrance also keeps deer away.  What can be better than that?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What's happening in the early May garden

Lettuce, beans and irises


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Early May is a wonderful time in the garden.  Greens are sweet and juicy.  Herbs are growing robustly.  By this time of year, we no longer need to purchase produce from the grocery store and can get fresh herbs to add to ordinary dishes that make them taste wonderful.

We are harvesting greens, onions, and herbs.  The greens we are eating-French sorrel, chard, spinach, dandelion greens, salad burnet, blood veined sorrel, sweet clover, kale, sprouting broccoli, many varieties of lettuces.

Herbs to add to dishes and salads-garlic chives, chives, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, savory, horseradish, wild leeks, onions, sage.

It is time to plant summer veggies.  Tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, New Zealand spinach, cucumbers, beans are all ready to hit the garden bed.

The carrots, beets, broccoli, kale, greens are leaping out of the ground.  Sage, chives, salad burnet are full of beautiful flowers.  Iris and peonies are in full bloom.  The Egyptian walking onions are just beginning to form their bulblets. 


Chives and iris in bloom

It is a good idea to fertilize any plants that are flowering.  Producing flowers takes a lot of energy from the plant so they appreciate an extra boost this time of year.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Everything you need to know about growing lettuce

Red sails lettuce and petunias

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Spring is prime time for salads!  Lettuce is its sweetest and most productive in spring and fall.  Lettuce loves cool temperatures, moisture and lots of nitrogen.  It is a super easy "vegetable" to grow from seed, too.
When the hot weather sets in, lettuce will go from sweet and docile to bolting and bitter in a week.  For summer harvests, chose varieties that are heat resistant like Summer Crisp, Red Sails, Rouge d’Hiver, Freckles Romaine, Summertime Crisphead, Tomahawk, and Loma French Crisp.

To keep yourself in lettuce all summer, sow seed every 2-3 weeks.  Lettuce is super easy to grow from seed.  I simply just scatter seeds on top of the soil and pat down.  Keep moist and you will have lettuce seedlings within a week.
Lettuce and all greens love nitrogen just like your lawn does.  We donate our nitrogen rich coffee grounds to our greens.  I also use a liquid fertilizer (guano and sea kelp) or other organic fertilizer monthly.  
It is important to keep the lettuce from drying out.  They need consistent moisture.  It is when lettuce is stressed, either through hot temps or drying out, that they turn bitter and bolt.  This is one of the reasons that the Earthbox is such a good pot to grow lettuce.  It has a water reservoir in the bottom so weekly watering keeps the soil moist even in the hottest weather.  Any self-watering pot will work this way, even one you make yourself or buy a kit to transform a favorite pot into a self watering container.
Lettuce in an Earthbox, self watering pot
Bolting is simply when a stalk arises from the middle of the lettuce plant.  It then flowers and sets seed.  When the seeds start to dry, cut off the stalk and remove the seeds.  I put my seeds in a ziplock and store in the frig.  The seeds stay viable for 2-3 years this way.  Save the seeds from your favorites and re-sow to keep yourself in free, tasty lettuce all season long.  
Bolted Red Sails lettuce-cool looking, eh?

Lettuce does well right through fall frost.  Choose cold tolerant varieties for spring and fall and heat tolerant varieties to sow in late spring and summer.  One thing to remember is that lettuce seed does not germinate well above 75 degrees so you may have to move your seed starting to the shade or indoors in the dog days of late summer.  Here is a link to some proven heat lovers:  Bolt-free summer lettuces

Protection from the afternoon sun helps in lengthening the time before your lettuce bolts.  There are few techniques you can use.  Grow lettuce interspersed with taller veggies to give them shade protection, plant next to a wall that provides afternoon shade, or cover with a shade cloth to keep them cooler.  If growing in a pot, it is easy to just move the pot to a shadier, cooler spot when the temps start to rise.
Harvesting frequently also helps keep the lettuce from bolting.  Harvest the outer leaves consistently and the plant will continue to produce more inner leaves.  I harvest from the same plants for a couple of months this way.
Some, like the Marvel of Four Seasons and Red Sails, stay sweet even when they have bolted.  Give the bolted lettuces a taste to see if it is time to let them go to seed and yank them out to make room for another crop.  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

May Garden Planner



Saturday, May 2, 2015

May Day is when the old timers say is the best time to plant your summer garden in the Midwest.  Prior to May 1, there is still a good chance of poor weather, chilly temps, and frost in our Zone 6/7 gardens.  This can be catastrophic for tomatoes, eggplants, basil and other heat lovers.

Today, we have the added advantage of the 10 day forecast!  Check out your 10 day forecast to know if it looks safe to plant those tender summer veggies as it is possible to have chilly temps even into May.

So, what are we planting this year?  Of course, we planted the number one veggie in the USA-tomatoes!  This year, we are planting mainly chocolate types and all heirlooms again because they produced well last year.  Loving the black tomatoes with all their fantastic antioxidants!  I did slip in an early type, Glacier, and a storage tomato, Red October.

If you have limited space, look for the dwarf/bush types like Bush Early Girl (only 54 days till ripe tomatoes), Patio, Husky Red, Lizzano and Tumbling Tom. Typically, you can expect to have your first ripe tomatoes around the 4th of July.  Last year, my yellow Tumbling Tom gave me tomatoes in June.

I am trying a Purple Tomatillo, too.  They are supposed to be a good substitute for tomatoes in salsa and other dishes.  Thought it would be fun to try.

We also will plant a variety of mainly sweet peppers-Sweet Red, Yellow, and Orange Banana Peppers, Poinsettia (ornamental and edible hot pepper), Anaheim (for chili powder), Super Red Pimento, Red Belgian, a red Italian sweet pepper, and seeds I saved from a long red sweet pepper from Whole Foods. 

We have two eggplants-Turkish Orange (a beautiful orange color and tasty, too) and a Japanese White Egg.  We will go with Green Bush zucchini and Patio Snacker cucumber, both of which can be grown in a pot.  I am planting extra cucumbers, kale, and parsley this year to make green smoothies.

Our rosemary did not survive the winter so I will replant with another variety hardy to Zone 6.  I keep trying different hardy varieties, but so far, no luck.  Last year was ARP and Barbecue.  I am definitely planting basil, 3 of the Sweet Basil, a Thai Holy basil, a Lettuce Leaf basil, a Cardinal basil which gives beautiful red flowers, and a Blue Spicy Vanilla Basil to use in household cleaners and potpourri.  It is edible, too, which could be really fun in homemade ice cream or other desserts.  The last herb I will plant is Stevia.  It is a super sweet herb that can be used in place of sugar and is high in antioxidants with 0 carbs.  Can't beat that!

It was also time for another round of greens.  Resowing every 3 weeks will keep us in salads all through the summer and fall.  We planted Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach which will last about two weeks longer in the heat than other types of spinach.  For lettuce, we went with Jericho Romaine which has been tested to last 3 months before bolting as well as Red Sails loose leaf lettuce which was still sweet after bolting last summer.  I also planted some oak leaf, Simpson Elite, and red romaine from seed.

We have already fertilized and added compost at the end of March.  When we plant our veggies, I’ll add biochar at the bottom of each hole, a handful of worm castings, and powdered the roots of each plant with mycorrhizal microbes.  Mycorrhizal fixes nitrogen to the roots of the plant, helping it to grow sturdier, bigger and faster.

Biochar is being rediscovered.  It was used for centuries by Amazon farmers.  Basically, it is wood charcoal.  It provides similar benefits as humus except it lasts forever and it is a great way to store carbon, to boot.  It is new in the US, but many are reporting significant improvement in growth and vegetable size.

Before you send your new transplants into the garden, insure they have been sufficiently "hardened off."  If you started your own seeds indoors, take your plants out daily over a week or so into a partially shady spot, letting them get used to the strong sun and wind.

If you purchased your transplants and they were already outdoors, they are ready to be plopped into the ground or pot and grow!

I always interplant my garden with flowers.  This year, I am using Zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, petunias, cock's comb, hummingbird vine, Love Lies Bleeding, and alyssum for annuals.  For perennials, there are day-lilies, irises, and gladiolas.

May is an exciting time in the garden.  Every day you go out, you can see things growing.  The spring vegetables are in their prime, the summer veggies are just starting, and there are so many herbs ready for seasoning your favorite salads or dishes.