Sunday, July 20, 2014

Easy ways to make a new vegetable garden bed

Using a hose to lay out your garden bed

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Making a new garden bed can seem like a monumental, labor intensive task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are several minimal labor ways to make a new bed. My favorite begins with a hose and old newspaper and/or cardboard.

Siting a New Garden

The best place to put a vegetable garden is close to the house where there is good sun, ideally a spot that gets southern exposure. Check out where the sun falls throughout a sunny day to see where the best locations are in your yard. 

Don’t be concerned if your garden spot gets some shade each day. Fruiting vegetables need the most sun, 6-8 hours.
Root vegetables require less and leafy vegetables require the least. Leafy vegetables appreciate getting afternoon shade in the hot days of summer. 

I have a spot on the northeast side of the house that I like to put leafy greens. It gets the morning sun, but the cool afternoon shade.  This allows us to grow lettuce through the summer.

Once you have picked out a spot, you can use a hose to lay out what you want the bed to look like. We then use a spray can of landscaping paint to paint out the edges of the bed.
Brand new mulched garden bed

Transforming Lawn to Garden

The easiest next step is to cut the grass inside your new bed as short as possible. Then lay several layers of newspaper or cardboard over the top of the closely sheared grass and cover with compost then mulch. Now, just let the bed lay until the grass dies. The grass and its roots adds organic matter to the soil as well.  Test the soil before planting to see what nutrients you need to add.  Use a balanced fertilizer when you plant.

Another option is after mowing close to the ground and laying the newspaper/cardboard, dump garden soil over it all, add compost, fertilize and plant immediately. Just be careful to not cut through the newspaper or you will get grass growing in your new garden bed.

We have also used a sod cutter, cutting up the sod in our new bed. Then, turning it upside down, covering with newspaper/cardboard, a couple of inches of compost, mulch, and plant.  This is definitely more work, but you have less chance of having to pull stray grass if you want to plant immediately.

Our garden is a combo of garden beds and containers

Types of Garden Beds

If you don’t need your garden bed to be “pretty”, a quick way to plant is to simply poke holes in bags of garden soil, put the perforated side down, cut open the top side of the bag and plant away. The plastic underneath will keep the grass from growing through. The downside is that your veggie plant roots won’t be able to grow down as well either. But if you don’t have time, this is a good way to get started. You can edge around the bags and removed them the following year, adding compost and have a ready made bed for the following year.

You can also go the raised bed route. There are many do it yourself, pre-cut raised bed kits that you can purchase. Use the same techniques above to make sure the grass won’t grow up through into your veggies. Newspaper and cardboard works great for this. Fill with good soil, compost, an all natural fertilizer and you are ready to plant.

The pros of raised beds is that they warm up quicker in the spring and you control the soil that you are growing in. The cons, the temperature is not as constant as if in the ground and they will need to be watered more often.
Potted eggplant with petunias

You can also opt to have your garden in pots. This is a great way to start small and quickly. It is amazing how many varieties of any veggie you love have been developed to grow in containers.

There are several options to getting your garden bed in place that don’t require a ton of time or hard labor. Now is the time to choose one and get your spring garden growing!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Time to plant for fall and winter harvests!

Fall cabbage

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It may seem crazy to be sowing seeds in July for your fall and winter garden, but it is the time to do so.  Everything you can grow for spring, you can grow for fall.  For winter harvests, just look for cold hardy varieties.  

September until your first frost is high time in the garden.  Your summer veggies will still be producing at the same time your cool season crops can be harvested.

The trick to harvesting all winter is to have your veggies to full size by mid-October.  With the shorter days of late fall and winter, your plants will not grow much after mid-October through mid-February.

The change I make from spring to fall plantings is for spring, I plant those varieties that are heat tolerant.  In the fall, I plant those varieties that are cold tolerant to extend the harvest as long as possible into winter.  Depending on the severity of the winter, many cold tolerant varieties revive in the spring and provide a really early, nice harvest surprise.

Because daylight hours are getting shorter in the fall, you will need to add about 2 weeks to the “Days to Harvest” your seed packet gives as the seed packet dates are based on spring planting. 

Just like in spring, seeds have to be kept moist to sprout.  You can also plant the seeds in peat pots or you can reuse the plastic annual trays you got in the spring.  You can put the plastic trays in a water catch pan, find a shady spot convenient to watering, fill with seed starting mix, sow your seeds and keep moist.  When the seedlings get their true leaves on them (second set), they are ready to transplant into the garden or a larger pot.

There are some veggies that the temps are too high to germinate in our Zone 6, like lettuce.  These you will have to start inside or on the cool side of the house in the shade.

For July, sow beets, carrots, Asian greens (pak choi, tat-soi), cilantro, collard greens, endive, escarole, frisee, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard, onions, parsnips, scallions, and Swiss chard.  Use transplants for broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage.
Fall garden

August is the month for the rest of the greens (arugula, corn salad, lettuce, miner’s lettuce, spinach, mustard, endive), kohlrabi, onions, scallions, cabbage plants, radishes, and turnips.  Peas and Fava beans can be planted in August for spring harvests in Zone 6 or higher.

In September, plant more greens, carrots, and radishes.  October is the month to plant garlic for next year’s harvest.

If you don’t want to start seeds, big box stores, local nurseries and even mail order nurseries have begun to have fall planting veggies so you can wait until late August, early September to get transplants and still get them in on time for fall and winter harvests.

With cover, the following will allow you to harvest all winter: arugula, beets, chicory, corn salad, lettuce, mustard greens, parsley root, radicchio, radishes, spinach, and swiss chard.
Potted winter lettuce and greens in mini greenhouse

The following don’t require covering: brussels sprouts, winter harvest cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, bunching onions or Egyptian onions, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips.

Fall and winter harvested veggies are at their crispest and sweetest after a light frost.  The cold temps concentrate the sugars, making them extra yummy!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Homegrown flavored waters and sodas

Blueberry and raspberry soda

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Plain water is just that-plain.  So many people go to sodas or other sweetened, store bought drinks for refreshment.  There are other home grown options!

Here are a few flavored water recipes
For these infusions, place ingredients in a half gallon of water and allow to meld overnight.  Shake, then strain into serving container.  Chill for a refreshing, tasty water!
Lemongrass, mint and vanilla-1 large stalk of lemongrass, chopped and crushed, 1/4 cup fresh peppermint coarsely chopped, and 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.
Cardamom, orange and vanilla-1 large sliced orange, 1 tablespoon crushed cardamom pods, 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.
Blackberry, rose and vanilla-3/4 cup blackberries, 1/4 cup rose petals, 1/2 large vanilla bean.
Refreshing cucumber mint-1/2 cup chopped and crushed mint with half a sliced cucumber.

Of course, there is always the old fashioned favorite!  Lemonade or limeade-simply squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice into water.

1/8-1/4 teaspoon of stevia can be added to any of the above for added sweetness with no sugar or carbs.  Too much stevia can impart a bitter taste; a little goes a long way!  

Stevia is an herb high in antioxidants that is very easy to grow.  You can find them almost anywhere that herbal plants are sold.  Dry the leaves and use to sweeten anything.  Stevia can also be purchased at the store.  I would stick with the whole herb to get all the antioxidant benefits.

I bought a book called "Stevia naturally sweet recipes for desserts, drinks and more!" by Rita DePuydt that has great ideas for using stevia to cut down or eliminate sugar and carbs in many sweetened foods and drinks.

Making your own vanilla is easy, too.  Just buy vanilla beans, slit them open and place 4 of them in 1 cup (8 ounces) of premium vodka and allow to infuse for 4-6 months.  If you want to speed up the process, shake weekly and it will be ready to use in 8 weeks.  As you use it, you can just re-top.  Very inexpensive way to have real vanilla.

I buy cardamom at Whole Foods in the bulk spices department.  You can also get on line at Amazon.  Cardamom is a great spice to add to hot tea, too.

Cucumber and mint

You can make your own sodas at home!  
For a fruit flavored soda, use 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of sugar (more or less depending on how sweet the fruit is that you are using), 1 cup apple cider vinegar.  Heat the sliced fruit, 1/2 cup of sugar, and vinegar over high heat until it boils.  Reduce and simmer until fruit is soft and sugar dissolved.  Add more sugar if too tart.  When cool, mash the fruit and strain liquid into a jar.  Store in fridge for up to 2 weeks.  For a soda, add 3 tablespoons of syrup into 8 ounces of carbonated cold water.

If you want to go the sugar-free route, substitute 1/2 teaspoon powdered stevia extract for the sugar.  Again, be careful in not overdoing the stevia; too much imparts a bitter taste.  You can use a combo of stevia with agave nectar, sugar or honey to find a sweetness you like.  The less sugar you use, the better for your health.

For a homemade ginger ale, slice 1/4 cup of ginger root and 1/2 lemon or lime, 4 cups of water, simmer in pan for 20 minutes, strain into a glass jar, add 1/2 teaspoon of powdered stevia extract.  Add equal amounts of ginger liquid and sparkling water.

You can do the same thing with mint, basil, rosemary, lemon verbena, cilantro, or dill.  These syrups can be used in sodas or in adult beverages like the mint julep, margaritas, daiquiris, martinis, gin/vodka gimlets, gin and tonics, sangrias.  Let your imagination run herb wild!

There are relatively inexpensive carbonators available nowadays as well.  If you drink a lot of soda, this could be a very cost effective, nutritious approach.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What's growing in the mid July garden

Saturday, July 12, 2014

July in the USA brings thoughts of Independence Day, fireworks, and ripe tomatoes!  This year, the cherry type tomatoes started ripening mid June, but the bigger tomatoes are still green!  It was a long spring this year, causing the summer veggies to be behind by a few weeks.

I have baby eggplants, zucchini, and the Cayenne, JalapeƱo, Pimento, and Ancho pepper plants loaded with baby peppers.  I have harvested cucumbers and banana peppers.  With the cooler spring, many of the lettuce plants that have bolted are still sweet.  The best I have found so far for keeping flavor in hot weather is Red Sails.

I have harvested basil, mint, oregano and tarragon already.  The oregano, cilantro, dill and lavender are all in bloom.  I thin out the plants so they don’t overtake the garden and cut the remaining back by two thirds.  I put the cuttings either in the sun to dry or loosely in paper bags that I let dry in a closet.  Once dry, I strip the leaves from the stems and store in an airtight container or bag out of direct sunlight.

I should get at least one more cutting before fall if I choose.  Or I can just let them bloom.  They look beautiful and the bees love them!

I end up with gallon bags of dried herbs which I mix together and give to friends and family.  I put these herbs in and on many dishes.  It tastes great added to fries, sauces, meats, and dressings.  Here is what has traditionally gone into Herbes de Provence: thyme, marjoram/oregano, rosemary, savory, basil, and tarragon.  Feel free to improvise and use whatever you have from your kitchen garden!

The first round of garlic has been harvested and is getting hardened in the shade outdoors for two weeks and the elephant garlic looks to be ready to harvest next week end.

It is time to fertilize all the pots and garden vegetable plants to keep them growing.  I also fertilize the basil so I can get plenty of pesto frozen for the winter!

The first round of lettuce has gone to seed.  When you see the white fuzzies, they are ready to save.  I just pull the seed heads, break apart, put in a ziplock freezer bag, label with type and date, and store in the refrigerator.  I also re-seeded our Earth boxes with some of the seeds last month.  These are starting to sprout, but aren’t quite ready to transplant.  I had a few small volunteer lettuce plants elsewhere in the garden that I transplanted to the Earth boxes as well.  

The sprouting broccoli I seeded at the beginning of June is finally taking off in the Earthbox.  These were seeds I saved from last year’s plants.  I will transplant at least one to the garden bed.  I use many of these leaves for salads during the hot summer when lettuce is the most challenged.  If you love the taste of broccoli, you will love a salad made with sprouting broccoli leaves!

Our Tuscan kale is big, blue and beautiful!  It is still sweet.  I planted it in the garden as well as pots.  It is doing great in both locations.  I did have some caterpillars munching on the potted kale.  I picked those off by hand last month.
Tuscan kale with petunia

I watered the beds for the first time at the end of June.  It rained a few days this week and is calling for rain again Monday and Tuesday.  Looks like I won’t have to water again for at least a week.  It is important to keep an even water supply to summer veggies.  Uneven watering can cause your tomatoes to crack and your other veggies to put a hold on delivering you fruits and your lettuces to bolt and become bitter tasting.

If you live where it is getting really hot, 90’s during the day and upper 70’s at night, you may also see your tomatoes and peppers production drop.  My peppers on the patio last year got sun scald, too!  If you see sun scald in your potted plants, moving them to where they get some protection from afternoon sun is beneficial.  

I planted some bush green beans this week, too.  Days to harvest was 52.  They will likely come on sooner than that since they were planted late and it is warmer than in the spring.  Mid-August we should have green beans.  Bush beans typically develop quicker than pole beans.  Check the seed packet to see how many days from planting to harvesting the variety you are interested in takes.

Lettuce seeds will not sprout in soil temps in the upper 70’s or higher.  I like to start my lettuce seeds in pots I keep on the north or east side of the house in the shade during the summer.  When they get large enough, I then transplant to a pot or the garden bed.

Summer garden is in full swing!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eggplant 101-how to grow this native from India

Black Beauty eggplant in container with petunias

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eggplant is easy to grow.  It is happy in a pot or the ground. Eggplants are tropical plants and require a long growing season to fruit.  You will still get fruits by purchasing a plant and putting in your garden or container now.  It’s not too late to enjoy this tasty veggie for the season!

Eggplant is a staple in Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, and many Asian cuisines.  It is used as a substitute for meat in many dishes.  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.

Eggplant contains fiber, antioxidants that have potential health effects against cancer, B vitamins (B1, B3, B5), and minerals copper, iron, manganese, potassium.

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).  They are heat loving veggies that require a long growing season so it is important to get them started indoors or purchase them as plants.  

Transplant after all danger of frost has passed 18-24” apart in full sun.  Fertilize when transplanted with a balanced organic/all natural fertilizer.  I then fertilize when the first flowers appear and then monthly for those in the garden bed.  Pots need more frequent replenishment of nutrients.  When growing in pots, keep in a sunny location, fertilize every other week and keep soil moist.

Eggplants, like peppers and tomatoes, are perennials.  You can bring them indoors for the winter and take them back out after all danger of frost has passed.  They will produce much sooner and have bigger yields for the season as the plants are already established and full size.

Eggplants grow well in pots as well.  Look for dwarfs or patio types like Casper, Listada de Gandia, White Egg or Fairytale or plant in a larger container.  We found that the white seemed to tolerate heat waves without turning bitter.  We have also grown the Rosa Bianca in a large pot and it did well.  
White eggplant ripening

This year, I have a Black Beauty eggplant in a pot that housed onions last year (it is good practice to rotate crop types in pots each year).  It is doing fantastic!  I use Espoma vegetable fertilizer or Re-Vita fertilizer on all my vegetables, fruits, and potted plants.  My potted eggplant has several little babies on it right now.

I have “Ivory” eggplant in my garden bed.  It has blooms on it and is much shorter in stature than the “Black Beauty.”  I have recently seeded an orange Turkish eggplant.  I will bring in both potted plants to overwinter.  t’ll be fun to compare the production and flavor of the three varieties.

When the fruits come on, make sure to harvest regularly as soon as they ripen.  If you leave them on the plant, they will get seedy and bitter. Not only will the  fruit lose flavor, the plant will slow down production significantly.

Eggplant can be baked, steamed or grilled.  My two favorites are stuffing them with sausage in a tomato sauce and baking or brushing on olive oil, seasoning with sea salt and grilling.  If you grill above 350 F, substitute grape seed oil for olive oil.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

July Garden Planner

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The summer garden is in full swing.  This is the time of year for harvesting the heat lovers like tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, fava beans, green beans, all types of peppers, garlic, basil, along with other Mediterranean herbs.

The spring greens have bolted, but there are summer greens that are robust during the hot days of summer.  My favorites are amaranth, Swiss chard, collards, Malabar spinach, mustard greens, New Zealand spinach, orach, sorrel, sprouting broccoli and cultivated dandelions.

The spring lettuce has gone to seed.  When you see the white fuzzies, they are ready to save.  I just pull the seed heads, break apart, put in a ziplock freezer bag, label with type and date, and store in the refrigerator.  I also re-seeded our self watering pots with some of the seeds.  I had a few small volunteer lettuce plants elsewhere in the garden that I transplanted to the pots as well.  The lettuce seeds I planted last month have sprouted, but aren’t quit ready to transplant.

There are even a select few varieties of lettuce that can stand up to summer heat:
Leaf lettuce-”New Red Fire”, “Simpson Elite”
Butterhead-”Optima”, “Winter Density:
Romaine-”Jericho”, ”Green Towers”
Batavian-”Magenta”, “Nevada”

The fava beans are putting on their second flush of beans.  They could be picked now and eaten as green beans, left on the vine to harvest as lima beans, or cut down to keep nitrogen in the soil to feed the veggies planted next to them for the rest of the summer.  The other legume, my snow peas, are still producing sweet pods that I love to eat right off the vine.  Not many of these beauties make it to the kitchen!

The first round of garlic has been harvested and is getting hardened in the shade outdoors for two weeks and the elephant garlic looks to be ready to harvest next week end.

Our basil has been slow to get started but is now off to the races.  I will harvest in a couple of weeks, cutting down to the first few sets of leaves.  It will regrow to give me at least one more good harvest before fall.

Oregano is in full bloom.  The bees love the purple flowers!  It could be cut and dried now, but I love the flowers and will wait until fall.

I fertilized all the pots again as well as the basil to keep it growing.  Pots lose nutrients at a much higher rate than garden beds.

A key to keeping the garden productive this time of year is to keep even moisture to all the beds and containers.  Water the beds weekly and deeply.  During hot, dry periods, your containers may need watering every other day.  Self-watering pots with reservoirs in the bottom are the trick to extending watering duties.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Top 10 Tomato Myths (And Some Truths)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tomatoes are by far the most popular vegetable to grow in the United States. There is nothing like a tomato ripe from the vine! Many people started gardening by way of the tomato. They were the very first vegetable we grew. Many gardeners have the techniques they swear by to get the biggest and best tomatoes. Here are some tales that are not necessarily true.

Tomato Growing Myths (and Some Truths)

  1. Tomatoes love as much sun as possible! This depends on where you live. In very hot climates, 6-8 hours is plenty. Your tomatoes can actually scald in intense sun and heat. For hot climates, plant your tomatoes in a north to south row so each side gets some shade each day.
  2. You should prune your tomatoes for the best harvests. This again depends on your climate. If you live in a hot climate with intense sun and heat, you want to keep the leaves to help protect the tomatoes from sun scald. If you live in a damp area, you want to prune the tomato plant to allow good air circulation and sunlight.
  3. Tomatoes love fertilizer! Actually, you only want to fertilize when you plant and again when the plant flowers. Too much nitrogen encourages leaf growth. Some that really sock the fertilizer to the plant end up with a giant green plant with no tomatoes. To help with flowering, fruiting and blossom end rot, be sure to get a fertilizer with plenty of phosphorous and calcium.
  4. Tomatoes can’t be grown in pots. Tomatoes can be grown in pots, but not the big tomato plants or you have to grow them in a huge container like a whiskey barrel. Look for dwarf, pot, or patio types. You will need to put in a large pot and be prepared to water often.
  5. Tomatoes need to be watered a lot. Actually, if you water your tomatoes a lot, you can end up with fungal diseases and mushy fruit. The trick with tomatoes is to keep their moisture even. Letting the ground crack and then drowning the plant will result in cracked fruit. In the hot times of the summer, you will likely need to water at least weekly. Be sure to not water the leaves, but the root.
  6. When you see leaves dropping, something is wrong. This is a natural progression of the plant. As fruits begin to form, there is less energy for the leaves and some leaves will turn yellow and die.
  7. A spindly tomato transplant is an unhealthy one. Actually the nodes on the stems can easily be transformed into roots. I take my transplants and remove the bottom leaves and plant on its side with only the top 4 leaves above ground. This gives the plant a good root system.
  8. You can only transplant in early summer. Actually, if your tomato plants are starting to fade in mid summer, you can put out new transplants that will give you fruit until the first frost.
  9. When you make sauce, the skins and seeds have to be removed. I put whole tomatoes into the food processor. Some say that the skin and seeds can impart a bitter flavor. With the many types of tomatoes I have raised, this has never been a problem for me.
  10. Only paste tomatoes can be used for sauce. I use all my tomatoes for sauce. The best for sauce for me are the most prolific tomato plants. These have been Yellow Pear and Juliet for us. I would ask your neighbors which ones give the most fruit if you are looking to put up by freezing or canning.
The last tip: Tomatoes are susceptible to fungal diseases. Do try to not plant your tomatoes in the same spot for four years. Fungal diseases stay in the soil and take a while to die out. The same goes for a pot. A way around it for a pot is to use new soil and disinfect the pot each year.