Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dehydrate or sun dry your extra veggies

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Love Vidalia onions, but are bummed that the season to buy them is so short?  Love zucchini, but by mid-summer have them coming out your ears?  Wondering what to do with all those luscious sun ripened tomatoes?  Dehydrating or sun drying is a great option!

There are many options for purchasing an electric dehydrator in any price range.  You can also use screen material to dehydrate your extra veggies in the sun.  Just be sure to cover them so flies can’t get to them.

There are also DYI sun dehydrators that you can build fairly inexpensively that speeds up the drying process.  I saw one on Mother Earth News this week.

For dehydrating, just slice your veggies in even widths and place on your tray.  Set to the recommended temperature (120-135 degrees F) and let the dehydrator do its thing.  In a day or two, you will have dried veggies that you can store in pretty containers for display on shelves or in canning jars.

Drying concentrates the sugars in your vegetables so you will get an intensity of flavor using the dried veggie in recipes.  You can also re-hydrate your veggies to use in recipes through out the winter.
Dried onions

The really cool thing about dried veggies is that no refrigeration is needed!  Just store in a cool dark place until you are ready to use them.  If you want to rehydrate your veggie, just place in a bowl of cool water for 30-60 minutes.  The water will have lots of nutrients in it so use in your next recipe, to make stock or in your next smoothie.  Don't let any of all that goodness go to waste.

We are planning to dry our extra zucchini to rehydrate and grill this winter, we dry onions and sprinkle them on our burger, dried tomatoes are great in salads.  The list goes on!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

September Garden Planner

Saturday, August 30, 2014

End of summer is a great time to tidy garden beds and harvest herbs.  Herbs have a tendency to take a walk on the wild side.  As the days get shorter, growth slows and before long the sun cannot support all the greenery from summer.

Harvesting Herbs
This is the perfect time to harvest your herbs.  You can cut them back so they remain lush, improving the tidiness of your garden, and providing herbs for the winter ahead.

When you harvest your herbs, you will have enough for at least 5 families! They make wonderful gifts. 

For soft herbs like chives and garlic chives, I cut around the outside.  You can either then dry or freeze your cuttings.  

For rosemary, I trim back as I would a tree, cutting off he lower limbs.  I have not been successful in finding a rosemary that survives outside in my Zone 6 region.  Before winter, I will harvest all the limbs so I don't waste any of that great flavor.  Rosemary is perfect with lamb, on potatoes, or on cheese bread.

For sage, savory, and thyme, I simply trim them into a pleasing, healthy shape.  For basil, oregano and marjoram, I remove about half of the top growth.  Basil also will not survive even a frost.  So when they call for frost, I harvest all that is left on the plant.

I dry my herbs to preserve them.  I put loosely in a paper bag in a dry, warm area out of the sun and let dry naturally.  Loose is the key here so they get good air circulation and do not mold.  They should be completely dry in about 3-4 weeks.  I like putting them in clothes closets to dry as they release such great fragrance.

Once dried, remove the leaves from woody herbs and store in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.  If a soft herb like chives, you can just crumble into the airtight container.  I use wide mouth canning jars for herb storage.

If the winter is not a bad one, most perennial herbs like chives, oregano, sage, savory, and thyme can be harvested year round straight from the garden.

Napa cabbage

Fall planting guide for cool season crops
In September, plant more greens, carrots, and radishes.  October is the month to plant garlic for next year’s harvest.

You can pick up transplants like broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kale, as well as herbs at many big box stores and nurseries since gardening has become so popular. 

Caring for your new seeds and transplants
Like in the spring, newly sown seeds need moisture to sprout.  Keep seeds and transplants moist until they get their first real set of leaves and are well established.  Then water as needed.

Many crops you can harvest into December and beyond, depending on how cold fall is.  Some get sweeter with some frost, like carrots, chard, and lettuce.  With cover, you can harvest all the way through winter!

A quick reminder, save the seeds from your best performers to plant next year.  You can replant seeds from any heirlooms or open pollinated plants.  Not only does it save you money, but it also gives you the plants that do the best under your garden and zone conditions.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

All about lovely lavender

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lavender has a large fan club for good reason.  It has many uses-a spice for sweet and savory dishes, an ingredient in Herbes de Provence, potpourri, moth deterrent, aromatic ingredient in cleaners and candles, added to beauty and health products for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, a calming fragrance, and a beautiful addition to any garden.

Lavender is in the mint family, originated from the Old World, and has been cultivated since Biblical times.  It is typically a short lived perennial.  There are several different types of lavender available by seed.  The most common that you find in stores is English lavender (lavandula angustifolia formally lavandula officinalis).

Lavender has become a weed in Australia as they have the perfect conditions for growing lavender, dry, well drained soil in full sun with good air circulation.  Lavender is susceptible to root rot so keep mulch away from the crown of the plant and make sure they get good drainage.  

All lavenders need little to no fertilizer and prefer alkaline soil.  They are carefree plants if planted in the right place in your garden.

Most lavenders are not hardy in the colder zones (Zone 4 or below).  Be sure to check out the hardiness of a variety before purchasing.  You can always grow them as annuals.

Lavenders do not like to be transplanted.  Some report difficulty in growing from seed.  I have grown several from seed with no issue.

Lavenders come in various shades of white, blue and purple and heights from 6” to 6 feet.  The strength of fragrance varies as well.  English lavender is considered to be of the highest quality.
Lavender sugar on the left

In the culinary world, lavender is fun to use as an edible and aromatic addition to many different kinds of dishes.  Here are some ideas:
-Lavender sugar.  Just add a teaspoon to 1/2 cup of sugar and mix well.
-Lavender cream.  Add 6 stalks of lavender to 1 cup of cream.  Let sit overnight in the refrigerator, strain and whip.  Use some of the buds as decoration in the cream.  They’re edible!
-Lavender syrup.  Boil 6 stalks of lavender in 2 cups of water and 1 1/2 cup of sugar at a simmer for 15 minutes.  Let sit in refrigerator overnight, strain into bottle and keep refrigerated. 
-Lavender infused balsamic or white vinegar.  Place lavender stalks in vinegar and allow to steep in a cool dark place.  4 weeks later you will have lavender vinegar.  Yum!
Lavender ice cubes

You can use the lavender syrup in many things.  For lavender lemonade, just add one ounce of syrup with 2 ounces of lemon juice in each serving.  Add syrup to your hot tea or iced coffee.  Drizzle over pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurt or cake.  Use it in an adult beverage.  Doesn’t a lavender gin sour sound fun?  Just add an ounce to the ounce of fresh lemon juice and 2 ounces of gin.  Use a stalk for garnish.

The flowers themselves can be used as decoration on cakes, pies, drinks, ice cubes.  Bundle them to place in drawers and closets for a beautiful fragrance throughout the house.  An additional benefit is that many find lavender to be calming.

I use dried lavender and chervil for my body oil.  Smells wonderful and I get the added benefit of their medicinal properties.

Fall is a great time to plant perennials so you can get a much larger lavender plant and blooms for next spring!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer garden tips

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The dog days of summer see thriving warm season crops-tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, sweet potatoes, peppers and Mediterranean herbs.  To keep your harvests at their peak, there are few simple things you can do for your garden.

  1. Harvest frequently!  Plants are in the business of reproducing.  Their entire life is dedicated to giving the best chance possible of maintaining more plants for the future.  The more you harvest, the more babies the plant will produce.  I have noticed that my cucumber plant can only support one large cucumber on each vine.  As soon as I pick the big one, you can see one of the small ones jump in size by the very next day!  Harvest in the morning for peak juiciness.
  2. Mulch your beds. The mulch keeps the moisture from evaporating, allowing more infrequent watering.  It also moderates the temperature of the soil so it doesn’t get baking hot.  I use mulch in both my garden beds and pots.
  3. Water consistently.  The cause of cracked fruits is inconsistent water.   The plant gets used to very little water and when deluged the fruit’s skin can’t expand fast enough and the fruit cracks.  Over watering can also be a problem.  Too much water will cause your fruits to be tasteless and mushy.  If in the ground, your plants need either a good soaking rain each week or a good watering.  I use soaker hoses in my mulched garden beds.   Do not water the foliage of your nightshade plants!  They are very susceptible to fungal diseases and water on their leaves encourages fungal growth.  It is best to water in the morning; you get maximum absorption (biggest bang for your water buck).  For pots, you will likely need to water 3 times per week during the height of summer heat.  I like pots with a water reservoir built in the bottom.
  4. Fertilize monthly with side dressing of compost.  It is also a good idea to add minerals to the soil.  You can purchase minerals just for gardening.  You can also use kelp or seaweed as a fertilizer that also adds other nutrients.  If your plants have more minerals, their fruits will too!  
  5. Pick insects off daily.  Keep a close eye on your plants to you can stop an infestation before it gets started.  I pick off bugs daily.  If I do get an really bad infestation, I will use diacotomus earth.  It is organic and not a chemical.  Some people even eat it!  It works by scratching the exoskeleton of the insects which leads to dehydration and death.  Be careful, though, as it will kill good bugs too.  I use it very sparingly and only if desperate.  A few bugs don’t eat much :  )  Another option is the use of light covers to keep the bugs from your plants.
  6. Keep any diseased leaves groomed from your plants and do not compost them.  Diseases can be killed if your compost pile is hot enough.  I haven’t progressed far enough yet in my composting skills to trust I am getting the pile hot enough and I don’t want to spread diseases to all my plants.
  7. Compost.  For all the trimmings from the garden and the kitchen, start a compost pile or get an indoor composter.  I have both.  My husband built me a fencing ring outside that I throw the big stuff.  I have an indoor Naturemill electric composter in the garage for all the kitchen scraps.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Easy, homemade pickles

Homemade pickles
Sunday, August 17, 2014

Homemade pickles are soooooo easy!  Anything acidic does not require a pressure canner.  This includes anything pickled (vinegar is a healthy acid), made with sugar (also very acidic, but not necessarily healthy), or made with tomatoes.

I enjoy making pickles.  I slice up my extra cucumbers to just the length and width my husband likes them for his burgers and use my homemade pickling herbs and spices with organic apple cider vinegar.

The trick to pickles is to pick the cucumbers when they are young.  The larger they get, the more seeds they have.  Seeds are packed with nutrition, but don’t have the same crispness as cucumber flesh.  Either slicer or pickler cucumber plants make great pickles.  Picklers have been bred to be smaller and have smaller seeds, but both have the same fresh cucumber taste. 

Since all plants are in the business of keeping the species going, regular picking encourages the plant to produce more cucumbers.  I have noticed that my vines will only have one mature cucumber on each vine.  As soon as I pick the big pickle, another baby pickle starts growing like crazy.

Two cucumber plants (vine or bush) give me all the cucumbers I need for using in salads that I like and putting away as pickles as he likes.  To keep your cucumbers in peak production, harvest when the cukes are 6-7 inches in length.  I use scissors to cut the cuke from the vine.  If you are not going to use them immediately, store in a freezer bag in the crisper.  You can perk up the cuke by soaking in cool water, making them crunchy again.

I typically can 1 jar at a time using 2-3 cucumbers.  These will fit nicely into a quart canning jar.  Make sure the jar and lid have been sterilized.  I slice them lengthwise to the size that will fit on a bun; make sure you remove the ends of the cucumber as the ends are bitter. 

Here is my recipe for one jar of pickles:
2-3 flowering dill heads, 4-5 sprigs of salad burnet or tarragon, 2 cloves, 4-5 garlic cloves, 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, 1/4 teas of caraway seeds, 1/4 teas of peppercorns, one cardamon seed pod, 3 tablespoons of salt, a bay leave, fill the rest of the jar with water (about 2 cups is all that is needed).  If you like 'em spicy, throw in a pepper or two with stem removed.  Slice the pepper in half to get the spicy from the seeds.

A trick to keeping your pickles crispy is to add a grape leaf in each jar.

Get creative and add the spices and herbs you enjoy or that are handy in your garden.  

You can substitute other veggies for the cucumbers.  Pickled peppers and garlic are two other favorites.  It is a great way to preserve garlic that may not last in winter storage.

Keep the water to vinegar and salt ratio exact.  Always follow a canning recipe closely to insure that you have the right level of acidity to keep the food safe.

Sliced cucumber with herbs from the garden for seasoning

You can get a good jar seal by heating the water and seasonings on the stove to a boil, let cool, add the vinegar, then pour over the sliced cucumbers in the jar, and put the lid on.  Or you can do it the old fashioned way and not heat the liquid, letting the pickles naturally ferment.  It is critical that you have at least the amount of salt and vinegar recommended or the pickles will go bad.  I shake the jar a couple of times a day until the salt is completely dissolved. You let them ferment at room temperature in a cool, dark place 1-4 weeks and they are ready to eat!

For more on fermentation for food preservation, a good book is "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Unopened pickle jars will keep for a year or longer.  Once opened, keep refrigerated and eat within a couple of months.

Cucumbers love organic matter and moisture.  They are easiest to harvest when given a trellis to climb.  I use a liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion, bat guano or seaweed to add other needed nutrients.  Monthly side dressings of compost works well, too.  For minerals, I also use a “Growers Mineral Solution” to get the minerals plants need.  This also means the fruits you eat will be rich in minerals.  Your plants are what you feed them.  

Do not let the plant get dry.  This is what causes bitter fruits.  When I grow cucumbers in pots or in the ground, I use mulch to help retain moisture for the plant.  If growing in a pot, you may need to water daily during heat waves.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Preserving the tomato harvest

My bowl runneth over!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It is peak tomato season!  There are so many recipes that fresh tomatoes can be used in-salsa, salads, bruschetta, cucumber/tomato/onion salad, on burgers, on sandwiches, on pasta, the list goes on.
So, what to do when you are eating tomatoes at every meal and still have them coming?  It is time to preserve them!

I freeze, dry and can my excess tomatoes.  

Be sure to put the date and description on each freezer bag and quart jar.  Use the oldest first and all within a year.
Tomatoes in freezer bags

During peak season for any produce, you can get the lowest prices at your neighborhood farm or farmers market.  In many cases you can get a huge discount for any bruised or blemished tomatoes.  These are great to use for preserving, just be sure to remove any soft spots.

Right now, I prefer to freeze them because it is so hot that I don’t want to turn on any heat generators inside the house.  For cherry type tomatoes, I just half them and throw them in a quart freezer bag and put in the freezer.  For larger tomatoes, I slice then put them in freezer bags.  They thaw much quicker this way.  They will have a fresh taste when thawed and used for salsa, sauces, or chili.  
Dried tomatoes
When it cools, I start drying and canning.  I just love “sun dried” tomatoes right out of my own dehydrator.  You store your dried tomatoes in a quart jar to use until next year.  Only a water bath is needed for canning tomatoes because they are acidic.  Make sure you follow a sauce recipe exactly as it is critical for keeping to the right acid level.

I use Weck’s canning jars.  They are all glass so no worries about what is lining the lid.  And they are a really pretty shape.

All you need to can tomato sauce is a large pot, canning jars, a metal funnel, and canning tongs.  A pressure canner is not needed for acidic foods like tomatoes.  Always follow the recipe as written to insure food safety.

I throw the entire tomato (de-stemmed) into the food processor.  Most recipes say to remove the peel and seeds so you don’t have a bitter taste, but I have not noticed any issue with bitterness.
Canned tomato sauce in glass Weck's jars

Here is the recipe from Ball’s “Complete Book of Home Preserving” for tomato paste:
9 cups of pureed tomatoes, 1½ cups of chopped sweet bell peppers, 2 bay leaves, 1 teas salt, 1 clove of garlic.

I put it all into a large pot and let simmer until it is the consistency and taste I like, about 2.5 hours.  Remove the bay leaves and garlic.  Boil the jars, lids, and seals as the sauce is close to done.

Add 3 teas of lemon juice to each hot pint jar, fill with the hot tomato sauce to within ½ inch of the top, and seal the lid, following the instructions for the type of jar you are using.  Place all the filled jars in a large pot, insuring they are fully covered with water.  Bring to a boil and process for 45 minutes.  Remove from canner.  Let cool.  Test the seal after the jar is completely cool.  It should not lift off.  That’s it!  

Other high acid foods you can using a water bath are jams, jellies, condiments, salsas, pickles, and relishes.  Consult with a canning book for more tips.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sprouting broccoli- a year round fav

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I love sprouting broccoli!  It is a great year round salad green that also gives you broccoli.  If you love the taste and nutrition of broccoli and are looking for a green that you can get leaves for salads year round, this is the plant for you.  The most common use of broccoli is the flower, or floret, but the entire plant is edible.  Its leaves do not get bitter in the steamy dog days of summer and it is hardy to below 10 degrees F.

I try to always grow vegetables and greens that give me the most for the space.  Being choiceful on what you grow, allows you to have a whole lot of food in a very small space.  Even if you have a ton of space, you get a lot more for your effort by choosing veggies that maximize production for the space.  Less work for more food.  How can you not love that??

If you want a plant that will give you a large head of florets, sprouting broccoli is not what you are looking for.  Your normal broccoli takes up the same amount of space and gives you one head and they are done.

I personally grow Purple Sprouting and White Sprouting broccoli.  They are biennial plants (lives for two years).  You get small, purple or white tinted florets of broccoli after it over winters in the spring.  The leaves have either purple or white tinted veining.  

The broccoli head that you see in the store is actually the plant’s flower buds.  You want to harvest the floret when the little buds are full sized, but before they begin to open (flower).  Cut the large central floret stalk at a 45 degree angle to encourage the plant to produce smaller florets.  A plant’s desire to reproduce is very strong; it is its reason for living.  If you keep harvesting the florets, they will keep producing them sporadically after the first flush in April. 

At the end of the second year, you will want to let a few of the florets mature and fully flower to produce seeds.  You can continue to harvest the leaves for salads even while the plant is flowering.

These plants grow tall.  The seed pack said 24-36”, but mine grew even taller than that in the garden bed.  They can be grown in pots as well.  Typically, a plant will not grow as tall in a pot.  They also give you many seeds that are easy to save and replant.  I just love veggies that you only ever have to purchase one seed packet and you are set for life!

We use the leaves in salads along with the florets all spring, summer, fall and into winter.

Sprouting broccoli can be planted at any time.  The recommendation is from mid-April to late June to get a larger plant by fall.  You can use transplants as late as September.  A lightweight cover when it gets extremely cold in the winter will keep the plant producing leaves and protect it from frostbite.

The plants prefer soil with a pH of 6-7, rich in humus (compost), cool temperatures, and even moisture.  Mine grew very well even in record heat and drought so ideal conditions are not a must.