Sunday, August 21, 2016

10 Easy Ways to a Sustainable Yard

Sunday, August 21, 2016

If you are wanting to be more sustainable in your home, don’t forget the yard and garden.  The typical American yard uses billions of gallons of water and hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizer each year.  Why not leverage your lawn space more sustainably?  

Here are 10 tips for a more sustainable garden and yard:
  1. Go organic.  Eliminate chemicals from your yard and garden.  Basics of organic gardening  Organic fertilizers last a lot longer and won’t cause lawn, flower or veggie burn like a chemical fertilizer will.  Make your own all natural, complete fertilizer   Many chemicals to get rid of bugs these days are “systemic” and stay in the plant for months and even years and kill the bees and other beneficial insects.  
  2. Use mulch in your garden.  Mulch is a home run.  It keeps weeds from sprouting, it keeps moisture in the ground so you don’t have to water as often, it adds organic matter to your garden, and it looks nice.  Weed free, self fertilizing, till free garden beds
  3. Plant natives.  Those trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses that are native to your area are well acclimated to your climate and pests.  You can plant and they will take care of themselves.
  4. Save seeds.  Growing from seed saves you money, allows you to grown interesting varieties, and raise crops that are uniquely adapted to your garden conditions.  You can get seeds by saving your own, your neighbors, favorites from the farmers market, and even from the produce and fruits you buy at the grocer.  Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver
  5. Lose your lawn.  Lawns in America are a big drain on the pocketbook and time while not providing food for your family or critters.  Add decorative flower beds with natives.  Start using at least a part of your lawn for growing herbs, fruits and vegetables for you and your family.  Nothing is better tasting and better for you than fresh out of the garden and onto the table.  Permaculture in a Midwest garden and yard
  6. Water less.  Purchase natives and look for drought tolerant in the descriptions of plants and seeds you are buying.  Set up a rain barrel to use for the flower beds.  Use drip hoses instead of sprayers these can save up to 70% on water.  Use mulch in not only your flower beds but also your garden beds.   Go organic on lawn care.  Organic, all natural lawns are more tolerant of the summer conditions and need less water to survive.  Organic, all natural lawn 
  7. Grow your own food.  You can easily add fruits and veggies to your existing flower gardens.  You can easily expand your garden beds to accommodate herbs and veggies.  Get the most from your space-plant intensively!  If you don’t have room for a flower and veggie garden bed, you can grown anything in a self watering pot.  There has been a bonanza of new container varieties developed over the last few years.  Decorative container gardening for edibles   It is easy to grow and eat from the garden spring, summer and fall.  Planning for a four season garden  
  8. Plant perennials.  Annuals take a great deal of inputs to grow from seed each year.  With perennials, you get the benefit of the inputs for years and years versus just one.  Don’t forget about perennial edibles, too!  Perennial veggies in the Midwest garden   Herbs are a great beginners choice.  Start a kitchen herb garden!
  9. Compost.  Don’t throw those table scraps in the trash to just go sit in a landfill someplace.  Re-use their nutritional value in your garden by composting them.  There are basically 3 types of composters: a bin that you layer browns/greens and it takes a year to break down, a tumbler type that you throw the browns/greens together and crank daily to mix up giving you compost in a couple of weeks, and an electric type that can be used indoors or outdoors that gives you compost in a couple of days.  Why throw out all those food nutrients when you can reuse them in your own garden for free?  Composting is possible in small spaces or even indoors
  10. New methods for the lawn itself.  For your lawn, mow high.  The higher grass shades the ground, causing the soil to not dry out as quickly and helping keep some weeds from growing.  Use an electric or manual lawn mower.  We purchased a self propelled electric mower this past year and it works well.  Don’t buy the typical seed mix.  Purchase  low growing grasses so you only need to mow monthly instead of weekly.  Here is a site to purchase low growers for your area:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Natural control of grasshoppers

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The devastation of grasshoppers has been legend for eons.  Grasshoppers are locusts and we all recall the 10 plagues of Egypt in biblical times.  The plague of locusts was the eighth plague and ate every living plant in sight. 

Ah, grasshoppers!  They can be devastating to a garden even in modern times.  Grasshoppers can chomp down an entire crop in a day or two. There are several natural ways to help control them besides going on a daily grasshopper hunt.  

We keep a bird feeder close to the garden and have minimal problems with grasshoppers.  Bluebirds, sparrows and larks love grasshoppers.  Other critters that love grasshoppers are snakes, toads, ducks, guinea and chickens.  I have noticed several toads in our garden.  You can also get some really fun toad houses for the garden!

Grasshoppers also hate the smell and taste of garlic.  Make garlic water and spray on plants to repel the grasshoppers from your garden.

Planting deterrent plants like calendula or cilantro around the edge of your garden can help keep them away.  Professional gardeners use cilantro around the edge of their gardens.  Calendula is pretty and edible.

Another option is trapping them.  One approach is a 10 part water to 1 part molasses in a halfway sunken jar buried in the garden that attracts and then drowns them. 

If deterrents, natural predators, picking them off, and traps don’t work, you can take a step up the ladder with sprays.

Organic bug sprays like neem spray or a 1 part vinegar to 3 part water with 1 tbl of soap sprayed on the insect and plant (vinegar can burn plants in really hot temps so try it out in a small area first).  These sprays will kill any insect so be careful in using them.  

Nosema locustae is a microbe that will kill grasshoppers but also beneficial insects in the same family.  It may take a year or two to become fully effective.
Life cycle of the grasshopper

Diatomaceous earth sprinkled on the plants that the grasshoppers love will kill them, as it will kill any other insect that crawls on the leaves that DE is sprinkled on.  It scratches their exoskeleton causing them to get dehydrated and die.  DE is safe for humans and is even eaten by some for health benefits.  

When I first went organic, I had just a swarm of different insects and bugs attacking the garden.  I had read that it takes a year or two for the garden to come into balance.  For the good bugs to figure out that you have a feast of bad bugs in your garden, get there, and multiply to get the bad bugs under control.

The first year was definitely the worst.  I went out and bought beneficial bugs and placed in my garden to help jump start the process.  I also resisted the urge to use sprays to kill the bad bugs on all but the individual plants that were being killed by the bad bugs.  By the third year, no sprays were necessary.

Crop rotation is also a way to keep the pest pressure down.  Many pests have their favorite food and if it isn't there when they emerge in the spring, they will not multiple.
Crop rotation made easy for small gardens

If you have the issue on only one crop or plant, DE would be a good way to get them under immediate control while putting deterrents in place and attracting predators for long term control.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to grow cucumbers-in pots or in the garden

Cucumber vines on trellis in the garden
Sunday, August 14,  2016

Cucumbers are a tropical plant and love heat.  They should be started indoors 4 weeks prior to the last frost (mid March in our Zone 6) and transplanted outside after all danger of frost has passed.  You can plant into July and have fruits from August to frost.

Cucumbers have been around for thousands of years and originally from India.  The cucumber arrived in Europe at least 2000 years ago.  The Romans loved them.  Christopher Columbus brought the cucumber with him to Haiti in the 1400‘s and was likely aboard the first ships in Virginia in the 1600’s.

Cucumbers are a good source of potassium, antioxidants like beta carotene, lutein, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K.  It also has a diuretic properties.  Cucumber nutritional info  Cucumbers have a sweet, refreshing taste.

Cucumbers should be planted in full sun, rich soil, and consistent moisture.  Cucumbers can be grown in pots, on the ground or on a trellis.  If growing in soil, plant 4 seeds in hills 3-4‘ apart and thin to the strongest two.  

Harvest before the fruits turn yellow.  Early fruits have less seeds.  Frequent harvesting also encourages the vine to grow more fruits.

If growing in pots, look for patio, dwarf, bush, or compact in the description.  Some small varieties include Lemon, Suyo, Salad Bush, Fanfare, Sweet Success.  One vine was all we needed to have enough cucumbers to make pickles for the year for my husband and for salads for me.  I also love adding cukes to my smoothies.  
Grow your own smoothie and juice garden
Decorative container gardening for edibles
Make your own pickles without a store bought seasoning mix

This year my first seedlings planted in May didn't make it.  I think there was just too much rain and not enough sun.  I replanted in July three varieties.   I planted seeds for a yellow that can weigh up to 5 pounds (Jaune Dickfleishige), a red (Hmong Red), and 2 white cucumbers (massive producer Dragon's White Egg and Miniature White that is a good container variety) directly into the garden on a trellis.  The whites are both small fruits.  It will be nice to have smaller ones so I can pick one for a single salad or smoothie.   I got my first cucumber this week from the July planting.

Fertilize weekly and keep evenly moist.  Do not let soil completely dry out.  This will result in bitter or hollow fruits.  Each plant produces both male and female flowers.  The first flowers will likely be males.  Don’t be surprised or worried when the first flowers fall off without fruiting.  When the female flowers appear, you will get baby fruits.
Summer garden tips

Don't forget to save seeds from your best producer for next year's garden!
Seed saving-fun, easy and a cost saver

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Make your own teas from garden grown herbs

Savory in foreground, thyme on left, edible day lilies in background
Saturday, August, 13 2016

You can make your own teas from common herbs growing in your garden or to spice up store bought teas.  A few common herbs you may have growing in your garden for your own home grown tea-bergamot, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, sage, stevia for sweetening, thyme.

Bergamot, or bee balm, has a scent reminiscent of Italian bergamot orange.  You can dry or use fresh, steeped for 10 minutes by itself or add to store bought black tea to give it the same type of flavor as Earl Gray tea.  Bergamot was used as a tea substitute in the colonies after the Boston Team Party in 1773.  Its flowers are also a great bee attractor and come in white or numerous shades of red and purple.  Native Americans used it as spice for fowl and medicinally for its antiseptic properties, headaches, fever, and upset tummies.  Bergamot is of the mint family so can be aggressive in the garden, but is very happy in a pot.  M. didyma contains the highest concentration of oil.  

Chamomile is used in potpourri for its scent, in supplements, tonics and teas for its calming properties, in facial steams/hand soaks to soften and whiten skin.  Use the flowers fresh or dried for tea.

Lavender leaves or flowers can lend a floral note to teas.  Lavender tea is used to sooth nerves, headaches, and dizziness.  Its use as a potpourri is legendary.  It is also great to put in closets to not only provide great scent, but also protect clothes from moths.  It is also used as an antiseptic tonic for acne or to speed facial cell renewal.  Lavender is a typical ingredient in Herbes de Provence.  
Make your own "Herbes de Provence"

You can make a syrup from lavendar to add to desserts, adult beverages, homemade sodas, and teas.  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.   
Flavored water and sodas from the garden

Mint comes in many flavors-grapefruit, pear, pineapple, lemon, lime, and orange.  There is even a chocolate mint!  Mint will take over a garden if left to its own devices.  Either put a ring around it at least 3” deep to keep it from spreading underground, cull runners frequently or put in a pot.  Mint loses much of its flavor when dried so fresh is your best bet.  Bees love mint flowers!

Other herbs that impart a citrus note are pineapple sage, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and lemon grass.  Pineapple sage is used for depression and anxiety, to aid digestion, and is antiseptic and antifungal.  Lemon balm tea is commonly used for cold relief and to relieve tension and depression.  Fresh leaves have the best flavor.  Lemon verbena is also used for cold relief, upset stomach, and is mildly sedative.  It is a wonderful addition to potpourri and is grown as an annual.  Lemon grass is a tropical plant which any part of the stem can be used as a tea.  It is considered revitalizing and antiseptic.

I have not found a rosemary that survives the winter here in our Zone 6, but I keep trying.  ARP and Barbeque are two types that are rated down to Zone 5 that I am growing this year.  I am going to add some extra straw cover in early winter to give them more protection.  I just love the scent of this herb and as an addition for cooking.  Rosemary is thought to aid in digestion and joint pain.  Use fresh or dried.

Thyme is thought to be beneficial for hangovers, digestion, coughs and colds, along with being one of the staple culinary herbs.  Teas can be made with fresh or dried leaves.  English wild thyme is the strongest for medicinal qualities, but any can be used.  Thyme also comes in lemon, lime, and orange as well.
Bicolor sage

You can also add a fruit to your tea for a new twist.  A neighbor shared that she had some blackberry sage tea that was heavenly.  You can easily make this yourself!  Use dried sage and either fresh or thawed frozen berries.  Simply crush the berries for a teaspoon of juice and add to your steeping sage tea.  Yum!
Fruit for small spaces

The only limits to homemade tea from homegrown ingredients is your imagination!  Herbs have so many healthful properties.  It just makes great sense to take advantage of their benefits and taste in warming teas.  A beautiful finishing touch would be to add edible flowers or a sprig of the herb as a garnish.
Start a kitchen herb garden!
Growing and using edible flowers

Stevia is a recent arrival to the US herb scene, but has come on strong in popularity.  It is a super sweet, super antioxidant, with zero carbs, and zero calories.  Stevia is native to tropical regions; it is well suited to container growing.  The trick with stevia is a little goes a long way.  Add too much and it goes from sweet tasting to bitter.  I overwinter my Stevia in a pot in the garage and it does well.  It has pretty little white flowers that the bees and butterflies love.
A sweet alternative-grow your own

If you want real tea, you can grow tea plants in pots.  They are easy to grow and there are varieties that are hardy down to Zone 6.  Otherwise, there are great herbal options!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Preserving peppers

Potted pepper plant
Sunday, August 7, 2016

For preserving the pepper harvest, you have some options-drying, freezing, pickling. I have also seen creative pepper jelly and preserve recipes for canning.  They sound really fun.  I may have to try a couple of them this fall.  Canning is much nicer to do when it has cooled off.  Peppers keep producing until a hard frost so there is lots of time left to experiment with preservation options!

Peppers love summer warmth.  Surprisingly, when it gets too hot (in the 90’s) they can start to drop flowers and get sunburned.  So, don’t be surprised when they are not as perky as earlier in the season.  They will come back when the temperatures get out of the stratosphere.  During extreme heat waves, they appreciate some shade.
Sweet pepper plant in the garden
If you have your peppers in pots, you can just roll them into a spot that gives some relief.  If they are in the ground, you can use a shade cloth, or a piece of picket fence or screen on the south or west side of the plant.  Or just wait for nature to take its course.
I have tried peppers in the ground and in pots.  They seem to do the best in a pot.  All the hot peppers I have ever tried are much more prolific than any sweet pepper I have tried.  I keep trying new types of sweet peppers, looking for a type that loves my garden conditions.  In the meantime, I plant a lot more sweet pepper plants than hot pepper plants.  

My spicier peppers like Poinsettia and Super Red Pimento are doing great in their pots.  I have been getting fruits off them for the last month.  The small hot pepper that I overwintered is doing well.  It is the oldest form of capsicum annum species and is very hot.  I will dry them to use in my seasoned salt.  

The orange habanero plant looks healthy and has flowered, but no fruits as of yet.
I gave a boost to all our garden plants with bat guano, feather meal, and kelp meal last week end.  

Ancho/poblano peppe
Peppers dry easily.  The quickest way is to put in a dehydrator.  Just slice in half and pop in.  If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use your oven on its lowest setting.  This year, I have just been leaving them on the window sill and they appear to be drying just fine.  You can also put on a screen in the sun or hang in a dry place.  The watchout for drying outside is the level of humidity.  In high moisture, they may spoil versus dry.

The bigger hot peppers I freeze whole to use in salsa throughout the winter and spring.  I chop and freeze the pimentos to use in salad.  It is a key ingredient in the salad we love from the Pasta House restaurant.  Typically, any food gets soft when thawed.  The Pimentos I have chopped and frozen retain their firmness after thawing.

I also make hot sauce from the hot peppers.  It is super easy by slicing and placing in apple cider vinegar.

If you have a pepper plant that did great this year.  There are a couple ways to make sure you have them in your garden next season.  You can save seeds from your favorite peppers for next year's garden.  Just dry them and put them in a freezer bag in the frig.  Peppers are perennials that you can bring in to the house or garage to overwinter.  It gives them a jump on next season.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Harvesting and drying herbs

Basil in center, silvery sage on the left
Saturday, August 6, 2016

Herbs have a tendency to take a walk on the wild side.  Harvesting your herbs throughout the summer helps keep them looking tidy and healthy.  Harvest herbs for seasoning dishes, sauces, meats and dressings for the next year.

When you harvest your herbs, you will have enough for at least 5 families with just a single plant of each type! They make wonderful gifts. 

For soft herbs like chives and garlic chives, I cut around the outside.  Towards fall, you can cut them a couple of inches from the ground.  You can either dry or freeze your cuttings.  I like going ahead and chopping them, letting them dry and putting into jars.  You won't need much because chives are perennials and you can harvest from the plant almost year round.  Quick tip-don’t let chives go to seed
Common chives in bloom
For rosemary, I trim back as I would a tree, cutting off the lower limbs.  I have not been successful in finding a rosemary that survives outside in my Zone 6 region, even the Barbecue rated to Zone 6 and Arp rated to Zone 5.  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 slight frost.  So when they call for frost, I harvest all that is left on the plant.  You can take cuttings from basil to start the herb in a pot and bring indoors for the winter.  I dry basil gently as it looses its flavor easily.  I also use most of the fresh basil for pesto.  Basil basics-harvesting, preserving, growing basil

I prefer drying 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 and the darkness helps keep the flavor in the herb.

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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Flavored water and sodas from the garden

Blueberry and raspberry soda

Sunday, July 31, 2016

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, fresh from the garden!

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 and overwinter in your garage.  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 or on-line.  There are many options on Amazon.  Cardamom is a great spice to add to hot tea, too.  It is very warming.  A great addition when cool fall temps arrive.

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.

For tips on growing the ingredients, here are some blogs: