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.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

What's happening in the mid-August garden

Saturday, August 9, 2014

August sees the full swing of the summer, warm season garden harvests.  Late sweet corn (plant corn in succession and different varieties to lengthen the harvest), summer squashes (like zucchini), peppers of all types (sweet to hot, hot), tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, cucumbers, okra, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, beans, melons, figs, eggplant, honey, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, onion, and fennel are all in season in the Midwest.  

The summer vegetables tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, have been slow to ripen this summer, likely due to the long cool spring and the cool snaps we have had this summer.

A secret to maximizing your peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchinis is to harvest them consistently.  The plants driving force is to reproduce so by continuing to harvest, it causes the plant to put on more fruits.

We are trying several chocolate and black tomatoes this year.  They are doing very well.  The small tomatoes ripen first and are more prolific than the large tomatoes.  I have already frozen 7 quart bags of tomatoes.
Yellow, red, chocolate, and black tomatoes

I will take the tomatoes frozen from last year and make into sauce.  You don’t have to have a pressure canner for tomato sauce.  Tomatoes are acidic enough that you only need a big pot to boil the jars in.  Be sure to follow the canning recipe exactly.

I have tried growing tomatoes in pots in previous years and just did not have good luck.  If you get a variety such as Tiny Tim, put it in a roomy pot, and water with a liquid fertilizer daily, you will get good results.  I am just not willing to invest the time to keep it in a pot.  Weekly care for plants in the ground is sufficient.  A pot with a water reservoir in the bottom is the best solution for lengthening the time between waterings when growing in pots.

It seems the hot peppers prefer pots.  I am trying a couple of new sweet peppers in pots this year, Nikita and yellow banana.  Both are doing quite well in pots.  I freeze the extra peppers whole for salsa.
Potted eggplant

The potted Black Beauty eggplant is doing great; much better than its sister in the ground.  I am trying a Turkish orange eggplant in one of my pots with a water reservoir.  It has finally starting growing well, but little black bugs have been steadily munching a bunch of little holes in all the leaves.  I started checking the leaves a couple of times a day to squish any I find.  Using a light weight cover is the recommended approach to keep the little buggers off the plant.  They look like flea beetles which usually arrive in the spring.  Another sign of how late the season is this year in the summer garden.

We are on our third round of lettuce this season and I resowed seed again this week end in all the pots.  We sow lettuce seeds about every three weeks to keep us in salads through all the seasons.  We also supplement lettuce with warm season greens like sorrels, sprouting broccoli leaves, chard, and cultivated dandelion greens.

In pots, we have had great luck with  Egyptian walking onions (which can be harvested year round), peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, greens, fig, columnar apple, passion flower, sweet bay, and celery.

The zucchini is doing great in the ground this year.  It did well in the pot last year.  You just have to be sure you get a variety intended to be grown in a pot for it to fare well.


I grow all of our herbs in the ground.  Rosemary and bay are both tender perennials.  I have tried the two rosemary varieties that are supposed to be able to survive a Midwest winter, but have not had any luck yet.  I have tried to also keep in a pot and bring in each winter, but have not had good luck with this approach either.  So, this is an herb I buy each spring, plant in the garden, then preserve for the winter by harvesting late in the season and drying.

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 3, 2014

Small space French kitchen garden

French country garden

Sunday, August 3, 2014

If you have ever wanted to plant a French kitchen garden, but weren’t sure if you had the space, you can grow the staples of a French kitchen garden in as little as 7’ x 7’ space.  

It is common for the French to have a small kitchen garden where they grow herbs, greens and vegetables year round, winter included.  The French call these kitchen gardens a potager.  It is amazing the amount of food you can grow in a very small space!

You can grow food and herbs through all four seasons.  Spring, fall and winter are all seasons for cold crops.  When it comes to winter gardening, the secret is two fold-look for cold/winter hardy varieties and cold temperature protection.

If you have only a 7’ x 7’ space, a French kitchen garden could include the following:
Herbs (1 each)-fennel, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, chives, basil and curly parsley
2 tomatoes for summer-1 slicer type and 1 cherry type for salads
Beets and turnips interplanted with tomatoes
4 pole peas for spring and fall, 4 pole beans for summer
1 patty pan squash, 1 eggplant, 1 butternut squash
8 shallots
8 garlic plants
Arugula, spinach and lettuce scatter sowed
Strawberry plant edging

If you also have room for pots on the patio, you could grow the patty pan squash, eggplant, and cucumber in pots  (only 1 plant in each pot) and add kale, carrots and radishes in the garden bed.  

If you have more room, you can add chard (they are ornamental as well as nutritious), fava beans, chickpeas, asparagus, cardoon, chicories, radicchio, endives, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, sweet peppers, other winter squash varieties, potatoes, or annual artichokes.

The French also interplant marigolds to add color, attract pollinators and deter pests as well as ornamental flowers for cutting.  
Our kitchen garden

I tuck onions between my day lilies and plant marigolds all around the perimeter of my flower and veggie patch.  Day lilies are also edible and make a beautiful salad garnish.

Seed catalogs that have a good selection of French vegetables and herbs-Botanical Interest, Burpee, Cook’s Garden, Harris Seeds, Le Jardin du Gourmet, Johnnie’s Selected Seeds, Reimer Seeds to name a few.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

August Garden Planner

Saturday, August 2, 2014

August sees the full production of the summer garden harvests.  Late sweet corn (plant corn in succession and different varieties to lengthen the harvest), summer squashes (like zucchini), peppers of all types (sweet to hot, hot), tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, cucumbers, okra, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, beans, melons, figs, eggplant, honey, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, onion, and fennel are all in season right now.  

A secret to maximizing your peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchinis is to harvest them consistently.  A plant’s driving force is to reproduce so by continuing to harvest, it causes the plant to put on more fruits.

Continue to fertilize with a natural, organic fertilizer every month for veggies in the ground and biweekly for those in containers.  When fertilizing, scratch the fertilizer into the soil around the plant.  If you leave the fertilizer on top of the ground, you will need twice as much.

Keeping consistent moisture to your plants is key.  Irregular watering causes tomatoes to crack.  Water weekly, being sure to water deeply at the base of the plant and not on the leaves.  Many warm weather lovers like squash, tomatoes and cucumbers are susceptible to fungal diseases.

Planting for fall and winter vegetables
I know it sounds crazy, but now is the time to plant for fall and winter harvests.  You need to plant early enough for your veggies to be full size when frosts hit.  Add 14 days to the days to maturity listed on the seed packet and back it up from your last frost date.  

Daylight hours determine the growth rate of plants.  Since the days are getting shorter, it will take longer for the plants to come to full maturity in the waning daylight hours of fall than the lengthening hours of spring.  By the first of November, all growth has come to a full standstill until the beginning of January.

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. 

Fall planting guide for cool season crops
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, peas, fava beans and turnips.  

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

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.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How to control bugs naturally, organically

Cucumber beetle-"bad bug" that spreads disease

Saturday, July 26, 2014

There are good bugs and then there are the bugs that eat up your harvest or give your plants diseases.  You have to be extremely careful in applying any insecticides (bug killers) as they will kill off the beneficial insects (like bees) that pollinate your veggies and increase your harvests.  

There are also bugs, wasps and insects that kill the “bad bugs.”  Using insecticides kills all insects and bugs, good and “bad”.  If you use non-chemical methods of control for the first couple of years, your garden will come into balance.  It can be very hard to resist the urge to get out the sprays, but there are other alternatives.

The best approach is to let nature take its course.  If you have bad bugs, the good bugs will quickly follow and provide equilibrium in the garden.  You can also purchase beneficial insects via mail order.  If you go this route, be sure that you will be at home when they are delivered so that you can get them released as quickly as possible.  Good bugs include parasitic wasps, assassin bugs, hover flies, lacewing, praying mantis, and ladybugs among others.
Ladybug eating aphids

You can encourage good bugs by planting flowers either around your vegetable patch or actually with your vegetables.  Marigolds are a “bad bug” deterrent.  I plant these all around my flower garden.

You can also encourage birds to your yard by having trees, shrubs and flowers that attract birds.  Keeping a bird bath with shrubs nearby so the birds can hide in the shrubs is a great way to get birds into your yard.  Birds will be happy to eat as many bugs as they can find!  For those that can, chickens or ducks provide the same service.
Stink bug-"bad bug"

Using a garden hose to dose down the insects can be a good strategy; just make sure that you are not watering a plant’s leaves that are susceptible to fungal diseases such as tomatoes, cucumbers or zucchinis.  

You can also go insect hunting and pull off the insects, larvae and caterpillars and throw them into a bowl with soap and water.  I like the book “Good Bug, Bad Bug”.  It has great pictures of both as well as pictures of them as caterpillars so you have a reference of both.  You want to encourage the good bugs in your garden.

For Japanese beetles, I use an attractor that is quite a distance from the vegetable garden.  They love roses so I go hunting for them on our roses every day.  We also apply Milky Spore to keep the grub population down around the roses so we have fewer adults in the summer.  It may take a couple of years for the spores to multiply in the ground, so don’t give up if the first year you don’t see a huge decrease in Japanese beetles.

For ants, you have to control the aphids.  A recipe for catching the ants and aphids:  2 cups of vinegar, 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water in a gallon jug with a lid.  Drill 3 small holes in the lid, large enough for the ants and aphids, but too small for a little bee.  Place in trouble areas.

If you are just overrun with the bad bugs, you can look on OMRI web site to see what the organic insecticides are:  I use Safer Insecticidal Soap and Neem Oil for my indoor plants.

Here are some make your own insect deterrents.  Make sure you test on a few leaves to insure that it won’t adversely affect the plant you are trying to protect.

All purpose spray.  1 garlic bulb, 1 onion, 1 teas dry cayenne pepper, 1 teas liquid soap, 1 quart of water.  Mix water, garlic, pepper and onion together in a food processor, let steep an hour or so, drain through cheesecloth, add liquid soap and you are ready to spray away!

Hot pepper spray.  Good for repelling insects, squirrels, rabbits, and other curious mammals.  1 cup of hot peppers in a quart of water.  Mix in food processor, strain through a cheesecloth and you are ready to use.  Be careful to not get the liquid on your hands and then touch your eyes or mouth.  It will burn.

Tomato-leaf spray.  This is toxic to soft bodied insects like aphids.  It also attracts beneficial wasps.  Take the leaves off the bottom of your tomato plant, 2 cups.  Put in food processor with 1.5 quarts of water.  Let steep overnight, strain out leaves.  Spray on affected leaves, especially the undersides where they like to hide.