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!

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.

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.