Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fall Gardening Prep

Believe it or not the summer is rapidly closing. No one laments that more than I do. But there is at least one bonus: it's time to plant fall crop. Tired of eating squash? Sick of throwing out diseased tomatoes? Pulled your last bean? Never got that summer garden going? Here's your chance. You don't have to wait till next Spring. Plant for Fall!

Fall is a good time for planting perennial fruit and nut trees. If you are interested now is the time to begin browsing a good quality book on what kinds of fruits and nuts fit your climate. I recommend Rodale's Successful Organic Gardening Fruits and Berries. Pick up a cheap used copy here or head to the local library. Also check out a cool company that sells trees and fruits online Oikos Trees. I haven't purchased from them but they "come recommended."

Here's how we get started narrowing down Fall veggies: First, find your nearest neighbor who has gardened in your area for years. Barring that you'll need to know some information which is readily available from your local Cooperative Extension Service. Find your CES here. Knowing the frost date will help determine what kind of season you have ahead of you and whether you have time to plant from seed or not. Second, look up harvest times for plants your interested in. Again this info is generally available from the Cooperative Extension Service in your area but here is an example of ours. You can browse the veggie list and see approximate Fall planting dates for many veggies in our area along with a second chart showing time-till-harvest.

Below is a list of some cool-weather favorites but we don't make claim to completeness so let us know what is missing: chard, kale, collards, mustard, spinach, lettuce, onions, garlic, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage. Doubtless there are others. Honestly, the only limits are climate, approximate date to maturity for given veggies, and a willingness to experiment. Put some plants in the ground and enjoy good garden food this fall. And tell us how it goes. You'll doubtless here about ours.

This week we are starting broccoli from seed. Next week we will start chard, collards, and kale. In 2-4 weeks we will start spinach and lettuce. In late September we will start onions and garlic.

You might not be able to find seeds locally. Some hardware stores will sell cool season transplants as we get closer to fall. If you want to find seeds online, here is a list of places we have ordered from.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Johnny's Selected Seeds
Cook's Garden
Seeds of Change


Monday, July 28, 2008

Billy Jonas

Last week we went to see one of our favorite musicians, Billy Jonas. He plays every year at the Richland County Library so it is a free event. The kids get to pile in the front of the audience and dance and sing together. We all know all his songs since we sing along in the car all the time. He is an amazing musician from Asheville, NC who plays recycled items like plastic jugs, buckets, barrels, and all kinds of bells and horns. He creates wonderful music with that "junk", a guitar, and his voice. Here is a link to one of his concerts where he is singing and banging one of my favorites, Some Houses. Check him out and if you have kids you should definitely look him up.

This picture shows him doing some hand motions to one song. Even though it is blurry you get the idea of what the show is like with all the instruments on the stage.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meals from the garden (and pics)

Portobello mushroom sandwich with pesto creamcheese spread (got this idea from vegetarian times magazine), potato salad

Acorn squash stuffed with sweet apple, peach, raisin filling (from Joy of Cooking book), garlic mashed potatoes (with broccoli thrown in right at the end while mashing), salad with garden fresh tomatoes

Black eyed peas and rice with fresh pepper salsa, salad, bread

Eggplant parmesan with nutritional yeast cheesy sauce (from The Farm Vegetarian cookbook), spaghetti squash, green beans

Veggie plate with leftover black eyed peas, green beans, garlic and rosemary roasted potatoes, cornbread and salad

We keep fresh cucumbers in the fridge (refrigerator pickles) to eat with lunch and/or dinner. I also made a batch of fig newtons from the figs from our yard. This was the first time I've cooked with figs. I found the recipe online and modified it a little. They tasted just like the store bought ones only better:).

I took a picture of the stuffed acorn squash because I thought it was so pretty. We got 3 from the garden this week and should get at least 3 more soon. The vine borer did some major damage to these plants.

This is a picture of the yard long green beans. I planted the seeds not even knowing how long they would grow. I have been amazed since I've never seen anything like them before. Some of the longer ones measured about 24 inches! I just cut them up and serve them like regular green beans. The skin is a little tougher but they are still really good. We also have regular pole beans that are still producing. The bean crop was awesome this year.
The beautiful eggplant--I love the deep purple color. These plants have done really well. I've made several dishes of eggplant parmesan because it is a big hit at our house. I also make babaganoush to have served with fresh bread, chips or on sandwiches. The corn in this picture was one of our best. The corn was one of the crops that did not do so well. A lack of nutrition in the soil is the main problem but also inconsistent watering didn't help. They are very picky. We pulled them all up a few weeks ago and only got a few ears from all plants.
These are the hot peppers. Very fun to have around. We thought we would be making a lot more salsa this time of year but we haven't gotten as many tomatoes as planned. So I just cut up the peppers and serve them pretty regularly with meals.

I don't have a picture of the potatoes but we have been harvested them for the past month. I told someone the other day that I feel like the guy on Forest Gump who talks about all the ways to make shrimp. I've made roasted potato wedges, baked potato slices, fried potatoes cubed and shoestring, traditional mayo potato salad, vinegar potato salad, mashed potatoes. We eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner in all kinds of ways!

When mom was here last week she took the girls out and cut tons of fresh flowers from the yard. They made this beautiful arrangement. We have lots of the red zinnias in the yard so we've been bringing those in and keep them in vases around the house. This vase has sunflowers, lantana, zinnias, crape myrtle flowers, and then greenery from our bushes.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Weekend Projects

Project #1 Blueberry Picking
Friday we went to pick blueberries. The whole time we were there, the girls and I couldn't stop saying, "Wow, look at all the berries." It was amazing to be in a forest of blueberries! The trees were 20 years old and in some places the branches would cross up and over the path in between the rows. We stood there in the shade and simply pulled hand-fulls of berries down into our buckets. We ate a few hand-fulls too:) We came home with a little over 2 gallons (about 12-14 lbs.) for $17. I spent the afternoon putting the berries away-- freezing several quarts, canning 4 1/2 pints of jam, and rinsing the rest to eat as fresh treats for the rest of the week. Making blueberry jam was a little easier than the strawberry I made in the spring. The blueberries are so easy to prepare since there is no peeling or cutting. I used panoma's natural fruit pectin again and the jam came out awesome.

Project #2 Painting the deck

Daniel and I made a plan to paint the deck last weekend. It was a project that we have wanted to do for a while but the garden has taken most of our weekend energy this summer.

The deck was painted green but it was old and worn down. It was also causing the back of the house to be even hotter than it should be. The green was absorbing the heat and getting so hot that it would burn our feet in the afternoons. We went to work Saturday morning pressure washing and scraping the deck clean. That afternoon we began the primer. Sunday was spent painting.
The girls were very involved in this project. They both got quick turns with the electric pressure washer. They stayed out in the hot sun with us and scraped and scratched old paint off. Then Saturday they both had their own brushes to help apply the primer. Daniel took turns with them rolling the paint on Sunday. It takes a little extra patience having small hands help out. They had great attitudes and really wanted to be a part of this entire project.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Tea Time

For Father's Day I received my first tea plant. It is young but I hope I can take care of it, give it some more tea plant friends, and eventually pick the leaves and make green/oolong/black tea (all of which come from the same plant. Each requires different picking/drying/curing standards). Another cool note on the tea plant is that it likes shade. It is generally more difficult to find shade loving food sources so I was excited to read that I can fill shady areas with tea plants. I am pretty sure that Jennifer purchased our plant online (here). Right now I make my tea on the back porch with this beautiful tea jar we got from Target. It will fill 3 old apple juice containers and because the tea never reaches near boiling heat it keeps very well in the fridge (no indigestion from turning bitter which is usually the result of tea being infused in temperatures that are too high). I drink cool tea for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between. That probably sounds like a lot of caffeine but I make the whole jar with about 8 little tea bags. 8 tea bags over a week isn't deadly is it? Tea on the back porch is cheap, energy efficient, and refreshing. Just pick a sunny spot set the jar out before work and bring it in when you get home. Tea is ready!
I am experimenting with tea flavors. Whenever we have peaches or watermelon I cut some chunks and drink my tea with fruit. I also found out that persimmon leaves and strawberry leaves are two traditional tea sources so below is a picture of persimmon and strawberry leaves drying in the shade on a screen. Once they are dry I can crumble them up and accent the green tea with these two nutritious leaves. I have just found out that blackberry leaves are also a source of tea. I will be picking some of these for the drying rack as well.

Last, I am trying to grow several types of mint and spearmint. These plants like moisture and most people plant them around the hose spigot in SC to insure they get lots to drink. I am dying for them to produce enough leaves to take some cuttings and dry these as well. Mint-green is one of my all time favorite teas summer or winter (Thanks Kathy for mint starts).
Last, a request for favorite foraging books and two recommendations. I purchased Peterson's EDIBLE WILD PLANTS (here's a link at Amazon) and have found it to be an amazingly useful book. Not only does it contain useful information about how to search for, collect, and process wild plants it uses a series of very helpful icons to designate each wild plant for flour, tea, coffee, fruit, jam, etc. In the back the book contains an appendix which organizes plants under their use. So, say you want to make tea you can go to this section and find all the names of wild plants useful for tea organized by season no less! Very helpful. The only drawback to this book is that many of us who are not well trained rely heavily on color for identification. Alas, the Peterson's guide presents the majority of its plant presentations in black and white sketch. I find the sketches more useful than pictures because the artist can account for more general features and avoid the contingencies of any one particular photographed plant, but the absence of color makes identification hard for novices like myself. SO, the book worm that I am, I purchased EDIBLE WILD PLANTS by Elias and Dykeman (here's a link at Amazon) which presents each plant in a photograph form. Aah, color. But alas, it does not contain the very useful appendix found in the Peterson's guide. So, my request is this: If any of you have read this far and can think of other edible plant/ foraging guides that you have found user-friendly, comprehensive, or with more specialized focus, I would be very interested to hear about them. And if you are looking for one I find the edible plant hobby cheap, entertaining, enduring, and rewarding.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Friday we met Mimi (Jen's mom) and Grandaddy William (Daniel's dad) at Carowinds in Charlotte. Just in case you are not familiar with Carowinds, it's a big amusement park kinda like six flags. We spent most of the day in the water park area--it was awesome. The girls got to go on lots of slides of all sizes. Arianna is not quite tall enough to ride some of the rides but it didn't matter much since they had so many things for kids of all ages. Ellen was exactly tall enough to ride the bigger rides. She was very brave and went on a few that even I was not too sure about :)

The log ride
Dad and girls

These tube slides were so great. This one was for four people so we had to take turns-- even the grandparents! Smiles all around!

There were the 2 man tubes also. We were able to ride these over and over again with hardly any wait. That was the advantage of going on a week day I guess.

The water dump

The wave pool

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Summer Fruit

Ellen with blueberries and Arianna with black cherries.We are enjoying some sweet fruit this summer. The house came with a mature high bush blueberry and two mature fig trees. They were all in rather poor condition and had been neglected. We pruned, applied organic fertilizer around the base, and then piled up the FREE mulch we received from a local tree-shredder. This mulch isn't as "nice" as the stuff you buy at the store. It is not nearly so decomposed and soft--much more like wood-chips. But it has been very effective in providing really nice ground cover around our garden and fruiting bushes. It traps moisture, slows erosion, and provides a home for all the many tiny creatures necessary for healthy soil, and slowly but surely it is feeding the sandy soil as it breaks down. I think it has made a significant difference to the health of our fruiting plants. Below are pictures of the ripening figs and black "wild" cherry. These are awesome summer eating. Both are sweet and nutritious. Both are prolific. Both grow well in disturbed or sandy soil.
Ellen loves the figs. Arianna loves the black cherries. We all crave the blueberries.
The black cherry is a "frontier" tree which grows well in strong sun and reclaims disturbed areas. The birds love it and we can only reach the cherries on the bottom branches but there are still plenty. They are awesome. They do have a hard "stone" (seed) in the middle and are a bit like eating sunflower seeds (in that you have to spit the seed out like you spit the shell of the sunflower). Arianna and I battle the mosquitoes almost every evening to bring in a bowlful. We eat them by the handful but they can also be put in jam or pies and have long been a source of wine. Free food. I love it. This is also the same tree that is prized for its timber. It is one of the premier furniture woods. I am now a big fan of this tree. Keep your eye out for it. It is well established East of the Rockies from Canada to Texas and southern Ga.

The figs are just now turning which is fun. As the blueberries and black cherries finish there will be bowls-full of these sweet and soft morsels. Most varieties of fig grow in Zones 8-10 but some cultivars can grow in Zone 6 which will take you into lower Pennsylvania and through Kentucky and West Virginia. Check em out! Figs are also really easy to propagate. I am going to try and take some hardwood cuttings this Fall and we'll see if I can establish a few more plants. But if you live near someone who has an old large fig you might do some research on propagation and see whether they would be interested in sharing.

Monday, July 07, 2008

From Trash to Treasure

I have been thinking about how I can get more boxes/bins for my worms. They double in population about every month! If you leave them in the same container and keep feeding them some will eventually die off, but you can keep them in that same area for a long time. Since I've been collecting the castings and adding them to the garden (and making compost tea as a fertilizer) I've been wanting a way to be able to collect even more. I've been keeping my eyes out for bins on the side of the road (Isn't it amazing what people throw away?) since I knew I didn't want to buy any new materials for this project.

A few weeks ago, while driving to a friend's house, I spotted this big blue bin. When I stopped to take a closer look I noticed it smelled terrible--like someone was using for a garbage bin and instead of dumping the garbage out, they decided to dump the whole bin. (can you imagine how long it would take something like this to decompose in a landfill?) I almost just left it there. But I got my guts up and used a plastic bag to pick it up, dump it and put it in the back of my car. It barely fit! When I got home I hosed it off really good and cleaned it out. Since it was going to be for my worms it didn't need to be that clean, right:) I drilled air holes, loaded it with bedding (soil and moist newsprint and cardboard) and added the worms. After that I thought that it was looking a little faded and sad so I asked the girls to come out and help me make it pretty. It's so much nicer to feed the worms and collect their poo when I have the girls beautiful artwork to look at!

I didn't get a picture of the bin before cleaning, but here it is right after I loaded it with the bedding.

The girls first primed it with some leftover kilz then painted it with some acrylics.
Here are my newest 2 bins. All together I have 3 bins that I keep in the carport. Notice the new bin is bigger and has wheels. I saw a new one at Lowe's the other day priced at $16.99! Maybe others wouldn't consider this trash turned into treasure, but when you consider what a bag of worm castings or bottle of compost tea costs, plus the cost of the bin--this is surely a treasure to any gardener!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Swimming, Horses and Sleeping Sisters

We have been trying to swim as much as possible this summer. Our playgroup meets at a pool every other week and we also go to another friend's house when we have time. The pools are the best, according to Ellen, when they have a diving board and a slide. Arianna likes them when they are shallow enough that she can touch (3 ft.). As soon as I take Arianna into a part of the pool that is too deep for her she gets tense and doesn't want to let go of me--which makes it pretty difficult to learn to swim! As you can see from the 2nd picture she is very comfortable in the water and is swimming all around. She even jumps off the side and swims now. Here she is showing how to float on her back (in the shallow end of course).

I got an email from one of my homeschooling lists about a teenager who wanted to invite anyone out to help with or learn about her miniature horse. So, knowing that the girls would absolutely love this, I called the mother the other day and set up a time to meet them. The girls were so excited when they emailed us pictures of the horse. We spent several hours over at the barn this morning. The girls learned about grooming with the comb and 2 brushes. They got to pet her (Star) a lot. Star is expecting a foal any day. I could see the baby moving in the horse's belly. We can't wait to go back out there and see the newborn. The horse is still being trained so no one rides her yet.

This is how Daniel found the girls the other morning. Arianna is sideways and Ellen is on top of her legs. They thought it was really funny when they woke up and I showed them this picture.