Thursday, October 23, 2014

Swiss Chard

After some trial and error, I am sold on growing Swiss Chard! It is easy to grow, tasty, and "pretty". There are several different varieties and they may be used in a border garden for their decorative appeal as well as a wonderful, edible green. It has become my summer "spinach."

Ruby Chard - in whiskey barrel planter
At first, I followed several different recipes I found online.  They were all ok. Each was an "acid" base recipe, using either lemon or vinegar...  I had a season's worth of harvesting still to do and my family wasn't "sold" on this new addition to our table.  

It occurred to me that most people describe the taste similar to either spinach or asparagus.  With these vegetables, it occurred to me that I like both sauteed with butter...sweeter. Voila!  Success for our household.  

Suggestion 1: "Spinach"
I cut the main stems out and (gasp) discard - compost
I then chop and briefly saute the leaf portions as I would fresh spinach.  I use real, salted butter.  As with spinach, you need quite a lot of fresh product as it cooks down a lot. Salt/Pepper to taste.
This is the main reason I grow chard - to have "spinach" all summer in this way. I also cook it this way if the chard has "gotten away from me" and I have a lot of it.  I have used it in quiche, scrambled eggs, soup, and plain as a side.

Suggestion 2: Chard-whole
The stem portions need to be cooked longer than the leaf portions:
Remove the main stems making a pile of stems, and one of leaf portions.
Chop stems finely.  Chop leaves roughly.
Saute the stems first until softened (in your flavor of choice: olive oil, butter, whatever), then add in the leaf portion and saute until wilted/cooked. Salt/Pepper to taste.
My Family favorite:
Cook a few pieces of bacon until tender but not crisp, add in 2-3 cloves minced fresh garlic, saute till golden.  Add in chard stems and a little olive oil or butter if dry.  Cover and cook until stem pieces are tender.  Add in leaf portions and continue to stir and cook until wilted.  I sometimes top with grated or shredded Parmesan cheese. 

Suggestion 3:  Use in place of other greens
Pretty much any way you use other greens, you can replace chard for something different: soups, vita-drinks, sweet/sour wilted "spinach" salad, etc.  Basically, if recipe calls for spinach, I use only the leaf portion.  If it calls for kale or other such, use leaf portion and some or all of the stem (be sure to pre-cook stem first).  I love to add some to soup.  It is a beautiful color-I precook it separate first then add it in. 

So, my advice is to start with your favorite way to cook and use spinach and prepare the leaf portion in that way.  Then try it in a few recipes that use spinach.  After that, try it whole. And, by all means, try growing some.  You can even plant it in containers, along your flower bed as a border, or save some space in your vegetable garden for it.  Buy transplants or start from seed.  The key to harvesting is to pick outside, lower leaves and not more than 1/3 of any given plant.  It will continue to grow and produce all season long and may even over-winter.  

Rainbow Chard in raised garden bed - spring
same crop - mid October - still producing

I hope I may have encouraged you to try Chard and perhaps even grow it in your own garden.  If that is the case, I'd love to hear from you.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Fall Garden

It's now officially fall - by the calendar and the weather.  It is my favorite time of year. While not quite sweater weather,it is a wonderful break from the summer heat even though this summer was very mild. 

I have noticed that the garden is much happier with the break in the weather as well.  My pole beans took on a new life and began a whole new crop as well as the bush beans. While I didn't plant a lot of them, I was able to not only continually eat them fresh but put some away in the freezer for some future meals - one bag is specifically marked "Thanksgiving."

Fall plantings: broccoli, lettuce, kale, pole beans still producing

I direct-sowed some lettuce, spinach, and two types of kale seeds.  The lettuce and kale are doing well, the spinach came up then was hit with a couple weeks of heat which I think did them in.  They never grew and I gave up.  I purchased and placed broccoli plants in their place.  I also purchased a pack of brussels sprouts.  The brussels have been in for about a month and are looking good.  I can see teeny sprouts forming at the base of each leaf.  This is my first year with brussels and I am so excited!  I have been battling cabbage worms or as I call them "cabbagepillars" that are trying to eat things before I can.  I have to make a point of checking everything at least every other day.  Those "pillars" can munch a plant beyond recovery in 2 days.  I have already placed the hoops over two of the garden sections.  This is covered in plastic and become my little "greenhouse" when frost and colder weather is predicted--extending the season for some of my crops.  

Brussels sprouts with loaded sweet pepper plants behind
Look closely and you will see several cabbage worms-in all sizes-tricky

I am working on picking the last of everything left on the plants and pulling them up. They then are gathered and thrown into the chicken run for the girls to work over.  Once they are done, there is nothing but bare sticks or stalks that are then composted, burned, or bagged for recycling - depending on what it was.  They love to see me coming with an armload of "goodies."

October 8 harvest:
3-1/2lb beans, 4lb hot peppers, 3-1/4lb sweet peppers, chard, dry beans for seed

I leave my flower seedheads alone for fall.  I do this for a few reasons.  First, I love to watch the goldfinches land and eat the seeds from the coneflowers and black-eyed susans plus there is something about those little brown spikes that is appealing to me...the color? the shape? I'm not quite sure.  Leaving your flowers go to seed also allows for the possibility of reseeding for even more lovely flowers next year.  

Leave the seedheads for the Goldfinches. 

This past summer, I discovered some "volunteers" under the bird feeder.  While I pulled many of them, I left a few that were in a spot that could hold them.  After of a summer of growth, I have a nice little stand of sorghum!  Pleasant surprise.  

Sorghum stand - from sprouted birdseed.

My tomatoes are pretty much finished for the year - we had our last BLT of the year this weekend.  I still have a lot of peppers - both sweet and hot - to pick yet.  That is a good thing since we eat a lot of peppers through the winter.

I still have a lot of garden "to-dos" ahead of me for the fall... 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Refrigerator Pickles - Spicy Dill Spears

After an especially bountiful cucumber harvest, I set out to find a dill variety refrigerator pickle.  I had tried my hand at canning dills, but they always turned out too soft for our liking.  Furthermore, we are not a "sweet pickle" family so the standard refrigerator pickle with vinegar and sugar was not for us.
Refrigerator Pickles in re-used jars
This is the final recipe I use, adapted from one I found online* (see bottom).  My family likes things a little on the spicy side, so these were perfect.  Now a requested item.  

2 cups water
1 3/4 c. white vinegar
1 1/2 c fresh dill "fronds" (leaves)
scant 1/4 c white sugar (or less)
8 cloves garlic, halved
1 1/2 Tbsp. coarse salt
1 Tbsp. pickling spice
1 1/2 tsp dill seed
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (plus)
fresh dill flowers (to place 1-2 in each jar)
1/2 tsp alum (for crunchiness)

(12) long pickling cucumbers cut in spears
Either use canning jars, or I reuse jars from dressing, salsa, other pickles, etc.  

Note: I just use the cucumbers that I have and make more brine if I need to.  I also like "dilly beans" so if I have some, I make a jar or two with string beans.

1.  In a large pot: combine ingredients for the brine, heat just to dissolve the sugar & salt.
2.  Cut cucumbers into spears.  Remove ends from beans - leave them whole.
3.  Place "dill flower" into bottom of each jar along with 1-2 pieces of garlic.
4.  Pack the spears into the jars fairly tightly.
5.  Ladle brine to cover pickles, include spices.  
6.  Divide dill evenly through all jars topping and stuffing it throughout.  
7.  (To taste) Add another "sprinkle" of red pepper flakes to top of jar.
8.  Seal with lids.  Refrigerate for 10 days before eating for best flavor.  Use within 1 month.
I also invert/shake the jars several times within the 10 days to ensure even distribution of flavors.

*Adapted from "Spicy Refrigerator Dill Pickles" at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wanna #chat?

Wanting to connect with some like-minded individuals on Twitter, I have found there are several chat forums throughout the week.  After missing several, I decided to make a listing of some of them. These are all garden related, and I am well aware that it is not a complete listing.  It may be added to in the future.

All times listed are Eastern Time:

Monday   2pm   #plantchat
               9pm   #gardenchat
Tuesday  2pm   #treechat
               9pm   #pollin8rchat
Weds.     2pm   #landscapechat
               9pm   #seedchat
               9pm   #rosechat 
Thurs.     2pm   #herbchat
Fri.          2pm   #groundchat

Hope this helps you make some connections!  
Chat with you soon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hot Pepper Jam

Our all-time favorite appetizer is Homemade Hot Pepper Jam over softened cream cheese. Serve with thin pretzels or other cracker of choice.  It is a wonderful blend of heat and sweet. 

Personally, I use a mix of jalapenos and hot cherry peppers for a beautiful mix of colors.  If it is early in the season and the peppers aren't as hot as I like, I have also added in several cayenne peppers for a little added heat.  

My jar of choice is the 1/2 size (4oz) jelly jar.  It is the perfect ratio:  one full jar to one block of cream cheese.  These jars are also given out on Christmas or other occasions as our take-home gift to guests. 

Hot Pepper Jam
Adapted from the Ball Pectin recipe:     yield: 12-4oz, or 6-8oz jelly jars
Use Gloves!
Another caution: rinse/wash all peppers before you cut them.  Do not rinse after cut.
4c. Fresh-picked, Prepared (finely chopped) hot peppers, seeds discarded*
    *I use a mix of Jalapeno and Hot Cherry, I keep in a few seeds from each pepper, and chop using a small food processor - to finally measure a full 4c. prepared peppers 
1c. cider vinegar
5c. sugar (do not substitute)
Pectin - 6 Tb. from bulk jar (or 1 box) Original/Classic

1.  PREPARE boiling water canner, jars and lids.  Measure out all ingredients.

2.  COMBINE prepared peppers with vinegar in a 6-8qt saucepan (you need the large surface area).  Gradually stir in Ball Original/Classic Fruit Pectin.  Optional: Add up to 1/2 tsp butter to reduce foaming.  Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over hight heat, stirring constantly.

3.  ADD entire measure of sugar, stirring to dissolve.  Return mixture to a full rolling boil.  Boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.  Skim foam if necessary.

4.  LADLE hot jam into hot jars, one at a time, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.  Clean rim and threads of jars using a clean, damp cloth to remove any residue.

5.  CENTER hot lids on jars, allowing sealing compound to come in contact with the jar rim.  Apply bands and adjust until fit is fingertip tight.

6.  PLACE filled jars in canner.  Be sure water covers tops of jars by 1-2 inches.  Add hot water if necessary.  Place lid on canner. Bring water to a gentle, steady boil.

7.  PROCESS jars for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude (refer to chart in pectin).  After processing is complete, turn off heat and remove lid.  Let jars stand for 5 minutes.

8.  REMOVE jars from canner and set upright on a towel to cool, undisturbed, for 12-24 hours.  Bands should not be retightened as this may interfere with the sealing process.  After cooling, test seals by pressing the center of each lid.  If a lid does not flex up and down, it is sealed!  If it is not sealed within 24 hours, refrigerate immediatedly for up to 3 weeks or reprocess for the full length of time using a new lid.  

9.  CLEAN sealed jars.  Remove the bands.  Wipe jars and lids with a clean, damp cloth.  Label and store in a cool, dry, dark place up to 1 year.

I make several batches of this jam every year so in addition to labeling with the year, I indicate the batch number as well using inconspicuous "dots", abc, 123, or the like.  Each batch will turn out with a slightly different "hotness" level.  I keep track and use accordingly (eg: the hottest batch is noted and saved for "special" occasions). 

Do you have a favorite variation of hot pepper jam?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Garden Experiments

Edibles everywhere. That was my goal for this year.  If I wanted color in a garden, I looked for an edible that would fit the bill.  I am sure there is much more out there, but it is a start.  Everything was started from seed.  

The experiments for the year:
  • Tri-color pole beans on one trellis with rattlesnake and purple pole beans on the other.  To be picked young for eating. Question: How with they look and will my family eat them?
Experimental pole beans - color? taste?
  • Scarlet runner beans were added to the edges of both of those trellises as a border of color.  These were purchased for the flower color and then, hopefully, dry and eat the beans as well.
  • The scarlet runner beans were also added to two trellises in a focal garden on the side of the house
  • Ruby Swiss Chard was added along the front edge of another garden to add a nice contrast of color to the rock border.  Picked small, chard is very tender and cooks up and tastes like spinach.
  • Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are on two focal trellises to climb and add a pop of red and green. 
  • Red Sails lettuce was placed along the front border of my little pond on the north side of the house - hoping it will last longer there with some shade and coolness; it is a pretty contrast of color to all the green there as well.
  • Lettuce surrounds front border of pond
  • An assortment of hot peppers were grouped along south-facing brick wall.  They are supposed to like it hot, and that is the hottest spot of the yard.  They are also a red fruit which will be a pretty pop.
  • Parsley and basil line a garden path.
  • The biggest project was the addition of two 4x12 raised beds built within the confines of the old swingset area.  These are planted completely in vegetables.

Watch for a post on the creation of these beds
The remainder of the vegetable and flower gardens are pretty much status quo.  I have several dedicated garden beds, both raised and "in the ground".  I also have a patch of garden surrounded by the driveway which is predominately perennials but I plant my jalapenos along the perimeter there for the heat.  Along one of my fences, I plant a few tomatoes in buried pots filled with compost; they are trained along the fence for support. A whiskey barrel next to the house has an early tomato and 4 Swiss chard.
Keep picking the chard to keep it small and producing

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tomato Planting

With Mother's Day just behind me, the "usual time" everything should be in the ground, I find there is still a lot to do - our spring has taken a couple of extra weeks to get here this year.  I did manage to get the last of the tomatoes in the ground just yesterday.  My final count was 30.   

Here is the breakdown:  3 "Super Sweet 100" cherry tomatoes, 2 "early" determinates "Oregon Spring", 2 "early" indeterminates "Bloody Butcher", 5 "San Marzano" Italian heirloom, 2 Brandywine Red, 2 "Porterhouse" large beefsteak, and the rest are our favorite and all-time best producer "Supersteak."  The remaider of all those started were gifted, and a few were taken to the garden "swap" night.  

I have them planted in several different areas of the yard/garden. (Photos to come in later post.)  One of the Bloody Butchers is in a whiskey barrel right outside of my window - in a little micro-climate there and is where I have historically gotten my first ripe tomato.  Fingers crossed.  

Four are placed in the rear raised beds with a bucket "collar" to add soil depth and collect a little more water for their root zone.  These are caged.   Three more are planted along the fence, with the fence as their trellis; two cherry tomatoes are in a raised bed with a large trellis to be trained against; three more are planted in my new raised bed;  three alongside the porch; and thirteen in the front "ground garden."  

What do I do with all of them?  Well, so far, I have never had a year where "too many" was in my vocabulary.  Our family of 6 (plus regular guests) eat our weight in BLTs during the summer.  Fresh tomato slices alongside morning eggs, grilled cheese and tomato, fresh garden soups, shish-kabobs are all summer staple dishes.  Tomato juice is my personal favorite, and store-bought is too expensive and too salty for my liking, so I can several batches that way.  This year I hope to increase my production of simply canned tomatoes since I realized the family has taken a liking to more winter soups.

Note:  Putting them in the ground, I plant "deep" after removing the lower couple of leaves.  Once again, roots will form along the buried stem, forming a larger root zone as well as getting them deeper to help reach for moisture during the dry spells.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Transplanting Seedlings

I've been watching the tomato seedlings, and they have grown to the point where they are too big to remain in their "starter cells."  It is time to transplant.  

Gather all materials in one place:  organic potting soil, recycled pots, plant tags and pen, recycled solid trays, trowel, spoon, and gloves. Do this in a location that is easy to sweep-clean.  A little music and a nice glass of tea for the potter.

Preparing for transplanting
Personal note: After trying many things over the years, I have settled on the investment of plastic plant labels (bought in bulk online) and a Sharpie* Industrial marker (red lettering) for my labeling.  These hold up not only for the entire season, but I am reusing them again this year.  Be sure to use the industrial marker as it is heat resistant and thus fade-proof (I learned this trick from a local nursery employee).
Choose the strongest seedlings to transplant, so not everything "makes the cut."  Keep many more than you can use at this point simply because not all of them make it to the end.  This allows you to gift some to family and friends when it gets close to planting time.

Gently pull the plant from the tray and loosen the soil from the bottom but not completely exposing the roots,  Place this plant completely to the bottom of the pot, then pinch off any/all leaves that would be buried. Completely fill in the pot. If one is a leggy transplant, very gently bend the stem in the pot in order to get it buried well.  Roots will develop all along the base of the stem.

Loosen soil from roots, plant completely to the bottom of the pot.
Continue this until you have all the transplants that you want.  Don't worry if they look a little crooked or droopy, some water and a few hours will perk them right up.

A little droopy upon transplant, the ones in foreground didn't "make the cut"
one too leggy, another too small, and I had enough of this variety to keep and share.

Some water and a few hours later, they are looking good
Keep them inside and under another florescent light (I borrowed one, with permission, from hubby's workshop) and put them on the same timer as the rest of the seedlings.  On nice, overcast days, you may begin putting them outside a little at a time to start the hardening off process.

These may or may not need to be transplanted again prior to putting them in the garden. If these outgrow their pots, transplant them once more into a larger pot.  In this case, follow the same routine as above: loosen soil around roots, place plant completely to the bottom of the pot and pinch off any leaves that would be buried.  Once again, the plant will develop a larger root zone along the buried stem.

This same process is also followed for the peppers when it is time. 

I hope this helps.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tip for First Spring Lawn Mowing

I was looking out over my lawn today and noticing that it is in need its first trim.  

This means it is also time to "rally the troops" and do a good yard clean up.  The winter and wind always does its job of cluttering the lawn with branches, pine cones, wind-blown trash, and the like.  It also reminds me that every year, irregardless of how dutiful we are about the cleaning and clearing, the first time I mow (even on a high setting) I manage to run over and chop up a countless number of little sticks and occasionally hit a dirt "clump" from a mole tunnel.  Nevertheless, I cringe at the thought of what it is doing to my blades...

Thus, my tip for the first spring mowing is this:  Wait to get your blades sharpened until after the first one or two mowings.  This way, all those sticks and other assorted debris you missed on clean up but your mower finds will nick your "old" blades.  

By the time the blades are sharpened, the grass is really greening up, filling in nicely, and looks wonderful with an even cut from freshly sharpened and balanced blades.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Seed Starting - Tomatoes and Peppers

I start all of my tomatoes and peppers from seed.  Why?  Because I grow a lot of them, and I also like to grow specific varieties.  I have done this for years.  For me, it also has a therapeutic effect.  Since I start them in late February or early March, it gives me a chance to focus on growing plants in those last weeks of cold, dreary winter.  Since I put my tomatoes in the garden about a week before I put my peppers in, I also start my tomatoes a week earlier. 

The Process:
Decide when the plants go into the garden and count backward. Personally, I allow myself approximately 8 weeks.    

You can start seeds in many different ways.  My personal choice is to use the 72 cells with a solid plant tray underneath.  I re-use my cells, trays, and domes each year until they break beyond use.  I purchase these items from my local farm supply store in separate pieces.  They are inexpensive this way vs. buying a kit.

Use actual "Seed Starter" soil; it is sanitized and formulated for this purpose. Moisten the soil in a bucket prior to filling the cells.  It should hold together if you squeeze but not drip water. When I plant my seeds, I begin with the cells only about 1/2 full of seed starting mix. An old tablespoon works well for this; a dull pencil is great to poke the seed hole.   Doing this helps delay the first transplanting (explained later). Cover them with either plastic wrap or a plastic dome.  As they come up they will look really short in the trays.  

These are placed on a 4' table in an east-facing window.  This is also the entrance to the house so I do have to keep things a little orderly and neat.    

This tray is shown after germination and about 1 1/2 weeks old. When the seedlings emerge, it is time to remove the plastic or plastic dome.  

At this point I place them under florescent "shop" lights.  Since I have yet to build a light stand, I simply prop my lights on top of some building blocks I have.  Keep lights within inches of your plants, this will keep them from becoming "leggy."  Regular florescent tubes work fine, you don't have to pay for "grow" lights.

Keep an eye on them and don't let them dry out.  Watering from the bottom is best.  This is why I invest in the solid plant trays.  Water, wait 30 minutes, and pour off any remaining water in the tray - otherwise it is too much water and your plants may dampen off (rot).

Here you see the seedlings getting larger (top).  Now, this is where I begin to fill in the cells as they are growing.  Just a bit at a time.  This will allow each seedling to develop a stronger/larger root system.  You can see here that I have not yet thinned.  I delay that for another week, to allow a little competition between the seedlings.

Here they are after another week.  I am now thinning out each cell to the healthiest plant.  I look at the size of the seeding, the leaves, and how strong the stem looks.  CUT your seedling out with pointy scissors.  Pulling disturbs the roots of the seedling left and sometimes pulls up your "keeper."  I also take this opportunity to add a little more soil to each cell.

This is 1 week later...they really start growing now.  Here, I did any final thinning of the smaller seedlings, again topped off any cells that still needed it.  You can see especially with the tomato seedlings how thick their stem are getting.  This day I also raised my lights (added another block).  

You may read about having a fan blowing on your seedlings.  This is to mimic the wind they will experience in the garden.  Basically, the movement encourages the plants to strengthen their root and stem systems.  A very gentle "jostle" of the leaves once or twice a day will have the same effect.  It is kind of like "petting" your plants.  If one or more of my boys are around when I do this - for their audience only... I add in a little "hello my little plants... you are getting so big...yes you are...."  Yeah, totally unnecessary, but it has become part of our springtime routine.  

In approximately another week, the tomatoes will need to be transplanted into larger containers.  The peppers will continue to grow.