Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

Every once in a while I end up on Pinterest. I don’t do it often because it’s like going to an all you can eat buffet: I think I can eat (or do) way more than reality will allow me to. On one of my visits to Pinterest I saw some melted pony bead crafts and I thought it would be fun to do them with my kids.

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These are pony beads. If you want a stained glass look: make sure you use translucent beads.

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I bought two big bags of pony beads and then separated them by color and put them into sandwich bags.

I also like a challenge and since I saw a pony bead version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on Pinterest I figured I could do that as my grown-up craft. You can find it here: http://www.craftster.org/forum/index.php?topic=101446.0

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Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

So, now I am going to come out of the closet and admit to being a Doctor Who fan. (This seems like a random admission at this point, but keep reading.) I love BBC programing and I have since I was a kid. I would hand tune my TV dial to PBS and watch everything BBC as often as I could. It definitely affected my sense of humor! To celebrate my inner nerd (Who am I kidding? I’m all nerd!) I did a bunch of Doctor Who themed crafts for the season premier, this being one of them.

I saw the original starry night pony bead sun-catcher and I said to myself: this just needs a TARDIS (Doctor Who reference) and it would be perfect! (I had seen a starry night painting online with the TARDIS in it before. It’s here: http://stuffpoint.com/doctor-who/image/36814-doctor-who-starry-night-with-tardis.jpg ) I also thought there had to be a way to make the pony bead version look more interesting (the colors in the original were very plain in the sunlight). I also wanted to have better control of the dark areas: I decided I’d use Perler beads there.

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These are Perler beads. Perler is a brand of beads . They are usually sold to be used in a preset pegged design and then fused together by passing an iron over it. These are sold in craft and hobby stores.

You certainly don’t need to watch (or care) about BBC programming to enjoy this craft. I also made a tic tac toe board using the same technique (The tic tac toe board was my son’s idea and it was a good one!). I used a combination of Pony and Perler beads for the Starry Night project. I only used pony beads for the board. Doing a large project like the Starry Night one isn’t too difficult but it takes a long time to finish. You may want to start with something smaller like the tic tac toe board or a small sun-catcher to get a feel for the melting times. I assembled my bead version of “Starry Night” over two days. You have to be very careful not to bump it or tip it or you may have to start over!

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We used parchment paper for the board but you don’t have to. Although, it made it easy to line the beads up in a grid.

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This is the tic tac “bow” board we made, prior to melting it.

The reason I am exposing my nerdy tendencies is this: as I was doing the Van Gogh craft I wanted to use Perler beads for detail and translucent pony beads for the sun-catcher part. I could NOT find anything that had information about melting Perler beads or if you could use them with pony beads. This was my first bead melting project and I had no instructions. I’m a firm believer in the “go big or go home” way of living. (You can refer to my past gardening entries for verification of this.) I spent two days assembling the beads and I had no idea if they would work.

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Perlers and pony beads. DO NOT try it this way!

They didn’t, and they failed in a different way than I thought they would. My husband and I were able to pry them out and in the process we broke the whole thing. Luckily this project is just melted beads so I was able to save this by fixing the problem with the Perler beads and remelting the whole thing.

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So, Yes! You can melt Perler beads and pony beads and any combination of the two, you just need to follow these directions:

There are many melted pony bead sun-catcher instructions online. All you need to be successful melting pony beads is a non-stick cookie sheet and an outdoor gas grill so you don’t have to deal with the fumes. (This will forever ruin the non-stick cookie sheet or non-stick cupcake tin. Make sure you put them in with your crafting supplies when you are done rather than trying to cook on them again. If you don’t have a non-stick pan you are willing to ruin: visit your local thrift shop and pick one up. You can also do this in an oven. I don’t recommend it because the fumes are horrible.) After you melt the pony beads: they cool and shrink and will automatically release from the non-stick surface. Just wait for them to cool and lift it out. EASY!

Perler beads are a different animal. Perler beads look like they are made of vinyl. I figured they would melt first and maybe run under the pony beads and make a huge mess. They did make a huge mess, but not in the way I imagined. The Perler beads melted last and I didn’t leave them in our gas grill long enough to melt out the holes in the middle of them. I imagine if I left them in a bit longer I would have had a smoother end product but this was when I was dealing with the difference in the beads. I came very close to giving up. The Perler beads fused to the nonstick cookie sheet. I ended up having my husband force them out with a hard spatula. He had to break the whole thing to get the Perler area out.

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I was afraid I had wasted two days of my life on this dumb sun-catcher project. So, I started going through pages and pages of obscure blog posts trying to find the answer to the Perler problem. I did find an answer: parchment paper. Here’s where I found it: http://rebekahgough.blogspot.com/2012/12/perler-bead-oven-ornaments.html

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If you line your cookie sheet with parchment paper the Perler beads will not stick. But would the pony beads work with my solution? Yes. They did.

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The very nearly ruined first attempt.

The problem then became how could I melt these in the gas grill and not catch the parchment paper on fire? I ended up deciding not to chance it and remelted the broken pieces on parchment paper in our oven. It stunk up the whole house with a sickening plastic smell! That is why Fall (or Spring) is a great time to do this. You can open up your house and air it out! I did mine in +100 F degree summer weather and I still HAD to open the house up to get the plastic smell out. Not good for our air-conditioning bill…live and learn! I wish I had had a big enough toaster oven to do this outside which would avoid the chance of catching the paper on fire. I think the paper might work at a very low temperature for a longer amount of time in a gas grill.

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I’ve made a few things with melted beads and I would only use Perler beads if I wanted the effect I got in the Van Gogh project. The pony beads are much easier to work with! Either way: this is a fun and satisfying project!

Instructions:

First decide which beads you want to work with. For pony beads you just need a non-stick cookie sheet (Use a sheet with sides! I wouldn’t try this if you are making something large on a completely flat sheet.) For Perler beads, or for a combination of the two, you will need to line the cookie sheet with parchment paper.

The pony beads don’t ooze much so you don’t need much paper outside of the pony beads design. Perler beads ooze more so: you will need more paper or run paper up the side of the tray for them. Put the parchment paper down and fold the area by the sides so that it is creased enough to follow the  of the edge of your sheet.

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Decide on your design. Mine was loosely based on Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I printed out and put a grid on my inspiration piece so that I would have an easier time lining things up in the right proportions. The more I worked on it the more it became my own idea and less of what I’d seen.

Remember this is a bead project. If you keep these two rules in mind this will be a much less stressful project: 1. You won’t get a lot of detail with little circles that melt down to a hexagon shape. 2. You will not get straight lines with a large picture like this. For a very large project it is necessary to pack the beads tightly to keep the design from moving. That means the beads will be in a zigzag pattern as you push them close together. Try and remember that as you pick out your design. It is one reason that the Van Gogh painting works with this: few straight lines. Anything with strong lines or great detail will be hard to duplicate.

I marked on the parchment paper with a pencil to get the lines straight on the tic tac toe board (Or: “tic tac bow” as we call ours. It looked too much like a present to not add a bow!) I was able to create straight lines with this one because the pattern was much smaller. It took a long time to get straight and then the slightest bump made the lines wonky. Also, the pencil transferred to the melted beads so you might want to try a pen or marker.

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Some pony beads don’t melt as fast as others. The red ones that I had that did not have glitter in them stayed lumpy even though the glittery ones melted flat. I would guess if you wanted to have them both flat it would just take a little longer in the grill. I kind of enjoy the lumps. I used two kinds of beads because I didn’t have enough of one kind for the project.

Arrange your design. Work until you are happy. I didn’t have enough beads for the Van Gogh project to use the colors I wanted. I wish now that I had just bought more beads. You can’t change your design once they are fused. This takes a long time to get right and you might as well invest in the color beads you will be most happy with. I also wanted more colors than the one I saw online. Unfortunately, the beads looked very different before I melted them than they did afterwards.

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Before

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A very different “after” look.

I really liked my color choices before I melted them. After I melted them I wished I had used slightly different colors and gone ahead and bought more beads…but they aren’t cheap so I doubt I will redo this. Plus: it was a fun Doctor Who themed craft. It’s not like it was going to hang in a museum!

Set your gas grill burners on low or set your oven to 400 degrees F. Carefully place your cookie sheet in your heat source. Wait 5 minutes and check it. These will continue to flatten out. If you want it as smooth as glass it may take 30 minutes or more. The longer you melt, the fewer bubbles will be trapped and the clearer the design will be. Heating times will vary depending on the look you want and (unfortunately) the type and brand of plastic pony beads you use (which makes the melting time kind of random.) Mine melted really fast on the grill. Slower in the oven. Your project most likely won’t be done after five minutes, but you need to keep an eye on this. I have read some people have caught them on fire in their grills. (I would guess they left them in way too long, had the heat too high, were using charcoal or did something else that aren’t in these directions.) Check on your beads every 5 minutes. Opening the oven or gas grill often will allow the bead fumes to vent. Again, I wouldn’t do this inside if you don’t have to: but you can.

Once your beads are fused and as flat as you would like them, carefully remove them from your heat source and allow them to cool. Put them outside to cool! Since cooling can be done outside and they are still creating fumes: remove them from your home if you had them in your oven! Wait until it’s cool to the touch. If you used pony beads they will have automatically pulled away from the non-stick surface as they shrink and cool. Lift it out and admire your handiwork!

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If you used Perler beads: allow your project to cool. They should not have touched anything other than the parchment paper. If that is the case: lift it out and admire your handiwork! If they touched the cookie sheet: Pry it off. If it breaks, put parchment paper along the whole surface (you’ll know exactly where it didn’t have parchment, it’s okay, you can fix this!) and carefully align the broken area/s. Remelt. Allow to cool and admire your handiwork!

Finishing:

I have a bunch of different colored magic markers. I added details using the magic markers. You can easily remove the magic marker marks from the pony beads with a pencil eraser. This way, you are not stuck with just the way the beads melt. I wanted to see a little more movement in it so I added swirls to it. I know from experience magic marker will not last outdoors. If you like what your design looks like with magic marker make sure you hang it inside.

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For anything you would like to hang (versus just sitting it in a window, which is what I did): use a small diameter drill bit and drill a couple of holes and hang (If you break it, you can always remelt!) These end up pretty fragile so be careful. For the tic tac toe (tic tac bow) board: use dry erase markers to play. I’ve only done these projects with the above directions. I don’t know what else would work, but that’s the fun part: experimenting! I’d love to see any projects you come up with using these directions!!!

Please remember where you got your instructions! If you use these directions and post your own project please be kind enough to link back to this page. Thanks! Have fun!

Here are the other projects I tried out for the Doctor Who season 8 premier:

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I tried painting some $5 shoes I picked up at Walmart. I will definitely do more like this. Sonic screwdriver

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A weeping angel and the eleventh doctor with a mop, a bow tie and a fez. You can scream “NERD!” at me now. I’ll roll with it.

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A crack in the Universe and my obligatory glitter. Yes, I am only twelve years old in my mind! I figure I should never grow up: It’s bad for my imagination!

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Goofy, Doctor Who themed nails. WAYYY to much work. I will not be trying to do this much detail on my fingers again (especially since I was using toothpick tips to paint the details!) I have a lot of respect for the people who post nail art. I will have to admire their work from a distance from now on!

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Come On, You Know You Want To! Recycled Glass Flowers In The Garden

It’s hot out right now. Like: “melt into a puddle with whatever remaining liquid is left in your poor dehydrated body” hot out. San Antonio has a long growing season: 280 days. Our summers are included in the 280 days but I’m not sure that’s very fair. I can get peppers, okra and eggplants through our summer but but I need to water each plant every other day. Although I enjoy having these veggies I don’t want to be out in the yard in 100+ degree days sweating myself into a puddle if I don’t have to. So to celebrate and beautify my garden (without actually being out in the heat gardening) I have a great project: glass garden flowers!!!!

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Okay, I know glass and the great outdoors don’t seem like a good match but they can be. I’m going to teach you how to add a little recycled glass glamor to your yard. These are the stand-ins in my garden before my flowers take off in the spring and they are pretty enough to command attention even though they are located within one of my big patches of beautiful zinnias.

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I have seen drilled glass flowers. I am too lazy to deal with that. Mine are glued. I like mine glued. Very fast, very simple, plus: I used very heavy glass serving dishes, not thin porcelain plates like most people do. Glue is the way to go!

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There were a few things I learned from reading online and the rest I did from a few attempts on my own. I’ve seen bell hangers used for glass flowers. Since that seemed to be what the majority of online posts have used I figured I’d go ahead and rely on their experience. The only bell hangers I have found are at Lowe’s in the plumbing department. (Don’t bother with Home Depot. They don’t carry them. However, you can certainly try other hardware stores in your area.) If you don’t have a Lowe’s near you can find them online. They aren’t cheap but they work.

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These are bell hangers. They come in different sizes for different diameter pipes. Make sure you have all of your supplies matched up before you check out. Go ahead and remove the screws. You won’t need them if you are gluing.

I thought about using something other than bell hangers, but I was already at the store and wasn’t interested in wandering the isles coming up with my own idea. The main issue I have with the bell hangers is that they only have a thin circular rim to attach to the plate. Something flat would probably work better, giving the glue more area to adhere to between the plate and the attachment piece. In the absence of my own brilliant answer to this shortcoming: I will admit from my own experience the bell hangers do work. I bought a contractor pack because I plan to make a bunch of these.

Here’s a link for the pricing: http://www.lowes.com/Search=bell+hangers?storeId=10151&langId=-1&catalogId=10051&N=0&newSearch=true&Ntt=bell+hangers#!

While you’re at the hardware store in the plumbing department (near where you pick up the bell hangers) will be the area for pvc pipe. Match up the pvc so that it will fit inside the ring that is attached to the bell hanger (The bell hangers come in different sizes to accommodate different sized pipe.)

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Looking for rebar? You are in the right section of the hardware store if it looks like this. Those boxes on the shelves are full of rebar. Pick something thick and long. Get the same number of rebar as you have plans to make finished glass flowers.

You will use the rebar to run into the ground as the base/support and you will place the pvc pipe over it.

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You will also need some epoxy gorilla glue. I have no idea if anything else will work. This is the only glue I have used for this project.

The other thing you can use to decorate your flowers are glass beads or stones from a craft store.

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These are in the floral section of hobby/craft stores. Hold them up to the lights in the store. If they are too dark: pass them up. If they shimmer beautifully in the light, head to the checkout! I was sure the dark red would look nice in the sunlight. They were too dark and not evenly colored. I went with a bag of blue and a bag of green.

I have used high heat clear “window, door, trim and siding” silicone glue (the high heat designation will be listed on the side in the fine print) to put them on and also gorilla glue.

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They both work for this application. The silicone glue is much messier and will require gloves. You will also need mineral spirits to clean up the silicone glue. I recommend sticking to epoxy for the whole project.

We got a box of medical gloves from our pediatrician and I’m hooked! I use them to protect my hands during any messy chore/craft and this project was no different. They’re really handy to have around and you can bet I’ll be ordering another box when this one runs out!

Find some pretty plates you’d like to use to make your flowers. My antique plates are not things I would choose to ruin for this crafting project, so I hit the local Goodwill to find some cheap alternatives. This is what I picked out:

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Two very decorative pressed glass plates that created a really cool effect when put together.

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This is a great use for all of those pretty stamped glass plates your great grandmother would have collected. Fortunately, if you can’t bring yourself to mess up your own antique plates there are always a bunch of them at thrift shops! Look for lighter weight plates if you want to do several layers. (I did have a failure. Don’t use frosted glass on a side you will glue. It looked horrible. The lopsided glued area was clear and the rest was frosted. I’m still trying to find a solution for that one.) If you just want one plate with glass stones glued to them like the ones above and below, know that those glass stones will add quite a bit of weight on their own. I think the stones look better on the back of the plate rather than the front. You also should thoroughly wash your plates before starting to remove any film or dirt that will affect the adhesive. I ran mine though our dishwasher which uses a separate spotting/rinse agent in it.

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This was very heavy with the thickness of the plate and the glue, glass beads and the bell ring. It is not the one that dropped. I think if you use a textured plate: try and use the flat side for the bell ring attachment point. I believe the ridges in the other set of plates is why that flower dropped. I just went back and doubled the glue to fix it. All three flowers are still holding.

If you really like the look of something heavy, you may still be able to use it. Just make sure you use a couple of layers of glue. I didn’t think what I used would hold, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the strength of gorilla glue epoxy. Look for the highest psi rated, clear epoxy glue you can find.

Squeeze the two sides of the epoxy glue into the plastic mixing plate that comes in the package. Thoroughly mix it together with the enclosed stick and immediately place it on the bell hanger rim, both inside and out. Do not wait long or it will begin to set and you’ll have to start over with new glue. Use the stick that comes with the glue to smear it around the bell hanger and up the sides. Wait the recommended time for it to cure. Once it is completely cured add a second layer around the plate and up the sides of the bell hanger. Again: wait the recommended time for each layer to cure.

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Look around your yard and find the spot you want to add a glass flower. Don’t place your glass flower over something hard like stone or concrete. I had one of my assembled flowers drop (the gray set above). It bounced off of the soil below it and wasn’t damaged. I just popped some of the old glue off and used a few more layers of glue to repair it. I put it right back up once the glue dried. If you use thicker glass and it falls onto the surrounding soil, it may not break as easily as a very thin piece would.

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As you can see the real flowers in this photo are from this spring (2014). I waited until the fall to recommend my methods. These instructions worked for me. The completed glass flowers I made this spring still look great and are still holding strong!

Once you find your spot: drive your rebar into the ground with a hammer or mallet like you see in the above photo. It needs to be fairly deep to support the weight of the flower and whatever wind hits it, but needs to come up close to the top of the pvc pipe so the pvc doesn’t bend and break from the weight. Put the long piece of pvc pipe on the ground next to the rebar and mark how tall you want the pipe to be. Cut your pipe to the length you measured. You don’t have to be exact since the bell clamp is adjustable. I recommend placing the cut side down although, it probably won’t really matter since the glass plate will cover that end.

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Take the assembled glass flower and place it and the attached pvc pipe over the rebar. Slide the flower up or down to make sure the glass and pvc is supported by the rebar. (The pvc does not need to fit tightly over the rebar. The rebar just serves as additional support for the pipe.) The pvc will probably be stamped. I just turned the printed area towards the back of the flowerbed.

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The outside part of the clamp opens up and can be adjusted without removing the entire back of the bell clamp. It has a u shaped area to support the screw. Hang the plate with the open area of the u shaped area up. This will allow the screw to be supported underneath by the outside of the clamp. Tighten the screw down with a screwdriver.

Using pvc pipe over rebar makes the flower quickly removable by sliding the whole assembly off of the rebar. Just grab the plate and pvc pipe together and lift it up and off of the rebar. When you have storms with high winds or hail and for when your winter dips below freezing (we don’t see much of that down here!) pull the whole assembly off the rebar and store it in a protected area. When it’s time to put it back outside just slide it back over the rebar. It also makes it easy to work on your flower if you need to do repairs. I don’t notice the pipe and I don’t recommend painting it because it would eventually peel.

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My flowers have made it from February to September. One needed repair but hasn’t had an issue since I used two layers of epoxy on it.

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Now you have the basic instructions for whatever removable glass art flowers you decide you’d like to see in your flower beds. I have totally enjoyed mine. I think the next few I make I’ll try some pretty china from the local thrift shop, just for variety.

If you use my instructions and decide to post your work, please link back to the instructions on my site. Thanks!

 

 

 

Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense.

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Flowers are beautiful examples of sexual reproduction. We gather them, we create bouquets, we stick our noses into a plant’s sex organs and take a deep breath of intoxicating fragrance.

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The idea of sex (at least when we look at our own species) seems to be incredibly more complex and inherently immature.

 

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I will point to plants for transferable lessons in the beauty and enjoyment of sexual reproduction. Because: with flower sex there are no immature experiences. Enjoying a flower is simple and healthy.

Plant sex: On display

Plants are never shy about reproduction. Those beautiful blossoms on your rose bush? Reproduction. The fruit you enjoy from the market? Reproduction. The nuts that provide fiber and protein in your diet? Reproduction.

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Plants can’t walk around and find their ideal mate. Instead they are more like billboards attempting to get pollinators to look so they might entice them to stop by and enjoy some nectar (and to spread some pollen around while they are at it.) With a plant’s sexual reproduction: it is in the plant’s best interest to get noticed. Pollinators create new offspring for plants, fruit and nuts attract animals to help with dispersal.

Humans select strains for the best fruit as far as taste and visual appeal. However, we create imbalance in the system when we don’t remember to select to attract and feed pollinators. I believe helping create healthy pollinators is going to become a necessary interest that must be included in the future of breeding and research in horticulture. It will be in recognition of the importance of the balance that nature strives to create.

What is the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seed?

These are legal definitions for plants. If you would like to know how and why these are separated in seed catalogs this is a great explanation: http://www.garden.org/subchannels/care/seeds?q=show&id=293&page=1 You need to know the difference before you start on the pollination journey.

Purposeful hand application of pollen:

As a home gardener, you can effectively focus on two different things in hand pollination. The first is to (1) purposely pollinate plants to create (A) a new hybrid or to (B) isolate and maintain pure strains:

(A) Hybridization (taking pollen from one desirable plant and placing the pollen on a second variety. With this method you are trying to create a better strain than either of the parents) will produce a new type of fruit but the seeds will not be stable. Reliably hybridizing takes more expertise than the average home gardener has. If you allow one of nature’s pollinators to do this you will get something unique next year if you sow the crossed seed (although you may not enjoy eating it.) Letting nature engage in hybridization is like the slot machine gambling of the plant world. You may hit the jackpot growing hybridized seed but more often you may just lose your money (with lesser quality plants than the parents, wasted garden space, water etc). I will admit to enjoying random crosses that grow out of discarded winter squash seed in my compost heap. Even if it’s merely to marvel at the possibilities that plant genetics can offer us!

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In my home garden I occasionally play the game of: “Squash, squash, what is that squash?” I have had some crazy crosses come up when I haven’t rotated crops from year to year or have found them growing from discarded seed in my compost heap. This game can easily be played with all cucurbits (squash/melon/cucumber/gourd family). To play: encourage the help of bees. Just save seed after two varieties of the same species have been growing at the same time.

(B) Keeping plant strains pure: The other part of this type of pollinating is isolating varieties to prevent hybridization. You will need isolation space (which varies per plant type), grow only one variety or use barriers like bags to keep what you have pollinated fertilized by only what you have chosen to place on it. You can try this if you have had a few successful seasons in your home garden and feel ready to expand your skills. You can learn more about keeping open pollinated seed strains pure or creating new hybrids here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/

and here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Instructions/

If you are a seasoned gardener, I suggest this site: http://seedalliance.org/index.php?mact=DocumentStore,cntnt01,download_form,0&cntnt01pid=12&cntnt01returnid=139

(I always encourage people to support seedsavers.org. They are a genetic bank for open pollinated and heirloom strains of vegetables. They are maintaining diversity which is in complete opposition to GMO and hybrid seed companies like Monsanto.)

The second part is 2) Lack of pollination: The second focus in hand pollination is to make up for a lack of pollinators. No bees is a big deal! When sexual reproduction in a vegetable or fruit garden is bee reliant, you can intervene if there is a lack of them. Just make sure you add bee attracting flowers next season. You aren’t going to want to have to totally replace the bee’s handiwork. They work hard!

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Where we fit in:

Just like humans can sometimes use help with fertility: plants that use sexual reproduction can use our help as well. Male and female organs on a plant use pollination to reproduce. Here is a list of common vegetable plants and how they reproduce: http://www.harvesttotable.com/2009/05/how_vegetables_are_pollinated/

There are three main categories of pollination and gardeners can easily affect them:

A: Pollination by wind. This happens between separate male and female flower parts found on plants like corn (how to hand pollinate corn: link) You can help these plants along by physically rubbing the male pollen onto the female flower to increase your chances of fertilization. You can specifically help corn by cutting off one of the tassels (located at the top of the plant)

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Corn tassles.

and knocking pollen onto the silks as they emerge (found closer to the middle of the plant).

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Corn silk from this years plants.

B: Self-pollination: This happens within the same flower like tomatoes (how to hand pollinate tomatoes: link ) The key for these plants is agitation: grab a stem and give the plant a good shake. It is a little like what a good wind or rain storm would do. Self pollinating plants have their male and female parts close together. The pollen needs to drop a very small distance onto the stigma. Grabbing the plant and giving it a good shake will help knock loose pollen from the anthers onto the stigma.

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You can grab a tomato plant and give it a shake to knock the pollen off of the male part of the flower onto the female part. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. Each flower contains both male and female parts.

C. Animal pollination. Where a plant relies on something in the animal kingdom to spread pollen from plant to plant. Examples are bees, butterflies, moths and other insects pollinating your home vegetables and fruit trees. Here is a list of plants and their pollinators: link

Ideally you have a ton of bees in your yard from avoiding insecticides and other chemicals while ensuring you plant nectar and pollen rich flowers. This should create conditions to assure that you have pollinators already on your property eager to pollinate your fruits and vegetables. Even so, early in our season we are short on pollinators. Unfortunately, most suburbs are surrounded miles and miles of a monoculture of lawn grass.  Homeowners struggle to keep weeds out of their lawns just so neighbors (or an HOA) don’t judge them for noncompliance. While homeowners are planning their herbicide attack they don’t notice the hum of bees enjoying those same weeds.

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Lawn weeds in Bermuda grass. These are tiny, but the bees love them!

I hope within the next decade we start looking at the ground around our homes as the potential to support nature rather than trying to enforce an arbitrary idea of beauty. Humans seem to enjoy battling the way things work in nature by forcing the unnatural concept of perfectly manicured lawns. Try removing as much grass as possible and replacing it with pollinator friendly, native plants.

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A butterfly magnet: lantana.

When does it make sense to hand pollinate?

Cucurbits are number one on this list of home fruiting plants that have issues with pollination. Cucurbits include: winter squash (which includes pumpkins), summer squash, melons, cucumbers and gourds. They produce large fruits on a bush or a long sturdy vine. If you have struggled getting these plants to produce for you, it may be time to start looking at pollinating the flowers yourself.

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My melon patch this year. I recommend trellising cucurbits unless they are a kind that will “slip” from the vine when ripe. Here’s how I do it: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I don’t support melons or squash that I grow like this. I don’t need to. Big vines like these climb naturally and retain their fruit as they do it. I cut the melons off when they are ready.

Identifying male and female flowers on cucurbits:

In the cucurbitae family there are separate male and female flowers. Once you can tell the difference between the sex of a flower, you can try your hand at pollinating.

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Male flower on a melon plant. Notice there is nothing but a thin stem attaching the flower to the vine.

These are the male flowers. They are easy to identify because they will be on the end of a long straight stem and covered in pollen. The male part of the flower is called the stamen. There will be a long filament that has a pollen covered anther at the end.

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I sliced a male blossom in half here. Notice the shape of the interior of the flower. There is pollen at the end of the stamen and no immature fruit below the petals.

At the end of the stamen is the anther. This is where you start. The anther is where the pollen (which is male) is found that is required for the female flower to produce fruit.

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Female flower on the same melon plant. Notice the immature fruit between the stem and the flower. There will be many more male flowers and if you eat squash blossoms you should plan on frying or stuffing the male blossoms. This would not affect the amount of fruit you get.

This is the female counterpart. You can spot female flowers by looking for the swollen ovary.

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Here is the interior of a female blossom. You can see that the stigma (on the inside of the petals) is pollen free and that there is a swollen ovary (the future fruit) that contains unfertilized seed.

These will abort and fall from the plant if they are not fertilized properly.

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If you have a whole lot of this…

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…and not a lot of this: You probably have a pollination problem.

Like most living things: the female reproductive organs are more complicated than the male organs. The entire length of the female part of a flower is called a pistil. Starting from where the pistil is attached to the base of the flower you will see a swollen area which is the ovary. It is full of potential seeds called ovules. Continuing up the pistil there will be a narrower tube called the style connected to the sticky tip of the pistil: the stigma. This sticky tip is what needs to be fertilized with the male pollen.

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Male and female parts within the same flower.

Here is a simple description that will give you a working foundation in hand pollination:

You don’t need to work with hundreds of flowers, just a few per vine. If they fail, go out and do it again, until you have the amount of fruit you are after. You will get better quality, larger fruit if you allow your plant to concentrate on only producing a few fruit per vine.

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Thai Golden Round melons. I have these on my melon trellis. Learn to build a cheap trellis here: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support  I’ve probably got 10 or more that are close to being ripe. These are not my favorite melon but they are prolific and the vines do well here.

If you have to stand in for bees frequently, you will realize how much work these little garden friends do for us. I recommend making plans to plant nectar and pollen rich plants so you can attract these busy bees to your yard and save yourself the trouble of trying to do it all yourself.

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Successfully pollinated by our neighborhood bees. The blossom is shriveled at the bottom of this melon.

The following is how I like to hand pollinate in small areas with large fruited plants:

I use a q-tip to gather and spread pollen. They are cheap and simple. I twirl it over several of the same species/variety of squash or melons. This is Thai Golden Round. Then I hunt for open female flowers and twirl the pollen onto the stigma. If you’ve done it correctly: the fruit will begin to grow and mature. If your attempt fails: the immature fruit will fall from the vine. You will have more chances and this is why I save and label my q-tips: I want to load as much pollen on them as I can. You can also use a small paintbrush or remove the male flower completely and rub it’s anther directly onto the female’s stigma.

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You don’t need to be careful if you aren’t saving seed, but you won’t create a squash with watermelon pollen. You still need to focus on one species of plant, even if you choose to mix varieties of pollen from the same species of plants. Here is a good explanation of cross-pollination in cucurbits: http://www.walterreeves.com/food-gardening/squashpumpkincucumberwatermelon-pollination-explanation/

You can label your q-tip by putting a piece of tape on it and writing the variety you used it on. If you aren’t saving seed you can use the same q-tip for all of your pollinating (I am not currently saving seed because I am trialing too many, in too close of proximity, to keep the strains pure. Although I usually keep at least one q-tip for each: winter squash/summer squash, melon, watermelon etc. In this way I make sure the q-tip only contains pollen that will fertilize the species I am trying to grow.)

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You can be as detailed or as simplistic as you want. My labeling depends on what I am trying to do for the season.

For more information including recipes, pictures and growing information: Here are some great links.

Learn all about melons: (This is a fantastic site out of Australia that includes growing information, recipes and reviews of melon varieties.) http://melonmaster.yolasite.com/

Learn all about squash: This site can take a while to load but it has reviews and recommended ways to prepare and consume pretty much any variety of squash, gourd and cucumber that you are growing. The site is listed alphabetically.) http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/vegetables/squash-glossary.asp

There you go! A simplistic guide to an incredibly complex field of study. Botanists can write the text books full of the complex how’s and why’s, but anyone with this simple guide can go out and enjoy becoming the bee!

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Reaping The Rewards Of Spring Planning

This month is heavy on the picking and light on the work. Why? Because I worked hard in the spring to create this exact scenario. Water-wise, deep beds have yielded incredible amounts of produce. See how we built them here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas  and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

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Hugelkultur/keyhole garden inspired bed. These will have worm bins in the middle in a few weeks.

Instructions for creating a carefree, water-wise layer for a raised bed can be found here: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Newspaper, landscape fabric, wood mulch, soaker hoses and a water-wise raised bed are a few of the things I use in my garden.

Sealed beds have created areas for flowers with no invading Bermuda grass and little to pull as far as seed born weeds. This is how I beat the Bermuda: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich.

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Attracting pollinators is easy with annual seeds. Bachelor buttons and zinnia are a few of the flowers I have growing right now.

All I have to do at the moment is to sit back and enjoy my garden. Down here in the South Texas summer, as the mercury rises and the afternoons become unbearably hot: that’s all I want to be doing outside.

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Organic gardening conditions are doable if you have planned ahead and removed the labor from the summer garden. After considerable planning and spring work: all I have to do mid-summer is watch for disease and insects and hook up the watering hose. Planning ahead will make the extra effort required to use more organic practices possible.

Right now I just add water and watch for the summer bug invasion. Armed with Neem oil and a watering hose I have much to enjoy and not much to worry about. I do my heavy work in the spring when the weather is nice and I am motivated.

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With our long season I am planting corn in February/March and harvesting in June. We have two corn seasons down here. Smaller gardens have the ability to produce large quantities because of the extended growing season.

We have a short winter downtime. Our growing season is close to 280 days. But it wouldn’t be this much fun if I hadn’t thought ahead and prepared. Two years after buying our home I have slowly eked out a great garden space, despite our: heavy clay soil, invading Bermuda grass and my annoying health issues. Here’s what I am currently enjoying in a near maintenance-free garden:

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Figs are ripening.

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The corn hit 7 feet and started tassling last month. I have already harvested the majority of the corn. Because I live so far South, my growing season is ahead of most of the rest of the country. If you watch my blog you can plan ahead and have the techniques that I use ready as your spring, summer and fall approaches.

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2014 has been a great year for corn for me. I grow only heirloom vegetables (outside of tomatoes) and corn is one of the most genetically modified and hybridized vegetables you can grow. Avoiding gmo contamination is huge problem with seed corn because it is wind pollinated and pure strains of older varieties are becoming harder to find. Check out heirloom seed sites like seedsavers.org and help ensure genetic variety for our future.

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The kitty who makes his own rules. I can’t keep him out! As you can see the netting I used to keep him out in the spring has totally failed at this point. He’s an antique (20+ years old!) and a good friend, so sometimes I let him win in the battle of the right to rule the garden!

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Tickseed (Coreopsis) is a favorite of mine. Virtually carefree and in constant bloom. It just takes some deadheading to keep it beautiful all summer.

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Love in a mist (Nigella damascena) is fun annual to grow. Look for seeds, you won’t find these annuals in pots in a garden center! The great thing about older garden staples is they are extremely easy to save seed from and grow year after year: just like your (great+) grandma used to!

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Keep pollinators happy with old time favorites. They offer great diversity in pollen and nectar for our garden friends like: hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Find flower lists online or just order an annual flower seed mix. Seed mixes of heirloom varieties are the most appealing to the bugs you want to attract.

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I grew canna lilies from seed this year. (They are perennials down here and a fun addition to an edible garden.) I belong to a seed train (a group that shares seed between it’s members for the price of postage.) I found mine on yahoo groups. If you can’t find one: start one! You will soon find takers. Getting a box in the mail is like Christmas for seed train members. You will receive favorites from random gardens across the nation!

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Culinary oregano in bloom. A great addition to salads, sandwiches and cooked dishes. I recommend growing lots of herbs. They are easy to care for and are usually pretty mild when they are picked fresh. Because of this: you can enjoy fresh herbs in all kinds of meals and they attract all kinds of good bugs.

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Persimmons.

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Tomatoes from one of my monster cherry tomato plants. If you live in the deep south and wonder why you have trouble with tomatoes: it’s because the temperatures in the summers stay too hot. Tomatoes will abort fruit and flowers once it hits our summertime temps. I know it seems counter-intuitive but tomatoes are pretty picky about their growing temperatures, even hot ones. Since we don’t cool off at night, the summer won’t give you many tomatoes. Our viable season for tomatoes, down here by San Antonio, is very short in both the spring and fall. Try smaller varieties and determinate types that will set all of their fruit at once. Because the season is so short for them I don’t bother with seed. I go with transplants from a garden center and I am usually pleased with the result.

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Basil in bloom. Letting my herbs flower and go to seed has been one of the best ways to attractant bees and other beneficial insects to my yard.

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Bouquet of zinnia, echinacea, day lily and cosmos. I have bouquets like this all season long.

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Kumquats.

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You can never have enough fresh figs!!!!

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Would you like to know what I know about successful gardening? Check out the tab at the top of the page titled: Gardening Basics There’s a lot to digest on that page, so book mark it and come back as you need more information. It covers all you need to know to grow, and the information is free. You can do this and I can show you how!

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Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

One of the draws of raised beds (especially if you have heavy native clay soil) is the the great drainage it provides. However, the drainage in a raised bed can also become an issue in high summer heat. This is a great example of how some things are extremely helpful in one season (like drainage during wet springs) but can become a problem in others (low water retention in dry, hot summers). Down here in South Texas our summers are both hot and dry, with weeks above 100 degrees and little to no rainfall. Preparing for drought is part of running a cost effective garden. I don’t want to have to add any extra money into growing home produce.

If you grow your own veggies you are probably very aware of the cheap seasonal produce at the grocer that requires no work on your part. Sometimes it makes your struggles and efforts seem larger than life…but there is nothing like home ripened vegetables and you are in total control of what chemicals have been added to your food. Despite the labor and costs: there are more reasons to grow your own food than there are reasons to skip doing it!

Since drought is a big issue down here: this is my solution to our dry, hot summers.

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Here is our Hugelkultur inspired raised bed. In case you missed out on how we built it you can find my posts on the two beds we have built here: Hugelkutur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed.

I’m starting out with a drought resistant bed. This bed is a permanent addition to the garden. It will take very little work to maintain, requires no tilling and has a sponge-like water retentive layer within it. We have water restrictions right now and have started out the year at the lowest our aquifer has ever been in the spring. Saving water is vital to raising cost effective vegetables and remaining responsible users of our city’s water supply. My corn is already silking here in the last weeks of May. Our main growing season is nearing it’s end. It will soon be followed by intense heat and a dry summer. Summer is our down time. It is hard to get anything to survive the heat. I will be planting and maintaining heat tolerant and drought resistant vegetables in this bed like: okra, peppers, beans and melons.

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I’m a huge fan of soaker hoses. This is how I chose to water my summer beds. As you can see I put painter’s tape to mark where the lines run. Water follows the path of least resistance, which in this case is straight down. You will want to plant your seedlings along the lines to ensure that they receive enough water while they are small and vulnerable.

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Turn your water on, and time how long it takes to wet the bed with full water pressure. This is an important step so that you can run your hose underneath the mulch layer. Time it before you cover it and you will not have to guess how long to run the water.

Marking where your lines run is also a good idea. Painters tape is fast and easy to use…plus I already had some! The next phase in creating a water wise bed is to create a layer that will stop evaporation. Remember to wet as you go. Covering a dry bed will only make watering it more difficult.

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I’m getting the bed wet before I add a weed/evaporation barrier. Adding water now will mean you add less later. To make a hugelkutur bed work, it needs to be wet at it’s core. Keeping the bed hydrated now will ensure that you will need less water when high heat and dry summers roll around.

Most places in the US have less heat and wetter summers that we do down here. This bed would still ensure that you will need to use much less water. Down here, I wouldn’t be able to effectively grow in the summer without using something like this. No matter your weather: this is an extremely low maintenance option that any gardener can use. Putting the original effort in the beginning (by building a hugelkultur type bed) will make the years you use the bed almost maintenance free and offer your plants a deep, near ideal growing medium.

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This is why I take the local paper! Open your news papers and take out all of the shiny sheets and throw them in the recycling. Take the rest of your paper and open them up across your bed. Thick is better than thin in this case and you should aim for 5 to 10 layers of paper to go over the bed. WET AS YOU GO! The paper will blow away if you don’t! You can also use straw or cardboard in this layer. Use whatever you have or can get cheaply.

You need to be prepared with what you will be putting over the newspaper. You need a thick layer of mulch and/or landscape fabric. I always live in high wind, dry areas. I can’t use mulch that will easily blow around like straw would. I need something heavy so I choose wood mulch.

Before you decide to create a water barrier like this: you need to realize that water retention works both ways. It will keep water within the bed that you add with the soaker hose but it will also keep water out if you try and water from above the newspaper. You will need to be committed to using the soaker hose, but you will use much less water than if you are watering from above with no newspaper mulch layer. I also have a hose splitter and a water timer that I use.  There are quick release nozzles for use with soaker hoses as well. This would make the process quick if you have multiple hoses you are attaching to. The combination of all of my choices: water timers, mulch layers, hugelkulture raised bed and soaker hoses; makes for near maintenance-free gardening. I ensure my success by using these features. I can even go out of town and not worry about the garden!

I choose to use cheap landscape fabric as a layer in between the mulch and the newspaper for a couple of reasons:

1. If the mulch shifts, the bed is still completely sealed.

2. I can rake off the wood mulch I put over the top every year and reuse or compost it. The landscape fabric makes this process easy. I don’t mix wood mulch into the upper layers of soil. Decomposing wood draws nitrogen away from plants and large wood chips (the kind that make it through our high winds) would dehydrate the bed if used in the upper layers of soil.

I am all about putting effort in early (when I have the motivation and nice weather) so I can reap the rewards later (when it’s too hot to do much outside!)

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Now you can see why I marked where the lines were!

The next thing you do is use a knife or scissors to carefully cut holes in the fabric and plant through it. You will need to make large enough holes to accommodate your mature plants. I make an “X” in the fabric and tuck the loose pieces back under the rest of the fabric.

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Make sure you plant along the hose.

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You can see the pepper I planted is lined up with the soaker hose beneath the fabric.

Carefully mound a thick layer of mulch around the areas that are not planted. Plug your garden hose into the soaker hose and water when the beds gets dry (stick your finger into the exposed soil near the hose where you planted your seeds or seedlings and you should feel moisture. If you don’t: it’s time to water.)

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If you’d like to see what I’m doing with the milk jugs: this post “Shortcut Through The Hardening-Off Process” explains why I love them so much!!! Another use for milk jugs is in this post: “The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds

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You will need to water often until your plants are established. After that, you can enjoy the water retention this type of bed offers!

You now have a water-wise planting bed that should survive any weather mother nature sends your way!

Get out there and plant something and enjoy your summer gardening!

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Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day!

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My boys and my husband made me a cake!

The best part of the weekend? I got another hugelkultur inspired raised bed! Don’t know Hugelkultur? Learn more here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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This is the second year I’ve gotten a raised bed on Mother’s Day and I am super excited! The first one we built is here on my post: “Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas”. We did this one a bit differently, but kept the main ideas we used on the original  Hugelkultur inspired bed.

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This is a cinder block bed. The inner dimensions are 6 by 10 feet. We lined it with cardboard.

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You need to wet this as you go. Cardboard and paper take a ton of water. It works well to step on it as you water. That will squeeze the air out and help your dry materials absorb the liquid.

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There’s a layer of packing paper. This is a great use of all the stuff you end up with after a move! We chose to add the wood chips again. These wood chips will eventually absorb water and act like a giant sponge. Through each new addition to the bed make sure you wet it well. It will be impossible to wet it thouroughly later on.

Expect to have the giant grubs if you are in Texas. You can see my solution on my post “When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!” I’ve seen a lot of queries about giant grubs on search engines from people down here so I know I’m not the only one!

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We used about 5 bags of mulch in this bed. I just bought the cheapest mulch I could find which ended up being pine bark mulch. The larger the chips: the longer the chips will last. Remember to wet as you go!

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The next layer is compost. I don’t buy anything I haven’t touched. I won’t buy anything that feels like there’s a ton of sand in it. We went to a local rock yard and were disappointed as usual. I’ve always done price comparisons between hardware stores and rock yards and have chosen hardware store bagged soil every time, but this rock yard had really poor quality soil as well. Bagged soil at Lowe’s was about a dollar less a yard and much, much better quality. I haven’t found good soil at Walmart or Home Depot locally, but you can certainly check whatever is near you and see if you have better luck. I skipped the hay in this bed. Since we’re in a severe drought: hay is not a cost effective option right now.

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Your access to brands of bagged soil will depend on your location. If you see this stuff at Lowe’s, it is what I choose for amending. It’s a good price and a great quality soil. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need something that has a certain “type” of soil listed on the bag. Touch it and judge the soil by what you feel. This bag says “compost”, I call it: great soil. The only thing you need to stay away from (as far as it being too rich) would be manure (composted or not). Watch your added Nitrogen levels with manure. It will burn your plants if you add too much and will be full of the salts they add as supplements to animals in feed lots.

Please refer to my post “Making Sense Of Old Sayings” to help you learn the importance of building great soil and how to recognize good bagged soil.

Don’t know if you are dealing with hot or cold manure? Read up on adding valuable natural fertilizers to your soil here: http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201104-animal-manures and here: http://www.moongrow.com/organic_gardening_guide/fertilizers/manure.html

Here’s a site that explains why our rabbit is my favorite source of fertilizer: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8156/rabbit-manure-in-the-garden

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We added a bale of peat humus to lower the pH and help hold water. Everything down here (including the water from the tap) is basic. The water has such a high pH it will kill acid loving plants even if they are potted in low pH soil. I make my coffee in a coffee press. When I’m done I pour more water in, let it sit in the old grounds and then go water my gardenias with the water. Be careful with the grounds themselves. You can easily kill a plant with coffee grounds…even acid loving ones. This is the voice of experience.

In the last bed I used another concept called Keyhole Gardening. There is a beautiful how to video from Africa on this concept and it makes the idea really easy to understand: http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco . I tried this with the last bed I built. Over the year that it’s been installed: the feeder areas that I made with chicken wire have collapsed. This year I am going to use different, more permanent materials (three large pvc pipes with holes drilled in it for drainage instead of chicken wire) and add another aspect to it: worms! I got the idea from this blog: http://milkwood.net/2010/10/12/how-to-make-a-worm-tower/

So, I’m creating 1-3 permanent worm bins inside the bed. I may put one in and see how I like it and add others later. The site above calls it a “worm tower”. This is the basic idea of the keyhole garden which is set up to feed and water the beds, but with updated materials…and some red wigglers, which will do fine as a permanent outdoor worm bin in our climate. I love the new addition to the theme because: I have no interest in keeping up with feeding and emptying independent worm bins. I also was wondering how I was going to keep critters out of an outdoor bin full of wonderful kitchen scraps and yummy worms. We’ve already got armadillos in the yard tearing up areas looking for grubs. So far, they have stayed out of the raised bed.

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Last year’s melons. I had a bumper crop but had problems with a family of opossums helping themselves to the ripe ones!

On the to do list: My husband is going to enclose the garden with fencing. I had trouble with opossums in my melons last year so I will probably end up using electric fence in conjunction with the fence my husband wants to put in.

This bed is cheap to construct, permanent, easy to maintain and I don’t have to deal with our crummy natural soil. I will be planting it this weekend.

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Instead of lining this with plastic tarp like we used on the last one I have discovered that filling the holes in the blocks with soil does about the same thing. We will then cap them with concrete block pavers. I am soo ready to get out and plant this!!!!

Watch for next weeks post! I will teach you a great way to water your raised beds and keep it from losing water to evaporation. Down here in the summer we have days over 100 degrees for weeks at a time on top of water restrictions. They have promised an El Nino year which will hopefully end our drought but will bring torrential rains. Either way, this bed is going to provide us with a great area to grow veggies this year, and for years to come!

Want more information?  The “Gardening Basics” tab at the top of this page will walk you through everything you need to know to start you on the path towards a successful gardening experience. The information is free and I’m genuinely interested in helping you succeed. Let me know if you would like more information on specific topics for future posts. I’m here to help. Good luck and go out and get your hands dirty!

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A How To: On Animals and Life

How to: Enjoy an indoor rabbit…

Hahaha. No. He stinks, will live up to 18 years, digs up the carpet in the corners and kicks out rabbit poo all over the floor from his cage.

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Red uses his ninja training to kick poo out all over the floor when night falls. Rabbits, like most rodents, are nocturnal.

Unfortunately, (for me anyway) it gets way too hot to cage a rabbit outdoors down here. (There are ways to do it, but it would take a lot of work.) He is a long term rodent investment!

How to: Own an Australian Shepherd and triumph over the hair…

Oh my God, no. My dog blows his coat every spring.

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This is my dog and his undercoat. There’s at least another dog his size worth of hair after this brushing. It’s not over at once, either. He will continue to shed heavily for weeks and then go back to medium shedding (like most dogs do in the spring) for the remainder of the year. His shedding is insane and never ending!!!!

Huge chunks of rabbit fine undercoat dropping off onto the carpet. Daily vacuuming cannot compete with these random blobs of dog hair. My dog is the ultimate champ in all shedding events! In case you wondered: Australian Shepherds are an American based breed. I have no idea why he isn’t called an American shepherd. Probably just didn’t sound as cool!

How to: Keep a cat out of your pots, flower beds and vegetable garden…

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Urg. My attempts have included laying chicken wire across the beds, plastic netting and high fences: he still manages to get into and poop on everything. Cat poop is like the nuclear waste of animal dung. Toxic, nasty, yuck that will last long after anything natural should! That stuff is deadly to my plants and it does not compost (even though he chooses to bury it.)

My animals each have their issues. So do my human friends. But they all have reasons to ignore the drawbacks:

In defense of the rabbit:
Our rabbit “Red” is a snuggle bunny. He was a gift to my kids for surviving a tough move, away from family, down to Texas. My then 5 year old thought naming a black and white rabbit “Red” was hilarious. I agree! I don’t have any babies in the house anymore. My boys are getting bigger. I still get kid snuggles, but our bunny is about the same size my boys were when they were born.

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Red getting some snuggles!

Our rabbit makes a great stand in for a mommy and a daddy who are nostalgic about the days when we had infants at home!

In defense of the dog:
My dog is incredibly smart. Like: “Are you sure you aren’t just a really hairy five year old kid?” smart. I got him on the first anniversary of 9-11. He has a patriotic registered name but we call him “Christmas”. I think I chose that nickname because Christmas is a holiday full of love, forgiveness and promise. Just what I needed on an anniversary of a horrible, emptyhearted tragedy that was created by a few bent souls.

He is great with my kids. He has endless love and forgiveness. He is great entertainment with his goofy quirks (He does flips, can out fetch anyone’s desire to continue to throw a ball for him and he actually kicks balls with his front feet. Dog soccer is awesome!) Plus, he was my family before I met my husband. I love my dog completely!

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In defense of the cat:

My cat is an antique. I rescued him as a kitten. He was up a tree at my mom’s. She was out of town at the time but offered this advice when I called her asking if I should rescue the kitten: “Leave him alone. He’ll come down. You never see cat bones up in a tree.” After three days I got out the ladder and brought him down. That’s when I noticed he had a puncture wound on his stomach (most likely from a coyote trying to eat him. That would make me stay up in a tree indefinitely, too!)

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He was scared, dehydrated and feral but he recognized I was trying to help him and he’s been a great buddy ever since. If I’d left him, I think he might have become the first set of cat bones in a tree!

His name is “Newman”. He was named after the Seinfeld character when that show was popular. He’s that old! 20+ years and counting. The dogs and other cats we had at the time are long gone, but Newman keeps plugging along! He was a barn cat that defied the odds. He is super friendly and one of those rare “great cats”. I’ve only owned a couple of those in my life.
Every relationship has troubles, even ones that are forged between species. But most long term love affairs happen because they have earned the right to happen. They are made through mutual respect, love and interdependence.

I love the relationships I have with my animals. They have helped me understand that my human connections are just as rewarding (and as challenging) because “perfect” doesn’t really exist. It’s not supposed to. Love is complex but it’s definitely worth the hassles and learning experiences that imperfections bring! Learning to love means dropping expectations and opening up to a direction you don’t control. Forgiveness is a habit. Respect is not optional. Control is not compatible. (And I take that stance: in defense of me.)

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Here’s to enjoying the imperfections and gifts that love and life bring our way!

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Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

Oh, I love my milk jugs! I start my seeds in them. I root cuttings in them. I short cut the hardening-off process with them.

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Yes! That’s right you can now be lazy like me and get past the long and annoying process of getting plants into your garden. Hardening off plants is necessary but I hate it. It requires patience, planning and organization. I am not good at any of those. Moving a plant from indoor light to your outdoor location (especially in full sun) without having the plant sunburn and suffer from wind burn takes more effort than I enjoy using for a seedling: out in the shade, back in the house, in the shade, in the sun…moving trays of plants ad nauseum.

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Granted I don’t have acres of garden area to deal with, but I have enough plants hardening off at the same time that I was on the lookout for an easier way to do it.

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Enter the milk jugs. Luckily for me I have some major milk drinking kids (Okay, I admit it. I am, too) and I always have gallon jugs. The nice thing about milk jugs is they are semi-opaque. They keep the sun down to a reasonable level, keep the wind at bay and let the transplanted seedling establish itself. Just cut the base off and you’re good to go. You will need to raise the jugs to water.

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I am also using water bottles with some parchment paper or wax paper run inside it and vents cut around individual seedlings for a few days. The water bottles will only allow a small plant. You could probably use it on any nightshade family plant that starts off looking like a pepper seedling (including: tomatillo, peppers, husk cherry, garden huckleberry.) If we drank pop: I would also be using two liter bottles with the parchment/wax paper. I use what we have, therefore: I use milk jugs (and well rinsed out vinegar jugs when I get an empty.)

 

Run a stick next to your transplanted seedling to hold bottles in place. I’m only using water bottles because I don’t have thirty milk jugs hanging out to cover everything. Like I said: I use what I have. I’m certainly saving more jugs for next year!!! Go ahead and cut some vents in any clear container you are putting paper in. All of the covers will need to vent or you will cook the plants.

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Next: nestle the jug or bottle into the soil. If you live in a windy area like I do, run some chicken wire over your bed (flatten it out first.) The chicken wire and your stick you ran down the center of the bottles will hold the jugs and bottles in place. Do not put the caps back on. I also put some iron based natural snail bait down because I was getting holes on the plants overnight. Slugs and snails are sneaky!!!

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Don’t let them dry out, keep them watered daily until they establish. Leave the small ones on for several days, the jugs up to a week. You can then make a judgement call when you think they will make it without the cover. You are looking for things like: solid growth, no major wilting and generally healthy, happy seedlings. You can pop these on and off during the day/night for a few days before you are ready to remove them for good. This will get the plants past wind burn and sunburn. Look at what you are dealing with weather-wise and try to remove the covers permanently on a calm/cloudy/wet day or when you will experience lower temperatures. You could certainly use row cover to do the same thing, but I prefer the milk jugs (I’m now addicted! Good thing I love milk!)

 

I could deal with row cover (which really isn’t much different, but here are the cons:) Row cover falls apart quickly, gets full of debris, can blow off and into your neighbors yard with enough wind (the winds in Colorado would blow so hard the row cover would rip away from the landscape pins! Now we’re in Texas. The military makes you move!), some seasons I can find it easily, other seasons it’s a huge search that results in serious frustration and a purchase online, lastly: I bleach most things I reuse between seasons to cut down on fungal spores. Alternatively: I can store a bunch of milk jugs in my garage every winter and use them for years! Quicker, easier, already on hand…the jugs have my vote!

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My peppers made the transition beautifully! I love shortcuts that work!

Since I’m enjoying my garden so much this year, I thought I’d throw in some random photos from this week:

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Chard down here is a perennial. These are green through winter.

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Corn on one foot centers.

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Tomatoes from the local nursery. I don’t grow tomatoes from seed because the summer is too hot to set fruit and the spring here is short.

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Tomato babies!!!

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Peas are close to harvest time.

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Beautiful radish!

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When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!

There is a lot going on in my garden this week:

My peas are going crazy.

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My kohlrabi is looking good.

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My corn is happy.

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The peppers I started from seed are closing in on transplanting time.

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The only issue I am having are super-sized, extra giant grubs.

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“Everything is bigger in Texas”. Yes, these are real and not photoshopped and I’m sorry if you were eating while reading.

These are not your June bug variety lawn grubs. My best guess after some research is that they are Eastern Hercules Beetle larvae. I am not sure they are actually damaging my plants. The profile for these says they are feeding on decomposing organic matter in my beds. However, I had these in my pots last season and I am certain they were responsible for the demise of the tomato plants that were growing in them.

I am not usually squeamish about bugs. I invite all sorts of things to enjoy my garden with me. I teach my kids that garden spiders are my helpers. I squish the caterpillars on my veggie plants by hand so I don’t have to spray. I encourage wasps so they can eat the caterpillars I miss. I collect and transfer any earthworms I find on the sidewalk after a rain, into my raised beds.

But…everyone has a breaking point. Had they been in a compost pile I would have left them. Unfortunately, these were where I was working and they were out of control. I was digging up three or four for every plant hole I dug. They are so big I was smashing them with a trowel rather than get the gross innards on my shoes. Plus: since I couldn’t tell where they were as I dug, I punctured a few while digging and they were making my planting experience a gross one.

I didn’t want to use a chemical across my veggie bed, so I took the plunge and ordered some beneficial nematodes. I bought them through this site: link.

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Nematodes are microscopic. Some varieties of nematodes naturally found in sandy soils down here are harmful to plant roots. I have read horror stories from people who were trying to eradicate those.

These nematodes are different. They don’t infest plant roots: they eat bugs. They are microscopic hunters that will go after quite a few of my least favorite garden insects. As long as it pupates or lives in the soil: I should be covered. One of the bugs I’m hoping to get some control over are squash vine borers that have two life cycles per season down here. The squash borers love to decimate my favorite winter squash varieties and they pupate underground.

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What I found when I opened the nematode tub. Inert media mixed with my supposed hunters. Since the nematodes are microscopic I was wondering what took up so much room!

So this is the claim from the brand I bought:

  • These microscopic insects will seek out and destroy over 230 kinds of soil dwelling and wood boring insects
  • They are completely compatible with beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, and praying mantis and do not harm earthworms.
  • Will not affect humans, animals, or plants
  • Steinernema Feltiae, covers 200 sq ft

They are supposed to stay refrigerated, so I’m guessing you won’t have a lot of luck with them once the weather gets hot. I put mine down on an overcast weekend. They were easy to apply.

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Add a cup of cool water and wait 30 minutes

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Mix into some soil in a bucket and a little more water. I used the cup they came in to stir the mixture and scoop it out across a few pots and my beds.

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I am hoping for great results. I will settle for any recognizable change in soil dwelling, problem insects this season. I will also be watching the claim about not harming earthworms. I have said before that I need a degree in entomology to identify the vast array of insects down here. Hopefully, my new friends: the nematodes, will help me get out from under the bug avalanche my garden experiences every summer. Wish me luck!

Update: The nematodes worked incredibly fast. The grubs were gone within the week and I haven’t had many problems with bugs this year. I will definitely be using them again!

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Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

One of my favorite plants to grow down here is hibiscus. It is truly a beautiful plant and the flowers are breathtaking.

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I am not the only one who appreciates hibiscus. We frequently have hummingbirds in the garden sipping hibiscus nectar. My favorite part about the plant though, is that it’s edible. Hibiscus is high in vitamin C and iron. It is high in antioxidants as well. I find it interesting that it is iron rich considering hibiscus often suffers from iron chlorosis (a condition caused by a lack of available iron in the soil. You can spot it in the above picture as the light colored leaves with dark veining). Hibiscus may use and store more iron than most plants which might make it more susceptible to iron chlorosis. That would be a great question for a specialty grower or botanist.

Hibiscus is a member of the mallow family (Malvaceae.) It’s a kissing cousin to okra (one of my very favorite high heat vegetables.)

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This is an okra flower. You can see the mallow family resemblance!

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I grew okra in my front yard last year. Nobody complained! It isn’t as showy as hibiscus but you get the okra pods as a consolation prize!

Hibiscus is in flower most of the summer down here, which is quite a feat. Most plants (and people) wilt in the mid summer soaring temperatures. Everything tends to shut down and wait out the heat. I know I’m completely nuts, but I can honestly say that the heat usually doesn’t get to me. But I grew up in Texas, it’s highly probable that I just don’t register heat like people do who are from cooler climates.

When the flowers are in bloom I can usually be found enjoying hibiscus tea. I make it daily in the summer and it’s a simple process.

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Gather approximately 8-12 newly opened or unopened flowers in the morning. Use flowers from plants that have not had chemicals sprayed on them. I have used flowers from later in the day. The problem with this is: that you need to remove any damaged areas of an older flower. You will need more flowers to make up for what you remove.

Twist off the stem and the sepal (the green part).

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Open the flower if it is still closed and remove the reproductive parts: the pistil and stamen (Flowers are a plant’s sex organs! You can deal with your issues over that new found knowledge later.)

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You should be left with just the petals. Put the petals in a strainer and rinse them off.

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Start a pot of water on the stove. I usually use about four cups of water for the tea, enough to share. You can measure out the water by using the cup you intend to drink from.

I don’t advise drinking more than two cups of this in a day. In high enough quantity: the spices you will be adding will upset your stomach. So, unless you are sharing with a crowd or storing some in the fridge for later don’t try to make gallons of it. Moderation, in all things, is a good plan.

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Gather up your spices. I like chai and use some of the spices you would find in it. For this tea I use: cinnamon, cardamom, allspice and fennel. You don’t need much, maybe a teaspoon to 2 teaspoons combined total. In quantity the spices will quickly overpower the hibiscus flavor, so start conservatively. Omit anything you don’t feel like shopping for or using.

I use whole spices and crush them in my mortar and pestle, but pre-ground spices from your grocer are fine. If you are interested in a mortar and pestle you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for a set while you’re out and about. A good place to try would be a spice specialty store or you can search online. Unfortunately it’s a pretty outdated tool here, but it’s a wonderful addition to a kitchen collection for those of us in the know.

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Bring your water to a boil and turn off the heat. Add your petals and spices. Let steep for 5-10 minutes but no longer or it will get bitter. The petals will quickly transfer their color (and flavor) and turn a light purple/gray color. If you want a stronger flavor: add more flowers, instead of steeping the tea longer.

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Scoop out your petals and put them in the compost pile. Pour your tea through a strainer to remove the spice pieces.

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Add a dollop of honey, stir and drink up. You can vary the spices according to your taste.

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For an entirely different way to enjoy hibiscus tea you can try this site: link There is a short video at the bottom that shows how to make a tropical iced tea version.

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Now you have one more reason to grow and enjoy the beautiful and tasty hibiscus!

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