Category Archives: blog

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

As an update to this post: spread mulch where you would have put rock. Read along about how taking permanent action against a short term problem, creates even more problems and stops permanent solutions.

While we were in Colorado there was a trend to rip out anything that was growing and replace it with a gravel landscape. Every time I saw someone ripping out their grass to do this: I wanted to throttle them. Here is why: rock is not low maintenance. I understand those who don’t garden are looking for a low maintenance option for their yard. Please. I beg you. Do not put gravel across your property!

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

An example of what a rocked yard looks like after a few years.

Now it might seem counterintuitive to hear that rock is not low maintenance but rocks do not stop weeds. Sure: you might like the way it looks the first season you have it down, but gravel and rock are permanent. The problems associated with gravel and rock are permanent too.

Here are six very good reasons NOT to replace grass with gravel:

#1 You can’t rake up the leaves or other plant debris that drift into your gravel landscape.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock and in the end the rock layer and soil layer will be indistinguishable.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock. At some point the rock layer and soil layers will become a single unit.

Your gravel will look just like you want it to for about a season. However, as soon as you put it down: you will have things blow into your yard that you will need to pick up by hand. This will be an almost insurmountable task and delaying picking up organic matter will only create pockets of composted material (aka dirt) that weeds will take root in.

#2 Rock is expensive, it takes an enormous amount of effort to put it down. It is even harder (and way more expensive) to remove it.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to consider the delivery fee. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to factor in the delivery fee into your quoted price. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Digging out rock is a lot more labor than spreading it. It is backbreaking work to try and remove gravel because you have to do it shovel by shovel full. Gravel that has been down a while will settle into the soil below it. To get it up: it will need to be dug out. I was stuck with a strip of rock in our last yard. I had several contractors come out and bid to remove the strip. I couldn’t afford to remove the rock. We are talking $500 to remove it! It was way too heavy and too much work to do it ourselves…and if you know my blog: I am willing to do a lot. Once gravel is down: you are pretty much stuck with it. Even if you manage to get it all up, you will need to find a place that will take it, and there will be a disposal fee for it.

#3 Sooner or later you will end up with weeds.

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The weeds will find a small patch of soil between stones. All it takes is a few leaves drifting in and sticking in your gravel to give weeds something to grow in. The first plants to move into an area after it has been cleared are called pioneer plants. These plants will grow where nothing else will grow. They usually have deep tap roots and are a pain to remove (Dandelions are a common pioneer plant. Nobody enjoys removing dandelions. In my experience though, the worst pioneer plants to pull from gravel are tree seedlings.) Pioneer plants are natures answer to events like fires, mudslides, overgrazing and volcanic activity. They also move in after man-made activities like clear cutting, grading land for development and in our farms and gardens. They will show up all over your gravel yard and they will require constant removal.

#4 Weeding through gravel is really hard work.

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I love to garden, but I absolutely hate trying to weed through gravel and rock. Anyone who has done it will agree with me. You usually have to move gravel away from deep rooted plants to remove them (in the case of large rocks you will need to roll each one away from the weed to pull it.) The larger the size gravel or rock you are using the harder it will be to weed. Pea gravel is the easiest to weed through (outside of garden soil.)

If you have ever had to weed through gravel that has been down a few years: you know that weeding gets harder the more settled the rock gets. I lived in a home that had lava rock and crushed rock that had been down for decades. I absolutely hated it. It was down so long that it was like someone had just mixed the surrounding soil with a ton of rock. I couldn’t remove it, I couldn’t weed through it and I couldn’t get enough out with my shovel to plant through it. This experience showed me how permanent the choice to rock a yard becomes.

Rubbing your hands repeatedly on rocks while weeding will tear them up (and frequently bruise them) even with gloves. You will need to dig to remove most tree seedlings. The gravel will be in the way of the spade making for a frustrating experience.

Rock is way too much work!!!!

Herbicides aren’t the answer either. You can spray roundup all over your rock landscape but you are still going to have to pull the plant out after you kill it. Round up (or vinegar, boiling water, etc) doesn’t make the plant go away, it just makes it stop growing, turn brown and look ugly. You will still need to dispose of the plant. I don’t use spray in my beds, I prefer to hand pull weeds. Normally, in decent dirt, it’s quick work. In gravel or between rock: it is a long and laborious process.

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Removing things like grass around rocks takes a while. It frequently means you need to move the rock to remove all of the weed.

My advice for weeds is: put on some gloves, grab a large screwdriver to dig out taproot plants (like dandelions) or get a hoe and remove the plant directly. Outside of use in maintaining a large grass lawn: I think herbicide is a waste of money. Spraying gravel with herbicide leaves the plant. You will still need to remove the plant, so why bother with the spray? You can use a pre-emergent herbicide across gravel if you already have some rock down. This will stop seeds from sprouting, but it is still a chemical and you’d be better off without the gravel in the first place. Weeding torches will remove the weed but they scorch rock. You also have to know what you are doing if you are going to use a torch. In a dry area you could easily start a fire that you can’t control.

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My beloved stirrup hoe! (Like the one in this link. Some stores call it an action hoe.) I love it because it is super fast and I don’t have to bend over to get most weeds. You could use this in deep pea gravel but it would eventually ruin the blade on the hoe. Here is a good comparison of different weeding hoes: link They recommend a different kind of hoe. When my stirrup hoe dies I may try a different kind. Right now a stirrup hoe is my favorite way to weed.

As far as pushing for the idea of getting dirty in the first place: There are microbes in the soil that alleviate depression. This is an excellent reason to get dirty pulling weeds! That and natural vitamin D from the sun…what’s not to like about a little weeding? If you don’t enjoy weeding: don’t put something down like gravel and rock that will just make it harder. (It’s also been my personal experience that being inverted while weeding and planting seems to cause more blood flow to my brain and helps chase away the blues! Try it!)

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#5 Most people don’t read up on how to lay rock mulch correctly.

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Most recommendations I have seen say to use a minimum of 3 1/2 inches but 5-6 inches is ideal. At over 4 bucks a bag…pea gravel is an expensive option.

For a rock mulch to work it needs to be deep. To keep weeds out of the soil below you need to use a heavy duty landscape fabric underneath the rock. No matter what you do though: eventually you will end up with leaves and other organic matter over the top. These will eventually break down, fill in the spaces between rocks and support weeds.

#6 Rock does nothing to alleviate the heat island effect.

heat-island

Rock reflects and absorbs heat. Plants create shade. There is a phenomenon called a “heat island”: the more pavement, the more asphalt and the less natural shade: the higher the ambient temperature. Cities are especially affected by this because flat (often man-made) surfaces are much better at heat retention and absorption than natural surfaces that have variations in depth.

If you think your summer is too hot: look around and see if there is a way to create some shade. City temperatures are up to 10 ̊ F (5.6 ̊ C) higher than rural areas. Here’s a government site that explains this: http://www.epa.gov/heatisld/resources/pdf/HIRIbrochure.pdf People in cities frequently equate their personal experience in a heat island with global warming. These are two different things, but if you don’t understand the two you aren’t going to be able to create solutions. Cities wouldn’t be so damned hot if they were designed with heat in mind.

Examining satellite images is a simple way to visualize what causes the heat island effect. When we were looking for a home I searched areas by looking them up on Google maps using the satellite image setting. I was completely awestruck with the amount of asphalt and concrete housing developments create. Even within the same developed area you will easily see what causes the huge discrepancies in the ambient temperatures caused by heat reflective/absorbing surfaces.

parkinglot

Here is a great example of an area that will contribute to a heat island effect. In this photo there is a huge parking lot with stores surrounding it. Everyone down here is aware of how concrete and asphalt absorb heat and then radiate it out until late in the evening. We can stay over 100 degrees after midnight in the summer. During those awfully hot times of the year: the concrete and asphalt stay hot to the touch until well after dark. A treed area does not absorb and radiate heat in the same way. (If you are interested in the technical side to this look up thermal radiation to see this effect in more detail.)

grasshomes

This housing area has unshaded: grass lawns, streets and sidewalks. There are a few immature trees. There is almost no shade to relieve summer heat in this area.

worstoffender

Here’s an example of what high density living does to the heat island effect. There is almost nothing but asphalt road, asphalt shingles and concrete. People who live in apartments and town homes don’t have yards to take care of, but they are completely surrounded by the worst of the heat offenders. I would imagine it is pretty miserable outside in the summer in this area.

maturetree

Here is a good shade example: These houses are benefiting from the shade of mature trees. This area has intense shade. The trees are so large that you can’t see the homes. You can tell the streets and sidewalks are shaded. These people probably can’t have a vegetable garden, but their homes are going to cost less to cool and their yards will be much more enjoyable.

All of these examples are choices. If the problem stems from having the original trees removed to develop land: the solution could involve homeowners who later choose to plant large shade trees. The choice of a resident in a high density home like an apartment could be: to show the managers and owners examples like what I have put in this article. See if there is room for more trees. If not: a balcony with a few plants can be a personal choice to add a little shade. Planters (of any size) around high heat areas can be an inexpensive way to start. Those who don’t want lawns can choose not to rock their yards and instead search for low maintenance perennials. There’s always room to apply solutions, no matter the size of the impact.

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My neighbor’s tree graciously offers shade as I wait for the school bus. Trees need water, but unlike rock: they offer a solution, not more problems.

If you see a problem and you know the answer: find a way to implement the solution. Solutions don’t need to be huge overhauls. Solutions start with one person who has the will to make a difference in what they have the authority to change. Make your personal changes while you share what you know with others.

Nature makes shade. Man makes reflective surfaces. Unfortunately, down here (and in most of the world) the habit is to tear down trees, clear brush, cover everything in man made surfacing that is heat absorbing or reflective and maybe add some grass. In comparison to the natural state of things, we create some ugly (and not especially intelligent, in regard to heat) structures and surfaces.

I’d never really noticed how different the satellite images are between the subdivisions and the country until we moved down here and I started looking at areas to buy a home. Miles of concrete and asphalt make heat islands possible. Trees can be a part of a larger solution. Rocking yards just contributes to the heat island affect.

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If you don’t want to take care of lawn grass: consider planting some trees, wildflowers and perennial ornamental grasses. Think about what the builders in your area had to remove to build your home. See if it makes sense to replace some of that original plant material.

If you live in the United States and are at a loss as to where to start with plants:

In your computer’s search bar: put the name of your county and “county extension”. This will pull up the county sponsored horticultural experts in your area. Hopefully you have access to local people who are Master Gardeners. Master Gardeners earn (and keep) that designation by volunteering hours educating the public. Don’t have anyone local? Find a university in your state. Most universities have an agriculture or botany expert. Use their expertise!!!! They should be able to point you towards people and groups that can help you. Extension advice is usually free. Most plant people are excited to share with new gardeners and want to encourage you to learn.

You will also find pages of information on your local extension office website directly relating to whatever planting questions you have. Most importantly: you won’t feel so overwhelmed that you want to give up and rock your yard.

To be successful: start slow and do your research. The tab at the top of this page called “Gardening Basics” will walk you through the process. If you choose to use the information provided: you will be able to make informed decisions and be happy with your property for years to come.

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If you are in a dry or hot climate you definitely need to create shade, so plant some shrubs and trees. Native plants are usually xeric (low water) and fairly low maintenance. It is a combination of the terms xeros ξήρος (Greek for “dry”) and landscaping.

Look up xeriscaping online. High Country Gardens is a great place to start: Xeric Zones. They have a ton of great information. Their site is a great place to see xeric plant variety examples. You can get an idea of what you are going to get with xeric plants.

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xeric plant choices under a tree.

Even if the native shrubs and trees for your area are some scraggly, funky looking varieties: it is so much better to add green and shade than go without! Native flowers are also better nectar sources than plants that have been bred for showy flowers. You will make the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds happy with native plants.

Nature will not allow you to keep her out. She will eventually win, and those who fight her, will end up with a yard full of tall weeds that have lots of seed and insignificant flowers. Something will grow. You get to decide what that will be.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Go out and plant something: It’s important!

If you enjoyed this article please make sure to share it with others (especially if you are involved with a Home Owner Association or other property governing system.)

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Biscamp Pear

I’m going to share my pear journey with the hard to find, but ridiculously tasty Biscamp pear. There’s not much information out there and even 6 years, post purchase, the company I bought it from still has very little information and nothing new added to their website.

Spring at 6 years old.

I bought my Biscamp pear from justfruitsandexotics.com I did a lot of research. I will add links at the bottom of this article, so you can see what information is out there, and you can make a more informed decision on whether to invest in this pear.

You can see the burned, light yellow, chlorotic leaves here. I discuss this further down.

I have a few fruit trees from just fruits and exotics and I’ve been really impressed with the quality and health of their plants. If you are in the South and need fruit trees, with specific chill hours, these are the guys to buy from.

First thing to research about fruit, in the South of the United States, is knowing your specific chill hours! Google your county extension office. You can can frequently add “average chill hours” to your query and find it that way. If you are having difficulty finding your chill hours: look for your local master gardeners. These are people who keep their master gardening designation by volunteering hours helping the public with horticultural questions. If they don’t know, they’ll find someone who does.

They are part of your local county extension office and should have an email address to send your questions to (if you are in the Northern US, with hard freezes, you don’t have to worry about this, but since this is a low chill tree: you won’t be able to grow it north of zone 8a.)

The pear I bought was found on an old homestead and thought to be: self fertile (a big deal with pears as the full sized trees take up a lot of room), full sized (30+ feet tall and about 15 feet wide), has about 400 chill hours, is an antique, Oriental/European pear hybrid variety resistant to fire blight and is a low/no fungal/insecticide spray variety.

The pear was loaded with fruit this year!

Pears are in the rose family (as are other pome fruits, like apples and quince, and suffer the same diseases.) This variety, however, is a champ when it comes to diseases and insects. Not much work to do to keep it very healthy!

I can confirm the chill hours. San Antonio Texas has about 550 chill hours, in a cool year. My Biscamp breaks dormancy in late February (our last frost date is February 24th). It sometimes requires protection so that the flowers don’t freeze back. The fruit is ready to harvest, in our 100 degree heat, by the beginning of July. About 4 1/2-5 months after flowering. I am zone 8b/9a in Southern Texas.

I don’t mind only saving half of the tree’s flowers if I get a freeze, by draping the tree with a long piece of burlap, as I use my pear for both privacy and fruit. This year, I didn’t get a late freeze. So I got a lot of pears throughout the tree. I have let the pear grow to its full height. I have an extension fruit harvesting basket, and what I can’t reach from the ground I send my husband out on a ladder (with the harvest basket) to get the pears at the very top.

Picking pears requires knowing when to do it, as all European pears (and Oriental/European hybrids) need to be removed from the tree prior to ripening and be fully ripened indoors. If your Biscamp pears are about the size and weight of a Bartlett, that you would buy at the grocers, you are in the right time frame. Also, when your backyard wildlife begins getting a taste for the fruit, you know you are close to harvest. One of the best ways to gauge ripeness is observing how the fruit hang. If the stem is arched and the fruit hangs out and to the side: the pear isn’t ripe. If the pear has stretched the stem straight down, from its own weight, it’s close to ready to pick.

Immature pear hangs sideways.

A heavy mature pear will hang down.

Squirrel or rat damage. I know: when they like them, we’re close to when I’ll like them!

To harvest: lift the pear up at a 180 degree angle from its hanging position. If it easily releases from the branch when you do this: it’s harvest time. Make sure you always lift a pear up and away from the tree and do not pull it downwards. This will protect the stem on the fruit. If the stem pulls away from the fruit, the fruit will rot before it is ripe. It’s very important to leave the stem on your fruit, as it ripens indoors, especially if you don’t want to waste the whole harvest!

If you noticed the indentations on the pear in the picture here, this is a sign of calcium deficiency. It isn’t a problem with deficiency in the soil, but availability to the plant’s roots (same reasons you get blossom end rot in tomatoes: irregular and heavy irrigation and in this case, also high pH soil.) You can’t fix this in the soil but you can spray the developing fruit with calcium. High soil pH is a real pain here, but not all of the fruit had problems. Here’s a better explanation:  http://xtremehorticulture.blogspot.com/2013/11/brown-spots-in-pear-and-apple-flesh_25.html?m=1

At the pears 4th and 5th years of age, I got maybe 5 pears each year from the tree. These are so similar in texture and flavor to a Bartlett pear! They are delicious and juicy! Unfortunately, Bartlett pears are very fire blight susceptible and cannot be used in the South. Biscamp is an excellent substitute!

This is 50 pears, on their way to ripeness! There’s approximately 6 to a bag.

If you ripen them in paper bags, 1-2 pears deep, and with a piece of banana peel or an apple (for the ethelyne gas, which helps with ripening), they are fantastic! I use paper lunch bags, and I can check them easily. They are ripe when they start to soften. Biscamp pears have been soft and melting for me, but I know how to ripen them. Not many casual gardeners know that you have to have special conditions to ripen European and hybrid pears successfully.

This year, year 6, I got a decent crop of pears (50, with a few more still out there.) Training the brittle, narrow pear limb crotches, at 10 and 2 o’clock from the central leader (starting at year 1), tricks the pear into thinking it’s older. Naturally, the weight of the fruit pulls branches out and down, when it is of bearing age.

I spray this tree once in the fall, after leaf drop: with dormant oil, and once in the winter: with dormant oil and copper. This has worked well. I spray all of my fruit trees at once with the same solution and, other than my persimmons (that get sooty mold and black spot without a separate spray. For the black spot treatment, I use a natural fungicide and insecticide: neem oil. I use Tangle trap on a fabric tree wrap, for the: ants/aphids, that cause the sooty mold. Those are effective if you end up with either on your pear.) I currently do not have issues with fungal disease or pests on the Biscamp pear.

The main problem I AM having with the pear is: I have super alkaline soil. It pegs the meter when tested. Our soil is so alkaline that: even our ground water will kill acid loving plants just by watering with it. This year has been exceptionally dry. I hand water my fruit trees as well as run our sprinklers (that were originally installed by previous owners, for a grass only yard.)

Some years I need to water more than others. Unfortunately, this year the pear is suffering from iron chlorosis. It has been touchy for a couple of years. I have been throwing my coffee grounds out on it for years, but this year that isn’t enough and it’s sick. I attempted to help it along by drilling down into the soil around the drip line and adding Sulphur and Iron. It hasn’t shown much improvement, although that treatment takes time.

The chlorotic leaves are white with no veining and have burned back from the sun, heat and dry wind. It is not fireblight, but it looks pretty similar. Still, it’s filled with fruit, and only the new growth has been affected, so I’m very happy!

Having an arborist come out and do a trunk injection of iron is not in my budget. So, after searching online, I found these implants: I will update this post next year and tell you what I think of them.

So what have I come away thinking of a Biscamp pear? It’s a fantastic: low chill, self fertile, low maintenance, incredibly tasty, pear.

My only caution is for high pH soil. You can do your own soil test by adding your soil to a glass of vinegar. If your soil bubbles like crazy and doesn’t stop, then the free calcium carbonate is probably too high to correct. If you take care, and create the correct planting conditions, lower your soil pH with amendments from the beginning, and watch for and treat chlorosis during dry hot summers, I believe that the tree will perform well for you. But Ph issues will be a life long problem. If you do not want to have to worry about your soil, then you may want to grow a different fruit than a pear.

I highly recommend this variety if you are in the zones 8a-9a in the South and have more neutral soil. I researched for about a year before I installed the tree, and I’m really glad I did: as it has exceeded my expectations!

Interested in finding out more about pears in general, and specifically, about the Biscamp variety? There’s not a whole lot out there, but this is what I’ve found:

Information about the Biscamp variety, and the other pears this company carries: (You can also find on the page below, in a .pdf file directly below the name of the pear, instructions on caring for pears):

https://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/product/biscamp-pear/

A little more on Southern pears and the Biscamp:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://jefferson.agrilife.org/files/2011/05/Recommended-Fruit-Guide-for-Jefferson-County.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiYpMecv4bcAhUQ0FkKHSk9D6YQFjABegQIARAB&usg=AOvVaw373XdlNktjAlQZvucJqSYl

Some information about Biscamp and pear quality. (I don’t agree that this pear is gritty but it may have something to do with our heat, when the pear is harvested and how it is ripened.)

https://www.google.com/amp/s/articles.nola.com/river/2013/09/pears_are_a_desirable_fruit_in.amp

General pear information with a .Pdf file describing taste of a list of pears, including the Biscamp. http://www.mcmga.com/51/45/mcmga-fruit-nut-tree-sale-happening-soon-january-27/

In depth information for garden nerds that want to know more about pears. Great info about how how a pear tree creates fruit from its flowers and how to perfectly ripen your fruit indoors. (I love this article BTW! She’s a biology teacher and really covers a lot in a concise, fun way! If you have a pear tree: this is necessary reading.)

https://www.google.com/amp/s/botanistinthekitchen.blog/2013/08/11/pear-grit-and-the-art-of-aging/amp/

High pH: what am I getting myself into? Find out what the experts say about changing soil pH.

https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/1994/4-6-1994/ph.html

Best Damn Rainbow Fruit Skewers And Dip Out There!

This Easter we went to our family’s low country shrimp boil in San Antonio. I love the food every year! This year though, was a bit different. I discovered last year that I can’t eat wheat. I’ve developed an allergy to it, and it’s pretty serious.

I’m not gluten intolerant, either. I can eat other grains with gluten, but wheat is BAD news for me. It causes my esophagus to narrow and then I just can’t swallow.

It’s pretty scary and I aspirated the first time it happened, trying to wash the stuck food down with water. This crazy thing is inherited, but I’m the first one who figured out it’s caused by wheat (thanks to a specialist and an elimination diet he put me on.) It’s in my mom’s side of the family and I’ve apparently got the worst case of it of all the women on her side. Lucky me.

I’m sure that part of the sensitivity, is from climbing up into the grain trucks at my grandparent’s house, when I was a kid. I had the worst hay fever when it was time to bring in the wheat! I remember I could hardly breathe. All you got back then: was a cool cloth and maybe some benadryl. I guess that allergy never went away, it just transformed a bit. Again: lucky me.

So I needed something wheat free and I didn’t want to mess with weird ingredients to make some sort of baked goody. I wanted to bring a pretty party plate, so I decided that rainbow fruit skewers sounded really fun, and were the way to go. But, still, that’s just fruit on a stick, and I didn’t want to be lame, so I decided I should make a dip.

I looked online. I didn’t really see anything I wanted to use. I saw some interesting ingredients but nothing that really made me think: “Wow! I need to make that!”

So I looked at what I did like and came up with my own version… And it is damned good! This had everyone (including me, my husband and my kids!) loading up on the dip (and cleaning their plates of whatever didn’t end up on the fruit.) It is crazy good and I will probably never make any other fruit dip. It’s just: Oh. My. Gosh. GOOD!

Here’s the recipe for both the skewers and the dip:

Rainbow Fruit Skewers:

1 medium container of fresh strawberries (my container made about 20 skewers, so how many you need can be approximated through that number per box.)

2-3 oranges or cuties peeled and segmented. You need to count out what you want with a couple extra “just in case”. (We always have cuties, or other seasonal, small, oranges, so I had a large bag to work from.)

Container of cored fresh pineapple (or whole, if you want to cut it yourself. Either save the juice from the pineapple, or: you can buy prepackaged pineapple juice for the dip.)

Green grapes

Container of fresh blueberries

Red grapes

Long wooden skewers

Half an icebox (ie. small) watermelon

A plate (to bring it to your gathering)

Add the strawberries (from the top down) to the end of your skewer and then slide the rest of the fruit from the bottom up, from the pointed end. Do this in the order of the ingredients mentioned above. The most fragile fruit is the pineapple and if you aren’t careful it will split. If it does: try to use larger sections or just rotate it a quarter turn and try again. Blueberries are pretty fragile too, so be careful with those, as well. The rest is easy peasy.

Place your skewers in a baking dish, if you are making it ahead. Put some plastic wrap over the dish and put them back in your refrigerator. (I made mine 2 days ahead.)

For the day of the party take your skewers and punch them, pointy side down, into the watermelon half. Try and keep them upright for ease in portability. Tent them in a big piece of saran wrap and you are done with that part!

Best Damned Fruit Dip Ever:

1 container cool whip (I used cool whip “lite”)

1 lemon, zested (I zested about half of mine and it was plenty.)

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup pineapple juice

I made this ahead and mixed all of the above ingredients with a whisk, put it back in the cool whip container and returned it to the refrigerator.

The next day I put the cool whip mix in the bowl that I was bringing to the party and whisked half a large container of honey strawberry “Greek Gods” Greek yogurt into the mix. In my opinion: this is the best tasting Greek yogurt out there.

I’ve always referred to it as “ice cream” with my kids and they love it. I always put some in their lunches. Every day I have to drain off a little of the whey that separates in the container. This is why I waited to add it to the cool whip mix. The yogurt is thick and loves to separate.

I also don’t like any other Greek yogurt (or regular yogurt, for that matter), but if you have a favorite you can sub that. If you’ve never tasted “Greek Gods” and you can find it: use it!

After I whisked in the yogurt I tasted the end product. I added a teaspoon more lemon juice and a couple more Tablespoons of pineapple juice. That’s the great part of this: it’s super flexible. If you want more flavor: add a little more pineapple and lemon juice, until you are happy. Be aware that the dip will eventually separate (once its been out of the refrigerator for a while) and get soupy, if you add a whole lot of liquid.

You can end here or do what I did: add a teaspoon of orange blossom water. It makes it very French and upscale. (I loved the cool crazy, foot long marshmallows I bought in France with flavors like: rose, violet, lavender and orange blossom. Ah. I wish I could just drop everything and travel like I did when I was young. Maybe after my kids are grown? We’ll see.)

You can’t take the orange blossom water back out, if you don’t like it, so add a drop to a spoonful and see if you want to commit to it. I LOVE orange blossom water and have enjoyed it in all sorts of dishes. Just make sure you you don’t overload your dip. A little goes a long way! It is in our international aisle at the grocer and is frequently used in Turkish dishes.

I provided small plates and forks to eat the fruit (I don’t recommend trying to eat it on the skewer. We slid them off and onto the plate. The skewers are all for presentation!) and a big spoon for the dip. It went fast and everyone wanted to know what was in it!

It was so good people were adding it to the baked goods (like the brownies.) It’s really a stunning way to present a healthy snack. I also love that the dip was light and fluffy and not some thick, heavy calorie bomb.

If you have leftovers: mix the dip with the fruit for an old fashioned fruit salad. It won’t be around for long! You will eat it right up!

There you have: my freakishly good dip and cute rainbow fruit skewers. I’d love to hear your comments about it if you make it. Let me know what you think of the orange blossom water addition if you try it, too!

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

We had a nice long winter, down here in Texas, that had enough chill hours for my fruit trees. Unfortunately, our bee population this early in the spring is pretty sparse. I had some hardships that made it impossible to get out and pollinate my pear tree. After I watched all of the small fruit abort I was faced with the next set of flowers in my fruit trees: my peach tree. To bee, or not to bee? I chose to help my tree out. I used the following guide on my peach today.

It took maybe twenty minutes to do all of the lower branches. I had a lone bumblebee helping me with the upper branches. I’m sure he (or she) did a much better job than I did! Hopefully, I see some results on the peach. Plant as many bee friendly plants as possible! They certainly need our help. Read on about plant sex, and how you can help, by hand pollinating.

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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 (although some trees like pears offer low quality nectar and are often passed over in favor of more nutritious fare. Other trees, like pawpaws, use flies who aren’t very interested or talented pollinators.) 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. But FYI you cannot cross a cuke with a gourd or a watermelon with a canteloupe. There are limits to this process. But two kinds of squash (this includes pumpkins) will cross… Two kinds of cucumber, two kinds of watermelon or two kinds of canteloupe. It gets pretty complicated when you are involving several plant families and their offspring. My best advice is to Google what you are growing and look up if they will cross pollinate). 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 by 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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Spring Is The Time To Begin Backyard Foraging!

I love researching things that strike me as interesting. I’m creating a food forest in my backyard, so I want to know what parts of plants I can incorporate into my meals. Spring is a great time for edibles in the garden. I’m not talking fruit but instead: leaves, flowers and even pollen!

I bought an incredible book years ago that’s basically the Bible of medicinal plants. It’s here: best medicinal plant book

I trust that book and it is written by one of the foremost authorities in holistic healing through plants. It’s also handy to look up foraging websites like this one: learn about foraging!

Dill flowers

Of course many herbs are the leaves of plants so dill, basil and cilantro may be familiar to you, but did you know their flowers (some flowers are over poweringly strong, so try them before you include them in a salad.) are delicious too? Take a glance out your window and make a list of what you already have growing (even some weeds, like dandelion, are edible) and start your search. If you can’t completely identify a plant take a piece in a sealed zip lock to a nursery and ask for help. Don’t eat something if you aren’t absolutely sure what it is!

After identifying your plants and once you know what kinds of foods, teas and tinctures you want to try you can go out into your yard and browse! My leaves from trees are at their best in the spring. By midsummer the wind has them torn up and they are experiencing bug and disease pressures. So now is the time to use them.

If you are new to foraging: slowly dip your toes into this idea. Overconsumption or a rapid change in your diet can cause intestinal distress. Our modern diet is full of predigested simple carbohydrates and chemically laden empty calories. It takes a little while to get your body used to doing the work of breaking down whole foods.

Here are a few of the ways I use edible leaves, flowers and tubers:

Fig leaves. Popular from ancient times the fig tree has a lot to offer. Wrapping a meat like chicken or fish, and steaming it in a grill, imparts a coconut flavor. It’s very mild but a good addition to a lot of recipes. Click here for: Fig leaf cooking ideas

Here I have fish in fig leaves and a homemade tartar sauce. You can grill these but I prefer to oil the leaves and then place them on a cookie sheet with a piece of fish with sauce between two fig leaves. Then I cover them in foil and bake them. You can use any baked fish or chicken recipe. The coconut flavor is not sweet, so it goes well with many dishes.

Persimmon leaves. These make fantastic tea. You can roll the leaf from the tip back towards the bottom and stick the stem through the roll for a tidy treat. Click here for: Persimmon leaf uses that’s one in the cup below!

Pomegranate leaves. I love my pomegranate. It has soft seeds and is incredibly good. But the leaves make a great tea for insomnia. They have the most beautiful flowers, too! You can also use leaves and petals in your next smoothie: Uses for pomegranate leaves.

Goji (or wolf berry). These are great in salads. In fact, you could make an entire salad of all of leaves above! goji berry leaves

Red raspberry leaves and blackberry leaves have historically been used as teas to treat a variety of medical issues: WebMD uses for red raspberry leaves

NCBI uses for blackberry leaves

The white Mulberry (morus alba) are the best Mulberry variety to eat leaves from, as they are tender and have good flavor. Use as a salad, tea, or instead of grape leaves in recipes.

I grow olive trees and yes, olive leaf tea is also something you can make at home. My trees are young so utilizing the leaves creates a use for an immature tree. Here’s a link for the benefits of olive leaves: olive leaf

Lavender makes a beautiful tea and I also eat the flowers in salads and even sandwiches.

Nasturtium is a peppery tasting plant and the flowers and leaves are good as an addition to salads. Here’s more on nasturtium: nasturtium

Begonias are edible too! begonia and other edible flowers

The caladiums at the base of this tree are not edible, while the begonias surrounding them are. Always check before you try something new.

Canna is a substitute for asparagus in the southern garden. The plant is related to banana and ginger and the leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking: as banana leaves are used. The tubers taste like potatoes and are a great addition to a food forest (or a supplemental garden for those who want to try and outwit the end of the world. While people may steal your tomatoes, they will overlook your patch of canna!) canna uses

Daylilies? Why yes! They’re also edible the edible daylilily

Cattails, which I walked past for years and not had a thought to eat, are great in spring with their new shoots peeled and you can also use their profuse pollen as flour. cattail pollen

Fiddlehead fern fronds are a great spring treat and incredibly delicious! Edible fern frond

For those of you in cooler climes: pine needle tea is yummy. pine needle tea for vitamin C! Down here you can get your fill of vitamin C in cactus pads (or nopales) which I can get at our local grocer. lots of prickly pear cactus recipes!

One of my very favorite flowers for tea is hibiscus and turk’s cap (same family as okra and other mallows) which make a beautiful, tasty dark red tea. They sell dried hibiscus flowers this far south at our grocery store. Hibiscus tea is popular in Mexico as well as Central and South America. But I grow the plants every year for their gorgeous showy flowers. All hibiscus flowers are edible, the color does not matter.

An okra flower. These are great as fritters. You can find a recipe for those up on the daylily link.

Add a little honey and mulling spices, it makes for a lovely tea.

And last I’ll leave you with another plant I would have never thought to eat, and that is: fushia berries! Not only gorgeous blooms but edible! Who would have thought to pop a few of those in your mouth? fushia berries

I’m going to stop there, but I’m definitely not done going through what you can eat in your own yard. The list is incredibly long, so I advise looking up anything you have (or want, in the future) in your garden. So many things with so many flavors! Here’s a link to a few vegetables that do double duty as you are waiting for their main crop.

I will also leave you with a tale of caution. I grew up in the south. My mother used to put Lantana leaves in our sun tea every summer. They had a wonderful citrusy taste. They are also: poisonous. It had a great taste, and we never got sick, but I would never use Lantana for any purpose outside of pollinator gardens and for it’s beautiful flowers. SO, with that said: even if you taste something, and it tastes great, it doesn’t mean it’s edible. For heaven’s sake: look it up online first! We didn’t have Google when I was a kid, but there’s no excuse for ignorance now!

Happy foraging! And let me know your favorite garden plant to enjoy in early spring!

I Love My Clot

So I’ve been a little busy lately focusing on my breathing. No. I’m not doing yoga. I had a pulmonary embolism a couple of weeks ago and it’s been a real eye opener. This isn’t my first foray into the world of clots. I had a TIA (self resolving stroke) about 3 weeks after I had my youngest child. That was 8 years ago. So, I assumed it was just a weird pregnancy thing and after a billion blood tests my doctors agreed.

Me two weeks after the PE. I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue my life!

Before I go any further: if you are in hospital right now and desperately looking for information; calm down, you are OK. I know you are scared, I was out of my mind with fears coming from 50 different directions, but once you are stabilized and getting blood thinners your chance of dying from your clot goes down drastically. (I wished all posts I read while I was in the hospital started with that fact! Usually, I was several pages into information about clots, before people would share that.)

Can you get more clots? Yes. Can you die from them? Just like my TIA I am at a higher risk from dying from a clot in the next 3 years. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture for you and say you get one and you are done. That you will go back to life with no risks, no effects and you don’t have to worry:

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It makes a big difference in WHY you got a PE in the first place. Being immobile is something we can usually work on. Stopping supplemental hormones? Yeah, I can definitely change that. Get my leg veins worked on? I can only seal off so many bad veins. Had surgery caused it: I would be aware of that as a risk factor. But inherited clotting disorders? The possibility that the strep infection I had influenced my DVT? Yeah, you really need an expert (no matter what we think caused our clots), that you trust and are comfortable with, to help you along this path. This is a long haul issue, not a get it and forget it disease.

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I’ve taken a lot of photographs over the years for this blog. It is a strong reminder to appreciate everything. These pictures are of moments I don’t get back but have the opportunity to enjoy again. My new life will be full of those once in a lifetime, gentle and profound moments, too. If you have had a PE diagnosis: you are already a survivor!

I don’t know if you’ve had a big health scare, but I think it’s very human to go into denial about it. Like: for a decade! I’m serious. I even contemplated another pregnancy. I lived in lala land, and for a long time that worked for me. I think it’s the same nagging voice that used to tell me I needed to quit smoking (which I did about 15 years ago) as I lit my next cigarette. It was the “one day I’ll deal with this” voice. This voice of urgency, accompanied by ritualistic denial and procrastination, also appeared 16 or so years ago when I found out I had inherited the bad leg veins that run in my family. I was told they “weren’t that bad” but they would be covered if I wanted them closed. I put it off. I got married, I had babies, I was a completely focused and dedicated mom. But I put it off too long.

It’s human to deny what you are terrified of. But that doesn’t really help you, if you are really needing a lifestyle change (or in my case vein surgery and to stop my hormones!)

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A couple of months ago I dragged myself into the doctor and told him I was peri-menopausal and miserable. (I am sorry to let you younger gals in on this, but it is just as bad as puberty. Mainly: Hell.)

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I got to visit Hawaii last year. Such wonderful memories!

He had the answer: take estrogen. You’ll feel like your old self! And I did.

I took the estrogen. I felt awesome! In fact I took the estrogen pills after I was prescribed the cream (which I guess is less likely to get into your blood and try and kill you.) I figured I was only taking half of the dose and I had a half of a bottle left so I’d finish it up and then start the cream. (I’m good about being frugal and it made sense at the time.)

I don’t know if you are vain like this: but I had my hair growing back in (thicker than in high school), my skin wasn’t crepey looking, I was losing weight and I had energy. It was really fairly miraculous. I loved my estrogen pills! Plus, all the annoying girl stuff that was happening: constant pain, unusual “times of the month” and the super short fuse I’d developed was gone.

I find these little time capsules, called photographs, amazing. All of these small moments become amplified as I look backwards. What new and wonderful things would I have missed, had this blood clot been fatal?

This is the river that runs through Vail Village in Colorado. My family is from here. I’m so grateful that I can still go back and see the beauty with my own eyes!

Yes. My doctor mentioned blood clots. But either I’m super stupid or he didn’t explain exactly how common blood clots are (and therefore your chance of sudden death) and that they are not only a serious but… common… issue. I have always heard about the clot issue. I had been shrugging it off since I was old enough for “the pill”, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

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My pulmonary embolism started in my leg. My foot (out of the blue) became really, really sore. I’m a mom. I always put myself last. This wasn’t any different. But by the third day my entire leg was sore. I couldn’t relax the muscles in my foot or leg. It was like having a charlie horse but nothing would make the muscles release. I couldn’t put weight on my leg to walk. I had my husband drop me off at the ER. I have some medication that might cause muscle issues, so I was focused on that.

As far as history, my family on my dad’s side, including my younger brother, have had to have their leg veins closed. My vein problem is hereditary but… mine never really bothered me much. Sure, my legs swell up on long flights and long car rides, but then they go back down. I have had compression stockings, but those are so incredibly difficult to get on and off that I rarely wear them. I think it was a combination of risks that added up to my clot.

It took them two hours at the ER to even see me. I’m 45 years old. I don’t fit the profile for blood clots. They did an ultrasound on my leg and found nothing. But: while they were pushing around on my leg it stopped hurting. My d-dimer test was positive (this is a test that indicates that there is a possibility of a clot). But there were a few things that could cause that other than a clot.

At this point I’ve been at the hospital for several hours. I’m tired. I am not getting any answers and my leg is finally relaxing. I was ready to go home. The ER doctor was getting ready to discharge me. He came in, and we were discussing my release, when he asked me whether I’d had chest pain recently… “Why yes, yes I have.”

(This is the other reason I haven’t been keeping up with my blog!) I am so incredibly stressed out! Three years ago my husband lost his job. Then after a year he got it back, only to work out of state for a year and a half. I raised our two children, on my own, during that time. Then, suddenly last summer he lost his job AGAIN! Eight months before his retirement! It’s been Hell. But when I get stressed I get angina (chest pain) and I’ve learned to ignore it. (Don’t worry his job is stabilizing again and he’s about to finish his 8 months.)

Did I have chest pain? Yes. Is that unusual? No. But it was enough to have him delay releasing me and to send me in for a CAT scan. And THAT was when they found the clot in my lungs.

As far as my symptoms: I had very mild chest pain in my right lung. The pain in my leg was 100 times worse but my leg was only slightly swollen. My oxygen level was at 100 percent. I was not having trouble breathing. My pulse rate was high (115 or so) but it’s always high. Now I had noticed, for about a week, that my lips looked a bit blue. I was sick with strep throat at that time so I thought it was just from being sick or maybe the new lip balm I was using. I will never overlook that again!

Me as soccer mom! I didn’t think I could make it through a year and a half of single parenting, but I did and we still made time for soccer!

The strep is a constant problem with my kids in elementary school. We’d all been on antibiotics. I was on my third set of antibiotics. The strep my kids bring home is no joke. But that was part of why I got the pulmonary embolism. I had been sick for almost 3 months. I was laying down a lot. I had helped my son in from the trampoline the day before the leg pain started. He’d hurt his ankle and I was supporting a lot of his weight to get him into the house.

All of these little things apparently caused the perfect storm in my body. Just simple little things that led up to a serious problem. It made me extremely aware that just a few things can bind together and create chaos. I need to be very cognizant now of everything when I get ill.

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Halloween 2017. I had a blast decorating our home and yard! I was a jester (or maybe a “not so evil” clown…if those do in fact exist.)

Had this doctor sent me home, I would have gone home, the clot would have grown (which is apparently the tendency of clots) and I would have died. I would not have come back to the hospital until it was probably too late.

God be praised that that scenario did not happen!

If just one question had not been asked…wow, I wouldn’t be here.

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My kids are young. I am not ready to say goodbye! It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around what could have happened: Me in a box in the ground and my family completely adrift in mourning.

I was in the hospital for a couple of days. I was getting a blood thinner shot in my stomach every 12 hours (good Lord those hurt!) But, it honestly was a miracle! It also was a miracle that one of my nurses (who looked my age or younger) had also had a PE. It was so helpful to talk to her. She told me everyone I talk to will tell me how “so and so” that they know died from a PE. She told me to tune them out, and so I have. One out of every three people who get a PE don’t survive. That is a horrible statistic.

I will say it again: I am a survivor! This lady’s blog: https://bloodclotrecovery.net/how-long-does-it-take-to-recover-from-a-pe/ helped a lot when I was first diagnosed. She has endless comments and they really helped me realize that I am not alone! There are comments that start in 2013 and go right up to today. It is so wonderful to stop the free-fall through your fears and grab a cyber-based hand to comfort you. I hope my story will help you in this way, too.

Back before I got the CAT scan though, I was talking to the doctor: “Yeah, but wouldn’t I know if I had a clot in my lungs?!”

Apparently not. And I’m not some weird statistic. Most pulmonary embolisms either kill you straight out, when they hit your lungs or cause mild symptoms which get worse as the clot grows. I’ve read on some forums that the symptoms (like shortness of breath, fatigue and chest pain) of the pulmonary embolism can take a couple of years (after it happens) to get back to normal.

BTW most of these are selfies. I’m the only person in my family other than my MIL who takes photos. If I wanted a photo, that I was included in, in the last 12 years of my life it’s had to be a selfie. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup does not happen in mom-ville.

Hospital time is super boring and I read a lot about PE’s, especially since I thought everyone who had them died. If you have had a PE and you are feeling scared and alone look up PE forums. You will find thousands of entries with people of all ages and there are updated new posts almost daily. They were so helpful in the early days of my diagnosis.

So what have I learned in the last three weeks?

1.) There really are miracles and I’m one of them. If you have had a PE: YOU ARE A MIRACLE TOO!

2.) Pulmonary embolism is not a death sentence if it’s caught early and you do not have complicating risk factors. Here is a pretty thorough site that can help: http://www.clotspot.com/pulmonary-embolism-risk-factors-and-prevention.html

3.) This isn’t just going away, and I’m not all better, but I am slowly improving. Some days suck. Some days are almost normal. I am grateful for both. I am alive, and that’s a pretty awesome gift to be granted.

4.) I can’t take estrogen. DUH! And when your doctor mentions clots associated with medicine, your mental answer should not be: “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

5.) I am tired. I get winded easily. It’s bad enough that just standing and trying to do something else (like: making lunches for my kids, showering, talking) is really hard and I need to rest. Sometimes I have to stop before I can get it finished. (There’s no way I could hold a job right now and I’m so grateful my husband is home to help with the kids!) Sometimes: a gift is a horrible occurrence (like my husband losing his job for 6 months) that turns out to be perfect in its timing for something else! Having him home is so huge. I would have put off the ER visit if he hadn’t been here (which means I probably wouldn’t be here!)

6.) Having a pulmonary embolism puts you at a higher risk for another, but that doesn’t happen very often, especially if you stay on blood thinners. However, you should count yourself lucky if you get to the end of the time you are prescribed thinners and get to discontinue them. Some people won’t ever come off of them, but don’t freak out if your need for them ends. It’s a good thing if you don’t need them anymore!

7.) They don’t give you clot busters, or do surgery, unless you are in dire shape. You take blood thinners to prevent the clot from growing and your body works on the clot on its own. Once you start the thinners your clot will not get worse and you are probably NOT going to die, so dial down the anxiety if you can. It doesn’t help. Sometimes the clot never leaves and turns into scar tissue. Your body will reroute around the clot if it can (or if it needs to.) But yes, the clot causes damage, permanent or not: you need to watch for things like infections and pneumonia.

8.) I can’t do anything that puts me at risk for an injury. The blood thinners are not reversible and if I get badly cut… or fall off a ladder and smash my head… or go sky diving and slam into a tree: I’m going to bleed to death. And the ball park for continued blood thinners so far is 6 months.

9.) I technically (according to the pamphlet for the thinner I am on Xarelto… and from trying to find out on forums) could have my weekly glass of wine with a movie, but my body processes the blood thinners through my liver (where it processes alcohol) and its risky. I’m voting no on that, unfortunately. And then there are things that you have no choice to say yes or no on: aspirin or Ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol… there’s a lot of stuff that can increase your chances of internal bleeding that are on the “no” list that you just don’t get a choice on. Look up your blood thinner and get acquainted with the “no” list for your particular drug. Also, set your alarms for your medication. You cannot screw up your blood thinner timing. It’s important to take it EXACTLY as prescribed!

10.) I have a follow up with a hematologist. Don’t freak out if they send you to a cancer clinic. It’s a dual specialty.

11.) Keep MOVING!!! Your single best bet that you can do to not only help your recovery but decrease your chance of another clot is to get up and move every 2 hours. If you are on a flight: get up and walk the isles. Tell your flight attendant you’ve had a PE. They will support you in stretching frequently! If it’s a long car trip: get out of the car and walk around every two hours and stretch your legs in the car as you travel. As far as altitude changes: check with your specialist. My family lives in the mountains in Colorado. I am not sure I can visit, especially since I get altitude related edema and I already struggle to breath up there. That will definitely be a call for my doctor to make.

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My life isn’t back to normal, but I’m also not asleep all day (like I was in the first week and a half.) I’m progressing slowly. Also: (YAY!) my husband got fantastic news about his job today (and we have family who can help me while I recover.)

So. I’m grateful. I love that this gave me the opportunity to really appraise my life and where I am going. I have had to slow down considerably, so I am doing fun, low energy things with my kids that I usually don’t make time for.

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Every breath I draw is yet another gift!

Am I freaked out? Oh yeah. Still! But I tell you what, as long as you live through your challenges: you have got to love the new perspective it gives you. So, I love my clot. I love it because I was going to have it whether I decided to love it or not. If that is the case I will look at it with gratitude. Gratitude because if I hadn’t had it: I wouldn’t be continually amazed at every little thing I get to share with my kids and my husband. Gratitude because the odds are not great for surviving this, and I did. So thank you clot for the wake up call. I am grateful for the new perspective… and thank God I didn’t die!

If you have a story you’d like to share about a PE, DVT or a stroke, please share below. It helped me so much to read about other men and women who have been through the exact same thing. We’re strong ladies (and gentlemen!) So much stronger than we realize!

Creating A Bog For Water Loving Plants

I recently bought a gunnera manicata also known as: giant rhubarb (it’s not actually related to rhubarb but the leaf shape is similar) or dinosaur food. As with all things I purchase for my garden: I did a lot of research. It started years ago when I saw photos of this plant. I have always had it in the back of my mind, but I was too busy converting my backyard into a perennial food forest to make time for this.

The plant requires a ton of water. If you look at the surface area of its giant 4-10 foot leaves you can see how it would need a steady flow of water to keep the transpiration rate up. These wilt in high heat. I’m just hoping to create enough of a boggy home to keep it alive.

I ended up ordering from Joy Nurseries (I was extremely happy with the plant and the shipping: which was within a couple of days. I will definitely use them again!) and this is their description:

I lifted the two photos above from Wikipedia because I don’t have a mature picture of this plant… Yet!

At approximately 150 million years old, I can imagine an herbivore from the beginning of the Jurassic period munching on these leaves! And now,  with these impressive photos, you can see why I have made space for a small “defiance garden”: Where I defy mother nature and dare her to stop me!

I don’t usually create this type of garden because they are super difficult to maintain. But. I’m in love with the idea of this plant, so here it is.  I occasionally will add something that I am totally OK with nursing along and creating special conditions that are not natural for my zone or microclimate. I am stubborn. I’ve grown cantaloupe in the colorado foothills by planting water bottles next to the plants (to absorb and radiate heat when the temperature drops at night.)  

Sometimes, my defiance gardens succeed! But they are never a plant and forget situation! I’m expecting to have to water this plant daily in our summer heat. 

If you want to try to create your own defiance garden it will probably only be able to sustain one kind of broken rule for your area. I don’t plant things like peonies down here because that breaks two rules: 1. to bloom a peony needs full sun and 2. it’s too hot down here and they don’t get enough chill hours to properly break dormancy. 

As far as I can tell, the Gunnera just doesn’t like heat (even though it requires zone 8-10). I can provide every other requirement that this bad boy needs, so I am only pushing one growing rule with it. They do really well in England and probably would do well on the American northern west coast. Neither of those places are anything like South Texas. So, we’ll see if I can provide enough things that it needs that I don’t kill it straight off!

In all honesty my gunnera is probably going to fail here because it doesn’t like our temperatures. So, San Antonio is a poor place to choose to plant it. But, I saw a review on DavesGarden.com (a truly stellar site for all sorts of plant information and sellers) that someone had successfully  grown it down here in full shade.

I have a giant empty side yard. The fence is set way back and we just don’t do anything outside in that area. It’s on the north side of the house and it doesn’t drain well. I am attempting to grow the G. Manicata there.

I figure I have the perfect spot, to at least attempt, to grow this monster plant. I’ll show you how I chose to plant this thing and we’ll see how it does. The first thing to do (if you do not have a natural bog or ability to plant on the side of a water feature) to create a bog for any water loving plant, is find a low spot in a shaded area. 

I would not try this if you don’t already have an area that holds a good deal of moisture on its own. This is also not going to do well under a tree because then there will be water competition and trees always win those. I have a low spot, that I had intended to put a French drain in, but hadn’t gotten around to doing it yet. It does drain…  eventually, but every rain storm makes a big soggy mess out there. 

I have seen some videos of people planting Gunnera Manicata but nothing that matches my exact conditions. So this is what I did to make the most of my soggy, shaded,  side yard.

I’m big into soil prepping, especially if I have a feature plant and I want it to preform well for me. I dig huge holes for pretty much anything that comes in a pot.

Our native soil is really hard to work with. It’s like potters clay and full of limestone rocks. It’s also so basic that even our water from our aquifer will kill acid loving plants. Everything that needs acidic to neutral soil needs to be in a pot and my daily watering usually also includes dumping some of my morning’s coffee grounds on the soil in the pot.

I also put coffee grounds on anything with chlorosis (dark veining on yellowing leaves. It’s an iron deficiency and is very common in basic soil.) It works well, but needs constant reapplication. Soil ammendment down here is always necessary.

I would love my grandmother’s deep black Kansas soil, but this is what I have to work with. My soil is a very rich soil that usually only needs compost, iron and some regular applications of nitrogen. But it’s Hell to dig through!

I’ve also learned over the years that you can’t replace all of the soil in a hole because it will act like a pot. The roots grow fantastically until they hit the native dirt and then they turn around and grow back through the softer, amended soil until you end up with a circular mass of roots (this is called: being “root bound”). It will eventually restrict the plant’s growth and a root bound plant is going to be less vigorous and preform more poorly than a plant that creates a healthy root structure without restriction. To amend, and still encourage healthy roots, your amended soil needs to be at most a 50/50 mixture of the native soil and the soil/compost that you are adding. 

On the other hand, some plants have the kind of root system that you will want to control because otherwise they become invasive (and if you fail at restricting things like running bamboo you will have nothing but bamboo, as will ALL of your extremely unhappy neighbors!)

Gunnera Manicata is a monster. It has the kind of root system that can support its 4-10 FOOT leaves. It is invasive in some areas, and planting is extremely discouraged in places like Ireland. I’m not really sure where I’m going to fall in the realm of invasive or complete failure with this plant, so, I built in some options that I can easily change in my planting hole. I also did NOT plant it up against any structure. I’ve seen what this looks like above ground and I assume I’m going to deal with something similar below ground.

First thing of business is digging a suitable hole. I could have gone bigger but I really didn’t feel like putting more work into this. Here’s my hole I dug out in my swampy side yard.

My trusty old spade. This is a little deeper than the length of the spade blade.

As you can see from this side shot I dug a pretty big hole. 

The next part of this is trying to slow, but not stop, the water drainage even further. I have seen 1 year landscape fabric last years under soil so I didn’t try too hard with this. I shucked a Sunday newspaper of its plastic bag ripped it open and placed it in the bottom of the hole.

I drove the spade through it a couple of times and decided that was good enough to keep it draining. Doing this also achieves my goal of slowing water down.

Next I built a micro hugelkultur underneath the plant. I happened to have some well composted mulch that had sat unopened for a while in our backyard. I also opened my compost trash cans (having special ratios or even oxygen is not needed to break down plant materials. I keep rodents and other things out of my compost while keeping constant moisture levels by using my metal trash bins.) These were started a couple of years ago with rabbit bedding and kitchen scraps. I lined them with plastic trash bags because I use this on my vegetable garden and I have no idea what metals they used in the cans. It’s beautiful dirt now!

For a mini hugelkultur you need a source of rotted wood at the base of the hole to absorb and hold water. It will act like a sponge, keeping your planting supplied with moisture. I use a modified hugelkultur in my raised beds. You can learn about them here: Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 1

Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 2

In this bucket is the rotting mulch on the top with the composted rabbit bedding and garden scraps on bottom. This way, when I dump the bucket into the hole it will have everything where I want it from top to bottom.

Since this is a monster plant, I am purposefully creating a “pot like” environment. This is to keep the roots under control, for a while. I line my pots with newspapers.

This keeps the sides of the pot wettable and your soil doesn’t shrink and let your watering run straight down the sides and out of the pot.

In the ground, these newspapers absorb water, like wood mulch does, but stop the roots from spreading so quickly that I have no control. I have left myself an option to open the area around the hole by shoving my spade perpendicular to the newspaper lining, cutting through the future soggy newspaper and giving the roots free access to the surrounding soil. Until then, it will keep the water I add to the planting hole draining down, and then out, keeping as much moisture in the hole’s soil as possible.

And since I am trying to create a bog: it is a plus that I am draining soil slowly. This very set up would kill most plants. If I had full sun here it might bake the native soil’s moisture out enough to have plants survive, but this already floods so much and has so little sun that everything I’ve put out here has struggled.

Gardening usually means working with what you are given. I’ve already got a wet area: I’m just creating a small section of constantly wet bog, instead of the rain garden that I have been given.

The hole so far is lined with newspaper and a perforated plastic bag, has rotting bark mulch at the base and compost on top of that. It’s very hard to show depth in a photo but this is just the bottom 1/3 of the hole.

Next I fill the hole back in with a mixture of 50% native soil and 50% compost.

The reason I am taking so much care with this hole is because I am changing the native conditions. If I wanted to plant regular garden plants in here I would have put in the French drain (which would have been even more work!) If I had a normal slope and drainage on this side nothing I could do would be enough to qualify this as a bog garden. Gardening is always full of goals, this was the simplest answer to my mushy wet area. I used the lack of drainage to my benefit.

I filled the hole in and created a small area to place the plant. Then I ran the hose until I filled the hole full of water and then lowered the pressure to a dribble. I let that run for about a half hour. It was definitely soggy at the end of all that!

I let the hole drain for a day and then brought out my Gunnera.

The last things to think about are: maintaining moisture, creating a weed barrier and how you are going to deal with hardening off the transplant.

I accomplished these things with cardboard and a gallon milk jug. I was very aware of the problem of dehydration with this plant while I had it indoors. I was having to mist the leaves and base of the plant several times a day as the leaves would shrivel up and die without constant moisture. Because I hate the process of hardening off plants (getting them used to the sun and wind of the outdoors) I always protect mine with milk jugs. Just cut an x across the base of the milk jug and fold the corners out.

Cut a puncture hole into the flaps.

Plant your plant, cover the surrounding soil with cardboard and water in. Carefully place the milk jug over your plant and anchor with landscaping pins or whatever you want to use to keep the jug from blowing away. Add some rocks to anchor the cardboard and water in again.

This was a lot of work, so make sure you check on your plant at least once a day.

Mine is super happy in these conditions and is sending up new leaves!

Here it is a couple of weeks later:

I’m very happy with the results! I hope you enjoyed my bog tutorial! If you would like to know more about beginner gardening, I have a 4 part series that I repost at least once a year. It’s everything you need to know to grow!

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 1

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 2

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 3

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 4

Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

This is a great time of year to plan and build raised beds. This is how I built my raised beds and I have given them no supplemental watering in the last two years of San Antonio heat and I’ve had bumper crops with almost no input outside of planting and occasional weeding! This has been a super fantastic bed for me and I will only build duplicates of these from now on!

2014 mother’s day raised beds:

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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Witch Circle/Ghost ring 

I love making Halloween decorations, but I think they should be nearly free. Most of the things in our yard are homemade (with the exception of a couple of blow up displays and some skeletons.) 

I need my display to make a big impact (because we are trying to get people to walk down a long street where no one else is decorating.) I’ll put time into projects, but it has to cost next to nothing AND draw people down our lame, dark street that doesn’t have a lot of people participating.

Our entire subdivision really gets into Halloween but for some reason not a lot of people do on the side streets near our home. Here’s to hoping that they get in the spirit next year!

This is an idea that involves 6 ingredients (mostly odds and ends around the house) to make an impressive display (only one of the ingredients needs to be purchased ahead of time, but it still costs very little.)

It’s a circle of witches, and it turns out even better if you have something for them to stand around. This year we got a 12 foot blow up ghost on a half price sale. My witches are going to make my 12 foot ghost even more impressive!

For each witch you will need: 1, 4 foot length of rebar, 3 lawn and leaf size black plastic trash bags, 10-15 plastic grocery bags, black duct tape, a glue gun and cheap bulk witch hats off of ebay or somewhere else online (I got a package of six here for about $10.) To get cheap witch hats outside of listed as “in stock” ones on Amazon, you will literally need to enlist the help of a slow boat from China. If you do not have Amazon prime, and you order directly from China, this needs to be ordered at least a month ahead of time to be sure they arrive in time. Always check when they estimate delivery for anything you order online. If it’s too late to get the hats, just switch to white trash bags and you can make ghosts instead. For ghosts: use these directions, omitting the witch hats.

You probably have everything else! If you don’t have the duct tape, you can find it in the paint aisle of your local home improvement or big box store. And hot glue is standard for crafting. If you don’t have a glue gun, trust me, it won’t go to waste if you purchase one. I get mine out all the time to create, or fix, just about everything!

Now let’s get down to the witches! The first part is cutting up your lawn and leaf trash bags. First pull out the tie strips (if you have them) and cut them off as close to their base as possible on all three bags. Don’t throw the ties away! You can use them in a minute.

Next you will need to shred two of the three bags. The easiest way to do this is to fold your trash bag in half. (This makes 4 single ply layers) cut through the area that had the ties (if your bag had them) which will be the opening that came on the bag. Hold the bag on either side of the scissors with your fingers and slide the scissors up through the bag, slicing as you go. This is the same thing as when you cut wrapping paper for the holidays. It should just slice as it moves along: you shouldn’t have to move the scissor handles. Try and cut in fairly straight lines through about 1/2-2/3 of the bag, leaving 1/2-1/3 uncut (you’ll come up with your preference for the perfect amount to cut as you make more of these.) Do this to 2 of your 3 bags you will use per witch.

At the bottom (closed end) of your bag, cut a 3 to 4 inch hole in the middle. This will make some lengths you can tie on the rebar.

My cut is angled and crooked. You can see the idea here, you definitely do not need to be perfect for any of this project!

Now that the first two bags are cut,put them aside. It’s time to make the head.

For the head you need to take your grocery bags and fluff them up. Don’t try and use anything made of paper for this. The overnight dew (or rain, or sprinklers) will ruin what you made if you use paper. Stuff the witch head (and anything you make for the outdoors) with something that is waterproof (like trash bags or grocery bags). You should loosely ball up the grocery bags. A good rule of thumb is to fill a single grocery bag completely full of the fluffed ones. You should have the right size for a head that way.

Cut some lengths of duct tape maybe 8 or 10 inches and then cut it in half length-wise so you have two narrow long strips. Put one end of each of the pieces on whatever you are working on: table, counter, whatever.

Take your 4 foot rebar (these are always rusty so make sure you don’t do this over carpet/upholstery or while you are wearing nice clothes!) and slide your witch’s head onto it. As you are holding the head, fold any excess or corners down around the rebar.

Take one of your strips and carefully put it around the neck of the witch’s head. It needs to be fairly tight but: you are going to slide it back off to hammer the rebar in the ground, and then back on, when you are done.

This is all you need for the neck.

Make sure that you have the rebar inside of the stuffed bag so you can fluff or reposition the head the way you like it.  Before you set her head aside: lay the head across a table, floor or counter.

Cut strips up the bag until you are close to the taped neck area. I don’t cut the heads with the other bags because I found it is really difficult to guess how much space the head will take up. You don’t want the head part to be cut in strips, just the dress part of it. I also didn’t cut the bag while it was on the rebar because I was getting crooked cuts. As some cuts crossed: I lost bits of the witch dress.

This is optional: depending on if you like the look. I used the second strip of duct tape, to anchor the ties I cut off earlier. It was just to add a little decorative detail and because then: I’m not wasting anything. If you want to try this: place the ties ends very close together on the tape. It doesn’t take much tape to go around the neck and you have some control over how it looks if they are very close together.

Remove the witch’s head and set it to the side.

Take one of your cut up bags and slide the rebar through the center that you cut. Put the end of the rebar on the ground and bring the bag up, so that: the strips hang like a skirt around the rebar. Tie the center edges that you cut together.

You can see the center cut that I made is how I tied this knot, while the outer edges of the bag are not tied yet.

Place some duct tape around the tied end so it is firmly attached to the rebar and won’t slip.

Then tie the ends (of the corners of the closed end of the bag) together. Tape the knot ends in the same way you did the center cut knot.

This will give you some fluff so that the skirt has some shape. Next slide the second cut up bag onto the top portion of the rebar. You need to position this right under where the head will sit. If you forgot where that is: just slide the head back on and check. Once you have tied and taped the second part of your witch’s dress, place the head back on top.

Plug in your glue gun and glue the inside rim of the hat. Place it (and arrange it) on the head before the glue hardens. When you are done, set your finished witch aside and continue assembling until you are done with however many witches you are making. (I made two a night until I had 6. That’s a reasonable pace for this project. I would have gotten frustrated if I’d tried to make them all at once.) 

To place them in the ground: take the head back off one last time. Bring your witches to the area you are installing them. Place the witches on the ground, laying them down in the pattern of your choice. If you are making a circle, place pairs opposite each other as you go.

Hammer the rebar in place and replace the heads. You can tie some of the cut strips together so they look like they are holding hands if you set them close enough (ours looked kinda dopey like that so we didn’t.)  We had some really strong winds today and I’m happy to report that none of the witches were damaged! You never know how your decorations will do until they make it through a good storm! 

Your witch circle is complete!

Woooooo hoo witchy woman, see how high she flies! Woo hoo witchy woman, she got the moon in her eyes! 

Yes. I went there!

Our attitude towards Halloween (and most of life) is go big or go home! Here’s what the rest of the yard looks like. 


I had to put my packing tape ghost back on the form this year. I just threw her in the garage last year. Big mistake! Take the time to pack your homemade Halloween creations properly or you’ll end up having to remake them every year!

And a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has visited my blog this month! I have had ten thousand visitors, just in October! Woo hoo!

Interested in more awesome, cheap Halloween ideas? Try these!

Easy Packing Tape Ghost

Milk Jug Spider

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Craft Ideas

Cousin It… Oh Yeah! 

Cousin It… Oh Yeah! 

I saw this and I had to make one! All of my Halloween decorations are cheap, but some require a little planning. If you want to make this you will need to find the pieces and order them so that this is done before Halloween!

First order of business is acquiring the parts. I’ve included the links for these because I don’t know of any other reliable sources. You will need to order:

A derby hat

A pair of sunglasses

Grass skirts (2) full ones (or multiple thin ones. We started out with three thin ones from Party City. They barely covered the cage. We needed more so we ordered full ones here: we only needed 2 of those, so shop around.

This is the cheap thin skirts we bought from party city. They were junk. Find a full grass skirt. Don’t get duped into purchasing something thin. Grass table skirts have this same problem. We kept them because I’d torn off the flowers.

Optional: sound activated light/audio source (we used one we purchased at Big Lots.)

While you are waiting for your supplies to arrive you will need to go to a hardware store or plant nursery and get a tomato cage. I am a gardener, so I always have a few of those on hand.

If your hula skirts came with flowers: remove them. Both types of skirts we bought had flowers. I just tore mine off both sets because they were hot glued on.

Next turn your tomato cage upside down and turn the wire legs in on themselves. You need to be able to set your hat on this so keep it nearby and try it on the cage as you’re working. Put a white kitchen trash bag over the tomato cage.

Next are the skirts. Slide the first skirt up from the bottom until you have no excess on the ground. Next slowly slide the second skirt down from the top towards the bottom and make sure the waist of the skirt sits on the top bent wire rims on the tomato cage. Hold the skirt at the ends of the waist and wrap the skirt around the top of the tomato cage. Staple the waist together at the ends (our skirts had velcro if yours is solid elastic I would cut through the waist so that you can wrap the skirt around the cage and you can adjust it more easily.) 

You can choose to hot glue the skirts as you go.  I found it necessary because even a little wind will blow this over.

If you don’t line the cage with a kitchen trash bag: the wind will blow the skirt pieces into a horrible tangled mess inside the support cage. This keeps the skirt on the outside of the wired support. You should hot glue the hat on. Make sure that the skirts and the tomato cage are exactly how you want them and then carefully hot glue the hat on.

Next open the glasses up and test where you want them. If you aren’t expecting to use these glasses for anything else in the future: unscrew the temples and remove them. Otherwise, you will need to use the horizontal wires of the cage to assist you with holding the glasses in place. You won’t have a lot of choices on where to place the glasses if you keep the temples. If you keep them: part the grass skirt, cut a hole in the trash bag. Slide the temples in and glue the glasses onto the wire on the cage. You can also glue the lenses to the the grass on the skirt behind them.

Last: (if you want to) put a sound activated audio/strobe light on the inside of the cage. It makes your creation come alive!

Interested in more awesome, cheap Halloween ideas? Try these!

Easy Packing Tape Ghost

Milk Jug Spider

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Craft Ideas