Category Archives: blogger

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!

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:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080225213715.htm

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!

Get updates on this blog via Facebook here: www.facebook.com/CrazyGreenThumbs

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

We love Halloween at our house and so do most of our neighbors! We see all kinds of great decorations, but most of them are purchased. I’m from a generation that made their costumes every year because there weren’t other options. I like to decorate for Halloween but I am not interested in spending a bunch of money. I mean really: How hard is it to make a ghost decoration?

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I also have young children. I wanted to do something that they could help with, so it had to be simple. I decided on a garland of ghosts. We bought a package of coffee filters and folded them into triangles. I drew faces on some of them with magic markers and my four year old colored on those. My seven year old drew his own ghost faces on his. After my kids were finished I used some cellophane tape and taped the ghosts into a cone shape.

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This is such a simple project and you can even finish this on Halloween night in those high energy hours between when school lets out and before it’s time to trick or treat!

Here’s how to do it:

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Fold standard coffee filters into a triangular shape.

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Draw your ghost/monster face. When finished tape the coffee filter into a cone shape.

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Poke a hole in the top of the coffee filter and run string or yarn through the hole.

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Tie the string or yarn to a screw, nut or bolt underneath the ghost/monster. (This is a great use for all of the accumulated odds and ends in your junk drawers!) This will weight the filter and prevent the yarn or string from pulling out of the hole in the filter.

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Tie a loop at the top of your ghost to hang directly from a branch or take a long length of yarn or string and tie the ghosts about 4-6″ between each ghost down the length of the string/yarn to make a garland. Tie the ends in your trees, bushes or along a patio railing. Y ou can also hang these inside.

There you go! Super fast, super simple and you can see these from a good distance.

Here are some other things I made for Halloween this year: A thirty foot, two story spider web I made from yarn.

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I also decorate marshmallows for my kids as a reward for finishing their lunches at school. If they have eaten all of the lunch I send with them, then I will decorate a marshmallow for them for the next school day. This week I did a lot of Halloween themed marshmallows.

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It has been very effective at our house and it’s fun to send something to let my kids know I was thinking about them.

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You don’t have to use these nightly like I do, you can randomly add them to lunches on nights when you have a little extra time. Your children will remember these, and more importantly: they will remember you.

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I like them better than notes. I was able to start making these before either of my children could read. I would have had to wait to add notes.

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I wanted my kids to look forward to remembering me at school instead of noticing a note and then hiding it because it isn’t cool to have your mommy write you love letters!

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I’ve been doing these for three years now. It takes very few supplies to do these although it takes a while to learn how to write on such a soft surface.

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All I have to make these are some food markers and aerosol cake frosting dye colors (these are in cake decorating isles at hobby stores), clean scissors, toothpicks (currently just for my seven year old because he is old enough not to just bite into them) and food coloring added to bags of powdered sugar. I will create a post on my techniques in the future.

Of course we carved pumpkins:

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but look at what we found on a walk in our neighborhood! We aren’t the only Doctor Who nerds here!

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This Dalek jack-o-lantern is awesome.

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The clear balls look like the containers you get from the 25 cent toy machines in grocery stores. I will definitely be making one of these next year!

Have fun tonight and Happy Halloween!!!!

Milk Jug Spider

I love making Halloween decorations! I also love to make CHEAP decorations. I don’t think I can find a good reason to buy a lot of what I see in the stores. 1. Because I want my kids to grow up knowing that they can build things, grow their own food and be creators instead of just consumers and 2. I hate spending money on junk from China that’s most likely built in sweat shops. I am pretty happy with a lot of what I can make, too.

I live in South Texas. Halloween celebrations are almost as big as high school football down here. I have seen some amazing stuff (and I’m a little competitive, craft-wise!) and we have learned to really get into and appreciate Halloween. A couple of years ago I made some packing tape ghosts. Last year I made a dead body and some ghosts with styrofoam heads covered with cheesecloth. This year I’m focusing on spiders, grave stones and witch circles. It’s a good thing we have a big front yard!

Here are my directions and some tips for making $5 spiders out of duct tape, a one gallon milk jug and foam pipe:

First you need to go to your local hardware store and pick up a couple of things. One is black duct tape. You’ll find it in the paint area with all of the other tapes. Second you need to head over to the plumbing section and get some foam insulation tubing. The tubing comes in 6 foot sections and I got the cheapest, which were about 97 cents a piece. You will need 4 of the six foot lengths for each spider.

Once you have these two ingredients for your spider, you’ll need: a clean,  dry, empty milk jug

some fairly sharp scissors and a paint pen (in a color other than black.) 

First you need to find the center of the tubing. Bend a tube in half and mark where the middle is with a paint pen. Straighten the marked pipe out again. 

Place the four pieces of tubing where the ends are lined up equally. Now is when I used my assistant to help me hold the tubing straight. Tape across the marked area. You only need to have one tube marked for this. 

There’s the middle!

Next you need to tape off the milk jug. You could randomly tape across this, but your milk jug is almost square, I suggest horizontal lines. Cover all but the handle corner.

Wrap all but the back corner panels of the jug (the area by the handle.) You can wrap the whole thing in tape if you like, but the legs will cover the back of the 90° angle, so you don’t need to.

Cut the lid area off.

Don’t tape over the hole just yet. You will probably need to blow into the jug to puff out the sides that will collapse a little as you tape.

Next cut U shaped cuts across the centered part you taped.

Line your cut marks along the handle of the milk jug.

Now tape the legs to the body where the center of the legs is in a V shape and the feet are at an angle away from the floor. You don’t need to be too perfect, but leave area to adjust the legs with tape.

Spider upside-down.

Now bend one leg in half to mark where you want the leg joint. It should be about 1/2 of the length of the leg. Mark that fold with paint pen. Continue with all 8 legs. Remember to approximately match the legs on the opposite side.

With the spider upside down: cut the joints like you did the center of the legs, except instead of a U, make a V. Remember the angle you cut should be at the same point in each leg to keep the legs angled correctly.

Now it’s time to tape each leg joint. I found it really helpful to do this while the spider was upright on the ground. If you do it on your lap the legs will end up wonky and you’ll probably have to redo them. Luckily this is just tape and foam so you can fix things by just retaping or adding a new piece of tape somewhere. If you have too many layers down you can get around that mistake by cutting the joint back open and taping again.

You can get an idea of what the legs will look like finished: while the spider rests on the floor.

If you ended up with crooked legs: this is where you fix them. Tape a small circle around the base of the leg. Hold the leg like you want it and then tape it that way. I ended up with a lot of waste during this part because I kept getting the sticky sides stuck together in tight spaces. This is the only frustrating part of the project. Remember that the tape might not permanently adhere to the foam but it will definitely adhere to itself! 

Holding, twisting and taping. I have found that you should over correct to get the legs to stay in the right place.

Now go back and tape over any exposed undersides of the tape. Use small strips. It’s extra work but it’s worth it! Angles should already be the way you want them. This is just to fill out the body and cover exposed edges. It also takes it from milk jug looking mess to spider!

I hope you enjoyed this!

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

Witch Circle/Ghost Ring

Easy Packing Tape Ghost

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Craft Ideas

Cousin It… Oh Yeah! 

Beginning Gardener: Class 3-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the third part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first and second parts of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) and Beginning Gardener (part 2) The links in this post and part 1 and part 2 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

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I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part three for the beginner gardener:

What are you growing? Will the answers to the questions from part 1 and part 2 support it? Your county extension office will have suggestions for varieties of plants as will the agriculture departments of local Universities. In the planning phase, web searches can be your best friend!    

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What should you NOT grow? Invasive plants can be beautiful in one zone and a nightmare in another. Before you plant a perennial make sure you know what you’re getting into. An example is heavenly bamboo (nandina domestica, pictured above.) This is in most people’s yards down here and it shouldn’t be. It’s considered invasive in South Texas and I am already having problems with it spreading. I will be removing our pair (that came with our home) soon. Other common examples of garden bullies are: mint, burdock and Bermuda grass. These can be very aggressive and so hard to remove/keep out of beds once they have outgrown their space. There are a lot of plants that are commonly planted here that are invasive. If you live in Texas check this site out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=CYDA Plants that send out runners need barriers, others reseed heavily and still others have roots that can come back from very, very small pieces left in the soil. Understand the kind of work involved in keeping your choice of plants contained (or removing it) if it does breach your barriers or outpace your attempts to slow it down. Look up your state’s invasive plant list and make sure you keep those species out of your life. Here is the National Invasive Species Information Center: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml

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What size will your mature plants be? In five, ten or twenty years you don’t want to live in a jungle of poorly spaced overgrown plants. Also, what are your plant’s mature fruiting expectations? If you are planting a fruit tree (or multiples) how many hundreds of pears, apples (or whatever) can you really expect to eat or process? (This huge surplus from trees will be a yearly conundrum. The bigger the fruiting plant size the more you will have. Often, a berry bush or two is a better idea than trees.) If you are growing fruits or vegetables what kind of yearly effort will these plants need from you? Planting, water, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, pruning. What exactly are you getting into? Fruits can be rewarding but they take a lot of work. What kind of work are you willing to invest to get a good return? Again, your county extension will have good advice on this. Your local Master Gardeners are volunteers that go through a course and must put in hours helping educate the community to keep their M.G. designation. These people are usually old hands at gardening in your area. They are there to help you! If you have some at your county extension, use their expertise!!! My extension answers emails. I often get responses within a day and it’s free! (Do not rely solely on information from people who are trying to sell you something. They have a conflict of interest.)

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Sit down. Draw out your plan (or use a computer program. Look for something simple). Make a master plan and keep it in a place that you can access and update. (If you own your home, an easy way to do this is to get a blueprint of your property from the county assessor’s office and make copies so you can mark things to scale.) Things to keep in mind with perennials: Start small (don’t put in a lot of plants at once) but start big (the largest additions and your non-plant structures). You need to make your plan then put your large trees in first. Fruit, syrup and nut trees take years (sometimes decades) to bear. Don’t put trees in that you aren’t sure you will like! If you’ve never eaten the kind of fruit you are buying: try and find a source online where you can try some. You can start at your local grocer. In the international isle you may find canned examples of fruit you are interested in growing. Also, Amazon might carry what you are looking for. Look for dried fruit, jams and jellies online. You can then decide if you want to pursue the plant. Sometimes there are only examples at the nurseries that sell the plants. Raintree nursery often carries jellies and jams of their products.

Also, if you have 500 pears from a mature tree (even if you loooove pears, what are you really going to do with that many?), or if you only like certain kinds of apples and you have no idea what the variety you are ordering is going to taste like (and even if you like them you will still end up with hundreds of them) then these are probably not good choices for you or your yard. If you don’t get out and harvest fruit before it drops you will have animals (large and small), wasps (and a million other kinds of bugs) and angry neighbors (from the smell of rotting fruit in your yard.) If you want to grow fruits: go to your local farmer’s markets, find out what varieties of food you are eating, then plant what you love. If it’s growing well enough to be at the farmer’s market: it will probably be a good bet for you, too. You don’t want to wait 5-15 years to get something that you hate. Don’t put 5, 10, 20 or 50 full sized fruit trees in!!!! Unless you are starting your own farmers market (or super market chain), you CAN’T use this many! Before you purchase a fruit tree, find out how many fruit you will be dealing with at it’s mature age. If you are interested in selling your surplus call your local CSA and ask what they are interested in purchasing, then plant those types of plants. You can also find specialty markets online, but you are dealing with food distribution laws at that point and you will need to have sound advice before you begin. Find your market before you plant your trees. It would be a huge issue for you if you are planting things that you expect to sell that don’t (and won’t) have a market. Orchards are a huge responsibility and expensive to maintain and create. Make sure you are aiming at something that you can actually accomplish.

If you are looking for shade or privacy: fast is not better. Fast growing trees have weak wood. You will be picking up limbs after every wind and ice storm and/or your plant will aggressively spread across your property. Look for a medium growth tree, get ideas from your county extension and realize: structures (fences, arbors, gazebos etc), not plants, are the fastest, easiest ways to accomplish immediate privacy and shade issues.

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Keep a spiral notebook just for your garden information/notes and don’t put anything else in it. You will thank me later. For your spiral notebook: make a list of what you are growing from seed, what you have problems/success with during the season, what helps your plants, what doesn’t…this is a science experiment: heavy documentation truly helps. Otherwise, you WILL forget details between seasons. It’s okay, you will learn each year what you need to add and keep track of.

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Interested in saving seed? Just because it’s a seed and you liked what it came from: doesn’t mean you can use it. Hybrid or GMO seeds will not grow into what you ate. Same with peach pits and other fruits. In large orchards, they use trees that produce the fruit you love and other varieties that are excellent, reliable pollinators. You need two varieties for good pollination but only one produces what they are selling. This means the seed you get is crossed. You are not going to grow the fruit you get at the grocery store from fruit you buy there. There is a fantastic organization for heirloom plants http://www.seedsavers.org that saves heirloom varieties for genetic diversity in the future. Without this sort of program we will loose our ability to grow our own foods with the diversity of current heirloom strains. Please think of joining or ordering your seeds from this company! Learn how to save your own heirloom seed here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Saving-Heirlooms/ Seed saving is not for beginners. If you are starting out, try numerous types of the same vegetable and figure out what you like, what does well for you and then work with those. You also need large isolation spaces or specialized techniques to keep seed strains pure. 

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Dig a $20 hole for a $10 tree. How you plant will directly impact your success. Your plants will not do well if they are poorly planted or in poor soil. Raised squared beds can solve dense planting sites.  I make a cinder block square, one block deep then fill the raised bed with compost and good soil. The next thing I do is turn the new dirt into the raised bed and finally dig the hole. This will keep a lot of your roots far enough from the constant clay yuck that they will flourish rather than become diseased. You can definitely amend just your planting hole, but it needs to filled back in with mostly native soil. If you have heavy clay (like I do) and you dig your hole: if you fill it back up only with garden soil you have basically created and in-ground pot. The roots will readily spread out until they hit the dense soil around the hole. The roots will then spend the rest of their time filling in the looser soil instead of spreading out. You can amend soil for a tree, but keep the soil 50% native soil and 50% amended soil (like compost and garden soil.) Also, the size and type of plant dictates what you can add to the hole. For trees and shrubs you should not add fertilizer to the planting hole. For annuals and small perennials (and this is still only if you are planting in your growing season and not fall or winter): I always add some Osmocote (a kind of granular fertilizer) to the hole.

****SUPER DUPER SITES: Are you like me and absent minded? If you don’t want to have to think too hard about your vegetable start dates, here’s a fantastic site that will walk you through what to plant each week in your growing season. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/what-to-plant-now-zl0z0903zalt.aspx I totally rely on this site! It updates every two weeks and sends you personalized reminders to your inbox.

Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? Go here: http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Page-KGPJS

Burpee’s has a free garden app that is worth looking at. I tend to forget to use it because I prefer the planting reminders from Mother Earth News. But Burpees has plant specific information and growing tips. Want to keep track of when to harvest? Burpee’s app can handle that. Beginners will be able to take the guesswork out of the gardening experience.

I also enter fruit harvest dates in my phone’s calendar (I even keep track of when to expect bluebonnets and native fruit this way.)

One of the most inclusive and user friendly sites I’ve seen is here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/agrarian-garden-plant-a-gram/ They have a variety of tools listed under “Agrarian: Learn More”. Look towards the bottom of the menu on the left to access them. Of course they should have a great site with the prices they charge for their products! It’s really well done and free, so I do have to recommend the site. It covers pretty much anything you’d like to know on a variety of subjects including: raising poultry, beekeeping, composting, canning and creating fermented food. I would never spend the kind of money they are asking for their products, though.

You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? You may not know everything this season, but do your best to get familiar with the concepts. The rest, you will learn to use as you advance in skill. Get out and play with your seed/plants/bulbs and trees!

The fourth and final installment of this class will cover my favorite publications and growing aides.

Beginning Gardener: Class 2-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

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Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the second part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first part of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) The links in this post and part 1 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

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I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part two for the beginner gardener:

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You will need to know your sun versus shade ratio. What parts of your yard will support a sun plant? A shade plant? How many hours of sun you are getting in each area? This is fairly easy to calculate, go outside several times a day and look at where you’ve got full sun. Doing this will give you a general idea of how many hours of direct sun each part of your yard actually gets. Full sun means: AT LEAST 6 hours of direct sun a day.  What side of the house or other structure are you looking at planting on? Remember the sides of a structure are decided by the sun’s rays. You can be planting on the Northern side of a Southern wall on your property  So, even though it’s the South side of your property it isn’t the South side of the wall. This explains sun exposure: http://gardening.about.com/od/gardendesign/qt/SunExposure.htm Where is the “best” place to plant? Look at what is already there and find the areas that are naturally doing well. Example: areas of your yard with thick healthy grass. Where not to plant: areas that are perennially dry and dead, like: where your sprinklers don’t quite reach or on a rocky slope.

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!!!

If you are in a water restricted area please read my post that explains why you should not put rock down: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard! If you need to cover an area: use wood mulch. It breaks down and is not a permanent answer to a temporary problem. There are wood mulches that resist wind. Again, ask your county extension agents for more help in this area. Dry or rocky sloped areas will most likely not sustain tender plants and will need something more aggressive.

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Decide what you will be growing in. Depending on what you have (poor soil, a small space, acres of room) you have different options: amending existing soil, raised beds and pots. I use a combination. Each has different advantages and disadvantages.

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What are your planting goals? Beauty, shade, lawn, vegetables, fruit? Your yard not only needs to work for you, but if (and when) you sell your home (no one lives forever), it will be either a huge detractor or a huge plus (our yard was what sold every home I have lived in.) Your yard also needs to work for everyone in your family. When I move states I research at least a year before I try to install large perennials. These are usually permanent plantings. You mess it up and it’s a big deal. I will list my favorite gardening book sources in here. There are also plenty of fantastic and patient people who will take the time to teach you. Your county extension can help. Also, look for classes given by individuals and by your county. Go to garden shows. (Note that your local nurseries, especially big box stores, will sell you plants that will not do well in your area in the long run. Perennials are expensive. Do your research before you buy anything that you want to last.) Research as much as you can on the internet and in book form. Remember: forums are great resources, but more often than not, they boil down to individual opinion rather than scientific fact. Universities and local/state/federal horticulture sources are the best places to get real information.

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What would you like to grow? Is it a cool season flower or vegetable? Warm season flower or vegetable? Bulbs? Trees? Plants outside your zones (that will need to be sheltered over your winter)? Each of these has a time and a place of ideal planting.

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If you are new to gardening: I don’t recommend trying to grow from seed by randomly grabbing seed packets while you are out and about. I see a lot of new gardeners buying up seed and then sprinkling the whole package directly out in their yards. You may get a couple of plants that way, but in nature (and in ideal conditions): plants will self-sow (regrow yearly from last years dropped seed). Each plant produces hundreds to thousands of seeds to accomplish this. If you order a small bag of 10, 20 or even 200 seeds you are going to need to start them and baby them to get the same results. In some cases you will waste your seed if you go out and try and direct sow them (plant them straight in the soil. Although, there are things that require direct sowing. Check your packet and don’t start or sow the whole thing! You may have a failure, need to restart or resow, or want to space your plantings for longer harvest.)

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Even if a beginner gardener gets seeds going, they might want to also check their nursery for plants. Grow a set of plants: one set from seed and one set of the same kind of plant from a local nursery. You will be able to see which does better in your climate. Although nursery plants are more expensive than seed, it is not as complicated to get them going. They will be much larger and produce earlier. I buy large potted pansies to grow over our winter. If I started with seed it would be much more complicated and my flowers would most likely not be very impressive. I skip the extra work with sprouting and growing pansies from seed and pay the grower to do that for me. I then watch for sales and buy several flats when they mark them down to 50 cents a plant in during the Fall. Efficiency is a big part of my gardening plan. I have so much area planted that I focus attention on what I know will work best for me, so that I have more picking and less planting. This will become more clear to the beginner gardener as their experience grows.

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Starting seed indoors has it’s own set of rules. (This equals more: time, energy, experience and research!) Once you have successfully grown a few things: expand into seeds from the kind of plants that do well for you. Squash are terrific seeds to try when you are starting out and learning to grow. Corn and melons are strong growers too, but harvesting takes experience. The best things to start out with are things that don’t require judging ripeness. Leaf vegetables, root vegetables, herbs and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, tomatillos etc that ripen well for your area). These plants that I recommend are strong growers and need little from the gardener to start other than warm soil, lots of sun and water.

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Everything you transplant must be “hardened off” before planting. This is sometimes an ordeal but you will lose your plants if you neglect to do this. Here’s how: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/914/  (Here is my short cut to the hardening off process.)

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Cool areas have cilantro spread like wildfire, hot areas have tomatoes and basil self sow. I still buy my tomatoes as nursery plants (the bigger the better). I have a super short season down here for tomatoes. They need cooler nights than my summer gives and they need more heat than most of my late fall, winter and early spring days have. I also only grow small fruiting tomato varieties. I’ve got to get big, healthy and fast maturing plants to win down here. If I try and grow large fruited tomatoes I usually end up with one or two tomatoes on a plant and then they usually split from heavy rains or the birds peck a hole in them long before they are ripe. I understand most people think tomatoes are easy (and in certain climates they are), but they don’t live this far South!

SAMSUNG

SAMSUNG

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In a nearly opposite climate, I’ve also lived on the front range in Colorado. To get tomatoes to ripen before frost you had to make a plastic tent to cover mature plants to keep the daytime heat in. In Kansas: tomatoes were bountiful and simple plants to grow. As you can see: it depends on where you are. Ask your county extension office what seeds and vegetable or fruit varieties are sure fire growers in your area.

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Buying seed can get expensive and you need to remember to buy only for the space you currently have. If you don’t think ahead you can end up with so much seed that the seed will go bad before you have space to plant them (leeks, onions and parsnips are notorious for being short lived seed)! Seeds are one more thing to worry about. New gardeners need to go slow. If you are just starting out, pick a couple of recommended plants and expand only as your experience gives you the opportunity to do so.

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This is the end of the second course. I hope you picked up some tips you can use this season! Watch for the third course and I will be posting my favorite gardening books for the fourth segment. Good luck and get out there and get dirty!

Will They Ripen? 

We live a little east of San Antonio. When hurricane Harvey’s winds were just a few hours out, I had a choice: bring in severely under ripe, astringent, Asian persimmons (and super green tomatoes) or risk breaking the brittle branches that were loaded with fruit and have the fruit split from the deluge.

Several days after harvest. Some were coloring up but others just sat there green and hard.

(Mine happen to be the Saijo variety. If you can get past the runny texture: these are the most insanely sweet, most flavorful fruit I can grow here. However the “snot” like texture can be off-putting and I dislike them cooked. They end up like cooked pumpkin, but not as good as real pumpkin. These are all things to consider when planting astringent Asian persimmons.)

Harvey’s constant winds drove rainwater under our front door. We ended up putting plastic under the door and taping it closed, with painter’s tape, from the outside.

I always pull my persimmon slightly early: just when they start to color, otherwise I lose them to birds and squirrels. The variety I have ripen over a long period of time, so I don’t usually have a glut and can enjoy a long harvest. However. When you are preparing for a hurricane (my husband and I met because of Katrina, so this wasn’t our first rodeo.) you have to consider fruit weight, high winds and the strength of the wood.

Saijo fruits developing.

My Saijo is a heavy fruiter. It is a reliable tree that I can always expect a good year from. This year was no different. My pear had 1 pear this year. My peach (that was a gift from my non-gardening husband) as usual, had nothing, but my persimmon was loaded down with fruit. Very green. Astringent. Super un-ripe fruit. I really didn’t have a choice. The fruit had to come down.

Last year’s harvest. This tree is a hard worker in my garden!

This is half of what I pulled, plus my large harvest of super green tomatoes. Both of these are fruit that will ripen off the plants, but usually: I only pull these after they start to color. So, it was a “wait and see” type of thing.

Half of the persimmons I pulled.

I was not very hopeful with these tomatoes. But I had to pull them or I’d have lost all of them.

As the persimmon sat out on the counter I eventually noticed that they were getting soft and gelatinous (like ripe persimmon would) but the fruit’s skin was still green. I was thinking: I was going to have to throw them out. Before I trashed all of my fruit I decided to cut one of the soft ones open and check if there was any reason to keep them. To my surprise: despite the green skin, they were fully ripe inside and not astringent at all.

Soft, but still green on the outside.

What my fruit color should look like, beside the green skinned, but soft, fruit.

Inside of the green skinned fruit. It is ripe, non astringent and the correct color.

Ripe on the inside saijo. It was just as delicious as it is every year!

I am so happy these did not have to be thrown out! My tomatoes went from solid green (most had no blush at all) to fully ripe also.

Very unripe tomatoes.

We were also extremely lucky that the hurricane did not do as much damage here as weather casters and our city expected. We got enough winds that they blew down three sections of our privacy fence, but no lasting damage.

One of the sections of fence we lost during Harvey.

Because none of my trees had a fruit load: I didn’t lose any branches. Like I said: San Antonio was very, very lucky! Our prayers are with our Houston neighbors, who were not as fortunate.

Most of those super green tomatoes ripened too.

So if you have a reason you MUST harvest persimmon and tomatoes early: know that for the most part, you will end up with ripe fruit. It’s OK to harvest very early, IF you have no other options. I can say that I wouldn’t do this if I had an option to leave them on the tree (I’ve noticed these persimmons can be slightly harder to digest when they weren’t ripened a bit more on the tree.) but if we have another emergency early harvest, I will be much more relaxed about the outcome!