Category Archives: Inspiration

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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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!!!!

Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

The Specter Of Drought

Winter is on the way! It’s time to brush up on your gardening skills and learn new gardening gifts! I am ready to share everything with you! This year I thought I’d get back to basics and start publishing pieces of my gardening advice from my page: Gardening Basics. For the novice gardener: read on and stay tuned! This is pretty much everything you need to know to grow a successful garden.

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So, take a walk with me through what every gardener can use in their tool belt: a great source for general gardening information! Good luck this season and go get your hands dirty!!!

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Gardening Basics:

Have you ever wondered what sets seasoned gardeners (the ones that have the photo perfect gardens and never seem to lose a plant) and new gardeners (people who seem to kill everything they touch) apart? Three main things: For one, what you think is going on in those perfect gardens is usually an illusion. It is a gardener’s photographic slight of hand. Not many people who garden will post photos of their failures, mid-season ratty plants and weak or neglected rows of corn. They certainly can’t sell books about it. They probably don’t live where you do, they have decades of amended soil, and are not running after kids in diapers (they also probably don’t have a full time outside job), grow only what does well for them and have a lot of years photographing (at just the right time) to look like they are gardening Gods. In the real gardening world we all experience failure, seasoned gardeners included. Part of what you learn as you accumulate experience is that there is no perfect garden, no perfect year, no one person who knows it all. Seven years ago I traded living in a dry short season with zero insects, for a nearly year round season with more insects than I can identify without a degree in Entomology. Success is relative and so was my gardening knowledge. One of the things I truly love about gardening is: that I never get to “the end”. I’m always learning and my experience puts my failures into perspective. It is true, that with experience, you will learn to garden more effectively and your successes will begin to outpace your disasters. It takes a lifetime to learn to garden. That puts all of us on the same level at some point in our gardening careers and makes gardeners and plant people an incredibly inclusive group.

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The second part of this is real world experience. When I first started out: I pushed my growing zone; I planted things people said I couldn’t grow; and I defiantly told mother nature she couldn’t put limits on me. I actually encourage trying this (at least, if only, once!). You will learn what the difference is fairly quickly. Your choices are: having a large scale garden that you tend or, a small scale defiance garden that you have to put a million times more effort into. It helped me learn to respect what I was given. I learned to work closely with what nature would encourage rather than trying to impose my limited human thinking with it’s arbitrary rules and goals. I began to see why America’s farmland works so differently than a backyard garden. Organic growing conditions are achievable (if it’s your goal) but it is incredibly labor intensive and impossible on the scale my grandfather farmed: with multiple acres of wheat or corn. You will learn to really enjoy the grocery store as the back up to your crop failures (rather than the old standard of starving). At least, that’s how I see it. So, you can look up reams of information on the internet, read a library full of books and talk ‘one on one’ with a thousand Master Gardeners but you will still learn the most getting out into your own garden and getting dirty.

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Having said that, those of us that have been doing this for a while also know some pretty important basic pieces of information. The following list is essential to learn BEFORE you go out into your garden, BEFORE you buy your plants or order your seed. Learn what you need to know to successfully grow:

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Know your zone. Your USDA zone can be found using your zip code at: http://www.garden.org/zipzone/ This wonderful site not only offers zone information but will also list links under your zone like: View your regional report, Find public gardens in your zip code, Find plants in your zone and Find events in your zip code.

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Know your chill hours (If you are in warm winter areas, pay heed to your chill hour range!) Planting a fruit with a chill hour need that is too high for your region will mean your plant will not come out of dormancy at the right time and fruit for you, even if the tree itself is healthy. Too low of a chill requirement and your tree will break dormancy, flower and freeze back before your winter is over and you will not get fruit. Growing fruit in the South depends on working with your chill hours. If you are in the South: do not order a fruit tree if you cannot find its chill hour information. A lot of people use a map by raintreenursery.com (I like this nursery a lot and they sell nice plants) but it is incorrect for Texas. The best chill hour map I have seen for the South is here:  http://plant-shed.com/planting-fruit-trees-in-north-texas/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen. My favorite southern nursery is: http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/ Absolutely fantastic plants but again: they cater to the very southern US regions. I have purchased fruiting trees and plants from http://www.raintreenursery.com/ for several years. I recommend them as well, and they sell fruits for the rest of the country.

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Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetables without turning it into a defiance garden, and you still may be unsuccessful. Also, if your average last frost is a month away but you’ve got great temperatures now, you will want to wait to avoid losing your plants to a frost that is just around the corner. Find your frost dates and growing days here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/

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My season length down here is unbelievable! My growing season (usually) starts around Feb 28 and ends Nov 25! That averages between 271 and 280 days in my growing season (actually, I can grow spring/fall veggies all through winter and summer is usually my down time.) My long season seems like it would be perfect, but we get really hot really fast. My season for tomatoes is super short. It’s either too cold or too hot (tomatoes won’t set fruit in high heat). I really struggle with tomatoes and most people can’t imagine a vegetable garden without them. Being aware of your natural limits will help you work around the edges. For instance: I can grow short season and small fruited tomatoes. I have pretty much given up on the larger varieties…but with a little effort, I still get my fill of tomatoes! Learn what limits your garden and keep most of your efforts inside of that natural structure.

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The season length also brings unimaginable amounts of bugs. I get multiple rounds of problem insects so I have to build spider and other predatory bug friendly beds. You can see them here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!  and here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas I totally recommend cinder block beds because spiders love the damp deep holes they provide. More spiders equal: low to no insecticides. I also use nematodes for insects below the soil. They don’t affect ground worms and they are my only answer to the twice a season squash vine borers we have. They kill pupating insects before they have a chance to come up from the soil and attack my plants. You can find my post about those here: When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea! With these two approaches my garden is pretty much covered. If you add in some nectar producing flowers that feed the larval stages of predatory insects: you basically have my completely insecticide free approach to gardening.

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Know your soil. This is something your county extension office can help with. Use a search engine to find one in your county. Put your county’s name in the search bar with “extension office”. This should guide you to your specific regional growing information including what soil tests your county extension office offers. You can also buy very basic test kits at home improvement stores. It’s is vital to know your soil pH as well as it’s nutrients. (For instance: my clay soils have only needed regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers with iron. That cuts down on my garden expenses and makes fertilizing effective.) Do it yourself: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm and from the Colorado State University: You can figure out what you have with this simple test using a mason jar or just your hands. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html Scroll down to the part that says: Identifying Soil Texture By Measurement. Right below that is Identifying Soil Texture By Feel. These are both excellent and easy ways to tell what kind of soil you already have.

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Cinder blocks equal tons of predatory insects. LEAVE the holes OPEN! Spiders = a SCORE for team organic!

I know this is a hard one for beginners: but get your soil ready the Fall before the Spring you plant. That means don’t order plants and seed with the thought that you will be able to fix everything before they come. Get out and get it done (and put the breaks on the credit card.) Never buy a tree before you have dug the hole, or at the very least: have an exact spot you want to place it. (You should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you buy a bunch of plants before you have a place for them, you may have to watch your plants waste away while you are breaking your back trying to quickly dig twenty holes (“quickly” is a goal you will not be able to achieve in gardening.) Even after amending, my soil always does better after being allowed to settle (or planted with low expectations) the first year. If this sounds too daunting: begin working on a larger area, do it in small bits and in the mean time focus on a few large pots (like 22 inch pots) to start your garden with. You can grow almost anything in a big enough pot and I always have a use for mine! (Pots will dry out fast, so they need more: water, shade and attention. For the beginner: this is not a bad thing. I usually keep my pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. This will help keep the heat out of the soil in mid-afternoon and your pots will retain water better.)

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Now you can be completely prepared while looking for spring additions at your local nursery or when you are purchasing seed. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your quest for knowledge: look at the top of the page and you will see the “Gardening Basics” tab. It includes all of the main information I will be posting in the next few weeks (minus any new material I add in these posts.) I’m currently working backwards updating links. These posts include my newest favorite links for information. (Some links on the “Gardening Basics” page are no longer functional or I’ve found better examples. The links in this post are all working as of today, please let me know if you ever find some broken ones!)

There’s more to come! Tune in next time for my latest and greatest: links and advice!

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Australian Shepherd undercoat! Oh my gosh, he had a lot of hair!

On a much sadder note: my family has been dealing with an enormous amount of stressful and challenging happenings. My dog passing away was one of the worst. I’m dedicating this year’s blog to my awesome companion of 13 years: my dog Christmas. Christmas passed away this year because of his advanced age (for his breed) and that he developed exercise induced collie collapse disorder within the last two weeks of his life. If you have a collie related dog: you need to know about this disease. It was certainly a surprise for my family. These active dogs will actually run themselves to death when they develop these symptoms. (This is not my dog in this video. The disease can be fatal, as it was for my elderly dog. I am grateful for the owner that posted this video. I would not have known what to look for without it) Exercise induced collie collapse disorder youtube video.

Christmas was born on the 1 year anniversary of 9-11 and he was the perfect antidote to the anger and hurt that that 9-11 had caused. He was full of love, life and compassion. My heart is completely broken without my dog. I don’t regret a single moment I spent with my loving, loyal, deep, sensitive, and wonderful Australian Shepherd. Here’s to you sweetie. You will always be my “pooh bear”! I miss you every moment of my day.

I have had many dogs in my life. He was the absolute best.

You can read more about my awesome pets here: A How To: On Animals and Life My family owes a lot of their greatest experiences to these wonderful, loyal and incredibly special animals.

A love letter to my boys

During the holiday season I reflect on the things I am grateful for. At the top of the list is my family, and more specifically: my two young sons. The following article is my love letter to my boys. From the beginning through the end of every day, they are always in my thoughts. I am very clear as to what my role is with my kids. So, here is my heart boys. Here is my love. This is to you .

Let me introduce myself, you know me as mom but I am so much more! I am your confident, I am your cheerleader, I help you blow your nose when you are sick, I give you kisses and comfort when you are hurt. I am your mom. But I am also more than you think you need, at your very young age: you cannot yet see all of me.

I am not just your friend, I am your parent. I am not here to sit back and watch you raise yourself, I am here to guide you. I am not here to fight you, take away your fun, or make your life harder: I am here to watch you grow, show you right from wrong and create the boundaries I think will help you the most on your own journey.

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I love you. It is a special kind of love. It is a love you will never find outside of family: It is a love that is insurmountable, unbreakable, total. No matter what you do, who you become or what you achieve I will love you…to the very fiber of my being. I am your mother. You are my child. Always.

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I want to teach you what I know. It is something that I realize you won’t appreciate until you are in my shoes, and that’s OK. You don’t have to earn my love. It is there for you forever. You don’t need to see me as wise or even see me at all. I am still here. Waiting. Loving you.

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When you are young, your life is uncomplicated. It is like an arrow shot from a bow. It is swift and focused, you will move long distances with every shot. That will change. One day your life will spread out. Instead of an arrow you will become more like a net. Your spread will be wider…your distance traveled shorter, but the effect is much broader. It will become a well studied choice to be the most effective with each cast. Instead of  flailing about in far flung, random directions: you will become aware of your position, become well rooted in your accumulated life perspective and you will be able to use that knowledge and wisdom to it’s fullest potential. As you make this transition, as you become more experienced: you will begin to see why your father and I are so different from you right now. You will begin to fill our shoes. You will see a very different world than the one you are focused on today.

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When I was young: I boldly stepped out on my life’s stage. I played every part, I knew every role. I thought I was wise.

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When I had you and your brother: it was like I went from a high-school play in a high school auditorium to Broadway. It was that different: going from the center of my own universe to being your parent. As I did this: I went from an uncertain fledgling to a powerful eagle. Suddenly what I thought I knew was irrelevant, even silly, as I began to stretch my wings and truly soar.

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When you were little, all you could see was me and all I could see was you. Now that you are older, you are looking away. Choosing your steps, creating your path. I watch you walk away from me, sometimes I can even see you run. I will forever be in this position: behind you, reaching out to steady you if you stumble.

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It is a long, beautiful goodbye and there is a part of me that wishes every day was a few hours longer. There is a part of me that is so scared that I might forget a moment. The years go by so fast. I’m afraid I will wake up, in what seems like tomorrow, and your days with me will have sped by: that you will be grown and gone. I am afraid of the day that my house is no longer filled with shrill screams, thundering feet and fits of laughter. The future silence of the empty nest is always present in the back of my mind. From that perspective: I already miss you.

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When you have your children, you will see that although it is bittersweet to watch your children grow and move away from you, it is a place of extreme pride to see your kids begin to mature into their destiny. To watch them become sure footed on their own path. To see your position as parent mean less and less to them. It is as it should be. You are becoming you.

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Stepping out of the center of my own world has been the most awesome, incredible experience. It just keeps getting bigger, it keeps getting better.

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When I see you, I see your potential. I see what you can be. That you can be better than I am. That you can be wiser than I am. That you can be your fullest potential. I see that. I try to show you, too. I pray that I succeed.

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But even if your life is different. If you end up feeling like a failure. If you end up broken by the decisions that you make in your life…guess what? That’s how I got here, too.

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There’s no mistake you cannot overcome. No choice in life that you cannot learn a lesson from, and no path you can explore that is a mistake. You go where you go for a reason. You learn what you learn because you need the lesson. You will ultimately be successful if you attempt to do all of this from a position of love.

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Open your heart and meet every person with love.

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The one thing I’m sure of is: that everyone deserves your love. But it’s important to realize that love and trust are two different things. Not everyone will earn your trust, but that feeling of love should always be there.

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One day you may betray my trust, as I betrayed my parent’s trust. It helped me realize that there are choices in this life that can’t be taken back. But love? No. I will always have room in my heart for you.

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I hope your life is easier than mine has been, but I respect your journey enough to realize that I can’t dictate your path. So, every day I will show you that you are loved. Every day I will set limits so that you have boundaries. And every moment I will become the most that I can muster to show you what I believe is possible in this life.

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I believe you can do even more than I can (and I have been working on being the best me I can be for a very long time.) I am so excited to see the magic that you can create. The reality that you shape. The moments that we share.

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My door is always open, my ears are always ready to hear…and I love you. Always.

Stained Glass Cookies!

20141219_220815I always have these great ideas about making everyone gifts. Then it gets down to the last minute and I end up having picked ideas that are way too complex to complete in the time I have left. These can be done in one day. I just finished them and they are beautiful! The cookies were so much fun to make and I gave them individually to bus drivers, teachers and I even have some for our neighbors.

If you feel like you are backed against the wall and don’t cook frequently or don’t have a lot of experience baking. Stop now! Don’t ruin your own Christmas trying to make everyone on your list happy. If you really aren’t looking forward to trying these ideas or you already are behind with other things: go pick up some cute ornaments and put them in some festive bags and call it done! You deserve a great Christmas season, too! If you think you can do these without going crazy: I guarantee these are fun, simple and they will be well received.

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Stained Glass Cookies

You need:

A sugar cookie dough base (From scratch: or pick up a bag of cookie mix from the grocer.)

Translucent hard candy (I used a bag of Jolly Ranchers)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F or follow the directions in your recipe or on your bag of cookie mix.

I saw these in my Family Fun magazine and knew I had to try them. They made their cookies from scratch. Yeah. I’m too busy right now and I can find bagged cookie mix in the grocery store. These can definitely be done from scratch but you are adding more time and work to this that you don’t have to. If you buy a bag of sugar cookie mix: look for the directions on the back for cut out cookies and follow that recipe. You will either be adding a lot less butter or adding flour to the mix. I also don’t mind scraping cookies from cookie mixes into the trash if they don’t work out. The first batch I lost three out of twelve cookies. Part of it is my oven but the other part is you are combining two very different main ingredients: dough and hard candy. Getting them to come out perfect takes some work and practice.

However, those not so perfect cookies make great treats for my kids (and for me). We don’t care what they look like! The best thing about these cookies is they are impressive enough to give a single cookie as a gift. That means you have way less to do to have finished presents for people like your mailman or kid’s bus driver.

Make your cookie dough according to the directions for the cut out cookie recipe on the bag (or if you’re making a bunch of cookies and want to make yours from scratch: you can use your own recipe.)

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Roll out your cookie dough on a floured surface. Keep adding flour to your rolling pin, cookie cutters and the surface of your dough as you go so the cookie dough behaves itself. You want these thin (otherwise they will puff up and you will loose your design.) Aim for 1/4 inch thickness. Don’t worry, they will hold together with their rigid candy center.

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I used a drinking glass to use as my original cut out for the cookies.

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If you don’t get a clean outline with a glass: when you transfer the cookie to the baking sheet tap the side of the cookie with the flat side of a butter knife until you have a sharp edge on the cookie.

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After you get your cookies cut out (and before you cut the second interior shape out): put them on a room temperature cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (Yes. you definitely want to use the parchment paper and not just a non stick cookie sheet.)

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I only bake 6 cookies a sheet with this method (These are large showy cookies. Don’t waste your time making little ones!) and the parchment paper keeps everything clean and reusing the sheets is easy.

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Get out your interior cookie cutter. Pick something simple. My first batch had a snowflake design and it ended up being a mess with all of the points the candy had to melt into. I now am using a heart shape and they turn out exactly like I want them too. Dip the cutter in flour between each cut out. If the dough doesn’t come up with the cutter use a butter knife to lift the interior out.

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If you end up with a bunch of flour in the cut out: gently blow it out.

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Refrigerate your tray! You need to do this to keep your cookie shape crisp. Put them in for 10-15 minutes. If you are stacking them in the fridge over what is already in your refrigerator: you can do it by arranging what is in there so they fit flatly.

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When your trays are ready: take them out of the refrigerator and quickly add your hard candy to the center. From experience I have found that I need more than one candy per cookie. I suggest you bake a single cookie to test what you need to do, rather than end up with a mess and having a whole tray (or two) that didn’t work.

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I recommend if you are going to add a second candy to the cookie, that you wait until half way through baking. I time my cookies for 3 minutes and then remove the trays from the oven, add the extra candy and put the trays back in (while switching the racks that the trays were on). After you put them back in the oven: Do not take your eyes off of them! They will go from unfinished to overdone very quickly. The main problem you will have with the candy is when it gets hot enough it will start bubbling and it will boil up and out of the cookie. Adding the second candy in the middle of the bake time lowers the temperature of the candy that is already baking.

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Hopefully, this will keep the candy from boiling up and ruining the look of the cookie. Keep an eye on your cookies after you put them back in. Watch for bubbling: which can ruin the cookie if you let it get out of the center of the cookie. You want the outside of your cookie to just start to brown. Take them out and let them cool a minute or so before you slide the sheet of parchment with the cookies off on the counter to finish cooling.

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They should separate from the paper without the candy bending as you slide them off of your tray. (If you move them before the center has started to solidify you will break the cookies.) Be very careful of the candy while it is hot. This could potentially cause a very bad burn if it gets on your skin!

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If you get the very outside of the cookie a little too brown you can take a knife and gently remove that portion while the cookies are still warm.

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Make sure you wrap them in something clear because they are really pretty!

20141217_215035Cling wrap will make the cookie look even prettier if you fold the edges over the back. It creates a crinkling effect. If you are sending these to school or somewhere where you need more than one for a teacher and teacher’s aide(s): gently wrap when in a parchment paper envelope and stack them in a plastic container.

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Tip the container gently to see if the cookies are in there solidly. I was able to send three cookies for teachers in a bento box with my youngest (and he didn’t destroy them in his backpack on the bus.) Make sure you let whoever you are giving these to know that they are to eat. They look like ornaments and I had a few people question what they were. They are truly beautiful and I was happy to give them out.

As you can see from the different colors these would be great ideas for a variety of holidays and celebrations. Choose the colors to match: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, your wedding or batchelorette party colors or birthday. You could find orange and black candy for Halloween. The applications are endless!

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My last few tips are these:

1. Most recipes you find for these are for small cookies and some require you break the hard candy into pieces so they fit in those small cookies. Don’t bother with those. It is nearly impossible to break hard candy without having pieces shoot across the room and stick to everything. Also, they won’t be impressive enough to give as single gifts if they are small.

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2. After you take the cookies out (to put the second candy in): squat down and watch these through your oven window  If you see the candy flatten out and start to bubble they are probably done. They will brown a little more as they start to cool.  So, it’s better to have them just done than a little brown.

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3. Get to know your oven! It you have a gas oven (like I do), move the racks as far away from the heat source as you can. If you are lucky enough to have a convection oven: turn it on! If you notice that the cookies are starting to brown differently in the oven: take advantage of the fact that you remove these 1/2 way through cooking, and rearrange the trays so that they all have a turn in the hot spot.

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4. Store the cookies between the parchment you used to cook them on. I just cut the used parchment in half and continually fold it over and add more parchment strips as I add cookies.

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5. If you are giving more than one to someone: pick a plain white or silver paper plate. The cookies are incredibly beautiful and patterns behind them will just distract from their beauty. If you are giving just one and the recipients are not formal ones (like your kids bus driver or teacher instead of your boss or someone else you’d like to really impress) you can just drop them in a ziplock bag folded over and stapled with a piece of wrapping paper used for a tag. You could get fancy with glassine envelopes (or just make your own out of more parchment paper) add ribbon and tags. Whatever you do (and no matter how you choose to present them): the cookies will impress!

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If you post your finished product, remember where you got your instructions and please link back to my page! Thanks and Merry Christmas!!!

Last Minute Christmas Gift

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Want to know what I made at the last minute this year? Fun winter themed footprints from my kids! If you are searching for something you can complete quickly: the shirts/sweatshirts need time to dry in between layers but it won’t take too long if you follow my  directions.

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I chose a winter theme (rather than Christmas) because if you gift these to grandma and grandpa: they can wear these outside of the Christmas season! Also, if these arrive late: who cares!? Grandma and grandpa will still love them and be able to wear them until it gets warm out. If your Christmas season is during the warm months (those of you South of the equator) you can give these during the colder months of your year.

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You need:

Sweatshirt/s Or T-shirt/s (in the correct size/s for the recipient and pre-launder them so you remove the chemicals that come on new clothing.)

Plain Old Acrylic Craft Paint (you do not need special fabric or additives and those would have longer drying times. Let your recipients know that they should wash these on delicate to keep the paint it’s freshest looking. Although, these should stand up to regular washing.) I used: brown, green, red, black and white

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Craft Paint Brushes (You really only need: one large brush to fill areas and one small brush for edges and details)

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Chalk (I used my kids sidewalk chalk, but thinner chalk or chalk made for marking fabric would work better.)

A Pencil Or Washable Marker

A Plate For Paint (with some cling wrap to keep the paint fresh between layers)

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Paper Towels: for clean up on mistakes, chalk removal and to moisten the fabric before you paint details. (The only paint I had trouble with on damp shirts was red because it bled. I would recommend wetting the shirt/sweatshirts for all other colors)

Cardboard: to keep foot prints off the floor and to test your first prints

A Way To Clean Up! A bathtub full of warm water for older kids or warm water on paper towels to clean paint off of a baby’s foot.

Time To Do This (Mine took two days to complete with the drying times included.)

 

Instructions:

Get out your supplies. Put on the shirt or sweatshirt (if these are too small for you to wear hold them up against your shoulders so they drape like you are wearing them.) Go in front of a mirror and use the chalk to make a large square where you would like the footprints to be. Make sure your bottom line is straight and that you have left room for whatever labels and names you want to add below the feet.

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Grab your kids and go in the bathroom! This is really messy while your kids are involved! Choose the foot you want to use (or if you are using both of one child’s feet start with one foot first.) Paint your kiddo’s foot with black craft paint and test stamp it on the cardboard. Once you’ve figured out how much paint you need for a good stamp CAREFULLY stamp your kids foot on the shirt with their toes at the bottom line. (If you are dealing with a baby put some cardboard inside the shirt so you can stamp sideways while the baby lays on it’s back. Wait until they are sleeping heavily to do this or they will wiggle their toes. You may only have one shot at this per nap.) Make sure you have room to either hang these out of the way immediately or have a place you are able to put them flat to dry!

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Once you get a stamp: quickly wash your kids foot off or they will put black paint everywhere! It doesn’t have to be perfect because you will be filling it in with more paint in a moment. Get all of prints that you want to use. (For a large family this could take some patience!) If you really mess this up and need to start over: carefully wipe off as much paint as you can and scrub, then wash the shirt well.

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Once you and your kids are cleaned up take the shirt in on a clean hard surface and fill the footprints in until they are solid. It is easier to push the paint towards a line than pull it across the fabric. A moist surface accepts paint better than a dry one will.

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Let the foot prints dry completely.

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Draw in your details on the foot print with a pencil or chalk.

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Draw in your labels or names with a washable marker or chalk (pencil doesn’t work well directly on fabric.)

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Paint your large white front on the penguins, add wings in black, paint in the names and paint the background colors on any details you want to add.

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Let dry.

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Finish painting details. Let dry. Use your wet paper towels to remove the chalk markings and any mistakes you make as you are going (the paint is really hard to completely remove so try not to make any big changes.)

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Get ready to impress your gift recipient! We mailed ours to the grandparents but if you are going to see them this Christmas: you still have time to finish these!

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Have fun, try not to completely stress out and if you post your work online please remember where you got your instructions and link back to this page! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

Plant sex: On display

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

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

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

What is the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seed?

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

Purposeful hand application of pollen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where we fit in:

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

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

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

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Corn tassles.

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

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Corn silk from this years plants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A butterfly magnet: lantana.

When does it make sense to hand pollinate?

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

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

Identifying male and female flowers on cucurbits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you have a whole lot of this…

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

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

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Male and female parts within the same flower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Make sure you plant along the hose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A How To: On Animals and Life

How to: Enjoy an indoor rabbit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red getting some snuggles!

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

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

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

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In defense of the cat:

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

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

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

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

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

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