Tag Archives: gardening

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

As an update to this post: spread mulch where you would have put rock. Read along about how taking permanent action against a short term problem creates even more problems and stops permanent solutions. You can create something more, but it will only happen once you add to nature and accept her, rather than fight her. She is always just outside your door and she’s listening. Let her speak back to you, or at least let her try.

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

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20140411_134816

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

#4 Weeding through gravel is really hard work.

20140411_133950

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

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

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

Rock is way too much work!!!!

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

20140411_134328

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

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

20140411_135512

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

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

wpid-20140330_140302.jpg

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

20140411_133639

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

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

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

heat-island

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

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

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

parkinglot

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

grasshomes

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

worstoffender

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

maturetree

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

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

20140411_154000

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

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

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

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

20130517_134730

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

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

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

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

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

20140411_153924

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

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

20140411_153621

xeric plant choices under a tree.

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

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

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

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

Go out and plant something: It’s important!

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

Follow this blog via Facebook. Look me up under crazygreenthumbs or follow my link on either WordPress or
Bloglovin’ at the top of this page.

Curing An Extra Itchy Case Of The Gardening Stupids

I would bet that most gardeners have a list of a few things that they do, out of habit, that are counterproductive. For me it’s gardening without gloves or long sleeves. I almost never wear gloves or long sleeves. I love to work the soil with my hands, I weed bare handed and I harvest bare handed. Most of the time I end up in the garden working without having planned on it (which is why I’m usually dressed for Texas summer weather and not gardening!) Most of the time I can get away with this habit with minimal issues. Yesterday was not one of them!

20150717_182422-1

My wonderful but itchy okra! If you wondered about your okra plant’s smell: Yes. The entire plant, including the pods, have a distinct cat pee like smell. It’s part of the plant’s defense and easily rinses off the pods using just water.

20150717_182914

All of the okra goodness is under those big spiny leaves!

In high summer heat everything in my garden seems to have some sort of defense. Tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and okra (especially okra!) have spines or hairs that can break off in your skin (like the irritating glochid fuzzy hairs you can find on cacti) and cause a rash on your arms and hands (or whatever part of your body that brushes up against the plant.)

20150717_183540

The hairy underside of a poona kheera cucumber leaf.

I also grow some things with sap that can irritate. I have figs whose milky sap can cause itching and then there is the parsnips that can cause a chemical burn if you rub up against the leaves and stems. Yesterday I got into all of the above with no gloves or long sleeves to protect myself. My “duhhh” factor was in full swing and I was miserable by the time I came inside!

20150717_183728

The breba crop of a fig tree that I got a start from in my neighborhood.

It was like an instant poison ivy rash. I was itching so enthusiastically I was sure I was going to break the skin on my arms! I believe the main culprit was the okra spines I got into while reaching across the plants to harvest some pods but, I also carried in an arm full of figs. It’s entirely possible this was a cumulative rash from the many bad decisions I made that day to handle things without gloves or sleeves.

Regardless of the cause: I needed a cure, and fast! I first grabbed a tube of anti-itch cream from my husband’s dopp kit and applied enough to cover a large farm animal, with no results. The itching was completely uncontrolled with the cream so my mind started racing looking for an alternative to what I had already tried. I washed my arms repeatedly with castille soap because I was afraid it was sap from the arm load of figs I’d gathered (since my arms were sort of sticky.) That didn’t help much either. That’s when I remembered we have a can of instant oatmeal in the bathroom to mix in my kid’s baths when they get viral or allergic rashes. I was desperate at this point and I was ready to try anything.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d gotten into fire ants. This was sooooo bad! The itching was insane!

20150717_183430

The fuzz on tomatoes and beans make the plant leaves a little bit like Velcro!

I have used oatmeal in baths before for my kids, but what I was dealing with was not going to be relieved by my soaking in a tub with just a little bit of oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in a small cup and added enough water to make a paste. I rubbed it all over my poor bright red, itchy arms and hands. It was a messy process but:

I had instant relief!

20150716_213136

My son said this was zombie skin. To me: I see relief. This was after I’d let it dry and knocked off the big chunks of oatmeal. You would think I might have tried this at one point over the last forty some years! But this was the first time I’ve used it as a paste, and an oatmeal paste will be what I turn to first…next time!

I left it on long enough for it to start drying and then rubbed off the big chunks of oatmeal over the kitchen sink. What I was left with was a thin powdery coating of the oatmeal paste (my older boy noted that my skin looked like a zombie.) I left this coating on my arms for about an hour and then rinsed it off. I’ve never reacted to okra like this before, but in gardening: there are always first times for everything. I had complete and total itch relief. Now I have a new (old fashioned) cure for when I walk into another plant that my skin decides to violently dislike!

DSCN0025

Lastly, over the years: this has become a bigger problem for me. If you are getting crazy itching on your forearms every time you get dry skin or after you are out in the sun for a while: you may have something called Brachioradial pruritus. You would need a doctor to diagnose that, but it’s getting diagnosed more frequently. Ice helps. I keep a dish sponge, cut in half, soaked with water, in zip lock bags, in my freezer or use a gel freezer pack.

Or just a baggy of ice. The cold REALLY helps!

I keep several frozen to help because the itching was becoming a problem several times a week. I also only moisturize with either an oatmeal baby lotion

or something equivalent to Cetaphil lotion and I make sure to do it after every shower or bath: before the itching has an opportunity to start! I cover my arms too, when I’m outside, so the sunlight doesn’t have a chance to start the intense itching.

Cetaphil brand is expensive. This is the pump Walmart version.

This is a Cetaphil knock-off tub from a random grocery store.

Since the disorder above is also light sensitive it finally makes sense why my bare arms were crazy itchy after being out in the sun gardening. I no longer use any soaps or detergents on my lower arms and I have gotten a little bit of control over what I have (which actually IS what I linked to above.) Since pinched nerves can cause this: I also believe my chiropractor helps when he adjusts my neck.

This itching is worse (or equal to) poison ivy but there’s currently no treatment or cure. Try the above suggestions, and if this is becoming frequent for you: see a doctor. It might be something else, it might be serious or you might have what I have and these suggestions will save you hours of misery. Good luck! Let me know how this works for you!

Winter: Garden Planning

Winter is a wonderful time to read up on gardening literature. When your garden is fast asleep, it is the perfect time to make preparations for next year. Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand: this is the yearly time for reflection. What has worked for you? What have you struggled with? What are you sure of? What would you like to learn about?

SAMSUNG

Follow along and learn how to create a long lasting, low maintenance gardening experience. There’s a lot of practical knowledge in here that I would love to share with you! Below is a list of articles by category. You can quickly find solutions to past problems or plan your garden design to avoid those problems altogether.

SAMSUNG

My instructions are heavy on preparation, but they create gardening solutions that will last for decades.

20140511_174748

Does it seem like you are spending $20 for each tomato you grow? If you are struggling to get anything from your garden the problem could be your soil. Raised beds are a great way to create the perfect conditions for vegetables. Unfortunately, a lot of instructions out there look nice: but they are ideas from novice gardeners. Frequently the beds are too shallow, too expensive or built from materials that will quickly rot. Building raised beds is a lot of work and I don’t want to have to redo everything in a couple of years. I doubt you want to start over every couple of years, either. Here is my solution involving a sheet mulch, hugelkulter and keyhole bed combination with cinder block walls. This is the cheapest, most fertile, longest lasting solution I could come up with and it works beautifully: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed and a second article here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas

20130512_161313

If you need help choosing products to either amend soil or to build raised beds: these are my picks for choosing bagged soil and soil additives and also my choices and suggestions for building your own soil with cheap sheet mulching supply ideas. Making sense of old sayings

20140521_162634

Once you’ve created good planting conditions your next step is efficient watering. This will help you whether you are in an arid area or just need to save on your watering bill: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

20140626_141422

Are you struggling with pollinators? If you aren’t getting abundant squash, melons, cucumbers and other veggies in the cucurbit family you may just need more bees. While you are waiting for your newly planted flowers to attract pollinators this year, here is what you can do: Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense This also explains how to help plants that are wind and self-pollinators.

2010-10-09 18.56.26

If you are brand new to gardening or if you are really struggling overall: this is my “all in one stop” to learn your way around common mistakes. You must know the subjects in orange and you can add the rest as you get more success under your belt: All You Need To Know To Grow The same information is also at the top of this page under Gardening Basics

20130609_141658

If you are struggling with clearing Bermuda grass and are impatient to have finished beds I suggest this approach: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich

Inexpensive Vine Support

Inexpensive Vine Support

If you would like to try to train your vining plants on a cheap support next season: this is a fast, inexpensive and strong solution- Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

My tips for starting seeds in milk jugs and my recommendations for mail order seed and live plant companies: The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds)

20140421_143801

If you dislike the hardening off process (getting your seedlings ready to plant out in the garden) like I do, here is a short cut: Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

20140411_133950

If you would like to see what other people have been interested in on here, this is Crazy Green Thumb’s most read article. I don’t advocate using gravel in the landscape and this is why: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

20140502_171239

If you are longing for a fun craft project for this winter, here are a few ideas. These are the projects I have enjoyed creating this year:

20140818_170453

Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

14 - 5

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

1114

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

20140403_132729

Solution For Sore Shoulders: Microwavable Rice Sock

Want some new ideas for using plants that you may already enjoy growing? Here are some of my favorite recipes from this year. These are my own recipes. They may make you interested in adding a few of these plants to your plans:

20131113_173734

Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

20140320_183920

Cooking With Lettuce?!?! Yes! And It’s Delicious!!!

galaxy s3 pics 583

Garden Huckleberry: A Completely Nutty Science Experiment!!!

I love my short winter down time! I get to look at my successes and challenges, plan my garden for next year and organize and choose the seeds I want to grow. I hope you have a productive winter planning your garden! Here in the Northern Hemisphere our season is at an end. If you’re on the Southern part of the globe: Happy Spring/Summer!!!

SAMSUNG

See you all in the garden next year!!!!

600208_341391732657789_1658592031_n

Reaping The Rewards Of Spring Planning

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

20140511_174717

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

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

20140527_175100

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

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

20140612_185220

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

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

20140525_172519

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

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

20140614_190838

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

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

20140525_173634

Figs are ripening.

20140526_195223-ACTION

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

20140612_173135

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

20140527_181457

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

20140526_195808

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

20140612_185139

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

20140612_185101

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

20140612_184355

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

20140612_184320

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

20140612_185251

Persimmons.

20140612_185713

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

20140612_185814

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

20140614_195711

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

20140612_190044

Kumquats.

20140612_185908

You can never have enough fresh figs!!!!

20140612_185210  20140612_185805

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

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

 

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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!)

Image

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.

Image

Make sure you plant along the hose.

Image

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.)

Image

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

Image

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!

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

Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

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

20140403_131026

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

20140415_183429

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

20140421_135819

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

20140421_140412

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

 

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

20140421_140603

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

20140421_143801

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

 

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

20140502_171006-1

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

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

20140424_194049

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

20140502_171135

Corn on one foot centers.

20140502_171224

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

20140502_171239

Tomato babies!!!

20140502_171345

Peas are close to harvest time.

20140430_195358

Beautiful radish!

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

Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

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

20130607_194143

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

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

20130922_154400

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

20130827_190209-1

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

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

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

20131113_173734

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

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

20131113_180514

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

20130725_200255

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

20130725_201246

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

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

20131120_133110

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

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

20130725_203053

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

20131113_180409

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

20130725_204902

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

20130725_204959

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

20131113_174331

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

Follow this blog via Facebook here: www.facebook.com/CrazyGreenThumbs

March showers bring April flowers…and the specter of summer drought.

Spring sprung a while back. I hate to rub it in, but I love where I live! Zone 8b is a spectacular place to call home…for the most part. There are benefits and problems in any location. We stuck our toes into spring, to test the water, almost a month ago. I am consumed by both joy and apprehension. Here are a few things I am thinking about as I wander through my yard:

The joys of spring are undeniable. It is almost as if a gardener holds their breath through winter. Just when we think we can’t do it a moment longer: the daffodils come up and their presence causes us to sputter and gasp, in what feels like our first breath in months.

20140221_155143

February brought daffodils. They have faded already, but are being replaced by the later joys of spring.

The sun comes out and our daily levels of home grown vitamin D begin to replenish themselves.

20140311_182708

The peach flowers are opening.

Depression is banished.

20140311_182604

The crepemyrtles are leafing out.

Cabin fever is thrown out the door.

20140312_144954

An orange blossom

The inner dream farmer- who will tend and harvest acres of abundance in our minds- has again possessed us with outlandish dreams for the season. We bound giddily outside to witness the miracle of the annual ceremony of the waking of the plants. Our collective memory of when humanity faced freezing bleak winters full of possible starvation and hardship (which is wound tightly around our DNA) sees a light at the end of the tunnel. The time of waiting to replenish our stores, the possibility of not having enough to feed ourselves and our families, the consumption of the last of the food put up in the summer and fall: All of the fear that is encoded into winter, is winding down and with it our collective stress levels.

20140311_182447

This is an Anigozanthos or Kangaroo paw.

It’s almost as if, we too, are slowly unrolling our leaves and emerging from our winter slumber.

20140311_182523-1

20140311_182508

20140311_180349

My antique outdoor/barn kitty: Newman. He’s over 20 years old.

It is a relationship that works to benefit both our tended plants and the soul that resides within each of us.

20140311_182439

Dianthus (Common name: Pinks. They are named for their petals: which look like they have been cut with pinking shears)

And then there is the specter of drought. An awareness that lack of rain may wipe out all of my efforts. Drought is one reason why I take such time with amending, researching and building. My big veggie beds are made to endure drought, this year may still prove too difficult.

image

My peas are enjoying the rain. We haven’t had nearly enough. They’re saying because of the drought down here, that we are starting out at the lowest they’ve ever had our aquifer in spring. Some lakes are bone dry. For the rest of them: boat docks are high above any remaining water. We are expecting stage IV water restrictions to hit around July. A ban on watering our yard will definitely put stress on the trees and I expect to lose most of my smaller plants. Then there’s the possibility of foundation problems in our home as the soil moves as it dries out.  But maybe the drought will force me to finally appreciate our impossible to kill Bermuda grass?

There are always options, but this year is going to be tough for anything we don’t hand water with grey water or our rain barrels. I’ve been witnessing this drought for the last 3 years or so. I grew up all over the south (mostly Texas) but I’ve never seen drought like this.

All things cycle. Nothing is static. The last time drought was this bad down here was in the 50’s…definitely before my time. My granny grew up in Kansas during the Depression and the dirty thirties. It seems about time for another terrible drought.

1924washingtondc1

My family on a trip to Washington DC in 1924.

dustbowl

 

My granny’s family literally had nothing. During the Great Depression they moved into an abandoned house. It was the same house she and other kids used to throw rocks at and break what was left of the windows. True hardship in this country is only a generation or two back for most of us.

My other grandparent’s old farm was spared in the great flood of ’93. They had already lost it to debt in the 80’s when so many farms went bust. It is hard to see your strong, proud grandparents as they watch their dreams auctioned off. The trucks they had named, the farmhouse they had restored, the fields they had lovingly tended: sold to attempt to pay for the accumulated, crushing debt. For farmers it always seems like nature is against them. Maybe that’s why they’re such an independent, stubborn lot?

20140311_183009

Luna is watching over me as I explore the garden.

Tree ring data across the west show we’ve been in an unusually wet period last few hundred years (the data is certainly not new: but the span of time that paleoclimatoligists have recently been able to document is truly astounding.) The pendulum has far to swing before we are at a historically neutral place.

Paleoclimatologists are warning of historical data that shows “Mega-droughts” in the United States, some of them spanning hundreds of years. Mega-droughts are something we as modern Americans can’t conceive. I certainly can’t imagine 200+ years of severe drought across California and the western states. That kind of situation is what drove people from the Midwest during the 30’s. The Dust Bowl only lasted 10 years. A Mega-drought out west would cause a reverse of that great westward migration. Man cannot be separated from a source of drinking water.

timecoilsmall

Before you get “the big head” as they say in the Midwest: it’s important to remember our place in evolutionary history. I think we tend to think we are entirely more important than we actually are. We ultimately have the choice of being a brief blip on the timeline or we can figure out a way to hang on: defying chance and time. Nothing else has been able to win without evolving. If you look at history, mass extinctions are a probability not an exception.

No matter how we handle things: all of our accomplishments and failures will be erased by time. Our species lifespan will ultimately be affected by our choices. Time will tell if we will allow ourselves the ability to mature.

Drought happens, but the pressure to pump our aquifer is increasing yearly. Here’s to hoping there’s enough drinking water this year (and in the coming years) while still allowing family farms to flourish. At the moment: that’s a pretty big thing to ask for.

Think about the family farms as you hear about drought this year. Agriculture is THE big water user. But before you judge: they produce our food and are run by tons of wonderful families who choose to live a life that requires flying by the seat of their pants and who are always at the mercy of our weather patterns. “Salt of the Earth”…such a good descriptor for farmers! In the bread basket of North America: America’s farmers currently have an abundance that feeds much of the world.

farmer and activist

I saw this the other day and had to chuckle. This is a Texas Ag advertisement. I love anyone who is trying to make a difference and is following their heart, but a lot of people would do themselves good to slow down and learn about what life is actually like on small farms across America. It is a hardship to choose to be a farmer, but a time honored choice. There is no path to riches on a rural family farm. There are always an abundance of people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. It’s also usually people with more opinions than practical knowledge.

You also can’t beat that the current focus is on our over consumption.  Finding reasons to eat less in this country is so unique in the history of this planet. I doubt any of us would volunteer to go hungry. Although, there will be a day that this ability to create abundance will change. It’s part of the seasons of this planet. We are very, very lucky right now that all things are currently working in our favor.

For those of you outside of the drought: expect hay, beef and other livestock related prices to continue to go up. Texas grows a lot of cotton around Amarillo. That area is always arid, but it’s getting much worse with the drought. Middle Texas raises a huge amount of beef. As the dry days multiply, you will continue to see the prices reflect that at your local grocer.

image

Down in south Texas we’ll continue to pray for some significant rain: less clear skies and a few more cloudy days that might require an umbrella. A prayer which will benefit our farming community and backyard gardeners, alike.

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

Garden Huckleberry: A Completely Nutty Science Experiment!!!

Garden huckleberry: Every serious fruit gardener should grow this at least once. Everyone who loves a good science experiment should cook with it at least once!!!

What am I talking about? Well, this is a crazy plant. It is a nightshade (as are: tomatoes, potatoes, tomatillo, eggplants, peppers and most famously belladonna aka deadly nightshade.) As an annual this is one of the few plants (along with it’s close cousin the husk tomato aka ground cherry) you can grow and use as a sweet fruit the first season from seed. (Here’s a spoiler: These are not naturally sweet and have almost no flavor raw.)

DSCN0023

Now here is where we start getting complicated. Almost immediately! The plant looks like a pepper plant but it was a huge spidermite trap for me. It was constantly on my list of things to spray (Neem oil worked well for me). I would guess if you don’t plan for a spidermite invasion you will probably not get any useable fruit from this plant. Below is a photo of silvered fruit. This is what the spidermites do to the fruit if you don’t spray.

20121027_211011

The next issue is judging ripeness. The berries ripen at different times in the same cluster. They turn deep dark black well before they are ripe. Wait until they lose their shine and are a dull black and then wait another week before you pick them. No joke, they need to be black all the way through the fruit before they are usable. They pretty much look the same from the outside. This is where waiting is important. These are the most ripe to least from left to right.

20121027_205333

20121027_202256

This is what the uncleaned fruit looks like ripe. Dull black with shriveled stems and leaves.

To get a decent pie filling you need quite a few berries. Luckily they keep well in the fridge. I only grew a few plants the season I grew them. Yes. One season. Maybe I will do it again, maybe not. The reasons to leave this as a one time experience being: the work involved keeping the plants healthy, ripening the berries correctly and then the lifespan of the pie. Although the pie I made initially tasted great (sort of an off blueberry taste), after it sat a couple of days the skin on the berries got tough and chewy. It’s also hard to eat these once you’ve seen the weird process (and smell in the green foaming stage) that they go through to be edible.

Be forewarned this is fun and interesting, but ultimately: I have better things to do every year and I imagine you will too.

20121027_193839

The recipe I used makes enough for two pies. So I needed 8 cups of berries.

20121027_213812

Now for the science experiment! Cooking these weird little berries is probably the most fantastic science experiment you can conduct in the kitchen (outside of the 6th grade vinegar and baking soda volcanoes most of us built!)

20121028_155829

So this is what it looks like to start. You get a psychedelic purple colored water. I poured some off to photograph just to show what color these crazy berries begin this process with.

20121028_160204

Look! Behold! Crazy science dealing with Ph! I am stirring in baking soda in this screen grab from a video I took. It’s enough to make you want to halt your experiment right here and head towards the compost pile.

Screenshot 2014-02-20 20.24.30

The berries turn from bright purple to bright green with a slime from the foam up the side of the pan. At this point I was thinking: “WHAT have I gotten myself into?!?! This looks disgusting!” It smelled pretty bad too. Trust the process. It gets better.

20121028_161606

So then after 10 minutes of gross green foaming and stirring: I poured off the water and rinsed the berries. Still disgusting looking and disgusting smelling. What’s even better is: now the berries are kind of hard and stiff and…well…’very unappealing’ would be a good descriptor. My thoughts at the moment? “This is going in the garbage. I am totally wasting my garden space and cooking time!” Again, trust the process. It gets better.

20121028_162055

So now I’m following the directions. Add lemon juice? Didn’t I just add baking soda? What is the point here? Trust the process.

So: In goes 1/3 cup of water and a 1/2 cup of lemon juice. WHAT? Purple again? Now I am genuinely impressed. I have never before, nor have I ever again, found such a unique cooking experience as this.

20121028_162232

By this point the smell is improving as well as the possibility that this might be pie material.

20121028_170659

I then added 2 3/4 cups sugar, (you should use lemon rind with this but again I had a lime so: What the hay?) zest of one lemon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg,  a teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1 Tbs butter (plus a little more to pat the berry mixture with), 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and two to four pie crusts depending on whether you are making both pies at once.

20121028_173125

Pat some butter on the berry mixture before adding the top crust. Pinch the crust (As you can see below my crust pinching skills are somewhat lacking), prick or slit the top and bake at 375 degree oven for 45 minutes or until crust is a light brown.

galaxy s3 pics 582

Yes. I patted it and pricked it and marked it with a b, and put it in the oven for baby and me! (This really impressed my kids by the way!)

galaxy s3 pics 583

From “Uuurggg!” to “Yum!” Definitely worthy of some respect (if only for being a miracle in transformation.)

20121029_110059

Pretty darned good for what I was sure was going to be a massive “FAIL!”

The main recipe I used is from Sand Hill Preservation Center. I combined that recipe with a recipe on Food.com

This is what I came up with out of the two. (I combined a second recipe because I knew my husband would avoid the pie if I put tapioca in it and I didn’t trust the end taste of the pie on just the merits of the berry. It came out well.)
Here’s just the recipe so you can print it up if you like it:

8 Cups Garden huckleberries

1/3 Cup Baking Soda

1/3 Cup Water

1/2 Cup Lemon Juice

2 3/4 Cups Sugar

1/2 tsp Nutmeg

1/2 tsp Salt

1 Tbs Butter (plus a few pats for the top of the mixture)

2 Tbs Cornstarch

2 Pie crusts for each pie (makes 2 pies)

Directions:

1. Pre-heat oven to 375º F. Clean and rinse Garden Huckleberries and place in a non aluminum pot with room for at least 1 gallon of liquid. Add enough water to just cover the fruit. Bring to a boil. Slowly add 1/3 Cup Baking Soda while continuously stirring. Green foam will appear as you stir.

2. After you are done adding the baking soda: cook for 10 minutes at a low boil. The mixture will continue to foam like crazy.

3.  After the 10 minutes are done, drain the solution off and rinse with clean water. (If you are reusing your pot, clean it out too.) The berries will be somewhat hard.

4. Next return the berries to the stove. Add 1/3 Cup water and Lemon juice. The crazy berries will revert from emerald green back to a royal purple color. Cook an additional 35 minutes until the berries are tender.

5. Next add the sugar, salt, vanilla, nutmeg, butter, lemon zest and cornstarch. Cook about five minutes until the mixture thickens.

6. Place pastry in bottom of pie pan. Add half of mixture (The recipe makes enough for two pies. You can cool the other half and freeze it for later if you like.) Dot mixture with butter. Cover with top crust, crimp edges and pierce top crust all over with fork or cut slits to allow steam to escape.

7. Bake for 45 minutes or until crust is light brown. (You can leave out the cornstarch and use the mixture over ice cream or just to eat. It really turns out pretty good.)

There you go! A sure fire way of making edible pie out of these things, and a fun experiment with the effects of an acid and base on this interesting (if not a little weird and nutty) fruit. Let me know if anyone else decides to try this berry out and what your experience is!

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

Making sense of old sayings

“Dig a twenty dollar hole for a ten dollar tree” I grew up listening to my mom repeat this saying every time we’d trudge out the door and start amending soil. Amending soil is hard work. If I hadn’t grown up doing this with every new planting bed, every annual, every perennial and every tree I would probably give up after the first try and attempt to skip this step. Having done this so many times over the years, I understand that this is not one of the things you can cut corners with. If you want to have a great garden you have to start with the soil. Unless you live somewhere where you have pH perfect, deep, nutrient rich soil and especially if you live where builders have graded off the topsoil, sold it and hidden that fact by sodding over it (any subdivision will qualify here) you will need to bring in good soil.

A $20 Hole for a $10 Tree Making Sense of Old Sayings

A $20 Hole for a $10 Tree Making Sense of Old Sayings

Gardening has come a long way since I was young. Ruth Stout was a pioneer in the gardening field. She advocated ways to take a lot of the labor out of growing good soil. But Ruth lived where the topsoil was in place (and I would guess even she would turn in good soil if she had to deal with Texas hardpan.) Deep mulch will improve what is below it by keeping the soil evenly moist but if you remove the mulch your soil will revert back to it’s naturally poor condition. If you have immediate gardening goals the best thing to do is to turn some kind of composted material into what you have.

There are a lot of ways to amend soil. Most of the time, if you are patient, you can do this cheaply. Paper, cardboard, compost, straw and rotted hay are great ways to build soil in place. Rocking a potato fork back and forth is a less strenuous way to loosen your soil, but again, unless you are prepared to turn the soil over the potato fork will have a limited effect.

2010-06-21 20.30.18

I don’t buy topsoil. Most bagged soil is as bad or worse than the soil you are trying to amend. When I buy bagged soil from a garden center I find a leaky bag and run a bit of the contents between my fingers. Most of what you will find is sand (usually sold as topsoil) or slightly composted wood chips (usually sold as compost). There are also trendy things that end up being popular like mushroom compost. You can’t trust what is printed on the outside. Always touch what you are looking at before you buy it. I’ve lived in places where the mushroom compost was excellent and what I repeatedly purchased. I now live in a place that sells mushroom compost that is essentially sand. I never add sand. If what you are buying isn’t going to break down and you have heavy clay: you run the risk of creating a Portland cement type of soil mix. If you do this you will hate yourself as you try and bust it up enough to plant in.

2010-08-15 13.19.28

I’ve had great luck in our heavy, high pH, clay soil with several products. I really recommend gypsum. Personally, I wouldn’t garden in clay without it. I also use a lot of peat humus. This is a fine textured peat product that comes in large bales. I usually use this in the soil I mix for pots. I have close to twenty 22 inch pots that I rotate most of my plants I am trialing. I use anything for pots. The colorful bowls below are plastic salad bowls I picked up at the dollar store and drilled a few holes in them. The question isn’t: What can you grow in pots? The question is: What can’t you grow in a large enough pot? These larger pots work well for fruit trees and large vegetables like cherry tomatoes and anything that needs acidic soil. I can’t grow blueberries or gardenias in our clay soil, but I can grow them in pots where I can closely monitor soil pH. When I am turning soil into a bed I usually throw some peat in. It’s good at holding water and raises the pH a little.  Canadian peat is a nonrenewable resource (the source will be listed on the bag). There are better products to choose for large applications.

image_21

I also rely heavily on bagged compost. We move a lot for my husband’s job. I am frequently short on homemade compost. This is where feeling the bagged soil is important. If you don’t think what you are touching feels like it would hold water, then it’s not going to break down anytime soon and your plants are going to dry out quickly. Deep in a bed you can use chipped wood (look at my hugelkultur/keyhole garden entry) but it needs a thick layer of spongy, porous medium from the surface to least a foot down. You can keep your soil spongy by keeping it moist. Ruth Stout did exactly that with her thick layers of straw.

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

If you really want a great bed: put in layers of straw, rotted hay, non-glossy newspaper and/or cardboard. You can find free cardboard by asking people in your neighborhood for moving boxes. Most people move into homes around the first of the month. Drive around, find new neighbors, give them your number and tell them you will pay them $10 for their used boxes and packing paper. Offering money for what most people see as garbage will help ensure that they actually call you back.  (You will still need to remove the packing tape from any boxes.) Another free or cheap resource for cardboard is your local grocer. Talk to a manager and see if they will set some aside for you on the next delivery day. They usually have box crushing machines out back and setting them aside is extra work for them. Again you could offer some cash if they are resistant. Look at the price of hay, brand new moving boxes or bagged soil before you scoff at paying for excess cardboard. It’s still the cheapest source for what will be next year’s soil.

20130512_161247

Another old saying is: “Clay on sand, money in the hand/sand on clay, money thrown away.”  This has to do with the fertility and drainage properties of both these kinds of soil. Sand has low fertility but drains quickly, clay is usually a high fertility soil but has slow (if not nonexistent) drainage. If you put a layer of sand on top of a clay soil you have low fertility and slow drainage. You will have wasted your time and your money because your plants need fertile soil and most plants hate wet feet.

If you put a layer of clay on top of sandy soil, you can take advantage of the clay’s high phosphorous and potassium content and the excellent drainage of sand.

So what is the answer for those of us who have clay soil? Humus. Incorporate as much organic matter as you can to add some balance to your clay (you may also need to add iron products to combat iron chlorosis in clay soil. Iron chlorosis is a condition where clay soil offers low availability of iron uptake in plants.) For areas with serious drainage problems: work with raised beds. This takes some effort but as always: you start your garden success with your soil.

$20 Holes

$20 Holes

The last saying I’ll add is “Don’t eat your seed corn”. First off it should be pretty obvious if you eat the seeds you would plant next season you won’t have anything to grow to eat. But in a more subtle way you need to separate your best seed to plant the next season. If you plant big healthy corn kernels you are going to get big healthy plants. Always save your best seed and eat the poorest. That way you improve what you are both eating and growing each season. If you eat the best seed you grow, you are selecting weaker seed for the next harvest.

There’s plenty of old sayings. Some meanings are obvious, some are more subtle but I think most great simple agricultural sayings are in danger of being, or are already, lost. Keeping wise sayings going is part of sharing the wealth of knowledge. I think knowledge should always be free. That’s the main way to keep it from getting lost! So, share what you learn with your family, friends and neighbors. Talking over the back fence is a time honored way to keep the wisdom flowing!

If you like these sayings: Here are a few more (with explanations) from the Farmers Almanac.

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