...if you have a backyard and a kitchen, this blog might be for you!

a chronicle of tips and recipes on everything from gardening to canning and baking your produce, even if you're planted in suburbia...in fact, especially if you are planted in suburbia.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sabbath Rest in the Plowing Season

What do we do if our heart yearns to gaze upon scenes like this:

but all we find beyond our window is this, not bad just kind of scraggly, and with the deadness of a former year still scattered around on the ground.

Such is the season of the plowing of the soul.
An author I'm currently reading, Ruth Myers, speaks of such seasons in her book The Satisfied Heart.
Those years in Taiwan were good in so many ways, but they were hard years. They were a time of plowing in my life, when the steel of the plow was cutting deep into my soul. I could no longer feel the love of God as easily as I had before. I would tell Him, "Lord, I don't know what's happening to me. I don't know why my emotions don't cooperate like they used to." Then I would just remember Hebrews 13:8 where God says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." So I would choose to believe that His love for me and His life in me had not changed, but were still as warm and true and certain as before...
...But after about three years of plowing, God took me back to the second chapter of the Song of Solomon:
"For lol the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land...Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." I felt God was telling me that the plowing time was over, the winter done with, and I now could look forward to a new fresh springtime of love with Him.
Happy spring in all the best ways, my friends!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Rest of the Spring Calendar Story...

Besides soil testing, here's what else belongs on that early spring garden calendar:
Plant bulbing and bunching onions
Spread fertilizers and manures
Start sowing hardy vegetables outdoors
Sow early crops under protection
"Chit" seed potatoes
meaning: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/fruitandvegetables/7053223/How-to-grow-chitting-and-forcing-potatoes.html

Continue to harvest over-winter vegetables

Check any vegetables held in store

And for the ornamental gardener, add:

Plant herbaceous perennials

Plant hardy annuals

Sow seeds of half-hardy annuals under protection

Sow lawn grass seed

Fertilize the flowerbeds and borders

Prune winter-flowering shrubs

This calendar is brought to you courtesy of Country Living Gardener's Gardening Basics.

But, don't forget to take a little time with those pets. The dog would love to chase something other than a bird. The tom cat would love a cuddle while you're around "his" tool shed.

We humans aren't the only ones happy to see spring!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

One Last Point on Soil Testing

...especially for the urban gardener. These are pics of my garden in 2009. It was the third year for gardening in this spot, but not until this year--spring of 2011--did I have the soil tested. Somehow, I always thought the soil test was more to check for depleted soil, for amendment recommendations.
But, the following link leads to an article from my city's leading newspaper about the need to test your soil before you break ground even that first time, and more for the sake of soil safety than anything else. Unless you're planning to work from raised beds, you might want to have your soil checked for lead tainting and other toxins that could be an issue, particularly if you live in an older neighborhood.

While my garden soil was fine as far as toxins go, the soil at the outreach center where I'll be starting a garden might not be. It is an older house in an older neighborhood. A soil test there might certainly be advised. Tomorrow I'll get back on that topic of early spring garden calendar recommendations, but this first one gets a post all its own!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Under Glass...Not

Cindy Bee commented on the last post about a few more garden plants that can brave the weather even now, without needing the confines of a greenhouse--a luxury few of us urban gardeners have in our backyards. I have a few more I intend to put in this week, like the potatoes, and maybe I'll even make a first attempt with a kohlrabi plant or two; but for your benefit, should your garden not have the pH limitations mine does, I'll offer a list of frost-tolerant crops.

Here they are:
fava beans
brussel sprouts
corn salad
swiss chard

Quite a list! Tomorrow (if I get my hands out of the garden and on the keyboard again) I'll share the early spring to-do list from the Gardening Basics book so you're all ready to get to planting from that prolific list.

Happy planting!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Around the Edges

...of both the garden and the blog.

First of all, one of the blogs I follow posted a book recommendation I want to pass along, as well as some photo-illustrated advice for my bee-keeping friends, so here's a link to her blog post. Follow her if her blog applies to your interests:


Secondly, I I did a little research and learned which plants fare well even in high pH soil like mine. This garlic I planted last fall, for instance, is growing happily. In fact, many of these alkaline-soil tolerant plants are "spring" plants so my gardening season is already actively running.

Garlic growing from last fall's planting.

I titled this post as I did because for many years, I, like many other novice gardeners, was a summer gardener. I tilled in mid-April and planted "after the danger of frost" or near Mother's Day. But I knew more was possible. I knew that some gardeners planted early crops around the edges of their gardens so the later tilling would not disrupt them.

The first garden that ever sprang from my own hands grew next door to one of these extended-season gardens. It was tended by a retired couple who had been gardening for years. While I was still building fires in the fireplace and scraping frost from my morning windshield, this old couple were already working their plot...and things were growing! That's when I knew to expand my gardening vision to include a whole other season beyond the one that yielded tomatoes and watermelons.

I now know that Brussels sprouts are fine with this time of year, as long as I cover them on a night that brings a hard frost.

And lettuce grows happily in a movable planter--as long as I'm willing to move it indoors on a particularly chilly night.

For two bucks, I got a seed starter fashioned from biodegradable, recycled products. This is where the loofah seeds as well as the summer squash and zucchini plants are hopefully getting a start. The loofahs I'll be growing here, but the other squash I'm donating to the garden at the homeless drop-in center where I volunteer.

Speaking of recycling, once you get past the start-up expenses, it is easy to find cost-cutting ways to bring gardening adventures into a reasonable budget. The seedling pots that brought me my first crop of lettuce (the next round is starting as seeds in egg shells) and Brussels sprout plants are now filled with starter mix. They are providing a starting home for various herbs, peppers, and sunflowers. Even the planters where I"ll put flowers later serve as a temporary home for starter seeds that will move to the garden about the same time those flowers need a home.

Working across the seasons like this is called succession planting, and it offers so much more food than does a garden limited to just the one season. The best part of all, however, was when I realized I had taken the baton from that retired couple years ago, the ones who gave me my first few gardening pointers, and now I carried it myself. I know this because today Garden Helper's homeschooling friends came over to lend a hand as we put "the spring crop" out. One broke up the soil, another sprinkled fertilizer and powdered egg and nut shells. A third planted vidalia onion sets and the fourth helped start various seed pots.
All the while, the oldest one, a boy of about twelve, asked questions.
"How do you do get your zucchini plants to work, because ours never made zucchini last year."
"Do you guys have problems with cicadas? We think maybe it's the trees around our house."
"How do you know your sunflowers are the kind that make seeds you can eat? We grew the wrong kind and didn't get any seeds to eat from them."
I prowled around in my seed basket for a pack of sunflower seeds that promised edible-seed sunflowers. We planted six of those sunflower seeds in a little tray of peat pots which I sent along with them as they went racing and laughing home. And, of course, I promised Garden Helper could come and help them when they were ready to put out their own garden.
The edges get softer in all the best ways when you share both the knowledge and the work.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Loofah Can You Go?

Meet Kara.

Kara is a bee keeper and small-scale farmer (as farms go) in rural Southern Illinois. She also keeps horses, although I don't think she does so on such a large scale that you'd call her a rancher. Kara is helping me expand my gardening experience by introducing me to the growing of loofahs.

Hubby's response when I told him she was sending me loofah seeds in the mail was, "Aren't they some sort of sponge?"
Well, we use them like sponges, but no. They apparently are not a type of sponge.

Here's what Kara had to say about her loofah crop:
"I believe the Loofah sponge is part of the squash family. Maturity is 130 + days. They are rapidly growing and love to climb! I always plant them along a fence or beside a barn so they can climb. I always start them in doors, because of the time it takes for maturity. I water them generously and let them grow! I just let them hang on the vine, and pick them right before winter. Then I usually throw them in the barn and let them completely dry out. To harvest, you just peel them and shake out the seeds. Make sure you keep the seeds for future planting. I cut them to size. They are great pot scrubbers, bath sponges, etc.

To start, I put them in a damp paper towel in a warm place till they sprout, then transfer them to pots. When it is time to plant your garden, it is time to plant your loofahs."

Soon I'll be putting these seeds in the paper towels, and then move them on to little pots. In our backyard plot of ground, the loofah plants will hopefully take root along the back fence and over the top of a dog house that is merely decorative because our dog treats it with such disdain.

Kara also sent us a sample loofah. So far I've tried it in the bath, and for exfoliating it can't be beaten! At first dampening, it smelled a little like fresh hay, but quickly picked up the scent of my milk bath liquid soap. I haven't tried it as a pot scrubber yet, but that one loofah was big enough to cut in thirds, so another chunk is keeping the bottle brush company alongside the kitchen sink.

Happy memory of the day: Foot spa at home! Complete with fizzy foot soak, loofah foot scrub, and minty foot lotion--all the while chuckling at the thought that my little loofah was once hanging, soaking up the sun on my friend's back fence!

By the way, if you'd like me to send you some seeds, I'd be happy to pass a few along. Although I believe these seeds came from just one plant, I nevertheless think I have ample seeds to provide loofahs aplenty, maybe enough to exfoliate all of India!

Thanks again, Kara!

Happy scrubbing!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sabbath Rest: Desiring God

"What's your pleasure?" A common enough saying. Flippant even. For this chipmunk, the answer is obvious. He'd be very pleased to see me start the new gardening season. Daily, he sits on this lifeless planter of last year's tired soil and watches, hoping for things to come. But I must do some evaluating before bowing to his wishes.

I've saved this review, Gardening Reader, to post as an inauguration to my gardening season because that pleasure question over-wintered in the part of my heart that "loves" gardening in a heavy way. Some of you, faithful readers, are well-addressed as Garden Novice, but some of you are more Master Gardener than I. You are the ones who already know the joy of gracing a table with steaming bowls of food that sprang from your own hands plunged deep in the soil. Do you have concerns that you "need" this activity too much? Fear you're growing a little pagan in your love of the good earth? Idolatrous with the self-reliance it affords? And, if not for gardening, is there not "something" that can gnaw at you this way, not a vice by any means save in the sense that you might enjoy a little too much? If so--whether by gardening or any other joyful endeavor--this book is a good tool to have in hand for that season of double-digging those questions and concerns.
John Piper's Desiring God in its current edition is a revision of a book written some 20 years ago. Over those years, various criticisms of his "Christian hedonism" principles have arisen. In this new edition, he answers these critics alongside the restatement of his original thesis. (In fact, the appendix directly addresses his choice of the nomer Christian hedonism.)

Piper leads us in evaluating the importance we attach to our own happiness, but more significantly, he helps us hook that happiness question to a larger question: what makes God happy? "What is it about redemptive history that delights the heart of God?" After building that basic framework, he explores more specific examples of God-serving joy in the areas of love, money, prayer, missions, even suffering, which he notes offers the joy of a life less trivial and banal. He quotes Spurgeon in the observation: "They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls."

The only down-side I found with this book was that its premise made my heart long to read Psalm-like writing, and Piper writes more in the style of Romans. But then again, maybe that is its highest recommendation. It surely achieved its purpose.

For me, gardening got the stamp of approval as I meditated through its pages. (My chipmunk friend breathed a sigh of relief.) For you it may be something else that is on the table, but I do believe this book could help you find peace as you define those ways you were uniquely designed to seek pleasure in God.

Happy reading!


(I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

And So It Begins...

Remember that soil analysis we recently ordered? It came back reading much as I thought it would: our soil is far to alkaline and could use a good bit of nitrogen and organic matter. A few fertilizer suggestions were included with the report, peat being a leading one. I'll probably work it into the soil a little later in the spring. Nevertheless, I think it will be a year to rest from the heavy-feeding plants--like the squash and tomatoes and cucumbers. I'll visit the farmers' markets for these and focus on growing more nitrogen-fixing ones, like legumes, and the light feeders, like leafy veggies along a few of the root crops. That determined, some of these "acceptable" plants are early spring ones, making today--this cool and sunny and breezy day--a perfect day to set seed. Garden Helper and I shopped for a few more packets of seeds, opting for organic and heirloom whenever we could. With our new seeds and a couple of bags of good starter peat, we put a row of sugar snap peas into the ground right at the edge of the garden. Next week, we'll plant another row, and a week later another row until late April or early May. For now, peas were all we planted in the garden proper.
But in a few of the outdoor planters (ones that could be moved indoors should a hard frost hit in the next few weeks) we likewise started spinach and radishes, layering fresh potting soil atop a base of last year's soil.

And, we started lettuce seeds to transplant later into the garden when they are established seedlings. The first year I tried establishing my own seedlings, I bought a very pricey "kit" that had a damp mat that filled the bottom of the tray where perfect little cubicles housed seed started pellets. Last year, I used this old-fashioned technique: a bio-degradable egg carton with egg shells as "pots" for the seedlings. If I keep it watered gently and set it on top of the refrigerator for warmth, it works just as well, and only costs me the price of the seeds and soil. Recycling in true historic farm fashion!

Garden Helper's veggie of choice to grow this year is carrots, but it is still a little early to start them outdoors. We tucked his new pack of seeds away in the seed box, and he settled for starting a little planter of lettuce--offering me Spring's first decor on the kitchen windowsill.
Today's sign-off is one I've been anxious to say for days:
Happy planting!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Garden Pilgrimage: Heigh, Ho, the Dairy-O

This time of year, I'm antsy to start on those garden pilgrimage posts, but unfortunately, no plant switch suddenly flips "on" at the beginning of March (though my heart feels it should.) No matter, I just have to be a little creative in my definition of a garden...just for another month or so. Today, "garden" meant pasturage for grass-fed milk cows at the nearby Traderspoint Creamery.

This creamery involves a working farm (which visitors can tour) and cheese, ice cream and yogurt making facilities (which visitors can't.) The milking parlor does, however, offer the public a hands-on milking option. We didn't visit at the right time of day for that activity, so we may have to go back for that one. What we did arrive in time for was lunch. Lunch! As we perused the menu, we studied their mission statement. Just reading it made us feel like we were destined to experience a health food bonanza, no matter whether it tasted superior to commercial dairy offerings or not.

But the benefits spilled over into the taste realm as well. Garden Helper dressed his "fancy milk" jar with some Mardi Gras beads, and it did taste festival-worthy. In fact, when we brought a quart home and gave a sample to older brother, his eyes grew wide. "Holy cow!" he said. Holy cow, indeed.
But not only was milk, that humble beverage, a taste treat; likewise that beggarly entree: the grilled cheese sandwich received a Cinderella treatment in the farm's kitchen. Mine was dressed with fresh spinach leaves and paired with an amazing side of curried cauliflower, while Garden Helper opted for the more classic bacon and cheese with a side of kettle chips.

Who would guess that after such a glamorous meal we'd be trudging into nearby mud pits? The farm proper is behind the restaurant and country store. Garden Helper donned his sanctioning badge and studied the farm grounds map before we set out on our self-guided tour.

First, we learned about these interesting chicken coops. Chickens make some of the best manure available and with 60-90 milking cows needing healthy pasturage, high quality manure is surely a must.

I first read about these mobile coops in a book on grass-fed cattle farms. I've never mucked out a chicken coop to appropraite the manure as fertilizer, but I can nevertheless appreciate these little chicken RV's. The floor is basically open, so the droppings fall directly on the ground intended to be fertilized. Then the coop is moved and another patch of ground is nourished.

The chickens by day roam free. Only one big gorgeous rooster--almost as tall as my hip--was camera shy. When he saw us approach, he ran behind a shed; but the rest were happy to pose and even crow a few times for us.

On the other side of the farmyard were the cow pens and milking parlor. We saw a couple of farm hands muscle a cow down a hill toward the pasture, but most of the cows were feeding from troughs in their pen considering much rain lately has shifted the farm's fields into their watershed function for a local creek.

Although the cow pen was too dark to photograph well, just behind this curious cow were 8 or 10 frisky calves being "ushered" into a stall full of fresh straw where their mamas waited.

I mentioned the chickens are free range? Well, one apparently considered himself the guard rooster, coming over from the chicken coops to stand just inside the cow pen and crow at us.
We decided it was time to head back. We finished our pilgrimage in the farm store, buying quarts of milk and yogurt and choosing the first two seed packs for the new season. I've decided to allow my garden to rest from the heavy feeders, but will still grow some light feeders and a few plants that are more in the nature of green manure. These seeds say I can plant them early in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Hmmm...the next garden pilgrimage may be to my own backyard.
Happy chugging!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Are You Nuts?

This year has been a year of developing better and better "green living" skills, which, ironically, has often meant a simple return to a past-era way of doing things...pre-industrial revolution stuff.

One little feature of life in this category is the nut bowl. This year, rather than buying bags of prepared nuts, we bought a bag of nuts straight from the trees, along with a simple nutcracker. Then we spent the last few months chomping them and saving the shells. Today, I lightly chopped those shells after getting a few walnuts for lunch's apple salad. Later, they'll be hitting the garden, along with the powdered egg shells--both of which are waiting in a coffee can I keep for that very purpose.

Why use nut shells on the garden?
In the garden, they combat slug problems. In the bottom of plant pots, they're great for drainage. They even find their way into potpourri and soap.

Check out this link to see the myriad of way the shells are a benefit.

Now, on to the rest of that apple salad. Happy cracking all!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

This Is a Public Service Announcement...

What is Garden Helper doing with a shovel this time of year? (Besides helping re-plant our mailbox which frost heaving lifted right out of the ground?) And...

Why is he visiting this obscure little building hidden behind the fairgrounds and across from our town's post office?

Soil testing! It's that time of year, late enough that the soil has thawed enough to dig up a representative quart jar to take for analysis, but early enough that any soil amendments can be made before planting season begins.

We only took one jar, but if our garden were bigger we could have taken multiple samples from various parts of the total area. Just what is a soil test, you ask? Here's the definition according to a brochure provided by our county's soil and water conservation department.
A soil test is a process by which elements (phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, boron, sulfur, manganese, copper, iron and zinc) are chemically removed from the soil and measured for their 'plant available' content within the sample. The quantity...in the sample determines the amount of fertilizer or other soil amendment that is recommended. A soil test also measures soil pH, organic matter and cation exchange capacity. These analyses indicate whether lime is needed and, if so, how much to apply.
In our county, a basic test costs $30. A complete test adds testing for conductivity, boron, copper, iron, manganese, sulfur and zinc and costs another $10. If the department takes the sample onsite for you, an extra $70 service fee applies. (Should I tell Garden Helper about that sample collection service fee? Hmmm.) The process was quite simple. We filled out an application that told what our purpose was for this particular batch of soil. We reported it was for a vegetable garden, but we could have asked for analysis for everything from a fruit tree orchard to a golf course putting green. Then, we handed over the jar of dirt, the application form and the check. Garden Helper was nonplussed. "That's it?" He asked. I think he had visions of pulling on latex gloves and poring over a microscope himself.

Nope, Garden Helper, they do all the work and report the findings in a simple email. Our work begins when we see what their chemists find.
Besides soil testing, this county government service offers well-water testing, landscaping plans for conservation practices, and erosion control plans. Not every county charges the same fees for these services. You may even find you country still offers soil testing for free, but that's a rare find these days. What's more our particular dept. offer products for sale--like rain barrels, tumbling composters and bird nest boxes--which help support their office.

As their brochure concludes:
Unfortunately, as budgets tighten, the SWCD has to look for ways to bring in more funding so we can continue the high level of service Hamilton County residents have come to expect. By purchasing items or paying for services offered by SWCD, you are helping us continue to fulfill our mission, protecting Hamilton County's environment and natural resources for future generations.

I think a rain barrel, or at least a bird nest box might be in order. This is one government department I'd like to see thrive!
Happy testing!