Category Archives: Gourmet Food

Practical Organic Gardening – Free tips on Growing Lettuce

Red Butterhead lettuce ready for harvest.

Red Butterhead lettuce makes a soft, beautiful head that’s perfect for salads.

I love raising my own lettuce.  It’s a love born out of hate.  That sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t.

I started raising lettuce when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag.  For me, that’s $18 a week for under two pounds of green leafy lettuce.

Do the math.  I was spending almost $1000 a year on lettuce!  Try doing that on a fixed income.

I hated paying the price so I stared planting and growing my own.  And guess what?  Lettuce is one of the easiest crops I have ever raised.  And, it’s a
two-fer! Save your seeds and pay no more (well maybe you’ll have to buy every 3 or 4 years).  Just keep planting and harvesting.

So, let’s start with seeds.  I am pretty particular about whose seed I buy.  I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing.

Organic red leaf lettuce

Organic red leaf lettuce grows quickly and tastes sweet by itself or in salads.

And I want flavorful leaf lettuce — not head lettuce you have to chop with a cleaver. And I definitely do not want Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.

There are three places I buy seed:

Hudson Valley Seed Library –  the variety they offer is impressive.  Their seed is  locally grown in a climate and soil not unlike mine here in Zone 6b.  And this company helps support school and community gardeners with donations of seeds.

Territorial Seeds – kind of the granddaddy of organic seed growers, this company was organic before organic went mainstream.  Family-owned, Territorial Seeds has a fantastic reputation for the seeds it sells and the customer service it brings to the table.

Grow Italian – I discovered this company more than a decade ago and it’s my go to seed company for all things Italian including lettuce and mixed greens.  When you buy a packet of lattuga from them, you get high quality, high-germinating seeds and a lot of them.

I think the hardest part of growing lettuce is picking the kinds you want to try. But once you have your seeds, planting is so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. I tend to sow the seeds right in the garden bed.

One problem when planting lettuce is that the seeds are small and lightweight and they tend to drop into the dirt in clumps or blow off my hand. I used to have a hard time getting them to spread out on the soil but here’s a trick my sister taught me.

  1. Get some soil – take it from your garden if it’s rich and light or grab some potting mix.
  2. Fill a quart jar about 2/3rds full of the soil.
  3. Put lettuce seeds in the jar.  I put different types together so I grow my own “mixed greens.”
  4. Shake the jar until all the seeds are mixed, uniformly, through the soil.
  5. Gently shake the soil out of the jar and into your beds. If you can still see some of them, put just a tiny bit of dirt over the visible ones.
  6. Water the seeds in.

Then all you have to do is water every day until the seeds spout.  Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.

A few more tips:

Don’t plant in the summer!  Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather.  You can plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.

Start lettuce plants indoors if you want.  I use 40-cell growing trays.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

And I start mine in early February.  When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.

When you cut lettuce leaves, don’t cut them down to the ground.  Cut about an inch from the bottom and you will get a second crop.

If you want to save the seeds, plant for a spring harvest but only cut the first crop.  Let the second set of lettuce leaves grow up and flower.  Then wait.  It will be tempting to take the flower heads off when they get their puffy, white hair.  DON’T.

The seeds need to mature.  Wait until the heads are dry, brown and about ready to burst.  Then pull the seed heads off, take the seeds out and let them dry in a small strainer for a couple of weeks.  I refrigerate mine once they’re dry and plant them in the fall.

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Free Organic Gardening Book

If you ever wanted to learn all about organic gardening, the good, the bad and the ugly…just sign up for this blog and sit back.

Every week or so, I am going to upload a chapter of my organic gardening book which you can read for free!

Today, I am starting at the beginning…that would be Chapters 1 & 2 (the chapters are short) of Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us. Enjoy!

Chapter I – Why This Book

Organic gardening is easy, practical and cheap!

My all organic, backyard garden.

Remember when you decided you wanted to start a garden?  You told a friend, spouse, garden center guy and then got bombarded with miscellaneous stories of gardening disaster.  All that support really made you want to go out and start tilling the soil, right?

I hate it when I hear someone telling another would be gardener how hard it is to get things to grow or how easy it is to kill this vegetable or that one.  Why?  Because, instead of gardening, you probably wanted to run home, mix up your favorite drink and sit down with the remote control.

Too many people in the gardening business write or talk about how hard organic gardening is or how complicated it is.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to make people who read their articles or buy their books put down the shovel or rake and walk back into the house.

They’re lying!  Organic gardening is easy!  It’s cheaper than going the chemical route and it’s fun!

Organic gardening is so easy the lettuce practically grows itself.

Organic lettuce is easy to grow.

The truth is gardening can be as easy as you want to make it.  It’s all about what you want to grow.  Figure out what you want to plant, how many plants you want to put in, how large a garden space you want and what works in your planting zone.

One tip from someone whose motto is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

Start small and only plant those crops you want.  Lettuce is so easy to grow that it practically raises itself! It’s a cool weather crop that loves early spring and late fall. And it helps save you $5.00 for organic greens in the store!

Think about it. Stores sell spring greens mix for $5.00 for 12 ounces.  Fifty two weeks of buying greens comes to just under $300.  You can raise enough for you and your significant other for less than $3.00 a year.

Some seeds, some dirt and some water, a little kindness and a lot of sunlight and you are on your way to creating your own organic garden.  So, dig in!

Reading This Book

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

This book is designed so you can pick it up, look up a specific plant or bush and read about the good, the bad and the ugly for just that one selection.  Or you can read it cover to cover – starting at the back if you want to and working forward.

Why?

Because a lot of us gardeners aren’t very linear.  And many of us would rather “give it a go” than sit down and read about gardening.  So I tried to give you what you need, when you need it.

Want to raise blueberries?  Interested in saving your own seeds?  Want to get a handle

Organic gardening is easy.

Organic gardening is all about getting your hands dirty!

on techniques like composting, using organic fertilizers or even doing battle with Japanese beetles?  Check the Table of Contents and flip to the right page.

Want the back stories?  The pain of losing a loved one to Verticillium Wilt?

Make a cup of herbal tea, start here and just drift through the book, laughing, learning and, I hope, getting a powerful yen to get out there and get dirty.

 

PS – if you can’t find it in my book, I didn’t kill it.

 

Tips for Getting Your Beets Started Early

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Transplant beets started indoors outdoors as soon as you can work the soil.

Want to get a jump start on your garden? Get your beet babies started, indoors!

Beets are known as cool season crops.  They really like cool temperatures and can be seeded as soon as you can work the soil.  They can also be started indoors and February is the month to get going.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden, not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets.

Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice. I fell in love with beets, again.

Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 1 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6a.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range of conditions but won’t grow as big or as beautiful.

So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

How To Plant
You can (and I do) start beets indoors but beet seeds are also outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.  Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

Transplanting
TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.
Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant.  Wrong! Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.

I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting.  The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE! Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, using a tablespoon or serving spoon, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a spoon full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, basic growing information is colleges like Cornell, which posted a nice guide to growing beets.

Buy butter from grass-fed, organic cows and dig in to one of my favorite dishes. Happy Valentine’s Day, every body!

If you want fast access to all my gardening tips and tricks, you will find them in my Kindle book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us.

DON’T BUY Gilmour Soaker Hoses

It is with my sincere apologies that I share this information:

Gilmour Soaker hoses contain “…one or more chemicals that are known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects.”

I have had my soaker hoses for years. When I published an endorsement of the hoses on my other blog – Write on Target, I simply had no idea that the products used to create these soaker hoses contain chemicals that are dangerous like lead, BPA and phthalates.

If you want to know what hoses to buy, which ones are safe and which ones are not, please go to Eartheasy, one of my favorite resources, and read their article on healthy hoses.

Please accept my sincere apologies for endorsing a product that is anything but healthy.

SPECIAL THANKS to Kate Russell for letting me know about the dangers of Gilmour soaker hoses…and all other hoses.

Top Canning Tips for Harvest Season

It’s almost the end of September but here in Zone 6b, I’ve prepped the

Blackberries ready for next Spring.

Blackberries trimmed and mulched for next Spring.

blackberries for next spring, pruned the blueberries, pulled out the eggplant and sunflowers and planted beets, lettuce and kale.

But I am still harvesting tomatoes, Italian peppers and green beans! The season is ending a whole lot warmer than it began so I am leaving these plants in place so I can get as many of the veggies as possible.

I can only eat so much in a day so I learned how to preserve my harvest early in my gardening life. In fact, I have been preserving my harvest for well over 25 years and have learned a few things the hard way. But I think the folks at Eartheasy have captured some of the best canning tips .

I do have a couple of others to add to the list:

  1. Heat your jars in the oven — at a very low temperature – to sterilize them. I just lay them down on a cookie sheet and put them in at 175 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. This method is easier for me than trying to time the dishwasher to your canning project and safer than pouring boiling water in jars.
  2. Make sure your water bath is boiling before you put the jars in. I always start it a bit early just in case. I can turn the flame down if I’m not ready for it but I know my water bath is there for me when I need it. And I know I won’t over process or under process.
  3. Heat your jar lids. I boil water in a pan then put the lids and rings together and drop them in the hot water. This help to heat up the thin rubber seal on the jar lid and sterilizes the rings – two important factors of successful canning.
  4. If what you’re canning is not acidic, use your pressure cooker! Tomatoes are okay in a water bath; green beans are NOT!
  5. When in doubt — throw it out. If you take a jar off your shelf in the pantry and the color just doesn’t look right or it’s sticky on the outside or the lid is lifted, toss it out! Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to home canning.

I also use my dehydrator to preserve my harvest for everything from cherries and apples to tomatoes and herbs.

And I freeze crops, too. Open my freezer door in January and you will find zucchetti spaghetti, shredded zucchini, sliced and fried eggplant slices, blanched green beans, whole frozen plum tomatoes and fresh frozen pasta sauce mixed in with bags and bags of blueberries, blackberries and cherries.

Think of all the work you put in to get to harvest then think of ways of saving as much as possible. You’ll be happy you did when snow is falling and wind is howling outside and you are sitting down to eggplant parmesan or butternut kale quinoa soup.

Happy harvesting everyone!

ps – please forgive the gap in posting. My husband has been ill and out of work for 6 weeks but is on the mend, now.

The Summer of 2016 Is Ending

Am I crazy? Is summer really ending??

August heat baking my garden

Garden baking in the August sun

Today’s heat index in Southeast Pennsylvania says it will be 114 degrees out. It’s only August 13th. Summer isn’t over. It can’t be!

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

I am still harvesting like mad. My Bianca Rosa eggplant have given me 15 beautiful globes and there are more than that still on the plants. The Fox Cherry tomatoes are coming in so fast it’s hard to pick them (especially when you were silly enough to plant 10 of them!).

Growing giant Zucchini

Sicilian zucchini gone rogue.

The Sicilian Zucchetta are downright frightening in their productivity and sheer size.

I’ve been giving them away, cooking with them, jousting in the back yard and leaving them on neighbor’s doorsteps in the dark of night (too big for their mailboxes).

Green beans are producing about a pint a day and my Frigatello Sweet Italian peppers are just warming up, throwing off 5 or 6 peppers a day.

And I’m still getting beets, inter-planted among the tomatoes, keeping cool and waiting for me to harvest them.

Fox Cherries protect beets

Fox Cherry tomatoes shade my beets.

IMG_2568

So how can it possibly be summer’s end?

It happens every year, I wake up and step outside before the dawn light and something has changed.

The feel of the breeze on my skin. The smell of the air. A tiny change in the song of the insects. Every year, there is a single moment when I know that summer is ending.

2016 Perseid meteor showers

Perseid meteor cuts across the night sky (courtesy AMS, Ltd)

This morning, sitting on my patio watching the Perseid meteor shower (image courtesy of the American Meteor Society, Ltd.), I knew as any long time gardener whose blood runs to soil and whose bare feet crave time connecting to the earth knows.

Summer into Autumn is always bittersweet for me. My garden, this garden, will never come again. Next year, the war with Japanese Beetles and the ongoing struggle with Mexican Bean Beetles will begin again. Triumphs and defeats will eddy and swirl across my back yard.

Sunflowers grace my garden

Sunflowers tower over my garden…and me!

But then there will be all that glorious, organic food flowing from my garden to my kitchen table and the tables of friends, relatives and neighbors, again.

And sunflowers, bachelor buttons, chamomile, marigolds and lemon verbena will open for the bees. Lemon balm, milkweed and borage will offer food and nectar to butterflies, wasps and beneficials.

Blueberries and blackberries will be joined by elderberries and goji berries, adding to the delicious, healthy treasures growing just steps from my back door.

And I will once again know why I garden.

Note: the image of the meteor, above, was taken by Eddie Popovits and used with the express permission of the American Meteor Society, a non-profit, scientific organization founded in 1911 and established to inform, encourage, and support the research activities of both amateur and professional astronomers

Tasty Zucchini Fritters

Sicilian Zucchini on the vine.

Sicilian Zucchetta on the vine

It’s that time of year. Zucchini are starting to come in.

This year, I planted Sicilian Zucchetta. And these babies are amazing! For one thing, they bloom at night! So during the day, all the flowers are closed.

For another, the zucchini themselves are not very wide but they are very, very long.  I picked one yesterday that was over 48 inches long.

Sicilian Zucchetta grow long and thin.

Zucchetta grow long and thin.

Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups

Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups!

Today, I made a new recipe — Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups.

I shredded the rest of this mega-zuke and, tomorrow, I will make Zucchini Fritters. These are the best! Make sure you make the avocado lemon sauce with them. The flavors are so complimentary.

Here’s the recipe for Zucchini Fritters!

INGREDIENTS:
2 c shredded zuke
2 cloves minced garlic
½ small red onion finely chopped
¼ c fresh Basil
¼ c fresh Oregano
1 T lemon zest
2 eggs
¼ coconut or almond flour
1 tsp salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:
Put grated zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with ½ tsp salt.  Allow to drain.  You can press it to push water out and, before putting in bowl, wrap in dish towel and twist to get extra water out.

Prep and place all other ingredients in a small bowl while zucchini drains.

Add ingredients to zucchini and mix thoroughly.

Heat 2 T coconut oil in large heavy (I use cast iron) skillet.

While skillet heats to medium/high, shape small fritters out of zucchini mix – using about 2 T batter.

Cook about 4 minutes (until brown) on one side, flip and cook the same on the other side.

While fritters brown, make your dipping sauce by mixing together:

2 avocados, mashed
1 c mayonnaise
¼ c capers
Juice of 1 lemon

Mix these together and serve with the hot fritters. FYI – because of the lemon juice, this dipping sauce does not turn brown. And it is super delicious when it is chilled.