Category Archives: Gourmet Food

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.

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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.

 

How To Kill Mexican Bean Beetles

I used to ask myself, “What’s a Mexican Bean Beetle?” Now, every summer, I ask myself, “Of all the bugs in all the world, why does the Mexican Bean Beetle have to find my garden?”

Mexican bean beetle life cycle

Photo reproduced w/permission of Purdue University

As with any pest, it pays to know your enemy. I call this picture, “The Circle of Life” and am grateful to Purdue University Entomology Department and Dr. Christian Krupke, Principal Investigator, for letting me use it.

If you have been invaded, these are all the forms the enemy takes while ravaging your crops. Since it’s mid-July in Pennsylvania, I know the invasion of my back yard, all organic garden has begun.

Of all the pests I do battle with, the Mexican Bean Beetle is the worst of the worst when it comes to green beans.  One day there is nothing there.  The next day there are some holes in a few leaves on a couple of plants.

Flip up the leaves and if you see pudgy yellow larvae with lots of legs and one big old mouth chewing away, you’ve been invaded. Grab a bucket, sit down, methodically flip up every single leaf on every single plant and crush the yellow menace. Then get up and do it again, tomorrow and the next day or you will lose your bean crop.

Mexican Bean Beetles are members of the lady beetle family.  But they aren’t the Lady Beetle relatives you want in your garden.  Small, copper or khaki colored, these beetles are about 6 mm (1/4 inch) long and 5 mm (1/5 inch) wide.

Pesky bean beetle

Tiny & destructive (Photo credit: Michael Bok)

Some have 8 small black spots on each wing, resembling large lady beetles. Some are brown with barely discernible stripes. No matter what they look like, they’re really wholesale destruction machines.  And they come in force.

How do they find your garden and your bean plants so quickly?

Chances are they never left when the winter came; they simply tucked in to the ground in leaf litter and other sheltered areas in fence rows of your garden plot and waited out the freezing temperatures and the snow.

Adults begin emerging from these protected areas when beans begin sprouting and continue to emerge for up to two months. The adults feed for approximately two weeks before depositing their eggs on the underside of leaves.  And when I say feed, I mean ravage.

Nasty beetles eating everything.

Mexican Bean Beetles will literally eat the life out of my bean plants, if I let them.

Yellow eggs 1 mm (1/20 inch) in length are laid in groups of 40-60 on the lower leaf surfaces.  Females may deposit an egg-mass every two to three days. Eggs hatch in 5-24 days.  Immature larvae are yellow and are covered with large spines.  Larvae feed for two to five weeks before pupation.

You have 3 chances to kill these beetles off – crush the eggs, crush the larvae and crush the mature beetles.  The first two are the easiest but you can catch and kill the beetles too.  You just have to be persistent.  I like to think of it as my summer time exercise program, bend, search, crush, start again.

If you can make it through July and early August, when the greatest amount of injury occurs and the adults begin to disappear, you might save some of your bean harvest.

So, every spring I take a chance and plant some beans.  They grow fast.  They set tons of beans.  If I plant them properly, train them right (if they’re pole beans) and aggressively crush all variations of the Mexican Bean Beetle, I can harvest and enjoy green beans all summer long.

 

Planting Elderberries in the Meadow

Grassy meadow in my backyard.

Our meadow grows great grass!

We call this our meadow. Honestly, it’s really just half an acre of ground we
didn’t want to mow any more.

Lemon balm likes the meadow

Lemon balm took over the old firewood pile.

The idea started when I transplanted some of my mom’s Lemon Balm in an area that had been the firewood pile.                    Lemon balm grows fast and this took off and created an oval that’s about 6 feet wide and 12 feet long. Then milkweed dropped by for a visit and decided to stay, creating a ring around half of the lemon balm bed. The only plants that have tried to interfere were two invasives – Mile A Minute (it grows that fast) and every surface including the back of the leaves has stickers) and Bittersweet Vine.

The rest of the half acre is “naturalized.”

Okay, it looks pretty seedy but I have been working on this for a couple of years with little or no success. The grass is MONSTER and its rhizomes are about 1/2″ thick!

I’ve planted 18 perennials out in the meadow…black-eyed susans, shasta daisies, perennial flox, and cone flowers — all supposed to be hardy, to love the sun and to return, year after year. Most of them packed up in the dead of night and moved to the neighbors.

So, now my new approach is to plant bushes.

Transplanted elderberry growing in the meadow.

The first elderberry goes into the meadow.

Of course, the bushes have to produce so, I am putting 3 elderberry bushes in and 2 Goji Berry bushes. Just for fun, I picked up a Hazelnut tree at Sugar Bush Nursery and am adding it to the mix.

Luckily, we had dragged branches out to the meadow over the last 2 years, piled them up and left them. Occasionally we would look at each other, look at the pile and say, “We need to clean that up.” That didn’t happen until today.

Sticks moved so I could plant elderberries.

I call this sticks with ticks.

And when I started moving the pile from one bit of the meadow to another, I found absolutely beautiful, grass-free soil and a nice place to plant my berry bushes! (I also found 6 ticks on my neck, arms and head — I’m still itching.)

I dug holes for the elderberries, making them about 30 inches deep. Too deep for this bush which is shallow-rooted. But I knew my enemy — the soil.

Freshly dug, properly prepped holes for my bushes.

Freshly dug, properly prepped holes for my bushes.

It grows absolutely fabulous witch grass  and not much else. It would not be good for these berry bushes.

I broke up and added about 3 inches of twigs and branches – jumping on them once they were in the hole to break them even further.

Why branches?  In soil this hard, twigs help with drainage and keep these new bushes from drowning. They also break down slowly, adding nutrients to the soil that will feed the elderberries over time.

This hole is ready for its bush!

This hole is ready for its bush!

I topped the branches with  composted matter that included grass, straw, some well-composted manure and egg shells. On top of that, I put a 2 inch layer of soil. Now the holes are only about 8 inches deep.

The new baby bushes will be tucked in with some worm castings and some of the native dirt from the hole. They will also have ground cover and topped with grass clippings that will act as mulch and food.

Here’s hoping my new plan works and the meadow gives up a little real estate for these new baby elderberries and the Goji berries.

By the way, here’s the view of my garden and house from the meadow – what the bushes get to see when they look at home!

The view from the meadow.

Our house and garden from the meadow.