Category Archives: Recipes From The Garden

Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Onions

Organic onions are easy to grow.

Organic onions & beets enjoying summer.

In my early gardening years, way back in the dark ages when I had a stick and some dirt, I never, ever considered raising onions in my garden.

I didn’t use a lot of onions in my cooking, well to be honest, I didn’t cook much, either.  I was a road warrior and spent most of my life in a plane, on a train or riding in a limo.  There was no dirt under my nails, no canning jars in my pantry and no garden in my back yard.

Besides, my Mom never raised onions or garlic.  But then, my Mom wasn’t married to an Italian.  So when I traded in all my gold credit cards and came home to life on the homestead, I decided to give onions a try.

Getting Onions In The Ground
My first experience with raising them was hilarious. I decided to start them from seed.  One cold and windy day in early March, I went out, worked the soil loose with my hand rake and spread seeds.  I was a little liberal with the amount of seed I put down but I’d never done it before. 

Onion seed is small and dark and disappears right into the soil.  I covered what I thought were the seeds with a tiny bit of soil, covered the bed with a fence section and a sheet, went back inside to thaw out and promptly forgot I’d planted onion seed.

Four weeks later, in the middle of April. I was preparing a bed for beets.  There is no finesse involved in prepping and planting these babies and the seeds are so big, I didn’t need my glasses, I thought.

I knelt down by the bed and was stunned to see a ton of baby grass growing in the bed.  I grabbed handfuls and began madly tearing out what I thought were seeds.  About 3 minutes later I froze; I was tearing up baby onions! I tend to use sets, now.

Seed or Sets
Raising onions from seed is easy as long as you remember that you planted it and don’t rip it out, willy nilly.  Once the seeds sprout and the onion babies get to be 3 inches high, all you have to do is thin and transplant them using the same technique I use for baby beets.

Raising onions from sets is even easier but your choices are limited to what your favorite, organic seed company is growing.

Growing organic onions is easy

Organic onions love sun and good soil.

I prefer red onions so I usually end up with Stuttgart or Candy Red.  Both are good tasting, sweet onions but only the Stuttgart is a long keeper.

FYI onions like cool weather so you can put seed  or sets in the ground as soon as you can work the soil in the spring.  If you’re going for sets, the best time to order your sets is early.  If you don’t order early, you may not get the varieties you want.  Raising onions in the backyard, especially organic onions, is getting more popular and nurseries run out of sets pretty early.

White, Red or Yellow
Onions come in quite a few colors – that would be your first choice.  They also come in long day, short day and intermediate.  Clearly, the names refer to how long the onions take to mature.  And picking the right onion for your zone and growing season is important to how well the onions grow and how big and healthy they are. 

Like many plants, onions grow roots and leaves first then begin to form bulbs but only when daylight hours reach a particular length.  Onions are what’s known as “photoperiodic.”  That means they regulate their growth by the duration of light and dark at the time of year they are growing.

If you try a long day onion in the deep South, you’ll get great tops but very small bulbs which will be killed when exposed to too much heat.  A short day onion that’s planted in the north will try to produce bulbs before the leaves have formed.  Without leaves to supply food, the bulb won’t be able to develop and size of the bulb will be limited. 

Onions growing in July

Onions in July

So, rule of thumb, plant long day varieties if you live north of latitude 36º — roughly the Kansas/Oklahoma border.  Plant short day types south of this line.  Put long day varieties in the ground as early as possible in the spring.  Put short day onions in the ground in the fall to give them a head start in the spring.

Planting Onions
If you are putting onion sets in the ground, most organic companies will ship them to you in the fall and within 2 weeks of the optimum time for you to plant.  When the sets arrive, they may appear wilted but they are pretty hardy and should do well if you plant them quickly. NOTE:  if you cannot plant as soon as they arrive, just put them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

When you are ready to transplant, simply trim the tops to about 3 inches high and the roots to ¼ of an inch.  I use a sharpened pencil to create a hole for each set that’s about 1 to 2 inches deep – deep enough to cover the white part of the baby onion.   I plant the sets about 4 to 6 inches apart, in rows about 18 inches apart.  

Make sure you plant the baby onions as directed above because they don’t like to compete for foods and fertilizer with each other or other plants, including weeds.  In fact, there’s a saying in the onion business – you can grow onions or weeds but not both.

If planting in the fall, mulch heavily – I use 14 to 18 inches of straw to cover the whole bed. Mulching keeps the plants from sprouting during the January thaw and prevents the freezing and heaving cycle when warmer days play tag with the cold temperatures of deep winter.

In the spring, when forsythia start to bloom, pull the stacked straw off the plants but leave a light layer of mulch.  The mulch suppresses weeds.  Put a light cover over your baby onions if frost is predicted.  I use old sheer curtains.  Water onions regularly; they need about an inch of water a week.  And that’s about it.

Harvesting & Storing Onions
Onions are ready for harvest when the tops turn yellow and begin falling over.  For those that are not quite ready, you can finish bending the tops so they are horizontal to the ground using your hand.  Bending the leaves stops sap from rising into the leaves and forces the bulb to mature.

When the outer skin on the onion dries, remove from the soil, brush the earth off each onion, clip the roots and cut the tops back to 1 inch from the bulb.  Store onions in a cool, dry place and try not to let them touch each other.  If handled properly, onions can last up to 1 year in storage.

Onion Pests & Diseases
Onions are pungent so they tend to repel most pests.  Onions can also be inter-planted to repel pests from other plants, too.  The bigger risk for onions are fungal diseases.  It is also a risk that is very easily mitigated.

Smut, downy mildew and pink root are common problems encountered while raising onions.  The easiest way to avoid all three of them is rotation.  Do NOT plant onions or garlic in a bed where other allium crops have been planted the year before and, preferably, two years before.

In fact, the longer you can avoid planting onions in a bed that was used for raising alliums, the better.

By the way, if you want to find out everything about onions…just visit the National Onion Association read the FAQs and browse the types, colors and recipes.

FYI – Growing garlic is just about as easy as growing onions as I shared in an earlier post.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Recipes
I love raw onions in salads, on the top of black bean soup and on dishes of beans and feta cheese.  But my favorite way to eat onions is caramelized.  A stick of butter in a cast iron pan, toss in about 8 onions and just cook until they are the color of caramel and salty/sweet.  They are good plain, they are great on hamburgers. 

And they are great in Onion Frittata — a recipe that owes a whole lot of its flavor and richness to caramelized onions.

RECIPE:  Onion Frittata

INGREDIENTS:
8 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 basil leaves torn in pieces
3 minced sage leaves
1tsp minced rosemary
3 T olive oil
1 or 2 c sliced onions
1 ½ to 2 cups ricotta cheese
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400°
Put olive oil in large, cast iron frying pan and heat.
Put onions in frying pan and cook until just turning brown and starting to caramelize.
Reduce heat to low.
While onions cook, whisk eggs, parmesan cheese, basil, sage, rosemary salt a pepper together.
Pour egg mixture into frying pan over onions.
Spoon dollops of ricotta over the top and cook on the stove top until frittata begins to set.
Place frying pan in oven and bake for 7 to 9 minutes until it is set.
Slide frittata onto plate or serve from frying pan by cutting into slices.  Serve hot or cold.

 

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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.

 

Home Brewing Kombucha from Two Soldiers!

Kombucha is easy to make.

Making kombucha is easy!

I LOVE making my own kombucha; and I am finding more and more people who love making it to.

So here, without further ado, is the blog of two kombucha loving ex-soldiers that I discovered, this morning.

Enjoy! Then brew a batch of your own. A perfect (and very healthy) summer drink!

 

Kombucha Recipes

Kombucha is one beverage with many uses.  It is a tasty, “healthy” soda – effervescent and probiotic. Kombucha can also be used in cooking and baking, adding a dollop of flavor to hot cereals, pancakes and even steamed vegetables.

Home-brewed kombucha is easy and inexpensive to make

Probiotic kombucha tastes great.

If you make your own kombucha, you’ll probably find a few more ways to use this healthful sparkling beverage.

I like kombucha without any flavoring, at all but I also like kombucha with everything from blueberries to juniper berries added during the final fermentation.

Combinations of herbs, spices, fruits, and juices that can add flavor to your kombucha are almost endless.  Here are some of my favorite blends, but feel free to be creative and add whatever flavors you enjoy!

Easy combinations include:

  1. Blueberry/Vanilla – whole blueberries and vanilla to tast
  2. Tart Cherry Vanilla – organic tart cherry juice and vanilla
  3. Sweet Beet – organic beet juice
  4. Pomegranate – organic pomegranate juice
  5. Hibiscus flower – dried red hibiscus flowers (which I get from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Here are some more ideas for giving your kombucha that extra bit of flavor:

Elderberry, Rosehip, & Cinnamon
A standby, this is the blend that I make really enjoy. Sometimes, I’ll add Hibiscus flowers or use ginger root instead of cinnamon.

1/3 cup organic dried elderberries
1/4 cup organic dried rosehips
1 tsp organic cinnamon chips

Sparkling Ginger Pear
This recipe is simple, yet delicious.   It’s a light, refreshing, and reminiscent of champagne.  Use whichever fruit is in season: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apricots, and peaches are all tasty substitutes for pears.

1 Asian apple or regular pear
1 TBSP dried or fresh organic ginger root

Refreshing Herbal Medley
A perfect blend for the summertime!  This medley is cooling, refreshing, and the addition of Yerba Mate offers a little energy boost.

½ cup organic dried hibiscus flowers
2 TBSP dried organic holy basil (Tulsi)
2 TBSP dried organic peppermint
1 TBSP dried organic ginger root
1 TBSP dried organic Yerba Mate

Flavorings your home brew are only limited by your imagination. Experiment, play and enjoy this wonderful fermented beverage for pennies on the dollar.

How To Make Your Own Kombucha!

Kombucha is one of the hottest probiotic beverages on the market today. You can buy kombucha in just about every health food store and co-op in the country. But you’re going to pay a pretty penny for each 8 ounce glass you drink.

Home-brewed kombucha is easy and inexpensive to make

Probiotic kombucha tastes great.

At a local food exchange, where kombucha is on tap, one glass is $4.00.

All kombucha is is a fermented black tea flavored with organic juices or fruits of your choice and maybe even a few spices. So, when I recovered from sticker shock, I decided to calculate how much a glass of home-brewed kombucha would run.

Would you believe home-brewed kombucha costs about $.31 a glass? Yep, I said 31 cents a glass and that’s using pure cane sugar and premium Sada Chai from the Tao of Tea company.

You can make 8 glasses of kombucha, at home, for the cost of a single glass at the store. That’s why I started making my own kombucha!

Once you have your SCOBY (Symbiotic Combination of Bacteria and Yeast that you see here) all you need to buy again will be tea and sugar. SCOBYs look a bit like you might imagine the blob looked like in the 1950’s sci-fi thriller. But don’t let the SCOBY’s looks put you off.

This healthy SCOBY is making kombucha.

Healthy SCOBYs look a bit like jelly fish.

This is a powerful and living organism that eats the sugar you put in your black tea, fermenting it and giving you 8 glasses of kombucha for about $2.50.

And she does it in 7 to 10 days!

How do you get started?

It looks a bit daunting but if you follow the directions, it is easy and your kombucha will be delicious!

  1. Bring a gallon of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and immediately add 4 Tablespoons of loose tea and 1 cup of organic cane sugar.  Cover the pot with a lid and let the tea cool to room temperature. If it’s too warm (anything approaching 90°) it will kill the SCOBY.
  2. When the tea is room temperature (check this with a thermometer) strain out the tea leaves, and pour the liquid into your glass or ceramic gallon container. Add your SCOBY and 1-2 cups of kombucha starter liquid it shipped in. NOTE: this is for the first batch you make.  The batches thereafter, just pour off and bottle all but 2 cups of kombucha then pour the fresh tea right into the gallon jar with your SCOBY .

    SCOBY fermenting tea to make kombucha.

    Leave room at the top for your SCOBY to grow.

  3. Cover the container with a clean cloth, kitchen towel, or handkerchief kept in place with a rubber band.  Place the jar in a warm spot (I put mine in the oven with the oven light on) that is out of direct sunlight and where it won’t be disturbed or moved.Make sure that the cloth or towel is breathable but the weave is tight enough to keep out fruit flies, gnats, and other undesirables.Your SCOBY may sink or float on the top, both are okay.  In 2-3 days, you may see a translucent jelly like mass floating on the top of your tea.  This is a baby SCOBY beginning to form.  Leave it undisturbed so that it can grow properly.
  4. Taste your kombucha 7 or 8 days after starting it using a straw inserted down the side of the SCOBY, not through it. Ideally, kombucha should have a slightly sharp and acidic bite. How long it takes to make a batch depends on the temperature of your home and how sweet or sour you’d like it to be.  Most batches will be ready in 7-10 days.  The longer it brews, the sharper it gets.
  5. Just before you think you will be bottling your kombucha, brew another batch of sweetened black tea so it will be cooled to room temperature and ready for you to use to start the next batch using the mother or baby SCOBY and the reserved kombucha.
  6. When your kombucha is ready, pour all but the last 2 cups into clean bottles or jars, straining it as you pour to catch any tiny SCOBYs that may be starting.  Leave the mother SCOBY in the original jar while you bottle your batch. NOTE:  keeping the mother SCOBY in the original jar minimizes contact and automatically reserves the 1-2 cups of starter liquid you need for your next batch.
  7. If you have a baby SCOBY growing with the mother and you want to separate them, now is the time.  You can start a second gallon of kombucha going with the new baby or give it to a friend so they can home-brew.
  8. Start your next batch by just pouring the room temperature black tea and sugar mixture you’ve already prepared over the SCOBY and starter tea you left in the gallon jar, cover and start the brewing cycle again.

Kombucha will naturally have a slight fizziness.  To increase the carbonation and level of tartness, leave the bottled kombucha on a counter top for several days after bottling.  BURP the bottles to keep the pressure from building up and the brew from spurting out of the bottle when opened.  Keep bottles stored in a refrigerator once the brew is finished fermenting.

Once you get the rhythm – brew tea and cool it down, strain and drain kombucha into bottles for finishing, add tea to your SCOBY and start again – you’ll understand why I say it’s easy to home brew your own kombucha.

Important notes:
Always clean your hands, utensils, and anything that might touch your kombucha with hot water and distilled vinegar. Do not use soap, (especially antibacterial soap) as it may harm or kill the kombucha culture. Your kombucha is alive!  Make sure to handle it with care.

Only use lead-free glass and ceramic for fermenting. Kombucha will absorb toxins out of the container that it’s brewed in (much like how it pulls toxins out of our bodies).

SCOBYs have an unusual appearance, scent, and feel, but don’t let this discourage you! You’ll quickly grow accustomed to their odd appearance and will get used to handling them.

If the SCOBY grows mold, throw the liquid and SCOBY into the compost and begin with fresh materials.

One thing I didn’t mention is flavoring your home brew. There are any number of tasty additions including organic juice, fresh or dried fruit, berries, herbs, and spices for whatever flavor suits your mood.

And, next week, I will share some of my favorite kombucha recipes!

 

How Easy Is Organic Gardening? Very!

Organic gardening is easy.

Organic gardening is easy to do.

I wrote Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us for a young woman who wanted to go organic but was sure it was just too hard to do.

I also wrote it because I remember being in exactly that same place almost 40 years ago.

Organic gardening was hard and organic gardeners were weirdos, people who lived on the fringe of “real” life.  But I was intrigued so I decided I needed more information. When I wanted to learn about organic gardening, all those years ago, there was no Internet (hard to believe, right?).

I’d never heard of Ruth Stout or Jerome I. Rodale.  Euell Gibbons wasn’t touting Grape Nuts, yet and Adele Davis had already been dismissed as a “nutrition nut.”  Jim Crockett (Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS) hadn’t even shown up on television (yes, Virginia, we did have television back then)!

So, I had to start my search the old-fashioned way.  I got on my bike and went to the library.

Using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (oh god…I am a dinosaur), I searched for magazines to help me get started.  There weren’t many — a handful really — but I did find information and people to help pave my path to becoming an organic gardener.

Today, it’s a lot easier to find organic gardening resources.  Connect to the Internet, search for those terms and you will get more than 4 million links to sites that offer everything from tips to tools.

But beware, many of these so-called “resources” just want to sell you something. I think I had it easier (back in the stone age), to find one or two clear voices, crying in the gardening wilderness!

I learned a lot from these “old guys and gurus” of organic gardening. I want to share what I learned and launch your gardening careers fast and easy.  So, I’m going to start with this basic truth:

…organic gardening is as easy as you want to make it.  It’s all about what you want to grow.

Start by figuring out what you want to plant, how many plants you want to put in (based on how large your garden space is) and what works in your planting zone.

If you just want to get out there and get started…here are two staples in my garden that are easy to grow and don’t have many bugs that “bug” them.

I always have tomatoes – they’re a great vegetable to grow in a pot (if you don’t have enough room to garden or your dirt’s not ready yet) or a plot.  If you’re just starting, try to buy compact or “bush” plants.  They’re easier to handle and don’t grow nearly as tall as indeterminate varieties like Brandywine or Early Girl.

I always plant lettuce, too.  A bag of spring greens  in my grocery store costs $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.  

You can buy seed and follow the directions on the packet to plant it.  Or your can buy small starts or plants and toss them in your dirt (in a pot or a plot).  All lettuce needs is dirt, water and a little sun.

And when it gets a bit too warm for lettuce and it starts to bolt (get tall and taste bitter), if you let it go to seed, you can plant a new crop in the fall for free!

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.

Since it’s already planting season just about everywhere in the United States, I want you to gather up your courage, grab your car keys and head out to a nursery near you to buy your first plants (time enough for seed starting next spring).

Dig a hole, water your transplants in and sit back and watch mother nature take over.  Need more help? Download my e-book. Free for Prime members and only $2.99….for everyone else.