Monday, March 31, 2014

Birthday Gift & Rain

Maybe I'm wrong in my thinking but 27 is too old for my mother to be buying me a birthday gift. I know, I know, it's my mom and let her do what she likes for my birthday... but I can't help but feel that 27 years of life plus all of the love, guidance and support that has gone with it is more than just a gift. It's a true blessing.

Mom, sister Kathy and baby me

My mother, Lisa, is the solid foundation of our home and family. Country girl through and through, she was raised (and raised us) with the mentality that there is no problem on Earth that can't be tackled with love, perseverance and hard work. Her selflessness is astounding. As incredibly strong and tough as my mother is, she is equally loving and compassionate. 

Birthdays and holidays have always been a big deal to her. She came from a very big family, one of seven children. By necessity, anytime she or her siblings received gifts they were given clothes, shoes, socks and underwear. For as long as I can remember, my mom has always striven to give us a) something we needed, like her parents did and b) something we would like. 

Mom said she was at a loss of what to get me until she saw this neat little gizmo:

The MiracleGro AeroGarden. I had never heard of it before and wasn't quite sure what it was. But as I sat down and read the instruction booklet that came with it, I was intrigued. It's entirely soil-less, using sponges to soak up nutrient-laden water.  

Seed pod

Supposedly, you can grow almost anything with this little machine. The instruction booklet even claims you can grow a watermelon with it but does state that it would need to be transplanted to the garden at a later date. I wonder how well something that's grown out of the soil and is rooted in a a sponge will grow in the garden?... Sounds like an experiment waiting to happen. 

Day 2

The salad greens pictured above were started two days prior. I was surprised by how fast it germinated. It has an air pump that kicks on once every twelve hours to fountain the water onto the seed pods. The lights are all automatic so it's essentially self-sufficient. Just add water water and nutrients once a week. Hmmm.

Day 3

I think I will be experimenting with the AeroGarden quite a bit. Once I use the seed pods that came with it, I'll try using a cut sponge and using my own seeds. It may be useful for faster germination of things that are typically slow to germinate. I'll definitely have some fun with this thing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Another Update

The last week has been a busy one which is why I opted not to post. I have been trying to minimize the "to-do" list and have been steadily knocking out the "must-do" list. Between taxes, dentist appointments, school functions and studying in preparation for a big test coming up, the little free time I've had has been devoted to family time.

In the interim, we have had snow again. It's very late in the season for us to get snow and I have a sneaky suspicion that our spring will be almost non-existent. We may get a week or two of spring-like weather and then we will probably go right into summer. We'll wait and see but for now, outlook not so good. Rain is in the forecast for the next three days so needless to say, it will probably be another week before I can get out in the garden to do anything.

I did get out yesterday to check on the peas and so far, I only have one little sprout out of the whole bunch. This little sprout did not seem to mind being buried by snow for two days. It's amazing what some things in nature are capable of withstanding. I've been turning it over in my mind but next season, I may give up on peas. Our spring seems to be growing shorter and shorter so the window to grow them in is slowly closing. Plus with planting space being at such a premium... as much as I love them, I may have to give them up until I have more space to grow them.

A quick update on seedlings... Tomato plants are doing well, all have true leaves now and most are working on a second set of leaves. A few even have a third set of leaves already. I'm topping up the soil in each pot and burying the stem almost up to the leaves (pictured on the left in the middle). The plants are sturdy enough but I want them to work on developing their roots and to have a stronger stem. 

The celery and onions have died. I did start some more celery but so far, nothing. They did take quite a while to germinate the last time. If they don't germinate, oh well. I'll try sowing some directly and if they don't take, I'll give them up for this season and try again some other time.

Here's a shot of the peppers. I've been watering them sparingly because I have a tendency to over-water. I have noticed something interesting about these seedlings. When they start to get thirsty, the original "baby" leaves will slowly raise straight up. The plant on the left in the picture is an example of that. My first thought was they were trying to raise up to the light but nope, it coincides with when they want water. 

I did get my cucurbits planted. I planted them in bigger pots because I didn't want to have to transfer them at a later date. They have a tendency to shock easily from transplanting so I'm hoping to minimize that as much as possible. Hopefully I timed it about right.

I also received a special delivery this week of Egyptian Walking Onions. (Thank you again, Ilene!) Also called tree onions, they're neat because instead of forming flowers, they form small "bulblets" which will eventually tip over and "walk" across your garden. I was able to beat the rain today and get them planted in a 32" x 48" bed I made of scrap wood specifically for them. As neat as the walking aspect is, I think I'll keep them as contained as possible, ha ha.

Well, I think that's enough for one day. Take care, everyone! :-) 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happiness & A Pot of Chili

I can hardly believe the first day of spring (or the vernal equinox, if you want to get technical about it) is only three days away. It certainly isn't spring weather here but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we won't have too much longer to wait!

The only good things about the cold is a) the snow is pretty and b) it's a perfect excuse to whip up a big pot of chili. For the record, my chili recipe was very hard to share. Mainly because I never really follow it. It's my base recipe, if you will, and turns out a little different each time I make it.

That being said, it's very versatile. The only thing I measure exactly is the canned tomatoes and beans. Everything else is based off feel, taste and what I have on hand. Feel free to substitute whatever you have or whatever you feel like. Just a warning, though, this makes a really big pot of chili. But it freezes well and makes for very yummy leftovers.

Chili recipe

2 lbs. ground beef
1 can (29 ounces) petite diced tomatoes, drained
1 can (29 ounces) tomato sauce
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 1/2 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 cup chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cans (15 ounces) light red kidney beans
1 can (15 ounces) pinto beans
Plus desired toppings

Chop bell pepper and onion. Combine with ground beef in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Cook until ground beef is browned and vegetables are softened.

I had red bell pepper so I added that, too.

Drain ground beef mixture. While you've got it in the colander, go ahead and drain and rinse the canned beans, too. Return ground beef and beans to stock pot.

Add tomatoes, tomato sauce and seasonings to taste. Simmer, for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. This recipe could simmer away all day as long as you keep an eye on it. It's also suitable for the slow cooker -- just cook the ground beef, veggies, and mix in the slow cooker with tomatoes and seasonings. Cook on low.

If you want a milder chili, use less cumin and omit the cayenne pepper. If the sauce is too thick, add more tomato sauce. Too thin, add a cornstarch slurry to thicken it.

You can definitely halve the recipe if you don't want such a large pot. If you're interested in freezing, you can freeze any remaining leftovers in a gallon-sized ziploc bag or a freezer-safe plastic/glass container. Or you could divvy it up into single servings for a quick meal. 

The chili and a quiet evening with family really hit the spot tonight. When I'm feeling gloom and doom about the weather, all I need is to take a step back and reflect on the simple pleasures in our day. We have much to be thankful for and are surrounded by beauty... even if it is cold. ;-)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Seedling Update

We have been rather busy outdoors the last two days, trying to get in as much work and play as possible before the snow hits tonight. I really thought we had put winter behind us but Mother Nature has proved me wrong, again. No big surprise there!

Now that we're snuggled up back inside, I figured I'd take a minute to give an update on my seedlings.

The peppers seem to be doing well, they're starting to get their first set of true leaves. I'll let those develop for another day or so and then I'll transfer them into some peat pots. They've about outgrown the cells already and I don't want them to get root-bound.

The tomatoes are also coming along nicely, some of them are developing true leaves, others have just started sprouting. I'll be transferring the ones that are further along to peat pots when I take care of the peppers.

I forgot to get a picture of the celery. They're doing ... eh... OK, I guess. They took forever to germinate. This is the first year I've tried growing celery and I'm not sure what to expect, really. If these don't turn out well, I can direct seed them in a few weeks but they may not have time to fully develop before it gets too hot. I did get a heat-resistant variety so I guess we'll see.

The onion seedlings were doing great. I did the first initial trim and they seemed to really like their haircut. But since then, they've kind of been languishing. I've lost a few that were fine one day, then totally keeled over the next. To make matters worse, they now have some type of bug floating around them. Looks like a fruit fly. I'll be doing some research to see what these bugs could be, that may be why they aren't doing so well now. I may have to start over, which will set me behind on my onions. I've separated them from the rest of the seedlings because I'm worried they may transfer to the other plants. 

I'm glad I held off on starting the cucurbits, especially with the coming snow. I'm not sure how this spring is going to pan out. It sure feels like winter is holding on tight, not willing to let go. No point in worrying about it. Whatever will be, will be. I'll just have to make the best of it!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Garden Journal & A Lemonade Stand

I've been working on putting together a new garden journal the last couple days. I searched high and low for my journal from last year to no avail. It seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. (I'm sure once I'm finished putting the new one together, it will magically reappear.)

Here's an example of what I've been working on.

I've finished all of the pages and now I'm working on putting my binder together. In addition to the pages I created, I'm also adding any related articles I've found online plus some materials from my local Cooperative Extension. It's a work in progress but hopefully I'll have it finished soon. If anyone is interested in using the pages, you can download them here.

We got another glimpse of spring today. The cold and wind took a break and left us with sunshine and near 70° weather. The kids got to playing with a box we were about to recycle (What is it with kids and boxes?! Ha!) and they decided it would be perfect to use as a lemonade stand. They made signs, made a small "till" for their cash to go into and begged me to make lemonade. How could I say no?

Banana Girl & Bubba with their friends

I must say, they were very cute and they did get quite a few customers. They sold each cup for 50¢ and actually made $21.75 from four quarts of lemonade. (They did let one cup go for 25¢.) It's really fascinating to watch your children and to see their creative juices flowing. They created a little ditty about lemonade and they sung it at the top of their lungs anytime someone would pass. I was totally blown away by how much money they made. They could hardly contain themselves, they were so excited. 

I also wanted to give a special shout out to Ilene for the cookbook recommendations. Today I received my very own copies of Farm Journal's Country Cookbook, Farm Journal Freezing & Canning Cookbook, and Farm Journal Homemade Bread. I found them used on Amazon for a very good price. I paid more for shipping than I did the actual books. They were only a few pennies a piece, plus a couple bucks shipping. 

I started skimming through the Freezing & Canning Cookbook and then skimming turned into reading every last word. I did peek through the other two and I'm very pleased with my purchase. There is such an amazing wealth of information in each book, I know that I will truly treasure these books. By the way, please check out Ilene's blog, Rock Whisperer. She's extremely knowledgeable and has a lot of creative ideas. 

Best wishes to everyone!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Raised Bed Installed

The new raised bed is in place and I'm really pleased with how it turned out. We were able to get it knocked out in a couple of hours. (Again, my wonderful husband pitched in, which I really didn't expect so that cut down the time tremendously.) The installation of this bed was actually easier than my first raised bed... mainly because I learned my lesson the hard way.

For anyone interested, I used three 1 x 8 x 12 cedar boards. One of the boards was sawed in half so I ended up with two 1 x 8 x 6 boards and two 1 x 8 x 12 boards. I used a a 1/4" drill bit and 2 1/2" decking screws. For anyone needing a visual, this video will show you how I made my bed. 

If you aren't planning to break sod and will have the bottom of your bed enclosed, the amount of work will be greatly reduced. I, myself, wanted my plants to have more room to grow than an 8-inch high bed could provide.

If you will be breaking sod, these tips may help:

  • Keep your bed(s) as far away from trees as possible. If there is anything more back-wrenching than trying to dig around a massive tree root, I have yet to experience it. In addition, your vegetable plants will be competing with the tree for space, nutrients and water.
  • Remove sod when it's died back... I.e, not in the middle of April or May when it's growing back lush and green. It's so much harder to remove when it's growing strong as opposed to sickly yellow.
  • Cut the sod with your shovel like a sheet cake. Use the edge of your shovel (or use a grass edger) to cut it into manageable squares, not much bigger than your shovel. Get under the edge and lift up.
  • Don't remove sod when the ground is saturated. Not only is it messier work but much heavier work. The soil also compacts as you work, making it harder to till. 
  • Keep a wheel barrow handy to haul off the sod. Don't overload it because it's not fun to tip and scoop it all back up. (Yes, I actually did this last year.)

We removed the sod and tilled the earth by hand. I used a ratio of 60% soil, 30% compost and manure, and 10% vermicilite and peat moss to fill the bed. I'll be using this fertilizer, the same I used in the past. I'll also be checking the soil in a few days to see if I need any amendments.

Trafford taking it easy, watching, with his stick.

I did not end up taking pictures of the finished bed, nor did I take a picture once all the sod was removed. I didn't really think about it and besides, I was pretty well covered with dirt at that point. I'll get out there sometime today to get a picture of the final product.

 The hardest part of  (for me, anyhow) is done with so I can rest easy and look forward to spring.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Planting Peas & A Little Ingenuity

The weather the last two days has been such a blessing. We had 60° weather yesterday and I took advantage of it by picking up the soil, compost and manure for my new bed. It was quite a bit of hauling and I'm lucky that my dearest husband was a willing help. I plan to put the bed in place on Tuesday, since they're calling for more 60° weather.

Shade Garden Bed

I felt so refreshed this morning. I woke to the sound of birds trilling, right outside my window. My body ached, but in a good way. The type of ache you get from doing good, wholesome work. The type that means you'll get a good night's sleep. We spent most of the day outdoors and it was just what the doctor ordered.

I got to work early. I knew I wanted to get the peas in the ground and if I waited any longer, there wouldn't be any peas this year. But I didn't have a working trellis yet... peas are shallow-rooted, so I wanted to have my trellis in place before planting. I didn't want to risk damaging their root systems by installing a trellis later. So I got to looking around to see what, if anything, I could use to make a trellis. I knew I wanted an "A-frame" trellis.

I stumbled across my old trellis that I bought pre-made a few years ago at Lowe's. I'm not exactly sure what it's designed for but it's been worthless for anything I've grown that needed trellising. It's been sitting around since, being utterly useless. And that's when inspiration struck. I could use it to build a trellis that would work.

To do that, I had to remove 13 staples. I used a flat-head screwdriver to loosen them and pulled them out with my needle nose pliers. (Speaking of which, I carry them around with all my other garden tools. They're very handy for cutting twine, reshaping fencing, etc.)

I positioned them in the bed, tapped them in with a hammer and tied the stakes together at the top on each side, for stability. Then I interwove twine together, creating a lattice with the twine. It's not perfect, the twine's not completely even across but it will work. I didn't have to buy it and I found a use for something that was taking up space.

Long story short, the peas are in. I kept putting it off because of the bad weather but they are finally in. I'll update once I have the raised bed installed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fun in the Dirt

We have all been feeling a bit of cabin fever with the yucky weather prohibiting any outdoor activities. My brain is in spring mode so I'm not tolerating the snow and cold very well. Physically it isn't bothering me but mentally, I feel rather jaded and lethargic. The kids aren't too happy about it either.

Bubba absolutely adores being outside. He simply cannot get enough. So he's been a little bummed out that he hasn't been able to play outside the last few days. He has a very curious and inquisitive nature so outdoor time is his chance to explore, dig and just take it all in.

As a simple reminder to us both that spring would soon be near, I enlisted his help to get our tomato seeds started inside. He mixed the seed starting mix together, helped me fill the cells and sowed each seed. He could not get enough. When we finished, he piled all the dirt in the container into a mound and declared it his castle.

After all was said and done, he asked when the "ta-may-toes" would be done and when we could eat them. This child has never in his four years been willing to eat a tomato. When I told him how long it would probably take them to grow and asked him if he'd help eat them, he responded, "Yeah, I grew them." Sometimes allowing children to be part of the preparation of good, nutritious food is all that's needed to get them interested in trying the food. Whether it's helping to prepare the meal or in this case, helping to grow the food, they have more interest in trying it when it's a fruit of their labor. (Pun not intended.)

As an aside: I have a question some of the more experience gardeners may know the answer to...
I am growing Amish Paste heirloom tomatoes. I chose heirloom tomatoes because I wanted to save some seeds to sow next year. That being said, I have some leftover hybrid tomato seeds from last year that will still germinate. If I grow them both, is it possible for the hybrid to contaminate the heirloom and cause the seeds not to be true to type? If anyone can answer this for me, it would be much appreciated!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Seed Starting Space

This past weekend was a busy one. We had a lot of errands to run and things to do around the house. Throw a Saint Patrick's Day parade in Alexandria into the mix, and our weekend was over before we knew it.

I'm glad to say that I was finally able to get my seed starting area set-up. It turned out much better than I envisioned. I have a lot of seedlings that are being started indoors this year and I was so disheartened when I first starting shopping for "grow lights." $69.95 for one table top light that will only fit one flat underneath it? No way was I spending that kind of money. Not when I needed four lights.

Then I got to thinking about space... forget the lights. Where was I going to put all the seedling flats? With a little searching and creativity, I was able to come up with a solution to both problems. I found relatively cheap five-shelf utility shelving unit at Wal-Mart for about $20. I also found some inexpensive under-cabinet fluorescent lights for $8 a piece. 

I used zip-ties to mount the lights to the underside of each shelf. Originally, I didn't think that would work out very well. I was concerned about the seedlings being too far from the lights at the beginning. Then it dawned on me that I could easily put something underneath the flats to raise it closer to the light. Simple solution. 

Altogether the project cost me $53 plus tax. Considering the cheapest grow light cart that would have met my needs was $299.95 plus $29.79 shipping... Yeah, I think I'll keep my $275! I'm very happy with how the shelves turned out. They were super-easy to put together, light weight enough that it will be easy to move and I ended up with one extra shelf to store supplies. 

The onions were the only seedlings ready for the lights. Now my celery has sprouted and my peppers should be ready shortly. I'm glad I got everything squared away this weekend. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Revised Garden Plans

I've been doing a lot of reading (or research, if you prefer) on bigger garden spreads. And well... let's just say I've realized the error of my ways. A square foot gardening plan would be well suited to the small 3.5 x 3.5 foot raised bed I already have because it's easy to get to from all sides. Laying out the 7 foot bed in a square foot plan, however, would be madness.

Once I thought about how hard it would be to a) water the middle of the bed, b) harvest plants in the middle of the bed and c) avoid stomping on plants trying to access plants in the middle, it dawned on me how silly that would be. Luckily I realized it before I planted anything and ended up stuck dealing with it for the remainder of the season.

I increased the bed size and opted to grow a full row each of tomatoes and peppers. The green beans, celery and carrots will have separate shorter rows. And the melons will have their own hills at the outer edge of the bed. I also read that onions are a natural pest repellent so I figured I'd use them as my border -- hopefully kill two birds with one stone.

I'm not much for illustration, obviously...

I'll also be using an idea Ilene suggested on her post, Burying Flower Pots In The Garden. The herbs and flowers will be planted in the big, square pots I have from my container gardening days. Altogether, the bed I have planned will be 12 ft x 6 ft.

And the plans for my shade garden:

The peas will be replaced with strawberries later in the season. I'm growing Coastal Star romaine lettuce. It's supposed to be heat tolerant, which I've never tried, so I'm hoping I'll be able to sneak in a few succession plantings before the heat gets too bad.

I'm so looking forward to warmer weather and all that it brings.