Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Prodigal Master Gardener Returns....

Hello, Everyone! I hope that some of you remember me. I fell off the master gardener scene because life got in the way for a bit and I had to let some things go. But I've never stopped growing food. In fact, I have ramped up my homesteading skills. I also started making vegetable gardening videos that I put on my YouTube channel ( and that seems to be picking up quite a bit of steam! I'm very happy about that. My backyard garden has evolved into a backyard farm complete with four Barred Rock chickens! We just finished building the coop this weekend for our girls. Here are two pictures of it:

My hubby drew up the design and built it. I helped, but he did all of the hard work. The girls really seem to like it. I am looking forward to getting eggs from them around October. 

My gardens are coming along quite nicely as well. I've added three new raised beds because 300 square feet just isn't enough for me anymore. Here are some shots of the gardens. This first shot has beans in the back of the bed to grow up the chicken wire and tomatoes in the front.  It's kind of hard to see because of the strawberry patch that's in the big garden cage directly behind this bed. There are also two zucchini plants in the front that I will let sprawl into the yard.

This is the second of three cinder block beds I made this season. This one has three tomato plants and eight pepper plants. I also planted basil, oregano, and chives in the holes of the cinder blocks, and one watermelon plant on the edge of the bed that is sprawling its way into the yard.

This is a raised bed that I put in last year. There are peppers, garlic, sugar snap peas, radishes and spinach, which is just about done now. Thinking of what I will put in its place.

This is the amazing strawberry patch. It started with just six plants three years ago. I never mulch it in winter, never feed it, and it always gives me a TON of strawberries. I had to thin it out this year because strawberries were rotting due to too much cover. 

Finally, here are seedlings I grew that were in the greenhouse you see in the background. I only got them planted this past weekend because my chickens were using the garden cage during the day as their play pen until we got the coop finished. I've got okra, cukes, collards, kale, and tomatoes growing.

Everything is coming along quite well. I bought a scale this year to keep track of how much I actually harvest. I'll be sure to post blogs of how the garden grows and what my chickens are up to. My goal is to become totally food independent like my grandmother was. With the hunting and fishing skills I've acquired, I move closer every day to not having to buy my food from the store!

So that's all for now!

God bless and Happy gardening!!!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Beat the weeds with a “stale seed bed”

Winter annual weeds like chickweed, henbit, and deadnettle can quickly overrun early planting beds. Turning these weeds under brings more weed seeds to the surface to germinate and the healthy winter annual weeds sometimes reestablish after turning with a fork or spade. I tried a different approach this year after I read Jerry Brust's article about using heavy duty weed barrier to smother weeds (grassy and broadleaf) to create a stale seed bed. The weeds die leaving their residues and few new weeds germinate when the barrier is removed because the soil is not disturbed. Hence the term, “stale seed bed.”

In mid-April I purchased 3-ft. wide heavy duty weed barrier from a greenhouse supply company, cut it to fit three beds, and secured the pieces with landscape pins. I had sown barley and oats in these beds in the fall. The plants winterkilled (no kidding) and the meager residues left in the spring were no match for the weeds.

Three weeks later I removed the weed barrier and found everything dead except for some quackgrass. I planted tomato, pepper, squash, cucumber, melon, and sunflower transplants, which created minimal soil disturbance, and have seen very few new weeds in the past two weeks. I will cover the bare soil of two of these beds with a mulch of newspaper topped with straw. I’m going to leave the third bed for a while to observe the rate of weed emergence.

This method has saved time, reduced soil disturbance, and given me more control over planting. I can also use the weed barrier strips to cover weeds for 2-3 week periods in other parts of my garden and landscape later in the season.

The unpredictability of spring greens

Spring has given us the usual roller coaster of temperatures and conditions, though on the whole chilly and wet has been winning out over hot and dry. One result of this has been a big difference in the success rate of various spring crops, seemingly due to when they were planted and how much protection from weather they've received (as well as to multiple other factors, as is always the case with gardening!).

We've started our harvests in the demo garden, mostly due to the intrepid 100-square-foot garden team, who got their transplants into the ground at the beginning of April, and kept them under a floating row cover. Here's one of the beds this Tuesday:

photo by Darlene Nicholson

Across the path in larger veggie garden territory, a selection of brassica crops transplanted a couple of weeks later, and covered with the same row cover, is nowhere near harvest size - and farther behind the others than the difference in planting date should account for. And a third planting, under the lighter Micromesh row cover, is even smaller.

However, the mustard, collard, and kale plants in my community garden plot, also under Micromesh and planted a few days before the demo garden plots, are lush and happy. Is the difference in the manure I dug into the soil, as opposed to the compost used at the demo garden? Does the position of my plot make a difference? It's actually in a chilly valley microclimate, but somewhat protected from wind, which the demo garden is not. Did the demo garden plants stay in their pots too long before transplanting? Did I subconsciously snare all the best plants for myself? :)

Potatoes took forever to sprout, probably due to cold soil, and direct-seeded beets and carrots are consistently tiny and unpromising. I suspect we're going to be clearing a lot of beds for summer crops in June without much to show for April and May.

The 100-square-foot gardeners did fail with one crop: broccoli raab or rapini, which I've never had luck with in the spring either. It is very sensitive to changes in temperature, and bolts on a whim, leaving the gardener with just a skinny stalk, a few leaves, and lots of yellow flowers. Chinese broccoli or gai lan, a somewhat similar plant in concept (an entirely edible branching brassica, with small flower heads), has been a bit more reliable for me in spring (though better in fall). It bolts, but there's more substance left to consume, and you can cut off the top of the plant and let it grow back several times. Here's some of mine that I harvested this week:

It's got a nice flavor, bitter but not overwhelmingly so, and made a delicious frittata - flowers and all.

How are your spring vegetables coming along?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Got Salad Greens?

Guest post by Kurt Jacobson

If you are like many other local gardeners you planted salad greens this year and have started to harvest them. It was just yesterday that I picked/thinned my first bag of green goodness from my raised garden beds. Lets take a look at what you might do with your lovely greens now that it’s harvest time.
Most Americans are not as adept in using greens to cook with or making their own salad dressing as the Europeans are. The French are very experienced in both of these culinary pursuits, as are many other European countries.

Why buy store bought dressing when it is so very easy to make great salad dressing in your own home? When you make your own dressing you get to choose what type of oil to use.

Some of the oils I use are:
Walnut oil, great light viscosity and lovely nutty taste. Avocado oil, heavy viscosity, but very healthy and great taste too. Extra virgin olive oil, the classic Italian, French and Spanish choice. Garlic infused olive oil, garlicky goodness. Need I say more? Sesame seed oil, great for Asian flavored salad dressings. Pumpkin seed oil, exotic earthy taste. Delicata squash seed oil, much like pumpkin seed oil.

You might be wondering just how difficult it is to make your own salad dressing? Here’s a recipe from my cookbook to give you an idea how easy it is:

Easy Italian Salad Dressing

1⁄3 cup apple cider vinegar, either Spectrum or Bragg╩╝s
1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs, or 1/2 teaspoon basil, and 1/2 teaspoon oregano.
2⁄3 cup oil, either olive oil or salad oil
optional: 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic or shallots, minced

Mix dried herbs with vinegar. Add garlic or shallots if using and mix well. Add oil, mix well. Can be used right away, but gets better after being refrigerated for a day.

Take the plunge and try something a bit more involved like my new favorite:

Mushroom Salad Dressing

1 tablespoon Mushroom Truffle Hunt Blend, by Urban Accents
1 tablespoon red wine, or red wine vinegar, or champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

Soak Truffle Hunt blend in vinegar and red wine for 5 minutes.
Combine all ingredients and mix well by shaking in a jar or in a bowl with an immersion blender.
Enough for 6-8 salads.

Goes well on mixed baby greens or romaine lettuce. Minced garlic or shallots(1 teaspoon) may be added for more zip! Top each salad with 1 tablespoon feta cheese crumbles, and 2 teaspoons of toasted pine nuts.
For an Asian version omit oregano, basil and cheese. Use 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 tablespoons of sesame oil plus a tablespoon of soy sauce. Minced fresh ginger would work well too.

You can use either dressing on one kind of greens, or a mix of greens such as, kale, arugula, spring green mix, etc. My favorite greens are the Rocky Top Mix from Baker Creek heirloom seeds. This year I am trying some new lettuces from Baker Creek such as: May Queen, an early maturing butterhead lettuce. Petite Rouge, an old world crop that requires cooler temeratures. Pablo, a stunning Batavian style that is lavishly splashed in vibrant bronze purple. Blue Kale, kale with a tinge of blue.

All of the above new types of greens seem to be doing well, and are just waiting to be tasted to see how they rank.

Let us talk about cooking greens. Americans have of course known of collard greens and spinach, but I want to take you further down the rabbit hole. Why not put arugula in your pasta dish, or kale in your soup? Or grill a chunk of lettuce like some restaurants do with romaine in a Caesar Salad. Yesterday I cooked up about five ounces of fettucine, rinsed and set it aside. Then I took 2 cloves of garlic and sauteed it in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for two minutes on medium low heat. I then added the fettucine and incresed the heat to medium tossing the pasta about for 3 minutes. To this I added a nice size handful of fresh arugula, and fresh oregano leaves from my garden and mixed it in well while continuing cooking for 3 more minutes.
To finish it I added 1/2 cup of pan toasted walnuts, and 2 tablespoons of fresh grated parmesan cheese. My lunch guests pronounced it great! This dish took all of 20 minutes to make from scratch, and you can do it too. Just remember to toast your walnuts ahead of time in a saute pan, stirring frequently on medium heat for about 5 minutes in 1/2 teaspoon oil, (avocado, peanut, or regular olive oil) and a bit of garlic powder, salt and pepper. If you do this while the pasta is cooking you will be ahead of the game. This healthy creative dish will impress you family or guests.

Please visit my website for more recipes like these to help you find new ways to use your garden treasures this Spring and Summer and don’t forget to sign up for my free newsletter. If you comment on my most recent post you will be entered into a drawing for a package of five seasoning blends from Urban Accents, including the Mushroom Truffle Hunt blend in the salad dressing above. Drawing to be held next week.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Inexpensive stink bug trap


"A Virginia Tech team of researchers has proven that homemade, inexpensive stink bug traps crafted from simple household items outshine pricier models designed to kill the invasive, annoying bugs.

Researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences found that the best way to get rid of the little buggers is to fill a foil roasting pan with water and dish soap and put a light over the pan to attract the bugs in a dark room.
The trap eliminated 14 times more stink bugs than store-bought traps that cost up to $50, the study found. The only price of the homemade model is the cost of a roasting pan, dish soap, and a light — all which homeowners may already own.

Though the solution is not new and has been promoted on Youtube and other websites, this is the first time it was actually tested in a scientific experiment. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Extension. "

See the video here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Successes and disappointment with cool season crops

So, today I decided to remove my row cover and do some weeding around my intensively planted cool season crops.  Well, there were lots of seedlings of dead nettle and chick weed to be removed, lots of successes and some failure.

This bed was planted around April 5 and hit by that last cold blast we had in early April.  The most noticeable impact was on some of my broccoli plants which made little growth because of the cold and were forming small so-called "button heads" of broccoli which are about an inch and a half in diameter.

Most of the rest of the broccoli and cauliflower is growing, but because of the cold weather, I don't expect a great harvest.  I did start some late transplants which went into the ground last Saturday.  It will be a race to see if the hot weather gets to them before they produce nice heads.  Most years my Packman broccoli and Snow Crown cauliflower are very productive in the spring, but it looks as though fall may work out better this year.

The cabbage and lettuce are going great guns and I'll be eating lots of salads this spring.  The lettuces are red sails and buttercrunch.
Kohlrabi, pak choi and tatsoi are also doing well and the cold doesn't seen to have affected them.

A word on the intensive planting.  All of these crops are located in a bed which is 4 feet wide by 30 feet long.  The cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are planted on three foot centers (box) with a plant in the center.  Lettuce is planted between the broccoli, etc.  Pak choi, kohlrabi and tatsoi are planted on 8 inch center.

Food not used by my family will be donate to a local food bank or my local shelter for their kitchen.  If you have extra vegetables you are not going to use, you can find your local food bank at this link.

Happy gardening. 

Relocating intruding snakes with a homemade tool - the "Snake Stake"

It's Spring, and this time of year my parents' house usually gets invaded a few times by some (or maybe it's the same one) black snakes.  This year so far, one made itself at home on my folks' downstairs couch, almost getting sat on when my mother was getting ready to catch up on some Breaking Bad at the TV.  My father was able to toss that snake out.  Just recently, I received a frantic phone call; there was a snake in my mother's indoor ficus tree, and my dad was not around to evict the unwelcome guest.  As the geographically closest offspring at that moment, I had to interrupt my extremely important HGIC newsletter duties to go help my distressed mom.
Years ago, my father devised a device he named "The Snake Stake (TM, patent pending)."  Made from a simple wood stake, a nail, some string, and a couple eye loop screws, he created a tool for grabbing a snake behind the head.  It allows you to snag the snake in a string loop, hold onto the snake with a bit of distance from yourself, and transport the critter safely outside.
This particular black snake was tangled up in a houseplant and was tough to evict.  I opened the loop in the string to about 3 inches in diameter, held out the Snake Stake, and maneuvered the loop around the snake's neck.  I then pulled the string very tight and began pulling him out of the plant.  He was so wrapped up in there, it took a couple re-tries, as we were going to pull the whole plant over.
Finally I got him out of the tree.  The snake tends to start curling itself around the stake and the "T" end of it, so you don't have to worry about his whole weight being held by a single piece of string looped on the neck.  However, they also tend to start progressing forward through the loop and down the stake towards you, especially if you aren't holding the string tight.  
This snake was doing just that. I only had about 30 seconds to get him outside, walk down the steps of the backyard, and approach the fence (my mother wanted him as far away from the house as possible).  I had just read a wikipedia article on black snakes on my phone that said while not poisonous, they do tend to act aggressively and bite often, so I was ready to be rid of him as soon as possible.  Usually, I'd open the gate, go out, and loosen the noose to free the snake a good distance from civilization, but he was COMIN RIGHT FER ME up the stake, so I ended up just chucking the snake AND stake over the fence.  They happened to land in our stream.  The snake laid there confused for a moment before finally un-tangling himself and swimming off unharmed.
You can make your own Snake Stake - it's very simple, and very cheap.  Just a couple eye-loops, a stake or rod, string, and a bit of a perpendicular piece to make a "T" at the end so the snake's neck is pulled up against something flat.  There also seem to be other types of snake grabbing tools you can buy, starting at around $30 (do a quick search on for "snake grabber" and you'll find a lot of options.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Early Tomatoes

Anemic-looking tomato plants in greenhouse
I wouldn’t have done it without some kind of protection, but last weekend, I started planting tomatoes in the garden. I’m three weeks late – at least by my own gardening calendar.  Here on the Upper Eastern Shore Mother’s Day is the rule of thumb for planting tomatoes, but I try to get big healthy plants in by late April. To do this, you need to protect them well. I use Walls o’ Water. These channeled plastic rings act as mini in-situ greenhouses and let me harvest a handful of cherry tomatoes in early June. (Many of our neighbors vie to bring in the first slicer by the 4th of July, but I want Greek salad in June. Competitive gardening is cutthroat over here.).

There have been tomato plants in our local garden center since about mid-April. That’s really much too early for them to go out unprotected, and some were a little cold-browned at the edges. But garden centers have been pushed to get things in earlier and earlier both by competing big box stores that haul in truckloads of tender annuals earlier than is sensible garden-wise (unless you’re putting them in a pot you that you bring inside or protect during late frosts and cold nights), and by their customers, who are champing at the bit to get something in the ground. But I digress. Kinda.
Flattened Walls o' Water to be filled

Though I tempt Fate, I’m usually proud of my tomato plants (however, more than once I’ve been humbled by a ham-fisted storm that seems like a personally-directed act of God -- take THAT, you tomato-proud woman, you!). This year, however, I wasn’t proud of my babies. I started them later than usual plus they were anemic-looking. Although I keep the greenhouse at 55F at night, the organic potting soil that I have been using this year is sodden and chilly, which could mean phosphorous deprivation. (Cold inhibits a plant’s ability to use phosphorous, though you’d think if that were the problem, it would be solved by now). It looks as though they also lack nitrogen, despite the bag’s promise that the organic potting soil will feed for 6-8 weeks. I wondered if the dampness of the potting soil promoted nitrogen leak. Every bag I’ve come across this year is sodden, as though it had been salvaged from a flooded warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Nitrogen is water-soluble, so was it washed out of the mix? Additionally, the stuff in the bottom of the bag smelled faintly sulfurous -- some weird though not visible fungus? (I’ve had one Fish pepper die of damping off, rare in my experience, though the rest look fine so far).  I fed everything, which has kinda helped, but I thought the tomatoes especially needed a change of venue.

Buckets in center make it easier to fill channels with water
Last weekend, I prepped a couple of beds, filled the aforementioned Walls o’ Water, and planted nine plants – tough Sungold and Black Pearl cherry tomatoes, plus Big Rainbow, Gold Medal, a couple of Big Mamas, a Supersauce, and a Steakhouse hybrid – then put a Wall o’ Water over each. I left the ground around the plants inside the wall bare, so the brown earth would stay warmer than if mulched, then mulched with straw on the outside of the wall.  Then cages for better stability. Fingers crossed. Despite everything being about three weeks later than usual this year, I’m still hoping for tomatoes in June. Unless there's an act of God.
Buckets gone. Walls in place around plants. Garden dog on watch.