A love letter to my boys

During the holiday season I reflect on the things I am grateful for. At the top of the list is my family, and more specifically: my two young sons. The following article is my love letter to my boys. From the beginning through the end of every day, they are always in my thoughts. I am very clear as to what my role is with my kids. So, here is my heart boys. Here is my love. This is to you .

Let me introduce myself, you know me as mom but I am so much more! I am your confident, I am your cheerleader, I help you blow your nose when you are sick, I give you kisses and comfort when you are hurt. I am your mom. But I am also more than you think you need, at your very young age: you cannot yet see all of me.

I am not just your friend, I am your parent. I am not here to sit back and watch you raise yourself, I am here to guide you. I am not here to fight you, take away your fun, or make your life harder: I am here to watch you grow, show you right from wrong and create the boundaries I think will help you the most on your own journey.

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I love you. It is a special kind of love. It is a love you will never find outside of family: It is a love that is insurmountable, unbreakable, total. No matter what you do, who you become or what you achieve I will love you…to the very fiber of my being. I am your mother. You are my child. Always.

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I want to teach you what I know. It is something that I realize you won’t appreciate until you are in my shoes, and that’s OK. You don’t have to earn my love. It is there for you forever. You don’t need to see me as wise or even see me at all. I am still here. Waiting. Loving you.

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When you are young, your life is uncomplicated. It is like an arrow shot from a bow. It is swift and focused, you will move long distances with every shot. That will change. One day your life will spread out. Instead of an arrow you will become more like a net. Your spread will be wider…your distance traveled shorter, but the effect is much broader. It will become a well studied choice to be the most effective with each cast. Instead of  flailing about in far flung, random directions: you will become aware of your position, become well rooted in your accumulated life perspective and you will be able to use that knowledge and wisdom to it’s fullest potential. As you make this transition, as you become more experienced: you will begin to see why your father and I are so different from you right now. You will begin to fill our shoes. You will see a very different world than the one you are focused on today.

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When I was young: I boldly stepped out on my life’s stage. I played every part, I knew every role. I thought I was wise.

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When I had you and your brother: it was like I went from a high-school play in a high school auditorium to Broadway. It was that different: going from the center of my own universe to being your parent. As I did this: I went from an uncertain fledgling to a powerful eagle. Suddenly what I thought I knew was irrelevant, even silly, as I began to stretch my wings and truly soar.

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When you were little, all you could see was me and all I could see was you. Now that you are older, you are looking away. Choosing your steps, creating your path. I watch you walk away from me, sometimes I can even see you run. I will forever be in this position: behind you, reaching out to steady you if you stumble.

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It is a long, beautiful goodbye and there is a part of me that wishes every day was a few hours longer. There is a part of me that is so scared that I might forget a moment. The years go by so fast. I’m afraid I will wake up, in what seems like tomorrow, and your days with me will have sped by: that you will be grown and gone. I am afraid of the day that my house is no longer filled with shrill screams, thundering feet and fits of laughter. The future silence of the empty nest is always present in the back of my mind. From that perspective: I already miss you.

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When you have your children, you will see that although it is bittersweet to watch your children grow and move away from you, it is a place of extreme pride to see your kids begin to mature into their destiny. To watch them become sure footed on their own path. To see your position as parent mean less and less to them. It is as it should be. You are becoming you.

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Stepping out of the center of my own world has been the most awesome, incredible experience. It just keeps getting bigger, it keeps getting better.

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When I see you, I see your potential. I see what you can be. That you can be better than I am. That you can be wiser than I am. That you can be your fullest potential. I see that. I try to show you, too. I pray that I succeed.

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But even if your life is different. If you end up feeling like a failure. If you end up broken by the decisions that you make in your life…guess what? That’s how I got here, too.

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There’s no mistake you cannot overcome. No choice in life that you cannot learn a lesson from, and no path you can explore that is a mistake. You go where you go for a reason. You learn what you learn because you need the lesson. You will ultimately be successful if you attempt to do all of this from a position of love.

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Open your heart and meet every person with love.

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The one thing I’m sure of is: that everyone deserves your love. But it’s important to realize that love and trust are two different things. Not everyone will earn your trust, but that feeling of love should always be there.

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One day you may betray my trust, as I betrayed my parent’s trust. It helped me realize that there are choices in this life that can’t be taken back. But love? No. I will always have room in my heart for you.

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I hope your life is easier than mine has been, but I respect your journey enough to realize that I can’t dictate your path. So, every day I will show you that you are loved. Every day I will set limits so that you have boundaries. And every moment I will become the most that I can muster to show you what I believe is possible in this life.

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I believe you can do even more than I can (and I have been working on being the best me I can be for a very long time.) I am so excited to see the magic that you can create. The reality that you shape. The moments that we share.

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My door is always open, my ears are always ready to hear…and I love you. Always.

Drool Worthy Gingerbread Cookies From A Molasses Cookie Mix

blogcookies201510I tend to write posts for problems I come across and can’t find an answer out there…anywhere! This year I wanted to make gingerbread cookies for my kid’s teachers. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish (a yummy gingerbread cookie dipped in white chocolate and sprinkled with crushed candy canes.) It sounded simple enough. However, if you saw my post last year about perfect stained glass cookies you would know I don’t make gift cookies from scratch. I always use a mix, for the very practical reason of having no qualms about tossing a batch if it doesn’t come out well. For me, I would rather make something that I have no personal investment in until it’s ready to be baked, and then I can spend time being decorative.

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I looked for gingerbread cookie mix and I couldn’t find any. I’m guessing they were sold out at the stores near me. What I could find was molasses cookie mix. If you know the ingredient list for gingerbread, it starts out as a molasses cookie and then you add the spices. So, I wondered, “How hard it would be to start with the molasses cookie mix and make a few additions to create gingerbread?”
I did it! They turned out so good I have made 6 bags of cookies over the last four weeks. We took a couple dozen to our local fire station and police station, but we ate the rest! These are so incredibly good! Everyone who has one immediately wants another.

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These are so good you are going to feel like cookie monster! And that is exactly the kind of cookie I want to gift! I want the people I give cookies to, to really enjoy them. These are super simple (although you can take more time and get more decorative on the larger ones.) I will show you how I made all of them. Trust me when I say: make more than you need! These are super addictive and you are going to want enough to have for yourself! And a few more…and maybe one more…and then just one more…Oh, my! These are good!

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To start you need a bag/box of molasses cookie mix. These make cake like cookies, soft and chewy. If you want to make cut out cookies follow the cut out directions on the back of a bag of sugar cookie mix. Or you can find the directions online here: http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/easy-holiday-cutout-cookies/8b4ecec1-265e-479d-b595-c32aa4e789b7

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I wanted round cookies. I didn’t need to mix it for cutouts, but I added an extra tablespoon of flour to the mix because I knew I was going to be handling these and they needed to be a little stiffer than a drop cookie would be.
Next you are going to want to make sure this becomes a gingerbread cookie. For this I added the following ratio of spices and I wouldn’t change a thing. They are nice and spicy with this amount of ginger and there’s no mistaking this is a gingerbread cookie. (Also, there is already cinnamon in the cookie mix so I didn’t add any more). Don’t freak out about the cracked pepper. We all thought the idea of salted caramel was weird a few years ago!

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A couple of tips before we start: have some cookie cutters handy for the decorating portion. Also, you can roll these in granulated sugar, but if you want these to look like the ones on the bag you need a larger grained decorative sugar and there should be some next to the decorative sugar sprinkles at the store. If not you can find them at Micheal’s baking area (or other hobby stores that carry baking accessories.)

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I used my mortar and pestle to break the cracked pepper down into a fine powder. If you don’t own a mortar and pestle, I highly recommend getting one. Lastly, because these are rolled in sugar they will burn on the bottom pretty quickly. I baked them on parchment paper and then slid the paper and the cookies onto something to cool them (they will continue to cook if you leave them on a hot cookie sheet.) Some people buy racks for this. I am entirely too practical and just use the poor lonely broiling pan that came with my oven (that I NEVER use for anything else!)

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Here’s the recipe:
1 bag Molasses Cookie Mix. (I used Betty Crocker brand)
An Egg
A Tbs of Water
1 stick of Softened Butter (equal to 1/2 Cup. I microwave refrigerated butter for 10-15 seconds or you can leave it out at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour.)
1 Tbs All Purpose Flour
1 Tbs Ground Ginger
½ tsp Ground Allspice
½ tsp Ground Cloves
¼ tsp Fresh Cracked Pepper
Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl add the cookie mix, spices and the flour. Stir with a fork until all added ingredients are incorporated into the mix. Add the softened butter, water and egg. Stir with a spoon or spatula until a soft dough forms.
For ginger snap sized cookies (these are tiny) use a rounded tsp of dough.
For regular sized cookies use a rounded Tbs of dough.
For the big cookies to gift people roll a large fist sized ball in your hands.
Roll the cookie dough in the large sugar crystals. For the small and regular sized cookies you just place the cookies on the cookie sheet. They will flatten out on their own. For the large cookies press into a flattened disk shape like this:

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Place the big gift sized cookies about 6 to a sheet. I make extra big cookies and give one per person or make a box and have one extra large cookie and a couple small decorated ones. If you go to your local baker or coffee shop you will notice they don’t sell small cookies. Take a cue from the professionals and go big! It’s way less work to make a few large pretty cookies than thirty small ones as gifts AND the recipient will remember them.

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Next is the white chocolate! For the extra large gift cookies I placed a festive cookie cutter on top of the cookie and painted inside it. I did not use icing although you could. I used a cup of white chocolate chips and a Tbs of coconut oil. (You could use shortening instead. It needs to be a fat that is solid at room temperature.) Heat the chocolate mixture in the microwave at 20 second intervals and stir between each heating. You want runny, warm but not hot, chocolate. This will make a chocolate sauce that is good for dipping, drizzling or “painting” (which is what I did on the extra large cookies.) Make sure your cookies are completely cool before starting to ice or put chocolate on them. This is also why you added the extra flour. The extra flour will stiffen the cookies and hold the cookies together as you handle them.

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As you are putting the chocolate on you need to have your crushed candy canes ready. I had a box of mini candy canes and I crushed them with the wooden handle of a knife right in the little bags they came in. This made for easy application, too. I just cut the end off with scissors and sprinkled the candy cane pieces directly on the cookie. Do one cookie at a time or your chocolate will harden and the candy won’t stick. You don’t have to push the candy down. They will stick on their own. The crushed candy canes will have good chunks and not so pretty powder at the bottom. If you really want to go all out you could put the candy in a sieve and separate the powder from the chunks. But be careful. The high humidity we have down here made the candy pieces stick to everything (including themselves) and weren’t usable after about fifteen minutes because they had fused back together and stuck to the cookie sheet. I would crush and apply as you go.

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Tips for the chocolate:
For drizzling: Use a tablespoon sized spoon, get enough to cover the spoon but not pool, scrape off the bottom of the spoon and start drizzling off to the side of the cookie and then go back and forth across it. The reason being: The beginning of your drizzle will be a big blob and dropping that on a cookie defeats the purpose of a pretty drizzle pattern.

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For dipping: Use a small bowl. This is the easiest application of the chocolate. Just dip half the cookie, it looks nice that way.

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For “Painting”: Use a butter knife. Place a cookie cutter on top of the cookie (If you followed the above directions the cutter will not go into the cookie so make sure you hold it in place. I dipped a butter knife, drizzled down the center of the cookie cutter and then used the knife to dip in the chocolate and paint the chocolate up against the inside of the cutter. All of the cookie cutter painted chocolate cookies turned out pretty, but I liked the candy cane shape best.

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As you are adding chocolate to the cookies, sprinkle the crushed candy cane as you go. Once the chocolate hardens back up you can’t get the candy to stick. Go slow and reheat the chocolate in 20 second intervals in the microwave to keep it flowing. I used parchment paper underneath the cookies and clean up was a breeze.

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After you have a large cookie sprinkled with the crushed candy canes let them harden up for a minute and then tip them so the excess falls off. Go around your design and knock off or add any pieces that don’t look right. (This is where not having candy cane powder is helpful. The powder will get down in the cookie creases and is hard to remove.)

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I also rolled the edge in chocolate and then rolled the cookies in green sprinkles. For this I used the spoon I used earlier. Dipped it in chocolate and ran the cookies edge through the pool of chocolate on the spoon. Then I put green sugar crystals on a small plate and ran the edge of the chocolate covered cookie through the green sprinkles. It was a lot like the glue and glitter projects I did in elementary school (except this time I didn’t need to be warned not to eat the project!)

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I alternated the techniques and came up with some beautiful cookies. Great in cellophane bags, glassine envelopes or a little paper box! If you aren’t too particular even a Ziplock bag will do! We found some holiday themed food containers for the teachers and bus driver. I stacked them on platters for the firemen and policemen.

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I dropped some pretty wrapping paper down the sides of these containers. They were a hit!

Because of the humidity and the way sugar will absorb water from the air: I individually bagged the big cookies and grouped the smaller cookies by decorative type and bagged and froze everything. I got them out in the morning last Friday to send as gifts for the last day of school before Christmas break. For the stacked cookies make sure you stack them at the very last minute. The chocolate and candy on them will fuse the cookies together, if you do it early.

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These are all gone! I actually have more mix to make for tomorrow. You really don’t need to decorate them, but the candy canes and chocolate put these incredible cookies over the top!

I hope you take my advice and make more than you need! Expect to resemble the little blue Muppet of your memories with these! “MMMMM…COOOKIE! Nom Nom Nom Nom!”

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These fast fun and incredibly tasty cookies are going to make you crave them every year! I’m making another batch for Santa tomorrow!

Easy Packing Tape Ghost

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Oh, I had fun making this!

I saw this “packing tape ghost” idea in a pin, but the instructions given seemed nearly impossible. The instructions I saw wrapped the ghost with packing tape sticky side out and then went back and re-wrapped it sticky side in. I knew from the get-go I was NOT going to attempt this with these directions! I have to thank Pintrest for the idea, if not the instructions.

This is the sort of thing I see a photo of, and then skip whatever instructions there are and wing it myself. I made a 30 foot spiderweb this way…but I won’t give you instructions for that. My spiderweb was purely a project to do by sight and it took me several hours to complete. My instructions for my spiderweb would basically be: look at this and then recreate it out of string. Lame instructions indeed! This ghost however, I can easily help you recreate!

I have moved enough to intimately know the limitations of packing tape and I could not see a way to follow the pin’s instructions without pulling all of my hair out in frustration…so I came up with my own way! Here are super simple instructions for a packing tape ghost:

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First you are going to need a form. I contemplated having my husband tape me, but figured I might not enjoy the process. I was right: DO NOT USE A LIVE PERSON FOR THIS! It takes hours to finish this and plastic wrap and tape do not breathe. If you tried to use a person 1. they would forever hate you for making them stand still this long and 2. they would pass out from the accumulated body heat. You do not want to be calling 911 when you have made your live “dummy” sick with this project!

I didn’t have a form. I thought I might stuff a dress with newspaper and tape that. I am glad I didn’t. You could try that but it would come out lumpy and dorky and not especially cool. I decided to go down to my local craft store and see if there was anything cheap I could use. If you have a dress form- use it! If you are like me and don’t want to shell out a couple hundred dollars for a real adjustable dress form there are alternatives.

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My extra large spider (on my homemade web) caught the ghost!

There are plastic dress forms on hangers (they are cheap!) used for store displays sold online. The limiting factor to this is super high shipping and for me: I came up with this idea too close to Halloween to wait for something to come in the mail (I got the idea for this two days before Halloween.) If you live in a large city you may be able to find a local supplier that sells forms to clothing stores. Look up mannequins. I couldn’t find anything close by, so, that was out too. I decided in a last attempt (I was completely ready for this to be a “next year” project) to go down to our local Hobby Lobby…Success! Hobby Lobby had decorative dress forms for sale and I had a 50% off coupon. Hobby Lobby has an app and you can just show them the online coupon and they will take it…so don’t buy anything you don’t have a good coupon for!

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Like a lot of things in Hobby Lobby: most of the dress forms were broken. We had to find some up on shelves. So if you are going to try this and want to buy the dress form: make sure what you are getting is solid, if it isn’t make sure you talk to the manager and get a discount. (Hobby Lobby will give you incredible deals on things that are slightly damaged. Our local Micheal’s craft store does not have these. I did not try JoAnn’s fabric.) I would guess that this type of mannequin is sold in many different hobby/craft/fabric stores, you are just going to have to look around.

Second you need a Styrofoam head or a large detached doll head. I had to pass on a baby doll I borrowed from our neighbor. The hair was in the way and would have made cutting the form off the doll difficult (did I mention I made a ghost baby, too? I used a bald baby doll. This has a lot of applications!) I got my Styrofoam head at Hobby Lobby, as well. There is a section just for Styrofoam in the back of the store (not with the floral foam.) I cut part of the neck off so the head sat correctly on the body.

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So, now that you have the two basic pieces for the ghost, (the head and body) you can get the rest of your supplies:

Clear plastic packing tape (I used two jumbo rolls and used 2/3 of it)

Plastic wrap (You don’t need premium plastic wrap but make sure it will actually stick to itself.)

Support for your ghost (read below)

A bright black light to light the ghost (make sure the bulb and housing are made for outdoor use.)

Optional:

A tape gun (I wouldn’t do this project without one, but you can try.)

Scissors for any excess you decide to remove as you are going.

A queen sized sheet (If you want to make a dress shape for the ghost.)

Something large to support the skirt of the dress shape (I used a large bag of paper we had to shred and balled up newspaper. I also used newspaper to make a bustle for the back of the skirt.)

Pins to hold the skirt of the dress to the form.

Now it’s time to make the ghost!

Tape the head to the form. Wrap the entire thing in plastic wrap, including the skirt. The more wrinkles in the plastic wrap: the better this ghost turns out. The wrinkles will catch the light. Feel free to be messy! You don’t want more than one pass with the plastic wrap because the tape needs to be in contact with the plastic wrap to keep it in place. So, try to keep your plastic wrap layer thin. (Although you will end up with a few extra layers as you go. You can use the scissors to cut back any layers you feel might be too much, although this is completely optional.)

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Once you have the plastic wrap done start taping the ghost. Hold down any plastic wrap sections on the face and neck as you tape to create detail. You can also cut small sections of tape to fit areas that need more detail than a long strip will give you…and yes, the details show in the end product. You need two layers of tape. This part of the project took a couple of hours (even though this is a simple project it takes a good chunk of time.)

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Now that you have completely covered your form (twice) with tape it is time to cut the layers off of the form. This is why plastic wrap is superior: you don’t want the tape to be stuck to your form and it makes this a semi-easy, doable project!

Once you have cut the tape off of the form and removed it from the mannequin you created (with the dress form and head) you need to tape it back together. When you cut this off I suggest looking for the fastest route across the taped area that does not cut the face of the ghost. Sit down, align the areas that need taping and slowly (and carefully) tape your ghost back together. The two layers of tape will give the form enough strength to keep its shape.

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You need something inside the ghost to keep it upright. I suggest buying a piece of rebar, drive it into the ground and slide a taller piece of pvc pipe on it (I think plain rebar would poke through the tape.) Put your ghost over it (making sure the pvc has been cut to rest in the top of the ghost’s head.) To secure it: I suggest getting some landscape pins from a home and garden store. You don’t want this to fall or blow away. We had no time to work on her support this year so my husband just took the ghost and put her on a large floor lamp with the shade removed. It wasn’t quite tall enough so the skirt buckled (not permanently, but it would look much more impressive set up at the right height.) but more importantly: ours blew over! We got home to find the tape had touched the light we had aimed at her…and it was smoking. We were very lucky the ghost didn’t catch fire in the front yard!

Another idea (that would cost more but be fun) is to create a wooden hangman’s support to hang her from. You would still need to tie her down though, because she doesn’t show up with out a lighting source and would need some stability to keep her from flying all over…this is on my “to do list” for next year!

(We live in South Texas. Everyone does Halloween in a big way down here! You should see some of the cool stuff around our town! Some people spend thousands on their front lawn. My display is probably the best for the money. I make all of the “big” stuff that we have. I guess I grew up too long ago to believe in spending much money on Halloween!)

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To light your ghost you need a black light flood light. You can try other kinds but we have found the incandescent ones work much better than newer types of bulbs. The drawback to incandescent bulbs is that they get hot and the tape cannot be: on, over or very near, the light bulb. Just try and be aware of this when you light the ghost. This ghost is almost a neon sign in your yard. People can see this from down the block and will come to your house just to see the packing tape ghost. It turned out to be just as impressive as our 30′ spiderweb that I made from string, a year earlier.

Also, expect that some teenage no-goods may find your ghost very attractive and try and bring her home with them. I would not leave the ghost in the yard unattended, as we had a few older kids lurking about on our dark street, late at night, that magically decided to go home after I brought the ghost in.

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The lighted ghost baby that we took around in a stroller.

I also made a ghost baby and intend to make spider egg sacks (with balloons as a base form.) We put the ghost baby in an old stroller and lit it with a flashlight. A stroller, by the way, is a brilliant addition to trick or treating! We had the storage below the stroller for: a garage door opener/keys, water bottles, snacks for the kids, an area for extra candy (bring shopping bags to keep the candy separated), and a place for the costume parts that my kids always shed as we walk around. Go big or go home, right? Anyway, the baby was a fun way to bring a part of our display with us.

I’d love to see your versions and please remember to include where you got your instructions if you share your creation! Here are the original instructions I got off Pinterest (in case you think you might want to try a different version . I think you will see why I didn’t want to try to make it this way.): https://craftygeeks.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/halloween-crafts-packing-tape-ghost/

Shrub-A-Dub-Dub What To Do With Imperfect Fruit

While we had plenty of rain this year for my vegetables it was a poor year for fruit. We got so much rain this year that the peaches all aborted and the limbs oozed sap trying to find a way to compensate for the deluge. My persimmon also dropped most of its fruit in response to the excess rain. The only fruit that survived this year was a large Breba crop of figs and first year canes with sour blackberries. Most people with figs toss the Breba (or summer) crop. The fruit is generally not as good as main crop figs, and although I could have tossed it all in the compost pile, I thought I’d find something more immediately useful for them. That’s when I came across a recipe for something called a Shrub. I am a recent convert for homemade fermented prebiotic foods. I’ve been making an awesome salsa the last couple of years and I can’t tell you how delicious a home ferment can be! It’s one of those things that once you try it: you jump in with both feet! Fermentation is one of those old time skills (like home canning) that make you nervous the first few times you do it. Mysterious and a little dangerous, your first foray into fermentation can make you wonder how anything that sits out on the counter for a week can possibly be healthy or taste good. All I can say is: give it a try. If you follow proven ferment recipes, I promise you won’t get sick and you will love the end result!
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Shrubs are a great way to use up fruit that you would otherwise have trouble finding a use for. The definition for a Shrub (thanks to Wikipedia):

“A shrub can also refer to a cocktail or soft drink that was popular during America’s colonial era, made by mixing a vinegared syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water. The term “shrub” can also be applied to the sweetened vinegar-based syrup, from which the cocktail is made; the syrup is also known as drinking vinegar. Drinking vinegar is often infused with fruit juice, herbs and spices for use in mixed drinks.”

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I saw a drinking vinegar (aka shrub) for sale in a catalog and thought: I bet I could make this! Which after some research, I found that: yes, these are great homemade! There are a variety of shrub recipes out there. Some require cooking, I prefer my fruit (and veggies, like the salsa ferment I make) fresh. There were plenty of recipes to choose from.
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For my shrub I chose to make my own recipe after examining a few shrub recipes online. I mixed some flavors from what I had on hand: figs, blackberries, cracked black peppercorns and some home grown rosemary. I decided on using apple cider vinegar for the vinegar because I tried a spoonful with the fruit I had macerated, and I thought it was good with the apple cider. (Champagne vinegar would also be nice.) I tried a good quality balsamic vinegar with the macerated fruit and that was a definite “No”. To me the balsamic vinegar puts a “rotten fruit” taste in it that I couldn’t handle.
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When you are making a homemade drinking vinegar (or shrub) you want half of your fruit to be very sweet: my Breba crop of figs, and half to be something tart: the blackberries (tart cherries would work too.) Luckily blackberries are usually for sale at the grocery (fresh or frozen) and the ones from the store are always tart. You could also add a little lime or lemon if you don’t want to go the blackberry/cherry route. For something sweet (other than figs) I would think blueberries, plums, persimmons, grapes or peaches would work well. You are going to be adding quite a bit of sugar, so having something tart makes for a kind of depth of flavor that I really enjoy. Taste it once you add the sugar and macerate the fruit. That’s when to add other flavors or adjust the fruit ratio until you are happy with the flavor. It will only become a deeper more complex version of the fruit and sugar combination from there.
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Here’s how I made mine:

2 cups washed fruit (1 cup tart: I used blackberries and 1 cup sweet: I used figs. Cut up larger fruit. I quartered the figs.)
1 1/2 cups sugar
One sprig rosemary
2 tsp freshly cracked black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar

Mix the sugar in with the fruit until the fruit is coated. Add the fresh cracked pepper. Remove the stem and add the fresh rosemary leaves. Mash the fruit mixture. (I used the pestle, from a mortar and pestle set, in a bowl but you can just use a fork or even a food processor.) Cover the fruit mixture with plastic wrap or a towel (to keep anything from getting into it) and leave it out out on the counter for 48 hours. After the first 24 hours: stir and crush the fruit again, then let it sit again until the 48 hours has expired. Add the vinegar and strain the juice through a sieve into a large mason jar. Put the mixture on the counter (or in the fridge. Your choice. Refrigeration will slow down but not stop the fermentation. If you leave it on the counter a “wine” type flavor may develop. I aged mine in the fridge because I like a fresh fruit flavor instead.) in a sealed mason jar for at least a week. Open the jar daily to let gases escape and shake or stir the mixture daily. At the end of a week: add some carbonated water to a drinking glass (I use a lime flavored club soda.) Fill the glass 2/3 of the way with the carbonated water: slowly add the shrub until you are happy with the flavor. You should taste the tartness of the vinegar but: it shouldn’t be overwhelming.

Shrubs remind me of Italian sodas and I can definitely see where our modern day carbonated sodas get their flavors. The shrubs are a wonderful old time way to extend your enjoyment of fruit season and a great way to use up fruit that you would usually have taken from a plant and directly dumped it into the compost (overly ripe or damaged fruit is fine, but if it’s truly rotting find something else to use!) You can also use up the tail end of any fruit glut in a Shrub. My children enjoy the shrub as well. It is a healthier alternative to pop.
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I like a sprig of mint in mine. Just roll the mint between your fingers and crush it a bit before you put it in. Vodka would also pair with this well!
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Curing An Extra Itchy Case Of The Gardening Stupids

I would bet that most gardeners have a list of a few things that they do, out of habit, that are counterproductive. For me it’s gardening without gloves or long sleeves. I almost never wear gloves or long sleeves. I love to work the soil with my hands, I weed bare handed and I harvest bare handed. Most of the time I end up in the garden working without having planned on it (which is why I’m usually dressed for Texas summer weather and not gardening!) Most of the time I can get away with this habit with minimal issues. Yesterday was not one of them!

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My wonderful but itchy okra! If you wondered about your okra plant’s smell: Yes. The entire plant, including the pods, have a distinct cat pee like smell. It’s part of the plant’s defense and easily rinses off the pods using just water.

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All of the okra goodness is under those big spiny leaves!

In high summer heat everything in my garden seems to have some sort of defense. Tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and okra (especially okra!) have spines or hairs that can break off in your skin (like the irritating glochid fuzzy hairs you can find on cacti) and cause a rash on your arms and hands (or whatever part of your body that brushes up against the plant.)

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The hairy underside of a poona kheera cucumber leaf.

I also grow some things with sap that can irritate. I have figs whose milky sap can cause itching and then there is the parsnips that can cause a chemical burn if you rub up against the leaves and stems. Yesterday I got into all of the above with no gloves or long sleeves to protect myself. My “duhhh” factor was in full swing and I was miserable by the time I came inside!

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The breba crop of a fig tree that I got a start from in my neighborhood.

It was like an instant poison ivy rash. I was itching so enthusiastically I was sure I was going to break the skin on my arms! I believe the main culprit was the okra spines I got into while reaching across the plants to harvest some pods but, I also carried in an arm full of figs. It’s entirely possible this was a cumulative rash from the many bad decisions I made that day to handle things without gloves or sleeves.

Regardless of the cause: I needed a cure, and fast! I first grabbed a tube of anti-itch cream from my husband’s dopp kit and applied enough to cover a large farm animal, with no results. The itching was completely uncontrolled with the cream so my mind started racing looking for an alternative to what I had already tried. I washed my arms repeatedly with castille soap because I was afraid it was sap from the arm load of figs I’d gathered (since my arms were sort of sticky.) That didn’t help much either. That’s when I remembered we have a can of instant oatmeal in the bathroom to mix in my kid’s baths when they get viral or allergic rashes. I was desperate at this point and I was ready to try anything.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d gotten into fire ants. This was sooooo bad! The itching was insane!

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The fuzz on tomatoes and beans make the plant leaves a little bit like Velcro!

I have used oatmeal in baths before for my kids, but what I was dealing with was not going to be relieved by my soaking in a tub with just a little bit of oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in a small cup and added enough water to make a paste. I rubbed it all over my poor bright red, itchy arms and hands. It was a messy process but:

I had instant relief!

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My son said this was zombie skin. To me: I see relief. This was after I’d let it dry and knocked off the big chunks of oatmeal. You would think I might have tried this at one point over the last forty some years! But this was the first time I’ve used it as a paste, and an oatmeal paste will be what I turn to first…next time!

I left it on long enough for it to start drying and then rubbed off the big chunks of oatmeal over the kitchen sink. What I was left with was a thin powdery coating of the oatmeal paste (my older boy noted that my skin looked like a zombie.) I left this coating on my arms for about an hour and then rinsed it off. I’ve never reacted to okra like this before, but in gardening: there are always first times for everything. I had complete and total itch relief. Now I have a new (old fashioned) cure for when I walk into another plant that my skin decides to violently dislike!DSCN0025

Beginning Gardener: Class 4-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

This is the fourth and final installment of my beginner gardening tutorial. For this class I decided to list some of my favorite books and growing aides. The book list is by no means exhaustive but I have some that have truly helped me form the backbone of my gardening approach. I am not affiliated with any of these products, but they have definitely helped me understand some key gardening concepts that I have incorporated into my understanding of soil, compost, growing, harvesting and disease/pest control.

Find the first three classes here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

One of the first things I suggest is learning about what is on the cutting edge of gardening ideas. Thoroughly investigating several new concepts helped me merge and arrange them into what would work the best for me and my local growing conditions. The first idea is something I saw emerge a few years ago to help with dry/poor soil growing conditions. This was developed in Africa and is called keyhole gardening. This is a really good video about how to create one of these beds and I recommend this video for anyone creating raised beds. We are all aware of water usage and creating a low water bed is not only smart for those of us in high heat/dry areas but for anyone who wants to cut down on supplemental water usage. The center of these beds have a compost area and this compost feeds the bed and offers an easy way to keep the bed hydrated. Keyhole Garden

Another great idea is hugelkultur. This is my favorite article explaining this idea. It is super popular among organic gardeners and it is one of three ideas I combined to create my own version in my raised beds. Hugelkultur

The third idea I used for my beds includes a worm tower. This is an “in place” compost area similar to keyhole gardens as far as feeding beds but also incorporates worm castings as fertilizer.  In Bed Worm Tower

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

You can see my two beds I created with the Hugelkultur/Keyhole/worm Tower ideas (I’ll call them the HKT beds from here on.) If I were to make a third bed I would make it like the first one I made but with thicker ply plastic or seal the inside surface of the cinderblocks. HKT beds:

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LINK: HKT1

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LINK: HKT2

Now I will move on to my three favorite books for growing edibles. These each contain key concepts that I rely on and that are explained in an engaging and interesting way.

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The first is by John Jeavons. It details his method of soil building. This was the first book that I bought that turned my ideas about gardening on end. He teaches how to build soil over years with products you grow rather than purchase. He advocates double digging which originated in Europe. If you have ever seen formal European gardens, with their lush beautiful plantings you can duplicate that with his methods. Further into his book you will find the dietary breakdown of the crops you are growing and how to plan for a self sustaining vegan diet. A lot of what is in his book relies on you agreeing to his lifestyle choices but I found the detailed breakdown of information extremely helpful in understanding the relationship with soil, the ways he maintains his soil and how that effects his crops. On top of that, understanding what nutrients each vegetable I grow has and how to balance them to create a healthy diet, created a deeper understanding of my crops and what I needed to focus on to create a balanced diet (not only in my garden, but in my purchases at the grocery store as well.)

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This is his site: http://www.johnjeavons.info/  His book is called How To Grow More Vegetables (Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine) It’s a pretty bold title, but he delivers on it. I think this is a wonderful primer to anyone who wants to soak up information from decades of research and trials that this amazing gardener has accumulated.

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The second book that I recommend is By Rosalind Creasy. Her book Edible Landscaping is a thick bundle of incredible information, again, by a gardener who knows her stuff. She explains her ideas in a beautifully illustrated book. To Rosalind there is no such thing as a separation between flowerbeds and vegetable beds. All plants are used for their form as well as their food potential. She breaks down the nice-neat barriers that formal gardens traditionally employ and she blends them into a seamless combination that will inspire you. The photographs she uses to tell her story will make your jaw drop. I frequently found myself thinking: “Wow, why hadn’t I considered this before?”

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The third book was another one that introduced ideas that I would not have come up with on my own (regardless of the length of my personal experiences.) It is called Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway. Wow. Stood my gardening knowledge on end and flooded my stored knowledge with tons of brand new avenues to explore. This is possibly the finest gardening book I own. The subject matter is home-scale permaculture and if you want to have an interdependent, completely self reliant gardening experience: this is the book for you. He teaches you how to create planting groupings (that he calls guilds) that feed and nourish each other, how to capture natural rainwater and to build your own micro-climate using a variety of techniques. With these among other fascinating concepts, this book stands out as a revolutionary text.

I have many other books, but these three stand out among the others as having information that is interesting, complete and unique.

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Some things that I physically use in my garden: I love my stirrup hoe for weeding. I use miracle grow hose end sprayer while watering and osmocote granules under new transplants. I use a lot of “Superthrive”. It claims it is a plant vitamin rather than a fertilizer. Whatever it is: it definitely helps my plants and transplants. I originally bought a bottle at Walmart because the label’s advertising was so crazy that I thought: this has to work because no one would buy it for the crazy ramblings! (it looked like whoever made the old label may have been drinking some of the Superthrive!)

I make use of the copious amounts of rabbit poo that our pet rabbit supplies (you can’t beat a pile of rabbit poo under your squash plants!) I also occasionally use bloodmeal and if I need nitrogen for grass I purchase chicken manure (look at the bags of fertilizer. Lowe’s carries these types of fertilizer.)

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I love soaker hoses, newspaper mulch and landscape fabric. Milk jugs with peat pots for seedlings or tenting seedlings with milk jugs to shortcut hardening off are some of my favorite hacks. Short cut through hardening off

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Personally: I love gypsum. I tend to use a lot of gypsum in my super heavy clay soils. I usually turn a bag into the soil with some peat hummus and compost and then cover it for a year. I come back to the area and the soil is completely different. What we have here is more like potters clay mixed in to gravel. It’s some nasty stuff, but if I can get it to drain it becomes a great base.

The Specter Of Drought

As you can see, I use a variety of things that I have learned that work over the decades that I have gardened. I don’t have a high and mighty attitude towards fertilizers (although I try not to use any of the chemical ‘cides’ in my garden: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides.) I have found that adding cinder blocks around my garden areas provides shelter for spiders and other predatory insects. I almost never have pest problems. The only pest that is hard to deal with for me is spider mites. This is where Neem oil and insecticidal soaps come in handy.

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As far as fungal problems I use my own mixes. Baking soda and water will get rid of powdery mildew, as will cows milk and water. Look for recipes online. Baking soda is residual though, so I try not to mess with it. I have a secret ingredient I add to my fungal sprays: oil of oregano. I use the aromatherapy grade. A few drops in the spray I have mixed up almost always relieves whatever fungal disease pressure I end up with.

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Regular cooking oil in water with a little bit of dish soap makes a fast and effective insecticidal soap. Neem oil will slow disease and bug reproduction but it takes time and repeated applications. If my garden goes south fast: Neem oil is not something that can correct a heavy infestation before my plants collapse. I prefer encouraging spiders, praying mantis, ladybugs and wasps instead.

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I will stand outside and strip infected leaves of plants with fungal disease before spraying. If I see a leaf that is sick, I have found it is more helpful to remove it than let it limp along while it infects the rest of the plant. I clean up the disease and then I spray. Down here (as it is in most moist, humid and hot areas) fungal pressure is a big deal. It helps immensely to plant varieties that are disease resistant.

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This is the end of my fourth class. I hope it has been helpful and enjoyable. The first three classes are available here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

Beginning Gardener: Class 3-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the third part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first and second parts of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) and Beginning Gardener (part 2) The links in this post and part 1 and part 2 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

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I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part three for the beginner gardener:

What are you growing? Will the answers to the questions from part 1 and part 2 support it? Your county extension office will have suggestions for varieties of plants as will the agriculture departments of local Universities. In the planning phase, web searches can be your best friend!    

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What should you NOT grow? Invasive plants can be beautiful in one zone and a nightmare in another. Before you plant a perennial make sure you know what you’re getting into. An example is heavenly bamboo (nandina domestica, pictured above.) This is in most people’s yards down here and it shouldn’t be. It’s considered invasive in South Texas and I am already having problems with it spreading. I will be removing our pair (that came with our home) soon. Other common examples of garden bullies are: mint, burdock and Bermuda grass. These can be very aggressive and so hard to remove/keep out of beds once they have outgrown their space. There are a lot of plants that are commonly planted here that are invasive. If you live in Texas check this site out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=CYDA Plants that send out runners need barriers, others reseed heavily and still others have roots that can come back from very, very small pieces left in the soil. Understand the kind of work involved in keeping your choice of plants contained (or removing it) if it does breach your barriers or outpace your attempts to slow it down. Look up your state’s invasive plant list and make sure you keep those species out of your life. Here is the National Invasive Species Information Center: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml

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What size will your mature plants be? In five, ten or twenty years you don’t want to live in a jungle of poorly spaced overgrown plants. Also, what are your plant’s mature fruiting expectations? If you are planting a fruit tree (or multiples) how many hundreds of pears, apples (or whatever) can you really expect to eat or process? (This huge surplus from trees will be a yearly conundrum. The bigger the fruiting plant size the more you will have. Often, a berry bush or two is a better idea than trees.) If you are growing fruits or vegetables what kind of yearly effort will these plants need from you? Planting, water, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, pruning. What exactly are you getting into? Fruits can be rewarding but they take a lot of work. What kind of work are you willing to invest to get a good return? Again, your county extension will have good advice on this. Your local Master Gardeners are volunteers that go through a course and must put in hours helping educate the community to keep their M.G. designation. These people are usually old hands at gardening in your area. They are there to help you! If you have some at your county extension, use their expertise!!! My extension answers emails. I often get responses within a day and it’s free! (Do not rely solely on information from people who are trying to sell you something. They have a conflict of interest.)

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Sit down. Draw out your plan (or use a computer program. Look for something simple). Make a master plan and keep it in a place that you can access and update. (If you own your home, an easy way to do this is to get a blueprint of your property from the county assessor’s office and make copies so you can mark things to scale.) Things to keep in mind with perennials: Start small (don’t put in a lot of plants at once) but start big (the largest additions and your non-plant structures). You need to make your plan then put your large trees in first. Fruit, syrup and nut trees take years (sometimes decades) to bear. Don’t put trees in that you aren’t sure you will like! If you’ve never eaten the kind of fruit you are buying: try and find a source online where you can try some. You can start at your local grocer. In the international isle you may find canned examples of fruit you are interested in growing. Also, Amazon might carry what you are looking for. Look for dried fruit, jams and jellies online. You can then decide if you want to pursue the plant. Sometimes there are only examples at the nurseries that sell the plants. Raintree nursery often carries jellies and jams of their products.

Also, if you have 500 pears from a mature tree (even if you loooove pears, what are you really going to do with that many?), or if you only like certain kinds of apples and you have no idea what the variety you are ordering is going to taste like (and even if you like them you will still end up with hundreds of them) then these are probably not good choices for you or your yard. If you don’t get out and harvest fruit before it drops you will have animals (large and small), wasps (and a million other kinds of bugs) and angry neighbors (from the smell of rotting fruit in your yard.) If you want to grow fruits: go to your local farmer’s markets, find out what varieties of food you are eating, then plant what you love. If it’s growing well enough to be at the farmer’s market: it will probably be a good bet for you, too. You don’t want to wait 5-15 years to get something that you hate. Don’t put 5, 10, 20 or 50 full sized fruit trees in!!!! Unless you are starting your own farmers market (or super market chain), you CAN’T use this many! Before you purchase a fruit tree, find out how many fruit you will be dealing with at it’s mature age. If you are interested in selling your surplus call your local CSA and ask what they are interested in purchasing, then plant those types of plants. You can also find specialty markets online, but you are dealing with food distribution laws at that point and you will need to have sound advice before you begin. Find your market before you plant your trees. It would be a huge issue for you if you are planting things that you expect to sell that don’t (and won’t) have a market. Orchards are a huge responsibility and expensive to maintain and create. Make sure you are aiming at something that you can actually accomplish.

If you are looking for shade or privacy: fast is not better. Fast growing trees have weak wood. You will be picking up limbs after every wind and ice storm and/or your plant will aggressively spread across your property. Look for a medium growth tree, get ideas from your county extension and realize: structures (fences, arbors, gazebos etc), not plants, are the fastest, easiest ways to accomplish immediate privacy and shade issues.

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Keep a spiral notebook just for your garden information/notes and don’t put anything else in it. You will thank me later. For your spiral notebook: make a list of what you are growing from seed, what you have problems/success with during the season, what helps your plants, what doesn’t…this is a science experiment: heavy documentation truly helps. Otherwise, you WILL forget details between seasons. It’s okay, you will learn each year what you need to add and keep track of.

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Interested in saving seed? Just because it’s a seed and you liked what it came from: doesn’t mean you can use it. Hybrid or GMO seeds will not grow into what you ate. Same with peach pits and other fruits. In large orchards, they use trees that produce the fruit you love and other varieties that are excellent, reliable pollinators. You need two varieties for good pollination but only one produces what they are selling. This means the seed you get is crossed. You are not going to grow the fruit you get at the grocery store from fruit you buy there. There is a fantastic organization for heirloom plants http://www.seedsavers.org that saves heirloom varieties for genetic diversity in the future. Without this sort of program we will loose our ability to grow our own foods with the diversity of current heirloom strains. Please think of joining or ordering your seeds from this company! Learn how to save your own heirloom seed here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Saving-Heirlooms/ Seed saving is not for beginners. If you are starting out, try numerous types of the same vegetable and figure out what you like, what does well for you and then work with those. You also need large isolation spaces or specialized techniques to keep seed strains pure. 

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Dig a $20 hole for a $10 tree. How you plant will directly impact your success. Your plants will not do well if they are poorly planted or in poor soil. Raised squared beds can solve dense planting sites.  I make a cinder block square, one block deep then fill the raised bed with compost and good soil. The next thing I do is turn the new dirt into the raised bed and finally dig the hole. This will keep a lot of your roots far enough from the constant clay yuck that they will flourish rather than become diseased. You can definitely amend just your planting hole, but it needs to filled back in with mostly native soil. If you have heavy clay (like I do) and you dig your hole: if you fill it back up only with garden soil you have basically created and in-ground pot. The roots will readily spread out until they hit the dense soil around the hole. The roots will then spend the rest of their time filling in the looser soil instead of spreading out. You can amend soil for a tree, but keep the soil 50% native soil and 50% amended soil (like compost and garden soil.) Also, the size and type of plant dictates what you can add to the hole. For trees and shrubs you should not add fertilizer to the planting hole. For annuals and small perennials (and this is still only if you are planting in your growing season and not fall or winter): I always add some Osmocote (a kind of granular fertilizer) to the hole.

****SUPER DUPER SITES: Are you like me and absent minded? If you don’t want to have to think too hard about your vegetable start dates, here’s a fantastic site that will walk you through what to plant each week in your growing season. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/what-to-plant-now-zl0z0903zalt.aspx I totally rely on this site! It updates every two weeks and sends you personalized reminders to your inbox.

Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? Go here: http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Page-KGPJS

Burpee’s has a free garden app that is worth looking at. I tend to forget to use it because I prefer the planting reminders from Mother Earth News. But Burpees has plant specific information and growing tips. Want to keep track of when to harvest? Burpee’s app can handle that. Beginners will be able to take the guesswork out of the gardening experience.

I also enter fruit harvest dates in my phone’s calendar (I even keep track of when to expect bluebonnets and native fruit this way.)

One of the most inclusive and user friendly sites I’ve seen is here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/agrarian-garden-plant-a-gram/ They have a variety of tools listed under “Agrarian: Learn More”. Look towards the bottom of the menu on the left to access them. Of course they should have a great site with the prices they charge for their products! It’s really well done and free, so I do have to recommend the site. It covers pretty much anything you’d like to know on a variety of subjects including: raising poultry, beekeeping, composting, canning and creating fermented food. I would never spend the kind of money they are asking for their products, though.

You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? You may not know everything this season, but do your best to get familiar with the concepts. The rest, you will learn to use as you advance in skill. Get out and play with your seed/plants/bulbs and trees!

The fourth and final installment of this class will cover my favorite publications and growing aides.

Beginning Gardener: Class 2-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

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Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the second part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first part of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) The links in this post and part 1 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

Bannerblog

I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part two for the beginner gardener:

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You will need to know your sun versus shade ratio. What parts of your yard will support a sun plant? A shade plant? How many hours of sun you are getting in each area? This is fairly easy to calculate, go outside several times a day and look at where you’ve got full sun. Doing this will give you a general idea of how many hours of direct sun each part of your yard actually gets. Full sun means: AT LEAST 6 hours of direct sun a day.  What side of the house or other structure are you looking at planting on? Remember the sides of a structure are decided by the sun’s rays. You can be planting on the Northern side of a Southern wall on your property  So, even though it’s the South side of your property it isn’t the South side of the wall. This explains sun exposure: http://gardening.about.com/od/gardendesign/qt/SunExposure.htm Where is the “best” place to plant? Look at what is already there and find the areas that are naturally doing well. Example: areas of your yard with thick healthy grass. Where not to plant: areas that are perennially dry and dead, like: where your sprinklers don’t quite reach or on a rocky slope.

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!!!

If you are in a water restricted area please read my post that explains why you should not put rock down: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard! If you need to cover an area: use wood mulch. It breaks down and is not a permanent answer to a temporary problem. There are wood mulches that resist wind. Again, ask your county extension agents for more help in this area. Dry or rocky sloped areas will most likely not sustain tender plants and will need something more aggressive.

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Decide what you will be growing in. Depending on what you have (poor soil, a small space, acres of room) you have different options: amending existing soil, raised beds and pots. I use a combination. Each has different advantages and disadvantages.

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What are your planting goals? Beauty, shade, lawn, vegetables, fruit? Your yard not only needs to work for you, but if (and when) you sell your home (no one lives forever), it will be either a huge detractor or a huge plus (our yard was what sold every home I have lived in.) Your yard also needs to work for everyone in your family. When I move states I research at least a year before I try to install large perennials. These are usually permanent plantings. You mess it up and it’s a big deal. I will list my favorite gardening book sources in here. There are also plenty of fantastic and patient people who will take the time to teach you. Your county extension can help. Also, look for classes given by individuals and by your county. Go to garden shows. (Note that your local nurseries, especially big box stores, will sell you plants that will not do well in your area in the long run. Perennials are expensive. Do your research before you buy anything that you want to last.) Research as much as you can on the internet and in book form. Remember: forums are great resources, but more often than not, they boil down to individual opinion rather than scientific fact. Universities and local/state/federal horticulture sources are the best places to get real information.

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What would you like to grow? Is it a cool season flower or vegetable? Warm season flower or vegetable? Bulbs? Trees? Plants outside your zones (that will need to be sheltered over your winter)? Each of these has a time and a place of ideal planting.

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If you are new to gardening: I don’t recommend trying to grow from seed by randomly grabbing seed packets while you are out and about. I see a lot of new gardeners buying up seed and then sprinkling the whole package directly out in their yards. You may get a couple of plants that way, but in nature (and in ideal conditions): plants will self-sow (regrow yearly from last years dropped seed). Each plant produces hundreds to thousands of seeds to accomplish this. If you order a small bag of 10, 20 or even 200 seeds you are going to need to start them and baby them to get the same results. In some cases you will waste your seed if you go out and try and direct sow them (plant them straight in the soil. Although, there are things that require direct sowing. Check your packet and don’t start or sow the whole thing! You may have a failure, need to restart or resow, or want to space your plantings for longer harvest.)

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Even if a beginner gardener gets seeds going, they might want to also check their nursery for plants. Grow a set of plants: one set from seed and one set of the same kind of plant from a local nursery. You will be able to see which does better in your climate. Although nursery plants are more expensive than seed, it is not as complicated to get them going. They will be much larger and produce earlier. I buy large potted pansies to grow over our winter. If I started with seed it would be much more complicated and my flowers would most likely not be very impressive. I skip the extra work with sprouting and growing pansies from seed and pay the grower to do that for me. I then watch for sales and buy several flats when they mark them down to 50 cents a plant in during the Fall. Efficiency is a big part of my gardening plan. I have so much area planted that I focus attention on what I know will work best for me, so that I have more picking and less planting. This will become more clear to the beginner gardener as their experience grows.

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Starting seed indoors has it’s own set of rules. (This equals more: time, energy, experience and research!) Once you have successfully grown a few things: expand into seeds from the kind of plants that do well for you. Squash are terrific seeds to try when you are starting out and learning to grow. Corn and melons are strong growers too, but harvesting takes experience. The best things to start out with are things that don’t require judging ripeness. Leaf vegetables, root vegetables, herbs and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, tomatillos etc that ripen well for your area). These plants that I recommend are strong growers and need little from the gardener to start other than warm soil, lots of sun and water.

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Everything you transplant must be “hardened off” before planting. This is sometimes an ordeal but you will lose your plants if you neglect to do this. Here’s how: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/914/  (Here is my short cut to the hardening off process.)

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Cool areas have cilantro spread like wildfire, hot areas have tomatoes and basil self sow. I still buy my tomatoes as nursery plants (the bigger the better). I have a super short season down here for tomatoes. They need cooler nights than my summer gives and they need more heat than most of my late fall, winter and early spring days have. I also only grow small fruiting tomato varieties. I’ve got to get big, healthy and fast maturing plants to win down here. If I try and grow large fruited tomatoes I usually end up with one or two tomatoes on a plant and then they usually split from heavy rains or the birds peck a hole in them long before they are ripe. I understand most people think tomatoes are easy (and in certain climates they are), but they don’t live this far South!

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In a nearly opposite climate, I’ve also lived on the front range in Colorado. To get tomatoes to ripen before frost you had to make a plastic tent to cover mature plants to keep the daytime heat in. In Kansas: tomatoes were bountiful and simple plants to grow. As you can see: it depends on where you are. Ask your county extension office what seeds and vegetable or fruit varieties are sure fire growers in your area.

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Buying seed can get expensive and you need to remember to buy only for the space you currently have. If you don’t think ahead you can end up with so much seed that the seed will go bad before you have space to plant them (leeks, onions and parsnips are notorious for being short lived seed)! Seeds are one more thing to worry about. New gardeners need to go slow. If you are just starting out, pick a couple of recommended plants and expand only as your experience gives you the opportunity to do so.

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This is the end of the second course. I hope you picked up some tips you can use this season! Watch for the third course and I will be posting my favorite gardening books for the fourth segment. Good luck and get out there and get dirty!

Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

The Specter Of Drought

Spring is on the way! It’s already almost a month past our normal last freeze down here in Texas but thanks to this year’s unusually cold weather we’re only about two weeks into the season. This year I thought I’d get back to basics and start publishing pieces of my gardening advice from my page: Gardening Basics. For the novice gardener: read on and stay tuned! This is pretty much everything you need to know to grow a successful garden.

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So, take a walk with me through what every gardener can use in their tool belt: a great source for general gardening information! Good luck this season and go get your hands dirty!!!

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Gardening Basics:

Have you ever wondered what sets seasoned gardeners (the ones that have the photo perfect gardens and never seem to lose a plant) and new gardeners (people who seem to kill everything they touch) apart? Three main things: For one, what you think is going on in those perfect gardens is usually an illusion. It is a gardener’s photographic slight of hand. Not many people who garden will post photos of their failures, mid-season ratty plants and weak or neglected rows of corn. They certainly can’t sell books about it. They probably don’t live where you do, they have decades of amended soil, and are not running after kids in diapers (they also probably don’t have a full time outside job), grow only what does well for them and have a lot of years photographing (at just the right time) to look like they are gardening Gods. In the real gardening world we all experience failure, seasoned gardeners included. Part of what you learn as you accumulate experience is that there is no perfect garden, no perfect year, no one person who knows it all. Four years ago I traded living in a dry short season with zero insects, for a nearly year round season with more insects than I can identify without a degree in Entomology. Success is relative and so was my gardening knowledge. One of the things I truly love about gardening is: that I never get to “the end”. I’m always learning and my experience puts my failures into perspective. It is true, that with experience, you will learn to garden more effectively and your successes will begin to outpace your disasters. It takes a lifetime to learn to garden. That puts all of us on the same level at some point in our gardening careers and makes gardeners and plant people an incredibly inclusive group.

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The second part of this is real world experience. When I first started out: I pushed my growing zone; I planted things people said I couldn’t grow; and I defiantly told mother nature she couldn’t put limits on me. I actually encourage trying this (at least, if only, once!). You will learn what the difference is fairly quickly. Your choices are: having a large scale garden that you tend or, a small scale defiance garden that you have to put a million times more effort into. It helped me learn to respect what I was given. I learned to work closely with what nature would encourage rather than trying to impose my limited human thinking with it’s arbitrary rules and goals. I began to see why America’s farmland works so differently than a backyard garden. Organic growing conditions are achievable (if it’s your goal) but it is incredibly labor intensive and impossible on the scale my grandfather farmed: with multiple acres of wheat or corn. You will learn to really enjoy the grocery store as the back up to your crop failures (rather than the old standard of starving). At least, that’s how I see it. So, you can look up reams of information on the internet, read a library full of books and talk ‘one on one’ with a thousand Master Gardeners but you will still learn the most getting out into your own garden and getting dirty.

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Having said that, those of us that have been doing this for a while also know some pretty important basic pieces of information. The following list is essential to learn BEFORE you go out into your garden, BEFORE you buy your plants or order your seed. Learn what you need to know to successfully grow:

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Know your zone. Your USDA zone can be found using your zip code at: http://www.garden.org/zipzone/ This wonderful site not only offers zone information but will also list links under your zone like: View your regional report, Find public gardens in your zip code, Find plants in your zone and Find events in your zip code.

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Know your chill hours (If you are in warm winter areas, pay heed to your chill hour range!) Planting a fruit with a chill hour need that is too high for your region will mean your plant will not come out of dormancy at the right time and fruit for you, even if the tree itself is healthy. Too low of a chill requirement and your tree will break dormancy, flower and freeze back before your winter is over and you will not get fruit. Growing fruit in the South depends on working with your chill hours. If you are in the South: do not order a fruit tree if you cannot find its chill hour information. A lot of people use a map by raintreenursery.com (I like this nursery a lot and they sell nice plants) but it is incorrect for Texas. The best chill hour map I have seen for the South is here:  http://plant-shed.com/planting-fruit-trees-in-north-texas/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen. My favorite southern nursery is: http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/ Absolutely fantastic plants but again: they cater to the very southern US regions. I have purchased fruiting trees and plants from http://www.raintreenursery.com/ for several years. I recommend them as well, and they sell fruits for the rest of the country.

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Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetables without turning it into a defiance garden, and you still may be unsuccessful. Also, if your average last frost is a month away but you’ve got great temperatures now, you will want to wait to avoid losing your plants to a frost that is just around the corner. Find your frost dates and growing days here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/

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My season length down here is unbelievable! My growing season (usually) starts around Feb 28 and ends Nov 25! That averages between 271 and 280 days in my growing season (actually, I can grow spring/fall veggies all through winter and summer is usually my down time.) My long season seems like it would be perfect, but we get really hot really fast. My season for tomatoes is super short. It’s either too cold or too hot (tomatoes won’t set fruit in high heat). I really struggle with tomatoes and most people can’t imagine a vegetable garden without them. Being aware of your natural limits will help you work around the edges. For instance: I can grow short season and small fruited tomatoes. I have pretty much given up on the larger varieties…but with a little effort, I still get my fill of tomatoes! Learn what limits your garden and keep most of your efforts inside of that natural structure.

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The season length also brings unimaginable amounts bugs. I get multiple rounds of problem insects so I have to build spider and other predatory bug friendly beds. You can see them here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!  and here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas I totally recommend cinder block beds because spiders love the damp deep holes they provide. More spiders equal: low to no insecticides. I also use nematodes for insects below the soil. They don’t affect ground worms and they are my only answer to the twice a season squash vine borers we have. They kill pupating insects before they have a chance to come up from the soil and attack my plants. You can find my post about those here: When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea! With these two approaches my garden is pretty much covered. If you add in some nectar producing flowers that feed the larval stages of predatory insects: you basically have my completely insecticide free approach to gardening.

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Know your soil. This is something your county extension office can help with. Use a search engine to find one in your county. Put your county’s name in the search bar with “extension office”. This should guide you to your specific regional growing information including what soil tests your county extension office offers. You can also buy very basic test kits at home improvement stores. It’s is vital to know your soil pH as well as it’s nutrients. (For instance: my clay soils have only needed regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers with iron. That cuts down on my garden expenses and makes fertilizing effective.) Do it yourself: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm and from the Colorado State University: You can figure out what you have with this simple test using a mason jar or just your hands. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html Scroll down to the part that says: Identifying Soil Texture By Measurement. Right below that is Identifying Soil Texture By Feel. These are both excellent and easy ways to tell what kind of soil you already have.

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Cinder blocks equal tons of predatory insects. LEAVE the holes OPEN! Spiders = a SCORE for team organic!

I know this is a hard one for beginners: but get your soil ready the Fall before the Spring you plant. That means don’t order plants and seed with the thought that you will be able to fix everything before they come. Get out and get it done (and put the breaks on the credit card.) Never buy a tree before you have dug the hole, or at the very least: have an exact spot you want to place it. (You should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you buy a bunch of plants before you have a place for them, you may have to watch your plants waste away while you are breaking your back trying to quickly dig twenty holes (“quickly” is a goal you will not be able to achieve in gardening.) Even after amending, my soil always does better after being allowed to settle (or planted with low expectations) the first year. If this sounds too daunting: begin working on a larger area, do it in small bits and in the mean time focus on a few large pots (like 22 inch pots) to start your garden with. You can grow almost anything in a big enough pot and I always have a use for mine! (Pots will dry out fast, so they need more: water, shade and attention. For the beginner: this is not a bad thing. I usually keep my pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. This will help keep the heat out of the soil in mid-afternoon and your pots will retain water better.)

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Now you can be completely prepared while looking for spring additions at your local nursery or when you are purchasing seed. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your quest for knowledge: look at the top of the page and you will see the “Gardening Basics” tab. It includes all of the main information I will be posting in the next few weeks (minus any new material I add in these posts.) I’m currently working backwards updating links. These posts include my newest favorite links for information. (Some links on the “Gardening Basics” page are no longer functional or I’ve found better examples. The links in this post are all working as of today, please let me know if you ever find some broken ones!)

There’s more to come! Tune in next time for my latest and greatest: links and advice!

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Australian Shepherd undercoat! Oh my gosh, he had a lot of hair!

On a much sadder note: my family has been dealing with an enormous amount of stressful and challenging happenings. My dog passing away was one of the worst. I’m dedicating this year’s blog to my awesome companion of 13 years: my dog Christmas. Christmas passed away this year because of his advanced age (for his breed) and that he developed exercise induced collie collapse disorder within the last two weeks of his life. If you have a collie related dog: you need to know about this disease. It was certainly a surprise for my family. These active dogs will actually run themselves to death when they develop these symptoms. (This is not my dog in this video. The disease can be fatal, as it was for my elderly dog. I am grateful for the owner that posted this video. I would not have known what to look for without it) Exercise induced collie collapse disorder youtube video. (Since my family is in mourning: I ask that you refrain from judgmental or angry comments. I won’t approve them.)

Christmas was born on the 1 year anniversary of 9-11 and he was the perfect antidote to the anger and hurt that that 9-11 had caused. He was full of love, life and compassion. My heart is completely broken without my dog. I don’t regret a single moment I spent with my loving, loyal, deep, sensitive, and wonderful Australian Shepherd. Here’s to you sweetie. You will always be my “pooh bear”! I miss you every moment of my day.

I have had many dogs in my life. He was the absolute best.

You can read more about my awesome pets here: A How To: On Animals and Life My family owes a lot of their greatest experiences to these wonderful, loyal and incredibly special animals.

Kohlrabi Ham Bake!

This year has started off with a whole mess load of stress. We have had to gratefully step through doors (so that we could close them) while trying to remain open to new adventures. It’s been rough, but gratitude is an incredibly stabilizing force during loss and chaos. The one thing that has stayed constant is: my garden. Although most of the country is in a deep freeze, down here in Texas my garden is chugging along. This is a preview for the rest of the country’s spring. I advise everyone to take the plunge and try growing kohlrabi this year!

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Crazy looking kohlrabi. It’s the best kept garden secret out there!

Trying to grow cool weather crops this far south means planting in fall and harvesting mid winter. I recently pulled some Kohlrabi, turnips and carrots.

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I jump for joy when the kohlrabi is ready. It’s my very favorite vegetable (and it’s my mom’s favorite, too!) Kohlrabi may look funny but it is a tasty brassica. Brassicas are a big family and include: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, mustard, turnips, kohlrabi, kale, rutabaga, horseradish and many more. You will often hear them grouped together as cruciferous vegetables or cole crops. In the below recipe you can substitute rutabaga or turnips or use a mix. Use whatever you can find at the grocer or what you have growing, although I think the kohlrabi is the tastiest in this.

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That’s right. This weird looking fellow is what I am telling you to grow. You HAVE to try this! It comes in purple like the one in the photo or a light green. You peel the outside anyway so the exterior color doesn’t matter much. It looks pretty goofy and alien but it tastes divine!!!

 

Brassicas have great health benefits including antimicrobial effects, anticancer compounds and they may help your liver clean up toxins. They have a couple of unusual drawbacks to consider. If you have thyroid problems, do not eat these veggies raw. They can cause goiter in people who have iodine deficient thyroid issues. They may also cause colic in breastfed babies. Once they are cooked they lose most of their thyroid disrupting potential. If you are breastfeeding a colicky baby: try removing brassicas from your diet to see if it makes a difference.

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If you have thyroid disease: cooking these vegetables will greatly reduce goitrogens and nitriles, making them safe to eat in moderation. Don’t worry about these veggies if you don’t fall into the above two categories. For most people these vegetables are powerful, healthy additions to your diet.

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This is rutabaga. When I am outside of my kohlrabi growing window I often sub rutabaga or turnips in this. Those are root veggies and they are sweeter and less woody the smaller the root size. Look for turnips that are the size of baseballs (or smaller) and rutabaga that are the size of softballs (or smaller.)

Kohlrabi looks like a root vegetable but is actually a swollen piece of the stem. Do not plant them too close together as this will make them long and leggy and they will become woody. Also, do not try and grow these in the heat of summer: there is no removing the bitterness a brassica will develop in the heat. Cool weather will produce a sweet, round, root like vegetable with a taste somewhere between broccoli stems and rutabagas (rutabagas are a wonderful root vegetable. I find them at the grocer occasionally. They are also easy to grow. Once cooked: rutabagas remind me of a potato but with better flavor.)

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Like root vegetables in this family: you need to remove a band of fibrous tissue that surrounds the edible part of the kohlrabi. You can see the part that needs to be removed in this photo, it’s the white ring and everything outside of it. The easiest way to remove this area is to use a knife. You can use a vegetable peeler but: it will take a long time, and several passes, because of the amount that needs to be removed.

A lot of people enjoy kohlrabi raw. They have a slight bite when raw, like a very (very) mild radish or a turnip. I am one of the people that can’t eat raw brassicas because of thyroid disease, so I am very lucky that kohlrabi (like most cole crops) tastes delicious cooked with ham or bacon. I think kohlrabi was born for the recipe below and the result is a truly enjoyable comfort food!

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The entire plant is edible. The stems taste a little earthy (like beets) to me. The leaves are very thick and can be cooked like kale or collard greens. Save the leaves and stems for another recipe. The real hero of this plant is the swollen stem. Once they are cooked they become slightly sweet and wonderfully savory. They are incredibly delicious and once you’ve tried them you will, forever after, be sure to add plenty of space for them in the spring/fall garden.

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This is a young kohlrabi plant before the stem begins to swell.

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This gets to be a good sized plant. Give it room (a foot or more per plant) and it will reward you with a softball sized swollen stem.

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Almost time! This kohlrabi is swelling and just about ready to pick. I let mine get to be the size of a softball but you can pull them and use them when they’re smaller (although, why would you short yourself with a smaller plant?!) This is when patience pays off.

People in the know impatiently wait for their kohlrabi to mature and do a special kohlrabi “happy dance” when they are ready to pick! Trust me. I’m not the only one head over heals in love with this vegetable: it’s really that good!

Kohlrabi Ham Bake:

Ingredients:

3 Tbs Butter or Bacon Grease

4 Kohlrabi, Peeled and Diced (Or any mix of: turnip, rutabaga and/or kohlrabi)

8 oz. Ham Steak, Diced

Fist Sized Amount of Fresh Chopped Parsley

4 Egg Yolks

1 Cup Heavy Cream, Table Cream or 1/2 and 1/2

3 Tbs All Purpose Flour

1 tsp Mace (No, this isn’t the stuff you spray on attackers! You’ll find it in the spice isle.)

1/8 tsp (+/- To Your Liking) Each Of Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. In a large skillet, melt the butter or bacon grease on medium heat. Add the diced kohlrabi and gently cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Beat the egg yolks and whisk in the heavy cream, flour, mace, salt and pepper until well combined.

3. Place half of the cooked kohlrabi in a greased, large oven-proof casserole dish. Layer the ham and parsley and top with the rest of the kohlrabi. Pour sauce over the mixture. The thicker you layer this: the longer it is going to take to bake. I keep mine fairly thin and wait until the center is bubbling to call it done. If you make this really thick the outside will be done long before the inside so try to keep it thin. If yours is starting to set on the outside and the center is not done, go ahead and stir it. It won’t taste any different than if you have neat layers and you will get a better end product if it is all finished cooking at the same time.

4. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until the center is bubbling and no longer runny. Serve immediately. You can add grated cheese to the top if you like, but I prefer the recipe as is.

Serves 4.

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Once you try this, you will be a convert to this weird looking vegetable. It’s truly a shame that more people don’t have access to this veggie. The seeds are easy to sprout and will come up in your spring garden with the beets and peas…but once you’ve had kohlrabi: those other spring vegetables won’t matter. Spring and fall will start to mean “Kohlrabi season”. On top of your personal enjoyment: you can surprise and convert your friends into kohlrabi lovers when you serve this underused garden star. Then show them the crazy looking raw stem: It’s guaranteed to “wow” the uninitiated!