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!

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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 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!

 

Stained Glass Cookies!

20141219_220815I always have these great ideas about making everyone gifts. Then it gets down to the last minute and I end up having picked ideas that are way too complex to complete in the time I have left. These can be done in one day. I just finished them and they are beautiful! The cookies were so much fun to make and I gave them individually to bus drivers, teachers and I even have some for our neighbors.

If you feel like you are backed against the wall and don’t cook frequently or don’t have a lot of experience baking. Stop now! Don’t ruin your own Christmas trying to make everyone on your list happy. If you really aren’t looking forward to trying these ideas or you already are behind with other things: go pick up some cute ornaments and put them in some festive bags and call it done! You deserve a great Christmas season, too! If you think you can do these without going crazy: I guarantee these are fun, simple and they will be well received.

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Stained Glass Cookies

You need:

A sugar cookie dough base (From scratch: or pick up a bag of cookie mix from the grocer.)

Translucent hard candy (I used a bag of Jolly Ranchers)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F or follow the directions in your recipe or on your bag of cookie mix.

I saw these in my Family Fun magazine and knew I had to try them. They made their cookies from scratch. Yeah. I’m too busy right now and I can find bagged cookie mix in the grocery store. These can definitely be done from scratch but you are adding more time and work to this that you don’t have to. If you buy a bag of sugar cookie mix: look for the directions on the back for cut out cookies and follow that recipe. You will either be adding a lot less butter or adding flour to the mix. I also don’t mind scraping cookies from cookie mixes into the trash if they don’t work out. The first batch I lost three out of twelve cookies. Part of it is my oven but the other part is you are combining two very different main ingredients: dough and hard candy. Getting them to come out perfect takes some work and practice.

However, those not so perfect cookies make great treats for my kids (and for me). We don’t care what they look like! The best thing about these cookies is they are impressive enough to give a single cookie as a gift. That means you have way less to do to have finished presents for people like your mailman or kid’s bus driver.

Make your cookie dough according to the directions for the cut out cookie recipe on the bag (or if you’re making a bunch of cookies and want to make yours from scratch: you can use your own recipe.)

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Roll out your cookie dough on a floured surface. Keep adding flour to your rolling pin, cookie cutters and the surface of your dough as you go so the cookie dough behaves itself. You want these thin (otherwise they will puff up and you will loose your design.) Aim for 1/4 inch thickness. Don’t worry, they will hold together with their rigid candy center.

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I used a drinking glass to use as my original cut out for the cookies.

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If you don’t get a clean outline with a glass: when you transfer the cookie to the baking sheet tap the side of the cookie with the flat side of a butter knife until you have a sharp edge on the cookie.

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After you get your cookies cut out (and before you cut the second interior shape out): put them on a room temperature cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (Yes. you definitely want to use the parchment paper and not just a non stick cookie sheet.)

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I only bake 6 cookies a sheet with this method (These are large showy cookies. Don’t waste your time making little ones!) and the parchment paper keeps everything clean and reusing the sheets is easy.

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Get out your interior cookie cutter. Pick something simple. My first batch had a snowflake design and it ended up being a mess with all of the points the candy had to melt into. I now am using a heart shape and they turn out exactly like I want them too. Dip the cutter in flour between each cut out. If the dough doesn’t come up with the cutter use a butter knife to lift the interior out.

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If you end up with a bunch of flour in the cut out: gently blow it out.

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Refrigerate your tray! You need to do this to keep your cookie shape crisp. Put them in for 10-15 minutes. If you are stacking them in the fridge over what is already in your refrigerator: you can do it by arranging what is in there so they fit flatly.

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When your trays are ready: take them out of the refrigerator and quickly add your hard candy to the center. From experience I have found that I need more than one candy per cookie. I suggest you bake a single cookie to test what you need to do, rather than end up with a mess and having a whole tray (or two) that didn’t work.

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I recommend if you are going to add a second candy to the cookie, that you wait until half way through baking. I time my cookies for 3 minutes and then remove the trays from the oven, add the extra candy and put the trays back in (while switching the racks that the trays were on). After you put them back in the oven: Do not take your eyes off of them! They will go from unfinished to overdone very quickly. The main problem you will have with the candy is when it gets hot enough it will start bubbling and it will boil up and out of the cookie. Adding the second candy in the middle of the bake time lowers the temperature of the candy that is already baking.

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Hopefully, this will keep the candy from boiling up and ruining the look of the cookie. Keep an eye on your cookies after you put them back in. Watch for bubbling: which can ruin the cookie if you let it get out of the center of the cookie. You want the outside of your cookie to just start to brown. Take them out and let them cool a minute or so before you slide the sheet of parchment with the cookies off on the counter to finish cooling.

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They should separate from the paper without the candy bending as you slide them off of your tray. (If you move them before the center has started to solidify you will break the cookies.) Be very careful of the candy while it is hot. This could potentially cause a very bad burn if it gets on your skin!

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If you get the very outside of the cookie a little too brown you can take a knife and gently remove that portion while the cookies are still warm.

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Make sure you wrap them in something clear because they are really pretty!

20141217_215035Cling wrap will make the cookie look even prettier if you fold the edges over the back. It creates a crinkling effect. If you are sending these to school or somewhere where you need more than one for a teacher and teacher’s aide(s): gently wrap when in a parchment paper envelope and stack them in a plastic container.

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Tip the container gently to see if the cookies are in there solidly. I was able to send three cookies for teachers in a bento box with my youngest (and he didn’t destroy them in his backpack on the bus.) Make sure you let whoever you are giving these to know that they are to eat. They look like ornaments and I had a few people question what they were. They are truly beautiful and I was happy to give them out.

As you can see from the different colors these would be great ideas for a variety of holidays and celebrations. Choose the colors to match: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, your wedding or batchelorette party colors or birthday. You could find orange and black candy for Halloween. The applications are endless!

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My last few tips are these:

1. Most recipes you find for these are for small cookies and some require you break the hard candy into pieces so they fit in those small cookies. Don’t bother with those. It is nearly impossible to break hard candy without having pieces shoot across the room and stick to everything. Also, they won’t be impressive enough to give as single gifts if they are small.

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2. After you take the cookies out (to put the second candy in): squat down and watch these through your oven window  If you see the candy flatten out and start to bubble they are probably done. They will brown a little more as they start to cool.  So, it’s better to have them just done than a little brown.

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3. Get to know your oven! It you have a gas oven (like I do), move the racks as far away from the heat source as you can. If you are lucky enough to have a convection oven: turn it on! If you notice that the cookies are starting to brown differently in the oven: take advantage of the fact that you remove these 1/2 way through cooking, and rearrange the trays so that they all have a turn in the hot spot.

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4. Store the cookies between the parchment you used to cook them on. I just cut the used parchment in half and continually fold it over and add more parchment strips as I add cookies.

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5. If you are giving more than one to someone: pick a plain white or silver paper plate. The cookies are incredibly beautiful and patterns behind them will just distract from their beauty. If you are giving just one and the recipients are not formal ones (like your kids bus driver or teacher instead of your boss or someone else you’d like to really impress) you can just drop them in a ziplock bag folded over and stapled with a piece of wrapping paper used for a tag. You could get fancy with glassine envelopes (or just make your own out of more parchment paper) add ribbon and tags. Whatever you do (and no matter how you choose to present them): the cookies will impress!

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If you post your finished product, remember where you got your instructions and please link back to my page! Thanks and Merry Christmas!!!

Last Minute Christmas Gift

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Want to know what I made at the last minute this year? Fun winter themed footprints from my kids! If you are searching for something you can complete quickly: the shirts/sweatshirts need time to dry in between layers but it won’t take too long if you follow my  directions.

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I chose a winter theme (rather than Christmas) because if you gift these to grandma and grandpa: they can wear these outside of the Christmas season! Also, if these arrive late: who cares!? Grandma and grandpa will still love them and be able to wear them until it gets warm out. If your Christmas season is during the warm months (those of you South of the equator) you can give these during the colder months of your year.

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You need:

Sweatshirt/s Or T-shirt/s (in the correct size/s for the recipient and pre-launder them so you remove the chemicals that come on new clothing.)

Plain Old Acrylic Craft Paint (you do not need special fabric or additives and those would have longer drying times. Let your recipients know that they should wash these on delicate to keep the paint it’s freshest looking. Although, these should stand up to regular washing.) I used: brown, green, red, black and white

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Craft Paint Brushes (You really only need: one large brush to fill areas and one small brush for edges and details)

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Chalk (I used my kids sidewalk chalk, but thinner chalk or chalk made for marking fabric would work better.)

A Pencil Or Washable Marker

A Plate For Paint (with some cling wrap to keep the paint fresh between layers)

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Paper Towels: for clean up on mistakes, chalk removal and to moisten the fabric before you paint details. (The only paint I had trouble with on damp shirts was red because it bled. I would recommend wetting the shirt/sweatshirts for all other colors)

Cardboard: to keep foot prints off the floor and to test your first prints

A Way To Clean Up! A bathtub full of warm water for older kids or warm water on paper towels to clean paint off of a baby’s foot.

Time To Do This (Mine took two days to complete with the drying times included.)

 

Instructions:

Get out your supplies. Put on the shirt or sweatshirt (if these are too small for you to wear hold them up against your shoulders so they drape like you are wearing them.) Go in front of a mirror and use the chalk to make a large square where you would like the footprints to be. Make sure your bottom line is straight and that you have left room for whatever labels and names you want to add below the feet.

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Grab your kids and go in the bathroom! This is really messy while your kids are involved! Choose the foot you want to use (or if you are using both of one child’s feet start with one foot first.) Paint your kiddo’s foot with black craft paint and test stamp it on the cardboard. Once you’ve figured out how much paint you need for a good stamp CAREFULLY stamp your kids foot on the shirt with their toes at the bottom line. (If you are dealing with a baby put some cardboard inside the shirt so you can stamp sideways while the baby lays on it’s back. Wait until they are sleeping heavily to do this or they will wiggle their toes. You may only have one shot at this per nap.) Make sure you have room to either hang these out of the way immediately or have a place you are able to put them flat to dry!

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Once you get a stamp: quickly wash your kids foot off or they will put black paint everywhere! It doesn’t have to be perfect because you will be filling it in with more paint in a moment. Get all of prints that you want to use. (For a large family this could take some patience!) If you really mess this up and need to start over: carefully wipe off as much paint as you can and scrub, then wash the shirt well.

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Once you and your kids are cleaned up take the shirt in on a clean hard surface and fill the footprints in until they are solid. It is easier to push the paint towards a line than pull it across the fabric. A moist surface accepts paint better than a dry one will.

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Let the foot prints dry completely.

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Draw in your details on the foot print with a pencil or chalk.

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Draw in your labels or names with a washable marker or chalk (pencil doesn’t work well directly on fabric.)

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Paint your large white front on the penguins, add wings in black, paint in the names and paint the background colors on any details you want to add.

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Let dry.

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Finish painting details. Let dry. Use your wet paper towels to remove the chalk markings and any mistakes you make as you are going (the paint is really hard to completely remove so try not to make any big changes.)

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Get ready to impress your gift recipient! We mailed ours to the grandparents but if you are going to see them this Christmas: you still have time to finish these!

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Have fun, try not to completely stress out and if you post your work online please remember where you got your instructions and link back to this page! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

Decadent Herbal Cold Remedy: Turmeric Milk

I’m sick. This has been a bad year for colds in our home. My youngest boy started school and he loves to germ up while he’s there and then come home and share! I love my little walking petri dishes, but I am tired of the viral circus that they star in!

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About a decade ago I decided I was going to go all herbal with my remedies. I had good intentions, but eventually there were some things I found Western medicine necessary for. Cold viruses were not one of them. These little nasties are not treated here in the US by doctors. Your every day US citizen doesn’t have a cold treatment repertoire much outside of half-hearted attempts to use echinacea or zinc.

I have a wonderful friend from South India who grew up near Hyderabad. She was my roommate for a quite a while and I learned a lot about Indian culture through our friendship. As our friendship grew: I started a journey into trying to understand the Hindu religion, the caste system she was expected to marry into (which is quite a departure from my decidedly Western viewpoint) and her view of Ghandi (which was not what I expected, but that I respect). I grew to appreciate her views, as I attempted to glimpse the world through my friend’s perspective on reality, by asking lots of questions and visiting her temple (the service always seemed like a huge party and everyone is fed at the end). During this time I also fell in love with South Indian cuisine. Turmeric has a vital role in those curried dishes.

While I attempted to understand an entire country through my friend’s individual experience: I began to marvel at a culture with a long, rich and interesting history. One of the key pieces of India’s puzzle (at least for me) is Ayurveda. I will not pretend to be fluent in the medical practice of Ayurveda, never the less: I find it fascinating. The diagnosis of illness and treatment in Ayurveda relies on examining your dominant dosha. Doshas are believed to be one of three life forces (or energies) in your body. They are said to be a combination of the 5 basic elements in the Universe. “People may be of a predominant dosha prakruti (constitution), but all doshas have the basic elements within them.” -Wikipedia (Learn more about doshas here: LINK)

You can take a fun test here and see what your dominant dosha is: http://doshaquiz.chopra.com/

The above dosha quiz is on a site written by Deepak Chopra. I have been interested in his views for quite a while. I saw him speak at a lecture once about 15 years ago…I recommend reading his books, instead. It was quite a snoozefest (although, maybe he was just having a bad day.)

I also own a fantastic hybrid style herbal remedy book by Andrew Chevallier. It is hands down the most complete, reliable and useful book in my library. I have relied on it to assemble my daily teas that I make from plants in my garden. I use this book a lot!

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So, with my fixation on herbal remedies and interest in Ayurvedic medicine I stumbled across Turmeric milk (also known as golden milk, yellow milk and originally: haldi ka doodh) as a traditional cold remedy. I have been playing around with my recipe for this for several years. I am now at the point where I would choose (and do choose!) this drink over hot cocoa: I think it’s that good!

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If you are unfamiliar with turmeric and it’s active compound curcumin (Read up on curcumin here: LINK) it is touted as a “super herb” used to treat things as varied as: “arthritis, heartburn (dyspepsia), stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems and gallbladder disorders. It is also used for headaches, bronchitis, colds, lung infections, fibromyalgia, leprosy, fever, menstrual problems, and cancer. Other uses include depression, Alzheimer’s disease, water retention, worms, and kidney problems.” (Source: Webmd )

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I can attest to its effectiveness against depression and I knock out colds with it regularly. I can’t take the herbal supplement pills because I get gastrointestinal problems. They’re just too strong. I still want the effect of turmeric, but I have to watch how I ingest it. That is where this recipe comes in.

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I also add cinnamon (which is frequently cassia: a cheaper relative of cinnamon and interchangeable in labeling in the United States. Learn more here: LINK) Cinnamon is a folk remedy for regulating diabetes: “In addition to diabetes, Cassia cinnamon is used for gas (flatulence), muscle and stomach spasms, preventing nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, infections, the common cold, and loss of appetite.” (Source: Webmd ) I add it to my turmeric milk for flavor and because it is a “warming” spice that is supposed to help fight colds. Learn more here: LINK

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I add the vanilla for flavor (I don’t use artificial vanillin, but you can. Artificial vanillin is a synthetic flavoring) but it is reputed to help with digestion and fever: “People take vanilla to treat intestinal gas and fever.” (Source Webmd: LINK)

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These herb’s health benefit claims are not scientifically proven but at the very least: they don’t hurt. Personally, I have found them helpful and you may, too. Either way, learning more about your dominant dosha is a fun way to try to wrap your head around your health and your body. A warm cup of turmeric milk is also a soothing way to treat yourself. You may also be improving your health by drinking it.

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I advise that you make sure whatever you use as the liquid base has fat in it, if you are prone to an upset stomach. I use cow’s milk but almond milk or coconut milk (etc) would work well, too. The fat seems to keep the spice from upsetting my stomach…and with this recipe: turmeric milk becomes a decadent wonder! You can definitely spend more time making this, but I’m more practical than purist, so this is how I do it:

Ingredients:

Milk (or milk substitute)

Approximately 1/4-1/2 tsp Turmeric (You may also make a paste with butter or ghee and heat it with the turmeric before adding to the milk, although I now skip that step.)

Approximately 1/8-1/4 tsp Cinnamon

Two or three drops of Vanilla

Sweetener of your choice: to taste

Marshmallows (If you really want a treat!)

Directions:

Find a mug you’d like to drink this out of and fill it with hot milk or a milk substitute. If your milk gets hot enough that it forms a skin, skim that off or it will bind your spices together and they will sink to the bottom of your cup unmixed. (This is why most traditional recipes combine butter or ghee with the spices and heat them first. Going that direction will give you a more consistent mixture but it is extra time and extra calories that I choose not to use with this, especially since what I’ve usually got on hand is whole milk.)

Sprinkle the turmeric and cinnamon into the milk (You can decide to increase or decrease the amount of the spices to suite your taste and tolerance.)

Add vanilla and a sweetener of your choice (I use Truvia, which is a no calorie sugar free stevia product) and stir until well mixed.

If you like: you can add marshmallows at this point (I totally recommend it!)

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That is my cold/depression fighting, warm fuzzy, yummy, decadent way to get your daily dose of turmeric, vanilla and cinnamon (and everyone deserves marshmallows when they feel yucky!) These should help you get well soon!

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I also use the above supplements to help with a viral illness. I have found them to be very useful and I use them in conjunction with the turmeric milk. I use oil of oregano, garlic pills (You lose some effectiveness going with an odorless variety like I have in this picture.) and zinc. All of these together: usually keep me out of bed and I also deal with minimal symptoms. I recommend them, although you should be careful adding anything new to an herbal regimen. Make sure read the instructions on the bottle and ask your doctor if any of these are appropriate for you or if they will interfere with any other medications you are taking.

On a side note: while I was fighting my cold I decided to make marmalade with the kumquats I grew this year. It was a great success but definitely not something you just “throw together and can”! I’ll post my recipe on here soon. In the mean time here are some pictures of my beautiful kumquat marmalade:

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Yummy!