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Barefoot and Dirty


Hobby Gardens

There are as many reasons to garden as there are gardeners. Sure, everyone knows food gardening. Flower gardening and herb gardening are the other most popular forms of gardening. I engage in all three. However, there are other types of gardens, as well. I like to grow small gardens to support my hobbies. In my bid to become more sustainable, I try to produce as much of the things we need as possible. It’s also a good way to use that Master’s degree I paid for so dearly! I realize that not everyone has unlimited gardening space, but oftentimes the plants we use in our arts and crafts are perfectly suitable to mingle with the flowers in your front yard or the vegetables in your kitchen garden. Plus, you don’t have to have a degree in horticulture to grow plants. Many of the plants that are used for crafts are easily grown.

Everyone in my family is an artist of some kind. My son writes. My daughter draws and paints and has done some floral arranging. My husband carves and builds. I draw, sew, embroider, press flowers and leaves, and engage in herbalism in various aspects. I sew dolls, both fancy and primitive, and clothes for the family. I’m that person who goes shopping and rarely buys anything because my standard reaction is “oh, I can make that myself”. In order to keep myself in craft supplies without emptying the bank account, I’ve learned to grow many of my supplies.

My daughter and I both have very sensitive skin, so I make soaps and lotions that are gentle enough for us to safely use. For that, I grow many herbs that condition the skin, such as rose, calendula, chamomile, aloe and elder. I also grow many flowers and herbs for their fragrance since we also avoid synthetic perfumes. Jasmine, rose, magnolia, and mint are just a few of the plants that provide wonderful fragrance for soaps and lotions. I have a small copper alembic still that I use to distill hydrosols (floral waters) from many of my plants. I’m working on distilling my own essential oils, but haven’t quite mastered that one, yet. I continue to persevere, though! The mint plant currently engulfing my back porch provides a great deal of material with which to experiment (If anybody needs mint plants, feel free to email me. I can hook you up!). It is to this end that I grow a great deal of aloe. With our brutal sun, burns are common occurrences. Soap enriched with aloe is just the thing to take away the burn.

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Night-Blooming Jasmine

We also prefer herbal medicines. Of course, here’s my disclaimer: ALWAYS seek professional medical help for serious ailments and injuries! For insect stings, abrasions, burns, coughs, etcetera, however, we stick to our herbal concoctions. My son likes to tease and refer to them as my “magic potions”. He says they work like magic, so it must be witchcraft. For my “potions”, I grow plants such as yarrow, aloe, comfrey, lavender, mint, the plantain from my vegetable garden (see my previous post on weeds), echinacea, fennel, and a host of others. Of course, many of my “hobby” plants are upstanding members of the vegetable garden or flower gardens, etc. My gardens are often intermingled and multi-purpose. Calendulas and yarrow are easy to slip in among the flowers in the front flower beds, as are purple coneflowers and lavender, leaving room in the herb garden for other plants.

My husband has recently developed an interest in brewing his own ale. I’m currently in the process of designing a new garden to support that hobby. That one will include hops (of course!), grains such as barley, and a variety of herbs like angelica, mint, and caraway. He likes Strega, an herbal liqueur, so I’m currently researching the herbs used to make it to see if I can incorporate them into his garden, as well. We already grow wheat in our vegetable garden, so he can use that for his brewing, too, as well as many of our fruits and vegetables.

I’ve begun looking into dyeing my own fabrics for some of my dolls. Yes, I use tea already, but I want to try dyeing some homespun and muslin for some of my old-fashioned dolls. I set aside a small little plot in our yard and did some research to decide which plants I wanted to try. One of the plants that I wanted for yellow dye was turmeric. It is a plant that I know will grow here and it was listed as one that was good for beginners in dyeing. I took a small section of turmeric root, cut it into sections and potted them up. I now have 6 healthy little turmeric plants waiting to be transplanted. The best part is that these plants will yield supplies for my dyeing experiments, but will also yield food for the kitchen. I have several packets of seeds for various dye plants, such as true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), hopi dye sunflowers, and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) waiting to be planted in the spring. Of course, the beets and purple carrots in my vegetable garden will work for dyeing fabric, as well.

My flower gardens provide many beautiful specimens for my daughter to use in her floral design, not to mention plenty of subjects for her drawing and painting, as well as my drawing and photography. They also provide plenty of material to fill my flower press.

These are just some of the gardens I grow to support our hobbies. There are so many hobbies that can be enjoyed with homegrown supplies. A weaver’s garden can include flax and cotton. Cotton actually grows in more than just white. We experimented with a pale green cotton this summer that was just lovely. Take it a bit further and include dye plants, such as indigo, goldenrod, turmeric, madder and sunflowers, to name only a few. For those who enjoy basket-weaving, a garden full of various ornamental grasses and reeds is a simple project that can yield a myriad of supplies and still provide a lovely addition to the landscape. Wheat would be a perfect example of a plant that can be grown for both crafts and food. For those who press and dry flowers, a garden is a place to grow all kinds of plants that will provide lovely colors and textures for your art. The list is endless.

The point is that there is no need to make gardening separate from your other hobbies. Yes, gardening can save money at the grocery store, but it can also save you quite a bit at the craft store, as well. It is also a nice way to try new plants for your gardens. Besides, the fragrance from herbs hung to dry is absolutely amazing! Another great reason is the satisfaction of knowing where your supplies come from and how they were grown. So, if gardening is a hobby you happen to enjoy, take a look at your other activities. Do any of them use plant materials? If so, think about growing your own. Many plants that seem difficult are actually quite easy to grow and can fit in nicely with any flower bed arrangement. It’s a great way to experiment, and you may find new garden plants that you absolutely love or discover new aspects of old favorites (who knew aloe vera flowers were so lovely?).

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Aloe in full bloom

This is the hand cream I use after gardening. It works miracles and smells like my summer roses.

Gardener’s Hand Cream

Makes 3 oz.

Ingredients:

• 1-1/2 tsp. cocoa butter
• 1 tsp. grated beeswax
• 1 tbsp. almond oil
• 3 tbsp. rose water
• 2 tsp. emulsifying wax
• 10 drops rose oil

Directions: Melt cocoa butter, beeswax, and almond oil in a double boiler. Remove from heat. Warm rose water and emulsifying wax slowly until wax has melted. Whisk rose water mixture into the cocoa butter mixture very slowly and continue whisking until the cream cools. Add rose oil and stir. Store in a sterilized jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator.

The Birds and the Bees

It’s November on the Gulf Coast. The weather has finally cooled off and windows and doors are open to let in the fresh air. Hurricane cleanup continues. Life has settled down into a routine once again.

Here on the homestead, we’ve hatched out our annual batch of chicks, so the house is filled with peeps. It’s a month late, but that’s okay. We have 15 babies, five of which are roosters. We’ve begun socializing them, so every evening is play time. Hurricane or not, life on the homestead carries on.

One of the things we do every fall is make sure that pollinators are happy for the winter. When you mention pollinators, everyone generally thinks bees, but bees are only one of many. At our house, we have bees, yes, but we also have hummingbirds, butterflies, wasps, moths, and even bats. We try to accommodate for all of them.

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Not necessarily the best pollinator, but she tries.
Photo by Sherry Smith

A fail-proof method of attracting butterflies to your garden is to plant milkweed. Milkweed is a host plant for the beautiful monarch butterfly, but it is an attractive garden flower, as well. Here on the coast, it is a hardy perennial, evergreen when we have particularly mild winters. We have milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing in our front yard and in our back yard. As a consequence, we always seem to have monarchs fluttering around, along with a myriad of other butterflies. I have one caution, though, with growing milkweed: it can be very invasive. It produces seedpods full of seeds that are reminiscent of dandelions with their fuzzy little parachutes carrying them far and wide. If you don’t want an entire yard full of milkweed, I would recommend snipping off the seedpods before they open.

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A beautiful monarch visiting the milkweed.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Every fall, we plant flowers for the bees. We also allow the patches of Dutch white clover that spring up all over our lawn to remain for them. The bees love the flowers; plus the plant itself is one that fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere so it can help feed the soil. What many don’t realize is that the flowers are edible. They make a sweet jelly that is a fresh treat during the winter. Along with the white clover, we can also plant unused garden beds with crimson clover as a cover crop. Again, the bees love it and it feeds the soil, and it also crowds out any weeds that may want to spring up. There are many garden flowers and herbs that are good sources of nectar for bees that bloom in our mild winters. Bachelor’s buttons, calendula, borage, yarrow, rosemary, and primrose are just a few.

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One of our honeybees visiting the red powder puff tree.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to our yard. We hang feeders around for them, but they do love our flowers. We don’t see quite as many of them in deep winter, i.e. January and February, but here it is November and we still have them flitting about. Many of the same flowers that attract butterflies also appeal to the little hummingbirds. They love our milkweed as much as the butterflies, but they also love our pride of Barbados and morning glories. We often see them flitting about our back yard visiting one flower after another. They also like to sit on the pride of Barbados branches and rest. During the hurricane, we had a couple of hummingbirds take shelter in the dense growth. In fall, we check to make sure all of our feeders are clean and filled. In planting flowers for butterflies, we are also planting flowers suitable for the hummingbirds.

When I mention wasps as pollinators, many people look at me strangely and back away slowly. It’s true, though. We would never have figs if not for the wasps that pollinate them. While we don’t encourage them to hang out on the back porch with us while we enjoy a drink and a sunset, we do encourage them to build nests in the fig tree. Consequently, our tree is loaded with sweet fruit (I’m not-so-patiently waiting for them to ripen so I can make jam!), and my husband has to mow around the fruit trees carefully. Wasps also pollinate the native goldenrod that turns our southern fields to gold in the fall.

Bats are important pollinators down here. Bananas, guavas and mangoes are all pollinated by bats, as are agave. Not only that, but the bats also eat insects that can damage the plants. Little wooden bat houses are a great way to make these helpful creatures feel welcome. We love our bats down here. They happily eat the mosquitoes that try so hard to make our lives miserable here in the south. We try to encourage them to stay every way we can!

Moths are another nocturnal pollinator. They pollinate members of the Dianthus genus, such as sweet William and pinks. They also pollinate honeysuckle and evening primrose. Moths are also responsible for pollinating our night-blooming jasmine. What would the South be without the fragrance of jasmine in the moonlit garden? Dianthus are typically fall and winter flowers here on the coast, so we make sure to plant plenty of them for the moths.

Native wildflowers are probably the best choice for attracting a variety of pollinators. These are plants that have evolved side-by-side with the local pollinators, and often they contain an abundance of nectar while hybrids can be sterile and contain none. Open-pollinated heirlooms are another good choice for attracting these garden friends. These are plants that still require pollination to propagate, thus the reason they are so popular with gardeners who like to save seeds from season to season.

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The monarch caterpillars are just as striking as the butterflies.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Providing shelter is also an easy way to encourage pollinators to stay awhile. As I mentioned, simple wooden bat houses attached to trees or poles will encourage these nocturnal pollinators. Keeping birdbaths or small dishes filled with clean water will encourage bees and butterflies to linger. The mason bee houses available in so many garden centers are easy enough to either buy or build. Obviously, not everyone can raise bees in their back yard, but if it is possible, why not? Our bees have quickly become indispensable since we’ve had them. Our summer harvest was abundant with all of the bees buzzing around the flowers, in spite of the hurricane and flooding. As an added benefit, next year, we’ll be able to harvest our own fresh honey and beeswax. I’m all for producing as much of the food I feed my family as possible.

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Our porches are usually covered with these.
Photo by Sherry Smith

One of the things about living in a mild-winter area is that the pollinators who typically migrate south to escape the cold end up here for at least part of the winter. The ones who hide away for the winter in northern regions are still out and about down here. There is seldom a freeze to encourage them to hibernate or move on. We like to do as much as we can to help these creatures survive the winter months when nectar can be scarce, and we like to provide them with shelter when they need it. To this end, we make it a point to plant as many pollinator-friendly plants as possible. They repay us by pollinating our winter garden. We consider it a win-win!


Here is my recipe for jam made with fresh figs. It makes four 1/2-pint jars. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

• Approximately 3 pounds of figs (washed with stems removed)
• 2 cups sugar
• Juice of 1 lemon

Directions:

1. In a large saucepan, combine the figs, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the cover and continue simmering, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens. Once the jam has thickened considerably, begin to stir constantly to keep it from scorching.

2. Fill sterilized jars with the hot fig jam, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Put lids and bands on jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

After The Storms

Living on the Gulf Coast can be amazing. We don’t freeze in the winter. Spring and Autumn have fabulous weather. We can wear shorts on Christmas Day. However, then we have these years where a hurricane decides to stop in for a visit. This has been such a year. Hurricane Harvey stopped in to say hi, and definitely overstayed his welcome. Harvey wasn’t our usual hurricane, though. He was much more.

The thing about our hurricanes is that they blow in, topple trees, wreck houses, create huge surges that threaten our seawalls, and then they blow back out leaving us with high temperatures, high humidity levels, and no power. The whole thing is very unpleasant. Harvey, on the other hand, blew in and stayed awhile, dumping so much rain on us that we were under water for days. Damages to homes didn’t consist of simple roof repairs from shingles that had been blown loose. No, we’re having to repair pier and beam foundations because of damage done from underneath the floors and having to gut houses because of drywall damage done by rising flood waters. This year, it was different.

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One of many roads in town

Of course, as with every occurrence today, there are the memes floating around the internet making jokes about Texas and Harvey, and believe me, even in tragedy, we can laugh along with the rest of the country. Unfortunately, reality always intrudes. The reality is heart-wrenching. Many lost everything. In the aftermath, driving through our small rural town, we saw people clearing out their homes, furniture, clothing, carpet, wet drywall. There were huge piles of the debris of peoples’ lives sitting at the curb waiting for the sanitation department to come and haul it away. There were people who literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs, no shoes, no food, nothing. Donation centers sprang up everywhere. Neighbors were helping each other, commiserating with each other. The community pulled together.

Our house sits on property that was formerly a rice field. Yes, we flooded. We have a pier and beam foundation, so our house sits up high enough off the ground that the flood waters never came inside. Our entire property was over a foot underwater, though. Our house literally became an island. Our septic tank filled quickly, so the toilets wouldn’t flush, the tubs and sinks wouldn’t drain. We had to wash dishes in 5-gallon buckets on the back porch. That being said, we were lucky. We waded out to the duck coop and opened the door each morning so the ducks could enjoy their new lake. Enjoy it, they did! The chickens, not so much, but at least their coop is raised off the ground so they could stay dry, if a little more confined than they would prefer. A menagerie of wildlife took refuge on our covered back porch for the duration of the storms and flooding: an armadillo, hummingbirds, tiny field mice, lizards. We fed them all and kept the dogs away from them. Once the waters receded, they went on their way, although I think the armadillo is currently digging burrows throughout our property.

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The ducks swimming through the yard

Many people see the news and think “oh, what a tragedy.” Yes, but the news only covers the big stories. The media can’t begin to describe the aftermath of such a disaster. There is danger in quickly rising water, yes, but there is also danger in whatever may be swimming in that water. We have many bayous down here and they are teeming with life, some of which is not so pleasant. Displaced alligators become a hazard. Water moccasins swim through that flood water. Nasty infection-causing bacteria are present in that water. The sewage overflow from septic systems is in that water. Something else the news media doesn’t report is the danger from swarms of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes thrive in these conditions and they come out in force carrying diseases of their own. Cities begin indiscriminate spraying of insecticides to kill the mosquitoes without taking into consideration of the risks that that adds to the list.

Another consequence of such a disaster is a shortage of many staples. Milk, eggs, bread, none were available in stores. Shelves were empty. Stores open with a skeleton crew to help as many as possible, but they have to ration supplies, imposing limits in order to spread supplies out as much as possible. Before the storm hit, people hoarded gas, so many gas stations had to close until supply trucks could get through. Again, we were lucky. We have our own eggs, I make bread, and we have all of the food that we have harvested and preserved all summer.

All of that taken into consideration, the clean-up has begun at our house. With our yard under water for days, obviously our vegetable garden is no more (except the red ripper cowpeas. I think those could survive a nuclear holocaust!), our flower beds are questionable since all the flowers were affected in some way, but the weeds seem to be bigger and healthier than ever, and we have algae growing on the sidewalk and the side of our house. Our carpets are giving off a musty odor, a sure indication that flood waters soaked through the floor from underneath. Our ceilings have water damage from the hurricane blowing water in through the ridge vents and creating roof leaks. Our lawn became so overgrown that snakes were a very real danger. Again, though, in comparison to many, we were lucky.

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Dead shrubs in the flower bed

The sun came out and temperatures actually dropped into the eighties, definitely not normal for the aftermath of a hurricane, but we weren’t going to complain. The ground dried enough for my husband to mow the lawn and the ditch out front by the road, so we no longer have to worry about any snakes hiding in tall grass. We’ve begun cleaning out garden beds, preparing them for our Fall garden by building back up the soil and clearing out moldy, rotted vegetation that could harbor pests or disease. We take one flower bed each weekend and clean it out, pulling weeds and disposing of dead plants, pruning dead wood off shrubs to stimulate new growth, taking inventory of what made it and what didn’t. We’ve hauled off the new fruit tree saplings that drowned and replanted the pomegranate tree that was uprooted by the hurricane. Perhaps this weekend, we will scour the shelves of garden centers looking for some plants to fill in the gaping holes left behind.

While this process has brought sadness in the loss of plants that we grew from seed, plants that we planted together as a family, it has also reminded us of the resilience of nature. With hurricane force winds that had trees leaning sideways and a foot and a half of standing water, every single one of my antique roses survived. Not only did they survive, but once the waters receded and the sun came out, we could see that they all had new growth already sprouting. A plant that many consider “high-maintenance” or “difficult to grow” or “delicate” not only survived a hurricane and a flood, but managed to thrive. Our Anna apple tree has new blossoms on it. My mallow plants are bursting into bloom along with our hibiscus and jasmine. The aloe and agave are putting out hundreds of babies. The crape myrtles are still covered in flowers. Yes, there was so much destruction, and so many people lost so much in material property, but we are part of nature, too, and we will put forth new growth. We will clean up and rebuild. Life will go on and so will we. One thing that our garden can teach us is that the most delicate flowers can survive the most violent of disasters, thrive, and grow to be bigger and more beautiful than ever.

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'Heirloom' rose

We will finish cleaning out our garden, perhaps expand it while we’re at it, and we will plant our fall crops. The flood waters leached many of the nutrients from our garden soil, but we will add lots of compost and other amendments and it will be ready for our new seeds. The drowned peppers, squashes, pumpkins, sorghum, corn and cucumbers will give way to clean beds planted with turnips, beets, chard, peas, bok choy, carrots, radishes, broccoli and various greens such as mustard, arugula and spinach. Bare spots in flower beds will be filled with new plants. The saplings will be replaced. Through it all, my gorgeous roses will continue to thrive, continue to bloom, and continue to remind us that we will too.

Going Native

Heirloom vegetables are the hottest thing in gardening right now. Passed down from generation to generation, heirlooms have proven themselves in both production and quality in their native regions. With good reason, these old favorites are enjoying their time in the spotlight once again, and they are becoming widespread as more and more people want to know where their food is coming from. I grow as many heirlooms as possible in my own gardens every year and many are a favorite staple in our garden. Every year, we grow the big red ripper cowpeas in our summer garden, and every year, we can count on huge harvests from these heat and drought-loving plants. They clamber over everything producing thousands of long pods full of dark red peas, oblivious to pests, weeds, heat or drought. They are a fail-proof crop for us.

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Big Red Ripper Cowpeas

As the trend continues toward revisiting the “old ways” in gardening and agriculture, I’m often excited at the various projects I see taking place across the world in terms of providing communities with good healthy food created by Mother Nature as opposed to a group of scientists. One area that I think needs to be revisited, however, is native food. Yes, people forage for mushrooms and wild berries, but what I’m talking about is the act of consciously cultivating those plants that are native to the area that our ancestors enjoyed. Studies have already shown that the diversity of foods has decreased at an alarming rate with the introduction of monocrop agriculture. No, we can’t control the crops that farmers choose to grow, but we can control the crops we choose to grow ourselves.

Many people who come into my garden shop lament failed crops, poor harvests, pest problems, disease problems, weather issues, the list goes on. I always give them the best advice I can, suggest modifications to their growing practices where warranted, and commiserate with them. I mean, as gardeners, we’ve ALL had failed crops. Some years are just better than others. When embarking on this fulfilling, and often frustrating, hobby, we embrace the idea that failure is not only an option, but is, in fact, a strong possibility. I mean, every single mortgage lifter tomato we planted this year was struck with blight. We didn’t get a single tomato. Our tomatillos, however, exploded and we got thousands of those. Okay, so instead of tomato sauce, we made salsa verde. This winter, we’ll eat more enchiladas and less pasta. It’s all good. The point is, in gardening, we are trying to tame Mother Nature and she doesn’t always cooperate.  There is a way around that, though.

Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular area, naturalizing, adapting to every aspect of that climate. These are tough plants that are fail-proof. I live on the Texas Gulf Coast where the gumbo we have for soil consists of hard clay and rocks. We enjoy floods all spring and drought all summer. Our humidity levels soar as high as our temperatures. We have nothing but super weeds because we experience no freezing temperatures to kill them off, and the only things more unpleasant than the fire ants are the mosquitoes. Many garden plants refuse to grow here without a lot of pampering and hard work. I’m more than willing to put forth that effort, but it is also nice to grow some natives just because they’re easy. Loquats and dewberries have naturalized here and require no maintenance. They faithfully produce fruit every year and keep us stocked with jellies, jams, preserves and pies. Best of all, once established, these natives require nothing from us – no extra watering, no soil amendments, no pruning. They just happily grow and produce. We have both planted in our yard.

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Dewberries

Dandelions have naturalized all over the world. Anyone with a lawn knows just how tough these cheerful little yellow flowers are. Dandelions are such amazing plants. The entire plant is edible. The young greens are good tossed in salads. The roots are roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers make a good addition to salads, yes, but they also make a sunny yellow jelly. Many use them for making wine. Instead of cursing them, use them! Give them a little corner of your yard and they’ll faithfully grow for years. Sunflowers are another native flower that has naturalized all over the country. Again, the flower petals make a sweet floral jelly or can be tossed in a salad. Of course, if you can beat the birds to them, the seeds are also edible.

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Sunflower jelly has a sweet floral taste.

If you want crops that don’t require irrigation, then there are many native succulents and cacti that are quite edible. Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) has become a popular flavoring for many things, including candies, sodas and cocktails. The fruit can also be used to make preserves and pastries. However, the pads can also be eaten as a vegetable. They are broken off, stripped of their spines and chopped. They have a taste somewhat reminiscent of green beans. Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) produces an edible fruit that was enjoyed by many western Native American tribes. Malabar spinach is a vining plant with succulent-like leaves that thrives in the heat. It produces plenty of greens when others have bolted. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is another little succulent that produces leaves with a slightly lemony taste. It can be substituted for spinach in most recipes, and can also be sprinkled in salads to brighten them up.

We all grow our favorite varieties of peppers in the garden. Whether sweet or hot, peppers are some of the most popular garden crops. One plant that I gave a special place in my yard is the chile pequin. Here in my area, it is a perennial woody shrub. It isn’t particularly beautiful or bushy like the hybrids we grow, but it is definitely worth the effort. The bird’s eye pepper, or pequin, is believed to be the wild ancestor of all those chiles for sale at your local garden center. It produces tiny little red peppers that pack a punch. While they aren’t big, they do make a spicy addition to any dish that needs a little heat and with them, a little goes a long way. Again, this is a wild native plant that requires little to no maintenance in my area.

While this short list is just a simple beginning, I recommend looking at the edible plants that are native to your area. The benefits are well worth the small amount of effort to locate these easy to grow plants. They require less work and less water, while adding plenty of local flavor to your cooking. They are resistant to the pests in your area, well-suited to your climate, and will produce happily with little interference on your part. Besides, how can you go wrong with dedicating a small area of your garden to crops that require no maintenance?

Summer Herbs

The summer canning season is in full swing. We’ve been harvesting in earnest and preparing the empty beds with compost for the next round of planting. Our tomatoes and tomatillos are finished, as are the summer squash. We will replant the squash and tomatoes for a fall crop. The watermelons are ripening. The red ripper cowpeas are huge and should start producing any day now. Our new bees are busy pollinating everything and we can definitely see the difference in our garden’s productivity. We have jars of pepper relish, serrano pickles, pickled jalapeños and serranoes, and various jams and jellies being added to the pantry weekly. Our freezer is stocked with sweet corn and green beans. This is the time of year when we are truly rewarded for all of our hours of labor and toil in the garden.

I love gardening, it’s true, but my favorite type of gardening is herb gardening. Herbs are hands-down the most versatile and useful plants in my entire yard. The bees love them. They smell good. They taste good. They make other foods taste good. They can be used for food, for beauty, for medicine, for crafts. They are easy to grow. They can be grown in small pots on the windowsill or tucked into small empty spots in the garden beds. Herbs are just amazing plants.

Being a Horticulture major, I’ve studied a lot of ethnobotany (people-plant interactions throughout history) and I’ve learned quite a bit about the various uses our ancestors had for different plants that aren’t commonly used today. I read about them and immediately want to try them (plant nerd!). I study and practice herbalism. I love to cook. I have a large herb garden that I’m planning to make even larger this fall. I plant herbs in my vegetable garden, my flower beds, in pots on the porch, wherever I can find a spot for them. They’re great for companion planting, as many of them repel garden pests and diseases or boost the health of other plants. There’s only one problem: my herbs grow out of control. We rarely have any hard freezes, so the herbs don’t really die back in the winter. They just get a new flush of growth.

I harvest my herbs and dry them, of course, as well as making macerated oils and tinctures. I use them to make soaps and lotions, creams and salves. I use them for medicine. I also freeze them. Obviously, I snip fresh herbs for cooking. It just seems like as many uses as I have for them, I just can’t seem to use them all up. So, to that end, I started experimenting. I’ve begun making herbal jellies.

It all began when I was outside picking blackberries to make jam. We have a wild honeysuckle vine growing around the shrubs that protect our well. I picked a flower and sucked out the nectar (yes, I still do that. Why should kids get all the good stuff?), and thought about what it would be like to be able to taste that floral sweetness all year. That’s when it hit me: why not make a honeysuckle jelly? I presented the idea to my husband, and off we went to forage for honeysuckle flowers.

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Honeysuckle Jelly

We gathered about 2 ½ cups of honeysuckle flowers from the trees around our house. I rinsed them and trimmed off any leaves, etc. I brought 2 cups of water to a boil, poured it over the flowers, and let them steep overnight. Adapting an old recipe, I came up with a good recipe for a small batch of jelly. The next day, I strained out all of the plant material and consigned it to the compost heap. I used the decoction to make jelly. It set beautifully and made the prettiest golden yellow jelly that tasted just like the honeysuckle flowers. It has a sweet taste with light floral undertones that is indescribable. Okay, so that was a definite success. Inspiration struck again: why not use several of my other herbs?

So, for the past week, I’ve been experimenting with making jelly using herbs and edible flowers from my garden. So far, I’ve made a jelly using lemon balm that tastes exactly like the old-fashioned lemon drops we ate as children. I’ve made jelly using my garden mint (that is currently taking over one of my flower beds) that tasted like candy canes. I’ve made jelly using lavender flowers and vanilla extract that has a definite sweet floral taste. Next on my list is a jelly using lemongrass and a piece of ginger. This has proven to be a very good use of my excess herbs, and we are already rooting cuttings of the honeysuckle vines to plant along our fence.

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Lemon Balm Jelly

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Lavender Vanilla Jelly

I’m currently planning my herb garden. I always have a long list of herbs that I want to plant: herbs for medicine, herbs for cooking, herbs for crafts, herbs for beauty care. This time, though, I’m taking special note of those herbs that might make a new and interesting jelly. My recipe is below. Enjoy!

Herbal/Floral Jelly

Yield: approximately 4-8 oz. jars

Ingredients:

• 2 cups of fresh leaves/flowers, rinsed (I only used ½ cup of lavender flowers since it has such a strong flavor)
• 2 cups boiling water
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 4 cups pure cane sugar
• 1 tbsp. vanilla extract (optional)
• 1 pouch of liquid pectin

Directions:

1. Sterilize jars, bands and lids.

2. Pour the boiling water over the plant material. Allow it to steep overnight.

3. Strain out plant material. Pour decoction into a large pot. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat.

4. Stir in lemon juice, extract if using it, and sugar. Continue to heat until it reaches 220°F. Allow it to boil for a full minute.

5. Add pectin and continue to boil for 2 full minutes.

6. Remove from heat and pour into jars. Wipe rims clean, put lids and bands on jars, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

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Mint Jelly

Beating the Heat

Here it is, June on the Gulf Coast. After 3 days of storms, the heat and humidity has settled in with a vengeance. It is just steamy and miserable outside and the mosquitoes are rampant. I’m still gardening and we continue to harvest summer squash, chili peppers, sweet peppers, currant tomatoes and blackberries…and tomatillos, hundreds of tomatillos. Our bees have settled in and instead of hitting the herb garden, they have been working the tomatillo bed. Our plants are loaded with fruits in various stages of ripeness. This is the biggest tomatillo harvest we’ve ever had. So, what are we doing with so many tomatillos? Improvising! Last night, I made a simple batch of salsa verde that only took minutes. The recipe is below.

 Salsa Verde

My garden is my passion, but as the summer heats up, it will be harder and harder to work outside. Sunburn and heatstroke are very real worries in areas like this where the temperatures soar over 100°F and we have no shade trees. The only gardening done is early in the morning or late in the evening. Many of our crops stop producing during the hottest part of summer and start up again as the weather cools in the fall. Unfortunately, we still want our fresh produce, particularly salad greens and herbs. To that end, we have begun using a hydroponic system inside the house.

We began researching hydroponics last year. Salad greens are a touchy crop to grow here as our early spring temperatures can cause lettuce and spinach to bolt. It can be 40°F on Tuesday and 80°F on Wednesday. Since we love our fresh mesclun, spinach and lettuce, we decided to find a way to give them more optimal growing conditions. Hydroponics seemed to be an acceptable answer.

My husband used PVC pipe to create a simple flood and drain system for hydroponic growing. He cut 4 tubes approximately 4 feet long and cut 5 holes in each of them. He fitted them with end caps that he had drilled holes in and attached them with rubber tubing. It all connects to a reservoir underneath the system which contains the water/nutrient system and the pump that sends the solution up through the tubing to the plants, and an air pump that keeps the solution oxygenated. We hung a grow light over it. Once the system was built, the experimentation began.

First, we tried peas, but the system was simply too wet for them. They rotted. Next, we tried spinach, but apparently, we had some bad seeds because we couldn’t even get them to germinate. Finally, we tried sweet basil. We hit a homerun with that one. The seeds sprouted and we put the tiny seedlings in the little net cups and inserted them into the holes. The pump was set on a timer to flood the tubes with water periodically throughout the day. We turned on the grow light in the morning and turned it off at night. When we changed the nutrient/water solution, we used that to water our outside gardens and pots. All of our plants, inside and outside, were nice and healthy.

Basil Hydroponics 

That basil took off. It grew and grew and grew until we had to raise the light because the plants were hitting the bulb. I snipped off whatever I needed for cooking, but of course, that just made the plants even bigger and bushier. Finally, we pulled the plants and harvested them all. We now have plenty of dried basil as well as a few bags of leaves in the freezer.

Since our first success, we have tried several different types of indoor gardening. We have a small countertop greenhouse tray that we use to grow microgreens. We grow different types of sprouts on our kitchen counter. We grow lettuce in our hydroponic system. We experimented with growing catnip in a simple hydroponic system that consists of a bucket filled with the nutrient solution and an air stone. That was a definite success (Our three cats were very happy with that experiment!). Next, we’ll be trying peppers in that bucket system.

While I do love getting barefoot and dirty outside in my gardens, I also love having fresh salad greens available right in my dining room year-round. By creating the optimal growing conditions for certain crops inside, I also have more space outside in my gardens for other crops that I want to try. The hydroponics is a good solution for extending your growing season, regardless of climate. It can be set up in a greenhouse just as easily, and just like the outside garden beds, it can be as small or large as you want. Best of all, the plants seem to grow bigger and faster due to the fact that the nutrients are more readily available for the plants to use, the temperature and lighting are controlled to optimal levels, and they don’t have to fight off pests, poor soil, and weeds. It’s also a great way for those who live in apartments or places without outdoor garden spaces to enjoy growing their own fresh produce.

We will continue our hydroponic experiments and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in indoor gardening.

Quick Salsa Verde

Ingredients:

• approximately 50 large tomatillos
• 3 serrano peppers (more or less, according to taste)
• 1 medium onion
• 10-15 cloves of garlic
• 3-4 sprigs of fresh cilantro
• 3-4 sprigs of fresh oregano
• 1 tsp ground cumin
• Salt to taste

Directions:

Coarsely chop all of the vegetables. Put everything in the food processor and process on high until puréed. Enjoy!

Gardening with Chickens

Gardening with Chickens…

 

Spring has flown by and summer is on the horizon. Our garden is doing very well. The peppers and squash are blooming. The melons are rambling here, there, and everywhere. The tomatoes and tomatillos are heavy with ripening fruit. Everything is nice and healthy. The spring floods have given way to warm winds that quickly steal away plant moisture, so we’re back to watering the gardens by hand. The garlic will be ready for harvest in just a few weeks, and I hope to try pickling some of that.

When we made the decision to try homesteading on our small little piece of earth, we read up on all of the myriad ways in which people have grown produce on their land, and the one thing that was mentioned repeatedly was that gardening and chickens go hand and hand. There is no better friend to your garden than your flock of chickens. They provide pest control, soil aeration, fertilizer. Why chickens and gardens go together just like peanut butter and jelly! Well, okay, we said, we have chickens. We have gardens. Why, we’ll give it a shot!

Well, after almost two and a half years, I have come to the conclusion that our chickens must be defective. Don’t misunderstand. I adore my chickens! They all have names. They get frequent treats. They get pets and snuggles at bedtime. In fact, they’re all spoiled rotten. However, I have noticed that while they all have their own little personalities, they all seem to have a bit of an attitude. My flock of twenty is a bit on the unruly side.

One thing that really appealed to us was the idea of letting the chickens take care of our weeds. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hate weeding. See, we don’t have mere weeds…we have demonic weeds. When you pull up one weed, it generally has a root that’s at least three feet long and four more sprout from that spot. It is truly unnatural, so the idea of letting my sweet chickens handle the problem for me was a real winner. We got our garden beds made, filled them with soil and compost, and turned our flock out to free them of any stray weeds or weed seeds. The best way I can describe my babies is “thoroughly unimpressed”. They just looked at us like “what are we supposed to do with this?” and wandered away to torment the blueberry bushes (a favorite activity). Okay, so we took that to mean there weren’t any weed seeds, weeds, etc. and planted our vegetables. Within a week, our seedlings were engulfed in a mass of weeds.

Again, we turned our flock out in the garden while we weeded in the hopes that they would at least give us some help with the weeds. They definitely took more interest this time, and about 75% of our seedlings were scratched out of the soil or pecked to shreds, the soil itself was scratched out of the raised bed and scattered in every direction, but my babies were thoughtful enough to not touch a single weed. Yes, as I said, they have a bit of an attitude. They did point out the fact that we had big fat juicy grubs in our garden bed, however, thus the reason all the soil was scratched out. Okay, so they weren’t interested in weeding, obviously, however, the soil was definitely well aerated.

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This is what kale looks like after a visit from my clucks.

After replacing our seedlings, we decided that perhaps our chickens just weren’t garden friendly. The garden was enclosed with a picket fence. Now, we’ve all seen the videos on the internet of the cats that can flatten themselves to fit anywhere they choose, but who knew chickens have that same ability? Our pickets aren’t widely spaced, yet we frequently (as in every evening) watch our babies flatten themselves and pop right between the pickets to go eat the flowers off our vegetable plants. To add insult to injury, they generally look at you when they do it, kind of like a child making sure that mom is watching. We tried wrapping the fence with chicken wire, but that didn’t deter them either. Our next layer of defense was to wrap each separate bed with chicken wire, as well. They definitely let us know their displeasure with that. Now they just peck at the leaves through the holes in the chicken wire. They are nothing if not determined. We are currently working on a plan to relocate the vegetable garden to the front yard.

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Our tomato bed is completely wrapped in chicken wire.

At least I can say that my babies are very good at helping with the manure in the compost pile. They also help with aerating that, as well, because enclosing that with a fence didn’t prevent them from scratching through the compost, either. Every time we clean out the coop, all of the manure-saturated hay goes right into the compost pile. All of our egg shells go there, as well, giving us good calcium-rich compost. In that regard, yes, I can honestly say that my babies do their part in fertilizing the garden. However, any kitchen scraps that get thrown out there, get eaten. We’re planning to set up a bin for vermicomposting, but we have to figure out a way to keep the chickens out of it. They love fat juicy worms.

I must admit, if we could garden directly in our soil instead of using raised beds, the chickens would be more than happy to clear a spot for us. Their run (where they are kept when we aren’t home) has nothing growing in it. It is completely bare. They accomplished that task within two weeks. Alas, that isn’t an option here where we experience floods followed by droughts, and the soil is a truly horrendous mixture of hard clay and rocks. We affectionately call it gumbo.

As in any new venture, we have experimented with many of the methods we read about in homesteading and food production. We have found some that worked like a charm. We have found some that left us shaking our heads. The idea of gardening with my little gang of clucks, however, was just simply a no-go, not even an option. So we’ll keep reading, keep experimenting, and yes, I will keep spoiling my clucks. Their theory is that they provide us with almost a dozen eggs a day, so their job is done. I tend to agree.







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