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Onion Skin Easter Eggs

For the 12 years that we’ve been married, my husband always talked about the decorative onion skin eggs that his grandmother used to make for Easter.  An old tradition, they involved wrapping eggs in red onion skins and boiling them to transfer the color.  They always sounded pretty complicated and I was used to just dropping a color tablet into a cup, scooping out a brightly colored egg and calling it a day therefore never tried them.  However, this year he asked me if I’d consider making the beautiful marbled eggs that he remembered so fondly from his childhood.  As he amusedly recalled a childhood memory of his grandmother stuffing the loose remnants of grocery store bin onion skins into her shopping bag (and myself loving a good grandma tradition) I felt happy to give it a shot!  Going by his recollections of making them and several texts to my sister-in-law who has continued the yearly tradition, I pieced together the simple ingredients-


Onion Skin Easter Eggs

• 1 dozen eggs
• Kitchen twine
• Cheesecloth
• Red Onions
• White Vinegar
• Olive Oil

My daughter and I foraged our backyard for some herbs and flowers to add our own little design flair to the eggs.  We wound up with sage leaves, parsley, peach and plum blossoms, and strawberry leaves.  This step is optional though.  The eggs will still be beautiful using just onion skins!


Next up was wrapping the eggs in onion skins.  I quickly realized during this step that we should have planned ahead and saved the dry onion skins over time rather than peeling them all off of six onions, but live and learn!  The remaining onions went into the freezer for future use.  To imprint a design onto the egg, I chose a flower or herb from the ones we gathered, and gently pressed it onto the eggshell before covering it with a piece of dry onion skin.

One at a time the eggs were then wrapped with onion skins, followed by a square of cheesecloth which was gathered at one end and tied tightly with kitchen twine (but not so tight as to crack the shell!) to hold the onion skins onto the eggs.  My 11 and 6-year-old children quickly assigned themselves the jobs of tying the twine and cutting the cheesecloth into squares!  When we were finished, we had 12 little egg bundles placed in a large pot!

I covered the eggs with an inch or two of cold water, added a splash of vinegar and brought the water to a boil over medium-high heat.  At that point I turned them off and let them sit and think about themselves for a good 15-20 minutes, just like making regular hardboiled eggs.  I used tongs to carefully remove them and ran them under cold water for a bit.    

When they were cool enough to handle, my children and I cut the cheesecloth off with scissors and were thrilled with the results!  The eggs were a gorgeous reddish brown with a subtle marbling effect.  The herbs and flowers we had pressed onto the eggs made unique designs.  We found that the parsley worked the best and was the most apparent, along with the peach blossoms.  We rubbed olive oil onto the eggs while still warm to bring out the color and give them a gorgeous shine.  All 3 of my children were fascinated by the project, and while it was more time consuming and labor-intensive, there was something very special about the process.  Dying eggs naturally with onion skins is definitely something we will continue as part of our family tradition!  Try it if you are so inclined, and have a wonderful Spring!


The Rose of Sharon that Wasn't

Last year, I was given a small, shrub- like leafy green plant which I planted in my garden.  It came from land that was once my great-grandmother’s farm in Kentucky, and I was told it was a Rose of Sharon. I happily placed it in a sunny spot and went on with my gardening business, occasionally taking a moment to envision my grandma enjoying looking at the beautiful blooms of one of its predecessors as a young girl at her childhood home. It did well and grew that first year, but never blossomed. It faded over the winter and came back in the spring like a typical perennial should do. As it grew, I anticipated beautiful hibiscus flowers to grace my garden at any moment, but the flowers never came. I suspected it might not be a Rose of Sharon when it started to look like this-

joe pye weed

Now, I typically grow seeds or buy plants from a nursery which are clearly marked and labeled.  Trying to identify a grown plant was new territory for me. So, I did what most people of my generation who own a smartphone would do. I downloaded a plant identification app and took some photos. The particular app I used was a little hit and miss, coming up with all sorts of unusual results (poison ivy??). What was this thing I had planted in my garden? I wasn’t sure, but I was sure it was staying put. If you’d read any of my previous blog entries, you can probably tell that I’m incredibly sentimental when it comes to anything having to do with my grandparents (whether it be Frank Sinatra music, roses, or giant mystery plants growing it my yard).  Whatever this perennial plant was, it was here to stay.  Finally, after several more photo identification attempts, a picture on the plant app caught my eye. The leaves matched, the purple spots on the stem matched, and when it did eventually bloom, the blossoms matched too. It is a Joe Pye Weed, which isn’t actually a weed at all, but a perennial plant in the sunflower family! Fortunately, for my gardening purposes, a Joe Pye Weed is actually better than a Rose of Sharon! Joe Pye Weeds provide a nectar source for monarch butterflies, and are a great addition to a pollinator-friendly garden. They are also native in my region. For the past several weeks monarchs have been visiting the garden every day and their favorite food source seems to be the light pink blooms of the 9-foot-tall towering “weed”. It also attracts other pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees. 


On the subject of monarchs, we recently had our garden certified as a Monarch Waystation with Monarch Watch by visiting their website and completing the online certification process. Coincidentally, the Joe Pye Weed is listed as a nectar plant option in their application to become certified.  Monarch Waystations provide a habitat for monarchs, including food and shelter, host plants for caterpillars, and use sustainable gardening management practices. There is an application fee, and an option to get this neat sign, so you can let all of your neighbors know that your yard is now a haven for butterflies! 


Aside from the aforementioned Joe Pye Weed, our waystation includes purple coneflower, cosmos, milkweed, black-eyed Susans, and marigolds among others. Larger perennials provide shelter, along with a wooden butterfly house. One of the sustainable practices I use is to avoid the use of insecticides, including organic insecticides.  Their use has not been missed, as I’ve found companion planting and the resulting beneficial insects and birds it has drawn to the garden has led to less of a pest problem than I’ve dealt with in years past.  I also planted my yellow crookneck and green zucchini squash later than usual, so the squash bugs seem to have bypassed the garden this year. Aside from aiding in conservation of the monarchs, a vegetable garden filled with flowers that doubles as a butterfly habitat is simply beautiful. It’s always brings a smile to my face when we’re out picking vegetables and I hear one of my children exclaim “Mom, I saw a monarch!”. 


Seashell Cosmos, one of our pollinator garden flowers.  

Happy gardening and growing!

All photos in this blog post by Cathy Pouria

Tomatoes, Peppers and Onions Oh My!

It’s that time of the summer when my tomatoes start turning red!  Just the past 2 weeks, we’ve been able to pick a few off of the vine that have been ripe enough to eat.  My daughter, in her excitement to pick fresh tomatoes has a tendency to scour the plants for any that she deems the least bit red and then wander into the kitchen with a bowl of just pinkish-orange-green fruit.  She usually takes one to eat like an apple, and the rest sit on the windowsill until they’re ready!


There's a red one in there!

I tried something different with my bed this year.  As I wrote about before, my garden is separated into four in-ground beds.  The vegetables that I plant in each bed are rotated year by year.  Tomatoes, peppers and onions are always planted together in my garden.  Usually I mulch with straw, sometimes I don’t (the years I didn’t mulch with straw were in an effort to cut down on squash bugs-the bane of my gardening existence and topic for another post!).  This year, remembering how crazy and overgrown my tomato beds tend to get by August, I decided to be proactive and use both a tillable paper mulch, and a straw mulch.  I ordered a paper mulch online that is biodegradable, tillable, and safe to use around vegetables.  It was an added gardening expense, but I felt it would be worth it if it kept the weeds and grasses from popping up.  The paper mulch was laid out in strips cut to fit the space, and I used landscape fabric pegs and rocks to weigh it down on the ends.  I then cut holes where I wanted to put the plants in the ground, and afterwards mulched around the plants with straw.  This is what it looked like during that process-



And what it looked like just after planting-


So far, I’ve been very happy with the way it’s turned out.  There have been noticeably fewer weeds than in years past, and the plants are healthy.  The bed is bordered by marigolds, a great companion flower to plant with tomatoes, and an insect house is hung nearby to help draw beneficial insects and pollinators such as Mason Bees. 


Soil-borne fungal diseases (such as early blight) are always something that I’m concerned about with tomato plants, as it’s damaged my crops in the past.  Since I try to avoid any types of sprays or fungicides, the best tips I have for helping prevent them are to mulch around the plants to help keep them from being splashed with spores from the soil during rainfall, to prune any branches that are close to or touching the ground, and directing the plants upwards by using a cage or other support.  Also, I’ve found checking the plants frequently and pruning off and disposing of any branches that are showing the slightest hint of disease (yellowing of the leaves, dark spots, etc.) to be helpful as well. 

As for the onions, they will be pulled out of the ground in the next week or two and placed in a clean, dry, ventilated location (in my case, the shady area of our covered porch) to dry.  I don’t have a huge crop of onions that need to be cured for longer storage, most of mine will be used soon after harvesting.  The peppers are picked and used as soon as they’re big enough!

In other backyard news we’ve had a few successful bluebird and tree swallow families raised and fledged!  I took one last peek at these four bluebird babies before they fledged.  This was the second bluebird family in that house this season.  After fledging, the mom and dad bluebirds tend to disappear with their little guys for a while.  We’ll see if they come back for a third nesting this year!


I hope that your gardens are doing well, and happy tomato sandwich season!



Male Bluebird.  All photos in this blog post by Cathy Pouria




Things My Grandma Taught Me


-Garden Rose, photo by Cathy Pouria

I intended this next blog post to be about planting tomatoes, peppers and onions (and we’ll get to that in the next post), but then we lost my grandmother last week. She was a talented gardener who inspired me in many ways, so I thought it only fitting to dedicate this post to just a few of the things she taught me during her “great run” (as my husband puts it) of 90 years, both about life and gardening. 

About Caring-

My grandma had the greenest of green thumbs. Raised on a farm in Eastern Kentucky, there wasn’t a plant that she couldn’t grow, and during the weeks I spent with her during the summers of my childhood I watched as she cared for her plants and tended her garden. Her caring nature extended beyond plants to all those around her, family, friends and neighbors. One summer when I was about 9 or 10 years old, every so often we would walk around the corner to a little house. I loved going there because there was an old barn and grounds to explore, but that’s not why we went. We went there so my grandma could care for a very elderly woman who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to leave her bed. Her family needed help with the round the clock care she required, and so off we went. I don’t remember what, if anything my grandma explained to me beforehand or after, but I do remember her actions while we were there. The woman called my grandma “Ada”, and although that was not her name, she went along with it. “I’m here.” she’d say cheerfully, and “I have your bananas and milk” as she fed her with a spoon. A child, I played outside, wandering in and out of the house and noticing how my grandma talked to and treated the woman with respect and dignity as she fed her, changed her diaper, and sat with her. She did all of this out of the goodness of her heart, because her neighbors needed help and because caring for others came as naturally as breathing air to her. The memories of our time in that house have stuck with me vividly for my entire life and became especially poignant in later years as my grandma’s own dementia began to worsen. I knew how to treat her, and others, and how to approach it with my own children because she taught me all those years ago. She taught me that we can preach caring and kindness to our children until we are blue in the face, but the most important thing we can do is to show them. 

About Reaching Out-

Maybe it was her Appalachian nature, but my grandma had a way of reaching out to people, literally and figuratively. She’d reach her hand out to someone, then hold their hand and say things like “Oh it’s so nice to see you again!” in her sweet southern accent. About 13 years ago we were all sitting in a shared hospital room, visiting my mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. There was a woman lying in the other bed, and I kept my distance, figuring that the woman wouldn’t want to be disturbed by a stranger. My grandma, however, peered around the curtain. “How are you feeling today, Janine?”, she asked. Sometime over the course of our visits, my grandma had learned her name, and all about her family, illness and what led her to this particular doctor and hospital. Just as plants need tending, so do people. And if there was a person in my grandma’s vicinity that needed tending, she fearlessly reached out. Whether it was a phone call, an encouraging word, driving her elderly neighbor to the grocery store every week, (another childhood memory which I wrote a little story about for Capper’s Farmer magazine), fixing lunch for people in her local soup kitchen, or stopping by for a visit. As far as she was concerned, reaching out was the right thing to do.    

About Accepting What Is-

After my mother died, my grandma and I were calling each other just about every day to check in. During one of our chats, she said to me calmly “Well, this is just the way it has to be now.” It was so simple. It wasn’t easy, but there are some situations that are what they are. There was nothing we could do about it, and nothing that could change it. It just was, and it’s a saying that has given me strength through several difficult situations. 

About True Strength-

I never could confuse my grandma’s kindness and compassion with weakness, because while she was those things, she was also a very strong woman. As my aunt put it “No one ever told that woman what to do-ever.” She was opinionated, she was feisty, and she stood up for herself and others. She valued leadership. That being said, not once in my life did I ever hear her call someone a name or disparage someone because of what they looked like or their material possessions. She taught me that a woman doesn’t need to tear someone else down in order to get her point across. 

About Gardening-

Now that you’ve read through my sentimental reminiscing, and since this is a garden blog after all, I’ll share just a couple of things she taught me about gardening. Aside from a fondness for roses, she taught me that the best thing to do with yellow squash is to slice it, batter and fry it up in an iron skillet, and that the best thing to do with a freshly picked sun-warmed tomato is to put it on white bread with mayonnaise and a side of salted garden cucumbers. 

I’m sure that my grandma was not a perfect person, just as I’m not, because there are no perfect people. I do know though, that her tiny corner of the world was made just a little bit better because she lived in it.  I hope you enjoyed reading these “family heirlooms” of mine.

Preparing and Planting

We’re heading towards the end of May, well past the frost date in New Jersey. It’s finally feeling like summer around here, and our long Winter that stretched into Spring seems to be behind us. That means it’s time to plant summer flowers and vegetables! I did manage to get some spinach and kale in but missed out on planting any other Spring greens. No worries though, the seeds will just be put aside for the Fall garden! 

Before planting, we had to prepare the beds, which involves removing any excess old debris and turning the soil over. In my first blog post I mentioned that my garden isn’t perfect….well, I didn’t get out to tend to my beds as soon as I would have liked. One of them wound up looking like this:



I took drastic measures, which for me meant using an organic commercial weed and grass killer (twice!), then tilling. My husband doesn’t have much of an interest in gardening, but he knows it makes me happy so he does things like put on a floppy farmer’s hat and spend an afternoon tilling my garden beds for me. He’s good like that! Afterwards we had 3 turned-over vegetable beds and a spot next to the wildflower patch for the milkweed seeds.


Milkweed will go here next to the growing wildflowers!

 In half of the first bed my daughter and her friend planted 3 rows of spinach, 1 row of chard, and some yellow squash seeds which were directly sown into the ground. I mulched between the rows using straw from our local grain and feed store. Since I forgot all about plant markers, the girls decorated some wooden stakes that I found in the garage and we used those instead. 


Unfortunately, the next day our golden retriever, lured by the prospect of frolicking in fresh straw, busted through the garden fence, jumped around the bed, dug, rolled around and tossed the straw into the air.  So, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the spinach!

The rest of my garden will be planted with a mix of seeds that can be directly sowed into the ground, and plants that I purchased. It’s easy to get carried away at the nursery, so I usually try to write out a simple plan of which plants will go in each garden section before shopping. It’s also a good idea to keep companion planting in mind. For instance, I like to plant marigolds, peppers and onions with my tomatoes and nasturtium and radishes with my squash. 

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Seeds and plants, ready to go!

As the weather warms, the pollinators are returning and the birds have been busy pairing off and building nests!


Mama Bluebird sitting on the grape arbor, and the male bluebird keeping watch from the garden fence.  

Just the same as it happened the prior few Spring and Summer seasons, Bluebirds claimed one nesting box, and Tree Swallows claimed the other.  We’ve been keeping an eye on the nests!

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Bluebird nest and eggs on the left, Tree Swallow nest and eggs on the right.

Just today, a few of the eggs hatched! Welcome to the world baby bluebirds!

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Can you spot the babies?

My next couple of posts will include what I’ve planted my vegetable and herb gardens so far, companion planting, and planting milkweed seeds along with native flowers. Happy gardening!


Waiting for Spring Weather

It’s been a cold start to April here in New Jersey. We had another snowstorm the morning after Easter, and my peas, spinach, lettuce and beets have yet to be planted! In the meantime, I ordered some milkweed seeds with the intent of planting them outside for the Monarchs. On the advice of my dad who’s been planting milkweed for the past few years, I decided to try out cold-stratifying them first. Cold-stratification attempts to mimic the condition of the seeds being outside during the chilly winter months and can help with germination and breaking them out of dormancy. I ordered two types of milkweed seeds, A. Tuberosa (commonly known as Butterfly Weed) and Ascepias Incarnata (otherwise known as Swamp Milkweed). Both species have colorful blossoms, and most importantly are a food source for Monarch Caterpillars. They’re also native to the Northeastern United States, as well as many other areas of the country according to the USDA Plants Database.


image1 - Copy (2) 

I used coffee filters to wrap the seeds in. While many people use plastic sandwich bags to store the wrapped seeds, I decided to see how some clean little 4 oz jam jars leftover from canning would work instead. I ran the coffee filters under cool water…

Coffee Filters

…..then squeezed out the excess until they were just damp. 

image3 - Copy

I laid the dampened coffee filters out in front of the labeled jars and spread a packet of seeds out in each one. 


Then I folded them up, careful to make sure that all the seeds were covered and tucked inside. 

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After that, into the fridge they went! They’ll literally chill out in there until the average last-frost date has passed. That’s May 2nd for our location in New Jersey according to the The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Afterwards the plan is to direct-sow them right into the ground. The Butterfly Weed will go next to the wildflower patch, and the Swamp Milkweed will go into an area of our yard that tends to be wetter. We’ll see how they grow!


Even though winter seems to have had trouble letting go around here, there still are some signs that we are beyond the Spring Equinox. The days are longer, and the Bluebirds have been flitting around the yard, assumedly a little confused by the late snow and as ready as we are for winter to loosen its grip.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that the Bluebirds have stuck around here, occasionally making an appearance flying together in a flock of six or so. When Spring arrives, they become more visible and active in the yard as they begin to build their nests and pair off. Somewhere over the years I read that these little songbirds like to nest overlooking fields facing the East. That’s exactly where we placed our nesting boxes, and consistently have Bluebirds families each year, along with tree swallows. 


 Looking forward to planting season and hoping that the mild weather forecasted for the end of this week comes to fruition! The next post or two will hopefully include the start of some garden greens and maybe the beginnings of a Bluebird family! Happy Spring!

Welcome to My (Frozen) Garden!

Cathy PouriaIt’s January and here in the Northeast, we recently had a “bomb cyclone” blow through, bringing with it frigid wind and snow that first blanketed, then froze on the ground. Winter is the time when I love to hibernate and envision what my garden will look like come Spring. Flipping through gardening magazines and seed catalogs by the fire, thinking about what worked last year (and what didn’t) and planning which vegetables, flowers and herbs will be planted into which bed are all part of my mid-winter gardening vision! As gardeners, we can look at a piece of snow covered ground, appreciating the beauty of the moment, but at the same time picturing it’s future blossoming.


It may look like this for now (above)….but I’m picturing this (below)!

This coming Spring will be the start of my sixth year of backyard gardening. We started the garden the summer after we moved into our first house on ½ acre of land in a rural country town in New Jersey. Did you know that New Jersey has “country”? It’s beautiful, scenic and full of rolling hills and small farms! With the help of my husband and children, the garden has grown from a small bed of vegetables to 4 in-ground beds of a kitchen garden filled with vegetables as well as annual and perennial flowers. Among the perennials are irises gifted from my aunt, and a rose-of-sharon which came from land that was once my great-grandmother’s farm in Kentucky. We dotted our yard with peach, cherry and apple trees, and planted an herb garden which grows next to the patio off of my kitchen. At the garden entrance sit a pair of decades-old concord grapevines, which came from my father. You can read more about them in "Family Heirlooms."

It’s a joy to treasure and care for these family heirlooms! However, it’s January, and the garden currently looks like this:


The only “flower” in our garden right now is Sunflower, our golden retriever!

In the grey of winter is when we start to contemplate. Should I add calendula to the herb garden? Expand the wildflower patch? Enlarge the fence so the dog won’t trample the flowers like she did last year? Start milkweed seeds? Build a greenhouse? As hobby gardeners, we have the privilege of being able to experiment with our gardens, and to change it year to year based on what has proven to work and our personal preferences. Each year, I try to improve on the garden in some way. For example, a cover crop of oats was planted for the first-time last fall in an attempt to enhance the soil and cut down on weeds (a never-ending battle!).

The oats are in there somewhere!

These past couple of years, my goal has been to discontinue the use of sprays, even organic ones in order to avoid harming the beneficial insects, birds and pollinators that visit the garden. Companion plants have been slowly added season by season, like marigolds, nasturtium, lavender, roses, carnations, lilies and coneflower. Butterfly and mason bee habitats were hung. Bluebird houses were put up. I started noticing monarch butterflies fluttering on the deep magenta blooms of coneflower, and decided that native milkweed should be planted this year for their caterpillars to feed on.

These little guys need all the help they can get!

As time moves farther from the winter solstice, that last sliver of pink as the sun reaches below the horizon comes a little later each evening. The days get longer and we wait patiently for the ground to unthaw to get those first Spring greens planted. A new season of gardening along with it’s trials and errors will begin. I’m not an expert and my garden is far from perfect, but I am gardening and learning as I go! I hope you’ll enjoy learning along with me!


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