Thursday, September 5, 2013

Porch Zen

This is my porch.

This is my wine on my porch.

This is nature in my wine.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alpine Strawberries

My alpine strawberry plants started bearing fruit in early summer. (Not the originals, sadly. The first heat wave this summer killed my seedlings so I bought two plants from a local farm. Is that cheating?)

Unfortunately, the first heat wave wasn't the only one. I managed to bring the plants back from the brink a couple of times, but I think one of them may have a problem. It has red leaves and some dead outer leaves. From my online research, that could mean black root rot or verticillium wilt. Or, according to a horticulturist, it may just be going dormant for the winter. We'll have to wait and see if it makes it.

The other plant looks a lot better. And they are both giving me lots of delicious, tiny fruit.

This is my version of Claes Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry. :)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Aaah, Summer

Red leaf lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, and mozarella cheese, all locally grown. Just when it starts feeling like summer is almost over, summer arrives on my plate.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Stories of Peas in Pods

Once upon a time, there were peas in a pod...

These peas are strong! They're ready to knock over their trellis in their search of just a leeetle more light...

Snow white pea flowers have two large petals that look like elephant ears, two small petals that curve inward like wings, and a vertical petal in the middle that botanists call the "keel." Take a close look at clover flowers growing on a lawn - they're in the Pea family too and the small flowers have the same type of petals, but in miniature.

Pea flowers quickly turn into pea pods. (Take a look at the one on the bottom right, mid-transformation.)

Voila! Sun + dirt + seed = lots and lots of pea pods.

Lots of pea pods to shell. While watching TV, of course.

These peas are ready to bust out of their pods.

There are so many delicious ways to prepare peas...
But you can't go wrong with sauteeing in butter. The small pea pods were tender so I left them whole.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Herbal Tips: Getting to Know Plant Families

The second annual Herbstalk took place in Somerville, MA, June 8-9 -- a full weekend of herbal classes and plant walks. Seeing the buzz around the marketplace and the enthusiasm in the classes, it's clear that there is a huge audience for this topic!

In an intensive workshop with community herbalist Mischa Schuler (of Wild Carrot Herbs), I learned tips on identifying plant families and what those plants can do for your health. Three plant families caught my attention, and their basic descriptions can help you recognize some of these in your neighborhood. Ok, so there are hundreds of plant families, but you have to start somewhere.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Parsley Family (or Carrot Family) (Apiaceae)
Flowers of the parsley family have 5 sepals, 5 petals, and 5 stamen. But the best way to recognize them, I think, is that the flowers bloom in groups that look like upside down umbrellas. (Technically, they are called compound umbels.) All of the flower stems originate from one point.

The parsley family includes anise, fennel, cumin, caraway, celery, parsley, carrot, parsnip, and dill.

Strolling around your neighborhood, you're likely to see wild carrot, also called Queen Anne's Lace. You can eat its greens or root in spring, or harvest its flowers in summer. Wild carrot looks a lot like poison hemlock, but to tell the difference, remember the mnemonic "Queen Anne has hairy legs." Poison hemlock has smooth stems.

The parsley family can ease gas and bloating. Many Indian restaurants have a bowl of fennel seeds for their guests to help with digestion after dinner. Personally, I prefer the candied fennel seeds. Mm, sugar.

The parsley family is also known for decongestant and antiviral properties, Mischa  recommended steeping crushed fennel seeds in hot water for about 10 minutes if you have a cold or sinusitis.Good to know, since I had sinusitis while I was taking this class.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Mint Family (Lamiaceae)
This is my favorite family. It gets points for making me feel smart - I can recognize a lot of the plants in this family. But they're also excellent healers.

Flowers of the mint family have 5 united petals, 2 lobes up and 3 lobes down. But since you want to harvest these before they grow flowers, it's good to know that they have square stems and opposite leaves. Opposite leaves means that two leaves emerge at each node on opposite sides of the stem.

The mint family includes most culinary herbs, like rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, oregano, basil, lemon balm, and of course, mint.

This family is known for their volatile oils, which is why they are so delicious. They are also anti-viral and anti-microbial. So a mint tea is good for a cold, and lavender or thyme oil make an excellent additive to a DIY cleaning spray.  And they are good remedies for gas and bloating, just one more reason to keep some mint tea around.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Rose Family (Rosaceae)
Take a look at the bottom of an apple and you will see a pattern of five, where the five petals of the flower used to be. Or cut it open crosswise, and you will see five seeds laid out in a star pattern. These are clues that the apple belongs in the rose family.

Flowers of the rose family have 5 petals, 5 sepals, and many stamens. (I know, the Parsley family does too, but size is the difference - these are much bigger plants.) These plants also have oval, serrated leaves.

The rose family includes lots of fruits I didn't realize are so closely related: apples, pear, quince, apricot, peach, nectarine, plum, cherry, almond, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and of course, rose.

Want to learn more about identifying plants in your neighborhood? Mischa recommended some resources (many of which are now on my Christmas wish list!)

Elpel, Botany in a Day (includes use of plants for healing)
Peterson, Edible Wild Plants
Newcomb's Field Guide to Wildflowers (we used this guide to do some of our identifying in the field)
Thayer, The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden

And one recommendation of my own, if you happen to find some wild carrot:
North Carolina State University's page on Daucus carota

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Green Greens

I don't know about you, but I am very good at buying fresh veggies and then letting them waste away in my refrigerator. Like lettuce mixes - it's a shame when you think of the effort that goes into growing, harvesting, washing, packaging, and shipping greens across country to my grocery store. So I'm happy to be eating greens from my garden for the past couple of weeks - I pick what I can eat and eat it fresh.

In addition to growing spinach in containers in my backyard, I've been fortunate to be growing in a "borrowed" garden. A friend has some space that she is not using, which I've been using to grow arugula, red sails lettuce, and carrots. The carrots will be awhile yet, but for now, I'm enjoying my own salad mix.

Soon to come, oodles of fresh peas...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Calendula Salve (part II)

A jar of oil has been infusing with calendula blossoms on my dining room table since February, and now's the time to make the salve. Mountain Rose Herbs has a great recipe for calendula salve, among other fabulous things.

I started with a hunk of beeswax. (Whole Foods sells beeswax by the pound. I hacked off about an ounce worth.)

And about a cup (eight ounces) of calendula flower infused oil.

To strain out the blossoms, I covered a glass with cheesecloth...

and dumped the mixture on top.

I poured the oil into my diy double broiler. I don't own one, so my substitute is a metal bowl fitted on a saucepan. I'm never buying a double broiler.

(If you haven't used one, pour some water into the saucepan, enough so it doesn't boil away too quickly, but not so much that the bowl's bottom touches the water surface. The steam from the boiling water heats the beeswax gently, without burning.)

It's melting, it's melting...

And it's melted. I poured the oil-beeswax combination into two small jars.

A few minutes later, I had me some salve!

This was so fast and easy in the end (you know, after the weeks and months of waiting) and it all came about because someone gave me a marigold seedling last year. Next time, lip balm!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Seeds and Seedlings

Peas Go to the Birds
I direct seeded peas last weekend into large containers (after first soaking them in water for 24 hours). This weekend, I discovered large holes dug into the soil. My first guess was squirrels, but we don't actually have too many around here. We do, however, have hoards of birds. Some of the peas had started to sprout but were lying on top of the soil. They're probably goners, but ever optimistic, I put them back in the soil. Who knows? And I planted a second row as my back-up.

Spinach Under Cover
I direct seeded some spinach seeds as well. I put 3-4 seeds per hole, insurance against poor germination rates from seeds that are three years old. I covered them in plastic to keep in warmth and moisture, and keep out those dratted birds. I saw them watching me plant, waiting their turn. When I finished, I had a staring contest with a chickadee. I won. I do love waking up to the sound of birds chirping, but they can find their own food, thank you.

If At First You Don't Succeed...
I started some red butcher tomato seeds two weeks ago. Nary a sign of life two weeks later, so I dumped the tray into the compost. I had used egg cartons, and I think it's great that they're compostable, but the cardboard seems to absorb a lot of the water. If I use egg cartons again, I will water at least once a day, perhaps even twice. And I will be trying again - it's not too late to start tomatoes from seed.

And Then There Were Three
About a month ago, I started alpine strawberry seeds. Only about half of them germinated (they were three years old), and three quarters of those died within a week. They are very sensitive to drying out, so I suspect my lax watering abilities killed a good lot of them. But I have three remaining seedlings, and they're looking good. I'm keeping a close eye on their soil moisture.

From many... three.

And look how they've grown!

From a little munchkin... a bigger munchkin!

What fabulous successes (and failures!) have you had with starting seeds?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Soil Ecology

It's still too cold to start gardening in earnest, so why not kill the time by talking about gardening? I attended a lecture on soil ecology at Boston Natural Areas Network on March 12th, the finale to a series on composting.

Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays from Boston University started us off with a scientific look at lead testing. Many of us were surprised to hear that UMass Extension was underfunded for many years, leading to potentially incorrect results on lead content in soil samples. (If you have had your soil tested within the last year and a half, don't worry, you're fine. If not, you might want to re-test.) The testing facilities are back in shape now, and in the future, they may have the capability to test compost in addition to soil.

The second speaker, Casey Townsend, talked to us about soil ecology systems. He runs the rooftop garden on the Boston Medical Center parking garage, called the Northampton Square Rooftop Garden.

I don't know about you, but I often think of gardening as a linear process. Start with compost, sow seeds, water and weed, harvest. Each year I start over. Casey thinks a bit deeper about gardening, looking at the soil as a positive feedback loop between three aspects: organic matter, native populations, and nutrient build-up. Build on one aspect, and you build the rest too.

So what is organic matter? Compost, of course, is a fast boost for your soil. A slower (but very efficient) option is organic mulch, like hay, which will retain moisture in the soil and can be tilled under in the fall. Casey recommended we look at the methods used on Arnolds' Pleasant Valley Farm as a model.

The Arnolds mulch with a thick layer of saltwater marsh hay through the growing season. In the fall, they till it under. And by spring, it's gone! Their soil is so rich with native populations that the hay just disintegrates, returning nutrients to the soil.

Speaking of native populations - if you have earthworms, your soil is in good shape. If not, adding compost and mulch can encourage earthworms to move in. You can also supplement your garden with populations of nematodes and parasitic wasps, which like to feed on the pests in your garden. These can be purchased from gardening centers or online.

The third aspect of your soil is nutrient build-up. Decaying organic matter can add minerals like boron and magnesium. Casey hopes that his garden will eventually build up nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, minimizing his input of fertilizer.

This explanation of soil ecology only piqued my interest to learn more - I asked Casey for some book recommendations on soil ecology systems and he recommended these:

BNAN has many more awesome workshops coming up this spring and summer, and they're all FREE. Some I plan to attend are:

Saturday, March 30, 11am-5pm
38th Annual Gardeners Gathering: a full day of gardening skill-shares, talks and demos.
(115 and 120 Forsyth Street in Boston)

Saturday, June 15, 9-11am
Little City Gardens
(30 Edgewater Drive in Mattapan)

Saturday, August 10, 9-11am
The Secrets of Seed
(30 Edgewater Drive in Mattapan)

May to July
Global Gardeners: Conversations and demonstrations with expert growers from Myanmar, Iran, and Somalia, who have transplanted their traditional farming methods to New England. They will share their gardening methods, as well as their stories of how they arrived in Boston.
See for more details.

What inspires you as you  look forward to spring?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Liquid Gold

Some pictures of calendula-infused oliver oil in the morning sun:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Winter Sowing

A Garden for the House recently introduced me to winter sowing. I have never tried it before, or even heard of it. Apparently it's an easy way to sow spring vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Plant your seeds in a miniature "greenhouse," stick outside, and wait for the seeds to sprout. It sounds simple, and I like simple. So I decided to experiment.

The Ingredients

Gallon milk container
Knife or screwdriver
Seed-starting mix or soil-less potting mix
Duct tape

The Recipe

I don't usually have gallon milk containers around the house. Fortunately, my sister has a thirsty 16-month old son, so she saved a couple for me. (I believe he calls milk "daddy" as he does nearly every other object around the house.)

Begin by cutting your gallon milk container in half. I have insanely sharp kitchen knives but you can also use scissors. Leave a little bit of plastic connecting the two halves, to serve as a hinge.

Make a few drainage holes in the bottom. Kevin from A Garden for the House uses a screwdriver heated at a gas stove flame. I used my insanely sharp kitchen knives.

It's been windy in New England for the last couple of weeks, so I tossed in a few pieces of gravel to weigh down the container.

 Fill your container with a couple of inches of potting mix and water well. I put my container on a plate so it wouldn't drain all over my table.

I chose two seeds for my winter sowing experiment. I've been missing fresh parsley, so that went in one of them. And I thought this method might be a good way to start alpine strawberry seeds, so fragaria vesca went in the other.

Finally, I duct taped the "greenhouse" shut. When the seedlings sprout, I'll be able to open the top half to allow more sun and air circulation and I can close it again during cold nights.

Here they are, sitting in the snow, nestled inside one of my self-watering containers. Fingers crossed, I hope this works!

Have you tried winter sowing before? How did it go?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Calendula Salve (part I)

The marigold, or calendula, blooms about once a month, so regularly that it got its Latin name from the word "calendar." The brilliant yellow-orange flowers get their color from carotenes (including beta carotene). Their petals used to be used to color cheese, and according to Eleanour Sinclair Rohde's Old English Herbals, they were also used to dye hair! But I'm especially interested in the petals' ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent in lotions and salves. That makes it a great thing to have around for dry skin in winter.

I received two Calendula seedlings at the Get Growing Festival in Harvard Square and harvested lots of flowers over the summer. Now I'm infusing olive oil so I can make calendula salve.

I started with a bunch of dried calendula blossoms. (You can grow your own or buy them from Mountain Rose Herbs.) I plucked the flowers after they had opened, when they were at their brightest. It was a little painful to kills those beauties, but worth it. I set them out to dry for a day or so on a paper towel, then stuck them in a paper bag to protect them from the light.


I bought organic olive oil to infuse with the calendula. Since this stuff is supposed to soothe dry winter skin, best to choose something with no risk of chemicals. I pulled the petals off of the flowers and put them in a clean mason jar....

...then poured in the olive oil, about one inch above the original level of calendula petals. (They floated so I had to estimate.) 
 Now they'll sit in the sun for six weeks. If you can't wait that long for the complete recipe, check out Mountain Rose Herbs' recipes for calendula salve, lip balm, and more.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Quick Hit: Blog-Leaping

Today's snow has me blog-leaping and I found a couple of cool things.

Chiot's Run has a chart showing the shelf life of seeds. This will come in handy as I decide which to toss and which to keep.

And A Garden for the House has a way to test the seeds you have in storage. Are they still viable? Find out!

What did you find while stuck at home today?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Terrarium, Terrarium

A friend and I decided to ignore the Superbowl last Sunday and throw a terrarium party instead. Terrariums are quite the trend these days, maybe because they offer a chance to be creative and exercise that green thumb without actually requiring artistic skill or a green thumb. You only need a few ingredients to make a kick-ass terrarium.

To start with, you'll need:
 Sphagnum Moss Soil Cover (0180) - Ace Hardware
Sphagnum moss
FoxFarm FX14023 Light Warrior Soilless Mix, 1 cu ft.
Soil-less potting mix
Think of these as the layers in your four-layer bean dip. (That's my last Superbowl reference.) Each layer plays a role:
Start with a bottom layer of gravel to provide drainage
Add some charcoal to act as a water filter to prevent the water from stagnating
A layer of sphagnum moss will keep the dirt separate from the gravel
And finally, a couple of inches of soil will give roots a home and something to eat

You will also need:
  • A clear container
  • A small plant or two or three
  • (Moss, rocks, lichen covered twigs, a mini garden gnome...)

Some garden stores cater to terrarium makers by providing mini plants, each in its own container. They're easy to fit into your terrarium.  But if you can't find mini-plants, aim for small plants that can be divided. Look for a small pot with multiple stalks coming out of the dirt. When you remove the plant from the pot, divide the stalks from each other by the stalks by gently pulling the root system.

A few tips to help your terrarium succeed:
  • Keep it simple - don't put too many plants in the same container to avoid crowding
  • Choose plants depending on conditions. My dining room gets more shade than light, so I chose leafy plants that I think (hope) will do OK here
  • Water generously after transplanting to help plants recover from the shock

There's really not much more to it than that. If you need some inspiration, check these out:

And if you're really adventurous, you could even solder your own glass container like Sonia did. She filled it with sand, seashells, pebbles, and air plants:
That rake? It's an extendable back-scratcher :)