Monday, November 27, 2017

Gifts for Gardeners (and Budding Foragers)

Plenty of garden-focused blogs post lists of gifts for gardeners for the holiday season.  I haven't put up such a list before, partly because I am not a big "shopper," but this year I am giving it a try.

This year's list has a theme, though, because people who know that, in addition to growing good food, I also do some foraging (an extension of gardening...) ask about mushrooms pretty often. If you or someone you know has an interest in, but zero knowledge of, hunting for wild mushrooms or growing mushrooms at home, this shopping guide is for you.

Having excellent teachers and guides is very important, because eating the wrong mushroom can be fatal. Knowing the potential danger does not deter all people, which explains why the very first items on the gift list are about education.

A year's membership in a local mushroom club is a great gift, along with the promise to go along on guided "mushroom walks" with the club. There are knowledgeable people in the clubs, and on the guided walks, to get anyone's education off to a good start. In the Atlanta area, that club will be the Mushroom Club of Georgia. This group offers monthly meetings, classes, workshops, and guided walks. The Morel walk in March is usually a members-only event, which is a definite perk. If you are not in the metro-Atlanta area, look online for your nearest mushroom club.

Books and tool for mushrooming. PHOTO/Amygwh
 For mushroom-ID help on your mushroom walks/hunts, a basic guide like the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms is also useful. This is the book that many local foragers seem to always keep handy for reference. The pictures are very good, and descriptions include information about edibility for each kind of mushroom in the book.

Using a mushroom-growing kit at home to  become familiar with the growth habits of mushrooms is another great way to help get ready for foraging season. A kit to grow oyster mushrooms like this one (linked) is especially good because you are likely to see oyster mushrooms "in the wild". Careful observation as these grow at home could help flatten the mushroom-identification learning curve by a little bit.

Oyster mushrooms grown on straw. PHOTO/Amygwh
I have grown portobello mushrooms in a purchased kit and oyster mushrooms as part of a mushroom club workshop. Both brought good food into my kitchen, and both were easy. Anyone who already has tried a couple of kits and is looking for a different challenge might want a copy of the book Mycelium Running. It contains a long section about growing many kinds of mushrooms in many ways.

This book also includes information on the benefits of adding the old mushroom-growing substrate to gardens, which is a great "crossover" to my more major interest in growing good food.

Oyster mushrooms in the wild. PHOTO/Husband of Amygwh
A last item on the shopping list for a budding mushroomer is a folding mushroom foraging knife. I know that this may seem like an unnecessary thing, and it is, but the curved blade really does help in harvesting mushrooms, and the little brush at the end is great for cleaning dirt and leafy debris from wild-harvested mushrooms. Putting pre-cleaned mushrooms into your basket or bag makes the kitchen-prep work at home much easier.

If you are hoping for a different kind of holiday shopping guide for gardeners, I have one posted at my other site, Small Garden News.

Some of my garden-writer friends have their own lists, too. Those lists will be linked here as soon as they are available:

See Marianne's list at The Small Town Gardener.
See Kathy's Gift Ideas for Garden Cats at her Cats in Gardens blog.


Happy gardening!






Monday, November 20, 2017

Worm Composting at Home

This past week I made a little video about the components needed for making vermicompost at home. The video is linked on the worm composting page of my new site, Small Garden News.

It took several tries to make a video that is acceptable, and my whole bin of worms got dumped and re-set several times as I worked out what to say and what to leave out. By the time the final version of the video was done, my worms were probably in shock.

The video ended up with a lot of information in it (my nerdiness shines through the whole thing). It is about the five main parts of a worm farm and why they are important, but it does not include everything you need to know to harvest a bin like mine. 

To be honest, a purchased worm composting system of stacked trays, with a spigot for draining off extra fluid, is easier to manage, but not everyone wants to spend that much money on a new activity. Also, it can be good to start with a small DIY bin to learn whether worm composting is something you are really interested in. Just like with gardening, starting small makes the learning curve a little easier to climb.

At some point in the future, more information will be added to the worm composting page. Until then, you can ask questions either by leaving them in the comments section of this blog post or using  the contact form on the Small Garden News site to email me a question.

Let me know what you think?


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Gardening Books I Have Loved - Culinary and Salad Herbs

I didn't grow up with gardening. I always loved to be out-of-doors, and I loved plants. When I went to college, still loving plants, I studied botany.

All through my adult life, I have been lucky enough to encounter wonderful books about plants and gardening that have helped me along the way. Some of these books were not strictly "how to" books. When they were, they tended to be for regions of the country (or the world) that have very different conditions than where I live, so the instructions don't 100% work in my yard.

Instead of using them as instruction manuals, as I found them and absorbed what they had to offer, these books engaged my imagination, made me laugh, and showed me new ways of viewing gardening and plants.

This is one of those books:
Culinary and Salad Herbs: Their cultivation and food values with recipes, by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde. 1972, Dover. A republication of the original 1940 book published by Country Life Ltd, London, England.
My first gardening book. PHOTO/Amygwh
My Great Uncle Balfour, a man I had met only a few times in my childhood, lived in the same town where I was in college. One day, when I had walked across town to visit and share a pot of his Darjeeling tea, he gave me this book. He was going blind from macular degeneration and could no longer read, but he loved plants, too.

When his sight had begun to fail, using information from this book, he had replanted most of his garden with herbs. He didn't need to see the herbs to find the right ones for use in the kitchen. Scent was all the guide he needed.

Folded into the book are a couple of sheets of paper, with handwritten notes about the herbs in Uncle Balfour's garden. One sheet contains a seed list. In 1974, he paid 15 cents for a packet of sweet marjoram seeds.

The handwritten notes are a family treasure, but the book itself was a revelation. At that point in my life, I had no idea that people ate dandelions and purslane, but there they were, described in the book as though their use in the kitchen was commonplace. This was news! The book includes recipes for herb teas, herb cheeses, and herb vinegars. It also includes this astonishing bit of information about making a salad:

"James II's head cook considered that there should be at least thirty-two ingredients, and a 'brave sallet' contained more than that, for it was the decorative centerpiece of the table."

For someone whose experience of salad had, up to then, consisted of iceberg lettuce combined with bits of carrot and tomato, topped with some Green Goddess dressing, this requirement strained the brain. However, the rest of the book helped me see possibilities for the other 29 ingredients.

This is the very first gardening book I ever read, and it shone a light on my path forward into both gardening and using my own herbs and vegetables in the kitchen. Anyone else, new to gardening and loving plants, could do worse than to start with a regionally-inappropriate little book like this one.





Monday, October 30, 2017

First Frost

Woke up this morning to a light frost in the yard -- the first frost of the year for my yard. My mom texted me yesterday that a freeze warning for my area had popped up on her phone, so the frost was not a huge surprise. Also, we are at the end of October, which is a usual time for a first frost in my yard.

When I visited my mom and stepdad in Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, I carried a lot of her tender potted plants into her sunroom, knowing that cold weather would soon be there, too. Mom used to have a lot more begonias, but now at least half of the potted plants are Bromeliads. All of hers have toothed edges like saw-blades, so the sister who would have had to carry those in was really happy that I was there to help. She had someone to share the scratches and scrapes with!
Leaves coated with a light frost in my garden. PHOTO/Amygwh

In my yard, there are no potted plants for me to carry indoors, and there are few frost-tender plants in the garden to worry about.

The leaves on the bush beans look pretty rough this morning-- darkened and wilted -- but they already had finished producing beans for the season.

Cool-season crops that had been planted with winter in mind look just fine.  Frost bowed some of the leaves early, but as the day warmed, the leaves all perked back up.

I checked the radish section of the garden closely, looking for signs that the roots are beginning to expand. All the salad radish roots are looking good and will be ready to pull over the next couple of weeks. It may be awhile before the winter radishes are big enough to pull, though. Most of them still have that thickened-stem look, instead of being round roots.

This weather also signals that the time for planting garlic and shallots is at hand. If you are not prepared, with garlic and shallots ready to plant right this second, that is ok, because the window for planting these is large.

Some years, I don't get the garlic planted until January, and the crop still comes out fine.




Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Seed Saving -- Heirloom Bush Beans

After eating beans for a few weeks from my early August planting of Aunt Joanie beans, I have let the rest of the bean pods mature on the plants. The ripe (old, pale, tough) pods are not good to eat, but the beans are good to save for planting next year.
Mature bean pods for seed-saving. PHOTO/Amygwh

Mature seeds set aside for drying. PHOTO/Amygwh

Beans for seed-saving need to be fully developed, which means they are at the stage when you might use them as dry beans in the kitchen. 

In drier climates, mature bean pods can be left on the plants until they are "rattle dry". The pods will be brown and brittle and easy to shell out.

Here in the Southeastern US, we are not having the kind of dry weather that allows for bean pods to dry to brittleness. Instead, we are having the kind of humidity and rain that encourages mildews and fungi.

That means I am shelling out leathery pods, not brittle ones, and the beans still are plump with moisture.

Also, some of the pods are mildewed.

When I shell out the mildewed pods and find  unblemished bean seeds, then those beans can be saved for seeds. I don't save seeds that look infected or damaged, because I don't want to have my whole next crop be ruined by a fungus.

I also don't save seeds from pods that contain fewer than three seeds inside. I don't want to encourage plants that produce puny bean pods, and I am pretty sure that if I saved seeds from a lot of short pods, soon enough my entire crop would mostly have short pods.

Diseased seeds will not be saved. See the spots? PHOTO/Amygwh
Before storing the bean seeds for planting in another season, they need to be very dry. I leave the seed beans out on the counter to dry for several days (or more) until they are so dry that one hit by a hammer shatters instead of smashes.

As they dry, these beans will get smaller, and they also will turn to a gentle tan color. They really are beautiful beans!

When the seed-beans are very dry, I will make an envelope for them, label with the season they were grown in (Joanie Beans, Aug-Oct 2017), then store them in one of my airtight containers in the fridge. Next year, or even five or six or more years from now, these seeds will still be good for planting.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Baker Creek Relief for Hurricane Damaged Gardens

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has set up two ways to help people whose lives have been up-ended by the recent hurricanes. This is the information that came to my email today:
"Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company may be located on a small farm near a small town in rural Missouri, but we are neither uninformed nor complacent about the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes in other parts of the world.  Our hearts go out to those who have lost everything except their lives, and our hearts go out to the families of those who actually did lose their lives.

We want to do more and we want you to help us do more.  Many of these people need IMMEDIATE assistance of food, water, and medicine.  It takes MONEY to get those things to them.  In an effort to get that immediate aid to those who need it, Baker Creek is running a special for an entire week in which we will donate 100% of the seed sales to World Help, who will distribute supplies to Puerto Rico and other areas damaged by these horrific hurricanes.  All sales proceeds from all orders placed today, September 29, through next Friday, October 6, will be donated to World Help to help them move in food, water, medicine, and other needed supplies.   

We also are donating home garden restart kits to any individual or family who has lost their gardens to these horrific storms.  If you or someone you know has lost a garden in the hurricane and could use a start up seed kit, please send your story and contact information to seeds@rareseeds.com and to the attention of “donation” so that we can send you a starter kit."

I keep a close watch on hurricanes. I have a son in south Georgia, a niece and her family in Florida, a sister and her family in Louisiana, and two brothers and their families south of Houston, TX.  The brothers were part of the mandatory evacuations, but my people all made it through the recent storms without serious mishaps.

As we all know, and the Gettle family of Baker Creek Seeds is also aware, lots of people were less fortunate. If you need seeds and are able to purchase some through Baker Creek in the coming week, 100% of the proceeds will go toward hurricane relief efforts.

If you know people whose gardens may have been damaged or destroyed in this year's hurricanes, or whose stored seeds have likely been damaged or destroyed by heat or water, please tell them about this very kind offer from Baker Creek.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Bush Beans - A Quick Crop

I planted a little patch (about 2 x 3 feet) of heirloom Aunt Joanie Beans in the first week of August, and today I harvested the first beans from that patch. That puts the days-to-maturity (or days-to-harvest) at about 50 days for this variety of beans. There are not many vegetable crops that can be brought to the kitchen so quickly!
First harvest of Joanie Beans from an early August planting.

This first day's harvest is not enormous, I know, but after I washed and snapped the beans you can see in the picture, they measured a little more than a cup and a half. That is enough for two people to enjoy at suppertime.

If there were more of us here to split the harvest with, I would tuck these into the fridge and keep adding more each day until there were enough saved up.

The little plants have many more beans and flowers on them, at various stages of development, so more beans are definitely on the way! By tomorrow, an amount of beans similar to what I brought in today should be ready to pick.

The first frost for my yard does not usually arrive until the beginning of November, so we will be able to harvest beans from this patch for several weeks.

What are you harvesting this week?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pollinator Symposium, September 23

Most gardeners have a pretty good idea of how much their gardening success depends on insect-visitors to the garden that pollinate our garden crops. Without those pollinators, we would have less good food to eat!
Monarch Butterfly laying eggs on Swamp Milkweed. PHOTO/Amygwh

Learning more about the many kinds of pollinators, how to attract them, and how to protect them, can help us all keep that good food coming into the kitchen.

An upcoming Pollinator Symposium, set for September 23 at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, will provide an opportunity for us to learn more. I am on the Monarchs Across Georgia committee that is organizing the symposium, so I will be there, of course.

Even though this will not be a veggie-focused event, I am looking forward to learning more and figuring out how to apply the information in my own yard.

Speakers include Sonia Altizer, from UGA, on Monarch Butterflies; Nancy Lee Adamson, from the Xerces Society and USDA, on native bees; Kim Bailey, from Milkweed Meadows Farm, on hummingbirds; and Keren Giovengo, UGA Marine Extension, on gardening for pollinators.

After the talks, there are additional activities for participants to engage in. Options include butterfly walks on the grounds of the Monastery, led by Phil Delestrez of Georgia Parks and by Father Francis Michael Stiteler of the Monastery; a nature walk led by Robby Astrove, Park Ranger at Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve; Monarch butterfly tagging with Monarch Watch; and learning to participate in a citizen science project with Project Monarch Health.

Registration is $75 (a lot, I know), and the registration deadline is September 16. The Monastery conference center is not huge, so space is limited. If you are interested in attending, registering soon, through the Monarchs Across Georgia Events page online, would be a good idea.

The registration fee includes a box lunch and one-year of membership to the Environmental Education Alliance.

The Monastery will have milkweed and other plants-for-pollinators for sale at its Abbey Garden Store.

I am looking forward to spending the day learning from experts and hanging out with gardeners and others (foodies, maybe?) who want to do more to support our pollination helpers!

See you there?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Starting Again in August

New little patch of Joanie Beans, for a late crop. PHOTO/Amygwh
My little patch of the heirloom Joanie Beans, planted a couple of weeks ago, has come up. If all goes well, the plants should start providing beans for our meals before the end of September.

It is very strange to have spent so long away from the garden and to not have summer crops coming in from the yard. We are visiting the local farmers market for many of our veggies instead, and that is a very good substitute, but I do like to grow some our our own food.

In the good-news category, my friend Cheryl has been helping a local farmer, Lynn, at her weekend market booth, for several years, and she gets to take home a box of leftover veggies after the market closes on Sunday.

This past Sunday, my friend shared some of those veggies with us, so my dehydrator is full of chopped peppers and sliced tomatoes. Thank you Friend Cheryl and Farmer Lynn!

Caterpillar of a Monarch Butterfly on swamp milkweed. PHOTO/Amygwh
To make sure that at least some of my veggies this fall come from the yard, I already have started a batch of seeds in a tray. I will be starting more this weekend, since seedlings are often eaten by pests, burned up in the hot sun, or pounded to smithereens in summer storms, which makes growing some extra a good idea, but I am happy to have made the start.

In the first tray, there are a few each of kale, winter radishes, mini bok choy, beets, and collards, and a short row of green bunching onions. The next tray will have more of the above, plus lettuces. I won't start the spinach until in September, because it is so finicky about hot weather.

More good news - my milkweed is doing exactly what I hoped it would do: host some monarch butterfly caterpillars. Of course, there are also a bunch of weird orange aphids and milkweed bugs, but the caterpillars were the goal, and they are there.




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Ready to Plant a Fall Garden?

It may be hard to believe but, within the next couple of weeks, seeds for your fall crops can start going into the garden.

If you are like me, you may actually want to start some seeds in a flat or in pots, to transplant into the garden later, but those need to be started soon. My earliest-to-plant seeds (between now and August 20) are beets and winter radishes. Before the end of August, though, I like to have seeds for other crops started, too: carrots, kale, collards, and Swiss chard are in that group. Lettuces and spinach, the least heat-tolerant of the cool-season veggies (in my garden, at least) get planted in September. Regular salad radish seeds can go in then, too, mixed in among the lettuces and spinach.

Of those crops listed above, the only ones that are hard to move out of a flat or pot and into the garden as seedlings are carrots. Those do best for me if I put the seeds straight into the garden. Transplanting them as seedlings, started in a flat, results in such oddly bent and twisted carrots that they are hard clean and cut up without too much waste. Of course, you may be more skillful at transplanting the carrot babies than me, but I expect that many people will have an experience like mine.

If you had planned to start your own broccoli and cabbages from seed, in flats or pots, getting them started now is almost too late. If you have chosen short time-to-maturity varieties, though, starting TODAY may be fine. Otherwise, for a small garden, buying little plants of those crops at a garden center might be a good plan. If you are looking for cauliflower transplants, but don't see them at the garden centers in August, just be patient. They are more finicky about heat than cabbages and broccoli and are not usually in stores until sometime in September.

Since I missed out on summer crops this year -- my own fault for going on a crazy adventure! - I also have just put in a little patch of bush beans. I didn't buy any seeds this year, which has seemed very strange, but I have plenty of heirloom Joanie-beans saved from previous years' plants for both this year and the next.

Yesterday while running errands with my younger son (visiting from Statesboro), I stopped by TruPrep, which carries Baker Creek seeds, and I saw that it still has a decent selection in stock.  Not all stores/garden centers still have seeds available. If you need seeds for cool-season crops, it might be a good idea to call ahead before driving across town to shop.

Hope that all is going well in your gardens!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Small Home Gardens I've Seen Recently

I have been traveling around Italy this past month, and in spite of all the great museums, artwork, and historic structures that are pretty much everywhere I look, the little gardening efforts of regular folks are what draws my attention the most.
Looking WAY down on a small veggie garden in Chianciano.
When we have been zooming along in buses, I see a lot of larger gardens that are absolutely amazing, but I have not had a good way to take pictures. In smaller towns, though, especially in non-tourist areas, little food gardens are fairly easy to spot.

Hilltop towns like Chianciano are steep-sided, so I have had to lean out over walls to take pictures of the gardens (Joe makes sure that I am leaning safely!).  They almost all include a few grape vines and an olive tree or two!

Other residents don't have any bare ground for growing anything. One way they make up for that lack is by hanging planters on the walls and then filling them with flowers and herbs. I've seen a few hanging containers with strawberries trailing out of them.

Another hilltop town called Sinalunga has a suburban area on flatter ground outside the walls of the city, and Joe & I saw MANY little food gardens there. It was interesting to see that even small gardens here are planted in rows, while many small gardens in Georgia are planted in blocks, using intensive spacing.

I do not yet know whether the large number of gardens represents tradition or if it reflects on the local tax structure. One Italian guy we met, who had lived in Louisiana for many years, said that taxes here are nearly 60%. Even though that high taxation covers social programs like healthcare, that tax rate could encourage food-growing, since food you grow is not taxed. Every vegetable and bit of olive oil and wine that is produced at home could be seen as un-taxable income. That particular motivation is referred to by some gardeners I've known as "sticking it to the man".

Regardless of the reasons for their existence, all those little food gardens make me smile. Hope that all the gardens back home are doing well, in spite of the super-abundant rainfall of the past several weeks!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Summertime Adventure

Anyone who has been reading this blog for very long may have been wondering when I would get around to telling what I've planted in my garden this year. Usually, I spend most of January and February all in a tizzy over seed catalogs, trying to decide what new crops will go into the garden in spring.

This year, I tried not to look too closely at the seed catalogs that arrived in my mailbox, because I knew that I would be away from home for much of the summer. Reading them could have caused a bit of mental conflict!

My food-garden right now has a lot of herbs in it, the big strawberry patch, garlic and shallots planted in early winter, a few lettuces (unless a neighbor has eaten them)
Plenty of strawberries in the yard this year!

View from where I am writing today.

Container gardens: Not many veggies, mostly herbs and flowers.

Wonderful place not far outside of town!
and flowers for the local pollinators. There are no summer crops in the garden because I am in Italy!

I left an assortment of college students in charge of the house and the lawn-mowing, and the only plants they are tending are two houseplants and the big container/planter by the front door.

When I get home, I can start thinking about the fall garden (and a whole lot of weeding, I expect). It has been weird, though, to not plant any vegetables. I have grown vegetables in my yard in NW Georgia every summer since 1991.

I am looking forward, while I am in Italy, to learning more about gardening here. On a walk outside the city walls this weekend I found a large garden center, and even though my Italian language skills are sketchy and the English language skills of the people at the garden center are only a little better, we managed to communicate well enough.

The garden center features many annual and perennial flowers, but I also saw trays of vegetable transplants and pots of herbs. I will be going back again in the next few weeks to see/learn more.

Already I have seen that anyone with even as little open ground as a 5x10 foot patch is growing at least an olive tree. Larger spaces often include other fruits. I've seen quite a few cherry trees (sweet cherries, that don't do well in the humid Southeastern US), a few other fruit trees, and outside the walls of the town and in parks, there are umbrella pines that produce big pine nuts that are good to eat. It is great to find that so many people grow at least a little food!

The center of the hilltop town I am in, Montepulciano, is very paved, which accounts for the large number of container gardens, but farther down the sloped sides of the town there is more unpaved space, and some homes that have little yards. One yard that I saw on Friday includes a chicken coop, some fencing around a planting of tomatoes, a couple of olive trees, and a peach or apricot.

On another walk, I found the local biodynamic farm, Fattoria San Martino. I am hoping to make an official visit soon, complete with lunch reservation, and I will be reporting back on what I learn there.

Hope that all your gardens are doing well! If garden problems crop up, though, please feel welcome to ask about them through the comments link of this blog.

-Amy







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