Cooking a healthy meal can be a full-time job for any parent. Between planning and organizing, it takes a lot of effort to stay on track. That’s why I have a few hacks on hand to quickly improve the nutrient density in meals.
Quinoa is a great cook ahead that can be sprinkled onto a salad for an exotic addition of protein. It absorbs flavors so you can pair it with any dressing and it will taste great. Quinoa is also a great way to cut back on rice. For recipes that call for rice, try replacing ½ of the amount with quinoa. You will hardly see the difference yet you will improve your nutrition by adding fiber and lowering your glycemic index. Quinoa is a good source of minerals such as folate, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains all the essential amino acids, giving it a high score for a good source of protein. Beware though, it is still a grain and too much of it can be “too much of a good thing”.
Rich in iron and really flavorful, this makes a great addition to the kids’ mac and cheese. They simply LOVE it. Recently I have started experimenting with combining it with cauliflower rice. I sauteed a chopped onion or leek for about 5 minutes, then add the riced cauliflower (2 bags frozen) for another 5 minutes, sprinkle some dill or use fresh if you have, add salt and pepper. After it caramelizes add a bag of frozen spinach and cook for about another 10 minutes. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt or some feta and you have a low carb, Greek spanakopita inspired delicious and quick alternative. Spinach is a quick add on to rice, quinoa rice or even sautéed as a side dish. Power up!
Mushrooms act as a major immunity booster that can help the body fight illness as well as several types of cancers. It is recommended that you have a little daily. But who can keep up? Try freezing your mushrooms for easy access to omelets, and sautéed meals. Sautée some with onion and keep in the fridge as a sandwich or salad topper. Consider making mushroom burgers. They are easy, quick and very filling.
These are really misunderstood in my opinion because they are usually eaten out of a can. Try soaking a bag overnight and then giving them a quick boil until soft. No spices needed! After they are softened you can eat them plain -so sweet!- or add them to any salad. Keep in the fridge for an easy add on! You can also throw them in the blender with lemon juice and olive oil for a nice hummus.
The best way to increase your fruit intake is to keep it easily accessible. Take a few minutes to cut fruit and keep it in the fridge. It will more likely be your next snack or meal. My favorites for this are watermelon and honeydew. Another great trick is to load up on berries. They have a very short shelf life so eating them will be a priority.
This superfood can be added to any snack to boost fiber and omega 3’s along with antioxidants. Who doesn’t want that in a bowl of cereal, instantly? Consider adding to your yogurt, toasted bread, and even ice cream.
This is my go to side dish when I need that extra something to add to a meal. If I am baking dinner it can go straight into a baking dish with some EVOO. If not I can easily steam it and cleanup is a cinch. A major player in the cruciferous family, it is rich in everything, good for you and delicious. Always keep on hand.
Setting up for success with easy cheats makes up a big component of healthy eating. Now that the kids are helping themselves to snacks it’s even more important to have these easily accessible and at the front of the fridge.
If you have cabin fever from all this snow and extremely cold weather come on down to the CT Flower Show and warm up by thinking about spring! Starting today through Sunday I will be at the CT Flower & Garden Show. I will have a sampling of my best selling soaps plus, lavender sugar scrubs, lavender body sprays and herbal salves.
PLUS! Show offer only! Interested in turning your backyard or small plot of land into cash? Off is only good during the show get $50.00 off my next full day SPIN Farming workshop March 14th from 9 – 4 in South Glastonbury. Show price $150.00 normally $200.00.
As a child growing up in California, I loved to hear the breeze through the Ponderosa pines. Because these trees are so tall (over 230 feet high), there is a distinct sound that I’ve not heard in any other forest that I’ve walked through. That airy sound of the breeze through the trees is what I miss most about my home state. Then there is the smell of pine, which makes me feel refreshed, calm and at peace.
Until recently I didn’t know that pine (all species) have medicinal properties which have been used for centuries by Native American tribes.
Native American’s have been using Pine Medicinally for Centuries
Native American tribes in this region used all parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. A bark decoction for coughs and colds was used by the Abanaki, Iroquois, Micmac, Mohegan and Shinnecock tribes. Bark was also used as a poultice for colds by the Algonquin and for cuts and wounds by the Chippewa. A pitch pine drawing salve was made by the Delaware and Ontario people just to name a few of its many medicinal uses. (HANE: Herbarium, pinus strobus L.)
Here in Connecticut we have White Pine which is a shorter scruffier tree than its cousin the Ponderosa. And, today, pine needles and bark are harvested and dried for use in teas, tinctures and infused oils. Pine resin is the golden jewel of the tree as it has incredible healing properties. White Pine has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, expectorant, diuretic, antibacterial, stimulant, antispasmodic and astringent properties.
Eating my first Pine Needles
Have you ever tasted a pine needle? After our last big snow fall, the sun came out and it was a beautiful day to go out for a walk through our woods to harvest pine needles for my pine soap and salve. I decided to try a needle. Honestly, it was nothing to write home about. It tasted like a pine needle. I had read pine needles are high in Vitamin C and boosts the immune system. I read that not every pine tree species tastes the same. The author encouraged readers to try different trees and go with the one you liked best. However, since I only have one species of trees on our property, what I tasted was what I tasted – pine and I’ll have to take her word that not all pine trees taste the same…
Making my First Batch of Infused Pine Oil
This was the fun part – after harvesting enough pine needles, I loaded up my crock pot and added my oil. As I turned on my crock pot, I was struck by a thought! How would a pine marinade work for chicken. I decided to adapt a recipe for pine needle salad dressing into a marinade. My husband is such a good sport about this stuff – I knew it wouldn’t faze him in the least. I was right – after 20 years of eating my “experiments” what’s a few pine needles with dinner.
The final results were OK – I think I would prefer the chicken barbequed to add a little natural smoky flavor with the pine marinade rather than baked. So I will try this recipe again when the weather gets warmer. However, my husband thought the chicken tasted great.
White Pine makes wonderful Soaps and Salves
I love working with pine. I’ve perfected my drying technique so the pine needles keep their beautiful green color in my soap. The needles also add a great natural exfoliatant, which is another plus. All the benefits of pine, plus a four oil soap recipe make a well balanced soap.
The pine infused oil is another bonus as it can be used in many applications such as salves which is moisturizing for extremely dry skin. The pine salve will also promote healing of small scratches, cuts, burns and other minor skin irritations. During these bitter cold winter months I need something like this as my hands take a beating. They get so dry and cracked (sometimes bleed) that the salve had been a perfect remedy.
I always leave plenty of green onions to overwinter in the garden because, in the spring, it’s a treat to be able to go out and harvest them to add to my salad and/ or salad dressings. Over the years, I’ve created a few short cuts so I have onions ready to go into whatever I’m making.
Chop by hand
If you don’t want to chop the onions by hand, an easier way is to chop them in a food processor – the goal is to chop the greens into small pieces.
The food processor chops the onion into really fine pieces.
Finely chopped onions make great additions to salad dressings.
They are perfect to add to add to hamburger or meatloaf dishes.
Chopped onions are also perfect in a fresh salad.
Fresh green onions in a container store well in the refrigerator so they are always ready when I need them.
It’s been a cold and icy winter here in Connecticut and we are making the best of it with warm cozy fires in the evenings and bundling up with layers of sweaters and wool socks if we have to go out. On the other hand, my poor cat has had it with the cold temps that keep him inside more than he wants to be and we start hearing about it from him when mid- January rolls around. We’ve learned how to speak cat during these cold winter months. He is very vocal and expressive when he’s not happy.
However, I happen to love January, especially the last week, because this is the time when I begin to implement my growing plan for the upcoming season. I begin to start my seedlings in the greenhouse for an early spring crop. If you are thinking about starting a garden, now is the perfect time to start planning. A well planned garden will make planting and care both easier and more productive.
Before You Dig
Here are some basic things to consider:
Soil – what kind of soil do you have? Is it loose, level, well drained? Is it sandy or hard clay? Plants will not grow in either of these soil types unless lots of organic matter like well-rotted compost is added.
Sunlight – how much sun does that spot have during the day? You need at least 10 plus hours of sunlight per day for high quality vegetables.
Shrubs and Trees – they will compete with the sunlight if they are near your garden. Monitor where the shade pattern is during the day and place your garden outside of the shaded area. In addition, their roots tend to choke out tender vegetable plants, so the further away they are the better.
Water – How close is the water supply to your garden? Gardens require frequent watering during the growing season. If you must carry water to your garden or haul a long hose, place your garden nearer to the water supply.
Location, location, location – garden placement is the most critical piece to growing. If your garden is too far away, chances are it will be neglected. Gardens need to be cared for daily, which means, planting, weeding, pruning, watering and harvesting (which is the best part of all). If your garden is on the “back forty”, chances are you will never reap the full rewards of your hard work.
Create a Garden Plan:
Once you’ve confirmed that you can meet the above basic conditions, the next step is to plan out your garden on paper. This will be your map to building and maintaining your garden during the growing season. This plan doesn’t have to be fancy – I find the simpler the drawing and/or list, the easier it is to implement and to later adjust.
My garden has 22 raised beds numbered 1 – 22. When I create my garden plan, I tend to plant a single vegetable type in one bed. For example, beds 15, 16 and 17 contain arugula and beds 7, 8 and 9 have lettuce etc. I’ve tried fancy garden software but it didn’t work well for me because I have several beds of varying size and conditions (i.e. some beds are part shade).
When creating your plan, consider the following:
Size/ Cost – How big is your garden going to be? Obviously, the available space you have will dictate the size. Remember there are upfront costs to consider when starting a garden and the bigger your garden is the more it’s going to cost.
Vegetable Location – Are you planning an entire row with one vegetable or are you planting half with one thing and half with something else? Are you planting in the ground or in raised beds?
Row Length – This is important to determine how much seed to buy. How many plants can you plant per row? The answer to that question will be in the seed description.
Inter-Row & Inter-Plant Space – A foot wide path between rows is a good rule of thumb. You don’t want your rows too narrow as weeding becomes very difficult. Conversely, you don’t want your rows too wide as this wastes space and requires more weeding. Ick!
PlantingDates – You need to figure out the approximate date of the last frost in your area. I start turning over my soil and prepping as soon as the ground is defrosted and warmed up. It could be a few weeks before or after the general frost date for my area.
Succession Planting – What plants will follow when each vegetable is harvested? This is a space saving technique but you need to plan for it to work.
Vegetables – What to Plant?
What are you going to grow? My advice is to plant what you like to eat and don’t over plant. If you plant 20 squash plants your family is not going to be happy with you. You are not going to grow everything so use the available space wisely, especially if it’s small.
Sweet corn is a perfect example of what not to grow on a small plot. Corn needs to be grown in a large space (over 1000 sq. ft.) for proper pollination. So choose vegetables that your family will enjoy and that make sense for the space you have.
Small gardens (less than 1000 sq. ft.) – think about plants with a high yield per plant, which include the following vegetables:
Peppers (hot and sweet)
Squash (bush variety)
Large Gardens (1000 sq. ft. or more) – larger gardens can obviously grow a larger variety of vegetables (including those that take up more space) but remember the bigger the garden the more work required and the higher resulting yield. If there are only two of you and unless you want to be super gardeners or love to be outside puttering around, I’d recommend downsizing to a small plot:
All the vegetables listed above
Melons (vining varieties)
Squash (vining varieties)
How will your garden grow? Some plants (i.e.- lettuce and peas) are better suited to grow in the early spring whereas squash and tomatoes are heat loving plants that do well in high temperatures. Make sure that your plan includes a seasonal planting schedule that correlates with your successive plantings.
Planting every few weeks provides a continuous harvest throughout the growing season. To avoid gardener burnout, spread out your plantings to avoid a monster harvest all at once and instead have a steady flow of vegetables throughout the season. For example, planting new lettuce every two weeks during the early and mid-spring seasons guarantees you’ll have lettuce until it gets too hot.
In addition, successive planting ensures the wise use of your space. Planting squash in place of an earlier crop like peas will allow you to grow two crops in the same space in a single season.
Seeds and Plants
Order seeds from quality organic seed companies now. Don’t wait until the snow melts. I don’t recommend that you purchase seeds from a large box store as their seeds tend to be of poor quality and have low germination rates. In addition, don’t forget that there are GMO seed companies parading around as “your local friendly seed company” so buyers beware!
I’m not going to get into the details of the GMO debate but if you want to know more, just “Google” it. This is a hot topic in the world of agriculture and gardeners and consumers need to understand how important it is to buy properly sourced seeds from non GMO companies. To get you started, here is an article from Mother Earth News.
There are many organic seed companies, but here are a few that I’ve used personally and recommend:
Yes, it is possible to have a garden even if you don’t have available land by growing in a container! All that’s needed is good quality organic potting mix and a container – i.e. – an Earth Box or even a baby wading pool will work! For DIYers, purchase a storage container (or baby wading pool) from a large Box Store. It doesn’t have to be deep as about a foot of growing space is all that’s needed. Drill a few holes in the bottom and sides to allow water to drain out of the bottom and air through the sides for the roots to develop.
Pictured below are some of the containers that I grow in. Easy Peasy!
Baby Wading Pools
Fabric Grow Tubes
Large Grow Bags
If you have questions about your garden, please feel free to contact me. Happy Garden Planning!!!
As a Christmas gift to myself, I enrolled in the Herbal Academy of New England, an online educational program for those who want to become herbalists and/or anyone who is interested in herbs. I am thrilled and excited to add an academic understanding of herbs and how they interact in their various forms.
I’ve discovered that ideas of how and where you can use herbs are limitless! We can create teas, tinctures, poultices, essential oils, soaps, creams, syrups, and salves. We can also use them in our cooking, baking, jams, jellies, vinegars, oils, honey, salts, mix them with other herbs or simply munch on a sprig right off the plant.
Until now, my education was limited to reading books, the Internet and talking to my Naturopathic doctor. Once 20 years ago, I also took a guided hike on identifying wild edible plants. All I can remember from that day was the ability to identify Yarrow (a popular flower used for medicinal purposes) and tasting some uninspiring grassy, sometimes bitter tasting weeds. Ick!
The first lesson in my program involves making a medicinal tea from whatever I have on hand. Since I grow a lot of herbs on my small farm, I have many options. Needing an herb to test, I grabbed one of the many large paper grocery bags on my counter filled with herbs, opened it and discovered that I picked lemongrass. I had never used this herb before so I decided to try it.
Back-story on my poor little Lemongrass plant – It’s a Miracle!
Lemongrass is a new herb on my farm. Last winter, I found a catalog company that had a sale on plants and, at the time; it seemed to be a good deal. Who can resist a sale! The plant arrived on life support (obviously the reason for the sale) and it was clear that the plant didn’t have much, if any, time left. However, deep in the core of this dried up grassy blob; I found a little green stem. Since maybe there was some hope, I figured I’d plant it vs. tossing it into the compost pile. I placed it into a corner of a raised bed already pretty full of mints, sage and oregano, blessed the little plant and left it at that.
During the summer, it got watered (when I remembered…) and to my surprise that scraggly dried up little grassy thing started to grow! By the end of summer, it had shot up over 36 inches and was taking over the corner of its raised bed.
Before the first freeze, I cut the plant back down to its original size (a few inches tall) bound the cut grass into bunches and stuffed it into a grocery store paper bag to dry. I tossed the bag on my kitchen counter where it’s been since fall. I honestly had no clue as to what I was going to do with the grass. A couple of thoughts surfaced
(possibly soap or a seasoned salt) but no decision.
My Research on Lemongrass
(Disclaimer: I am not a health expert and have no medical training. The purpose of this article is not to diagnose and/or treat medical issues. This is for informational purposes only. If you have questions regarding your health, please consult with a medical physician)
According to Healthers.org lemongrass has some great medicinal properties. Here is an excerpt from their website:
Powerful pain relieving properties. It helps to alleviate muscle spasms by relaxing the muscles thereby leading to the reduction of pain-related symptoms.
Is useful for all types of pain including abdominal pain, headaches, joint pains, muscle pains, digestive tract spasms, muscle cramps, stomach ache and others.
Can be linked to increasing the body’s ability to repair damaged connective tissue such as cartilage, ligaments and tendons and is thus recommended for these types of injuries.
Improvements in blood circulation.
Its antifungal and antibacterial, lemongrass inhibits bacteria and yeast growth.
It is useful for gastrointestinal infections and may also be applied externally to wounds as it fights germs.
As an antioxidant, lemongrass contributes to liver and pancreatic health by helping the body to more quickly remove toxins.
It has also being linked to lowered or normalized cholesterol levels.
It also treats digestive issues including gastro-enteritis and may be helpful in relieving constipation.
Some sources suggest that lemongrass has antidepressant properties and is thus beneficial for nervous and stress-related conditions.
It is said to be helpful in alleviating anxiety and depressive symptoms. It helps to strengthen the nervous system and may thus be useful for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
The presence of Vitamin A in lemongrass makes it helpful for skin issues such as acne pimples.
It helps to brighten the skin and eyes and clear up oily skin, thus improving acne.
Its antibacterial property is also valuable for skin infections. Lemongrass may improve poor body odor by controlling excessive sweating.
One research study conducted at Ben Gurion University in Israel found that the citral found in lemongrass has possible benefits in inhibiting cancer. It revealed that this compound may contribute to the death of cancer cells with no noted negative effect on normal cells.
In herbal basic training, one must know how to make medicinal teas. I learned that medicinal teas have a higher tea to water ratio. In addition, commercial teas in tea bags have little to no medicinal value because there isn’t enough of the herb in the tea bag to make a difference. If you are looking for a health benefit from commercial tea, buy loose leaf.
I discovered that lemongrass tea has a wonderful strong lemony taste with a back note of grass and I was surprised how much I liked it. As I sipped my cup of tea, I began to think about the possibility of using this tea in a soap recipe along with the dried lemongrass. I already make herbal soaps using dried herbs and essential oils and wondered what would happen if I added tea to my recipe?
Not wanting to waste time, I dried the steeped lemongrass from my pot of tea, measured out enough tea for my soap recipe and began measuring / mixing the rest of my ingredients. My house smelled like the lemon groves I used to visit not far from my childhood home in Southern California. It was invigorating!
The soap is now curing and, as it will be a few weeks before I can test it, I’ll post an update in the coming weeks.
Lemongrass Tea Shrimp Scampi
Here I go again…. While cooking dinner that night, I was hit with another inspiration! My recipe for Shrimp Scampi called for lemon juice so I thought I would add the remaining lemongrass tea to my pan instead of lemon juice. It worked great and my husband, who is my official taste tester, gave me thumbs up!!
(Replaced the lemon juice with the tea)
The success of my experiments will result in my ordering more plants this spring so I can use lemongrass in even more products.
There are a few vegetables that I refuse to eat and butter beans is on the top of my list! My Mother is an awesome cook but sometimes she missed the mark on some of her creations. She used to make a dreadful dish consisting of several cans of butter beans (including the liquid) dumped into a round glass casserole dish, layering bacon on top and baking it. The mere smell of it made me sick to my stomach and I hated that dish so much that, at times, I refused to eat.
The turnip was, for reasons I can’t now recall, also a veggie that was once on my banned list. Once while having dinner at a friend’s house, I mistook them for mashed potatoes and fell in LOVE with them right then and there! How could I have disliked the turnip when it tasted so good?
Years later during a Christmas dinner, my Mother discovered she was eating turnips instead of mashed potatoes and we had a family crisis on our hands! (True confession – she was technically eating mashed potatoes, turnips and rutabagas, but I didn’t tell her that). My Mother hated turnips and never cooked them or even allowed herself to try them until she unknowingly ate my mashed medley of root vegetables (recipe will follow below). She projected her dislike of turnips on her children as we grew up and so we developed the impression that turnips were bad. My repulsion to the butter bean was similar to her repulsion to the turnip. Who knew?
I have since learned that the turnip is a wonderful vegetable and I’m surprised that so many people don’t like them. This year, I have included turnips in my CSA distribution and I love to hear customers’ comments about what they are doing with them each week.
Some have also grown to love the turnip and gleefully share the different ways that they cook their bulbs. Others are not so much in love but have a favorite recipe or two that will do the job. Then there are others that just plain hate turnips (a similar disdain that I have to the butter bean) and ask to take them back.
According to Wikipedia, the turnip has a long history and was domesticated before the 15th century. Throughout the world, the turnip has been a popular and a not so popular veggie. In Ireland and Scotland, turnips have been used as Halloween lanterns. In traditional Celtic festivals, rutabagas (which are larger turnips) were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows in the hopes of scaring off evil spirits.
In Nordic countries, turnips provided the staple crop before their replacement by the potato in the 18th century. In Turkey, turnip flavored salgam, is a juice made from purple carrots and spices served ice cold. In Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, turnips are pickled.
The Japanese also like their turnips pickled as well as stir fried in salt and soy sauce. In addition, they are fans of turnip greens, the very nutritious top of the turnip. In Brazil, the turnip is not a favored veggie as it is in other parts of the world and is thought to have an unpleasant taste.
However, part of the bias may be more of a social stigma vs. actual taste as, since the Middle Ages, turnips were an inexpensive crop that were associated with the poor and avoided by the nobility.
Here in the United States turnips are popular throughout the country. In the 1800’s, Westport Massachusetts was considered the turnip capital of the U.S thanks to two brothers, Aiden and Elihu MaComber. In 1876, they returned from the Philadelphia Exposition with a pocket full of turnip seeds and decided to go into the turnip business. The Bristol Whites were descendants of Swedish and Russian turnip seeds and flourished in the fertile ground of Westport. They soon became a popular and sought after commodity from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island.
Today they are a popular root crop used in all kinds of dishes. Personally, I prefer to treat them as a potato. If counting calories, the turnip is a good substitute for potatoes. The turnip root is also high in vitamin C and turnip greens (the tops) are a good source of vitamins A, C & K as well as folate and calcium.
The USDA states that one medium turnip (122 g) contains the following nutritional elements:
As is the case with potatoes, there are many different ways of preparing turnips. All that’s needed is a little imagination and you will have treasure trove of recipes. There are simple techniques like simmering in water (low boil) to the more detailed techniques such as Turnips Au Gratin. All in all, turnips are one of the most versatile root vegetables imaginable.
Here are my favorite techniques:
Quick Simmering/Low Boil Method:
Water: Peel, cut into chucks and place in a pot big enough to cover them with cold water. Simmer on low heat until fork tender and then drain well.
In a bowl, add a few tablespoons of butter (or coconut spread will also work well – vegan option) to hot turnips and mash in salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Leave in chucks, add butter, favorite spread and chopped herbs such as parsley, rosemary or thyme. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
Milk: Peel and cut into chucks and place in a pot big enough to cover them with milk. For a different twist, add either a sprig of fresh rosemary or thyme to the milk while the turnips are simmering. Since I don’t drink milk, I use Almond Milk and the turnips taste wonderful. Simmer drain well, discard the herb and reserve some of the cooking milk.
In a bowl, add a few tablespoons of butter (or coconut spread – vegan option) to the hot turnips and a little of the reserved milk and mash. Don’t add too much milk so that the consistency of the turnips will be smooth and not runny. Add salt and pepper to taste while stirring in some newly chopped herbs used in the cooking and serve.
Dressed Up Boil Method:
This is my all-time favorite recipe from “The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas: The History of the Season’s Traditions, with Recipes for the Feast” by Jeff Smith (copyright 1991).
Mashed Rutabaga, Turnip, and Potato
1 ¾ pounds rutabaga, peeled and quartered
1 ½ pounds turnips, peeled and quartered
1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
½ cup whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
The vegetables can be peeled ahead of time if you keep them in separate containers covered with water and Fruit-Fresh to prevent browning. Drain before cooking. Place the drained rutabaga in a 6-quart pot with ample fresh water and a pinch of salt. Boil 15 minutes. Add the turnips and potatoes and boil an additional 15 minutes until all the vegetables are tender. Drain well. Mash the vegetables with the remaining ingredients. They can also be pureed in several batches in a good food processor.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut turnips into chunks and put in a bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the chunks and season with your favorite herbs such as rosemary, thyme or your favorite herb blend. Salt and pepper and pour onto a cookie sheet. Place in pre-heated oven and roast for 5 – 8 minutes. Remove cookie sheet and stir turnips and place back in oven for another 5 – 8 minutes and stir again. Total cooking time should be 20 minutes but will vary depending on the size of the chucks.
The final cooking option is baking and there are some great recipes online such as Turnips Au Gratin that can be found by searching your favorite cooking site.
Spring has arrived here on Thompson Street Farm. My raised beds are finally defrosted and the rain has stopped, we’ve been busy cleaning out winter debris and prepping the soil for planting.
Maintain good soil health: One of the most important parts of being a successful gardener (or in my case farmer) is maintaining good soil health without dumping expensive fertilizers that are bad for your health and environment. Soil is a biological system which has millions microorganisms living in it that needs to be cared for. Understanding what is in your soil and what is not, will determine how successful your garden (or farm) will be.
I’m not a biologist and to be perfectly honest, soil biology is one of my weakest areas in my farming operation. I’ve read extensively on the subject; however, for me personally, I need things broken down in easy to understand language. I need a recipe of sorts specific to my land. There is so much information out there most of it doesn’t apply to my situation and I am frequently confused and frustrated.
I’ve learned I’m not alone. Finding soil amendments in small quantities can be hard for small plot growers. Some elements are only sold by the ton. In other situations when I could find smaller quantities (e.g. 1 lb. bag); it was too expensive to buy in the numbers I needed (e.g. 50 bags). This was my problem with bloodmeal. In the end, I resorted to ordering a 50 lb. bag from Amazon, paid the shipping fees because it was cheaper than buying (50) 1 lb. bags from my local garden store.
Use a good lab for soil testing: Last year I hired a soil fertility expert to help me figure out what to do with farm land I am leasing. My first year, I had very little seed germination. I knew I needed a soil test, but I wanted help translating the results and help sourcing a reliable retailer who would sell me soil amendments in the quantities I needed.
In our first meeting I explained I used my states university lab and I was frustrated on how to interpret the information. They use a general rating system:
• Below Optimum
• Above Optimum
In the recommendations section on every lab result regardless of what was rated they recommended 10-10-10 fertilizers. I started asking myself why do soil a test if the recommendation is always going to be the same? I knew the lab wasn’t explaining my test results accurately. They knew I was an organic grower, so why were they always recommending the use of commercial fertilizers.
I learned from my soil specialist some soil labs are better than others. He strongly recommended I stop using my state lab and use a lab that will give me the actual numbers of each element.
Test your Soil: Standard recommendation is once every 3 years in the fall. However, if you need a starting point don’t worry what time of year it is – just do the test. This will be your baseline.
Collecting your soil sample: If you have multiple beds (I have 22 raised beds) save some money by taking a sample of dirt from all your beds. Mix the dirt in a container and remove 1 scoop and send it off to the lab. This will give you an overall baseline of your soil make up.
If you want to know what’s going on in each bed take samples from different sections of the bed and mix together and remove a single sample. But be aware this can be expensive.
If you are growing in the ground, take samples from several different locations in your growing area. Mix together in a container and pull out 1 sample.
Soil Testing Check out Dan Kitterage YouTube Video introduction on soil testing
According to Dan Kitterage from the Bionutrient Food Association in MA he recommends your base minerals should be as follows:
Sulfur – 75ppm
Phosphorus – 75ppm
Calcium – 60% – 75%
Magnesium – 12% – 18%
Potassium – 3% – 5%
For more detailed information on soil biology I recommend you check out Dan’s website www.bionutrient.org
Manure vs leaf compost/mulch: Once you have addressed your soil mineral issues there is the question of organic matter. How much, what kind and how often? An old friend of mine is always telling me “You need nitrogen and lots of it!” “Use whatever you can find! That will really get you going.” My response is always “Not so fast my friend…..”
As an organic grower dumping manures in my beds or field is not the magic cure to all soil ailments. There has to be a balance between minerals and organic matter. In addition, manures are often mixed with the animals bedding which tends to be higher in ammonia verses nitrogen and other nutrients because the bedding is soaked with urine.
What kind of manure matters: Chicken, cow, horse, rabbit, goat, pig etc. Not all manures are the same. They all have different nutrient levels. Is the manure mixed with the bedding? If yes, what kind of bedding did they use? Stay away from wood shavings and sawdust bedding if possible.
Wood shavings and saw dust are often sprayed with chemicals which will leach out into your soil. Add the additional high levels of ammonia and you have a potent mixture that could burn your plants.
I realize finding manure free from the wood bedding maybe difficult but if you check around you may find someone who doesn’t use that type of bedding with their livesstock. If the bedding is straw then it’s ok because straw doesn’t absorb urine and breaks down quickly.
How old is the manure? Never ever put fresh manure on your soil. Last year a new gardener at our local community garden put several inches of her daughter’s newly made horse poo on her bed. Her rational it’s organic and free! What could go wrong? The result was she killed everything. That was a hard lesson for her to learn.
One year or more is best as it has time to rot a little, cool off so it won’t burn your plants. In addition, a little goes a long way, especially in small spaces.
How often should I put down manure? If the manure is composted (which is different than pure manure) you can put it down every year. If it’s straight manure its best to add it on your field and let rest for 1 month before planting. There is no information available on adding straight manure every year is wise. I recommend you consult with a soil fertility expert.
BEWARE of Toxic Manure: Not to be an alarmist, but sourcing your livestock manure is important. It’s what the animal digests and comes out the other end is the concern.
Some farmers spray their hay fields with herbicides to keep the weeds down. The hay is baled, sold or fed to the farmer’s livestock. When the cow or horse, for example, eats the hay, the residue from the herbicides passes through the animal and there you have it – toxic manure. It can stunt, mutate, or kill whatever you are growing and now you have a bigger problem – you have toxic soil.
Grass clippings collected from lawns that have been sprayed with herbicides and composted can also pose a similar danger. As much as I would love to ask for grass clippings from local landscapers, I don’t. In my neighborhood, we have a lot of those white and green trucks with tanks on them spraying Lord knows what on people’s lawns. My concern is the long term effects from the large number of residences that use these companies will be on our ground water. I doubt anyone’s monitoring this.
Using Manures as a soil amendment: Several sources recommend finding farmers that feed their animals with clean feed and use the manure solids minus the bedding. The challenge will be finding a source that will give you just the manure. It can be done. One gardener told me she asked an organic farmer friend if she could collect his cow patties in his pasture. Even though he gave her a strange look, he told her to knock herself out.
Another farmer friend recommended I check into large chicken producers who are overflowing with chicken poo and will deliver it by the truckload. Large producers often don’t use bedding in their operations. The chickens are in cages and the waste drops to a space below them and is shoveled out. In addition, owning chickens myself, I know there are a great many benefits other than collecting their eggs and/or eating them.
“They found that cotton yields peaked 12 percent higher with organic fertilizers (sic. specifically chicken litter), compared to peak yields with synthetic fertilizers…”
Manures are not sterile: As wonderful manures are, you need to be aware there are pathogens in manure that can contaminate your produce if it hasn’t been properly composted. It can have some pretty nasty bugs such as E-coli, Listeria and salmonella just to name a few. As a commercial grower I have be very careful what I put on my soil as the last thing I want is contaminated lettuce from manure not properly composted.
For my piece of mind, unless I’m guaranteed the manure has been sitting for a few years, I will only use it on my open field. For my permanent raised beds I use leaf compost. In addition, I only recommend trucking in manure if you are farming ¼ acre or more. Anything smaller I recommend leaf compost.
Leaves are easy to find. I discovered last fall some people were more than happy to collect and bag leaves if I hauled them away verses the homeowner hauling bags to the town dump and paying a dump fee. In addition, ask your neighbors to blow their leaves into your yard. I was lucky last fall my neighbor was more than happy to blow his leaves down the hill in-between our houses.
I run my leaves through a leaf mulcher which gives me nice chopped mulch ready to be put on my beds. I recommend about a 1 to 2 inches of mulch on top of your beds or growing area in the late fall and leave there over winter. Come spring, I mix whatever is left into the soil and as long as I don’t have to add any rock minerals I’m good to start planting.
Since its spring now, check if you have leaves hanging around from last year and go ahead and put them in your garden or if you’ve already planted side dress your plants. It will help retain moisture and keep weeds down.
Test your soil in the fall every 3 years. Or test now for a baseline.
Use a lab that breaks down everything by the numbers verses using general terms such as Below Optimum, Optimum etc.
Use leaf compost/mulch on less than a ¼ acre or in raised beds. If you want to use animal manures, try to use manures that are bedding free (i.e. wood shavings or sawdust), and are fed clean herbicide free feed.
One of the great things about being a SPIN (Small Plot IN-tensive) Farmer is many of us like to share short cuts and new time saving products that we find useful. For example, one of our tools in the “tool kit” is growing vegetables in all kinds and sizes of containers. One of best ideas is using wading pools for toddlers. Drill holes in the bottom and sides for drainage and aeration fill it with a good quality potting soil and you’re good to go!
However, there are some containers and gimmicks that are not worth the money or effort. I’m a firm believer of learning from other people’s experiences and this product is one of them. I have several good friends who purchased “The Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter” (“As Seen on TV!”) and were nice enough to share with me their experiences.
Based on my interviews, this product gets my lowest rating which is a sad face. Their warning is buyers beware! This product does not live up to the expectations as advertised.
My first interview was with my neighbor’s Bob and Sue. Bob and Sue purchased their planter at a local discount store and put everything together themselves. The kit included the bag, basic instructions on how to fill and hang the bag and a packet of fertilizer. Soil and tomato plant were not included.
My friend Gail purchased her planter from a local farm and garden supply store in her town. It was already assembled and planted with a tomato plant. All she had to do was buy it and hang it when she got home.
Here is what they said about this product:
Brenda: During the summer we know you love fresh tomatoes and for years you grew tomatoes the normal way, in a pot, planter or in the ground with success. So why did you buy this product?
Bob and Sue: It was advertised that it was easy to use and could be put it anywhere in the yard. Our yard has lots of shade and we wanted to be able to move the planter around the yard to the sunniest spaces throughout the day.
Gail: I work a lot of hours and I don’t have time to garden anymore. I wanted something simple and care free. When I saw it all put together ready to hang in my yard, I couldn’t resist.
Brenda: How was it to assemble and install?
Bob and Sue: It wasn’t easy. Once I filled the bag with soil it was really heavy. We looked for weight requirements and there was nothing listed in the instructions. I wasn’t sure if I was putting it together right or not.
When I finally got it filled with potting soil and then planted the tomato plant, it was a big mess. Soil kept leaking out all over the place it was incredibly heavy.
Gail: I didn’t have any problems hanging it up. I just hooked it on the railing on my front door stoop.
Brenda: During the growing season, how easy was it to care for the plant?
Bob and Sue: It didn’t go well at all. The reason we purchased the planter was so we could move it around our yard with little effort so it can always have sun. The planter ended up getting so heavy we had to buy a heavy-duty shepherd’s hook hanger and anchor it to the ground with heavy-duty wire. Moving it around wasn’t an option anymore.
The other problem we noticed was that the plant didn’t grow straight down as they advertised. The plant wanted the sun and wasn’t getting it hanging upside down. Instead it curved up and grew up the bag.
When the weather got really hot the soil in the bag dried out and my plant started to wilt. Some days I had to water it several times just to keep it alive. Then there was always the fear of the bag ripping or the hook breaking after watering because the bag was so heavy.
Then there was the question of what to do with the fertilizer that came with the kit. There were no instructions on what to do with it. Over all, it was a lot of work to keep that plant alive and very frustrating.
Gail: Honestly, I really didn’t pay that much attention to it. I had it hanging off my front stoop railing. I did notice a few times after watering that the weight of the soil and plant was putting a lot of stress on the bag, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. If it broke it broke.
However, now that I think about it, watering was actually a problem. Watering from the top meant the water then flowed down and out the holes never reaching the bottom vines. Watering at the separate holes didn’t allow enough water for the plant.
Brenda: How did the tomato plant grow? Did it give you the quantity that you expected?
Bob and Sue: After all the work that went into putting it together and the amount of care it required the output of tomatoes was minimal. It certainly didn’t give us the bumper crop that they advertised in their commercials or on the box.
Gail: For the first few weeks my plant was producing enough tomatoes to satisfy me. Then I ran out of tomatoes and the plant didn’t produce anything for almost 3 months. Then right before a hard freeze I noticed the plant flowered again and it looked like I was going to finally get more tomatoes. Unfortunately, the freeze came, and then snow and that ended everything.
Brenda: Did this product meet your expectations and deliver what it promised? And would you recommend it to your friends and family?
Bob and Sue: No and No. It was a waste of money and I’m concerned about how they advertise this product. I don’t think they are being truthful. My biggest concern is if an elderly person bought this product. How would they be able to manage assembling this thing and care for it.
Gail: No – I didn’t get a consistent amount of tomatoes as they advertised. And if you think about it, what plant can grow upside down? Mine, defied gravity and turned up and grew up the bag and it was in full sun all day. I don’t recommend this product – this is a buyers beware product.