Gardening For The Taste of It

Why do I garden? To be sure, I do it because I want to be able to supply my family with the freshest, most sustainably and naturally grown food that I can buy.  I also do it because I love to get outdoors and dig in the dirt; it’s a great way to exercise, be exposed to sunlight and beneficial microbes.  It’s also THE best place to gather my thoughts and communicate with God (hmmm…that gives me another idea for a future post!).

But, I also garden for another simple reason: taste – if you grow your own, you know what I’m talking about.  Nothing compares to the taste of perfectly ripened, fresh from the garden produce that you grow yourself!

After all of these years of gardening, I’ve come up with six crops that I absolutely LOVE the home-grown version of, and are MUSTHAVES for planting in my garden every year.  Won’t you follow along and see if you agree?

  1.  Heirloom Tomatoes.  I love heirloom tomato varieties.  They are sweet, juicy, smoky and fruity, and come in a variety of amazingly beautiful colors and shapes.  While they may not be as prolific as their hybrid counterparts, what they lack in production is easily made up for in taste – there’s nothin’ quite like the taste of a home-grown heirloom tomato, in my opinion.

 

loads of tomatoes

 

2.  Potatoes.  If you’ve ever grown your own potatoes, you know what I mean.  From the minute you start preparing them, you can tell you’re in for a treat!  They have a wonderfully crisp texture, when you cut into them. When cooked, they are creamy and buttery, with out-of-this-world flavor.  I haven’t found one person who has ever tasted a home-grown potato and doesn’t have a story to tell about its wonders.

potatoes

3.  Tree fruit.  Apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, pluots, and apples are some of the tree fruits I grow out at Whit’s Acres.  Like candy on a branch – that’s what I’d compare these babies to when they are perfectly sun-ripened and ready to eat.  Each heirloom variety has its own unique smell, taste, and texture – things that make them even more of a priority for me to have in my garden.
Apricots

4.  Beets.  I know.  Do you hate them?  I used to, too… until I tasted one freshly harvested from my garden and roasted.  Wow!  So sugary sweet, with just a touch of earthiness.  And the beet greens?  Fabulous!  Mix them together with some fresh shallots and an orange juice-garlic vinaigrette and you’ve got one pretty amazing salad.  I love these things!

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5.  Beans, the kind that you can dry.   Oh, man.  If you haven’t grown your own soup beans, you’ve got to get them in the ground next chance you get!  Once again, the texture and taste of home-grown dry beans are incomparable.  They are silky smooth in texture and provide a depth of flavor that you just can’t get anywhere else.  My favorites to grow are black-eyed peas and rattlesnake beans.  They are so easy to grow and produce like crazy, too!

dry beans

6.  Brussels Sprouts.   I know.  They’re an acquired taste, right?  Maybe, if you’ve only ever had the store-bought kind.  Home-grown ones, on the other hand, are quite addicting!  They are amazingly sweet with a more subtle cabbage flavor.  My favorite variety is “Falstaff” (not pictured here), which is super sweet, mild, and a bit nutty tasting.  They are getting more and more difficult for me to grow here where I live, due to warmer weather patterns, but I will not give up on growing them, because the homegrown varieties just don’t compare with any others that I’ve ever tasted.  They are that good!

brussels sprouts

How about you?  What fruits and vegetables do you grow for taste?  What do you grow that is far superior in taste, texture, and smell to anything you’ve ever purchased?  What other crops would you add to this list?

Let Volunteers be Your Guide for When to Plant

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A question I am often asked is, “when do I plant?”  It’s an important question.  Different plants require different growing conditions and should be grown at different times. Without a doubt, one of the keys to a successful garden is knowing when to plant all of the different varieties that you will be growing.  But, how does one determine when to plant?

Well, there are a few different ways this can be done (I’ll save the best way I’ve found ’till the end)…

First, you can make a trip to your local nursery or home and garden center and look to see what they currently have for sale. Typically, they stock plants based on growing seasons.  However, you should just use this as a general guide, especially in the spring, when the ground and air temps may not be warm enough for planting in your specific area.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost their entire investment, in the spring, by planting too early just because the plants were available in the nursery.  Also, they often don’t stock vegetable transplants year ’round.  Just because they’re not available in the nursery at the moment, it doesn’t mean it’s not the right time to put them in your home garden. Typically, home and garden stores make transplants available one time per year, in early spring.  There are many vegetables that can be put into the garden right up through the fall, like lettuces, cabbages, peas, and oriental greens, but you may not find them for sale in your local stores.  So, yes, see what’s available at your local nursery, but don’t use it as the only method for determining when to plant.

cool weather seedlings

Next, you can go by the instructions on the back of a seed packet.  Some seed packets have very general (and sometimes confusing) instructions.  It may show a map with color-coded zones and planting times.  If there are a lot of different climates in your state or county, it can be tricky to pinpoint, exactly, which zone you fit in just by looking at the small map.  Also, the range of planting dates can be quite large – i.e. if you are in zone x, plant between early February through April – that’s a pretty wide range.  It can be a bit of a guessing game when you use these types of seed packets.  However, there are some wonderful heirloom, organic seed companies that provide planting instructions with great detail on their packets, including whether or not the seeds need overnight soaking, cold stratification, or scarifying, which can make all of the difference when it comes to successful germination.  These types of packets also base seed starting time on your first and last frost dates.  For example, the packet might say something like, “start seeds indoors four weeks prior to your last frost date.”  This really helps you to zone in on a particular planting date for your seed starting.  The key here is knowing your first and last frost dates so that you get those seeds in the ground at the right time.

This leads me to another tactic, which I greatly employ in my own garden planning – a vegetable planting guide.  There are a variety of different guides that you can reference and download on the internet.  Some are designed for specific hardiness zones, counties, and regions, others are more general in nature.  Some cover very basic garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers, others get into more specific types of plants.  Some are very visual, others more technical.  I keep several different types of guides on hand to help me with my planting times.  I like to use simple, at-a-glance-type guides at the beginning of the gardening season to quickly plan out what I’m going to get started and when.  When I get closer to the fall, I prefer to use a more technical guide that includes a “days to harvest” column so that I can count back from my final frost date and know when I can safely sow or plant out my final crops.

Finally, a method that I’ve really come to appreciate in helping me know when to sow and plant (and the one that I’ve found to be the most reliable) is using volunteer seedlings as guides.  Whenever I see a baby plant growing, it indicates to me that it’s the right time to sow brother and sister seeds of that variety. Here’s why:  that seed has been lying underground for some time, waiting for just the right conditions to spring to life.  It’s presence in the garden indicates that there must be ideal conditions for it to be growing, and, therefore, it’s time for me to begin sowing or planting out more of it (the exception being warm weather varieties that show up late into the season, when there won’t be enough time for them to set fruit for harvesting).  The key to using this method is letting some of my plants from the previous season set and drop seed.

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(with potatoes or garlic, I  leave some of the harvest in the ground, for plants where the seeds are contained inside of the fruit, I  allow the fruit to mature, then leave it to decompose right in the garden bed. Bugs, insects, animals, wind and water can also disperse seed, setting up the opportunity for more volunteers to pop up later on.  If you compost, you may also find volunteers there.)

Each year, there are variances in weather conditions in my area – variances that home and garden centers, seed packets and charts can’t predict, but I can almost always guarantee that I’ll be planting at the right time if I do it in conjunction with volunteers that I see sprouting in my garden!

Won’t you give it a try?

 

Taking My Time With Cold Seed Stratification

It’s that time of year again…indoor seed sowing time!!!

I’ve already sprouted and potted up brassicas, sown lettuce and pea seeds, and am getting ready to start on the nightshades, herbs, and annual flowers.

This year, in addition to all of the annual fruits and veggies that I’ll be starting from seed, I’m also going to try my hand at starting some perennial trees, shrubs, and berries indoors.  If I’m successful, I’ll save a ton of money on landscaping and will be able to supply my family and customers with even more healthy food and herbs from the garden.

I say “if” because these particular perennials that I’m starting are a little more difficult to get going than your typical annual seed.  They can’t just be planted straight out of the seed packet into a seed starting medium.  Instead, most of these seeds require a period of stratification before they are sown.  Seed stratification is the process whereby seed dormancy is broken in order to promote germination.  

There are  different types of stratification.   According to Gardening Know How.com, “Some seeds require a warm and moist treatment, while others require a cool and wet treatment. Even still, other seeds require a combination of both warm and cool treatments followed by a warm treatment, or a combination of warm and cool moist followed by a dry cycle and warm period to germinate.”

Does this sound confusing?  Intimidating?  (It used to scare me off, so I kept my distance from these plants for a long, long time).  

However, I’ve grown much more comfortable with the seed starting process over the years, so I figured why not take on the challenge of seed stratification this year?

I hopped on over to one of my favorite heirloom seed sources, Bountiful Gardens, and placed an order for some of their wild cultivars: Serviceberry, Hawthorne, Bearberry, Hardy Kiwi, Chaste Tree, Schizandra, and a few others.

When the package arrived, I found out that most of my seeds were going to require cold stratification, which is the type of stratification used for “plants or trees that require time in the ground over winter in order to germinate” (Gardening Know How).

It was a little overwhelming at first, making my way through all of the instructions included with the seeds, but after digesting it all, I found that the process, although a little time consuming, was relatively easy to complete.

Here’s what I ended up doing…

First, I picked up some plastic containers at the local Dollar Tree.  These little ones, that came in a package of four, fit the bill perfectly…

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Then, using cotton balls as my medium, I created a moist, but not wet, layer on the bottom of the container…

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Next, I added the seeds…

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Then, I covered the seeds with more moist cotton balls…

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Finally, using the information on the seed packet, I calculated the date when the seeds would finish their cold stratification period, wrote it on the seed packet instructions and calendar, taped the seed packet instructions to the container, and placed the container into the refrigerator to be left alone until the recorded date at which time they’ll be removed from the refrigerator and then sown, indoors, just as I sow my other annual seeds.

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Some of the seeds can take up to a year to germinate after sowing, so this project is going to take some patience, but as the words from one of my favorite Wes King songs, Slow Miracles, says,  “the best things in life take time”, don’t they?

Curious about which perennials require cold stratification?  (I was surprised to find some of the plants I grow on this list, like lavender and catmint – I’ve never used cold stratification on these seeds before, but now maybe I will).  Head on over to A Garden for the House for a nice list of garden perennials, and Wild Ones for some great information and a chart on native, wild plants, like the ones that I am growing.

Transplanting, Instead of Culling, Makes Me a Much Happier Gardener

Ever had a hard time thinning or “culling” those extra seedlings that spring up from over-sowing or volunteering?  It’s very common, in my garden, to find seedlings that are way too tightly packed together.  Even though I know it is the absolute right thing to do, I can’t tell you how it pains me to remove these sweet little gems from my garden.

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The other day I was working in a bed of lettuce that I had sown a few weeks prior – one that I sowed an over-abundance of seed in to ensure better germination rates.  It was now time for the weeding and thinning to take place.

I like to let my seedlings grow a couple of sets of true leaves before starting the thinning process.  Crickets and grasshoppers around our homestead love those first little, tender leaves and often chew them right off, leaving nothing but the stem and roots, essentially killing the plant, but they don’t tend to bother them once they get larger.  So, rather than thin early and risk losing what’s left to these pests, I leave them to grow until they are large enough that the pests won’t bother them and then begin the thinning.

As I started the process of locating the lettuce among the weeds, to my happy surprise, I also noticed that there were a ton of carrot seedlings scattered about – no doubt from seeds that had dropped off and germinated earlier in the year  from a carrot plant that I’d let go to seed for the purpose of seed saving…

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If it were spring or summer, I’d thin any unwanted plants by gently pulling them up or cutting them off at the soil line and then toss them aside. But now that it’s fall, and the days are shorter, the weather is cooler, and the ground is staying saturated longer,  I’ve decided to try and salvage as many seedlings as possible.  I know it’s a risk with the carrots because transplanting can cause the roots to fork, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to save these dainty little volunteers!

Digging up a clump of soil – plants, weeds, and all – I take care to pry the weeds away,  and then I gently divide the seedlings…

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Although I try not to disturb the roots, I find that in this cooler weather the plants don’t mind having their roots exposed as much.

Then, using a hand trowel,  I pry open up a small area of soil, slip the transplants into place (evenly spacing them out as I go), and give them a good watering to get them off to a good start in their new homes.

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What a joy it is to have a few more beds of lettuce and carrots growing, now.  It makes me very happy!

So, if you’re like me, and you absolutely can’t bear to sacrifice all of those perfect, albeit not so well placed, vegetable seedlings that you’ve sown or have volunteered, and if it’s the right time of year, you might just want to consider taking the time to transplant them into another area of the garden where they’ll have adequate space for proper growth, ensuring happier, healthier plants.  Knowing that you’ve save those little beauties, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot happier, too! 🙂

To Raise or Not Raise the Garden Bed – That is the Question

Raised beds are all the rage, right now, and for good reason.  They look amazing, keep the garden looking neat and tidy, are easy to keep weed-free (especially if you’re starting with soil and amendments from the garden center),  can be elevated, making it easier for  people with back problems/disabilities, can be portable, can extend the growing season by allowing the soil to warm up faster in the spring,  and can result in higher food production rates.

Out at My Happy Homestead, I have a few raised beds that I garden in.

I prefer to grow lettuce and other short-rooted veggies in my 6″ tall raised beds.

lettuce bed

I have an orchard of semi-dwarf fruit trees that I’m growing inside of raised beds.   I love the look that the beds create –  the trees are actually planted in deep holes in the ground, then the boxes are built around the trees and filled in with compost, garden soil, and topped off with dry leaves.  (I’m experimenting with permaculture techniques in this area, planting in other edibles and herbs underneath the canopy of the trees and inside of the boxes to add beauty and create a sustainable landscape).

stone fruit garden

Mini raised beds are used for our Harvest @ Home garden rental service.

early spring crops 003

And, here is a newly constructed, deep, raised bed that hubby just put together for me…

raised bed

I’ve planted it out with melons.  I love how it acts as a garden “room” divider, setting this area of the backyard off from other surrounding areas.   Yes, raised garden beds add definite aesthetic value to the garden – another great benefit I forgot to mention earlier.  Also, it’s physically less demanding to construct these raised beds (at least I think it is) than it is to double-dig a traditional garden bed.

However, there are a few drawbacks when it comes to growing in raised beds, too.

First of all, it can be quite costly.  By the time you pay for all of the wood, garden soil, and other (in my opinion) necessities, like chicken wire (to gopher-proof the bottom) and weed barrier, you’ll need to grow quite a bit of food to re-coop your costs.  To save money, look for salvaged, or scrap wood.  I’ve found a lot of free wood on Craigslist, and by putting out requests to friends and family.  Just make sure that the wood is untreated and free of paint or varnish if you’re going to be using it for raising food.

Also, when the temperatures heat up, it can dry out rather quickly.  If you live in an area that experiences hot, dry weather in the summer, like I do, plants that are growing in raised beds may become stressed from overheating and lack of water.  To remedy this, you may need to water more often (sometimes more than once per day).  I’ve found that setting my raised beds in areas of the garden that get afternoon shade, mulching deeply with straw hay or dead leaves, and providing shade cloth for beds that get all-day sun helps to conserve water and keep the plants from getting quite as stressed.  Choosing plants that are more drought tolerant (like canteloupe and eggplant) is also a good thing to keep in mind when planning what to grow in your raised beds, especially if you are worried about how heat will affect your fruits and vegetables.  If you are curious, the Veggie Gardener has a list of 12 drought tolerant fruits and vegetables to help you make the right choice.

Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that some fruits and veggies just aren’t meant to be grown above ground.  According to an Ohio University fact sheet, “since the root system is restricted by the size of the container, some plants may produce smaller fruit, and some vegetables don’t grow well in containers.  Vegetables that grow well in containers are those with a confined habit of growth, such as salad greens, spinach, eggplant, Swiss chard, beets, radish, carrots, peppers, bush beans, determinate tomatoes, bush varieties of summer squash and cucumbers, green onions, and many herbs. It isn’t that other vegetables can’t be grown, but that they may not be as suitable for container culture. ”  For me, the veggie that I just won’t grow in raised beds or containers is the potato.   Yes, I know that growing potatoes above ground, in boxes, barrels, and bags is totally “in” right now, but I’ve had absolutely no success growing potatoes this way.  Mine always seem to do much better growing in the coolness of the underground, so that’s where they’ll stay.

So, back to the question:  to raise or not raise the garden bed?  In the end, I believe raised beds serve a wonderful purpose in the garden, and I think everyone should have, at least, one to grow and experiment in.

Want to know more about raised bed gardening?  A standard on the subject is All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew .  A great article on the topic of container gardening can be found at Ohio State University online.  I particularly appreciate the chart, at the end, that matches plant varieties with container sizes – perfect for helping determine the best varieties to grow in containers and the depth which each  plant requires to thrive in that kind of environment.

Well-Defined Garden Beds – The Stuff of Magazines

Here’s a  great, little landscaping tip that I picked up over at Fine Gardening Magazine :  “Inside the house or out”, says Ray Baker, “a clean, smooth line provides a finished look and a sense of clarity to an area.”  It’s absolutely true.  Just think about how much crisper your bedroom looks when you make your bed, or your office looks when you tidy up your desk, and your kitchen appears when all of the counters have been cleared and the sink has been emptied of all of the dishes.  Things look messy when there aren’t clearly defined lines.  Tidying up instantly remedies that.  The problem is that, no matter how hard we try, those well-defined lines never seem to last for very long.

Out at My Happy Homestead, when weeds are constantly encroaching upon my garden borders, keeping well-defined lines is tough to do.  All around our 2.8 acres, crabgrass, mallow, stinging nettles, pineapple weed, and a host of other weeds are constantly  swallowing up our  landscape, making it impossible to distinguish between the wild and cultivated areas out here.

weeds

But, I am determined to try and keep well-defined lines in my garden lanscape.

It makes such a huge visual difference when all of the “clutter” has been removed, and the lines have been restored.

just weeded border

Believe it or not, creating well-defined lines, in my garden,  begins with a simple garden spade and some good ol’ elbow grease.

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I know.  I’m crazy.

But, I have my reasons…

  • It’s cheap
  • It’s a great workout
  • The results are instant
  • It provides green waste for the compost bins
  • It’s safe for the environment and my family and pets
  • It’s keeping money out of Monsanto’s pockets (perhaps another post for another time)

This year, in an effort to keep the weeds from re-encroaching,  I’m going to make use of an organic weeding tip that I found over at Pinterest, where it was suggested that baking soda be used around all of the edges of flower beds, twice a year (spring and fall)  to keep the grass and weeds from growing into beds.  The Pinner said that, “the baking soda neutralizes the PH in the soil [so that] nothing will grow there.”

I’m very anxious to find out if this method actually works.

grass weed control

 I have a sneakin’ feeling, however,  that – just like the Golden Gate Bridge painters, who, once they finally get to the end of painting the entire bridge, have to turn right back around and do it all over again – I’m going to be right back at it with my trusty spade and elbow grease to clear the weeds and make well-defined lines at least two or three times, throughout all of the gardens at My Happy Homestead, this year.

Ah, so it is with organic country living, where the work is never done.   Well-defined garden lines, like clean, smooth lines that we create anywhere else in our lives,  are like a mist that is here one moment and gone the next.  But, oh, what a fabulous moment that is!  –exactly what the stuff of home and garden magazines are made of. 🙂

Blessed and Privileged to Garden in 2012

Well, that’s a wrap on the 2012 garden.  Overall, I’d say I had a pretty successful year.  I fulfilled most of the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of the year, and even had some fun doing it!  Yes, it was a lot of work, and just because the year is over it doesn’t mean that the work is done.  Gardening at My Happy Homestead is a never ending labor of love!

I’d have to say that weather was the biggest player in last year’s garden.  It affected nearly every crop I grew (some for better, some for worse), and allowed a host of unusual pests to outstay their welcome among all of the plants.  As I look back on the highs and lows, the successes and failures, and all of the lessons that I learned this past year, I am filled with a great sense of satisfaction and privilege.

It has been incredibly satisfying to feed my family with fresh, healthy, organic foods that come straight from our own backyard.

harvest of plenty

tomato harvest

late summer harvest

charentais melon

What a privilege it has been to work in the soil and grow food for ourselves,  friends, family, strangers, neighbors, and  tons of little critters (both good and bad) that visited our homestead, this past year.

bee gathering pollen from radish flowers

gopher holes

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rabbit

It was a year for trying out new gardening techniques, like this wire basket compost and potato growing system.

compost bin

potato towers

The compost system, when we stayed on top of it, did a very good job of delivering dark, healthy hummus for us.  The potato baskets, well,  I think it just gets way too hot, here, for potatoes to grow well in this manner. This coming year, the potatoes are definitely going back into the ground where they can stay nice and cool (with a liner of chicken wire at the bottom to keep the gophers out, of course).

Pinterest had a big influence on the look of my garden, this past year.  I fell in love with all of the beautifully designed raised garden beds that I saw, and decided to try my hand at creating one.  I love how my lettuce bed turned out.  It was every bit as wonderful as I imagined, except for one thing – I never wanted to harvest from it!

lettuce bed

raised bed lettuce

A few of my Pinterest-inspired projects were a little more practical and will be keepers in this year’s garden, though,

like this Pottery Barn inspired container,

picket fence planter

and this old chair planter,

chair planter

and this old crib turned tomato trellis.

tomato trellis tied

Speaking of practical, straw mulch was and will still be a huge part of my garden.  It always does such a  great job of cutting down on weeds and feeding the soil, below, as it decomposes, and the plastic bottle cloches proved to be an indispensable tool for protecting transplants, too.

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One thing that I’d like to do a little more of, this coming year, is seed saving.

lettuce seed collecting

dry beans

I’d also like to take up right where I left off on preserving the harvest,

tomato jam strawberry flavored

freezing tomatoes

and eating (mostly) only what’s in season.

healthy grilled cheese

summer confetti salad

Chocolate Zucchini Bread

green smoothie

costco veggie pizza

There’s a lot to look forward to out at our homestead in 2013.  We’ve got plans to expand our fledgling home business, Whit’s Acres.  In addition to selling heirloom, organic seeds, seedlings, and produce, we’re excited to be offering a “Harvest at Home” gardening service for those who would love to grow their own, fresh, heirloom, organic fruits, veggies, and flowers at home , but don’t necessarily have the time (or feel like they know how) to do so.  Here’s a sneak peak at a couple of the items we’ll be offering…

A Home Harvest box,  filled with various, one-crop, edibles, for rent,

and a Harvest at Home raised bed garden – a permanent garden- filled with a variety of edibles that we construct, and keep filled with veggies (and will even service) all year ’round.

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I can’t wait to see what becomes of our endeavors in 2013!

Most people say that I am “lucky”; lucky to be living where I live, to have to space to grow what I grow, to have the knowledge and talent to do what I do.  I prefer the word “blessed”.  I am so very thankful that God has brought me to this place and that He allows me to participate in this amazing life that He has given me!  I pray that I never take it for granted, and that I use all of the gifts and talent He has given me to the utmost for His glory, as I work to create an even better garden (and all that goes with it) in 2013!