Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to Put Summer in a Jar

By Karen Melchers

One of the great joys of summer is picking the first ripe tomato or pepper from your garden. Even if you're a seasoned grower, the thrill of the first harvest is relived each year. It doesn't seem to matter if you grow your vegetables in pots, in a raised bed in the backyard, in a community garden, or on the south's all the same. You did it! You took a seed or seedling, planted it, nurtured it, and now you have a lovely result: A real, ready-to-eat vegetable.

Sometimes, though, enthusiasm gets the better of even the most experienced grower. We plant 10 extra, "Just in case," and then the drought doesn't happen. The sun shines every day and it rains just enough at night to give all the plants a nice drink. The deer and the bunnies don't play in the garden and suddenly you have not just that one beautiful fantastic first tomato or zucchini, you have 50. Every day for three weeks (you staggered your planting for an extra long harvesting season) your basket overflows. Soon, your family and neighbors turn their backs when they see you coming with a brown bag in hand. The kids whine, "Not_______ again!" You fill in the blank.

Worry not. The thing to do is put aside the sharing principle after the first give-away, keep the fruits of your labor, and put them up. 'Putting up' food means storing for later use by preserving. Believe me, there in nothing as toothsome as a fresh tomato sauce, made from your own tomatoes, when it's 11 degrees out and snowing.

The idea is to take the freshest foods, prepare and process them to kill the microorganisms and enzymes that cause food to spoil, and create an air-tight vacuum seal that allows the goodness of garden bounty to be preserved indefinitely.

"Sounds good," you say. "I've been wondering what to do with all these beans. How do I do it?"

I suggest you borrow a book on home canning from the library, read it, and then if the idea is still appealing buy a good, basic book on the topic. It will probably have the word 'complete' in its title because, like cooking or baking, preserving comes with its own terms, tools, and steps to follow and you'll need a good resource.

If you don't have a garden of your own but 'putting up' is still something you'd like to try this year, all is not lost. Follow the same book-borrowing, book-buying procedure detailed above and then purchase the bounty of someone else's garden or visit a nearby farm stand or co-op and buy some of their crop.

In fact, you needn't limit yourself to 'putting up' only vegetables or fruits. You also can 'put up' chili, soup, sauce, jams, jellies, meats, poultry, pickles, relish, potatoes, leafy greens, fish, clams, salsa, stew, stock, and even beef in wine sauce. There are many, many recipes available on the Web, in books or magazines, at your local University Extension and, of course, in your complete reference book.

Once you've found a great recipe, and before you harvest or buy the ingredients called for, make sure you have all the necessary equipment on hand.

First, you'll need a variety of clean glass jars (depending on what you're preserving these can range from half-pint to quart-sized) that should come with flat metal lids and screw tops. The second necessity is a large pan that will allow about 3 inches of water to cover the jars or a pressure canner. Third, are the utensils. You'll need a non-metallic spatula, a special jar lifter whose jaws are covered in soft plastic, a canning funnel, and a plastic stick that has a magnet attached to the end for lifting lid components out of hot water. These supplies are readily available, especially in August, at hardware stores, big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, some grocery stores, and, of course, online.

Now you're ready to begin. Allow yourself plenty of uninterrupted time when you're 'putting up' and you'll soon find that there's a rhythm to the process that's enjoyable in itself. When you're done put the jars up on an open shelf ('put up,' get it?) They're colorful and beautiful and every time you look at them you'll feel a sense of pride in your accomplishment.

The real joy will come, though, on the snowy day that you pull down a jar, open it, and take a sniff. Ahhh! Summer in a jar.

Monday, August 28, 2006


The hubby and I were at a family dinner function yesterday and while making a salad, my sister in law asked if my other sister in law had a composter. She said 'No', then she said. 'Don't judge me'. Well, we all kind of snickered but it got me to thinking about composting. How important is a composter for your garden and more importantly, the environment?

In the large city where I live, the powers that be have come out with 'green boxes'. Similar to 'blue boxes' which are used for recycling bottles, cans and papers; these 'green boxes' are used to recycle household waste. You are allowed to put food scraps, pizza boxes, Kleenexes - just about anything that will break down over a period of time into these carts. Most stores in my area sell these paper bags with a plastic like lining to keep the mushy stuff in and the contents are picked up once a week along with the garbage. This program is a test program for a few years to see how it will work out and to see if they want to continue with the program. The refuse is basically taken from households and sold back to the city's citizens as compost for their soil. On the other hand, you can purchase a composting unit from the city for $33 and go from there, but no matter what you do, like the Nike Commercial says, 'Just Do It'.

What is composting? Composting is the breaking down of organic material by bacteria and fungi. Why should you compost? Composting assists your soil in retaining nutrients and moisture. By composting, you will require fewer chemicals for your garden. Composted materials help the soil in your garden to become full of nutrients for your plants. Almost 45 percent of your garbage on a weekly basis can be turned into compost material; the key is just to get started. Green material such as lawn clippings and kitchen wastes contribute nitrogen and brown materials such as sawdust from untreated wood, vacuum cleaner, dry leaves and shredded newspapers (no colored advertisements put them in the recycle bin!) Keep in mind, however, that too much green can lead to overheating. The centre of your composter can reach temperatures up to sixty degrees (you can purchase compost thermometers).

You can make your own composter out of wood or metal. You can check at the library or on the Internet for plans. You can also go to the large hardware stores to purchase one or if you live in a large urban centre, the local government may sell them as well.

If you are a 'first time composter' like me, here is how to get started:
First, you will want to place you composter directly in the sunlight and on your soil, next you need to put a thick layer of organic material (such as hay, straw, leaves or branch cuttings) on the bottom of your container. Next you will want to alternate wet and dry scraps (kitchen with garden), shred the items that are going into the composter because the smaller they are, the faster it will decompose. If your kitchen scraps aren't that moist, you might want to consider wetting them down as this assists in the decomposition of the ingredients in your composter and helps with dust control to slow, but too much liquid will make it a soggy and stinky mess and causes the decomposition to slow down. Also, you will want to mix it up every couple of weeks or so, kind of like stirring. You will want to make sure that air can reach the contents of your composter. There are some things that should not be composted due to the nature of their makeup These include meat and fish bones, fats, oils, dairy products or pet waste. Also you will not want to add grass clippings or leaves that have been introduced to any sort of pesticide or the 'weed n feed' type of treatments.

Where I live, it gets pretty cold in the winter and the composting may stop during the coldest months as the stuff in the composter will most likely freeze (make sure the sides of your composter is well insulated and this will lesson its freezing time). If it does stop or slow, it will begin again during the spring months. Seasonal composting works quite well as well. In the fall, you can add fall leaves and bits from cleaning out your garden and kitchen scraps; during the winter, you can still add kitchen scraps and pine needles from your Christmas tree (as long as you chop them up) and during the spring, if you haven't already started, this is the time to start. Also in the spring you can continue to add kitchen scraps as well as cuttings and weeds from your garden.

After composting for awhile and adding the nutrients to your soil, think how great your garden will look and as an added bonus you will be able to feel good about doing your part both for your garden and for the environment!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Transplanting our Peony

By Christina VanGinkel

It seems like just yesterday that my husband and I were planning our spring plantings. Today, amid the rain and cooler temperatures, it is becoming apparent that fall will be upon us very soon here in the Midwest. It always seems like it sneaks up on us. One day the temperatures are hovering close to one hundred and the next it seems like we are battling the cold and damp. My son plays his first football game of the season tomorrow too, and that is another solid indication that fall will soon arrive.

For years, we have talked about transplanting one very large princess pink peony. For anyone that has ever done this, you know that peonies do not like to be transplanted. If you must though, fall is the preferred time to do so. So with that in mind, we have begun the discussion once again. Should we move it? Where exactly will we move it? We each have a spot in mind, my husband and I, and each spot is nowhere near the other's desired location. The peony in question should be moved, deep down we know that, yet the idea of possibly bringing harm to a plant that in its current location thrives beautifully, seems like we would possibly be defeating our purpose before we even start.

Let me explain a bit more. The peony in question is planted in a flower box that buts up against a short wall of our house. This same wall is directly located next to our drive, where we park a minimum of two to three vehicles everyday. Of all of the flowers that we have growing in various parts of our gardens, we both claim the peony as our all time favorite, yet for the short occasions that we walk past it getting into or out of our vehicles, we never really have a chance to see it, much less enjoy it! Sure, others may get a quick peak of it in its current location, but aesthetically, it is in probably the worst place we could have chosen to plant it. For this reason, we have been contemplating its move ever since it grew into its full glory several years ago. Ironically, the spot it is in does not get a lot of sun and the drainage is not all that good, two specifics that peonies usually require. However, maybe as a last laugh at us for choosing to plant it in such a poor spot to begin with, it is thriving and flowers beautifully where it is.

With fall approaching once again, we have more or less decided that this will be the fall that we move it. We just have to agree on where exactly it is moving. We know that the fall is the best time of the year to transplant a peony, if you can ever really pick a good time. We know that we must be as considerate with the root structure as we can be, not disturbing it anymore than we absolutely must. The new hole should be able to accommodate the roots generously, which means that we will have to choose a location that is spacious enough to provide lots of room, because the peony in question is quite large to begin with, so the root structure is surely large. We know that when we do the actual transplanting, we should make sure that it is not replanted any deeper than it was in its original location. Planting it at a depth deeper than it was can cause shock, making it intolerant to a replanting more so than it most likely will be just from the actual move. As we replant it, we will take care that we pat the soil down slowly, not leaving pockets of air in the new soil to cave in, providing the heavy root structure cause to cave in and topple the whole thing.

Transplanting most plants is straightforward, and in all reality, the peony should not be any different from most any other plant. Peonies can be a bit bullheaded though, and for some reason they can occasionally balk at being moved. This will be the fall though, that the peony finally makes its move, if we can just make the decision on where it is moving!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Orchid Growing Made Simple

By: Melissa Martinez

Growing orchids can be fun and rewarding but it can also be difficult. Orchids can be very sensitive plants that if not cared for properly will die. So a little research on the subject is probably a good idea. There are literally hundreds of species from which to choose from, but the species you will most likely see at your nursery is the Phaleonopsis orchid. These are what people think of when they think of orchids. Other popular species include cattleya, dendrobium, and oncidium varieties. I myself own the ones mentioned above. They are all beautiful and any orchid that you choose to purchase and care for is sure to enrich the beauty of your garden.

When caring for orchids there are many things to consider. Placement of the plant is important. Will your orchid be a house plant? If so, you need to make sure that there will be enough light available for the plant. Also consider placing your orchids near a fan since good air movement is also a must. If your orchids will be outside plants, be sure to place them in an area of equal sun and shade.

For the most part, you can tell how much light an orchid needs by the color of the leaves. Ideally, the leaves should be a light green. Keep in mind that an orchid with light green leaves has the best chance at blooming. If the leaves appear yellow or spotted it means the plant has too much sun and is darkening in order to protect itself from burning. Conversely, if the leaves turn a dark green then the plant most likely needs more light.

Another important issue that seems to puzzle orchid growers is how often watering should occur. An average orchid will only need to be watered once a week. Sometimes even less water is necessary. You have to play it by ear. Just remember that drier is usually better. don't worry too much if you skip watering once or twice. A good indicator of how well the plant is doing in the watering department are the roots. Healthy roots will appear white and fleshy with green tips. If your roots look like this, chances are your watering routine is just right. If on the other hand you notice any rotting roots then over watering may be taking place.

We've covered watering and lighting and so that brings us to potting issues. Hopefully, by now, you know that orchids should never be potted with regular potting soil. Your orchid will most surely die. The best potting material is a mixture of moss and fir bark. These enable the most water retention. When watering make sure to flush the bark well so that there is no salt buildup as this can be detrimental to the plant's health.

A lot of people also wonder whether they should fertilize their orchids. The short answer is that it doesn't hurt. An 18-18-18 mixture is the best. Also try to find one that is especially formulated for orchids. Follow the instructions on the label and you should be okay. Also, try not to fertilize more than twice per year.

Repotting your orchids doesn't have to be a chore. It is often only necessary if the plant has substantially overgrown its surroundings. This is usually evident when the body of the plant starts to topple out over the edge of the pot. If this occurs simply remove the old pot and place your orchid, minus any dried out roots, into a new pot. Add the moss and/or fir bark material and water it thoroughly. Fertilizing it at this point is okay too. Your orchid should make itself at home in no time.

Like most orchid owners, I have confronted all of the above issues and have been able to fall into an effective orchid care routine. One thing that keeps plaguing me, however, are bugs. Specifically, ants have been a major problem. So far they don't seem to harm the plant when it is not in bloom, but one year they managed to kill all the buds on my cattleya. I invested in an all purpose bug spray that seemed to stop their infestation, if only temporarily. My best advice based on my experience is to keep an eye on the pesky buggers. If you notice too many of them taking hold of your blooms, take action. Remove them manually, if necessary. If you don't, chances are they will feed on all of the nectar, thus killing the possibility of your orchid blooming.

I hope these tips will help you in your efforts to grow your orchids successfully.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Bunny Brigade

By Christina VanGinkel

I have been watching a family of rabbits grow and expand their territory in my yard for the last several weeks. I know, rabbits and a garden do not go together, yet if you are anything like me, the idea of a few baby bunnies hopping around can be quite pleasant. They are just so darn cute! To make matters worse, the mother has been a tenant for quite some time, and has never bothered the flowerbeds. Therefore, I wrongly assumed that her little ones would have the same respect for my treasured buds the same as she seems to.

She keeps mainly to the outskirts of our yard, somewhat timid around our dogs, and whenever I have a few scraps of lettuce or a wrinkled apple, I make sure she gets it, always on the very outer edges of the yard. The rest of the time, she makes herself content with eating beneath the deer feeder that is outside of the yard completely. During the winter, she is more brave, coming into the yard itself each morning to feed beneath the bird feeders. For the most part though, we seem to have come to an understanding, where even though she is a wild rabbit, she would never be so rude as to munch on anything that she should not.

When I first noticed the babies, they kept to the same areas that she did, never entering the yard itself, just hopping pleasantly about the outskirts, cute as can be. Then one morning, I noticed that I was missing an entire moss rose plant that I had just transplanted!

Much of our garden is in raised containers, and for the few previous few days, I had not realized that the smaller bunnies had been testing their bravery. They had grown big enough to easily step up into the lowest parts of my raised beds, and from their, they could step lightly up into just about any part of the gardens that they wanted too, not even having to jump. Upon coming to this realization, I momentarily felt much the same way the farmer in the Peter Cottontail stories must have. I had wrongly assumed that my garden was rabbit safe, only to become aware that it was anything but.

After I noticed that first plant's demise, I realized that each morning, one by one, the bunnies were mowing their way through even more plants. At first, I never caught them, though my suspicions proved right several mornings later when I stepped outside quite early and startled one of them as he was enjoying an early morning breakfast compliments of my tenderly planted flower bed.

From that moment on, I decided to take a much different approach than I would have just a few years ago, had I found a rabbit, or two eating their way through my flowers. I have decided that chasing them off and telling the dogs to take chase, just in fun, never to harm, whenever they are loose and the rabbits are near may help teach them to respect the beds as much as their mother has learned. I know, this is not a feasible approach for most gardens, but for someone who is home as much as I am, and is up early each day, I figured it might be worth a try. That my dogs never tire of barking each time they see one come into the yard does not hurt either. They have become my alarm system per se.

So far, it seems to actually be working. They are still about, but never as close to the flowerbeds as they were just a few days ago. They might approach the beds, but all it takes is for me to open the house door and they scamper quickly away. I hope as they mature, that they will move on, leaving their mother as the sole tenant once again, and if not, I am sure I will be taking a much more radical approach come next spring when they have babies of their own. Until then, I will keep chasing them off, and hope that my dogs never tire of barking each time they come into the yard to alert me that once again, the bunny brigade has arrived.