Monday, April 25, 2016

Growing a Garden: What to Do With Your Bounty (Recipe Included!)

We've done it, dear readers! We've made it through April, traditionally one of the wackiest weather months of springtime. The worst of winter's frigidity is behind us and we can finally take a long, lasting look at campfires, tank tops, and of course, our gardens.

We've talked about it all in this series - planning our gardens, some of our very best garden helpers, and even what to do while we wait for seedlings to sprout. We've gone from seed to sprout to outdoor living tapestry and soon, very soon, our plants will reward our efforts with a bountiful harvest.

Now if you're anything like me, you have visions of homemade soups and pies, fresh salads everyday, and hand-stirred sauces all summer. I remember the first time I planted my garden.....the minute the seeds were in I immediately started daydreaming about how fantastic life was gonna be when I didn't need to buy groceries. I predicted my garden would produce enough to feed me and my girls from May to October.

That, I quickly learned, is not the way a garden works. Unlike JenDreamland, tomatoes don't pop off the vine for months at a time. They all ripen at once, fast and furious, filling your counters and shelves and baskets and buckets. An avalanche of tomatoes. Tomatoes for days. Tomato parades.

If this is your first year gardening, be prepared to truly be blown away by how short a particular vegetable is actually "in season." Most of us are truly privileged to have 24/7 produce access in our grocery stores - but that is not the real world. Such year-round veggie and fruit access comes at a huge cost, mostly in terms of non-renewable resources like fuel, farmers, community, and our ozone layer....and this is why I garden, you see. I want to stop needing the grocery store completely.

But that means learning how to manage my harvest and preparing for an overabundance of one or two particular vegetables every few weeks.

Preservation is awesome and a necessary part of stashing away your fruits and veggies - you can extend your harvest by making big batches of your tomato sauce, for example, and then freezing or canning it for consumption later. I talk about food preservation at length in my Self Sufficiency series - you can check out my very best preservation tips here in my "5 Final Tips" post and here in my Self-Sufficiency with Food post. I'm also completely gaga about canning my own bone broth. This stuff barely lasts a season at my house because when winter hits, all I want is to make soups, soups, and more soups.

But hands-down, my absolute #1 primo favorite star-player numero uno harvest management technique?

Eat it.

EAT your food!

We talked in the very beginning of this series about how important it is to grow foods you love to eat.....well, this is why! When the harvest comes in, you need to love the food you created because you'll be eating it with every meal, every day, until the harvest has ended and moved on to another one of your veggies or fruits.

Have an abundance of cucumbers? Make sure every single meal has a cucumber involved. Snack on cucumbers. Add cucumbers to drinks and smoothies. Fill your belly with the fruit of the season and get full on food from your own backyard! This was the way of our ancestors and of farmers everywhere before the invention of refrigeration changed our world. When it was pepper season, that's what you ate...weeks and weeks of peppers. Each plant's harvesting season was once as important to life and mind and body and soul as Christmas or springtime - you looked forward to it, relished it, waited with bated breath for the day when your table would again be covered in strawberries.

I was originally incredibly intimidated by this theory of eating according to these food seasons. In-season-only produce from my garden or from farmers around me? On TOP of organic and truly natural and not covered, coated, or mixed with other ingredients? It was overwhelming. How could I make spinach palatable for my kiddos? How many recipes could I actually find for apples or corn? When were my plants supposed to be ready for harvest, anyway? What if nothing was ready for harvest until September?

Valid concerns, right? Let me address....well.....myself.

This past Christmas I was gifted an amazing book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. In it she beautifully and creatively describes the natural progression of our yearly harvests *cue Forrest Gump voice* in a way that I can understand them. Check this out.

The order in which our garden will mature and be ready for harvest follows the order in which a plant (any plant) grows.

Let me explain. Picture a crabapple tree, mkay? Picture this progression of events:

1. Her branches start each spring with little leaves.
2. The leaves are soon accompanied by pink flower heads.
3. Soft fruits start to bud.
4. The soft fruits start to grow and ripen into tart orbs.
5. The fruits grow large, hard, and mature (giggity) before falling away.
6. The tree begins to dedicate her energy to her roots, saving up nutrients for the winter.

Now take that image and overlap it with your garden.

What are the first things to grow on the tree? The leaves. What types of plants are grown for their edible leaves? Spinach. Kale. Lettuce. And wouldn't you know it.....these are the first plants ready for harvest each and every year. Leafy plants. Leaves emerge first and are therefore the first to mature. Early springtime is leaf time. Get your dinner menus ready for leafy greens!

Next we see flower heads. Big, bountiful flower heads. What types of veggies are compact, delicious flower heads (and also coincidentally kinda resemble....heads)? Cauliflower! Broccoli! Cabbage! I love me some cauliflower mash!

Then we see those cute, little, soft-skinned fruits start to form. Cucumbers. Zucchini. Cherries. Peas. Green beans. Strawberries.

The tree's fruit gets a little bigger and a little more mature. Peppers. Peaches. Eggplant. Grapes. Tomatoes. Corn. Summery, delicious foods - from flower to fork.

And then the fruits ripen to full maturity and their skin hardens to protect the seeds within them. Apples. Pumpkins. Melons. Dried beans.

Finally, the fruits fall away and the roots become the focus. Potatoes. Carrots. Turnips. Radishes.

The harvest cycle of your garden follows the life cycle of our plants. Isn't that the coolest thing? I am a huge, huge fan of Barbara's book. Check it out if you're interested in eating seasonally. And no I did not get paid to say that. The book is just that good.

Once I figured out how to kinda predict when my plants would harvest (or at least in which order), I needed to figure out how I was going to cook them. I love seeing those kids who bite into tomatoes like they're apples, but mine would rather donate all their toys to charity than bite into any vegetable like it's a fruit. I needed to get creative.

I have three secret weapons.

#1: Farm Fresh and Fast: This book was designed for people who sign up to receive CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) boxes. These boxes of produce often vary in content and follow the naturally, a cookbook designed with that in mind is quite priceless indeed for our situation. The authors organize every recipe according to the recipe's primary vegetable or fruit. They also break down different sauces and ways of combining spices so you become more in-tune with cooking in general and can cook on the fly when needed.

#2: The Moosewood Cookbook: The author took her real-life recipes from her real-life restaurant and hand copied them (for real) into this glorious book. She included tons of fresh recipes using healthy ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions. The sketches throughout the book make the process of cooking just that much more enjoyable. A fantastic way to create veggie-based dishes from scratch is to simply open this book up to any page. Live on the edge!

#3: Veggie Rice Skillet: This is my standby recipe for extra veggies. It is super cheap, especially if you omit the meat or use ground organic turkey instead of pork.

Jen's Veggie Rice Skillet

  • Organic brown rice (I use about 2 cups of dry rice - it comes out to about 4-5 cups of rice when cooked)
  • 1 lb of meat (I use pasture-raised, local ground pork or ground turkey)
  • Veggies of choice (My favorites include garlic, bell peppers, onions, carrots, corn, tomatoes, beans, spinach, and cauliflower)
  • Seasoned salt
  • About 2 tablespoons of butter or oil
  • Cheese! Cheddar, Parmesan, feta, whatever you'd like! (optional)
  1. Cook the rice first (it takes the longest). You can cook brown rice by adding 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of dry rice, then bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and let it cook for 40-ish minutes. Check a little rice grain to make sure it's done...when it's at that perfect texture, take the pot off the heat, cover it again, and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Wa-lah! Set aside.
  2. While the rice is resting, cook the meat over medium heat. 
  3. While the meat is cooking chop your veggies up.
  4. Add your chopped veggies and your oil or butter to your meat. Let it all simmer and sizzle and get nice and soft. 
  5. Mix your rice into the meat and veggie mixture. Taste it!
  6. Add seasoned salt to your preferred level of saltiness.
  7. Remove from heat, put on some plates, add some cheese on top, and then eat it!
And with that, we're at the conclusion of our Growing a Garden series. I've truly enjoyed our journey from seed to supper table, my lovely readers. I cannot wait to hear about your gardening adventures this year and if you haven't yet taken the plunge, I hope I've inspired you to reconsider. Gardening, eating, cooking - they are the simple, but beautiful pleasures in life. I promise if you try it, Sam I Am, you will like it. 

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the links below to catch up!

I would love to hear about your favorite seasonal recipe! Have you considered eating according to the seasons? What challenges have you faced? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)


Monday, April 18, 2016

Growing a Garden: Best Garden Helpers

I am loving spring this year, people! The past few days were glorious and beautiful and all the things I love about this season. My tulips burst into bloom last week and I have three types of daffodils waving in the wind. You can smell the difference in the air - sweet spring! How happy I am to see you!

It's on days like today I am tempted to play hooky from everything and just be outside. Winter's brown residue is calling me and I could not be more excited to get out there and clean it up! One of the downsides to being a newly-single-lady, though? Only one pair of hands to help with the yard.

That's where my helpers come into play :) Garden helpers are so much more than tools. They are creative, productive elements within your yard that allow you to spend less time and money solving life's little gardening problems. I've come up with my personal list of the very Best Garden Helpers - the best part? Most of them cost little, if anything at all.

Bees and butterflies and bugs, oh my! Now is the time to start attracting pollinators to your garden. Pollinators are fantastic little buggies because they spread pollen among your veggie flowers. Those pollinated flowers? They produce the fruit (or vegetables) that we eat. Pollinators are quite literally responsible for the propagation of edible goodness in your garden - they are more valuable than gold!

Now I know what you're thinking: "Jen, I don't even have seeds sprouting outside yet, let alone veggie flowers. What are you thinking?" And I hear you. I am a bit of a nutcase and sometimes I don't know what I'm thinking, either. But in this situation, I promise you, it is in your best interest to attract pollinators now.

Honeybees, in particular, are on the move. Queen bees are gathering their loyal subjects and swarming all over the place, hoping to find a beautiful place to set up shop. Provide food for the honeybees and they might just deem your yard (or area around your yard) prime real estate. What a blessing that would be!

Now is also a wonderful time to plant coneflowers, one of my favorite plants for attracting butterflies and making herbal tinctures. Coneflowers are just starting to sprout in my front yard. They are beautiful, hearty, extremely useful perennials that you should plant now to attract butterflies later!

Run a quick Google search for the top pollinators in your area and plant some attractive flowers to ensure a heavy supply of food for these fantastic, useful little creatures :)

I can't say it enough - kids are the best helpers around. They need guidance, yes, and encouragement, and of course an abundance of patience....but when they finally feel confident enough to do it on their own, it is beautiful. Little ones can help pick up sticks and leaves. Big ones can pull weeds and mow. Kids LOVE to water! Teach them how to use a hose and while you're at it, talk to them about the importance of water conservation.

Want to capitalize on the super-nutritious dandelion greens in your yard? Have your kids pluck the greens. Teach them how to identify flowers and plants. My youngest is 3 and is completely capable of distinguishing a daffodil from a tulip from a dandelion. And they love it! They get so excited when they head out to other places and see flowers and plants they can identify!

If you don't have kids no big deal, ask your friends. Most of my close buddies don't garden at all and while some would rather chew rocks than help me weed, a select few swing by every now and then and help me arrange a bonfire or rake up leaves.

Bottom line: More hands is always good, even if they're smaller or less experienced :)

Those pollinators I talked about? Well, most of them are on the verge of collapse, so they don't count. But the other bugs in your garden? You're going to need some control methods to keep them at bay. And I don't know about you, but hand-picking insects seems like the most unpleasant use of my gardening time.

Birds are fantastic at controlling insect populations. They swoop down with lightening speed to gobble up mosquito, wasps, and spiders. Set up some simple birdhouses, feeders, and birdbaths to make your yard more attractive. Are you looking to attract a specific kind of bird (the Yellow Warbler is my 2016 bird-attracting goal - they eat mosquitos!)? Pick a birdhouse that best suits the species you are looking for and do your research when picking out your bird feed.

Bonus? Birds sing lovely songs and are often totally gorgeous when you stop to look at them.

****Side note, I obviously advocate the use of chickens more than any other bird in the entire whole wide world for backyard bug control because backyard chickens eat any bug ever and are so cute and have fluffy butts and I love them. But this blog series is intended to reach all levels, even those who can't have chickens. Plus everybody could use a little more oriole song in the morning, am I right??

Weed Knife
This is my favorite, favorite, favorite garden tool. It cost me about $10 and I use it every time I garden. It has a long metal beveled shank (giggity) with a prong on the end for cutting apart weed roots.

This sucker is perfect for those long-rooted weeds you need cannot pull out with bare hands. It's easy to control and doesn't leave a ton of dirt overturned or disturbed around the weed site like a trowel or shovel does. Mine also has a ridged edge that I can use in a pinch to cut string. Oooo, multipurpose!

A really friendly neighbor once told me a real gardener's hands are always caked in dirt and feeling the dirt under your nails is the true sign you're doing it right.


See, in Jen's world, I always inevitably grab onto some spiky Little Shop of Horrors plant, or the Lord of the Rings spider comes out with *new and improved* vampire fangs, or a get a splinter from my wooden raised bed, or something unidentifiable but curiously yellow slips under the edge of my thumb cuticle and I die a little.

I love my gloves. I love them because I am not afraid to grab anything, yank anything, dig into anything, or poke anything while I'm wearing them. I have heavy gloves for heavy lifting and lighter, thinner gloves for manipulating smaller plants and tender little sprouts. I harvest my food glove-free, but the weeding, clearing, cleaning, fertilizing, pruning, pulling, and digging is all done with a set of trusty gloves. Never let anyone tell you you've got too many gloves. You can never have too many gloves.

Baling Wire
I bought a roll of this on a whim after I heard it was great for securing panels of hardware cloth together for my chicken hoop house. Can I please tell you....this stuff is awesome. Need to hold a tomato plant onto a stake? Use some baling wire. Need to keep a tarp from flapping around? Secure it with some baling wire. Hanging a wasp trap outside your back door? Hang it with some baling wire.

You can use baling wire to keep gates closed, secure pallets together, hang lanterns from trees, or tie bean vines to a trellis.

Garden twine is helpful, too, if you're looking for a softer material with less poking properties. Be warned, however, that garden twine is not nearly as strong. I've had tomato plants snap my garden twine right in half!

Bamboo Poles
I once felt like everywhere I looked, I saw bamboo. Bamboo floors, bamboo tables, bamboo as a living fence. Gardeners were using bamboo all the time to stake plants and create fences. I decided I was finally going to get some, too.

Bamboo poles are super strong and weather-resistant. They can be used all over the garden, either as stakes and fencing as I said above, or in more creative applications, like bean tepees and cucumber or tomato trellises. Trust me, when your tomatoes start going berserk, you're going to want a more effective way to keep them contained than those flimsy little wire cages. Bamboo poles are stronger and can be moved around and encircled with twine to keep plants manageable.

Do you have a favorite garden helper? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the links below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?
Starting with Seeds
Organic Pest Management
What to Do While Seedlings Sprout
Movin' Your Plants Outside


Monday, April 11, 2016

Growing a Garden: Movin' Your Plants Outside

It's been raining, it's been snowing, and you know what that means....

......workable soil!!

That's right, now that warm temps are stretching across the US, the precipitation we sneered at last week is melting and seeping into the earth. I love when this happens because soft dirt means I won't throw my back out want to die allllmost kill myself struggle to pull up weeds and dig holes. The cold, freezing rain is gloomy but glorious I tell you! Time to get outside!

We've already conquered some of the hardest steps in growing our garden. Moving your plants outdoors is comparatively much easier than starting seedlings indoors. In fact for me, one of the laziest gardeners on the planet, tending to the outdoor garden is one of the best, most enjoyable aspects of the whole food-growing process.

Unfortunately it isn't as easy as just tossing your seedlings out there....but I promise it's not too bad... plus you get a little you get a tan (or sunburn, if you're more like me).

You may not be ready to plant outdoors yet and that is ok! I will not start moving my plants outside for another 3-4 weeks. The average date of the last frost for my area is between May 1st and May 10th. Now if the weather is warm and sunny, those babies are going out there for recess...but I will not actually plant them into the soil until I know the threat of frost has passed. You can check out your average last frost dates here. Just type in your zip code and whammo! Data!

Order Matters
I made the mistake last year of planting everything at essentially the same time. This is fine if your plants all mature at the same rate...but my plants? I was planting squash at the same time as corn at the same time as beans and then wondering why my plants weren't growing very well. My squash, which I planted intentionally to shade out the weeds, shaded out my bean seedlings! And by the time the corn started growing, it tugged up the soil that my squash needed to stay healthy - I couldn't exactly tell where I'd planted my corn so I planted my squash too close! Sometimes, especially when you're trying to companion plant, you need to plant in succession. So instead of planting all my stuff at once, I will plant my corn first, let them get a little tall, then plant my beans, let them climb strong, then plant my squash and let them spring into summer.

This year I will also be putting my pest control plants (nasturtiums and marigolds) in the ground earlier than anything else because I want them to be well-established by the time my little veggie loves get in the ground. In the past I've always direct sown my marigolds, but by the time they bloomed and offered much pest protection, it was harvest season! This year I started them indoors and will direct sow new plants mid-summer so I can get good pest control coverage from spring through fall.

The best way to manage planting order is to pay attention to maturity times on the back of your seed packets. When that doesn't work, imagine the growing season in your head. Sit back and picture the way your plant will grow and imagine the light patterns and time it will take before that plant produces fruit. If I'd just considered how my plants grew, I could've predicted that my marigolds wouldn't bloom in time to be pest-resistant in the summer and my beans wouldn't get enough sun through all the leaves. Imagery! It works!

Wind and Sun
Remember when we discussed choosing the perfect location for your plants? Now is the best time to reevaluate and make sure everything is in order. Little seedlings are especially vulnerable to strong winds and heavy downpours. Fences are a great way to block the wind; plant on the south side of the fence so it doesn't block the sunlight. The sun patterns change a little every day, too, so make sure your ideal growing spot is still getting the light you need. And when push comes to shove, you can always rig up a neat little row cover to protect your babies from a late frost of heavy precipitation. Learn how to make them here.

Hardening Off
You can't take a teeny little baby plant and suddenly stick her outside all alone and expect her to live. She needs to adjust to the outdoors gradually...and that adjustment period is called "hardening off." When your little ones are ready to go outside, start by placing them out there for an hour or two at first. Then extend their time outdoors to 4 hours. Then half a day. Let them become accustomed to the outdoors gradually - it will lessen the transplant shock!

This step is so fun. Grab some soil and your hardened-off seedlings and get outside. Dig a hole. Add some compost to the soil and mix it up. Place your seedling in there (if you used a creative seedling vessel, like toilet paper rolls or eggshells, you can just toss 'em in there!). Cover it up with your dirt/compost mix. Give it a nice sprinkle of water. And then smile...cuz you just transplanted a plant :)

Remember when I said you'd get a workout? Yeah this is when that happens. Your plants are still young and prone to weed takeover. Keep a close eye on your garden beds and make sure invasive plants do not creep into your seedlings' lives. I'd say about 90% of my gardening time is pulling up weeds and invasive plants. It's hard work and you gotta keep up with it or else it'll go nuts. But your seedlings will love you for it and will gift you with the sweetest fruits of your labor come harvest time.

I told you it wouldn't be too bad! Planting your seedlings outside is one of the best parts of growing a garden. The weather is warm, the sun is shining, and the dirt therapy makes you feel splendid.

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the links below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?
Starting with Seeds
Organic Pest Management
What to Do While Seedlings Sprout

Are you as overjoyed as I am to see this warm weather? What are your spring plans or gardening tales of wow and woe? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you for reading :)


Monday, April 4, 2016

Growing a Garden: What to Do While Seedlings Sprout

Spring thus far has mimicked my mood quite accurately. One minute we have mid-60 temperatures with a smattering of sunshine and the next we're grabbing our winter jackets and chunking ice out of the herb spiral pond. I swear to you, late last week I flipped the lights on, then off, then on, then off again while the sun played peek-a-boo with ridiculously dark thunderclouds intent on dropping huge, giant flakes and balls of ice everywhere.

Mother Nature and I are in perfect sync. When we feel, we feel with the power of a million burning suns

Spring is a constant wave of ebb and flow - I feel like I am hovering over the great, sweet valley that is warm weather and I'm waiting, just waiting, to leap off into it. I need to plant! I need to build more raised beds! I need to take a permaculture design course! I need to clean up the winter brush! I need to build fences! I need to water and weed! I need to know exactly when the last frost will be for my specific backyard and why oh why can't someone just tell me already so I can get to it!

And just when I think I'm about to get out there and implement all these things I've planned, the flakes fall. The water freezes. The sun plays peek-a-boo with thundersnow clouds. 

Now instead of collapsing on my bed like a Disney princess and vowing to move somewhere, anywhere with a longer growing season getting frustrated, I've devised a series of productive tasks to keep my mind in a garden-positive place and my hands focused on the beautiful weather that is sure to come.

Secure Mulch
This is a fantastic time to grab some free mulch. Everyone is cleaning up the yard and leaving piles of old leaves, pine needles, and the like in giant bags at the end of their driveway. Grab some from neighbors or take some time to pile up your own leaves. Toss the stuff over any of your planting areas now to inhibit growth of weeds and grass during this peak sprouting season. 

Secure Building Materials
Construction season is underway! Many homeowners take advantage of spring sales to get their windows replaced, siding fixed, and roofs repaired. Old windows make great cold frames! You can use old siding and roofing materials on makeshift sheds, chicken coops, or even edging for your plant beds.

This is also a great time of year to check out craigslist to grab some old pots and gardening castaways. Everyone is upgrading their gardening stuff which means you can score a great deal and break the waste cycle all in one fell click!

Burn Baby Burn
It may be too cold to plant, but that doesn't mean you can't set things on fire. Fire is naturally warm, after all, and helps diminish debris piles. Stick last year's death into the pit and get cracking! You might just get warm enough to sit back and enjoy the evening :)

Read Up
When it's too cold to plant, read about planting. Take some time to learn a little more about the varieties you've started or check out a book from the library on innovative tomato tricks. Take notes, draw pictures, and create memory triggers that will help you later if/when craziness hits your garden. It's the perfect way to stay up-to-date while you wait!

Plant More
I am not at this level yet, but if you're up for a challenge, consider planting continually....meaning, start seedlings and then 2-3 weeks later start another set. The idea is you'll extend your growing season by creating varied harvest dates and thereby a longer period of optimal harvesting for your chosen plants. I can barely remember what I plant where, so this isn't the best option for me at this point, but I must admit the appeal of having more food for a longer period of time is absolutely enticing enough for me to consider continual planting sometime in the future.

You can also check out winter sowing, a method of using recycled plastic jugs to create mini-greenhouses that can withstand the crazy fluctuations in spring weather. Another item to add to my list!

Greenhouse Field Trip
When push comes to shove my favorite way to stay motivated is to visit plants. They can be any plants, really, as long as they're healthy and happy. Local nurseries are awesome options, but can be expensive if you are like me and have limited spending self-control. I see those flowers and I just need them all, right now, immediately.

I also live in an area with a number of incredible botanic public gardens and arboretums. They are fantastic places to visit this time of year and often have discounted entry or parking fees in the off-season. The point is to get out and surround yourself in the beauty you are patiently waiting to see in your own yard. It is a lovely and brightening feeling!

I get so amped up about getting outside again, smelling the dirt, and getting my yard beautified.....but sometimes it's less about getting stuff done and more about just finding ways to stay patient. The ebb and flow will continue forever, ya know? Life gets busy, then seems to stop, then ramps up again. Better to float on with the waves than fight the current, amirite?!

How do you stay busy while anticipating the final arrival of spring? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the link below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?
Starting with Seeds
Organic Pest Management 

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, March 21, 2016

Growing a Garden: Organic Pest Management

Spring has sprung! We're on Day 2 of this year's spring season and boy does it feel like March here in Northern Illinois. Frost last night, high of 45 degrees today, high of 60 tomorrow, and then on Thursday, snow! Ahhh peaceful prairie living, I tell you. Spring weather is spontaneous, moody, and barely predictable. So basically it's me, any given day of the week.

But weather also induces inspiration. Gardens and fields across the globe equally feel the pain of a dry summer, a bug-breeding surplus, or a cold snap mid-season. And we, as garden-making humans, try to lessen the heartache by developing our own way of doing things...of trying to control the environments around our little plants....of trying to mitigate the shock and abuse of something we cannot control.

And for every gardener on this planet, you'll find a different set of gardening habits and procedures. Mention gardening in public and you will hear, without fail, a number of tips or tidbits picked up from books, magazines, grandmas, and the long lost online articles of our yesteryear. You'll hear about an experience with eggshells, a devotion to soaker hoses, or the coveted practice of leaving little cups of beer around to capture slugs. Everyone has an opinion.

Especially when it comes to bugs.

Now as I mentioned in the very beginning of this series, I am not a pesticide girl. I do not like soil mixed with chemicals and I do not like bug-reducing sprays and seeds. That doesn't mean, however, I am not utterly obsessed with finding new ways to win my personal vendetta against the squash bugs that destroyed my punkins the first year I tried to plant anything. Or that I'm not dedicated to backyard guerrilla warfare on a miniature level. I even wrap a multi-colored bandanna around my head when I go out there. Just call me Jembo.

You can fight back organically, passively, and cooperatively, I promise. It is possible and effective. Oh let us count the ways.

Companion Planting
This is my #1 favorite way to keep pests at bay. You see, nature kinda has this whole "growing" thing figured out. Nature created plants that help other plants and then nature stuck those two plants together and the two plants thrived....and then humans came along with our monocropping (acres of a single plant) and uncooperative agricultural practices (till, plant, till plant, don't let anything else grow!) and nature got sick of us and sentenced our fields and food to a million years of superbugs with no opportunity for parole. Hence, the chemical industry thrived.

But I found one incredibly tough tough, I was personally able to break out of the monocropping, chemical-sprayed food prison and become one with nature again. Jenshank Redemption. I'm on a roll today!

Companion planting, people. Take the inherently natural principles present in every plant and allow them to symbiotically function with the inherent natural principles of another. Do you feel me?

Let's practice with a little game of Veggie Date Match-Up, shall we?

I love my sweet peppers, but so do bugs. Onions, however, are smelly and known to repel worms, aphids, and slugs. Peppers and onions? Ding! A good match!

And onion flies (yuck!) love my onions, but hate carrots! So let's stick some carrots on the other side of my onions. Ooo! Double whammy - onions repel carrot flies! Wouldja look at that! Carrots and onions...ding! A perfect match!

Do you see what I'm getting at? Some of these plants work so perfectly well together it would be silly to plant them any other way.

My favorite example? Those who read my posts often (I love you three!!) will likely be sick of it....I've mentioned it in my Maintenance-Free Food Garden post and my I Love Summer Break post....but for the sake of awesomeness, I absolutely must mention it here even though it has less to do with pests and more to do with just growing something that actually grows strong and healthy....

The 3 Sisters Method

Corn naturally grows tall, long stalks right? Like a pole? And guess what corn needs to grow strong and tall? Nitrogen in the soil.

And which plants help retain nitrogen in the soil? Well beans, of course. And guess what pole beans need to grow? That's right....poles! Or trellises. Or corn stalks.

And what keeps weeds at bay? Huge leaves, right? They shade out the sun and make the soil inhospitable to leaves and growth in general. Well and guess what food grows on plants with huge've got it! Squash!

And now for my magic trick.....corn feeds us sugar, beans - protein, and squash - veggie vitamins. It's a complete meal, grown together in perfect cooperation, developed back in the day by nature-approved Native American tribes.

Isn't that incredible? It never ceases to get me amped up. I am over the moon about companion planting.

No-Pest Flowers and Herbs
Now if companion planting is too overwhelming, consider selecting a few plants specifically known for their anti-insect features.

Nasturtiums and marigolds are my two favorite pest-free flowers. If I had to pick one I would choose Nasturtiums because they are edible and tangy. Make your salads pretty while keeping bugs at bay? Yes please!

Both flowers work by popping up in bold, bright colors and producing an insect-repelling scent that washes over your garden like a beautiful blanket of love. Fortunately, these flowers do not repel pollinators - in fact, their bright colors draw pollinators nearer to your garden. Score!

Herbs also work really well. They are stinky to bugs but delicious to us. I like to use dill, but you can also inter-plant basil or other strong herbs - just keep an eye on them! Mint, especially, tends to take over.

Dichotomous Earth
Some people love it, some people hate it. This stuff kills bugs - all bugs. Every bug. Even precious little ladybugs. BUT...if I had an infestation I couldn't control, I would absolutely try using this stuff because it doesn't involve any chemicals and I have some lying around for my wintertime chicken feather baths. Yep. I have those now....who would've thought the words "wintertime chicken feather baths" would ever cross my lips, let along become something I write about. But I digress.

Dichotomous earth is actually pretty dang neat when you think about it. It is, and I quote from Mother Earth News, made from "fossilized prehistoric crustaceans called diatoms." Apparently these little dead fossilized diatoms are super sharp and they quite literally cut into the bodies of insects and kill them by leaking out all their water until they die from dehydration. So metal.

Remove Death!
Next in our unintentionally death-themed post is a very easy but sometimes overlooked answer to pest problems - remove your dead stuff! I have a huge earwig problem - they love to make babies in the dead leaves left under all of my huge veggie plants. This is especially important as summer wanes and your plants start to ripen/dry out for the season. Some of those insects can overwinter so compost the dead and let them live again!! Dr. Frankenjen!

Chickens :) or Birds! Birds are good enough, too!
I love my chickens so much I had to give them a little shoutout here. Chickens are fantastic bug eaters. They love bugs - especially live bugs. I dug a few holes to plant some trees last week and I kept finding little rolled up (alive) cicada babies and boy can I tell you, my chickens were in heaven. They eat anything that crawls, flutters, buzzes, slithers, or wiggles. They scratch the soil up to find the bugs and then poop on the soil, providing instant fertilizer. They also give eggs. And they have fluffy butts that are just cuter than anything on the planet.

Wild birds do the same, minus the scratching. And yummy eggs. Well...and the fluffy butts. BUT wild birds love bugs and they sing pretty songs. Attracting some bug-eating birds to your yard can sometimes be as simple as installing a few birdhouses and winter feeders.

I built one of my raised beds from cedar fence planks. They smell like everything that is right with the world....but bugs do not like them. Basically I've learned bugs don't like strong smells, period. Or maybe it's that the strong smells mask the smell of their favorite foods? Either way, cedar in your garden is beautiful and good-smelling and rot-resistant all by nature's design.

Water Bucket
Yep. When the going gets tough and everything else has failed you, it's time to grab your gloves and a bucket and get out there. You can flip over leaves in the early dawn to find most pesky insects but some will require some stealthy maneuvers involving sticky tape and/or bowls filled with beer. Regardless, when you find your bugs, hand-pick them off your plants and toss them in a bucket filled with water. If you have chickens, just toss your water-logged bugs to the girls when you're done and watch them praise the heavens with joy. If you do not have chickens, well, you're SOL. Just kidding! If you do not have chickens, add some castile soap to your water and it will kill those suckers a little quicker.

So what do you think? Feel like you have a few more weapons in your arsenal to manage pests in your garden? We can't control the weather...or the imbalance of insects in our hood....but we can certainly create our own little backyard ecosystems that allow plants and nature to work cooperatively to adjust to life's little problems.

Do you have any organic pest-control methods? I'd love to hear about them in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the link below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?
Starting with Seeds

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, March 14, 2016

Growing a Garden: Starting with Seeds

Hello my lovely readers. We've moved into the 10th circle of hell over here on Dancing Feathers Farm. That's right. Daylight Savings Time.

Now one may think with my vast appreciation of all things agriculture, I would appreciate Daylight Savings Time. Its purpose, after all, is to allow farmers more time in the day to work in sunlight.

But not me. Not this Jen. Daylight Savings will get no love from me because this mini-farmer likes light in the morning. That's right. Light at 7PM isn't as important to me as light at 5AM. I like to wake to sunshine, you see. And it'll all balance out in a few more weeks when the sun "catches up." Until then, I am trying to focus on the good and not on the sleepy children with whacked-out schedules and my shock and surprise when I realize I've actually been up until 11PM, not 10PM, scrolling my Pinterest.

So let's talk positive, my friends. Let's talk gardening because gardening, unlike time, is glorious.

Last week we dove into planting zones, where to put your garden bed, and gathering your supplies. Now we are actually going to get our hands dirty....a little. Mini-dirt. Mini-pots. Mini-plants, really. And the most precious of all mini-items.....seeds.

Seeds are inspiration, potential, life, and nutrition all wrapped up into a little, inanimate morsel of goodness. Seeds are you hear me? If you are buying heirloom seeds (which I highly recommend you do) you are quite literally saving a plant variety that may already be endangered or well on its way to being endangered. Imagine holding the last Purple Indian Stripe tomato in your hands. Imagine showing your children how to harvest its seeds and replant them next year - the only Purple Indian Stripe tomato plant in your entire state, our country, or continent. What a powerful way to make a huge impact by doing something small.

Direct Sow vs Start Indoors
So before we dig into actual planting (see what I did there), let's talk for one sec about the difference between "direct sow" plants and "start indoor" plants. Any good seed company will tell you on the back of the packet whether your seed can be planted outside when the frost ends or started indoors to get a jump on the growing season. For a long time I thought all plants could be started indoors but turns out they cannot - corn in particular does not transplant well, so it should always be sown directly into the ground after the threat of frost has passed. Follow what your seed packet tells you and if you're unsure, Google is your planting buddy. Or me. You can always email me and I'll figure it out for you :)

I personally love direct sow plants. May comes along and my frost is gone and I head out there and *thunk* drop some seeds into the dirt and then whammo, food. Easy-peasy.

But I like peppers, my stomach whines, and strawberries, and onions, and all those other delicious foods that won't mature quickly enough to eat in your cold-ass climate if you just thunk them in the ground in May.

And thus, the need for starting seeds indoors arose. What my stomach wants, my stomach gets, people. We'll talk about direct sow seeds in a few weeks...but right now? Time for a little indoor action!

Seed Pot
You need a receptacle to hold your dirt and seeds. And can I please tell you, there are a ton of options for seed starting receptacles.

Peat pots - These are common, but controversial. I know. A peat pot - very dramatic little thing! But it's true and it's important so here we go. The material used to make peat pots (peat moss) is typically shipped in from Canada (that's a lotta fuel!) and taken from sphagnum moss growing in bogs. The peat is all the dead stuff - moss that has died, kinda like our leaves in the fall - and it forms under the moss. When we harvest peat, we remove the moss and the entire living ecosystem above it...we disrupt the natural system of the bog, something that is not at all easy to recreate or replace. And although peat is "renewable" (we can plant more moss, they say) the peat takes hundreds of years to form. That's like buying environmental stability on a credit card. Of course, the peat industry says they are aware and careful to never remove more than can quickly regenerate, but we should know by now that this Jen never believes anything a profit-driven corporation says about the environment.

Toilet paper rolls - Anyone who uses toilet paper already has these lyin around to be recycled. They are typically brown (unbleached) and decompose real well, so when you start your seeds in these you can simply pop them in the ground when it comes time to move your plants outdoors. In my experience, however, these little suckas fell apart too early. I used them for only a couple weeks before the water my plants needed soaked through and caused them to unravel. But still a fun and eco-friendly idea if you can figure out a way to hold them together!

Recycled yogurt containers - I know someone who saves each of her yogurt containers throughout the year and then uses them every spring to start her seedlings. Of course, when using plastic you cannot simply pop 'em into the earth when it's time to move them outside....but I love the idea of getting more use out of something slated for the trash!

Dirt pods - there is a do-it-yourself tool out there that allows you to create little, square pods or "soil blocks" to plant your seeds in. No material needed - these are nice and compacted and go right into the dirt when it's nice outside! My *new* favorite option - I used peat pots last year before really understanding what I was doing to the environment. Flaws, forgiven, people!

Newspaper pots - Another resource most of us have lying around! You don't need any adhesive or fancy finger-work to make these.....just some newspaper and a good tutorial. Again, these can go right in the ground when you're done with them.

Seed Starting Soil
Your seeds will probably start in any soil! I repeat - you do not need special seed-starting soil to get your seeds to grow. It will help to have light, loose, well-drained (meaning the water will flow through) soil that doesn't have anything else growing in it that could cause your seedlings to get sick. Seed-starting-specific-soils (holy crap) are all of these things - sterile, light soils allow little roots to grow and keep the plant from gettin' all stunted and sick. But you don't need to buy special soil if you don't want to. You can do whatever you want. Gardening is 25% book knowledge and 75% learning from experience.

If you do use a seed-starting soil, be sure to wet it prior to filling your containers. Not soaking, but enough to make it more like the dirt you'd get out of the ground. I made the mistake of not doing this once and I couldn't understand why my plants weren't growing. Special seed-starting soils almost repel water, man! You gotta moisten them beforehand. .....heh heh giggity

Pop 'em In!
Grab yo kids, grab yo wife, and have a seed-starting party. I let one kid put the dirt in the receptacle and another hand me the seeds. You want to plant them at the time and depths indicated on your packet. If there is no time indicated (6-8 weeks before last frost, for example), I start them 3-4 weeks before frost. If there is no depth indicated on your seed packet, I typically push them down about as far as my pinki-finger nail bed. Very scientific modes of measurement around here.

I contain all of my seedlings and seedling receptacles in cheap plastic trays. You'll want to do this to catch the water drainage and any dirt that might escape. Plus it's easier to carry the seeds outside when the time comes.

Let There Be Light!
If you don't have a south-facing window (like sad Jen), you'll likely need some helper light. My helper light is a huge shop-light with two regular fluorescent bulbs. It works fantastic, I had no issues last year, and the handy chain on the back of the lights allowed me to move it up and down as the seedlings grew.

They have special grow lights out there and I am sure they work fantastically. I myself bought one, mostly because it was purple, and decided I never would again as the light it radiated reached out maybe 2-3 inches....or enough to reach one seedling. For a $12 bulb. No thanks :) But if grow lights are your thing, grow on!

And although it seems like common sense, remember...your seeds do not need light until they sprout. If you're anything like me you'll be checking every single day so you'll know when they sprout and then, when that happens, light 'em up!

Water, Water, Everywhere
I found out the hard way - spraying water on your precious seeds with a huge spray bottle just blows the dirt and seeds right out of your container. True story. Until my seedlings started actually sprouting, I poured water into the bottom of the trays to allow it to be absorbed up into the dirt and then very, very carefully dribbled the water on top in tiny drops. This took me quite some time, obviously. There is likely a better way to do this, but I haven't found it yet.

Now to avoid watering and to create some heat, I also covered my seedlings until they sprouted. I used plastic wrap (cringe) but you can use old plastic containers, or anything way better than my lame, lazy plastic wrap. Make yourself a little greenhouse. Once the sprouts pop, though, I take the plastic off and let them breath. Don't want it too sauna-like or mold will grow.

The Hand Wave
Once your seeds are sprouted and you have a good idea of their light and water needs (they will stretch if they are not getting enough light), it's time to execute my favorite part of the seed-starting game....the Hand Wave.

I read once, I can't remember where, that running your hand over your seedlings (lightly) mimics the breeze and strengthens their stems. I don't know how true this is but boy do I love doing it. It tickles and it makes me feel like a good garden mama and it supposedly makes them why not?

There you have it. Not too bad, right? I'm tellin you, this gardening thing is not as intimidating as it seems. And it all starts with seeds. Seeds can be so much more than a flimsy packet of potential. They are a direct link to our history and a premonition of our future....all while feeding us. Respect your seeds and they will give you life beyond measure. And don't forget to tune in next week when we discuss pest control!

Anyone planting seeds this week? What are you planting? If you're not, what is holding you back? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the link below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, March 7, 2016

Growing a Garden: Where Do I Start?

You. Guys. I opened my windows today and I heard birds singing. I let the chickens out and they pecked at actual, real-life grass. I walked to the mailbox in my socks. It's happening. Spring is upon us.

I could not be more excited to start this next blog series. I've spouted sonnets about creating maintenance-free food gardens and growing what you eat for quite some time. While writing my self-sufficiency post about food, I realized most people, myself included, simply don't know where to begin.

I'm finally taking the opportunity to break down the creation, maintenance, and harvest of your very own food garden.

But before we begin, a few little tidbits for your reference pleasure:
  • I live in a suburban area on a 0.5 acre plot of land
  • I am zoned residential
  • I am in growing Zone 5A - Northern Illinois. Our summers are hot and humid and our winters are cold and windy.
  • I have two kids, both picky little eaters
  • Dancing Feathers Farm, as I like to call my backyard, very recently became a female-only operation - so single ladies, this series is most definitely for you!
  • I am dedicated to organic practices
So with those things in mind, let's jump in, shall we?!?

Choose your own adventure
I've said it before and I'll say it again ... no point to growing tomatoes if you can't stand eating them. Gardening is work. It can be fun work, but it's work nonetheless. Don't bother wasting time with plants that look pretty but don't serve you and your family. I once bought a whole crapton of flowers because I was swayed by their gorgeousness in a magazine. Guess what? They cost me an arm and a leg, died within a year, and didn't do anything to "pay me back" for my money and trouble.

Grow plants that pay you back. They don't necessarily need to reimburse you by providing a food can plant perennials for pollinators, for example, or herbs for tinctures and salves, ground cover for nitrogen-fixation...beneficial plants come in many shapes, functions, and forms. 

Are you looking for food? List your favorite veggies. Don't even worry about feasibility at this point, we're just exploring your preferences. 

Are you trying to attract butterflies? Google some butterfly-loving plants, choose the five that look prettiest to you, and put them on your list. 

Bees? Do the same. 

Need to spruce up your front yard? Consider planting some bushes and flowers for the birds. These bird-beneficial plants will provide habitat, food, pest control, and best of all, a distraction from your fruit and veggies. 

Think about what you need - it's the easiest place to start!

Choose your zone
You want to grow plants that will...well...grow. You may love blueberries, but if the particular bush you're looking at is only suited for southern climates and you live in the north, you are going to be out of luck. 

The best way to narrow down which plant varieties you should try and grow is to purchase varieties that are proven/known/hypothesized to grow well in your climate or hardiness zone. 

I don't like the USDA, namely because they are owned by corporate chemical companies and do not function as an independent operating body intent on providing safety for our nation's citizens and farmers, so I will not link to their hardiness zone map in this post. I will, however, link to the Arbor Day Foundation's super simple zip code zone finder. These zone indicators are based on averages and estimations, mind you, so they are not perfect. Not all plant varieties are sold with suggested zone regions, either. So here's another little trick:

Choose varieties you see in the nature preserves around you, the gardens around you, at the farmer's market in your hood, or varieties named after/originating from regions similar to yours. If you live in a hot climate, for example, a tomato variety grown in the south of Italy would likely work very well in your region. I love Russian veggies, Slavic flowers, and anything that is both cold and heat tolerant. My location and weather is similar to that in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan, so I grab any varieties originating from those states. 

Until you get some trial-end-error germination (growth) under your belt, planting varieties suited for your climate is the best way to get a leg-up against mother nature's complexities!

Choose heirloom
Once you pick your varieties, it's time to get the seeds! That's right, I said seeds. Growing from seed is absolutely possible, doesn't take that much work, and is more cost-effective than buying grown plants. 

Heirloom seeds are the best. They are old, time-proven varieties of plants that are passed from generation to generation and kept safe from chemical manipulation. Heirloom seeds are almost always sold by organizations that function independently, free of any Monsanto ties or support. Speaking of Monsanto, if you don't know who they are and why they are the devil incarnate of the gardening/environmental/food safety/healthcare/agriculture world, check out this article. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one

My two favorite heirloom seed organizations are Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. They send you deliciously beautiful, free seed catalogues each year. Be prepared to be blown away. You will want everything. Everything. 

Choose a location
Do you have a yard? A balcony? A window? A rooftop? Where's the easiest location for you to access? The hardest location to access? 

Do you have pets and kids that could potentially get into your garden? How about nosy neighbors? Natural wildlife like deer, rabbits, and chipmunks? 

Take the sun into consideration, too. South-facing areas are always optimal because the sun shines in that direction the longest. Be conscious of big trees and shadows, awnings and porch umbrellas, or fences and neighboring homes. 

How about water needs? Do you have a hose hookup nearby? Will you be hauling water? Are there steps to fall down take into consideration? 

And lastly, if you're considering planting in the ground, think about getting a soil test done to determine your soil quality. It might not mean much right now, but once you start planting and needing to diagnose problems, knowing what your soil's pH level is could mean the difference between quitting in frustration or simply adding some eggshells and coffee grounds to your dirt.

Choose your supplies
If you're planting in pots, grab some pots from Craigslist or the resale shop. If you're building raised beds, consider recycled materials or materials that do not break down easy. I have a keyhole raised bed made of untreated cedar fence planks, raised beds made of cinderblocks I purchased new from a hardware store, and an herb spiral made of bricks I found in my backyard. Get creative! People plant in old boots, for cryin out loud, and it looks awesome. Go nuts.

Don't forget to stock up on your planting medium. Dirt can be expensive! If you're building raised beds, think about filling the bottom half with something cheap, like compost, rocks, leaves, or wood ash/shavings. Then you can fill the bed up with half as much dirt, but still have a great planting surface. I typically start buying my dirt in March, long before I can plant outside. Pre-buying like this helps me divide the cost up real nice and manageable-like. 

We'll talk about starting seedlings indoors next week, but if you're hoping to start seedlings, keep an eye out for sales on wire shelving units, shop lights, and little containers to start your plants in. Some people are recycling pros and use things as simple and innovative as toilet paper rolls or emptied yogurt containers, others splurge on peat pots and special trays. 

Get some great gardening gloves and a weed knife. Find an old bucket and make it your gardening bucket to help haul tools around and store them in one convenient place. I purchased a large wheelbarrow to help me with my weeding, but you may only need a recycled grocery bag, Try not to shop for your supplies by simply browsing the garden aisles....make a list ahead of time and stick to it. Way too easy to go broke looking at all the cool gardening inventions out there!

So whaddaya think? Five simple little steps to get you started in the right direction. They don't sound too daunting, do they? And that's the goal for this entire series - gardening broken down into easy, accessible, and affordable steps that even the craziest Jens can understand :)

Stay tuned for next week - Seed Starting 101!

What is your biggest gardening insecurity? Do you struggle with a particular part of the planning or growing, or do you have a nemesis plant variety? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading :)

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)