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! :)