Monthly Archives: January 2011

Howdy Neighbor! It’s January 31st!

Shout it from the rooftops: The longest, coldest month of the year is nearly over!  It’s always a relief to make it through January and move on with the year. 

In Wisconsin–and many other parts of the US–we are bracing for a winter blizzard.  My mind is dreaming of gardening days ahead, when the ground has thawed and the dirt can be worked.  (Remember the smell of dirt?  It’s waiting for us, just a few months away!)

Here’s a great Judy Garland moment to brighten your last day of January.  Why not rent a copy of Summer Stock today (before the storm hits of course) and cozy up to a fun, happy escape to Falbury Farm?  Gene Kelly is there, ready to dance you right out of this month and into February.

Photos from the fourth week of January.

Seeds and a new magazine subscription arrived in the mail this week.


Seed organization. As packets arrive I file them in this box.

Chilly Chilis Bring the Heat

I will never purchase another shriveled up grocery store jalapeno again. Not when I can pull out one of my own, organically grown jalapeno out of my freezer anytime I need to add some heat to my dishes.

Jalapenos chillin' in the deep freeze.

It’s so simple. When the peppers are ready to pick, I put them straight from the plant into a freezer bag, zip and pop them in the deep freeze. Days, months, over a year later they are still holding the heat. I just give them a rinse and chop them up for the recipe. Brilliant! (Wish I could take credit for this idea, but my father-in-law is the one who told me about it.)

Husband chopping frozen chilis. Wearing a glove because these peppers are hot!

Here I’m using several frozen jalapeno to liven up a very large batch of chili. Once this chili is done it will be frozen in serving sizes to be used for lunches and the occasional quick dinner.

I love the idea of preserving the summer harvest for later use.  Of course, this idea is as old as time.  But for me, it’s fun to find new ways to save things and new uses for the things I’ve saved.  Throughout the winter, I thoroughly enjoy using items from the garden to freshen up dishes.  It also adds a personal touch.  After all, I could have easily purchased those jalapeno at the grocery store like I did the red bell peppers.  But it’s more satisfying to know–and especially to tell others–that those chili peppers were grown in my garden.  I also know that I spent a lot less to grow those peppers than I would have to purchase them.

Frozen jalapeno can be used in any recipe that calls for a chopped fresh one.  I have never used a frozen pepper in a recipe in which a whole pepper would be stuffed or deep-fried.  Perhaps this works, I honestly don’t know.  I make those recipes during the season when the peppers actually are fresh.

Here is a recipe to try, where a frozen jalapeno can bring real personality to the finished product:  Spicy Cabbage Soup

Peter Rabbit

A page from our family's copy of this beloved storybook.

Garden enjoyment can take place any day of the year and in so many varied ways.  Sometimes, when I can’t get out in my garden, a book can be just the thing.  Young and old alike have cherished Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, both the stories and the unforgettable artwork.  It happens to be a favorite around here.

My children love to color.  I found some nice Peter Rabbit coloring pages for them work on:  Kids-n-Fun Coloring Pages.

Here is a very sweet narration of the beloved story, by a two-year old!  I especially love that it features music by Yo Yo Ma.  (This has to be viewed on the YouTube site, click my link to be directed.)

Here is another adaption, which combines live action and animation. 

And the second half of it:

Winter days needn’t be dreary.  There are so many wonderful stories and books with beautiful illustrations–Peter Rabbit is just one of them.  It’s fun to lose myself in Mr. McGregor’s garden with Peter.  And I love sharing this garden, and the many others in books, with my children.

Tomato Picks


So many tomato transplants, so little space.

We live in the city which can be very convenient.  Who wouldn’t want to be 5 minutes from downtown dining, professional sports, museums and theatre?  Not to mention our proximity to Lake Michigan… I can walk there in ten minutes!  But what city dwelling lacks is gardening space, and for a gardener that can be kind of annoying. 

I am learning to work with my space.  And I’m learning restraint.  It’s time to order tomato seeds, and while I am drooling over the gorgeous photos in the seed catalogs, I’m reminding myself that my garden can only handle 4-6 tomato plants.  So don’t go ordering all those tomato seeds!  It’s hard to resist the countless varieties that all hold their own promises of flavor, texture and beauty.  I want them all.

Here’s the plan for 2011, which is (as always when it comes to gardening) subject to change at any time.  I will put four plants into my raised vegetable bed as I did last year.  It’s easy to access the plants on the corners of the raised bed.  I will put two additional plants in nearby pots, and hope for the best.  I’ve planted in pots before with mixed results.  The key is consistent watering.  Same thing with the Topsy Turvy, but I’m not going there this year.

These descriptions are straight off the websites from which I’ve purchased the seeds.

Italian Heirloom (Seed Savers Exchange)
Outstanding heirloom from Italy. Plants are loaded with red fruits weighing over a pound. One of the most productive varieties we have grown at Heritage Farm. Excellent full tomato flavor. Ideal for slicing and canning—very little waste and easy to peel. Indeterminate, 70-80 days from transplant.

Nebraska Wedding (Seed Savers Exchange)
The “ultimate love apple” according to Amy Goldman’s colorful story in The Heirloom Tomato. Nebraskan brides reportedly still receive these seeds as a wedding gift. Listed in the 1983 SSE Yearbook by Dorothy Beiswenger of Crookston, Minnesota. Reliable producer of stunning 4″ round fruits with glowing orange skin. Well-balanced flavor. Plants typically grow less than 36″ tall, but benefit from staking. Determinate, 85-90 days from transplant.

Tommy Toe (Seed Savers Exchange)
Exceptionally vigorous plants yield hundreds of large red cherry tomatoes throughout the season. The superb flavor won it top billing over 100 other varieties in an Australian taste test. Indeterminate, 70 days from transplant.

Wisconsin 55 OG (Seed Savers Exchange)
Bred by JC Walker at the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s. Excellent all-purpose tomato, great for canning. Does best on rich soils. Remembered as one of the best home and market tomatoes in the Madison, Wisconsin area. Indeterminate, 80 days from transplant.

Green Zebra (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
One of my favorite tomatoes. Beautiful chartreuse with deep lime-green stripes, very attractive. Flesh is bright green and very rich tasting, sweet with a sharp bite to it, (just too good to describe!). A favorite tomato of many high class chefs, specialty markets and home gardeners. Yield is excellent. The most striking tomato in our catalog, a real beauty. Around 3 ounces each.

Chocolate Stripes (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
NEW! One of the most amazing tomatoes we have ever grown. For both color and taste this variety excels. Fruit is deep reddish-brown inside,
the outside is covered with beautiful orange and lime colored
stripes. One of the most unique looking tomatoes we have ever tried. It is very sweet and yet has a full-rich flavor, and this is the reason this tomato places very high in taste tests. A favorite here with the staff at Baker Creek. Fruit is medium to large and are of a slightly flattened globe shape.

Wow!  Sounds like a delicious summer is ahead.  These tomato descriptions make my mouth water.  I simply can’t wait for that first taste of a garden tomato. 

For quality seeds and incredible variety:  Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds or Seed Savers Exchange.

Rhubarb: Freezer to Pie Plate

Nothing could be easier than growing rhubarb.  This perennial practically grows itself.  Our house came with an established rhubarb plant and I’ve done nothing but harvest stalks from it since we moved in.  I haven’t had to do anything else!  It’s so easy.

Our rhubarb plant in early May.

This past summer, I thought it might serve us well to put some rhubarb in the freezer, just in case we get a hankering for a taste of summer in the middle of January (as tends to happen).  Marking the amount on the outside of the bag, I set the washed, chopped and bagged rhubarb into the deep freeze.  Like my other time traveling foods, the rhubarb would be opened up again in another season, at another time… when it would seem somewhat exotic and out of the ordinary.   Several months in the freezer would elevate it from commonplace to commodity.

Rhubarb in the deep freeze.

After thawing in the refrigerator, the rhubarb is now ready to be made into something special–a rhubarb pie.  A tart and tangy treat to punctuate our dull January existence.  A nice change of pace from the heavier holiday desserts we are now trying to forget (or exercise off of ourselves, whatever the case may be).

For this pie I’ve decided to kick it old school, REALLY old school, and break out Betty Crocker’s 1951 Picture Cookbook.  This book just screams pie to me.  The red and white cover, the cute illustrations of homemakers in aprons.  And from what I can gather from my extensive mid-century cookbook reading, this was a time in America when people often did sit down with each other and enjoy a slice of pie and a cup of coffee (made in the percolator of course).  I have been thinking of making the rhubarb pie recipe in this book for a while now, and the time has come.

Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook: Kitchen companion of many a 1950's housewife.

What could be easier than pie? I must go put on an apron and pearls.

Recipe for Rhubarb Pie, and several practical variations for when you want something "special".


Mmmm… hello summer.  This will be great with coffee.  Rather than a percolator, I use a Keurig.  But the sentiment will be the same.

I’m sure Betty Crocker has a fine recipe for pie dough.  But my favorite pie dough recipe comes from my Gourmet cookbook, and can be found online HERE.  It combines butter and shortening to achieve tasty and flaky results.  It never fails.

Pie dough can time travel too.  It’s handy to have a few discs of dough in the freezer for when things start coming up in the garden.  Rhubarb pie of course, but how about a savory tomato pie or a salmon and swiss chard quiche?  Empanadas, spinach tarts or any sort of fruit galette would be tasty too.  Don’t forget the classics–berry or apple pie, yum!

When is a rhubarb a rose?  Sometimes it’s the little things in life–like a slice of rhubarb pie and a cup of coffee–that remind us to slow down, savor life, smell the roses as they say.   Enjoying my rhubarb harvest in the middle of January is a sweet-smelling rose among winter’s thorns.

Building a Raised Bed

There are so many great sources out there already on the topic of building a raised bed.  I just wanted to share the sources I’ve used to create two raised beds in my own garden:

The Pioneer Woman–Build Your Own Raised Bed

Ree Drummond explains how her ranch hand friend built raised beds for her garden, there are lots of pictures and if this tutorial is guilty of anything it might be overexplaining.  But for someone like me, these directions are perfect–and I love Ree’s sense of humor.

Square Foot Gardening

We use the formula for Mel’s Mix as explained on the Square Foot Gardening website: 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite.  There is no soil in our raised beds. 

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Time

What a difference a year makes.  The span of time between putting my first herb seedlings into a freshly filled raised bed and harvesting from second year plants is relatively brief–just over one year.  But for an herb, that one year makes the difference between infancy and adulthood.
In spring of 2009, I recruited my husband to build a raised bed to be used specifically for herbs.  Only 18 inches wide, it’s easily accessed from either side, and herbs have room to spill over the sides if necessary.  It also provides a nice border for the small patio garden where most of my garden grows.

Newly built raised bed with seedlings.


In 2009, I planted parsley, chives, dill, sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, oregano and basil in the raised bed.  All grew, though some did better than others.  The rosemary never grew taller than six inches, and remained thin.   The dill did fine for a few weeks but seemed to go to seed very quickly, and since I did not sow a second or third crop we didn’t have any by the time other veggies were ready to harvest.

Overall, I was pleased with the abundance of parsley, chives, sage, lavender and oregano.  That summer I came to know the herb garden and all of it’s smells and flavors.

First year herb garden mid-season.

But it was the following year in which the herb garden really came into it’s own.  Early spring saw chives shooting up through the snow.  Soon after, tiny green leaves began to grow on what looked like dead wood of thyme, oregano, sage and lavender. 

Rosemary and parsley did not survive the winter.  It’s just as well.  I found a new spot in the bed for the parsley and moved rosemary to a pot where it has been much happier.  Now the rosemary can come inside with me for the winter and be used in winter soups and sauces.

Potted rosemary can live indoors or out.

Year two was one of pruning back.  The sage became huge, almost tree-like in the way it became thick and woody, stems reaching all over the place.  Chives needed constant cutting.  In fact, by the end of the season I removed three plants, knowing I wouldn’t need them next year.  This could free up space for something new.

The best part of the herbs’ second year was the beautiful flowers.  All edible, all beautiful.  And they attracted the most interesting insects and butterflies to our garden.  I can’t wait till next year when the flower show begins again.

Herb garden, year two. Basil in nearby container.

Lavender flowers delighted us all season.

A sea of herbs.

I wonder what the herb garden will look like in its’ third year?  Will it overgrow its small space?  Will plants come back just as healthy?  Will I need to replant anything?  I especially wonder about that parsley.  Biennial, it should come back this spring if conditions are right.

Time will tell how the herb garden will grow.  After two years with it, I know this: I’ll never have a home without an herb garden again.  Herbs brighten up our food, look and smell great in the garden and are a conversation piece for guests to our home.  They attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  My kids can’t help but grab an herb and munch on it while they play outside.  We’ve come to appreciate our herb garden more than we could have imagined when we first set out.  I simply love my herb garden.

Coloring Books

Now here’s something for the kids!  We love Dover coloring books, and it looks like they have a nice selection of garden themed coloring and activity books this year. 

I usually order directly from Dover, but many  titles can also be found on Amazon.

Coloring a garden can be a perfect antidote to winter’s monotone-ness.

Visit to see the huge selection of coloring books for kids.

Glimpse of Winter

Enjoyed the very reasonable amount of snow that fell here yesterday.  While out with the kids I captured a few photos in our backyard.

Praise God for the delicate, beautiful features of winter.  The cold, gray months can be harsh and difficult, but nature has many reminders of God’s promises, particularly that spring will come again.  Just check out those tiny pinecones above!  Like little love notes from God.