Category Archives: Tutorial

Turning Herbs Into Beverages


When we moved into this house four summers ago the only herb I’d ever grown was a small pot of basil.  I knew that had to change, so the very first thing we did that next spring was install a raised bed specifically for growing herbs.

Construction of the herb garden was a priority when we moved in to our new house.

Since that time I’ve really developed a love of herb gardening and especially a love of cooking with herbs.  I can’t even imagine NOT having herbs now.  Food would not be the same.

This year I’m looking for even more ways to use my herbs.  Since eating them is such a delight the natural next step would be drinking herbs.  This past week my kids picked chamomile flowers for me so I could preserve them for chamomile tea.  The process was simple.

My son picking chamomile flowers.

After soaking them in some salt water for 10 minutes to get the bugs off, I laid them out to dry on a towel.  Once the water had evaporated off, it was time for the oven.

I preheated the oven to 200 degrees then turned it off.  I place the chamomile on a parchment lined baking sheet and put it in the oven for a few hours.  When the oven was completely cooled again I took the sheet out, preheated again to 200 degrees, turned the oven off once more and put the sheet back in for a few more hours.  In all, it took about 4 hours to dry the chamomile.

Dried chamomile ready to be put in a jar for later use.

Then, all I had to do was put it in a jar with a nice tight lid and store it for a cool fall evening in the future.  I do love time traveling food.

Chamomile tea!

As chamomile flowers continue to blossom on my plant I’ll continue the process and hopefully fill up my jar.

The lavender was looking equally inviting this week so I decided to use it in a simple syrup recipe.

Lavender buds are best harvested just as they open.  I carefully selected which stems looked the best and clipped those off with my kitchen scissors.  Once in the house I used the same bug removing process that I did with the chamomile.

Picked lavender, I used a couple teaspoons in the simple syrup.

Just right for harvesting, some buds are open, some are not.

Soaking the lavender in salt water to remove bugs.

The next day, when the lavender was dry, I removed all the purple buds from the stems.

To make simple syrup I combine equal parts granulated sugar with water and bring to a boil.  To make a flavored syrup, I toss in whatever herb I’m using before I turn the heat on.  This time it was the lavender buds that I put in.  Once the syrup comes to a nice rolling boil, I turned it off and let the lavender steep until the syrup was no longer hot but just warm.  At this point I take a coffee filter lined strainer and putting that over a container I pour the syrup through it so that the lavender buds are left behind and syrup drips through.

The result is a nice clear lavender-scented simple syrup perfect for a cup of tea or a classy cocktail!

I used mine with some rum and club soda for a refreshing summer drink.  Yum!

This process works great with all herbs.  I’ve tried it with mint and the results were delicious.  Makes a potent mojito or mint julep.

My next herbal beverage project will be drying mint for mint tea.  I have a very healthy chocolate mint plant that is ready to be harvested.  The best time to harvest mint (and most leafy herbs) is just before it bolts and produces flowers.

It’s nice to use a large quantity of mint too because cutting the mint actually keeps the plant healthy.  And I’d much rather use the mint to make tea than toss it in my compost.

These are just a few ideas, there are so many ways to use herbs.  Can’t wait to hear YOUR ideas!  If you’ve got a good one, please leave a comment.

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Variety, Quality and Quantity in a Small Garden


My garden space is limited.  I only have so much usable space, so I’m careful to make the most of it throughout the growing season.  I keep three goals in mind for my garden: variety, quality, quantity.

Now I know I could plant all my space with peppers and tomatoes and I’d surely have quantity.  But I wouldn’t have variety.  Or I could always plant the tomatoes in the one space that I really like to put them, but that might risk quality because tomatoes (and most other crops) benefit from being rotated to different spots in the garden–that way pests and diseases are deterred.

To maintain my three goals I really need to plan for a full season of growing in which my space is used wisely.  Most of my spaces are planted twice–once early in the season (or in the fall, depending) and again later on when the first crop is harvested and the space becomes available.

In the two photos you can see the difference between the early season in this garden bed, and how it currently looks.  Earlier this season I had it planted with radishes, lettuce, peas and garlic.  The tomatoes were also in the garden at the time I took the first photo.

The second photo shows that all but the tomatoes are now gone, and instead it is filled with corn, beans, squash and cucumbers.

Other areas of my yard get the same treatment.  Where I had beets in May and June I’m now growing ground cherries.  Where I had arugula this spring I’ve now got basil, dill and cilantro.  The bed that had tulips for cutting is now filled with tomatoes, fennel, cabbage, leeks, beets, carrots, beans, celeriac and peppers.  Earlier in the season that same bed had radishes, arugula and spinach.  And in a week or so when the fennel is harvested I’ll be planting kale and more spinach.

In my garden I’ve planted spinach twice already this year and plan to do it again!  Pots with nasturtiums will soon be planted with lettuce.

My garden definately has variety.  I garden organically, so the quality of my produce is high… maybe things have a few holes in them from sharing them with the insects that are in the garden, but nutritionally this homegrown stuff can’t be beat.  And quantity?  Well, I don’t get too much of one thing.  I don’t always get to “put up” produce for later.  But there is plenty to eat from the garden and it’s in a rainbow of colors and flavors.

Grilled Pizza


Grilling creates a perfect pizza crust.

I like to have a base recipe and a no fail method of cooking just about anything that comes out of my garden.  The answer almost always to the question “What should I do with this?” is: grilled pizza.  The perfect blank slate for any herb or vegetable, it can take on any flavor profile it needs to.

To make this super easy, I make balls of pizza dough in advance at my convenience.  They freeze and thaw nicely.  And it’s much easier to make a double or triple batch of dough when I’m already doing it anyway then it is to create new dough every time we want to eat pizza.

I have found the perfect dough for me, but I do recommend that others experiment because dough can vary based on several things such as which brand/type of flour or yeast is used, climate, how it is mixed, the method used for thawing.  Flavor and mouth feel matter too.  My perfect dough isn’t necessarily THE perfect dough, but it works best and tastes best for me.

I love this Kitchenaid pizza dough recipe.

I use the recipe that came with my Kitchenaid mixer, but I add an extra tablespoon of olive oil which results in a more golden crust.  You can find the recipe here:

Kitchenaid Pizza Dough

I have often added garden herbs to my pizza dough to make it a herbed crust.  This tastes great as a pizza or made into bread sticks.

The key to success is to have everything ready before you start.  I like to have all my ingredients and tools laid out on a tray.  Here is what I use when grilling a pizza:

pizza dough
cooking spray or oil to brush on the grill
olive oil in a cup with a brush OR pizza sauce in a cup with a brush
cheese (shredded or sliced)
veggies, meats and/or herbs completely chopped and ready to go on the pizza
cookie sheet
large metal spatula
grill tongs

In addition to having these items ready to go, I make sure to preheat the grill well ahead of time so that I’m sure it’s piping hot when the dough hits the grates.

Smaller pizzas are easier to work with on the grill, though it’s certainly possible to do a large one too.  I will usually divide the above pizza dough recipe in half and make two pizzas with thinner crusts, or even four personal sized pizzas.

The process is pretty straightforward.  With the grill on as high as possible, I oil the grates and then carefully lay on my prepared pizza dough directly on the grates.  If the heat is high enough, the dough will not fall through the grates.  While the grill is working its magic I quickly brush on some oil to the top of the dough.

It only takes a minute or two on high for the dough to bubble and become stiff enough to turn over.  I do this carefully using the spatula and tongs, sometimes employing the cookie sheet if it’s a large pizza.  Once it’s flipped over and I have the grilled side up, I turn the heat down to low.

Now I can put on the oil or sauce and the rest of my toppings.  This part is fun.  I enjoy tossing on fresh herbs while it’s on the grill and also when it comes off the grill.  Once I have the pizza topped I shut the lid to the grill and let it cook.

Topped and ready to finish off with the lid down.

It doesn’t take long from this point.  Five to ten minutes depending on the thickness of the dough or how many toppings are piled on.  It’s possible to eyeball from here.  When I like how it looks I slide my cookie sheet underneath the pizza and pull it off the grill.

Hot off the grill is a good time to drizzle with extra virgin olive oil or sprinkle with herbs.  Handfuls of arugula or baby spinach are nice to pile on at this point too.  Whatever is fresh and delicious in the garden will be great on a grilled pizza.

I do use a gas grill which allows me to turn the heat down.  If cooking on coals you’d need to set up a hot side and a cooler side.

Here are some of my favorite garden-inspired combinations:

  • Swiss Chard & Italian Sausage
  • Spinach & Pine Nut
  • Grilled Chicken & Herbs
  • Grilled Peppers & Onions
  • Tomato, Basil & Fresh Mozzarella
  • Roasted Beet & Blue Cheese
  • Green Tomato & Bacon
  • Pesto & Sausage
  • Pancetta, Basil & Cherry Tomatoes

There are so many delicious possibilities for grilled pizza.  I’m so happy to have this cooking technique in my arsenal, as it’s something I go back to many times during the growing season.

Cheers!

Growing Garlic


I’m a garlic girl through and through.  Truly.  If I was stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the sea, you can bet I’d ask for garlic.  To season the seafood I caught of course!  Along with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemons, garlic is my go-to ingredient, always in my pantry and (nearly) always in my food.  I just can’t enough.

So it makes sense for a gardener with a garlic bent to grow the stuff.  I first tried growing garlic two years ago, with okay results.  I planted in spring and had smallish but flavorful bulbs that season.  But it wasn’t the robust garlic crop I had hoped for.  So this year I’m attempting to redeem myself.

I started off this time by ordering garlic bulbs in the fall and planting them in early November.  (Wish I snapped a photo!)  This is so super easy, and much like planting tulips it takes a few minutes and the reward the following spring is worth many times the small effort put in during the fall.

Planting garlic is a breeze.  I just broke each bulb into cloves, and planted each clove just as I would a tulip bulb… about 6 inches deep, 10-12 inches apart.  A little mulch on top and they were ready for winter.

At the first sign of spring here in Wisconsin, garlic began to poke through the ground.

Garlic breaks through the ground.

As the season wore on, the garlic kept growing.  It is hard to mess this up… it doesn’t need a lot of watering or attention.  The only thing I did–which isn’t even necessary as far as I know–is to trim off the garlic scapes as they grew and began to curl around.  Doing this allows the garlic to put more energy into growing the bulbs, resulting in bigger more flavorful bulbs.  The added benefit of this practice is that I get to eat the garlic scapes, which are a delicious seasonal treat.

Garlic scapes.

The garlic scape is the flower of the garlic plant.

When the scapes curl around like this I cut them off the plant.

Garlic scapes are great in pesto.

Once the garlic starts to get that dried out brown look, it’s ready to harvest.  But a few weeks before, I pulled out a sample of young garlic (also called “green garlic”) to use with some salmon.  Unlike garlic in its’ familiar cured form, the green garlic is juicier without the papery wrapping around it.  It’s very fresh and the flavor is bright and spicy.

"Green" garlic and rosemary flavor this piece of salmon.

As for the curing process, I pull the garlic out of the garden when the green has turned 50-60% brown.  For a day or two I let the whole garlic sit out on the deck to air dry.  Once dry, I knock off the soil to prepare them for curing.  I’m going for mostly clean, but just rubbing the soil off–no rinsing with water.

At this point the garlic is tied up in bunches of about six and hung in my garage.  I put them in the garage because it’s outdoors but free of drafts and out of the sun.  The garlic stays in the garage for three weeks or until it has that papery garlic look and feel.

Harvested garlic dries on the deck and then is bundled and tied for curing.

String or twine works great.

This garlic will cure in the garage for approximately three weeks.

Once cured, I cut off the stems, dust off any more soil, and put them in an open box or basket for storage.  I keep my garlic in the basement and bring them up to the kitchen as needed.  Homegrown garlic tastes great.  I know where it was grown and what kind of soil was used.  And like most things you grow yourself, there is a good return on the investment.  I will get a few dozen bulbs that will last about six months.

Using the garlic is the best part.  During the growing season garlic finds its way into salad dressings and pestos.  I like to throw a whole bulb in with beets to roast in a foil packet.  Garlic goes great with poultry, fish and meats too.  In fact it’s hard for me to think of something I don’t love to eat with garlic.  It’s the perfect flavor to go with all those greens I grow.  Just sliced and sautéed in some oil, then throw the greens in.  Soups and stew, and especially sauces, salsa and bruschetta toppings are not complete without the addition of garlic.

While I’m sure there are more detailed instructions on how to grow garlic than I’ve provided here, I do think growing garlic is truly this simple and shouldn’t be over thought.  I remember when I thought there was some trick to growing garlic, but now I can see that it’s just a matter of planting in the fall and patiently waiting for nature to take its course.  Couldn’t be easier!

Making more room for tomatoes.


My tomato seedlings have really been growing the last week or two.  It was time to move them out of the seed starting tray and into pots.  While they’ll still have 3-4 weeks before they can go in the ground, they are developing root systems and leaves which will make them strong and healthy for the growing season.

I did this repotting project indoors due to some wild wind outside.

 

I put each tomato plant into a pot and made sure to label it before I forgot which type it was.

 

I used to use peat pots for this step of the gardening process, but there’s been a lot of press lately on the topic of peat and it looks like there are now better alternatives available.  I’ll be looking into this more as I current use peat moss as part of my raised bed filler.  Perhaps there is a more sustainable option I can use.  In the meantime, I’ve made the switch to these 100% peat-free renewable coir pots.  They work the same way, and can be planted right into the garden just as I did with the peat pots.

Here's a tip: A child's garden spade is just the right size for filling small pots with potting mix.

In the above photo you can see I’ve also transplanted the impatiens I started from seed.  Only 7 plants grew in my tray of 70!  That’s a terrible germination rate… and now I’ll be buying a tray of impatiens at the garden center.

Here are the tomatoes, all potted up, labeled and now getting a drink of water from the tray they are sitting in. It's best to water from the bottom, and very easy if the plants are sitting in a tray. The tray will also make it easy to take them outside during the hardening off process.Tomatoes and other seedlings soaking up some May sun.

 

Tomatoes and other seedlings soaking up some May sun.

Repotting the Lemon Tree


My dwarf meyer lemon tree came with the instructions to repot annually.  This being the tree’s third spring with us, we are on our third pot.  The pot is big this time!  One more size up and I’ll have to hire movers to haul the thing in and out of the house for me.

I’ve reported on this lemon tree before:  When life hands you one lemon…  and suffice to say the lemon tree and I have had our ups and downs.

But I’ve been looking forward to this annual tradition of repotting.  For one, I wanted to put them lemon tree in a more attractive pot.  I found a very nice brick red pot at my favorite gardening store, Stein Gardens and Gifts.  It’s a Wisconsin chain, so you won’t find them elsewhere.  But if you do come to Wisconsin it’s worth checking out.

My lemon tree has suffered from a few issues.  For one, it sets blooms but then they all fall off and I am left with no lemons.  I’m not sure why this happens, but I’ve heard that this is a problem for many indoor lemon tree growers.  The other problem is that it sheds it leaves a few times a year.  I’m not sure it can get the energy it needs from the sun with so few leaves to soak it in. 

To address the blossom problem I’ve decided to beef up the tree’s food supply.  As I put potting mix into the new pot, I added several cups of organic fruit fertilizer.  I am hoping that this will strengthen stem development because it seems that the stems supporting the blossoms just wimp out and break.

Just so you all know, this is my non-scientific totally untested solution to this problem.  As I’ve said before I work more on a “feel” basis.  I have no idea if this will work or not.   But after months of watching blossoms fall off my plant, it seems like the right thing to do.

As for the leaves, all I can hope is that the weather around here warms up and the tree can go back outside.  I know how this tree feels–cooped up in this house all winter getting a fraction of the sunlight it needs or desires.  I understand wanting to just sadly drop your leaves and look pathetic.  And it does look pathetic.  I’ve been taking it outside when weather permits.  I’m hoping soon it can just stay out there.  Especially since this new pot is so heavy!

I used an organic fertilizer in conjunction with some “moisture plus” potting mix.

I used Dr. Earth organic fruit fertilizer.

I blended the fertilizer with some fresh potting mix to fill the new pot, leaving some room for the lemon trees root system.

When I took the tree out of its current container I noticed a lack of large roots.  There was a system of smaller roots, but as I moved the plant out of the pot many of them broke free of the tree.  I hope I did not cause too much stress to the tree.  I tried to be gentle!

Perhaps the new pot, fertilizer and potting mix will invigorate the root system.

My son waters in the lemon tree.

My new pot is a few inches wider in diameter than the old one.

This new brick red pot is certainly an upgrade!

Something that bothers me about my lemon tree is a lack of a central trunk.  Maybe this is normal?  Leave a comment if you know anything about this.

I’m hopeful that the blossoms that are on the tree now will turn into lemons, at least a few of them!  They will certainly benefit from being outside where the bees can help them along, the sun can warm them and the breeze can make them strong.  The new pot with its healthier blend of potting mix should certainly be a help as well.  And now that the tree has more room to grow, it can support more fruit. 

Im cheering these blossoms on!

Well, little lemon tree… it’s up to you now!

Looking happier already, the lemon tree is getting settled into its new home.

 

With any luck well have some lemons in a few months. (Here is our lemon "crop" of 2010.)

Seed Starting


March is here and with it comes the task of transforming tiny seeds into herbs, vegetables and flowers for my (slowly) thawing garden.

But first, a confession.  I’ve been struggling for a week to write this post.  I think that writing from an instructional point of view isn’t working for me.  Since there are so many resources available on seed starting, I’ve decided that rather than give instructions I’m just going to report my experience and forget a step by step analysis.  It just isn’t my style. 

Whew!  Now I feel free to write.

Being a visual person, I like to map my garden, I also like to map my seed trays.  This seems to work better for me than using seed markers, and it feels like less work to me.  I especially like color coding my seed tray map!

I use a different color for each type of seed.

My kids' crayons come in handy for this project.

As it turned out, the above map–while lovely–did not have the correct layout for the 72-cell trays I am using.  So I had to redo it.  Such is life. 

For this tray, I’m starting some random things that seem like they need more time than others.  This works out well because by the time these seedlings are done with this tray I’ll be ready to start some more seeds.  I have two trays and will probably use each one twice this season.  I’m growing some flowers from seed this year, and they’ll take up at least one tray on their own.

I use a standard plastic 72-cell tray.  These trays come with a drip tray that the cell insert sits in, and a lid.  It’s easy to purchase extra cell inserts as needed from my local garden center.

I always read the seed packets before starting seeds.  Here is where I can find out when to start the seeds, any special information such as planting depth, sunlight needs, etc.  Seed packets contain all the information I need to be successful. 

Seed packets for Impatiens.

The back of the seed packet is loaded with information for seed starting, transplanting, growing and harvesting.

This seed starting mix came from Gardens Alive.  I had a coupon for $25 off (I believe every catalog they send has a coupon of some sort) so I used that to order some trays and seed starting mix.  It’s just as easy to visit a local garden center or hardware store and pick up needed materials.

My seeds have come from many different sources this year.   I purchased some at the garden center, others I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  I wanted to try several sources to compare, and also just because it’s fun to collect seeds from various sources.  I like the different seed packets.    It’s been fun going through the catalogs as well and receiving orders in the mail. 

Using my map I carefully put the seeds into each cell after the soaked seed starting mix was in place.

Seed starting mix works well.

 

We added water to the mix and spooned it into the tray.

 

Alternatively, you can put dry mix in the tray and then add water.

 

Once the seeds are in, the tray goes to either a sunny place or a warm place out of direct sunlight. I had one tray of each, this information is on the back of the seed packets.

 

I either put the tray in my bathroom, where it is always very warm, or if the seeds require light for germination they go next to the patio door where it is warm and sunny.  Trays in the bathroom are moved to the patio door once the sprouts emerge.

Current setup--my mini greenhouse.

 

My son and I love to peek at the seed trays every day to see what has poked through.  It’s amazing how quickly they change, sometimes they can grow an inch or more in less than 25 hours.

Here's something coming up!

 

It’s not hard to start seeds.  I’ve been doing it for a few years now and have always been pleased with the results.  It’s much more affordable than buying plants at the garden center, and there is no limit to the varieties I can grow when I start the seeds myself.  I’m not limited by what a store may have in stock.

It’s certainly possible to be a lot more scientific about this process.  That’s just not me though.  I do this by look and feel and rarely consult the numbers.  I don’t really know what the temperature is in my bathroom or how many days it takes for seeds to germinate.  I don’t really care.  (Sorry!)  If they come up, I’m happy.  I move them to bigger pots as needed and when the weather feels good, I put them outside.  I guess this goes to prove that it’s really not that complicated to grow things at home!  I just follow the directions and that seems to work.

Now, I can’t wait to get everything outside and out of my dining area.  But for at least the next 6 weeks, the seedlings and I will just be hanging out waiting for the earth outside to come alive again. 

I just finished reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and want to share this passage in which Dickon describes Spring:

“Just listen to them birds—th’ world seems full of ’em—all whistlin’ an’ pipin’,” he said. “Look at ’em dartin’ about, an’ hearken at ’em callin’ to each other. Come springtime seems like as if all th’ world’s callin’. The leaves is uncurlin’ so you can see ’em—an’, my word, th’ nice smells there is about!” sniffing with his happy turned-up nose.”

Now isn’t that nice?  It’s almost here!

Garden Planner


I really like these kitchen garden planners from Gardener’s Supply.  Great ideas here:

Garden Tutorial


White Flower Farm has produced some wonderful garden “how to” videos.  Check it out: