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Barefoot and Dirty

Summer Herbs

The summer canning season is in full swing. We’ve been harvesting in earnest and preparing the empty beds with compost for the next round of planting. Our tomatoes and tomatillos are finished, as are the summer squash. We will replant the squash and tomatoes for a fall crop. The watermelons are ripening. The red ripper cowpeas are huge and should start producing any day now. Our new bees are busy pollinating everything and we can definitely see the difference in our garden’s productivity. We have jars of pepper relish, serrano pickles, pickled jalapeños and serranoes, and various jams and jellies being added to the pantry weekly. Our freezer is stocked with sweet corn and green beans. This is the time of year when we are truly rewarded for all of our hours of labor and toil in the garden.

I love gardening, it’s true, but my favorite type of gardening is herb gardening. Herbs are hands-down the most versatile and useful plants in my entire yard. The bees love them. They smell good. They taste good. They make other foods taste good. They can be used for food, for beauty, for medicine, for crafts. They are easy to grow. They can be grown in small pots on the windowsill or tucked into small empty spots in the garden beds. Herbs are just amazing plants.

Being a Horticulture major, I’ve studied a lot of ethnobotany (people-plant interactions throughout history) and I’ve learned quite a bit about the various uses our ancestors had for different plants that aren’t commonly used today. I read about them and immediately want to try them (plant nerd!). I study and practice herbalism. I love to cook. I have a large herb garden that I’m planning to make even larger this fall. I plant herbs in my vegetable garden, my flower beds, in pots on the porch, wherever I can find a spot for them. They’re great for companion planting, as many of them repel garden pests and diseases or boost the health of other plants. There’s only one problem: my herbs grow out of control. We rarely have any hard freezes, so the herbs don’t really die back in the winter. They just get a new flush of growth.

I harvest my herbs and dry them, of course, as well as making macerated oils and tinctures. I use them to make soaps and lotions, creams and salves. I use them for medicine. I also freeze them. Obviously, I snip fresh herbs for cooking. It just seems like as many uses as I have for them, I just can’t seem to use them all up. So, to that end, I started experimenting. I’ve begun making herbal jellies.

It all began when I was outside picking blackberries to make jam. We have a wild honeysuckle vine growing around the shrubs that protect our well. I picked a flower and sucked out the nectar (yes, I still do that. Why should kids get all the good stuff?), and thought about what it would be like to be able to taste that floral sweetness all year. That’s when it hit me: why not make a honeysuckle jelly? I presented the idea to my husband, and off we went to forage for honeysuckle flowers.

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Honeysuckle Jelly

We gathered about 2 ½ cups of honeysuckle flowers from the trees around our house. I rinsed them and trimmed off any leaves, etc. I brought 2 cups of water to a boil, poured it over the flowers, and let them steep overnight. Adapting an old recipe, I came up with a good recipe for a small batch of jelly. The next day, I strained out all of the plant material and consigned it to the compost heap. I used the decoction to make jelly. It set beautifully and made the prettiest golden yellow jelly that tasted just like the honeysuckle flowers. It has a sweet taste with light floral undertones that is indescribable. Okay, so that was a definite success. Inspiration struck again: why not use several of my other herbs?

So, for the past week, I’ve been experimenting with making jelly using herbs and edible flowers from my garden. So far, I’ve made a jelly using lemon balm that tastes exactly like the old-fashioned lemon drops we ate as children. I’ve made jelly using my garden mint (that is currently taking over one of my flower beds) that tasted like candy canes. I’ve made jelly using lavender flowers and vanilla extract that has a definite sweet floral taste. Next on my list is a jelly using lemongrass and a piece of ginger. This has proven to be a very good use of my excess herbs, and we are already rooting cuttings of the honeysuckle vines to plant along our fence.

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Lemon Balm Jelly

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Lavender Vanilla Jelly

I’m currently planning my herb garden. I always have a long list of herbs that I want to plant: herbs for medicine, herbs for cooking, herbs for crafts, herbs for beauty care. This time, though, I’m taking special note of those herbs that might make a new and interesting jelly. My recipe is below. Enjoy!

Herbal/Floral Jelly

Yield: approximately 4-8 oz. jars

Ingredients:

• 2 cups of fresh leaves/flowers, rinsed (I only used ½ cup of lavender flowers since it has such a strong flavor)
• 2 cups boiling water
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 4 cups pure cane sugar
• 1 tbsp. vanilla extract (optional)
• 1 pouch of liquid pectin

Directions:

1. Sterilize jars, bands and lids.

2. Pour the boiling water over the plant material. Allow it to steep overnight.

3. Strain out plant material. Pour decoction into a large pot. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat.

4. Stir in lemon juice, extract if using it, and sugar. Continue to heat until it reaches 220°F. Allow it to boil for a full minute.

5. Add pectin and continue to boil for 2 full minutes.

6. Remove from heat and pour into jars. Wipe rims clean, put lids and bands on jars, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

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Mint Jelly

Beating the Heat

Here it is, June on the Gulf Coast. After 3 days of storms, the heat and humidity has settled in with a vengeance. It is just steamy and miserable outside and the mosquitoes are rampant. I’m still gardening and we continue to harvest summer squash, chili peppers, sweet peppers, currant tomatoes and blackberries…and tomatillos, hundreds of tomatillos. Our bees have settled in and instead of hitting the herb garden, they have been working the tomatillo bed. Our plants are loaded with fruits in various stages of ripeness. This is the biggest tomatillo harvest we’ve ever had. So, what are we doing with so many tomatillos? Improvising! Last night, I made a simple batch of salsa verde that only took minutes. The recipe is below.

 Salsa Verde

My garden is my passion, but as the summer heats up, it will be harder and harder to work outside. Sunburn and heatstroke are very real worries in areas like this where the temperatures soar over 100°F and we have no shade trees. The only gardening done is early in the morning or late in the evening. Many of our crops stop producing during the hottest part of summer and start up again as the weather cools in the fall. Unfortunately, we still want our fresh produce, particularly salad greens and herbs. To that end, we have begun using a hydroponic system inside the house.

We began researching hydroponics last year. Salad greens are a touchy crop to grow here as our early spring temperatures can cause lettuce and spinach to bolt. It can be 40°F on Tuesday and 80°F on Wednesday. Since we love our fresh mesclun, spinach and lettuce, we decided to find a way to give them more optimal growing conditions. Hydroponics seemed to be an acceptable answer.

My husband used PVC pipe to create a simple flood and drain system for hydroponic growing. He cut 4 tubes approximately 4 feet long and cut 5 holes in each of them. He fitted them with end caps that he had drilled holes in and attached them with rubber tubing. It all connects to a reservoir underneath the system which contains the water/nutrient system and the pump that sends the solution up through the tubing to the plants, and an air pump that keeps the solution oxygenated. We hung a grow light over it. Once the system was built, the experimentation began.

First, we tried peas, but the system was simply too wet for them. They rotted. Next, we tried spinach, but apparently, we had some bad seeds because we couldn’t even get them to germinate. Finally, we tried sweet basil. We hit a homerun with that one. The seeds sprouted and we put the tiny seedlings in the little net cups and inserted them into the holes. The pump was set on a timer to flood the tubes with water periodically throughout the day. We turned on the grow light in the morning and turned it off at night. When we changed the nutrient/water solution, we used that to water our outside gardens and pots. All of our plants, inside and outside, were nice and healthy.

Basil Hydroponics 

That basil took off. It grew and grew and grew until we had to raise the light because the plants were hitting the bulb. I snipped off whatever I needed for cooking, but of course, that just made the plants even bigger and bushier. Finally, we pulled the plants and harvested them all. We now have plenty of dried basil as well as a few bags of leaves in the freezer.

Since our first success, we have tried several different types of indoor gardening. We have a small countertop greenhouse tray that we use to grow microgreens. We grow different types of sprouts on our kitchen counter. We grow lettuce in our hydroponic system. We experimented with growing catnip in a simple hydroponic system that consists of a bucket filled with the nutrient solution and an air stone. That was a definite success (Our three cats were very happy with that experiment!). Next, we’ll be trying peppers in that bucket system.

While I do love getting barefoot and dirty outside in my gardens, I also love having fresh salad greens available right in my dining room year-round. By creating the optimal growing conditions for certain crops inside, I also have more space outside in my gardens for other crops that I want to try. The hydroponics is a good solution for extending your growing season, regardless of climate. It can be set up in a greenhouse just as easily, and just like the outside garden beds, it can be as small or large as you want. Best of all, the plants seem to grow bigger and faster due to the fact that the nutrients are more readily available for the plants to use, the temperature and lighting are controlled to optimal levels, and they don’t have to fight off pests, poor soil, and weeds. It’s also a great way for those who live in apartments or places without outdoor garden spaces to enjoy growing their own fresh produce.

We will continue our hydroponic experiments and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in indoor gardening.

Quick Salsa Verde

Ingredients:

• approximately 50 large tomatillos
• 3 serrano peppers (more or less, according to taste)
• 1 medium onion
• 10-15 cloves of garlic
• 3-4 sprigs of fresh cilantro
• 3-4 sprigs of fresh oregano
• 1 tsp ground cumin
• Salt to taste

Directions:

Coarsely chop all of the vegetables. Put everything in the food processor and process on high until puréed. Enjoy!

Gardening with Chickens

Gardening with Chickens…

 

Spring has flown by and summer is on the horizon. Our garden is doing very well. The peppers and squash are blooming. The melons are rambling here, there, and everywhere. The tomatoes and tomatillos are heavy with ripening fruit. Everything is nice and healthy. The spring floods have given way to warm winds that quickly steal away plant moisture, so we’re back to watering the gardens by hand. The garlic will be ready for harvest in just a few weeks, and I hope to try pickling some of that.

When we made the decision to try homesteading on our small little piece of earth, we read up on all of the myriad ways in which people have grown produce on their land, and the one thing that was mentioned repeatedly was that gardening and chickens go hand and hand. There is no better friend to your garden than your flock of chickens. They provide pest control, soil aeration, fertilizer. Why chickens and gardens go together just like peanut butter and jelly! Well, okay, we said, we have chickens. We have gardens. Why, we’ll give it a shot!

Well, after almost two and a half years, I have come to the conclusion that our chickens must be defective. Don’t misunderstand. I adore my chickens! They all have names. They get frequent treats. They get pets and snuggles at bedtime. In fact, they’re all spoiled rotten. However, I have noticed that while they all have their own little personalities, they all seem to have a bit of an attitude. My flock of twenty is a bit on the unruly side.

One thing that really appealed to us was the idea of letting the chickens take care of our weeds. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hate weeding. See, we don’t have mere weeds…we have demonic weeds. When you pull up one weed, it generally has a root that’s at least three feet long and four more sprout from that spot. It is truly unnatural, so the idea of letting my sweet chickens handle the problem for me was a real winner. We got our garden beds made, filled them with soil and compost, and turned our flock out to free them of any stray weeds or weed seeds. The best way I can describe my babies is “thoroughly unimpressed”. They just looked at us like “what are we supposed to do with this?” and wandered away to torment the blueberry bushes (a favorite activity). Okay, so we took that to mean there weren’t any weed seeds, weeds, etc. and planted our vegetables. Within a week, our seedlings were engulfed in a mass of weeds.

Again, we turned our flock out in the garden while we weeded in the hopes that they would at least give us some help with the weeds. They definitely took more interest this time, and about 75% of our seedlings were scratched out of the soil or pecked to shreds, the soil itself was scratched out of the raised bed and scattered in every direction, but my babies were thoughtful enough to not touch a single weed. Yes, as I said, they have a bit of an attitude. They did point out the fact that we had big fat juicy grubs in our garden bed, however, thus the reason all the soil was scratched out. Okay, so they weren’t interested in weeding, obviously, however, the soil was definitely well aerated.

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This is what kale looks like after a visit from my clucks.

After replacing our seedlings, we decided that perhaps our chickens just weren’t garden friendly. The garden was enclosed with a picket fence. Now, we’ve all seen the videos on the internet of the cats that can flatten themselves to fit anywhere they choose, but who knew chickens have that same ability? Our pickets aren’t widely spaced, yet we frequently (as in every evening) watch our babies flatten themselves and pop right between the pickets to go eat the flowers off our vegetable plants. To add insult to injury, they generally look at you when they do it, kind of like a child making sure that mom is watching. We tried wrapping the fence with chicken wire, but that didn’t deter them either. Our next layer of defense was to wrap each separate bed with chicken wire, as well. They definitely let us know their displeasure with that. Now they just peck at the leaves through the holes in the chicken wire. They are nothing if not determined. We are currently working on a plan to relocate the vegetable garden to the front yard.

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Our tomato bed is completely wrapped in chicken wire.

At least I can say that my babies are very good at helping with the manure in the compost pile. They also help with aerating that, as well, because enclosing that with a fence didn’t prevent them from scratching through the compost, either. Every time we clean out the coop, all of the manure-saturated hay goes right into the compost pile. All of our egg shells go there, as well, giving us good calcium-rich compost. In that regard, yes, I can honestly say that my babies do their part in fertilizing the garden. However, any kitchen scraps that get thrown out there, get eaten. We’re planning to set up a bin for vermicomposting, but we have to figure out a way to keep the chickens out of it. They love fat juicy worms.

I must admit, if we could garden directly in our soil instead of using raised beds, the chickens would be more than happy to clear a spot for us. Their run (where they are kept when we aren’t home) has nothing growing in it. It is completely bare. They accomplished that task within two weeks. Alas, that isn’t an option here where we experience floods followed by droughts, and the soil is a truly horrendous mixture of hard clay and rocks. We affectionately call it gumbo.

As in any new venture, we have experimented with many of the methods we read about in homesteading and food production. We have found some that worked like a charm. We have found some that left us shaking our heads. The idea of gardening with my little gang of clucks, however, was just simply a no-go, not even an option. So we’ll keep reading, keep experimenting, and yes, I will keep spoiling my clucks. Their theory is that they provide us with almost a dozen eggs a day, so their job is done. I tend to agree.

Spring has Sprung...

Spring has come to the coast, and the planting is in full swing. Yes, I’m barefoot and dirty once more, just the way I like it. We’ve opened up our own small indoor garden shop, so I work there six days a week, but I still find time to work in my garden. We’ve harvested all our spring greens and cleaned out the vegetable garden. We have one 4x8 bed planted with tomatoes, another with peppers and tomatillos. We have a third cleared and ready for squash plants. The rains have stopped, so we can till the larger bed. The fig tree is loaded down with developing figs. The old grape vines along the fence that I’ve been working to reclaim have leafed out beautifully. The blackberries are covered with flowers. We have also begun my favorite chore: weeding the flower beds (insert sarcasm here). Yes, spring is in full swing.

Ducklings

Our babies are growing.

We’re going to experiment with a few things this year. First, we’re going to try more container gardening to increase our gardening space and to gain better control of the growing environment for those crops. We’ve planted our cherry and currant tomatoes in barrels, and are going to transplant our mouse melons into hanging pots. We’re going to try alpine strawberries in hanging pots, as well. We also have a raised table/bed for summer greens. Hopefully, this will allow us to extend our growing season for salad ingredients. I am planning to start growing our own sprouts on the kitchen counter for salads and stir-fries, and hopefully, we will get an area set up in the laundry room to grow oyster mushrooms.

One experiment that we will be implementing this year is a three-sisters garden. Native American tribes grew what is known as the three sisters: maize, beans and squash. These were their three main crops, and they are the ultimate in companion planting. Corn provides support for the beans. Squash provides shade and protection for the soil and roots. Beans fix nitrogen and make it more available for corn and squash. If you want to add a fourth sister, grow some sunflowers to distract hungry birds from the corn. We will plant the corn first to give it the chance to grow tall. Two to three weeks later, we will plant the beans. Once those germinate, we will plant the squash. I like this planting for several reasons. First, my passion is ethnobotany, so I always like recreating the old ways in my gardens. Second, it will maximize space. By planting the three together, I only need one bed instead of three. Third, by using the squash with their large leaves as a ground cover, I can improve moisture retention in the soil and (hopefully) decrease weeds, both of which are huge issues in our area where drought prevails during the summer and weeds never truly die.

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Layout courtesy of http://www.nativeseeds.org/learn/nss-blog/415-3sisters

Melissa Kruse-Peeples, NS/S Education Coordinator, published May 27, 2016

                 We already use companion planting in our gardens, as well as crop rotation to maximize yields. I’ve been researching Native American agricultural practices in a bid to become more sustainable. I’ve also been researching plants that are native to my area to use for food, medicine, or ornamentals. Using more native plants in our gardening is beneficial in so many ways. By growing plants that are native to your area, you reduce the need for supplemental irrigation and fertilizing. These plants are already adapted to grow in that area. They also benefit by growing in an area inhabited by not only their natural pollinators, but their natural predators, as well. This insures pollination, but also insures that they will not become too invasive. Not only that, but by looking at your native crops, you may find some new garden favorites. We discovered loquats growing here, and now during harvest season, we plan to fill a few buckets for making pies, jams, and jellies. We even planted some in our yard. My recipe for loquat jelly is below.

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Loquats make a pretty golden jelly.

Yes, spring is here, the hens are laying again, the ducklings are growing quickly, and we eagerly await the arrival of our honeybees. Planting season has begun, my roses and daffodils are in full bloom, and I’m loving every minute spent outside barefoot and dirty.

Loquat Jelly

Loquats are naturally high in pectin and sugar, so no extra pectin is needed.

Makes 4-5 half pints

Ingredients:

• Approximately 4 dozen loquats, still hard with the pits and blossom ends removed
• 4 cups sugar

Directions:

1. Put the loquats in a large saucepan and barely cover with water. Boil until fruit is soft, stirring to prevent scorching. Once fruit is soft, strain everything through a double layer of cheesecloth or damp jelly bag. Do not squeeze or press or jelly will become cloudy.

2. Sterilize jelly jars.

3. Cook juice down until thick. Measure juice into saucepan and add sugar, 1 cup juice-1 cup sugar. Boil over high heat, stirring constantly, until jelly sheets from a metal spoon. Skim foam off quickly, and then pour into jelly jars leaving ¼” headspace.

4. Process jars in boiling water for 5 minutes.

"A master's degree in horticulture means you can grow everything!" Or not...

Well, it’s mid-March and Spring Break on the coast. I started my seeds for my spring garden at the end of January and I have nice healthy plants ready to transplant. The bed of red mustard is ready for harvesting, as well as the lettuce and spinach. We got hit with a hot spell followed by a cold spell followed by another hot spell, so the Chinese cabbage has bolted, but the chickens (the chickens that aren’t allowed in the garden…insert eye roll here) are quickly taking care of that. The Wheel of the Year has turned once more.

Having a degree in horticulture, the one thing I get a lot is the whole “that must be so awesome to be able to grow anything you want!”. Well, yes and no. In fact, yes, I have the knowledge and skills that say I should be able to grow anything and everything. I also the have the passion and desire to grow anything and everything. For example, my husband (being from the Midwest) had never experienced growing cotton, so he wanted to grow cotton. I, of course, grew cotton. Now, I have bushels of cotton that I’m not quite certain how to utilize. I will figure something out, though, rest assured. That will likely be a topic for a future blog. In any case, the fact is that as skilled a horticulturist as I may be, there is no such thing as fool-proof gardening. No matter how skilled you might be, you will have failures.

Nature often has a way of keeping us humble. No matter your skills at growing things, in a single day, Mother Nature can throw you too many curve balls to handle successfully. Take our Chinese cabbage for instance. This winter has been mild even by our standards. We have had warm weather all winter, and we admittedly became rather complacent. When we had our two days of cold weather, the Chinese cabbage was fine. It wilted a little, but quickly perked back up in the warmer days that followed. However, by the end of that same week, we had temperatures soaring in the eighties. Yes, the lovely green Chinese cabbage quickly bolted before our very eyes. I was very sad. While we can protect our crops from cold snaps, it is next to impossible to protect them from hot spells down here. I’m thankful that our other greens didn’t suffer the same fate.

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A box planted with spinach

Another issue that often interferes with gardening success is the fact that other creatures love fresh fruits and vegetables as much as we do. We have a small homestead, raise our own chickens, have dogs, cats, etc. The issue we have is that all of these creatures are a bit on the spoiled and unruly side. In our defense, the vegetable garden is fenced in. However, the chickens have already proven that they can simply pop through the pickets. What adds insult to injury is that they look you in the eye when they do it, as if daring you to try to stop them. They are rather cheeky. It’s also an unpleasant surprise when you start digging in a garden bed and discover that the cats have used it for a giant litter box. We have lost many a hapless seedling this way. While chicken wire around the fence may slow down the chickens, it will simply make it easier for the cats to climb. Of course, the dogs are helpful, as well. I have often looked outside only to see a dog furiously digging up a garden bed after somehow pushing over the pallets that act as a gate until my husband can build one. Those are just the domestic critters. We also have possums, rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons galore, and they all thank us for growing them such a rich and varied all-you-can-eat buffet. They have also learned that once they make it into the fenced garden area, the dogs can’t get to them. The birds help themselves to the figs, grains and blackberries, so these crops must be netted. There are days that we could film an episode of Wild Kingdom in our back yard.

Water is often the most limiting factor in crop production, however, and here on the coast, we deal with both extremes. Right now, my beautiful seedlings are patiently waiting to go in the ground. No, I’m not afraid of a spring frost. My yard is actually underwater. Yes, when I step off my porch, I sink ankle deep in water. Have you ever been attacked by a water moccasin swimming across your front yard? I have. It’s quite painful. Early spring for us translates as frequent flooding. Our soil is a truly horrendous clay gumbo mix that has zero drainage, thus the reason we only use raised beds. We also have a high water table here on the coast. All spring we experience near-flood to flood conditions. That being said, once our temperatures rise in late spring, we quickly move into drought conditions where the clay soil cracks and water runs right off the surface without sinking in, yet humidity levels are still uncomfortably high. The water stress makes plants more susceptible to pests and diseases, particularly fungal issues. We have learned to use our harvested rainwater to water our crops, and at least I do have the training to calculate efficient irrigation for maximum crop production.

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Tomato, Pepper and Tomatillo Seedlings

The last issue is weeds. Weeds mean competition for the garden plants, and they usually win that competition. Tilling may rid you of the weeds on the surface of the soil, but it generally brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they quickly sprout. I can clear an entire garden bed of weeds, and within 3 days, that bed is completely full of new weeds. None of our neighbors garden. The people who live behind us and to one side of us don’t bother taking care of their property at all, so their weeds happily reproduce and send their seeds over the fences to our garden. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I refuse to use chemical herbicides, so I just keep torturing myself by pulling them by hand.

So, yes, it is awesome to have the knowledge and training to grow anything and everything. However, it is completely frustrating that that does not always translate into the actual ability to grow anything and everything. Yes, I have a degree in horticulture, but I still have the same struggles as everyone else. I still fight weeds. I still fight animals (although it’s really more of a coexist that an actual fight). I still suffer the humility of bowing down to Mother Nature and her whims. I suffer through failures and enjoy successes. It’s those successes that really keep my passion for gardening alive. One success makes all the failures worth it.

Birds and Bees...

February is quickly coming to a close. Spring is around the corner. I’m convinced the groundhog they used this year was defective, though, as we have only had 3 cold days all winter. We have spent the winter months in shorts with our windows open. The balmy weather has allowed us to enjoy more outside work time than usual this winter, so we have several projects underway. We are currently incubating 2 dozen duck eggs. My husband brought home a 330 gallon tank to expand our rainwater harvesting efforts. My husband built two beehives and ordered the bees to go in them to be delivered sometime next month. Our efforts at increased sustainability continue.

Now, bees are something we’ve been wanting to add for years. The pollination benefits alone are worth the effort. However, the prospect of fresh honey and beeswax from our own bees is nothing short of amazing. My husband has done his research and procured the necessary equipment, and now he waits for his bees. In the meantime, I am once again channeling my inner plant nerd to devise a way to finagle yet another new garden bed: a pollinator garden.

While my husband has been researching the bees, I have been researching the bee-friendly plants. Honestly, he had to have seen it coming. Anyway, I have learned many new and interesting facts about bees and their relationships with plants. For one, our native wildflowers are rich sources of nectar for foraging bees. I couldn’t have picked a project more near and dear to my heart. While earning my horticulture degree, my emphasis was in natural resource management and my research was on non-native invasives and their effects on local ecology. Needless to say, I’m all over the idea of dedicating a portion of our land to native plants.

We have located a good sunny location for the hives between the herb gardens and the vegetable gardens. We are building a good sturdy platform to put the hives on. Once we set that in the ground, we’ll clear a swath of ground all the way around it about 3 feet wide. There will be stepping stones leading to the front of the hives, and a shallow birdbath between them on the platform for water. The cleared ground will be planted with masses of native wildflowers.

Now, there are a good many herbs that are bee-friendly, and I will make sure to plant them all in the herb garden. You can never have too many herbs, I always say. Lavender, lemon balm, borage, sage, savory, rosemary, dill, thyme and basil are all attractive to bees. Of course, we have the vegetable garden and fruit trees, as well. However, the native wildflowers are something to which I am truly looking forward. I love wildflowers, particularly sunflowers which are my favorites.

Texas has so many beautiful wildflowers that it will be difficult to choose, and I’m already predicting that a three foot path may not be big enough by the time I’m through. However, it will make a good start. I also intend to plant my wildflowers with consideration for blooming times to make sure there is something blooming all year. So let’s begin with winter…

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Dutch White Clover

During the winter, my yard is full of the Dutch white clover and wild allium. These are plants that attract bees. I may plant some crimson clover, as well. As winter fades into spring, the Texas bluebonnets, spiderwort, pink evening primroses, and Hinckley’s golden columbine begin blooming. The primrose blooms on into summer, but as the others taper off and summer begins, the Texas lantana, sunflowers and little yellow zexmenia daisies burst into bloom. Butterfly weed also puts forth its yellow and orange blossoms which last well into fall. Also in fall, we have goldenrod that turns the fields to gold. For most of the year, the almond verbena perfumes the air with its white flowers and the beautiful hibiscus are covered with flowers.

Oenothera

Evening Primrose

Yes, I’m looking forward to the arrival of our newest family members, both ducks and bees, but I’m also looking forward to filling at least a portion of my yard with the beautiful natives of Texas.

Here is my recipe for honey cookies:

Honey Cookies

Ingredients:

• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup butter
• 1 cup honey
• 2 eggs
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 tsp. baking soda
• 4 cups flour
• 1 tsp. ground ginger

Directions:

1. In a saucepan over low heat, melt together sugar, butter and honey. Let cool.

2. In mixing bowl, mix together eggs, vanilla, soda and ginger. Gradually add to cooled honey mixture.

3. Slowly add flour. Stir until well-blended. Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees until golden (about 12-15 minutes).

And So the New Year Begins...

Here we are in the new year. The winter solstice has passed and the days are getting longer. Gardeners all over the country are dreaming of spring planting season. Here on the coast, we’ve experienced our usual flighty weather patterns, albeit this winter is warmer than usual. Two weeks ago, we had three days of cold winter weather, and in the days since, temperatures have been in the seventies. Unfortunately, the unexpected freeze left our yard and garden full of frostbitten plants. We managed to bring all of the container plants inside, but the garden and flower beds were hit hard. Apparently, the plants here are as cold-hardy as the people…that is to say, not at all. We don’t do well with cold weather. Temperatures below 40 degrees are enough to send us all to the store to stock up for Armageddon. Once the weather warmed back up, I went outside to take stock of the damages.

The bush beans were history and the peppers were nothing but a memory. However, the Chinese cabbage is bigger and greener than ever, the garlic is still going strong, the Sonoran white wheat is thriving, and the peas are hanging in there. The funniest thing is all of my roses were basically untouched. The parsley, chives, yarrow and rosemary are happy as can be, but my warmer season herbs will have to be replaced. The almond verbena is no longer blooming, but has been replaced by sweetly scented jonquils. The clerodendrum has died back to the ground, but the elders are green and happy.

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Pretty white jonquils

This is all new for us. We’re not accustomed to dealing with temperatures below freezing. We cleaned out the garden casualties and took stock of what was left. We planted the empty beds with mustard, beets and carrots. We cleaned up the dead vegetation in the clerodendrum bed to prepare for the new growth that will come in the spring. We cleaned out the existing herb bed and turned the chickens loose in it to clear it of any weed seeds or pests. I’m working on raking up all of the dead foliage to prevent pests or diseases from overwintering in it.

Some of the more tender perennials didn’t make it through our short bout of winter weather. I will clear these beds and prepare them for new tenants. In March, we will be putting in two bee hives, so I’m planning a sizeable bed of native wildflowers. I also plan on another herb garden that will be filled with bee friendly herbs such as lavender and borage. In the meantime, the seed catalogs are pouring in. My wish list is getting longer and longer. My husband is already picturing the time he’ll be spending with shovel and tiller and cringing.

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Our pest management experts

We save seeds from our favorite crops from year to year, but of course, plant nerd that I am, I can never resist trying new varieties. This is the time of year that I work on dividing perennials, starting seeds, and sketching out plans for new projects. I’ve potted up a myriad of volunteers from plants that reseeded themselves this past autumn. These coupled with divisions will be used to fill in holes left by the cold weather. Trays of peat pots will be seeded with vegetables and flowers for spring planting. Cuttings will be taken from shrubs and rooted in small pots. By the time spring planting is upon us, I will have trays of healthy new plants ready to be transplanted.

Having built the new chicken coop, we will be tearing down the old one. It was here when we bought the place, and is poorly built. Once it is gone, we will use the wood to create a new garden bed that I will fill with new crops. After two years of chickens scratching and pecking, there are no weed seeds or pests there, and there is ample fertilizer. It will likely be planted with either grains or fruits. A border of chicken friendly flowers and herbs will be planted around the new coop, including lemongrass to repel the snakes that like to snack on eggs.

Yes, the winter rains are here along with unpredictable weather. It’s January on the Texas coast. I’m still barefoot and dirty when the weather permits, but when it doesn’t, I’m still gardening, still growing things. When I’m inside watching the rain come down, I’m planning and dreaming of the new things I will plant and grow when spring comes again.