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Barefoot and Dirty

After The Storms

Living on the Gulf Coast can be amazing. We don’t freeze in the winter. Spring and Autumn have fabulous weather. We can wear shorts on Christmas Day. However, then we have these years where a hurricane decides to stop in for a visit. This has been such a year. Hurricane Harvey stopped in to say hi, and definitely overstayed his welcome. Harvey wasn’t our usual hurricane, though. He was much more.

The thing about our hurricanes is that they blow in, topple trees, wreck houses, create huge surges that threaten our seawalls, and then they blow back out leaving us with high temperatures, high humidity levels, and no power. The whole thing is very unpleasant. Harvey, on the other hand, blew in and stayed awhile, dumping so much rain on us that we were under water for days. Damages to homes didn’t consist of simple roof repairs from shingles that had been blown loose. No, we’re having to repair pier and beam foundations because of damage done from underneath the floors and having to gut houses because of drywall damage done by rising flood waters. This year, it was different.

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One of many roads in town

Of course, as with every occurrence today, there are the memes floating around the internet making jokes about Texas and Harvey, and believe me, even in tragedy, we can laugh along with the rest of the country. Unfortunately, reality always intrudes. The reality is heart-wrenching. Many lost everything. In the aftermath, driving through our small rural town, we saw people clearing out their homes, furniture, clothing, carpet, wet drywall. There were huge piles of the debris of peoples’ lives sitting at the curb waiting for the sanitation department to come and haul it away. There were people who literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs, no shoes, no food, nothing. Donation centers sprang up everywhere. Neighbors were helping each other, commiserating with each other. The community pulled together.

Our house sits on property that was formerly a rice field. Yes, we flooded. We have a pier and beam foundation, so our house sits up high enough off the ground that the flood waters never came inside. Our entire property was over a foot underwater, though. Our house literally became an island. Our septic tank filled quickly, so the toilets wouldn’t flush, the tubs and sinks wouldn’t drain. We had to wash dishes in 5-gallon buckets on the back porch. That being said, we were lucky. We waded out to the duck coop and opened the door each morning so the ducks could enjoy their new lake. Enjoy it, they did! The chickens, not so much, but at least their coop is raised off the ground so they could stay dry, if a little more confined than they would prefer. A menagerie of wildlife took refuge on our covered back porch for the duration of the storms and flooding: an armadillo, hummingbirds, tiny field mice, lizards. We fed them all and kept the dogs away from them. Once the waters receded, they went on their way, although I think the armadillo is currently digging burrows throughout our property.

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The ducks swimming through the yard

Many people see the news and think “oh, what a tragedy.” Yes, but the news only covers the big stories. The media can’t begin to describe the aftermath of such a disaster. There is danger in quickly rising water, yes, but there is also danger in whatever may be swimming in that water. We have many bayous down here and they are teeming with life, some of which is not so pleasant. Displaced alligators become a hazard. Water moccasins swim through that flood water. Nasty infection-causing bacteria are present in that water. The sewage overflow from septic systems is in that water. Something else the news media doesn’t report is the danger from swarms of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes thrive in these conditions and they come out in force carrying diseases of their own. Cities begin indiscriminate spraying of insecticides to kill the mosquitoes without taking into consideration of the risks that that adds to the list.

Another consequence of such a disaster is a shortage of many staples. Milk, eggs, bread, none were available in stores. Shelves were empty. Stores open with a skeleton crew to help as many as possible, but they have to ration supplies, imposing limits in order to spread supplies out as much as possible. Before the storm hit, people hoarded gas, so many gas stations had to close until supply trucks could get through. Again, we were lucky. We have our own eggs, I make bread, and we have all of the food that we have harvested and preserved all summer.

All of that taken into consideration, the clean-up has begun at our house. With our yard under water for days, obviously our vegetable garden is no more (except the red ripper cowpeas. I think those could survive a nuclear holocaust!), our flower beds are questionable since all the flowers were affected in some way, but the weeds seem to be bigger and healthier than ever, and we have algae growing on the sidewalk and the side of our house. Our carpets are giving off a musty odor, a sure indication that flood waters soaked through the floor from underneath. Our ceilings have water damage from the hurricane blowing water in through the ridge vents and creating roof leaks. Our lawn became so overgrown that snakes were a very real danger. Again, though, in comparison to many, we were lucky.

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Dead shrubs in the flower bed

The sun came out and temperatures actually dropped into the eighties, definitely not normal for the aftermath of a hurricane, but we weren’t going to complain. The ground dried enough for my husband to mow the lawn and the ditch out front by the road, so we no longer have to worry about any snakes hiding in tall grass. We’ve begun cleaning out garden beds, preparing them for our Fall garden by building back up the soil and clearing out moldy, rotted vegetation that could harbor pests or disease. We take one flower bed each weekend and clean it out, pulling weeds and disposing of dead plants, pruning dead wood off shrubs to stimulate new growth, taking inventory of what made it and what didn’t. We’ve hauled off the new fruit tree saplings that drowned and replanted the pomegranate tree that was uprooted by the hurricane. Perhaps this weekend, we will scour the shelves of garden centers looking for some plants to fill in the gaping holes left behind.

While this process has brought sadness in the loss of plants that we grew from seed, plants that we planted together as a family, it has also reminded us of the resilience of nature. With hurricane force winds that had trees leaning sideways and a foot and a half of standing water, every single one of my antique roses survived. Not only did they survive, but once the waters receded and the sun came out, we could see that they all had new growth already sprouting. A plant that many consider “high-maintenance” or “difficult to grow” or “delicate” not only survived a hurricane and a flood, but managed to thrive. Our Anna apple tree has new blossoms on it. My mallow plants are bursting into bloom along with our hibiscus and jasmine. The aloe and agave are putting out hundreds of babies. The crape myrtles are still covered in flowers. Yes, there was so much destruction, and so many people lost so much in material property, but we are part of nature, too, and we will put forth new growth. We will clean up and rebuild. Life will go on and so will we. One thing that our garden can teach us is that the most delicate flowers can survive the most violent of disasters, thrive, and grow to be bigger and more beautiful than ever.

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'Heirloom' rose

We will finish cleaning out our garden, perhaps expand it while we’re at it, and we will plant our fall crops. The flood waters leached many of the nutrients from our garden soil, but we will add lots of compost and other amendments and it will be ready for our new seeds. The drowned peppers, squashes, pumpkins, sorghum, corn and cucumbers will give way to clean beds planted with turnips, beets, chard, peas, bok choy, carrots, radishes, broccoli and various greens such as mustard, arugula and spinach. Bare spots in flower beds will be filled with new plants. The saplings will be replaced. Through it all, my gorgeous roses will continue to thrive, continue to bloom, and continue to remind us that we will too.

Going Native

Heirloom vegetables are the hottest thing in gardening right now. Passed down from generation to generation, heirlooms have proven themselves in both production and quality in their native regions. With good reason, these old favorites are enjoying their time in the spotlight once again, and they are becoming widespread as more and more people want to know where their food is coming from. I grow as many heirlooms as possible in my own gardens every year and many are a favorite staple in our garden. Every year, we grow the big red ripper cowpeas in our summer garden, and every year, we can count on huge harvests from these heat and drought-loving plants. They clamber over everything producing thousands of long pods full of dark red peas, oblivious to pests, weeds, heat or drought. They are a fail-proof crop for us.

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Big Red Ripper Cowpeas

As the trend continues toward revisiting the “old ways” in gardening and agriculture, I’m often excited at the various projects I see taking place across the world in terms of providing communities with good healthy food created by Mother Nature as opposed to a group of scientists. One area that I think needs to be revisited, however, is native food. Yes, people forage for mushrooms and wild berries, but what I’m talking about is the act of consciously cultivating those plants that are native to the area that our ancestors enjoyed. Studies have already shown that the diversity of foods has decreased at an alarming rate with the introduction of monocrop agriculture. No, we can’t control the crops that farmers choose to grow, but we can control the crops we choose to grow ourselves.

Many people who come into my garden shop lament failed crops, poor harvests, pest problems, disease problems, weather issues, the list goes on. I always give them the best advice I can, suggest modifications to their growing practices where warranted, and commiserate with them. I mean, as gardeners, we’ve ALL had failed crops. Some years are just better than others. When embarking on this fulfilling, and often frustrating, hobby, we embrace the idea that failure is not only an option, but is, in fact, a strong possibility. I mean, every single mortgage lifter tomato we planted this year was struck with blight. We didn’t get a single tomato. Our tomatillos, however, exploded and we got thousands of those. Okay, so instead of tomato sauce, we made salsa verde. This winter, we’ll eat more enchiladas and less pasta. It’s all good. The point is, in gardening, we are trying to tame Mother Nature and she doesn’t always cooperate.  There is a way around that, though.

Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular area, naturalizing, adapting to every aspect of that climate. These are tough plants that are fail-proof. I live on the Texas Gulf Coast where the gumbo we have for soil consists of hard clay and rocks. We enjoy floods all spring and drought all summer. Our humidity levels soar as high as our temperatures. We have nothing but super weeds because we experience no freezing temperatures to kill them off, and the only things more unpleasant than the fire ants are the mosquitoes. Many garden plants refuse to grow here without a lot of pampering and hard work. I’m more than willing to put forth that effort, but it is also nice to grow some natives just because they’re easy. Loquats and dewberries have naturalized here and require no maintenance. They faithfully produce fruit every year and keep us stocked with jellies, jams, preserves and pies. Best of all, once established, these natives require nothing from us – no extra watering, no soil amendments, no pruning. They just happily grow and produce. We have both planted in our yard.

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Dewberries

Dandelions have naturalized all over the world. Anyone with a lawn knows just how tough these cheerful little yellow flowers are. Dandelions are such amazing plants. The entire plant is edible. The young greens are good tossed in salads. The roots are roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers make a good addition to salads, yes, but they also make a sunny yellow jelly. Many use them for making wine. Instead of cursing them, use them! Give them a little corner of your yard and they’ll faithfully grow for years. Sunflowers are another native flower that has naturalized all over the country. Again, the flower petals make a sweet floral jelly or can be tossed in a salad. Of course, if you can beat the birds to them, the seeds are also edible.

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Sunflower jelly has a sweet floral taste.

If you want crops that don’t require irrigation, then there are many native succulents and cacti that are quite edible. Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) has become a popular flavoring for many things, including candies, sodas and cocktails. The fruit can also be used to make preserves and pastries. However, the pads can also be eaten as a vegetable. They are broken off, stripped of their spines and chopped. They have a taste somewhat reminiscent of green beans. Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) produces an edible fruit that was enjoyed by many western Native American tribes. Malabar spinach is a vining plant with succulent-like leaves that thrives in the heat. It produces plenty of greens when others have bolted. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is another little succulent that produces leaves with a slightly lemony taste. It can be substituted for spinach in most recipes, and can also be sprinkled in salads to brighten them up.

We all grow our favorite varieties of peppers in the garden. Whether sweet or hot, peppers are some of the most popular garden crops. One plant that I gave a special place in my yard is the chile pequin. Here in my area, it is a perennial woody shrub. It isn’t particularly beautiful or bushy like the hybrids we grow, but it is definitely worth the effort. The bird’s eye pepper, or pequin, is believed to be the wild ancestor of all those chiles for sale at your local garden center. It produces tiny little red peppers that pack a punch. While they aren’t big, they do make a spicy addition to any dish that needs a little heat and with them, a little goes a long way. Again, this is a wild native plant that requires little to no maintenance in my area.

While this short list is just a simple beginning, I recommend looking at the edible plants that are native to your area. The benefits are well worth the small amount of effort to locate these easy to grow plants. They require less work and less water, while adding plenty of local flavor to your cooking. They are resistant to the pests in your area, well-suited to your climate, and will produce happily with little interference on your part. Besides, how can you go wrong with dedicating a small area of your garden to crops that require no maintenance?

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.

 3sisterslayout

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.