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Barefoot and Dirty

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.

New Christmas Traditions

Here it is, a week before Christmas. The tree is decorated. The cats are perpetually climbing it. The dogs are nosing all around it. My daughter is continually rearranging the presents underneath it. The whole house smells like Christmas baking. It’s a magical time of year.

Every family has their own traditions for Christmas. Some families are all about the presents. Some families are all about family. Many people over-extend themselves buying presents or stress themselves trying to entertain. This year, we made the decision to have a small, quiet, old-fashioned holiday to ourselves with zero stress and zero debt. It’s been an experimental process, but we’re enjoying it quite a bit.

Our son is away this year and won’t be able to make it home for the season, so his presents have been sent via the post office. That leaves just my husband, my daughter, and myself, along with our menagerie of cats, dogs, and chickens. Our first decision was to forego a big Christmas dinner. My husband was of the opinion that it isn’t fair for me to be cooking all day. I didn’t argue. Besides, with only the three of us, it doesn’t make much sense to have some huge feast that we would be eating until Valentine’s Day. So, snacks and favored finger foods will be the order of the day.

Next on the list of stresses was buying a bunch of presents. We aren’t terribly materialistic in the first place, but we decided not to hurt the bank account. Many of our presents are handmade. It’s tradition for me to make my daughter a doll for Christmas. I’ve made her one every year since she was born, and it’s the first present she looks for every year. This year, however, I took it a step further. I made her several new sets of clothes, her doll, a stuffed pink flannel flamingo, and some pillows decorated with some of her favorite characters.

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A pink flamingo made of soft flannel for snuggling

My husband is getting some new handmade flannel shirts. There will be some store-bought gifts, but not expensive ones, and certainly not as meaningful as homemade. The chickens are getting a new home for Christmas. We built them a sturdy new coop and painted it a lovely barn red with white trim. The dogs will likely get homemade Christmas treats, and the cats will get new toys made with homegrown catnip. Our friends and family will be receiving homemade gifts this year, as well, including hand-tied fleece blankets, gift baskets filled with our own jams, jellies, preserves, salsas, and relishes, or fresh baked goodies like cookies, breads, cupcakes, and miniature pies. Perhaps an assortment of Christmas cookies including thumbprints made with our cherry jam, peppermint sandwich creams made with our own mint extract, lemon stars made with lemons from our tree. We might give sets of wooden ornaments that we made from scraps from the new chicken coop. Certainly I have an assortment of dolls that I can give as gifts.

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Assorted handmade flower dolls: Daisy, Sunflower, Poinsettia

Christmas day itself will be stress-free for all of us. We will wake up, get dressed, and go see what Santa brought. The day will be spent leisurely, nibbling snacks, playing with new games and toys, checking out new books, watching new DVDs, true family time. There will be no rushing around, no hauling gifts and food, no traffic. We will spend the day quietly at home enjoying each other’s company, and isn’t that what the holiday is about, celebrating our loved ones and the time we spend together?

This is our holiday plan, and so far, it’s been perfect. I’ve spent considerable time sewing, painting and baking, but it’s been nothing like previous years when I’ve had to fight crowds of people out shopping. I’ve actually had fun creating things that my loved ones will enjoy. I’ve spent time baking old-fashioned traditional favorites as well as creating new favorites, and my husband and daughter have enjoyed their roles as test gerbils trying out new treats. As far as I can tell, this year will be the beginning of several new traditions. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season filled with blessings. Merry Christmas to you all.

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A set of snowflake ornaments made from scrap wood

Making Gardening a Social Event

We work our gardens every year, toiling in the soil, getting dirty and hot and sweaty. Sometimes our spouses or children help, but we are often alone with our thoughts. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and gives us plenty of time to think about things that we need to think about, it does seem to be an anti-social kind of hobby at times. Yes, there are the garden clubs, but anymore, those are often conducted online with infrequent meetings and potluck suppers. That’s why I’m not a member of any garden clubs. Seed swaps are also conducted online, and again, that’s okay. However, if there’s one thing gardeners love to do, it’s talk about their gardens. We love talking about plants, showing off plants, sharing plants. One thing you can say about gardeners is that we are a generous lot. “Oh, you love my daylilies? Here…I’ll dig you up a division to take home.” “My pride of Barbados is really beautiful this year. Want some seeds?” “How do I grow such big, beautiful roses? Well, bury a banana peel and some crushed eggshells at the base of it.” We love to share and we love to help.

In days gone by, neighbors would discuss their gardens and share their knowledge over the garden fence. In this day and age, however, we don’t often know our neighbors in the city, and we live too far away from our neighbors in the country. That’s just the way it is. Socializing is done much too often by way of social media. I’m not saying social media is bad, but I do think it is used too often to replace true socializing. There are different ways to make gardening a social event, however. Here are some of my favorites:

Garden Swaps

A garden swap is just that, an event where gardeners with excess plant material can make trades. It can be as small or large as you like. Basically, it’s a garden-themed party. It’s quite simple to put one together and it’s a great way to make new gardening friends in your area. Fall or spring are really good times for one of these parties. People are cleaning up their gardens, dividing perennials, pruning plants, collecting seeds. They all have extras to share. Set up a time and date, print out invitations or flyers (depending on how large an event you want to have), and get the word out. The only conditions are that everyone must bring a snack of some kind and anyone with garden treasures to share gets to make trades. Set up a large table to hold the trade goods and have everyone sign in with what they have to trade and how many of each. If you bring three items to trade, you can go home with three new treasures for your garden. Having something to trade isn’t required. Often there are new gardeners that have nothing, but can certainly learn plenty from gardening veterans. Some are just looking for new gardening friends. If there do happen to be extras left over after the trading is complete, they can be divided among the new gardeners. For someone like me, someone who loves growing exotic plants from seed, it’s easy to just plant lots of seeds, pot up the seedlings, and give them as party favors to everyone who shows up. That way, no one goes home empty-handed.

Canning Parties

Canning parties are an awesome way to get help with putting up produce at the end of the season. These are another easy way to make a time-consuming chore a social event. Again, it’s simple to put one of these together. Find someone to host it who has the kitchen space. Set a time and date. Post the information. I find it’s easier to limit the number of participants in this one due to kitchen constraints. The rules are simple. Everyone brings a snack. Everyone brings the ingredients (homegrown or store-bought) and jars to make a set number of jars of one thing, such as a dozen jars of jelly or relish. If you bring enough to make extra jars, that’s fine, too. Once everyone has arrived, pour the wine, pass the snacks, and start chopping. At the end of the day, everyone should have at least one jar of each thing that was made. This is a good way to avoid having 3 dozen jars of mint jelly in your pantry (Been there, done that, the struggle is very real.). You’re trading for a variety of other things, plus you get all kinds of new recipes and ideas for next year’s garden. Not only that, but with several hands working together, the work goes much faster and much more pleasantly (Okay, the wine might help a little, too.).

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A variety of canned goods, including applesauce, dilly beans, greens, pickled beets, Asian preserved radishes, and spicy carrots.

Community Gardens

Living in a rural area as I do, I don’t have the option to participate in a community garden, but for those who live in urban settings, a community garden is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get out and meet others in your community, but it’s also a great way to pass on the love of gardening to children who might not have the opportunity to experience such a thing otherwise. Community gardens are an excellent way to bring people together, young and old, in a peaceful setting to enjoy nature and food fresh from the earth. As I stated, often people living within the big city don’t get to know their neighbors, but working in a community garden allows for neighbors to work together.

Horticultural Therapy

No, I’m not suggesting that everyone should get a therapist’s license, but often, places that provide horticultural therapy for senior citizens or individuals with disabilities do need volunteers. Horticulture is used with these individuals to provide various benefits: a sensory garden for those with disabilities, opportunities to practice both gross and fine motor skills for those that need to work on those areas, or simply providing a useful and marketable skill to help those with disabilities to become more independent and self-sufficient. Imagine the confidence boost for a disabled adult who can now provide food for himself and his loved ones! These institutions can always use volunteers to help with the day-to-day chores involved in such an operation, and as someone who worked with individuals with autism and other disabilities for years, I can honestly say that this is a rewarding and enjoyable way for a gardener to spend their time and pass on their knowledge.

Erikas Flowers

Floral design is a great way to work on fine motor skills for those with arthritis.

These are just a couple of ideas. Of course, you can always form your own garden club with your own rules, etc., but if you simply don’t have that kind of time, these ideas might be a good alternative. Enjoy yourself and your garden, and if you have any other ideas, please don’t hesitate to share! I always love talking gardening and plants, so contact me at firegoddess1970@yahoo.com!

Hobby Gardens

There are as many reasons to garden as there are gardeners. Sure, everyone knows food gardening. Flower gardening and herb gardening are the other most popular forms of gardening. I engage in all three. However, there are other types of gardens, as well. I like to grow small gardens to support my hobbies. In my bid to become more sustainable, I try to produce as much of the things we need as possible. It’s also a good way to use that Master’s degree I paid for so dearly! I realize that not everyone has unlimited gardening space, but oftentimes the plants we use in our arts and crafts are perfectly suitable to mingle with the flowers in your front yard or the vegetables in your kitchen garden. Plus, you don’t have to have a degree in horticulture to grow plants. Many of the plants that are used for crafts are easily grown.

Everyone in my family is an artist of some kind. My son writes. My daughter draws and paints and has done some floral arranging. My husband carves and builds. I draw, sew, embroider, press flowers and leaves, and engage in herbalism in various aspects. I sew dolls, both fancy and primitive, and clothes for the family. I’m that person who goes shopping and rarely buys anything because my standard reaction is “oh, I can make that myself”. In order to keep myself in craft supplies without emptying the bank account, I’ve learned to grow many of my supplies.

My daughter and I both have very sensitive skin, so I make soaps and lotions that are gentle enough for us to safely use. For that, I grow many herbs that condition the skin, such as rose, calendula, chamomile, aloe and elder. I also grow many flowers and herbs for their fragrance since we also avoid synthetic perfumes. Jasmine, rose, magnolia, and mint are just a few of the plants that provide wonderful fragrance for soaps and lotions. I have a small copper alembic still that I use to distill hydrosols (floral waters) from many of my plants. I’m working on distilling my own essential oils, but haven’t quite mastered that one, yet. I continue to persevere, though! The mint plant currently engulfing my back porch provides a great deal of material with which to experiment (If anybody needs mint plants, feel free to email me. I can hook you up!). It is to this end that I grow a great deal of aloe. With our brutal sun, burns are common occurrences. Soap enriched with aloe is just the thing to take away the burn.

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Night-Blooming Jasmine

We also prefer herbal medicines. Of course, here’s my disclaimer: ALWAYS seek professional medical help for serious ailments and injuries! For insect stings, abrasions, burns, coughs, etcetera, however, we stick to our herbal concoctions. My son likes to tease and refer to them as my “magic potions”. He says they work like magic, so it must be witchcraft. For my “potions”, I grow plants such as yarrow, aloe, comfrey, lavender, mint, the plantain from my vegetable garden (see my previous post on weeds), echinacea, fennel, and a host of others. Of course, many of my “hobby” plants are upstanding members of the vegetable garden or flower gardens, etc. My gardens are often intermingled and multi-purpose. Calendulas and yarrow are easy to slip in among the flowers in the front flower beds, as are purple coneflowers and lavender, leaving room in the herb garden for other plants.

My husband has recently developed an interest in brewing his own ale. I’m currently in the process of designing a new garden to support that hobby. That one will include hops (of course!), grains such as barley, and a variety of herbs like angelica, mint, and caraway. He likes Strega, an herbal liqueur, so I’m currently researching the herbs used to make it to see if I can incorporate them into his garden, as well. We already grow wheat in our vegetable garden, so he can use that for his brewing, too, as well as many of our fruits and vegetables.

I’ve begun looking into dyeing my own fabrics for some of my dolls. Yes, I use tea already, but I want to try dyeing some homespun and muslin for some of my old-fashioned dolls. I set aside a small little plot in our yard and did some research to decide which plants I wanted to try. One of the plants that I wanted for yellow dye was turmeric. It is a plant that I know will grow here and it was listed as one that was good for beginners in dyeing. I took a small section of turmeric root, cut it into sections and potted them up. I now have 6 healthy little turmeric plants waiting to be transplanted. The best part is that these plants will yield supplies for my dyeing experiments, but will also yield food for the kitchen. I have several packets of seeds for various dye plants, such as true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), hopi dye sunflowers, and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) waiting to be planted in the spring. Of course, the beets and purple carrots in my vegetable garden will work for dyeing fabric, as well.

My flower gardens provide many beautiful specimens for my daughter to use in her floral design, not to mention plenty of subjects for her drawing and painting, as well as my drawing and photography. They also provide plenty of material to fill my flower press.

These are just some of the gardens I grow to support our hobbies. There are so many hobbies that can be enjoyed with homegrown supplies. A weaver’s garden can include flax and cotton. Cotton actually grows in more than just white. We experimented with a pale green cotton this summer that was just lovely. Take it a bit further and include dye plants, such as indigo, goldenrod, turmeric, madder and sunflowers, to name only a few. For those who enjoy basket-weaving, a garden full of various ornamental grasses and reeds is a simple project that can yield a myriad of supplies and still provide a lovely addition to the landscape. Wheat would be a perfect example of a plant that can be grown for both crafts and food. For those who press and dry flowers, a garden is a place to grow all kinds of plants that will provide lovely colors and textures for your art. The list is endless.

The point is that there is no need to make gardening separate from your other hobbies. Yes, gardening can save money at the grocery store, but it can also save you quite a bit at the craft store, as well. It is also a nice way to try new plants for your gardens. Besides, the fragrance from herbs hung to dry is absolutely amazing! Another great reason is the satisfaction of knowing where your supplies come from and how they were grown. So, if gardening is a hobby you happen to enjoy, take a look at your other activities. Do any of them use plant materials? If so, think about growing your own. Many plants that seem difficult are actually quite easy to grow and can fit in nicely with any flower bed arrangement. It’s a great way to experiment, and you may find new garden plants that you absolutely love or discover new aspects of old favorites (who knew aloe vera flowers were so lovely?).

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Aloe in full bloom

This is the hand cream I use after gardening. It works miracles and smells like my summer roses.

Gardener’s Hand Cream

Makes 3 oz.

Ingredients:

• 1-1/2 tsp. cocoa butter
• 1 tsp. grated beeswax
• 1 tbsp. almond oil
• 3 tbsp. rose water
• 2 tsp. emulsifying wax
• 10 drops rose oil

Directions: Melt cocoa butter, beeswax, and almond oil in a double boiler. Remove from heat. Warm rose water and emulsifying wax slowly until wax has melted. Whisk rose water mixture into the cocoa butter mixture very slowly and continue whisking until the cream cools. Add rose oil and stir. Store in a sterilized jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator.