Is there mystery in your yard?

>> Friday, December 31, 2010

I love gardening. Over the past six years since moving into this home, my little kingdom has experienced an expansion each year by at least one plot, sometimes two. With each bit of territory successfully taken for garden use, my unforgiving lawn struggles to reclaim it. Each victory not only affords me an increase in the number of plants that can be grown, but also variety. This increase greatly adds to the level of enjoyment I derive from gardening. However, my joy has always been tempered somewhat by the inability to expand the plot away from the border of the yard into its center.

I am unable because I don’t have enough plants to put in those new plots. Once I get the ‘art’ of propagation figured out I’ll be able to fill those otherwise barren plots thereby making it worthwhile digging them up.

I suppose this is the inescapable nature of a budgeted garden, but, since I am unable to afford to put my ‘grand plan’ into motion all at once, each newly added plot is but another link in the ‘necklace’ of small plots that make up the perimeter of my yard. Each year they slowly expand until they will one day connect and replace the fence as the boundary framing the entire yard.

In the meantime, while my garden may be performing a slower creep than I would like there is no reason why I cannot take advantage of at least one principle of garden design, that being the focal point. Currently I have three focal points: two birdbaths, a one tree stump. I’m not going to include the fruit trees which seem oddly out of place, but I suppose if I could expand my growing space to surround those they could be focal points as well. I have plans of adding a couple signs and during the growing season there are several trellises reaching up out of the vegetable beds to serve as focal pins as well.

But the grandest achievement for me would be to have an island or two out away from the border. This would allow me to incorporate yet another principle of garden design I like to call mystery. If I had some mystery to my garde, my guests would perhaps ask “What is hiding behind that tall spruce in the middle of that island?” or maybe “What is lurking just around the bend in the path?” Maybe they won’t be quite so dramatic about it and just go along down the path without much thought to mystery. I’ll be asking though.

Its rather difficult to hide anything when everything grows in a straight line along the fence and you can see everything the garden has to offer from everywhere in the yard.

Sure the fence is hidden if you have plants tall enough to hide it, but that’s not quite the same thing. With an island, something you can walk 36o degrees around, there are plenty of opportunities to place a statue or the odd exotic plant that you cannot see from the other side of the yard.

Mystery of this nature adds another dimension to the yard that is difficult to match. Turning your yard into a full duty vegetable patch with raised beds lined up in neat little rows is one thing, but a yard with one or more islands each of a different size and shape mounded high with large shrubs and or trees, would provide endless possibilities for mystery.

I don’t know when but sometime in the future I will have my islands. Who knows, maybe they will be covered with vegetables and herbs, just so long as there is something tall enough to hide something behind it.


Rooftop Gardening – For Sale or for Help?

>> Thursday, December 30, 2010

An article posted in City Farmer News on Dec 29, 2010 tells of the latest success story in using a growing source of food production. Rooftops.

For several years now we have been reading of rooftop farms from small to large that have boasted huge yields. The produce from these gardens are used to feed who? If even some were dedicated to feed the homeless, with excess stored over for winter it would go along way to helping the down trodden. Regardless of whatever reservations society at large has toward supporting a population of hard core street people, there are others who due to foul economic times have found themselves on the streets despite doing what they can to support themselves. We have all, at one time or other needed a helping hand.

I remember years ago hearing the phrase 'a hand up, not a hand out'. Despite the more positive intentions of this idea the fact remains there are increasing numbers of people in need of food and rooftop gardening can go along way towards helping.

Can there be existing government subsidies redirected towards this form of food production? If the white house can have a 'freedom garden' why can’t cities all across the nation have 'handles gardens'?

This rooftop garden, on the campus of Trent University in Ontario Canada, has been in operation for the last ten years supplying fresh food to a university café.

Rooftop gardens have been sprouting up from Singapore to New York to Milwaukee serving CSA’s, restaurants, farm stands, grocery stores, but I have not found one instance where food is being grown to feed the homeless.

If you know of one please let me know. I would like to see them become more numerous.

Every year we are all urged to donate to food banks why can’t we donate time, money, space etc to raising food on a community garden on a rooftop?


Aren’t we all Homesteaders

Homesteading brings to mind the great American land grab of the late 19th century. It was a federal program that allowed if anyone lived on an abandoned piece of land for a given length of time and as long as they improved that land, it would become theirs.

Urban Homesteading is the term to describe the back-to-the-land movement, indicating, quite accurately, that some people have drifted away from ‘the land’ and are just now beginning to return to it. It is an endeavor that should be applauded, especially in light of the fact that there is no ‘free’ land to be had.

The definition I found on Path to Freedom website says this about urban homesteading: a suburban or city home in which residents practice self-sufficiency through home food production and storage. They refocus the movement away from the sole property of urbanites to encompass those of us who have been getting back-to-the-land long before it came into vogue.

These days the definition has been upgraded to mean social responsibility. Carrying the idea of self-sufficiency a step further to include reducing one’s carbon footprint, we begin to see how much more important being a ‘homesteader’ is. By adopting an off-the-grid sustainable lifestyle we ‘homesteaders’, urban, suburban and rural, can collectively make huge strides towards protecting our planet and our way of life.

Gardeners, no matter where they live, are self-sufficient to some degree by the very fact that they grow their own food, and that’s gotta count, right?. Baby steps will lead us to eventually adopt more self-sufficient ways which in turn will lead us to even more self-sufficiency and then to less reliance on huge power plants, mega super-markets, and massive transportation routes, resulting in less pollution. Gardeners, whether we call ourselves homesteaders or eco-warriors or simply gardeners, are among the vanguard of protecting our planet.

In this regard, we are all Homesteaders. It’s a label we can all be proud to wear.


Stevia - sweet plant but little success

For the second winter in a row I purchased a Stevia plant thinking I would get some natural sweetness for my coffee and tea. For the second year in a row the poor thing shriveled up and died before it can become healthy enough to do anything with.

It’s weird that I have so many other houseplants that survive year after year. Why won’t this one make it?

I move it around the house desperately seeking a suitable place for it but to no avail.

I’m told it can be grown anywhere from South America to Canada. They can survive temps down to 50-60 and trust me it never gets that cold in the house. Soil requirements are nothing special, common garden-variety is said to be fine. I suspect that maybe I over water the plant, but I try to provide good drainage. They have a shallow root system so maybe they are getting dried out.

In its natural habitat, the plant occurs naturally on acid soils of 4-5 pH but will grow well on soils up to 9 pH. Plants are said to respond well to liquid seaweed as a foliage spray applied every couple of weeks, but I hold off on feeding indoor plants as a general rule because of their slower growth rate.

I guess the bottom line is I need to treat it differently than my other house plants, which are doing quite well. There is some encouragement though, I just read someone saying that even if the plant dies completely down, you can keep it up to a year and it could come back. I suppose keeping a pot with just dirt in it for a year may not seem odd to some people, but I would rather have something growing in it. Oh well, they are pretty cheap plants and there’s always next year.


Winter Interest in Cold Climate

>> Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It’s days like this that make me miss ANY warm day. I do appreciate seeing snow on the ground. . . on a mountain top. . . off in the distance. . . way far off in the distance.

As children, we loved snow for all the good things it brought to us. Building snowmen, snow angels, snow forts, and especially for that most awesome of bonuses: “Schools are Closed!”

A monochrome landscape can have its appeal, but these days, as a home owner and more importantly a gardener, I am desperate for something green. . . and yellow. . . and blue. . . and red.

What I need are shrubs all dressed up in bright red during the winter. The first ones that come to mind are Cornus sanguinea ‘bloodtwig’, or Cornus sericea ‘redtwig’. Both are dogwoods but I hear they are part of an ongoing identity crisis. Scientifically, they are all called Cornus sericea, although the name Cornus stolonifera is currently in use too. No matter which name the experts finally end up calling them, just ask for the shrubs with the red winter stems and chances are you will be pointed to one of these.

I don’t have any real winter-interest plants in my yard, but I have vowed to change this and so began researching the possibilities. I was not prepared for the variety or all the other considerations. There’s a lot more than just dogwood out there!

There are plants with interesting branching patterns that will make great winter silhouettes. Placing lights under plants can increase their impact. Branches that catch the snow, shrubs with colorful berries that attract birds, or evergreens with varying colors all can be very exciting in winter. Trees and shrubs with bark of silvery gray, white, green, red, smooth, or pocked by a peeling surface are always a plus. Even those common dogwoods can vary from bright red to yellow, purple or green.

One type of plant I crave to find a place for in my yard is ornamental grasses. I never truly considered them for winter-interest but it turns out that’s another bonus for having them. If you don’t cut them down in the fall they can have a huge winter impact. The golden wheat color usually associated with dried up grasses along with tall thin shafts topped with fluffy seed heads can stand out dramatically against a dark evergreen background.

It seems almost every plant in your garden can in some way provide some level of winter interest, but the most promising ones I have found so far are:

TREES: pretty much any tree with some height to it or twisting interlacing branches; look around after a snow storm and notice which ones catch your attention. Notice the contrasting black of the limbs and the bright clean white of the snow. And if those trees have shredding or multi-colored bark, like Paperbark maple, river birch, shagbark hickory, sycamore, lacebark elm, sweetgum, cherry, Japanese tree lilac, then even better.

SHRUBS: Hydrangeas, sumac (Rhus glabra), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), firethorn (Pyracantha), button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), viburnums, American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum), red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), rugosa roses, firethorn (Pyracantha), red stem dogwood (Cornus sericea), yellow twig dogwood (Cornus serivea 'Flaviramea'), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), glossy abelia (Abelia x grandflora), boxwood (Buxus species), euonymus (euonymus fortunei), Aaronsbeard St. John's wort (Hypericum calycinum), American holly (Ilex opaca), Oregon holly grape (Mahonia aquifolium), sweetspire (Itea virginica), deutzia (Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’), Cotoneaster Coral Beauty, Magic Carpet Spiraea, Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa), witch-hazel (Hamamelis sp.) and Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia).

PERENNIALS: 'Autumn Joy' sedum, yarrow, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum'), Echinacea, caryopteris, Nandina Dwarf Firepower, winter clematis, (Clematis cirrhosa), Wintercreeper (Euonymous fortunei), Cyclamen coum, Lenton Rose (Hellebores orientalis), Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). Leaving perennials uncut over the winter can also provide seeds for the birds and rodents.

GRASSES: Pampas grass (Erianthus ravennae), dwarf maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio'), red switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenadoah'), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’), Karl Foerster Grass, Miscanthus Adagio Grass

EVERGREENS & CONIFERS: Spruce, pines, junipers and yews come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. A more unusual evergreen would be Sawara false cypress, Yuccas, Junipers and the burgundy-leaved Loropetalums.

Woody plants with interesting fruit also help feed wildlife: Chokeberry, holly, crabapple, sumac, roses, viburnum, Cotoneaster Coral Beauty, Wintercreeper Purple or wintercreeper euonymus (Euonymus fortunei) , Firethorn (Pyracantha sp.)

Plants with interesting dried flowers: Black alder, catalpa, red bud, honeylocust, sycamore, Japanese pagoda tree, linden.

Look around your neighborhood and then visit your garden center in winter to see what is blooming, anything interesting, write it down and plant it at the best time.

More to come as I find them.

Oh, and if you need any extra encouragement to add some color and texture to your winter garden, just remember that landscaping can add 10 to 40 percent to the value of your home. But hey, we don’t care about money, right? :)    Enjoy.


Winter Solstice and Full Cold Moon

>> Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The solstice arrives with winter today at 6:38pm EST. That would be 4:38 pm in my neck of the woods. This year’s first day of winter also arrived with the Full Cold Moon as well as a total lunar eclipse. As if that wasn’t busy enough, we now have three and a half inches of snow on the ground, with more on its way. All in all a very eventful day!

December’s full Moon is also called the Long Nights Moon by some Native American tribes. Other names are Frost Moon and Moon Before Yule.

Since it was snowing so heavily I did not get to see the moon but found this beautiful photo of it online.


Ying and Yang

>> Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I love it when the sun shines so brightly on freshly fallen

snow. . .It reminds me that for every hardship nature throws

at us. . .there is contrasting and distinct joy.


Urban Farming

>> Monday, December 13, 2010

A rooster moved into the neighborhood recently and he takes his job very seriously. I don't begrudge any living thing in doing what comes naturally. But this characters nature begins at 5:15 every morning!

Apparently, he thinks everyone's day should start at this time. All I can say is, he and I have a serious difference of opinion.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud any attempt this society makes in getting back to nature. Growing your own food, very commendable. Raising your own animals, more power to you. Both are deeply rooted in our agrarian heritage and it does my heart and soul good to see people do something so worthwhile. Sure it took hard economic times and a few e coli scares, but hey, the more of us who learn how to feed ourselves the more likely mankind will survive the coming natural disasters we are going to face because no one can agree on how to control greenhouse gases and climate change.

Didn't mean to get so heavy there. Maybe its a lack of sleep.

Now, as far as that self-appointed town crier rooster goes, if only there was some way to reprogram him to sound off at a more reasonable hour, say 7:00.


Minnesota Dept of Ag Steals People’s Milk

>> Sunday, December 12, 2010

 This is outrageous. The USDA says we are not entitled to choose our own food.

At a time when we need more small farmers the corporate ag folks are criminalizing it.

Video from Permacultura & Regenerative Design News.



Basics of Natural Farming

Two videos from Permaculture & Regenerative Design News discussing mankind’s influence on the development of food production. They discuss the overall concept of natural farming (permaculture). Something home gardeners are already familiar with but I place links to these very well made educational tools for those who may wish to start their own home gardens.

There are no step by step instructions here, but to see the whole cycle of how we can produce healthy food without the use of chemicals is, in my opinion, a very important step in taking everyone further away from the influence of oil and chemical companies.

From the video we learn that 400 gallons of oil are used annually to feed each modern human.
Of this non-renewable pollutant-laden fossil fuel
  • 34% is used for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer which is used once and washed into our drinking water and eventually out to sea,
  • 19% is used for the operation of field machinery which pollutes the air we breathe, and
  • 16% is used for the transportation of food to our supermarkets which further pollutes our air.

We also learn that the production of one kilogram of artificial nitrogen fertilizer requires about 1.4 liters of fossil fuel and the U.S. alone uses around 13,000,000 tons of this fertilizer per year. Nitrogen fertilizer is produced freely by planting beans. Any member of the legume family fixes atmospheric nitrogen into the soil to feed other crops.

Industrial farming practices strip away valuable nutrients which weakens the plants genetic integrity and causes the need for more pesticides, more fertilizer and more pollution.

Between 1945 and 1994, energy input to agriculture increased 4-fold while crop yields only increased 3-fold.

Natural farming relies on biodiversity to maintain a natural and healthy balance in the garden.

In order to produce a healthier food crop as well as protect our environment we need to practice 4 basic principles of natural farming:
  1. no cultivation – only planting, mulching and harvesting
  2. no fertilizer – not chemical, not organic, not even compost
  3. no pesticides – toxic chemicals get absorbed into the food matter
  4. no herbicides – the only method of weeding is by hand

If we practice natural farming and plant a variety of plants, we can not help but have a healthier planet. Let’s all do our part.


10 Great Homemade Pesticides

>> Friday, December 10, 2010

Whenever I hear the word pesticide I can’t help but picture a sterile landscape devoid of any wildlife, both beneficial and predatory.  If you feel the need to use a pesticide then you are either not giving your plant life the attention it needs or some outside force is at play.

No landscape can be considered ‘healthy’ unless it has beneficial as well as predatory insects. Nature has a remarkable way of maintaining a proper balance between the two without our help. However, sometimes an imbalance is created, through no fault of your own, by something being introduced into the environment. Maybe it is caused by the introduction of an pest infested plant, maybe some well-meaning neighbor sprayed their yard and chased some unwelcomed guests into your yard.

For these situations you may find it necessary to use a pesticide. If so, then your first thought should always be to make your own instead of running to the garden center for some man-made chemical. I don’t care how ‘safe’ the label claims the product to be. Save your hard earned money and the health of your plants by using one of these easily made natural concoctions.

1-Mild soap and water.  One of the safest and most effective homemade pesticides is some dishwashing soap mixed with water.  In general, it just takes a few drops of soap into a spray bottle followed by water.  You don’t need to use an excessive amount of soap to get the trick done (just one tablespoon).  Basically, this mostly irritates the pests and gets them to leave on their own.

2-Spearmint hot pepper horseradish spray.  To make this powerhouse recipe mix ¼ cup of hot red peppers, ½ gallons of water, ¼ cup of fresh spearmint leaves, ¼ cup of horseradish (both the root and leaves), and ¼ cup green onion tops.  You basically soak everything in water for several hours (overnight) and then drain and save the water adding 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap.

3-Salt and water. This is a very simple irritant used to chase away cabbage worms and spider mites. Mix 2 tablespoons salt in 1 gallon of water and then spray that mixture onto your plants.

4-Oil and soap spray. You can also mix in one cup of vegetable oil (sunflower oil, corn, soybean, or even peanut oil will work) with one tablespoon of mild liquid dish soap and two cups of water.

5-Ammonia spray.  This one is not my first choice as the smell is really strong and the ammonia can have negative effects as well (especially if you use too much).  You mix this in a 1:7 ratio with water and apply the solution to the infected area.  This should get rid of most insects (reapply as needed).

6-Citrus spray. Soak 1 cup of lemon or orange peels, ¼ cup of spearmint leaves (or sage), and ¼ cup of lavender leaves overnight in a gallon of water.  Drain this mixture and save the water along with 1 tablespoon if liquid dishwashing soap and then apply that solution to your plants.

7-Wormwood tea.  If you have a problem with moths, slugs, snails, or even moles and gophers you might want to mix up some wormwood tea.  This involves about ½ pound of Artemesia leaves (A. Absinthium is common wormwood) along with 6 pints of water.  You coarsely chop the leaves and bring them to a boil in 2 pints of water. Then you simmer that solution for 30 minutes pouring the result into a spray bottle along with a quart of fresh water.

8-Sugar and boric acid.  If you find yourself struggling with an army of ants (or in an all-out battle) you may want to mix one part confectioner’s sugar to one part boric acid powder and sprinkle that around the perimeter of ant mounds or anywhere you see a lot of ant activity.

9-Garlic spray.  You can soak 1-15 diced garlic cloves in 2 cups of mineral oil for 24 hours and then strain that solution adding the liquid to a spray bottle.  Then apply that to your plants.

10-Onion, peppers, and garlic.  If you really want something that packs a nice punch then you can grind 3 large onions, 3 hot peppers, and 1 bunch of garlic and place them into a gallon of water.  Let that mixture sit overnight and then strain the spices and top off your gallon with fresh water.

All of these solutions should be applied thoroughly to the surface of the plants or grass including any underside to make sure that you don’t leave the pests a safe haven to hide and/or feast on while the effects of the natural pesticide wear off and/or get washed away by rain and/or your sprinkler system.

Take note that you can grow almost all of these ingredients in your own garden.


Nature's Surprises

Today is a cold, rainy day. The only good thing I can say about this unfortunate condition is that there are no snow flakes falling. But, I did find another good thing about today. I discovered that I did not lose my lettuce and radish under last weeks one foot snow fall.

The snow has been slowly disappearing since that last awful storm came through and now that my raised beds are uncovered, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lettuce and radish I planted two months ago survived.

Planting these was an after thought, I figured that since I had the seeds I would just toss them into one of the beds and see what happens. We got a couple of meals out of them before leaving for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with family two states over. I have never planted any vegetables over winter so do not have a cold frame, hot bed, or even a simple plastic cage to set over plants for protection.

The day of the evening we were due back home, snow fell to over 12” and I just gave up hope of seeing these plants alive again.

Nature never ceases to amaze me at how resilient it can be. I pulled one of the radish and some lettuce for a taste and they are remarkable fresh. Hoe is this possible? I am thankful but still surprised.


Spring Catalogs a Breath of Warm Air

>> Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Spring garden catalogs have begun to arrive.

Winter has not yet begun to deliver its full measure of icy winds and snowy goodness and the US postal service is bringing me the promise of spring.

I love it.

There is always a warm feeling that builds up inside me as I expectantly open the mailbox and find the latest offerings from those purveyors of nature's beauty, seed and plant sellers.

This is truly one of those surprise gifts that I never grow tired of receiving.

I hope you all get the chance to feel this joy as well.


Epsom Salt for Use Outside of the Garden

>> Monday, December 6, 2010

I have used Epsom salt on my roses for years to give them an extra boost of minerals as well as to help them keep a shine on their leaves.

When I was a child I remember my mother putting some in a pail of water to soak her aching feet. The water always felt silky smooth and I recall her saying it was good in bath water too. A child isn’t usually concerned enough with having soft skin that they are going to ask for bath salts so I never thought much about it after that.

I stumbled across an article that listed the benefits of Epsom Salt and thought I would pass them along.

Epsom Salts are comprised of magnesium and sulphates, and have been used for years. The magnesium in the salts helps the body to produce high levels of serotonin, which is the mood rising chemical often found in anti depressants. It also helps produce adenosine triphosphate, which is the body’s natural chemical that increases energy.

Epsom Salts have some of the same medical properties as anti-inflammatory’s, which can help aid cramps and relieve natural body pain as well act as a natural neutralizer which help prevent foot odor.

When mixed with either olive or bath oils, Epsom salts can help remove areas of built up dead skin. Never leave the salts on your skin for too long, once you have got out of the bath make sure you rinse off the salts.

Adding the right amount of salts to your shampoo can help control oil.

If you have a deep splinter which is proving hard to extract then you can bring it to the surface of the skin easily when you soak the area in the salts.

It is believed that Epsom salts can help with the prevention of blood clots because they naturally lower blood pressure.

All in all Epsom salts are pretty amazing. So the next time you reach for the Epsom Salt think about treating yourself to a hot relaxing bath.


Restful Sleep with Herbs

>> Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's early, way too early for most people to get out of their warm, cozy beds. But for me, this is when daily life begins. Before the sun comes up, before the roosters crow, before the newspaper hits the sidewalk. I have to wake up.

Oh, I'm not saying I am forced awake by any sense of duty to some job or any person. No, there isn't any looming deadline that requires my every waking moment's attention. None of the usual reasons one would think of to be forced to face the day. My need to awaken so early every day is fed by my own internal clock. Spiteful as it may seem at times.

It is something I seemingly have no control over. Well, I suppose I do have the ability to force myself to sleep for longer periods using pharmaceuticals, but I reject their use on several levels. Foremost being I don't want man made substances disrupting my natural rhythm.

“Better living through chemistry” is an ungodly advertising mantra that has plagued us for far too long. How our parents and grandparents were sold this idea borders on criminal, the way our environment and our bodies have paid the price. Anything man made has a tendency to lay waste to some part of nature. Opting to choose man made concoctions over natural herbs and holistic practices is inviting trouble into your life. This is no longer for me.

Have you ever seen drug advertisements and listened to their side-effects? That list alone should be enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone. The promise of any beneficial properties to out-weigh those side effects causes Pharma to be deceitful towards consumers in order to turn a profit. It is a market built of death and destruction. Knowing this, how can man made sleep aids be beneficial to anyone?

We need sleep, one of the fastest ways to compromise our immune system is to refrain from getting enough restful sleep over long periods of time. Studies have shown that individuals who scrimped on their sleep were much more likely to get sick for extended amounts of time.

An interesting factoid I ran across recently states that fifty years ago the average person received an average of nine to ten hours of sleep each night. That sounds really dreamy but I just don't see how that can happen in today's hectic demanding world. Most people today only get five to six. I am one of those people and it isn't because of any frantic work schedule, for I am retired and don't have a job to go to, thank goodness.

I don't feel overly stressed about much of anything, and even though studies have shown that we need seven to eight hours to function properly, I feel I do okay on my usual five to six.

One herb that works well to promote sleep is Valerian. It has been confirmed by clinical researchers that Valerian improves sleep quality and helps people suffering from insomnia.

Chamomile is an herb that has long been used to aid in a restful sleep. I drink Chamomile tea with honey several nights a week and find that even though I don't actually sleep longer I do feel somewhat rested the next day.

Passionflower has sedating and tranquilizing properties but doesn't leave you dazed the next morning. Use it as a tea and you can also find it in encapsulated form. Also known to ease depression.

Jasmine tea has amazing calming effects on the nerves, so it is a good choice to help you put aside your troubles and get some restful sleep.

I have found that none of these herbs allow you or more importantly force you to sleep longer than you normally would but I do feel very rested after taking any of them. I have only taken each of these in tea but I suppose capsule forms would work equally well.

At any rate, giving your money to support drug companies seems, at least to me, counterproductive in setting us on a more natural path to healing and general well-being. And remember, anyone can grow these herbs themselves and enjoy the plants flowers as well.


Let’s Get Cozy

>> Friday, December 3, 2010

‘The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful’.

I don’t know what it does for anyone else, but those words, while painting a cozy little picture of domestic bliss and protection from winters beautiful fury, remind me that those little individual marvels of natures creativity, called snowflakes, are busy covering my car, driveway and sidewalks causing an increased anxiety over the thought of all the heavy work I’m going to be faced with when I have to drive out in that miserable stuff. Also, it makes me hungry for some hot soup.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

Chicken Corn Chowder with Green Chiles
Cook several slices of bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and let drain on a piece of paper towel. Set aside.
To the bacon drippings, add 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts that have been cut into bite-sized pieces. Add some chopped onion, diced bell pepper, and 2 minced garlic cloves.
Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add one (4 oz.) can diced green chiles and cook for an additional minute.
Add 4-5 cups chicken broth and 2 cups diced, peeled russet potatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
Add 1 cup frozen whole-kernel corn and stir well.
Pour 1/2 cup all-purpose flour into a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in 2 cups skim milk. Add the milk mixture to the soup and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens, about 15 minutes.
Optionally, Stir in 1 1/2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Season with salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with chopped scallions, grated Cheddar cheese, and crumbled bacon. If desired, break some tortilla chips over each portion of soup.

Smoky Black Bean & Corn Vegetarian Chili
Heat canola oil in a large, heavy pot set over medium heat. Add chopped onions and sauté until tender and light brown, about 10 minutes.
Add ground cumin and dried oregano. Stir for 30 seconds, then add chopped garlic cloves. Stir for an additional 30 seconds.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add chili powder, bay leaves, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt, and cinnamon.
Chop tomatoes from a large can of whole tomatoes and add to the pot, along with the juices. Mix in tomato paste, chipotle peppers, adobo sauce (from the chipotle peppers can), and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove and discard bay leaves. Drain and rinse black beans, and add to the chili, along with frozen corn. Simmer for an additional 20 minutes.

If these soups don’t help warm you up then maybe you just need a few shots of your favorite alcoholic beverage and call it a night. Don’t drink and drive. Cheers.


Touched by Natures Simple Beauty

>> Sunday, November 21, 2010

We got dumped on last night. Three inches of snow now blanket everything as far as you can see. It is beautiful! The first true snow fall of the season. It's too bad that its beauty is about to be spoiled by dirty, noisy vehicular traffic.

Why are we so enamored of snowfalls beauty? The crisp, clean, pure white of it, the way it covers everything, especially the ugly things, certainly has to be some of the reasons. It cleans the air of pollutants and holds those particulates to earth's surface. But, even more than these things, to me, it represents a new beginning.

It is nature’s reset button. Returning every living thing to a fresh, equal and level starting point. Only the healthiest of nature’s beings can survive winters blast. Only these survivors will receive the blessing of a new beginning, relegating the past to but a mere memory, where it rightfully belongs.

The new future can be seen on the faces of the children. They always light up with such unbridled excitement upon their first view of nature's white blanket. Realistically, some of that excitement may be derived from the possibility of school cancellations, but the first thoughts are of building snowmen and snowball fights.

Adults on the other hand have a whole other set of issues that very quickly eat away at the 'excitement factor'. Shoveling the sidewalks and driveway to get to the car so it can be dug out. And then actually driving on this slippery stuff along side those people who foolishly believe their car is the 'one' that will never slide out of control and therefore think they can drive as fast as they want.

Before anyone else is out of bed, before the house wakes up with its usual noisy morning activity, I get to sit in front of the living room picture window, in my comfy soft recliner, selfishly admiring nature's simple beauty, with a cup of hot coffee and a piece of toasted wheat bread and apple butter thinking ain't life grand.


The Most Profitable Plants in Your Vegetable Garden

>> Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here’s some interesting info from The Cheap Vegetable Gardener.

The most ‘produce-value’ per square foot are, not surprisingly, many of the leafy green vegetables/herbs (cilantro $1.92, lettuce $16.20, chives $16.40, dill $16.40, Swiss chard $6.14).

Next, comes the larger vine plants (tomatoes $9.50, squash $8.40, pumpkins $6.20, peas $4.50).

With root plants taking up the rear.

Another factor is the going rate in your area.

Now much of this makes sense where many of the vine plants grow on trellises and are allowed to spread, which I guess is sort of cheating the square foot rule but I will let it slide. Compared to the root plants whose production is entirely dependent on the space allowed in square footage they have to grow as well as these are normally inexpensive produce items to begin with.

Of course, the true value of anything you plant is based on how much of it you actually eat divided by the cost of growing it. But, at least now you know how expensive the stuff you are throwing on the compost heap is.


New Farmers Market Database

Farmer’s Markets are great sources for locally grown food. Quite often you can find crops that you have never grown. Buy them to get the seeds and try to grow them yourself.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service maintains a listing of farmers markets throughout the U.S. and manages five commodity programs:
  • Dairy
  • Fruit and Vegetable
  • Livestock and Seed
  • Poultry
  • Cotton and Tobacco
Market information included in the farmers market database is voluntary and self-reported to AMS from market managers, state market representatives, state associations, and consumers. The farmers market database is updated on an on-going basis.


Number of Farms Increasing

With the future of farming seeming to be in jeopardy we learn some good news from New Jersey.

From flowers to vineyards, the state is seeing a spurt of new small operations, even as New Jersey loses more farmland each year to development.

A new trend in farming, called Boutique farming, allows farmers to go directly to customers to survive.

New Jersey lost a higher percentage of farmland to development than any other state between 1982 and 2007, a survey this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Farmland Trust shows.

It seems that people today are more concerned with buying their food from neighboring farmers they know and trust. This enlightened trend is allowing more farmers to realize a better return for their investment.

Also, the local-food movement works under the philosophy that consumers, wherever possible, should buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other goods where they are grown.

Another trend that is helping growers is referred to as entertainment farming, i.e., corn mazes, hayrides and events. This form of agricultural tourism is being embraced by farmers everywhere because it helps some farms to extend their season and keep more of their workers employed longer.

Farmers also sometimes lease access rights to hunters or environmental groups as a means of increasing revenue.

Despite losing acreage, New Jersey added 400 farms between 2002 and 2007.

“During the last census, we had over 10,000 farms in New Jersey for the first time since the 1960s,” says New Jersey Farm Bureau spokeswoman Pegi Adam. “We’re seeing smaller, more specialized farms, growing a diverse array of things that appeal to niche populations.”

Some growers are catering to the organic market and more foreign influences, with Asian or African vegetables such as yu choy. The state still boasts a variety of farm products.

Long live the Farm!


Urban Agriculture Revolution

This is a topic close to my heart. Imagining food growing in every front yard, seeing tomatoes, potatoes, onions, beets, carrots instead of, or even better, along side of, Maple trees, evergreen shrubs, pansies, and roses makes senses in both a frugal and aesthetic way.

Vegetable greenery is beautiful. Diversity is beautiful. Saving money on your grocery bill is beautiful. The healthy aspects of it is just out of this world. But alas there are still so many front lawns still reserved for grass.

I love grass, don’t get me wrong. It feels good on your toes in the summertime…it is necessary for a children’s playing surface. And for some people…mowing it is their only exercise.

Imagine the power we have in our own hands to change the food system as we know it. Organic food prices would drop back down out of the atmosphere…the future would be green and tasty…neighbors would actually socialize more. Well, maybe that last one is stretching it a bit. But we would at least get outside more often and that only helps our health.

In the past, we have been too hasty in favoring an urban lifestyle over a rural one…but this is changing, slowly changing. If we grew our own in our yards we could still have a healthier lifestyle and still see the city lights.

Community gardens, farming in the commons, edible landscape, windowsill and container growing, should all be common language…right now…not in the future.

Examples abound of this phenomenon but haven’t we been talking about this long enough? Let’s get it going.


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