Friday, November 1, 2013

Preserving Food: More options than just canning!

A few ways to preserve foods.
I've been so busy putting food up that I haven't had time to write. This is going to be a long post, but extremely informative as well! So, here goes...

As a kid, I remember our basement being full of canned tomatoes, pickles and peaches. The basement always smelled like dill and garlic (and mold, we're talking about Jersey after all), the colorful jars lined up on metal shelves. We always had more than we needed.

Time to put on an apron and dig in!
Later as an adult I tried my own hand at canning. It was a long, hot and arduous process. I shopped for the best vegetables at farmers' markets miles away from home; cleaned and prepared the vegetables, jars and lids; cut and cooked vegetables and washed and boiled the glass canning jars and lids. The the hot filled jars would go into a boiling vat of water. Due to Colorado's high altitude, I had to increase the boiling time quite a bit to ensure bacteria-free food. The extra boiling time turned them to mush and probably killed off whatever nutritional value they originally had. I could also only can high acid fruits and vegetables safely (again, because of the altitude) and so restricted myself to peaches, tomatoes, jams & jellies, various pickles and pickled beets. After reading in my canning book about Botulism (Putting Food By), I never felt completely comfortable eating what I preserved, despite all the care I put into the process. When I moved 15 years ago, I sold all of my canning paraphernalia and gave up on the idea of preserving foods.

Yet, I garden, therefore I am. I want to provide my family with real, healthy and organic food. And at times we have more vegetables than we can eat. I end up giving a lot away. I really wanted to find practical ways to preserve my fresh, organic foods so we can still be eating them during the winter. I started looking around for new ideas, and these are what I came up with. If you decide to try any of these preserving methods, please do your research and follow instructions and recipes from reputable books or web sites. If not preserved properly, food can spoil and even kill! A great resource I found this summer is SB Canning. There you'll find loads of information about how to can, great recipes and the author will even edit your favorite recipes to make them canning-safe. Here we go:

Ball Jar Freezing of Foods

Although pressure or water bath canning is my favorite way to preserve food, this summer I discovered "freezer safe" Ball jars. I made a batch of green chili, then some chicken, beef and pho stock and most recently tomato soup, poured them into pint jars and froze them. What a great thing! The pints are a great size and stack really well. To get the frozen contents out I put hot water into a pot in the sink, set the jars in (without the bands) and let them sit until they can be slide out of the jars. I love these jars so much I'm thinking of throwing out all our old plastic storage tubs and replacing them with the jars. Also since I'm not using the lids to "seal" the contents, they can be washed and reused. The glass jars are airtight and the contents don't get freezer burned like they do in plastic.

Cellaring or Root Cellaring Vegetables

My parents used to harvest all our green tomatoes at the end of the season, pack them between heavy layers of newspaper and keep them in shallow cardboard boxes in our chilly covered cellar door well. Not all of them survived, but a lot would very slowly turn red so we could have "fresh" tomatoes well into the winter. Once in a while we'd pull a few out of the basket and put them on a window sill in the kitchen to finish the ripening process.

In the past I've kept butternut and acorn squash in my basement, but they were gone by December because they were so incredibly delicious. You can also keep root vegetables such as turnips, beets, potatoes, etc. this same way. The secret is storing them in a cool dry area with very little temperature fluctuation, which with modern housing is harder than it sounds. But it's an ancient method of food preservation and still a good one.

Culturing Foods

Last year, thanks to an article on Dr. Mercola's web site , I learned about cultured vegetables. These are raw, cut up vegetables that are fermented with naturally present lactobacillus (good) bacteria for a few days, or weeks, in a crock or glass container at room temperature. When ready, they can be processed in canning jars (this will kill the cultures) or kept safely in the refrigerator for months. I think it's a great way to preserve some the fresh organic vegetables I grow all summer that can't be frozen or canned. I found this cultured veggie recipe and made a couple of test jars. DELICIOUS! Not only are the vegetables raw, which preserves their nutrition and crunch, but they are loaded with probiotics which is great for the gut and digestion, and the culturing process makes the nutrients and minerals super absorbable for our bodies. It's also extremely easy to make and if you grow your own vegetables, costs about nothing! These folks were showcased in a couple of Dr. Mercola articles and are out of stock quite often, even at about $18 per jar!  Recently I bought The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods, written by Wardeh Harmon. It's a great book containing lots of information on how nutritious cultured foods are, the science behind it, and loads of recipes I can't wait to try. I've also been making milk kefir, water kefir and sourdough and will try making my own Kombucha and butter next. Food culturing is a natural way to preserve all types of foods, probably as old as mankind, and is an excellent alternative to canning.
I've also made  sauerkraut, dill pickles, kimchee and green beans using the culturing process and they turned out delicious as well. A couple of friends have tasted my mixed vegetables and begged some jars off of me, validation that they are tasty for sure!

Basic Freezing

Last year I tried freezing a few things from my garden. My sour cherries did will. Apples turned to brown mush. Tomatoes tasted horrible when defrosted -- sort of over-ripe/spoiled tasting. The apples and tomatoes went straight from the freezer to the compost. What a shame! The National Center for Food Preservation web site is an amazing resource for information on how much time vegetables should be parboiled prior to freezing. I did make a couple of jars of stewed tomatoes at a time there were not enough to warrant dragging out the pressure canner. The stewed tomatoes are delicious and I've already used a jar to make a pot roast last week. I used this recipe, but omitted the sugar.  I also made several baggies-full of pesto with all the basil I had. This is my favorite pesto recipe.
Now that's a carrot!
There are some things that supposedly freeze well, such as green beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, collards, peas, summer squash, lima beans--the things you'll normally see frozen in the grocery store. Tomatoes freeze well only if made into a sauce or stewed. All fruits and veggies need to be washed, cut and parboiled before freezing. Herbs can be chopped and frozen in water in ice cube trays.
Basil can be made into pesto.

Pressure Canning

This summer I broke down and bought a pressure canner. The pressure canner took the "fear" out of preserving at high altitudes, doesn't turn food to mush since processing time is so much shorter, and can also be used to cook meals when not being used for canning. I still have to make altitude adjustments but it's not too bad. Once I had my routine figured out, it ended up being an efficient process and took little time. I found a great tomato sauce recipe and was able to can a dozen pints fairly quickly. And yes, she really means 6 bulbs/heads (not cloves) of garlic. I also canned a few jars of apple sauce and apple slices, so I won't be throwing apples into the compost pile next spring!

Air Drying

My son and began air-drying some things a few years ago. I grew a stevia plant this summer, and it ended up being huge. I pulled it up by the roots, rinsed it under fresh water, tied some twine around the base of the stem and hung it up-side-down in the pantry. It's dry now and ready for me to grind the leaves to powder in the food processor or just drop a leaf into a hot cup of tea. My son is drying mint, lavender and lemon balm for teas. We also have garlic hanging in the pantry. Fuss free preservation.


I had a batch of tomatoes that were not quite ready to can when I made my sauce. These extra tomatoes were ripe a few days later and there were not enough of them to can. I washed and sliced them, sprinkled with a little garlic salt and laid them out on parchment in my old trusty dehydrator. I've gotten so much use out of my dehydrator!  Now, after 20 years, the plastic is cracking a little but it's still in working order. Previously I would spray the plastic shelves with Pam, but still had trouble getting the food off. Smearing olive oil on the trays works as well.   Parchment adds a little expense but it's definitely a great solution as well. I've recently discovered Reynolds Wrap Pan Lining Paper. It's parchment with a foil backing so you can "shape" it to fit different surfaces. I just rip off a length to fit a shelf in the dehydrator, press it over the shelf to make an impression, and cut out the shape with kitchen scissors. I'll be using my dried tomatoes to make pesto, which I will freeze in baggies and use through the winter. I keep any leftover dried tomatoes in a Ball jar in the fridge for other recipes. I even use them in salads during the winter and spring since I can't stand "fresh" store bought tomatoes. But they mysteriously disappear around here: tomato chips. You can also dehydrate kale, broccoli leaves, kohlrabi leaves -- probably more.

Fruit rollups
Since the parchment worked so well with dehydrating tomatoes, I decided to try using it to make some fruit roll-ups. Our apples were badly damaged by the June hail storm and have been falling off the trees for weeks. I gathered up a few pounds of the ones that had some good flesh on them, washed them and cut out the best chunks. I put the good apple chunks, skin and all, into a big pot, splashed in some lemon juice and about 1/2 cup of filtered water and set it to simmer for about 45 minutes (until the apples were soft). When they were cool enough, I pureed small batches in a food processor and poured them back into the pot. They simmered, uncovered, for 1-2 hours until they were the consistency of frosting and a nice caramel color. Using a spatula, I spread the apples about 3/8" thick and as evenly as I could on parchment covered dehydrator trays and sprinkled some cinnamon on top.  By the end of the day we had beautiful deep gold fruit bark, which I cut up and put in a container in the fridge. It's supposed to keep for up to 6 months, but the first batch I made was gone in a couple of days. Not a speck of added sugar and it tastes like the most delicious apple pie! 

You can also dehydrate foods in your oven, but I prefer the dehydrator because the heat is consistent, it doesn't heat up the whole kitchen and I can use the oven for other things while the dehydrator merrily hums away on a counter. I've wanted to try stringing up apple slices to air dry, but that will have to be next summer since my apples are such a mess.

I think I'm done preserving for this season. I have some carrots I picked today, which I may dice, parboil and freeze. I may even make some carrot soup and freeze that. I'm curious how long it will take me to use up the vegetables and fruits I've preserved this late summer and fall. My ever-evolving garden project will contain a different variety of vegetables next summer, maybe geared even more towards what I can preserve for use throughout the winter. I have this idea that next summer I want to challenge myself to being totally self-sustained (no trips to the grocery story) for a month, just living off what is growing in our garden and what has been preserved through canning and freezing. I can see me upping the ante in the next few summers to stretch out the month to two, and then three... Of course living in Colorado, with such a short and dicey growing season, really makes more than that challenging. But then I love a good challenge!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Snip n Drip Soaker Hoses - Garden Experiment #1 for 2013

In the past I've used both drip irrigation systems and regular soaker hoses in my gardens. The drip systems were nice but a lot of work to put together, and the laser-cut hoses I preferred sometimes got plugged with sand and dirt. The soaker hoses worked well too, but as I have several raised beds there was always the issue of watering the ground between the beds—not only wasting water but I was making life too comfortable for the weeds. Then I saw Snip n Drip in a Gardener's Supply catalog last summer.
It seemed like the perfect solution: soaker hoses for the areas where you need them, but with PVC garden hose that you could snip and connect to the soakers for between beds. I was so excited I bought a couple of sets last fall, which gave me 100' of 1/2" soaker hose, 50' of garden hose, 16 hose couplers and two ends.

Click for larger view.
Fast forward to the spring of 2013. I drew a map of my garden, measuring the beds and the space I would need to run hose between them. I put my drawing into Adobe Illustrator (not necessary but it's the way I function) and played around with different patterns for the soaker hoses to be laid. Once that was done, I went to work in the garden. I let the hoses sit in the sun for a while to soften the plastic and got down to cutting the hose and soaker hose with kitchen scissors as I went along, attaching the couplers as well. I was amazed at how easy it was! I didn't struggle with the couplers going on the hoses or tightening the caps, even though I have some arthritis in my hands. I used landscaping pins to hold the hoses in place. I got about half way through the last bed and ran out of soaker hose! I had an old soaker hose that I'd bought at Walmart a coupler of years back, and was pleased to find that it was the same size as the Snip n Drip soaker. That allowed me to finish the rest of the bed that day. I have a final 4'x4' bed, but it turned out the water just couldn't reach that far so I ended up doing something else there.

We have a faucet just outside the garden so I attached a hose splitter to it. On one side I put a timer and the other side a regular hose in case I ever need to use one. I ran a short hose from the timer into the garden and on the end of that attached yet another hose splitter. Soaker system 1 is attached to this splitter, the Soaker system 2 is attached to another short hose I ran to the other side of the garden. That way half of the garden would be on one soaker and the other half on another, so the water didn't have to travel over 200' to get to the end.

At planting time I positioned my plants and/or seeds directly under the soakers. I set the timer to water 30 minutes every morning.

It's now early September, so we've gone through the entire summer using the Snip n Drip soaker. It was a complete success! Even being gone on vacation for two weeks, the garden never dried out. I have more vegetables than I can handle!

The only thing I would change in the future is to switch some of the connectors to their new Raised Bed couplers (90° angle couplers), because the hose curving up and over the edge of my raised beds tends to flatten out.
They don't sell these couplers individually (like they do with the original ones) and I really don't want to buy the whole setup again. They also unfortunately only have two raised bed couplers per package (as opposed to the 8 in their standard setup), and I would need 8 for my garden. Yikes! I've emailed them to find out if they plan on selling those raised bed couplers individually in the future. They wrote back saying that at this time they are not offering that option, but will forward my request to their buyers in the hope they'll comply at some point. For now, I'll have to come up with some clever way to keep those hoses from pinching themselves off!

If you have any questions, feel free to email me!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Caring For an Injured Chicken

Spoiler: If you don't want to read all of this, scroll down to the list of helpful hints below.

This is our third year of keeping chickens in the suburbs. When we started out, we were worried about them being attacked by hawks, foxes and coyotes. Although we live in uber suburbia, we are in Colorado and the land our thousands of homes exist on was once a cattle ranch. Continuous development uproots wild animals and then they sometimes end up too close for comfort. We realized that. However, several years ago the foxes that preyed on the local rabbits, cats and the occasional miniature dog were killed and eaten by coyotes. The coyotes eventually left our area because there was no food left. We relaxed our precautions a little.

Three weeks ago my husband and I were headed out in our car. Fifteen minutes into our drive I got a text from our teenaged son that a coyote had been in our back yard and attacked our free-ranging chickens. He caught a coyote next to our 6' fence with one of our chickens, Jenny, in his mouth. The coyote dropped her and jumped the fence, but Jenny was injured. Another chicken was missing. We immediately headed back home.

When we got to the back yard, we were able to coax Jenny out of hiding. She had a gash across her back, from wing to wing, exposing bone and fat but without much blood. It was a gaping wound, about 1/2" in width and maybe 3+ inches across. She was missing a lot of feathers, had another 1" wound under her right wing and a lot of puncture wounds. Her left ear was bloodied and her right eye was closed. But she was alert, responsive and complaining loudly.

We put Jenny into one of my portable folding parrot cages and headed east -- my horse vet was about 5 minutes away from where we kept our horse and he was available for the emergency. He put 5 stitches in her big wound, 2 more in the smaller one under her wing, and sent us off with antibiotics, pain killers and some eye salve for her right eye which was swollen and closed but didn't have any obvious injury. We put Jenny into a dog crate in our sunroom, gave her love and medicine and tried to get her to eat. We noticed she was having trouble getting food into her beak, like she couldn't open it very much. I soaked her pellets in water, gave her her favorite foods (fresh corn, off the cob for now, chopped ham, etc.) in little wet pieces. Her beak looked like it was "off", top and bottom were not aligned, and I thought maybe the coyote broke her jaw when it clamped down on her head. I decided to hold off on the oral meds the next day thinking I could only hurt her more by forcing her beak open. I kept a close eye on her wounds to make sure they weren't getting infected since I wasn't giving her the antibiotics. They started scabbing over the next day. She started opening her right eye after a few days and it was dilated, possibly permanently, and her vision was off. She was still having trouble eating because of her vision problems, but after a few days was able to adjust and now has more luck zeroing in on food. Her beak is realigned and a piece of it fell off three weeks after the attack. I'm thinking her jaw and beak were injured which were also making eating painful for her, but the jaw was not broken. She's doing well now.

Tiggy getting some solar therapy.
Two days after the attack I was watering some dry spots on our lawn and saw movement out of my peripheral vision. There was a completely bedraggled Tiggy, the missing chicken, picking through the gravel along our western fence. I have to say that, for the first time in my life, my brain could not interpret what I was seeing. It turns out she had been badly roughed up and hid behind our trash cans for 2+ days — no food or water. I picked her up and put her in our chicken run, and she could not stop drinking. She had been bitten 2-3 times. There were many puncture wounds on her back and tail area and had huge bald areas from torn out feathers, but her wounds were all scabbed over and not looking infected. Her down had acted as a bonding agent to close the wounds. We borrowed a second dog crate from a neighbor and Jenny and Tiggy spent their nights in our sunroom for about a week.

Tiggy & Jenny
Jenny and Tiggy have both had amazing recoveries. I have to say I've learned a lot from this experience about the body's innate ability to heal and repair itself. Jenny did just fine without her antibiotics. Tiggy was seriously wounded and her body was able to heal itself beautifully with no medical intervention at all. I kept a close eye on both chickens daily to make sure infection was not setting in. Both chickens rested a lot when they were recovering, continued to eat and were very drawn to stretching out in the sun. Wounds are healed, feathers are growing back, their personalities are returning. A week or so ago I clipped and removed Jenny's stitches. For the most part, that would have taken care of itself as well: the stitched skin had mended, died off and was sloughing off scabs, dry skin and the stitches as well. I just didn't want one of the other girls pulling out a stitch.

We've built a chicken tractor that we can attach to our chicken run to give the girls more space when we need to go somewhere. We still let them free range when we're at home, but only if we are within close range and can keep an eye out for them.

Helpful hints: here's what I learned about dealing with an injured chicken:

"Chunnel" connecting the tractor to the run.
1. If the wound is large like Jenny's was, it will need stitches. Take your chicken to a vet. He will clean out the wounds, suture them and send you home with pain killers and antibiotics. It's not cheap, our vet charged $100, but a portion of that was for medicine.

2. A wounded chicken cannot be left alone with other chickens. They will be attracted to the wound and will cannibalize the injured one. You will need to keep them in separate housing, such as a dog crate. You can let them out for fresh air, sun and exercise if they can handle it, but don't leave them unsupervised, even around other chickens! We were able to let our two wounded girls out with the flock in the daytime but kept them in crates at night. Who knows what goes on in a chicken coup all night.

3. Keep a close watch on the wounds to make sure they are not getting infected. Likewise, keep a watch on their demeanor and appetite. If you see changes in either one, there's something wrong and they need to be seen by a vet. They should be getting better every day, not worse.

4. If your chicken is not eating, you can try adding water to their pellets or feeding them things you know they love. If they are not interested in food a day or so after the injury, something is wrong! Jenny loves corn on the cob but she would not eat it. I realized there might be a problem with her jaw so I cut the kernels off the cob and she devoured them -- she just couldn't poke her beak into a cob to tear them out herself. Scrambled eggs are a great treat, cut up little pieces of meat or fish, macaroni & cheese -- I was willing to give her anything to get her appetite going again. Plus the extra protein can't be bad for a healing body.

5. Vets use dissolving sutures these days, but after 7-10 days, depending on how the wound looks, you can remove them. I did this because one of our chickens picks on Jenny and I didn't want her pulling out one of the stitches! My husband held her under a bright light in our kitchen and I used a pair of manicure scissors to snip the knots and tugged out the stitches with tweezers. A few were stuck and I just trimmed them as close to her skin as I could and left them to dissolve on their own.

6. Time line: An injured chicken's wounds should start scabbing over the next day. They may act "out of it" for a day or so, but should gradually get back to eating well and doing the usual chicken things. In a 3-5 days even the larger gaps in the wound will scab over. New swelling, heat and redness around a wound means infection. Some skin patches around the wounds may dry out and harden. This will eventually peel off, while the skin below heals. I trimmed some of this off so the other chickens wouldn't be tempted to do it themselves. A week after injury the wounds should start looking better and could take 2 weeks or more for the dead skin and scabs to fall off. Feathers could start growing back in 7-10 days.

7. If you keep a chicken separated from the rest of the flock too long, they will treat her like a stranger when she returns and will peck at her. You should keep an eye on them to make sure everyone is getting along. A chicken that does not have all of its feathers is vulnerable--pecking chickens will break her exposed skin, especially if it's a healing wound. You can also buy or make a chicken saddle to protect her healing back. I made a chicken saddle for Jenny in about 20 minutes and she had no problem wearing it. If you want me to make you one, or a few, just email me.

8. A breaking beak is apparently not all that uncommon. I found a great blog post on how to repair a broken beak with superglue and a piece of tea bag. I suppose a silk wrap nail repair kit would work as well.

That's it! Let me know if you have any questions.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I'm back! At least I hope so.

This year so far has been very difficult for me and I haven't had the time or energy to keep up with my blog. But I'm hoping that's all behind me now and the rest of the year will settle down.

Even though I haven't been able to write, I've been blogging in my head for months. There are so many topics I want to cover! Dealing with coyote attacks on chickens, taking care of seriously injured chickens, the "do chickens feel emotions" debate (spoiler: yes), chicken tractors, chicken saddles, mysterious life-threatening horse illnesses, putting your dog down, my various garden experiments this year with new tomato varieties, my Snip-n-Drip Soaker System from, hoop houses, new recipes, canning foods, getting creative and frugal in the kitchen. I just don't know where to start! Maybe I'll just put this up and let it stew for a while. I'll follow my impulses to what topic to tackle first.

I'll close with a panoramic photo of my garden area from the new sitting space we added recently. How did I ever live without my iPhone? Panoramic photos, videos and my friend Pro HDR are SO convenient! :=D

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Starting a Garden from Seeds

Farmer Deb (on left), maybe age 8?
My first experience with germinating seeds was when I was about 5. A neighbor had cleaned out their attic and tossed everything out on their curb for trash pickup. The local rug rats (myself included) thought we'd died and gone to heaven. We went through the entire pile and found loads of treasures. One that I found was an unused kid's plant growing science experiment kit. It had little clear plastic pots, vermiculite and some radish seeds. When I planted the seeds and they sprouted, I was fascinated with the entire process. Imagine having nothing more than dry dirt and some brown specks and water turn into living, green plants! For years after that I tried to make terrariums in an old 5 gallon fish tank with garden soil and some seeds I'd swiped from our canary's food dish. When we no longer had Tweety Bird, I would go through our spice cabinet looking for seeds to grow. Actually, I still do that!

Proof that I have a green thumb!
I survive the majority of winter by planning my next garden. Usually after Christmas the seed catalogs start coming in the mail and I'm like a little kid, decades ago, with a new Sears Catalog, closely examining the "enhanced" photos of glorious healthy vegetables at their peak. After a couple of weeks I come to my senses and order only a few packets of things that I know will grow in my garden. Colorado has a very short growing season and so I focus on vegetables that have the shortest growth times from planting to harvest -- less than 60 days. I look for the most disease-resistant varieties I can find, without going down that GMO road. Some seeds I don't even need to buy. If I buy a particularly nice organic winter squash, I'll save some of the seeds for the garden. I've also done this with peppers and tomatoes in the past, but ran into problems with wilt. Most of the time the vegetables I buy in the grocery store have been grown in different areas in the U.S., or otherwise, and may not have resistance to certain organisms found in Colorado. Or maybe they were grown in greenhouses in more sterile conditions. Last year my gorgeous Black Krim tomato plants grown from a Whole Foods tomato purchase succumbed to Fusarium Wilt, just as the tomatoes were growing. It was seriously disappointing. On the other hand, I've had really good luck with seeds I saved from a package of Cherub tomatoes. Those little tomatoes are delicious and the plants are incredibly prolific.

My personal priorities for buying seeds and nursery plants are:

1. Vegetables that I use the most get top priority. Once in a while I'll try something on a whim, like last year's stevia plant. It did well, I dried the whole thing at the end of the summer, and it's still sitting in my pantry with the tea. But I know that all year long I use tomatoes in many, many soups and sauces. We love fresh green beans and they are easy to grow and can be prolific. Summer squash is versatile and I use it often. There are a lot more varieties available by seed than in the grocery. I use a lot of Anaheim Chilis for green chili (we char them on the gas grill) and a favorite soup recipe. We love broccoli and use it a lot: steamed, raw, in other dishes. I use broccoli leaves like chard or collards, steamed or sauteed. There are actually a lot more edible veggie plant parts than we are lead to believe! I also grow herbs that I use a lot: basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay, lemon balm. What I have left over in early fall can be dried or preserved in other ways. I have to say I've become fond of keeping just one celery plant in the garden. I don't use celery all that much, usually a couple of stalks here and there in a recipe and have had store bought celery go bad. A living celery plant all summer is very handy, I just go out and rip off what I need and rest continues to grow. And the flavor of home grown celery, like a lot of other produce, is amazing.

2. Plants that have a short growing period vie for first priority. With tomatoes and peppers, I start the seeds indoors at the end of February. Other plants are started based on their harvest times, some seeds even get planted directly into the soil. Still working on the timing of those, but they tend to be carrots, lettuce, arugula. I need to pay more attention to Mom Nature and note which plants resulting from reseeding (seeds dropped from the parent plant the previous summer) start up. I've had arugula, carrots, tobacco, some flowers, oregano and dill do this. Tomatoes reseed, but too late to produce fruit. They haven't caught on yet.

3. Plants that are hardy, again very important! Another major consideration. I typically don't grow things that I know won't grow here. I also choose resistance to as many diseases as possible without going GMO.

4. Vegetables, fruits and herbs that can be preserved. Whether by freezing (broccoli, summer squash, various peppers and basil in a pesto sauce); canning and/or pickling such as tomatoes, apples, pickled cukes and okra, green beans, grapes; dehydrating such as tomatoes, herbs, garlic; culturing such as cabbage for sauerkraut, carrots, leafy greens, radishes, kohlrabi; or "root cellaring" like green tomatoes, root vegetables and winter squash. Why should you only reap the benefits of an organic garden during the short summer season?

Starting from seeds vs. buying seedlings - some FAQs
Why buy seeds vs. seedlings? My first thoughts are: more variety, monetary savings and the pleasure of growing something yourself. I've been starting my own plants for decades, but when early summer hail storms destroy everything I've worked towards, I end up replacing my home-grown plants with store-bought ones. On the up side, buying store-bought usually means getting what is hardy for where you live. But, there's also the lack of variety involved with buying store plants. Yet, if a hail storm has destroyed my garden I'd rather go boring than go nothing at all. If cost is an issue, consider that an entire package of seeds costs less (usually) than buying one commercial seedling.

What's involved with growing from seed? Growing plants from seed is interesting, rewarding and fairly easy. My favorite incubator is one of those plastic trays with a clear plastic lid, 6-cell trays fit inside. It just takes some seed starter mix (make sure you use this, it's fine and sterile and a happy medium for seeds), some seeds and water. Starter mix should be mixed with water until spongy. Fill the tray cells with the starter, use a pencil to poke some holes in the dirt, toss in 2-3 seeds and cover with a teensy bit of soil. General rule of thumb is bury the seed with soil 2x the size of the seed. Make sure you mark your trays with a Sharpie or tags so you know what you planted. I put my trays on top of the fridge since the temperature is fairly warm and consistent. Seeds do not need light until they sprout through the soil. Some seeds sprout quickly -- tomatoes can take just 3-4 days, peppers can take a week or two, carrots take forever. If you're in a hurry, a heating pad under the tray helps. Check the seeds every day for growth and water needs. The ones that have sprouted need to be removed from the incubator so they can get some light and air circulation. As they outgrow their little cells, you'll need to transfer them to bigger containers and start introducing your actual garden soil into the mix. Make sure they don't dry out, and add some plant food here and there.

Indoor green beans.
Do you need a grow light? In the past I was able to successfully grow seedlings on window sills, in our sunroom or under fluorescent lights. Last winter I bought myself a full spectrum LED grid light -- the choice of marijuana growers here in Colorado.  I kept track of the growth of the seedlings throughout the winter and was BLOWN AWAY by the results. The plants grew super healthy and stocky in an amazingly short period of time. The plants flowered and I actually had little green beans while the plants were in 4" planters. I am using that same light this year with tomato and pepper seedlings and am again amazed. I have the light on 12 hours a day, on a timer, and my tomatoes and peppers are growing at record rates with NO LEGGINESS at all. Plants that don't get enough light tend to grow tall and spindly (leggy), searching for the light.
In the pot: grow light collards;
on the counter, sunny window grown.
These plants are deep green, stocky and very happy. Next winter I'm going to experiment with keeping tomato plants alive and producing throughout the winter with my LED light.

Why not collect your own seeds from store-bought produce? As mentioned before, saving seeds from store-bought veggies don't always work out, as some of those plants are just not meant to be grown in my (or your) climate and may succumb to diseases they are not resistant to. There's also that question of how long it takes for the produce to grow from planting time.

Why deal with those little 6 cell packs? Why not just go for a bigger pot to start off? One year, not long ago, I thought, "why not just put those tomato seeds in a big pot and save myself some work?" Well, the little plants spent all of their energy growing roots to fill all that dirt, and never put any thought into growing their above-ground parts. So, there is a real reason to start small and graduate the planter size. At least in our colder climates where growing season is an issue.

Do I need to use seed starter and potting soil for my plants? In the beginning, yes. But to avoid transplant shock when you finally add your plants to the garden, you should have your seedlings in 100% of your garden soil by then. Otherwise you'll slow down the growth (harvest time) of your veggies.

What else do I need to do? The first thing that comes to my mind is don't forget to "harden off" your seedlings. That means to the weather, the sun and to wind. I'm thinking Colorado again. Seedlings, especially those who have not had a grow light, will be a little spindly. If you put them out in the garden without hardening off, they will be shocked by the night time temps, burned by our relentless sunshine and beat to a pulp by our wind. If your plants are spindly, you need to add a fan to their daily routine. The fan will blow on them and cause them to thicken their stems. To introduce your plants to sun and night temps, you'll have to put them outside for for increasing amounts of time so they get used to nature. You can use this info for all of your seedlings. Kind of makes you wonder how plants have survived without human intervention, doesn't it? Well, the fact is that we, in modern times, grow plants in our climates that otherwise would not have a chance of surviving.


In Colorado, unless you have a greenhouse, gardening is still a crap shoot. There are hail storms. Bunnies. Late freezes and snow. Early freezes and snow. Diseases. Unseasonable weather. Technical difficulties. In the 30 years that I've lived here, even under the worst circumstances, gardens eventually take care of themselves and produce some degree of satisfaction and sustenance. Growing my plants from seed is very satisfying and really not difficult. And when Mom Nature has other ideas, there's always Whole Foods. So, happy gardening and never give up!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Darned Good Dog Biscuits Recipe

Cookie dogs!
There's nothing like a snowy day to make me want to bake. This weekend we still had plenty of bread in the house due to my recipe testing over the past couple of weeks. However, my dog treats supply was pretty low.

I've had a great dog biscuit recipe for maybe two decades, and it's always been a big hit. I haven't made them since I switched our lab Abby to a biologically appropriate raw diet a few years ago to help her recover from months of medical misdiagnoses. The medications prescribed by six different vets took a toll on her, but once I got her on real food she perked right up. She'll be 13 soon.

I was giving Abby jerky for treats until I found out that just about all chicken and duck jerky is made in China and that dogs are getting sick and dying from eating it. No one has determined exactly what the Chinese are doing to the jerky to make it poisonous and it doesn't seem to be a high priority to the pet food world.

I still feel raw meat and bones is the best food for dogs — they are carnivores and can't digest all the garbage fillers that are put in most commercial dog foods. But Abby eats really well and I figure a dog cookie a day is not going to tip her cart. Plus our African Grey parrots, rat and horse love these treats as well. Actually, they are pretty tasty and make the house smell like baking bread!

I use organic ingredients, most of which can be bought on the bulk foods isle at Wholefoods. I mix up a batch (this recipe will fill up three cookie sheets with biscuits), bake, then put half in her cookie jar and the rest in a big baggie in the freezer. These will last months in our house if I don't go crazy giving them away to friends.

I used to have dog bone shaped cookie cutters, but they wore out and I haven't replaced them. Now I just cut the dough into squares using a pizza cutter. It's much quicker and I don't have to keep re-rolling the leftover dough. You can download the dog biscuit recipe here or just take a look at the ingredients by clicking on the screen capture below. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Everybody Wants My Fanny('s)...

Fabulous recipe for sauerkraut soup

In a former life, my in-laws were Jewish. They still are Jewish, but no longer my in-laws. My grandmother-in-law Fanny was a plump, very short sweet white haired woman who shared recipes with me. Once, back in the late '70s, she was shocked that I'd been using toothpicks to test my cakes. She made her son Terry drive her all over Sarasota, Florida to find a wire cake tester for me. I still have (and use) it today.

I still marvel at the fact that she was named Fanny at birth. It was not a nick name as far as I know. I mean, do you see your newborn emerge from the depths and suddenly think, "this one's a Fanny?" I do realize that Fanny Bryce, a Jewish Ziegfield Girl, was pretty famous at the time. Or maybe Fanny was born breech, like me? Anyway, I digress...

One of my favorite recipes of hers is for Sauerkraut Soup. Most people would never think of making soup from this unusual delicacy. But you would be amazed how delicious it is! Her recipe combines the tang and texture of sauerkraut with meat to balance it out, plus a little lemon juice and honey. I like to add dried mushrooms. Complex flavors and textures that work so well together! Every once in a while I have a craving for it. Also this summer, in my attempt to find various ways to preserve my summer's harvest, I came across recipes for making cultured vegetables. The most common one is to make sauerkraut using only a few simple ingredients: shredded cabbage, lemon juice, water. The good bacteria on the cabbage cause fermentation that turns ordinary cabbage into crunchy, tangy and super-probiotic sauerkraut.

So, what's Sauerkraut Soup without good ol' Jewish Rye bread? I used to make it regularly when I lived in Sarasota, but when I moved to high altitude Denver I gave up in exasperation. But last weekend I got brave. I found a great Hungry Mouse rye bread recipe and high altitude baking adjustments here. Sunday I pulled all of the ingredients together, spent a couple of hours mixing, kneading by hand, etc. and was ready to put my two little masterpieces into the oven. But... my gas oven would not—gasp—turn on! The stove top worked, the broiler worked, even the self-cleaning setting worked. But  it would not BAKE. Wow. With great disappointment I put my two loaves into big baggies, placed them carefully in the freezer and wished them luck.

On Monday we had an repair person take a look at the oven. It was a striker mechanism that had burned out after 15 years of use. $200 dollars later I was back in business. I took one of the frozen loaves out of the freezer and set it on parchment on a cookie sheet. I raised the sheet off the counter to allow the bread to defrost on the bottom as well as all sides. Two or three hours later it was defrosted and had risen a little more. I put some boiling water in a glass baking tray on the bottom shelf of the oven (to make up for our extremely dry air), hand-wiped the bread with raw egg mixed with water and proceeded with the baking directions. About 45 fragrant minutes later I pulled a perfectly browned loaf of bread out of the oven. It lasted about one day in my house. I just pulled the second loaf out of the oven the next morning, repeated the above and had another gorgeous loaf. They were the perfect accompaniment to the soup and also made for fantastic toast in the morning. My thanks to Fanny and the foodies on the Internet that keep me cooking and eating great food! Update: On my second batch I reduced the oil to one TB and added the raw egg/water coating to make a crisper crust and it worked beautifully!