Monday, December 15, 2014

The Herban Farmer Blog has Moved!

A new look!
The Herban Farmer blog has moved! The address is and although I will keep this Blogger site, I won’t be posting anything new here. For the latest posts please visit You can also sign up to receive new posts via email.

I wanted months ago to move my blog over to a Wordpress site, but kept putting it off because the amount of work involved. I’m a graphic designer/web developer by trade and so do all the work myself. But Wordpress offers a lot of bells and whistles that, in the long run, will make posting easier. 

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to bite the bullet and get the web site moved over. I designed a newer, brighter look and will soon be getting the hang of some promising new recipe plugins. The blog transfer did mess up some of my formatting in the new blog, so I am slowly editing my old posts and hope to get them looking right as rain in the next few weeks. 

Come visit!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Make Sauerkraut: The Basics

You'll need a bowl, knife, cutting board,
 cabbage and sea salt
I've been making sauerkraut for about two years now. I remember the first couple of times being really nervous about fermenting anything—I didn't trust the process. It just didn't sound safe. After reading about the nutritional benefits of raw sauerkraut in Autoimmune Disease: The Cause and The Cure, I found that buying raw kraut in the store was about $8 a pint. I could make almost two quarts for approximately $5! So, I decided to give it a try. I'm sure glad I did! It is very easy to make, and is just about fool proof thanks to mother nature. Homemade kraut tastes so much better than anything you could buy in the store and is loaded with probiotics and enzymes that aid digestion. Here's a very basic kraut recipe and procedures. I'll make a separate blog page with more recipes for kraut and will add fermented veggie recipes as well. The procedure is pretty much the same whether you're making kraut, kimchee or fermented veggies, including pickles. I've bolded the basics in each step.

UPDATE: I'm moving my blog over to a Wordpress site. I've made a list of kraut recipes on that blog, and you can access them here.

Note: The secret to fermenting success is to keep the veggies submerged in liquid. This will prevent failures and moldy, slimy kraut. Details are here on the Wild Fermentation web site and I recommend you read it. It will save you from ruining a batch and will give you peace of mind.


1 medium cabbage (about 3-1/2 to 4 lbs)
1 TB finely ground sea salt (I prefer the pink Himalayan)

1. Remove the outer tattered leaves and set aside for later use. Quarter and core the cabbage and then cut it into shreds and place in your bowl. Save the core for later as well. It's your choice on the size of shreds -- I like a variety as the bigger pieces will stay crunchier.

2. Toss the salt over the cabbage in the bowl and then start crunching the cabbage with your hands. This will break down the cells in the cabbage, causing them to release their juices. Keep crunching away until the cabbage is mostly wilted.

At this point you could also use a pounder to grind a little more juice out of the cabbage. I do this because my hands are not that strong, and I have a little arthritis in my right hand.

In this photo you will be able to see the juice in the bottom of the bowl. It looks good at this point, so I'm ready to put my cabbage in a fermenting container.

Containers: Rule #1 is don't use anything metal—the acid created during fermentation will corrode metal. Yucky. You can use an old fashioned crock, a glass bowl or—my favorite—a half gallon canning jar. I have had the most success using the canning jar with an airlock lid. There is less surface to worry about and the airlock keeps out dust, bugs and air while allowing the gases created during fermentation to escape. The water in the airlock not only makes a seal, but also filters out some of the odors that may be associated with fermentation.

3. Spoon the cabbage into a clean container. Here I'm using just a basic Ball jar funnel to make things a little less messy. Once it's full, press the cabbage down in the container using something firm: your pounder, a wooden spoon, etc. The cabbage should be packed in tightly, with extra juice at the top. If there isn't a lot of juice, you can make some extra brine by mixing 1 tsp of salt with 1 cup of filtered water.

Pressing down leaves and core
to submerge the cabbage.
4. Pack the saved leaves and core on top of the cabbage and press down. This will keep the shredded cabbage under the juice. This is very important! Details are here on the Wild Fermentation web site.

5. Add a cover to the container. If you're using an airlock lid, assemble according to instructions. If you don't have one, you'll need to put something heavy on top of the leaves. You could use a small canning jar filled with water (no metal cans!), a smaller bowl with water, or if using a crock you can put a small plate on top of the leaves with something heavy on top. Some people even have a rock for this purpose. Then cover securely with a cloth, towel, paper towel, coffee filter or even a shower cap. DO NOT seal the container. Gases are released during fermentation and you could explode a sealed jar. I put a larger bowl, plate or Pyrex casserole under my container to catch any fermentation overflow.
Ready to ferment!

6. Place your container in a cool, darkened area. I write the date in Sharpie on mine. I check it every 3 days or so to make sure it's fermenting (bubbling) and looking good (good color, no mold or slime). If using the airlock, some of the juice may escape into it. No worries. You can open the jar after a week to smell and taste your kraut. Don't taste it if the smell is off or it looks yucky. This will not happen if you've kept the kraut under the brine. Continue to ferment if you prefer a more sour kraut.

7. Once the flavor is where you like it, you can place it in the fridge. I prefer to split mine into pint jars for easier serving. It will keep for months in the fridge.

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Polyface Farms, Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and the Future of Farming

A few short weeks ago I won a raffle. It was the first time in my life that I'd won something. The raffle was for a trip to Staunton, Virginia for the Farm to Table Legal Defense Fund's annual Food Freedom Fest. Included in the activities were dinner with bloggers Jenny McGruther from Nourished Kitchen and Sarah Pope from the Healthy Home Economist, a full day of speakers explaining the Defense Fund's cases and a full day's tour of Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms.

Thursday Dinner with the Bloggers

Thursday night's dinner at Zonodoa with Sarah and Jenny was a real treat. It was so thrilling to meet two very well-known and successful bloggers that spoke my language! We talked a little about real food and enjoyed a delicious and healthy meal in an elegant but comfortable setting. We parted company early—tomorrow was going to be a big day of speakers, discussions and updates regarding the defense of farmers' basic right to farm.

Friday Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund Presentations

Prior to that weekend, I'd been only slightly familiar with governments' (Federal, State and local) heavy-handedness with farmers' rights. I'd heard about how some large corporations were using their money and clout to get their own way to protect their financial interests.  I'd also heard about armed raids on dairy farms for selling raw (unpasturized) milk and FDA's position that we have no rights to choose what we consume unless they GIVE US PERMISSION: "Plaintiffs' assertion of a 'fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health, which includes what foods they do and do not choose to consume for themselves and their families' is similarly unavailing because plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish." Oh, just tell me I don't have the right to make my own decisions about my body and my health, and you will light a fire under me that will be seen from outerspace!

The  information conveyed that Friday by a wide variety of speakers, lawyers, senators, representatives and farmer/victims, was a real eye-opener for me. They spoke of raids on food clubs where ALL the beautiful, organic, locally grown food was confiscated and dumped in landfills because some raw milk was found on the property. Farm animals being confiscated and destroyed without testing for a disease they "may have" had (they didn't), then additional litigation on conspiracy charges when that didn't hold up in court. Businesses being closed due to never ending bureaucratic red tape based more on principle than law. The USDA's recent solicitation to carry sub machine guns (what?) for their raids on farms.

Just one example of who is fueling the fire: "... raw milk in particular has drawn a lot of regulatory scrutiny, largely because the politically powerful dairy industry has pressed the government to act."

Downtown Staunton VA
All of the cases and stories were presented in a matter-of-fact manner, with stats to show the progress that the Legal Defense Fund has made since its inception on July 4, 2007. The stories flat out flabbergasted me, but the sincerity and positive attitudes of all of the speakers were very encouraging. I ended up Saturday's lectures with an even greater appreciation and respect for the real farmers in this country, who just want to provide us with healthy, unadulterated, real food and not be forced to cave in to the depraved ideas being accepted by the general public (with our government's blessings) as the acceptable production of food. I left the lectures feeling informed and wanting to become involved in some way to further the cause that Legal Defense Fund represents. There was a block party and BBQ Saturday night in downtown Staunton. I was tired and it was kind of loud (a sure sign of being over-tired for me) so I stayed for a while and then trekked back to my room at the hotel. My tomorrow (Saturday) was to be spent at Joe Salatin's Polyface Farms.

Saturday at Polyface Farms

Broiler chicken runs
While my Maps printout said Polyface was only 20 minutes away from my hotel and the directions seemed straightforward enough, I have to admit I was not sure I was going where...and when...I was supposed to. But luckily my phone was still getting some bars and even though I was the only person on the back country roads at the time, I put my faith in my phone and found my way to the farm. During the last 5 minutes of my trip I ended up with a few cars following my every turn. Later I found out that many people had become totally lost and arrived at the farm as much as an hour late.

Free range turkeys
Polyface is, to me, a picture-perfect farm. Virginia is so beautifully green and lush and this farm is a perfect example. There's the house, small store, an outdoor covered area for meeting and eating, a few hoop houses, some gardens and then those gorgeous acres and acres of grassy hills. We had a Polyface breakfast and then were loaded onto two hay bailed trailers. We spent the better part of the hot, sunny day visiting various areas
Free range layers
of Polyface. The smaller, cleverly designed chicken tractors are reserved for the broiler chickens. Moved daily, the chickens have access to meal food and water and also some sun, shade and pasture for foraging. Ducks, turkeys and laying hens also have portable grazing areas with easily moved electric fencing. The fences are to keep predators out. Pigs have the same fencing, but their free range areas include trees that provide them with shade and acorns and lots of places to root around. Cattle are moved from pasture to pasture daily, so they don't overgraze the
Recovered spring run-off
land. Snow melt-off that would have only flooded the land and been wasted is collected in ponds, to be used during the summer to water thirsty land. Winter accommodations for the cattle provide later forage for pigs, which in turn provides manure to fertilize the land grazed during the summer.
Pig heaven
The entire farm is an economical and balanced ecosystem that supports itself, without the need for any artificial fertilizer, seeding or feeding. It's all so NATURAL. The question of the day was "why doesn't everyone do this?"

After our enjoyable tour of the farm, we were treated to a Polyface lunch. At the end of our lunch, a few more speakers came up to talk about food and farming. Joe Salatin brought a few of his substitutes for hired help: young farmers-to-be that spend time at his farm as interns and apprentices, learning his methods and bringing his wisdom back to their home states to carry on his
Interns talk about their experiences
natural farming techniques. Seeds of change for a better future. The young speakers were all very enthusiastic and passionate about being a part of change in this country.

I left Polyface Farms that day full of hope that the small farms in this country, and informed and involved consumers, will turn the direction of our food producing practices away from destruction of the land, nutrition, and mistreatment of animals, to cooperation and harmony with nature. Wow, what a beautiful alternative.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Easiest No Knead Sourdough Bread Ever!

This is the easiest—and best—bread I've EVER made. Seriously.

I've been experimenting with sourdough (no added yeast) bread for about a year now. I tried the "no-knead covered casserole" method before, without terribly exciting results. In my previous post, I wrote about the two day method I've been using to make two loaves of bread-pan sandwich style bread. I've been happy with the results but it takes a bit of work and planning.

A few weeks ago I found out about Jovial einkorn wheat from the leader of our new local chapter of The Weston Price Foundation. Having a little bit of gluten sensitivity and intrigued by the heritage of this ancient wheat, I tried my recipe using this less complex, easier-to-digest wheat. It didn't rise as much as what I'm used to and although the bread tasted great, the loaf was kind of small.

I re-worked my old no-knead recipe using einkorn rather than organic flour and it had great texture and flavor, but it was still a smallish loaf. I have this great, economical, 3 quart lidded cast iron casserole, which I bought at IKEA for about $40 (take THAT Le Creuset $300 casserole!). The next time around I added about 50% more of the ingredients and it turned out even better! The NEXT time I even simplified the process more by skipping TWO steps and was blown away at how perfectly easy this recipe had become. And, this bread is to die for! So, here we go:

Easy No-Knead Einkorn Sourdough Bread  [print]

Prep Time: 8.5 hours (8 hours of rise time)
Cook: 1 hour
Result: A 3.5# artisan loaf that will knock your socks off


6 cups Jovial Foods einkorn flour
1 cup proofed and bubbling sourdough starter
2-1/2 cups room temperature (filtered) water (approximate amount of water)
2 teaspoons finely ground pink sea salt


Large non-reactive bowl with lid
3 qt casserole with cover


1. In a large bowl (preferably with a lid), add the flour, sourdough starter, water and salt and mix until blended. It should be a gluey thick batter, a little thicker than brownie batter.

2. Cover and let it rise in a warm spot for about eight hours, or until doubled in size. I put the bowl in my oven and turn on the oven light to keep a consistently warm temperature.

3. Once the dough has risen sufficiently, remove it from the oven. Place your covered casserole in the oven and heat it to 450° F.

Before/after baking. This
was a previous batch
in my larger casserole.
4. Once temp is achieved, remove your casserole from the oven. CAUTION: HOT HOT HOT! Remove the lid and dump/pour/scrape the dough into the casserole. Cover and bake for one hour.

5. Remove the bread from the oven. After 15 minutes dump it out of the casserole, place on a cooling rack and allow it to cool completely before slicing and serving. I usually leave it on the counter over night and cut it in the morning with a meat slicer.

This bread is beautiful, crusty, fragrant and due to the einkorn flour has a warm nutty flavor. Don't forget the Kerrygold!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making sourdough bread without added yeast

I recently had a few people ask me how I make my sourdough bread, so thought I'd just post about it and then just send them here to read it. That's one way to get some traffic to my blog!

Before I get started, please know that I AM NOT A SOURDOUGH EXPERT. I'm sure there are plenty of web sites that share everything there is to know about sourdough. Cultures for Health is the first that comes to my mind. I am only reporting my own personal experiences here. So, here goes...

Almost 25 years ago I had bought some starter from Jedediah's in Jackson Hole. I didn't realize you had to keep feeding it and it died pretty quickly. Over the years I've tried to make my own starter from potatoes or whole wheat with dismal results. Finally, last year I discovered Cultures for Health, which has become a great resource for me. I've bought other fermenting cultures from them and their live chat support is unbeatable! I bought their San Francisco Sourdough Starter and have been trying various recipes, hoping to find one that I could follow time after time and have reasonably reliable results.

Asiago-Sourdough loaves
What's so special about sourdough bread? Sourdough starters typically contain acid resistant wild yeast and a host of lactobacillus bacteria. Lactobacillus bacteria are responsible for the sour taste in sourdough. The acid produced by lactobacillus lowers the pH of the dough, which in turn makes it a more hostile environment for other types of bacteria resulting in a longer shelf life—sourdough bread doesn't get stale as quickly as commercial yeast breads. Also, the sourdough pre-digests gluten and other proteins in flour, making them easier for us to digest. People with gluten sensitivity may not react to sourdough. More information about sourdough, compared to it's less natural cousin commercial yeast, can be found in this Weston Price article

Now before I get started, be forewarned that since sourdough is a living organism, many things can affect the outcome of the bread. Temperature and humidity are the biggest challenges I've had, as the bread will ferment and rise quickly in a warm kitchen, too fast in a hot kitchen and dreadfully slow when it's cool. Also, flour measurements are estimates only! When I moved to Colorado from Florida I quickly realized that the moisture content in flour varied drastically! If I used the same amount of flour called for in a recipe that worked in Florida, here in Colorado it would make a dry, hard loaf because the flour itself was much drier. So use your instincts, become one with your dough, and all will be well Grasshopper.

You can download a PDF of the sourdough recipe and instructions here.

What you will need:

Roughly a cup of fed sourdough starter
Bread flour, preferably organic, about 6-8 cups
1/4 c. butter (+ 1 tsp for buttering pans)
2 TB sugar
1 TB salt
1 tsp citric acid (optional, for extra sour taste)
2 c. grated Asiago cheese (optional)
3 TB chopped fresh Rosemary (optional)

  • A nice large bowl (see my comment at the bottom of this post)
  • 2 bread pans
  • A glass or metal bowl or some other oven-proof container filled with water, to keep in the bottom of your oven, if you live in a very dry climate
What you will end up with: Two gorgeous, delicious loaves of possibly the best bread you'll ever eat.

Bare-bones Instructions:

Day 1 - Feed (activate) the starter that has been dormant in your refrigerator.
Day 2 - The first rise, 3-4 hours. Then add other ingredients, knead until ready, separate into two loaves. Second rise, 2-4 hours. Bake 40 mins at 375°. Eat.


Starter in a jar.
Day 1 
Put about 1 cup (or more) of your sourdough starter in a large bowl and feed 1/2 c flour, 1/2 water every 3-4 hours. You should feed a minimum of 3 times, 4 is even better, before attempting to make bread. More info here: Feeding Sourdough for a Batch of Bread.

Day 2 - Morning
Bubbling starter in my favorite bowl.
Add 2 cups of flour and enough water to starter to make a thick slurry, the consistency being between brownie and pancake batter. Let sit loosely covered, in a warm place until it doubles in size and bubbles, about 3-4 hours.

Day 2 - Noon-ish
Add the other ingredients to the starter and mix in by hand. Then start adding flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until it can no longer by mixed by hand. This should be after adding 1-1/2 to 2 cups. Dump the dough onto a floured counter or other smooth surface and start kneading in flour a small handful at a time. I have a stainless Graham Kerr/ Galloping Gourmet pastry scraper which helps with this process, as well as with cleaning dough off the counter during cleanup. Keep adding flour until the dough barely sticks to the surface. Don't add too much, it should be as soft as possible. 
Done kneading!
Knead dough for 10 minutes or so, then do the windowpane test (see my video below). If it doesn't pass the test, knead for another five minutes and repeat the test. Keep doing this until your dough gets a passing grade. Let dough sit for a few minutes while you butter the pans.

Ready for 2nd rise.
Cut the dough in half (you can weigh it if you feel the need), knead each loaf for a minute or two to get a nice smooth shape. Place in buttered pans, smooth some more butter on the top to keep it from drying out. You can sprinkle some Asiago on the top if you like. Place in a warm place (again, my oven) and let it rise for 3-4 hours, until it's just above the pan edges. 

Day 2 - Late Afternoon
Place bread pans in oven, turn oven on to 375° and once the oven tells you it's reached the right temperature, bake for 40 minutes or until bread is brown and sounds hollow if you tap on the surface. Remove to a rack and cool for about 10 minutes. Dump bread out of the pans and leave on rack to cool. They may have sweated in the pans, you just want to dry them out evenly. Once completely cooled, the bread can be sliced and frozen. We bought this meat slicer recently, as a friend in Europe sends us organic cured meats every year, but it has turned out to be a fantastic bread slicer! 

Learning Opportunity: I was photographing my most recent bread for this post. It was an extremely hot day, we didn't get the air conditioner going and I was working on a DIY home repair project that took most of my attention outdoors. So sadly I let the bread rise too much. That caused the bread to "collapse" during baking, so the beautifully rounded bread at the left ended up flattening out a little in the oven. It's not picture perfect, but I decided to proceed with this post as is to demonstrate that sourdough bread is extremely forgiving. It wasn't as pretty as it could have been, but the texture and density of the loaves were still gorgeous and the flavor is fabulous. I've even undercooked my bread once, put it back in the oven 15 minutes later and baked an extra 15 minutes and the loaves were great!

I have to say, if you make this bread with rosemary and asiago cheese it will make your kitchen smell like freshly baked bread every time you toast it. Please do it justice and slather it with a high quality butter, such as Kerry Gold, and you will be in bread heaven.

Extra note on cleaning your bowl:
One of the hardest things about making bread is cleaning the bowl. I bought two of these really cheap, flexible plastic 6 quart salad bowls at a party store about ten years ago.
They look like cabbage leaves made into a bowl, and have been the best bowls for a LOT of things. For sourdough cleanup, I just leave the dirty bowl on the counter over night, until the dough dries out. Next day I just have to flex the bowl and most of the dough just flakes off. I pour that in the trash, and use a dry veggie brush to scrape off the remaining bits of dough. Whatever is left behind, I wash with soap and water. That prevents me from (1) clogging up a sponge with dough, (2) clogging up the kitchen sink drain and (3) fighting with fresh, gluey dough. These bowls have been the best ones for mixing salads, making sauerkraut and other fermented veggies. Very little investment and yet priceless!

Another Note: You can use your sourdough started for more recipes than just bread, such as crackers, pancakes, pizza dough. Check out this Cultures for Health page.  You can also dehydrate and the freeze some of your starter, so if you ever have an oops and kill your starter, you'll have a backup in the freezer.

Windowpane test: Stretching a piece of bread dough to see if it's done being kneaded. You should be able to stretch the dough to the point where you start to see light through it. If it breaks rather than stretching, you should knead for five minutes more and try again.

In a week or so I'll be experimenting again, by using mostly freshly ground Einkorn flour. There's a lot of good buzz about Einkorn out there, it sounds pretty exciting!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

When life gives you too much lemon balm…

I think it was 15 years ago that I had an herb garden where my chicken run now stands. At that time I planted a small cutting of lemon balm. I didn't know what to do with the stuff, I just thought it looked pretty and smelled wonderful — lemony but more like lemon grass than actual lemons. Every time I walked by the plant and disturbed the air around it, the rich lemony scent would fill the air.

Since then, I've found the stuff is as invasive as mint. It looks a lot like mint. It's actually in the mint family and when people visit my garden they always mistake it for peppermint. Lemon balm is also called Lemon Mint. Pests don't seem to like it one bit, it doesn't seem to need much water and it SPREADS. 

Lemon Balm is supposed to have calming properties, helps with insomnia, stress, digestive issues, colic in babies, menstrual pain, headache, toothache, Alzheimer's… you name it. Apparently it will fix anything that ails you! I'm always in favor of natural calming remedies and decided to try making teas with my plants.

For cold tea, I just take a bunch of the leaves, stem and all (about 2 cups, rinsed first of course), smoosh them into a ball and put that in a heat-proof container. Then I boil a kettle full of filtered water, pour the boiling water over the leaves and let it steep. If the leaves float to the top of the water, I put an upright stainless steel spoon on top of the ball of leaves and use it to weight them down. You can pull the wad of leaves out when the water cools down and use the tea right away or store in the fridge. It will keep for a couple of days. I love pouring this tea over a glass filled with ice cubes and a few drops of Stevia liquid.

The hot tea almost tastes even better! Again I take some leaves, a generous tablespoon-sized wad, and put it in a mug. I add boiling water, let it steep for about 4 minutes and end up with a rich, fragrant, lemony hot drink. Very soothing and delicious! 

You could also add mint to the lemon balm for lemon-mint teas.

As my garden overfloweth with Lemon Balm, I'm thrilled to know how beneficial a plant it is. I'd just love to be able to give some away...

Monday, June 9, 2014

DIY Pet Safe Lawn Fertilizer: Does it work?

The first person I ever saw using soap on her lawn was my Denver neighbor Mrs. Bassey back in the 80s. She was from England and had the nicest yard on the block. Mrs. Bassey would be out in her yard every few weeks with a lawn sprayer attached to her hose and filled with Ivory dish liquid. She said it broke up the clay and thatch on the ground and her lawn sure looked—and smelled—great.

Around that time I came across a book by Jerry Baker, The Impatient Gardener, which contained a recipe for lawn tonic. I tried that a few times, but eventually gave way to convenience and went back to using store-bought fertilizers. It wasn't until the past few years that I became more concerned with what exactly was IN those bags of grainy chemicals and what they might to do our pets, the wild animals visiting our yard and the environment in general. 

I searched the internet for more information about DIY fertilizers, pulled out my old Impatient Gardener and compared notes. It seems the recipe hasn't changed, but I was curious why those particular ingredients were being used. Just what do they do? I was able to find all of the ingredients at a dollar store, except for the beer. You'll get several batches from all the ingredients except for the beer and soda, so this tonic is also inexpensive. Once I've applied this to my grass, I water with plain water for a while to help it soak in. Here's the recipe:

1 cup Epsom Salts
1 cup Listerine-type mouthwash
1 cup liquid dish soap (not antibacterial, as plain and simple as possible)
1 cup ammonia
1 bottle of cheap beer
1 can of sugary soda

Put all ingredients into a one quart hose-end sprayer. I was able to get one from Ace Hardware ("Use 7 ways" says the label) that I could attach to a hose on the input side, another (short) hose on the output side and then add an oscillating sprinkler. If you don't have an extra hose or sprinkler you'll just have to stand around for a while and spray your lawn by hand. The book says it will cover up to 2500 square feet and should be used in May and again in late June, but I don't suppose it would hurt to use it more often if it's very dry in your area. And of course don't water during the heat of the day, it's wasteful and you could scorch your grass. 

So does it work? I think so, my lawn looks great! I'll keep applying this tonic throughout the summer and update this post if anything changes.

This is what the ingredients do:

Epsom salts: Magnesium sulfate (sulfur), a critical mineral for seed germination. Vital to the production of chlorophyll, which plants use to transform sunlight into food. An aid in the absorption of phosphorus and nitrogen, two of the most important fertilizer components. Sulfur, the other major component, is also an important plant nutrient. Contributes to chlorophyll production. Makes the primary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) found in most fertilizers more effective.

Mouthwash: Helps kills grubs and other grass-root-dining insects. Optional in my book.

Dish Soap: Liquid dish detergent has surfactants in it that help the nutrients in the fertilizer stick to and be absorbed by the grass while leaving the grass unharmed. Adding liquid dish detergent to your mix of ingredients can help the ingredients work better.  DO NOT use anti-bacterial dishwashing liquid as it will kill off important microbes in the lawn and soil that help "digest" thatch. It's also a wetting agent and will help break up clay soils and improve water absorption.

Ammonia: Rich in nitrogen, a nutrient that grass needs to be healthy.

Beer: Rich in carbohydrates, beer provides an immediate source of energy for microbes in the soil, which then release energy for the grass to use. 

Soda: Carbohydrates in the sugar or high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten them can make your lawn greener and more lush by feeding the bacteria that live in the soil. The bacteria produce nutrients that grass can readily utilize for energy. Only sugary, non-diet soft drinks should be used.

Here's a healthy lawn ~ Cheers!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Do hoop houses really work?

Hoops before covering
The short answer is "you betcha!" This is my second year of using a hoop house. Last year we just put hoops over one raised bed. I used a plastic drop cloth as the covering and I wasn't completely thrilled with it. During sunny days, even if it was cold outside, the house would get incredibly hot because plastic doesn't breathe. But I planted a couple of weeks earlier than advised and all went well.

By the end of summer, the stowed plastic had begun to disintegrate. I had left it outside within quick reach just in case I had to cover the garden during one of our frequent summer hail storms and plastic just isn't meant to be out in the sun. But the hoop house was successful enough to be encouraging, so we built a second one.

After doing some internet research, I found this Agribon cold weather row cover cloth that was recommended by a few different sources. I ordered it last winter in anticipation of getting an even earlier planting going this spring. Our "last frost" date here is May 16 and still there are no guarantees. But I decided, after looking at the extended forecast for my area, to throw caution to the wind and plant a whole month early. Crazy! I got busy planting.

DIY Sprinkler pipe clips
After a week or two we had a few nights that were expected to be near freezing, so I pulled the fabric over the hoops and hoped for the best. The new fabric clips we'd made from sprinkler pipe worked extremely well and it was quick and easy to cover and uncover the gardens. They made it through those chilly nights without a problem.

Clips in use
Then came Mother's Day. Forecasts for a winter storm were being broadcast for days. First for 2-4 inches of snow. Then 6-8. Then 9-12! I decided to double my row cover fabric "just in case" and made sure none of the plants were touching the fabric on the inside. As a last resort I tried covering the whole thing with plastic, thinking the snow would slide off of it and prevent too much weight on the cloth. Not! For some reason the snow was sticking to the plastic worse than it was to the cloth, so again I ditched the plastic and hoped the fabric would stand up to the heavy spring snow.

That lumpy thing is a hoop house!
I did go out a couple of times during the worst of the snow storm to brush off accumulating snow. I was concerned about the strength of the fabric since I'd had my fingers punch through it a couple of times while pulling it over the hoops. But the fabric is amazingly strong despite it's flimsy gauze-like appearance. A few times I peeked in and warm air puffed out in my face. Apparently the soil in the raised beds had warmed up enough during the previous weeks to keep the inside temps nice and cozy.

Cozy inside!
The next morning I woke to 10" of snow and drifts up to about 18". The hoop houses had some snow on them from over night, but still they stood their ground. I think the snow actually helped insulate the beds a little more. When the sun came out later in the day, the snow began to melt and roll off. The plants inside were still warm and safe inside. And dry!

The next couple of nights were supposed to go down into the 20s, and I didn't want to take any chances. The fabric is rated to 28° and with a double layer I probably got another couple of degrees, but why tempt fate? I put an electric space heater in the house with the tomato plants and figured the other one with broccoli, onions, shallots, etc. would tolerate the cooler temps without extra help. 

Space heater = Toasty temps!
Two nights with temps around 24-28° were not a problem! Early in the mornings I'd peek into the houses and the tomatoes had actually started blooming! The heater kept the house so warm that I had to make sure I got out early to turn it off before the sun added even more heat.

I am definitely a fan of hoop houses after this year's experiment. It's now the end of May and after dodging a few hail storms my garden is waaayyy ahead of where it normally is this time of year. Maybe this summer I won't have to wait until July for tomatoes!

A head start on summer!
Next year I plan to put the hoops on a rail so I can just push them back and forth as needed. I'm also keeping the hoops up and the fabric in a convenient place this summer so if I see those green hail clouds headed my way I can run out and get things covered. It will be interesting to see how well the fabric will hold up to hail and what size hail will "break the camel's back." Keeping my fingers crossed that won't happen!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Repotting tomato plants

A big part of raising vegetables from seed is upsizing the pots they live in until they make it out to the garden. For most vegetables the process is straight-forward: carefully pop the plants out of their outgrown container into a slightly larger one, add dirt and water. You don't want to go too much bigger with the new container because the plants will spend all their time growing roots to fill all that dirt and not growing the actual plant. Most plants will only need to be repotted once before going outdoors. But tomato plants (and sometimes peppers) may take several transplants before they reach the garden. Especially if your growing season is short: You want the biggest plants possible going into the ground on your last frost date.

To get seedlings out of their container:

  • Make sure the soil is wet so it doesn't stick to the plastic container. 
  • Do not pull on the plant, because it will just break!
  • Squeeze the sides of the cell or plastic container to loosen the soil and tip the plant out into your hand. Even if you have a six pack of cells, you should be able to get just one cell out at a time. I cup my fingers in the "receiving" hand so I can catch the soil on my fingertips while the plant is protected by the cupped part of my palm.
  • If the plant is short, you'll need to put some potting soil in the bottom of the new container to raise it up. Then fill with more soil around the sides.

This plant will end up having soil almost
up to it's leaves.
As with all plants, the bigger and stronger the root system, the healthier the plant. Tomato plants have the unique ability to grow roots out of their stems. You could actually break a branch off a mature tomato plant and root it in water or soil! The trick to getting a great root system going on a tomato transplant is to bury the plant up to it's leaves in soil. Extra roots will grow along the stem. More roots mean more water and nutrition being consumed by the plant, so faster growth. I do this every time I move them to a larger container, and even when I plant them in the garden. They will have a nice tall stem again within a week.

Another thing I learned is that because of this rooting ability, tomatoes don't seem to mind having their roots disturbed when transplanting. With other plants you have to be extremely careful to not injure the roots and with some vegetables you need to plant the seeds directly into your garden soil because they won't tolerate transplanting at all. Not tomatoes! 

Same plant, one week later!
You know how when you're starting off seeds, it's recommended that you put 2-3 seeds in each plant cell, since not all seeds will germinate? Then sometimes all the seeds germinate and you're supposed to pinch off the smaller ones and keep the healthiest plant (if you pull out the smaller ones you will disturb the roots of your chosen surviving plant). Well, a couple of years ago I started separating the baby tomato plants that grew together in the cells, rather than pinching some back. All of the tomatoes transplanted this way survived and flourished! So now I end up with 2 - 3 times as many plants as I expected. I give away and donate whatever I can't fit into the garden. Need some tomato plants?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When should you plant garden seeds?

Just the beginning...
A week ago I started my seeds indoors for this summer's garden. Normally the "last frost date" in this area is around May 17, although some sources day as late as June 1—nearly three weeks later than Denver, which is only about 20 miles away! But our elevation is higher and we're in a more open area than Denver proper, which has it's own microcosm. I'm aiming for a May 3 or 4 plant date, two weeks earlier than advised, but my hoop frames with row covers will protect the garden from late-season snow and frost.

Wondering what your last frost date it? A great online source for that information is the Farmer's Almanac web site. All you need to do is enter your town or zip code into the search box and the site will not only give you a last frost date, but also a list of vegetables, when to start your seeds and when to set the plants out—all based on your frost date. Each vegetable on the list is a link to more in-depth information on how to grow that specific veggie. What a great resource! They even have an amazing on-line garden planner that you can use for free for 30 days. 

Seed start planning!
Taking plant dates even a little farther, I put together an Excel chart listing only the vegetables I plan to grow. For plants that didn't appear on the Farmer's chart, I either used the recommendations on my seed packages, the charts that come in Park's Seeds catalogs or looked for an on-line source such as Heirloom Seeds. Some seeds will be sown directly into the garden, on my plant date, so those went to the bottom of my chart. I then sorted the list by seed start date. I'm putting the Excel chart up here for download if you're interested. You can then personalize the chart for your particular plants and planting schedule. If you don't have Excel, here's a PDF version that you can edit by hand. You'll see a column labeled Actual. I decided to keep track on actual germination time, which can vary depending on temperature of the room in which you're starting your seeds.

I have sunshine on
a cloudy day!
This year I moved my seed starting operation to a small upstairs bedroom with a south-facing window. It's very easy to keep that room warm—much warmer than the rest of the house. I bought a second LED grow light to double my coverage, and added a humidifier for moisture and a little more heat, especially for those overcast or snowy days. I was very surprised to see that the first plants to germinate, chamomile and cabbage, came up within three days of planting. Their germination time is supposed to be roughly 7-14 days! In fact, everything I planted last week, with the exception of peppers (bell and Anaheim) and celery, are up and growing. I think I'll photograph their progress every Sunday and update this post with the photos.

If you're growing your garden from seed this year, you'd better get to work now! Here is a more detailed post on starting plants from seeds from March of last year.