Friday, April 28, 2017

Fast Recipe for a Busy Weekend - Taco Salad

Brown ground beef in skillet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Drain fat, return beef to skillet and add Fiesta Dip Mix and water stir until well mixed. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 3 to 4 minutes or until water is evaporated.  You can add salt & pepper, if desired.

Set up a bed of lettuce on four plates. Divide ground beef among the plates and sprinkle with green onions, tomatoes, and cheese. Drizzle prepared BYP Ranch Dressing on top (see package instructions).  To add less calories you can use BYP Salsa blend prepared with fresh tomatoes instead of Ranch Dressing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Spring Green Cleaning 2017

A few years ago I started being serious about removing chemicals from our cleaning materials.  Chas had some asthma symptoms and we always knew he was allergic to preservatives so I began to realize that the chemicals in the cleaning products probably contributed to indoor air pollution.  I started with the easiest things like the dishwasher detergent, and laundry detergent, then moved  to floor and window cleaning, now I have moved to specialty cleaning in the bathroom and kitchen.

I wanted an all purpose cleaner that we could spray on the counters.  My husband cleans up every little spill while cooking and i wipe down the island regularly so we keep the spray bottle on the counter for quick use.

I love the spray bottles that come with our commercial shower solution (I make a shower solution but my hubby goes through it faster than I can make more, so he buys it at the grocery when I am not looking.) The bottles have a built in tube so you can get every last drop from the bottom so I wash out the bottles and save them to use for kitchen and bathroom cleaner.

All-purpose Essential Cleaner
This simple solution will smell good, clean and disinfect.
     1/4 cup vinegar
     1/2 tsp washing soda
     15 drops of eucalyptus essential oil *
     15 drops of lemon balm essential oil *

Place all of these in a spray bottle then add enough warm water to fill the bottle and shake well.  You now have an all-purpose cleaner. You can substitute tea tree essential oil and/or lavender essential oil to replace one or both of the other oils.

To scour the sink you may need something a bit stronger, so make an abrasive cleaner with grapefruit  that smells good and inhibits microorganisms.  To give it more punch you can also add bergamot and lemon oil too.

Do not use this on a fiberglass tub or sink.

Abrasive Grapefruit and Lemon Scrub

1 cup fine grade pumice
1/2 cup clay powder
2 Tablespoons grapefruit essential oil
1/4 cup baking soda
1/2 cup boiling water

Mix all ingredients together and stir.  Store in a labeled airtight container.

To Use: Apply gently with a damp sponge or cloth and scrub.

Creamy non-Abrasive Scrub
Use this on any fiberglass surfaces and anyplace else you do want scratches but need some serious cleaning.

1/4 cup borax
castile soap
1/2 teaspoon lemon grass essential oil

In a small bowl, combine borax and just enough castile to create a thick paste.  Add essential oil and bend well.

To Use: Scoop a small amount of cleaner onto a damp sponge.  Scrub surface and rinse well.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Eight Great Herbs to Grow

If you are new to herbs or want to experiment with an herb garden here is a list of 8 great herbs to get you started.  Remember that less is more in your first garden so pick 5 of these and get started.  I have included a recipe with each one to get your interest in these flavorful beauties peaked.

All of the herbs listed here will be available at the Garden Club of Villa Park Annual Plant sale (May 12 & 13, 2017).  For details and preorder forms (due April 20), check out the club website.

Eight Great Herbs to Grow

Cilantro — is the International Herb Association Herb of the Year for 2017. Cilantro is a cooler weather herb, so some zones may not be able to grow it in the thick of summer. But fresh cilantro from the garden is so fragrant and flavorful, you'll wish you could grow it all year round!  Successive sow a few seeds every two weeks in the same area of your garden to insure leaves to harvest all summer long.  Besides putting Cilantro in your salsa try it in your rice.

Cilantro Lime Rice
1 1/2 cups basmati rice rinsed 3 times and drained
3 cups water
1 tsp. kosher salt
juice and zest of one lime
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, rough chopped

Bring the rice, water and salt to a boil. Lower heat to medium low and cover, simmering until rice is tender and water absorbed. Fluff gently with a fork and add juice and zest of one lime, and cilantro. Fluff with fork until the lime and cilantro are blended evenly.

Basil — Great cooked or fresh, even prolific amounts of basil can get used. Make caprese salads, toss it in pasta dishes and sauces, and whip up some fresh-from-the-garden pesto that you can use now or freeze for later. Basil likes light, but too much direct sun can scorch the leaves. Pinching it back (automatic if you use it often) promotes growth.

Caprese Salad

Serves 4 as an appetizer
8 ounces fresh mozzarella
2-3 tomatoes
1 bunch basil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Black pepper

Slice the mozzarella and tomatoes into thin slices. Lay tomato slices on a platter, top with a leaf of basil, and then layer with mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Serve immediately.

Rosemary — This hardy plant is good-looking and versatile. Use it in sauces, roasts, cocktails, and more.  Plant in a pot and bring in for the winter, as it is not hardy below Zone 8.  I am obsessed with herbal cocktails this year so I have this wonderful cocktail for you to try.

Cucumber-Rosemary Gin and Tonic

1 cucumber
1 lime
3 sprigs rosemary
2 oz. Hendrick's Gin
4 oz. tonic water

Peel one half of a cucumber, and slice a lime into eight wedges. In a highball glass, add three slices of peeled cucumber, 1 sprig rosemary, juice from a lime wedge and 1 ounce gin. Muddle with the back of a spoon.

Strain through a mesh strainer into a second highball glass. Add several cubes of ice, and three slices of unpeeled cucumber. Top with remaining gin and tonic, and serve garnished with rosemary sprigs.

Thyme — I especially love thyme in potatoes (mashed or roasted) and in a lemon butter rub on roast chicken. This small-leafed herb packs a lot of flavor and is called for in many common recipes.  We grow it as an edging and also among the stones in the path because it is low growing and can handle the foot traffic.

Lemon-Thyme BruschettaServes 10 as an appetizer

1 baguette; thinly sliced
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1 lemon; zested
Freshly cracked black pepper
8 springs fresh thyme
sea salt; optional
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Mix together ricotta and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Toast baguette slices in the oven for 5-7 minutes until slightly browned and warm. Spread liberally with seasoned ricotta. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle with thyme. Serve warm.

Oregano — A kitchen staple, oregano from your herb garden will definitely get used in sauces, roasts, dressings, and more.  There are many varieties so always taste yours to make sure you get the flavor you want before bringing home from the garden shop.

Oregano Salad Dressing
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tsp. fresh oregano leaves, minced
1 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 tablespoon fresh basil, minced (or 1 tsp. dried)
2 cloves garlic, cut in half, skewered on a toothpick
3/4 cup oil

Combine all ingredients, except oil in a jar. Let marinate in refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove garlic. Add oil and shake vigorously. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Chives — Chives are nice in eggs, breakfast casseroles, in mashed potatoes with sour cream, and more. Chives' pom-pom-like purple flowers give your herb garden a nice touch of interest as well. And the flowers make a great herbal vinegar.  Chopped fresh, chives are a great addition to another spring item, radishes.  Spread some cream cheese on your fresh radishes and sprinkle with chopped chives for a wondrous garden snack.

Parsley — Throw it in sauces and salads. Parsley may well be one of the most ubiquitous herbs. It's a little more delicate than some of the others, but worth it to grow, for sure. Fresh parsley is also a surprising natural beauty ingredient that can promote circulation and has antiseptic qualities. Combined with lemon juice, the Perfect Parsley Toner makes a powerful skin toner and purifier.

Perfect Parsley Toner
1 cup water 
1/4 cup chopped parsley 
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Bring water to a boil. Place parsley in a clean heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over it. Allow mixture to cool completely, then strain out solids and mix in lemon juice. Pour into a clean, airtight container. 

To use: Apply to your face with a clean cotton pad after cleansing.

Lemon Balm – Although in the mint family it is not nearly as aggressive as some mint plants can be.  You still may want to contain it in a pot.  Lemon balm is a great seasoning for chicken, fish and vegetables.  You can put the fresh leaves in a salad or toss them with fruit.  The best way to use them is in lemonade.

Lemon Balm Tea Lemonade
For those who are still a bit leery of tisanes, try this citrus drink and enjoy all the curative and relaxing properties of lemon balm too!

3 cups loosely packed lemon balm leaves
6 cups hot water
Juice of 4 lemons (about 1 cup)
3 Tbls. light honey

Pack the leaves into a 2-quart wide mouthed jar or pitcher, using a wooden spoon to bruise them lightly to release their aroma.  Pour the water over the leaves and let them stand for about an hour.  Strain and discard the leaves, then add the lemon juice and honey.  Stir or shake before serving hot or chilled with sprigs of lemon balm for garnish.

You can make this recipe with dried lemon balm.  Use 3/4 cup dried lemon balm leaves, crumbled and increase the water by 1 cup.

All of the herbs listed here will be available at the Garden Club of Villa Park Annual Plant sale.  For details and preorder forms, check out the club website

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

More Edible Flowers - Herb of the Week

I previously did a blog post on edible flowers in 2013.  Since that time I have developed a wonderful slide presentation on Edible Flowers with a chart that details what parts of flowers to use.  The program includes herb, vegetable and landscaping flowers all of which are edible in one way or another.  As the weather gets warmer and I start to get antsy for gardening season to begin the thought of some edible flowers generally pops into my head.

These days people recognize that many flowers in addition to being decorative are indeed edible which is why we see a salad topped with nasturtiums or cookies with real rose or pansy petals pressed into the frosting or even a bowl of punch with violets or violas floating on top.  However I am going to give you a few ways to use flowers in a more savory way in cooking.

Chive Blossoms
We will start with my favorite early herb flower - Chive blossoms.  Chives can bloom as early as April in some places but generally show an abundance in early May in my Zone 5 garden.  I make chive flowers into vinegar. using the simple microwave technique.

To make herb vinegar, wash your fresh herbs thoroughly then allow to air dry. Use any type of vinegar with a 5% acidity.  Rice and wine vinegars are very popular, but distilled white works fine too. Place the herbs in a glass heat-resistant jar.  Pour vinegar over herbs to cover completely.  Using the handle of a wooden or plastic spoon bruise the herbs in the vinegar.  Then place jar in microwave for 2 minutes on high. Allow to cool and steep.

In about 2 weeks the vinegar starts to turn a lovely pink and picks up a light onionly flavor akin to chives.  It can then be used to make salad dressing and marinades.  I do sell the vinegar some years, but it is always gone in a hurry.

Vinegar Slaw
3 1/2 pounds green cabbage, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 very large Vidalia or other sweet onion (1 1/4 pounds), cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 celery ribs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup sugar
1 cup chive blossom vinegar
3/4 cup peanut oil
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

Working in batches, pulse the vegetables in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl and toss well. Stir in the sugar.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, oil, dry mustard, celery seeds and salt and bring to a boil. Pour the dressing over the slaw and toss well. Refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, drain the slaw and stir in the parsley.


Marigolds brighten up the summer months and Pot Marigold, also known as Calendula is a wonderful annual to grow.  I plant them as an edging around evergreen beds as well as my rain garden and my vegetable gardens.  The flowers are bright, colorful and sunny and cannot help but lift your mood and they are totally edible.  You can use calendula petals to make this wonderful vegetable soup.

Marigold Soup
Adapted from Herbs through the Seasons at Caprilands by Adelma Simmons

8 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup brown rice, uncooked
1 cup celery, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium potatoes scrubbed and diced
1 Tbls black peppercorns, crushed
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
½ cup chives, chopped

½ cup chive flowers, torn and chopped
1 cup parsley, chopped
2 cups calendula flowers
1 cup young calendula leaves
1 Tbls lemon juice (or more to taste)
calendula petals or flower heads for garnish

Combine chicken stock, rice, celery, onions, potatoes and crushed pepper in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for 20 minutes or until rice is just cooked.  Add spinach, chives, parsley and calendula flowers and leaves and cook 5 minutes more.  Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.  Garnish with fresh calendula.  Serve at once with a flower in each bowl.

Lavender flowers arrive in late summer and give such great aroma of relaxation they tend to be used for potpourri and scented creams and lotions rather than for the savory qualities they bring to food.  They are an important part of a traditional herb blend called Herbs De Provence.  Herbs de Provence can be used to marinades, sauces and as a meat rub.

Simplified Herbs De Provence

Lavender buds

Combine dried herbs in equal amounts and store in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Herbs de Provence Encrusted Pork Loin

3 1/2 lb. Center Cut Boneless Pork Loin
2 Tbls Herbs de Provence
2 Garlic Cloves, minced
3 Tbls Olive Oil
1 tsp Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
1 cup Chardonnay Wine (or any other dry white wine)
1 cup Fat Free Chicken Broth
1 Tbls Cornstarch
1 Tbls Cold Water

Encrusted Pork Loin
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Allow meat to come to room temperature for 15 minutes prior to cooking; then trim any visible fat from your roast and place in a roasting pan; leaving any fat facing up. Combine the Herbs de Provence, garlic, oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl; then brush it on top of the meat. Add the wine and chicken broth to the bottom of the pan and bake until the minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees (approximately 1 1/2 hours for an internal temperature of 160 degrees; which is how we prefer ours cooked.) Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 15 minutes before slicing.

Chardonnay Pan Gravy

Remove the pan drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan and place in a small saucepan. Bring to a slight boil over high heat; then reduce heat to a simmer. Combine the cornstarch and cold water and whisk the mixture into the pan drippings. Stir constantly until the gravy has thickened; approximately 2-3 minutes. Serve over Pork Loin.

Roses are also a great savory for cooking.  You can extract the essence of the petals by making a rose water that can then be used to make cookies.

You can make your own quick rose water.  It has not long term shelf life, so use it up in 6 months and keep refrigerated.  But you can use as a bath splash and in these savory cookies while you have it on hand.

Quick Rose Water
from the Program Body Beautiful by Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh

1 cup firmly packed rose petals, washed
2 cups boiling water

Place rose petals in a ceramic or glass bowl.  Use only fresh petals (no leaves or stems).  Pour boiling water over petals, and allow to steep until cool.  Strain off the petals and pour the scented liquid into a clean bottle.

Directions for use: Splash on after bath or shower or use in any number of beauty recipes.  Will keep refrigerated for 6 months.

Rose Cookies
Adapted from Herbs through the Seasons at Caprilands by Adelma Simmons

1 cup butter
1/2 cup honey
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flower
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 Tbls rose water or 1 tsp rose syrup
2 Tbls caraway seeds
raisins for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cream together butter and honey.  Add eggs and beat well.  Sift flours with baking soda and cream of tartar.  Add to the creamed mixture.  Stir in rose water or rose syrup and caraway seeds.  Drop mixture by teaspoon onto greased cookie sheets.  Flatten slightly with a moistened finger and put a raisin in the center of each cookie.  Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Remove from cookie sheets and cool on a wire rack.  Make 8 dozen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Growing Herbs in Containers - Tips for success

For the past several posts I have shared how to choose, design and plant containers.  This is a wrap up of tips to successful container gardening.

Tricks for a Successful Container Garden
ü  Don't fill a large container in the wrong place: Ever tried to lift a large container garden filled with dirt and plants? It can be overwhelmingly heavy. When using a large or unwieldy container make sure to place your pot where it will live and then fill it – you’ll save your back! 

ü  Make a large container lighter: If you know you are planting shallow rooted plants in a very large container (for example, herbs, annuals, succulents), you can fill the bottom third with empty plastic bottles and cover them with plastic screening, or create drainage with Styrofoam peanuts. Not only does this make the container lighter, but also less expensive because you won't need as much potting soil.
 ü  Don't Drown Your Plants: To avoid over-watering your container gardens, use containers that have drainage holes – lots of them.  Also, make sure to read the moisture requirements for your plants and then follow them. Before you water, check if your soil is moist. To do this put your finger into the soil up to your second knuckle. If the soil at your fingertip feels dry, water your plant.

If you do over-water, leaves may turn yellow and fall off, or your plants may get limp. If your soil is too wet, move the container to a dry, breezy spot until it dries out. If you have the room, you can also move your container garden into a garage or sheltered spot to dry it out, particularly if the weather is continuing to be wet.

ü  Don't Under-water: Most container gardens need watering at least once a day in the heat of the summer. Many, especially hanging planters or small containers, need watering even more often because there is less soil to hold moisture. When you water, make sure to really soak your plants – if you just give them a sip, the water will only wet the top layer of soil. Water until you see it coming out of the bottom of your pot.  Lots of people use water crystals but they are expensive and some tests have shown that they aren't particularly effective.

If your plants do dry out, don’t despair; even the most pathetic, limp, plant might revive with a good drink. If the container is small enough, submerge the whole thing in a bucket of water until the air bubbles subside. For a large container take a skewer or stick and gently poke holes deep into the soil to allow water to reach the roots. Then water generously.

ü  Awkward plant to pot ratio: Make sure to consider the proportions of your plants to your container. A large container stuffed with short plants can look stunted. If you need a rule of thumb (and remember that rules are meant to be broken) try to have at least one plant that is as tall as the container. Also try plants that will spill over the sides.

 ü  Don't buy weak or sickly plants: Buying plants at a reputable local nursery is a good place to start in your quest for healthy plants. You have a greater chance of getting plants that are disease and pest free and well cared for than at a big box store. At a nursery, you can often get a wealth of information and advice from knowledgeable staff. Don't be afraid to ask someone to help you pick out a good plant.

ü  Fear of pruning / Trim your herbs: To keep your basil bushy, use it often or clip it back - the more you use the more you'll have (of course within reason). Cut back parsley and dill before it flowers. When your container gardens start looking leggy or ragged, don’t be afraid to cut them back. You may want to put them in an out-of-the-way spot until they re-bound, but chances are they’ll come back healthier and happier with a good haircut.

ü  Keep Like with Like: Make sure that all the plants in your container garden share the same sun, soil and water requirements. You can find out this information from your seed packets or plant labels. Or get a book on annuals, perennials and herbs from the library.

ü  Feed your Containers: Most potting mix has very few of the nutrients that plants require to grow and be healthy so you will need to add those nutrients to the soil. There are many fertilizers to choose from and flowering plants have different needs than vegetables and herbs. In container gardening what nutrients there are in your potting soil are either quickly used by the plants or are washed out with repeated watering. Fertilizing container gardens with flowers regularly is a key to their success. Add a diluted, liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, every couple of weeks. Don't use too much fertilizer with herbs, it can effect the taste of the herbs.

ü  Know when it its okay to say goodbye: After you’ve tried everything, short of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and your plant still looks dreadful, cut your losses and toss it on the compost pile or in the trash. If only one plant in your container garden is icky, just pull out that plant and replace it.

ü  Don't have unrealistic expectations: Before you make your container gardens, evaluate how you live. Do you travel a lot during the summer? If so, either get self-watering containers, an automatic drip irrigation system, enlist some help to keep your plants healthy and alive while you’re gone or get plants that don't need a lot of water.

ü  Garden how you live. Are you casual or formal? I take a relaxed approach to gardening because it fits well with my personality. I like big overflowing containers with riotous colors and luxuriant blossoms. Some people like neat, well-planned, formal containers.

ü  Give plants protection and environment they need.  Many plants don’t like being whipped by the wind. Big, broad leaves can easily get battered or act like a sail and pull even a big pot right over. Some plants with heavy flowers or fruit, can bend or break delicate stems in a stiff breeze. Conversely, a protected area can act like an oven, retaining heat and cooking plants that don’t like the heat. So choose the location and the plant combination to fit the location your plants will occupy.

Just a few last herb container tips:
1.   Chose containers with trays or get trays and fill them with pebbles.  Herbs do not like to have wet feet, but they also like to have a bit of water to draw on in the heat of the day.  Placing the pot in a tray will keep you from watering twice during the hot days of summer.
2.   Don't let your herbs flower, unless you want to look at rather than eat them.  Herb flavors change when they create flowers, so cut those flower heads off to preserve the best flavors for cooking and tea.
3.   Throughout the growing season pinch back the ends of the branches to promote more branching and the production of more leaves to harvest. 

4.   Check daily for dryness and water when the soil is dry about 1" depth.  Do not overwater and provide good drainage.  To test soil for dryness, poke your finger into the soil: If it feels dry to a depth of one-inch in a 12 inch pot and two inches in a 24” or larger pot, water it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Growing Herbs in Containers - Planting Containers

We have discussed choose the container and designing the layout in previous posts.  Now it is time to talk about the actual planting.

Make sure that if you plant to use your containers outdoors that the plants you include have been hardened off.   Hardening off” is the process of moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually introduce them to the direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights. You start with a few hours in the shade, then a few in sun and shade then longer periods of time outdoors until they can finally tolerate the flexible outdoor temps.  If you spring the outside on them the plant will often die.  So give your plants a fighting chance by hardening them, especially of they came from your grow lights or from a greenhouse nursery.

Step to planting:

Preparing your containers -- Make sure your containers are clean and free of residue.  A mixture of 6 parts water 1 part bleach can be used to sterilize the pots and remove residual bacteria from previous seasons that can harm new plants.  Make drainage holes in the bottom if they do not already exist.  No holes means drowned plants. Cover the holes with broken pottery shards or coffee filters to keep soil from escaping. If planting a large container cover the shards with some bulky material, like recycled foam peanuts, crumbled paper or even torn folded pieces of cardboard.  The bulk will cut down on the weight.

Fill your container with soil mix.  The amount of soil you put in depends on whether you use seeds or seedlings to plant your herb garden. In general, if you are using seeds, fill your container to about 1 inch from the rim so that you will have room to cover your seeds with a little additional soil.
With plants fill 2 to 3 inches in the bottom, place the plants and fill in around the plants.  Make sure the soil  is well firmed down to give roots more hold.  Peat based soil (often times called growing medium) is better suited for growing seed, not large living plants.  It dries out more quickly and lacks much nutrient value.

Mix nutrients into your soil - It took me years to realize that I was starving my plants to death. Use a manure-based compost or a home made compost that you mix into the soil mixture you use in your pots to provide nutrients, then realize that the soil will become depleted over the season and feeding will be required.  You can make a compost tea or purchase a commercial fertilizer.  I water with compost tea once a week when we reach the height of the growing season in late June (see below for a link to a fertilizing post.)

Make your own potting mix by blending:
5 parts top soil; 2 parts cool compost or mixture of compost and peat moss; 1 part course (not play) sand.  The sand increases the oxygen and the compost provides the organic matter.  Later in the season I use a mix of 50% top soil and 50% compost to top off the pots as the soil sinks.  This adds more nutrients and replaces what is lost to watering.

I also found this recipe among my lecture notes.  I have tried both and have no opinion which is better.  I like using coconut coir instead of peat moss because it is more renewable.

Homemade Soil Recipe:
1 part pre-soaked Coir Peat 
1 part course sand / builders sand (or vermiculite)
2 parts sieved Compost / soil
1 Tbls to 1 cup* Worm Castings or Vermicast (humus) 

Mix equal quantities of pre-soaked coir peat and vermiculite (or coarse sand if using) together well in a separate container. Place the sieved compost Preferably home made but a commercial certified organic soil mix is an alternative if you haven’t got your own.  in your larger final mixing container have.  Add the blended coir peat and sand to this compost/soil, then stir in the worm casing/humus. Check the pH with a meter.  Most plants require a pH of between 6.0 and 7.0 but if you are growing veggies, from my experience, they grow best in the range of 6.2 – 6.8 pH. 

*this is an approximate quantity based on making 12 gallons  of potting mix using a 3 gallon (9 liter) brick of coir peat. Feel free to add more if you have it!  If you can’t access vermicast, you can buy worm castings or use some humus from the bottom of your compost pile that is most decomposed or use good quality compost.

Remove your plants from their nursery pots carefully - When I first started gardening, I would grab it by the stem and pull to get it out of its pot. Often I would just pull the top of the plant off sometimes killing it before I even got started. To avoid this, if you have a six pack of plants, that is made of flexible plastic, hold the plant close to the soil surface (I make a v out of my fingers and place them on either side of the stem) and squeeze the plants out of their holder from the bottom. If the plant is in a nursery pot, try pushing it out from the bottom. If it is root bound, you may have tear or cut any roots off that are sticking out the bottom hole of the pot and slide a knife around the inside of the pot, before the plant will slide out. In extreme cases, you may have to break the pot to free the plant.

If your plant is root bound, which is often the case, make sure to break up the plants roots, either by tearing them or cutting them. Some people simply rough up the roots on the outside by rubbing them, but I'm a little more aggressive and often tear or cut a compacted root ball so the roots will be able to grow freely, not in a circular pattern, which can strangle a plant.

Planting - There are two main things to know when actually planting a plant in a container (or anywhere else for that matter). You want to plant it at the same level that it sits in its nursery pot. So in other words, the level of the soil should stay the same and no more or less of the plant's stem or crown should be covered. You also want to make sure there are no air pockets and your plants' roots are surrounded by soil. In a crowded pot, sometimes it is difficult to put soil in between the plants, but you will need to make sure that you do, or the roots will dry out if they are in an air pocket, and your plant can die. Sometimes you just need to feel around a crowded pot and stuff soil into any holes you feel. It's also a good idea to water a pot right after you plant it, which settles the soil. At that point you can go back and fill in any holes or depressions with extra soil.

Give your containers a good watering!

Position pots of sun-loving plants where they will have at least 5 or six hours of strong light every day.  Without that number of hours stay with bay, lemon balm, mint, parsley, thyme and scented geraniums.

Watering - watering of container plants is a daily requirement if they are in the sun.  Twice a day (morning and evening is ideal).  About 1/2 to 2/3 through the growing season the soil will become depleted of nutrients so prepare in advance to have a fertilizer at the ready to add to your watering routine to keep the plants healthy.  For more details on fertilizing containers, check out this blog post from 2013.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Old-fashioned Rose Drop Cookies - Weekend Recipe

Here is a sweet Easter Sunday treat you can make with your kids.  They are fun and use fresh roses from your garden.

Old Fashioned Rose Drop Cookies

1/2 cup butter or margarine
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh rose petals, organically grown
2/3 cup of sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon rose water

Cream together margarine and minced fresh rose petals. Add sugar and beat thoroughly.
Beat in eggs one at a time. Add rose water. Stir in flour previously mixed with baking
powder. Mix until smooth. Drop by tiny teaspoonfuls on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for 7 minutes. Cookies should be lightly browned just at the edges.

Makes about 80 bite-size cookies.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Growing Herbs in Containers - Design and Layout

The design and layout of the plants will depend on the container you choose or the space you have available.  You can plant your herbs in individual containers, artfully arranged or group them in pots. We discussed the coordination of thriller, filler and spiller yesterday, so today we will give you some specific designs and ideas. 

When you plant in individual containers, you get to control the soil mixture and adjust it per plant. When you group them into one container you do need to place plants with similar soil and water needs together. Thinking about this in advance will give you successful container planting that provides a great harvest or pretty appearance.

Almost all of the herbs listed here will be available at the Garden Club of Villa Park Annual Plant sale (May 12 & 13, 2017).  For details and preorder forms (due April 20), check out the club website.

Choosing plants

Flowering Plants for Sun

1.      One of the most popular container flowers is calibrachoa, also known as million bells. This plant comes in about a million spectacular colors that range from pure white to different shades of pink to deep purple.  Calibrachoa look great in almost any container garden. The prolific blossoms attract hummingbirds and butterflies and will go strong all summer with regular feeding.  They don't need deadheading but they do need consistent watering and good drainage - no soggy roots for these guys.
2.      Verbena is a great container garden plant for sun because it will flower like crazy all summer long and into the fall. It plays well with others - looking good by filling in spaces and spilling over edges with its densely clustered blossoms. There are many colors of verbena to choose from - brilliant red to deep, dark blue. These profuse bloomers are extremely forgiving. They are drought tolerant and only need an average amount of water.
3.      I like a good flower with radiating petals.  To fill this bill, try cape daisies or ostiospermum. These plants are cheerful, forgiving (they are hardy to 25 degrees) and come in a variety of and handsome colors from a deep pink to melon, purple and white. 
4.      Pot marigold, Calendula, is another easy to grow flower and you can harvest the flowers for use in lotion and salves.  They begin flowering late in June and continue until frost.
5.      For a taller plant I recommend borage.  The flowers are unique five pointed stars of deep purple with dark black pistils in the center and hair leaves and stems.  They add color and texture.  You will want to keep them trimmed as they can grow leggy.
6.      My husband loves petunias.  Since he rarely states a preference about plants I pounced on this to use them in window boxes and round containers all over the place. They come in a ridiculous assortment of colors and sizes and they now self-deadhead, which is great, because deadheading petunias is not my idea of a good time. They love lots of sun, but don't love too much heat so depending on your climate, you may need to give them some mid-day shade.

Herbs for Full Sun
1.   Basil, a beloved Italian annual herb, grows best in full sun and fertile, moist soil. Once the root system is established, about six weeks after sowing, it tolerates short periods of drought. Basil is a good companion with parsley, thyme, and other herbs when grown in a pot that holds at least 5 gallons of soil. For small containers, choose a compact variety such as 'Spicy Bush'.
2.   Chives are grassy, clump-forming perennials with hollow leaves. Essentially tiny onions, chives are grown for their leaves and blooms rather than their bulbs. Their fragrant pink-purple spring flowers are also edible. Plant them in well-drained potting soil that's rich with organic matter. They can tolerate light shade but do best in full sun. Chives grow well in container gardens. Because they're hardy in Zones 3-10, you can leave them outdoors year-round.
3.   Cilantro, also known as coriander, can be used for its tangy leaves or its dried, ground seeds. Plant this annual herb in well-drained soil. Cilantro grows best in sun, although it tolerates some shade. Because it has a long taproot, place it in a container garden that is at least 12 inches deep.
4.   Lavender is a bushy perennial shrub that does best in full sun and well-drained potting mix. Keep it on the dry side and avoid fertilizer. Lavender hardiness depends on the variety; the toughest are hardy in Zones 5-10.
5.   Lemon balm, an old-fashioned favorite that spreads freely and self-sows readily, is perfect for container gardens so it doesn't take over the yard. Plant in partial shade or full sun and in moist, rich, well-drained potting mix. Zones 3-10
6.   Lemon verbena is a tropical shrub (hardy in Zones 9-10) that's commonly grown as an annual in container gardens. Plant nursery-grown plants in pots filled with well-drained potting mix. Avoid fertilizer; lemon verbena grows best with few nutrients. It prefers full sun.

7.   Marjoram, an oregano relative, has a sweeter, milder flavor and aroma than its cousin. Grow it in full sun and well-drained potting mix. It's perennial in Zones 8-10, so gardeners in colder areas can grow it in container gardens indoors over winter.

Plants for Shade

1.      Coleus are really good-natured shade plants, not at all fussy and some will even thrive in full sun. The color choices are jaw-dropping and the leaf shapes are varied and exciting. Even an ordinary coleus, when paired with a good companion in a nice container can be spectacular.
2.      Torenia, also known as wishbone flower, is an elegant and cheerful plant which will flower all summer even in full shade. It is heat tolerant and really easy to take care of. It will thrive with regular watering and fertilizing until frost and you don’t have to deadhead it. Wishbone flower is great in combinations or, in the right container, can be beautiful on its own. You can use it in hanging baskets, window boxes or in any container with good drainage.
3.      Mint, especially pineapple mint or apple mint.  You get good scent and texture contrast and the shade keeps the habit of spreading in check.  Mints produce runner and can cascade over the side of a container too.
4.      Although Chives prefer full sun, they will grow well in part shade and the tall nature makes them a good height plant.
5.      If you want a golden low growing foliage plant, try golden oregano.  Most oregano need full sun, but Golden will burn in full sun, so give it part shade and watch it flourish.
6.      Thyme is another full sun plant that will also grow in part shade if needed.  The low growing trailing habit makes it popular along the edge of a window box.
7.   Tarragon can grow well in shade.  The first year it is a slow grower and be perfect in a container, but the second year it springs from the root and gets very tall so plan to transplant it.
7.      Perilla also called shiso, is an herb from the mint family that can take some shade. Red perilla has an anise-like flavor, while green perilla tastes more like cinnamon.  If you like the idea of color like coleus, but want something scented and edible, this is a great substitute.

Herb Plants that thrive together

Parsley & Basil
Both of these fragrant and familiar herbs enjoy more water than their woody brethren. Chives, nasturtiums, hot peppers and cherry tomatoes also make great container mates for these guys.

Rosemary & Sage
These are perfect examples of what we’re talking about when we refer to “woody herbs.” They prefer more sun and drier soil than the leafier varieties, which is why it’s a better idea to plant them together than, say, with a basil plant, which will need a lot more water.

Oregano & Thyme
These semi-woody varieties keep good company with their sun-loving cousins, rosemary and sage. So, if you’re at a loss for space, go ahead and house them together.

Mint & Mint

Yes, you read that correctly. All types of mint tend to take over a pot. They’re not the most neighborly plant. You're best off growing them separately from other herb types. And even alone, you’ll want to leave plenty of space between each of them so that all the different fragrances and flavors don't meld.

Designing Containers

Single Plant Containers

This is mint becoming the hair on a Greek Head.

Elfin Thyme 
Basic Plans

Layout a simple rectangle with tall dill in the center, chervil and parsley in the four corners and calendula or nasturtiums in between to fill in.  The nasturtiums will cascade over the side and look very attractive.

This example has thyme, sage and even a tomato plant.

Nasturtium. Jewel Mix

A circle of  three plants will always be easy to craft as the triangle shape allows you to put plants in any order and turn the container to show each off as you want.

You can group indoor plants like bay, rosemary, lemon scented geranium or the same species like tricolor sage, purple sage, and golden sage.

Window Box Herb Garden 
My favorite way to grow herbs in containers is a narrow window box shape.  You have linear space, the ability to plant a number of varieties in one long container and they look great on a railing, a window ledge or even on a deck or raised bed edge.

This design is 5 feet wide, but can be divided into two or even three smaller boxes.

1. Curly-leaved parsley (Petroselinum crispum) 1 plant; 8" tall; bright green curly leaves useful as a garnish or in combination with thyme and bay for a bouquet garni. Biennial.
2. Flat-leaved, or Italian, parsley (P. crispum) 1 plant; 8" to 12" tall; flat dark green leaves, with stronger flavor than the curly-leaved type. Biennial.
3. Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) 1 plant; 8" tall; evergreen shrublet with trailing stems bearing ¼ inch-long gray-green leaves that are aromatic.
4. Variegated lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus 'Silver Queen') 2 plants; 6" tall; green shrublet with tiny, strongly lemon-scented leaves, grayish-green bordered with white.
5. Chives (Allium schotnoprasum) 2 plants planted singly; 12" to 15" tall; very slender pointed dark green leaves, with mild onion flavor. Perennial.
6. Tricolor sage (Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor') 1 plant; up to 2' tall; 2"-long leaves variegated with cream, purple, and green; pungent flavor. Evergreen shrub.
7. Purple sage (S. officinalis 'Purpurea') 1 plant; up to 18" tall; pungent 2" -long purple leaves. The color is best on the young growth. Evergreen shrub.
8. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) 1 plant; up to 4' tall; dark green needlelike leaves with a pungent, piney fragrance. Evergreen shrub, with small pale blue or white flowers. Can be trained as a topiary if desired.

Hanging Baskets

You need to be aware that a hanging basket can get neglected and try to use plants that are drought tolerant or so showy that you cannot ignore them and will water regularly.

Hanging baskets love spillers, so weight them heavily with things that crawl over the side.  Million bells, nasturtiums, elfin thyme, and pansy will all look stunning in a hanging container.

We will next follow up with how to prep soil and plant and care for your containers.  This is the next post on planting the actual containers: Planting a Container (It will be live on Monday.)
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