Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Tale of Three Gardens: Part I

We recently visited the Jacksonville Aboreteum and Botanical Gardens in Florida.  For some reason, the two labels below exemplify this park for me: 

The name of this park is misleading (at least in winter: it might be nicer in other seasons).  It is basically a city park, a sort of nature preserve, in an area of light industry (and the park is bisected by a power line easement). There are few labels, and seemingly few interesting plants to label.   At the entrance, you are greeted by signs warning of thefts to cars in the parking lot.  There is a pond and some lightly marked trails.  It would be a fine park in which to walk your dog, as we saw several people doing, but it is not (yet) a botanical garden.   If you are in the area during other seasons, it might be worth a quick visit.

Next time: Florida garden number two!

Happy gardening!  Get those seed catalogs out and start dreaming!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays!

For me, gardening is all about the "delight in the unexpected."  I found some leaves still clinging to the top of my apple tree  and I think they are lovely.

December 21, 2013
Photo credit SR Vrana

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cool in the Semi-Tropics

It was hot in a Florida until I arrived today, Christmas Eve. 85 the day before, 60's today.  

I remember the first time I visited Florida.  I was excited and ran to my Dad, saying "Houseplants grow in the ground here!"  I was 10 or so and had quite a collection of houseplants already. So, here's to my childish excitement, "a houseplant growing on a tree!"

Happy Gardening and Merry Christmas!

Fern Wall

A beautiful old wall in Savannah, GA, by the River.  Lovely ferns worked into the spaces between the bricks.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What a difference a few zones make!

What a difference a zone makes!  We are here in Savannah, Ga,   USDA hardiness  zone 8b, versus my home central VA region of 7a.  Camellias, a winter flowering plant, are in bloom, as are hibiscus plants, a summer flowerer!  More reports from the road as we travel!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Muscadine and Grape Pruning

We had a little nice weather this past week, so I thought it was a good time to do a chore I had been neglecting, pruning the muscadine grapes.  All grapes can stand some significant pruning, and native grapes even more so.  My muscadines had really overgrown the fence and were reaching out for new territory!  One day my neighbor came over- he had parked his truck for a few days next to the fence and the muscadines had twined around his roof rack!

The plants are dormant now and need to be pruned before their sap begins to run in the spring.  As you can see by the photo, the background is well-pruned and the foreground remains to be done.  If you wait too long to prune your grapes, they might just exude so much sap that the vine is damaged.  How do grapes respond to dormant pruning?  Very well: muscadines at least, respond with vigorous growth.  There might be fewer grapes (I have far too many, so that would be good), but they should be larger.

One more thing: Happy Holidays from the Central VA Organic Gardener!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Do Wireless Routers Kill Plants? Probably Not....

My Christmas gift to readers is this charming article from The Guardian, on plants, the scientific method, the dangers of over-interpretation and school kids:


Happy holidays!  Over the holidays, I hope to be posting some plant and garden information from a road trip south!

And.....happy gardening!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Houseplants: Part II: Scale Insects

Sorry for the length of time between posts: Thanksgiving and end-of-semester busy-ness absorbed my time.  So, to continue on about houseplants:  sometimes I find these little brown bumpy things on my plants and you might too: in the photo above these are identified by arrows. What are they?
These are actually scale insects, sometimes just called scale, also leaf scale.  These armored bugs most often arrive to your home on newly acquired plants and slowly make their presence known. They attach to the leaves of your plant and slowly suck the juices out of the leaf.  A severe infestation, one you are unlikely to miss, unless you never look at your plants, can kill the plant. And, in juvenile form, they are tiny and mobile (adults are sessile, so stay put).
What to do? First, really, check out plants before you bring them home, looking at both sides of the leaves, stems and branches.  If you see scale, don't buy the plant and let the staff and the store know.  Next, when you do bring plants home, isolate them from other plants for a couple of weeks. I find this hard to do as my space for plants is pretty full.  If you do find scale, move the plant to a sink.  Remove all adults by hand (they are pretty easy to rub off) or you can use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove them.  Rinse away the sticky residue left by the insects. Then, to get those pesky juveniles, spray with insecticidal soap, and spray again once a week for two weeks.  Continue to monitor your plants: if scale breaks out again, repeat the process and increase your vigilance!

Happy houseplant gardening!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gardener's Glossary (an occasional series)


     Today's word for your gardener's glossary is guttation.  Guttation is sometimes seen on houseplants or potted plants (at least, that is where I have most often seen it), but can also occur to plants growing outdoors.  Ever see water droplets repeatedly form on leaves, usually at the tip, and drip off?  And I don't mean from rain or overhead watering: guttation occurs when a plant has been overwatered and it is trying to rid itself of excess moisture.  I was drawing a potted voodoo lily this summer and noticed guttation. Sure enough, the plant later collapsed and I discovered that the bulb was rotted, in too-damp soil.  I guess I loved it to death and over-watered it.  
     If you see guttation happening, stop watering the plant, as the soil is likely too wet for that species.  In a potted plant, you may be able to poke a rag or piece of thick yarn into the soil, draping it over the side of the pot, to act as a wick and draw off the water.  Or, place the pot directly on a old towel that has been folded a few times to draw off water.  If the plant is in the ground, stop watering it.  If the guttation is due to lots of rain, cross your fingers and hope for dry weather. If the plant is in a spot that is regularly wet, it might be time to transplant it.
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Wildlife Sighting

An early morning (still dark out) visitor to the last remaining figs on my honey fig tree!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Houseplants: The Unexplored Continent

I have many houseplants, but have not written much about them, with the exception of my citrus trees and banana plants.  Can you care for indoor plants organically?  Yes, and you better!  Any chemical you apply to your plants indoors will stay indoors for quite a while and may volatalize into the air.  In addition, these substances may be absorbed into carpeting and furnishings, only to be re-emitted under certain conditions (increased humidity, for example) or with contact.  Houseplants do have a few problems of their own, and I hope to address this over the next few weeks (molds and fungi, insects, like fungus gnats...).  But plants also have benefits: they are soothing to our psyche, they are beautiful and restful to look at, give us something to care for, and they improve our indoor air quality overall, absorbing some environmental contaminants (from cleaners, paints, etc), as well as taking in CO2 and producing oxygen.

So, I thought I would give a few house plant tips from time to time.  Here is today's tip: did you know that when dust settles on the leaves of your houseplants the dust can block enough sunlight to reduce photosynthesis?  And dust that adheres to the underside of leaves can block the stomata, or respiratory openings, through which the plant exchanges gasses to the air?  Last weekend I took all my houseplants (at least the 40 or so downstairs, haven't done this to to the upstairs plants yet) and did this:
I gave them a lukewarm shower in my kitchen sink. This removed dust, added some moisture and made my plants happy!  At the same time, if you have an over-abundance of mineral salts in soils of salt-sensitive plants (like spider plants, dracaenas: you can tell when you see a white crusty substance on the surface of the soil, and the tips of the leaves often turn brown), you can use this "shower" to flush the salts out of the soil, making sure to let the soil drain well afterwards.
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Extra Wednesday Lagniappe

A one-woman  recycling (community composting) event:

Wonder if I will get any?
Happy gardening!

Wednesday Lagniappe: Fall "Floral" Arrangements

I like to bring in flowers all throughout the growing season, but especially when frost is threatening, as I might not have any more home-grown flowers till spring.  But my idea of a "floral arrangement" is a bit....off.

For example, here are two recent, um, "arrangements" :
This is the Nana dwarf pomegranate, Punica granatum

And here is another oddball:

Brown cotton or Gossypium hirsutum

The second photo was taken by my spouse as part of a series of a reference photos for a drawing of the plant, but then....I decided I kind of like how it looks and have kept it around in my living room. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of a more "finished" arrangement, but think how cool this might look with some ferns, and a few blooms, around the outer edge!

Happy gardening! 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Recipe from the Garden: Quick Sauteed Veggies with Italian Seasoning and Cous Cous

Master recipe:

1 cup cous cous
2 cups water
Bring water to a boil, add cous cous, cover and turn off the burner. Ready in 15-20 minutes, reserve for the dish.

A few T olive oil.
1 onion, diced
1 red or yellow bell pepper, diced.
2 cloves garlic, diced or pressed.
1 t each dried marjoram, basil, oregano.
Some sort of greens, chopped, about 1 cup or to your liking: kale, turnip or mustard, chard, spinach.
1 c. broccoli florets
Optional: mushrooms (see special instructions below) and other vegetables, like asparagus chopped, fennel, green beans, zucchini.
Optional: dried tomatoes, sliced olives, feta cheese.

Heat the oil in the pan and saute the onions and pepper with a pinch of salt until golden brown. If you are using mushrooms, I recommend sauteing them to a brown, caramelized stage, separately in another pan in olive oil and a pinch of salt to help them sweat.  Add to sauteed onions when done.  Add the garlic and herbs to the pan. Saute while stirring a few minutes more, add your diced or chopped additional vegetables and cous cous and stir. Cover with a lid and dry steam until the added vegetables are done.  If too dry, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water or stock before covering. Add in olives, dried tomatoes and feta at the end.  Looks beautiful served on a platter!
Happy eating!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Persimmon and Pomegranate Festival

I went to Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA (http://ediblelandscaping.com/) a plant nursery dedicated to finding, growing and selling plants with edible parts.  Some of these are plants for outside landscaping, some are indoor or greenhouse plants (or need overwintering), and some are for dreamers (they will produce a little, but are great conversation starters!).  I have written about this nursery before, and I am enamoured of its organic practices and mission.  This last weekend (Oct. 26, 2013), the nursery held a "Pomegranate and Persimmon" festival, which included tours of these (and many other) plants.  My favorite plant sold at Edible is the Ichi Ki Kei Jiro persimmon (fondly called "Itchy" at the nursery. Search persimmon entries on this blog for more informatiom). This seemed to be a big favorite during the festival, and were all sold out!  Here are some images with captions and my new acquisitions!

I did not purchase the plant in the photo below, but I will one day soon: a pineapple plant (Ananas comosas).  This is a bromeliad and the main plant dies after fruiting, but see the sprouts below the pineapple in the top photo? These are new plants that can be potted up to start it all over again!

This is an edible cactus: both the fruits and the large paddles are edible (with care taken to avoid and remove the spines!).  The paddles are the basis of dish nopales in Latin American cooking) (Opuntia tuna, the native Prickly Pear cactus):

This is the Hachyia Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki), a persimmon that must be eaten soft. Gorgeous!  It can stay on the tree and take some frost.
Unfortunately, what I thought was a fully charged camera was not, so I so not have more photos of the festival to show you (search this blog for Edible Landscaping for more photos).  But....

...below here are my two new friends, the taller is a coffee plant (Coffee arabica) and, yes, if I am lucky and diligent, I can make a cup of coffee from it...eventually!  The shorter plant is a Owari Satsuma Mandarin (similar to a tangerine) (Citrus reticulata).  I am able to get fruit from my other citrus, so am hopeful about this one!  Both are waiting to be repotted and placed under lights in my attic.
Go online and look for these fun and unusual festivals in your region!
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Persimmon Harvest

My Ichi Ki Kei Jiro persimmons are ripening up!  Here is a photo of the tree.  As I think you can tell, this is a dwarf tree.  And, as you can also see, at least in part, it is loaded with fruit!  Much of the fruit, now turning bright orange, is hidden under the leaves.

To give a sense of the relative size of the fruit, here is is:  it is at least as big as a Big Boy tomato. Delicious too!  This is a non-astringent persimmon, eaten while still crunchy. I have been eating one a day for a about 2 weeks and intend to dehydrate some (yum!)

Happy gardening!

Wednesday Lagniappe: A Bowl Full of Sweetness

Can't you just taste them?  (A few more blemishes than usual, I blame the rainy summer, but oh, so tasty!)  I am going to dehydrate these in slices (no seeds in these babies). You need firm fruit to dehydrate, and these non-astringent persimmons are sweet while still firm.  To dehydrate Asian persimmons, slice in 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick slices and place on a dehydrator at 120-130 degrees.  To peel or not to peel is up to you. I love dried persimmons! (For more info on growing Asian persimmons, search this blog for "persimmons").
Happy gardening!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Field Trip: The Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA

The Phipps Conservatory

A visit to a conservatory or botanical garden is not complete without a camera (though one should not let the camera interfere with the experience of just being there, but that is another story).  I was recently in Pittsburgh, PA and had the opportunity to visit the Phipps Conservatory.  The original glass house of the Phipps was built in 1893, and the new, LEED-certified expansion added over several years and completed in 2006. When they were planning their expansion, the Phipps went as "green" as they could ("green" as in environmentally friendly, not just in adding more plants!), with sustainable building methods and management practices. For example, the Phipps staff seek the least toxic alternative to dealing with pests and disease, incorporating beneficial insects as part of integrated pest management.  They also use mechanical removal (I call is picking and squashing) to remove pests. Even the lawn outside the conservatory is low maintenance: it is infected with a fungus that causes the roots to grow deeply (resulting in a need for less water) and the blades to grow shorter (meaning less frequent mowing).  The new construction is designed to minimize inputs and minimize energy loss to the outside.  In another example, you might see these beneficial insect feeling stations aroud the conservatory:

But the Phipps is also beautiful, strange and exotic, from the bizarre Buddha's hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis):

To the Bat Wing plant (Taca integrifolia):

The conservatory has several rooms, complete with lovely art glass pieces by many artisans:

Doorways into exotic places:
And charming surprises, like a sedum "tree":

Of course there are exotic orchids (some orchid plants were quite large!):

And water gardens (with more glass sculptures):

And Pittsburgh itself is full of art, from the Warhol Museum, to the Carnegie Museum of Art.  I will leave with one Pittsburgh community art project, "Locks of Love!"

The Phipps combines the old and new, with the original 1896 glass houses and the 2006 "Green" conservatory.  If you are in the area, it is well worth the visit!  Oh, the cafe, whihc uses locally-sources, mostly organic ingredients, is pretty good too!

Happy garden visiting!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Typical October Harvest in VA

Oh, yes, a typical October harvest here in central Virginia.  A few remaining string beans, tomatoes, eggplant, muscadine grapes, Asian persimmons and Key limes.  Key limes?  As in the Florida Keys? Yep.  I have written about growing citrus before, so this is sort of an update.   I enjoy growing plants that are atypical for my region (the Asian persommon is another exmaple, though I have seen a few of these trees around the area recently).  Citrus are not very difficult to grow if you have indoor room (like my heated attic) and some shop lights suspended a few inches above the plants (as I do). I grow:

 Key lime, 
Kaffir lime (grown for its pungent leaves used in Thai cooking) 
and a Meyer lemon (not pictured).

So, do I get much fruit?  This is the ultimate gardeners' bottom line. The Key lime seems to be the most productive of the bunch, but I get all the Kaffir lime leaves I need and some Meyer lemons. How much? Enough for a little fresh eating and to make about three Key lime pies per year.  If I had a greenhouse, I would get much more.

How difficult is it to care for citrus in a non-citrus growing zone (we are zone 7, most citrus is grown in zone 9 and 10)?  I set them outside when the days have warmed reliably, in mid-May.  I water and fertilize them with liquid seaweed and fish emulsion, and sometimes a citrus tab (I know, not organic) and recently I had to  bury a rusty nail in the soil for iron (the leaves were yellowing a bit, a sign of iron deficiency).  The only pests I have had are spider mites, which respond to the blast of a hose and a little insecticidal soap, and fungus gnats (many houseplants get these), which I control with a BT granule solution that kills them (BT is a naturally occurring bacteria that is safe to use, unless you are a target insect).  When the trees bloom in winter (filling my house with a lovely scent) I hand pollinate them with a paintbrush.  I (read my strong son) bring(s) them inside around mid-October (definately before the first frost) after blasting them with the hose and spraying with insecticidal soap (if needed).  I occasionally prune them to keep them from getting too tall.  It might be time to re-pot them next spring and I will use a good quality, organic potting soil amended with finished compost!

Happy gardening!  (Spell check is not working, sorry!)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Growing Figs in Central VA! FUN FUN!

I am on vacation and revisiting my very first post, over 5 years ago (YAY!) on my very favorite fruit!
Figs (Ficus carica)
When I moved to central Virginia 8 years ago, I was amazed by what can be grown in this zone. I found eucalyptus by the James River and both Northern and Southern Magnolias side by side in neighbors’ yards. One of my amazing finds was fig trees. I stumbled upon them one autumn at Monticello and, later, at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where, alas, they were removed when the Children’s’ Garden was renovated.

I first heard about the extreme measures northern gardeners take to keep figs trees alive in an issue of Organic Gardening magazine. From pruning and burying the trees to building little structures (fig houses) around the trees in the fall, Northern gardeners must have to love figs to try to grow them. After I got used to looking for the trees, I found one venerable fig tree in northern New Jersey. The elderly Italian gardeners in the house covered the tree each fall with thick layers of old carpeting and rope and each spring it budded anew.

Growing figs is much easier here in central Virginia than points north and the fruit is an excellent reward. I planted 3 Brown Turkey figs 5 years ago and am experimenting with two others, Petite Negri (planted in a large pot), a black fig, and a green honey fig variety. Three of the Brown Turkeys are planted near the house on a southern exposure. This is the best location to provide winter warmth and protection from desiccating breezes. For the first three years, I wrapped the figs in the fall with burlap and filled the burlap with that ubiquitous VA mulching material, pine straw. Other than watering the plants deeply through that first summer, this is all the care they needed. Last year, the figs again produced abundant fruit, but needed some heavy pruning to reduce the height to manageable levels. Figs can be heavily pruned and will come back the following spring, fruiting on new wood.

My figs have not been affected by any pests, other than the occasional bird or squirrel, unlike the organic peaches or apples I struggle to produce each year. Once their roots go deep, figs are sturdy, hardy plants with no particular diseases in this area of VA.

What to do with the all those figs? Well, the ones that are not eaten right off the plant (and one tree grows onto my porch, so I have fulfilled my dream of picking figs from a lawn chair on the front porch) I make into fig preserves and I dry many more in a dehydrator. These dried figs can be used, reconstituted with a bit of warm water, in biscotti, pumpkin bread, zucchini bread…or they can be eaten out of hand. If you pick slightly under ripe figs, let them ripen and darken on the counter overnight. If some white, milky sap gets on the fig when you pick it, make sure to wash this off as it can create a bitter taste in your mouth and a slight allergic reaction (so, never eat figs unripe). Each variety ripens to a different color, green, brown or deep brown/purple.

Figs contain a great deal of calcium, and have phosphorous, potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, flavanoids and polyphenols. They are a nutritional powerhouse!

An excellent source for figs is Edible Landscaping, 361 Spirit Ridge Road, Afton VA, http://www.eat-it.com/ , info@ediblelandscaping.com. They have a great collection of figs, including Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Marseilles, Conadria, LSU Purple and others.  

Eggplant Pyramid

'Nuff said?  (Lavender Touch eggplant still pumping out fruit!)

Recipe: Muscadine Grape Juice

Muscadine Grape Juice

I have written about muscadine grapes before (you can use the search function on the opening page of this blog to find a previous post).  Muscadines are a grape native to the United States.  They are not table grapes and, most notoriously, have been used to make a sweet, grapey wine.  Muscadines can be used in preserves, and I have made muscadine syrup for waffles and pancakes and muscadine sorbet.  Muscadines come into season in mid September and you can even forage for them.

The "problem" with muscadines is they produce abundant amounts of fruit.  I thought I would give making and canning my own grape juice a shot.  Here is how to do it:

Fill a large stainless steel stockpot 3/4ths full of washed muscadines, making sure all stems have been picked off.  Pour boiling water over the top . Cover, and boil gently, for 30 minutes.  Let cool.

Here is the fun part.  If you want pulp juice, like you get with pulpy OJ, this is all you need to do regarding straining: pour the muscadines and liquid through a fine, mesh strainer or sieve that is set in a large bowl. Take a wooden spoon or potato masher and stir and gently press the grapes, until all you have left in the sieve are skins and seeds. Pour the pulpy juice back into the stockpot, sugar to taste (muscadines can be sour) and heat it up to 190 degrees and hold at the temp for 5 minutes.

Assuming you have already prepared your canning jars [go to http://www.freshpreserving.com/getting-started.aspx for COMPLETE directions,] ladle the juice into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.  Wipe rim, center lid on jar, screw on ring.  Process in a water bath canner for 15 minutes.  Turn off the canner, remove lid. Wait 5 minutes to remove jars onto a folded towel.  Let cool overnight. The next morning, check the lids for a seal and store. Alternately, cool the juice and store in the fridge.

If you do not want pulp, there is a additional step after running the juice through the sieve: you need to strain the juice through a the sieve, now lined with several layers of dampened cheesecloth for several hours.  Then proceed with the recipe.

Happy eating...er drinking!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Recipe: Eggplant Sauce

SCORE!  I finally fond something great to do with the bouty of eggplant I am experiencing: eggplant sauce!  Like tomato-based pasta sauces, but easier to make!  It is incredibly yummy and can be used on said pasta, is a great sauce for pizza or for aything that needs a kick-in-the-pants regarding flavor.  And here is the recipe"

4-5T olive oil
4 to 6 slender (or a dozen of the super skinny) eggplant, or maybe 2 large eggplant, peeled and cut into chunks or thick slices.
2 onions, cut into wedges
6- 8 medium tomatoes, also cut into wedges
1 head of garlic (a full head, not just a clove)
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt to sprinkle (I like large grain salt) and to taste
1T lemon juice
Grated black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top off the garlic, place in tin foil, drizzle 1 t olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.  Fully wrap the garlic head in the foil, and place it in the oven in a small baking pan or atop the cookie sheets (see next). Toss the veggies in a few T. of olive oil and 1/2 t salt. Spread these veggies one layer thick on cookie sheets that have been covered in baking parchment. Bake the veggies until soft; about 30 minutes.

Next. put the veggies (and all the juice they exude) into a food processor or blender.  Include the garlic, after you squeeze each clove out of its "paper" wrapper.  Add the  basil, ground pepper, lemon juice and parmesan cheese.  Pulse until pureed. Taste and add salt if desired.  Enjoy!
Variations:  you can roast a red pepper or two along with the veggies. The sauce can be frozen. You can add chopped raw tomatoes, dried tomatoes, avocado, green onions, chopped olives just before serving.  Serve the sauce atop the fish or carbo (including pizza crust) of your choice!
Happy eating!

Monday, September 9, 2013


Above: Apples in syrup.

If you grow lots of produce, eventually you probably need to learn to can.  Yes, you can stuff yourself silly with fresh produce, freeze and dehydrate, build a root cellar to keep produce around a longer time, but canning may be the best way to preserve some things, like jams and jellies, pickles, all kinds of tomato products and my "hippy apples" (see post on that).  There are essentially two types of canning: water-bath and pressure canning.  So far, water bath canning is all I do.  This method is a fine way to preserve high-acid foods, like most fruits, tomatoes and pickles.  In water bath canning (though please look up full directions before you do this) you sterilize the glass jars (I guess it is obvious why we don't call this "jarring") and lids, pack them with hot or cold prepared produce, put a lid and ring on it and process the jars for the amount of time recommended in the recipe.  For this you need a canning kettle, jars, lids and rigs, a jar lifter, lid lifter, canning funnel, instant read thermometer and a few other odds and ends.  You can usually purchase the canning accessories as a "canning kit," though the kettle is sold separately.

The other type of canning is pressure canning and is the only safe way to can low-acid foods, including green beans, carrots, meat, fish, and most prepared meals.  Pressure canning involves the use of a pressure canner (like a pressure cooker).  Canning under pressure is necessary because these foods contain too little acid to prevent to growth of the botulism bacteria.

Above: Pear preserves

If you do either type of canning, get a recently published book on canning to learn how to proceed. In recent years, canning guidelines have changed, including increasing amounts of added acids and salt and processing time (for example, many modern tomato cultivars produce "low-acid" fruit. This might be good for a sensitive tummy, but bad for canning, so you must up the acid by adding lemon juice).  Granny's canning recipes might not cut it anymore, and those vintage cookbooks are fun to look at, but do not rely on their canning recipes.  

One last caution: You may see an older recipe in which the jam is "sealed" by pouring a thick layer of parrafin over the top.  This is generally recognized as unsafe.

Happy gardening!  And preserving!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

CSI: Garden

Small, furry, cute and a major player in garden crime around the US.  Watch for this evil actor.   These criminals decimated my friend's squash, will eat any and all garden vegetables and fruit. How to stop them cold?  Either get a good dog or spray your cherished veggies with a chili pepper spray! http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Rid-of-Animal-Pests-With-Hot-Pepper-Spray

Happy gardening!

Photo credit The Mechanicsville Local, Mechanicsville, VA, 9/4/13

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Renovation: To Straw or Not to Straw or A Tale of Herbicide Contamination

(below: No till, heavy mulch garden bed)

True Confession:  Since I began working (RE: paid employment) more (I always work, am very busy), I have had less time for the garden (insert frowny face here) and it is in need of some renovation and re-working.  I hope to be posting on my progress with this.  One thing I have written about already is moving towards a no-till  garden, using the Ruth Stout method of piling high the natural mulches and planting into them. In areas when I have done this, I have far fewer weeds and it is a lot less work (there are disadvantages, like cover for voles, but more on that another time).  I wanted to expand this method throughout the food gardens, by collecting leaves and pine straw.  I also want to investigate the availability of municipal compost and less costly sources for straw.  But are these two latter ideas good ones?

Both straw and municipal compost can be contaminated by herbicides (I have written on this before too).  It used to be that the composting process broke down herbicides into less harmful compounds, but a new class of herbicides (including picloram, clopyralid, aminopyralid-based compounds: Confront, Forefront...), found in both straw and compost, can persist for a way longer time than prior herbicides, and are called "garden killers" for their long-lasting and devastating effects on gardens.  If you unknowingly use products contaminated with these herbicides, your garden will no longer be organic and you might not be able to get much to grow, for many seasons.

These herbicides might be on the grass that is composted in municipal sites, sprayed on the hay/straw as it grows to prevent weeds and in the manure of animals that eat contaminated hay.  If you cannot get tested products (and you probably cannot) you can do your own home test.    For commercial or municipal compost, fill a dozen three or four inch pots, half of them with potting soil  only and the other half with an equal mix of municipal compost and potting soil and mark the pots. Put three bean or peas seeds in each pot (these plants are more susceptible to this herbicide damage) and water them.  Keep the pots separated, so drain water from the potentially contaminated compost does not contaminate the potting-soil only pots.  When each plant has emerged and has three sets of leaves, compare them.  If the plants in the compost mix have cupped leaves, or odd thickening or distorting of the leaves, contamination might be present.

But what do you do if you are testing compost you brought home and it is contaminated?  First, buy only enough to test, so, if it is bad, you did not purchase much.  But make sure that, in the case that the compost tests OK, you can buy more from the same pile you got your sample from (insure that new material is not mixed in). However, many municipal compost operations make their compost in long rows, mixing materials and piles together with a backhoe.  This might mean that compost purchased on week and tested is not really the same compost that is available the next week.  But, if you buy a lot, you may be stuck with a lot. If you buy a little, that might be all you can get.  Overall, this might mean that fewer people (like me) will bother with municipal compost, unless is it tested at the source.

Straw is another matter altogether and harder to test. What I would try is to repeat the experiment above, using larger pots, with an inch of straw in the bottom, potting soil and an inch of straw on top.  Compare this to plants in pots with no straw.  Plant the seeds in the soil layer, water well and see what happens.

Other options?  Make your own compost, and use gathered leaves and pine straw for mulch.


Green Figs

Figs come in more colors than brown, and vary in size, as shown above.  There are brown, reddish, purple, striped and green or white figs.  The smaller figs pictured above are from my brown Turkey fig trees.  These trees produce abundantly and the figs are bite-sized and sweet. The green figs next to it are a variety of green or honey figs and boy, honey is right.  I wish I had more like these!  I am still searching for the paperwork that tells me their variety name as someone (not moi) mowed down the plant label!  I preserve figs by dehydrating them and making and canning fig jam.  
Edible Landscaping in  Afton, VA, an organic nursery, has a large selection of fig varieties for Virginia at http://ediblelandscaping.com/buyPlants.
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Confirmed by "Science"

One of my favorite programs, NPR's "Science Friday," recently provided validation of my abhorrence of lawns!  Yay!  Listen to this illuminating, 11 minute piece at:

Happy gardening!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hippy Apples

     This year we have what I call "hippy apples."  In the 1970's, when some back-to-the-land, counterculture folks (my spiritual ancestors in some ways) began organic gardening and farming, there were fewer organic tools at their disposal to care for fruit trees and carry the fruit through to harvest.  There were many a tale of misshapen, wormy, corky, organic apples during this time, aka "hippy apples."  Now, I am not claiming to have grown excellent and cosmetically perfect apples in my life, but they have been of better quality than this year.  So what happened this year? Rain, rain and more rain. Every time I had the opportunity to spray the trees with Surround (a trademarked, kaolin clay substance that presents a barrier to apples maggots and the like) it was raining or about to rain.  You see, kaolin clay is water-soluble and washes off in the rain.  A light rain has not too much of an effect, but heavy rain, like we had one and off all during the season that the apples were forming.  In addition, wet conditions promote fungal diseases and I could not spray for that either. So, we got the hippy apples pictured above.
     So, do we need to trash them?  Not at all.  These apples still have plenty of tasty, edible flesh and I am pretty darn good at peeling, removing the bad parts and slicing them.  Below are the sliced apples, in our dehydrator, ready for lovely dried apples to eat and bake with all winter long.  By the way, I pre-soak them for 2 minutes in a solution of 4 cups of water, 600 mg crushed vitamin C pills and 1/4 c of lemon juice to prevent browning in the dehydrator.  From yuck to yum!

Happy gardening!