Saturday, January 31, 2009

I've updated my links

If you like my blog, you will probably like the blogs I have listed on the sidebar.

Check them out!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Growing Peppers

Peppers are another favorite at our house. We like both bell and hot peppers. I don’t care so much for the green peppers, I prefer them to get ripe and turn a rainbow of colors. We all like raw bell pepper slices to munch on and in our salad – red, yellow and orange are Andy’s favorites. I use bell peppers in my wonderful spaghetti sauce, in the relish I can, sautéed in dishes and stir fries. I don’t think I ever met a bell pepper I didn’t like. I use hot peppers in salsa, hot pepper jam, I dry them and then use the dried peppers to make enchilada sauce and they give a little extra kick to my famous chicken chili.

Peppers are hot weather plants and they cannot tolerate the cold at all. They are always the last plants that I transplant outside. You will need to either start your plants indoors or buy plants from the nursery. I always start mine indoors the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day every year. Just like with tomatoes you will need to harden your plants off before planting them outside. Just put them outside for a few hours every day to get them used to the real world conditions out of doors – leaving them out a little longer every day.

Peppers need a lot of sun so plant them where they will get the most sun in your garden. Peppers need even watering – they will wilt easily if allowed to dry out or rot if the soil isn’t draining well and too wet. But other than that they are really pretty carefree. If you like really hot peppers, let the soil dry out completely before watering – not enough to wilt the plant, but enough to stress it lightly – that will cause it to produce hotter peppers.

There are a lot of varieties of peppers to choose from. I usually plant 8 to 10 bell pepper plants in varying colors – I like a rainbow on my table and 4 to 6 hot peppers. I prefer the Anaheim type pepper to the hotter Jalapeño. I will get some jalapeños from my CSA and that will be enough for any recipes I have that call for them.

Peppers can be harvested whenever they reach the size and color you prefer. The immature peppers are green and they turn colors as they ripen.

Bell peppers are a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin K, thiamine, folic acid, and vitamin B6. Red peppers (or other colors of ripe peppers) have significantly higher levels of nutrients than green peppers. Red bell peppers also contain lycopene, a carotene that offers protection against cancer and heart disease. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, which help to cleanse the blood and stimulate circulation as well as reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also stimulate gastric secretions and help digestion.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes are another veggie that I cannot seem to plant enough of. I always plant a minimum of 8 tomato plants – I actually start more than that but I always seem to lose some. Although no one in my family likes to eat fresh tomatoes straight from the garden, we still consume lots of them. We are big salsa eaters and Dan swears no one makes better spaghetti sauce than I do. I use tomatoes in my famous chicken chili and tons of other recipes. No matter how many I can they never seem to last until spring and I always end up buying canned tomatoes and salsa. We also go through huge amounts of catsup and I would love to grow enough tomatoes to can catsup. Andy eats catsup on EVERYTHING! I guess that is pretty normal for a nine year old boy. I did can some catsup a couple of years ago when our CSA had a bumper crop of them, but even that year nothing lasted until the fresh ones started coming again. Of course part of the problem is that the more I can, the more my family consumes. If they see 20 jars of salsa in the basement, they think nothing of opening jar after jar and then being surprised when we are out.

When growing tomatoes, you want to either start them indoors under lights or buy plants from the nursery. I start my seeds indoors the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day every year. Tomatoes do not tolerate frost and should not be planted outdoors until the ground has warmed up and all chance of frost is past.

You will want to determine what type of tomato you want to grow. I prefer to grow Roma types because they are better for canning and salsa. If you want a big tomato for slicing you will probably want to buy a beefsteak variety. If you just like tomatoes in your salad, a cherry or grape tomato will probably work best for you.

Tomatoes are also determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are also known as bush tomatoes. They grow to a determinate length and then stop when the fruit sets on their terminal buds. All of the fruit ripens within a short time frame. The plant dies after the fruit ripens. Determinate tomatoes should not be pruned as it severely reduces the amount of tomatoes you will get. Indeterminate tomatoes are vining tomatoes that continue to grow and produce fruit until a frost kills them. Indeterminate tomatoes require caging or staking or both as they continue to grow. Many people like to prune (or sucker) them although I never do.

When your plants are large enough and the weather is right and you plan to plant outdoors, you need to harden them off first. This is to get them used to the wind and real conditions that they will be growing in – it will strengthen their stems and make for hardier plants. To harden them off, you simply put them outside in their pots for short periods of time each day, increasing the amount of time they are outdoors each day. I also like to start with the plants near the house where they are more protected from the wind and gradually move them every day further out until they end up in the area where they are going to be planted. You want to plant them in an area that gets lots of sun. Tomatoes thrive in sunlight.

Tomatoes need a lot of water – and a consistent amount every day. I find if I overwater and then underwater them I end up with tomatoes that crack open. I like to spread a lot of compost around my tomatoes for the nutrients and also to serve as a mulch to keep water evaporation down and weeds away. They sell all kinds of plastic mulches for around tomato plants to boost your yields. I have tried several of them and don’t really notice any difference. So, my preference is just to use lots of great compost.

For best flavor, tomatoes should be harvested when fully ripe and stored at room temperature and not in the refrigerator. If a frost is coming, tomatoes can be picked green and left in a sunny windowsill to ripen. And fried green tomatoes are also a favorite way to use green tomatoes.

Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, lycopene, biotin, and vitamin K. They also contain vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, niacin, folic acid, and fiber. The lycopene content of tomatoes has gotten a lot of press lately in the nutritional field. Lycopene neutralizes harmful free radicals before they can damage our cell structure.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Vote for the White House Farmer

The United States has a White House chef. It's time for a White House farmer. Everyone, from your family and friends to our First Family and their guests, needs to know who grew their food and how it was grown.

There are hundreds of knowledgeable, passionate farmers out there who could fill this post. And now until January 31, you can vote for your favorite farmer at

Browse the nominees and cast your vote. The top three choices will be submitted to our new President for consideration. Be sure to vote at by this Saturday, Jan 31, to be heard!

If you don't have a farmer to vote for, browse the nominees and read about them. They are all pretty incredible. If you still can't decide, vote for Richard deWilde. He has been a leader in the organic CSA movement here in MN and WI. Google him and learn more about him. He got my vote.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Growing carrots

I am going to try and ignore the cold winter weather by writing about the different veggies I plan to plant over the next several weeks. I will start today with my family's favorite veggie - the carrot!

Carrots are a favorite in our household. I grow lots of carrots every year. We get carrots from our CSA. And I still buy a 5 lb bag of carrots at least every other week. Andy devours carrot sticks in his lunch, snack on carrot sticks after school and begs for cooked or oven roasted carrots for dinner. Dan juices carrots and loves to munch on them raw. I cook with them and munch on them raw. I plan on planting more carrots this year than last year.

Carrots do well in raised bed gardens as they need loose soil for the roots (the carrots) to grow down deep for good sized carrots. Carrots are direct sown in the garden as soon as the ground can be worked. They can handle light frosts so you really can’t plant them too early. They also will survive into the winter under a thick covering of mulch. The seeds are small and try as you might to space the seeds, you really can’t space them properly so you will need to thin them out as they grow. When they are small, thin them out to about an inch apart. As they grow you will need to thin them more (use the baby carrots to make vegetable broth and in other soups) to 3 to 4 inches apart.

Carrots are a great veggie to grow with children. Kids love to grow foods that they like to eat and most kids love carrots. After you introduce them to gardening with familiar veggies, you can often get them to try other veggies if they had a hand in helping grow them.

I like to make several plantings of carrots two weeks apart so that we have carrots throughout the spring and fall. In the north here (MN) the last planting should be around August 1st. I also like to plant fast growing radishes in the same row – for a couple of reasons, one to mark the rows since carrots are slow to germinate and two just to get double use out of the space since my garden is small.

If there isn’t adequate rainfall you will need to water them. Always soak the ground when you water them – carrots are root crops and if you water too much and too shallow you will not get good root development. You want to encourage the roots to grow downward in search of water to make nice long roots, if the top is always moist there is no need for the roots to grow down and you will not get nice carrots. So water them well and then not again until the soil is dry at least 1 to 2 inches down.

Weeding is important when growing root crops. Weeds will choke out your carrots. Many people mulch around them to keep the weeds down.

You can harvest the carrots when they are whatever size you prefer. It is helpful to loosen the soil around the carrots with a spading fork before pulling the carrots up – otherwise you may just end up pulling the carrot top off and leaving the root you were after in the ground.

The most popular color of carrots is orange, but you can also find red, yellow, white and purple. Actually I think most people would be surprised to learn that these “new colors” of carrots are not new at all. Actually the orange carrot that we are familiar with today is relatively new in the history of the plant. The original wild carrot that became domesticated into today’s modern carrot was purple or black. The different colors of carrots contain varying amounts of carotenoids. In my garden, I like to grow a rainbow when it comes to carrots.

A fact that I just learned this past year is that carrot tops are also edible. I never knew that - I eat both beet greens and beet roots but had no idea that I was throwing something edible in my compost. They can be used in any recipe in place of parsley.

Everyone knows that carrots are a great source of Vitamin A. But did you know that they aren’t really. True Vitamin A only comes from animal sources. The source of Vitamin A in carrots is Beta Carotene which is really a provitamin. A provitamin is a substance in food that is converted into a vitamin by our body. Carrots also contain Folic acid, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. Carrots also contain the trace mineral selenium, which is hard to find in food and very important – although the amount of selenium in your carrots may vary according to your soil – some parts of the country have more selenium in the soil; therefore carrots grown in those regions will be higher in selenium than carrots grown in other regions. Carrots also contain a long list of phytonutrients. Carrots are also a good source of fiber.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gardening for Beginners

It might be cold outside, but now is the time to start planning this year's garden.

A friend asked me about gardening tips for beginners and so I thought that I would share a few of my tips.

First of all - start small. First time gardeners many times don't realize just how much work a garden can be and have all sorts of grand ideas and then they don't have time to keep up with the weeding and watering. When their garden fails, they lament that they just don't have a green thumb. If you have truly never gardened before try planting just a few things the first year. Perhaps plant a salsa garden (tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and cliantro) if you love to eat lots of fresh salsa. If that goes well, then maybe the next year you can add on some cucumbers or carrots or something else that your family really loves to eat. Or maybe a salad garden with lettuce, radish, cukes, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and whatever else you like to eat in your salad.

Another priority is to select your location for your garden. You want an area that gets at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight - a lot of plants might do well in shade, but vegetables do not tend to be among them. You should select an area that is fairly level and well drained. If the water puddles there after every rain - it is not draining well and your veggies will not do well.

Once you have selected your garden space you need to prepare it. You will need to break up the ground for planting - the easiest way to do that is to rent or borrow a rototiller. Or, you can make a raised bed garden. A raised bed garden can be as simple as putting down some 2 by 4's, putting in a plastic liner (to keep the weeds from coming through) and filling it in with soil or compost. If you use treated wood, you want to be careful about what the wood has been treated with - you don't want arsenic leaching through into your garden and finding it's way into your body. You can find some affordable raised bed garden kits by clicking here. I prefer filling my raised beds with compost over soil - if you wish to do this, check your county recycling division to see if they offer compost. In my county, they offer cleaned and sifted compost bagged for a minimal price - or raw compost for free. Even though I compost - I never seem to have enough in the spring so we drive out and get some free - we take a piece of chicken wire to sift out the bigger pieces and lots of empty buckets (we use the buckets that we purchased kitty litter in) and get as much as we want. Andy loves climbing the tall piles of compost! If you till up the ground instead of a raised bed, you will still want to work some compost into the soil before planting.

Next you want to make sure that you have the proper tools for gardening. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment, although as time goes on you will probably add some. To get started all you really need is a good garden spade, hoe, hose and sprinkler. Garden gloves, clogs and something to kneel on are also nice - but you can get by without them if you need to.

Next you should pick what you are going to plant. A good place to start is by looking at what you and your family enjoys eating - that is what you should plant to get started. Then you need to decide how much to plant. To decide this, you need to ask yourself - how big is your family? What is your goal? Do you just want veggies for fresh eating or do you want to can or freeze the extra to feed your family year round? Or perhaps you want extras to share with the neighbors.

When deciding what plants to grow you need to realize that even the easiest plants don't grow some years and sometimes you will have success with the more difficult ones. There are so many factors that come into play - what is your USDA hardiness zone - the weather is a biggie - and you cannot control that. You want to pick plants that are suited for your area. I grow different varieties here in Minnesota than I did when I lived in Arizona.

You also need to decide if you want to plant from seed or buy plants from the nursery. You probably want to do a little of each in the beginning. Some plants need to be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before planting outside - those are plants that the beginning gardener might want to purchase from a nursery. Other plants do best direct seeded in the garden.

You probably want to sketch out your garden on paper so you know what you want to plant where. I no longer do that but I used to find it very helpful.

Another consideration might be whether you want to include your children in the gardening. I give Andy his own little area to garden every year and he loves it - he also makes sure we know that anything produced in his area is HIS and he better not find me or Dan in there picking his stuff. And he always plants a sunflower fort every year now.

My list of easy to grow veggies for beginners (in no particular order):
  • Radishes - start from seed right in garden
  • Lettuce- start from seed right in garden
  • Tomatoes - buy plants or start inside 6 to 8 weeks before planting outside
  • Peppers - buy plants or start inside 6 to 8 weeks before planting outside
  • Cucumbers - start from seed right in the garden - you will need to trellis them or have a lot of space for the vines.
  • Strawberries -you need to buy plants for these - they will come back every year.
  • Green Beans - start from seed right in the garden. I prefer pole beans - I think they produce more in small space and I like the taste better - you do need to trellis pole beans.
  • Pumpkins and Squash (if you plant zucinni, make sure you don't plant too much - it is very prolific) - start from seed right in the garden. Pumpkins need a lot of room for the vines to grow.
  • Sunflowers - great for kids - plant from seeds right in the garden
  • Carrots - plant from seeds right in the garden.
  • Beets - plant from seeds right in the garden. Beets are a dual plant - you eat both the leaves and the root.
  • Potatoes - You will need to purchase seed potatoes to plant. These can be fun for kids to grow in containers or even plastic garbage bags! Click here for more info.

The most important thing to remember is to just have fun. A garden should be a place to relax and enjoy - it should never be stressful.