Green Your Home, Your Family and Your Life!

Green Your Home, Your Family and Your Life!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Garden Level Zero

I apologize for my long absence from the blog! It hasn't been for lack of desire, simply from lack of time. Being a first-time homeowner is tougher than we had imagined. And there was so much to do, not just to move and unpack all of our stuff, but to clean, fix and repair everything in the house that needed it.

Then the heat hit. Weeks and then months of searing temps, making it too difficult to get started on the gardens and other projects here at Rainbow's Acre.

Now that it has cooled down to the 70s though, we're eager to get started on our gardening plans. So, this is garden level zero, because we have a lot of work to do!

Owning an acre of land is more overwhelming than  I would have thought, so we're breaking the yard into zones and working on a zone at a time.

Our first zone of attack is behind the house, actually a small strip of land between the house and garage. There is a raised garden bed already there, but it is choked with weeds and blueflag. We are working on clearing out all the weeds and the thick blueflag rhizomes that look for all the world like giant fingers.

The original plan was the surround the bed with straw bales then put some old windows we found in the shed on top to turn it into a cold frame. Unfortunately, our state was plagued by massive wildfires this summer and thousands of acres of hay fields were burnt to a crisp, making hay bales prohibitively expensive ($12-15 each, rather than the usual $3). So we're exploring alternative materials to bank the sides so we'll have a cold frame just steps from the kitchen door.

What are you doing to get your garden ready for the next growing season?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W Is For Wow and Whoa and Wonderful

I apologize for my absence this week, friends. I think you deserve an apology so here goes - we've been quite a roller coaster this week as far as purchasing Rainbow's Acre.

Well, more than a bit, we've been trying to close on this property for about 6 months now, and have met up with every possible road-block along the way.

This past week was especially stressful - it looked like everything was a go - then something else came up - something that could only be explained and not fixed.

Luckily, we have a great mortgage guy. He fought long and hard to explain this particular situation on our behalf.

After quite a bit of resistance, the underwriters finally decided the explanation was acceptable.

Today we heard that our mortgage has been approved and that we'll close on Rainbow's Acre in a few days.

I can't tell you how excited we are. The weather has been beautiful here on the margin between the western plains and the Little Rockies and I, for one, am aching to dig my fingers into the warm brown plot of earth we're soon going to call our own.

Do you remember buying your first home? Was it stressful? 

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

There's Nothing Nasty About Nasturtiums

Tropaeolum majus (Tropaeolaceae)
Tropaeolum majus (Tropaeolaceae) (Photo credit: Tim Waters)
Species: Tropaeolum minus Family: Tropaeolacea...
Species: Tropaeolum minus Family: Tropaeolaceae Image No. 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The flower of the nasturtium plant, Tropaeolum
The flower of the nasturtium plant, Tropaeolum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are not only beautiful and easy to grow, they are also edible. Edible flowers? Yes, and the leaves and seeds are edible as well.

Nasturtiums are grown as annuals, but no matter, they sprout and grow quite rapidly. Nasturtiums are great for tight spaces, especially the new compact varieties.

Many Nasturtiums have a vining habit and are either grown in hanging baskets or up a trellis or other support. I like the grow them up the metal poles at either end of my clothesline.

Don't worry if you plant nasturtiums in thin soil, they will actually produce more flowers that way. Dispense with the fertilizer as well, or you'll end up with huge leaves, robust vines, and hardly any flowers.

Nasturtiums grow quite quickly. Add the peppery leaves and flowers to salads or use them to flavor vinegars. If you like to experiment, the pickled seeds taste somewhat like capers, although honestly, I'd rather just buy the capers and grow the nasturtium seeds.

Have you ever grown nasturtiums? Have you ever eaten them?
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

M Is For Mulberry

Morus alba L.
Morus alba L. (Photo credit: adaduitokla)
Morus nigra Deutsch: Weibliche blüten einer mo...
Morus nigra Deutsch: Weibliche blüten einer monözischen Art der Schwarze Maulbeere. English: Female flowers of a monoecious variety of the Black Mulberry. Français : Fleurs femelles d'une variété monoïque de Mûrier noir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Morus nigra (II)
Morus nigra (II) (Photo credit: .Bambo.)
Have you ever been told that mulberries (Morus spp.) are poisonous? Well, guess what, that's just not true. Although the green parts of the plants and unripe berries contain a mild hallucinogen that shouldn't be consumed, the ripe berries are sweet and delicious.

Mulberries enjoy a long edible history and have popularly been used in pies, wines, cordials and jams. Mulberries are slowly coming back on the radar as they have been identified as a rich source of resveratrol, a compound believed to fight cancer, diabetes and the effects of aging.

It is now possible to buy extracts of mulberry leaves and fruits in many health food stores, however, I think it's more fun to grow your own.

The white mulberry (Morus alba) is the most cold-hardy, drought-and-pollution-tolerant. Unfortunately, the berries are somewhat blander than the sweet-tart red and black varieties, and there is some difficulty in knowing exactly when the berries are ripe.

Red mulberries (Morus rubra) are also drought tolerant, but they're only hardy to zone 5.

Black mulberries (Albus nigra) have the highest amount of resveratrol and anthocyanins (pigments with supposed medicinal value - they are also used as natural food coloring), but these can only grow in zones 7-9.

Mulberries are considered a "weed" tree in some places because they naturalize well and thrive with little care. Be sure to pick a deep soil in a sunny, well-drained site if you're planting mulberries and space the trees at least 15 feet apart.

The fruits can leave a mess on the ground if you just let them drop (or the birds that devour them may leave a mess of a different sort) so be sure to harvest the berries when they're ripe in late spring. The easiest way to do this is by putting a large white sheet under the tree and shaking the branches.

An alternative to growing your own mulberries is to wildcraft them. Mulberries are naturalized in many parts of the country (south of zone 5). The next time you're walking on public property, take a look around to see if you notice any mulberry plants that you can collect fruit from when ripe. 

Are you willing to give mulberries a try?
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Lilly Loves Lavender

Lavender (Photo credit: The Heartwood)
Lavender (Photo credit: Pete Reed)
Lavandula stoechas
Lavandula stoechas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Carrots love tomatoes, roses love garlic, and Lilly, this one anyway, loves lavender. As with many plants, one of the biggest keys to success in growing lavender is to choose the variety best suited to your environment.

If you live in a humid area, you'll have a tougher time growing lavender as most varieties prefer to grow where it is hot and dry.

You still may be able to grow some lavender varieties, just choose the site and variety carefully or you'll be disappointed.

In a humid habitat, try the non-English varieties such as Spanish (Lavandula stoechas) or sweet lavender and be sure to choose a high and dry site. Lavenders will not tolerate wet, soggy ground or water that pools around the roots.

If you live in an arid or semi-arid environment, you're in luck. Feel free to choose which lavenders to grow from any of the English, non-English and Lavandin varieties.

If you live north of zone 5 though, it's best to start lavender seed indoors about eight weeks prior to the last frost or your plants may not bloom.The seed can take up to two weeks to germinate.

The English (L. angustifolia) varieties are among the popularly grown lavenders and as such are often referred to as common lavenders. The most popular varieties are Lavender vera, Hidcote and Munstead.

Lavender vera will be my choice for Rainbow's Acre, our little home on the lee side of the Black Hills at 3300 feet above sea level. In central Europe, lavender vera is grown in the mountains at elevations above 2500 feet. This is the variety that is prized for medicinal and aromatherapeutic uses.

We may also give Munstead a try, as this is the most drought-happy lavender available.

I love the rich, dark flowers and short stature of the Hidcote varieties (perfect for a lavender lawn), but unfortunately Hidcotes are not quite as drought-tolerant as most lavender varieties.

The lavandins are fast-growing plants that can reach the size of a small bush.These lavender hybrids are the most popular varieties for lavender bouquets, potpourri and scented wands. The lavandins are the most popular varieties for use in scented oils and cosmetics as they are very prolific and long-blooming. Some of the most popular varieties are lavender grosso and Provence.

The non-English varieties can be a bit confusing. Lavender stoechas is referred to as both Spanish and French lavender. For the sake of consistency, I will call L. stoechas Spanish lavender. French lavender is properly L. dentata and its hybrids. 

Whatever you call them, these varieties are generally grown for their beautiful flowers and are more for the gardener who wants a nice-looking plant than for those growing lavender for its products.

These varieties bloom in early to mid-spring and as such they need a warmer climate (zone 7 and south, unless you start seeds indoors further north).

After lavender plants flower, be sure to prune rather aggressively to keep them from getting rangy. All lavender varieties should be pruned after flowering, and don't worry after the flowers are done for the year - you'll still have a beautiful plant with fragrant foliage.

Lavender blooms should be harvested during cool, dry times in the early morning or early evening. If you harvest when it's hot out, you risk losing most of the fragrant oils that make lavenders so intoxicating.

The stems of varieties like grosso are long and sturdy enough to be woven into wands. Provence is great for potpourri as the flowers are easily removed from the stems. The English lavenders are useful for medicinal purposes, but they produce less oil than the larger Lavandins. Use the lavandins if you need a larger quantity of essential oil for cosmetics or other scented items.

Have you ever grown lavender? If so, which variety did you grow?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

K Is For Kiwi

Actinidia arguta
Actinidia arguta (Photo credit: Bahamutzero)
Hardy Kiwis
Hardy Kiwis (Photo credit: Hunda)
The fruit of the kiwi vine is actually a berry - that should make the berry monsters happy. Although it doesn't really matter, they love kiwi fruit too.

So, can you really grow kiwis in cold climates? Actually, yes. The fuzzy brown kiwis (Actinidia deliciosa) that most people know are only hardy to zone 7, but there are hardy kiwis out there such as Actinidia arguta and A. kolomitka.

These hardy kiwis look a bit different from the fuzzy brown supermarket variety in that they are smaller and have a tender, edible green skin. They are also sweeter and more tasty in my opinion.

If you're planning to grow kiwi vines, keep in mind that they need a strong support system (the vines can reach 60 feet) and you need to have at least one male and one female plant (although one male can fertilize up to eight females).

Plan your site carefully, then choose your support system, whether an arbor, T-trellis or fence. Kiwi needs the usual deep, well-drained soil that many plants enjoy, a decent amount of water (but never let the roots get waterlogged - they're prone to rot), and at least some protection from cold and wind.

One final thing to keep in mind when deciding to grow hardy kiwi - the male and female plants should be planted about 10-16 feet apart. Yes, you'll have to build two support systems and expect well over 100 feet of vine.

Oh yes, and only the female plant will bear fruit. Don't let that bother you though, the kiwi vine and the delicately flowers are a beautiful addition to the garden any way you look at it.

And the female plant, after about 5-7 years, will bear an enormous amount of fruit - upwards of 80 pounds. Luckily, the fruits will keep well in the refrigerator (up to 8 weeks). They also make delicious jams, jellies and preserves.

The front yard at Rainbow's Acre faces to the south and is sheltered from cold northwestern winds by the house. In other words, it's a perfect heat trap in which to grow kiwi vines. All we need to decide now is what type of support we want to use for the vines (I'm thinking arbor).

Have you ever tried to grow hardy kiwi?

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Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sunchokes Jerusulem Artichokes
Sunchokes Jerusulem Artichokes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), sometimes called sunchokes, have enjoyed a revival in popularity for the past several years as more people look for alternatives to the potato.

Sunchoke tubers can be eaten in many of the same ways that potatoes can, with the exception that the carbohydrates in sunchokes are mostly in the form of inulin, a diabetic-friendly fiber without the dietary restrictions of the potato.

I don't know how the name Jerusalem artichoke got started, this lovely sunflower relative is native to North America and is no relation to the artichoke plant.

As a native North American plant, sunchokes are easily grown. They tolerate drought and a wide variety of soil conditions, just be sure to provide them with full sun and a moderate amount of water.

You can purchase tubers at most nurseries in the early spring. Provide a well-drained soil and be sure not to overwater. Sunchokes, like their sunflower cousins, originated on the Great Plains, and as such are used to an arid grassland habitat.

If you live in a place in which the ground doesn't freeze over during winter, you're in luck - leave your sunchoke tubers right where they are, and feel free to dig them up when you're ready to eat some.

The tubers can stay like this all winter, and any remaining tubers will start a new crop of sunchokes next spring.

If you live in a place where the ground does freeze over, dig out the tubers you plan to eat in advance and store them in a cool, dry place. The rule of thumb is that any tubers smaller than a kernel of popcorn should remain in the ground to produce next year's crop.

A word of caution - sunchokes are very prolific and can over take a garden if you don't keep them in check. So don't be afraid to eat plenty of those tubers, and enjoy!

Will you try growing sunchokes this year?

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Monday, April 9, 2012

All Eyes On Indigo

Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper
Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Baptisia tinctoria 001
Baptisia tinctoria 001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indigo dye has been prized by humans for thousands of years. During colonial times in America, small cubes of indigo could be used in place of currency.

There are a few plants referred to as indigo. Knowing the differences between these plants will help you to provide for their very different growing requirements.

Baptisia tinctoria is the false or wild indigo that grows throughout North America. While the rhizome can be soaked in water to produce a blue dye, it is not the famous indigo dye plant - the so-called true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria).

In most parts of North America, false indigo can be found in the wild or in flower gardens. Baptisia thrives in most temperatures (as far north as zone 3) and a wide variety of soil types. The flowers may be yellow, blue, pink or white, but the prepared rhizomes all produce a blue dye.

If you're interested in growing the true indigo, you'd do best to invest in a greenhouse as this plant is native to India and needs positively steamy temperatures to survive. It may grow well in Florida, but won't do well in the rest of the country unless grown under glass either in the home or the greenhouse.

Two alternatives for those interested in growing their own blue dye plant are European Woad (Isatis tinctoria) and Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium), both of which also produce blue dye.

These plants are a happy medium between the super-fussy true indigo and the super-easy false indigo. They need warm temperatures, but it doesn't need to be steamy and the plants can be grown outdoors in much of Norther America, as long as you provide them with plenty of sun, water and fertilizer.

Dye from the Japanese indigo is produced from the leaves, rather than the rhizome, which makes for easier harvesting that can be extended over several weeks if desired.

Have you ever tried growing any of the plants called indigo?

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hops - It's Not Just What The Easter Bunny Does

Hopys (Humulus lupulus) Hops The only place I ...
Hopys (Humulus lupulus) Hops The only place I know in the area where wild hops appear every year. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hops (Photo credit: Scout Seventeen)

I am excited to finally be able to grow a plant I have long admired but never had the room for - hops!

Husband is excited too as he wants to start brewing his own beer, with fresh (or freshly dried) hops from our own yard.

I don't drink beer, but I do like to take cheesecloth bags of dried hops and sew them into sleep pillows. The scent of the flowers is hypnotic.

Hops needs plenty of room - during the active growth season (from early May to mid-July) hops can grow as much as a foot per day. By the time the flowers are ready to harvest, you may have a 25 foot long vine.

When selecting a site, be sure that it has plenty of vertical space, direct sunlight for most of the day and easy access to water.

Hops likes a rich, neutral soil so be sure to fertilize the site with plenty of manure or compost.

Hops needs a strong framework on which to grow. You can tie and grow the vines along fences, build a framework or trellises, or use the side of a building strung with heavy-duty twine for support.

At Rainbow's Acre, we're planning to grow hops alongside the wall of the garage (which is oriented to the southwest).

Plant hops rhizomes as early in spring as possible after the last frost. Mulch deeply to retain moisture. When the vine reaches about  a foot in length, choose 2-3 of the strongest shoots and start training them up your trellis or framework. Trim back any side shoots to keep the plant strong and healthy.

The flower cones are ready to harvest when they feel papery and light. You may want to wear gloves while harvesting as some people are sensitive to this plant. Cut cones from the stems to avoid damaging these fragile flowers.

Cones can be used fresh or dried. The drying process can take a few days, depending on the method you use. Be sure that the cones are thoroughly dry before storing them though, or you'll end up with a moldy mess.

Would you try growing hop vines?
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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Growing Goumi Berries

Gumi1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fruits de Goumi
Fruits de Goumi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goumi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Have you ever heard of a goumi bush? No, I'm not making that name up - that is the common name for Eleagnus multiflora - another little-known berry that is a nutritional power house.

Goumi berries are a great source of vitamins A and E, and have the highest lycopene content of any food - even higher than the widely touted tomato.

These plants are originally from the far East, but if you live in the northeastern US, you may have seen goumi bushes without realizing it as the plants have naturalized over much of that region.

If you're in need of a lovely yet edible hedge row, consider giving goumi bushes a try. Goumi is a fast-growing bush, reaching heights of 10 feet (for southern cultivars) or 4-6 feet for cultivars hardy as far north as zone 4.

Goumi bushes are particularly useful interplanted with  other fruit bushes as goumi is a nitrogen-fixer.

That's right, instead of needing fertilizer, this bush fixes nitrogen in the soil, and any excess will be available to fertilize and potentially increase fruit production in nearby plants.

Plant goumi in most soils, provided that the site is well-drained and  receives an adequate amount of sunlight (half-day or more).

Goumi will tolerate drought and even harsh seaside habitats and pollution, making them an excellent edible bush for urban environments. Even better, they are also relatively free of problems from diseases or pests.

Goumi bushes produce lightly fragrant flowers in April or May, followed by juicy, bright red berries in early summer, during the gap-time between strawberries and blackberries.

The berries can be eaten fresh, provided they are fully ripe. Before ripening, the berries taste more sour than sweet., although they can be used in pies, jams and preserves at that point, particularly in any recipe calling for gooseberries.

Goumi berries can also be dried or even pickled - an incredibly unique flavor combining sweet, sour and salt. 

Expect up to 25 pounds of fruit from each goumi bush. They are self-fertile, meaning you don't have to plant them in pairs but can grow just one bush if you'd like. 

I've never seen goumi berries available commercially. At Rainbow's Acre we plan to grow at least two bushes, not only for health and variety but also so that the berry monsters can get their fix during that gap between strawberry harvest and blackberry/raspberry harvest.

So, are you ready to give growing goumi bushes a try?

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