Hummingbirds in the Garden

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There is nothing like the humming vibration of the little wings of a hummingbird whisking past your head during a hot summer in Indiana. Three types of the little guys are often seen here, the Rufous, Ruby-throated, and Black-chinned hummingbirds. In my garden, I see a Black-chinned hummingbird on a daily basis, and occasionally, a Ruby-throated hummingbird. Since they tend to travel the same path, each day when they feed, I can imagine that the Ruby-throated hummingbird comes more often than I get to see.

It seems like hummingbirds have diminished in the past few years. I put out several types of hummingbird feeders to supplement the plants I grow for them. Soon, I will be finishing a large raised flower bed around the deck in the front of my house and filling it with plants which I know the little hummers love in order to ensure they have all they need in the local area. I want to ensure they come back, every year.

Last year, I had a little surprise. As I was opening one of my hummingbird feeders in order to fill it, one of the little guys sat right on my finger and tried to gather his nectar from the little, red plastic flowers. My heart jumped as I realized that he was not afraid of sitting there. I stood completely still in an attempt to prolong the circumstance. Afterward, the same bird did a little fly-by, stopping to look at me, every day until the last frost. This Spring, when the feeder was empty, a hummingbird which looked exactly the same, flew to the front door and hovered, as if he was looking in the window, trying to find out why I didn’t leave him enough nectar. As you can imagine, I immediately found my stash of feeders (5 of them), cleaned them, filled them, and put them out for my little humming friends to enjoy.

Ketchup and Fries Plant!

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I wanted to share this plant with you. I wanted to try this and will keep you posted on its progress. This is a ketchup and fries plant. It was created by grafting a potato plant on the bottom and a tomato plant on the top. Supposedly (can you hear my skepticism?)… the potatoes are supposed to grow down into the pot and the tomatoes will grow above ground. I am skeptical, because when I grow potatoes, I have to continually pile straw or compost up the stem as they grow up, since potatoes grown on the stems, not the roots. This will be interesting to see for sure… More later!

A Note on Herbs, etc…

After my post, yesterday, I received several emails asking if I grow or use herbs other that oregano. Melinda from Columbus, Indiana wrote that she has a difficult time keeping some herbs alive, year after year. Chris from Greensburg, IN asked which herbs are perennials that can be grown in a flower garden and still look good. While I admit that I am not an expert on herbs, I do have a few opinions and a little experience which may or may not be useful to you. Thanks for asking!

First, I do grow some herbs. My favorites are rosemary, basil, garlic, oregano, lavender, chives, and sage. I also grow thyme, lemon balm, bee balm, cilantro-coriander, horseradish, stevia, peppermint, and spearmint. I use my herbs in several ways, but mainly in cooking and preserving. Lavender is one which I use for many purposes, including crafting, fragrance, cooking, and just looking beautiful in the garden. I do not eat Bee Balm, but it is extremely beautiful, and I use it to attract hummingbirds.

If you do a little research, you will find that many of the herbs we use are members of the mint family, which is an easy-to-grow set of herbs for our part of the country (the USA Midwest), are flavorful, and have wonderful, spicy aromas. Lamiaceae, or mints, are identified by having somewhat square-shaped stems and leaves which hang opposite of each other. Mints are also, generally, very invasive. The mints in my garden include peppermint and spearmint (obviously), oregano, bee balm, lemon balm, agastache (hummingbird mint), basil, rosemary, lavender, and thyme.

So, Chris: Your question is hard to answer, because I do not know your garden. I can say that most herbs like sunny locations and don’t like to become too dry. Oregano, however, thrives in heat and doesn’t seem to be too affected by dry ground, for the most part. If you like a beautiful mounding plant that isn’t too wild looking, you might like lavender or lemon balm. I will warn you, however, lemon balm is very invasive. My friend, Melissa, gave me three little tiny plants, one year, and within a year, it had taken over half of the flower beds with its beautiful green leaves. I have a few chive plants that I use in my flower garden, because they have an interesting look and if left to flower produce a very pretty display of flowers. In addition, if you cut chives to use, it is only a week or two before it looks beautiful, again.

Melinda: I was thinking about your dilemma, and I wonder if you are of the impression that all herbs are perennials. The one I use the most, each year is basil. I use it for my pasta sauces, Italian seasoning mix, bruschetta, pesto, and so many more things, because it has an amazing flavor. Basil is an annual plant in Indiana which you will have to plant, each year. The good thing is that basil can be grow inside or out. It is extremely easy to grow from seed, as well. Cilantro-coriander, parsley, and a few others are also annuals. Also, most herbs do not like shaded areas or areas which get too much water, so perhaps you can look at the location and type of herb you have been trying to grow.

I opened up comments, so you don’t have to email me, if you have questions, but please feel free to if you would like to!  Garden Girl

Mixing Soil for Raised Beds

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After removing strawberries and an old soil mixture from one bed and needing to upgrade the soil in another bed (yes, there are two which needed maintenance), I thought I would share with you the best soil mixture I have found for raised garden beds. I can not take credit for this. I learned about raised bed gardening from a book written by Mel Bartholomew, from which I learned the benefits of gardening in raised beds versus in the ground gardening which I used to do. years later, Mel wrote a follow-up book called, All New Square Foot Gardening, and now a second edition of that. In the follow-up book, Mel described years of research which culminated in the most wonderful soil to grow plant in. This is the soil mixture that I use in my gardens… with one small addition.

Vermiculite Peat moss

Mel’s soil mixture is so easy to make and so wonderful to use that you will want to use it for most of your raised bed gardens. the recipe is this: Mix together 1/3 compost, 1/3 garden grade vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. That’s it! My raised beds are 4 feet wide by 12 feet long  by 8 inches high, and split in two. For each four by six foot section, it takes approximately 3 cubic feet of each to fill the bed. The only exception that I make is that I add a gloved handful of cayenne pepper to my mixture to deter the types of destructive insects that my garden tends to attract.

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What I love about this mixture is that it doesn’t compact and become hard, it holds water during Indiana summers, it is easy to weed, and the plants love it. According to Mel Bartholomew, after the very first time you make the soil, when you pull up plants after a harvest, you only have to mix in a little compost and rotate your crops to ensure nutrition and few problems with disease and problem insects. Every couple of years, though, I do add some more peat moss and some vermiculite to keep it light and airy.

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I mix my soil right in the bed, but Mel suggests that you mix it before putting it in the bed. the soil mixture is so easy to use that I don’t have to use tools to do things like dig holes or till the soil. Can you see the holes in the photo above? I made those with my hands with one small scooping motion for each hole before transplanting some tomato plants which I grew from seed. Hopefully, you will have a chance to see them, later in the season… They are supposed to be fantastic 2-pound Roma-style tomatoes called, Big Mamas. I am hoping that this wonderful soil will produce big, yummy sauce tomatoes!

I will keep you posted!

Oregano the Beautiful

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Oregano is a tasty, versatile herb used in many types of cooking. I grow and use the Greek style of oregano, which provides that wonderful smell associated with pizza and the flavors of many Italian, Greek, and French recipes. I like to use it both fresh and dried, but I find that my two plants produce much more than I could possibly use fresh, so I dry a lot of it and freeze a little of it.

Oregano Young Oregano Old

Oregano is an easy-to-grow perennial plant in Indiana. It can be grown from seed, propagated from a cutting, dug up and split into smaller plants, or left to reseed itself. I have found that the best flavor comes from plants which are one to two years old. Once the plant is about four or five years old, it probably should be replaced, because it starts to get woody and lose its flavor. The above left photo is a two-year old plant, and the one on the right is four years old. As you can see, the older the plant gets, the more it spreads. Although oregano is a member of the mint family, it is not as invasive as mint.

Oregano Tools

I usually cut my first harvest of oregano around June 1st, and this year was no exception. I find that using great tools to harvest makes it easier. As you can see, I use a KitchenAid brand harvesting shear. I like that it has a notched area in the blade which assists me with easily cutting things like oregano or asparagus, saving a great deal of time and energy.

Harvest oregano before the plant produces flowers. A plant’s main reason for living is to reproduce, and like humans, once offspring (seeds via flowers) are growing, the plant transfers much of its energy to creating the future baby (seeds). This significantly reduces the amount of herbal oils which are created in the plant, and that relates to less flavor and aroma. I also find that harvesting oregano in early afternoon is best in Spring and early morning is best in Summer allowing for the best flavor.

The first year I grew oregano, I cut the entire stem off, and the plant did not grow back until the next Spring… That was my mistake! I later learned that the best way to harvest oregano is to cut each stem just above at least one set of leaves, leaving part of each stem. That leaves the plant with enough energy-producing leaves to continue to grow. Now, I get multiple harvests from each plant, each season. In 2016, for example, my plants gave me six… YES 6… huge harvests of oregano. I had so much that I gave away 2/3 of what I grew, since I could not use that much herb in three years.

Oregano After

I left about four inches on each stem, during this harvest. As you can see, my beautiful plant is no longer very beautiful. Don’t worry, though, Within a week, it will be visibly growing, again, and the plant will look fantastic in the garden. This harvest was a really large one: I froze some, tied a few bundles and hung them to dry, dried some in the food dehydrator, and left a few stems in the refrigerator to use fresh. Since I make my own pasta and pizza sauces, salsas, and relishes, as well as combine my own dried Italian seasoning mix, I will be using much of my oregano later in the season. You will see it again!

Kale Chips

Kale Chips

If you are looking for a snack which will actually allow you to remain on a healthy diet, or at least will replace some of your high-carb, high-calorie snacks, why not try kale chips! Kale chips are one of my favorite snacks, because I love the taste and feel good about eating them. The best way to get kale chips is to make them yourself. Today, I made some and took some photos, so I can show you how easy it is.

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I like to use Lacinto (Dinosaur) kale for chips, because they are denser and flatter than other types of kale. The denseness makes a chip which is more like the consistency of potato chips. Using curly types of kale also makes great kale chips which are light and fluffy in texture (so fine they often melt in your mouth before you can chew them). The kale you ultimately use will be personal preference.

Wash Kale

Wash your kale in very cold water. Kale becomes sweeter when it gets cold. If you don’t want to make your chips, right away, you can wash them and put them in the refrigerator for up to a few days before using them.

Use All Parts

The next thing you do it remove the bitter stem which runs from the tip of the leaf to the stalk. Tear the leaf into whatever size you want. I make mine somewhat bigger, because they will shrink when they cook. I find something to do with each part of the kale leaf. The stems go into my composter, the larger parts of the leaf are torn into chips, and the tiny pieces of leaf are saved for salads. My dad loves chopped salads, so I tear off the smaller pieces, instead of throwing them into the composter, and I add them to cut up or torn small pieces of lettuce.

Lay On Cookie Sheets

I use a very large stainless steel bowl. Add two tablespoons of the oil of your choice and what ever seasonings you want into the bottom of the bowl. I like pink sea salt. My sons like chili seasoning, garlic powder, or parmesan cheese. What ever flavors you add should be dry. Let them soak in the oil for a few minutes to infuse the flavor. Add the cut up kale leaves and lightly toss. Rub the oil around each leaf, but do not let the leaves become soaked in oil, or they won’t become crisp.

Place on Parchment Paper Lined cookiesheets

Next, line each cookie sheet with parchment paper and lay each chip on the paper without overlapping them. This will ensure the chips will become crunchy. Bake your chips 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees.

Cool 3-5 minutes

Your kale chips will shrink as they cook. When they come out of the oven, allow them to sit on the cookie sheet for 3-5 minutes while they continue to cook and crisp. If you are like me, you will want to try to eat them without this waiting period, but try to practice delayed gratification. It will be worth it when you get to eat your crunchy, yummy kale chips.

Kale Kale Kale

Kale Harvest

I love kale. It is beautiful. It is easy to grow. It is nutritious. I like to eat it in salads, add it to fruit and veggie smoothies, and dry it into kale chips. A cup of kale has 2.9 grams of protein and no cholesterol. A cup of kale exceeds the daily required amount of vitamins A, K, and C that the human body needs, each day. It is filled with fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.

For a short time, kale was one of the most popular foods on the market and in the garden. It is one of many plants in the cabbage family: Others include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts among others. If you want to try a fantastic dish which includes these foods, there is a great new kale and brussel sprout salad that you can currently get from Cracker Barrel. The kale and brussel sprouts are shredded and mixed with cranberries and a sweet dressing… yum!

Above, you can see two varieties which grow quite well in the Indiana garden: Lacinto kale and Scots Curly kale.

Lacinto Kale

Lacinto Kale is often called dinosaur kale or flat-leaf kale. It is a long, somewhat flat leaf which looks like the bumps and scales we often imagine on dinosaur skin, hence the name, Dinosaur kale. It is denser than other types of kale and makes wonderful chips which are closer to the consistency of thin potato chips than Scots kale.

Curly Kale

Scots kale, also known as Curly kale, is a beautiful leaf of pure goodness. I think Curly kale makes a gorgeous addition to any salad or sandwich. It’s curls hold salad dressing well, and it adds texture to a lettuce salad.

Kale Stem

I have had many people tell me that they do not like kale’s bitter taste. There are two things which eliminate bitterness in kale. Do you see that thick stem which runs the length of the kale plant? It is the bitter taste that you experience. Take that stem out: Don’t eat it! The second thing you should know about kale is that the colder it is, the sweeter it will taste. As a matter-of-fact, kale loves frost, so it is best planted in very early spring and in the autumn. When I clean kale, I clean it with very cold water, and sometimes even drop it into ice water for a few minutes before serving it.

Adding kale to your diet means adding nutrition and some variety to your diet. I am making kale chips, today… I will be posting photos! I hope you consider growing it in your garden. You can start seeds or buy plants. Seeds grow well and will surprise you.

The Story Inn Garden

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Out in the middle of nowhere along old State Road 135 in Nashville, Indiana… if you don’t blink your eyes for more than a second… you will find the tiny town of Story, a lovingly restored town of maybe a dozen buildings. The main building, the old general store, has been converted into a fantastic restaurant with bed-and-breakfast style accommodations in its four upper rooms. most of the rest of the buildings in town are also restored in the B&B style. This is one of my favorite places on earth for one reason: the garden at the Story Inn is one of the most wonderful working kitchen gardens I have ever been in.

The trip to the Story Inn is one of the most inconvenient, anguishing road trips I have been on. It doesn’t help that it already takes me two hours to drive from Tipton County to the turn-off on State Road 46. It’s the rest of the trip that causes me anxiety. I turn south onto 135 and drive for what seems like… well… forever… before I finally get to Story. It is a jaunt, but it isn’t really that bad. My anxiety sets in when I drive for so long that I start thinking that I may have blinked and passed the town right up! I have been making the trip, each year, since 2008, and I have had that same feeling, each and every time. If you like good food and love great gardens, though, it is well worth the trip.

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The Story Inn has one of the best kitchen gardens that I have been in. The owners grow some vegetables, salad greens, and herbs which can be used in the kitchen, and they built a fantastic outdoor stone oven and grill which, if the weather is good, you just might be able to talk the chef into using to grill your scrumptious steaks and seafood. Better yet, they have outdoor seating in the garden, and occasional live entertainment from the back porch. Imagine my joy at being able to eat one of the best meals prepared in the state of Indiana in my favorite kitchen garden listening to live music on a warm summer night.

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There are a lot of interesting stories about the Story Inn, as well. One of them is about a ghost called, The Blue Lady, which frequents one of the upper rooms at the Story Inn. Paranormal investigators have investigated, and some say there is ample evidence that she is more than a figment of the imagination. I always laugh when I hear the waiters talk about how the ghost sightings quadrupled after the management started leaving complimentary bottles of wine in the guest rooms. Could this be the case of a wine-loving ghost? Could it be that the wine makes people see things that may not be there? Whatever the case, Guests who have visited the Story Inn say that The Blue Lady has been nothing but welcoming and accommodating when they have seen her. I am happy to say that I have not seen her in the garden during any of my visits!

Yes, my friends, the long trip to the boondocks, through a state park and around a national forest, on the old road which used to be the dirt path to Kentucky during the days of pioneers, to a town, which all but died and was resurrected by self-proclaimed hippies and is inhabited by ghosts, which you might miss if you blink on the way there, is one of the best, most worthwhile, ventures to make in Indiana. If you love great food or just a great garden, you will love the Story Inn. Just sayin’

Salad Season Has Sprung!

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After a long winter, I am always relieved and excited for salad season to begin. I always share my first harvests with my mother, and this year’s first harvest of salad greens was no exception. Kale, spinach, and lettuce added bit of green to a family chicken dinner.

For many years, I planted a huge variety of foods, usually including seven or eight types of lettuce, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. My family never ate it all. For the last few years, however, I decided to plant only things that my friends and family really like or use. For example, instead of planting eight different types of tomatoes, last year, I planted a few slicing tomatoes, my dad’s favorite German tomatoes, and a lot of sauce tomatoes. This Spring, I chose to grow only certain types of lettuce: Romaine, Red Sails, and Buttercrunch, since they are our favorites. I wonder if there will be any complaints, but I can say that last night’s salad went over very well.

My first harvest of salad greens is my signal to start my second planting which will take my greens harvest into the heat of summer. In a normal Indiana winter, it is also the sign that I need to prepare to plant the more frost sensitive plants, like tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers. Since our winter was so mild, however, I already had some of my beds prepared and took a chance, planting some of those plants a little earlier than normal. I did lose some tomato and zucchini plants to an unexpected frost, so I will make sure I have my sheets ready to cover my additional plants, if another frost is imminent.

What else can we plant early in Indiana? If you want the satisfaction of a fast-growing crop, you can try radishes. My mom and I love the bitter punch that radishes provide, but the taste is not for everyone. The great thing about radishes is that you can start pulling them out of the ground in as few as 20 days for small types and 27 days for larger ones. Another early Spring plant is the beet. Beets stay sweet as long as they grow in cold weather and are not left in the ground too long. They take longer than radishes, but still leave enough time, after harvest, for a crop or two of beans.

My mouth is watering just thinking about eating a salad of fresh greens with radishes and beets, a wonderful dressing, and my favorite toppings.

Wascally Wabbits Beware!

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Yes, my friends: That is exactly what you think it is… FORKS FORKS and more FORKS! Last year, I complained that when I had plants come up or planted new plants in the lettuce or cabbage families, the rabbits would eat the leaves to the ground. Someone told me to crush up some mothballs and put them in the garden, and Joila! The rabbits didn’t like it… until it rained a few times. This year, a friend of the family told me that she wanted me to try planting cheap, plastic forks around the plants… a sort of experiment.

I have no idea what the forks do. What I do know is that it works! I have not seen one eaten leaf, but every night I see the rabbits hopping around in the garden. Do you think they get their little eyes poked or something? If so, it could be a classic case of Pavlov experimentation all over again. If they get poked enough, they won’t try any more! (Not sure who Pavlov is? Just Google ‘Pavlov’s dogs’).

What ever the case may be, I am one happy camper. Now, I need some non-toxic, non-chemical, non-taste-changing ways to take care of other pests (spiders, slugs, certain insects, weeds, kids eating all of the fruit…..). So, Take THAT You wascally wabbit… Stop eating my garden produce!