“Toe-mate-Os” or “Toh-mat-Os”…? Garden Planning Excitement!

It’s garden planning season!! One of my favorite things to do is to go through our seed catalogs and pick our lucky victims for planting in the upcoming year 🙂 We really love and have used Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds  since we’ve first started growing our own food about 5 years ago. This company has so many unique offerings and are 100% organic and GMO free, something my husband and I think is very important. I always get really excited about my tomatoes, I LOVE them and am always ready and willing to change the varieties up each season. Last year we planted a “Blueberry” variety from Baker Creek that were absolutely amazing, in addition to some San Marzanos and Striped Romans (good for canning, freezing, and slicing). This year I was lucky to find a small organic non GMO tomato farmer in Pennsylvania who I ordered all my “babies” from. As an added bonus the farm is called Happy Cat Farms !!! For a girl who loves her cats and tomatoes it was love at first glance 🙂

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Happy Cat Farm Tomatoes!

Since our garden is fairly small, these are the varieties I’ve chosen. 

1. The Lloyd E. Frey– This is a great tomato for slicing. If you love beefsteak tomatoes, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with the flavor, texture and juiciness of this fella!

2. Sweet Pea– These tomatoes are VERY teeny tiny, the size of a pea! Why am I excited about something so small? Well, these little guys are the perfect addition to salads, a dish I enjoy almost every single day. They may be little, but they pack a nice sweet punch 🙂

3. Reigart– These medium sized tomatoes are GREAT for freezing and canning. Yes, you can freeze tomatoes and let me tell you, they are awesome to use in soups, stews, curries and sauces when you’re craving the flavor of freshness over the long winter months.

Peppers!

Peppers!

In addition to the awesome tomatoes, I’m also pretty excited about these peppers. I’ve never planted the Corno Di Toro Rosso peppers but have heard they are a great and sweeter alternative to bells, especially great for pan frying due to the thinner skin.

Each year my husband and I plant Shishito Peppers. OMG are they amazing! They are tiny little peppers that when simply sautéed in butter with salt are the most amazing little treat you can have. They are a sweet, slightly smokey, very mild pepper that grows amazingly well and produces a significant yield when pruned properly. I would recommend these to anyone who loves a good pepper, even just one plant can give you a good amount to enjoy.

Homemade Garden Markers.

Homemade Garden Markers.

Lastly, my very talented sister in law made my husband and I these really unique garden markers for christmas. She hand fire etched each name of the plant onto the wood and soaked them in linseed oil to help seal and protect. This is such a great idea that will add a great look to our garden, and the smell of the linseed oil will deter little critters from the plants 🙂 Win win!

Fragrant Homemade Fire Sticks!

Fall here is alive and well and soon enough were going to have LOTS of snow as usual. To me this conjures up warm and fuzzy feelings. I love fall, its colors and scents but I really love the first big snowfall! Its so white and beautiful and always brings a smile to my face 🙂 Plus, I LOVE enjoying cozy fires with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa. Ahhh, can’t wait!  Anywho, this year after trimming my lavender plants in preparation for winter I kept thinking “theres got to be something I can do with the trimmings instead of just throwing them out” wouldn’t you agree? So here it is….fire-sticks! These awesome little bundles smell amazing and will also help in starting a wood burning fire.

French lavender at the end of season is very dense and woody but still very fragrant, perfect for firesticks

French lavender at the end of season is very dense and woody but still very fragrant, perfect for fire-sticks!

Up close of the dried spent lavender blooms.

Up close of the dried spent lavender blooms.

What you should do first is clip as many of the blooms as well as the foliage you desire. One average sized plant will render about 2 dozen fire-sticks.

After you’ve gathered all your clippings, you can wash them and leave them out to dry (optional).

Next, the supplies you will need are:

-Your clippings

-Scissors

-Twine

-Newspaper or another type of paper

-Any other additional herbs you’d like to add (Sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary or chamomile are great options!) I decided to add some cinnamon sticks to the mix 🙂

Just a few of the supplies needed.

Just a few of the supplies needed.

And it’s always nice to have a helper! In this case….my cat Feliks insisted he be present for this project! Ha.

Feliks the "helper".

Feliks the “helper”.

After you’ve gathered all your supplies cut your paper into squares and cut two twine pieces for each square. To add a little extra “fun” you could used scalloped scissors on the corners of each paper square to create an interesting look.

Then place your herb bundle towards the edge of one corner.

Squared paper with scalloped edges with herb bundle.

Squared paper with scalloped edges with herb bundle.

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Close up….just for fun 🙂

Now start rolling the paper into a long tube like shape.

Rolling the lavender bundle.

Rolling the lavender bundle.

If your paper is thicker you can secure its closure with a little piece of tape.

Next, if you’re using thicker paper like I did you’ll have to cut into each end so that when the twine is tied the ends don’t get completely smashed in. If you don’t really care, you can skip this step.

Cutting into each end of the bundle.

Cutting into each end of the bundle.

Now tie each end of the bundle off with some twine…..and there you have it, you’re done!

Finished lavender cinnamon fire-stick!

Finished lavender cinnamon fire-stick!

Next step…..toss with some kindling, start a fire and enjoy 🙂

Canning? Don’t Waste Those Tomato Skins!

I LOVE tomatoes and luckily this year we got a really great yield from our garden! We planted san marzanos, striped romans, and blueberry tomatoes (seriously a variety you must try if you love sweet goodness)! This year my husband decided to can a simple sauce instead of making something fancier. It made more sense to do something simple that we could open and add stuff to as we used it. He also froze the san marzanos whole and as a result we had a bunch of skins leftover. This got me thinking…what could we do with the skins? Well, read on to find out!

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A mix of our san marzano and striped roman yield.

So what did I do? I dried them and made tomato flakes! These flakes add a deep, earthy and sweet flavor to anything they are sprinkled on. I’ve heard they taste amazing on ice cream adding a subtle sweetness and helping to compliment flavors such as vanilla. Read on for step by step instructions…..

Step One: Pre-heat your oven to 220 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. After the sheet is lined place the tomato skins on top. Don’t add anything else just the tomatoes.

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Step Two: Place the tomatoes inside the pre-heated oven and use a dishtowel or oven mitt to prop the oven open to help in the evaporation process. Make sure none of the towel is dangling in the oven otherwise you risk it catching on fire. Keep tomatoes in the oven for a good 90-120min checking the crispness every so often.

Step Three: Take out the tomatoes 🙂 When the tomatoes are done they will be very crispy and crumble to the touch. Taste one, you’ll be surprised at the sweetness!

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Crisp and crumbly tomato skins.

Step Four: Crumble!!! This can get messy…but its fun. You can put gloves on if you don’t want tomato crumble all over your hands. If you want the flakes to be more like a powder you can put them in a food processor to your desired consistency.

Tomato flakes!!

Tomato flakes!!

Step Five: Package them up to enjoy later! 🙂

Finished tomato flakes in a simple canning jar.

Finished tomato flakes in a simple canning jar.

Thats all, till next time….!

Garden Happenings

Summer is in full swing here and so are the visitors to my garden!  Both the good and the bad. First the bad….mites…what I think is the two spotted spider mite-yuck! First noticed these little buggers two years ago in my garden up front after I saw them crawling on my lawn furniture.  Now they are in our back garden and again, I only noticed them after I saw them crawling on our furniture during a windy day. Have a feeling the host plant may be our tomatoes. If anyone has any organic solutions that have worked for you, please share in the comments!!!  I want to at least reduce the population so I can sit outside without them crawling on me. Ick. I know how incredibly hard they are to eliminate though.

Ok now onto the good visitors! Earlier in the season I noticed multiple baby praying mantids in the garden. This made me incredibly happy because these are the good guys!  They eat mites and aphids and not to mention they are so cool to watch:)

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Baby mantid on my hydrangea earlier this year.

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Bigger mantid trying to make its way up the side of my house. Hummm I wonder whats up there? 🙂

I also noticed this funky little bee early in the morning one day. What caught my attention was the neon green coloring. So of course I googled it and what I discovered was that it is called a sweat bee, interesting. They are nocturnal bees that are generally attracted to the by products of perspiration hence the name the sweat bee.  Although this little guy was more interested in my cone flowers more so than me. Perfect!

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Sweat bee on cone flower.

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Sweat bee on coneflower. Notice the bright green coloring and the very yellow legs! Very cool to watch.

My husband and I harvested our first round of shishito peppers a few weeks ago, and since then have harvested at least three more batches. If cared for and pruned correctly these peppers just keep on giving. They are also amazingly delicious, not spicy and easy to prepare. Just put them in a skillet with a little bit of butter or oil, salt and pepper and pan fry them till the edges are slightly charred. Enjoy them by grabbing the stem and plucking the pepper off.  These are a great appetizer and the aroma they give off smells like fresh buttered movie style popcorn!!

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Beautiful shishitos…oh how I love you.

Heres something fun….these crazy little finches visit my feeders everyday. Each of them has such a personality. There are a few birds that decide to eat upside down when the feeder gets low. It cracks me up every time!

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Mr. Finch on the right hanging on for dear life just so he can eat some nyjer seed!

Lastly, one afternoon I was sitting outside and noticed a beautiful orange fluttering. Initially I thought it was a red admiral butterfly (I had been seeing tons of them lately) but as I watched it land I quickly realized it was a monarch!! Just beautiful. Since then a number of different monarchs have been visiting my flowers for the sweet nectar. They really love my zinnias!

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Monarch butterfly visiting my potted zinnias. Just look at that incredible design. Nature amazes me sometimes.

Till next time….

Modern Simple Succulents

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One of my favorite displays of potted succulents accenting our backyard dining table.

If you ask me, succulents are one of the most incredible looking plants around. They add unique pops of fresh color and texture to both pots and landscape. As an added bonus, they are super easy to care for! Many are intimidated by succulents because they think they require special care, but succulents are probably one of the easiest plants to keep and are very rewarding. If cared for correctly succulents will last a lifetime. No joke. Here are some simple tips for planting and keeping succulents.

Tips For Planting and Caring for Succulents:

  • Succulents can be purchased at almost any nursery and often can be found at big box outdoor stores as well.
  • When planting succulents make sure to use a pot with multiple drainage holes. Succulents will rot easily if they are left to sit in damp soil.
  • Use a potting mix formulated especially for succulents or cactus. You can also make your own by using regular potting soil mixed with sand and small stones for easy drying and drainage.
  • Now that you’re ready to pot, pot succulents as you would any other flower. Gently manipulate the roots, place in pot or ground and cover roots with soil up to the base of the succulent.
  • DO NOT WATER succulent immediately as you would regular potted plants. Wait 24 hours and then provide the succulent with a light watering. Thereafter you only need to provide a light soaking of water every 2-3 weeks.
  • Most succulents thrive in sunlight with the exception of a few varieties. So indirect sunlight is usually a safe bet.
  • Lastly, there is no need to fertilize your succulents they tend not to handle the excess nitrogen well.

There you have it, all you have to do now is enjoy!!!

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Some seriously large and old growth succulents I inherited from my husbands grandmother. Are they not stunning?!

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Here is a simple unassuming succulent display I have near my front door entrance.

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A close up of the rubbery leaves.

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Simple succulents resting on unfinished ash tree table in the backyard.

My favorite bunch of succulents making the backyard table (which my hubby made out of repurposed wood) look even more amazing.

Keep posted for a feature on our transformed backyard that my husband built himself from the ground up 🙂 

 

 

Crash Course in Organic Gardening

I must first start this off by saying that I am VERY new to organic gardening and gardening in general so this is also a learning experience for me.  My husband and I made the choice to grow organically for many reasons, the obvious being that we want to limit the amount of chemicals we ingest through food. If we are afforded beautiful summer and fall months here in Buffalo that allow us to grow our own food this is what we do. Its economically and fiscally responsible and it makes you feel great knowing that YOU grew this beautiful veggie that you’re about to eat and you know EXACTLY how it was grown. However, organic gardening has its many challenges, namely managing pests biologically.  Our garden this year got a great start, we are pretty terrible at propagating seedlings so we enlisted a local organic certified farmer to grow our seedlings for us.  When we got our babies we planted them in nutrient rich well tilled soil and covered them with worm compost. Great beginnings are even more important when organically growing. Why? Well, healthy plants have the best chance of  warding off common garden pests. Pest such as aphids, mites, cabbage worms etc… will seek out plants that are already in peril because they are easy targets, weak, and still provide them with the “juice” they are looking for.  Despite having healthy plants, it is almost inevitable that some happy little bug will find its way to your organic love patch 🙂 Below are a few little buggers who’ve made our garden their happy home this year. IMG_0362

While checking on the garden some late afternoon I noticed that a few of our shishito pepper plants looked a little sad. The leaves were yellowing and curling in and upwards from the tip of the plant towards the stem. I immediately recognized the signs, and sure enough as soon as I flipped the leaf over a family of aphids were happily feeding.

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What we have here are tell tale holes in the greens.  You might think that these are from a pest that zooms in, eats and then zooms away keeping its identity under wraps unless you catch them in the act. Nope, all you have to do is flip the leaf over to reveal the true culprit.

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Hi! Im a loathed cabbage worm/cabbage looper!!  I like to eat your greens-All of them!!  If you notice a lot of white butterflies hanging around your garden and plenty of holes dabbling the leaves of your edible greens this little guy is most likely hiding out under the leaves and feasting away.  So as an organic gardener what can you do? Well, what I would suggest is to check on your garden every day, yes EVERYDAY.  By keeping a keen eye on your plants you can detect subtle changes and catch an invasion before it gets really out of hand. For example, I was able to catch the aphids very early and the population was small enough for me to just use my hands to smoosh them and their eggs away. For the cabbage worm you can hand pick them off as well, but there is a bacterium available that these worms do not like that can be easily applied to the plants. It’s called Bacillus thuringiensis. We also use Captain Jacks Deadbug Brew which contains the all natural bacterium originally sourced from an abandoned rum distillery in the the caribbean named Spinosad. Both of these are great options for pest control in organic gardening. Happy Gardening!

Beautiful Versatile Lavender

Lavender is such an amazing versatile flower to have in your garden. For starters, it’s beautiful blooms attract pollinators like butterflies and honeybees as well as being naturally resistant to damaging bugs such as aphids. If you live in an area where deer are abundant (like I do) lavender also acts as a deterrent. Deer, skunk, rabbits and other small mammals nasal passages get irritated by the strong scent and choose to leave the plant alone, perfect!! IMG_0381

This particular lavender plant (pictured above) my husband and I picked up on a trip to New Hope Pennsylvania last May at Peace Valley Lavender Farm. Such an adorable town to visit if you get the chance!

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Nonetheless, you can also cook with lavender, make your own eco friendly products or dry the lavender stems and make a bouquet that’ll add a nice and amazing smelling addition to your home.