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Archive for January, 2013

With all of the issues we had the past two summers, something had to give in our garden. In an earlier post I wrote that we’re going to switch focus from disease/pest management to creating good soil and growing conditions.

From all my research the obvious place to start was compost, commonly referred to as black gold.

So where do we begin? We needed a bin of some sort to store all the organic material because our property is a small city lot without much extra space. But after that, was it really as easy as throwing in food scraps and dried leaves? For the most part, it actually is.

Our kitchen collector is filled with everything from banana and onion peels to tea bags and vegetable scraps.

Our kitchen collector is filled with everything from banana peels and tea bags to vegetable scraps.

We’re lucky that our county offers free composting classes for beginners and has a great website to answer any questions. I attended a class last spring and walked away with a good amount of information on what makes a successful compost pile.

As an added bonus, we got a free countertop container for our kitchen scraps and a coupon to buy a discounted bin.

The basics are easy: mix nitrogen-rich material with carbon-based material and let the microbes or earthworms do the dirty work. I’ve read a few conflicting “recipes” on what ratio makes the best compost. We’ve generally been following 2:1 – two parts carbon and one part nitrogen.

Though different ingredients have different carbon or nitrogen ratios, we don’t worry about that. It’s basically one bucket of fruit or vegetable scraps to two buckets of leaves or shredded newspaper.

Nitrogen-based: grass clippings, fruit or vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, plant trimmings, etc.

Carbon-based: dried leaves, shredded paper, wood chips, etc.

So far it seems to be working. When we started our compost bin it was filled to the brim with food scraps, dead plants from the garden and shredded leaves. Now it’s roughly half the size, and more and more of it looks like finished compost.

We’re considering getting another bin to make more compost and let the other one keep cooking for the spring.

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“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

That phrase typically applies to filling one’s plate with more than he or she can possibly eat. For me, it rings true when I’m planting herbs every summer. Somehow our raised bed gets filled with tons of fresh herbs–this year we planted two basil plants, two parsley plants, lemon thyme, two oregano clusters, cilantro, and our chives and mint returned for a nice harvest.

The final harvest of herbs from our garden. Almost nothing was left after this.

The final harvest of herbs from our garden. Almost nothing was left after this.

It’s more than we could possibly use in our cooking, especially when many of the herbs keep producing throughout the season. This summer I was pushing chives and basil on everyone. Aside from a couple big batches of pesto or a heavy-handed herbal infusion to our spaghetti sauce, I was at a loss on how to use everything before the weather turned cold and the plants died.

Then I came across a brilliant way to preserve herbs–the freezer. Sure, I could let them dry and later crush them to add to dishes, but that’s very time consuming, and I’m impatient. There are several methods for freezing herbs including individual leaves on a baking sheet or making ice cubes filled with fresh herbs and/or oil and water. I chose the latter, and it’s fairly simple.

1. Wash and dry the herbs, either patted dry with towels or in a salad spinner, which I used.

2. Chop them as you normally would if using fresh herbs.

3. Place the chopped herbs in an empty ice cube tray. How much in each is up to you but a tablespoon or so is a good rule of thumb. 

4. Top with olive oil or water, and place in the freezer overnight. 

5. When they’re frozen, place in individual freezer bags and label which herb is in each.

Ready for the freezer. We used both oil and water for each herb.

Ready for the freezer. We used both oil and water for each herb.

I tested this during the summer with chives and water, and it worked like a charm. I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste my time (or the herbs) if it wasn’t going to work. We did this again this fall and have had a steady supply so far this winter.

The obvious way to use these is to drop the herb cubes into soups or stews. We also take out the ones in oil and let them melt in a hot pan, which serves as a great base for sautéing onions or pan-frying fish.

Sometimes I’ll melt the water cubes in the microwave then squeeze dry the herbs to use in another dish. There are plenty of creative options.

A few things to note:

  • Personally, I felt like I had to use too much olive oil for this and will probably try to figure out a way to use less next time.
  • Also, the basil and mint turned brown in the water cubes. They still taste fine, so don’t be put-off when they don’t come out of the freezer all green and beautiful.
  • Consider writing on masking tape instead of directly on the bag. Even though we used permanent marker, it’s rubbing off in the freezer. Most of the time I can tell which herb it is, but sometimes I use it anyway and hope for the best.

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Signs of spring?

It’s been really warm here for the past several days–we’re talking 60 degrees or more in January. Ohio weather is notoriously bipolar, so I’m not surprised it was warm on Jan. 11 and is supposed to be in the mid-30s on Jan. 14.

The weather inspired me to check out our garden, which I haven’t really paid any attention to since the final leaves were raked away this fall. I was happy to see that the shredded leaves were decomposing nicely–the big, two-foot tall pile is now a smattering about three inches thick. That should provide a good nutrient boost in the spring.

That's parsley poking through the leaves. The greenery in the second bed is peas I've left to compost directly in the bed.

That’s parsley poking through the leaves. The greenery in the second bed is peas I’ve left to compost directly in the bed.

I also noticed our parsley, which was chewed down to the stems by butterfly caterpillars, is poking through the leaf debris. I knew chives, thyme and oregano were perennials but didn’t think parsley was. After a bit of research, I found out parsley is not really a perennial, it’s a biennial. That means the leaves are only good the first year, and it sets seeds in its second year.

We’ll plan on planting some more next spring, but I might let the seeds lay where they fall and see what pops up the following years.

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Yes, the title seems obvious. Of course we’ll have a new garden this year. But my game plan has changed.

Last year we were plagued with more problems than I care to count–new insects/pests, extreme heat, deer and squirrels, blossom-end rot, and the list goes on and on and on…

What’s new this year:

I’ve changed the focus from how to get rid of and/or prevent pests and diseases. That will still be a crucial part of our planning and maintenance (going to try interplanting & beneficial nematodes – more on that later), but we’re going to pay more attention to the soil.

We have a good start with our new compost bin. It’s filled with leaves and food scraps and seems to be working like magic. Also, our beds are filled with shredded–and now decomposing– leaves that will be worked in to the soil when it’s warmer.

I’m also researching what nutrients each plant needs and trying to learn more about the ideal growth conditions (I spend a lot of time reading about gardens lately). Our first step this spring will be to remove the weed barriers we put down a few years ago. The roots of most of the vegetables can’t get deep enough to thrive.

We’ve also discovered Worm’s Way, a fabulous garden supply store in Northern Kentucky. It’s where we bought our compost bin (had a coupon), and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and full of advice for novices like us.

So wish us luck, and here’s to a good gardening season!

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