Fertilizer Test

Whew. What a summer. It’s like Mother Nature has a magnifying glass pointed right at the central U.S. Here in Arkansas the growing season started about a month early this year. We were planting tomatoes in March and by the end of May it was as hot as July.

When the forecast is hot and dry for the foreseeable future the best thing for the vegetable garden is consistent, even moisture and an organic, water soluble or slow release fertilizer that won’t over stimulate heat and drought stressed plants.

My fertilizer of choice for edibles is Jobe’s Organics Vegetables and Tomatoes. It’s organic, but produces quick results. The granular and stakes are slow release and there is a new water soluble version too that’s perfect for our current weather.

The reason Jobe’s is my choice is it’s organic and it works. I can see the difference in the health of my plants and the flavor of the vegetables they produce.

This year I decided to put Jobe’s to the test to see how vegetables fed with Jobe’s matched up to those that went without. In early May I set up an experiment by planting two 6’x6’ raised beds with tomatoes and peppers. I added Jobe’s Organics Vegetables and Tomatoes granular fertilizer to the experimental bed and left the control bed unfertilized.

Over the summer, I’ve continued feeding with Jobe’s Organics water soluble. It’s easy to do with a hose end feeder, but you can also mix it up in a watering can.

In spite of the horrendous heat (11 days of near 100 and above 100 degree temperatures), both beds have continued producing a harvest, but the Jobe’s tomatoes and peppers are more robust and flavorful.

Are you curious how your vegetable garden would perform with Jobe’s Organics Vegetables and Tomatoes? Tell me how your garden is growing in the comments below for a chance to win a bag! Congratulations to Christine! She’s the winner of the Jobe’s Organics Fertilizer. Thank you to everyone for entering. Sounds like the heat and drought aren’t keeping you guys out of the garden!

Click here to find a store in your area that sells Jobe’s Organics.

Ten Tips from Heifer Ranch

There is so much to discuss about Heifer Ranch I thought it deserved a second post. In the first post I introduced you to this farm and learning center that is a part of Heifer International. With only three full time gardeners who maintain almost four acres of produce, I figured the folks at Heifer Ranch would have some good tips for us home gardeners. Here’s what they had to say.

  1. Plant Early: Ryan, manager of the garden, says the first step to success is putting in a spring crop as early as possible. It helps the workers get a jump on the season and take advantage of Arkansas’ short spring before the weather turns too hot.
  2. Succession Planting: To stay in constant supply of fresh produce, the gardeners plant the same crops every 3-4 weeks. This is especially helpful for pest-vulnerable crops like squash, but it also helps if a heat wave or flash flood destroys one planting group.
  3. Row Covers: Many people shy away from them, but row covers made from thin agricultural fabrics are used to cover plantings for two main purposes: frost protection and as an insect barrier. This is an added protection for tip 1- planting early- but it also helps with weed control.
  4. Rotation: The Heifer Ranch gardeners try not to plant a crop of the same family in a particular spot within four years of another member of that family being planted there. For example, the areas that have tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant this year will not have any of those items planted there for the foreseeable future. It’s a task that requires a little note keeping, but it greatly helps with the prevention of disease and insect pressure for future crops.
  5. Drip Irrigation: With the typical Arkansas summer, and especially this year’s drought-plagued summer, drip irrigation is a saving grace. The use of drip tape or line helps them conserve water and helps keep plants foliage dry, which reduces disease. It’s especially useful to keeping the soil moist when plants are young so that roots won’t dry out.
  6. Compost: The dynamic duo of food waste from the cafeteria and manure from the barns with the addition of garden remnants creates “black gold” to greatly enhance garden soil.
  7. Cover Cropping: Despite the extra work it may entail, the gardeners try to never have bare soil. When a “cash crop” is finished producing, they quickly plant a crop like cowpeas in the summer or winter wheat in the fall because in sustainable farming, cover crops help manage soil fertility & quality by adding nutrients back into the ground and help keep weeds, pests and diseases at bay.
  8. Mulch: By placing mulch around the base of plants, the gardeners can keep the soil consistently moist and cool while also discouraging weeds- the less weeding they have to do, the more time they have for planting and harvesting.
  9. Organic Pest Control: Heifer Ranch is a certified organic producer and they avoid chemical-based pest controls. But as a last resort for those hard-to-beat pests, they rely on the organic pyrethrum-based controls for blister beetles and fire ants and baits containing Nosema locustae against tomato hornworms and grasshoppers.
  10. Hard Work: What garden doesn’t require this? All of the vegetables are harvested by hand, so the three full-time gardeners are out in the sun for 8-10 hours a day. Even so, they rely on help from volunteers, guests, and CSA members to keep things fully harvested. Gardening and farming are social events at Heifer Ranch.

Do you use any of these methods to keep your garden in top form? We’d love to hear which of these you use, or any other tips you have to make a garden manageable.

Butcher Block Countertops

If you are looking for an easy update for your kitchen countertops, take a look at butcher block. It’s a classic choice, both functional and beautiful. Butcher block will fit into any style; it’s all about the wood that you select and the finish.

Butcher Block Countertop Choices

Maple – Maple is the most traditional and what I selected for the Garden Home Challenge house. It’s a popular flooring choice for high traffic areas because it’s durable. The light color is especially nice for bright kitchens.

Walnut – American walnut is a blend of dark to light brown and cream. Walnut is beautiful in both traditional and sleek, modern kitchens.

Cherry – This is a classic choice for countertops. The red and brown color deepens with age so the material just gets better looking over time.

White Oak – White oak has honey tones, open grain and interesting burls. Choose this wood for farm house chic rooms.

Butcher Block Maintenance

Butcher block is very forgiving of daily use and with minimal care it will maintain its beauty for years. Keep the wood well-oiled and dry so that your love affair with your countertops will endure.

The first thing to do is to condition the wood with food grade mineral oil. Apply a generous coat of mineral oil and allow it to soak in for about 15 minutes. Repeat the process until the wood won’t absorb any more oil. Wipe off the excess. Don’t worry about using too much oil. Avoid edible oils such as vegetable, olive or nut oils. These contain fat that will go rancid over time.

Next seal the surface with beeswax, which is safe for using around food. This will keep the oil in and block out moisture and bacteria. Spread on evenly, allow the wax to dry, and then buff with a soft cloth.

If you have brand new butcher block, you will need to oil and wax them once a month or so. It will get easier each time you do it.

For daily cleaning, sponge it off with soap and warm water. Be sure to dry afterward. You can sanitize butcher block with a weak bleach solution (1 tbsp. bleach to 1 gallon warm water) or vinegar and water followed by an application of mineral oil.

Sand away stains, scratches and imperfections with a fine grade sandpaper.

Good to Know: Lumber Liquidators

I found the butcher block used in the Garden Home Challenge house at Lumber Liquidators. Famous for their flooring, they also carry butcher block countertops. I was able to get a 1 ½”x 25″ x12 linear foot countertop for $359.00. That’s quite a savings. Check them out at www.LumberLiquidators.com.


American Farmer: Community Supported Agriculture

When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to know where your food came from. I don’t mean which grocery store or restaurant- I’m talking about food that went from the ground onto your dinner table, I’m talking about farms and farmers, gardens and gardeners. I’ve spent most of my life on a farm, but I know that this isn’t the reality for most Americans.

My social media coordinator Anna Claire really cares about food systems- in fact, that’s one of the reasons we get along best. But she didn’t grow up on a farm, in fact she just started gardening this year. During one of our discussions I suggested she take advantage of a local resource – Heifer Ranch, a division of Heifer International. Located just outside of town, it’s a great place to learn about community supported agriculture and pick up a few pointers for her garden. I thought you might be interested in hearing about it too.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a combination of knowing your farmer, growing your own, and going to a farmer’s market… all in one. At its most basic level, a CSA allows a farmer to offer a certain number of “shares” to the public and in return for buying that share, shareholders receive a box of vegetables (or flowers, eggs, bread, or whatever else was produced at the farm that week) each week throughout the farming season.

The model has taken hold across the nation- tens of thousands of families hold shares in CSAs and in some areas there aren’t enough farms to support the demand. It just so happens that Heifer Ranch has a one acre vegetable garden that serves a CSA of about 60 members that each pay $350 a season, or about $20 a week for a basket of approximately 10 items. Some weeks you’ll get more – when Anna Claire visited the CSA drop-off, shareholders were getting 12 items and a $40 value- and some weeks you’ll get less. But each week you know that you’re getting fresh, typically organic produce because you know your farmer and you know your farm.

And that’s not the only advantage- because you receive only fruits and vegetables that are in season, you get exposed to new vegetables and ways of cooking. And the farmer benefits just as much as the consumer – instead of spending a couple of days a week driving to and sitting at a market just hoping that someone will stop in and buy something, they spend time marketing their food earlier in the season so that when the longer days in the field begin, they don’t have to worry about cash flow because the food is already purchased. Therefore, you’re supporting local business, too.

On the flip side, there is a sense of “shared risk” when it comes to CSAs. When a shareholder buys in, they’re agreeing to accept whatever food is offered. Last year, the Heifer CSA had a tough spell when a flash flood left them cabbage-less after months of tending the garden. CSA baskets for consumers were lighter for the next couple of weeks. This year, there seems to be an endless supply of broccoli, so consumers may be getting more of one thing than they like. But there is a sense of community between the members and the farmers that springs from that shared risk.

Heifer International is a global non-profit that I plan to write more about in the future, but the Ranch itself is what I find most fascinating. The average age of American farmers is 57, but to visit Heifer Ranch it’s easy to see that the face of agriculture is changing. A young man named Ryan heads up the CSA and has two full-time volunteers, Brittany and Kenny. They both are giving a year of unpaid service to learn – and teach – about farming. One of the main projects at the Ranch is to offer sustainable agriculture training to farmers from impoverished areas in the US. Right now, the focus is on Hughes, a one-diner town in the Arkansas Delta. The practices that Heifer is teaching this community were learned and perfected on the Ranch.

Another major task involves teaching young students about food and farming. Groups of students on field trips or summer programs will visit the farm almost every day and part of their visit gets the students’ hands busy harvesting beans or other easy-to-pick items. While the extra help is valued, Brittany, Kenny and Ryan also get the chance to share their farming experiences and teach an even younger generation about knowing where their food comes from. For the rest of their day, Brittany, Kenny and Ryan spend long days in the hot Arkansas summers working to produce healthy crops for the CSA and learn enough to run their own farms, and maybe CSAs, someday soon.

Half of Heifer’s shareholders are new this year, so it’s likely that they’re learning about or getting involved with a CSA for the first time. One new share holder got involved because a close friend swore by it, and now looks forward to trying a new recipe with seasonal vegetables each week. Another woman loves the convenience of the CSA, but also loves that she knows her farmers and is supporting a good cause. It may not be the best option for everyone, but I think a CSA is a great way to support a local food culture and eat well throughout the year.

Rose Woes? I’ve got solutions.


Summer is in full swing and so begins the annual watch for signs of pests and diseases in the garden. Roses are especially susceptible to troubles as temperatures and humidity rises, but rose problems are general easy to manage. The key is early detection and identification.

Looking for help with your rose woes? Read this excerpt from my eBook Garden 101: Growing and Caring for Roses.

What do you think is the most carefree rose? Tell me for a chance to win a copy of Garden 101: Growing and Caring for Roses for your Kindle or to read on your computer. I’ll select a winner on Monday July 16, 2012. Read the official rules.

Congratulations to Adele, Susan, Susan O., Cindy M. and Jo S. You gals won a copy of my eBook!. Check your email for confirmation. Thank you to everyone for entering! I especially enjoyed reading the deer tips!

Gardening 101: Growing and Caring for Roses “Common Rose Problems”

Now, some may say that roses are prima donnas that are susceptible to all kinds of maladies. Really, though, roses only have a few problems. The truth is, many of these issues can be prevented with good cultural practices and simple treatments. My best advice is to choose the right rose for your conditions and then make certain that the rose is growing in the right place. Happy roses are healthy roses.

Know the Enemies …

Insect Pests

Admittedly, gardeners aren’t the only ones who love roses. Lots of bugs love roses, too. When dealing with insect pests, I like to use methods with low environmental impact. I keep everything orderly to make the garden as inhospitable as possible to these unwelcome guests. I handpick them or use bug traps. On occasion, I’ll use a spot spray of insecticidal soap or pyrethrum-based insecticides. A stealth tactic such as using garlic or marigolds in the garden sneakily repels insects, too.

Here are some of my best tips to prevent and control specific pests.

Japanese Beetle: If you see that your rose leaves are skeletonized and the flowers have been eaten, it’s a good bet you have Japanese beetles. The beetles have coppery-green wings with five little white “tufts” on their sides. Your best defense is to handpick the adult beetles and drop them in a jar of soapy water. Natural repellents include catnip, chives, garlic and tansy, or you can use an insecticidal soap. If the garden is too overwhelmed with them, try bacterial controls or bug traps.

Aphids: Look for reduced shoot growth and distorted or pale foliage with small insects clustered on stems and shoots. Many natural enemies, such as ladybugs, exist that can eat many of the aphids. A strong jet of water can wash away the colonies from the buds. You can also spray thoroughly with an insecticidal soap.

Sawfly Larvae (Rose Slugs): When upper-leaf surfaces are skeletonized or complete leaves have been devoured with only the midvein remaining, you have rose slugs. If the infestation is manageable, handpick the rose slugs and the affected leaves. If the rose slugs persist, then spray with an insecticidal soap.

Spider Mites: You have mites if the leaves are rough and appear stippled with tiny, light-colored dots. To beat spider mites, you have to be persistent. Make sure you spray under the leaves to be effective, because that’s where spider mites live. Spray every seven to 10 days, alternating between a hot-pepper spray and an insecticidal soap. Other pest arsenal options are neem tree oil, BT, garlic insect repellent and pyrethrins.

An Ounce of Prevention …

Roses are susceptible to a number of fungi such as black spot, powdery mildew, downy mildew and rust. I’d like to alert you to some symptoms so you can be on the lookout. When trouble crops up, you can be ready with a quick solution.

Black Spot: Black spot is your culprit if you see circular to irregularly shaped black spots on the upper surface of the rose leaves or if you find leaf yellowing, leaf drop or canes with raised purple-red blotches that turn black with age. Carefully prune and discard the affected plant parts when the foliage is dry. I like to use a three-in-one spray (fungicide, insecticide and miticide) made with neem oil that also controls insect pests.

Powdery Mildew: Symptoms of this problem include a powdery, white growth covering the leaves’ upper surface that can also distort the leaves. Prune to improve air flow around the rose shrub as well as around the surrounding plantings. Once I’ve trimmed, I’ll use neem oil to treat the powdery mildew.

Rust: Orange, powdery spores that are usually confined to the lower-leaf surfaces signal a rust problem. If left untreated, orange-brown spots will appear later in the season on the upper-leaf surfaces, and infected young stems and sepals may become distorted. The best offense is a good defense — so again, avoid crowding and prune your roses and the plantings around them to improve air circulation. When you first see rust pustules on lower-leaf surfaces, apply fungicide at regular intervals. Spray every seven to 10 days, except during extreme heat and drought. Again, I have a lot of success with neem oil.

Wildlife

Thorns or no thorns, many animals will eat a rose bush to the ground. If an animal is hungry enough, it will eat anything. Bird netting is one way to keep out those unwanted garden guests, since many animals shy away from the feel of the plastic. Using the bird netting won’t mar the appearance of the landscape either, since it’s hard to see from a distance. I’ve also had luck with liquid repellents, but I have to remember to apply them after every rain.

A Special Note About Keeping Out Deer

Deer are a problem nationwide and I receive questions about deer everywhere I go. Strangely enough, I haven’t had any deer problems in my rose beds at the farm. I also realize I may be tempting fate with those words, considering the fact the Retreat is surrounding by woods. There have been plenty of deer sightings, so I know it won’t last forever. I have some tricks up my sleeve to deter them, yet I’m mindful that they were here first, so my defensive measures will at the very least keep me in their good graces.

Deer Fence: Deer can jump pretty high, but they don’t like to jump across a double barrier. So a fence inside a fence is much more effective than one tall fence. At the farm I’m building two 4-foot fences that are 5 feet apart. The space between the fences will be wide enough for a wheelbarrow or lawn mower to get through, but it will be too far for a deer to jump across.

Deer Netting: Deer netting can be draped over plants or attached to existing fencing. Deer don’t like the way it feels on their muzzles so they avoid it and whatever it protects.

Plant Choices: Avoid traditional deer favorites such as rhododendron, azaleas and hostas. Why tempt them with their favorite salad bowl? I also planted daffodils instead of tulips because deer won’t eat them. Deer also dislike plants with a pungent fragrance, including marigolds, lavender, boxwood and herbs. Fuzzy foliage plants such as lamb’s ear are also not on a deer’s menu. Very few plants are actually deer proof, but, it never hurts to try.

Grilled Fried Chicken Lee Bailey’s Brownies

One of my favorite places in the world is a town on a small island off the coast of Maine called Stonington. The ferny woods skirting the edge of the water, the rumble of lobster boats, foggy mornings and intensely sunny afternoons are just a few of the things I love about it. Part of my heart is always there, especially in summer when it’s 100+ degrees here and delightfully cool in Stonington.

One of my favorite people on the island is Kyra Alex, exceptional quilter, owner of Lily’s Café, chef, and cookbook author. Her brownies are so good I want to rub them in my hair! They are the perfect dessert for July 4th festivities (so good with homemade vanilla ice cream) and Kyra was kind enough to send me the recipe along with a grilled “fried” chicken.

Even though I now have the know-how to make her brownies myself they’ll never be as good as Kyra’s. They are best eaten sitting in the dining room at Lily’s in the company of the cook.

If you want to know more about Kyra visit her blog LilysHouseStonington.BlogSpot.com. While you are there, be sure to order one of her cookbooks.

Hello all and thank you so much for having me here. I am writing this from beautiful Stonington, an island off the mid-coast of Maine. I have been taking a year of pause from my busy café – Lily’s – where I had the pleasure of meeting Allen through mutual friends, oh so many years ago. As special as he makes us all feel, I know in my heart that it was my brownies that kept him coming back in, year after year.

I am happy to share the recipe for these rich chocolate delights with you, along with something  else I just came up with that has made my summer entertaining easy peasy:

Fried chicken – summer style! Shedding its flour and oil coat for a crispy, charred on the grill look. Still moist and tender on the inside with that familiar spicy undertone, yet, light and easy, just like summer should be. A honey mustard dipping sauce really puts a hat on this beauty.

GRILLED “FRIED” CHICKEN
1 chicken approximately 3-4 lbs, cut into 8 pieces

Rub:
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4-3/4 teaspoon cayenne (depends on how spicy you like it)
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Marinate
Mix all rub ingredients in a small bowl. Season chicken all over with rub mixture and place in a medium bowl, cover and chill overnight. Take chicken from fridge about an hour before you are ready to grill it to bring it to room temperature.

Grill
The key to cooking the chicken on a charcoal grill is to use indirect heat. Light your coals and pile them to one side. When the coals are white and red hot place the chicken pieces directly over the fire until you get nice grill marks on each piece, moving them over to the cooler non charcoal side as you achieve this. It should only take a few minutes for each piece, so don’t leave them unattended or you will burn your chicken.

Once all the chicken is chargrilled, arrange the pieces so they are all skin side up, cover completely with the grill lid, leaving the vent holes closed and cook until the meat is firm to the touch and the juices run clear, or until the breast meat registers 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer inserted in the middle of the meat, without touching bone. Dark meat should register 175 degrees F.

Let stand for 10 minutes before diving in!

HONEY MUSTARD DIPPING SAUCE
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoon honey

Whisk together, adjust seasoning with salt if necessary. These are approximate amounts, if you like more mustard, add it!  Same with the honey.

LEE BAILEY’S OUTRAGEOUS BROWNIES

This makes a big pan of decadent brownies that are just as good the next day.

4 sticks of unsalted butter (1 pound)
16 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, plus 3 cups in a separate bowl
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
6 large eggs
2 1/2 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 12×18-inch jelly roll pan and set aside.

Melt together the butter, pound of chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate until smooth. I do this in a microwave on low, removing them just before they are totally melted and stirring them until smooth. You can also use a double boiler.

Cool the melted chocolate to room temperature – this is very important.

Combine, but don’t whisk, the eggs, espresso, vanilla and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in the cooled chocolate, set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix this into the batter until no white shows. Finally, fold in the remaining 3 cups of chocolate chips and walnuts. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached. It is important not to over bake these. Allow to cool and cut into squares.

Enjoy!