Author Archives: Stephi

What Am I Growing-2017

It’s always fun to spend time in January and February going through all the seed and garden catalogs to see what I am going to grow this year.

It’s also during that time, I wish I had bigger gardens and more sun to really plant huge vegetable and flower gardens. But I have what I have, so I’m limited in what I can plant and can honestly barely take care of that. After many years of experimenting, I’ve settled into growing particular vegetables we like best, but often changing up the varieties, and then throwing in a few new things for fun.

Now’s the time to get started with any indoor sowing that needs to be done to give plants a head start in my northern climate. As in prior years, I’ve printed out my very handy planting guides from Botanical Interests and noted the sowing dates by counting the weeks backwards from my average last frost date.

If you don’t know your average last frost date, you can find it easily on Dave’s Garden.

Like usual, I’ll get my tomatoes and sweet peppers from a local nursery (shout out to Vern Goers Greenhouse) who grows multiple varieties of both. Pretty much any variety I want I can get from them, and they’ll be stronger and healthier than anything I’d grow.

So what am I growing this year? I usually get my seeds from Botanical Interests and Burpee, depending on who has my favorite varieties. This year, I have also ordered some seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds since I was already ordering leek plant sets and seed potatoes from them.

Inside, I will be starting:

Vegetables that I will starting outdoors directly:

I’m also trying something new this year, seed tapes. Seed tapes are supposed to make it easier to plant small seeds and reduce the need for thinning. It’s biodegradable and can be cut to fit your space. Looks handy! I’m going to try it for spinach and radishes this year.

Since we don’t have any spring parties scheduled, I’m going to grow more of my own annuals from seed.   As always, I’m growing marigolds and plenty of my new favorite cosmos.

I’ve described how I start seeds using the Gardener’s Supply Company APS System (which has been replaced by the GrowEase System) in “Time to Sow Seeds Indoors“. This year I’m also adding some new recycled paper pots from Botanical Interests which look perfect for the plants that don’t like to transplant so well.

Plants can be grown right from seed and when time to transplant, the bottom tears off and the remaining pot and plant go right in the ground.  Sounds great for my cucumbers and squashes.

I’m also finally investing in a grow light. I tend to grow very leggy seedlings that do ok, but a grow light is going to help the seedlings grow faster, healthier and better for transplanting. My mom Peggy bought the Hydrofarm JumpStart JSV2 2-Foot T5 Grow Light System a couple of years ago and had great luck with it. Her plants looked great when I was visiting last week, so I just ordered the same light set. Looking forward to not having a leggy, tangled mess of plants 🙂

 

 

Creeping Thyme Update

A couple of years ago I wrote a post, Creeping Thyme Problems“, about my patch of creeping thyme that was totally a disaster. This post has also become one of my most popular, so I must not be alone in having ugly creeping thyme!

Creeping Thyme

After some scary, severe winter pruning, it came in the next spring healthy and lush.

Creeping Thyme

A couple years later, I’ve pruned it a bit more each year to keep it fresh and it’s still looking great. Except for the grass that has crept in.

If you’ve tried to get the grass out of ground cover mid-summer, it’s a thankless job.  I tried to bribe the kids, but to no avail.

While walking around the yard checking everything out a few days ago, I noticed that the grass was greening up and was easy to spot and pull out while the creeping thyme was still dormant.

Definitely easier than pulling it out mid-summer when everything is green and thick. You need to get right down to the grass roots, otherwise you’ve just “cut” the grass and it’ll come right back. Since the thyme is dormant, it’s easy to find the roots and not have to dig around and disturb everything.

This is a new job I’m adding to my spring garden prep list that will hopefully save me weeding time in the heat of the summer. It’s also a useful time to pull out the creeping charlie that is starting to green up and “creep’ its way around the garden.

Looking forward to thick lush creeping thyme that smells great when I walk on it this summer!

 

 

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Spruce Down :(

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Like many across the Midwest and Northeast, we had an extremely windy week last week. On Wednesday at O’Hare airport, they measured gusts of 58 mph which was the highest since 1991, coincidentally the year we moved to Chicago. In … Continue reading

Up Close With A Pileated Woodpecker

We were out winter hiking in Peninsula State Park, when we thought it’d be fun to take a short cut through the interior on the little used Trail Trampers Delight trail.  Someone had fun naming that trail!  Just beautiful and so quiet after a fresh overnight snowfall. Yes, there’s a trail there 🙂

Lots of animal trails snaking through the fresh snow…like this coyote catching up to friends.

and this Canadian Goose apparently taking a trip to the outhouse 🙂

But the most exciting part of the trip was the Pileated Woodpecker that didn’t show any fear of us and just went about his business. We had seen one earlier on the walk, but he was a little too far and high to really get a good look.

But this one flew in front of us and landed about about 30 feet away at eye level.  He went hungrily to work. You can see all the large chunks of wood that he’s been pecking out suggesting a lot of very recent activity.

Steve headed in for a closer look. Wish he had bought his good camera but in this case the handy iphone will have to do.

Getting ready. There’s a lot of power behind that hit.

They also carve out the distinctive rectangular hole quite purposefully. We watched him at times pecking from the side to wedge out a loose shaving.

The male Pileated has an entirely red crest, and the female a dark forehead. The male also has a red stripe on his face that is missing on the female. So this one is we’ve been watching is a male. There was another nearby, probably his mate. Pileated Woodpeckers stay together as a pair all year round, and rarely tolerate others in its territory.

I decided I wanted a closer look and the Pileated and I began a little game of hide and seek. I wasn’t quite as stealthy so he moved around back and kept poking his head out to see if I was there.

Movie time!

Watching this makes my head hurt and would certainly give me a concussion, or kill me, if I tried to strike a tree with that kind of force. Scientists estimate that a woodpecker may strike the tree with forces greater than 1000 G’s, far more than a human can withstand. We can certainly learn some things from a woodpecker.

To begin with, their strong neck muscles diffuse the blow and a third eyelid protect their eyes.  A woodpeckers brain and skull and also specially designed to withstand the G forces. The brain is surrounded by trabeculae, tiny beamlike projections of bone that form a spongy bone mesh that protects the brain, and the brain fills the skull so there is no “sloshing around” on impact. There’s also a hyoid bone, which in humans it is found in the middle of the neck. In a woodpecker, this bone wraps around the skull to act as a seatbelt to keep it in place and further minimize the impact on the bird’s brain.  Even the beak itself helps in minimizing brain injury. While the outer beak appears longer than the lower, the actual bone structure of the lower is longer and stronger, sending much of the impact to the lower parts of the skull, away from the brain.  Scientists are continuing to study these amazing birds and hopefully learn from them to protect human brains who sustain repeated impacts, like football players.

Of course, I have to show one of my mom Peggy’s backyard photos.  This female (note the gray on the cap and no red cheek bar) was visiting her suet feeder. How lucky she is to have these spectacular visitors to her backyard.

Photos by Peggy

Photo credits:  most photos by Steve; last picture is a Photo by Peggy

A Hawk at My Feeders

As I was reading comfortably on the couch one afternoon, out of the corner of my eye something BIG went by the window. Now there’s always a gaggle of birds out there because of the feeder I have hung in that area, but they don’t usually make me think, “What was that!” Of course I have to investigate, hoping whatever it was remained nearby. It did!

A beautiful Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) had landed on the top of my feeder pole and sat there surveying the area. Presumably looking for food, but smartly everyone had scattered. He posed for a while so I could see his beautiful blue gray back and get a good look at his tail. The rounded tail is a pretty strong marker that it’s a Cooper’s Hawk and not the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) which has a straight, squared off tail.

Then it turned around so I could see it’s breast which was mottled rust and white.

It’s actually can be pretty difficult to tell the difference between the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Cooper’s Hawks tend to be larger, more the size of a crow, Sharp-shinned, more the size of a Blue Jay.  Cooper’s Hawks have a much bigger, distinct head in proportion to their body and look as though they are wearing a dark cap because of the light coloring of their nape. They are typically woodland birds, but are increasingly likely to be found in suburban areas.  Sharp-shinned Hawks nest almost exclusively in conifers and heavily wooded forests and are less frequent visitors to the suburbs.

A Cooper’s Hawks main diet is primarily small to medium birds and occasionally mammals like chipmunks, rabbits, mice, squirrels, and bats. They can be an unwelcome visitor to in a yard if they seem to have taken up residence because of the abundance of birds attracted to feeders. Removing the feeders for a few days should be enough to have them move on. But, honestly if having a hawk around  helped reduced the squirrel population, I may not mind having it visit occasionally.

Fortunately this one didn’t stick around long, although I know it lives somewhere in the area since it’s been to my yard a few times this winter.  Luckily, I saw it in the neighborhood over the weekend and could report it as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

After flying off the pole, it rested on a patio table, then moved on.

It was fun to see, but I hope I’m not providing dinner by attracting songbirds to my yard with feeders.

Wondering what I’m reading? See the latest list of books I’ve read (and liked) on the right.

Any Hawks in your yard?  Or a favorite book you’ve read lately?

 

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

Great Backyard Bird Count
February 17-20, 2017

Cardinal

Since 1998, birders of all kinds have come together for a four day bird count in February. Counting birds at the same time every year provides a snapshot into the overall health of bird populations around the world. It can also help scientists learn more about such things as

  • Will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?
  • How will the timing of this year’s birds’ migrations compare with past years?
  •  How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?  Have they changed?

Chickadee

Years ago as a service project, my Girl Scout Troop participated in this event. It was really fun teaching the girls about what they were possibly going to see in their backyards, and introducing them to thinking a little more about their natural surroundings. The girls loved it!

Downy Woodpecker

It’s super easy to participate. Register online and then simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count.  You can count from any location, any time of day, anywhere in the world!

2017 GBBC Poster with Allen's HummingbirdTo get more information and register your observations, go to the GBBC site.

Are you participating? Did you see anything unusual?

Need help identifying what you see? Here’s a few of my favorite birding books:

You can even get lists of birds seen specifically in your area from the GBBC website. This is a great way to narrow down what you are trying to identify.

This winter I’ve been seeing a Cooper’s Hawk on my feeder pole. I hope he shows up while I’m counting!

Cooper's hawk

This project is a joint venture between the Audubon Society, The Cornell Lab,  and Bird Studies Canada. It is also made possible by support by Wild Birds Unlimited and the National Science Foundation.

Photos by Peggy and Stephi

Healthy and Tasty Infused Water

I know you’re supposed to drink a lot of water throughout the day, but I’m just not a big fan. I’d much rather have iced tea.

But, I know I need to drink more water. So what to do?? I finally found that creating a seemingly endless combination of fruit, herbs and vegetable infused water did the trick.

Using a pitcher specially designed to hold the fruit in an infusion rod, it’s easy to make, keep fresh, refill and clean. I really like the Prodyne Fruit Infusion Flavor Pitcher.

It’s a BPA free, clear acrylic pitcher that has a slotted, removable rod that can be filled with your favorite flavors. Since the pitcher is not dishwasher safe, I found the OXO Good Grips Bottle Brush perfect for cleaning the pitcher and tube. Also, since you’re trying to be your healthiest it’s a good idea to use filtered water. A Brita filter pitcher is useful to have around to keep fresh, filtered water handy.

Along with the taste benefits, infused water can provided lots of health benefits! Here’s just a few of the reasons to drink infused water.

  • Fruits like lemon, oranges, limes, strawberries, watermelon, pineapple and raspberries are all high in Vitamin C.

  • Lemons are alkaline to the body, contain citric acid and can help prevent kidney stones.
  • Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, limes, ginger, basil, pineapple and cantaloupe have anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Strawberries, honeydew melon, papaya and cucumber are high in B-complex vitamins.
  • Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, watermelon, limes, basil, pineapple, cantaloupe are good anti-oxidants.
  • Raspberries, strawberries and blackberries are anti-aging
  • Oranges and limes contain calcium for good bone health.  Strawberries and blueberries contain vitamins that are also good for bone health.

  • Lemons, limes, cucumbers, ginger and basil aid in digestion.

  • Strawberries, cucumbers, papaya and cantaloupe are high in B-vitamins
  • Watermelon is high in lycopene to aid in heart health and betacarotene for eye health
  • All fruits and vegetables will have varying amounts of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to provide additional health benefits.

Infused water is simple to make. To a clean infuser rod add your fruit, vegetables, and herbs.

I like to use organic varieties and farm fresh whenever possible. Be sure to wash the fruit thoroughly, remove seeds, peel and slice or cube if necessary.  Attach the infuser rod to the pitcher top and fill pitcher with filtered water.  Depending on the ingredients added, you may want to add less (think lemon or ginger) or more (think berries) to get the right taste.  Similarly, milder flavored berries take longer to infuse than the stronger citrus fruits.

Generally, I can keep the refrigerated infused water a few days IF the ingredients are always covered with water.  Clean and remake after a few days, or whenever it begins to taste too weak or strong, the water gets cloudy, or ingredients don’t look fresh any longer.

Looking for recipes?  You can use your imagination and use 1 or more ingredients to make your water.  Some of my favorite combos are strawberry basil, strawberry mint, lemon blueberry, lemon blueberry basil, lemon lime, orange ginger basil and cucumber mint.

There’s lots of recipe books out there that can give you even more ideas.  Two of my favorites are Fruit Infused Water: 50 Quick & Easy Recipes for Delicious & Healthy Hydration by Elle Garner and Fruit Infused Water: 98 Delicious Recipes for Your Fruit Infuser Water Pitcher by Susan Marque.

If you don’t want to always have a pitcher around, or don’t have any more space in your fridge, I have friends who carry their infused water made right in their 24 oz tervis tumbler or specially designed infuser water bottles.

What’s your favorite infused water flavor?  I’m always looking for new combos!

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Grill Roasted Potatoes

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Now that I’ve planted and grown all those potatoes last year, what was my favorite way to eat them?  Roasting on the grill! This is a great simple recipe that can be adapted for the grill or the oven.  Pick … Continue reading

Potatoes Part 2: Growing and Harvesting

Earlier this week, I wrote about planting potatoes in both in bags and potato hills (Growing Potatoes Part 1: Preparation and Planting). That was the work part, watching them grow and harvesting was the easy part.

Two important things to remember as the summer wore on. Keep them watered (!)  and keep adding soil periodically until the bags are full. They do get a bit messy, so I’m glad I had them in an out-of-the-way spot in the yard.

Nice healthy plants…

Hmm, mid-July and probably need a little more water….

Very uneven watering…Mid-August and the different bags all performed fine, but I didn’t pay enough attention to them. Bags in general need more watering than ground gardening, and potatoes take a lot of water.

Two of the bags, the Geopot Geo-potato bag and polyethylene Gardman bags had velcro openings so that you could harvest baby potatoes out of the bottom while the plants are still growing. Maybe I waited too long so the bags were completely full of dirt, but I found that I mostly just spilled a lot of dirt and didn’t get that many potatoes. After trying once, I decided to just let the potatoes grow.  Anyone have better luck with early harvests?

Potatoes are ready to harvest in early fall when the leaves start yellowing and the stems wilting.  At this point, stop watering and wait a week or two. Then it’s harvest time!

To harvest potatoes from a bag, I pulled out the plant and emptied the remaining dirt into a garden cart and began searching. This was fun! Kind of like a treasure hunt.

You can store and reuse the dirt for next spring, or in my case, my raised beds needed more soil so I emptied the dirt into them and blended it in. Be sure to look closely, every time I thought I was done, there were more.

In the garden, I again pulled out the plants and then carefully started turning over the dirt with a shovel. This was a little tricky since I didn’t want to damage any potatoes.

So many yummy potatoes!

Once the potatoes are harvested they need to cure for a couple of weeks to improve their storage life. I laid mine in a shallow box, still covered in dirt and all, in a cool (50-60°) location covered with dark towels to allow for air circulation but keeping them in the dark.  Sunlight at any time will cause the potatoes to turn green. As I mentioned before, the green color is actually chlorophyll which is harmless, but it signifies that there is a high level of the toxin solanine. A little green isn’t harmful, but it’s generally a good idea to peel off any green skin or cut away green sections before cooking.

After a couple of weeks, rub off any clumps of dirt, but don’t wash.  Separate out any bruised or damaged potatoes and use them immediately since they won’t store well. Finally, put them into a container like a bushel basket, paper bag or cardboard box with ventilation holes punched into it to allow air flow. Potatoes should be stored in the dark between 40-50°. Be sure to check them frequently, remove any rotting potatoes and they’ll stay good for a few months.

It’s now January and I still have plenty of delicious homegrown potatoes to eat!

 

Potatoes Part 1: Preparation and Planting

Each year I like to try something new in the garden. Potatoes sounded like a fun and pretty easy experiment, so I became a potato farmer last spring.

I bought Yukon Gold and a Red, White and Blue blend of seed potatoes from Home Depot and French Fingerlings from a local nursery.  Like garlic, you can’t grow potatoes from grocery store potatoes since they’ve been treated to prevent sprouting. You also want certified seed potatoes to be sure you are getting a healthy disease free and healthy variety. I kept them cool and dark until it was warm enough to plant. Potatoes are cool weather plants, but I still needed to wait for the soil temperatures to be above 45.

About two weeks before planting, it’s time for “chitting” the potatoes.

Chitting is the process of growing shoots on the potato tubers prior to planting. This helps ensure faster growth and heavier crops. Lay the seed potatoes on a tray or in egg carton in a cool, frost free location out of direct sunlight. Set them so that the “rose end”, or the end already sprouting immature shoots, is facing upwards. After a week or so, it’s time to cut the tubers into pieces and let the cuts heal for 3-4 days.

Each piece should have at least one eye with sprouts at least 1 inch long.

Where to plant? Potatoes can be grown either in the garden or in bags. I decided to try it both ways. Here at home where I have less space I grew them in bags. In my Wisconsin garden, I planted them in hills in the garden.

Growing in Bags

I bought three different bags, each having different features. I got one large 15 gallon canvas Geopot Geo-potato bag, a pack of 2 polyethylene Gardman bags, and a pack of 3 polypropylene Haxnicks Potato Patio bags.

The first 2 types had velcro access flaps, all 3 had handles and drainage capabilities and all seemed very sturdy.

The Gardman bags had a plastic reinforcing ring to keep the bag upright. Some reviewers mentioned they had trouble feeding it through, but I had no problems.  It helped keep the bag open until the soil was high enough to push out the sides. The Haxnicks Potato Patio bags didn’t have the additional support, so I just rolled down the top a few inches to keep it open.

I used a 1:1 moistened potting soil and compost mixture in the bags. Add about 4 inches of soil in the bottom of the bag and lay your cut seed potatoes, eye side on top, evenly spaced. I put 5-8 seed potatoes pieces in each bag.

Cover with about 3 inches of moist soil.

Soon after I planted my potatoes we had a late frost, so into the porch the bags went for a few days. Luckily they were still light enough to move easily. Not so easy later in the season when they were full of dirt!

Finally, I placed the bags in a sunny location and kept them watered.

The soil should be kept moist, but not soggy. After the sprouts get to be about 8 inches high, add about 4 more inches of soil to cover.

Continue until the bag is full of dirt. Potatoes grow along the underground stems, so keeping more stem underground increases yield. Keep the bags in full sun, keep the soil moist and let them grow.

To be continued….

Planting in Hills

As an alternative to growing in pots, if you have the space potatoes can be grown directly in the garden using a hill method. Dig troughs (or holes if only a few potatoes) about 4-6 inches deep and lay the prepared seed potatoes in them about 6-8 inches apart. I planted Yukon gold potatoes by this method.

As the plants grow, continue to cover the foliage with surrounding soil creating hills to bury as much stem as possible. This increases yield, and keeps the potatoes from sunlight which causes them to turn green. The green color is actually chlorophyll which is harmless, but it signifies that there is a high level of the toxin solanine. A little green isn’t harmful, but it’s generally a good idea to peel off any green skin or cut away green sections before cooking.

to be continued….

Next post–How did they turn out????