Tools to be a Better Gardener

by Sandy Swegel Photo of the bbbseed $25 gift card.

Today I’ve been thinking about how the tools I use have made me a better gardener. I have spent a lot of money over the years on tools that break or tools that seemed clever but end up unused. I garden at least twenty hours a week for other people, so my tools need to be effective and efficient as well as durable. 

(Keep these in mind if you are trying to figure out a good holiday or birthday gift for a gardener friend or relative!  One of these and a great gift card for seeds is sure to be useful and welcome!)

My Must-Have Tools include:


Good Hand Pruners naturally. Felco pruners are great if you can afford them. A sharp edge is the more important feature of a hand pruners and you need a high-end pruner that does have cheapo soft metal that dulls the first time you use it. I like Felcos, but Corona and Fiskars both have high-end pruners that are good. For my use, I need a replaceable blade because no matter how much you sharpen, at some point you need a fresh blade. I have hand pruners in two sizes…a smaller pair for perennial maintenance because they are lighter weight and a larger pair for shrubs, roses and trees. Last year Costco had a great deal on a generic version of Felcos in a two-pack.

A Soil Knife. The original name of this tool was a hori-hori knife and my first one came right fromSoil knife with orange handle Japan. Now I like the bright orange soil knife from AM Leonard. The plastic resin handle holds up better than wood and the bright orange is easier to find when I lose it. You have to be careful of the extremely sharp edges (one side serrated and one side flat) but this is my combo trowel, weed digger, shovel, tool for dividing perennials etc.
Pruning loppersFiskars Power Gear Bypass Lopper 15 or 18 inches. I love the Fiskars PowerGear line. They really do give you more power per effort than any other lopper. I use the smaller loppers the most because they are lightweight and because they fit more easily between dense branches.

Black and Decker cordless (18V) sweeper. They don’t call this a vac because it’s not strong enough for big piles of leaves…but it ‘s the perfect quick cleanup at the end of working in the garden whetherCordless Yard Sweeper you’re “sweeping” a path or blowing debris lightly off of rock mulch. I also use it to sweep my kitchen floor. Sawsall pruning blade

Milwaukee Sawzall pruning blade. This vicious jagged blade is one of the secret weapons that let me do the work of your average 20-year-old male landscaper. Perfect for cutting trees or cutting right in the soil through old roots.

Mini Shovel and Mini Mattock Pickaxe. OK, laugh if you want, my friends do….but then they goMini Pickaxe out and get these mini tools when they see how much work they let me do. They are the same tools the aforementioned 20-year olds use in full-sized versions, but lightweight enough for me to use without ruining my rotator cuff, a common gardening injury. I use both while kneeling in the soil up close and personal to my job. Don’t get a wussy camping pick or a garden pick made of thin metal…get the real thing in the hardware store.

Those tools and a colorful TubTrug or two, (those bendable colorful garden buckets that are worth every nickel) and you’ll find yourself able to work faster and stronger in the garden without trying too hard.

Orange garden trug

 

Seed Hoarders

Chipmunk sitting on a sunflower head eating seeds.

photo courtesy of pixabay -evitaochel

Thank goodness that “Hoarders” TV show doesn’t ever focus on seed hoarders. Gardeners who are very tidy and organized and otherwise not people who collect or hoard things can secretly have boxes full of seed from years and years of saving.  Sometimes the seeds are gifts from friends, or seeds ordered because you forgot you has some left over and bought more or just surplus seeds from generous seed packages. I knew my seed habit was getting out of hand once I started collecting seed myself – now I have paper bags full of saved seeds and had to move from the tiny shoebox to a big box.

This year, I’ve come up with a way to use those old seeds without feeling too guilty…and I’ll save some money, too.  Early Fall is the traditional time to put in cover crops…seeds that will germinate and grow some but die back with a freeze or simply be chopped down and turned into the soil to replenish it in the Spring.  Cover crops get lots of organic matter into the soil without much trouble. But there’s no reason you have to use an official “cover crop.”  The idea is just young plants that get chopped up and mixed in with the soil. This year, I decided to turn some of my seed hoards to cover my garden soil this winter. (Let’s not be ridiculous and use all those good seeds.)

So as I have clear patches of the garden after harvesting, I’m going to remove the big debris, lightly rake the soil and sprinkle out old and gathered seed.  Many of the old seeds won’t germinate but there’s enough that will make a good protective cover.  And as long as you PROMISE to turn the cover crop in before perennials establish themselves, you can even include old packets of grass seed.

My cover crop won’t be as cute as when I put in just winter rye and get a nice even green lawn effect….but it will be great fun to guess what is what!

My hoarded cover crop this year includes:

Years of half-used radish seeds, hybrid tomato seeds from 1996, leftover lawn patch seeds that got wet in the bag, cabbage seeds I forgot about and never gave garden space too, dill, cilantro, caraway and fennel seeds collected from previous years gardens, hollyhocks collected from alleyways. Lots of black-eyed susans, marigolds and cosmos.  While I’m on the seed purge, I’m cleaning out the kitchen pantry and throwing in old spices (coriander, dill, mustard seed) and old whole wheat berries that have bugs, or old beans I’ll never like. Talk about recycling!

You can decide which seeds are iffy by checking out this list of lifespans of vegetable seeds:

http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/1999/4-2-1999/veggielife.html

Phew. Now that I understand which seeds will happily last until next year, I can order from the End of Year Seed Sale and have good viable fresh seed to save in my seed box for next Spring.

 

Back To School

by Sam Doll
Back to School Learning Gardens.

What do you think of when you imagine a classroom? Do you think of rows of desks, educational posters, a whiteboard with a professionally dressed teacher at the front? There may be a few toys or tablets with games designed to teach kids their alphabet or basic math.

That traditional classroom is useful for certain things, like learning grammar and division, but it is really inadequate for teaching kids about the world they live in and interact with every day. This is especially true with food.

Most kids, especially those from low-income or urban areas have very little understanding of what food actually is or where it comes from. Kids learn through their senses, so when they aren’t given the opportunity to actually see and touch and understand how food comes from the earth to their plate, it is hard for them to have a deep understanding of the food system and it is harder for them to make healthy choices. Ketchup has no connection to a tomato and the tomato has no connection to the earth.

We know that good nutrition is linked to higher academic achievement. We also know that gardening has many positive outcomes for children, including better nutrition, social skills, and academic achievement.

That is why school learning gardens are such a powerful education tool. These outdoor classrooms can be installed either on school campuses or remotely and provide a unique, hands-on opportunity for kids to learn lessons in nutrition, science, and community while getting a tasty, healthy snack right from the garden!

One of the biggest organizations pushing for school learning gardens is Big Green. Started by Kimbal Musk, food entrepreneur and brother of Elon Musk. Big Green installs learning gardens at low-income schools across the country.

They provide dedicated garden instructors, so teachers aren’t being asked to do more than they already are and kids are getting information straight from the experts. Started in Boulder, Colorado (BBB Seed’s hometown), Big Green has built learning gardens at over 378 schools in seven states.

At BBB Seed, we are dedicated to educating people of all ages about the benefits of eating healthy, protecting our pollinators, and gardening with organic methods. To get educational materials sent straight to your email, make sure to sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the ‘home’ page.

 

 

Radical Ratatouille

A plate of tomatoes and other vegetables used to make Ratatouille.

Photo courtesy of Dgraph88 / pixabay

From the Kitchen of Engrid Winslow

Ratatouille screams to me of summer and there are dozens of ways to make it. The only real essentials are tomatoes, onion, eggplant and zucchini cooked down into a stew and seasoned with salt and pepper.  It is delicious as a vegetarian main dish and can be served hot, room temperature, or even cold. You can also top it with cheese, add chunks of chicken and serve it over rice, or roll it up in a lettuce leaves or a tortilla. It can be cooked in a crockpot, baked or stewed. Here is a “classic” preparation followed by a few variations for you to play with.  You can learn more about the history of this dish here.

 

Classic Ratatouille

Serves 5 to 6

3 TBL olive oil                                                             3 medium tomatoes, chopped or 14 oz. canned

2 medium onions, chopped                                        2 large crushed cloves of garlic

1 medium eggplant, cubed in 1” chunks                    1 medium green bell pepper, in 1” chunks

5-6 medium zucchini, sliced                                       1 medium red bell pepper, in 1” chunks

½ cup chopped fresh parsley                                      ¼ cup chopped fresh basil

½ tsp salt                                                                     2 TBL tomato paste

¼ tsp pepper                                                               1 cup shredded gruyere cheese (optional)

In a 4-5 Quart pot, heat olive oil and add garlic, eggplant, peppers and onions.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often until onions are crisp-tender (about 5 minutes). Stir in zucchini, tomatoes, parsley and basil.  Heat to boiling, then reduce to medium, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  Remove cover, season with salt and pepper and stir in tomato paste. Continue cooking, uncovered, for another 10 minutes. Serve as is or over hot cooked rice. Top with a sprinkling of cheese.

VARIATION #1

Make it Middle Eastern by omitting the basil and cheese and stirring in the following spices when you add the zucchini and tomatoes:

½ tsp ground cumin                ½ tsp turmeric                                    ¼ tsp coriander

VARIATION #2

Change up the vegetables in the classic recipe or just add more.  Some favorites are corn, peas and beans, or other summer squash such as patty pan.

VARIATION #3

Make it Italian: Melt a couple of anchovies into the oil along with the garlic and tomatoes.  This adds a layer of umami flavors that is quite good. Then add a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar just before serving.

VARIATION #4

Consider serving it with a different grain besides rice. Quinoa, farro, couscous and others are a delicious and very healthy twist.

 

 

Guide to Pea Harvesting: When and How to Harvest Your Garden Grown Peas

by Sam DollFat garden peas in the shell.

How do you know it’s “officially” summer? Is it when the pool opens back up or your neighbors start grilling? For me, it doesn’t REALLY feel like summer until I can walk into my garden and eat a sweet snap pea off the vine!

While those pea pods are pretty tasty from the start, how do you know when the perfect time to pick them is? What if you want shelled peas, peas for stir fry, or even microgreens? We’ll help you figure out how and when to harvest your peas.

Garden Peas

Garden peas, also known as English or sweet peas, are the classic pea, great for side dishes or soups. While this pea can be eaten whole when it is young and tender, it shines brightest when shelled.

When harvesting garden peas to be shelled, check for the pod to be bright green and rounded. It should be slightly shiny and have no visible bumps. If the pods have bumps from the peas getting too large, the peas may be over-ripe and could be too starchy or mealy in texture.

We recommend our Green Arrow variety of garden peas. They have a high yield (8-11 peas per pod) and are good tender as well.

Snow Peas

Snow peas are recognizable for having flat pods with very small peas inside. They are mild and sweet and are almost exclusively eaten whole. Great eaten fresh or in stir fry, snow peas can be some of the most delightful crops in your garden.

Since snow peas are meant to be eaten whole, it is better to err on the early side when harvesting. The peas should be small and a little loose in the pod. If they go too long, the pods will become fibrous and the crop will lose most of its sweetness.

Snow peas are also great for growing microgreens due to their quick germination. The shoots are sweet, crunchy and delicious. Harvest them when they are about 2″ long and use them as a garnish, add them to sandwiches, or mix them in salads and soups.

The Oregon Sugar Pod II (long name, great plant) is the perfect sugar pod for everything from microgreens to stir-fry.

Snap Peas

Snap peas, or sugar snap peas, have a plump, edible pod that makes for a classic summer snack. A cross between garden peas and snow peas, snap peas are best as a sweet, light snack but can also be shelled or lightly cooked.

Like snow peas, they can be harvested as early as you want to and as long as the pods are rounded and shiny. If they lose their shine or the pod begins to bulge where the peas are, they have gone too long to eat whole, but can still be shelled and enjoyed!

The Sugar Ann is our favorite variety of snap pea

Some Notes

The more you pick, the more you get. It is best to keep harvesting peas as long as possible so you can get the maximum yield for your hard work.

When harvesting, use two hands to pick: one to hold the plant and the other to harvest. Peas are delicate plants and rough harvesting can do more harm than good.

Peas fix nitrogen in the soil which makes them best buds with corn. You can also plant your peas with bush beans, pole beans, carrots, celery, chicory, cucumber, eggplant, parsley, early potato, radish, spinach, strawberry, sweet pepper, tomatoes and turnips. Keep your peas away from chives, grapes, late potatoes and onions.

 

 

2018 is the Year of the Beet

Sliced Chioggia Beets showing the rings of color inside.

The National Garden Bureau has proclaimed 2018 as the year of the beet and you can enjoy them in so very many ways. Try some new recipes to enjoy this nutritious and underused vegetable this year.

  • Beets can be dried and made into chips, juiced, roasted, baked, pureed into soup, glazed, pickled or steamed,
  • Beet greens are delicious in salads, soups or sautéed.
  • Beets come in a range of colors, shapes and sizes and some have a sweet mild, rather than an earthy flavor.
  • Beets are full of fiber, vitamins A and C and have a higher iron content than most other vegetables.

Say farewell to kale and hello to beets this year.

Packet picture of Golden Detroit Beet seeds

 

The Joy of Spinach

by Engrid WinslowSpinach, Organic Bloomsdale

There are two types of spinach available for eating:  flat leaf spinach is a smooth-leaved variety that is usually canned or frozen. Most of what gardeners grow is the sweeter savoy or curly leafed spinach. The leaves are wrinkled and are the ones used in pre-packaged spinach at the grocery store.  It is easy to start from seed, prefers cool temperatures and can be harvested as baby spinach or left to grow larger. There are hybrids that can tolerate more heat and combine the smooth and savoy-type leaf.

Does Spinach have other things going for it? Yes and YES! Spinach is high in carotenoids, which the body can turn into vitamin A. It packs a powerful punch of other vitamins and minerals including vitamins C, B6, B9, K1 and E, folic acid, calcium, potassium and magnesium.  It is also an excellent source of fiber and contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for eye health. Not to mention that spinach contains high amounts of nitrates, which may help regulate blood pressure levels. There are even studies showing that the antioxidants and other compounds in Spinach may suppress the growth of human cancer cells.

Best of all, Spinach is good raw and cooked.  There are so many ways to use it that it is almost miraculous. If someone says they don’t like Spinach, try sneaking it into meatloaf. In fact, Spinach can be “hidden” in soups, stews, scrambled eggs, quiche, lasagna, dips and smoothies.  It can stand alone when creamed, sautéed or made into a salad or swapped out for half of the basil to make a delicious pesto. It plays well with pasta, fruit such as strawberries, and cheese.  Endless possibilities.  Here are two recipes – one for the Spinach “lovers” and one for the (think they are) “haters”.

 

Puglia Sautéed Spinach

This recipe hails from Southern Italy where all manner of greens are very popular.  You can substitute Swiss Chard, Kale, Collards or even Chicory.  You can pile it on top of polenta, sip some Italian White wine, close your eyes and practice your Italian accent.

4 TBL olive oil                                                                     1 small onion, chopped

2 cloves chopped garlic                                                  14 oz. sliced Cremini mushrooms

10 oz. Spinach                                                                    ½ cup Pinot Grigio or other Italian White wine *

Salt and pepper                                                                   2 TBL Balsamic Vinegar

Fresh Italian parsley, Chopped

 

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic in the oil until they soften and caramelize. Add the mushrooms, and fry for about 3 to 4 minutes. Toss in the spinach, and sauté stirring constantly until spinach is wilted.

Add the vinegar, stirring constantly until it is absorbed, then stir in the white wine. Reduce heat to low, and simmer until the wine has almost completely absorbed. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with fresh parsley.

*(or substitute vegetable or chicken stock, if desired)

 

VEGETABLE FRITTATA

¼ cup olive oil                                                                1 lb. potatoes*, cooked and sliced

1 small onion, very thinly sliced                                  1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly

1 clove minced garlic                                                      2 cups baby spinach

½ tsp. Salt                                                                        8 eggs, beaten

¼ tsp freshly ground pepper                                        3 TBL cubed butter

2 TBL thinly sliced basil

Turn on broiler. Heat oil in an ovenproof 12″ non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook garlic, pepper, and onion until soft, 3–4 minutes. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Stir in sliced potatoes, the butter, salt, and pepper. Stir in half the basil and the eggs and reduce heat to medium; cook until golden on the bottom, 8–10 minutes. Broil until set and golden on top, about 3 minutes. Garnish with remaining basil.

*use any small, waxy fleshed potato – not baking potatoes

 

The Importance of Soil

by Engrid Winslow

Let’s talk about getting your vegetable and flower beds ready for planting by preparing the soil. No matter how great your soil seems to be, your new plants will welcome a boost of vital nutrients. Tomatoes, onions, peppers and other vegetables are known as “heavy feeders”. This means they need (and therefore remove) lots of minerals from the soil they grow in. Without fertile soil many plants will struggle to produce those tasty fruits and vegetables, and beautiful blooms.

5 Tips to Improve your SoilHands full of rich soil.

1. Add compost: Make your own or purchase a quality one such as mushroom compost. You may also like chicken manure based, beer industry bi-products or even dairy cow manure. Avoid compost made from curbside recycling (who knows what is really in there) or anything with steer manure, usually very high in salt. Spend a little extra on better quality and your garden will thank you with beautiful vegetables and flowers.

2. Use fertilizers: A mild, organic fertilizer is best and can range from fish emulsion to compost tea or kelp. Seek out a liquid fertilizer that is a balanced mix of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Look for a label with low numbers for each of these 3 minerals. See below for example (3-3-2).Age Old Fish and Seaweed Liquid Fertilizer

3. Cover the soil all year: Use mulch (shredded leaves are perfect) and cover crops when you are not growing vegetables. This will help keep weeds at bay and adds nutrients to the soil.

4. Rotate vegetables: Don’t grow the same vegetables in the same place every year, especially those “heavy feeders” (mentioned above). It’s best to give the soil a three-year break between them to avoid diseases and soil depletion. Remember that some crops (peas and beans in particular) actually add nutrients to the soil they are grown in.

5. Encourage worms: Worm castings are expensive but have such great qualities that even a little bit is well worth it. The more you amend your soil over time, the better it becomes and somehow worms find their way to worthy soil.

A large bag of UNCO Industries Worm Castings.

 

Square Foot Gardening

by Greta Dupuis

Do you have limited space to grow your vegetables in?  Small yard, only one raised bed, or even just containers on a porch or deck?  Way back when (1981, in fact), PBS ran a series of shows with Mel Bartholomew which showcased how he divided a 12-foot x 12-foot plot of raised or in-ground vegetable gardens into squares. There were many different possibilities for the size of these areas by making some of the squares either larger or smaller but the basic idea was to figure out how much room was needed for each type of plant and to adjust the squares accordingly. The cover of the book, "All new Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew. For example, you might want more tomatoes and less lettuce or vice versa and would change the sizes of the squares to your personal preference. Some plants can be planted closer together which results in a more dense area of vegetables that maximizes space. The net result from gardening in this manner showed that the veggies were less expensive, used less water, took up less space, used fewer seeds and required less work on the gardener’s part as the squares were easier to reach and did not need as much weeding.  All in all, for gardeners with limited space, consider dividing your veggie beds into sections with your family’s favorites as you dream of all of those seed choices and plan your 2018 garden. The original book that started the revolution is still in print and there are several others with additional tips and tricks including one just for gardening in containers.

 

SUMMER HARVEST

by Engrid Winslowsummer harvest

At last, the bounty of your summer garden is at its peak and you can gather all of those glorious tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn, chard, kale, summer squash, onions and other vegetables to enjoy at their freshest and most flavorful. But, ahem, some of us may plant more than we can eat in a day. Well, whether that is planned excess or not, here are a few tricks for preserving that bounty using just your freezer and pantry.

Onions – When the tops flop over onto the ground it’s time to pull them out and let them dry out in the sun or inside in a cool, dry location. Some onions, such as cippolini, are great storage onions but for the ones that aren’t…Ever tried onion jam? How about bacon and onion jam. You can refrigerate them and use them up quickly or pop a few jars into the freezer for a festive addition to a holiday cheese platter. Here are the links to two delicious recipes you can try:

http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/onion-jam https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1015978-bacon-onion-jam.

You’re welcome.

Ears of Corn

Corn – Shuck as much as you can and then flash boil for about 2 minutes. Let cool and then scrape off the kernels into a large bowl and scoop out two cups into a plastic bag or container for freezing. Add them to that turkey soup you make after Thanksgiving every year along with some of the frozen shell peas you harvested and froze in the spring.

Tomatoes – This technique works best with cherry tomatoes and is a little bit of trouble but OMG are these delicious. Add them to pizza, pasta, soups, sandwiches or serve on grilled bread as a quick crostini. The flavor of these will make you want to plant even more tomatoes next year. Heat oven to 200 degrees. Arrange cherry tomatoes on a lined, rimmed baking sheet, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Let them “oven dry” for up to 2 ½ hours, checking frequently at the two-hour mark. You can also do this with large tomatoes which will yield a “saucier” result.

Fresh Zucchini

Zucchini – Use small, tender skinned, deep green ones. Shred and steam for 1-2 minutes. Freeze in desired quantities for adding to slaw, pasta, soups or your famous zucchini bread.