Archive for April, 2008

The Pizza Garden

For too many years to count, Friday night has always been pizza night at our home. Our carry-out order is half meat lovers, half supreme, and it usually comes from Pizza Hut. For me, pizza is not pizza without veggies, and for my husband, pizza is not pizza without the meat; so we compromise. We also rotate between pan pizza and thin crust, depending on our mood.

With the increasing cost of groceries, this spring we decided that a pizza garden should be on our list of new gardening projects to tackle. By using whole-wheat flour to make a very filling crust, and growing our own veggies to use as toppings, we decided we would try and bring Friday night pizza kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

Because of the tornado force winds that blew through Mercer County on Ash Wednesday, I was left with a garden already prepared to substitute as a pizza garden. Our shoe garden is located in the front yard with an old water pump used as a center piece. The wind howled through our gardens that night and blew over the water pump. For several weeks, I left the pump where it lay because the weather was too bad to worry about straightening the garden.

Now that spring is finally here, I have started planning what to do with this garden. Maybe this would be the perfect place to grow the pizza garden; the shape was already right – circular – and the soil has already been amended. I re-anchored the water pump in the center of the garden and outlined the area with large rocks to form a faux crust / border around the garden. I then divided the area into eight slices, outlining the areas with smaller rocks.

Onions and garlic are the workhorses of pizza and pizza sauce. I love sliced onions all over my pizza, and the garlic gives a wonderful taste to the homemade pizza sauce. Because garlic requires such a long growing season, I typically grow this in my large veggie garden. Garlic should be planted in the fall and allowed to grow through winter, spring and summer before being ready to pick the following fall. So, the new pizza garden will get one garden slice just for onion sets.

Most pizza sauces begin with tomatoes, so these will be the backbone of the garden, but they can’t be planted until we have nighttime temperatures of at least 50 degrees. Make sure you plant tomatoes on the north side of the garden, so they will not shade out other veggies in the garden. Plum or Roma tomatoes make a wonderful pizza sauce, plus they can always be sliced directly onto the pizza crust. Make sure you supply some type of growing support for your tomatoes; either cages or stakes. The tomatoes will take up two slices of the pizza garden.

Peppers are another veggie that is essential for pizza making, either bell peppers or hot peppers, whatever your preference is. Typically, our family doesn’t like really hot peppers, so bell and banana peppers are our choice. I like to use stoplight peppers: red, yellow, and green. These make a pizza look festive. You should have at least 4 or 5 pepper plants. Just remember, we planting hot pepper, place these where they will receive the most sun. They need long hot days in order to develop their heat.

Zucchini and eggplant are two veggies you may not normally think of for a pizza, but we have learned through experimentation that these veggies give pizza a whole different taste. I will plant only one zucchini plant in a slice of the garden all by itself, mainly because this one plant has the potential to take over the entire garden. As for the eggplant, “Little Fingers” is my favorite variety. The eggplant can be slightly roasted or grilled before putting it on the pizza.

The last garden slices will be interplanted with herbs: oregano, basil and rosemary. Oregano is a perennial, so it will be given a permanent spot in the pizza garden. Rosemary is a tender perennial, so I will plant it in a pot so it can be brought indoors every fall before the first freeze. Basil is such a wonderful and useful herb, so I want to plant at least three different varieties so we can vary the taste. Extra basil can also be used to make pesto, which keeps well in the freezer.

No pizza is ever complete without the cheese, so the pizza garden cannot be complete without marigolds and Calendulas. These festive flowers are the color of ooey, gooey cheese and they will be used to fill in around all the veggies and herbs. Not only will they provide the cheese coloring for the garden, they will help with pest control on the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.Just as each slice of pizza can hold a new surprise, your pizza garden will reveal magical changes on a daily basis. You will be able to nibble tiny, bite-size tomatoes, smell the wonderful scents of herbal seasonings, and meet friendly, helpful garden critters. To finish off the summer growing season, why not host a “do- it- yourself” pizza party.

To control weeds and conserve moisture, lay a two-inch layer of straw or shredded bark around each seedling, but do not cover the stems. Poke your finger into the soil each day and if it feels dry, water deeply. Feed your plants once a week with weak manure tea and once a month, add some deep compost around the plants and work it into the top few inches of soil.

To encourage tall, spindly plants to become bushier, pinch off the top few inches of each plant at a leaf node – the spot where buds and leaves are formed. Deadhead marigolds and Calendulas to keep them blooming. Do not allow herbs to go to seed because this decreases herb production; pinch off any flowers that form on the herbs.

At harvest time, ripe tomatoes should almost fall off the vine when they are twisted. Zucchinis can be used in the pizza sauce, or sliced and grilled for a crispy topping. The zucchini flowers can also be used as a topping. Eggplants and bell peppers can be damages very easily if you tug them off their plants. The easiest way to harvest these veggies is by clipping the fruit with a small portion of the stem still attached. Onions and garlic can be pulled from the ground without removing their tops. Pick Calendula flowers and lay them facedown on sheets of newspaper or paper toweling to dry. Snipped sprigs of rosemary, basil and oregano can also be gathered on sheets of newspaper. Make sure to rinse all the veggies, flowers and herbs and pat them dry before using them to assemble pizzas.

When the garden begins to supply you with fresh veggies, plan a pizza party for a Friday night. Pizza dough and sauce can be pre-made the day before and you can encourage your guests to go to the garden and pick their own pizza ingredients. Supply everyone with a cutting board and sharp knife and encourage them to prepare the veggies and decorate their own pizza crusts.

Throw the pizzas on a stone and cook in the oven until golden and bubbly, or try cooking the pizza on your outdoor grill. Pop open bottles of soda and enjoy family, friends and good times.

 

Bobbi’s Pizza Dough

1 cup warm water

1 package active dry yeast 

2 ½ to 3 cups of all purpose flour; bleached or whole wheat

½ tsp salt

2 TBSP olive oil

Combine water, yeast and 1 ½ cups of flour in a large bowl – mix well. Gradually add oil, salt and remaining flour. With a wooden spoon, combine ingredients until dough holds its shape. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic – about 5 minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise until it has doubled in size – about one hour. Place covered bowl in refrigerator overnight. An hour before cooking your pizza, remove dough from the refrigerator and preheat oven to 450 degrees, (you can also cook dough outside on the grill). Punch a hole in center of the slightly risen dough and let rise for another hour. On a lightly floured surface, divide dough into 3 or 4 pieces. On a piece of parchment paper, using your fingers, spread dough out into an 8 inch round, slightly rolling edges to make a crust to hold the pizza sauce. After building pizza with your favorite toppings, cook in oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

 

 Bobbi’s Pizza Sauce

2 ½ pounds of Roma tomatoes (about 12 to 15)

4 TBSP olive oil

2 onions; peeled and sliced

3 cloves garlic; peeled and slivered

2 bell peppers; cored, seeded and diced

1 tsp salt

 ½ tsp cracked black pepper

1 TBSP sugar

3 TBSP fresh basil leaves; chopped

1 TBSP oregano leaves; chopped

2 sprigs rosemary; chopped

 Cut tomatoes into quarters and place in 3-quart saucepan. Mash with a potato masher, cover and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking. Pour tomatoes through a food mill to remove seeds and skin; set aside. Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat; add onions and cook until softened and golden brown. Add garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Add bell peppers, salt, pepper and sugar; cook, covered, over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Then add milled tomatoes and continue cooking, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add basil, oregano, and rosemary and cook 10 minutes more until sauce thickens. Let sauce cool and then add more salt to taste. Refrigerate for 24 hours before use; sauce will develop a deeper flavor and thicken a bit more. (NOTE: cooking times vary depending on juice content of tomatoes.) Leftovers can be frozen for later use.

 

 

 

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Worms Are Eating My Garbage

For years I have composted my kitchen waste into a compost heap or Possibility Pile, but I must admit, many times my compost bucket will get “ripe” before I remember to take it out to the garden.  Decomposition does have a distinctive smell, and naturally this is not something I want in the house.  I recently found a new way to compost my kitchen waste without smell or hard work.  I found some “ladies” who are now taking care of my problems.

        

My ladies are actually a group of red wiggler Earth worms and they live in a plastic tote box in my laundry room.  These ladies can eat a hundred times their weight in kitchen waste, and they turn all that waste into rich fertile vermicompost that feeds my garden.  Composting gold is made in my home everyday, without smell or hard work.

        

There are many advantages to vermicomposting.  It produces fewer odors and attracts fewer pests than putting food wastes in the garbage.  It saves the water and electricity that a sink garbage disposal unit would use.  It requires little space or labor.  It produces high quality fertile compost – worm castings are a natural fertilizer.  It keeps food wastes out of the landfill.  Food wast in the landfill decomposes without oxygen, creating methane gas, which is a major contributor to global warming.

        

All you need to vermicompost are a worm bin, bedding, water, worms and food scraps.  You can buy a ready-made worm bin, or you can us a simple plastic bin or wooden box.  It will need to have a cover for darkness, and holes for air circulation.  I use a large Rubbermaid tote box that I have drilled several holes alone the stop for ventilation.

        

The worms need to burrow in bedding to bury the garbage.  Shredded paper, cardboard or leaves will work.  This is a great way to recycle your junk mail and catalogs.  Run this paper waste through a paper shredder and add to the bottom of you box.  This bedding must be kept moist, so regular mistings of water are necessary.

        

Use only red worms, or “wigglers”, which are the composting worms.  Feed your worms non-meat kitchen waste, such as veggie and fruits peelings and scrapes, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells and paper products like coffee filters, napkins and paper towels.  Occasionally, when the worms are working to efficiency, you can give them a rare amount of meat, but this should not be done on a regular basis.

        

Every few months, remove the rapidly multiplying worms from the box and use the rich vermicompost to fertilize houseplants and garden vegetables.  After cleaning the box thoroughly, add shredded paper products to the bottom and add the worms back to start the process over. 

        

Be warned, the worms reproduce rapidly because all they do is eat and multiple.  You will probably have too many worms to add back to one box, so be prepared to start new worm boxes.  Or you can add a few worms to several areas of your garden.  They will burrow to soft garden soil and begin their cycle of eating and reproducing as if they had never been moved.

        

Worm farms would be a wonderful idea for school children that are interested in gardening projects.  Worm boxes could be set up at school and then the children could feed the worms with all the left over school meals.  This would teach a valuable lesson in the art of recycling and improving the Earth.

        

So the next time you don’t eat all your house salad at lunch, bring it home in a doggy bag.  Can’t eat all that bread left in the complimentary breadbasket?  Bring it home to the ladies.  Tired of dumping used coffee filters and coffee grounds in the trash?  Feed it to the ladies.  These ladies are heard working and they work for food, so the more food and kitchen waste you have, the happier your ladies will be.  You will be rewarded by a decrease in kitchen waste and an increase in produce from the garden

 

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Liilacs and Peonies: Perfume of the Gods

Of all the spring fragrances – daffodils, hyacinths, lily of the valley, honeysuckle – I think lilacs are my favorite. There is nothing that compares to the fresh clean scent of lilacs during the spring blooming season. French lilacs are the most popular varieties you will find for sell in the garden center and these should be allowed to grow to approximately eight feet tall before pruning. When they are the proper height, you should start pruning branches to control the height and thinning out older branches to help prevent disease, remove dead branches and encourage new growth.

The time to prune and thin a lilac is immediately after blooming. Lilacs bloom on old wood, so spring pruning allows the branches to grow throughout the summer and fall and prepare for blooming again next spring. The worse thing you can do is prune these lilacs in late winter, because if you do, you will be cutting off all the new blooms. Thinning out the dead or overcrowded branches helps prevent the invasion of the stem borer which can attack the dead wood and eventually kill the lilac.

The best time to transplant lilacs is in the fall, but I have had success with early spring planting. If you plant lilacs in the spring, you must keep the plant moist. Since lilacs need to be planted in full sun, they will dry out easily, which can lead to sudden death. Lilacs also need good circulation because they are prone to mildew. The old fashioned lilacs from our grandmothers past are particularly prone to mildew and this shows up like a white powder on the leaves of the bush.

Lilacs also like to “pout” when they are transplanted. As long as you follow the suggestions above, your lilacs will eventually thrive, but they will show their displeasure by being stingy with the blooms for several years after the move. BE PATIENT – the lilacs will settle down and within five years will return to a profusion of springtime blooms.

Another springtime fragrance I love is peonies. These flowers always remind me of my Granny Sallee, because this was a flower she had growing every where she has lived. Down on the farm in Bohon, she had many peony bushes in all colors. When she and Granddaddy had to move to town, she dug up several peony roots and brought them with her. These thrived under the clothesline in their backyard.

So I have peonies lining my driveway. I started out with one each of the pink, red and white peonies. Over the past fifteen years, I have divided these three original plants into dozens of different clumps and they all give me profusion of blooms each spring. My husband calls my peonies the “ant plant” because the plant is invaded with large black ants when the blooms start to grow. The ants are attracted to the sweet sticky nectar that oozes from the flower buds. As the ants work to drink all the oozing nectar, they are also helping the tightly formed buds to open. The ants are harmless and I would dare anyone to try and find a peony that did not have ants scurrying around.

Peonies and lilacs are the basis for the Mother’s Day bouquets I pick for my Mom and my mother-in-law every year. Nature’s perfume, the fresh clean scent always makes me happy and brings me many memories of my grandparents.

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Spring Cuttings Lead to Fall Plantings

I am the type of person who loves to cut fresh bouquets of flowers to bring in the house, take to work, or give to family and friends. My Mom and my mother-in-law always get a Mother’s Day Bouquet cut from my gardens, and I love to have flowers in my office at work.

But I don’t only cut flowers for my floral arrangements; I also love to cut branches from flowering shrubs. Weigela, forsythia, mock orange, pussy willow and curly willow, these branches add height and texture to arrangements, and they have a tendency to hold their blooms longer in a vase than some flowers. What I have found is that many times, these branches will begin to send out roots while sitting in a vase full of water. I take these rooted cuttings, plant them into containers and keep them watered throughout the growing season. Most times, I have nice size transplants that can be planted into the garden in the fall, or they can be babied over the winter and then be planted the following spring.

If you were lucky enough to receive a lily for the Easter holiday, you can not only enjoy the long fragrant blooms, but you can transplant the lily in your garden and enjoy blossoms from year to year. After the blooms begin to fade and you are left with a tall stem of greenery, place the plant outside in the sun. Keep it moist and in two to three weeks, remove the lily from the pot and plant into the garden in an area with full sun. These lilies are grown from bulbs and the bulbs will rapidly multiple in rich garden soil. Don’t cut the greenery down because this is what will feed the bulb and help it form next year’s blooms. The first year after planting an Easter lily into the ground, you may only have one or two blossoms, but don’t despair. By the next year, the clump will grow and soon you will have a well established patch of lilies that are easily cared for and long lived.

Typically, fall is the time to plant most trees and shrubs, but there are a few that will tolerate spring plantings, and some that even prefer the spring. Japanese maples, river birches, magnolias, tulip trees, weigelas, butterfly bushes, flowering almonds and mock oranges not only thrive with spring planting, but many of them will even bloom during that first year. It is usually best to pick off these blooms the first year, because if the blooms mature into seeds, this will take energy away from the growing root ball, and root development is crucial to a happy healthy plant.

During the early spring months, there are many plants that need to have their growth curbed until later in the growing season. Many of these plants grow best when “you keep’em four inches high til the Fourth of July.” In other words, chrysanthemums, asters, cosmos, zinnias, and salvias should be pinched off – using the thumb and forefinger – when the plants are approximately four inches tall. The goal is to keep the plant growing and bushing out by maintaining a four inch height until early July, so continuing pinching every two or three weeks. After the first in week in July, allow the plants to continue growing without interpretation. You will be rewarded with healthier, sturdy plants full of long lasting blooms.

After your daffodils and other spring bulbs have bloomed, cut off the flower stalk to halt seed production, but do not cut or pull off the yellowing leaves. Just as with the Easter lilies, these bulbs gain energy from the withering foliage. Normally the temptation is to tidy the garden up by removing the foliage, but this will cause a decrease in flower production next year. Instead, trample the foliage down and allow it to act like mulch around other emerging plants.

Although fall is normally when you plant spring flowering bulbs, if have had success with transplanting bulbs in the spring. Most times I forget where my spring bulbs are planted, so it is hard to dig them and transplant in the fall. So I frequently will dig up a clump of bulbs near the end of their bloom and transplant to other areas of the garden. This allows me to see the bloom and color so I know what I’m transplanting where. Again, allow the foliage to die naturally, and don’t except lots of blooms the first year. After that, the bulbs will continue to grow as if they had never been transplanted.

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Fresh Asparagus vs. Canned Asparagus

Ask most people if they like asparagus and the majority of the time you get a resounding NO!  But on further questioning you will probably learn that most people have never eaten fresh asparagus picked right from the garden.  Their only point of reference with asparagus has come in the form of canned, store bought asparagus, which is normally bland and tasteless.

        

Asparagus picked fresh from the garden, steamed for a few minutes and served with tiny amounts of butter is like heaven to the tongue.  Gone is the bland, soggy taste; instead you have crisp texture veggies with a slight nutty taste.  There is no comparison and I’m sure if you will give fresh asparagus a chance, you will never buy the canned variety again.

        

Asparagus is a perennial and it is usually one of the first veggies to poke its head up in the spring; it is a welcoming sight for many people.  The climate in Kentucky is perfect for asparagus because asparagus needs to be planted where the soil is cold enough to freeze down at least a few inches.

        

Plants can be started from seed or crowns, but crowns are the preferred method.  Seedling plants can be quite different and they take several years to establish.  I like planting two-year-old rootstock because this will allow for first pickings of asparagus after only three years.

        

In choosing a site to start a new asparagus patch, make sure it is well drained.  Asparagus will not tolerate soggy, poorly drained soil, which will cause the roots to root.  A loose sandy soil is usually preferred, but any healthy garden soil can be used.  Asparagus is unlike many veggies because it needs a slightly alkaline soil pH.  Most other veggies thrive in acidic soils.

        

The first asparagus patch I planted was inside two tractor tires I had hauled to the garden.  I filled these tires with soil, well-rotted manure and compost, mixing up a rich healthy soil.  If you are the type to like commercial fertilizers, then a balanced fertilizer like a 12-12-12 at the rate of two pounds per 100 square feet of garden area is recommended.

        

I prefer to use organic fertilizers in my gardens; so regular compost, vermicompost and manure teas are my favorite ways to enrich soil.  Since asparagus prefers a regular fertilization schedule, I apply these techniques once every two to three weeks.

        

I started these new beds by laying two-year-old asparagus roots in the bottom of my tractor tire.  I covered the roots with five to six inches of enriched soil, tamping it down lightly and then watering throughly.  During the first active growing season, I continued to fill the tire with soil when the asparagus reached five to six inches tall.  Newly planted asparagus will produce a few harvestable stalks during the first year, depending on the variety.  I typically leave these first stalks and by the end of the growing season, the tire is filled with rich healthy soil and I have several asparagus fronds feathering above two feet above the tire.

 

 

After the third year of growth, you can pick asparagus stems until your heart’s content, leaving a few stems in each patch.  In order for the asparagus to grow and remain healthy, a few stems need to be left so they will send out the feathery fronds.  It is these fronds that get energy from the sun to continue the growing cycle.

 

So next time your in the Farmer’s Market, pick up some fresh asparagus spears for supper.  I’m sure you will love them, and maybe start your own asparagus patch.

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Taming the Trumpet Vine

It’s that time of year again; time to clean up garden beds and start new gardens.  For years I’ve been struggling with what to do about the garden that runs across the front of our home.  When we moved in almost 15 years ago, there were four yew shrubs growing across the front, and we allowed them to grow for several years.

           

At first, we kept the shrubs trimmed back every year to help maintain growth and outline a definite footprint around the garden.  After five years of trimming and pruning, we got lazy and decided to allow the shrubs to grow unchecked.  Within five more years, we had four unruly monsters fighting for the front of our house.  I hated these shrubs!  The only thing I liked about the disorderly tangle of branches was the trumpet vine that began to grow up through the middle of one of the shrubs.  I enjoyed the orange blooms and the fragrant smell, so I began to allow the trumpet vine to expand.  Wrong choice!

           

After living in our home for about ten years, we decided to totally remove the yews from the front of the house.  This was a tedious job that took us several weeks.  We started out severely pruning the shrubs back, and then we took the chainsaw to the thick trunks and continued to hack away until the majority of the yew was gone.  Digging out the roots proved to be another hard job, so much so, that we left the root on the yew that was on the north end of the house.  I’ve spent the past five years covering this stump with shredded leaves, grass clippings and bark mulch.  This area will eventually make a wonderful planting hole for a new tree or shrub.

           

After clearing the front of the house, the garden was bare, except for a few remaining trumpet vines.  Because I want to use as many native plants in my gardens as possible, I decided to try and train the trumpet vine to grow where I wanted it to.  I envisioned vines covering the front of the house and boasting orange flowers all summer.  Well, the vines did grow up the house, but strong winds would pull them loose until the entire area looked like a tangle mess instead of the clinging vines I wanted.  Even when I managed to grow the vines up to the roof line, the number of flowers was disappointing; instead of a mass of blooms, I only got a handful of flowers.  In the mean time, trumpet vines began to creep all along the ground until they completely engulfed the entire garden.

           

This year, I have decided to tame the trumpet vine and take back the front of my house.  I have started by laying thick pads of newspaper all through the front garden.  After covering the area with newspaper, I then covered the paper with a thick layer of shredded bard.  When Kentucky Utilities started trimming trees in the fall, we had several truck loads of shredded bark dumped in our yard to use as mulch.  I am hoping that the newspaper and a six inch layer of bark will be enough to suffocate the trumpet vine and keep it from re-sprouting.

 

One thing for sure, my gardens will never be the same because they are always evolving.  My goal is for a natural garden, one where wildlife is not afraid and plants are allowed to show their natural forms.  A garden that doesn’t show the gardener’s hand is the most precious garden of all.  Basically, I’m a lazy gardener; I want a garden that does all the work so I won’t have to!

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