Okra – Superfood Superstar

Okra bloom with pods ready to be picked

I ended up with some free Okra seeds this spring and thought I would try them, not thinking at all about eating them, but just to enjoy the beauty of the plants. Now they are 6 feet tall and producing tons of okra pods every few days so I am trying to use them in cooking.  I did some research about Okra – it’s nutritional benefits, and how to prepare it, and I think that I found another one of those superfoods, like blueberries!

Beautiful okra flower

According to the blog Healthy, Happy, Life: http://kblog.lunchboxbunch.com/2009/04/okra-nutrition-facts-surprise-its-super.html, they rave about Okra’s benefits:

” Though okra was voted most hated veggie, it can actually be quite tasty and nutritious! So I’m here to convert the haters to lovers!Okra is actually incredibly healthy despite its unappealing reputation. Okra is low in calories. One cup of raw okra only has around 30 calories. And in that low-calorie cup is a whopping 66% RDA of Vitamin K! Okra is also high is calcium, fiber, vitamin C, protein, folate, manganese and magnesium. Why munch not-nutrient-dense celery or iceberg lettuce for a low-calorie veggie when you can munch the much-more-nutrient-dense super food veggie okra!”

Here is the complete nutrition information about Okra which completely blew me away!
serving size: 1 cup raw, chopped
(about 6 spears)
calories: 31
fat: 0 g
carbs: 7 g
protein: 2 g
fiber: 3 g
Vitamin K: 66% RDA
Vitamin C: 35% RDA
folate: 22% RDA
thiamin: 13% RDA
manganese: 50% RDA
magnesium: 14% RDA

Okra – beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin

Low in calories and an amazing source per calorie of Vitamin K, fiber and Manganese.  Okra is a stellar veggie that you have to learn to love!

One day of picking


The seeds are large and easy to sow after danger of frost is over, here about May 10, covering with about 1 inch of soil. I thinned the seedlings to stand about 18 inches apart and then forgot about them.  Next thing I knew the plants were 3 feet tall with beautiful leaves that look like marijuana plants!

Large beautiful leaves

The flowers, since they are related to hibiscus, are beautiful also with a soft yellow cast and a reddish center. They bloom for one day only, and then form a pod which should be picked within a few days, before it gets too long and tough. I picked the pods from 1 inch to 4 inches long for eating, and the larger ones for drying for dried flower arrangements. There is also a purplish reddish okra pod.

I harvest the pods every few days

Reading about other people experiences with growing Okra, it sounds like the plants can tower up to 9 or 10 feet tall! I believe it, as mine are going strong and are almost 6 feet high now. Being a Southern plant, Okra thrives in hot weather which we have had plenty of this summer.


Cutting up okra, you see the large seeds

I like to slice the pods up crosswise about 1/3 of an inch thick and saute them in olive oil with tomatoes and onions.  Okra pods are a natural thickener and with watery tomatoes, they thicken the tomatoes up nicely. I love tamale pie and here is my take on it using okra:

Tamale Okra Casserole

Tamale pie
Tamale pie (Photo credit: TheLawleys)

1 onion, chopped

a clump of fresh thyme

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

8 okra pods, sliced

1 large chicken breast, chopped into 1 inch chunks

4 large tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp cumin

salt and pepper to taste

Saute chopped onion,  4 or 5 strands of fresh thyme, 7 or 8 chopped up okra pods, a chopped large red pepper, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a chicken breast chopped up into 1 inch chunks. After these cook up and leave a brown crust on the saute pan, drop in large chopped tomatoes with seasonings of chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook for about 8 minutes until nice and thick. Remove any stems of thyme. Place mixture into a casserole dish and top with Polenta below, and cook for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Pull out of oven and spread 2 cups of shredded cheddar on top and bake an additional 5 minutes.

Top with sour cream and green onions if desired.


1 cup of water set to boil in a large heavy saucepan

Whisk together 1 1/2 cup of cold water and 1 1/2 cup of corn meal until smooth. Whisk into the boiling water in saucepan until smooth and thick. Spread on top of casserole.

English: Red okra pods
English: Red okra pods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to fry okra in cornmeal like they do in the south. Gumbo is next on my list to try, and I will attempt freezing some. I love to grill and will grill some because everything tastes better grilled!

Plate of okra
Plate of okra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If the okra pods get too large, you end up with monsters that can be quite tough and stringy. I like to dry these large pods by placing the okra on a cookie sheet lined with a paper towel and place in the sun outdoors for a couple of weeks. The pods dry with prominent ribs and stripes and are wonderful to use in dry pod arrangements.

Dried okra pods

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Too Many Tomatoes ! – Canning and Drying the Harvest

Grape tomatoes.
Grape tomatoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

August is always tomato harvest time in Maryland, and even if you have just a few plants, you are inundated with a flood of vine ripened monsters with no room to put them! I think that Maryland is the perfect climate for growing the best tomatoes, hot and humid, plus a long growing season.There is nothing like the taste of a sliced  tomato fresh from the garden on a sandwich! But once you have used tomatoes on sandwiches or stir fried them into vegetable dishes and made spaghetti sauce, I want to preserve them for winter eating.

Freshly canned tomatoes of different colors ready to store for the winter

I have frozen tomatoes in the past because it is easier, but don’t like the texture or the condition of the finished product. Canned tomatoes are much preferable to use in the winter months rather than the frozen product. So I learned how to can some years ago and have canned sauce, chopped tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and salsa.

Various heirloom tomato cultivars
Various heirloom tomato cultivars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I mention canning to people, the most common response is that it is too much work. But if you are used to freezing tomatoes, canning just needs one more step –  processing in a hot water bath or pressurized canner. For the improvement in taste and texture, I think it is worth it. A hot water canner is very inexpensive and will last forever. Botulism is also a concern for many, but if you follow the proper canning procedure and add lemon juice to increase the acidity, you will be fine.

Food dehydrator

On the other end of the spectrum of preserving tomatoes is drying, and I love sun-dried tomatoes! And they are quite expensive, so it is worth while and incredibly simple. I bought a simple food dryer at Cabela’s and it is easy and efficient to use, and I usually have it on for several weeks during August drying all my Roma tomatoes. Roma tomatoes work better than regular heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes because the water content is much lower. Once the tomatoes are dried, I place them in Tupperware containers in the freezer.  I tried storing them in olive oil in jars in the frig one year but they got moldy. When I need some dried tomatoes for cooking, I grab a handful out of the freezer and place them in a bowl of water in the microwave and heat them up. They will reconstitute very quickly in the hot water and are ready to use in recipes.

Piles of dried Roma tomato slices in a tupperware container


Here are simple instructions for canning your harvest:


Sterilize your jars in the dish washer at the highest heat along with the rings.  Or if you prefer, put the jars in the hot water canner and boil them.  You have to boil this water anyway to can the tomatoes, so this might be the easiest and most efficient way. Place the lids and rings in a small saucepan of boiling water.  Keep the jars and lids in the water until ready to use.


In a saucepan, boil some water to fill the jars of tomatoes to the top.


  • Weigh tomatoes
Weigh tomatoes – I find that 12 to 13 pounds of Roma and mixed larger varieties makes 6 quarts – enough for a full water bath canner
  • Wash tomatoes
  • Core
  • Cut an X on the bottom for easy removal of skins
Core and X mark the bottom with a sharp knife
  • Place the tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water for 2 minutes
Placing tomatoes in boiling water
  • Dip the tomatoes out into ice water to stop cooking
Tomatoes in ice water to stop cooking
  • Drain tomatoes and remove the skin
Peeled, cored tomatoes ready to place into canning jars
  • In the empty sterilized jars, place 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice
I buy Minute Maid pure lemon juice for this
  • Fill the sterilized jars with tomatoes. Make sure that you fill them completely.  I press down lightly so as not to crush the tomatoes, but you want to fill them as completely as possible.  Use a wooden skewer to get rid of air bubbles and gaps.
  • Filling jars with tomatoes and using a wooden skewer for air bubbles
  • Fill the jars of tomatoes with the boiling water until the jars are full with a 1/2 inch head space.  Use the wooden skewer to get rid of any air bubbles.
  • Screw on the jar lids with rings, making sure that the rims are clean and the rings are ‘finger tight’.
  • Place into the water bath canner
Put the full jars into the rack of the canner
  • Process for 45 minutes.  That means wait until you get a full boil and then start timing for a full 45 minutes.
  • Lift the jars out and let cool.  The jars should seal with a ‘pop’! A vacuum is formed when the jars are processed. If you can press down on the lid and there is movement, the jar has not sealed.  Let the jar sit for 12 to 24 hours and if it doesn’t seal, you must use it immediately or store in the refrigerator until use.


Drying is my next favorite way to preserve the harvest. Once I have a good quantity of Roma paste tomatoes, I slice the top off and start slicing the tomato lengthwise.  One tomato will produce 3 to 4 slices to dry.  Place into a tray of a food dehydrator and plug it in. The slices will dry in about 12 to 15 hours.  Make sure that they are completely dry and kind of crispy before storing into a Tupperware container. Place in the freezer until ready to use.

Slice lengthwise
Stack the slices into the trays of the food dehydrator

Suburban Homesteading – Raising and Preserving Sustainable Food

Putting up tomatoes

Sustainable is the new catch word for gardening. I hear it everywhere and I think it is overused without anyone really understanding exactly what it means.  By definition it means –  Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. And by working gardens, keeping chickens for meat and eggs, preserving food, adding solar panels, etc., we are all sustainable consumers in some fashion. Not fully sustainable by any stretch of the imagination but plugging away at bits and pieces of sustainability.

Portable chicken coop on wheels that my neighbor moves around on her front lawn

Most of us are still on “the grid”. I have read the magazine Mother Earth News for years and I am always surprised at the number of people who are off the grid and flourishing. I am not ambitious and energetic enough to be off “the grid”, but I would love to reduce my dependence on it and have chipped away at it.

I saw this wind power system that you can put up at your home to generate power at the Mother Earth fair

Now that it is fashionable and smart to try to live sustainably, I have observed many of my neighbors have added homesteading in some way, shape, and form to their lifestyle. Even with a full-time job and lots of family responsibilities, many have added gardens, preserving food, and are raising chickens for healthier eating.

Repurposing old drainpipes to grow veggies

When we get together as a neighborhood, we often talk about how sustainable our neighborhood is, and how we would work together and pull on each other strengths if there were a natural disaster. Some people are good at raising and putting up food, while others are trained as nurses or can hunt and fish. Everyone has their own unique talents to add to the mix. We even have pumps that could pump water from streams and mechanics that could make them work.

Suburban chicken coop at Mother Earth fair

According to the blog Eat Drink Better – Sustainable Food for a Healthy Lifestyle, the author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, Owen Dell, says that “there is only a three-day supply of food in any given city: what happens on the fourth day when there is a natural disaster or some kind of disruption that stops the food supply chain? Most of us don’t realize how dependent we are on the unseen “food system”  for our daily meals. He says that cities are like a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, aka, a feed lot) for human beings: we are separated, dependent, and caged.”

A neighbor took an old wooden shed and created a chicken habitat with minimal cost

The author, among other useful suggestions to grow food sustainably, also suggests having neighborhood food swaps every so often to trade what you have lots of, for things that you aren’t growing. I have a gardening neighbor who planted zucchini plants at the edge of her lawn and puts out a sign for anyone to pick them when ripe. When I had bumper crops of  cucumbers and had preserved all I wanted as pickles, I took the excess cucumbers around to my neighbors and gave them out. Small things, but these all add up, plus it brings the neighborhood together instead of everyone keeping to themself.

Slicing cucumbers for pickles

With natural disasters and severe weather becoming the new normal, we really need to think about a self-sustaining lifestyle, and start getting serious about reducing our dependence on food that is trucked in from thousands of miles away. So, I have highlighted some areas in this post where my friends and neighbors are making a difference with suburban homesteading.

Beekeeping Makes a Difference

Setting up beehives in my back yard

I love beekeeping but it isn’t for everyone.  Managing bees is not easy, can be rewarding at times but also very frustrating when things go wrong, and they can go wrong quickly! I call beekeeping my expensive hobby as you can sink a lot of money into equipment, sugar for feeding, and supplies.  But the payback can be spectacular when you see all that honey flowing out of the extractor. I don’t want to discourage anyone from setting up bees because it is extremely interesting and has given me lots to talk about over the years, but it is a committment of time and energy.

Doing things right and getting lots of honey!

Bartering Food

Adorable goat face

Honey is also a commodity that others love to barter for.  I have a friend who raises 28 goats for cheese making.  She has several varieties including LaManch’s, Alpines, and Nigerian Dwarfs, and milks them everyday which is a huge committment. She produces chevre, goat cheese cheesecakes, crotin – a 14 day aged soft goat cheese, cajeta – a goat milk caramel sauce, and goat milk ricotta. We have traded in the past –  honey for cheese, and the cheese is delicious!  When I extract my honey, I will be calling her to trade again. There is nothing like freshly made goat cheese!

I have made mozzarella cheese myself but it was a lot of work and you need a lot of unprocessed milk to make it worthwhile.  I really didn’t enjoy it and it made my kitchen a mess. So I would much prefer to barter than make cheese.

English: Goat's milk cheese
English: Goat’s milk cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goats having fun in a feeding trough

Growing Food

Having a vegetable garden in a container or in the ground is simply the easiest way to reduce your dependence on the food supply chain and one of my neighbors has gone about it in a big way. In her front yard, she has created an intensively planted vegetable garden, using raised beds, square foot gardening, and lots of vertical structures to make the best use of space.

Looking into the garden
Making use of black plastic
Synthetic bag garden

Because deer can be a problem, she has fenced things in which also creates space to grow vines up using the fence for support.  Grass was left in the pathways so that you don’t walk on the soil and compact it. There are several types of raised beds used, to pack as much stuff into limited space –  traditional wooden, woven willow, and a synthetic material that looks like heavy black plastic.

Natural willow raised bed with broccoli
Raised bed with beans

A lot of vegetables are very handsome and look good in containers or incorporated into a home landscape.  I had a good friend who had this container built below out of redwood, and it has casters so that you can roll it around where you want it to go. The bottom is hardware cloth (very strong wire fencing) so that it drains properly.  You could roll this around to catch the most sun. A large container planted with herbs, cucumbers, beans, and lettuceGrowing in containers isn’t going to set the world on fire with lots of produce but with intensive and successive planting, it is very worthwhile.

Even if you don’t want the trouble of maintaining a large tilled vegetable garden, you can do like one of my neighbors does – just gardens in tilled rows – I call it trench gardening. I like this method because your pathways don’t have to be mulched as your turf acts as a natural mulch. Again, having these permanent pathways means that you won’t compact your soil.

Gardening in the trenches

Cooking Food

I have always been intrigued with cooking outdoors.  I did it on campfires when I went camping and still grill on charcoal frequently.  But I would love a wood fired oven for baking pizzas and breads. When I went to the Mother Earth News fair, they had a brick oven that you could make for your back yard on display.  I would  love to have that when my power goes out, which it does pretty frequently. Even with power, I would love to make wood fired pizzas. This is definitely on my list to make in the future.

Brick oven at Mother Earth News fair

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

 One of my favorite books is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and details how her family for one year, bought food raised in their own neighborhood, grew it themselves, or learned to live without it. You are what you eat!

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The Handbook for Beekeepers – The Beekeeper’s Bible

Swarm in one of my fruit trees

A Honey of a Good Book

I don’t know how I missed the publication of this book in April of 2011 but picked it up at a local plant nursery to look at and was enthralled. As a practicing beekeepr, I get a lot of information off the web and have several beekeeping books on my shelf for reference, such as Beekeeping for Dummies. But this book, The Beekeeper’s Bible, caught my attention and I plunked down the money and bought it. The blurb on the back says that “it is the essential and comprehensive handbook for every active or aspiring beekeeper”.

It is called the ‘bible of beekeeping’ with reason.  It is a veritable tome of information measuring 2 1/2 inches thick, and chock-a-block full of interesting bee lore, history, and practical uses. The pages are thick and glossy and richly illustrated.

I would recommend it for beginning beekeepers- maybe ones who have just started, or are teetering on the edge of keeping bees. The book might get you started on the adventure of beekeeping with solid advice, pictures, and recipes. The pictures are stellar, the recipes excellent, and the information comprehensive. Even non-beekeepers will find a wealth of information such as learning about the poisonous honey produced by the nectar of the rhododendron flower, or a recipe for an all natural hang over cure!

There are literally hundreds of historical color etchings and photos interspersed throughout the book which are incredibly detailed, like one with varroa mites feeding on developing bee pupae, and they are quite beautiful. The section illustrating seasonal blooming plants for bees to create a bee-friendly garden is comprehensive would be interesting to non-beekeepers also.  I have already tried one of the unusual honey recipes, Endive, Pancetta, and Honey Broiled Fig Salad, which was delicious. I am anxious to try the Apple, Honey, and Chile Chutney when apple season rolls around. 

I found interesting the pictures of various shades of honey and charts that describe the various honey’s country of origin, name, color, flavor, etc. Also each type of honeybee is illustrated and has its own page, dedicated to its traits, geographical origins and behavior patterns. You will also learn that honeybees are the only bees that sting in defense and wasps use their stings as weapons of attack. So, remember that, next time you get a sting!

A perfect frame of capped honey

If you want to own just one comprehensive reference book for beekeeping, this is the one for you!

Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Cucumbers

Pickling cucumber almost ready to pick

Cucumbers are spilling out of my vegetable drawer and my harvest basket.  I am picking at least 8 to 10 a day, sometimes more! I can’t give them away fast enough! So, I am going to make Bread and Butter pickles and Hamburger Dill pickles which I love and are so much better than store-bought. There is nothing like home-made pickles! Jars of pickles make great gifts and it just so happens I am going to a house-warming party this weekend, so I will make sure I make enough.

Bread and Butter pickles

For small batches, I use the book, Food in Jars, and for larger batches I use the Blue Ball book of preserving. The Food In Jars book will give you interesting recipes for small batches, such as a single jar of Dill pickles that you keep out on your counter (covered with cheesecloth) that will ferment and turn sour over a couple of weeks.  No water bath is needed, you can keep it in the frig for up to a year though.
The Ball Home Preserving book gives you detailed instructions on equipment used for canning, both pressure and hot water and lots of recipes where you will make multiple quarts and pints ready to store in your pantry. Yo should own this if you are doing serious canning.

Cucumber Growing

Cucumbers are so easy to grow that you could have a brown thumb and they would be no problem. Just pop some seeds in loamy soil in sun or partial sun and wait for the results. Everything in the literature about growing cucumbers say full, full sun but I have been successful in part day sun. I have a large veggie garden but have a small corner with sprawling cucumber vines that is in part day sun and the cucumbers are loving it. I planted 2 varieties, a Burpee Bush and a slender one, thinking that they would produce enough for pickles and have enough for fresh slicing. And they are going gangbusters.  When I select the seed to plant in the winter, I just make sure that the variety is resistant to mosaics and rust diseeases which can kill cucumbers before they get going. I never water or coddle them as they are the most forgiving of vegetables to grow. Cucumbers will produce a crop for several weeks running and then the cucumber beetles get to them and they are finished.  That is ok with me as I am sick of them by that time.

Cucumber vines


Right after 4th of July, I begin to pick them, just a few –  then a deluge builds up to a peak of picking. My pickle making is done at the peak which is right now! I pick them at least once a day, sometimes twice as they can get ahead of you quickly. I make sure they are young and slender and still prickly.  Once the cucumbers get too large, the flesh gets seedy and pithy – not good eating.

One day of picking

Pickle Time

Pickles are relatively easy to make but can be intimidating if you have never made them before. I have been making them for years, way before canning got trendy.  Now with farmer’s markets and sustainability being trendy, people are learning about canning all over again. Canning is something that your grandmother used to do with all those veggies coming from the garden all at once before freezers were around to keep food. I am seeing lots of new cookbooks out about preserving foods and even canning classes at adult education.

cucumber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people use the cold method of making pickles because you don’t need a canner and you keep them in the refrigerator. This is convenient for small batches. I prefer the hot water bath canning because I make a lot and keep them in my pantry for at least a year and use the jars up one by one.  I don’t want them in my refrigerator taking up room.

Pickle shelf
Pickle shelf (Photo credit: Meer)


Canner – You need a boiling water canner with a wire rack that lowers the jars into the boiling water. This is available on-line or any good hardware or housewares store.

Canning Salt – I picked this up at Wal Mart. Salt is used to create a brine for the pickles to start the process of pickling.  Most salts have an additive, an anti-caking substance, which could cloud your pickling brine.  The pickling salt does not have this additive.

Canning salt

Pickling Spices – This is a mixture of various whole spices, like peppercorns, mustard seed, broken up bay leaves, sometimes cinnamon and hot peppers. You can make up your own or buy it already prepared. To make your own, just combine together 10 broken up bay leaves, 2 T of black peppercorns, mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, and coriander seed. I like to use fresh green heads of dill for my dill pickles and they happen to be ripening just about the time that the cucumbers are starting to come in.

Add pickling spices to the jars
Heads of fresh dill

Canning Jars and Lids – The jars come in quarts and pints and I prefer the wide mouth variety as it is easier to fill with your veggies.  The lids and the bands are in 2 pieces.  You can reuse the band part that tightens the lid but the lid has a sealing compound that closes the jar and can not reused.

Canning Funnel  – This is nice to have but not essential.  The funnel will help the hot cucumber slices of bread and butter pickles to be packed in the jars without mess.

Jar Lifter – Another nice item to have but not essential. It really helps to have this to lift out the jars from the canner with a secure grip.

Labels – I always label my jars so I know what month and year I made them.  I want to use the oldest jars first.

Scale- Use a small kitchen scale to weigh your cucumbers so you can accurately measure the proper amount of ingredients to fill your jars.

Weighing cucumbers

The Process

Clean Everything 

Thoroughly wash the cucumbers, removing any prickles remaining on the outside.  Wash the jars and lids on the hot cycle of the dishwasher and keep the jars in the dishwasher until you are ready to use them so they don’t get dirty.

Fill the Canner

Fill the canner about 2/3 of the way full of water and set it on the stove to heat up about a half hour before you are ready to put the jars in. Fill the canner with more water if you are canning quarts rather than pints.  The water must be at least one inch over the tops of the jars.

Canner with boiling water covering the tops

Prepare the Cucumbers

Slice the blossom ends of your cucumbers off as there is an enzyme there that could prevent the cucumbers from becoming crispy.  For dill pickles, I slice the cucumbers 1/4 inch thick lengthwise, and for the Bread Butter slice them 1/4 inch thick crosswise.

Cucumbers Español: Pepinos Português: Pepinos
Cucumbers Español: Pepinos Português: Pepinos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Filling Jars

When you fill your jars, it is important to not overfill them.  Leave 1/4 inch of room or head space at the top of the jar.  Also, run a small rubber spatula around the inside of the jar after filling to release any trapped air bubbles.

Dill slices ready for the brine


Bread and Butter Pickles

This is my favorite pickle recipe that I have successfully used for years with some minor adjustments to the pickle spices.

4 Lbs 4 to 6 inch cucumbers, sliced 1/4 inch thick crosswise

2 Lbs onions, sliced thinly

1/3 C canning salt

2 T mustard seed

2 Tsp turmeric

2 Tsp celery seed

1 Tsp ginger

1 Tsp peppercorns

3 C vinegar

Combine cucumber and onion slices in a large bowl, layering with the cannng salt.  Cover with ice cubes and let stand 1 1/2 hour. Rinse; drain; rinse and drain again to get all salt off. Combine remaining ingredients in a large sauce pot and bring to a boil.  Add drained cucumbers and onions and return to a boil.  Pack hot pickles and liquid into hot jars; leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Remove air bubbles and adjust the two piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Yield : 7 pints

Hamburger Dills

"Dill Pickles" A New Rag. Sheet musi...
“Dill Pickles” A New Rag. Sheet music cover, 1906 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we love grilling hamburgers, this pickle is perfect to slap on a hamburger sandwich or a cuban.

4 Lbs 4 to 6  inch cucumbers

6 T canning salt

5 C water

4 1/2 C vinegar

8 heads fresh dill (green)

16 cloves of peeled garlic

4 Tsp mixed pickling spice

Wash cucumbers and drain.  Cut cucumbers into lengthwise slices; discarding blossom ends. Combine salt, water, and vinegar in a large sauce pot; bring to a boil. Pack cucumbers and garlic cloves into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Add 2 heads of dill and 1 tsp of pickling spice to each jar.  Ladle hot liquid into jars over the cucumbers, leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Remove air bubbles. Adjust two-piece caps. Process 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Yield : 4 quarts

English: Entries in the South Australian Dill ...
English: Entries in the South Australian Dill Cucumber Championships at the 2008 Tanunda Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Pickling!!!!

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Blueberry Bonanza

The Invasion of the Blues

I have been growing blueberries for years and this has been a banner year for picking them.  We have had plenty of rain and the weather has been perfect for growing.  I have only 5 shrubs but that is enough to keep us in berries, as well as providing the birds all they want to eat. I used to cover them with nets, but they are so prolific, I let the birds have at them.

Blueberry flowers
Blueberry flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Blueberries are so unbelievably easy to grow, I am surprised that not everyone has at least one of these shrubs planted on their property.  They don’t get very large and have beautiful scarlet fall foliage that makes them worthwhile to grow just for that feature alone.

Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium) in autumn foliage t...

I have several varieties to extend my picking season and there are more than 100 varieties to pick from.  There are even dwarf ones suitable for container growing.

My blueberry bushes

Acid Soil

Blueberries require an acidic soil, 4.5 – 5.5 pH, much like rhododendrons and azaleas.  If you can grow rhodies and azaleas successfully, then you are golden.  But my soil tends to be more like 6.5 to 7 on the pH scale, so I add plenty of peat moss when planting. I continue to add it every year around the plants.  I also mulch with pine needles and add an acidifier in liquid form periodically to keep the soil on the acid side.  If you are unsure of your pH, you can always get a soil test done at a local garden center or the agricultural extension service.  Add some cottonseed meal or blood meal as a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer twice in the spring.  Coffee grounds rich in nitrogen, magnesium, and potassium are an inexpensive organic fertilizer to add some further nutrients to the soil.

pH Test of Soil in Flowerbeds
pH Test of Soil in Flowerbeds (Photo credit: Chiot’s Run)

Pests are never a problem except for the birds, and aren’t an issue if you have prolific bearers.

My blueberries are in partial shade and do fine with that light.  They will also perform well in full sun.


There is really no secret to pollination other than planting several varieties close to each other.  For healthier, more productive blueberries, regardless of type or variety, you should plant different varieties so that bees can travel and cross-pollinate the plants. My bees are all over the shrubs when they are blooming.


Consistent watering of blueberries is important because they have a shallow, fibrous root system.  But I rarely water my shrubs as they are pretty distant from the hose reach. To avoid watering I layer on tons of mulch around the whole area. Once in a while when we have had some long periods of drought, I run the hose out to the plants for a good soak.

Picking the Harvest

The only thing that I don’t enjoy about growing blueberries is I hate to pick them! They are small and tedious to pick and take up time. The berries ripen over a couple of weeks, so you need to pick the ripe ones every couple of days. I have tried different methods, like placing a sheet underneath and shaking and pulling off the ripe ones, but I have gone back to my normal picking one by one into a Tupperware container.  The shaking method pulls off too many immature berries and wastes them.  I enlist help and ask people who want some berries to pick them and leave me some too.


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pruning the shrubs to make them more compact, and to get rid of older branches that bear less fruit, is a matter of a few minutes in the late winter.  This annual pruning forces the shrub to produce new wood that will bear larger, more abundant berries.

Simple Seasonal Care 

Winter – prune

Early spring – fertilize

Late spring – fertilize again

Summer –  harvest fruit and enjoy!

Fall – mulch

Healthy Eating

Blueberries are the perfect health food. They are nutritious, have anti-oxidants, and require little preparation. Freezing easily and going well with so many foods and desserts are among their many attributes.

Blueberry Temptation
Blueberry Temptation (Photo credit: kitsunebabe)

Everyone has recipes for muffins, pies, and cakes using blueberries so I wanted to pass along a great recipe that I use for meat! This is a great sauce and you can use either fresh or frozen blueberries.

Savory Blueberry Steak Sauce

3 T unsalted butter

2 small shallots, finely chopped

2 T flour

1/4 C sherry vinegar

1/4 C ketchup

3 T dijon mustard

1/4 C orange juice

1/4 C molasses

1/2 Tsp dried thyme

1/4 Tsp dried sage

2 C fresh or frozen blueberries

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet and saute shallots for 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour, blending and stirring until mixture begins to bubble. Add vinegar, ketchup, mustard, orange juice, molasses, thyme, and sage, and stir until combined.  Add blueberries and raise heat to medium-high to bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cool, stirring often for about 15 minutes until the mixture is thickened and glossy.  Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm over steak.

English: A pack of blueberries from a organic ...
English: A pack of blueberries from a organic farm co-op program. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

50 Shades of Black

‘Black Coffee’ Begonia

Black is Beautiful

For my updated post on black flowers, check out Black Goes With Everything.

There has been an explosion of black flowers and foliage in the past couple of years in the gardening world.  It started out as a trickle and now is a tsunami of everything black! When I go to the nursery and look at new cultivars of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, all shades of black predominates.

But you have to know how to use black for the best effect. I like to place black flowers or foliage next to very bright intense colors, such as hot pink or lime green to get the biggest impact. The black color gives the eye a rest when you pair it with bright vibrant colors. If you place black plants next to darker hued plants, it just doesn’t work and the black color fades in the background. So use black carefully and site it with some thought.

Black Pearl Plant

Black plants can also echo other plants that have black stems, black venation or black undertones. I find that if you have a boring or blah border, black instantaneously ramps up the visual interest. It can become a focal point if you have a particularly beautiful black plant. I like this Alternanthera ‘Black Night’ in a container with large glossy leaves that echoes the black spiller which is a trailing Alternanthera.

Unknown black plant with alternanthera spiller and black petunia

There are all different hues and variations on black and sometimes the amount of sunlight a plant receives will affect the coloration. Also, juvenile foliage will generally be a darker, more intense, shade. In the plant trade describing many of the black plants, you hear adjectives such as chocolate, deep burgundy, midnight, or coffee.


Jack in the Pulpits

Arisaema sikokanum with chocolate coloration

The Japanese Cobra Lily, Arisaema sikokanum, is an elegant cousin to our native Jack in the Pulpit. The spadix is a pure marshmallow white which gives the flower such great contrast.  It looks like a flower all decked out in black tie ready for a party! Tres chic! And the scarlet berries make this expensive plant worth the money.

English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries
English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National...
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In feng shui, which is used frequently in landscape design, black is the color of mystery and sophistication. Black is the negation of color but next to any other color, it will make the color black stand out.

Black phantom petunia


I love the new black petunias! The colors are novel and I tried them for the first time last year. The profusion of flowers faded by the end of the summer and I am watching to see if they do any better this year.  Even if they don’t perform as well as other petunias, I will probably continue to grow them because of the wow factor. I think the black petunias are closest to the true black color.

Sweetunia Black Satin


Black Lace Elderberry, Sambucas nigra, is one of those plants that you can grow not only for the feathery graceful foliage, but also the near black coloration.  The foliage is similar to a cut leaf maple but with dark hues for added drama. To complete the picture, umbels of pink-hued flowers appear in the summer followed by berries snatched up by wildlife. Elderberry is a cut-back shrub, like a butterfly bush, and will grow at least 6 feet during the growing season.

Sambucus nigra, Elderberry



Planting a black Canna into a container
Planting a black Canna into a container


For instant drama, in a perennial border, pop in the dark, dark Cannas like Canna ‘Australia’, with a midnight burgundy coloration that holds up all summer long.  Topping off the plant at around 5 to 6 feet high are shocking fire engine red flowers that hummingbirds will visit frequently.

The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out
The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out


The same benefits of using black plants in your borders hold true for containers. Use them with contrasting colors to let the other colors pop.

Container with black Agave
Chocolate Ajuga used in a container
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama

Sweet Potato Vine

I am sure everyone who does containers is familiar with the Sweet Potato Vine.  This annual trailing vine up to 15 feet long is becoming ubiquitous in containers.  I like to pop it into the garden to twine around shrubs and perennials.  It is especially effective in newly planted gardens with lots of blank spaces to fill. The vine grows quickly – sometimes too quickly! – and then dies with the first frost. Then you can dig up the huge sweet potato that forms underground and save it to plant for next year. This black Sweet Potato Vine is called ‘Illusion Midnight Lace’. There is   another one called ‘Ace of Spades’.

‘Midnight Illusion’ Lace Sweet Potato Vine
Black Sweet Potato Vine with Pineapple plant, Eucomis


Black has reached the plant world in every plant group and succulents are really big now so why not black succulents? I love them, but they can be quite prickly and hard to work with.

Black Agave
Black Sempervivum ‘Dark Beauty’


No discussion of black plants is complete without mentioning Heucheras or Coral Bells.  There must be thousands of varieties of these by now –  the plant hybridizers are going crazy with them! I like the black one called ‘Frosted Violet’. This one has dark black venation that makes the leaves stand out. ‘Black Out’ is another Heuchera that I am dying to try. There are too many Heucheras and not enough time.

Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet’
Heuchera 'Blackout'
Heuchera ‘Blackout’

High Line – Container in the Sky

View of the railroad rails incorporated into the garden

I just came back from a day trip to NYC where I went to experience the ‘High Line‘. I have heard so much buzz from the media and friends on this new park in NY that I made a special trip to see it and was totally unprepared for the scope and genius of this project in deep urban America. I took with me my artsy daughter and boy friend who are not really into gardening but once they saw what I was babbling about, they were all over it! My daughter was interested in it from an artistic and photographic standpoint, and the boy friend was interested in the High Line because he was into trains and architecture.  Also, we are all into the food scene and Chelsea Market and food carts are located nearby and on the High Line.  So, it was a win win for me and them.

Chelsea Market entrance


First of all, a little history about the High Line. I am going to quote the  Friends of the High Line website at http://www.thehighline.org/about/high-line-history

“The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line work in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.”

With both public and private investment, the Friends of the High Line, which was founded by community residents, works to make sure that the High Line is maintained for all visitors to enjoy. They oversee maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park. They offer free and low-cost public programs, including talks, films, performances, tours, and family activities. I checked the posted calendar that was displayed at the end of the park in an informational exhibit and there were loads of activities on tap including weekly stargazing nights.

Foxtail Lilies at their peak- I was very surprised to see these growing as I thought that they were diificult and tempermental to grow! They were everywhere on the High Line.
Foxtail Lily with an orange Echinacea


So, you see the planning and evolution of this park was over a number of years and has come to fruition just within the past couple of years.  The first part was started in 2006, completed in 2009, and the second section opened early June 2011, and a third phase was just approved and is in the planning stages. In addition, at the southern end of the High Line, a new Whitney Museum of American Art is underway. Approximately 1.5 mile in length, the High Line varies in width throughout from 30 to 50 feet but seems much wider because of the profusion of plantings.  Walking the entire length as it meanders through three dynamic New York City neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen went by quickly with lots of plant gawking and people watching. Sculpture installations and several photo shoots with high fashion models were happening with hardly a second look from onlookers. I guess it just happens there every day!

A sculpture assemblage with modular bird houses was being set up


The entire bridge structure had to be stripped of the gravel ballast, rails, soil, debris, and a layer of concrete.  Then the outside had to be sandblasted in a containment tent to remove the original lead paint. The Art Deco railings had to be repaired and fabricated to restore everything to original condition. In many locations, original train rails were restored to their former locations and you can see the rails integrated seamlessly as part of the planting landscape. Ingenious! The walkway is a series of long ‘planks’ forming a smooth, linear, walkway surface with viewing platforms, sun decks, and gathering areas. There is even a lawn area where people are free to play and picnic. It was roped off when we were there for rejuvenation.  I guess too many people trampled it down!

High Line (New York City)
High Line (New York City) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Long view of the High Line

Energy efficient LED lights were installed for night time, and stairs and elevators were installed at intervals for access. Pigeon-proofing, a drainage system, and a layer of waterproofing on the underlying concrete were the final steps in preparing the structure for planting.

A neat water feature with water recirculating out of vents washing across the pavement. A nice place to put your bare feet on a hot day!

Designing the Container

The inspiration for the planting design was the actual self-seeded landscape that sprang up after the abandonment of the rail tracks. Tough plants seeded in the gravel ballast and made a home there in the tracks and thrived without any attention. Sustainability, which is the latest buzzword among gardeners and landscapers, was the keyword when picking out the plants.  This just meant choosing native and hardy species that were interesting in color and textural qualities.  Many of the original plant species that thrived on the tracks were incorporated into the final plan.

A tough species of Stachys

Piet Oudolf, who was the planting designer, is known for his embrace of the New Perennials Landscape movement. In a nutshell, this movement stresses shape and texture more than color of the plant.  The life cycle of nature is important with a four season interest, not just spring and summer.  Mr Oudolf, who is Dutch, actually thinks that a garden is more interesting in winter and that as gardeners we should be more accepting of death and decay.


In practical terms, Mr Oudolf designs with a preponderance of grasses because they are easy to use and have appeal in larger public landscapes rather than the smaller ones at our homes. I have to say this really struck home when my daughter exclaimed over the swaths of Mexican Feather Grass that were used in many places on the High Line. When I told her that I had some clumps of it at home she said she had never noticed!

Mexican Feather Grass – Stipa tenuissima

Evergreens are used sparingly according to Mr Oudolf’s vision to add depth in the winter when a landscape should be browns, tans, and sienna hues rather than a green landscape. There are “cracks” in the pavement created for the plants to grow where the path bleeds into garden and vice versus. The little mulch that is used is gravel to resemble the ballast rather than the more familiar decomposeable organic mulch.

More of the Mexican Feather Grass planted in “cracks” of the paving surface
Cracks with plants

The Plantings

The conditions for plantings of the High Line is hot, hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. To experience extremes of temperatures is stressful for many plants but the selected plants were used to these harsh conditions such as native North American prairie perennials.  Annuals are not used as they would have to be replaced and are not a sustainable plant.  When I was walking, there was a stiff breeze blowing probably because of the height of the plantings. Out of 210 plant species used, 161 of them are native to the New York area.

Breeze blowing the petals of a Echinacea
Dalea purpurea, a prairie native
Astilbe ‘Visions in Pink’ is the light pink and the orange is Butterfly weed. Who knew that Astilbe would grow like this in full sun?
The soil depth of the High Line is around 15 inches! This fact absolutely amazed me.  The depth does increase somewhat where there are raised areas but only to about 36 inches at the most.  There are lots and lots of trees – Birches, Magnolias, Service Berries, Sassafras, Hornbeams, Crabapples, Red Buds, Dogwoods, Smoke Trees, Black Gums, Pines, Maples, and Witch Hazels. Sassafras is used frequently. The use of so many Sassafras surprised me as I never use it in a home landscape setting.  It is a native and is everywhere in our woods and it does have magnificent scarlet fall coloring. Sassafras is an important bird food source and is the host to the Swallowtail butterfly. 
Sassafras leaves with Swallowtails
Smoke Tree in its glory

The list of species goes on and on and I can’t believe that they are thriving in such a thin layer of soil. The small amount of soil makes the entire High Line an elevated container that dries out quickly with the beating sun and the relentless wind. The first part of the High Line has irrigation and additional irrigation is being installed soon in the other second part. Hose outlets were installed at periodic areas for easy hand watering. Because of the intensely planted beds, the plants must always be thirsty. One advantage of the wall to wall plantings is that it is harder for weeds to take root but nothing eliminates weeds growing and that chore still has to be done.

An allium

Art and Vendor Installations

This is an urban landscape and you can’t escape the commercial outlets. There were several vendors, art and food, that you encounter along the way.  When we were there, a group exhibition called “Lilliput” inspired by  Swift’s Gullivers Travels, brings together nine sculptures of reduced scale by six international artists. The sculptures are installed along the High Line in unexpected locations and it became a game for us to find them all. Go to www.thehighline.org/art to view them.

Sun Tzu Janus by artist Oliver Laric, found at the beginning of the High Line
Another sculpture inspired by Gulliver’s Travels

Lots of apartments looked directly onto the level of the High Line and we were amused with residents art installations.

“High Line Zoo”, Someone having fun with their artwork!
A balcony overlooking the High Line

We went down the stairs to street level Chelsea Market and picked up some goodies and shopped the interesting stores. Then we headed back up to the High Line and picked up more food from Bark and The Taco Truck on the High Line passage. There were tables and chairs set up in the shade on the passage which is just a large tunnel to enjoy the food. The tables were pretty full on a Monday so I think that on the weekend it could be a mad house.

High Line passage

Enjoying the Park

As in any park, you need places to sit and relax and unwind.  There were plenty of innovative seating areas to take a load off and we didn’t have to fight anyone to get a spot.  They were scattered everywhere.  The most ingenious seat was the wooden lounge chair that made use of old train wheels that were placed in the track.

Enjoying the sunny day
Train wheels on the lounge chairs

Amplitheater type seating with a projector

Enjoying the sunny day on the High Line


Along with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the Friends of the High Line employs 6 to 8 gardeners or horticulturists to maintain the 6.7 acre park.

Talking to the gardeners who were working diligently weeding, cutting back, and planting, they were really excited about gardening in downtown Manhattan. I asked how they disposed of their organic debris and they said that they collect it in a central location on the High Line and then it is picked up and taken to Fresh Kills landfill. It seems like there should be a composting area located on the High Line so that they can compost it on site and use it to enrich the plantings. If they set up a working composting area with informational signs and demos, I think that it would send an important public message for sustainability.

Talking to a gardener who is hand watering transplants

The High Line is not the first converted elevated rail line.  Paris started it all in 1993 with one called Promenade Planteé which is almost 3 miles long. Also, St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago, and Rotterdam has them in the works. Next stop, Paris!

The Paris Promenade Planteé from Wikipedia

If you want more information about the history, architecture, grasses and plants, there is a book out titled On the High Line:Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park by Annik Lafarge and contributor Rick  Darke

On the High Line book available on Amazon

American Grown – The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America


The Read

I just finished reading ‘American Grown’ by Michelle Obama and it is a fascinating account of the garden and landscape evolution at the White House. From the very first vegetable garden installed by John Adams, our second president, the book mentions a variety of plantings and gardens until it ended up being a hodgepodge of styles and designs in the 1930’s.  At that point, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the renowned Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a landscape artist who designed Central Park in New York City, to draw up a master plan. Olmstead created the vistas and features that we are familiar with today – notably the South Lawn with rolling lawns and groupings of trees. The landscape that he created is what basically remains today.

South lawn of the White House showing the great expanse of lawn and tree groupings – Wikipedia

The book also includes how-to tips for starting your own kitchen garden, involving children in the process, and several accounts of how schools across the county are changing their students eating habits and getting them to be more active. Recipes from the White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford using the produce were my favorite part as well as dozens of black and white historic photos.

First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from...
First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School to break ground for a White House garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 1100 square foot L-shaped vegetable kitchen garden is on the White House south lawn in raised beds with slate plant tags, and has a path winding through for easy access.  Michelle Obama wanted the location of the garden to be easily seen from outside the White House gate because she wanted it to be the people’s garden, just as the White House is the “people’s house”. Peas, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, tomatoes, figs, mushrooms, and peppers are just a few of the over 55 varieties of vegetable and herb crops that are planted and harvested for use in the White House kitchen. Mushrooms were even grown on logs that were placed under trees! All produce is used for family meals and state dinners and is also donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen. The garden is grown organically with edible and companion flowers planted along the path and numerous herbs, and has produced thousands of pounds of produce.

The garden was started in 2009, early in the Obama’s term, and was instrumental in the First Lady starting her ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign which focused on healthy eating and exercise. The First Lady along with White House horticulturist Dale Haney and the enthusiastic help of 23 5th graders from  Bancroft Elementary in D.C., plant the garden every spring and takes care of the garden as well as learning about eating healthy.

First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef...
First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef Sam Kass show students from the Bancroft Elementary how to plant a garden. The White House Vegetable Garden was officially planted today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

White House Chef Sam Kass, who personally harvests many of the herbs and vegetables for the meals he cooks, was inspired after a visit to Monticello to include an area devoted to Thomas Jefferson where the vegetable favorite’s of the third president are planted. Monticello sells a special seed collection that Jefferson grew at his home that includes Tennis Ball Lettuce, Prickly Seeded Spinach, Red Calico Lima Beans, Sesame, Globe Artichokes, and Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage. Offered by Monticello’s online store at http://www.monticellocatalog.org/, you can order this seed mixture yourself for $18.


Three Sisters

Another area of the garden is called ‘The Three Sisters’ which is corn, beans, and squash planted together. The Native Americans used this planting scheme extensively and called the three plants ‘The Three Sisters’ because they grow and thrive together.  The beans grow up the corn plants for support and the squash acts as a living mulch and shades the base of the plantings.

Three Sisters shown on the reverse of the Native American 2009 dollar coin.

In June of 2011, Cherokee White Eagle corn, Rattlesnake pole beans, and Seminole squash seeds donated by the National Museum of the American Indian were planted in the White House garden preceded by a special ceremony and blessing by Native Americans.

‘Three Sisters’ planting with beans growing up corn and squash shading the base

How – To

There is a great section on basic how-to knowledge to jump-start your own vegetable garden, from making compost up of ‘browns and greens’ to container gardening.  I thought the most important point was to grow what you like to eat. The importance of sunlight is stressed with the statement ‘sun equals success’ which is a factor that so many people forget. Americans have a long tradition of vegetable gardening and it is time to reconnect with that heritage. The book is a great starter for any newbie.

Wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, courtesy of Landreth Seeds, a seed company that sold seeds to every President from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Cooking Class

Thinking that kids are more willing to try healthy food choices if they are involved in growing their own food, Michelle Obama started the vegetable garden at the right time for America.  Many people are concerned with organic food choices, eating a better diet and buying locally. The Bancroft Elementary School not only plants and harvests the vegetables, but also prepares and tastes the food with the White House Chef. Lucky kids!

I tried two of the recipes –  the mac and cheese with cauliflower, and the white bean salad, and got thumbs up from my family. Go to http://www.npr.org/2012/06/12/154854113/first-lady-fights-obesity-with-moves-and-good-food?ft=1&f= to see more recipes that sound delicious.

First Year Lessons

I really was interested in Michelle Obama’s essay on lessons learned in the first season.  One problem was that they grew perfectly round cantaloupes that were totally tasteless!  I have had that problem also and stopped growing them.  Another situation was the blackberry bushes took up too much room for the few pieces of fruit harvested.  To combat this problem, I train them on a trellis. They also found that even with netting, birds ate every blueberry.  I chalk that up to the plants were immature and weren’t old enough to be loaded with berries so that the birds could eat their fill.

Freshly harvested blueberries from my garden

Cutworms became a problem in the White House garden and the gardeners combated that by enclosing new plants in bottomless paper cups, an old organic gardener trick.  Another lesson learned was to mulch with a thin layer of straw to keep the soil moist and the weeds down. These were pretty basic common situations that many gardeners face and the White House gardeners learned through experience. This book is an inspiration for people to start their own garden and the knowledge is very basic but helpful.

The garden has become a very popular tour for school kids and if you are a teacher you can tour the kitchen garden on a first-come, first-served basis by going to http://www.whitehouse.gov/ and fill out an application.  The tour is free which includes the garden only, not the house, and is held every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 AM, weather permitting.

Honey and Bees at the White House

Adjacent to the kitchen garden, is the first ever beehive at the White House that is tended by White House carpenter Charlie Brandts. This part was my favorite because it really showed how ignorant people are about honeybees.  Bees will only sting unless provoked and are more interested in finding nectar than bothering someone. In all the years that I have had hives at my house (10), I have never had anyone stung except for me! And that was trying to remove the honey!

The President initially was “less than enthusiastic” especially since the hive would be near the basketball court and he was concerned about the dog and the girls being stung. The hive was set up high to keep the entrance well above kids who visit the garden and the flight path was placed so it would be in the opposite direction of the basketball court. Also, the hive was strapped securely so that winds from the presidential helicopter wouldn’t tip it over during landings!

The beehive has over 70,000 bees and honey is harvested from the hives and used in the White House kitchen. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNaLV8KwTr8  and watch the video ‘The Secret Life of White House Bees’ for a fascinating account of setting up the hive and harvesting the honey.  To harvest the honey, Charlie Brandts smokes the bees to calm them and then blows the bees off the frames with a leaf blower!

One interesting story about the White House bees is that there was an apple tree on the South Lawn for 25 years that had never produced an apple.  Once the bees were installed, the apple tree produced baskets of delicious apples. That just proves how important bees are to pollination.

Blossoms, fruit, and foliage of an apple tree.

The honey is extracted right in the White House kitchen which really impressed me.  When I extract honey, every surface around gets sticky and covered with bees and I don’t do it in the kitchen! Just the one hive at the White House has produced 140 pounds the first year, 183 pounds the second, and 225 pounds the third – an impressive total! Honey is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, used in the White House kitchen, and given as gifts to dignitaries and heads of state. A pound of honey was used to brew the first White House honey ale! I wonder how it tasted?

Extracting honey

Michelle Obama is trend setting with her vegetable garden initiative and lots of families are taking note and starting their own vegetable garden. Even the Queen of England copied what our First Lady did and has started her own palace vegetable garden with school children. Now is the time to dust off those kitchen garden plans and start sowing!

Magical Mystery Tour – Ladew Topiary Gardens

Ladew Topiary Gardens

I feel fortunate that I live just 6 or 7 miles from one of the most innovative and beautiful public gardens in the United States, right here in Monkton, MD, called Ladew Topiary Gardens. I first saw these whimsical and  enchanting gardens about 25 years ago that were created by, Harvey S. Ladew, a traveler, fox-hunter, artist, and gardener extraordinaire, who lived from 1887-1976. Harvey, a bon-vivant, was born to wealth and loved to fox-hunt. Fox-hunting drew him to the Monkton area in mid-life and he bought 200+ acres of land with a decrepit house and a few lilac bushes and proceeded to transform the house and gardens into one of the foremost topiary gardens in the country.

Topiary hound

Garden Rooms – Architecture for the Outdoors

I was first introduced to the concept of ‘garden rooms’ when I went to see Ladew for the first time. Among the rooms which are devoted to a theme or color are the Rose Garden, the White and Yellow Garden, the Garden of Eden, the Sculpture Garden, the Iris Garden, the Victorian Garden, the Croquet Court, the Berry Garden, the Cutting Garden, the Portico Garden, the Cutting Garden, the Keyhole Garden, and the Water Lily Garden. Each ‘room’ is totally separate from the others with the use of hedging or shrub borders. It is almost like walking into an open air house with no ceilings but having distinct colors and design unique to that room. There are pathways connecting each room and you can’t see the next room until you actually enter it.

Topiary Magic – Sculpting in Yew

Ladew is a must-see for it’s sweeping gardening vistas, garden themed rooms,  as well as the jaw-dropping topiaries. The most famous of the topiaries is the life-sized hunt scene of horse and riders and hounds which is a unique and stunning topiary scene because it acutally implies movement of the hunt.

Horse jumping over fence

The Sculpture Garden features lyre birds, Churchill’s top hat, victory sign, a heart with an arrow through it, a butterfly alighting on a flower and sea horses and is imposing! I feel like an ant next to these towering sculptures.

Eighty percent of Ladew’s topiaries were made with hemlock, but once the wooly adelgid starting to attack them and suck the sap out of the hemlocks, they started to die.  Ladew’s board started a campaign in the nineties to replace the hemlocks with yews which aren’t susceptible to the pests. Other materials used in the topiaries are boxwood, euonymous, and holly.

Scultpure Garden

Harvey Ladew took the art of topiary to new heights with his creations.  Check out the giraffe, the Chinese Junk and the pagoda.

Pagoda at Ladew
Chinese junk at Ladew
Giraffe with gold Euonymous at Ladew

Garden Festival

I recently went to Ladew’s Garden Festival that has become an annual event for many area gardeners as it draws vendors from all over with unusual plants and garden statuary and knick-knacks. I always go with the intention of ‘not buying any more plants- I don’t need them!’ attitude but come home with armloads that I just couldn’t do without.

Interesting garden trug made with a branch and some lengths of wood

Someone had made some miniature gardens for sale which I love to make and was interested in their take on the subject.

Mini garden for sale

I saw a lot of succulents for sale as they are in vogue right now and was really interested in the use of succulents in window boxes. What a great idea for a sunny window box! I hate watering my window boxes and when it gets really hot, I sometimes neglect them and they wilt. But not these!

Succulent window box
Succulent window box

 Large Bird Houses or Dovecotes

Large Bird House at Ladew

I have always been intrigued by the use of the ginormous bird houses at Ladew. They are actually dovecotes and they are scattered all over Ladew and each one is unique. I liked the one surrounded by bee skeps.  The bee skeps are ornamental only.

Ladew dovecote

This dovecote was incredible when I visited surrounded by blooming bridal wreath spirea.

Ladew dovecote surrounded by spirea

Springtime at Ladew

In my opinion, there is no better time than spring to visit Ladew to see the bulbs, azaleas, rhododendrons, and wisteria in their full glory. The mansion is also very unique to tour but the gardens are so beautiful and stunning that I prefer to  stay outdoors and catch what is happening in the garden and see what is blooming on my visit.

Wisteria in full bloom at Ladew
Full-blown tulip at Ladew
Iris garden at Ladew
Garden gateway at Ladew