Monday, February 8, 2016

Seed packet Valentines

Plant seeds of joy for your garden-minded friends and family with Valentine cards made from seed packets. It's a playful, practical gift that will keep you on the recipient's mind throughout the growing season. The ones I made today are from easy-to-find seed varieties, which I plucked up 10 for a buck at the dollar store. Sure these valentines are corny, but isn't that what smiles are all about?

Let's be SWEET HEARTS (plant: sweet basil)

You are the best thing in my COSMOS

We are MINT to be! (plant: spearmint)

I CARROT A LOT about you!

You can't be BEET

This next batch is a little more obscure, drawing more from words on the packet than the plant itself:

You are my ANNUAL CHOICE, Valentine! (plant: phlox)

I find you CHARMING, Guaranteed! (plant: viola)

Valentine, you are Hot & Spicy! (plant: jalapeño pepper)

As I've pored over seed catalogs I've noticed many plants that convey sentiment in their very names:

(quotations indicate cultivar names)
“Angel face” floribunda rose
Bleeding heart
“Daydream” tulip
“Everlasting” sweet pea
Honesty plant
Obedient plant (eh, maybe not!)
“Romance” narcissus
“Valentine” sunflower

Here are other seeds that could be great for Valentine cards:
“Black Valentine” beans
“Hearts of Gold” cantaloupe
“Hungarian Heart” tomato
"Marvel" lettuce
"Tendersweet" carrot
Instead of traditional trinkets, you could give a growing, botanical version:
“Diamond” eggplant
“Golden treasure” pepper
“Chocolate beauty” pepper
“Teddy bear” sunflower
“Lady Godiva” squash, anyone? (Nah, Godiva chocolates are probably better.)
Show that you appreciate your Valentine’s special qualities by pointing out:
“Good Mother (Stallard)” beans
“Provider” beans
“Country Gentleman” corn
Use your imagination, and let plants do the talking this Valentine’s Day. Take it from me, though. These may be incredible plants, but for the holiday’s sake steer clear of sending a message with "Envy" zinnia, “Lazy Housewife” beans or “Seneca Red Stalker” corn.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Tips for cooking winter squash

Often times the biggest challenge to using a winter squash is cracking it open. Those squashes are hard! Even cooks with the sharpest knives and best knife skills can struggle making a dent. After the conquest of cutting open you still must contend with seeds and slippery, slimy strings.

Try these two approaches instead:

1. If the size is right, cook winter squashes whole in a slow cooker. Wash squash, make sure lid fits securely and cook on low for about 5 to 8 hours, until you can easily pierce a knife all the way through. I don't add water. Cooking period is about half that long on the high setting, although the low setting has the advantage of little risk of overcooking. You can pop a squash in the slow cooker in the morning and walk away. Once cooked, let the squash cool slightly. Cut in half vertically and easily remove strings and seeds. Then scoop away flesh from the peel. Use right away or freeze for later.

2. Soften squashes whole in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes to make them easier to cut. Then remove strings and seeds and cut into pieces for further cooking.

At this point you can go back to the slow cooker, stacking as many pieces as will fit. Or roast in the oven for about an 45-60 minutes, or loosely covered in the microwave checking after 20 minutes. I don't recommend cooking whole in the microwave, for obvious explosive reasons.

Here's one of my family's favorite squash recipes (named after my husband!):

Squash-haters' special request bisque

2 lbs. winter squash (butternut is especially good)
1 large onion
1-2 cloves of garlic
1-2 stalks celery
2 quarts good quality chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup cream (can also use evaporated milk)
Favorite herbs (sage or rosemary work well)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped ham (optional)

Heat oven to 350. Prepare squash by removing seeds and stringy fibers. Place pieces cut side up in pan, uncovered, and put in oven. (It's OK if oven hasn't reached full temperature yet.)

Alternately, you can put prepared pieces in a covered dish in the microwave and cook for 20 minutes. This is quicker than oven method, but I think the roasted flavor the oven imparts is worth it if you have the time.

While squash is baking, mince garlic and chop onion and celery. Add vegetables, bay leaf and chicken stock to a large pot. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, and let vegetables cook until extremely soft.

Check squash in oven for tenderness after about 40 minutes. When done, remove skins from flesh. (If it's too hot to handle, let cool while you do the next step.)

Remove bay leaf from stock mixture and discard. Ladle softened vegetables into blender or food processor and process until smooth. (Do so in batches if needed.) Puree squash with small amount of stock.

Combine everything back into your pot. Slowly stir in cream and warm over low heat. Adjust seasonings and add ham. Serves 8.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Scheduling backyard farming projects

Hello, everyone! I hope this last month has felt more productive for you than it has for me. Talk about settling down for a long winter's nap!

I started the new year with grand aspirations of how I was going to be better (diet, exercise, sleep, finances -- you know the drill), but it was too many goals all at once, and my will broke like a tree branch after heavy snow.

I know I do better when I pace myself and identify specific goals for a month at a time. I decided to do this same approach with backyard farming projects. There are many things I'd like to learn about this year -- such as bee-keeping, espalier trees and cold frames -- so I will plan now when to study them. I will also schedule specific projects instead of saying, "Oh, I'll get to them someday." Here on the blog I will share with you what I have studied and present my projects. Perhaps that's my biggest reason of all, to have this kind of accountability. Some of the goals, such as the one I have in November to feature homegrown food at the Thanksgiving table, will inform the choices I make earlier in the year.

Here are my backyard farming goals for the rest of the year, above and beyond the usual projects of tilling and planting the garden:

1. Decrease food spending and food waste through better meal planning. Evaluate all of January's food expenditures (including eating out) for a comparison.
2. Learn about bees in my area, including if city permit is required.
3. Determine planting schedule and quantities for upcoming garden. Remember Thanksgiving dinner goal.

You may wonder how I count food spending as a backyard farming project. Simple. My garden endgame is to provide food for my family. Thus, I hope that patterns of efficient meal planning and avoiding waste will carry over into the months of fresh harvest. Maybe I can even sock away money saved on winter food costs to invest in fruit trees or other plants.

1. Actually set-up indoor seed-starting rack this year! Start veggies from seed.
2. Rejuvenate strawberry patch by digging out plants, culling the strong ones and replacing in improved soil.
3. Learn about espalier methods for fruit trees.

1. Install soaker hoses around raspberries. (I've meant to do this for a decade!)
2. Prune/remove trees, particularly those that infringe on garden areas.
3. Learn about rain collection methods.

1. Make parking strip (land between sidewalk and street) into a garden area.
2. Start more grape vines from cuttings.

1. Learn about increasing tomato yields through pruning.
2. Design and implement a more workable compost area.

1. Study food dehydrators and drying methods.

1. Learn about a worm bin.

1. Do not let produce go to waste. Process the day it is harvested, or give to a neighbor right away.

1. Find a better place in my home to grow herbs indoors.
2. Create a better spot for longterm storage of squashes.

1. Make something for Thanksgiving dinner that came from the garden.
2. Make infused vinegars with herbs.

1. Learn about, and build, cold frames.

I would love to learn of your 2016 garden projects, or what resources you've found valuable for my areas of study this year. Let's all teach each other how to make this year a fantastic one.

Monday, December 28, 2015

What animals are the best range buddies for your chickens?

By Liz Greene

You’ve had your chickens for a while, you’re comfortable with their care and upkeep, and you’re thinking about expanding your little to farm to include some more critters — but you’re a tad short on ranging space. The solution, of course, is to range your new animals with the chickens. However, some creatures share space with chickens better than others, so it’s important to pick the right range mates for your flock.


Horses and chickens are a match made in heaven. Chickens provide a number of horsekeeping benefits. They pick up fallen kernels and pellets, keeping your horse from mouthing the ground to find bits of feed — a practice that can lead to ingestion of dirt and sand. Chickens also eat undigested feed and seeds that pass through manure, thus saving money by reducing feed waste.

Chickens eat flies, worms, grubs, bees, and all other manner of bugs. If they can catch it, they’ll eat it — which means it won’t be aggravating you or your horse. Furthermore, chickens love digging through manure to find worms and other tasties. Give them a pile of horse droppings and they’ll have the manure broken down and spread around in no time.

Chickens are surprisingly good for mellowing out a spooky horse. A horse with exposure to poultry won’t be startled by sudden movements, loud noises, or the occasional appearance of an egg.

It’s important not to let chickens graze with horses that have been given chemical de-wormers or any medication. It’s also necessary to keep chickens out of the horses’ hay due to salmonella concerns.

Goats and sheep

Goats and sheep are a popular choice for small farms and homesteads. You can allow goats, sheep, and chickens to range together with few problems. Just as with horses, chickens will pick up grain the goats and sheep drop, cutting down on food waste. They’ll be just as happy to eat the bugs that plague your hooved beasties. As an added benefit, chickens will provide companionship to the sheep and goats — and vice versa!

Guinea Fowl

Guinea fowl are the most compatible birds to keep with chickens, but they can be bullies. Most of the time it’s little things, like pushing hens off roosts and scattering the flock; however, if they pick a favorite mark, they can be relentless in their pursuit of a victim.

If you plan to keep both chickens and guineas on your farm, make sure to give them extra space to range. While some people house the birds together, it’s probably better to give the guineas their own quarters to avoid problems.


No matter what animals you decide to keep with your chickens, it’s important to install proper fencing. The right kind of fence will keep your critters from making a run for it, and thwart the plans of stealthy predators.

If your horses and chickens are ranging together, wire mesh fencing is perfect for restraining everyone. If you’re keeping chickens and goats together, goat panels with four inch openings should work well to keep everyone contained.

However, one of the best ways to stop predators is electric fencing. To deter wolves and coyotes, fences should have seven wires, spaced equally six to eight inches apart to a height of 54 inches.

The most important wire will be the ground wire, which should be placed four to six inches from the ground to keep predators from digging under — and to keep chickens from simply waltzing out.

A Note on Chicken Feed

Chicken feed contains a high level of protein and carbohydrates that can be dangerous to most large animals. Horses and goats are particularly sensitive to chicken feed as eating too much of it can cause bloating and death.

Arrange for your chickens to be fed inside the coop and make sure there is absolutely no way the other animals can get inside. Remember that goats are very clever and persistent at getting to what they want. They may climb through coop windows and will try to squeeze through any door.

Adding more animals to your farm will require more work, but you’ll find that you love them just as much as you love your feathered friends. And besides, watching them interact with each other will be almost as much a reward as the other benefits of animal husbandry.

Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or delve deeper into her internal musings at InstantLo

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Off-season uses for tomato cages

With a nod to Dr. Seuss ... 

"Where will we hang the stockings?" the kids asked me this year.
Christmas is coming, it's practically here.

For a fireplace we've got,
but a mantle -- with crannies and nooks for placing hangers and hooks --
a mantle, we have not.

Then the gardener got an idea. A silly idea.
The gardener got a wonderful, crazy idea.

"I know just what to do!" the gardener cried
and she threw on her boots and went outside.
She tromped through the snow past summer's veggie bed
and claimed metal tomato cages resting in the shed.

Why, upside down these garden structures are just the trick
to hang up our stockings for good Ol' St. Nick.
They stand on their own in the shape of the tree:
An efficient use of space, as you can see.

With clothespins in hand the gardener thought of other reasons
Tomato cages could be useful beyond standard growing seasons.
Greeting card displays! Hat stands! Mitten racks!
Boot shapers and homes for scarves drying in stacks!

Just think -- if you place a cage above a heat vent
You can make your own compact snow-gear-drying tent. 

As she brought a little of her garden inside for the day
the gardener began to look at things in an entirely new way.
To some it's absurd, but the possibilities are endless
When the wish is to create something practically spend-less.

Happy Holidays from Backyard Farming!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Shoveling snow off of fruit trees



The very thing that generally gives me a guilt-free pass from gardening -- snow -- delivered an usual chore this week: shoveling fruit tree branches.

Snow is nothing new here, but it came so fast and so wet and heavy (and so much of it!) that trees all over town strained and split with the extra weight. I don't want my little peach tree to suffer the same fate, which is why I tromped through knee-high banks to scrape snow off its branches. The tree is in my front yard, a steep slope of three terraces. In the best of weather it's like playing mountain goat to garden there. I'm sure I gave my neighbors quite the show as I climbed the hill and hoped to not lose my footing.

Ah, that's better.

Pruning tactics to maximize fruit production and sunlight to each branch also create a basin for snow. Hold your hand out, palm up, to see how. Hold your arm vertically from the elbow, with the hand bent back, as if you were a waiter holding a tray. Now curve your fingers. Your forearm is the trunk and your curled fingers the branches. When snow makes a branch bend at a notch, the risk for breakage is high.

My tree is against a retaining wall, where the upper level provides an easy reach to all the branches. (It's why we planted it there, for easier harvest.) If you attempt to remove snow from a bigger tree, be careful. Use a shovel to PUSH snow away from you, rather than pull it toward you. Obviously you don't want to get a snow shower, but you also don't want to dislodge an already weakened branch and have it fall on you. Consider that bent branches may whip upward when snow is removed; another reason to keep your distance and use a long-handled tool. Watch out for power lines.

I don't anticipate having to shovel fruit tree branches with every snowstorm, just when the weight of snow makes the boughs bow. (See what I did there?) 

Swing on tree heavy-laden with snow.

Oops! The patio furniture got left out.

What's your most unusual off-season gardening chore?

Wishful thinking

It's a sunflower snow tower! Think my neighbors are as ready to exchange snow shovels for garden spades as I am?