Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How To Harvest And Store Onions

Onion growing has become almost a holiday event. Every year we plant our sets right before Christmas. The harvesting always begins at Easter time.  

Although we do start some earlier in fall from seeds we've saved, it sometimes fails. It happens with weird weather these days mostly. 

The one thing I know, is onions grown organically in the garden...well...there is nothing like them!! Firm and delicious and keeping a basket full in the kitchen is mandatory around here.

 The signs of harvesting time is when you begin to notice most of the onion tops falling over. They have a nice bent place an inch or so right above the bulb. If it is your first time to grow onions don't think they are dying on you. They are simply ready to pull. 

We begin by gently pulling them up, preferably on a dry day and laying them down on the ground. Once we've pulled them up it is time to go back and gather them. We carry them by bunches and lay them gently up in nice neat rows on the drying racks. I like to keep them sorted by variety and colors. We grow short day varieties, but some mid day as well. I tell you why in a minute.

We may do things a bit different than some folks, but we've had pretty good success with our methods. In the top photo you can see our drying racks. My husband, better known as Mr. Garden to most, built the racks strategically at the southern part of the gardens. 

We get a wonderful breeze of warm dry air almost constantly during harvesting time. The racks have a roof made of tin to help protect from rain and chicken wire shelving to allow good air flow. 

The whole thing is nestled under some nice shade trees to help protect the onions from the sun. The best way to dry your onions is simply, fresh dry air and shade. 

After about a week on the drying racks the skins will have begun to dry and protect the juicy onion bulb inside. This is why we must pull them gently and lay them up to dry gently as well. The less damage done during harvesting the nicer the skins will be.

It's at this time I can start going through the harvest and gently brushing dirt off. I usually use a large soft bristled brush and then lay them back down on the racks. You will be able to cull out any undesirable onions at this time as well. Sometimes you will find a few that had tried to go to seed and the bulb will feel hard like a piece of wood. You may also find some that are a bit mushy. Throw them out into the compost pile.

After about a good long month the long grassy stems of the onions will have become good and dry as well. It is also at this time that the weather here in Texas begins to turn hotter and more humid. That is the sign that they need to come indoors for storage. 

Back to the short day and mid day variety question for just a minute. It is recommended that we grow short day in our growing zone. Mid days will grow here, but take a few more weeks before they are ready to harvest. The reason we grow both types is because mid day varieties are well know to store and keep longer that the short day onions. This is why I like to keep my varieties sorted out when putting them up on the drying racks. 

The key to storing onions is cool and dry! That can be hard here in Texas so they must be brought indoors.  They can be kept in baskets after cutting the stems off. Burlap sacks work great as well as saved netted bags from purchases made at the farmers market. 

We like to braid many of our onions in nice clumps to hang indoors. After we braid we hang them in the potting shed where is is fairly cool and breezy in the shade. But even at that there is no holding back the heat and humidity. So with a nice looped string at the top of the braid we bring them indoors to a room on the northern side of the house where I keep a nice slow ceiling fan blowing. 

I try to make sure I make use of the white onions and the short day varieties first. The white onions always seem to want to go bad first. Then the yellows and the reds and Bermuda stay best longest.

Happy Gardening!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Carrot Harvest Bread

We simply cannot harvest a huge bounty of organically grown sweet carrots without making a scrumptious bread  loaded with big juicy mixed raisins and walnuts.

Carrots are said to contain way more vitamins that your body can absorb when they are cooked. So in this recipe I steamed them and reserved the liquid for that extra carrot nutrition.

When carrots are grown in your garden naturally and without the use of any chemicals, the taste is unmatched by any you would find in the supermarket.

I managed to cut sugar out of this bread as well. There are a couple of plant based sweeteners that will work well in this recipe. I used Xylitol, which has become my favorite. 

Xylitol is a naturally occurring alcohol found in most plant material, including many fruits and vegetables. It is extracted from birch wood to make medicine. It is widely used as a sugar substitute and in "sugar-free" chewing gums, mints, and other candies.

 As a medicine, xylitol is used to prevent middle ear infections in young children, and as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes.

Xylitol is added to some chewing gums and other oral care products to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth.

Xylitol is sometimes included in tube feeding formulas as a source of energy.

Dog owners should know that Xylitol can be toxic to dogs, even when the relatively small amounts from candies that are eaten. If your dog eats a product that contains Xylitol, it is important to take the dog to a veterinarian immediately.

Stevia or honey could also be substituted instead of granulated refined sugars. I love using honey once in awhile for a special treat.

NOTE: I love making mini loaves of the carrot harvest bread to put up in the freezer for later. The loaves make such cute gifts too. 

The baking time will be 25 minutes for the mini loaves.

Carrot Harvest Bread
½ cup organic unsalted butter (softened)
1/2 cup Xylitol (Brand-Ideal)
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed steamed carrots
2 cups organic unbleached bread flour
Pinch of sea salt
1 tsp. Baking soda
1/3 cup warm water (use liquid reserved from steaming carrots)
1 tsp. Freshly ground cinnamon
½ cup organic golden raisins
½ cup Walnuts or Pecans (crushed)
  1. Makes one loaf
  2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees
  3. Steam carrots and let cool down a bit. Mash them with your mixer until fairly smooth. Set aside.
  4. Combine ½ cup softened butter, sugar and eggs and mix until well blended. Add the mashed carrots and beat them into the batter.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, flax seed, baking soda and cinnamon. Add this mixture to your batter along with the 1/3 cup of warm reserved liquid. Beat on medium until well combined.
  6. Stir in walnuts and raisins.
  7. Lightly butter your loaf pan. I use a metal pan. Spoon in the batter and smooth out the top.
  8. Bake on 325 for about one hour. Test by inserting a toothpick. It is finished when it comes out clean.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Herbal Tea Gardening

I love experimenting with Herbal Tea Blends. During our hot summers here in Texas a tall pitcher of homemade Iced Tea reflects all of the hard work and time spent in the garden. 

We grow many different herbs throughout the garden in hopes of creating a wide range of diversity among the fruits and vegetables. Many are grown as companions as well as attracting a full range of beneficial pollinators and insects.

I do however enjoy focusing on growing many that are my favorite flavors for Tea and Culinary uses in the kitchen. Although many of our herbs are enjoyed freshly harvested from the garden, it is fun to dry and store them for later use. 

While many herbs are said to be best harvested right before they bloom so that much of the essential oils and flavors are at their height throughout the leaves and stems, I have always found the flowers of many herbs to be the essence of the plants.

Not only do they add beauty to your dried tea blends, I find they truly obtain the flavors of the herb.

For this herbal tea blend I've dried and combined different herbs that compliment the base of the blend.

 For the base I've used Roselle Hibiscus. This is a tropical herb that can be grown in the southern regions of the U.S. It has the close flavor of a cranberry.

I've complimented it by using Bergamot (Bee Balm) leaves and flower petals. The Scarlet Red Bergamots have a very slight citrus flavor and is what is used to make Oswego Tea that you may have noticed in the markets.

Next, for a subtle touch I used Lemon Balm leaves, Pineapple Sage leaves and a pinch of Berries and Cream Mint.

There are a whole bunch of wonderful herbs to grow in your garden for making Tea. I hope to talk more about them soon and some hints on growing them yourself.

 If you do not have the same herbs that I've used for this blend, you can first look for Hibiscus Tea or one called Red Zinger. It will be as close as you could get to my blend.

You can also use most green teas or black teas for making the Honey Spiced Peach Tea Recipe I am sharing. But we have used Fresh Organic Peaches to make a simple syrup, so I would be looking for some, unless you grow your own.

We have several peach trees here in the garden and can't wait until they begin making fruit!!

2 Qt. Pitcher for Iced Tea

Simple Peach Syrup

1 cup water
3 to 4 peaches, peeled, pitted and diced
1 tsp. fresh ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. fresh ground ginger
1 cup honey

Bring water, peaches, cinnamon and ginger to a gentle boil on medium heat. Cover and turn heat down to low. Let simmer stirring frequently for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Mash any peach pieces left. Strain liquid into your pitcher. Add honey to warm liquid and stir.

Brewing your Herbal Tea

Fill a long tea filter with 3 tbsp. of loose leaf tea. Fold down the top edge and put a staple in it. Bring a little over 1 quart of water to a boil and remove from heat.

Place in the tea bag to steep. Let steep for at least 20 minutes. Add this to your pitcher with the Simple Peach Syrup and Honey. Stir well. Add ice and fill the rest of the pitcher with cold water.

Stir it all very good and it is ready to serve.

 Note: If the tea is not going to be served right away, I will skip adding the ice and leave the tea bag in the pitcher for an hour or so to bring a little extra flavor to it.

Happy Gardening!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Amazing Amaranth And How To Use It

Each flower head of the Hopi Indian Red Dye Amaranth can provide up to sixty thousand seeds. This is a must have heirloom grain crop for every sustainable gardener to grow. 

Even the smallest backyard garden would surely want to fit this beauty into their landscape. I have even successfully grown it in large pots. With a little pruning it can be made into a gorgeous annual ornamental plant.The Amaranth is very drought tolerant and can be grown in most soil types.

The leaves of Amaranth, also called Indian Spinach are delightful eaten when small sprouts and resemble the flavor of sweet, but slightly spicy spinach. We add them to fresh salads and my favorite is to add them to the filling of homemade egg rolls. When the plant matures the leaves become tough, even when cooked.

The grand prize is the flower head full of seeds. Amaranth seeds can be ground into flour that has a spectacular light nutty flavor. They are a powerhouse of iron, fiber and antioxidants. Amaranth is far higher than most all other grains and seeds in protein, amino acids and lysine. Amaranth also contains a form of vitamin E that has a cholesterol lowering effect.

To make homemade Amaranth flour you will need to collect as many flower heads as possible. I lay them on a sheet that I spread on our drying racks. They need to be away from the soil and dry quickly in the sun and the sheet will catch any shattered seeds in the process. 

After they have dried I gently shake the flower heads to catch the rest of the seeds. I then run them through a simple hand crank flour sifter to winnow the chaff from the seed. We have just harvested our first 2 1/2 pounds of Amaranth and I’m anxious to mill it into fresh gluten free flour.

The seeds are tiny and the new grain mill will only grind them so far. Next on my list of purchases will be a hand crank flour mill. But for now I simply whipped up the seeds in a little magic bullet food processor. It made the seeds fine and soft enough to mix in with some other whole grain flours.

 I’m now well on my way to making some homemade pasta and breads. My first endeavor has been making spinach and amaranth fettuccine pasta. Join me in my kitchen to see how easy it can be.The sweet and nutty flavors of the spinach and amaranth are delicious together.

There comes an inner peace with sustainability. With a little time invested in growing and harvesting a few grain crops you can be well on your way to eating healthier natural foods.

Happy Gardening!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Herbs For Wildlife – Echinacea

Monday, February 10, 2014

Growing Organic Potatoes Made Easy

Red LaSoda Seed Potatoes

Valentines Day means more than just Cupids here in the garden. It really means Potato Planting Thyme in Texas!

Mr. Garden, also known as El Spud by some has the easiest system for growing clean and easy potatoes in raised beds.

This year it seems one of the several compost piles had lots of extra oak tree leaves. We always use what we seem to have the most in as far as organic material goes. Last year it seems it was pine straw that was used. 

Part of the raised beds get filled with leaves. Then as you can see, Mr. Garden tosses in some seed potatoes.

Then we get in there and space them in nice straight rows about a foot to 18" apart. Pretty easy so far!

Next he simply covers the potatoes with more leaves. 

Our four raised beds take about 6 lbs. of seed potato. Mr. Garden likes to buy them just the right size (smallish) so we have no need to cut them like you would for the really big seed potatoes.

All that will be left to do is to water them in and wait for them to grow. As they grow you will just simply add a bit more leaves on the top. 

Be sure to check out my potato harvest article from last year.Storing and freezing harvested potatoes.

Here's to a Fresh New Year and Bountiful Harvesting!

Happy Gardening!


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Seed Savers:The Quickie Seed Viability Test

I know that there is nothing more disappointing than sowing seeds and either nothing germinates or you have a few more empty spaces than you had planned. For me, I have just waisted time, soil, a marker and a pot.
Although there are several different ways to test your seeds for viability, the quickest way is a simple float test. The supplies needed is a cup and a little warm water. I use a clear plastic cup, but a glass container can be used.  We just need to be able to see what is going on. If using glass, it needs to be washed with soapy water and labeled.
The float test is not 100% full proof, but it sure comes close.

I start out by counting out the amount of seeds I want to sow, plus a little extra. I mark the cup with a permanent marker so I remember what variety is in the cup. 

I do my float tests before I go to bed at night. I add a little warm water to the cup and sprinkle my seeds in it. By morning I will know that the seeds that sunk to the bottom of the cup are viable and the seeds that stayed floating on the top are not good.
The float test works well for seeds the size of tomatoes or peppers. If they are very tiny like perhaps carrots or lettuce seeds, they will want to float no matter what you do. So stick with the larger sized seeds and not the micro mini sizes.
The trick for sowing with teeny tiny seeds is simply to plant extra seeds and then thin the pots out.
I usually do a float test for seeds I had saved for sowing directly into the garden. Especially for things like cucumbers and squash. Even melons and pumpkins get a float test for a better germination rate in the garden.
Some people use an alternative method of testing seed viability, like using a damp paper towel or coffee filter that is placed in a ziploc plastic bag and labeled. For me personally, I find it much more time consuming and I get such great results with the quickie float test.

So next, after taking all the floating seeds out and discarding them, I make sure that all of my pots are well watered in before planting the good seeds that sunk to the bottom of the cups.
A good rule of thumb when planting seeds is to generally go by the size of the seed. For something the size of a tomato seed you would not want to plant it in the soil deeper than say 1/4 of an inch.
I usually make a small indentation in each pot and place the seed in each one. Then I go back with a large pot of dirt I keep handy and sprinkle the dirt over the top of each seed. After that I press the top of each pot lightly to get a good connection of seed to soil. 

After I have them all planted and tagged, I water them in once more. Just be sure to keep the water gentle so as not to wash everything back out of the pot.
The soil should be a good loose well draining mix of compost, garden soil, peat and even a little perlite if you can find it organic and without chemical fertilizers.

To see how I make my own potting soil and my basic recipe use this link. For an excellent organic potting soil mix I highly recommend Life Force All Purpose Compost Mix. It's light and organic and perfect for starting seeds.I have it available on our Organic Garden Supply Page.

Once your seedlings have become large enough, you may need to transplant them into a larger pot until the weather permits them to go into the garden.
Happy Gardening!