Monday, April 30, 2012

Making kids' meals healthy and fun through color themes.

When lunchtime is going to be really piece-meal and thrown together, I shoot for a color theme.  I'm a big believer in "If the plate looks interesting and appealing, the kids are more likely to eat it," and I've seen the reality of that firsthand with my own kids.  Perhaps it's my drawing and painting background or the fact that I'm super visual...but I always try to make my kid's plates look attractive, funny or at least interesting.  I find they are more likely to eat the food (even foods they don't prefer) when the plate set before them looks appealing. 

So the other day, when there were two meatballs left that had been sitting around, what did I do?  I went red-orange. 

Nothing amazing here, didn't take but a few minutes to put together--a leftover meatball with sauce, orange slices, carrots sticks, pecans, cherry tomatoes, and fishies (a bit of a treat around here)--but I brought the plates to the table and announced that today, since it was so bright and sunny outside, we were having a bright and sunny red-orangey lunch!  Right off the bat, my comment piqued their interest, and it started off the lunchtime conversation between the two of them. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sour Saturdays | Sourdough Pumpkin Muffins with Chive Butter

One morning as I was out watering my garden and admiring my lovely bunch of chives in peak bloom, I began to crave something with chives in it.  Pregnancy will do that to you!  Fortunately I had started a batch of sourdough pumpkin muffins the evening before, and with a burst of craving-driven inspiration, I decided to make chive butter to go along with the muffins.  You might be wondering about the pumpkin muffins--not exactly a spring item.  Well, we're rapidly running out of last year's supply of frozen fruit we picked at our local pick-your-own farm.  But I discovered I still have quite a bit of frozen pumpkin puree from our fall pumpkins.  And somehow, the fresh chives turned the savory pumpkin muffins into a delicious afternoon spring snack.  Warm muffins fresh out of the oven with a big thick schmear of chive butter--hit the spot and took care of that craving in a hurry!

Chive flowers are edible, and they fall apart nicely into tiny petals, making them an easy addition to butter.  They taste like the chives, just a bit more mild. 

These muffins are only faintly spiced and barely sweetened.  The savory chive butter brings ample flavor to the muffins. If you're making the muffins sans chive butter, you will probably want to double the spices and sweetener. 

Sourdough Pumpkin Muffins with Chive Butter
Makes 2 dozen muffins.

3 cups white whole wheat flour
1 cup milk
1 cup water
1-2 T sourdough starter

4 eggs
1.5 cups pumpkin puree
1/2 cup sucanat
1/4 cup olive oil (or melted butter/coconut oil)
1/2 tsp unrefined salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger powder

Mix the first 4 ingredients together in a large glass bowl.  Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and leave on your counter for 8-12 hours.  It should be nice and bubbly. 

Preheat the oven to 400.  To the bubbly sourdough mixture, add the rest of the ingredients.  Mix well with a hand-held mixer.  Scoop into muffin tins (I like to use these papers) about 3/4 of the way full.  Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until puffed and a toothpick inserted in a muffin comes out clean.  Let cool briefly.  Serve muffins warm, sliced in half with a pat of chive butter on top. 

Chive Butter:

4 T butter
1 bunch of chives and flowers

Mince the chives and flowers into a small bowl.  Add the butter and mash with a fork until mixed.  If it's too chivey for you, add a bit more butter.  And on the other hand, if it's too bland, mince in a few more chives.  Because of my chive craving, I went for a high chive-to-butter ratio.  It hit the spot!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stuffed Portobellos

Every now and then I get these large, lovely portobello mushrooms in my produce delivery, as I did recently.  We had some sliced and sauteed with garlic, peppers and chicken with a little cream, served over pasta.  One of our favorite combinations!  But with more portobellos to eat, I thought stuffing them would be delicious.

What did I have on hand?  A few cherry tomatoes, a yellow pepper, some fresh basil.  I would have loved to top the portobellos with mozzarella, but I didn't have any.  However, I did have both cream cheese and parmesan.  I also had some breadcrumbs in the freezer.

So I preheated the oven to 375 and began by dicing the pepper and cherry tomatoes (about 10).  I added the basil, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and one minced garlic clove. 

Then I added in a scant 1/4 cup of cream cheese and 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs, and I mixed and mashed that all together with a fork until it was well blended.  Then I tasted it--yum! 

I cleaned the portobellos and removed the stems.  I rubbed olive oil on the bottom of a pyrex dish to prevent sticking, and then laid the portobellos inside.  I filled each cap generously with the filling, using it all up, and topped them off with parmesan cheese.  I drizzled just a little olive oil over the mushrooms, especially around the edges, to keep them moist. 

They baked for 13 minutes, which was when the filling began to brown on the edges and the mushroom caps were slightly shriveled.  They were delicious!  If you like portobellos, give stuffing them a try.  This is a fun recipe, because it's one of those that can be tweaked a zillion ways.  As long as you have a fresh herb, tomatoes and/or peppers, garlic and some sort of cheese to add some melted creaminess, you will likely have a delicious success! 


Stuffed Portobello Caps

4 portobello mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed (use the stems when you're making beef stock--gives your beef stock a rich, smoky flavor!)
~10 cherry tomatoes, diced
1/2 of a sweet pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
fresh basil, chopped or chiffonaded
1/4 cup cream cheese (or any soft, spreadable cheese like chevre)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
parmesan cheese (or any cheese of choice)
olive oil
salt + pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly oil a small glass baking dish and place the portobello caps inside.  Mix the next 6 ingredients together in a small mixing bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Stuff the portobello caps with the filling.  Top with parmesan cheese.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Bake for about 13 minutes until the caps are slightly shriveled.  Serve hot.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Beautiful Birthday Cakes

My mother's request every year for her birthday cake is simply, "Put violets on it."  She loves violets, and they are always abundant in their backyard during her birthday.  For her birthday this year, I made a lemon poppy seed cake with strawberry-cream filling, whipped cream "frosting"...and decorated with violets on top! 

If you didn't know, violets are edible, as are the little pansies I also included in the center.  Nasturtiums and roses are also edible flowers, along with so many others.  Utilizing edible flowers is a simple and beautiful way to decorate cakes, cupcakes and salads.  Just make sure your flowers are home-grown without any pesticides on them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fermented Foods

If you are looking to add probiotic cultured (fermented) foods or drinks to your diet, take a look at this recipe for a very simple cultured orange "soda" drink that my sister Jessica posted on her blog yesterday.  There are many recipes for cultured foods and drinks that are actually quite simple to prepare, just like this drink made from freshly squeezed orange juice. 

There is also a new book about cultured foods that just came out this month called "The Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods," by Wardeh Harmon. Wardeh is a whiz at cooking and baking, including baking with sourdough and fermenting.  She is a part of the Nourished Living Network, a group of food bloggers I recently joined.  I haven't yet read her book, but I am hoping to purchase a copy soon.  From what I know of Wardeh and her extensive blog (I've read from it for years), I am confident her book will take the mystery out of fermenting food and leave you with some simple, delicious recipes your family will enjoy. 

Last chance!

Just one final reminder if you haven't already...

You can still enter the Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway  to win $360 in cash!   But the giveaway ends tonight at midnight.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Whole Wheat Cheese Pretzels (non-sourdough version)

Don't forget to enter the Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway.  There is still time to enter to win the $360 in cash!
As promised on Saturday, I'm sharing with you non-sourdough-using readers the recipe for these delicious, kid-friendly, whole grain, soft cheese pretzels! 

Your kids will love helping you out.  This baking project is especially good for preschoolers.  Rolling dough and making shapes are wonderful ways to develop small motor skills.  Have them form the letters to their name instead of pretzels and you're reinforcing handwriting skills through letter formation.  (Can you tell I was a teacher prior to having my own children?)

If you missed my mention of it Saturday and are wondering about the black stuff on the pretzels, it's coarse black lava salt. Unrefined salts are healthier for you than iodized salt, and they are great for foods like soft pretzels, as the salt itself is less salty and harsh than kosher salt due to the minerals still present in the salt.

Whole Wheat Soft Cheese Pretzels

675 g white whole wheat flour
200g warm water
255g water
2 T sucanat
2.5 tsp yeast
2 tsp unrefined salt
4 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg
coarse unrefined salt

Mix 200g of warm water with the yeast and sucanat and stir.  Set aside to proof.  It should bubble and begin to rise.  Measure the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a kitchen mixer).  Whisk briefly.  Add the rising yeast mixture to the bowl and mix.  Add the remaining 255g water, a little at a time, just until a cohesive dough is formed.  (It's okay if you don't use all the water, and if far too dry to form a dough, add extra water as needed.) 

Let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes. Air knead (info here) or knead (regular style) on a flat surface for 5 minutes. The dough should be tacky but it should not stick to your hands or the surface. If the dough is sticking, sprinkle some additional flour on top and knead into the dough. (You can also knead the dough in a dough mixer, if you prefer.) Let rest for 20-30 minutes.

Air knead/knead for 5 more minutes and do a windowpane test (info here). The dough doesn't have to fully pass the windowpane test because you will knead it a bit more as you add the cheese. Flatten out the dough, sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese on top, fold over and begin to knead until the cheese is incorporated (1-2 minutes). Repeat until all the cheese is incorporated into the dough.

Set the dough aside in the bowl to rise in a warm place.  Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise until puffed and doubled in size (about 1 hr).  Punch the dough down. 
Let the dough rest for a few minutes while you grease 2 large cookie sheets. Divide the dough into 16 equal parts for large pretzels (good for big kids) or 32 equal parts for small pretzels (a better serving size for tots and preschoolers). Roll out each piece of dough into a snake 2 feet long (or 18 in. if you're making small pretzels). Then wrap the ends around and twist, pretzel-style. Lay on the cookie sheet. When all the pretzels are formed, cover them loosely with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

Remove the cloth/wrap, preheat the oven to 425 and whisk 1 egg in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush each pretzel gently (so as not to deflate) with the egg. Sprinkle the coarse salt over top. Once the oven is preheated, bake the pretzels for 10-12 minutes (or 6-8 minutes for the small size) until they are just beginning to turn golden brown on the edges. Remove from the oven and let cool. Gently remove the pretzels using a metal pie server or cookie/pancake spatula to loosen the edges.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sour Saturday | Soft Sourdough Cheese Pretzels

My mom used to make these soft cheese pretzels with us growing up.  I have no idea where she got the original recipe from, but I have since adapted it to use whole grains and to be sourdough-based. However, these pretzels are so tasty and perfect for kids, I'm also going to share the whole grain non-sourdough version for the rest of you who don't bake with sourdough.  Look for that recipe on Monday! 

These do require a bit of work, but the best part about that is that the kids can help!  It's like playing with playdough, but better because you get to eat your art in the end.  So mix up the dough, and then have your kids help roll out the snakes and form the pretzels (or the letters of their name/whatever shape strikes their fancy).  Sure it takes a bit longer, but you've spent time with your kids, you've engaged them in a crafty project (very good for developing those small motor skills in pre-schoolers), you've taught them some basic baking skills, you all have had fun together, and you also have a delicious healthy snack available for everyone.  The only problem with these soft pretzels is that they disappear way too fast! 

Oh, and if you're wondering about the black stuff on the pretzels, it's coarse black lava salt. The pleasant part about using an unrefined salt is that it is far less salty and harsh than iodized/kosher salts due to the minerals still present.  (Pssst!  It's also healthier for you.)

Soft Sourdough Cheese Pretzels

1-2 T sourdough starter
190g white whole wheat flour
190g water

265g water
485g white whole wheat flour
2 tsp unrefined salt
2 T sucanat

4 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 egg
coarse unrefined salt

Mix the first 3 ingredients together in a large glass bowl until combined. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let sit overnight (or roughly 8 hours or so).  In the morning it should be bubbly.

To this refreshed starter add the next 4 ingredients.  Mix with a wooden spoon just until combined. Let rest for 15-20 minutes.  Air knead (info here) or knead (regular style) on a flat surface for 5 minutes.  The dough should be tacky but it should not stick to your hands or the surface.  If the dough is sticking, sprinkle some additional flour on top and knead into the dough.  (You can also knead the dough in a dough mixer, if you prefer.)  Let rest for 20-30 minutes. 

Air knead/knead for 5 more minutes and do a windowpane test (info here).  The dough doesn't have to fully pass the windowpane test because you will knead it a bit more as you add the cheese.  Flatten out the dough, sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese on top, fold over and begin to knead until the cheese is incorporated (1-2 minutes).  Repeat until all the cheese is incorporated into the dough. 

Let the dough rest for a few minutes while you grease 2 large cookie sheets.  Divide the dough into 16 equal parts for large pretzels (good for big kids) or 32 equal parts for small pretzels (a better serving size for tots and preschoolers).  Roll out each piece of dough into a snake 2 feet long (or 18 in. if you're making small pretzels).  Then wrap the ends around and twist, pretzel-style.  Lay on the cookie sheet. When all the pretzels are formed, cover them loosely with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 6 hours, or until doubled in size. 

Remove the cloth/wrap, preheat the oven to 425 and whisk 1 egg in a small bowl.  Using a pastry brush, brush each pretzel gently (so as not to deflate) with the egg.  Sprinkle the coarse salt over top.  Once the oven is preheated, bake the pretzels for 10-12 minutes (or 6-8 minutes for the small size) until they are just beginning to turn golden brown on the edges.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Gently remove the pretzels using a metal pie server or cookie/pancake spatula to loosen the edges.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cupcakes and Cucumbers

Don't forget to enter the Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway.  Plenty of easy ways to still enter to win the cash!

cupcakes & cucumbersToday I am featured over at Brooke's blog Cupcakes and Cucumbers.  As you read my post, you'll get to learn a bit more about me, and I'm also sharing my top five favorite recipes from my blog.  Click here to hop on over and read my post, and be sure to explore Brooke's blog afterward--it's a creative mix of food, nutrition, photography natural living and a bit more!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Re-use, re-grow.

My sister passed along this blogpost about re-growing food from the scraps you typically throw the base of the celery, ends of the green onions, chunks of sweet potato, and so on.  What an interesting idea--forgoing some seeds and re-purposing those throw-away bits and pieces.  It also will give you a jumpstart on your garden in some cases, growing far quicker than if you grew from seed. 

At the end of the post, a book is referenced that contains even more info...I bet that would be a fun read!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oh boy, another giveway!!!

Spring is such a beautiful season!

The first buds of the year are blooming, grass is getting greener by the day, and temperatures are on the rise. To celebrate, several other bloggers and myself have teamed up to offer you this Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway, and one reader will win a BIG prize: $360 in PayPal cash! We pray that this Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway is truly a blessing to one of you. We're thankful for the time you spend with us here, the thoughtful comments you share, and the encouragement you've given. You have been a blessing to us! Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and send in as many entries as you like using the Rafflecopter widget below. There are many blogs you can "like" or follow to gain entries, and you can take your time doing it. Have fun! *Please note that comments left on this post are NOT counted as entries; you must enter through the Rafflecopter form below.*  
a Rafflecopter giveaway
This giveaway will run from today, April 18th until 12:01 a.m. on April 25th. It's open to everyone and one winner will receive $360 in PayPal cash. The winner’s name will be displayed on this post after the giveaway ends.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stay tuned for another giveaway!

The Spring Blessing Blowout Giveaway
I don't know if you've noticed this lovely button on my sidebar that's been sitting there for a couple weeks now hinting at an upcoming giveaway. But keep an eye out for my upcoming post on Wednesday explaining this exciting giveaway of $360 cash--woohoo! Who wouldn't enjoy a little extra spending money? 

Right off the bat, I thought of a few useful things you could buy if you won to help you create more nourishing food for yourself and/or your family:  a flour mill, an Excalibur dehydrator, materials to build a raised garden bed, containers for bulk storage.  Or perhaps you have something else in mind--a special gift for a sister or friend, a donation to a friend adopting or heading off for mission work, or a special overnight away with your husband.  Whatever it is on your mind and heart these days, look for my post on Wednesday to find out how to enter!

A new use for vanilla extract.

Remember that easy vanilla extract I made?  Well I found another great use for it.  I rub it on my youngest daughter's gums when she is teething.  I know--probably not what you were expecting me to say!  But it works really well.  Rubbing alcohol on baby's teething gums is an old remedy used to help alleviate the pain, and the vanilla extract is, after all, just vodka. 

One day when my little one's gums were obviously giving her discomfort, I rubbed some of the extract across her gums.  She responded like it felt good, and it brought her enough relief to enable her to go to sleep and enjoy a good nap.  I've since used it whenever she is teething, and it really seems to alleviate the worst of the pain for her.  She even seems to like the vanilla flavor, licking and smacking her little lips afterward.  :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sour Saturdays | Sourdough Biscuits

Experimenting with using the sourdough to leaven the biscuits took several tries, but the end result was well worth the initial effort.  The flavor of these biscuits is absolutely delicious!  While they are not as fluffy as a traditional baking powder-raised white flour biscuit is, they are still tender and flaky with a tangy sourdough flavor that beats out the buttermilk tang any day.  These biscuits were GONE in no time at all! 

Sourdough-Raised Biscuits

1/4 cup sourdough starter
200g white whole wheat flour*
150g water

1/2 cup (or 1 stick) unsalted butter
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 T sucanat
3/4 cup milk
2 cups of the refreshed starter (from above)

In a small glass bowl, combine the sourdough starter, 200g flour and 150g water.  Stir to combine, cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and leave 4-8 hours, or until bubbly.  This may make a bit more starter than you need, and that's okay. (Store any extra starter in your fridge and add it to your pancakes or to your next loaf of bread, or pass it on to a friend who wants to try their hand at sourdough baking.)

Take two cups of the refreshed starter and set aside for the biscuits.  In a large glass bowl, add the flour, salt and sucant.  Whisk together to mix.  Cut the butter into the flour mixture until the mixture is crumbly and the butter pieces are no larger than peas.  Add the starter and the milk.  Stir until a dough forms.  Place dough on a flat surface and knead very briefly to create a cohesive dough. 

Shape or cut biscuits.  (I divided the dough into 16 equal pieces, rolled into balls and slightly flattened them.  You can also roll the dough out to about 3/4 inch thickness and cut round biscuits with a biscuit cutter.) Place biscuits on a cookie sheet about 1-2 inches apart.  Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and leave for 8-12 hours.**  The biscuits should increase in size at least 1.5x times their orginal size, though they may not fully double in size. 

When ready to bake the biscuits, preheat oven to 450.  Bake the biscuits for 8-10 minutes or until golden and just beginning to brown on the edges. 

* If you're still adjusting to baking with whole grains, you can always substitute some white flour in place of some of the whole wheat.  I'd recommend trying 1 cup of white whole wheat and 1 cup of white flour in the second part of the recipe.

** I like to make these biscuits for breakfast--sometimes served with peanut butter and honey/jam and a glass of milk, other times served alongside eggs.  When making them for breakfast, I begin the starter mid-day, mix up the dough in the evening sometime after dinner and before bed, and leave the biscuits to rise overnight.  In the morning all I have to do is preheat the oven and bake the biscuits, and I've got a hot, fresh breakfast ready very quickly for my hungry family.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Be proactive!

The final way--and perhaps the most effective way--I keep pests away is by what I grow.  I choose to grow nasturtiums* and marigolds for several reasons: they are edible, they add color and beauty, they attract pollinators...and they are natural deterrents for certain bugs and animals. I also grow an assortment of our favorite herbs throughout my garden to use fresh in my cooking AND because herbs help keep away various pests. (For specifics, read this brief article and take note of the mighty marigold!) I like to tuck nasturtiums, marigolds and herbs here and there throughout my garden, especially along the edges. Not only is it nice to have some color here and there, but it helps keep pests out of my garden soil and away from my garden plants. 

In this photo above (early summer last year), you can see marigolds, sage and chives on the left corner.  Behind those you can see some light purple flowering tops on the peppermint.  On the far right are colorful lilliputian zinnias--they are beautiful and, boy, do they attractor pollinators (and sweet hummingbirds) like crazy!  Right in front of the zinnias is spearmint--it just came up on it's own last year.  It's hard to see but just to the left of the zinnias in the garden bed is some dill, and tucked near the tomatoes (at the back) is a lot of basil. There were also a few more herbs and nasturiums tucked in there--you just can't see them in this photo.

*A note about nasturtiums.  Nasturtiums actually attract aphids, so don't be surprised if you get an aphid infestation on your nasturtiums.  I do every year.  However, the point here is to keep the aphids off your producing plants. (Growing nasturtiums, I've never had aphids on any other plant.)  Nasturtiums are very hardy and will typically survive the infestation just fine.  When I see the aphids, I spray the natural spray I mentioned yesterday on the nasturtiums and within a few days the aphids are gone.  Keep an eye out, as they may return.  I often deal with 2-3 infestations over the course of the garden.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Naturally keeping pests from your garden | Bugs

Last, but not least at all, are those little pests--bugs--that love to munch and eat our plants. I do not spray pesticides on my plants. A big part of growing my own produce is so that I know it's clean and free of chemicals. With a small garden it is super easy to spot predator bugs early. Each day when I'm out watering, I am also inspecting my plants for any signs of being eaten or any sign of bugs, caterpillars or eggs.  Though make sure you also become generally acquainted with your basic "good" bugs like ladybugs, spiders and praying mantises. They can actually be some of your best allies when it comes to keeping pests away! And of course you don't want to spray anything on your plants that will harm our wonderful bee friends, especially with the terrible problems they are encountering.  (I don't like bees AT ALL, but I do love to see them in my garden!)

The best pest solution I have found is very simple, cheap and completely natural: castile soap and water. (I've mentioned castile soap before and where to buy it cheapest.) Soap is toxic when sprayed directly on bugs, but the residue on plants will not harm them or other friendly bugs you want to keep around.  However, soap can burn your plants so it must be used carefully.

I keep a spray bottle (about 28oz) full of water with just 1 tsp of castile soap added to it. At the first sign of bug damage, or bugs themselves, I spray the plants (and bugs) liberally with the soap-water solution, careful to cover each leaf and any bugs I see present. Generally after 2-3 days of spraying, the bugs will be gone...though I normally spray again just a few days later to get the stragglers, and I keep a close eye on those plants. If I notice any more bugs, I spray immediately. Bugs reproduce rapidly, so the quicker you catch an infestation, the easier it is to deal with.

If the soap-water solution is not killing the bugs, try adding another 1/2 tsp of soap. On the other hand, if the leaves of your plants develop brown spots, tiny holes or curling brown edges, the soap is too strong and is burning your plants.  Cut the soap amount in half and try again.  Different plants are more delicate (or stronger) than others.  I have found the 1 tsp to 24-28oz of water to generally be gentle enough for almost any plant, but sometimes I've had to add more soap to kill a bug. 

One note: if you're dealing with decent-sized caterpillars, the best solution is to pick them off your plants, throw them on the ground and smush them. They can do serious damage fast. Obviously this is simply done in a small garden--a larger garden is a different story. But, remember, I'm only talking small gardens right now because that's all I know.

Do you have any natural ways you deal with bugs?  Please share!  I'm always looking to learn new tips for better gardening.   

Monday, April 9, 2012

Naturally keeping pests from your garden | Deer + Rabbits

Despite living in a subdivision with lots of houses close together and teeny yards, I was shocked when one morning 3 gardens ago I woke up to find that my thriving tomato plant covered with green tomatoes had disappeared. Ugh!  So disappointing!  All that was left was a stalk and a few lower branches. It was deer. I should have known better--our suburban county is OVERRUN with deer. And sure enough, periodically I do see deer hoof prints in our garden.

My solution? An all natural deer and rodent repellent spray. There are a few different varieties I've bought over the last 3 years, and they have all worked, but I think I've landed on Bobbex. The stuff is pricey, so I recommend buying the concentrate and diluting it yourself. It's still pricey (but not nearly as much) and it really will last you a long time (lasts me at least 2 seasons).  These sprays are commonly made from putrescent eggs, cayenne pepper, garlic oil and wintergreen oil (and a few other ingredients). It does smell stinky as you spray it, but the smell dissipates within just a few minutes. However, animals can smell it for up to 6 weeks, and if the smell alone doesn't stop them and they sample something from your garden, they will hate the flavor and stop eating.

I have found this spray to be very effective.  Now WE eat our tomatoes, not the deer!  I will  see deer hoof prints right in my garden, yet nothing will have been eaten.

We also have rabbits that live in the hedges all around us. They will nibble on clover in our grass right beside my garden, but they have never eaten anything from my garden. I do have to be consistent with spraying though. I find I need to spray every 3-4 weeks, or anytime we have a week with a lot of rain. You also have to spray everything--all of your plants and produce. In my case, with a small garden, this only takes 5-10 minutes tops, and so it is worth it. If you have a large garden, you may want to consider building a chicken wire fence (or something similar) around your garden to keep out deer and rabbits. I have friends in this area who have done just that, and it has worked quite effectively for them.

As far as the cost--yes, it is a cost you will need to factor in to your gardening.  But, I know in my case, the estimated $10-15 investment for the season is well worth it.  Deer devour plants.  That first year I gardened I lost far more than $15 worth of tomatoes overnight...two nights in a row!  So I find the spray to definitely be a wise investment for me.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Easter Weekend!

I'm signing off for the weekend.  We will be celebrating Easter this weekend, beginning with our Good Friday service tonight and ending with a special Easter meal with extended family on Sunday.  Enjoy this special weekend!

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,
that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

Thus it is written,
that the Christ should suffer
and on the third day rise from the dead

and that repentance
and forgiveness of sins
should be proclaimed in his name to all nations

1Pet. 2:24; Luke 24:46-47

Naturally keeping pests from your garden | Squirrels

We've got tons of squirrels in our area, and they were always digging up my pots and garden when they were freshly planted with seeds or small seedlings. When I complained to my mom 2 years ago, she told me, "Put sticks in your pots." Brilliant!  Now when I plant my garden and pots, I send the kids around the yard to gather sticks. I break them into about 6-12 inch sticks and poke them around my seeds or plants. Totally works! 

My garden plot always looks a little funny with rows of sticks poking up--I've even had neighbors ask what I'm doing. But it keeps my seeds and seedlings safe from being dug up by squirrels. And before long the plants spread out and overtake the garden and the sticks are not needed anymore. 

Another thing I do to try to keep animals in general out of our garden, is sprinkling hair. Whenever one of us gets a haircut (we cut our kids' hair, and I have a friend who comes and cuts my husband's and my hair at our house), I sweep it up and let the kids sprinkle it in the garden. Sounds weird, but it seems to help. Apparently hair has a human smell to it, so animals tend to keep their distance. I can't say this alone has made a huge difference, but that's because I've only used it in conjunction with my other solutions. I've never tried it solely on it's own (as I have with my other solutions).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Naturally keeping pests from your garden | Cats

You might not think of cats as a garden predator--I didn't until last year when the neighbor's cat slunk over and dug up my newly planted spinach and lettuce seeds and pooped and peed in their place. Nasty!!!  I cleaned it out and replanted, only to have the cat repeat. Ugh!! Unfortunately, cats love that nice, soft freshly turned soil.

The solution? Orange peels. I'd recommend using organic orange peels since these will end up decomposing in your garden. But next time you eat an orange, tear the peels up into about 1-inch pieces and sprinkle them around the edge of your garden (or where the cat has been). Cats apparently hate oranges.  I can vouch that it works. That cat (though I saw him slinking through our yard regularly) never touched my garden again. Yay!!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Naturally keeping pests from your garden!

I am excited about all my growing seedlings!  So far what I've got growing:  four types of tomatoes, 3 types of peppers, cabbage, 12 types of lettuces, fennel, escarole, ground cherries, zucchini, thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, lavender, borage, oregano, cilantro, marigolds, johnny jump-ups, 2 types of nasturtiums, zinnias and scarlet flax. 

Right now most of my little plants are safely tucked inside my coldframe or in my house by a sunny window.  But soon enough they will all be outside facing the elements...including insects and animals.  This week and next, I will be sharing with you the safe, natural ways I keep the pests I've encountered away from my growing garden. 

This little series may seem off topic--isn't this blog about eating whole foods while sticking to a budget? But, no, this is right on topic!  Gardening is one significant way I obtain fresh, nutritious whole foods while keeping to my budget.  Gardening allows us to consume--spring through fall (and sometimes through the winter under a cold frame)--vitamin-rich, pesticide-free, freshly picked fruits and vegetables, all at a minimal cost.  While gardening is not free, it's pretty darn close!  You will likely have to spend money at the outset to create nourishing soil and/or to create a raised garden bed or trellis.  But beyond that, the annual expense for upkeep is minimal. The benefit, huge! 

Last year we harvested nearly $500 worth of produce from our tiny garden in our tiny suburban yard--and that's just the price based on similar conventional produce at our local grocery store, which is not pesticide-free, organic, or anywhere near as fresh.  (You can't get fresher than picked just before dinner!)  And many of the beautiful varieties and one crop in particular that I grew can not even be found at our local grocery store, or even at our gourmet grocery store for that matter.  If I remember right, I estimated that we paid out about $75 (manure, seeds, water...) for that $500 worth of that's about $400 worth of free, healthy food.  If I was comparing apples to apples, so to speak, and all that produce was compared to organic/pesticide-free/heirloom produce, the cost would have been more around the $700-800 mark.  Have I convinced  you to try your hand at gardening yet?  I hope so!

Anyway, stay tuned this week and next for how to deal with some common garden pests.  Happy spring gardening, friends!