Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's Time to Harvest Garlic

During my childhood, garlic’s only presence in my life was in a small red-topped McCormick container in my mother’s spice cabinet. My mother rarely used garlic in her cooking and I, a bland-food-loving child, probably would rather have done without it entirely. I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, and most of our meals were of the “meat and three vegetables” variety. Occasionally, we had spaghetti with sauce, hence the need for the garlic powder. I remember my amazement as a young adult when my parents informed me that they didn’t eat pizza and spaghetti until the 1960s; these then exotic foods were slow to arrive in SC and without them, most people didn’t need garlic.
Garlic curing on the garden cart in my shed

When my future husband and I began cooking meals together, I noticed that he had a large McCormick jar of garlic powder in his cabinet. He sprinkled it on many foods instead of only using it in spaghetti sauce; I guess I must have initially used some in self-defense against the odor. As I began to enjoy garlic and discovered cookbooks, I noticed that most recipes called for cloves of garlic instead of garlic powder. I disliked the laborious task of mincing garlic by hand and bought jarred minced garlic, but I didn’t like the taste, and bought a garlic press but I didn’t like the mess. Eventually, I discovered good chef’s knives and chopping boards that enable me to mince multiple cloves of garlic quickly.

I had dinner with friends the other night, and the wife of the couple wondered how I achieved a certain flavor in my cooking. I explained that I use a lot of garlic in many dishes, and she said she is trying to get her husband, who was also raised in the Upstate and whose mother’s experience with garlic was also probably of the garlic powder variety, to tolerate more garlic in his food. I am of the “If I cook for you, either eat it or starve,” mentality, which pertains to both children and husbands, and so I advised her to put it in and not tell him about the extra garlic since he eats my garlic-laden cooking; he is not one to eat something he dislikes to be polite.

In October and November of last year, I planted nearly 100 cloves of garlic. I broke apart the bulbs, and planted the individual cloves. Some of the larger bulbs come from an unnamed variety I saved from the previous year. The largest bulb so far, at about two inches in diameter, is a variety called Chesnok Red. As the name indicates, the bulbs have red-purple stripes. I have some California late and California early garlic I will harvest as they mature. The California garlic is the same kind sold in the grocery store. The Chesnok is an heirloom variety.

If all goes well, the 75 or so cloves of garlic I will end up with will last us all winter, and I’ll have plenty to share. I grow hardneck varieties, so named because it has a hard stalk in the middle. I grow it because it stores better than the softneck variety and because it has larger cloves that are easier to peel than the numerous small cloves of softneck garlic.

I pull up my garlic during dry weather in June when most of the tops turn brown and fall over, and I put it in a shed outdoors to cure for a few weeks. Leaving the tops on until after the garlic cures helps seal the bulb and keep it from spoiling. Do not remove the tops until they have cured on the garlic for a few weeks and the odor of the fresh garlic has decreased significantly. I have tried curing it in the house but the odor nearly ran us out of the house. I moved it to the garage, which became unusable for car storage for awhile because of the smell. I didn’t realize then that garlic cures well outside, sheltered from the rain; animals won’t bother it because of the odor. Now, I cure it in my potting shed and, after curing outside, its odor is not noticeable in the house when I bring it in to store for the winter in a closet.

One of the largest cloves; I'll save it to replant next year
If you’d like to plant some garlic this year, it’s easy to grow and takes up minimal space in the garden. Purchase bulbs in garden centers or through companies such as Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply,, Johnny’s Selected Seeds,, or Burpee, in the early fall. Garlic is sold in bulbs, so separate the bulbs into individual cloves, and plant them as directed on the package, or 2-3 inches deep, 4-5 inches apart, in full sun and well-drained, fertile soil with the pointy end of the clove up. Mulch the garlic, and a few weeks later, you will see green spears poke through the mulch. Break off any flowers that appear so the plant will devote energy to clove production instead of seed production.

I select the largest, healthiest, firmest bulbs to save back for seed for next year. My goal is to become entirely self-sufficient in garlic, and I have nearly achieved this goal. I still purchase some garlic bulbs to plant for seed, but I have not bought garlic for cooking in a couple of years, and I would say we use at least an average of one bulb of garlic per week in cooking. Eventually, by selecting the best bulbs for seed from my harvest every year and replanting them, I hope to grow enough garlic for seed and for our use of a variety that’s perfectly suited for my garden.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Our First Egg!

This morning, when I went to move the chickens before 7:00 to their new area of pasture (it was just next to the previous pasture, so I slid the chicken tractor containing the chickens a few feet and moved the fence), I found this egg on the ground inside the tractor!  The girls and shared the small egg, but Scott, my husband, said he wasn't going to eat a green egg.  It's just the shell that's green; the rest of the egg is like an ordinary egg.  I guess I'll have to crack them and cook them before he sees them in the future!  Three of our chickens, Americanas, will lay blue-green eggs.  Ella has now allowed me to use one of her wooden eggs from her play kitchen to put in the nesting boxes to show the chickens where I want them to lay their eggs in the future.  What a treasure hunt every morning's visit to the chickens will be now!
Ella, still half asleep, holding the first egg. 

The egg is blue-green, and from an Americana; it's about half the size of a normal egg because the chickens are young.
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Cooking the egg.  It was delicious!  The shell was much harder than usual.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Suggestions for Plants That Like Our Heat

Summer is here, early, it seems, and any cool-weather plants I had not already replaced with heat-tolerant ones are unhappy. My peas are dead, and the broccoli that had not produced a crop is going to bolt to seed and skip forming a lovely head of broccoli. However, the weather is perfect for lima beans and okra, so get to work planting your garden.

In the flower garden, I’ve already replaced my pansies and cool-season plants with my favorite heat tolerant annuals. I water these a few times to get them comfortable in their new home, and then I ignore them the rest of the summer. They don’t even need deadheading. For sun, I use annual vinca, also called Madagascar periwinkle (see photo). It comes in shades of pink, white, and purple, and tolerates heat and drought. Deer don’t bother it. Do not confuse this with the evergreen vine called vinca; annual vinca is a bedding plant.

Annual Vinca

I also use Gomphrena globosa or gnome flower along the edges of my beds. It is available in pink, purple, and white, and blooms all summer with no care, and the cheerful yellow melapodium grows from last frost to first frost with no attention. I also use the sun tolerant annual begonia in borders and containers. For shade, impatiens bloom all summer with no attention from me.

When I planned my perennial garden, I consulted Jim Wilson’s book Bulletproof Flowers for the South and PJ Gartin’s book Some Like It Hot : Plants That Thrive in Hot and Humid Weather.  As the titles indicate, they list plants that don’t mind 97°F and 90% humidity. Some of the plants they endorse, and plants I use in my garden, include Achillea, or yarrow, a ferny-leaved 15-inch high plant with umbrella-shaped flowers. Coreopsis, which comes in shades of yellow and orange, smiles at the sun, and Butterfly bush blooms all summer and into the fall and attracts clouds of butterflies.

Sun-tolerant annual coleus provides interesting combinations of colors in its leaves, and coneflower, a native plant, provides long-lasting purple, pink, or white blooms. Daylilies are tough, as evidenced by their habit of continuing to grow and prosper in highway medians and in ditches where someone discarded them long ago. Most people that garden in the shade use hosta, and they combine nicely with impatiens and Japanese painted fern.

When I lived in Charleston, I loved the large Lantana bushes that grew around many homes. Unfortunately, lantana is not reliably cold hardy here, and the large bushes don’t usually develop, but the low-growing lantana will often survive the winter, loves the heat, and makes the bees and butterflies happy.

Scabiosa, also known as pincushion flower, comes in pink and purple and butterflies constantly cover it. It blooms in the very early spring and remains green throughout the winter. Deadheading it, or cutting off the dead blossoms, creates a flush of new blooms. In addition, I can’t forget my faithful salvias, veronicas, calaminthas, and catmints that continue blooming no matter how hot the weather.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What Are These Grubs Called?

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Last summer, I found these larvae, or grubs, or whatever they are called, living underneath and inside a black plastic bag I put broccoli plants in to kill the caterpillars that were feeding on them. Not having chickens at the time, I found them disgusting and imagined they would become another plague to attack my garden. I killed as many as I could, but I continued to find a few of them in the compost pile. I didn't worry too much about it, because I hadn't seen an influx of the creatures.

This summer, I have chickens, and I have found masses of the creatures happily wiggling in my compost. I test the chicken's appetites on any critter that I don't think is a beneficial insect, and they love these things.  I just don't know what they are called. They prefer hot locations, like under a black plastic bag in the sun, and in the middle of a compost pile that's becoming hot from the biological activity. I can't see any harm they do, and the chickens love them, so I like their presence.

I wonder if they are Black soldier fly larvae, but my husband says he thinks they are too big to be a fly. The largest ones are about 1/2 inch long. He thinks they are a beetle. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Many Roosting Chicken Does it Take... break the top out of an apple tree?  Did you guess three?  You are correct.  I just have to learn the hard way about chickens.  I have never been around birds, besides wild birds, before I began keeping chickens, and I have been having a difficult time understanding how they operate. 

After the fiasco of the wing feather trimming and being injured by the chicken scratching my eyelid,  I thought I had reached an understanding with the chickens:  I won't try to catch them in the daytime, and when I come for them in the evening just before sunset, they will behave. 

The dogs, cats, and cattle I have been around have either been tame or else guided by their stomachs.  Cows will follow a bucket, and can even be trained to come when called.  Dogs and cats of course will come to you, at least when they feel like it.  

On Saturday, I needed to move the chickens and their house below the garden so they could have fresh pasture.  Just before dusk, I released them and moved their house and fence below the garden from its previous home above the garden, which was out of their line of sight from the old location.  They saw me move it, but were not interested in following me.  I tried to shoo them down there, I tried to catch them, and I even enlisted the help of my husband.  We managed to catch four of them, but the other five were ran wildly around the orchard.  Not wanting to terrify them, we decided to leave them alone until dark.

The chickens in their yard, enclosed by portable electronet fencing

I went outside several times, but they remained elusive.  Meanwhile, they managed to fly up high enough into my apple trees to peck at and knock off a couple of apples, which they chased around and played with as if they were balls.  Finally, when it was becoming dark enough that I was afraid I'd lose them in the shrubbery and would have to use a flashlight to find them, I came outside and heard loud squawking.

Three chickens were attempting to roost in my two-year-old dwarf apple tree, and they succeeded in breaking the central leader branch out of the top of the tree.  The poor branch is no more than 1/2 inch in diameter, and is not meant to bear the weight of any creature.  It snapped, and this frightened the chickens.  I managed to catch a couple of them, and to stuff them into the cat carrier I use for chicken transportation.  I didn't realize another of the escaped chickens had taken refuge in the carrier until I stuffed her flock-mates in on top of her.  I plucked another one from the mantle of our outside fireplace, where she had decided to sleep, and finally, at almost my bedtime, all the chickens were in their new, clean yard and pen.

I have made a new bargain with the chickens.  I will not try to catch them except in the late evening, like our other bargain.  And, I will not move their house out of their line of sight from the original location without keeping them inside it during the moving process, even though that is difficult.  It bewilders the little chicken brain to have to work so hard to find her house.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chioggia Beets

I have a great crop of these heirloom Chioggia beets this summer.  According to Seed Savers Exchange, an heirloom seed company you may visit at to purchase seeds, Chioggia beets are a pre-1840 Italian heirloom, introduced to the U.S. before 1865. They are named for a fishing town near Venice.   I planted the seeds in my South Carolina garden on February 18, after most of the freezing weather had passed, and I began harvesting them on May 9.

Just harvested chioggia beets

Sliced Chioggia beets
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After I sliced them, my 5 year old, captivated by the candy cane-like stripes, declared that they were sweet enough to eat raw.  I did not tell her beets are not usually eaten raw, but I tasted the slice she offered me and agreed they are tasty.  We roast them with salt and olive oil in a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes, but I need to find some more beet recipes to use our bounty before they toughen in summer's heat. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Chicken Pest Control Report

One of my enduring pleasures this summer is picking fat green tomato hornworms from my tomatoes and feeding them to the chickens.  It sends them into a frenzy of excitement as they each try to get part of the caterpillar.  I used to heave the caterpillars over the garden fence with the assumption that they would not find their way back to the tomato patch, because they are too large for me to stomach stomping, but the chickens make quick work of them.

Unfortunately, they do not like Japanese Beetles, although they love their grubs, as I have mentioned in previous posts.  After throwing adults into their pen and watching them fly away as the chickens looked on, confused, I began knocking them into a bowl of water so the chickens could go "bobbing for beetles."  Because I am not sadistic, even given my aforementioned pleasure at feeding tomato hornworms to the chickens, after I found them still swimming desperately in the bowl for an hour, quite uneaten by the chickens,  I added some dish soap to the water.  It kills the bugs quickly, and I presume, does not harm the chickens.  In either case, after some initial fun in grabbing the beetles, the chickens have decided they don't like the taste of beetles, and so I have gone back to drowning the beetles in soapy water, without offering them to the chickens,  as I do every summer.  I guess the adults are too crunchy for them. 

They peck at snails and eat out their soft bodies, and they like slugs.  And as they scratch away in the ground I know they are devouring many little creatures.  They also dislike squash bugs, and adult potato beetles, I guess because the squash bugs emit a foul odor I can smell, and I presume, also taste bad. 

When the corn earworms arrive, I'll feed them to the chickens, and I remain vigilant whenever I dig to feed any grubs or larva I find to the chickens.  I have spoiled them and they now come running to the fence, clucking away, when they see me approach, saying "What do you have for us this time?"

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bird's Eye View of the Vegetable Garden

To the right are cool-season vegetables, and to the left are artichokes & tomatoes

Central path in garden, with a better view of artichokes
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Friday, June 3, 2011

Transform Junk into a Home for Your Plants

My father is an inveterate collector of junk. My parents’ detached garage housed two cars for perhaps a year before the junk took over: now there is a narrow path from one end to the other, and along the path are wheels, furniture, mailboxes, scrap metal, boards, old furniture, and fencing supplies. Of course, the debris is not junk to my father; he says someone might need it someday. To his credit, I did refinish some of the furniture to furnish college apartments and I still use some of it today. He also made money recently by selling some of the scrap metal leftover from repairing gates and building cattle trailers. I do not think he has ever purchased a mailbox.

I took an old wooden straight chair without a seat from the pile to use in my garden as a planter. Despite having numerous others which have waited decades for someone to refinish them, my father was reluctant to part with this one since he knew it was going outside where it would eventually rot. I convinced him that this one was likely to rot inside the shed before he ever refinished it, and he relented.

My chair’s seat was already missing, but if your chair still has a seat, you will need to remove the seat and replace it with chicken wire or a wire with holes no larger than an inch in diameter. Make sure you use a flexible wire you can twist over the sides of the seat support, and leave a basket shape big enough to hold potting soil and plants. Line the basket with moss or any material you want as long as water can permeate it but soil cannot.

Arrange the plants of your choice in the basket. Put the planter somewhere you will remember to water it and try to keep it out of full sun. I have to water mine nearly every day even though it is in the shade. In my planter, I have a mix of annuals and perennials: a chartreuse grass in the rear for height, wire vine and creeping Jenny in the front to trail over the lip of the basket, and impatiens and lobelia in the center for color.

I am interested in recycling and saving money, and planters made of items I obtain free of charge satisfy both needs. If you do not have a junk pile handy, look around at garage sales, or thrift stores for other items to use as planters; many items will do as long as they have holes for drainage. Possible planter ideas are work boots, toolboxes, unused wheelbarrows, and wooden packing crates.