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Corn chowder

Corn: Knee High by the 4th of July!

When asked to think of summertime veggies, most may think of plump, ripe, red tomatoes, but I, on the other hand, think of corn. I remember driving with my grandma as a child and stopping along a long, windy backroad in western Maryland to nibble on corn straight off the stalk.

As I got older and learned to cook, fresh corn from my mom’s garden became my favorite ingredient to use. I love it in the kitchen because you can serve it fresh or cooked, and it’s great for grilling. Anyway you slice it, corn is a great crop to grow in your backyard!

Corn (Z. mays), also known as Maize, is a unique crop originating from Mesoamerica where it was so prized it had its own deity among the Aztecs — Centeotl. In North America, the Native Americans used corn as one of the Three Sisters — a planting method that incorporates tall, hungry Corn; climbing, nutrient-providing, Beans; and short, sprawling Squash — which is still used by organic gardeners and permaculturalists today! Unlike other vegetables from the garden, corn can be used to make a variety of things from biofuels to animal fodder. Due to its ability to be transformed, corn has become a highly controversial crop regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and industrial agriculture. Don’t worry, SmartGardener.com offers numerous varieties of Heirloom and Organic corn varieties that are GMO-free.

Hopefully your corn has already been planted! A sure way to know you’ll have a great crop this year: Knee high by the Fourth of July!

Corn Chowder
Serves 4

2 ears of corn — kernals removed (2 cups), cobs cut in half and reserved
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup carrots, chopped
2 tbsp butter
4 cup milk
1 bay leaf, dried
1 cup red potatoes, diced
1/4 cup red pepper, diced
1/2 tsp thyme, dried
salt and pepper to taste

Melt 2 tbsp of butter over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. Add onions and let cook about 5 minutes until translucent. Add carrots and celery and sauté for about 5 more minutes.

Stir milk into the mixture, and add cobs, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer–on the lowest possible temperature while still simmering. Allow to simmer for 30 minutes, checking on it regularly.

Discard cobs and bay and slightly raise the heat. Add potatoes, red peppers, 1/2 tsp of salt, and pepper to taste. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender.

Raise heat a little more and add corn and dried thyme and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve immediately.

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Anise Hyssop

We are excited to announce the newest addition to our database — the lovely and delicious herb, Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This native of the rugged northern plains (and much of Canada) may seem like a somewhat unlikely candidate for the refined habitat of the herb garden, but only until you taste it. The sweet and tender, anise / fennel flavored leaves are quite delicious and have become the favorite herb of my finicky 10 year old daughter. She loves it so much she eats the leaves almost as fast as they are produced, which makes her the only pest they have in my garden. This year I started a fresh batch from seed, with the intention of growing so much that I will get some too.

The sweet leaves are most often used for tea, but are also a nice addition to salads. The bright blue flowers can be added to salads as well (unlike many edible flowers, they add flavor as well as color), though individually they are quite small. This isn’t a very important medicinal herb, though the tea has been used for coughs, fevers and to “relieve a dispirited heart”.

Anise Hyssop is sometimes grown purely as an ornamental, for its bright, bold, blue flower spikes, though not to eat it too seems like a waste to me. The flowers are also very attractive to bees (it makes good honey) and other beneficial insects.

Anise Hyssop is a member of the mint family, but it spreads slowly and isn’t invasive like some of its cousins. It prefers a moist well-drained, fairly fertile soil, but is quite a tough plant and can survive less than ideal conditions. It can be grown from seed, division or cuttings. Some people report problems in getting the seed to germinate (it is sometimes said it needs light to germinate), but I have always found it pretty straightforward (maybe it just needs to be fairly fresh). The flowers produce seed easily and in the right conditions it can self-sow so readily that it might be considered a weed, if it wasn’t such a nice plant. If you don’t have children around to nibble it daily it can grow to 3 or 4 feet tall.

Anise Hyssop is now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by browsing under Herbs:

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How to mulch

I consider mulch to be an indispensable part of the summer vegetable garden.

  • reduces evaporation of water from the soil
  • prevents weeds (many weeds need bare soil)
  • supplies nutrients to the soil (when it breaks down)
  • protects the soil from damage by sun and air
  • reduces disease (by preventing soil splashing on leaves)

 

If a genetically engineered commercial product did as much, it would be patented, hailed as a miracle of science, promoted in all of the garden magazines and sold for a hefty price. Yet mulch does all of these things and more and costs next to nothing (or nothing).

The best all around material for mulching the annual vegetable garden is straw (avoid the similar looking hay at all costs, as it is full of weed seeds and can turn your soil into a weedy nightmare). Straw comes neatly compacted into a convenient (if rather heavy) bale, is clean and easy to use and looks quite attractive on the bed. If you are growing transplants, you spread a 2 to 3 inch layer around the newly planted plants (it will settle as you water). If you are direct sowing you have to wait until the seeds have germinated and the plants are a few inches high before you can apply it.

If you don’t have access to straw, you can use grass clippings or chopped tree leaves (run these over with a lawnmower to chop them, or put them in a metal bin with a string trimmer). Compost can be used as mulch too, if you have enough of it. You can also buy the hulls of cocoa bean, cottonseed and buckwheat for use as mulch, but they are expensive when compared to straw.

The only time I don’t recommend mulch if you have lots of slugs (it provides the perfect hiding places for them) or when you want the soil to warm up rapidly (it insulates it from the warming rays of the sun). Otherwise, it’s probably the most important thing you can do for your garden.

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It’s not too late

Summer is in full swing and for most gardeners, the harvest is already starting. I’ve seen summer squashes, tomatoes, carrots, and loads of lettuce pictures in posts by friends and fellow gardeners. I’ve even been gifted some of the produce by friends who have more than they can handle.

Sadly, there isn’t much of a harvest going on at my house. I have no real garden this year for a number of reasons. My beds are empty, having never been replanted after the spring harvest of kale, chard, and radishes. All the seedlings I started back in March and April are long since dead and composted.

But I’m not completely giving up on the whole summer. It’s warm and sunny here, and we’re blessed a long growing season. I spent some time this weekend planting some extra tomato starts a friend brought me a couple of weeks ago, and I even planted a small patch of early corn. I figure that with a little extra TLC, and the cooperation of the sun and temperature, they will recover quickly and start to catch up to where they ought to be, had I started them a month or so ago. I also have some time to start some second crop plants, like beans and carrots. I don’t expect to get as much of a harvest as I might have, but something is better than nothing!

I know that out here in California, the summer growing season is long, and often extends well into September, and that most of you live in areas where summer is done closer to the end of August. In that case, you are running out of time to start summer vegetables, but it’s not too late quite yet. If you are careful to select plants that won’t take more than about 60 to 70 days to harvest, you should be able to get a couple of veggies from your garden this year.

Vegetables you can still plant

  • Beans: Your best bet are fast-growing snap beans, like Blue Lake or Rolande.
  • Carrots: Depending on how early your first frost is, you can pretty much plant most varieties and still get a good harvest. If you’re concerned about a very early frost, you can choose a smaller carrot, which matures more quickly, such as Little Finger or the delightful Tonda di Parigi.
  • Lettuce: If it’s not too hot, you can easily start some lettuce seeds now and get several good harvests before your first frost. Even if it is hot, you can start some in a container in the shade. Garden Babies and Sweetie Baby Romaine are great for quick harvests.
  • Radishes: Radishes are always a great idea for a fast harvest! If it’s hot where you are, you can just grow them in the shade of your other plants. My favorites are Easter Egg and French Breakfast, but you really can’t go wrong.
  • Summer Squash: Believe it or not, you can still start squash for this summer. They grow quickly in the warm sunshine. Little squashes like Ronde de Nice and Summer Dark Green will grow quickly and give you some nice squashes for your Labor Day weekend BBQ!

And even if you think it is too late for your summer garden, this doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means it is time to start thinking about your first fall crops, like kale, broccoli, swiss chard, or Brussels sprouts.

Whatever you are planting Smartgardener.com can help you plan your garden layout, select and purchase your seeds, and help you remember when to plant them!

Carrot Slaw

Simple Carrot Slaw

Do your go-to recipes change for summer cooking?

In the summertime, meals become a bit less structured around here. There’s too many outdoor activities to enjoy that the idea of spending an hour in the kitchen cooking dinner just doesn’t make sense. With our busy schedules, we typically throw something on the grill and toss together some kind of side dish and a salad.

One of my favorite side is carrot slaw. It works well with all kinds of carrots, goes together quickly and stores well for leftovers (if there are any!). This is a recipe I’ve made countless times, and it never fails to please.

Simple Carrot Slaw
1 pound fresh carrots, shredded
1/4 cup mayo*
1 tsp horseradish*
1 tbsp honey

*You can alter how much mayo and horseradish you use, to suit your tastes.

Mix. Serve. Enjoy. It’s as easy as that.

What are some of your favorite summer recipes for carrots?

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Bay Laurel & Lemon Verbena

When Herbs launched, 15 herbs were available to add to your garden. Now we have over 30 varieties of herbs available to browse through–with more varieties added this week. We would like to introduce Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel to you and your Smart Gardens.

Bay Laurel

Native to the Mediterranean, the Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) may have more stories and traditions than any other culinary herb I know of! In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he tells the story of the young Daphne turning into the Bay Laurel to escape from Apollo. Daphne is the Greek name for Bay Laurel, and the tree is also a symbol for the Greek God, Apollo. Also in Greece, to have a wreath of Bay Laurel is the highest nobility. In fact, the wreath was given as the prize during the Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympics. It also translated over to the Romans, as a symbol for victory. Hence the words bacclaureate and post laureate, and the phrase “resting on one’s laurels.”

Show off your garden’s prosperity by adorning it with a Bay Laurel. Although this tree can get rather tall, yearly pruning and regular harvest can keep the plant small and shrub-like. In fact, Bay Laurel is commonly used as a topiary plant! If your winters are too cold to keep Bay Laurel outside, you can also grow it in a large pot, which you move indoors during the winter.

Bay Laurel is a great culinary herb, and I recommend adding it to any meat, stuffing, beans, soup, or stock you make. It has also been known for medicinal uses, such as alleviating arthritis, lowering high blood pressure. It also makes a great astringent, salve for open wounds, or oil to treat ear aches, bruises and sores.

Important Note: When cooking with whole Bay leaves, be sure to remove them before serving; they can be sharp enough to damage internal organs.

Lemon Verbena

As you may imagine, Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is well known for its addition of lemon flavor and scent into culinary dishes, herbal teas, adult beverages, and household cleaning products. Although it sounds similar to Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena is much different. It is native to South America‘s Chile and Peru, while Lemon Balm is native to Europe and found along the Mediterranean. Also, Lemon Verbena requires full sun in order to grow well, while Lemon Balm can survive in partial shade. A significant difference for gardeners, is that Lemon Verbena is a shrub, and can grow as large as 10 feet tall in your backyard! While the size may be a bit intimidating, the large harvest and sweet fragrance will not have you thinking twice about it. You can also limit its growth by growing your Lemon Verbena in a pot. This method is more ideal for those with cold winters, as the plant cannot survive below 0˚ F.

Lemon Pot de Crème
* this recipe will require 6 ramekins or souffle dishes

1 cup water
14 lemon verbena leaves, 2 – 2 1/2″ long (fresh or dried works)
10 lemon peels, 1/2″ wide and 2″ long
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
6 egg yolks
1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425˚ F.

In a saucepan bring water, lemon verbena and lemon peels and to a boil until it reduces by half, about 4 minutes. Whisk in sugar and boil until the mixture is now 1/3 cup. Strain out peels and leaves and return liquid to the heat. Whisk in the whipping cream.

In a separate bowl (that can take heat), whisk your eggs together. Gradually whisk in the hot mixture from saucepan. Stir in lemon juice.

Transfer mixture into 6 ramekins and cover with foil. Put ramekins into a baking sheet, at least 2″ tall on the sides. Add hot water to the baking sheet so that it rises to half the height of the ramekins. Bake until it sets, about 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool in the water. Transfer ramekins into refrigerator and allow to cool for 4 hours, or overnight. Serve chilled with a lemon verbena leaf for garnish.

Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel are now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by Browsing under Herbs:

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National Pollinator Week

 

This week, June 18 – 24, 2012 is National Pollinator Week
which was initiated and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership
.

Pollination and pollinators
As you probably learned in grade school, pollination is vital to the successful reproduction of most plants. Flowers and bees and pollen, and all that good stuff, right? Grains of pollen are transferred from the stamen to the pistil, and voilá a seed is produced!

But pollination is rarely that simple. Not all plants are pollinated by insects. Some, like corn, are pollinated by the wind, while others, like peas, are self-pollinated. There are even plants that are pollinated by water!

That said, most plants do require a pollinator to help with the fertilization process. Did you know there are over 200,000 species that act as pollinators? And they’re not all bees! There are bats, hummingbirds, and even small mammals which play a role in the fertilization of many plants.

Other insects often act as pollinators as well. Butterflies, wasps, ants, beetles, and moths all serve an important function in their local ecosystems, pollinating plants, as well as controlling pests, and adding to the biodiversity of the region.

While quite a bit of attention has been given to the plight of honey bees, justifiably, it is important to remember that they are not native to the Americas. Instead, many plants and animals had developed a complex relationship ensuring the continued survival of both. These pollinators are often keystone species — they are critical to their ecosystems.

As gardeners, we are well aware of the the importance of pollinators. What good would all our hard work tilling the soil, starting the seeds and staking the tomatoes be if the flowers simply fell off, unfertilized? Can you even imagine a world without tomatoes? Do you want to?

Creating a safe haven for pollinators
Eliminate Dangers: Pesticides are one of the most dangerous threats to pollinators. While designed to control the populations of species considered to be pests, the chemicals involved have a negative impact on all insects and some animals as well. Reducing or eliminating pesticides in your yard and garden is the best thing you can do to improve the health of all the animals, including pollinators who may visit your plants.

Provide Food: Plan your garden so there are always some plants blooming, providing pollen and nectar nearly year-round. In the garden, you can plant perennial flowers that bloom at different times, attracting pollinators to your other plants regularly. In particular, you may want to favor heirloom or old-fashioned varieties, since many modern plants have been bred solely for color and have lost the scents and, in some cases, even the pollen needed to attract pollinators.

Include Natives: Since many pollinators are native species, it might be a good idea to create a pollinator-friendly space in your yard, making sure to include native flowers and other plants, which will give them the food and habitat they require. If you’re unsure about what may be a good list of plants to include, you may want to reach out to yourlocal Master Gardener group or agricultural extension program to see what plants they recommend.

Give them a Home: In addition to providing native plants for habitat, you should consider installing “houses” for pollinators. If your garden is large enough, you may want to build a bat box, to attract bats to your yard. Besides providing pest control for mosquitoes, you would be aiding an endangered species. For smaller gardens, building an insect hotel is a wonderful idea. Wood blocks with small holes, open patches of mud, or a collection of plant stems would attract many native bees and other pollinators.

Water them Well: Pollinators, like most all living things, need water to survive. Many older gardens come already equipped with dripping faucet, but if yours doesn’t, you can create other watering opportunities by suspending a milk carton or plastic bottle with a pinhole in the bottom and allowing water to slowly drip out, selecting a patch of yard to overwater so that it pools and puddles on occasion, or setting out shallow saucers of water. If mosquitoes are a concern, you can fill the saucer with stones.

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Grow your own pumpkins

I know it’s not even officially Summer yet, but it’s already time to start thinking about Autumn, and selecting your pumpkins for Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whether you grow pumpkins for decoration or for cooking, now is the time to get those seeds in the dirt.

If you haven’t grown your own pumpkins before, don’t be intimidated. They’re easy to grow, don’t require much care, and are fast growers! The hardest part is choosing which type of pumpkin to plant.

History

Pumpkins (Cucurbitaceae Cucurbita) are native to the Americas, where they have been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Native Americans roasted pumpkins on the open fire. When Europeans arrived in the Americas they began carving pumpkins and using them as a “Jack ‘o’ Lanterns”.

The name pumpkin originates from the Greek word pepon, which means large melon. In fact, the Pumpkin is actually a large winter squash that grows on a vine. They come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. The internal flesh can be cooked and used for many recipes, and is especially delicious roasted and cooked in soups and pies. The seeds are edible and great roasted.

Types of Pumpkins

  • Giant: These are enormous pumpkins, weighing anywhere from 100 to 300 pounds! They were originally cultivated in the early 19th century, when experimental farmers crossed the hubbard squash with kabocha pumpkins. While some varieties are better used for jack-o-lanterns, others also make surprisingly good pie pumpkins, like the Big Max. It’s best to double check each variety before you plant it.
  • Medium to Large: These pumpkins typically have an orange shell with creases from the stem to the bottom, just like you imagine a jack-o-lantern to look. They tend to be stringy and are generally grown for carving, like the Howden variety.
  • Small: These little guys are generally the pumpkins you see used as decoration on holiday tables. Some can be quite sweet, and make a lovely decorative and edible “bowl” for soups or grain dishes, such as the stunning white mini, Seminole.
  • Pie: Sweeter, smaller, and with a fine-grained texture these pumpkins are perfect for cooking, like the Small Sugar.
  • Specialty: Specialty pumpkins have been bred by blending traits from pumpkins and other winter squashes, to give them different colored skins, such as blue, like the Jarrahdale, or white, like the Casper, or change the shape, like the Cinderella’s Carriage.

Tips for Growing Pumpkins

  • Space: Pumpkins need a fairly large space to roam. Select an area approximately 9 square feet. This will give it enough room for the vine to spread out along the surface of the ground. This can be a square, 3 foot by 3 foot, or a longer rectangle. For smaller varieties, you may even consider training them up a trellis, as long as you make sure to provide support for the developing pumpkins.
  • Location: Pumpkins, like other winter squash, like full sun. Because the vines like to trail, many gardeners plant them in hills along the outer areas of the garden, and let them run freely into open space.
  • Care: These are quite hungry plants and need a soil that is loose, fertile, moisture retentive and rich in organic matter. In fact, they grow the best near the compost area.
  • Disease: If you live in a humid area, your squash plants may be affected by Powdery Mildew. Keeping them protected is difficult, so acting quickly is a good way to ensure you get a good harvest. You can spray the leaves with a homemade mixture of 1 tsp baking soda and 1 quart water. If your plants are large enough, you can remove the infected leaves, but do not use these leaves in your compost — it will contaminate your compost.
  • Harvest: You’ll know your pumpkins are ready when their stems begin to shrivel or you can no longer pierce the skin with a thumbnail, but be sure to harvest before the first hard frost.
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Smart Squares

The Smart Gardener Team listens very carefully to your feedback. Many of the Smart Add Ons we have, and will continue to offer, are in direct response to your remarks and comments. While keeping the basic product as clear and simple as possible, Smart Add Ons let you personalize Smart Gardener with additional functionality and content that is specific to your garden, growing conditions and interests. One of our newest Smart Add Ons, Smart Squares, was created in response to your feedback and requests for Square Foot Gardening capabilities.

Smart Squares is based on a square foot model for French intensive gardening. The Add On converts all appropriate plants to the standard Square Foot Gardening layout and measurements. In some cases where plants are grown vertically, we’ve changed plant heights and necessary structures in the Smart Garden plan. The biggest advantage to using the square foot method is growing more food in smaller spaces, but there are other benefits like using less water and less weeding.  If you have limited space for a garden, or just want an abundance of fresh garden goodies without too much extra work, this one is for you!

Echinacea

Echinacea

This unique cone-shaped flower is native to the United States, and makes a great addition to your garden. The plant produces beautiful purple-pink or yellow flowers with bright, pineapple-like capitula in the center. While many know this plant by it’s flower, it’s medicinal properties are highly concentrated in the roots–which are best harvested after the plant finishes blossoming.

Native Americans used Echinacea after observing sick or wounded elk eating the plant. The native peoples did not use it to treat colds, although they did use it for the common cold’s side-effects including coughing, sore throat, and headaches. Now Echinacea is a well-known plant to use when ill. In fact, most tea blends that are marketed to help treat the common cold include Echinacea! Now you can grow your own Echinacea, and use the harvested root to make your own tea!

Cold Prevention Tea

1 cup Spearmint, dried
1/2 cup Lemongrass, dried
1/2 cup Echinacea root, dried

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Store loose tea in an airtight jar or tin.

When ready to make tea, scoop 1 tablespoon into a loose leaf tea cup or pot. Pour just boiled water over and allow to steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove strainer an enjoy. Add honey or lemon for extra flavor, and extra prevention for the cold!

Echinacea is now available to add to your garden; you can find it by Browsing under Herbs.