Friday, November 29, 2013


I tried a variety of Chinese Cabbage that doesn't form a head.  All the large leaves come off the stalk.  It's green, doesn't grow extremely fast and doesn't bolt.  

It did really well in our drought conditions this year.  It was bothered by cabbage moths because I didn't use an insecticide.   A few holes in the leaves didn't hurt it enough that they weren't usable.  

I didn't particularly like the taste of it raw.  It was more bitter than I enjoy.  So, the plants pretty much grew and grew until after the first few frosts.

I'm too cheap to let it go totally to waste so one cold morning I ventured out with heavy knife in hand to harvest some big cabbage leaves.  

After washing and taking off the large middle vein, I dropped them into a pot of boiling water.  This cabbage is sturdy enough to not go to mush when boiled.  And it's then I found it tastes wonderful after it's been cooked.

It keeps it's shape but isn't tough.  It looses the bitter taste and become mildly peppery.  It doesn't have the familiar cabbage taste or smell.  Rather like cooking mustard, kale or other hardy greens.  It freezes well, retaining the color and flavors.  

Sometimes procrastination serves me well!   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Side of Vanilla

Vanilla vine growing on tree
on Reunion Island
Although none of us in the Midwest grow vanilla, I thought you might like some vanilla talk as we begin to spiral into the Christmas baking frenzy. 

Cooks, especially bakers, have high standards for the quality, origin and where to buy their vanilla.  And don’t even hint you use anything vaguely called “vanilla substitute” because it’s like saying you drink Kool-Aid and call it Champagne.

Typically most quality vanilla is the Mexican species “Vaina planifolia”.   Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid “tilxochitl”.  The Melipona bee exclusively pollinated the flowers.

Cortes supposedly brought vanilla and chocolate to Europe in 1520.  Edmond Albius, a twelve year old slave on Reunion Island, figured out how to hand pollinate and global cultivation was started.

Today there are three other cultivars besides the original Mexican species.  V. fragrans grown in Madagascar, Reunion,  V. Tahitensis grown in the South Pacific and V. pompon in the West Indies, Central and South America.  Madagascar vanilla is the most widely sold and it’s called Bourbon vanilla (not as in whiskey but as in Bourbon is the former name of the Reunion Island.)  All vanilla is from the orchid family.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because it’s so labor intensive.  Although it’s considered a spice, it’s actuality a fruit.  Prices are affected by weather, cartels similar to drug cartels, political instability, and demand.  The most influence has been the introduction of artificial vanilla that flavors 95% of packaged food products.

For gardeners:  Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing a support as high as the support goes (including tall trees.)  Left to grow very tall, it will produce few flowers.  Folding the plant down produces more flowers.  All plants outside Mexico must be hand pollinated.

The seed capsule is left on the plant to ripen and open at the end.  As it dries, it produces a diamond-dusted appearance that is the beginning of the vanilla smell.  For my chemist friends:  The compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is the principal reason for the familiar smell.

Bean ready for picking.
Even in greenhouse conditions, it is impossible to grow vanilla outside a region within 10-20 degrees of the equator.  I will not give you the “how to” because you won’t be successful and it’s a waste of paper.

Artificial vanilla is a byproduct of the pulp used in papermaking and is broken down by using sulfites and sulfates.  The natural flavoring referred to in some food and beverages tasting of vanilla and raspberry is taken from the castor sacs of mature beavers.  These products are the reason some products have a faintly off vanilla smell – they aren’t really vanilla. 

Vanilla is graded by quality.  Each country has it’s own system.  The beans you buy should be long, free from blemishes and splits, have a moisture content that allows it to easily be bent. 
·      Grade A/Grade I:  15 cm or longer, 30-35% moisture content.  Called “Gourmet” or “Prime”
·      Grade B/Grade II:  10-15 cm, 15-25% moisture content.  Called “Extract fruits”.  – Vanilla extract comes from this grade:
Beans for sale.
Grace C/Grade III:  10 cm.

Vanilla is sold by:
1.     Whole pod.
2.     Powder (pure or blended with other ingredients.)
3.     Extract (contains at least 35% alcohol.)
4.     Vanilla Sugar (prepackaged.)

Bits and pieces of info: 
·      Store tightly wrapped in plastic, in an airtight jar and in the refrigerator up to six months.
·      1-teaspoon vanilla extract equals 1 inch of vanilla bean.
·      A little vanilla dabbed on the skin works as a mosquito repellent.
·      If your bean is getting dried bury in sugar for a few weeks; Use in coffee/tea, garnish sugar cookies, and etc.
·      Add a bean to 1-cup vodka, set aside for 6 weeks, and use as extract.

Good vanilla products may be purchased in a variety of stores including health food stores, Mexican groceries, and those specializing in baking supplies.  Keeping a variety of vanilla products allows you to use the grade most appropriate to your recipe.  The higher the cook temperature, the less premium vanilla counts.  This is the reason the best vanilla is almost exclusively used in ice cream.

If you’re a purist and enjoy the true wonderfully delicious taste of good vanilla, be prepared to pay more.  At the same time, be prepared to savior it’s flavor and fragrance as nothing remotely similar can stand up to the quality.  As with so many foods, real is better.
A little Vanilla humor.

All photos from the web.  Honestly, I do not know Vanilla Ice and I didn't take this picture.  Seriously! But, did you know he does a lot of philanthropic work with children? 
The real Robert M. VanWinkle is better!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Because I'm a bit of a weather freak and because a really good snow storm is probably my favorite weather extraviganza and because I want to. . . 

Here's the Historical probability of a white Christmas in the U.S.  We're rather on the edge of the 25%-40% and 40%-50% which means I'm about half hopeful.  Or if I get up in the morning and it's windy, the sky has rolling dark clouds and its cold, I can push my optimism up to about 75%.  

It's why I annoy my neighbors with outside Christmas lights up early and burning into February.  I want to make sure I can enjoy twinkling lights every single time it snows.   I want picture postcards out my windows.  

I'm on my blue light kick these past few years having moved from the white twinkle lights phase which was after the multi colored big honkin' expensive to run lights.  Not to say I've matured past any of the phases because I can drive past someone else's highly decorated home and enjoy all their efforts just as well as my own current decor.

Contrary to speculation, I don't think over-the-top Christmas decorations take away one bit from the true meaning of Christmas.  I'm totally capable of keeping them in separate places in my brain - thank you very much.  Now, back to snow:

We "Christmas Snow" lovers can remember every white Christmas as if it was yesterday and manage to push the warm dull brown Christmases to the back of the memory chip.  

I remember one Christmas (yes you knew it was time for a I remember when story) when the kids were still at home but close to leaving.  They were at an age when anything but being home held appeal.  We always had my Indiana family drive out at Christmas every year and looked forward to their company.  That year, it snowed so much they couldn't get here and we couldn't get out.  This forced and unusual weather brought about an almost magical time where we were transported into a story book or a beautiful Christmas card.  

Since there was nothing pulling at any of us, we simply enjoyed the sweetness of Christmas.  That was the last year everyone lived under the same roof all the time and it's certainly a Christmas I cherish.  

Using the tractor to pull them up the hills
There were many other wonderful Christmases and many other snows.  And now we have grandchildren, there's a new layer of wonder added to our celebration.  We do always hope the big Christmas snow will be on the years there's been soybeans on the hills around our house.  It makes perfect sledding.  (In the years where there's corn, it would be like falling on a sword!)

Snow flurries predicted for tomorrow - it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas - I'm 50% sure!   

Saturday, November 16, 2013


My list of nice sounds:
2011 blizzard

Wind howling in a big snow.
A little kid’s laugh.
Thunder rumbling.
Skate blades on cold winter ice.
Rain as it moves across a corn field toward the house.
A kitten’s purr.
Slow steady rain.
Old men telling stories.
Sheets snapping in the breeze. 
The furnace coming on as soon as you shiver.
Train whistles.
Crackling bonfires.
Mack truck.
A song bringing a good memory.
Buzzing bees.
Turning book pages.
Porch swing creaking.
Screen door slamming.
Carousel music.
The hymn “It is Well With My Soul.”
Horses talking at night.
When you can hear a smile in someone’s voice.
Harley Hog.
Marching bands.
Big kids telling their family “I love you.”
Shovel slicing soil.
Bird conversations.
Delta Queen’s paddle wheel.
Imperfections on a vinyl record.
House full of family.
Cows calming their calves.
Indiana accent.
An owl.
A clock ticking.
Fog horns.
Message from a grandchild just to say “Hi.”

My list of not-so-nice sounds:

People in the path should immediately take cover.
Squish of cow pie.
A large limb breaking.
Dogs barking at the moon.
It’s cancer.
Tire blowout.
Police, ambulance and fire sirens at your house.
Snake rattles.
Screeching breaks from the car behind you.
Engine knock.
A lawn mower that won’t start.
Leaf blowers.
Something exploding in the microwave.
Mommy/Daddy, my tummy hurts.
The phone ringing at 3:00 am. 
Splattering grease.
Cicadas after the novilty wears off.
Hospital night sounds.
Rushing flood waters.
Fire and brimstone (Threw this one in to take it to another level of morose.)
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, 
or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”   
Abraham Lincoln knew sounds.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bringing Container Gardens Inside

If you've brought in some of your favorite or more expensive annuals in hopes of nursing them through the winter, here's a few tips on upping the odds of their survival.

First:  They must be free of insects.  Many insects are particularly good at hiding.  A good spray with the water hose helps knock most off the plant.  A good inspection is next; looking in the little joints where the leaf/flower stems meet the main stem.  Also, looking at the back of every leaf.

If the plant isn't too large, sitting it in a large kitchen sink or tub is a good place to do this inspection and then turning the plant sideways (with the drain stop in place to prevent clogging) turn the plant almost sideways, dip the leaves in soapy water (a little dish washing detergent in the water works) and then rinse.  This washes off pests and a summer's worth of dust.  I like to dry the larger leaves with an old soft cloth to eliminate water spots.

There are numerous products sold for making leaves shiny.  I've never thought it necessary.  Often they make things worse.  If you must have shiny leaves, use a little milk rubbed on with a soft cloth.

I encourage re potting plants brought into the living spaces of homes in the winter.  By now the potting soil from spring has had the nutrients depleted, some pests hide in the soil and it's a perfect opportunity to inspect the roots for health problems.

Gently turn out the plant with the soil attached onto a tarp or newspapers.  Tap the soil ball gently until it starts to loosen.  Use your fingers to dislodge the soil from around the roots.  Once this is accomplished, gently wash off the entire plant, dip the top portion in the soapy water and rinse.

Make sure the pot you're using has been cleaned with a mild bleach solution and rinsed.  I recommend only using pots with drainage holes because a sure fire way to kill an indoor plant is for it to sit in water.  This means the pot must have a saucer with adequate sides.  Saucer bottoms must be waterproof which eliminates unglazed pottery.  

Always have a waterproof protective surface to sit the pot/saucer on or it will certainly make a nasty mark.   If you have a lot of plants and aren't too particular about the beauty, a plastic floor protector  made to be used under washing machines is perfect (the one without drainage holes.) Simply set the pots in it or put in a layer of river rocks or glass pebbles.  If you use rocks/glass, you can keep some water in this to provide constant humidity.

Replant using good potting soil.  If the plant had been pot bound, either trim the roots or use a larger pot.  Plant to the exact depth they were before.

If you have inside cats, this is where you must cover the soil with either aluminum foil or plastic wrap with holes punched in it to release moisture.  Some folks insert clean ice-cream bar sticks so they can't dig/potty.

Some folks will trim their plants back at this time.  If you've trimmed the roots, I'd trim back the plant the same amount.  How much to trim depends on the variety of plant and if you are preserving or actually want it to be beautiful during the winter months.  Some pruning is always suggested to encourage new growth.

The plant will want - demand - the same conditions it had outside.  The amount of sun, water, and humidity needs to be similar to their needs during summer.  This means extra work on your part especially making sure the humidity is kept at a high level.  Using the rock/container is one way and another is misting.   Although they enjoy humidity seldom does a house plant want a lot of water.

Watering methods by great gardeners vary.   Some will give each a cup full every few days.  Others will drench until it runs out the bottom and then let it dry again.  If you use this method, water slowly as it will overflow all over the place before you realize you've added too much water.

If you don't have the right light conditions anywhere in the house, you may have to use artificial lighting.  This usually takes the display from beautiful to rather functional.

Some plants will survive in an unheated garage or basement as long as they don't freeze and they are neither over watered or allowed to become bone dry.  They'll probably loose most of their leaves, not bloom and tend to look pretty awful.  Come spring, cut them back and you may be surprised at their growth.

Not all plants come inside and thrive or even live.  Until you have experience, it will be taking a chance.  But - you have nothing to loose except a little effort.

To spruce up an area with these overwintered plants, place a new flowering plant among them.  A poinsettia or basket full of evergreen branches look pretty for several months.

And that folks is about it on bringing in potted plants.  Hope all your plants survive and thrive.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Colors of November 1, 2013

Top:  Euonymus alatus "Burning Bush" considered invasive in
some areas of Illinois but always a beautiful fall foliage bush.
Bottom:Acer saccharin "Marsh" is native to North America.
 This tough tree will grow to 80 feet of golden beauty. 
Top:  Cornus florida "Cherokee Chief" Dogwood.
Native to North America, this small tree has lovely red leaves each fall.
Bottom:  Acer x freemanii "Autumn Blaze" was hybridized in Batavia Illinois.
 It's a combo of a red maple and silver maple.
Top:  Elberta Peach, standard turns a lovely golden yellow in the fall.
Bottom:  Acer rubrun "Franksred" is a Japanese red maple native to North America.
It glows this time of the year.
Beat down with rain, the leaves remain lovely.
Even the little creeping charlie leaf wanted attention.
For every walnut left on a tree, there are thousands on the ground.
Walking is like skating on marbles this year.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Forcing Mother Nature

Not my photo but certainly 
beautiful Hyacinths 
I talked, nagged, and guided readers about planting spring flowering bulbs.  I’ve also talked about forcing bulbs in bulb vases for winter beauty.  Well guess what:  it’s time to start that process!

I noticed some stores already have their spring flowering bulbs on sale.  The retail need to bring in Christmas merchandise forces them to reduce their inventory of things currently in season.  As it so happens, that’s a good thing for those of us who want to plant bulbs. 

It’s the right time to get them in the ground and it’s the right time to get them ready to force.  Different bulbs need different forcing preparation and planting methods; all pretty easy and worth the little bit of effort.

I’ve collected some pretty lovely bulb forcing vases (from the Victorian age – the vases not me) and they support the bulb once it has a heavy flower sprouting on top.  These vases have a cup-like top holding the bulb up over/not touching the water.  You may use anything that will hold the bulb up out of the water but you may have to support the flowers against something if the vase doesn’t have the means.  I’ll have pictures on my blog if you want visualization.  The bulbs cannot touch the water because they will rot.  As the bulb realizes it’s time to bloom, it will send roots down into the water in search of moisture.   

A mix of bulbs sprouting.
Hyacinths are the most fragrant and need to be fooled into thinking they have over wintered (as if they were in the ground.)  Put the bulbs in the vase with water right below the bulb.  Set this in a cool (40 to 48 degrees) dark place until the bulb starts sending down roots.  This may be an unheated garage or basement but they can’t freeze.

Next, move to a cool room with filtered light.  Add water to keep the level just below the bulb.  If the water begins to look cloudy or brownish, it usually means the bulb will begin to rot and its best to simply throw it out and go on with the others. 

After about a week, move to a bright area, turning the container as needed to keep them growing upright.  Even though they like the bright lights, they still want to have the temperature cool so don’t put near a heating source.

Tulips may be planted in potting soil.  Use a pot deep enough to provide stability for the top-heavy flowers.  Add enough soil to within two inches of the rim of the pot.  Set the bulbs on the soil and close together.   Sprinkle more soil around the bulbs until just the top 1/3 is showing.  Add just enough water to make sure the soil is slightly moist.  Too much water and they rot.  Cover the pot with a plastic bag with a few holes poked in it to breath.  Place in your refrigerator or a cool dark room for 8 to 16 weeks.  Once they start to sprout, move to a sunny area, remove the bag and make sure the soil doesn’t dry.

This is that a pretty 
little surprise lily.
Side note:  Do not store bulbs in a refrigerator that also has fruit stored.  Your bulbs will not bloom or they’ll be distorted.

Paperwhites are perhaps the easiest to force.  Use a pretty bowl, similar to a serving dish, add glass pebbles or rocks to a minimum of one inch, and lay the bulbs close together on top of the first layer.  Put more pebbles around the bulbs up to the middle of the bulb.  Add water to just below the bulbs.  You may add one teaspoon of alcohol to prevent rot.  Place in a sunny but cool place and they should sprout in about three weeks. 

Other little hints: 
  • ·      If you want to have flowers all winter, stagger planting times.
  • ·      Not all bulbs will be successful so try hard not to become emotionally attached.
  • ·      Experiment with other bulbs such as crocus or lilies.  I had a beautiful surprise one year with an unlabeled lily type flower. 
  • ·      I researched on line (Dave’s Gardens for one) and the more I read, the more ideas I was able to find. 
  • ·      The individual bulb vases look like jewels on a good old-fashioned windowsill. 
  • ·      Once the flowers finish blooming and the foliage starts to die, cut it back, take it out of the vase and store it until you can plant outside.
  • ·      Once the whole thing is done, wash the containers with a bleach solution to insure bacteria won’t destine next year’s bulbs to rot. 
  • ·      Starting bulbs about now will mean flowers around the holidays.  A variety of colors resemble Christmas lights or focusing on single colors used for holiday decorating is an option.
Enjoy this journey into fooling nature – occasionally Mother Nature loves the outcome.