Thursday, July 29, 2010

DIY recipes and tips

Over the last couple of months, I have collected some recipes and useful tips for things that I want to share.  Here they are.
  • Paint Remover - Believe it or not, rubbing alcohol, like you buy in the drug store, will remove old paint from stained wood work.  Our house out here on the farm was built back in the 70s.  It has been through several owners, at least one of whom did a really bad job of trying to paint.  Upstairs, especially, there are a lot of places where paint from the walls was slopped on the stained oak woodwork and not wiped off before it dried.  This is one of those things that has really irritated me, but I've not known what to do other than paint the woodwork.  Well, I was talking to a professional painter the other day who told me that rubbing alcohol would take the paint off.  I was skeptical of this until I tried it and it really does work!  For thick paint, it is best to wet it good with alcohol and let it set for a minute or two.  Then, with a little bit of rubbing, the paint will come right off.
  • Laundry Detergent - You can make your own laundry detergent using a bar of Ivory soap, 1/2 cup of Washing Soda and 1/2 cup of Borax.  Here's how you do it: Recipe for Homemade Laundry Detergent  I had some trouble finding the washing soda.  This recipe shows a box of Arm & Hammer Washing Soda that looks almost like a box of baking soda.  I figured I could find it at Walmart.  I looked all over the laundry detergent and cleaning section, but I could only find Arm & Hammer Baking Soda.  It was in a large box, like the one pictured in this recipe, and I almost bought it until I realized it said Baking and not Washing.  These are two very different things!  I finally found it at our local Consumers IGA store.
  • Homemade Yogurt - It is easy to make your own yogurt.  The ingredients are easy.  The tricky part is regulating the temperature and keeping it at a steady temperature while it "cures".  However, with a thermometer and a little bit of patience, you can do it!  If you search the internet, you can find many different recipes.  Here's the one I used:  Homemade Yogurt  There are two different recipes here.  I used the one in which you add a quarter cup of maple syrup.  This gave the yogurt a slightly sweet taste, but not real sweet.  Here is another good recipe that has some good tips for regulating and maintaining the temperature:  Another Yogurt Recipe

Friday, July 23, 2010

Basil Trinity

There are many different varieties of basil.  Most folks are only familiar with Genovese (Sweet) Basil.  This is the kind that you use to make Pesto.  In the past, I have tinkered with growing cinnamon basil, lemon basil, lettuce leaf basil and a few others.  But, I've never really found much use for any of these, except for the novelty of growing something different.

However, there are 2 varieties (other than Genovese) that I have settled upon which I grow every year.  These are Thai Basil and Purple Basil.  Purple basil, as the name implies, has purple leaves which look a lot like Genovese basil.  And, it has a flavor much like Genovese basil, with a slightly sweeter taste.  It is good to give salads more color and add an interesting taste.

Thai basil, however, is different altogether.  It has much smaller leaves and the plants resemble small shrubs.   But, the real different is the taste.  Thai basil tastes like licorice.  The first time I was introduced to thai basil was at a Vietnamese restaurant.  We ordered a wonderful beef noodle soup called Pho.  This was served with a platter heaped full of Thai basil, bean sprouts, hot peppers and cilantro.  You were supposed to mix these into your soup as your taste dictated.  It was wonderful.

Both purple basil and Thai basil make pretty garden plants as well as culinary herbs.  I don't sell a lot of either of these at the farmers market.  But, I grow them just the same.  Below is a picture of them both, side by side.  If you haven't guessed, that's the purple basil in the foreground.  The Thai basil is in back.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rain Barrels

We've not had to worry about watering very much so far this year.  We've had a lot of rain.  But, I'm sure the time is coming soon when we'll need to begin watering our garden plants.  In preparation for this we've been collecting rain water off the roof of our garage. 

We don't actually use the garage for parking cars because it is quite a ways from the house.  "Quite a ways" being 50 feet or so....too far to carry groceries or to walk if it is raining.  But, it has room for 5 cars and has a small room in one end that can be heated in the winter.  Tom calls that his "office".

But, I digress.  We catch rain water off the roof of this long building.  On the south end, which is closest to my herb beds, Tom has installed 2 rain barrels that have spigots to which hoses can be attached.  Here's what they look like.

The black rings on top of them are open in the middle and screw onto the barrels.  You need to cut circles of window screen somewhat larger than the rings and screw the rings on over them to keep out mosquitoes.

On the other end of the garage, we have a somewhat bigger rain "barrel".  Here's a picture of it:

The garage sits at the top of a hill and the hoop house and most of the gardens are downhill from it.  The volume of water in the tank and gravity usually produce enough pressure to water things fairly well.

It is really amazing how much water runs off the roof of this garage.  When we bought this tank about 4 years ago, we thought it would take several rains to fill it.  But, one good 1-inch rain almost filled it and it has not been completely empty since. 

Catching rain water is really easy and is an effective way to save water.  Try it!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bee Balm

I can't remember for sure when or where I got my "bee balm" plant, but it had been in a large pot for a couple of years when we moved over here to our farm.  I had hoped to get it in the ground last fall, but missed that deadline.  So, it had to wait until this spring.  

While it was in the pot, it never grew very tall or even flowered.  I am actually somewhat surprised that it survived my neglect.  But, being a perennial, its roots are the important part.  If the roots survive, then the plant will grow back.  And, I guess they did because here is a picture of it a couple of weeks ago.

It is one of my garden plants that makes me happy when I look at it.   The flowers are so odd.  Here is a close up of one.

It so happens that Bee Balm (also called Bergamot and Oswego Tea) is native to North America and was used by the Native Americans for medicinal purposes.  The Blackfeet Indians recognized this plant's strong antiseptic action, and used poultices of it for skin infections and minor wounds.

A tea made from the plant was also used to treat mouth and throat infections.  Bee Balm is the natural source of Thymol, an antiseptic which is the primary active ingredient in modern mouthwashes.

Medicinal uses aside, it makes a beautiful plant for the herb garden and attracts bees and hummingbirds.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kitchen Compost Bucket

For many years I have kept some sort of compost container under my kitchen sink for kitchen scraps ..... coffee grounds, potato and banana peelings, leftover vegetables, etc.  Most of those years, it was just an old plastic bucket of some sort.  I recall I used a container that dishwasher powder came in for a long time.  It got pretty gross after a while in spite of my attempts to keep it clean by washing it every week or so.  

Then, one day this spring, Tom took some recyclable materials down to the Stillwater Convenience Recycling Center at 807 S. Perkins Road.  He was just getting back in his truck to leave when one of the helpers at the center came running out to the truck to give him this green plastic bucket.  He had no idea what it was for, but thanked the person and brought it home.

After some consideration, we decided that it would make an excellent container for kitchen scraps.  In all likelihood, that is probably why they were giving them away.  I immediately disposed of my old bucket and started using this new one.  Here is a picture of it.

As you can see it is a little bigger than our toaster and has an attached lid that snaps into place for a good seal.  It also has a handle making it easy to carry.  I keep it under the sink and really like it. 

Tom only takes the recyclables down there about once a month.  I'm just happy that he hit the day they were giving away these compost buckets!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lettuce Tree

This spring I planted lettuce to fill in the holes in my herb bed.  If you recall, I didn't get most of my herbs planted until this spring and it takes a while for them to spread and grow enough to fill in the spaces between them.

One of the varieties that I planted was a new one (for me) called Tango.  It turned out to be a very good variety.  It was tender and frilly and made an excellent addition to my spring salad mix because it added an interesting texture.  It had fewer insect problems and was slower to bolt when hot weather came than the other lettuces that I grew.

Here's a picture of what it looked like earlier in the year.

The other day I came across this strange looking plant in the herb bed.

It looks like a small Christmas tree!  But, this is one of the Tango lettuce plants that is bolting (i.e. getting ready to flower and make seed).  I thought it was just too cute.  I'm hoping to save some of the seed and plant a lot more of this kind of lettuce next year.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lawn Sweeper - Mulch

Summer is in full swing and so are the weeds in the garden.  Most people that grow for the farmers market use herbicides to help keep the weeds down.   However, we have vowed to follow organic and eco-friendly methods to raise our produce.  So, herbicides are not an option for us.  

One simple thing that works very well for us is mulch.  This is where you put down a layer of leaves or grass clippings or other organic material around your plants.  Just a 2-3 inch layer does a great job of keeping the weeds at bay.  There will be a few stubborn weeds that poke up through the mulch, but they are generally easy to pull up by hand because the mulch has kept them from rooting very deeply in the soil.

Getting enough mulch is a challenge for us.  Last fall we drove around town and picked up bags of leaves that people set out for the trash collectors.   We had a small mountain of leaves that we retrieved.  Over the winter, Tom roto-tilled about half of these into a couple of new gardens to amend the soil.  Since we have a lot of clay, this helps to break it up and adds valuable organic matter.   Then, he used most of the rest of the leaves to mulch the potatoes this spring.  So, we've been looking for other sources of mulch. 

One day we were at Lowes and noticed these "lawn sweepers" they had for sale.  Hmmmm.  We wondered if one of these might be the solution to our mulch problem.  Only about a fourth of our 5 acres is used for gardening.  So, we have a LOT to mow and we have a riding mower to help with that.  These lawn sweepers hook on to the back of the riding lawn mower.  I was somewhat skeptical about how well this would really work.  But, we decided to buy one and give it a try.  Here is a picture of it:

Much to our amazement, this has beat our wildest expectations!  It picks up almost all of the grass clippings.  You can't see it very well from here, but there is a rope that attaches to the top of the canvas cart.  When the cart is full, you drive to where you want to dump the clippings and pull on the rope.  This causes it to tip forward and dump the load of clippings in a pile.  You can do this without getting off the mower and then drive on to pick up the next load.

I suppose this would work for leaves as well as grass clippings.  We have some large trees, but the wind usually blows most of the leaves away in the fall.  However, we may be able to salvage a few of them.  We'll see.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


A while back, I wrote about fighting the bermuda and Johnson grass that had invaded our hoop house.  See April 26th & 29th entries.  At that time I was just trying to get the worst of it around the edges and said that I would talk about a way to kill grass and weeds on a larger scale at a later time.

Well, the time has come.   We are using a technique called "solarization".  This is a method that uses the sun's energy to kill weeds. The first step to implement this method is to wet the ground thoroughly.  Next you lay a sheet of clear plastic down over the wet ground.  Note this has to be CLEAR plastic that will allow the sun's rays to go through and heat up the ground underneath.  You should seal the edges down as well as possible to keep the heat under the plastic.  Before long, you will notice beads of water collecting on the underneath side of the plastic.  Basically, what happens here is it gets very hot under the plastic and "steams" the grass and weeds.  This will even kill seeds in the top layer of the soil.  After a few weeks, you have a weed free patch of ground.

Here's a picture of how we are applying this method to the soil inside our hoop house:

This is an old sheet of greenhouse plastic that we took off our little backyard hoop house when we moved.  It was just about the right size to use for this project.