Saturday, December 09, 2017

This Year's Christmas Containers

My outdoor Christmas Containers were rather varied this year.

....From making some for retail:


Even though I have been making these for ages, I never tire of it (until you make the 50th + :) !  The best part about making these, the choices for accents and greenery are always lush and full.

Yet they come with a price. The materials do cost quite a bit. Unless you have a wholesale savings option.

.....To making some personally for us:


I made a conscious decision to keep reusing accent materials and finding sustainable resources for greenery.  All the accents were reused from several years worth of collecting.


I clipped Sumac Pods from the roadside, Dogwood stems, Yew bush and Juniper clippings from our property.  The rest are all accents purchased years ago. The birch stems are from a tree we lost two years ago to Cytospora canker :(  At least we can benefit from using its branches well after the tree has been taken down.


I even saved thin stems from the birch to add to even this smaller door greeter and tiny cast iron urn below...


For the tiny cast iron urn, I made a square frame from (4 bound together) small birch stems and placed it on the rim of the urn and just layered some cones and boxwood clippings in between.

For these next two (below), I actually bought some artificial boughs.  My front area by the garage is in full sun for the entire afternoon and facing north. Evergreen boughs just brown out by January; no matter how much snow I heap on top to melt.  I decided to try artificial boughs and plan to reuse them time and again to keep the planter green.


Here's one I made for work below. I gathered Teasel dried seed pods.  You can find Teasel seed heads everywhere in Southern Ontario.  You could easily spray paint them different colours for a bit more impact. Just be careful handling them. They are prickly!


If you have a hard time coming up with inexpensive live green choices, my neighbour had a fantastic idea.  She went to the local grocery store and saw fresh cut Fraser Fir Christmas trees for $20.  Great deal.  She brought one tree home and then cut all the boughs from the entire tree and managed to make 4 containers worth.  Saving her a bundle!  Isn't that a great idea?!!!

What ever you do.... be creative and enjoy the process! If you're new to making them, here's a post I made a while back on the step-by-step DIY.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Drying Herbs For Pantry

The cold came fast in the GTA. Real fast. Minus -10º C overnight. Once weather reports warned of this onslaught, I took quick action and cut back our herbs growing in containers.


We love cooking with herbs and although, I do enjoy fresh, dried home grown herbs suffice over the long winter haul.

Here are just some of the methods I use to dry.

1.  Wash thoroughly. Even though we grew these organically, living in an urban environment (construction close by) I washed the cut herbs thoroughly.


2.  Laid the cuttings down on a clean towel.


 3. Covering them with another.


4. Gently wringing them, by rolling towels together.


(Be forewarned - this can get quite messy when you take cuttings from Rosemary and Thyme. They drop a lot of foliage if you squeeze too hard)


5. Tie them with an elastic on top and clip on to a drying rack. This is optional, but I find the best results are to dry the herbs over a gentle heat source - like a radiator.  Here, I just used a spare oven rack and leaned it on the window, on top of the radiator. I've seen folks use Sock Rack dryers, which work great!

(Note: Thyme and Rosemary can drop leaves when drying, so use a baker pan/sheet beneath to catch any fallen foliage.)

I left a few tougher herbs that I know weather the cold better, but not leaving them in their current position.

We tucked them in a vestibule, under cover, away from heavy frosts.



Results:  Within 5 days, the herbs are nearly completely dry.

You must thoroughly dry them to store. Slight dampness can cause mould developing in what ever container you use for storage.


Be creative.  When I ran out of room, I started to dry Peppermint and Lemon Balm by the window curtain rods!

Next step is gingerly removing them from the wrack and placing the cuttings in large paper bags and squishing them free from the stems till they become small bits.

Great for the spice cabinet in the pantry.

Some herbs can easily be chopped up fresh and kept frozen in freezer bags. I do this for parsley, dill and chervil.

Easy and simple.


Monday, November 06, 2017

Calendula - Collecting Seeds and a Simple Trick To Have Them Come Back Year After Year

Growing Calendula since a child, I never tire of this amazing plant. Whether you grow it for medicinal purposes, or just for it's blooms....


...it's one of the self seeding annual plants that every garden should have.

I grow both the single and...

....double flowering C. officinalis.

When I was a kid, we rarely collected seeds. Mom just kept a few seed heads in case.  We just let the plant do the self seeding process for us because we had the space and full sun.

However, I don't have the perfect conditions to grow the plant to allow it do its natural process. Unfortunately we don't have full sun on our current property. We have about 4-5 hours of direct sun and when establishing them, I need to foster them along. Our neighbour asked how we get ours to return every year, as they have struggled to have theirs return.

I think I know why...

This year it's been a fairly warm autumn in Southern Ontario. I've been deadheading spent flowers up until the 2nd week of September.  Repeat blooms are a result of thoroughly removing wilted flowers.

Now that the weather is finally getting colder, I have been leaving several seed heads to go brown. Leaving them on the stem too long, however (especially now with our current damp/rainy conditions) can be a bit tricky to make sure you have viable seed.

Usually it's best to allow the seed heads to dry to a dark brown, so that the seeds fully ripen and mature.  But with the wet cooler weather and no chance of heavy frost in the next few days, some seeds can begin to germinate.


Take a close look.


Noticing some seeds are beginning to have the primary root (radicle) poking out. When this happens, I scatter the seeds on the ground where I wish them to establish for next year and place some compost on top. You could dry them and bring them indoors, but several times I've noticed the seeds don't germinate when seeding in the spring.

When the radicle pokes through, sometimes the frost and the long winter can cause those seeds to die off.

One trick I was taught by my mom, was to harvest the seeds when they were still green, just slightly turning brown at the tips. To test, just take the seed head and touch them gingerly to see if the seeds begin to fall off.  Like in the one below...


They pop off rather easily when the timing is just right.


I clear out any chaff or dead bits and dry the seeds in a paper bag, by the window so they thoroughly dry out and save for spring seeding.

After 3 weeks or so, they dry brown and you can tell how viable they are, by squeezing some between your fingers to feel the seed.


In the spring, when you see the seedlings like the one above, you know you can hang on to the seeds, in case. Or, you can begin the seedling process indoors in March, so that the seedlings are advanced before the ones that are outdoors. This will lengthen the bloom time in the garden.

I've collected enough for our needs and will give some to the neighbours if need be.



Monday, October 23, 2017

Nippon Daisy - Spotted Cucumber Beetle

Usually our Nippon Daisy has glorious large flowers which last forever.  The warm autumn we are experiencing in Southern Ontario has made our Nippon Daisies a huge attraction to bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Photo taken in 2013

But when you see leaf petals and flower centres begin to look like this...

This flower is about a week old. They usually last about 3 weeks, with vibrant white petals. So sad....


...well - something's up.



I tried looking for signs early in the morning, thinking slugs or some beetle, but didn't see any.  Then Saturday, I waited until the sun was shining bright.  Ah, ha!  Do you see the beetle?


Grrr....  It's the spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi Barber). 


Feeding off both the petals and the central disk of florets.  

Every single flower had at least one.

The worst part:  when they feel you are about to approach them, they quickly hide to the underside of the flower.  To make sure I collected each one, I grabbed the base of the flower and tapped/shook the flower over my hand.   In hindsight, I would recommend that you use a bucket or something to catch them, as several flew out of my hand before I could squish them.


Here are several pictures to see their 12 spots up close. Six black dots flanked on either side.



Like the Scarlett Lily Beetle, they too can "act" dead and roll over.  But, don't be tempted to dispose of them looking like this, within seconds they flip back. Best to squish.


Since it's October, I believe this is the 2nd or 3rd generation of beetle.  Neighbours two doors down from us grow zucchinis. I suspect these beetles have come over to our garden and are partaking in one of their last meals before they hibernate in leafy debris.

Do the best you can to remove as many of these adults.  They overwinter in organic leafy bits at the base of plants.  Here is a great article on the beetle's life cycle.

If they eat Nippon Daisies, I wouldn't be surprised if they eat Chrysanthemums or other late flowering plants. Keep a look out.

After picking 4 different times during weekend, I managed to find over 21 beetles. Hopefully ridding them from our plants. Let's hope we significantly reduced numbers for next year.

One note:  Take a look at the base of this Nippon Daisy:


This past spring I was tempted to divide and re-situate.  I regret not doing that. It needs dividing desperately.  Probably one of the reasons the beetles were on the attack.  Weakened plants attract pests. Lesson learned.  

In the next week or so, a good autumn clean up and another check of the flowers when it's sunny out, should reduce the numbers of beetles. Let's hope we have a really good cold spell this winter - to help kill overwintering insect pests like these.

Next year, we'll divide the plant and re-establish with some amendment.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Foraging: Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

I have fond memories of my Aunt (Tante) teaching me how to make hunter sauce with mushrooms (Jager Pilzsoße). She used fresh Chanterelles, but what I gleaned at the time, was the beauty behind foraging for mushrooms and the gift of learning how to cook them!

One in particular that I find quite often this time of year are:  Shaggy Mane (Corprinus comatus) also known as a Shaggy Ink Cap. One of my colleagues pointed them out to me many years ago and I am very thankful for that introduction.


This is the best way to forage. Garnering knowledge and true ID of the mushrooms before picking them.  There have been so many cases of folks eating wild mushrooms and becoming very ill. So I too will warn you - make sure your first go at identifying mushrooms is done with someone who can positively inspect them. You need vast knowledge of IDing the specimens before you ever consume them. 

I'm blessed to have a job where sometimes I just have to look down to find mushrooms. They truly "pop-up" out of no-where.  Foraging for them can come quite easily.

The best time to find Shaggy Mane's are in autumn. Especially after a wet bought and during a cool weather change.


These were in a grassy area, surrounded by trees. I usually find them in groupings. The odd one, here and there, but generally - when you see one, you see a bunch.

They stand straight up and range in sizes.

One of their identifiable features is white to brown flakey skin - eyelash flakes that curl upwards.


Another way to determine that they are the edible kind, is finding older mushrooms that bear the blackening "ink"staining at the base of the cap.  Shaggy Mane's almost look as though they are melting into tar.

Below, I have taken a sequence of photos showing the progression of inking that takes place.
 Here the cap is nearly separated from the stipe (stem). Think of an umbrella about to open.
Then the base starts to blacken at the very bottom of the cap.

The appearance of melting takes place, as the mushroom starts to deteriorate.

Oozing black ink begins to almost drip.

Shaggy Mane's have no shelf life. It's best to eat them as soon as you pick them. They don't store well.  When foraging, gently place them in a container lined with paper towel and cook within a few hours.


Plenty - just enough for a dinner is all I need.


Because these are from an urban environment, I wash them. Yes, I know, I too have read many cook books that state washing mushrooms is a no no. But these were not in the wild. I'm not going to take any risks when collecting from an urban landscape.  The key is: as soon as they are clean I dry them with paper towel. Mushrooms must be completely dry to fry well.


I prefer simple sautéing with butter and garlic.  One trick: my Tante taught me that if you want fried mushrooms with a crispy edge....NEVER let them touch each other.  Give them space in the frying pan.

Delicious!

Well worth the effort.

Please Note:  as you forage, DON'T take all the mushrooms. Leave several behind to start the life cycle over. Leaving some behind will allow spores to spread and inoculate the ground for next year. Mushrooms are the earth's life-giving force of decay and renewal. Depleting them for the frying pan doesn't help one bit. You deplete the natural ecosystem process and prevent ever getting a second chance to forage again.

For better ID info on Shaggy Mane mushrooms:  Mushroom Collecting Website

Hope you find some!

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