Monday, November 17, 2014

How To Store and Use Apples

It's a sad day when the local farmer's market shuts down for the season. During the last few weeks of November, I try to scoop up as much fresh, seasonal produce as possible. Apples are abundant in fall, and many vendors sell them by the bushel, for a steep discount. I was about to purchase a bagful from our favorite market vendor, Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, when they clued me into the fact that if I spent $5 more I could fill up an entire crate. Before bringing home enough apples to last all winter, I had to be sure I'd be able to store and use them. Luckily, apples are versatile ingredients, with a very long shelf life.

How To Store Apples

Apples continue to ripen in storage, becoming sweeter with time. Some varieties store for up to 10 months. It's unlikely we'll have them around for that long, but storing them properly is critical. The ideal temperature for apple storage is between 30-34 degrees, with 90% humidity. Refrigerators tend to have low humidity. Placing the apples in plastic bags in the bottom area of the fridge helps ensure the proper climate. Apples can also be stored in crates in a garage or basement that averages around 40 degrees, as long as there is plenty of air circulation. Apples kept at room temperature ripen 10 times faster than if they're kept around the freezing mark. Higher temperature may shorten the shelf-life of the apples, but hopefully they'll go to good use long before their freshness date expires. 

Picking the Right Apples

Everyone has their favorite apple variety, and there are seemingly more choices on the market every year. There are over 7,500 known apple cultivars produced each year. 'Red Delicious' is the most commonly grown cultivar in the U.S., but I personally prefer the more crisp, sweet-tart 'Pink Lady,' 'Fuji,' 'Goldrush,' and 'Gala'. Virginia is a top apple producing state, so luckily we have plenty to choose from. A combination of different types of apples makes the most flavorful applesauce and pie. I've tried different combinations throughout apple season, beginning with 'Honeycrisp', 'Gala', and 'Gingergold' in August, and moving on to 'Winesap', 'Fuji', and 'Cameo' in late fall. 'Jonagold' is supposedly the best for baking, but I always mix it up with a few others for well-rounded flavor. For an excellent list of apple cultivars, flavors, and seasonal availability, check out the Apple Works website.

How To Make Applesauce

Applesauce is one of the easiest, tastiest desserts around. Fresh, warm, cinnamon-flavored applesauce tastes nothing like the mass produced school lunch staple some of us grew up with. Once again, I rely on my trusty crockpot to make this divine, seasonal treat. Not only does it scent the whole house with fall holiday cheer, it serves as a healthy side dish, dipping sauce, or dessert. Here's the recipe:


10-12 apples
2 T. fresh lemon juice
3 T. apple cider or water
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. cardamon
1/4 t. ground cloves


  1. Peel and slice the apples. An apple slicing tool is handy for this.  (You may chose not to peel the apples, since most of the fiber and anti-oxidants are found in the apple skin. I happen to prefer applesauce without the peel.) 
  2. Layer the sliced apples in the crockpot, sprinkling each layer with the spices. 
  3. Add the fresh lemon juice and apple cider or water.
  4. Cook on high for 4 hours, or low for 7 hours. 
  5. While still in the crockpot, stir the apples until smooth. 
  6. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze the applesauce in plastic freezer containers for up to 3 months. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

How to Harvest, Store, and Cook With Dried Beans

In square-foot gardens, space is a premium. There's simply no space to waste on dwindling crops, or those that just aren't experiencing their best season. Knowing what to plant when is key, as is knowing what grows well in soil recently vacated by another plant.

Beans are a near perfect crop. They:

  • restore nitrogen to soil;
  • are relatively pest free;
  • grow all summer and into fall in USDA climate zone 7 gardens; 
  • make good teepees to play under; and 
  • can be used as living shade covers for things like radish, spinach, and lettuce.

Snap beans are delicious eaten fresh,
but will dry
if left on the vine.
In spring, I like to interplant peas, beats, radishes, and lettuce. The peas climb an A-frame trellis, protecting the shorter crops beneath. Once the spring peas are finished, I replace them with crowder peas, black-eyed peas, and 'Cherokee Trail of Tears', and 'Kentucky Wonder' green beans. A 1-inch layer of organic mulch ensures adequate moisture and restores any missing nutrients to the soil.

The pole beans are ready to harvest by mid-summer, and if left to their own devices, will dry on the vine. My post on the Mother Earth News real food blog goes into more detail on how and when to harvest both fresh and dried beans. Saving even a few handfuls will go a long way you're craving a hearty winter soup or stew.

Once the beans are ripped from the soil in late September or early October, the nitrogen robbed by earlier crops has been replenished. In go the hardy winter crops: carrots, kale, radish, turnip, kohlrabi, and mustard. All of those hardy roots and greens need a few good bean dishes to round them out.
Store dry beans in a cool pantry,
in a canvas bag with good air flow.
Store shelled fresh beans in the freezer,
and dried shelled beans in an airtight container.

Not only are dry beans easy to harvest and store, they're packed with protein, folate, iron, and calcium. The greens that pair so well with beans in winter dishes are full of antioxidants and vitamins A and K. Throw in some carrots for the beta-carotine and B-6, and you'll feel like a new person in no time.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to pull out dried beans.This simple, low-fat, home-cooked soup makes a meal in itself.  In preparation for the holiday, here's my family recipe for Turkey Bean Soup: 


1 1/2 cups dried beans
4 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
3 turnips, diced
2 cups chopped kale
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 T. fresh sage, chopped, or 1 t. dried sage
2 quarts chicken broth
1-2 lbs. leftover turkey
1 T. olive oil
1 t. cumin
6 peppercorns


  1. Place the beans in a large non-reactive pot and cover with 8 cups of water. Soak for 8 hours, or overnight. 
  2. Drain the beans completely before making the soup
  3. Heat the oil in a pan and add the diced vegetables. Sautee until they begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes
  4. Add the vegetables, herbs, spices, chicken broth and beans to a large crockpot and cook on low heat for 7-8 hours. A crockpot is not essential, but slow-cooking ensures the best flavor, in my opinion. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Top Ten Fall Garden Activities

Fall is the Best Time to Renew A Garden

The leaves are turning earlier than usual this fall, which means it's time to switch gears and think about getting our gardens ready for winter and spring. That's right, the best time to think about spring is now. After a season of coddling tender summer crops through heat and rain, cool October temperatures are just the thing we need to expend some energy and clear the way for cooler days. The word "chore" has such negative connotations, especially when fall clean up is such fun. Try some of these outdoor activities, and you'll soon feel invigorated to try a few more. Your garden will thank you for it, now, and six months from now.

Start Small To Accomplish Essentials

Of the many activities that beckon, starting with a few essentials will go a long way toward extending the season and ensuring a beautiful spring landscape. I find that spending just 10 minutes a day doing a little here and there during the week, and then tackling larger tasks on the weekend, allows me to stay on top of the essentials. Here are 10 things we can do to ensure a happy, healthy landscape all year round:

  1. Fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. Cool nights and warm days allow transplants to establish strong root systems before hard frost. Be sure to include fruit-bearing
    native trees and shrubs, such as winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) and viburnum species, to help sustain wildlife through winter. Water transplants weekly until frost, particularly if the weather is dry. 
  2. Divide perennials that have outgrown their space, such as peonies, lilies, salvia, baptisia and host. 
  3. Replace heat loving annuals with their cool-weather cousins: pansies, flowering kale, johnny-jump-ups (Viola cornuta), and snap dragons (Antirrhimun). 
  4. If a green lawn is important to you, fall is the best time to aerate, fertilize, and seed. I'd rather live with the clover, dandelions, and the bees that rely on them. A "weedy" lawn also means little to no work. The yard will still be relatively green in color, and very "green" environmentally.
  5. Dispose of diseased vegetation, and add the rest to the compost pile. As you clear beds, think about leaving a few dried branches and seed heads, particularly from native plants. They’ll add winter interest and provide shelter and food for birds. 
  6. Take advantage of fallen leaves to add a layer of mulch to your newly cleaned and planted beds. Leaf mulch is high in organic matter, free, and easy to make. It will help moderate soil moisture, temperature, and composition. If you don’t have a leaf shredder, rake your leaves into long, low piles and mow over them. Shredding the leaves helps them break down more quickly. Not enough leaves of your own? Fairfax County offers free, composted leaf mulch ( Take advantage of this wonderful free resource, and your garden will thank you in the spring.
  7. Summer planting, brutal heat, and heavy rain wreak havoc on soil. Replenish nutrients now to ensure healthy spring soil. To figure out exactly what type of soil amendments to add, obtain a soil test kit from your county Extension Office or public library.Soil test kits provide valuable information on soil composition, as well as recommendations on the proper combination of amendments for particular plants.
  8. Plant spring blooming bulbs in late fall, when the ground is cool but not yet frozen. Deer and squirrels dislike daffodils, allium and lycoris. Cover them with sharp chicken grit to deter digging. If you’re preferential to bulbs that critters can’t resist, try interplanting them with a few less appetizing varieties. To achieve an extended bloom period, layer early flowering smaller bulbs, such as glory-of-the-snow, above later blooming narcissus. 
  9. Once the work is done, take time to enjoy late-blooming flowers and foliage. Aster bloomsfrom mid-summer through frost. Native varieties are attractive to butterflies. Japanese anemone is another fall beauty, great for the border, woodland, or rock garden. Native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) add brilliant fall color between the tree line and the flowers. 
  10. Last but not least, take a long look at your landscape, noting any gaps or failed plants. Take note of color and texture. Now it's time to curl up with a  good garden design book and think about how to fill those gaps next spring!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Take Action to Understand and Ban Neonicotinoids

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that are widely used around the world. Initially, thought to be less damaging to birds and insects, large-scale scientific studies ultimately showed that the neonicotinoid residues absorbed by plant tissue infected pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoid use has been linked to honey bee colony collapse disorder, as well as die off in other species. Increasing concern about widespread ecological damage led European countries to ban several pesticides containing neonicotinoids, but the U.S. has not yet done so. 

On Tuesday, the White House Task Force on Bees will report on proposals. Monsanto, Bayer, CropScience, and Syngenta want to retain the use of this dangerous substance. There's a campaign on Avaaz to get signatures before Tuesday's  meeting of the White House Task force. 

We have no time to lose -- members of the White House's bee task force will report with proposals on Tuesday. Already 2.5 million of us have backed this campaign. Let's race to send messages to the heads of the task force before Tuesday's meeting. This is not just about saving bees, this is about our survival. Click to send a message now: 

What can you do to help? Educate yourself; teach your children.

To learn more about how pesticides effect pollinators, the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society invites you to their October lecture:

Pesticides and Pollinators

A Presentation by Nathalie Steinhauer

Green Spring Gardens

4603 Green Spring Road

Alexandria, VA

703 642-5173

VNPS programs are free and open to the public. 

No reservations are necessary for lectures.

Nathalie will talk about the effects of pesticides on pollinators, with a
focus on neonicotinoids. She will cover effects of pesticide residues,
pesticides found in foraged pollen, in bee hives, toxicity and sub-lethal
effects on bees and other insects, and most ominously, the knowledge gaps in
the industry.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Use the Last of The Season's Tomatoes

Tomatoes are taking over the house,
but they're not ripening on the vine.
Fall is officially here. Shorter days and cooler nights take their toll on sun-loving crops, like tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and squash. Gardening in a small space means that when crops slow way down, it's time for them to move out and make space for those that relish the current season.

It's always a sad day when I pick the last tomatoes, but also something of a relief. Relatively cool weather and consistent rain resulted in the best harvest in recent memory. Working through a bumper crop of nearly everything is both joyful and time consuming. Nevertheless, I won't let a single tomato go to waste. Underripe tomatoes quickly mature in a sunny window, where temperatures are steadily around 70 degrees. Here are few tips for preserving and using the last of the pomme d'amore - apples of love:
Greenish tomatoes will ripen in a sunny window,
when outdoor temperatures begin to fall. 

Dry Tomatoes In The Oven

Nothing says umami like a chewy, sun-dried tomato. However, leaving tomatoes in the sun to dry will only result in unwelcome guests chowing down on what is rightfully yours and those whom you chose to feed. Tomatoes are easy to dry in the oven, and the resultant delicacies will store in the freezer for several months. Any type of tomato can be dried, but I like to use 'Roma' varieties that have little pulp. 
Sliced 'Roma' dry easily
in a warm oven.
  1. Pre-heat oven to 170 degrees, or use your oven's lowest temperature setting.
  2. Spray a baking sheet with olive oil. 
  3. Slice the tomatoes about 1/4 inch thick and space them evenly on the baking sheet.
  4. Spray the tomatoes lightly with olive oil.
  5. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Add some dried herbs, if you like.
  6. Bake for about 8 hours. 
  7. Tomatoes will be leathery and flexible when ready. 
  8. Store in freezer-safe bags for up to 3 months. 
  • Use dried tomatoes on pizza.
  • Combine them with rice and toasted pecans for a delicious side dish.
  • Mix them into salads.
  • Pizza with sun dried tomatoes,
    olives, basil, pine nuts, and mozzarella.
    Dried tomatoes will feel leathery. 
  • Share your favorite way to use them!

Prepare and Store Tomato Sauce

  1. Collect the last of the tomatoes onions, peppers, basil, fresh thyme, rosemary, and garlic the farmer's market or your garden. 
  2. Dice vegetables and put them into a crock pot.
  3. Add a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of honey, and a dash of red wine. 
  4. Set the temperature on low for 8 hours. 
  5. Dinner is ready! 
  6. Store the rest in freezer safe containers for up to 3 months. 
    Select fresh, seasonal ingredients.

    Store tomato sauce in freezer-safe containers.