Monday, February 24, 2014

Late Winter Pruning Extravaganza

Pruning crossed branches will prevent
this unhealthy pretzel-like growth.
Depending on how you look at it, warm February days are a tease, an opportunity, or a save the date for a great big party. Generally, it's too muddy to garden or work the soil. It's too soon to plant even the earliest crops. There will surely be another frost before April. Though basking in the vaguely warm sun is a tempting option, garden junkies should dust off their loppers and get to work. Late winter is the perfect time for pruning.

Pruning encourages new growth, hopefully in the right direction. Removing crossed branches and
dead wood before the last cold snap gives cuts a brief chance to heal and encourages vigorous new growth in spring. It also allows the gardener to shape the plant, before foliage hides the branch structure.

Summer flowering clematis can be cut back.
Prune flowering shrubs that bloom in mid- to late-summer, but leave spring bloomers alone. Vigorous climbers, such as this Clematis 'Jacmanii', may be cut back to 12 inches from the ground. Shrub roses also benefit from a trim in late winter.

Azalea, spirea, vitex, and other early spring flowering shrubs and trees should only be pruned in late spring, immediately after their blooms fade. It is unnecessary to prune hydrangea or crape myrtle, unless they've outgrown their space. Remove 1/3 of the oldest branches to obtain the desired size or shape.

Trim ornamental grass to encourage new growth.
Grasses benefit from a late-winter trim, and wilted perennial foliage should be clipped to the ground. Faded coneflowers and black-eyed Susan have done their duty, and their dry stems and seedpods may
now be removed. Remove suckers from the base of trees, but be careful not to prune fruit trees until after the fruit matures.

After this harsh winter, a stroll through the garden on a warm February day is full of pleasant surprises (my young fig seems to have lived!), as well as disappointing news (two rosemary shrubs that witnessed the rise and fall of the herb bed have seen better days). Now I can retreat indoors, where I'll spend the rest of the season planning my garden's future. What's that they say about the best laid plans...?

Monday, February 10, 2014

How to Make Fresh Yogurt

Making fresh yogurt at home is simple, green, and economical. Once you've tasted tangy, creamy home-made yogurt, it may be difficult to load your shopping cart with store-bought varieties. All you need is a half-gallon of milk, a heavy-bottomed pot, a food thermometer, and some yogurt culture. There are several commercial yogurt makers available, but I've recently switched to a simple, one-pot method that tastes better and results in creamier yogurt.

Preparation Time:

Active: 45 minutes
Total cooking time: about 9 hours

Tools Needed:

  • Heavy-duty pot. I use a Creuset cast-iron enamel pot, which prevents scalding, is well-insulated and is easy to clean;
  • OPTIONAL: Electric yogurt maker, such as the Yogourmet. I used this for many years, but it requires pouring the milk mixture from the pot into the yogurt maker, resulting in spillage. The benefit is that once the yogurt is ready, it can be stored in the Yogourmet container. 
  • Thermometer: I highly recommend the Yogourmet yogurt thermometer because it has a hook that enables attachment to the pot while the yogurt is cooking. This is enormously helpful, since the most important factor in making yogurt is attention to the rising and falling temperature (more on that below). 
  • Yogurt starter or 1/2 cup fresh yogurt


  1. 1 quart milk - I use 2%, but anything from skim to whole milk will work
  2. 1/3 cup powdered milk - if using skim, you'll need 1/2 cup powdered milk; whole milk requires less
  3. yogurt starter; or 1/2 cup plain yogurt reserved from a previous batch; or 1 cup purchased container of plain or greek yogurt with active cultures


  1. Pour the milk into the pot and turn heat to a low setting so that the milk does not scald.
  2. Just after pouring the milk into the pot, mix in the powdered milk, using a wooden spoon. Stir gently until all clumps dissolve.
  3. Attach the thermometer to the edge of the pot. Gently heat the milk mixture until it reaches between 170-180 degrees fahrenheit. When ready, the milk will begin to froth around the edges. 
  4. Cool the yogurt to between 110-120 degrees fahrenheit. To achieve this, the pot may be placed in a cold water bath, or set on top of ice cubes in a sink. 
  5. Add the powdered yogurt starter or reserved 1/2 cup yogurt to the milk mixture, stirring slowly.
  6. At this point, you may add vanilla flavor, or honey. I prefer to flavor the yogurt after it's made, which allows the person eating it to chose a flavor for each portion they eat. 
  7. If using an electric yogurt maker, you'll now have to pour the mixture into the inner container. Follow package instructions.
  8. Otherwise, do not transfer the yogurt mixture. Simply place a lid on the the pot and place it in an oven with the pilot light or electric light on. I have an electric oven, and the light provides just enough warmth. The yogurt will need to incubate at about 100 degrees for about 7 hours. The longer the incubation period, the more firm and more sour the yogurt becomes. The warm milk is undergoing fermentation, which imparts all sorts of nutritional benefits. 
  9. Remove the pot from the oven, or other apparatus, and refrigerate for several hours to allow the mixture to fully gel.
  10. The yogurt is ready to eat! Add fresh jam, fresh berries, honey, vanilla, or your favorite flavor. 

Extra Credit: How to make Greek-style yogurt, Cheese Spread, and Whey

Greek yogurt surged in popularity in recent years, due its creamy, smooth texture and flavor-packed density. It's simple to make Greek-style yogurt by straining the whey from fresh yogurt. 

In a previous post, I noted the many benefits of fermentation using whey. Whey is the liquid protein remaining after straining yogurt (or curdled milk). Once you remove some fresh yogurt from the container, you may notice liquid on top. That's the whey. It's incredibly nutritious, so don't toss it out! Either mix it back into the yogurt, or strain it for use in other recipes. To strain it, you'll need:
  • a small colander
  • a larger container in which to suspend the colander
  • cheese cloth or other porous food-safe cloth


  1. Place the colander over the large pot.
  2. Line the colander with the cheese cloth.
  3. Place the fresh yogurt in the cheese cloth.
  4. Cover the yogurt with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for about 5 hours, or longer for a thicker consistency. 
  5. Remove the yogurt from the cheese cloth and place it in a storage container.  
  6. For cheese spread, add a t. salt, fresh herbs, or lemon.
  7. For Greek-style yogurt, flavor as you wish! 
  8. Reserve the whey in a glass container and refrigerate for up to 6 months. Whey can be used to pre-soak rice, beans, or other grains, or as an ingredient in pickling. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Help Needed for Monarch Butterflies and Other Pollinators

Monarch butterflies are one of the most fascinating species around. They're the only insects to migrate to warmer climates, or hibernate through winter. Each year, 1000's of butterflies travel 2,500 miles from Canada and the northern U.S. to Michoacan, Mexico. Miraculously, they return to the same forest year after year. The success of their migration is an indication of the health of our environment. An article in today's Washington Post reports a devastatingly low number of Monarchs reached their destination this year, mostly due to loss of habitat. What can we do to help?

Planting milkweed, as well as a season-long supply of nectar sources,
helps Monarchs reproduce and survive throughout the year. 

  1. Stop using pesticides on lawns.
  2. Plant milkweed, the Monarch's host plant. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed, which is often removed from yards and building sites. 
  3. Plant native nectar sources, such as coneflower and black-eyed Susan.
  4. If you live in VA, show your support for pollinators by ordering one of the new pollinator license plates.
  5. Raise Monarchs with your school or family this spring. Refer to Monarch Watch to learn how. 

One small effort makes a world of difference. Try it. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fermentation: The Easy, Healthy, and Tasty Way to Preserve Vegetables

In the course of my master gardener training, I had the privilege of attending a seminar on food preservation. At the time, I was basking in the glow of my new canning skills. Shimmering batches of kiwi-strawberry preserves, jalapeƱo pepper jam, and other weird combinations lined my pantry shelves. Packed with sugar and boiled to death, canned treats were fun to have around, but much of the foods' nutritional value was lost.

Fresh beets and turnips are packed with winter goodness.

Strained whey, a tablespoon of salt and some water
speed the fermentation process.
The seminar on fermentation as a method of preserving fresh foods, led by Monica Corrado, of Simply Being Well, introduced me to an entirely different ball game. I'd eaten plenty of kim chi and sauerkraut, but never gave a thought to how they were made. I just assumed they were "pickled." Monica explained that fermentation is an ancient and widely overlooked method of "pickling" that involves the breakdown of carbohydrates into lactic acid, or sugar into alcohol. While hot water baths required for canning essentially destroy nutrients, fermentation awakens healthy bacteria that enhance foods' nutritional value.

Fermentation is far easier than canning, since it requires neither the intense sterilization process, nor the dance with danger that ensues when working with enormous cauldrons of boiling water and glass jars. Fermentation simply requires finely chopped vegetables, clean glass containers, and a little counter top space.

Using the wonderful guide, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon, I recently whipped up ginger carrots, as well as pickled turnips, beets and garlic chives.

Using a Cuisinart food processor, I evenly chopped the vegetables. I strained some whey from home-made yogurt (another wonderful fermented food), mixed it with a little salt and water, and poured the mixture into clean quart-size glass jars. After three days on the counter, the liquid fizzed around the vegetables. A taste-test led to lunch, which led to a daily serving of stomach-enzyme balancing delight. Eaten plain, with salad, or layered in a sandwich wrap, we'll have a healthy treat on hand for several months. Fermented foods last a long time in the refrigerator, adding a little zip to tired winter days.
Beets and turnips await fermentation, brightening up the
countertop in time for Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to Order Seeds for Next Summer's Garden

Seed catalogs are competing for space in my mailbox, slowly but surely outweighing holiday retail campaigns. Seed surfing is one of the great garden pleasures enjoyed in cold, wet winter months. This past Saturday, when it seemed the rain just wouldn't stop, I curled up with my cat in a big armchair and drifted off to summer seasons past. Before I knew it, I had a farm's worth of produce on the horizon. Some checks and balances are in order when poring over seed catalogs, especially when it's so easy to click a button and order a very small box full of what could potentially feed a small nation. Here are few ways I narrowed down my options:

Consider the Amount of Available Space

Read the seed description carefully to determine how tall and wide the mature plant will be. Include room for stakes. For example, an indeterminate tomato plant may reach 8 feet or more. I use narrow tomato stakes and prune the vines as the grow, keeping the circumference of the plant to within 2 feet. This allows me to grow four tomato plants in a 4 x 4 foot space. 

Seek, smaller bushy varieties. Raised bed suburban and city gardens are more popular than ever. Growers are paying attention by offering more and more options for small spaces and containers. Smaller plants have the added advantage of growing at the front of the garden, which leaves enough sun and space for taller varieties in back. This year, I'm trying Seed Savers Dwarf Gray Sugar and Green Arrow peas, both selected for their high productivity and vines that stay under 30 inches. I also ordered Miniature Chocolate Bell peppers, described as "short and stocky," in addition to their "excellent, fresh flavor." Lots of room in back for tomatoes! 

Grow Heirloom Varieties with an Interesting History

Saved seeds carry a history that enhances their flavor and earns them coveted space in our garden. Gardeners have saved seeds for centuries, conserving plants that bore witness to centuries of triumph and travail. 

Who can resist the intrigue of Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans, Black Aztec corn, and Winter Luxury squash? They'll make up our three sisters garden this year, with more emphasis on the tale than the taste, though I'm sure they'll reward us in both regards. The irresistible history and horticultural lessons that arise organically from these companion plants will form the basis of our children's garden. 

Select the Best Vegetable Variety for the Area

Climate zone and soil composition are important factors when choosing what to grow, but there are  other important things to consider before putting forth the effort edibles require. Disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, tastiness, monetary value, and even attractiveness come into play.

Testing soil in late fall or early winter gives gardeners extra time to compensate for heavy nutrient loss incurred by last year's vegetables. Most vegetables are heavy feeders, so nitrogen replacement is essential. A soil test tells you exactly what you need to add to achieve the right nutrient combo for the vegetables you want to grow.

Chose plants wisely. County extension offices and some universities recommend specific varieties that work best in a particular area. A planting schedule is another useful tool to use when planning what types of vegetables to grow. I've found these Virginia Cooperative Extension publications invaluable in selecting vegetable varieties to grow in my zone 7a raised beds: Vegetables Recommended for Virginia and Vegetable Planning Guide and Recommended Planting Dates.

Plant edibles that family members like to eat. I love squash, but my family hates it. I've learned to appreciate the volunteers that inevitably return. After many battles with squash vine borer, I've decided to let nature chose the healthiest offspring. I always end up with some very tasty butternut varieties.

I love eggplant, but so do many pests. Last year, I planted eggplant specifically to attract pests away from other crops. It worked, to some degree, but this year I'll use the space for more productive vegetables that my family will eat. 

Plan Ahead for a Season-Long Garden

By mapping out a plan for sequential planting, I make sure I have something growing throughout spring, summer, and fall. Start with peas, and when their spent, replace them with mid-summer crops. Plant lettuce and radish seeds throughout the early season, to ensure a continual harvest.

Companion planting allows some plants to mature, while others take root. It's been said that carrots love tomatoes, and potatoes benefit from beans. Protective properties secreted by one crop may prevent disease or repel pests in another.

Timing is key when planting a succession garden. This year, I ordered extra kale, since it loves cool weather. I hate running out of seed in fall, when there's nothing but bulbs for sale in the local nurseries. I also ordered extra lettuce seed, another cool weather crop, to toss between the rows in spring and fall. Pea vines shade the baby lettuce greens, keeping them fresh well into May. I'll sow them again in later summer, up until two weeks before the frost date. They'll grow under the cold frame until hard frost hits.

Hmm, frost...that was yesterday...