Tuesday

12 Reasons I Love Gardening (and you will, too)


Gardening isn't all bird song and shady interludes with a glass of ice tea or something stronger. Gardening calisthenics can lead to neck strains, back problems and creaky knees. That sunny spotlight in your landscape may put the red in a growing tomato, but it can also result in sunburn and heatstroke if you aren't careful. Even the nice plot of land you have in mind for potatoes, roses, corn or kale may be so clogged with clay soil that the only difference between it and the asphalt in your driveway is the color. (Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration.)

The point I'm making is that gardening isn't a prepackaged and pristine activity. It can get messy. Here's an example: You head out for a brief weeding session wearing your garden gloves. Twenty minutes later the gloves are off (because they never quite let you get a good grip on intransigent weeds), and three minutes after that your nails look like you've been digging drainage tunnels with your bare hands.

It's a wonder anyone ever grabs a trowel to break ground outdoors -- or is it?

Gardening may not be tidy -- or easy -- or one of those activities that provides instant gratification, but it is transformative. It's as much a journey of discovery as it is an exercise in suburban horticulture.

It may be that the world just looks nicer when seen through a filigree of leaves, or that buying a plot of land doesn't make you feel like you really own it, but planting a tree there does. It could also be that the sensate delights nature offers can become so sanitized by modern living that being able to bask in the delicate fragrance of a freshly opened, dew moistened blossom is worth all the other aggravations.

A while back, I shared a fellow blogger's list of reasons to love gardening. Here are mine:

  1. You'll never wish for rain with more ardent passion (or appreciate it as much) as when you have a garden.

  2. The seasons will become much more than quarterly checkpoints on a calendar. They'll have immediacy, depth and scope.

  3. Terms like "barometric pressure" won't sound fussy and complicated. They'll sound fascinating (well, interesting).

  4. You'll begin to suss out portents in falling leaves, severe clear evenings, wind direction and cloud shapes, making the world a more interesting place to ponder and engage.

  5. Nature won't be something "out there." Nature will be everywhere.

  6. You may still pitch your banana peels (apple cores or potato peelings) in the trash, but you'll also begin to think of them as wasted opportunities to compost. Reuse, repurpose and recycle are major mantras of the green movement, and thinking green is the first step to a better world.

  7. You'll learn to love what you grow -- whether you though you'd like the taste that much or not. Pride is the best spice around, even when dealing with turnips.

  8. You'll develop a persistent fondness for the honey bee, worm, ladybug and even the praying mantis (that bloodthirsty darling).

  9. One wonderful day, you'll plant a dry, unassuming seed and realize, perhaps for the first time, that the power, complexity and downright majesty necessary to produce that very plant in that exact way was waiting to quicken in a vessel no larger than the head of a pin.

  10. On that day or another like it, you'll stand in the middle of your garden and, with a frisson of surprise, hear green things rustling and growing around you -- and won't that be grand.

  11. Because of your work in the garden, you'll reconnect with things you may not have thought about since childhood (rain festooned spider webs, firefly light shows, leaves staining the wind), only now you'll revisit them with wise old eyes and accord them the respect they deserve.

  12. And here's my favorite: After a season in the garden, you'll look out and see more in that green space than you've ever seen before -- not necessarily because the garden has changed, but because you have.



Saturday

How to Grow Aloe Vera


How to Grow Aloe Vera
If you had to choose one herb as the most convenient home remedy in your arsenal, it would probably be aloe vera. Some herbalists speculate that it's the most common -- and sometimes the only -- home grown medicinal plant used in modern households. There's a good reason for that. *Aloe vera gel applied to a burn, bite or sting will reduce or eliminate the discomfort -- usually faster and better than an over the counter remedy. Even remedies that contain processed aloe vera don't provide the immediate relief available by just cutting a chubby leaf and rubbing a little gel on the burn or bite. For many of us, that's reason enough to keep a big pot on the patio.

What is Aloe Vera, Anyway?


Aloe vera is classified as a succulent. Although its origins are in dispute, many experts believe common aloe vera to be a native of northern Africa. Today it is cultivated or grows wild in many sub-tropical and tropical regions around the globe. A medicinal, cosmetic and ornamental plant in the lily family, it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. Aloe can reach a height of about 36 inches and typically spreads by sending out offshoots referred to as "pups."
Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera - cut with gel


The plant's upright leaves are tapered and fleshy and have toothed margins that can scratch. (They're not as nasty as cactus spines, but worth avoiding). Leaves can grow to over 2 inches across and a half-inch thick. Aloe is about 94 percent water, most of it stored in its thick, rubbery leaves. Some of the almost 300 identified  species also have faint whitish spots on their leaves, a common characteristic of medicinal aloe.

How to Grow Aloe Vera


Of all the herbs widely available to gardening enthusiasts, aloe probably requires the least amount of care and attention. It's pest resistant, drought tolerant and indifferent poor or barren soil. It's a good candidate for xeriscaping, rock gardens and specimen gardens, too.

Ideally, it prefers reasonably light soil that drains well. (Avoid heavy clay soils. Supplement dense soil with sand, cactus potting mix or succulent potting mix). It is hardy from zones 9 to 11 as an outdoor resident, where seedlings or pups should be planted about three feet apart. It may also grow in protected areas of zone 8.

For other locations, aloe is a successful commuter plant -- a potted outdoor resident in summer that winters indoors.Note: In areas that experience fierce heat in summer, it benefits from dappled light during the hottest part of the day.

Aloe vera also makes a nice year round houseplant if you can give it 6 to 8 hours of bright light (not direct sunlight) a day. If you can't provide enough natural light, it responds very well to the addition of grow lights. Although these plants can grow large, even in pots, they're somewhat shallow rooted. Pots don't have to be deep. Provide plenty of surface area, and let plants become crowded.  You can often harvest pups from the sides of the container while leaving the center undisturbed. (More on that next time.)

Aloe Vera and Frost


The one thing aloe cannot tolerate is frost. When nighttime temperatures reach 38 degrees F, it's time to bring plants indoors for the season. The only time I've ever lost an aloe vera plant, it was outdoors on the patio when the temperature dipped to 32 degrees F. unexpectedly. A few protected pups survived, but that was it. The poor thing looked melted. Imagine what happens to lettuce when it wilts and you've got the idea. I wanted to cry.

Growing Aloe Vera OutdoorsThese Plants are Pretty Hardy


I'm going to share an embarrassing admission here: One year I had a huge potted aloe vera that was so large that transporting it outdoors was a chore. I'm not sure how big the pot was, but in the fall I decided it would be best to break it up -- for the sake of my husband's aching back.

I was a little reluctant to start the project, but the pot was overflowing and beginning to crack from the weight of all those water hungry leaves. The overhaul left me with six large (12 inch) pots full of mid-sized aloe vera offshoots and lots of tiny pups. The bounty was so enormous that I had trouble finding room for everything indoors.

Here's the embarrassing part: One 12 incher ended up in a prep area near a small window in the garage. I remember passing the plant during the winter months thinking I'd head back that way to water it, but never did. Between November and April, I watered the plant exactly once. By spring, the leaves weren't as chubby as they should have been, but the aloe recuperated just fine after two weeks in a protected location outdoors and a couple of light spring rains. This illustrates a few things:

  1. The plants can survive neglect.
  2. Aloe vera goes virtually dormant during the late fall and winter months.
  3. Overwintering aloe indoors isn't really much of a chore.
 Aloe Vera Flowers
Aloe vera - tubular flower

Because there's so much ground to cover on this topic (no pun intended), I'm going to discuss other aspects of growing and using aloe in my next post. I'll leave you with a list of alternative names for this interesting plant:

  • Aloe barbadensis
  • Aloe capensis
  • Barbados aloe
  • Burn aloe
  • Burn plant
  • Cape aloe
  • Curacao aloe
  • Elephant's gall
  • First aid plant (This is my personal favorite.)
  • Lily of the desert
  • Miracle plant
  • Plant of immortality
  • True aloe

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*Special note: There have been cases where the topical application of aloe vera gel has caused contact dermatitis.

WebMD. "Aloe Vera." http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-607-Aloe+Vera+ALOE.aspx?activeIngredientId=607&activeIngredientName=Aloe+Vera+(ALOE)&source=2&tabno=1

Lyons, Gary. "The Definitive Aloe Vera, Vera?" http://huntingtonbotanical.org/Desert/Cholla/feb06/feb06.htm#aloes

Schalau, Jeff. "Growing Aloe Vera." Arizona Cooperative Extension. http://ag.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/archive/aloevera.html

The Old Farmer's Almanac. "Aloe Vera." http://www.almanac.com/plant/aloe-vera


Photo1 - AloeVera_Wiki.jpg by Aliafzali1985 at the Persian language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6e/Aloe_vera-0002.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAloe_vera-0002.jpg

Photo2 - AloeVeraGel2_Wiki.jpg By ER and Jenny (Flickr: Making Aloe Vera Dessert) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Making_Aloe_Vera_Dessert.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaking_Aloe_Vera_Dessert.jpg

Photo3 - AloeVera3_Wiki.jpg By carrotmadman6 from Mauritius (Aloe Vera  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/Aloe_Vera_%284700054020%29.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAloe_Vera_(4700054020).jpg

Photo 4 - AloeVera4_PublicDomain.jpg By Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Aloe_vera_C.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAloe_vera_C.jpg

Thursday

Thursday Odds and Ends


It's time again for a few strange, useful and amusing tidbits:


Birds in the Bath - Some of you really enjoyed the hawk video from last week.  CBS News has released a new one, this time showing birds bathing.  Backyard birdbath antics always look so  enthusiastic.  Watching them in slow-motion is even more entertaining with sparkling water droplets careening off wing tips and busy birds looking downright enraptured. You can find the clip at: Watch a "Bird Bath" in Slow Motion   

Ladybugs at the mall - If you've ever been plagued by aphids (and who hasn't), or been curious about the effectiveness of introducing beneficial insects into your landscape, you'll love this: The Mall of American has been doing some hiring lately -- kinda. On Earth Day 2013, they released 72,000 ladybugs into the Bloomington, Minn. complex as permanent residents to patrol the over 400 trees and 30,000 live plants for aphids and other insect marauders. Ladybugs are natural predators for aphids.  I say -- eat up guys! Have at it. For more information about the project, visit: The International Business Times.


As a side note, all those trees and plants in the mall perform an important function. They're a natural indoor air filtration system that provides real benefits. A NASA study a few years ago discovered that many plants remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde from the air as a natural function of photosynthesis. This works at the Mall of America, and it can work at your house too.Don't leave all the plants in your garden this season. Adopt some houseplants. Some fun and easy to care for options are: spider plant, pothos, jade plant, snake plant and iron plant.  All will tolerate a variety of light conditions and will survive neglect (within reason).

The Dirtiest Produce - A new list of the most pesticide laden produce has been released by the Environmental Working Group. You've probably read about past lists. A growing concern is that the chemical residues in fresh produce aren't just clinging to the skins of fruits and vegetables to be rinsed or scrubbed away. They're inside the parts we eat -- down deep where they can't be removed. Of course, this is an excellent reason to grow your own produce or rely on local organic growers. Although the release of these lists always causes a temporary spike in concern, it pays to learn the facts and endorse safer agribusiness through your day to day buying habits. Here are some of the biggest offenders:

Apples
Celery
Strawberries
Peaches
Spinach
Nectarines (imported)
Grapes (imported)
Sweet bell peppers
Potatoes
Blueberries (domestic)
Lettuce
Kale

Do you love gardening? - Chaya Kurtz over at Networx has put together a lighthearted list of reasons to love gardening.  It's in the form of a slideshow with funny captions.  Some are right on target, while other are refreshingly goofy.  If you're in the middle of a coffee break, it's worth a few seconds of your time.  You'll find it here:  13 Reasons to Love Gardening 
 
The large weave and textural look of burlap.


Build it with burlap - Burlap is an all-natural jute fabric with lots of applications. This one may come in handy if you're planting seeds outdoors soon:  Use burlap as a row cover over shallow seed plantings.  It will keep the soil in place- - and warmer. It will also protect seeds from birds. Seedlings will poke right through it (burlap is loosely woven), and the fabric will deteriorate and become organic matter in the soil over the course of the season.  Think of it as classy mulch that actually stays where you put it. Tack it down with garden fabric pins (that look like huge hair pins), or use small stones.  A burlap treatment for your flowerbeds looks very structured and attractive, especially around a deck or patio. You can find burlap for around $3 a yard or so at craft outlets and variety stores like Walmart.

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Photo1 - BirdBath_Wiki.jpg By NatJLN (20070610_bird-bath  Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Sturnus_vulgaris_-four_bathing_in_birdbath_-London-8.gif http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASturnus_vulgaris_-four_bathing_in_birdbath_-London-8.gif

Photos 2 and 3 - Courtesy of Morguefile.com

Tuesday

Lavender Syrup Recipe



A reader has requested a recipe for lavender syrup, and I'm happy to oblige.

It's a timely request, actually. Spring is ice tea season, and lavender syrup is a delicious accompaniment to your favorite brew. It adds sweetness and a subtle floral aroma you'll enjoy. Lavender syrup is also an interesting addition to sweet alcoholic beverages.

The recipe is really simple:

 

Recipe for Lavender Syrup


Ingredients


  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 4 tablespoons of fresh lavender buds (about 2 tablespoons dry)

Directions

Heat all ingredients in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

Strain warm syrup through three layers of cheesecloth.

Keep the syrup refrigerated. It should last a couple of weeks in the fridge.

The recipe can be doubled, and you can easily freeze a batch to use later.

I like to freeze single servings in ice cube trays and then transfer them to freezer bags. They're little lavender sugar cubes on ice.  

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Photo1 - Sugar1_Wiki.jpg By Ayelie (Editor at Large) (http://flickr.com/photos/ayelie/441101223/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Sugar-01.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASugar-01.jpg

Photo2 - Courtesy of  Morguefile.com


Saturday

Dandelion Jelly - A Unique Honey Flavored Treat



Dandelion jelly is spring in a jar.  If you haven't tried making it, you should add it to your list of fun spring projects.

Before I developed an interest in canning, I explored a few recipes and refrigerated them instead. You'll see this sometimes, a smaller recipe that calls for refrigerating or freezing the finished product. It's like canning without the worry or production line volume.My first foray was a very nice strawberry and rhubarb jam. It was so delicious, looked so wonderful, and was so easy to make that it gave me some real enthusiasm for the whole canning thing, which isn't nearly as scary as it seems at first.

I followed that success by making dandelion jelly the following spring. This amazing little jelly tastes gently of honey and plays well with melted butter on a roll or cornbread muffin. I originally discovered the recipe in one of those stapled booklets housewives used to get as free giveaways in food packaging during the 1930s and 1940s. You know the ones. The booklet was my grandmothers. I think it was about the size of my palm and shaped like a jar lid. Unfortunately, it disappeared in a move across country a decade ago, but the recipe lives on in handwritten form on a note card I saved inside an old photo album of all places. After a little exploring, I discovered that it also survives in numerous online incarnations.


Why This One's a Keeper


Since it's that time of year, I thought I'd share my take on basic dandelion jelly using this recipe. It's a good starter project. You don't typically find dandelion jelly at the corner market. It's nostalgic and unique, and the process of preparing it is almost as much fun as the jelly is appealing. Think of the project as a test run to see if making jelly (jams, pickles, bulk salsa and other goodies) appeals to you.

Another nice thing is that you can easily gather the main ingredient (dandelions) on a mild spring morning, which always feels like harvesting strewn sunshine in a basket -- a nice way to start the day whether you're making jam or not. (The old recipe recommends waiting for the morning dew to evaporate from the blossoms.)

If you like to cook and haven't prepared jelly before, a walk down the canning aisle of your grocery store can be an enlightening experience, too. Besides pectin (the gelling agent), you'll find special spices, salts, jars, lids, tools and all manner of fun stuff you may not have explored before.

Dandelion Jelly Recipe


Ingredients

  • 6 cups dandelion blossoms
  • 8 cups filtered water (see note)
  • 1 package (1-3/4 oz.) dry fruit pectin
  • 2 tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 5 1/2 cups sugar
  • 20 drops food coloring, yellow or green (optional)
  • Cheesecloth
  • A non-reactive pan
 
Special Note: The original recipe called for rain water too (which is naturally soft and used to be relatively pure). If you want to try using rainwater today, though, be sure to wait for a heavy rain, and only harvest the water after an hour or so when much of the suspended dust and pollution has been scoured away and won't taint the water you'll be harvesting.)

Directions

  1. After harvesting wholesome (not pesticide ridden) dandelion blossoms, rinse them in cold water and drain them well.
  2. Snip off the green receptacle collar at the base of the stem. You'll be left with a profusion of narrow, tufty yellow petals. You'll need at least 2 tightly packed cups of petals. (When foraging, choose the largest blossoms you can to make the job go faster.)
  3. Combine water and petals in a non-reactive pan (like glass, stainless steel or enamel), and bring it to rolling boil.
  4. Continue boiling for 5 minutes. You'll see the water turn a yellowish green color.
  5. Pour the mixture through a strainer in which you've placed three or four layers of cheesecloth. (If the liquid is still somewhat cloudy after being strained, you can strain it again through a coffee filter. This is an aesthetic consideration only. It all tastes good.)
  6. Retain 3 cups of the liquid and discard any remainder with the spent flower petals.
  7. Add the liquid, fruit pectin and lemon juice to a non-reactive pan and stir.
  8. Bring the mixture to a boil and add sugar, stirring constantly. Keep boiling (and stirring) for 2-1/2 minutes, skimming off any foam.
  9. Check the color.  It could be light yellow, or even somewhat green.  For a more vibrant product, you can add food coloring now or leave it as it is.
  10. *Pour the mixture into sterilized half-pint jars, attach sterilized lids and finish off in a water bath.

Tips and Notes on Making Dandelion Jelly


*Okay, this is the part where I lose most folks. I won't discuss the finer points of the sterilization process beyond saying that it's not as hard as it sounds. Once you've done it once, you'll be surprised at how powerfully competent you'll feel. It only takes a couple of projects to become an old hand at it.

For good information on how the water bath thing works, visit:


There's also another option if you're not ready to get into hot water canning.  You can always make a fraction of the recipe and keep it in the fridge.  You can find an abbreviated recipe in a nice article from the Urban Forager at The New York Times: Dandelion Wine? No, Jelly.  A batch of dandelion jelly will last around three weeks in the fridge.


The recipe above will fill about 7 half-pint jars.

Wednesday

Herb and Garden Odds and Ends - Thursday


Yesterday was blustery, but I don't mind. Blustery days always remind me of fall -- regardless of when they occur. I like the way the wind worries the eves. It sounds as though the house is breathing.

It's interesting times all around: Our dog hates storms and acts as our early warning system. Long before the satellite signal deconstructs into pixelated op art, he tries his best to hide under the bed. His not inconsiderable backside makes this impossible, but he must remember having fit under there once and keeps trying. When he eventually gives up on the plan, he makes a return to puppyhood by finding a lap to cower on. Sixty pounds of dog may look adorable sitting on an area rug by the fire, but not so much when he's cutting off your circulation and his paws are massaging your kidneys -- from the front.

Still, after a bout of blustery weather, the air smells like a benediction, and the birds are singing and generally behaving as though it's a celestial holiday.

Dogs and birds aside, here are a few fun tidbits for the day:

Composting - For "green" enthusiasts, composting is one of the hallmarks of a responsible lifestyle. It's easy to feel kinda righteous hording potato peelings and onion skins only to sally forth into the backyard with them, for all the world like they're an offering to the garden gods.

Actually, composting has gotten a bad rap for many of us over the years because it requires planning and some understanding of what makes the process work. It isn't rocket science, though. There are only a few things you really need to know to make rich, righteous, guilt-free compost. I have included a link to a post I wrote about composting a while ago. It includes some excellent and entertaining reference sites to explore, including an easy to follow pair of videos and an extensive list of items that can be composted: How to Compost in Your Backyard .

A new composting solution - The folks at Midwest Permaculture have come up with a way to compost using lengths of perforated PVC pipe buried vertically in the soil. Here's how it works:  You place scraps inside the  PVC (inserted at intervals in the garden), and worms come along and use it to enrich the surrounding soil. It's like the corner deli for worms. Neat idea. You can find more information about it here: Midwest Permaculture - Worm Tower. (Look about three quarters of the way down the page.)

Fast garden food - If you're starting to accumulate scraps (like coffee grounds) for your vegetable garden, but don't quite know what they'll actually contribute to the soil, here's a quick list that will help. It's always nice to know what you're feeding your tomatoes, often on the enthusiastic advice of others:

  • Banana peel - potassium
  • Coffee grounds - nitrogen
  • Egg shells - calcium
  • Epsom salt - magnesium
  • Wood ash - contributes calcium and lime (to make soil more alkaline). Use only ash from hardwood, not pressure treated wood or those faux fireplace logs.

You'll find numerous sources that say it's okay to throw a little of this or that in the bottom of a hole you're digging for specific plants -- like vegetables -- while other sources caution that adding un-composted material is a recipe for disaster. I have to say that I've added eggshell, ground banana peel, used coffee grounds and Epsom salt to enrich my soil without incident, although I always place a thick layer of potting soil over these ingredients to protect newly introduced plant roots. I never overdo it, either. A little tinkering goes a long way.

Here's an idea: Try one or two amendments on a few of your plans in a side-by-side test. Remember the results when planning next year's garden. Think of it as a post-high-school science project with real world applications. How many of those are you likely to find that don't require rubber gloves and a home insurance rider.

Must see clip - Since I mentioned birds in my intro, I did want to share a breathtaking video I ran across at the CBS News website. It's a slow motion clip of an eagle in flight (across a studio, apparently). The details are really spectacular.  If you've ever wished you could fly, this clip will leave you longing for wings.  It's that good.  You can find it at: Watch a Golden Eagle soar in super slow-motion 

Enjoy the video (if you click) and have a great day.

Tuesday

Honey Lavender Face and Body Scrub Recipe




I'd like to share my favorite honey and lavender face and body scrub recipe. It's a soothing scrub removes flaking, dry skin and moisturizes at the same time. If you've managed to survive winter without a little flaking and itching, you're probably in the minority (especially where your feet and face are concerned). Both can be annoying and uncomfortable -- even painful. A little extra pampering come springtime does a body good.

Here's how the recipe works: The ingredients include gentle exfoliants, which are mild natural abrasives that remove layers of dead skin, humectants that attract and hold moisture on the skin, emollients that trap moisture (limiting loss through evaporation) and lots of minerals and other trace ingredients that help the skin heal and repair itself.  This is all contained in a neutral formulation that won't leave the skin's surface too acidic or alkaline. Pretty neat.

If you grow or use herbs, you probably have most of these ingredients in your cupboard, too.  Blend up a batch and keep it in the fridge.  Use it three times a week to start.  Once you begin to see improvement (after about 10 days), cut back to once a week.

Honey Lavender Scrub Recipe


Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup olive oil (I sometimes substitute avocado oil or sweet almond oil. All are common skincare ingredients.) 
  • 1-3/4 cups granulated sugar (You can also use raw sugar.)
  • 5 tbsp. honey
  • 3 tbsp. dried lavender buds
  • Zest of one lemon (An organic lemon is best. It won't contain pesticide residue.)
Preparation

  1. Combine all ingredients and stir to incorporate.
  2. Place the mixture in a non-reactive container, like a glass jar, and refrigerate.

To Use

  1. Scoop a tablespoon or so of the mixture and allow it to come to room temperature.  This should take about 15 minutes.
  2. Apply it to your face, feet, elbows, knees or any other spot that needs attention using your bare hands, a washcloth or a sponge.
  3. Massage lightly in a circular motion for 30 seconds to a minute. 
  4. Rinse using warm water, and apply a light moisturizer if necessary. Usually the oil in the mix is moisturizer enough.

The mixture will last a month or longer in your refrigerator as honey, sugar and lavender are all natural antibacterial agents.

Although an adverse skin reaction is unlikely, test a small area like the back of your hand overnight before applying large quantities of this recipe.

The recipe can be doubled.

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Photo1 - Honey1_Wiki.jpg  By http://www.ipernity.com/home/kurtsik [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Honey_kurtsik.jpg



Sunday

How to Test Your Soil - a Quick Primer


There's nothing like a sunny morning to help get you in the mood for some fun projects. When I headed out for the grocery store today, I saw that the parking lot of our local home improvement outlet was full of cars. Tubs of annuals were everywhere, and a long file of potted trees, shrubs and bushes stood like sentinels guarding piles of bagged mulch, garden soil and potting mix. A working spring weekend has come to the burbs in a big way.

Before you wander outdoors to take stock of the weed situation or drag the lawnmower out of the shed, think about the soil under your landscape plants for a second. Soil conditions can change somewhat from season to season, and if you haven't had your soil evaluated, or tested it yourself, this is a good time to get your hands dirty in a good cause.

Different Ways to Test Your Garden Soil

There are a number of ways you can get the straight scoop about your soil.

DIY - You can perform a simple test yourself using ingenuity, water and a jar (More on this in a minute). You can also purchase a handy soil test kit for around $15 that contains materials and instructions for a variety tests in key locations across your landscape (lawn, flower beds, vegetable garden) for details like pH and the presence of the big three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

USDA Cooperative Extension Office - If you just want a general sense of the type of soil conditions you're dealing with (if, say, this is your first spring in a new home), a quick call to your local Cooperative Extension Office will be helpful, too. The call is free. 

Web Soil Survey - If you have some time to dig -- with your computer-- visit the USDA's Web Soil Survey Page. You can find information there that will help you discover the mysteries of the soil in your area (there's a drill down) -- and develop a greater appreciation for the wealth of information to be found free of charge via government databases.

Jar and Water Soil Test - For the weekend warrior with a DIY approach to gardening, here's an interesting way to suss out the composition of your soil. If you have young children, this self-test method also makes for a dramatic and fun visual aid:

The idea here is to determine the constituent parts of your soil by creating a slurry and allowing the particulates to settle into layers (strata). The thickness of each layer will give you a good idea of your soil's composition.



What you'll need:

  • A glass jar with a tight fitting lid (a mayonnaise jar or larger works well)
  • Water
  • Soil

Directions:

  1. Fill the jar half full of soil (Remove any weeds or roots you see).
  2. Add water to about one inch from the top.
  3. Screw on the lid (tight).
  4. Shake the jar until all the dirt particles are in suspension. (Don't stop too soon. Keep shaking for about three to five minutes or so.)
  5. Set the jar on a flat surface for two to three hours.

After a few hours you'll see that the dirt has settled to the bottom of the jar with a little cloudy stuff still suspended on top.

The solid matter will be distributed in bands with slightly different textures and colors, which will tell  you the rough concentration of elements in your soil. The bands will consist of:

  1. Floating layer: Organic matter
  2. Top soil layer: Clay
  3. Middle layer: Silt
  4. Bottom layer: sand (and possibly some small rocks)

A good combination soil (loamy) will be composed of about 20 percent clay, with the sand and silt distributions just about even at 40 percent each.

Once you have an idea of the type of soil you're dealing with (you may want to test a number of areas in your garden for an accurate reading) you'll know better what amendments you need to add periodically. If your soil is mostly clay, don't despair. After a few seasons and a little work, you won't recognize it.



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Photo1 - Soil.jpg  Courtesy of Morguefile.com

Photo2 - GlassJar_Wiki.jpg  By Dwa_sloiki.jpg: Julo derivative work: Andrzej 22 (Dwa_sloiki.jpg)[see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/S%C5%82oiczek.jpg

Wednesday

How to Grow Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)


Grow Dandelion
The distinctive flowering head (or seed head) of the dandelion may be a call to battle in the garden, but it doesn't have to be that way. Dandelion can be used in a number of culinary and herbal preparations, so having a little cultivated patch of this common plant could make good sense.  You won't have trouble growing it, and once its taproot is deep in your soil, you'll definitely have a regular supply. Don't scoff; the little dandelion may surprise you.  Read on.

I'd usually recommend harvesting dandelion from your lawn in spring -- or from the neighbors' lawns (city tree lawns, open fields, city parks and cracks in roadway asphalt wide enough for an ant to pass), but those sources may be tainted with pesticides and other nasties you don't want to deal with. No, with hardly any effort you can cultivate this useful and fun flower in its own dedicated spot. Here are some examples of what the lowly dandelion can be used for:

  • Dandelion wine - Delicious
  • Dandelion salad - Who says you have to pay exorbitant prices for arugula and other bitter greens when dandelion is the real deal.
  • Dandelion smoothies - They're rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • Dandelion tea - This brew may reduce blood pressure, reduce blood sugar, aid in digestion and help control premenstrual cramps.

Look at the leaf in the center for a gander at the toothy indentations.
If you think dandelion just doesn't have the broad appeal and star power you're looking for in an herb, guess again. Its name is actually a bit old timey romantic: It derives from the shape of the indented leaves that look somewhat like stylized lion's teeth. In old French, the term was:   dentdelion (old English dent-de-lioun) which translates to: tooth of the lion. Fast forward a century or two and you get dandelion. Cool.

How to Grow Dandelion

The dandelion, a European native, will thrive in most conditions, but plants grown in a shady spot will tend to be less bitter. You might also take a look at the newer dandelion cultivars on the market instead of going for "wild" stock. Some dandelion cultivars are less bitter than others, which will makes using them more appealing. These are typically sold as "gourmet" seeds or plants. Many have quasi French names. Other reliably mild types include Arlington dandelion and broad leaf dandelion (improved).

Dandelion Maintenance


For most of the herbs I talk about, getting them to thrive is the biggest consideration. With dandelions, keeping them in check is a bigger concern. Because they're very invasive, take a few measures to corral them in a spot away from your lawn. It's also important to remove the flowering heads before they transform into "wish worthy" puff balls. Those interesting spheres are actually seeds -- lots and lots of adaptable, windblown seeds.

Dandelion ImageGrowing dandelions in a pot is an option, but because the plant has a long taproot, this can be challenging.  You'll need a deep pot (12 inches).

Investing in a taproot digger or dandelion digger is a good idea, too.  These tools have a sturdy handle, a long shaft and a forked tip that can get to and extract roots of unwanted plants -- and harvest roots for tea and other medicinal preparations.

Harvesting and Using Dandelion

 

Although all parts of the dandelion can be used, the leaves are best harvested when the plant is young and tender (and less bitter). This will be before blossoms appear.

If you're determined to harvest dandelions from locations other than your landscape, use some real caution. Avoid areas where you notice dumping (vacant lots), or discolorations in the soil.  Don't harvest plants near roadways because lead and other chemicals from vehicle exhaust may be present. Note: You can gather dandelion flowers in batches and freeze them until you need them for winemaking and other projects.

Dandelion Nutrition

 

If all this seems silly and risky, dandelion hunting or cultivation is worth the effort.  This plant is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in:

  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Riboflavin
  • Thiamin
  • Vitamins: B1, B2, B6, A, C, E, K

Dandelion is  high in protein. (It also contains all the essential amino acids, which is a bit of a feat in itself.)

Here are a few past posts about fun things to do with dandelions:

Dandelion Tea Recipes
Dandelion Salad Recipe
How to Make Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Jelly



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Photo1 - Dandelion1_Wiki.jpg   By Nicolas Zea P. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Dandelion_02.jpgPhoto2 - Courtesy of Morguefile.com  

Photo3 -  Dandelion2_Wiki.jpg   By Sberardi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Photo4 - Dandelion3_Wiki.jpg  By Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA (Frosty Dandelion  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.


Monday

How to Grow Valerian


How to Grow Valerian
As an herb, valerian is an olfactory contradiction. It's been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, but it's most distinctive feature is its scent. You may love the way valerian smells, but if you do, you're in the minority. Most people who get a whiff of a valerian blossom think it smells a bit like cherry-vanilla (maybe). The surrounding leaves and stems contribute a definite musty, sour, almost rank odor, though, so the overall effect is generally unpleasant.

Still, one common historical use for valerian was in perfumery, so it must have something going for it. It's probably still used in some complex perfume recipes today. Perfumes can have hundreds of ingredients, and some of them are bound to be pretty unique.

Where the plant may smell just marginally tolerable when it's in heavy bloom, the roots definitely smell nasty moldy, and it's the root that's most often dried, powdered and used in herbal preparations.

I can picture valerian in a woodsy/swampy setting where layers of tree leaves are slowly decaying under fallen branches while mushrooms sprout nearby. It's that kind of smell. If you think I'm exaggerating, some word origin experts believe that the word "phew" (for a stinky smell) came from the writings of Dioscorides, a Roman physician in the first century A.D. who called valerian "phu." That seems a bit on the nose to be completely true, but it's a great story.

What valerian lacks in sweet perfume, it makes up for in herbal benefits, though. It's probably the premier sleep aid on the herbal market, and can also be useful as a tranquilizer and anti-depressant. If you think life stinks because you can't catch the zzzzs you need, then valerian may deserve a place in your garden.

Growing Valerian
How to Grow Valerian


A tall perennial, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) produces clusters of (usually) white flowers that attract butterflies and bees. It offers a nice screen for the back of an herb patch, especially if grown near a fence or other support. Provide valerian with full sun for at least 6 hours a day. It likes a nitrogen rich soil that drains well and appreciates plenty of moisture. I maintain my plants on a low spot in the garden that tends to pool -- briefly-- after a heavy rain.

Valerian can grow to about 5 feet high and more than a foot across, so give it plenty of space. It is hardy in zones 4 through 9. Treat valerian respectfully by giving it a layer of mulch spring and fall.

Spring and fall are also the best times to harvest valerian's roots and thin plants as needed. It can get raggedy and neglected looking after a couple of years and benefits from some tough love.

Cats enjoy valerian almost as much as they love catnip. Valerian is also reputed to attract vermin like mice and rats. I haven't had problems with that, but cats are a regular presence in my garden, so they may be acting as a natural pest repellent.

How to Propagate Valerian


Although you can propagate this herb from seed, the seeds can be persnickety, so prefer root division or rooted runners.

If you really want to try growing valerian from seed: Unlike basil and other hardy herb seeds that can stay viable in storage for years, germination rates for valerian seeds are iffy at the best of times, so get your seeds while they're hot (uh, fresh) and use them soon after purchase. Plant them in rich, well worked, loose soil to a depth of an 1/8 inch or so.

You can plant seeds directly in the garden in spring (they're frost hardy), but watch out for birds. Seeds germinate close to the surface and need a bit of light to quicken, so they're good candidates for predation. Keep them uniformly moist and they should germinate in a week to 10 days. You can also start seeds indoors. (You'll almost always obtain the best results by reading and following the instructions on the seed packet you buy.)

Valerian, the Sleep Herb


Valerian's dried and powdered root is widely used as an over the counter herbal sleep aid, but you can produce your own powder for pennies. Still, it can be a little sad growing valerian just to dig it up every season for its root crop. (I feel this way about most root herbs, including ginger.) If you grow quite a bit, though, it's easy to harvest a little valerian root and leave a majority of the plant in place.

*Valerian root can be a pretty powerful sleep inducer for some, and the potency of the root will vary somewhat from season to season or even from bottle to bottle when sold at the pharmacy. This can make determining the right dosage a challenge. The general wisdom is that the dryer the soil the plant is grown in, the more concentrated and potent the root's essential oils will be.


How to Grow ValerianA more mild option, especially if you haven't tried valerian before, is to use the leaves in a sleepy time tea. (The leaves aren't as potent or smelly as the root.) I typically harvest some root and lots of leaves. For valerian tea, I also include lemon balm and passionflower in the mixture. Both are also sleep aids, and together they taste more appealing than valerian alone. Hops is another good addition.

As an herbal trinity for night time relief, valerian (leaves and roots), passionflower leaves and lemon balm (all parts) are pretty reliable. All are also easy to grow, dry, store and use.

My motto is: If you have space in your garden, use it to grow something useful. Make the landscape work for you. I've also found over the years that the search for a safe sleep aid is what often sparks a beginning interest in herbal remedies. If you want to grow a few medicine cabinet ingredients in your backyard, valerian is a good place to start.

Valerian by Any Other Name


Valerian is known colloquially as herbal Valium (seriously), and by many other names too, including:

  • All-Heal
  • Amantilla
  • Baldrian
  • Common valerian
  • English valerian
  • Fragrant valerian
  • Garden heliotrope
  • Garden valerian
  • Set well
  • St. George’s herb
  • Vandal root

I should also mention that there's another common garden plant, Centranthus ruber, known as red valerian. It's a different plant that does not have the curative properties of Valeriana officinalis. It does have a few limited culinary applications: Its young leaves are sometimes used in salads, and the roots are edible. As with any plants you plan on consuming, know what you're growing and harvesting.

Medicinal Valerian

Valerian
Over the years, valerian has developed a folk reputation as a kind of herbal wonder plant that can do it all. You've seen above that one of its common names is all-heal. The science hasn't caught up with that anecdotal reputation, though. There does appear to be some support for the belief that valerian is an effective treatment for insomnia. It isn't a knockout herb that will have you snoring in 15 minutes. It takes from 30 minutes to 2 hours to feel the effects, which exhibit as a relaxed, drowsy feeling.

Valerian has been used to treat the following conditions, but at this writing there isn't enough evidence for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the National Institutes of Health to rate its effectiveness:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit disorder
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Convulsions
  • Depression
  • Epilepsy
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Joint pain
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Migraine
  • Muscle pain
  • Stomach ache
  • Tremors (mild)

*Valerian is generally considered safe, but taking it is contraindicated if you are pregnant or nursing.  It may be habit forming and should be used for brief periods only. The upper limit seems to be 25 days or so for adults, but verify that with the latest research, please. It is not recommended for very young children, and may cause drug interactions with alcohol, Alprazolam (Xanax) and any number of sedative medications. Valerian should not be taken within two weeks of surgery as it may interact with anesthetics and other medicines. Valerian may also react with drugs that are changed in the liver.

For the latest information about this or any other herb, visit MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), The National Institutes of Health and WebMd. Discuss any medical conditions or symptoms you have with a medical professional before adopting or changing your course of treatment.


Reference

MedlinePlus. "Valerian." http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/870.html

National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements."Valerian." http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Valerian-HealthProfessional/

WebMd. "Valerian." http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-870-VALERIAN.aspx?activeIngredientId=870&activeIngredientName=VALERIAN>

Photo 1 - Valerian1_Wiki.jpg By Christian Hummert (Ixitixel) (eigenes Foro) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valeriana_officinalis_%28Flower%29_2.jpg

Photo 2 - Valerian2_Wiki.jpg By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valeriana_officinalis_001.JPG

Photo 3 - Valerian3_Wiki.jpg By Danny S. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valerian-0497.JPG

Photo 4 - Valerian4_Wiki.jpg  Derek Harper [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valerian_above_Hazlewood_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1351026.jpg