V is for Vegetables and Victory

Dig For Victory Ð Grow You Own VegetablesIf you’ve ventured out to the grocery store lately, you may have found the produce section a bit skimpier than you’re used to.  With the coronoa virus causing wide-spread distribution issues in the grocery store and beyond, it’s become harder to top tonight’s spaghetti with fresh basil or slice up a juicy tomato to crown your burger.  Our favorite fruits, too, have taken a hit.  A recent news story reported that 10 truckloads of Driscoll brand raspberries couldn’t get to the stores on time due to issues in the transportation industry.

One way that people are supplementing their produce these days is through Victory Gardens.  A Victory Garden is an old idea that originated during WWI.  Not only could anyone participate in helping win the war by increasing America’s food supply, it was seen as an act of defiance against the Central Powers.  All citizens were asked to do was plant vegetables and fruits in “any available space” and raise gardens.  In this way, an estimated five million plus plots were put in that generated almost 1.5 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables (history.com, 2018).  The idea was successfully revived in WWII as well.  During this time, nearly 40% of America’s WWII food supply came from Victory Gardens.

Today, we, too, can help in the war against Covid-19 by planting a Victory Garden.  Big space or balcony space, there’s a place you can grow edibles for you and your family.  There are many vegetables, herbs, and even some fruits that novice gardeners can grow successfully.  Those who are returning to gardening in their spare quarantine time will also surely rediscover the joy in raising a vegetable garden.

Not only will you get to eat the literal fruits of your labors, you will also receive the many physical and mental well-being benefits that gardening brings.  One of the biggest benefits of gardening is stress reduction as we escape into a green, plant-filled world.  Another plus of gardening is the sense of purpose and accomplishment that it can bring- something we can all use more of in these uncertain times!  Finally, gardening has been shown to have many positive physical health effects such as burning calories, lowering blood pressure, and getting more vitamin D from the sun.

So where to start with your garden?  First, assess your outdoor space.  If you have space for just a few potted plants, think about what produce you most enjoy eating.  Peppers hot or sweet, tomatoes, green beans, and strawberries are easy to grow.  They can also often be found as small plants at garden centers, ready for you to plant in a container.  Herbs are also a great choice and help to stretch your food options when running to the grocery store isn’t possible.  Basil, cilantro, parsley, and mint do well in containers or in the garden bed.  These seasonings can be added to butter, oils, vinegars, sauces, and soups.

For people who have more room, there are many exciting things you can do with your garden space.  You may choose to plant pumpkins or watermelons with your children and watch them grow over the summer.  Or, you could build a bean tunnel for your children to play in.  Corn is also a fun plant pick because there are so many different kinds, and, of course, because it tastes so good fresh.  Larger plants, such as broccoli and potatoes also do well in a bigger garden space.

After you’ve established your garden, the next step is to care for it.  Keeping your garden healthy and growing strong requires a steady amount of water and a watchful eye on pests and critters that want your veggies as much as you do.  Neem oil and insecticidal soaps are a smart choice for insect control because they don’t leave toxic residues in the soil or on your food.  Another way to help your garden is to collect food scraps into a compost pile.  When the compost breaks down, it can be mixed into the soil of your garden to give it a big nutrient boost.

As your garden begins to produce tasty foods for your family, you’ll begin to see the “victory” that gardening brings in our new covid-19 world.  You can take your harvest and make healthy sauces, jams without artificial sweeteners or colors, and jars of vitamin-packed preserved food that will supplement what is available in the grocery store.  Having food available will require less trips to the grocery store and less exposure to the virus for you.  It will also take some of the pressure off of our strained food supply network.  And, you’ll have improved your physical and mental well-being the whole garden season.  Having your own garden is a real victory over the disruption that covid-19 has brought to our lives.

To find out more, check out some of the great online resources:

Vegetable Cultivars for Kentucky Gardens

Culinary Herbs

Gardening in Small Spaces

Organic Vegetable Gardening

Free Online Gardening Classes

Gardening Course to Take At Home

How to Waste Money By Trying to Save Money in the Garden

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There’s better things to do with your cash than bury it in soil! Read on for tips on saving money wisely in the garden.

Cheapskate.  Penny-pincher.  Tightwad.  Scrooge. .  . Yes, these words are all too familiar to me.  Regrettably, however, they don’t apply to me as much as they do my mother.  You see, she was the original Coupon Queen (not that other upstart!), she’s beyond your everyday and even specialty “how to save money” articles, and really, her hobby is to hold onto her pennies so tightly, Abe Lincoln himself needs CPR.  She always has a new way I could save money on this or that, a comment of disbelief that I bought the name brand kind, and some magical way to fix a broken thing.  She isn’t too good to use anything, saves even the smallest scraps of fabric, paper, and plastic, salvages remotely useful items (who doesn’t need six different kinds of broken vacuum cleaners in their garage?!), and generally protects all that is sacred in this world of material goods.  Garage sale underpants, second-hand food, cast-off bathroom products, you name it, she’s found a way to scrimp on just about everything I can think of.

As I said, unfortunately for my bank account, I’m not as cheap as she is.  If I was, perhaps I’d be able to survive without a day job as she does.  The good news is that I have learned some things from her.  One thing I’ve discovered is that I am good at putting together a garden on shoestring.  It has taken me a really long time to get to this point but I am pretty proud of the way my garden is coming along this year.

If you want a Martha Stewart-esque garden sprouting up from your soil this season, you should stop reading right here, talk to someone who can help you, and get your checkbook ready.  If however, you are willing to put in some work and be patient, there are lots of ways to save money on creating a beautiful garden.  I say “put in some work” because that is one of the major sources of spending in the garden.  I have had to divide my own monstrous hostas, spread my own much, dig in edging, and transplant shrubs on my own.  I just can’t afford to get someone to do that for me.

The “be patient” part of the above statement refers to seeing your garden through, season after season.  Your perennials will start to expand and you can divide them.  You might even be able to swap some of your extras with friends.  You’ll be able to get a better idea of what works and doesn’t work in your particular microclimate of a backyard.  You can save money on plants when you know what performs well in your garden.  Another big benefit of being patient is that you’ll come across different plants, accents, and other materials throughout the season.  For example, sometimes there is extra wood mulch for the taking at a municipal site.

Saving money can go wrong, however, so be careful!  There are lots of seemingly good ideas on cheapening up the garden that should be avoided.  Using dish soap and water instead of buying insecticidal soap, for example, could do more harm than good on your plants.  There are lots of other “don’ts” that I see on a daily basis in my job as a retail garden center employee.  As you’ll see below, most of the don’ts of saving money in the garden relate to good plant care and putting the right plant in the right place.

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Even if you give this plant all the TLC in the world, it is no bargain.

  1. Buying marked-down plants at the garden center. To understand this, let’s go back to the beginning of the plant’s life.  It was probably born in a light-, climate-, water-, and nutrient- controlled environment.  It was given everything imaginable to make it lush, green, and in bloom at the point of sale.  When it is shipped to the garden center, suddenly, all those terrific daily nutrient boosts, perfect lighting conditions, and regular waterings are gone.  They are now at the mercy of Katelyn, a 19 year old college student who just needs a summer job at the local big-box store.  The plants have to rely on Katelyn and what’s in the pot to keep them going (unless they are lucky enough to get fed).  So the longer they sit on the shelves, the more nutrients they have consumed and the closer they are to developing a nutrient deficiency.  Furthermore, since they were so babied in a controlled environment, their pest resistance isn’t really the greatest.  Herbicides and insecticides only work for so long.  If the plant has been sitting at the retailer’s for a while, the pesticides may have worn off.  Finally, the plant was probably also probably given some kind of growth hormone to make it bigger, smaller, sexier, or whatever at the nursery.  Without the daily supply of those chemicals, it can become stretched, develop “witch’s broom” where stems start coming out everywhere, or even stop growing altogether.  The only time when it would possibly be a good idea to buy a mark-down plant is if it appears to be healthy and the merchant is just trying move the product before it goes bad.  Even plants that are only suffering from irregular or lack of watering may not recover.  The stress that the plant undergoes in times of drought sometimes can’t be reversed.
  2. Scrimping on the “extras”- fertilizer, soil amendments, and other treatments. If you don’t want to waste money going around and replacing plants, take the time to make the right environment for them.  Plants need 16 essential elements to live.  Carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen come from the air and water.  The other 13 elements are drawn right from the soil.  Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are used the most.  Generally, nitrogen helps with leaves, phosphorus is used for root growth and seed formation, and potassium helps to grow flowers and fruits. To get these nutrients from the soil, the soil needs to be healthy.  You don’t need to run out and buy a bunch of fancy stuff to do this.  Keep the soil you have healthy by tilling it only when necessary, using organic-based fertilizers in moderation, never using harsh chemical pesticides, and providing an even amount of water.  If you find it necessary, you can add things to your soil to help your plants, based on their growing requirements.  Peat moss, bone meal, and sulfur are just some of the additives you may find necessary to make the right growing conditions for your plants.  Fertilizing instructions can usually be found on the plant tag or by a simple internet search.
  3. Buying plants for the wrong soil, light, or moisture conditions, even when they are really cheap. As mentioned above, plants have preferred environmental conditions for optimal growth.  If you buy the wrong plant for the wrong place, you’ll probably end up having to replace the plant.  Even if you think that marigolds look awesome next to your hydrangeas, they have completely different growing requirements.  Take the time to ask a staff member, check the plant tags, or look it up on your phone when purchasing plants.  Even better, figure out what problem areas you have in your garden and research what will go well there.  Having a plan can help you prevent the next no-no. . .

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    OMG! Fluorescent Gerbera daisies on sale for $5.99!

  4. Using the “hummingbird” strategy and just buying what’s on sale. There’s always a customer or two that I notice putting brightly colored plant after brightly colored plant in their cart.  Pretty soon, their cart looks downright electrified with pink, red, and orange orbs glowing from within the foliage.  These type of people I refer to as “hummingbirds.”  Like the namesake bird, they flit from fluorescent magenta Gerbera daisies to saturated purple wave petunias and back to the preternaturally orange pompom marigolds.  This is, actually, EXACTLY what retailers want people to do so they can make money.  This is also EXACTLY what you DON’T want to do if you’re trying to plant frugally this year.  Aside wasting your money on what may seem like a good deal, if you go all technicolor, your garden will not look good.  There won’t be any special focal points, your garden will have a “busy” feel to it, and the overall look won’t be pleasing to the eye.  You are much better off buying just one or two more expensive showpiece plants and surrounding them with accents.  The accents will cost less and they will help the showpiece plant really “pop.”

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    Perennials (like this Cardinal Flower) have so many benefits in the garden, including a greater likelihood of attracting beneficial pollinators.

  5. Not using perennials and shrubs in the garden, even though they may cost more initially. I think this is where most people go wrong in making their gardens go from ho-hum to wow.  They don’t start with a good plan.  The just sort of put whatever looks pretty in the cart and assume it can go in somewhere.  A good way to approach your garden is to go from biggest to smallest.  Start with the biggest thing in your garden, the bones, if you will.  It is probably a tree, large shrub, or even a piece of statuary.  Next comes the secondary in line:  the shrubs.  Like the trees, they can provide four-season interest if planned carefully.  Shrubs can also offer beautiful spring blossoms, berries, and interesting foliage.  After that, perennials can be installed around the trees and shrubs.  Perennials come back year after year if cared for properly.  Oftentimes, they spread, too.  The last piece to go in the garden is annuals.  This is where things can really add up.  You can minimize annual expenses by putting in more living groundcovers or using hardscapes effectively.  If you put in a 6” border around your beds, for example, you won’t have to fill in the front of your beds with smaller growing annuals.

Now that I’ve talked about ways NOT to save money, you are probably wondering about good ways you can save money.  There are good ways to save money that work but I’ll have to save that for another blog, my mom is on her way over to go to garage sales with me!  She said something about needing a new vacuum cleaner . . .

Photo Credits:

Butterfly on Cardinal Flower:  http://homeguides.sfgate.com/native-plants-butterflies-63389.html

Gerbera daisies:  http://imgbuddy.com/light-pink-gerbera-daisy.asp

Planting money in soil:  http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/finance/advisorvoices/learn-grow-money-garden/

Wilted plant:  http://tangerine13.com/2014/11/12/walk-into-the-daylight/


Nutrient information: American Horticultural Society Pests & Diseases by Pippa Greenwood

My “Sage” Advice about “Grillin’ Thyme”

I got sent home early on Tuesday because it is slow at work.  Slow?  It’s only May 26th!  Has the garden center season really come and passed already?  I’ve been working on setting up the garden center aisles since February.  Three months of freezing outside leads up to this?!  Why didn’t anyone tell me this is the most build up I’ll ever experience for something so short?

Lemon thyme

Lemon thyme

Looking back, I can say that the last six weeks at work have indeed been busy.  In fact, you could liken the last six weekends to a Japanese beetle feeding frenzy on newly-planted rose bushes.  At times, it seemed liked people were just buying ANYTHING that could be planted for the sake of planting SOMETHING.  Geraniums, marigolds, petunias, and impatiens were snapped up so quickly, you wouldn’t even have known there were there just a few hours ago.  Entire racks of colorful osteospermums (Cape daisies), pericallis (cineraria), and ranunculus (Persian buttercups) were ransacked and left bare by day’s end.  On one particularly beautiful day in early May, we sold out of a shipment of wave petunias in less than six hours!  At least there weren’t any tickle-me-Elmo-esque fights over the last of the 12” Color Bowls when they were on sale for $7.99!

And now, we have the bench warmers, the unloved and unpicked.  A handful of plants have staunchly defied being purchased and remain firmly planted on our tables.  We have had the same branded purple and ivory petunias since the end of March.  Shipped with these petunias were lipstick-bright pink Gerbera daisies that sold out in just a few days!  People literally had to walk over ice to get to these things it was still so cold out.  Yet, their purple-and-ivory compatriots still await loving homes.



Something else we’ve had since early April are 12” square herb combo planters.  I’m a little puzzled why people wouldn’t want these.  Considering that a single potted herb costs $2.88, why wouldn’t you want four different herbs plus a reusable planter pot for $12.99?  It’s the same thing with the 8” oval “Grillin’ Thyme” planters we have.  Also $12.99, they have three different herbs and a decorative pot.  Since we’ve had the darn things so long, the sage has really filled out, the rosemary is coming along quite nicely, and the chives are starting to spread.  I have moved both of these kinds of planters to the front entry display rack, the end-of-the-aisle display rack indoors, the end caps on the plant tables, and now back to the vegetable section of the plant tables and still NOBODY wants these!

Since I’m holding out hope the unwanted petunias will find the right person to take them home, I’m going to work on why these wonderful herb planters belong in YOUR home.  The “Grillin’ Thyme” planters come in two varieties.  One has thyme, sage, and rosemary and the other has basil, cilantro, and chives.  In the 12” square planter, there are two types of basil, parsley, and marjoram.

Each one of these eight types of herbs has a long history which is not really a surprise given they have had a long history at my garden center!  Over the centuries, these herbs have been used to ward off the plague, dress wounds, make people fall in love, and, of course, to season foods, especially off-tasting ones in the days before refrigeration.  There is actually a lot of fun trivia associated with the many types of herbs we use today.  See if you can match the herbs below to a fact about them:

1)      One of the few herbs that intensifies in flavor when dried a)      Basil
2)      Dating back to ancient Greek medical texts, this herb has been used to improve memory and heal other ailments.  Current research shows there may be some truth to the claim. b)      Chives
3)      Some historians think that part of this herb’s botanical name means “kingly” or “royal,” while others think that its name comes from a Latin word that describes a mythical serpent with a deathly stare c)       Cilantro
4)      Once used as fodder for Roman chariot horses d)      Dill
5)      Romanian gypsies used this herb in their fortune-telling activities e)      Mint
6)      Used in cuisines world-wide, it is sometimes called the most popular herb in the world f)       Oregano
7)      This was created by the Greek goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness, according to Greek legends g)      Parsley
8)      Contains thymol, an antiseptic chemical compound that is used in personal care products today h)      Rosemary
9)      It is easy to tell if something is from this family because it will have a square stem i)        Sage
10)   Was included in many magic potions in the Middle Ages j)        Thyme

Answers:  1- i; 2- h; 3- a; 4- g; 5- b; 6- c; 7- f; 8- j; 9- e; 10- d

Despite the storied pasts herbs may have, they are relatively straightforward to grow and harvest.  Many of the herbs above- basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme- come from Mediterranean areas.  They prefer warm temperatures and moderate amounts of watering.  Parsley and basil are easy to start from seed.  The others can be found easily as potted starter plants at your local gardening retailer.  You could even conveniently purchase them in a mixed herb planter, such as the “Grilling Thyme” ones at my work (hint, hint)!  Be sure, however, to pick only herbs that are starting out healthy.  The growing season is too short to wait to nurse a sick plant back to health.

My herb planter- an old chicken feeder!

My herb planter- an old chicken feeder!

Once your herbs are growing, maintenance needs are modest.  Rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage like soil on the drier
side while mint grows well in wet soil.  Most herbs grow best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6-7.  Basil, dill, and parsley are the exceptions and can be grown in slightly lower pH levels.  An all-purpose fertilizer can be helpful for container-grown plants since they are dependent on what is in the pot for nutrients.  Insects and diseases don’t usually bother herb plants but remember, if they do, it is important to find an organic pest control method since your herbs will be eaten fresh.  Regularly pruning your herbs encourages fuller, bushier growth.

At harvest time, there are many ways to preserve the bounty.  Herbs can be dried, frozen, placed in oil, or preserved in vinegar.  A convenient way to preserve herbs is to finely chop them, mix in a little olive oil, spoon into a mini ice cube tray, and freeze until needed.  The small blocks will add a pleasingly fresh taste to your mid-winter soups and casseroles.

The best part about growing your own herbs?  The yummy dishes, of course!  Here are two of my favorite herb recipes.  I love how these fresh recipes really showcase the flavor of each herb.  Bon appetite!


  • 5-7 fresh Roma plum tomatoes. Use the freshest tomatoes you can find and preferably not from the grocery store.  You will want to end up with about 2 cups of tomatoes.
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tbs. extra-virgin or light tasting olive oil
  • 20 fresh organic basil leaves
  • ¼ cup shredded parmesan, not the grated kind the comes in a jar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Either frozen garlic bread OR a loaf of good French or Italian bread sliced
  1. Prepare the frozen garlic bread according to directions or lightly toast the sliced bread in the oven.
  2. To skin the tomatoes, place in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Remove and rinse with cold water in a colander.  When cool, the skins will slip off easily.
  3. Slice tomatoes in half longwise and scoop out seeds. Dice tomatoes depending on your preference:  small chunks if you like a tomato-y bite or finely diced if you like a more subtle taste.  Place tomatoes in a glass or ceramic mixing bowl- don’t use a metal bowl because it will react with the acid in the tomatoes.
  4. Stack the basil leaves on top of each other and roll up like a cigar. Make small slices down the length of your basil cigar.  This will leave you with small ribbons of basil, perfect for this recipe.
  5. Add basil, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan to the mixing bowl. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste.  You will probably have to use a good amount of salt, close to a teaspoon, but make sure to taste test first so you don’t overdo it for your taste.
  6. Serve the tomato mixture over warmed bread. This is so good I could just eat this for dinner on a hot summer night!

Tzatziki sauce

  • 4 small containers plain Greek yogurt (approximately 6 oz. each) or 3 cups plain Greek yogurt. (Regular yogurt is too watery and not as creamy)
  • Fresh juice from 1 lemon, about 3 tbs. Reserve half of this juice so you can add to taste.  (It will make a difference if you take the time to juice your own lemons but bottled juice can be used in a pinch)
  • 1 large cucumber, English cucumbers are nice but you’ll need 2 of them since they are smaller
  • 1 clove of minced garlic or ¾ tsp. from a jar
  • 1 tbs. salt for cucumbers plus salt to taste
  • 1 tbs. fresh dill (Use only the fine leaves and not the woody stem parts.)
  • Black pepper to taste
  1. Peel the cucumber. Slice longwise to get two long halves.  Scoop the seeds out of the center and discard the seeds.  Chop the cucumber into chunks, it doesn’t have to be fancy.  Place chopped cucumbers into a sieve or colander.  Sprinkle 1 tbs. salt over the top of them.  Let sit for 30 minutes.  Rinse the salt off well and lay out the cucumber pieces on a paper towel to dry.   This step helps your cucumbers shed excess water.  Taking the time to prepare the cucumbers this way will make your dip much more creamy and flavorful.  If you are using English cucumbers, they do not need to be salted.
  2. Place prepared cucumbers, yogurt, half of the lemon juice, garlic, and dill in a food processor. Blend just until the cucumbers are chopped in.  If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a blender.  If you don’t have either appliance, you can finely dice the cucumbers and dill yourself, then stir everything together in a bowl.  Either method will give you something really delish!
  3. Add a little salt and pepper to the dip. Taste test and add more salt, pepper, and/or lemon juice as you wish.
  4. This dip is really good with pita chips, gyros, falafel patties, and raw veggies. For a super easy gyros recipe adapted by Megan Rinaldi from Pampered Chef, visit http://www.tastebook.com/recipes/2174072-Turkey-Gyros.

Perhaps you can enjoy your bruschetta while pondering if your garden needs any off-colored petunias.  In addition to the purple and ivory petunias, there are some ‘Indian Summer’ yellow and orange petunias that nobody wants.  I’ve moved them all over the garden center and no luck.  I’ve even displayed them with an accent plant and still, there they sit on the plant table, firmly rooted to the benches.  Poor plants that nobody wants!

 A lovely planting of Thai Basil

A lovely planting of Thai Basil


General herb information:  Culinary Herbs by Ernest Small (2006), The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz (1994), Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening Herbs by Patricia S Michalak (1993)

Herb cultivation:  http://herbgardens.about.com/od/troubleshooting/tp/10Mostcommonmistakes.htm

Basil information:  http://www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/Basil%20Guide.pdf

Chive information:  http://www.indepthinfo.com/chives/history.shtml, http://www.sallybernstein.com/food/columns/gilbert/chives.htm,

Oregano information:  http://naturehacks.com/healing-herbs-the-history-and-health-benefits-of-oregano/, http://www.herbinfosite.com/?page_id=585

Parsley information:  http://www.indepthinfo.com/parsley/history.shtml,

Rosemary information: http://www.ourherbgarden.com/herb-history/rosemary.html, http://themindunleashed.org/2014/07/scientists-find-sniffing-rosemary-can-increase-memory-75.html, http://www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/rosemaryfactsheet.pdf

When Snails Attack . . . And When They Don’t

05-20 snail infographicAmong garden pests, I think snails and slugs might be the cutest of the bunch.  Who would think these roly-poly little slimy creatures with stalks for eyes could be such a dangerous predator of your hostas and roses?  And what about those little guys with a curly shells on their back?  Endearing, really.

I had an up-close look at hundreds, maybe thousands of slugs and snails on recent shipment of Knock-Out roses and Endless Summer Hydrangeas at my work.  At the point of hundreds and thousands, snails start to lose a little of their charm for me.  As we unloaded the plant truck at the garden center I work at, more and more and more containers of roses came off with tiny grey polka-dots.  Looking closer, some of the five gallon roses had ten, twenty, and even more slugs and snails dotting leaves, flowers, soil, and containers of the roses.  Snails began to show up on the pallets, racking, and even other plants.  My co-workers and I were concerned about having nightmares starring psycho snails there were so many.  It was starting to look like an episode of bad TV, where an announcer says with exaggerated enunciation and slow, moving musical score, “Coming up next, see what happens in a suburban homeowner’s garden (pause) WHEN SNAILS ATTACK!”

Eventually, after all of the several thousand dollar shipment was unloaded, we quarantined it off in the corner of the yard.  Due photographs were taken and requite emails were sent.  Heads were scratched and management was consulted.  It was concurred that the shipment would be refused and sent on it’s way back to Snail-Eden, or wherever it had come from.

Since this naturally happened on a Sunday, I had to wait in suspense until the next day when the fate of the snails would be decided.  The verdict was NOT AT ALL what I had suspected.  My three outcomes were:  send it back, spray it ourselves, or put it all in plant refuse containers.  Had I considered that we would be told that the snails were completely natural and totally harmless?  No, not ever, at all.  Snails and slugs are bad, there is no interpreting this fact if you are a gardener.  I believe I learned this fact before I had a double-digit birthday.  The grower had a fancy name for the snails of which I can’t find anywhere on the internet and a glib speech about how the snails peacefully live in the soil and only come out on the truck because it is refrigerated.  According to the grower, upon being offloaded, the sweet and innocent little guys conveniently go back into the soil, all the while only eating dead plant material and serving as charming little plant decorations.  I’m surprised that the grower wasn’t so impressed with their little scheme that they didn’t charge my employer MORE for the service of adding the snails to the shipment.

All of this hubbub regarding our everyday mollusks has made me especially curious about these creatures.  There is actually a lot more going on in their little mucus-covered bodies than you might think.  Here’s what I’ve found out with a little internet sleuthing:

05-21 snail id chart10.)  Snails and slugs are both alike and different.  Both kinds are part of the mollusk family and are related to octopi, squid, river mussels, clams, and oysters.  Both also usually inhabit the same areas and have the same feeding habits.  Biologically speaking, the major difference is the lack of a completely formed shell.  Without the bulky shell, slugs are able to squeeze into tighter spaces.  This gives slugs an advantage over hungry predators and better places to lay their eggs.

9.)  Snails and slugs can live in the water or on land.  Land snails and slugs have undergone so many evolutionary adaptations that land and sea snails are now mostly unrelated members of the mollusk family.  Land snails and slugs breathe with lungs, sea-faring snails and slugs have gills.  Some land snails and slugs have gills, some sea snails and slugs have lungs, and some have both!

8.)  Snails and slugs have “eyes” at the end of one of their two sets of tentacles.  Usually called eye stalks, they are properly called “ommatophores.”  The other set of tentacles is used for smelling and tasting.  The tentacles can be retracted into the snail’s body if danger is sensed.  Snails use blood pressure to push the tentacles back out.

7.)  Snails are reportedly more nutritious than beef.  One 3 ounce serving of escargot has no fat, 14 grams of protein, and just 76 calories.  One 3 ounce serving of beef steak typically contains 12 grams of fat, 23, grams of protein, and 214 calories.  Escargot also has many essential nutrients such as iron, magnesium, and vitamin E.  Tryptophan, a chemical that helps release serotonin, is also found in mollusk-based meals.

05-21 snail beauty cream6.)  Snail and slug mucus has been included in cosmetics for its reputed regenerative effects.  Those clever Greeks once used snail slime to help their skin.  Today, clinical trials have shown there is truth to the claim.  Snail mucus contains beneficial acids and elastins. You can purchase your own jar of the miracle cream from several online vendors for about $20.

5.)  Snails played an important part in the Aztec religion.  An old legend tells of a competition among gods to become the fifth sun in the sky (apparently, the other four had failed in some way).  Tecuciztecatl, god of snails and worms, was one of only two gods who stepped forward.  A challenge ensued in which Tecuciztecatl fell short on courage.  The other god (actually a goddess), became the Goddess of the Sun and Tecuciztecatl was pronounced moon god.  As punishment for his lack of courage, he now plays second-best to the sun and chases it around the sky every day.  The snail shell depicted on Tecuciztecatl’s back represents the moon.

4.)  Snails and slugs have a four-section “brain.”  Yep, that squishy little body has more of a brain than you might imagine!  The cerebral ganglion of a snail is divided into four sections.  Studies have shown that snails are even capable of some types of learning..

3.)  If you are very quiet, it is possible to hear a large snail eating with its rasp-like mouthpart.  Snails and slugs have a tongue-like apparatus that is full of tiny teeth.  These teeth, called radula, shred food into tiny particles.  Snails and slugs can be herbivore or omnivores, depending on the species.  Most snails and slugs eat decaying plant matter.  Many also relish hostas, daylillies, roses, and other particularly succulent garden plants.  They seem to enjoy holding regular night-long feasting parties skeletonizing the hard work you’ve put into your garden (oh boy, lettuce!)

2.)  Snails and slugs are hermaphrodites.  That means that every snail and slug lays eggs.  They still participate in mating rituals to inseminate each other with their sperm.  A snail’s love life is actually rather complex and involves the use of “love darts.”  An actual dart is created in the snail or slug’s body and fired into the body of its mate before insemination occurs.  Some say this is the origin of the legend of Cupid’s darts.

05-21 african snail1.)  The biggest recorded snail in world – the Giant African Snail- weighed 2 pounds and had a 10” shell!  The snails have been outlawed in the US and Canada due to their penchant for eating right through stucco and cement walls.  A legal world’s biggest, however, can be found on the Pacific West Coast.  The second biggest slug in the world is the banana slug.  It can grow up to 9” long and weigh up to a ¼ pound.

So, if you’ve read this far and are still unconvinced that snails and slugs should be able to live in your garden based on their uniqueness and the story the grower told my employer, there are ways to rid your plants from these menaces.  First of all, you must understand that snails and slugs are NOT insects.  Traditional ways to get rid of insect pests in the garden won’t work.  As mentioned above, they are mollusks.  Good integrated pest management practices suggest using preventative measures first then progressing to chemical controls as a last resort.  To prevent snails and slugs in the garden, use proper sanitation measures such as removing standing water, making sure there is enough air flow between plants, and eliminating plant debris in the garden.  This will help make your garden an unfriendly place for snails and slugs.  Using a watering method that gets the soil wet and keeps the leaves dry will help reduce moisture.  Secondly, make an effort to increase the predators of snails and slugs in your yard.  Birds, frogs, lizards, and worms have an appetite for snails and slugs and can be easily attracted to your garden.  Copper fencing around your garden and using diatomaceous earth can also discourage snails.

05-21 slug damage

You will need to up your game if you begin to find snails and slugs on your plants or signs of them on your plants.  Signs of snails and slugs are chewed-up, hole-y, or skeletonized leaves; remains of their feces on leaves; and small clusters of round, clear eggs in the soil.  Snails and slugs can be handpicked off plants and dropped into a bucket of soapy water.  You can use an organic-based insecticidal soap on the area you found the snail or slug to prevent future attacks.  An old-fashioned “hack” to get rid of snails and slugs is to trap them in a low, flat container with beer in it.  Reportedly, they are attracted to the yeast but it may also be possible they are jealous of your newly purchased Summer Pale Ale brew!  Another “hack” is to sprinkle a little salt on your plants during your morning walks when there is still dew on the plants.  Don’t go crazy with the salt, too much will hurt your plants.

If you are having a very difficult time and are particularly infested with snails or slugs (such as Hawaii’s current infestation with Cuban slugs), a chemical control called a molluscicide can be used with caution.  Molluscicides are usually sold in the form of food bait.  The active ingredients are typically methiocarb, metaldehyde, and iron phosphate.  Molluscicides can also be purchased in liquid or granular form.  As with any chemical control, read the label and be aware of the dangers to other animals, pets, humans, and waterways.  It is important to only use these chemicals as a last resort because you can upset the natural balance of living things in the soil and/or in the food chain that snails are a part of.  Disturbing either of these factors will only make your gardening woes greater.

While you may not chose to worship snails as the moon god as the Aztecs did, hopefully this article has made you a little more aware of their ecology and how to handle them in the garden!  Though they can be a nuisance, controlling them is a fairly simple matter that doesn’t typically require any harsh pesticides.  I also hope that, by reading this article, you will also be able to change the headline in your garden from “When Snails Attack” to “When Snails Don’t Attack” without fabricating a tale of innocuousness (ahem, unnamed grower!).

P.S.  I just found out that National Escargot Day is in three days, May 24th!

05-21 snail anatomyPicture Credits:   
Slug damage on plants:  http://www.allaboutslugs.com/how-to-identify-slug-or-snail-damage/

Snail beauty cream:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2019881/Snail-slime-latest-beauty-mollusc-mucus-touted-clear-acne-heal-scars-beat-wrinkles.html

Giant African snail:  http://www.hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/latino-daily-news/details/giant-snails-eating-through-miami-homes/23827/

Infographic:  www.snail-world.com

More-than-you-needed-to-know Anatomy Diagram:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/Snail_diagram-en_edit1.svg/1280px-Snail_diagram-en_edit1.svg.png

Identification Chart:  https://ybertaud9.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/easy-way-to-rid-slugs-and-snails-organically/


Pesticide information:  http://www.hawaii.edu/cowielab/24%20Hollingsworth%20Angio%20Workshop.pdf

Aztec legend:  http://home.freeuk.net/elloughton13/myth.htm

Snail anatomy and ecology:  Wikipedia and other sites

Giant African Snail:  http://planetoddity.com/the-african-giant-snail-the-largest-snail-on-earth/ and http://guinnessrecordsworld.blogspot.com/2011/05/largest-snail.html

Oh Aldo, You’re So Smart!

IMG_1518Considering my parents as “old hippies” can go two ways.  I can say it lightly and dismiss their sometimes odd behavior with a snicker.  Or, in the other iteration, when I more seriously ponder their motives, I add the word “crazy” to “old hippies.”  This label has been on my mind recently as I’ve begun to hear the term “land ethic” more and more.  Possessing a land ethic seems to be as important as having a suburban ranch home with 2.5 children did in the past.

I’m curious, though.  What does a land ethic involve, really?  Like a lot of issues today, it seems like a land ethic is just another euphemism to describe the complex relationship people have with the nature that nurtures their lives, whether they ever go outside or not.  Isn’t this just a recycling of the 1990’s push for environmentalism?  Or a reinterpretation of the 1970’s Earth Day initiative? Or does the idea go back even further?

Actually, the idea of a land ethic encompasses all of the above.  This term was coined in 1948 by celebrated environmentalist Aldo Leopold in The Sand County Almanac.  Towards the end of the book in the chapter titled “The Land Ethic,” Leopold discusses what the idea of ethics in general means.  He states, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise:  that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.  His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate.”  Building on this idea of a community-based ethics system, Leopold goes on to pen, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land.”

Like Leopold says in the next paragraph, this sounds simple enough.  We can all do that, right?  He checks me in the next part, however.  Leopold writes, “This sounds simple:  do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Yes, but just what and whom do we love?  Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver.  Certainly not the water, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage.  Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye.  Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.  A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.”

Furthermore, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”  I am knocked back on my heels by Leopold’s thoughts.  Possessing a land ethic isn’t a gimmicky new trend.  This is the real deal. He is asking me if I am going to be a part of the land or live apart from it.

I’d like to say the life choices my husband and I have made would suggest that we fully intend to live as a part of the land.  Whether this is real or simply self-serving, I have always felt my husband has lived an honorable life.  He gave up a good salary as an automotive mechanic to work at Hoover Forest Preserve as live-in Site Manager.  We sacrificed a lot as a family to have this live-in position but I always felt like it was worth it because he (and by extension, me) were charged as care-takers for the 400 acre expanse.  Although this privilege hasn’t been without its challenges, we have been given the very tangible task of living out our land ethic together.

I am stung, however, by our daughter’s absolute refusal to develop any sense of land ethic whatsoever.  I am talking about a person who doesn’t wear a coat in the middle of winter because “I won’t be outside anyway.”  This is the same person who once stared at me in disbelief when I sent her outside to pick tomatoes to make guacamole with.  She has also rolled her eyes in disgust as I’ve tried to show her the miracle of the growth of roots on an onion bulb in a water jar.  In short, she goes outside as little as possible and has zero connection to the living world.

Is she completely blinded by the cool electric glow of her cell phone to the blessing of living in a 400 acre forest preserve, replete with a river, forests, meadows, creeks, and hills?  Has she truly missed how alive Hoover is with the flight of herons, the swish of deer through the long grass, and the hum of nighttime insects in the summer?  Has she not seen the spectrum of colors that span the entire spectrum that I’ve witnessed in our seven years of living here?  Can she be completely oblivious to the coolest of bluish-whites on a winter’s pine tree to the marbled pinks and oranges in the eastern sky on an early morning’s walk?  I am astonished to realize that, yes, is it possible that all of the unparalleled splendor of the natural world can slip right through her ungloved, manicured fingers.  She could care less when the skunk cabbage begins to bloom under spring ice, when woodcocks sing and dance for a mate later in the spring, and when the leaves form a multi-hued mosaic on the creek’s still waters in the fall.  She is deaf to the toad’s whirring call in spring, ignorant of the dance between butterfly and flower in the fields, and uncomprehending of temporal beauty of ephemeral woodland flowers.

She is so opposed to being surrounded by the elements of the land- soils, water, plants, and animals- that she cringes with embarrassment at the thought of having people over to our house.  Excuses of all kinds have been issued by her as to why so-and-so can’t come over and why I need to drive across town to drop her off at their house.  It is also, apparently, the MOST humiliating of punishments that the bus has to stop in front of the big sign that says “Hoover Forest Preserve” every afternoon.

Inside, I truly cry for my daughter as I feel she is missing such a valuable part of her life’s fabric.  I wonder if I’ve failed somehow.  I am, after all, a professional environmental educator.  She’s been dragged to more programs, preserves, and museums than most people her age and she has hated every minute of it.  Seeking no discomfort whatsoever in her life, she would rather choose to sit on a cushioned couch and stare into a 3×5 back-lit screen and scroll through the inane minutia of other’s people’s lives than forge out her own life.

Perhaps you think I’m being too hard on her; that ALL teenagers are like this.  Whether or not this is true, she is part of the next generation of land-keepers.  All the people my daughter’s age will soon be making the policy decisions on how to get water to California’s residents, how to deal with increased storm activity on the East coast, how to preserve the ice caps that polar bears and other arctic wildlife depend on, and so on.  How will she and her peers be equipped to find their way to keeping the balance of nature?  Again, I go back to my role in her education and question whether I’ve done enough to equip her with an enduring land ethic.

IMG_1517My land ethic was given to me from my parents.  Those “old hippies” have cultivated gardens, purchased natural areas, and attempted to live closely connected to their natural surroundings throughout their forty-plus years together.  A picture that always stands out in my mind is of them tending to their vegetable garden, taken in my late teens.  They honestly convey the true satisfaction of a life lived in tune with their values.  Since this photo was taken, they have participated in restoring part of a cornfield to a prairie, planted trees for a state conservation program, and continued their campaign against commercial pesticides.

The thing I appreciate most about their land ethic is that they never did this because it was trendy.  Their convictions come from somewhere deep inside them, a place where I fear that my daughter’s soul cannot be penetrated.  They have never flaunted their connection, never condemned other people for their actions, and never sought recognition for their efforts.  Rather, in the most dignified way, they have chosen to live a quiet life by example, letting their actions speak louder than words.IMG_1516

In fact, I don’t think my parents ever needed to read Leopold’s parting words in A Sand County Almanac to grasp their place in the world.  Leopold closes his spectacular work by saying:

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.  By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.  Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.  He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.  Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff.  If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well.  Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals.  In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’ “

I’m pretty sure this song was written in my parent’s hearts long before they recognized the words.  This is the same song they listened to when they moved from a home several states away to their current residence.  One of their main reasons for moving was that the dirt was no good.  Trivial, right?  Not when you take into account that they weren’t able to form that sustaining connection they seek from their land.  There weren’t nurtured by it and couldn’t continue living somewhere that just didn’t fit their values.  Is it possible that I could learn a thing or two from these crazy old hippies?  Could they maybe teach my daughter how to sing, too?  I hope for this every day when I’m again sanctified by the natural world that embraces me.

The Anti-Bucket List

I think,” my husband said, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, “we are dealing with a very mentally ill person.”  Without thinking, I responded with “Yes, it seems that way.”  My automatic response surprised me, though.  A very mentally ill person?  Isn’t that me?10-25-14 matt's wedding

Loony tunes?  Wakko? Off my rocker?  Yep, you could say that’s me.  I have a mental illness.  Just admitting that in my head is really difficult and I never thought I would be able to share it with the whole wide world; there are just so many stigmas attached to the idea of what a “mental illness” is.  Knowing that I have a mental illness, do you picture me as some kind of salvatating, criss-crossed eyed person who lurches around making unintelligible sounds?  Do you expect me, a la Jerry Maguire, to “flip out” at any second?  In the picture to the right, who do you think is the “mentally ill” person?  I’m on the left, would you have picked me out in a crowd and said in a condescending whisper, “You know, the poor thing can’t help it, she has a mental illness”?

I don’t think any of those things apply to me, except, well, the lurching around making unintelligible sounds but that’s only before I’ve had my coffee in the morning!  Otherwise, I think that our culture has a pretty skewed view on what mental illness really looks like.  Psychotic behavior is often wrongly associated with mental illnesses.  Very few people are actually psychotic (think “Here’s Johnny” or “Fava beans and a nice Chianti (slurp, slurp)”).  Everyday mental illnesses come in many varieties.  There isn’t one singular face of mental illness as there are hundreds of different illnesses that can affect a person’s psyche- from anxiety to compulsions to depression and beyond.

The truth is that I have been dealing with depression on and off for over twenty years.  Sometimes I feel great and sometimes I just crash.  The reason I’m sharing this with you, my dear readers, is to raise awareness of mental illnesses; in my case, depression.  It is pretty likely that you or someone you know has struggled with depression at some point in their life.  Major depression is, in fact, the LEADING cause of disability in adults 15-44 and affects nearly 15 million people in the US each year.  Suicide, the worst possible outcome of depression, is the third leading cause of death in people ages 15-44.  On average, 94 people EVERY DAY commit suicide; that’s one life lost every 13 minutes EVERY DAY!  Sadly, many of those completed suicides could have been prevented.  One study found that 80% of people who seek treatment are successfully treated yet many, many people never seek out help before it’s too late.

I could have easily been one of those suicide statistics but I have somehow been spared from myself.  I always thought that I would get better, that this would just go away on its own.  Please let me tell you that isn’t true, you really do need to get help to get better.  Hauling yourself off to the doctors isn’t easy but, as cliché as it sounds, you DO have a lot to live for.  Sometimes, when you are sick, your thinking is so messed up that it doesn’t even seem worth it to stick around for your family.  A doctor can help point you in the right direction, whether it is medication, counseling, or something else.  When your thinking is clearer, you WILL be grateful that you worked through a horribly, blindingly painful time just so that you could sit next to your husband on the couch or take a walk in the park with your dog or buy your child’s favorite flavor of ice cream at the grocery store or any number of other small things that suddenly become incredibly meaningful when you’re alive to experience them.

My husband is lucky, he’s never experienced depression.  This makes it hard for him to understand what it’s like for me in my most difficult times.  I think that the best way to explain it is that when I’m really depressed, it feels like I am sinking down a funnel and my world keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Pretty soon, everything is dark and I am freefalling down the bottom of the funnel.  This raging wildfire in my head makes me physically exhausted.  I can’t get myself to exercise, keep the house clean, or do anything in general except sleep, A LOT.  At this point, the best thing someone could do for me is just to check in and talk with me.  Like I said, my world shrinks down to just a black void when I’m like this so a reminder that the whole world is still out there and waiting to receive me again is especially welcome.

In order to keep my world as open as possible, I am presenting myself with an anti-bucket list.  As in, this is a reminder to myself of all the things that I want to do in life so that I don’t prematurely decide to kick the bucket.  These are the things that I want to accomplish before I die of natural causes, when I’ve lived my whole life and I’m well over eighty years old.  I’ve written this as a fill-in the-blank so you can use it for yourself or someone you know.  Here goes:03-01 blog 1

  1. Dream of a really far away place that you’d like to visit. For me, that would be the Himalayas.  That area seems so distant, both physically and in time.  I especially want to go on this trip from See the Wild:  Natural Jewels of Bhutan & Nepal.  Can you imagine seeing a wild leopard or a baby elephant in its natural surroundings?  For the low, low price of only $7,895 per person, you could go on this trip, too, or possibly you could take out a second mortgage on your home!  (For trip details, visit http://www.seethewild.org/natural-jewels-bhutan-nepal)
  2. Think of a cuisine or particular dish you’ve never tried. For me, that would have to be eating real Italian food, like at a small neighborhood restaurant in southern Italy.  Being able to savor this food would be SO much better than the last time I ate at Olive Garden (which was several years ago now).  Our waiter brought us their processed imitation of tiramisu and said, “I think it’s done.  I stuck a fork in it and it wasn’t frozen.  Here. (Plunk).”  You see, I really NEED to go to the source to erase this memory!
  3. LITTLELAPTOP - 03-01 blog 2Picture yourself doing something that really stretches what you think you’re capable of. Hands down, it would be a bicycling trip across the United Kingdom for me.  The National Cycling Route #7 is 446 miles long and stretches from north of Glasgow, Scotland to Wales, England.  Do I have any takers?
  4. What would you do just for the thrill of it? I would love to go on one of those swamp boat tours in Louisiana.  I can secretly see myself as one of the characters from The Princess and the Frog movie; I especially adore Ray.  I think my mom would make a terrific Mama Odie and I’d love to be one of those pink spoonbill birds.  As an added bonus to a swamp boat tour, can you imagine all the good food you’d be able to eat when you got back on land?  I gay-ron-tee it would be a good time!
  5. Pick out a habitat that you’ve never seen before- it could be mountains, rainforests, deserts, whatever. I’d really like to see the giant cacti in the Sonoran desert.  This desert is one the most ecologically diverse deserts in the world, more than 2,000 species of plants can be found in the 100,000 acres it covers.  I’d also love to see those really cute owls that live in cactus holes.
  6. Before leaving this earth, you should probably be able to say that you’ve picked up a few skills in life. Do you have an03-01 blog 3 out-of-the-ordinary one you’d like to learn?  I think learning how to play a banjo would be really neat.  Especially if I could visit the area my sister-in-law is from (Eastern Kentucky) and find someone who knows what they are doing to teach me.  I’d love to be a part of one of those front-porch musicians on a long summer’s night.  Do they even have those or is that just for TV?
  7. And one last wish . . . Is there anything else you dream of that makes it life worth sticking around for?  I really want to be a gramma one day when my daughter is old enough and is ready.  Can you imagine my husband and I being together long enough to welcome a third generation into this world?  Thinking clearly now, I can’t believe I was ready to throw this away.  I also can’t fathom the fact that I was in so much pain, that I would cut myself off from meeting my sister’s new baby or future nieces and nephews from my brother.

These are only the big huge Fourth-of-July fireworks show moments that I’m hoping for. I have an even longer list of everyday stuff to look forward to:  dog kisses, redecorating my bedroom, starting a garden this spring, finishing a crocheted blanket for my niece, talking to my daughter about life in high school, exercising with my husband, figuring out how to make Indian food (see my previous post!), etc., etc., etc. I haven’t been to the zoo or the museum in a long time, it’s been several seasons since my husband and I went to a Bears game, and I still have to run my second marathon.  Plus, this dog is begging me to take her for a walk!  It’s pretty clear here that I’m just plain too busy and have too much to do to cut it all off! photo (10)

If you know someone who is struggling with depression, or even have a suspicion, please reach out to them.  The spring season sees the most suicides.  I think it’s just that winter is so long and so dark, people can’t hold on anymore.  Maybe after you or someone you know makes their own anti-bucket list, their thinking will clear up and they’ll have that little spark (that’s all it takes sometimes) to go on and live for another day.  That is my prayer for you AND I promise my next blog won’t be so serious!  Thank you for reading all the way through 🙂

PS- Some websites that can be helpful are:  www.save.org, www.afsp.org, www.familyaware.org, and www.nami.org.  There are also many Facebook groups available.  A national suicide hotline you can call in in emergency is 1-800-273-8255, this will get you to someone who can help at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

PPS- I love this guy!  Thank you so much for standing by me this whole time!!

LITTLELAPTOP - 01-30 mike

Thanks, Hubby, For the Indian Food! (Sarcastic Voice & Authentic Appreciation Voice)

Growing up in a small, rural town of about 800 people, most of whom were related to each other in some way, did not provide me with a diverse cultural view of the world.  Typically, experiencing other cultures for me came as a junior-high cheerleader on the boy’s basketball team bus going to other equally small and remote farm towns.  So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am now nearly twenty years out of high school and just now experiencing eating at an Indian restaurant.


This experience is all my husband’s fault.  He recently professed my “love” of Indian food to a friend who actually has experienced more of the world than what a two-pump gas station town might suggest exists.  He meant to say that I like Thai food, which is also not completely true.  Since discovering that I had a soy allergy a few years ago, I stumbled upon the fact that many Thai recipes don’t rely on soy sauce for flavor yet still satisfy my cravings for super-delicious Chinese food.  For the last few years, I’ve been making a few Thai dishes here and there.  I have loved each Thai recipe I’ve made but my family HATES peanut sauce and anything peanut flavored so most of my Thai cooking has been curtailed.  I have never actually eaten at a Thai restaurant, nor do I know a lot about the cuisine.

The facts notwithstanding, I heartily agreed to go out to lunch with my friend at a local Indian restaurant.  How did I do this without actually lying to her?  Well, as I mentioned above, my dear husband had made the arrangements without me when he was visiting with her husband.  I could only thank my husband using my most sarcastic inner voice for this.  My friend texted me a few days before we were to dine out to confirm and I said that I was looking forward to it.  That was not a lie- I was looking forward to it- but it could be construed as lying by omission if you would like to be technical about it.

Between the time my husband announced that she and I were going out for Indian food and when she texted me to confirm, I read about Indian food on the internet and asked a few people about their Indian food experiences.  Everything was positive and I had the benefit of liking how curry powder smells.  (I don’t know why I have a jar of curry powder on my spice rack but it smells awesome!)  I’m not sure if this makes me a closet nerd but I found the menu of the restaurant online and looked up each dish.  I picked out what seemed good and tried to memorize it.  I called the restaurant to confirm that they don’t use anything with soy in it.  Everything was good to go.  By the time my friend texted me to confirm, I was indeed looking forward to it.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, I had a moment of apprehension when our server arrived at our table in a tall hat and red suit.  His traditional garb gave me a reality check that I was really doing this.  He pointed us to the lunch buffet and said we could help ourselves.  Lunch buffet?  This wasn’t what I had prepared myself for!  Moment of panic number two arrived.  Upon walking up to the buffet, I had to swallow the fact that everything I had mentally picked out was NOT on the buffet table.  Thankfully, each of the items was labeled and some of the names I recalled reading about.  Our pleasant server also explained the dishes on the buffet, albeit I couldn’t understand him.

Here’s what I ended up with:  pankora, chicken tikka, vegetable biryani, and kheer.  I also put some riata sauce on the side.  Our server brought us sizzling hot tandoori chicken and naan to accompany the meal.  Before I explain what each of the above dishes is, let me just say THIS WAS AMAZING!  I don’t know if it was the denial of being able to eat out for so long because of my food allergies or something else but I had never been more thankful for my husband to make a mistake.  I also have to thank my friend for taking me to this place, unbeknownst to her that I had not eaten at an Indian restaurant before!

Hopefully, I’ve made you dear readers a little more curious about the cuisine.  I am going to explain in this next section some of what I have gathered as to the “facts” about Indian cuisine.  I am no expert so please don’t use this information as a hard-and-fast rulebook to Indian food.

Things that you should know about Indian food in general:

IMG_1260* Common spices include cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, mustard seeds, and mint.  India has sometimes been called the Land of Spices for its amazing variety of spices.

* Typical flavorings come from garlic, ginger, onion, yogurt, coconut, lemon/lime, and cilantro.  Over the years, as India has served as a crossroads for many intersecting cultures, flavorings has become quite diverse.

* There are six major flavors represented in Indian food:  sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter, and astringent.  Meals are concocted in such a way as to balance these flavors.

* Indian food varies by region, just like American food ranges from thick, New England seafood chowders to ‘Nawlins spicy gumbo to the heat of the Southwest desert.  Check out http://www.indiaquickfacts.com/content/india-food-drinks-indian-cuisine for a neat food map of the country.

* Dairy food such as milk, yogurt, and paneer (similar to cottage cheese) are used in many dishes.  Ghee is also used.  It is a type of clarified butter that adds a rich taste to many Indian dishes.

* Indian food need not always be spicy, heavy, or oily.  There are many tasty recipes that are healthful and vegetarian dishes abound in this cuisine.

Some of the more well-known dishes include:

* Samosa:  A triangular fried pastry filled with a combination of potatoes, onions, peas, lentils, and sometimes ground meat.  This is served as an appetizer.  A mint sauce or chutney may be served on the side.

* Pakora:  This bite-sized snack is made of shredded vegetables dipped in gram flour.  It is served as a snack.  A common sauce to go with this appetizer is green tamarisk.

* Tandoori Chicken:  Chicken that is seasoned with tandori masala (a dried spice mixture) and marinated in yogurt.  The chicken is then cooked in a very hot clay tandoor oven until it is fire-red.  A cooling riata sauce (made of mint, cucumber, and yogurt) is an especially good accompaniment.

* Chicken Tikka:  Very similar to tandoori chicken but is prepared in small bone-in or boneless pieces.  Green coriander and tamarind chutney can accompany this dish, as well as onions and a lemon wedge.

* Shish Kabob:  This dish is not from India originally but you will see it on Indian restaurant menus.  A shish kabob is a skewer of meat that has been seasoned and grilled over high heat.  Lamb is the traditional meat choice.

* Chicken Curry:  Bone-in chicken pieces are stewed in a mixture of curry powder, tomatoes, onions, ginger, and garlic.  It can be served over rice.  There are many, many interpretations of this dish.

* Chicken Vindaloo:  This is a Portuguese adaptation of chicken curry.  It is made with vinegar, chilies, and spices.  Sugar can be added to enhance the sweet-sour taste of the dish.  There is some debate about whether potatoes should be included with the dish.

* Shrimp Madras:  “Madras” is a type of curry powder.  This dish is made with whole shrimp and simmered in a creamy tomato sauce.  When it is done, the remaining sauce is boiled down to form a glaze that is dripped over the shrimp,

*  Palek Paneer:  Small cubes of a dairy product similar to American cottage cheese are fried and served in a spinach-onion paste in a creamy curry-style dish.

* Vegetable Biryani:  A steamed basmati rice, vegetable, and fruit/nut dish.  It is prepared with a number of spices, including cardamom, turmeric, cumin seeds, and cinnamon.

* Naan:  A leavened oven-baked flatbread.  It was first made in a tandoori oven.  Unleavened Indian bread is called chapatti.

* Mango lassi:  Similar to American fruit smoothies, this refreshing drink is made with mangoes, yogurt, milk, and ice.  Mint is a tasty garnish.

I’m sure I’ve left some other favorites out- I know that I’ve skipped over dahls, aloos, and many other common dishes- but that just means you can do more exploring on your own!

If you live anywhere near St. Charles, IL (it’s about an hour west of Chicago or an hour southeast of Rockford), I would strongly encourage you to visit Taste of Himalayas at 110 North 3rd Street.  Their website is www.tasteofhimalayas.com.  This is where I went and the staff, restaurant, and food were excellent.  Whether you’ve eaten this wickedly good cuisine before or not, I think you’ll really like visiting Taste of Himalayas restaurant.  To conclude, I must say that I’m rescinding my sarcastic “thank you” voice for my husband and am only using my authentic appreciation voice for causing this to happen.  I also only have authentic appreciation for my friend for widening my world!

P.S.  I’m serving chicken curry, rice, and naan for dinner tonight if you’d like to come over 🙂

Of Sexual Mischief, Murder, and Mayhem in My Kitchen

I was originally going to write this blog congratulating myself on failing at something and living to tell the tale.  You see, I have recently been apprised that I try too hard to make everything perfect and have a problem with failure.  I was planning on letting my dear readers know that I have indeed failed at something when I failed EVEN MORE SO.  This is good, however, because now I can say that I have spectacularly failed at something.  This is a big something, too.  Something that I have been avoiding for more than a year because, well, I was afraid I’d mess it up.  And I did.

In the process of failing, I have murdered thousands, if not millions of tiny little lives that will never make it to that higher echelon of yeasty glory.  A little more than a year ago, a newspaper article in the Anderson News of Lawrenceburg, KY caught my eye.  It was a little piece about how a local man had become famous by selling packets of his sourdough starter.  The article included instructions on how to purchase Soc Clay’s Mad Trapper sourdough starter.  My little brother thought it would make a nice Christmas gift and gave me Soc Clay’s cookbook, Sourdough Baking Cookbook:  On the Rise Since the 1800’s.  The cookbook included a small, yellow envelope of dried sourdough starter.  Upon properly using the starter, you could presumably end up with something like this:IMG_1239

For those of you that aren’t sourdough savvy, sourdough bread is different than regular bread.  Sourdough bread relies on something that is called a “starter” to rise.  (Regular bread rises with dried yeast.)  A starter can be made from dried yeast, water, sugar, and flour or, serious enthusiasts will use a culture that has been kept alive for many years or simply catch the yeast out of thin air to make the starter.  However the starter gets started, it is left to ferment in a loosely-covered jar for a few days.  After the right amount of sour tang can be detected within the jar, a small quantity is removed from the jar and incorporated into bread dough.  This starter is used to make the dough rise.  Once baked, sourdough bread has a unique flavor and aroma that sets it apart from traditional bread.  You have probably had sourdough bread if you’ve ever eaten at Panera bread, their sandwich bread and bread bowls are sourdough.

This innocuous little manila envelope and matching cookbook have sat staring at me for more than a year.  According to the cookbook, the starter is 112 years old and has a storied past.  Whether the backstory is true or not, I could barely trust myself to make good of the stuff seeing as how I have trouble just keeping track of my iphone on an hourly basis.  Such a rare and precious thing was not really within my realm of trustworthiness so I studiously avoided that section of my cookbook shelf for the better part of a year.  In my head, it seemed like leaving it on the shelf and never using it would save it from getting ruined.

Although I could have kept telling myself that my flawed logic made perfect sense, I was persuaded otherwise by my favorite author Michael Pollan.  I have been reading his newest book, Cooked.  Like his other books (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I have devoured every morsel of information.  This particular edition talks about the four basic ways in which food is cooked: fire, water, air, and earth.  In the air section, he talks a lot about the history and mechanics of bread making.  In his quest to learn how to bake bread, he takes lessons from a renowned sourdough bread baker in California.  Reading through his accounts of the pains he takes to learn the ins and outs of bread baking, his discoveries within the sourdough baking culture, and his ruminations on the cultural significance of sourdough bread gave me the courage to re-look at that taunting little yellow envelope of starter.

About two weeks ago, I took out the cookbook and starter and read all the directions.  I cross-checked them on the internet to make sure I was ready.  I wasn’t.  I needed a stoneware jar that was at least two quarts deep.  About a week later, I was back in Kentucky visiting my brother when I found the perfect jar to keep my starter in.  When I came back home, I set everything out on the counter to make the starter.  Measuring out the ingredients, I stirred with the recommended plastic (never metal) spoon, and set the jar to rise in a warm place.  Neatly nestled on top of a cooling rack over heat vent, my jar of starter began to bubble into being.  I stirred it two times a day dutifully for the next three days.  I had a faint, fleeting thought that, gee, I should really do something with this on the fourth day.  The fourth day was also when I started a new job and my feet had nearly swelled out of their shoes.  I didn’t stir my starter.  The fifth day I skipped the stir, too.  Today, when I lifted the lid, I had discovered that I had not only failed Soc Clay, my brother, and the 112 year-old starter, I was also a mass murderer.  I had killed the starter and left it in a dried, sunken heap at the bottom on my jar.

IMG_1238Guiltily, I filled the jar with water and let it soak in the sink.  I decided that this failure, however, wasn’t going to stop me from figuring out how to make sourdough bread.  I scraped it all out and started over.  I used a different recipe this time.  According to Morning Fires, Evening Lights cookbook from Marlboro cigarettes of all place (perhaps the best promotional cookbook I’ve ever beheld), I used 2 ¼ tsp. yeast, 1 quart lukewarm water, 2 tbsp. sugar, and 4 cups of flour to make a pancake-consistency batter.  With a bit too much pride, I stirred the ingredients together in the jar and returned it to the cooling rack over the heater vent.  “I’m doing this!” I thought.

About two hours later, I learned that my cooling rack and heater vent idea was actually a TERRIBLE idea and I wasn’t “doing this.”  You see, when yeast is activated and set in a warm place, it becomes quite sexually mischievous and begins to expand rapidly.  This is exactly what my husband saw when he asked me why “that stuff” was dripping into the heater vent.  This wasn’t just a light dribble onto the vent, not at all.  Upon loosening the vent cover, I found that a torrent of sourdough starter had made its way into the heat duct longer than I could reach my whole arm into.  Nearly a roll of paper towels later, the duct was mostly cleaned out.  I had starter caked on my arm all the way up to my shoulder at this point. IMG_1241

I transferred the starter to a much larger container and put it elsewhere than a heat vent.  For the second time today, I cleaned out the jar.  Perhaps now there won’t be so much mayhem in my kitchen.  But what else do I have to do today?  There is over a foot of newly-fallen snow outside my window and there is no possibility of going anywhere for a while.  Having my mischievous little jar of starter was actually an interesting anecdote to my snow day.IMG_1242

This time, I promise to take care of my jar of starter and in three days, I will hopefully be dining on my very first loaf of sourdough bread.  The best part will be having this darned starter made.  Once you make the starter, all you have to do is add a little flour and water to it to keep it alive indefinitely.  Once I have the starter made, I can use Soc Clay’s cookbook and make whatever I want, from sourdough pancakes to sourdough pizza dough and even sourdough English muffins.  I will definitely be sending something yummy to my brother for his role in this little bit of mayhem from my kitchen.  And also, if you are wondering, this little bit of drama has been all in good spirit.  My self-esteem has not gone the way of my first batch of starter, which is, to say, down the drain.  In fact, it has been somewhat of a relief to not have that yellow envelope eyeing me from the cookbook cabinet!


The Christmas Tree, Or, As My Dog Would Say, The Oddities of My Humans

Have you ever watched that funny confused look creep across your dog’s face as you struggle with bringing an oversized tree into your house this time of year?  I can just imagine my dogs thinking, “Okay, so I can’t drag dead animals into the house and I can’t have my slobber ball in this room, so what on earth are the humans doing with this huge TREE in the living room?!”  Every year, my two dogs sit a cautious distance away from the tree and watch as lights and ornaments are placed on this “thing” they would ordinarily just pee on.  And then, after it’s all set up, they (the dogs) aren’t even allowed to go near it or sniff all the presents.  As a final injustice, after being told to stay away from this tree for weeks, we (the humans) just heave the whole tree back outside and into the trash!

The custom of bringing a life-size tree into the home as a way to celebrate Christmas is relatively new tradition, dating to just over 150 years ago.  According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the first recorded decorated Christmas tree hailed from Latvia.  It was decorated and then, counter to every firefighter’s intuition today, burned while people danced around it.  Shifting from burning the tree down to putting flames on it took another two hundred years.  The French were supposedly the first to put candles on a Christmas tree.  Another two hundred years passed and, by the early 1800’s, American’s seized the custom from German settlers. In typical American fashion, the small, table-top sized Christmas tree of German descent was made into a gigantic, floor-to-ceiling affair.  In just another hundred years, accessories such as glass ball and artificial trees became available to consumers.IMG_1616 - Copy

Today, somewhere between 25 and 30 million real Christmas trees are grown on Christmas tree farms across North America.  The most popular species are Fraser, Douglas, and Balsam firs.  Spruces, pines, and cypress trees are also used.  Each species of tree has its own qualities, such as needle retention, scent, and ability to hold ornaments.

So, how can you tell which tree is which?  I’m glad you asked!  I’d like to introduce you to the gymnosperm family.  Gymnosperms are a group of plants that make seeds without the use of an ovary to hold the seeds.  Wait, what?  Plants have ovaries?  Flowering plants have male and female parts.  One of the female parts is an ovary in which an egg, once fertilized, develops into a seed.  Gymnosperms are different than flowering plants.  They do not have ovaries and instead make “naked” seeds.  Pines, firs, and spruces- common types of Christmas trees- place these naked seeds inside protective cones.

A common type of Christmas tree in our homes and in Eastern American forests is the white pine, Pinus strobus.  This tree has long graceful needles that aren’t very good for holding up heavy ornaments.  White pines have the redeeming qualities of good needle retention and a strong, sturdy trunk that was once used for ship’s masts.  You can identify a white pine by the way the needles are packaged in groups of 5 on the branch.

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(all photographs of mature white pines in a forest preserve)

Another common type of Christmas tree is the white spruce, Picea glauca.  Spruces differ from pines in that the needles are arranged singly on the branches, unlike pines that have needles in packets.  The white spruce is a good choice of Christmas tree due to its consistent good color, shape, and ornament-holding abilities.  Other spruces, such as the Colorado and Norway, are also popular choices for Christmas trees.

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(all photos of a mature white spruce in a forest preserve, far right is a bird’s nest I found while photographing)

To read more about Christmas trees, check out tIMG_1594 - Copyhese websites:  www.realchristmastrees.org; www.urbanext.illinois.edu/trees/facts; and www.christmastrees.on.ca.  And, now that the Christmas season is coming to a close, remember to recycle or repurpose your tree.  For more information on that, check out www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/allabouttrees/howtorecycle.aspx or check pinterest for some great repurposing ideas.  Happy New Year!

Forget Pitbulls and Parolees . . . It’s Felons and Flowers


While making evergreen wreaths in class recently, a student suggested to me that we start a new reality TV show that follows what we do in class.  Another student chimed in and said we could call it “Felons and Flowers.”  A third student put in that we could all be famous, like the show “Pitbulls and Parolees.”  For a minute, this seemed like a good idea.  Then I thought about all the drama those shows bring and how much I don’t want it in my classroom.  I count it as a very good day when everyone works quietly without the need of bringing an officer down to my classroom.

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a horticulture teacher . .  . in a prison.  Happily, most days aren’t anything like the LockUp show on TV.  First of all, I hardly ever go into the living units.  My classroom is in a regular school building.  Orange jumpsuits, handcuffs, and bars are also things I don’t see in a regular day.  Furthermore, all those crazy antics on LockUp aren’t something that happens on a daily basis in my classroom.  Most of the inmates shown on LockUp are serving long sentences and have little to lose by acting out.  Since I don’t work with that population, my students do have something to lose by acting out and usually behave properly.

A lot of people ask me how I got started working at a prison.  There isn’t a long dramatic or even very interesting story behind my beginning as a correctional educator.  After graduating with my M.S. degree, I wanted to teach horticulture or environmental science.  I looked for a LONG TIME for a college teaching position.   When I saw the opening for this job, I applied and, after a few months, I was teaching horticulture in prison.

It took a bit for me to accustom to teaching in a prison but, for the most part, I have found that I really enjoy what I do.  A lot of teachers say they got into teaching so they could make a difference.  When I taught at other places, I got that feeling every once in a while.  In my job now, I know that I’m making a difference in their day-to-day life.  My students are so enthusiastic about caring for their plants, taking notes in class, and working outside.  Most of them are very good students who seem to appreciate the privilege of bettering themselves while they serve their sentences.

It was with this sense of enthusiasm my students took on the above-mentioned wreath making project   .  I wasn’t sure if they would want to make wreaths but they took it up with their characteristic eagerness.  The whole class fell into that feel-good silence as they worked pine, spruce, and holly sprays into table arrangements.  The results were so good, one of my students took home 2nd place in a state horticulture competition!

The weekend after the wreath project in class, I made a wreath at home.  It was so much easier than at work, it nearly felt like cheating.  At my disposal was a real wire wreath frame, floral wire, a good pair of wire cutters, and a selection of wire-edged ribbon.  No more lengths of torn floating row covers to coerce into a pinch bow for me.  I didn’t even have to try to convince paper clips to act as floral pins!

I’ve made several evergreen wreaths already this season so I wanted something different.  I came up with a bird feeder wreath.  I think this started from the fact that I had a lot of oranges sitting on the counter that were about to go bad.  I dried all of them and needed to do something with them.  An ad I saw for William’s Sonoma’s seasonal wreaths told me exactly what I needed to do.

IMG_1080I started with a square wreath frame from Michael’s.  The first time I bought a wreath frame, I felt like a big shot floral designer and presented it proudly on the counter to the sales clerk.  When I got home, it was a different story.  The frame and I engaged in a long, drawn out staring match for days.  YouTube once again saved me.  After making a few wreaths, it didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.  So, enough said, go get a wreath frame and start your project properly!

IMG_1082I chose some white pine cones to form the base layer.  These cones are long and mostly straight, the perfect background for the square frame.  I wired each one to the frame, all the way around the frame.  To wire a cone to the frame, hold the cone in place with one hand and wrap the wire around the bottom 1/3rd of the cone.  Then, take the wire and bring it under the frame and pull tight.  Hold the wire out in your hand and lay the next cone in it and repeat.  Going around the corners was a bit tricky but once the cones are wired in, you can fan them out so they look nice.  The cones I used were fresh so I got a lot of pine sap on my hands as I worked.  To get it off, pour a little oil (cheap canola works fine) in your hands and rub together.  The sap should come off and you can just rinse the oil off with dish soap.

Next came the fruit.  This is where you can be creative.  In addition to having dried oranges, I discovered that I had dates, dried apples, and a dried berry mix in the cabinets.  I spread all the fruit out on the counter and decided to make a garland of oranges and dates.  To do this, pull a large section of wire off the spool.  Wrap one end to the frame.  On the other end, string the first orange.  Add a date and another orange and repeat until you get the length you need.  This isn’t a fast process.  Stop and do quality checks as you go along.  When you get the length you need, wrap the wire around the frame.  Take the length of wire and go back down the row, wrapping the wire under each orange to the frame.  If you still have excess once you get back to the beginning, snip it off.


I decided to make the two sides the same and change the bottom.  On the bottom, I used a little different stringing method.  I started with a long piece of wire and wrapped it to the bottom of the frame.  Holding the orange flat, I pulled the wire through just to the right of the center.  I put two or three berries on the wire and pulled it back through just to the left of the center, a lot like sewing a button on.  Then, I wrapped the wire around the frame and repeated all the way down the row.

IMG_1083Your assembly will look a lot different than mine unless you, too are left handed.  If so, congratulations- only 1 in 8 people is lucky enough to be a lefty!  Otherwise, I hope you have fun figuring out how to translate a left handed diagram to a right handed diagram.  It’s a skill that us left handed people have been using for centuries, now it’s your turn!


IMG_1089To finish it off, I added a suet block to the top.  Securing it to the frame was a little tricky but it is on there now and isn’t going anywhere.  I pierced a hole through the two sides of the plastic and ran wire through it.  I doubly secured it when I wired the raffia bow to it.  Next time, I might use a smaller suet block but this is what I had on hand this time.

This is going out as a Christmas gift to someone who’s probably reading this blog so I can’t say who but I know they’ll like it.  You could make one for yourself, a neighbor, or even to hang at your work if you have a nice place outside your window to hang it.  This is the time of year that the birds need our help the most.  All their food sources are covered in snow and ice.  Plus, you’ll get a kick out of watching little chickadees and big cardinals picking and pecking at the goodies on the wreath.  Happy crafting!