A Sea of Poinsettias

It was a great Thanksgiving weekend, with visits from family, Black Friday shopping with my daughter and her friend and lots of food, including a pie made with cranberries and the last of my homegrown cherries. It was topped off with a visit to the Bachman’s greenhouses in Lakeville Sunday afternoon, courtesy of my friend Gwen and her husband, John, who works there.

 

My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.

My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.

Bachman’s grows about 65,000 poinsettias each year. Many are sold at the Bachman’s stores and the rest are grown for organizations that sell them as holiday fundraisers. The greenhouses (I think we were in three different ones during our walk through) are enormous and two weeks ago, they were completely full, John said. Now, many of the poinsettias have been shipped, but the ones remaining look like a sea of red, pink and white.

These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.

These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico and the English name came from the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. In Mexico, the plant will grow to 10 to 15 feet tall. (Bachman’s grows some poinsettias taller than the usual 1-foot or so size and they are stunning.) The Aztecs used poinsettia leaves as a dye and used the sap to reduce fevers. While poinsettias are not poisonous to humans, they can cause vomiting and other stomach upsets in animals. (They also taste terrible, according to this great poinsettia website.) A member of the spurge family, poinsettias have the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. The brightly colored tops of the poinsettias are not actually flowers. They are brachts (modified leaves) and the tiny yellow bits inside the brachts are the flowers.

These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.

These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.

With the right situation, poinsettias can survive the winter. Here are some tips for keeping your holiday poinsettia healthy.

  • Try to give it 6 hours of indirect sunlight a day. (That may be tricky in Minnesota in December, but choose the poinsettia’s spot with light in mind.) Many sites recommend a south, east or west window, but the plant should not touch the cold glass.
  • Check the soil in the pot daily and give it a good drink whenever it feels dry to the touch. You should make sure the pot has a drainage hole (poke some holes in the foil wrapping, too). When you water, give the plant enough that the water runs out the hole in the bottom. If the plant is on a plate to catch the drips, be sure to empty the water so the plant’s roots don’t get too soggy.
  • If you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant, give it a dose of all-purpose houseplant food after the blooming season and once a month through winter.

Will you be getting a poinsettia this holiday season?

flower closeup

The yellow bits in the center are the flowers of the poinsettia.

These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.

These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.

And more poinsettias

And more poisettias

 

Posted in Decorating, Houseplants, Seasons | Tagged | 1 Comment

From Container to Cookpot: A Squash Soup Story

soup 2Earlier this fall, I bought three nice squash from the Northfield Farmers Market to use in a fall container. When the weather turned cold (and then nasty) a week or so ago, I brought the squash in to put them to use in a soup. Squash are ornamental, and most are edible as well, so there was no reason to let the squash rot on the porch.

This soup turned out especially good and I think it’s in part because I had more than one kind of squash and because of the way they were prepared. The squash included a blue Hubbard squash, a red Kabocha squash and a buttercup squash. (Here’s a great guide to all things squash.)

I have been reading chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s book Old-School Comfort Food (Clarkson-Potter, 2013). For her squash soup, Guarnaschelli first roasts the squash with a rich coating of butter, sugar and molasses. I cut the butter by about half, but it was still plenty rich and delicious. After the roasting, I freelanced things and made a squash soup the way I normally would with onions, wine and warm spices. (Guarnaschelli’s soup sounds delicious, too, but this is my preferred recipe.) It turned out beautifully, elevating a simple soup and sandwich supper to gourmet levels. Of course, I served it with the red pepper relish that I make each fall.

That's a lot of squash!

That’s a lot of squash!

A couple of notes: 1) This is not a quick meal. Do it on a day when you will be hanging around the house for several hours. 2) The amounts of some of the ingredients are variable. Because I had lots of squash, I used six cups of cooked squash for the soup and the rest went into a squash custard. You may need more or less liquid depending on how big your squash are. 3) This soup calls for an immersion blender. If you don’t have one, you could mush up the soup with a potato masher or use a regular blender and blend the soup in batches, though I think that’s a bit dangerous. (Immersion blenders come at a variety of price points. Walmart has one for less than $15; if you spend $40,  you can have this nice one I got for my daughter when she got her first apartment.) It’s a good kitchen investment.

Squash Soup from a Container Garden

2-3 winter squash (your choice on type) If very large, you may only need one

5 TBSP butter, melted in a sauce pan

2 TBSP brown sugar

2 TBSP molasses

2 TBSP olive oil

1 large onion chopped

1 TBSP chopped garlic

1 jalapeno or other hot pepper diced finely (totally optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp Garam masala

1 tsp cumin

Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp)

1/2 cup white wine (optional)

1-2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or water)

Water as needed

1 cup (more or less) whole milk or half-and-half

Prepare the squash: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Also, check to make sure your oven shelves are far enough apart — especially if you have big squash. Wash the squash, then cut them into large pieces and scrape out the seeds. Place the pieces on large trays, preferably with a 1-2 inch lip, and drizzle the melted butter over them. Sprinkle on the sugar and molasses and some salt and pepper. Put a little water in the bottom of the pans to add some steam. Then cover it all with foil and crimp the edges around the pan. You want the squash to be semi-sealed in to prevent the sugars from browning too much. Bake for 90 minutes or more until the squash are soft. Take it out of the oven (carefully!!!) and let it cool so you can handle it.

The soup: Remove the squash flesh from the skins with a spoon or knife. For my soup, I used 6 cups of squash, but you could use more and just increase the liquid. Have your onion and garlic chopped and your spices ready. Put the oil in your soup pot and warm it slightly, add the onion and a bit of salt and pepper. Let it cook until it’s translucent. Then add the spices, garlic and hot pepper, if using, and let them cook for a minute or two. Pour in the wine and let all the goodness meld for about 2 minutes. Then, add your squash, the broth and enough water to just cover the squash. Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. (If your squash is not perfectly soft, it may need more time. If it is soft, less.)

Blend the soup. When everything is soft and smelling good, blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. You may need to add more water because it should be rather thick. Add in the milk (as much or little as you like) to get it to your preferred consistency. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or (my preference) some red pepper relish.

 

Posted in Container Gardening, Fall Gardening, Recipes | Tagged | 1 Comment

Apple Overload

Sometimes — in the garden, in work, in home life — you just have to face that big task and DO IT! That was my situation on Sunday when I finally faced up to the massive pile of apples waiting to be processed.

The apples.

The apples.

To say this has been a good year for apples in Minnesota is an understatement. Everywhere, the apples have been prolific, perhaps due to our late but very wet spring or maybe (in my case) to my apple cider trick, which once again led to lots of pollination of my two apple trees.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been picking and processing for several weeks. I tried giving away some of the apples and had a few takers, but this plastic bin was still out front on Sunday morning. So, I started peeling and prepping and ended up with:

12 pints of applesauce;

4 baked, then frozen apple crisps;

4 apple pie fillings, now frozen, to which I will add crusts at the appropriate time.

My trees still have a few apples on them that are too high for me to pick, even with a very clever apple-picking device that my neighbor gave to me. I will pick those off the ground as they fall and either eat or dispose of the fruit.

More than two bankers' boxes of peels, cores and bad bits went to the compost pile.

More than two bankers’ boxes of peels, cores and bad bits went to the compost pile.

 

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Fall Container Idea

Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.

Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.

A week or so ago, while I visiting my daughter in Chicago, I happened upon a fun idea for a simple fall container. The container (shown below) was on display at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago. The container itself was large, wide and made of terracotta. It was filled with an assortment of gourds and squashes. Simple, and very pretty.

The inspiration for my fall container

The inspiration for my fall container

I knew that was an idea I could easily replicate at home, and I had just the container to do it with. A couple of years ago, I bought a small, metal horse trough to use as a planter. I ended up making it into a small water feature this year, which I had emptied out a few weeks ago.

At the Northfield Farmers’ Market last Friday, I found an assortment of squashes. One of the sellers was also selling bouquets made of ornamental cabbage and kale. Cute! I bought one and decided to use it as an accent in the container. The kale and ornamental cabbages are basically cut flowers, so I needed to keep them in water. To set up the container and keep the squashes elevated, I flipped a couple of pots over and set them in the trough. Then I filled a couple of tall canning jars with water and placed one in the back of the container and one in the front.

Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.

Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.

I put the kale in the water jar in the back and three of the cabbage in the water jar in front. The squash were balanced on the upside down pots. It looked nice, but I had one more cabbage and a pumpkin left. I put the cabbage in another jar of water set inside a colorful container and set the pumpkin down in front of the trough. Voila! Instant fall container.

Once I had everything bought, putting the container together took less than 20 minutes.

I’ve tried a couple of fall container ideas before including planting a pumpkin here and here. What’s your favorite fall container idea?

Fall container in less than 20 minutes!

Love the texture in this arrangement.

Posted in Container Gardening, Cool Stuff to Try, Decorating, Fall Gardening | 5 Comments

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

Ready for a long roast in a low oven.

Ready for a long roast in a low oven.

The tomato season is about to close, so about a week ago, I bought a nice batch of beautiful cherry tomatoes. I didn’t grow cherry tomatoes this year, but slow-roasted tomatoes are too good not to have on hand. They could not be easier to make either.

I poured about 3 tablespoons of olive oil on a cookie sheet, then rolled the tomatoes around in it so they were all covered. I salted them lightly and ground some pepper over them. You could also put a couple of cloves of garlic (in the skins) on the tray, too. Then I set the oven to 225 degrees, put the tomatoes in and forgot about them. About six hours later, they were soft and wrinkly. I put some in a jar and covered them with olive oil and put the rest in freezer bags for later use.

Yum!

Yum!

These are like candy. They make a great addition to a salad or slice some soft cheese on a cracker (gouda is good-a!) and top it with a tomato. Instant hors d’ourves elegance.

 

Posted in Canning and Preserving, Recipes, Tomatoes | Tagged | 2 Comments

Ratatouille Rumble

For a simple ratatouille, you'll need onions, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, garlic and herbs.

For a simple ratatouille, you’ll need onions, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, garlic and herbs.

Ratatouille may be one of the most delicious late-summer garden recipes. Traditional ratatouille includes eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers and tomatoes, but since the dish is essentially a vegetable stew, you could add green beans, yellow squash or anything else that is fresh and suits your fancy.

A while ago, I paid a visit to Sam Kedum’s Nursery in nearby Hastings to buy some tomatoes for preserving. While I have had a decent crop of tomatoes this year, it has not been huge and most of the tomatoes I grew were slicers that have been quickly consumed in salads and on BLT sandwiches. At the nursery, which includes a community-supported agriculture farm, I also bought cherry tomatoes for drying (recipe to come next week) and some peppers, eggplant and zucchini, which looked firm and delicious.

You can find lots of recipes for ratatouille on the web and mine is a modified version of Alice Waters’ take. Feel free to adjust vegetable and seasoning amounts to suit your own taste and veggie supply.

Ratatouille

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 onion, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 large or 2 small zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2-3 colored peppers, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

5 Roma tomatoes, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 TBSP tomato paste

1/2 cup  white wine (optional, but tasty)

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Cut pieces about the same size.

Cut pieces about the same size.

Cut up the eggplant first, then salt the pieces and set them in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes. (Cut up the rest of the veggies while the eggplant is meditating.) After 20 minutes, rinse the eggplant and pat the cubes dry. Heat up a large pan — I love my big cast iron skillet — so that’s a good choice, if you have it. Add about half of the olive oil. Add the eggplant cubes in a single layer and cook for about 3 minutes. Then, move the pieces around for another 3 minutes and remove the eggplant from the pan. (It will be only semi cooked.)

Add a bit more of the oil to the pan and add the onions. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and cook the onions for about 4-5 minutes, stirring often until they are translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Push the onion, garlic aside (but still in the pan) and add the a bit more oil to the pan and add the zucchini. Let it sit in one layer for about 3 minutes to get a bit of brown on it, then stir with the onions for another 2 minutes. Add the peppers and stir everything around together for about 3 minutes. Add more salt and pepper if you like and the 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes. Push the veggies to the sides of the pan and in the space in the center, squirt about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Move that around with your spoon or spatula for about a minute to cook the paste a bit, then add the wine and the tomatoes. Stir the eggplant back into the mixture, and let it all cook together for about 10 minutes.

Ratatouille could be eaten as a main course with cheese on top or as a side dish to grilled chicken or fish. The flavor improves upon sitting, so leave it in the fridge a day or so for optimum deliciousness. I planned to take a photo of the finished product, but we ate it all before I had a chance.

What’s your favorite way to eat your fall vegetables?

 

 

 

Posted in Fruits and Vegetables, Recipes | Tagged | Leave a comment

Parsley Paradise: Time to Preserve Herbs

Parsley, garlic, salt -- yum!

Parsley, garlic, salt — yum!

This year, I decided to edge some of my ornamental beds with parsley. I got the idea from The Wildlife-Friendly Garden.  The author suggested parsley be planted as a decoy plant to keep rabbits out of the vegetable garden. I haven’t see a lot of rabbits in the vegetable garden, so maybe it’s working. (I also haven’t seen a lot of chew marks on the parsley, either, so who knows?)

The result is, I have a LOT of parsley in my garden! I like parsley — it’s probably my favorite herb, but now I need to figure out what to do with it all.

I’ve been making pesto-like spreads from it, which I will freeze for addition to soups, sauces or vegetables during the winter. I also tried Margaret Roach’s approach of rolling the herbs into a log in a freezer bag. Then you can cut some of the herb roll off anytime you need it.

The other night, I decided to try a recipe from a new book I’m reviewing called Preserving by the Pint. This recipe involves chopping the parsley finely with garlic and salt and then setting it on a plate to dry. The idea is you will have a homemade spice mix to sprinkle on cooked dishes or in salad dressings. The garlic odor got a little strong in the house, so I had to set it out in the back porch. After 48 hours (the suggested drying time), it was still damp. I gave it a couple more days, but I think our August weather was too humid for outdoor drying. Time for Plan B.  I took the mix, added more parsley and some basil, a bit of olive oil and whirred it in the blender.

Plan B -- a delicious salty herby mixture.

Plan B — a delicious salty herby mixture.

I froze several packets of the salty herb mix for using in soups and on vegetables. Last night, I broke off about a teaspoon of it and added it to some cooked broccoli. It was incredible and added just the right bit of herb and salt to the vegetables.

What’s your favorite way to preserve herbs?

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Soil Test Results

Almost every garden book starts with the admonition to “get a soil test.” I hate to admit it but in nearly two decades of active gardening, I have never had one — until this summer.

Some of my vegetable garden boxes have not been performing as well as I thought they should be over the past couple of years. When one area of the garden looks bad and the rest look OK (or better than OK), then soil may well be the problem. I had a coupon for $2 off the standard University of Minnesota soil test courtesy of the Hennepin County Master Gardeners’ Learning Tour, which I went on in July. So, I got out my trowel and collected samples of the soil from a couple of places in the boxes, and took it down to the soil test office at the U’s St. Paul campus. Within a week, I got the results back in the mail.

The results were both surprising and not. In the “not surprising” category, I found out that my soil is a bit alkaline. It has a pH of 7.1, which is slightly high. The ideal pH for growing vegetable is 6.0 to 6.5, some say 7.0. It might be hard to lower the pH much because the water in our area is very alkaline (like 7.5 to 8.0) and that’s the water I use on the garden. Plants generally grow well up to a pH of 7.5, so I likely won’t try to adjust this much. I may see if I can find some more acid mulches (such as pine needles) and use those in the vegetable garden.

Also “not surprising” is that the soil has adequate levels of nitrogen and a high percentage of organic matter — 10.5 percent, which is pretty good though lower than the 19 percent required to have “organic soil.” My potassium levels are in the normal range at 158 parts per million.

What struck me as surprising was the extremely high levels of phosphorous in the soil. The report did not list an exact number but my soil has more than 100 parts per million of phosphorous. A “very high” reading is 25 parts per million. What does that mean? Well, according to this university article, it may mean the composts and manures that I have added to the garden were high in phosphorous. I do use a lot of compost and it generally comes from my own yard or the city compost pile. I’ve also added aged chicken manure to this garden in the past. This University of Wisconsin article on soil tests says that high phosphorous readings are not uncommon in urban soils and that it’s best to avoid “balanced” fertilizers, which most organic fertilizers are.

The U of M recommended that I use a fertilizer with no phosphorous and more nitrogen than potassium. (The exact ratio recommended for me was 30-0-20—that’s nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium or NPK—for you fertilizer geeks.) I’ve done a bit of online searching and most fertilizers with that rating are commercial fertilizers designed for golf courses or other turf-heavy spots.  I’ll be looking over the winter for some low-phosphorous options, preferably organic.

Phosphorous is not bad per se. It’s vital for root growth, for instance, but too much phosphorous can promote weed growth (yep!) and lead to stunted plants. Apparently too much phosphorous can also affect plants’ abilities to take in zinc and calcium, which are essential nutrients for vegetable crops.

My plan was to spread a lot of leaf compost that I made this summer over the vegetable gardens this fall. I’ll be doing some more research to see if that is still a good idea. I’ll also be taking soil samples from some of my other garden beds. Knowledge is power, as they say, and the more you know about your garden, the better you can tend it.

Have you ever had a soil test?

 

 

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Dairy-Free Basil Gelato

Dairy free basil gelato -- lime, coconut, basil, yum.

Dairy free basil gelato — lime, coconut, basil, yum.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Julie introduced me to Basil Gelato, a creamy, delicious mix of milk, cream, eggs and sugar flavored with lots of whirled up basil from the garden. You can read the recipe through the Notes from Northern Gardener blog. The one problem with the gelato was the color was just a bit too close to Army green.

I wanted to play with the recipe and also see if I could make a version that was dairy free for all my lactose-intolerant friends and relatives. Since the original recipe called for cream, the natural dairy-free replacement was coconut milk. I tempered that with some almond milk and added lime because coconut, basil and lime go so well together in Thai foods. To deal with the color issue, I decided to steep the basil in the ice-cream base rather than whirl it in a blender. The result is just slightly green and totally delicious.

Dairy-Free Basil Gelato

Ingredients

1 can (13.6 ounces) coconut milk (NOT low-fat)

1 cup almond milk

4 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1 tsp vanilla

pinch of salt

2 cups basil leaves

1 lime (used for zest and juice)

Method

Rinse and dry the basil leaves and set aside. In a sauce pan, mix the coconut and almond milks and 1/2 cup sugar and set them on a low heat to warm. In a bowl, mix the four egg yolks, vanilla, salt and 1/4 cup sugar and beat with a whisk (or a mixer) until they are lighter in color and thickened slightly. When the milk mixture begins to steam, ladle about 1/4 cup at a time into the egg yolk mixture to bring the temperature up slightly. After about three ladles, you can add the eggs to the milks and continue to cook the custard, stirring regularly. After about 8 minutes, the mixture will be thickened slightly. Remove from heat and add the basil leaves. Let the mixture steep for at least 30 minutes as the gelato base cools.

When it is cooler, add the zest and juice of a lime. Then strain the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove the basil leaves. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to cool even more. If you have an ice cream maker, get it out and set it up. When the mixture is cool, add it and process until you have gelato. If you do not have an ice cream maker (I don’t), pour the cooled mixture into an 8×8 inch pan that you have lined with parchment paper or wax paper. Put it in the freezer and take it out every 30 minutes and stir it up to mix the icy bits around. In about two hours, it will be frozen and close to ice cream texture. You can cover the pan with plastic wrap and keep it in the freezer until it’s time to serve.  When you serve it, set it out on the counter for about 10 minutes to thaw before scooping.

This would be great as dessert after any spicy meal.

 

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Minnesota State Fair Potted Plant Show

Cacti on display at the Minnesota State Fair potted plant show.

Cacti on display at the Minnesota State Fair potted plant show.

I’m not much of a houseplant or cacti grower, but I sure admire people who can keep a plant healthy and lush through the winters in our harsh climate. That’s one reason I usually stop by the MSHS Potted Plant, Cactus and Succulent Show at the Minnesota State Fair.

This year’s show will be held the first two days of the fair, Aug. 21 and 22, and now is the time to get your entries ready. The show features categories for growers of everything from African violets to patio petunias, orchids, coleus, roses, begonias, all types of succulents from aloe to sedum, figs, cacti of all kinds and dozens of other species. See the entry information for a complete list of categories.

Not flashy, but a beautiful and healthy looking plant.

Not flashy, but a beautiful and healthy looking plant.

Entrants should bring their plants to the Horticulture Building at the Minnesota State Fair before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20. Judging will be done that evening, with ribbons awarded for each category. Judges may also name a Grand Champion and Reserve Champion as well as special awards for exceptional entries.

The show is open to the public during the first two days of the fair, Aug. 21 and 22. It’s well worth a visit for any plant enthusiast.

Posted in Amazing Plants, Houseplants, MSHS News | Tagged | 1 Comment