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As My Garden Grows

Peppers Planted

Debbie NowickiThe month of March brings exciting happenings in the world of gardening. We “spring ahead” by turning our clocks forward an hour in March to usher in the arrival of Spring and with this much anticipated arrival, we begin to start planning and planting our seeds! Starting seeds is a ritual that brings pure excitement to the gardener’s soul! The basic ingredients necessary are soil, seed, water and light.

My herb seeds were started a few weeks ago and the lettuce seed indoors just recently. This week the peeper seeds found a home in the soil and will be under my watchful eye until I see the first sprout and then until they are transplanted outside.

Peppers are relatively easy to grow and they claim their space in the garden and stay there … they don’t roam all over or invade the space of others. I found that they do take a little longer to germinate but once established they are a hardy plant and a good candidate for the first time garden grower. There are many varieties to choose from and sweetness versus hotness is one of the main components when deciding which pepper to grow.


My pepper list this year includes; Red Mini, Jimmy Nardello, Marconi, Tam Jalapeno, Alma Paprika, Long Cayenne, Purple Beauty and Padron. All I have grown in previous years; except the Purple Beauty, first year for this one. I planted or potted up the seeds two different ways; either in individual pots or in a whole flat. The reason I did this is there are several varieties I hope to grow in mass quantities; such as the Jalapeno for canning:

Basket of canned peppers

the Cayenne for drying and the Alma Paprika for roasting and making soup or freezing for later use. These I planted in a full tray and scattered many seeds in the soil, covered with plastic and set under the grow lights. The other pepper types are planted in individual pots (4-5 seeds in each one).

Pots of pepper seeds under the lights

The Red Mini Peppers are exactly that – Mini! Each plant produces a good quantity of small peppers and they remind me of the typical green pepper just a smaller version.

Mini red peppers

When left to turn red they are very sweet and useful for salads since you don’t have to cut up a whole larger pepper. These I also cut in half, disposed of the seeds and froze as is. The Marconi Pepper is another sweet pepper and a real treat; left on the plant to turn red they are delicious.

Macaroni peppers

The Marconi grows to about 5-6 inches in length and I snacked on them fresh and also used them for stuffed pepper dinners.

The Cayenne and Jalapeno along with the Padron are hot peppers and caution needs to be taken when handling the seeds and also the harvest during the season.

Cayenne and jalapeno peppers

I dried the Cayenne by stringing them up using needle and thread through the stem and once dried I loaded them in the blender and processed into flakes and powder. I did try to dry the Jalapeno in the same manner, but they molded first, so canning was the solution for them. They can also be frozen whole or cut in half; same goes for the Padron which was a bit of a shocker first time around. I saw them advertised on tv as an appetizer and the seed catalog promotes them by saying “one out of 10” is hot, the others are mild. Not so in my garden! Every single one of these Padrons packed a super hot punch! The trick we found was when we harvested them and the size they were. If rather small, about an inch in size, they are neutral. Once they grow past that point, it’s all heat! I witnessed grown men crying over these peppers!

Pedron pepper

The heat scale on these peppers is based on my tolerance for hotness which is pretty low, so others may think a pepper is mild or hardly hot when they make me scream!

I really fell in love with the Alma Paprika Peppers – they can be harvested at 3 different stages.

Alma paprika peppers

In the beginning when they are yellow they are quite hot and they mellow out as they turn orange and then finally red. The flavor is a spicy hotness that adds just the right kick to recipes. I roasted these peppers and used them in tomato pepper soup; made in batches and froze for later enjoyment. The tomato hornworm took a liking to these peppers down south and ate quite a few in my absence.

Any of these peppers can be roasted and the procedure is as follows: rub oil on the peppers and put them under the broiler until blackened (the skins will bubble up a bit) I cut them in half so I didn’t have to keep turning them once in the oven. Remove them from the oven and place in a paper bag and seal for 15 minutes – this allows the peel to come right off and the core and seeds fall out. Chop the peppers and add to recipe.

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
1 teaspoon oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 red bell peppers (or equivalent other type)
4 large tomatoes – peeled, seeded and chopped
1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons paprika
6 cups chicken broth
Dash of hot pepper sauce and/or ground cayenne pepper (not necessary if using hot peppers)
Roast peppers. Cook onion and garlic in oil about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato and peppers, thyme & paprika.
Cook until tomato juices have evaporated, about 25 minutes.
Stir in chicken stock, bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 25 minutes. At this point you can strain the soup, reserving broth. Blend the solids in a blender until smooth and add back to the broth. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 ½ tablespoons of flour, cooking for 1 minute. Stirring slowing add the broth mixture and simmer for 10 minutes.

Growing Lettuce for the Love of It

Debbie NowickiI Love Lettuce! I grew up eating iceberg lettuce and even into my adult years all I ever knew was iceberg … then I started paying attention to lettuce and either I became aware or society as a whole noticed ALL the different types of lettuce out there! There is loose-leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, salad blends and baby lettuce; all types of varieties and colors.

Lettuce in a bowl

The best part about lettuce is you can start out with a bed of crisp lettuce and top it with an assortment of other foods. Add garden fresh vegetables and herbs or freshly grilled chicken or fish, even fruit and you have one filling nutritious meal and it’s so easy!

Blueberry, chicken and lettuce salad

I have never been successful growing lettuce in my garden and this year I decided to change that. I realized it was time to take affirmative action when I noticed the outrageously high prices on all the produce, lettuce included, on my last visit to the grocery store. I remember seeing an article somewhere on growing lettuce and sure enough after browsing my past issues of GRIT I found it! Last year March/April 2008 issue, “Grow Luscious Lettuce”! How perfect! I can totally relate to the author, Cathy Wilson and her experiences growing lettuce. I would scatter seed in several rows in early spring, thin out after several weeks and harvest leaf by leaf hoping for a bowl of hardy crisp lettuce for a nice salad. I would end up adding the handful of lettuce greens to store bought lettuce and pretend to be happy with my less than bountiful yield.

This year I intend to follow the advice given in this article.

• Start early INDOORS (count back 2 ½ months from your last frost date). I started my lettuce seed this past weekend; 5-6 seeds in individual pots instead of hundreds of tiny seed scattered in rows (picture of lettuce seed in pot), covered with plastic wrap and set under grow lights.
• Keep soil moist – do not allow to dry out.
• Add compost and slow release fertilizer pellets halfway through the season.
• To harvest, cut with a serrated knife right above the crown.

The four types of lettuce I will be growing: Red Romaine which sprouted up after only 3 days, Green Ice, Green Towers and Summer Glory Blend.

Red romaine lettuce sprouts

Along with my lettuce choices, I will be planting some other greens; Arugula, Swiss Chard and Spinach. Last year I had great success with spinach and allowed many stalks to go to seed. I planted the seed the following fall and had another crop of spinach and I still have plenty of seed to plant again this spring!

Saved spinach seed

I have been on the lookout for old cookbooks which I believe will make a fun and interesting collection! (picture of cookbooks)

Cookbook selection

I found several so far and “The Farmer’s Cookbook” by Mitzi Ayala has a few good tips I will share.

• A tomato grower will tell you never to refrigerate a tomato. The delicate tissues of this tropical plant will deteriorate rapidly at temperatures below 50 degrees.
• Soak beans 24 hours to leach out the gas-causing oligosaccharides, throw out the soak water and then cook.
• Strawberries shouldn’t be washed until just before eating them. Washing dissolves the strawberry’s natural waxy coating and allows water to enter it like a sponge. A rapid breakdown of vitamin C and loss of flavor results.

Strawberry bread

Leafing through the cookbook I spotted this recipe for Strawberry Bread and had to try it! Enjoy!!

Strawberry Bread
½ cup (4 fl. oz) butter
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 eggs
2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt (I used just a pinch)
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup (4 fl. oz) sour cream
1 cup (8 oz) pureed strawberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and lemon juice and beat until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Sift together flour, salt, cream of tartar, and baking soda. Mix together sour cream and strawberries. Alternately fold flour mixture and strawberry mixture into egg mixture. Pour into a 9x5 loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.

The Art of Woodburning

As we grow older we often look back at times in our past and certain memories always surface – we can sit for hours and dwell on those fond memories and smile. Growing up as a young girl I was fascinated with my Uncle Terry and all his cool tools; the microscope set, the chess set and the amazing woodburning tool! To this day I can hold my own in a good game of chess and those squiggly objects under the microscope lens remind me of all the amazing bugs in the garden and the wonders of life in their tiny atmosphere.

The woodburning tool was one of those fascinating mysteries to me that was dangerous, and yet the creative possibilities seemed endless. Only the brave and daring would plug the hot burning tool in and create images like a true artist. I could only dream of the magnificent images I could create and hope … to draw with fire one day.

Pyrography is the official term when referring to woodburning. The natural beauty that can be created is remarkable. The heated one-temperature unit is inexpensive and a great way to start experimenting with the art.

Woodburned pansy on a gourd 

Common surfaces used to burn designs or patterns onto are wood, gourds and leather. My interest became peaked when I decided to grow gourds in my garden and now I am not only fascinated with gourds but woodburning as well. Although the growing season had passed and I was unable to grow my own gourds, I was able to purchase some at the local fall festivals. They do require a drying out time and I created a work of art as a Christmas gift for my Mom.

Wood burned pansy gourd vase 

She also received a woodburning tool and a book on the subject since she expressed her fascination with the art. I was shocked at how beautiful the vase turned out and so was everyone else! I am hooked now; I just have to wait to grow the gourds this upcoming season! Although you can purchase dried, clean gourds from several places on-line.

Seed or recipe box with wood burned design

My next project was a vegetable design on a seed box  and with this and the previous vase I learned to work with colors. I outlined the design and woodburned, then used oil pastels which are similar to crayons and blended several colors trying to create shades. Then I realized as I read more about woodburning that a lot of a design is created with tones and shades using the tool itself. I gave it a try and created this sunflower plaque and as you can see the background was darkened by burning the wood with the tool.

wood burned flower plaque 

Various techniques can be used to layer a lighter or darker area.

Closeup of wood burned background

Using different tones, techniques and texture is the basis for creating artwork that is natural and very lifelike in appearance. I decided to purchase a variable temperature woodburning unit which is a larger investment but worthwhile if you plan to learn an amazing art form.

Woodburning projects and wood burner

While I await the arrival of all those gourds I plan to grow, I will be working on a special project for our home down South. We have a huge picture window overlooking the lake and I can’t see it covered with curtains; I need to look at the beauty of the view. I plan to create a wooden valance across the top (and maybe the sides) with woodburning designs etched all along.

The head of a gourd bird made with wood burning

Bird made from a gourd with wood burning.

Thank you Uncle Terry for opening my eyes to the fascinating world of woodburning all those years ago!


Have you ever taken notice of a quilt and marveled at its intricate detail and contemplated all the time and energy it took to complete such a work of art? Have you ever attempted to piece together such a creation or have you never even given the construction of a quilt a second thought?

Born in the 60s I remember well my mother sewing many outfits for myself and my two sisters; the sewing machine and ironing board had permanent locations and were used often. I created my own sewing projects as the years went by and then packed away the sewing machine and never gave it another thought … until recently. Someone asked to borrow my machine and when they returned it, I left it on the dining room table. Each time I passed by I would glance at the sewing machine and say, “I need to stash that away somewhere.” But I never did.

In the back of my mind … the creative part of the brain was searching for something. I wanted to create something country and homey, something that took some thought and something useful. I started noticing quilts … in magazines, on-line and even though I frequent the craft stores often, I usually breeze by the fabric aisles, but not now! When I decide to do something, I dive in, full force and unstopping! Reading the quilting book I purchased just wasn’t making sense; the only way to learn was “to do” so I bought yards and yards of fabric and started cutting squares.

240 squares cut for quilting

 Although I did allow for seam allowances, the fabric squares are tiny! I should have made them much bigger, but this is how I learn!

Some of the squares quilted together

My design is very simple and in reading about quilts I found the history quite fascinating. The development of quilting in the United States has unfolded over several centuries and there are heirloom quilts that are among the most dearly loved American antiques. Quilts are individual expressions using fabric colors, patterns and designs; many times used to tell stories of the past. Quilting bees were all day long social events that included the entire family; an occasion for conversation and catching up on news. Many times the quilts under construction were for an upcoming special event such as an engagement or wedding. Patchwork, appliquéing and the crazy quilt are all techniques used to develop this work of art and there are specific names for designs that have been created and passed down through history; Bear’s Paw, Stepping Stones and Log Cabin to name a few. The richness of the American creative spirit can be witnessed in the reflections of everyday life depicted on quilts from yester year. Next time you have the opportunity to glance at a quilt take time to notice the detail and design; you may be glancing at a unique moment in history.

Keeping true to my New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, I experimented a bit with this Simple Blueberry Muffin recipe and Homemade Cracker recipe. The muffins were “Great!” stated my teenage daughter and the crackers need work.

Homemade Crackers and Flaxseed Muffins

Simple Blueberry Muffins
1 cup white flour
1 cup wheat flour
½ cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup flaxseed
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
Mix flour, sugar, baking power together. Beat egg; add milk and then add egg mixture to dry ingredients. Stir in blueberries. Fill muffin cups and bake for 15-20 minutes at 425 degrees.
Homemade Crackers
1 cup wheat flour
1/3 cup water
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon rosemary
1 teaspoon baking soda
Combine flour, garlic, pepper, rosemary & baking soda (add more herbs if desired; adjust to taste). Add water and mix until dough forms. Roll dough out to 1/8 inch thickness; sprinkle with salt (optional). Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees; remove, cut into squares. Return to oven until brown and crunchy.

The Healthy Eating Resolution

With the echo of the New Year still ringing in our ears we firmly vow to keep our resolutions. We raise our glasses, now filled with water and green tea, to a healthy New Year! Champagne sounds so much more elegant, but we have a new vision and what perfect timing … as we plan our garden for the new season, we envision ripe red tomatoes, green leafy spinach and our fit and trim waistline all the by-product from the homegrown goodness in our own backyard.

Along with many carefully chosen vegetables to grow, I am planning a special healthy herb garden.  I have a location in mind and the idea is to construct raised beds and hope the sun is not too hot in this location.  In the past I have grown herbs and used them in recipes fresh and have also dried them for future use.  Most air dry very well and add a nice taste of flavor to any dish.  I will be sharing recipes as the season moves along.  What inspired this herb garden-healthy eating notion was the fabulous Rosemary Cookies I made during the holidays.  Along with the usual Christmas cookie baking I wanted to incorporate herbs for healthy snacking.  I have to admit these cookies used the herb Rosemary but they really aren’t that healthy, they are extremely delicious though!  What makes them so good is the combination of light airy dough with the strong taste of rosemary … Superb!

Rosemary Cookies

Rosemary Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 cups flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Combine all ingredients, except rosemary and mix thoroughly.  Now gently mix rosemary into the batter.  Form dough into small balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet.  Flatten each one.  Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they bake since you don’t want to overcook them – a pale golden brown is the desired color.

The intent to bake healthy cookies was there and I am getting closer to fulfilling that intent.  Today I baked up these Flaxseed Cookies as my first hope to conquer the “Healthy Eating” resolution.  The recipe makes a nice huge batch that the family can munch on all week long as we withdraw from the continual stream of eating … and more eating, that possessed us during the holiday season.

Flaxseed Cookies 

Flax Cookies

1 1/3 cups butter
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 1/3 cups flax seeds
3 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
3 cups oatmeal

Cream butter, sugars and flaxseed. Add beaten eggs and vanilla to mixture. Blend flour, baking soda and oatmeal and combine with other ingredients. Form dough into 1 ½” round logs and chill in the freezer. Cut into slices and place on cookie sheet in 350 degree oven for 12-15 minutes.

I have also decided to try growing some grains this year and I found it very interesting and frustrating searching for the seeds to purchase.  I have received many of the 2009 seed catalogs and have enjoyed reading through every page and description of listed offerings. A few do have some grain seed to purchase.  I am aware of my need to research grain growing for the small gardener.  Ideally, I would like several areas with wheat, oats, quinoa, millet and various other grains.  Farmers throughout the country grow acre upon acre of all the grains we consume in our daily diets.  Is it feasible for a small gardener to grow enough grain to be worth the effort?

My “Healthy Eating” resolution is taking shape and the research continues as I raise my glass wishing a healthy New Year to all!


Time to Research

Winter is an excellent time to sit down, click on the computer and surf the internet discovering items of interest and tidbits of knowledge. Of course, I have my stack of books and magazines nearby – most on gardening and country living and I find myself flipping through pages as I envision my future plans.

A grand decision was made recently that came about after reading other GRIT blogs and researching. I came upon the website The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and found a listing of animal breeds and their existence rating ... ranging from critical to recovering. I plan to raise chickens, possibly a few turkeys and ducks and the guinea hogs look quite interesting. I will learn all I can about housing, feeding and where to purchase these different breeds as the winter weather whirls around outside. The poultry can be mail ordered and arrive as early as March.

Last year as we visited the new farm store down south they had a few cages of baby chicks and geese for sale. I only briefly checked them out since I knew if I spent too much time watching them, I would end up purchasing some and I am not quite ready.  I need to be somewhere permanent, not traveling back and forth. ... PLUS, I have to do my research!

So the decision to raise heritage breeds has given my life in the country a new meaning. I will carry on that which our ancestors were about and leave something for the future generations. Many of our heritage animal breeds and rare seeds (heirloom) are disappearing simply because no one is raising or planting them.

There are organizations such as Seed Savers that work on preserving heirloom varieties of seeds; like the heritage animal breeds, some are on the verge of extinction. I find seed saving very therapeutic and have been giving away Free Seeds the last few months from my website.

Recently I sent out an envelope to a high school that just constructed a new greenhouse and will be sending seeds off to a jail in Iowa for their Inmate Agricultural Program. Many individuals have been very appreciative sending sincere thank yous. I have high hopes that all receiving the seeds will enjoy the process, learn and pass the knowledge on.

I have created a Garden Forum that should help with questions and offer advice. I will be concentrating my efforts on heirloom varieties for the coming garden season so these are not lost and forgotten. Of course, I have my seed saving books and sites to help me along the way.

So Heritage Breeds and Heirloom Seeds is on my agenda for research this winter!

[Also check out GRIT's Guides to Animal Breeds, or, if you're like me and like to hold a book in your hands, for breed research, the Grit Staff highly recommends Storey's Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle and Pigs. – Editors]

Garden Reflections 2008

Now that the gardens are put to rest for the season, it is time to reflect on all that has taken place while it is still fresh in my mind.  Keeping a blog, an online journal, is a definite plus and will be a key factor in planning for next year.  This year has been a first in many areas for me.  It is the first year I attempted to garden down South, first year I grew such a vast amount of flowers, first year I had so many dogs (4) and the first year I kept a blog!

A rare quiet moment for two of our dogs

Frankie the dog

I made some grand discoveries while experimenting with the gardens – I have two up North where I spent most of my time and one down South along with flower gardens in various areas.  The challenge down South was planting items that would require minimal care.  I am hopeful the coneflower, yarrow, lavender, roses, blueberries and asparagus will greet me next spring. 

The luffa did flourish and is now drying on racks until the time I can peel the outer skin to reveal the sponge inside.  I know they would have grown much heartier if I were there to water them on a regular basis.  The months of July and August seem to be very, very dry and hot!  I realized the frost dates both North and South are right around the same time, only a 5 day difference this year.  I initially thought I had a longer growing season down South but that isn’t the case.   The winters are milder and that is the major difference weather-wise.  Fall is simply gorgeous!

Fall color 2008

As I observed the daily activity in the gardens, I discovered so many new and different insects, some regulars that I have seen before and quite a few newbies that I enjoyed watching. 

Praying mantis close-up

The praying mantis down South kept me glued to his every move as he roamed the Guardian Marigold flowers looking for dinner. 

Praying mantis on marigolds

I found the tomato hornworm that dines on my tomato plants up North simply LOVES hot peppers down South. They were eating the alma paprika and cayenne peppers like crazy!

Hornworm alma

I was informed that the hornworm makes great fishing bait! 

I had some good results with Companion Gardening this year. The marigold I planted all over is said to repel insects due to its powerful smell which confuses them – basil is said to have the same affect. Borage attracts bees and the flower is edible.

Bee on borage

I did lose my squash plants to the wicked squash beetle (pictured) and the cucumber beetles were around in full force.

Squash bugs

I planted buckwheat along with the corn and didn’t have any insect problems, the tansy flourished and attracted buzzing beneficial bugs. The beets did great and so did the early crops of peas and spinach. 

Peas in their pods

I had a successful replanting of spinach in the fall from seeds I saved in spring and have many more seeds for next year.  Both varieties of cucumbers were non-stop producers … pearl cucumber and a slicing type. The tigger melon was an interesting first and not as sweet as I had expected. I grew several different types of tomato, which I have been doing each year. This year Illini Star, Rio Roma, Aunt Ruby German Green along with my trusted Amish Paste, which is excellent for canning.

Canned tomatoes

We grew 8 acres of soybeans but really didn’t have any part in the growing or harvest. This was something that happened before we bought our land and we let the farmer continue. 


Funny thing is he asked us a few weeks ago if we wanted to sell or sit on them. We let him decide since we had no clue! I think we are sitting on them until the price goes up. I can’t wait until we have the opportunity to go to an auction with this farmer or visit his hog farm – he knows SO much!

I did save many seeds this year and we have an area in mind we asked the farmer to till up so I can plant. It’s quite a large chunk of land and will definitely require a lot more of my time and attention. The gardens up North may be devoted to flowers and the canning tomatoes next year with more experimenting taking place down South. We have finally figured out where to build a greenhouse, not sure when that will happen, and the house for the chickens and guineas. I see many more “firsts” in the future and can’t wait to experience them all!