Thursday, April 7, 2011

A plethora of P's for producing a peck of pickled peppers.

(I'm teaching two half-hour classes of Vegetable Gardening 101 for a Relief Society meeting tonight and I'm using my blog to organize my thoughts. The theme of the night is A Thyme and a Season. The other presenter is focusing on herbs and flowers and I will not mention them here. But they're fun too. Also, my presentation is specific to southeast Michigan and my own experiences with gardening, it is not meant to be an exhaustive overview of the subject.)

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?
- English Nursery Rhyme

A Plethora of P's for Producing a Peck of Pickled Peppers

So how's Farmville working out for you? Harvested anything yet? What did you do with your harvest? Jar of Salsa? Garden fresh salad? Pizza sauce? Yah, I didn't think so. Winter's almost over my dear and it's time. Time to put down your phone or mouse and put on a pair of gardening gloves. Let's dabble in reality for a season.


Everyone has their own purpose for starting a garden. My number one reason: Vegetables taste better if you grow them yourself. Seriously. A homegrown tomato, with just a dash of salt, tastes far superior to its mealy and bland counterpart found at the grocery store. Beyond taste however, I've found home gardening to be more economical, environmentally friendly, and well, it's just a lot of fun. Keep a purpose in mind though as you begin your garden. You'll want to remember it when the midday sun is beating down on you as you crawl through the dirt looking for weeds. Also you'll be able to remind your children when it's their turn to do the same. "Remember kids, this is fun!"


Now that you have your purpose, it's time to create a plan. Always have a plan. It's just easier that way. Grab a notebook and write down what you want and how you want to accomplish it. Begin by laying out how you want your garden to look. How large will it be? Where in your yard will it be located? What vegetables do you want to plant? (Preferably ones your family likes to eat. Nothing like trying to feed your children the bumper crop of okra, right Mom?) When I first started our home garden in 2004, I wanted to dig up most of the backyard. Jon talked me down and we started smaller. Each year we have added a few more feet. Today our garden is currently 24 x 10, or 240 square feet. Remember, your garden will need lots of sunshine to grow, at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight. Hiding it in the corner where the sun doesn't shine might give your kids more room to run around, but does little to help the beans grow.


Nope. Still not time to plant. First you need to pick out a really cute pair of gardening gloves and a hat, your hands and nose will thank you later. Enjoy them now though, cause they're going to get dirty.

Now it's time to think about the soil. If you want your plants to have the best finish, give them the best start. I wish I could take you all on a field trip to Iowa right about now. We could set up lawn chairs on any country road and watch the farmers till up the prettiest soil you've ever seen. The rich black dirt is beautiful, a perfect chemistry of nutrients and minerals. I may be biased, but it's far superior to the clay I have to work with here in Michigan.

But that's what soil amendments are for. Begin by giving your soil a test. This will help you decide what type of fertilizer your garden needs. Soil test kits are available at your local garden store. There are two soil tests available at Lowe's. One cost about 3 dollars and the other cost about 10 dollars. They are basic tests that determine your soils pH levels as well as its nitrogen, phosphorous and potash levels. This year I purchased the Michigan State University Soil Test from Telly's Nursery in Troy, MI. The cost is higher, 19 dollars, but they test more things and include a list of personal recommendations specifically for your soil. Properly amending your soil is the best preparation you can do for your garden, besides the cute pair of gardening gloves.


Amending the soil is a continual process. Each year the proper nutrients must be returned to the soil in order for the plants to thrive. Full confession: I've never done a soil test before. My primary soil amendments thus far have been sphagnum peat moss, manure, Miracle-Gro potting soil (specifically for vegetables) and last year's fallen leaves. And really there's only one way to properly get these amendments in the ground. You gotta till it in. We purchased a tiller from Craigslist for 175 dollars a few years ago. It has saved us, as well as several of our friends and neighbors, from the back breaking work of turning over the garden. The first year I planted our garden after only a superficial turning of the dirt. My neighbor Naima, who is Syrian and doesn't speak English, conveyed her disappointment with a series of tongue clicks, head shakes and a demonstration on how to properly turn over soil. That's when we bought the tiller. We till the soil once a year in the spring, when the dirt has dried out sufficiently. We till to a depth of about 8 inches. And when I say we till, I mean Jon tills.

When you are adding things to amend the soil, be sure to throw in some earthworms as well. The more worms your garden has, the healthier it is. Plus, they're great at amending the dirt naturally, if you know what I mean.

Perusing Seeds and Selection

I don't like choosing seeds from catalogs. I enjoy looking at the catalogs, just not ordering from catalogs. I've never had a problem with purchasing seeds from Lowe's or Home Depot or my local nursery. They all carry name brand seeds from respectable seed companies. If you determine that ordering seeds from a catalog is what you prefer, then more power to you. Many people simply purchase already sprouted seeds, called transplants, from a local nursery and skip the seeding process altogether. This can make a lot of sense if you only want four pepper plants. A packet of seeds will produce tens of pepper plants for about a dollar. At our local nursery, four pepper plants for transplanting will cost 1.25. It's all up to you and your budget, time, purpose and plan.

Seed sharing is also an economical way of starting a garden. If five people each purchase a packet of seeds, then start those seeds and share their starts with each other, everybody wins.

When you purchase a packet of seeds, there are several things to pay attention to on the back. First look for the sell by date. Seeds planted after the date on the package may not germinate. Also notice the map of the United States. The waves of color indicate the window of opportunity you have to plant that seed depending on where you live.


Now, we plant. Here is where it can get complicated. Say you've decided in your plan, that you're going to plant zucchini, peas, beans, tomatoes, beets, lettuce, peppers, and green onions. Fabulous! Those are all wonderful vegetables that grow very well in Michigan. But wait. Don't just start pushing seeds in the ground. Lettuce, beets and onions are cold season plants. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and beans are warm season plants. Planting lettuce in full sun in the middle of July isn't going to produce a lot of crisp lettuce, unless it's in a container you've placed in the shade. And planting tomatoes before the last frost will yield a lot of dead tomato plants. So while planting lettuce, beets and onions in April and early May is a wise idea, don't expect your beans to do very well if you do the same. The last frost date in southeast Michigan is usually May 15th. But this is Michigan and I wouldn't put it past her to throw a snowflake or 10 inches before Memorial Day. So pay attention to the forecast as you plant your seeds.

It's also wise to organize the plants in your garden by how they mature. I like to plant zucchini. Not enough to over run the neighborhood, just enough to have some to grill all summer, bake a few loaves of bread and still have some to grate and freeze for the winter. But zucchini plants are a vine that need lots of room to grow. If you plant your pepper plants near the zucchini plants without leaving proper room for growth, your pepper plant is doomed. Be sure you have planned for proper spacing in order to allow sufficient room for growth, air circulation, and access.

I hate to thin my plants, but it's always for the best. Plant your seeds according to the directions on the seed packet, but be sure you thin them. Carrots will be a tangled mess if you don't and you really don't want that many radishes. Or if you can't stand the thought of killing a living thing, space the seeds farther apart.

Plants like to be cozy, so put down a layer of mulch around their base. You can use anything from straw, to plastic as long as it is garden friendly and fits into your plan. Mulch will help with water retention, weed control and, if you use the right stuff, add some nutrients to your plants.

Be prepared for how much one plant can produce. One year I planted 9 pickling cucumber plants. CRAZY! No family eats that many pickles. But not as crazy as a friend of mine who once planted twenty zucchini plants, thinking one plant produced one zucchini. There really are no words. You also want to pay attention to how much room a plant will take up if it is producing very little fruit. For example, and I feel like a traitor for saying this, corn. Great if you have a lot of space, but a few short rows of corn are going to take up a lot of space and not yield very many ears for the effort.

Because plants eventually stop producing, it is wise to space your planting or plant more than once. You can plant a spring crop of peas, harvest them and then plant them again for a fall harvest. That also applies to lettuce, spinach and other cool season plants. Beans should be planted every two weeks to ensure beans are available for harvest throughout the season, not just one big bushel full in late July. Keep track of your planting schedule in that notebook you started back in the planning stages of your garden.


Once your seeds or plants are in the ground, YOU ARE NOT DONE! Now comes the care and keeping so that in several weeks you can enjoy the fruits, or vegetables, of your labor. Planting a garden is not a leave it and forget about it undertaking. My mom would plant our family garden, a space many times as big as my garden, right before we left on our annual family vacation. Upon our return it was always a weedy mess. Guess who got to weed it? And while being able to tell the difference between a weed and a tomato plant might be useful knowledge, I wouldn't consider it a life skill or anything. Uuunnnllleess. I bet she was just using it as a lesson in how to work. Nice Mom.

Your garden will need proper watering (not too much, not too little), fertilizing, weeding, and pruning. But hey, good news! You can stay on top of things with only minutes a day, depending on your garden's size. As long as you are actively participating in the growth and development of your garden, you can limit the amount of time you need to spend in it.


Okay, I mean harvesting, but the word plucking fit my angle. You can expect to start harvesting your garden in as little as a month for things like lettuce, but tomatoes and beans will take a little longer. If you spaced your planting, you can benefit from a long harvesting season, well into September and even October. Be sure to share some with your neighbors. If they aren't into fresh vegetables like you are, then look into donating some to Forgotten Harvest or a local food bank. It's always good to share.


The purpose of my garden last year was to create a salsa garden. I planted several roma tomato plants, which produced in abundance. The onions and peppers also did very well. I was able to can over 30 pints of tomato salsa and 10 pints of jalapeno salsa just from tomatoes and peppers from our garden. That bumper crop of pickling cucumbers a few years back supplied enough cucumbers for two years of dill pickle spears. Green beans freeze well, and so do peppers. The benefit of gardening is long lasting and although it can be hard work, the rewards are worth it. So, if it's a peck of peppers you want to grow in order to pickle, or tomatoes for saucing, hopefully you are now better equipped with the basics to begin a garden adventure of your own. Let me know if you have any questions, or need clarification on something.

Have fun as you plan your garden for 2011!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


It's General Conference Weekend! Conference weekend only happens twice a year, the first weekends of April and October. It is a time when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather in homes and church buildings throughout the world. We gather to listen to guidance, revelation and the inspiring words of those we sustain as leaders of the church. There are three 2-hour sessions held on Saturday and two 2-hour sessions on Sunday. The third session on Saturday is the Priesthood Session which men and boys older than 12 attend. The Young Women Conference session is held the weekend before the April conference and the Relief Society Conference session is held the weekend before the October conference.

We have gone through many traditions as we have tried to best meet the needs of our family in regards to General Conference. We acknowledge that it is difficult to listen to talking heads for eight to ten hours over the course of two days. Nothing ever endured until we decided on what our kids call Listen Up!, the conference keyword game. For each session of conference the kids choose several keywords. Those keywords are assigned a food. Each time we hear a speaker say one of the keywords for that session, we get the assigned snack. Yes, this is a variation of a common drinking game. And yes, we think it is very fun. Especially when the kids have assigned chocolate to the word revelation and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says revelation or a variation of it more than 20 times, like he did in an April 2008 talk. Cause variations count.

We learned early on however to temper the sugar with substance. It's hard to keep the spirit of conference when one is screaming at the kids to stop jumping on the furniture. Now, instead of an array of M&M's and Skittles, the menu is more likely to include fruit and popcorn alongside the Twizzlers.

Saturday Morning keywords and snacks

Excited (not even kidding) for conference to start

Saturday Afternoon

Sunday Morning

Sunday Afternoon

For five years I taught a religion class for high school age students called early morning seminary. Best. five. years. I was always a little sad when incoming freshman couldn't tell the difference between Elders Packer or Perry or Ballard and Scott, who as members of The Church of Jesus Christ we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators. If Latter-day Saints want our youth to do the same, than we need to introduce them early and often. Conference is an excellent place to start. I find great peace and joy in hearing the leaders of the church bear testimony of the Savior and His plan for us, from both the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency, as well as the Auxiliary leaders, i.e. Primary, Young Women, Sunday School and Relief Society. I want my children to feel that same peace, not because I tell them so, but because they have gained their own desire to know.

Some of my takeaways from this weekend:

- Our trials and tribulations are not beyond our capacity to bear. We can do all things through Christ which strengthens us.

- Be kind to the poor.

- I'd rather hear Well done thou good and faithful servant instead of Well you're done.

- I am quite normal.

- Make to be lists instead of to do lists

- Growth doesn't come by taking the easy way.

- A loving Heavenly Father is mindful of me.

Our semi-annual tradition of playing Listen Up! and watching conference, hopefully transitions into a lifetime desire to listen to a prophet's voice and being stalwart and true. Amen = You choose