Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No Frozen Root Beer Here

Hey, guess what?  I haven’t had a freeze yet this year!  I can’t decide if I’m bragging or bewildered, maybe some of both.  Since my little 2 acre oasis isn’t located in Hawaii, I know it will eventually freeze, but for the present I am still enjoying the beauty of a green landscape (thanks to the recent rain).

One of the plants I’m still enjoying is called Root Beer Plant (piper auritum).  Root Beer plant, also called Hoja Santa, is a perennial related to the pepper.  As soon as we get a freeze, this plant will die back to the ground.  It’s root hardy to 15-20 degrees, so in Zone 8, it will come back pretty reliably.  Mine came back even after last winter’s 17 degree low.  

Root Beer plant is one of those fun pass along plants.  I saw one in a nursery for the first time this year, but normally you would get one of these from a gardening friend.  Root Beer plant has a tendency to spread by underground runners, so there’s always some to share with friends.

Grow Root Beer plant in the shade, water it regularly and you’ll be rewarded with lush tropical foliage and exotic flowers.  I've read the plants can get quite large, but mine have never gotten larger than 3-4 feet tall. 

The leaves on this plant are big and have a spicy scent when crushed.  Some say it smells like root beer, but I think mine smells like black licorice.  In Mexican cooking, the leaves are chopped for flavoring or used to wrap meat and tamales. 

The flowers of the Root Beer plant are long, white, and unusual enough to attract the attention of passersby.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fall Veggie Update

The fall veggie garden got off to a very late start this year, but the veggies are almost ready for harvest.  I purchased 4 inch transplants of broccoli and cabbage in early September, but couldn’t bring myself to plant them due to the heat.  After potting them up in 1 gallon containers, I left them sitting in a shady spot until planting them the first weekend in October.

Broccoli Florets Forming

Cabbage Head Forming

When I was finally ready to plant in October, I made another trip to the nursery for Chinese cabbage and Brussels Sprouts transplants.  The Chinese cabbage is starting to head and if you look closely at the Brussels Sprouts photo you can see the beginnings of future sprouts.

Chinese Cabbage

Brussels Sprouts Plant
Close-up Brussels Sprouts Forming

The rutabagas I started from seed in early September will be ready for harvest toward the end of December and into January.

Garden Bed of Rutabagas

Rutabaga Plant Close-up

Planted on the last weekend in October the kale and chard are making good progress.  The garlic, which was planted on November 5th, sprouted up quickly.


Swiss Chard (front) and Garlic (back)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Broody Chicks Lay No Eggs

I came home one day to find my Welsummer hen, Petunia, behaving strangely.  She would not leave the nest and upon my approach, she puffed herself up and growled at me like some sort of possessed gremlin.  At first I thought she was sick, but after some research I came to the conclusion that she was most likely broody. 

When a hen becomes broody, her hormones take over and she feels a need to hatch some chicks.  She plucks out her breast feathers to provide more warmth to the clutch of eggs that she will sit on for 28 days.  She will only leave the eggs for brief periods to eat and drink.

So, here’s the problem.  I don’t have a rooster, and Petunia doesn’t understand that the eggs she is sitting on have not been fertilized.  She will continue to sit on the eggs indefinitely, and the eggs will never hatch.  Continuing to sit on eggs in vain is not good for Petunia, since she will weaken without enough food.  Petunia will not lay eggs while she is broody and general egg production in the coop may diminish as well.  This is not good for me, because I've grown to enjoy eggs for breakfast.   

I decided to try some of the suggestions I found on the web.  The first suggestion was to remove the eggs and replace them with a Ziploc baggie full of ice cubes.  Though Petunia was extremely outraged by this incursion, the idea seemed to work at first and she left the nest.  Eventually hormones won out and, despite the ice, she decided to return to her egg sitting.

The second suggestion was to isolate her in a special cage without nesting material.  The recommendation was for a wire cage designed to promote good air flow under her.  We re-purposed an old dog crate and retrofitted the bottom with hardware cloth to create a more solid floor.  We propped the cage up on cinder blocks and placed it back in the coop for security against marauding raccoons. 

Petunia lived in the broody coop, as we came to call it, for 5 days.  I checked on her often and brought fresh food and water daily.  Eventually she stopped growling and I knew she was coming out of her hormone induced broody state.  The idea worked and Petunia was able to rejoin the rest of her sisters.  Life was back to normal and eggs were back on the menu.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winterizing the Coop

The design of our backyard chicken coop takes into consideration both the scorching Texas summers and the biting cold fronts of Texas winters.  During the summer, the coop is enclosed on three sides.  The fourth side is left open providing optimal air flow.

In the winter, the coop can be enclosed.  Two separate doors are used to form the wall.  In the fall, we add the door to the roost end of the coop to provide protection from the wind at night.  When temperatures turn colder, the second door in added to fully enclose the space.  Each door is hung on two large gate hinges, which allows them to be easily installed or removed.  The lexan windows allow in light, and the cutout door allows the chickens to enter.

A heat lamp above the roost provides a little extra warmth and protection.  Last winter I thought I would spoil my feathered friends by turning on the lamp frequently.  One night, I went out to the coop and discovered the girls had vacated the coop because it was just too hot.  Chickens are actually pretty hardy birds, so now I reserve the heat lamp for nights when temperatures are going to drop below freezing. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Backyard Edibles

In Issue No. 20 of Edible Austin magazine, Amy Crowell talks about foraging for wild edible foods.  I’m not an expert on the identification of backyard edible weeds, but there was one plant that she talked about that I can easily identify.  That plant is Turk’s Cap.  
In the fall, Turk’s Cap produces a small red, edible fruit.  The fruits look like little apples, but the question is, do they taste like little apples?  I’ve read conflicting opinions of what this fruit taste like.  Some say it is bitter, some say it does taste like apples, and Amy suggests that it has an “earthy, cucumber-sweet flavor”.

I think I’ll see for myself.  Here’s Amy’s recipe from her article titled, Fast Foraging:

1 c. ripe, red Turk’s cap fruit
2 c. water
¼ c. sugar (or to taste)

Wash the fruit and place it in a saucepan with the water and sugar. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the fruit softens. Crush the fruit with the back of a large spoon or a masher. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth, and gently squeeze out all the juices. Let cool and serve over ice.
For my little taste test, I'm halving the recipe.  I didn't have cheesecloth on-hand, so I pressed my fruit through a strainer, which seemed to work fine.
Adding 1/2 Cup Fruit
Stirring in Sugar
Straining Fruit
So, what does it taste like?  Hmmm... it's not bad.  Definitely not bitter.  I think it has a light apple cider flavor.  I may have overwhelmed the fruit with a bit too much sugar.  The flavor is very faint.
Amy recommends that by adding some tequila, this versatile beverage can be transformed into a cocktail.  Now we're talking.  Cheers!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Skip the Taters, Mash a 'Baga

I love mashed rutabaga for Thanksgiving dinner.  Last year, I planted my rutabaga early with the thought that I would harvest and serve my own rutabaga on the big day.  On Thanksgiving day, I harvested a couple of beauties and cooked them up.  They were just awful; very bitter, and no amount of butter would help.  Off to the compost bin they went.
Purple Top Rutabaga
So, what went wrong?  My best guess is that the weather was the culprit.  It was just too warm in Texas in November.  We hadn't had enough cold weather to bring out the flavor.  To prove this theory, I waited for the weather to provide some significant freezing temperatures.  Sure enough, that did the trick and the rutabaga harvested in January were the best.

To satisfy my craving for Thanksgiving rutabaga, I have to buy them from the grocery store.  Store bought rutabagas are covered in wax to preserve them for storage.
Wax Covered Rutabaga
To prepare them, peel all the wax and outer covering with a potato peeler or paring knife.  Cut the rutabaga into small pieces about 1 inch in size.  Put the rutabaga in a large saucepan and cover with water.  Boil for 20-30 minutes, or until the rutabaga pieces are easily pierced with a fork.  Drain off the water and mash with a potato masher.  Add butter, salt and pepper to taste.  Enjoy.
Yummy Buttery 'Bagas

Thursday, November 24, 2011


In Thanksgiving,

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter or the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Exotic Blooms of Queen's Tears

Queen's Tears (Billbergia Nutans) is soaking up the Texas sun and putting on a show in my greenhouse today.  

Queen's Tears is a very low maintenance Bromeliad.  I provide mine with standard potting mix and water twice a week in the summer. I've read you should fertilize about every 2 weeks with a diluted liquid fertilizer, but honestly, I fertilize, maybe, once a month. 
Even with average care, this plant needs to be re-potted nearly every year.  For this reason, it has received the nickname the "friendship plant".  Queen's Tears is an excellent pass along plant that I would be happy to share with anyone.  Just ask. 
Queen's Tears likes bright indirect light and thrives outside in the summer under my shade trees.  In the winter time, you'll need to bring it into the house or a heated greenhouse.  Be sure to cut back on water and fertilizer during the winter months.   
My Queen's Tears normally bloom in late winter to early spring, so seeing it bloom in November was a nice surprise.  The pink bracts are exotic by themselves, but the flowers... Wow!  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Garden Junk

Let’s talk garden junk.  I am absolutely fascinated by the crazy and fun things that people choose to display in their yards.  Old neighborhoods and small towns are the best for spotting some of the most interesting garden junk.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the display is intentional or perhaps just forgotten.

This red rocking dog sitting pretty on a front lawn seems to have found a friend.

Bird baths are as ubiquitous in Texas towns as wishing wells and wind mills. 

Swings are popular too, but it’s not every day you get to see swinging begonias.

Mushrooms are the “Where’s Waldo” of the landscape.  Frequently hidden and low to the ground, they aren’t always as easy to spot as these larger than life specimens.

Speaking of “larger than life”, this frog seems to have replaced the stereotypical lawn jockey at this residence.

Garden junk should make you smile.  These little guys are just so goofy, they crack me up.

Who could resist the face of this little hippo?

Afraid of color?  Not at this house, where a colorful, sunny face is perfectly at home on this pink and yellow porch.

I hope you stuck with me because I’ve saved the best for last.  A throne fit for any gardener and the master of all garden junk.  I can only hope someday to achieve this level of garden junk-dom.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Which Egg Do You Prefer?

While the debate continues about whether free-range chicken eggs are better than grain fed chicken eggs, let me ask one question.  Which egg would you prefer? 

Of the four eggs pictured, the two pale-yolked eggs are regular grocery store eggs, and the two orange-yolked eggs were laid by my backyard chickens.  I think Cocoa and Ginger were responsible for these particular specimens.  Thanks girls.

The eggs produced by my chickens have a very hard shell, a rich, orange-colored yolk, and a meaty white.  Contrast this with your standard grocery store eggs, which have pale yellow yolks, runny whites, and shells which crack quite easily.

Why are these eggs so different?  It all comes down to diet.  Chickens are omnivores.  A chicken fed a balanced diet including greens, produces an egg with a dark yellow or orange yolk.  The color in the yolk comes from a class of substances called carotenoids, which are found in many fruits and vegetables.  If carotenoids are good for you, and free-range chicken eggs contain carotenoids… well, I’ll let you do the math.

A chicken doesn’t necessarily have to be free-range in the purist sense of the word to produce a quality egg.  My chickens do not “free-range” due to an abundance of hawks where I live.  I do allow them to leave the coop from time-to-time, but their field trips are largely supervised by my husband and me. 

The overriding factor in producing a quality egg is diet.  My chickens are fed vegetable scraps, rice, oatmeal, and lots of other food items that I used to toss into the compost bin.  A balanced grain-based feed is available each day, but trust me, when I show up with the day’s treats, all bets are off.  Chickens may not be the brightest pet you'll ever own, but they still know what tastes good.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Greenhouse Update - Heating for the Winter

In Texas, we are blessed with short, reasonably warm winters.  Still, cold fronts do come, and temperatures can drop unexpectedly.  Last year’s 17 degree low was one of those little unexpected happenings that most of us probably hope will not be repeated this winter.

It’s hard to imagine cold weather will eventually arrive, when my greenhouse hit 96 degrees today.  The bottom line is that Texas temperatures can get crazy, so it’s important to be prepared with an adequate greenhouse heater.  My ideal heating system is a little beyond my budget at the moment, so this winter I am improvising.

There are 3 things that I consider necessary for heating my greenhouse; a thermostat, a greenhouse heater, and a backup heater. 

My greenhouse is 320 square feet with a high ceiling.  Calculations show that to keep the greenhouse warm under the worst conditions, I need a heater rated at about 23,000 BTU.  I can’t get that much power from a 110v heater.  So, until I can afford a 220v electric line and a super powered heater or two, I’ll be running 2 - 110v heaters and hoping for a mild winter. 

The 2 primary heaters I selected are economical, electric utility heaters designed for use in a greenhouse or workshop.  The heaters will be stationed at opposite ends of the greenhouse pointing inward towards the center.

Each heater will be operated from a separate thermostat.  The thermostat will be set at 45-50 degrees and will automatically turn the heater off and on as necessary. 

In case of an electric outage, I have purchased a propane heater to keep on standby.  This heater attaches to a standard size propane tank and will run about 27 hours on 1 tank.

I can currently view temperature conditions in my greenhouse from a weather station readout in my house.  The weather station sensor, which is located in the greenhouse, shows the current temperature and records the daily minimum and maximum temperatures.  

A weather station is very handy, but the item on my wish list is a greenhouse freeze alarm.  The alarm would alert me in case the heaters stopped working and temperatures dipped into the danger zone.  I hope to have one of these little gems before the really cold temperatures arrive.