5 Pest Repelling Plants Every Gardener Needs

by Amber Kanuckel

Marigolds and mosquito plants are probably the first things that come to mind when you think about pest-repellent plants. However, there is a whole world of interesting annuals and perennials that will help you drive away bugs, mice, deer and more. Read on to see which plants will eliminate your pest problem, and learn how you can make an all-natural insect repellent that is more effective than DEET!

lemongrass

1.) Lemongrass

Lemongrass is one of those versatile spices that belongs in every vegetable and herb garden. This plant contains citronella, which means it will help you repel many different kinds of insects, including mosquitoes. As an added bonus, cats hate the smell of lemongrass, so it’ll help you keep the neighborhood strays away from your vegetables and flowerbeds.

catmint

2.) Catnip

Cats love this member of the mint family, but mosquitoes despise it. In fact, tests comparing catnip extract to DEET found that catnip is far more effective at repelling mosquitoes. If you want to keep your porch or patio mosquito-free, plant catnip in hanging baskets along the perimeter.

You can also make an easy, all-natural bug spray out of catnip. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and then add a large handful of chopped catnip to the water. Let the mixture steep for at least 10 minutes – although longer will result in a more potent brew. Once the solution has cooled, strain out the greenery, pour the liquid into a spray bottle and use it just like store-bought insect repellents.

beebalm

3.) Beebalm

Beebalm is one of those perennials that used to be popular, but has lately faded from prominence. However, these plants give off wonderful strong scent that happens to repel mosquitoes. When beebalm blooms, it will attract plenty of good creatures to your garden, including bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It also attracts predatory insects that will devour the bugs that are eating your plants.

mint

4.) Mint

Like lemongrass, mint is another super-versatile spice. The strong, fresh scent will make your herb or vegetable bed smell nice, and you can clip the leaves to use in teas, cocktails or other flavorful concoctions. Mint also repels all sorts of pests, including mosquitoes, flies, fleas and cabbage worms.

What makes mint special is that it offers some protection against mice and deer. Mice don’t like the smell of mint, so if you plant it along the borders of your home, you’ll keep the mice outside where they belong. When you plant it next to the fruits, vegetables and flowers that deer love to eat, the strong scent will help hide your valuable plants from the deer’s keen sense of smell.

lavender

5.) Lavender

Lavender is another strongly scented plant that will help mask the smells of the plants that deer like to eat. In addition, this fragrant perennial also repels ticks and mice. Towards the end of the season, you can cut the lavender back, dry it and add it to sachets that will keep moths out of your pantry and closets.

Do you know of more pest repelling plants that we can grow here in Ohio? If so, feel free to share in the comments section!

Advertisements

8 Ways to Reuse Your Coffee Grounds

by Amber Kanuckel

If you’re like me, you’ve got to have that morning cup (or pot) of coffee every morning. That means you have an endless supply of coffee grounds that you’re probably just throwing away. Surprisingly, even something as simple as used coffee grounds has a number of good uses. Here are a few of the ways you can reuse them!

1. Cleaning Dishes

If you’re out of scouring powder, spoon coffee grounds over baked-on dirt and use a cloth or sponge to scour dirty pots and pans. Not only does this work great in the kitchen, but coffee grounds also make a great exfoliant for your hands.

blue hydrangea (1)

2. Acidify Your Soil

Blueberries, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and other shrubs are often difficult to grow because the soil isn’t acidic enough. Used coffee grounds are free and they work just as well as expensive fertilizers. Simply work a few handfuls into the soil around your shrubs to keep them happy and healthy. This is a particularly good trick for hydrangeas because the coffee grounds help them absorb the aluminum soil additives you need for those bright blue blooms.

3. Fertilize Your Gardens

Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen, which means that they are a great fertilizer for most flowers and vegetables. Sprinkle them in garden beds or add them to a watering can so that you can pour them over the soil. If you’re a fan of organic coffee blends, then you’ll have an endless supply of organic fertilizer.

blue hydrangea (2)

4. Snail and Slug Repellant

We all love the scent and flavor of coffee, but it turns out that snails and slugs hate it. If you have a problem with these pests in your garden, sprinkle coffee grounds around the base of your plants to keep them away.

5. Stain Wood

One of the most interesting ways to reuse coffee grounds is to use them as a stain for patio furniture or any other unfinished wood that needs a lovely weathered brown finish. Soak your coffee grounds until the water turns a color you like, and then use a clean cloth to rub the stain into the wood. You can also use your stained water to make sepia-toned paintings or give paper a dark, antiqued look.

6. Refresh Worn Leather

This works similarly to coffee as a wood stain: Soak the used coffee grounds until the water turns suitably dark, and then use a clean cloth to rub the liquid over the leather. Just make sure that you test the stain on a hidden area before you get started. This will help you minimize scuffs and scratches or deepen the color of the leather.

7. Make Air Fresheners

It sounds odd, but it works like a charm: Use old, dried coffee grounds to make air fresheners. Make small sachets out of your favorite fabric, and if desired, use vanilla flavoring to enhance the coffee’s aroma. Although you can use your coffee air fresheners anywhere, they work particularly well in the car.

8. Remove Pet Odors

Coffee grounds are similar to baking soda in that they’ll absorb odors. Many people like to use them in the refrigerator, and they’re also great for removing stubborn pet odors from carpeting. Let the coffee grounds dry, and then sprinkle a thick layer over the affected area. Leave the grounds in place for up to 24 hours, and then come back with a vacuum to clean them up.

5 Organic Ways to Rid Yourself of Weeds

by Amber Kanuckel

Spring is on the way, and if there’s one thing that rural Ohioans have in spades, it’s weeds. Even if you have a perfectly manicured landscape, weed seeds blow in from nearby fields and forests, which makes it impossible to keep your lawn and garden 100-percent weed free. If you’re sick of battling weeds, but you’d rather not use chemical herbicides, here are five things you can do to make weeding easier.

boiling water

1. Boiling Water

If you’re looking for a quick, easy and 100% natural way to get rid of those pesky weeds that sprout up in sidewalk and driveway cracks, boiling water is the way to do it. Bring a kettle of water to a boil, take it outside and pour it over the weeds. Sturdy plants like dandelions might take a whole kettle, depending on how large and deeply rooted they are, but the boiling water will burn the plants. Come back in a day or two to remove the wilted, browning foliage.

no-till gardening

2. Go No-Till

In established vegetable gardens, it’s tempting to go out every spring and work the soil until it’s nice and soft. However, this is actually one of the fastest ways to fill your vegetable plot with weeds. When you till the soil, you’re effectively planting all the weed seeds that would have otherwise remained on the surface of the soil, never to germinate.

bare soil

3. No Bare Earth

Whether it’s a perennial bed or vegetable garden, one of the best – and most productive – ways to keep weeds out is to pack your plantings tightly. In perennial beds, use aggressive groundcovers like creeping phlox. For annual flower gardens, “Wave” petunias or portulacas offer a pretty way to choke out weeds. There are several options for the vegetable garden. Plant squash or melons around tall plants like corn or sunflowers. Among the shorter veggies, you can use thyme, oregano or other low-growing herbs.

weed barrier

4. Newspaper and Cardboard

If you have a stack of newspapers or a local grocery store that will give you cardboard boxes, these make excellent weed barriers. However, there are some concerns about toxins and inorganic compounds, so here are a few tips to help you make sure that your paper weed barriers are garden-safe:

  • Avoid cardboard boxes that are glued together. Choose only the ones that have been taped shut so that you can remove the non-biodegradable tape.
  • Don’t use glossy paper or cardboard because the inks used on these products often contain petroleum.
  • Stick to newspaper and cardboard with black ink only. Black inks are made primarily from carbon black, which is an organic, non-toxic substance.

Once you’ve spread the newspaper or cardboard over your garden, use mulch, straw or grass clippings as a way to hold the paper down while making the garden look more attractive.

leaf mulch

5. Mulch with Tree Leaves

Tree leaves are cheaper than mulch, they work as well as straw, and they’ll help improve the soil in your garden. There are two ways to go about mulching your beds with tree leaves: Use whole leaves and water well so that they won’t blow away, or shred the leaves with your lawn mower before putting them in your garden.

The interesting thing about tree leaves is that if you use certain types, you can alter the acidity of your soil. Use maple leaves to make soil less acidic and oak leaves to acidify your soil.

Use these methods, and you’ll soon see a drastic reduction in weeds around the house and in the garden. If you know of even more organic ways to beat the weeds, share them in the comments section!

Why Thyme is an Essential Plant for Your Landscape

Whether you have enormous gardens or just a simple perennial bed, thyme is one of those plants you can’t do without. The thyme family has more than 400 different species, and as both a groundcover and an herb, it is one of the most versatile plants you can grow. Read on to learn all about this wonderful plant!

thyme (1)

The Many Benefits of Thyme

Most people are familiar with thyme because it is a popular flavoring in a variety of European dishes. Thyme is delicious in Italian pasta sauces, and it complements the flavor of fish, pork, beef, lamb and cheese. However, chefs aren’t the only people that put thyme to good use.

In the landscape, thyme is a popular choice as a ground cover for dry areas where little else will grow. It also works well in early bulb beds, since thyme begins growing just as the first spring blooms start to die back.

Where this little plant really shines is as a companion plant. Thyme is a good choice to plant near beans, eggplants, cauliflower, strawberries and lettuce. It repels many of the pests that plague these plants – including cabbage worms, flea beetles, tomato hornworms and corn earworms – while attracting bees and other pollinators.

Thyme is also prized by the pharmaceutical industry for the chemical compound “thymol.” Thymol is found in many dental products because of its antibacterial properties. It is also an antispasmodic and expectorant. In fact, steeping one tablespoon of thyme in one cup of boiling water makes a simple home remedy that soothes coughs and sore throats.

thyme (5)

Growing Thyme

Thyme is a woody perennial with purple, pink or white flowers that attract bees and butterflies. The thick mat of foliage comes in an endless number of colors, and it looks great in a rocky landscape. The largest varieties grow up to 18 inches tall. Medium varieties top out around six inches high, while miniature thyme plants rarely exceed two inches in height.

This plant is one of few that thrives on abuse. Thyme prefers poor, sandy soil, full sun to partial shade, and it doesn’t like much water. Before planting thyme in clay, mix compost into the soil to help it drain better. Thyme is prone to few issues but it can develop fungal diseases if it is kept too wet. Most varieties of thyme will also work well in containers, which is nice for those who would like to bring it inside for fresh flavor all year long.

Thyme is easy to start from both seed and cuttings. However, seedlings should be started in mid to late spring, as they will not be able to tolerate a freeze.

thyme (3)

Popular Cultivars

With hundreds of varieties to choose from, thyme can be found in both ornamental and culinary forms. The most popular choices for culinary use are English and French thyme varieties. “Silver Thyme” is a French variant noted for its trailing, silvery foliage.

Lemon thyme is another group of thymes that are known for they’re wonderful flavor and attractive variegated foliage. Popular lemon thyme choices include “Aureus,” which has leaves with golden edges, “Golden King,” which has leaves that are mostly gold, and “Silver Queen” which has leaves with light cream edging.

Creeping thyme doesn’t have much flavor, but it is a popular landscape choice for its low-growing habit and the hundreds of purple to mauve flowers that it produces. The most popular creeping thyme varieties include “Albus,” “Kew,” and “Doone Valley.”

thyme (2)

Harvesting and Preservation

Thyme is best when harvested after a spell of hot, dry weather. These conditions spur the plant into producing more of the essential oil that provides thyme’s unique flavor and aroma. It should be harvested just before the flowers open, and up to half of the plant can be cut.

To dry thyme, simply tie it into a bundle and hang it up. Since it will take several days to dry, it’s a good idea to put a paper bag over the drying bundles to keep them free of dust. Although thyme has the most flavor when fresh, it will keep very well if properly stored in an airtight container.

Thyme is one of those plants that no gardener should be without. Even if it’s not harvested for kitchen use, it’s a beautiful way to cover up ugly bare spots where nothing else will grow. Add in the medicinal and companion planting benefits, and it’s easy to see why thyme is one of the most popular garden plants available.

Three Interesting Edibles for Your Container Garden

If you’re a gardener in rural Ohio, chances are, you have enough space to grow whatever fruits and vegetables your heart desires. Even so, I’ve found that some veggies do just as well in containers – and they’ll make a great decorative accent for your porch or patio while saving you some space in the garden. Here are three of my favorite edible container plants!

eggplant

Eggplants

With broad-leafed, attractive foliage and colorful fruits, eggplants are perfect for container gardening. One eggplant will fit in a 12 to 14-inch container or you can plant up to three in a 20-inch container. If you are growing eggplants for decorative purposes, try a dwarf variety such as “Fairy Tale,” “Orlando,” “Bambino” or “Bride Asian.” Standard eggplants will do just as well in pots, but they bear larger yields and may require staking or trellising to support the heavy fruits.

The nice thing about eggplants is that they’re very easy to start from seed. Simply wait for the soil to warm to 60 degrees, or start your eggplants indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Young plants can move outside when nighttime temperatures are around 70 degrees.

Eggplants, particularly those grown in pots, don’t require much maintenance, but they will need plenty of water during hot weather. If watering becomes an issue, try mulching the potting soil with wood chips or straw to help prevent evaporation on hot days.

collard greens

Collard Greens

Even if you don’t plan on harvesting this member of the cabbage family, the tidy rosettes of huge green leaves make a great display. If you do want to harvest collard greens, one plant should produce at least two pounds of edible foliage.

Any collard variety will do well as a container plant. When selecting a variety, the choice comes down to aesthetics. “Champion” and “Flash” have smooth, dark green leaves while “Georgia” has blue-green leaves with crumpled edges.

One collard plant will fit in a 12-inch pot. However, the top-heavy nature of these plants gives them a tendency to blow over in the wind, so you may prefer using a larger container. Even though these plants are a Southern delicacy, they perform beautifully exceptionally well in Ohio’s climate. These plants can tolerate both hot weather and light frosts. In fact, leaves harvested after a frost are the best to eat because they lose much of their bitter flavor.

Another advantage to collards as container plants is that they are not demanding when it comes to water requirements. They should be watered regularly, but the soil should also be well drained to prevent bacterial rot.

tomatillo

Tomatillos

Tomatillos are both decorative and delicious. Long, thick vines and fruits wrapped in interesting papery husks make the tomatillo a focal point in most container gardens. Always plant at least two tomatillos so that they will cross-pollinate and bear fruit.

Since these plants can grow up to three or four feet, two tomatillos will need a 24 to 30-inch pot. For traditional green tomatillos, try “Toma Verde.” The “Purple” variety can add a unique splash of color to your container garden, with dark purple to black fruits.

Because of the trailing habit of this plant, some container gardeners will allow the tomatillo to spill over the edges of the pot. However, this often leads to broken stems once the plants reach peak production. To prevent this, it”s a good idea to use stakes, cages or a trellis to keep the tomatillos upright. Bear in mind that a mature tomatillo will produce a large amount of fruit. You will be able to make a lot of salsa verde and still have plenty of tomatillos left to share with friends and neighbors.

These three plants are just a sample of some of the great fruits and vegetables that you can grow in containers. In fact, most vegetables will do well in containers. The trick is in learning the correct container size and water requirements. Even if you have a large garden, container gardens are the perfect way to experiment with interesting new vegetable varieties, especially if you don’t want or need huge yields.

Rural Broadband Access: Why We Don’t Have it and What to Do About It

Last week, I talked about my own experiences as my husband and I tried to get a broadband connection in our rural neighborhood. This week, I want to discuss the reasons why rural areas have such poor access, and show you what you and your community can do about it.

Excuses, Excuses

The bottom line is that ISPs across the United States claim that the costs to bring broadband access to everyone is simply too high. They claim that the low population densities aren’t enough to support the burden of the extensive networks they’d need to supply.

However, when you dig a little deeper, you’ll start to see that the real issue isn’t that the ISPs will suddenly stop making a profit. Instead, rural broadband access means that they would make less profit.

In fact, the Huffington Post recently petitioned both Time Warner Cable and Comcast for a detailed report of their financials. What they found was quite shocking: Time Warner Cable has a 97% profit margin on internet service. In other words, the money that they collect from their customers is almost entirely profit compared to a very small number of expenses.

So that you can put this into perspective, here is a look at the actual numbers:

  • Between 2011 and 2013, customers were charged between $38.32 and $43.92 for high speed internet service.
  • In that same time period, it cost Time Warner Cable between $1.32 and $1.46 per subscriber for that service.

Time Warner Profit Margin

Will it cost more to bring internet service to rural areas than to urban ones? Of course it will. However, with 97% profit margins, one would think that ISPs could certainly afford it.

But Why Should ISPs Pay?

You might be thinking that it isn’t right to ask a business – no matter how large or profitable – to use those profits to develop into less profitable areas. And in most instances, I would agree with you 100%.

Until, that is, the product or service offered by the business becomes a necessity.

Think of it this way: No one truly needs expensive sneakers. Said sneakers won’t facilitate an education or give you a way to start a business. Therefore, the sneaker company is free to produce sneakers for $1 and sell them for $500.

The Internet, however, does give you these things. It’s not simply a way to shop or entertain yourself. The Internet has become a vital part of both our economy and our education system, and as such, should be available to all.

Rural Electrification Act

This Has Happened Before

For anyone who thinks I’m being unreasonable, I want to point out that rural Americans have been in this situation before, and it took an act of Congress to bring us out of it.

You see, in the 1930’s, 90% of urban and suburban Americans had access to electricity while only 10% of rural Americans were on the power grid. The President at the time – Franklin D. Roosevelt – recognized that not only was electricity a necessity to life, but that rural Americans, without access, were at a severe disadvantage.

Meanwhile, electric providers said the same thing that our modern ISPs say: The cost is too high for such a low population density. The Rural Electrification Act changed all of that and brought electric service to underserved Americans.

What You Can Do

There are several great ways to let your voice be heard:

1.) Contact Your Representatives: I’m not talking about your Congressman or Senator, although that’s a good start. By representatives, I mean local politicians and authorities that can effect change at the county or regional level. Write letters to state legislators, the county commissioner’s office and any other local or regional office that has authority over broadband in your area.

2.) Get in Touch with Local Initiatives: In Ohio, there are several organizations that are working to bring broadband access to underserved areas. You can contact any or all of the following to learn how you can help:

3.) Speak Out: Simply sharing articles about broadband access with your Facebook friends will help build awareness. However, if you want to take things a step further, start a conversation within your community by forming a committee. You can also let your voice be heard by refusing to pay for unreliable service and restrictive bandwidth caps.

4.) Call Your Nearby Providers: In my experience, an enormous number of rural residents live just outside of a service area, be it cable, DSL, wireless or cellular. In fact, the nearest home to me with DSL service is one mile away, and I can look across a cornfield to see the nearest home with cable access.

If you’re in this situation, call those nearby providers and ask the people in your community to do the same. You can gain even more traction by starting a petition. If enough people show interest, local providers are likely to consider expanding their network to your area.

If you want to contribute to this discussion, feel free to post a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas concerning the state of rural broadband access in Ohio and the United States.

Rural Broadband Access Part 1: My Story

This week, I want to deviate a little from the norm and talk about a huge problem that rural Ohioans – and in fact, all rural Americans – face on a day to day basis: the lack of a reliable broadband internet connection.

In this day and age, broadband access is not simply a luxury. Sure, we can use the Internet to shop or entertain ourselves. However, we can also use it to work remotely, start a business or get an education. With limited or non-existent access, rural Americans are missing out on a huge economic boon.

To put things into perspective, let me share my story with you. Once you see what my husband and I had to go through to get a working broadband connection – and how that access has changed my life – you’ll understand why broadband access for everyone is essential.

Ten years ago, my husband and I lived in a farmhouse in rural Ohio. We weren’t that out of the way – the nearest town was a 10-minute drive away, and the nearest DSL-equipped home was about a mile away from our house.

At the time, however, we didn’t even bother paying for an Internet connection. We had two choices:

  • Dial-up Internet: To this day, you can still get a dial-up connection at that farmhouse, but the technology is so outdated that 56Kbps internet is impossible. Instead, the dialup connection is advertised at 28.8Kbps, but the top speed was actually usually 22 Kbps or 24.4 Kbps. Note that’s kilobytes per second, not megabytes. A connection that slow is basically not a connection at all.
  • Satellite Internet: Dish Network and DirecTV (now HughesNet) both offered satellite plans, but avoided them for three reasons: Those connections were almost as slow as dialup, the installation and monthly fees were high, and the bandwidth caps were too restrictive.

About five years ago, someone finally built a 3G-capable tower close enough to our home that if you leaned out of the upstairs bedroom window on the northeast side, you could get one bar of signal.

My husband, obsessive tinkerer that he is, realized that on clear winter evenings, he could set his phone in the window, tether it to his laptop and – very slowly – surf the Internet. After playing with this for a couple of weeks, he bought amplifiers, repeaters, antennas and a bunch of other equipment I don’t fully understand. Our spare bedroom looked like an air traffic control center when he was done, but for the first time in years, we had an Internet connection capable of loading more than just text.

cellular internet

Sometimes, anyway.

There were three major problems with our 3G setup:

  • It only worked in the winter. A big, leafy tree blocked the signal in the summertime. Fortunately, a tornado took care of the tree one July afternoon.
  • We were limited to 5-gigabyte bandwidth caps on each of our phones. Once the tree was out of the way, we upgraded to the unlimited data plans that Verizon offered at the time.
  • Some days – perhaps because of weather or tower traffic – it didn’t work very well, if at all.

Throughout all of this, my husband quietly urged me to pursue a dream I had abandoned: freelance writing. However, I resisted because our connection still wasn’t reliable enough to support a job. No editor likes a freelance writer that can’t make deadlines, even if the cause is a flaky internet connection.

Three years ago, we moved to our current home in a small, out of the way village. We were a little farther from town, but one of the things that excited us about the move was that the area was covered by a wireless broadband network. The provider, formerly Omnicity, is called Broadband Networks Wireless Internet.

We waited a while after moving before signing up with this service. In fact, we waited until I was on the brink of being laid off from my job. At that point, with nothing to lose, I decided to throw myself into freelance writing, and we signed up for wireless broadband. Our plan was cheap, unlimited, and it worked all the time without needing a room full of amplifiers and other equipment.

For three months, that is.

One day in January, our connection just stopped working. That day was the start of an eight-month battle during which our connection got progressively worse. In the last two or three months, the service was so bad that it only worked for perhaps an hour or two per day – and that was if you were willing to sit in front of your computer, constantly refreshing pages until one finally loaded.

bad service

I will admit, I harangued tech support at BBN. I called weekly, sometimes daily, asking when, if or how they planned to fix our connection. I shouted at them that they were causing me to lose hundreds – thousands – of dollars’ worth of income. They were killing a career that had just gotten off the ground, all while refusing to admit that there was anything wrong with the connection. They claimed that it was interference from neighbors’ cordless phones and baby monitors – despite the fact that our house is well out of range of any other home.

The few times a tech support guy visited my home, he admitted that BBN’s network across Ohio was in shambles, and he was the only field tech in the state.

My husband went back to the drawing board. He had given up the unlimited data plan on his phone during an upgrade, but I had steadfastly refused to upgrade just so I could keep the unlimited plan. Our new home had 4G service, so he bought an off-contract phone that allowed tethering and registered it to my phone number. To our surprise, it worked. In fact, it worked far better and it was much faster than any other connection we had ever had.

I called BBN and politely told them where they could stuff their service.

Since then, my husband has made several upgrades to our connection, including a fancy new 4G router. We’ve had to shuffle cell phone lines around, and now we technically pay for three phone lines while we only have two working phones and one router, but it works. This connection lets me do something that no other connection has: write and make money. In fact, since we ditched BBN and went with 4G Internet, I’ve more than doubled my income.

Now, here are the problems:

  • Most people don’t have unlimited data plans on their phones.
  • If they do, they still may not have a reliable 4G or even 3G signal.
  • It’s an expensive service – we pay twice what most people pay for our connection.

In addition, I am completely at the mercy of Verizon. Should they decide to discontinue unlimited plans, I’m out an Internet connection and a career unless I want to pay several hundred dollars per month for a 50 to 100 gigabyte plan, which would be completely unsustainable at this point.

The Moral of My Story

It took my husband and I months – years, even – to work our way to a reliable broadband connection. And we were lucky in many ways. We are one of the few homes in our village with a 4G signal, we are the only people we know that still have an unlimited cellular data plan, and if it weren’t for my husband’s technical know-how, none of this would have been possible.

That brings me to my second point. Around here, people think that I’m unusual for having an online career. Most of these people have long since cancelled their worthless wireless, satellite or dialup plans, and they can’t understand how I do it.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Each of these people should have access to the same opportunities that I’ve been given. Will everyone become a freelance writer? Of course not. But, we are an increasingly Internet-dependent society. Many of these people could do their office jobs in the comfort of their own home. Others could start an online business. Still more could become writers, designers, transcriptionists, data entry professionals, programmers or any number of a thousand online career paths. People could educate themselves and entertain themselves, but instead rural Americans are being left behind.

Grape Leaves Stuffed with Tabbouleh

Image Credit to Foodista

By Amber Kanuckel

Last week, I talked about how to harvest and preserve grape leaves. This week, I’m going to cover something even more fun: eating them! The following recipe is one of my favorites. It’s vegan-friendly, easy to make and you can customize it to your own tastes. So without further ado, here is how you can make grape leaves stuffed with tabbouleh!

 

Ingredients:

 

  • 2 cups bulgur wheat
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (or more, to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried mint
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1-2 diced Roma tomatoes (optional)
  • 48 grape leaves

 

Directions:

 

Start with the grape leaves. If you’re using frozen, thaw them and lay them out on paper towels to soak up excess moisture. For canned or salt-packed grape leaves, give them a thorough rinse to remove excess salt or brine and then lay them out on paper towels to dry.

 

As the grape leaves are drying, bring the 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the bulgur wheat, garlic powder, parsley and mint. Cook until the wheat is tender – about 15 to 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can put the water, wheat and spices in a covered, microwave-safe dish and microwave on high for approximately 15 minutes.

 

Once the wheat is tender and all the water is absorbed, toss it with the lemon juice and tomatoes. You can add a little more lemon depending on how tangy you like your tabbouleh. At this point, you can serve the tabbouleh by itself – it works great as both a hot and cold dish – or you can use it to stuff grape leaves.

 

Preheat your oven to 350° F and spray a baking pan with cooking spray. To fill grape leaves, place a spoonful near the stem of each leaf. You can trim the stems away from the leaves if you like, but it’s not necessary. Roll the leaf around the tabbouleh, folding the edges of the leaves in as you go. If you’ve ever made eggrolls, the filling and rolling process is pretty similar.

 

Place the filled grape leaves in the prepared pan, cover it with tinfoil to keep the leaves from drying out too much as they cook, and bake them for 20 minutes. Once baked, you can serve them any way you like – hot or cold!

 

I like this recipe because the lemon in the tabbouleh and the tangy taste of the grape leaves meshes very well. It’s also a great make-ahead recipe, and it’s versatile. I’ve served it as both an appetizer and a side dish to a larger Greek meal. This recipe has always gotten me rave reviews – even from the people who think I’m weird for eating grape leaves. Plus, it makes for interesting conversation when my guests learn that the leaves came from the edges of my neighbor’s cornfield!

 

If you have more great grape leaf recipes, share them in the comments section!

Everything You Need to Know to Harvest and Preserve Wild Grape Leaves

Image Credit to Noumenon

By Amber Kanuckel

Anyone who has tried vegetable gardening knows just how satisfying it is to harvest your own food. However, I find the harvest even more satisfying when I don’t have to do any of the work leading up to harvest time. That’s right! I’m talking about picking wild foods, specifically grape leaves.

These big, sturdy leaves are a staple of Greek cooking. People love to use them for dolmades, lamb and rice rolls or my favorite – grape leaves stuffed with lemony tabbouleh. Not only are wild or homegrown grape leaves healthier than store-bought, they’re far less expensive. I’ll show you the best methods to harvest and preserve these tasty treats.

Grow Your Own or Pick Wild?

If you grow your own grapes – which I don’t – you can most certainly harvest the leaves from your vines. However, even if I did grow my own grapes, I would probably still harvest wild grape leaves. It boils down to personal preference. I prefer wild grape leaves because the leaves have a stronger tart flavor. The advantage to domestic grape leaves is that, while the flavor is mild, the leaves are normally much larger. And, in your well-maintained garden, they’re a little easier to find and pick, too!

Harvesting Grape Leaves

Whether you choose to pick your own grape leaves or harvest from wild sources, the timing and method is the same. Most of the sources I have seen tell you to pick the grape leaves in the spring – May or June for Ohioans. However, I harvest mine at the end of July or in August. There are two reasons why I break from the norm:

  • New grape leaves are too small to make good dolmades, rice or tabbouleh rolls.
  • Young leaves are too tender. When you cook or freeze them, they sometimes break down into a mushy mass like boiled spinach.

As to the actual harvesting process, take along pruning shears or sturdy scissors. When you cut the leaves from the vine, leave 1/2 to 1 inch of the stem behind to make preservation easier and to prevent the leaves from splitting when you cook them.

A Note about Identifying Wild Grapes

Here in Ohio, wild grapevines are everywhere. You’ll find them in the woods, in fields that haven’t been mowed for a couple of years – like I said, everywhere. The easiest place to pick them, however, is along the edges of a forest. The grape vines tend to infest the rose bushes and other shrubs that grow along the wood’s edge, giving you a nice selection of easy-to-reach leaves.

As you pick grape leaves, there is one dangerous lookalike to watch for: moonseed. All parts of the moonseed plant are considered poisonous, so if you think that you’ve picked some, throw the leaves away!

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to tell the difference between the two kinds of leaves. Grape leaves are spade-shaped, and they have serrated leaves that are often lobed. Moonseed leaves have a similar shape, but without the serrated edges. Here are pictures to help you tell them apart:

PICK THESE: Tasty Grape Leaves

Wild Grape Leaf

Domestic Grape Leaf

Image Credit to Agne27

NOT THESE: Poisonous Moonseed Leaves

Menispermum_canadense,_Saint-Hilaire-1

Moonseed

Image Credit to Randy Nonenmacher

Preserving Your Grape Leaves

My favorite way to preserve grape leaves is to can them, but that is the one thing I won’t show you how to do. There are many canning recipes online, but is no USDA-approved safe canning method for grape leaves, so any canning recipe is at your own risk. Hopefully the USDA will test a recipe soon, and then we can all enjoy shelf-stable canned grape leaves!

For now, there is safe alternative: Freezing your grape leaves.

To freeze grape leaves, start by making sure they’re thoroughly rinsed. Then blanch them in a brine solution made from 4 cups of water and 1 cup of salt. Add the leaves to the boiling brine in batches of 12 or less. Leave them in the brine until it comes back to a boil – or for just a few seconds if the brine never stops boiling.

When you remove the leaves from the brine, either plunge them into ice water or rinse them under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process. Stack the leaves in layers of paper towels or parchment paper to keep them separated and freeze them in an airtight plastic bag.

Harvesting wild grape leaves is a rewarding way to stock your pantry (or freezer) with wholesome, healthy food for the winter. Now that you know how to do it, you can start enjoying Greek treats at a fraction of the cost of store-bought grape leaves. Next week, I’ll share my favorite grape leaf recipe – grape leaves stuffed with tabbouleh.

Growing Artichokes in Ohio

Image Credit to Toby Hudson

By Amber Kanuckel

I know that the snow is still on the ground here in Ohio, but it’s never too early to start planning your garden. With that thought in mind, I wanted to talk about artichokes – not the root kind (Jerusalem artichokes), but the leafy, delectable globe artichokes.

These plants are relatives of the thistle, and indeed, if you let an artichoke bloom, it will look exactly like a thistle flower, except on a giant scale. The plants themselves are attractive, too. Growing to more than three feet tall, they are wide plants with interesting silvery leaves.

But growing them in Ohio? Some say that it’s impossible, while others admit that you can grow them if you’re willing to do a lot of work. I’ve grown them myself, and I’ve found that it’s actually really easy. In fact, my first attempt at artichokes resulted in a harvest the first year, which means that if nothing else, you can certainly grow these plants as annuals. However, if you choose the right varieties and take a couple of precautions, you can get bumper crops from the same artichoke plants year after year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image Credit to Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec

Why Grow Artichokes?

Aside from being extremely tasty, artichokes come with a number of health benefits. Many call these leafy vegetables a superfood, probably because they are extraordinarily high in antioxidants. In fact, a study of 1,000 different foods ranked artichokes as seventh for antioxidant levels. Antioxidants are one of nature’s miracles – they help prevent cancer, heart disease, neuronal degeneration and they slow the effects of aging.

Best Varieties for Ohio

Depending on where you live in Ohio, your USDA cold hardiness zone is between 5b and 6b. The vast majority of Ohio is 6a, but a few isolated spots are cooler, while the southern tip of Ohio is warmer. This means perennials need to be able to withstand winter temperatures of -15°F.

oh

Personally, I’ve had success with the “Green Globe” variety. This artichoke is rated for zone 7, which is much warmer than Ohio’s temperatures, but I’ve had several overwinter quite well. In fact, my first attempt at artichoke growing was with the “Green Globe” variety, and out of 20 plants, 15 survived a winter with absolutely no shelter or protection from the elements. Granted, that was a somewhat mild winter – no polar vortices – but with adequate protection, this variety will tolerate the worst winter can throw at us.

“Green Globe” – and most of the green varieties, such as “Imperial Star” – is a heavy-bearing plant. That is, they’re made to produce loads of delicious blooms. That was my experience. The artichokes I grew each produced at least five blooms during the first year, and most produced six to eight before the first heavy frost.

There are also the purple artichoke varieties, but I haven’t personally grown these. These include “Violetta,” “Opera,” and others. If you’re worried about cold hardiness, most purple artichokes are rated for zone 6, and some, including “Opera,” are fast maturing, which makes them great for our shorter growing seasons.

Caring for Your Artichokes

As I said, I’ve had artichokes overwinter quite well without any special precautions. However, if you want to guarantee survival, there are a couple of easy things you can do. First and foremost, choose a sheltered location. My new artichoke bed is along the southern wall of my home, which provides three big advantages:

  • They’re sheltered against the worst of the winter winds.
  • Ambient heat from the house itself helps keep the ground a little warmer.
  • The south-facing location is exposed to sun all day, which helps warm the bed even more.

If not for the polar vortices, that would likely be enough to guarantee survival. However, because the past couple of winters have been so nasty, I think it’s important to give the artichokes a little more protection.

In the fall, once the plants die back, cut away all the dead leaves and stems. Then cover the artichokes with at least 6 inches of mulch. If you’re really concerned about the cold, you can cover the bed with plastic garden sheeting before you mulch it. Alternatively, place plastic buckets or plant pots over each mulched artichoke. Make sure to use black pots so that they soak up as much heat as possible from the winter sun.

As soon as the ground starts to warm in the spring, remove the mulch and any other coverings. After sheltering your artichokes over the winter, you don’t want to suffocate them once they start to grow!

Whether you want all the artichokes you can eat, or you’d just like to try them as an ornamental plant, it’s very easy to grow them – even in Ohio. The next time you’re at the garden center, mulling over a packet of artichoke seeds, don’t hesitate to give it a shot!

Sources:

Artichokes, 3 Ways, U.S. News & World Report

USDA Ohio Plant Hardiness Map, USDA

All About Growing Artichokes, Mother Earth News