Plant: Peppers

If you want an easy and productive plant in your home garden, think about planting some hot peppers. They love our Texas heat, and they will prolifically produce peppers (can you say that five times quickly…) for months until winter arrives. And, you can save them in a variety of ways for use throughout the entire calendar year!

In our Dallas urban space, we’ve had good luck with serrano peppers, cayenne peppers, and jalapeño peppers. You can plant them directly in the soil in your landscape bed, or in a container for your patio. The most important thing is to give them at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. Water deeply, when you do water them.

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Once you start harvesting hot peppers from your garden, here are some creative ways you can use and save them at home. [Please note if you are getting hands on with these guys, the interior flesh and seeds can cause irritation to your skin, so use caution; and, if you must, use gloves when handling…]

  1. Use them whole in soups or to add some kick to your homemade stock.

  2. Slice or mince the whole pepper, and use in your everyday dishes depending on how spicy you want them to be.

  3. Dehydrate them whole in your oven, dehydrator, or if you want a cool aesthetic in your kitchen - string them up and hang them to air dry.

  4. Pulse/chop the dried peppers in your blender and save in your pantry. You can also mix them with other dried herbs and powders for a homemade rub on grilled summertime meats and seafood.

  5. Make a homemade pepper sauce.

Lastly, check out this wonderful tip sheet from Texas A&M on recommended pepper varieties and growing tips for our region. Happy planting, friends! Pick some plants to grow in your urban space that love our climate, and can feed your family.

Cook: Citrus

When weather gets warmer, we start thinking about buying and using more citrus in our kitchens at home. As prices lower, it is tempting to buy entire bags of oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit…having more means you may be tempted to forget (and waste) them if not used.

There are several ways you can use an entire piece of citrus – and even preserve it for the future. Here are some tips from our team:

  1. ZEST or GRATE the peel. One of the fastest and easiest ways to add instant flavor to any dish you are preparing is to add a tsp or TB of citrus zest. Having a zester tool in your kitchen is a must have.

  2. DEHYDRATE the peel. You can use a small paring knife (or vegetable peeler) to carve off small strips. You can dehydrate in the oven at a low temp, or in a dehydrator, or even just air dry in a cool dark space.

  3. JUICE the entire fruit. You can: 1, drink the juice (aqua fresca!); 2, freeze the juice in a bag in the freezer (popsicles!); or 3, mix it with some vinegar in a spray bottle to make an eco friendly household cleaner.

  4. Fruit started to harden? SLICE the entire fruit and store it in the fridge in cold water for a refreshing beverage on a warm day.

All of the tools needed for these items can be purchased at high-end culinary shops like Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma. However, they can also be purchased at Dollar General, Dollar Tree, or your local grocery store (Central Market in Dallas has a great section) that has a kitchen utensils section.

Tools (L-R): zester, box grater, paring knife, vegetable peeler, chef’s knife

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Recycle: Rainwater

It’s hard to believe right now that we will ever see a week without rain, but with a little preparation now, you can still have happy plants during our rainless summer months!  Harvesting rainfall, storing it, and using it during periods of drought is a practice as old as time, but its implementation for landscaping in urban areas today helps with many North Texas issues, specifically:

●      Reduces pressure on city water

●      Shrinks your water bill

●      Captures salt- and mineral- free (ie. chlorine) water for plants

●      Reduces urban erosion and contaminated run-off in stormwater systems

While there are many methods of varying complexity and expense to collecting, storing, and using rainwater, all have the same basic components: catchment surface, distribution, and holding area.   Our two favorite methods below are some of the easiest and most cost-effective in an urban residential setting.

1. UTILIZE A RAIN BARREL

○      By replacing your downspout with a rain chain, or diverting your existing downspout into a 50-gallon water barrel, you collect a significant amount of rain from a fairly small amount of rainfall.  The barrel can then be attached to a pump and hose or a regular spout for hand watering and used in your landscape.

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○      For those more mathematically-minded, there are Supply calculations that will help you determine your required storage capacity based on catchment surface runoff coefficients, the storage capacity of the rain barrels, and roof surface area.  For example, 1 inch of rain on a 1000-square foot wood shingle roof can produce 85-gallons of water. 

○      The collected water is NOT potable water, as there can be trace metals, pesticides,  and microbial contaminants from animal droppings.

2. MAKE A RAIN GARDEN

○      A rain garden is a shallow, depressed landscape feature that collects rainwater run-off from impermeable surfaces.  During a storm, rainwater is immediately diverted from a catchment area like a roof or paved parking lot and collected here where it will soak into the soil within 24-48 hours. 

○      Typically the rain garden will be downhill on a small slope from the catchment area, and small berms will be placed on the downhill perimeter of the rain garden to contain the rainfall. 

○      Plants selected to be planted in the rain garden should be native and able to tolerate both waterlogging for 48 hours and 3 weeks of drought. 

○      This method requires minimal upkeep, and can be an easy source of color in your yard in the form of native perennials and wildflowers!

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Plant: Culinary Herbs

Having some culinary herbs growing in your urban space is perhaps the easiest and most efficient way to grow edible plants. Here are four of our most recommended herbs to plant in our Dallas area (USDA Hardiness Zone 8a). The leaves of each of these can be used fresh or dried in your home cooking.

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Oregano

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Rosemary

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Thyme

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Chives

Why do we like them so much?

1.     They’re “perennial”, which means they grow year round. You have a constant source of herbs for cooking all year long!

2.     They love sun. In fact, they need to be in a sunny location with ideally at least six hours of sunlight every day.

3.     They don’t need a lot of water.

4.     Summarizing the previous two points, these herbs are very low maintenance and easy to maintain. You can basically leave them alone once established (occasional watering and pruning).

5.     They can also provide flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies and other good pollinators in our environment.

So, plant these perennial culinary herbs in your urban space (even a pot on your patio will do!). Give them sunlight and some room to grow. Keep them water till they get established, then water occasionally if they are very dry (that shouldn’t be often).

Cook: Berries

Nothing says spring time like fresh berries! The most common selections are strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Whether sweet or tart, the vibrant colors make a great treat for breakfast lunch or dinner. Berries are normally purchased in bulk so there are times that all of them aren’t eaten which means waste. So to eliminate waste, here are five ways you can get full use out of all the berries.

1.     Parfaits: If you’re always on the run but need a quick breakfast, the parfaits can be made in advance. All you would need is yogurt, granola, and fresh berries. Not only are parfaits great for you but it’s a great way to get your kids to have a balanced breakfast and eat fresh fruit. 

2.     Salads: Nothing says healthy eating like a salad full of flavor and color. There are numerous salads that can be made with berries only or a green salad with some berries. You can even make a pleasant vinaigrette dressing to top the green salad.

3.     Smoothies/Shakes: You can make a healthy breakfast triple berry shake with strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, ice, milk, and sugar to taste. My preference would be a good strawberry shake alongside a cheeseburger with onion rings.

4.     Condiments: Make a jelly or jam that can be easily used for toast and biscuits. I love strawberry jam on homemade buttermilk biscuits fresh out of the oven. Mixed berry jelly is good, too.

5.     Compote: If the berries are starting to go bad you can easily make a fruit compote. Any kind of compote is perfect for waffles, French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, pound cake or ice cream. My kids love blueberry compote on pancakes. I enjoy strawberry compote on pound cake served with vanilla ice cream.

Recycle: Grass

Cue the Vivaldi and Rolling Stones…Spring has officially arrived! Your plants are waking up after their long winter nap, and so is your landscape grass. You are also probably scheduling your home yard service to start cutting your grass again on a routine basis (or perhaps you’re flexing your muscles and doing it yourself – good on ya!).

In this Garden to Table to Garden blog, we’d like to remind you of two important things:

1.     If you are using the right mowing height and frequency, you don’t need to bag your grass clippings. They can be mulched right back into your grass, which will help it retain moisture and nutrients. To further chop up long clippings, use a mulching mower or run the lawnmower over an area twice. Read more about that here from our friends at Texas A&M Water University.

2.     If you DO choose to bag your grass clippings, remember that fresh cut grass is a wonderfully important nutrient in your backyard compost. Green grass is a pure source of nitrogen in your backyard compost pile. Reminder, the four main ingredients in compost are: brown stuff (carbon sources like mulch, leaves, pine, and branches), green stuff (nitrogen sources like grass, food scraps, and coffee grinds), air and water…Even if you just saved your brown leaves and fresh grass clippings and layered them at home in an outdoor container, you will have easily created a rich compost for your soil by recycling what nature provided you.

Most of us are used to thinking about bagging grass clippings and leaves as waste for the landfill. We want to challenge you to rethink these natural resources in your home landscape.

PS, does your landscape turf need a little TLC after winter? sprinkling a fine layer of compost (called “top-dressing”) will surely help. Read more about that here.

Plant: Blackberries

I’ve been growing blackberries in my urban backyard for the last several years and they have become one of our favorite edible items to maintain and harvest at home. Our family loves it so much, we can never quite make it to a pie or jam…Everyone just picks the fruit straight off the vine and eats them as they ripen (the biggest consumer is our toddler who now knows how to see which ones are dark and ready to eat!).

Blackberries are easy to grow in North Texas in a home environment. We trellised ours against our fence, with a bit of simple wiring. You can also make even more creative trellising if you have the time and interest.

Here are several important tips for planting and growing blackberries:

1.     Find the right space (think about sun, soil, water, and air flow)

2.     Choose the right blackberry variety (type) for our area

3.     Plant at the right time

4. Use Earth-Kind techniques for growing and maintaining your blackberries (what’s Earth-Kind? read more here…)

For a more detailed and thorough researched explanation of how to grow blackberries at home, check out this helpful tip sheet from Texas A&M.

Recycle: Trees

Have you recently had a tree trimmed or taken down at your home? Instead of having them picked up by your landscaper or the monthly bulk/brush, consider repurposing them by creating a Hugel raised bed.

“Hugelkultur” composts whole trees while cultivating a garden. As the rotting tree limbs decompose, they release moisture and nutrients and create a valuable organic soil base in which to grow…well, anything! It is a centuries old technique for composting utilized around the world.

(If you are stuck on this fancy name, just think of saying, “Google Culture”…Then, insert an “H” for that “G”.  That’s it!)

How to build it?

1.     Pick a sunny space, and plan for a North-South orientation of your bed.

2.     Start with the larger wood pieces on the bottom (fyi, if you want to speed up decomposition, bury the wood one foot deep at the outset).

3.     Add to that base layers of the other tree parts, largest to smallest (e.g. start with limbs, next branches, next twigs…)

4.     Add some green stuff (nitrogen) to it (grass clippings, hay, manure, etc.)

5.     Add some brown stuff (carbon) to it (leaves, mulch, compost, soil).

6.     Water all of that down, and (ideally) let it rest for a bit before planting in it.

We created several Hugel beds over the winter in our urban space, and we’re going to grow vegetables in them.  Check out pictures here.

Stacking branches for the base layers of the bed. next, would come grass clippings, manure, hay, mulch (smaller organic items)…This bed was intentionally placed on a slope for erosion control and also to capture rainwater that will naturally nourish the garden bed.

Stacking branches for the base layers of the bed. next, would come grass clippings, manure, hay, mulch (smaller organic items)…This bed was intentionally placed on a slope for erosion control and also to capture rainwater that will naturally nourish the garden bed.

Planting onions and potatoes in a finished Hugel bed…

Planting onions and potatoes in a finished Hugel bed…

Cook: Stock

My kids are always eating carrots and celery so I keep all of the ends of them in a ziplock bag in the fridge.

If you have any recipes that require vegetable/chicken/beef/fish stock, use that extra celery and carrots to make a stock that can be stored in the freezer until needed. Today, I will be making a vegetable stock.

I’ll chop up some onion and gather the seasonings that I plan on using to make a sachet (you can be creative: I used clove, parsley stems, black pepper, and bay leaves). The appropriate term is sachet d’epices which is French for “spice bag”, often called “sachet” for short. (If you don’t want to make a sachet, you can still cook the sachet items in the pot, just strain it carefully after…).

Once the sachet is made, I’ll tie the string on the lid of the pot, add the vegetables and pour enough water to cover them. I’ll place the sachet in the pot and cover with the lid, then let it simmer for at least 3 to 4hrs on medium heat.

After 4hrs of cooking, turn off the heat and let the stock completely cool off for storing.

Your needs will determine how you decide to store the stock. Whether you pour it in several containers or 1 big container with a proper cover/lid, remember to label it. If you put it in the fridge, it’s good for up to 3 days but if you decide to freeze the stock it will keep for months.

I’ll be making some broccoli cheese soup with this!

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Plant: Onions

Onions are one of the easier vegetables to grow in your urban backyard garden (or patio containers). They are also one of the first (and only) vegetables you can plant outside in January/February and not worry about the cold temps.

Now is the time to purchase and plant onion transplants in our local garden nursery stores. We bought one package of white, and one package of red (fyi, they are readily in stock at Redenta’s, North Haven Gardens, Ruibal’s). One bunch was plenty to spread amongst several homes and friends.

Here are three basic planting tips:

  1. Find a sunny spot (they need at least 6 hours of sun/day) and loosen the soil where onions will be planted (use a trowel or spoon to break up any compact spots; if soil is hard and dry, moisten it).    

  2. Plant each onion base (the part with roots) in the soil approximately four inches apart from each other. Don’t plant more than one inch deep.

  3. Water the soil deeply around all of the onions you’ve just planted. Keep them watered every week in the spring until they get growing. But do NOT overwater!

You should have mature onions somewhere between May and July. Here’s a helpful tip sheet from Texas A&M on planting and growing onions.

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Cook: Winter Greens

January is a great time to buy and cook local winter greens - broccoli, chard, kale, spinach, collards…we hope you sauté, or braise, or steam these beauties at home for your family.

However, if you don’t think you will be able to cook them in time before they go bad, here’s a quick tutorial on how to blanch them and save them for a future date!

Blanching is a culinary term that means, “to cook an item partially and very briefly in boiling water or in hot fat.  Usually a pre-preparation technique, as to loosen peels of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, to partially cook French fries or other foods before service, to prepare for freezing, or to remove undesirable flavors.” [Source: “Professional Cooking”, Wayne Gisslen]

That’s a technical way to say: quickly cook at high temp, then chill immediately.

Here’s what you do:

1.     Chop up the greens. While chopping, put a pot of salted water on the stovetop and bring that water to a rapid boil.

2.     Once water is boiling vigorously, put the greens in and let them cook for 1-3 minutes. It is important to not let them boil for too long, as you will lose more nutrients and texture the longer they cook. Wait for them to turn a bright color and soften slightly…for thicker greens, boil slightly longer – more delicate greens only need 1 minute or so.

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3.     While the greens are boiling, get another bowl and fill it with ice water (this is your “ice bath” for the greens – yes, they’re getting a little spa treatment…)

4.     Drain greens in a colander, and quickly move them to their ice bath. Let them cool to room temperature. Drain them again in the colander.

5.     Put greens in Ziploc freezer bags and label with the date you cooked them. Store them in your freezer.

Blanch away, friends!  Don’t waste those good greens.

Recycle: Leaves

Every year around this time you’ll see them on most curbs – bags of leaves waiting for pick up by the bulk and brush trucks. Instead of sending these leaves to the landfill, you can recycle them at home, and turn them into a valuable soil amendment to put back onto your plants – leaf mold. You heard us right – leaf…mold…(though we prefer some important official organization rebrand it to “leaf gold”).

So, leaf mold is an incredibly valuable type of compost to create and harvest back into your urban yard. Soil that has leaf mold added to it can hold moisture 50% better than those without it (think about how valuable this is in our hot Texas climate). It creates better soil tilth (fancy word for structure), and it helps to attract beneficial microbes (a wonderful cast of characters inside the soil that we can’t see, but they are making magic at a microscopic level).

Leaf mold is created simply by decomposing leaves, aided by fungal activity that is created when water and oxygen are combined with the leaves. Here’s the shorthand formula: leaves + water + oxygen + time = leaf mold.

You can get really creative with how you build your leaf mold bin; here are the supplies we used:

·      14 inch bolt cutters or a combo pliers/snip tool.

·      Roll of galvanized steel garden fencing material with 2x3 inch mesh opening.

·      Leaves. Lots and lots and lots of leaves…

Now, to build your bins,  simply roll out the fencing (we walked on it) until you have your desired length to create the circumference of the bin. Use your tool to cut the piece twice (once, along the vertical; second, along the horizontal edge). This creates a simple hook action that will make this cylindrical marvel.  

Here’s how you fill the bin:

1.     Add leaves. Water that layer of leaves.

2.     Repeat step one until you reach the top of the bin.

3.     Now, wait for nature to do its work.. (If you shredded your leaves, they will break down faster into compost. If you put the leaves in whole, they will take longer.)

Enjoy the step-by-step photos of how our team turned 2000 pounds of leaves from a community leaf drive into leaf mold bins. It sounds like a ton of work, but four ladies built all of this in four hours.

We hope you will try this, too, in your urban space. We’ll keep you updated on the results of our leaf gold process and product as the year progresses.