Thursday, March 13, 2014

One Amazingly Easy Container Vegetable to Grow This Year!

 Years ago I planted a decidedly non-trendy vegetable in the garden.  I'm not sure why I was compelled to grow something that I had no idea what it was, but for me that was typical in my early gardening years.  I was in the experimental zone with the garden as my laboratory and this promising new veggie was one of the first of my discoveries.

Tomatillo "Toma Verde"

The plants grew.  As a matter of fact, they more than grew.  They made their presence very well-known in my small garden space and I wasn't able to keep up with their fruits.  By the end of summer, I was pulling up seedling after seedling of this alien vegetable which was determined to take over the world, er, my garden and tomatillo was its name...

I didn't even know what to do with them.  I made up some salsa with them but was too afraid to eat it.  But the whole episode was not a loss.  I formed a connection with these super easy to grow plants that were prolific to boot.  I would be growing them again and I did but not until many years later.

Tomatillos in early summer.

Years later in the culinary scene, salsas were becoming "all the rage" and tomatillo plants were now showing up in garden centers (on purpose!)  I had begun to cook with them, actually buying them at the store for my White Chicken Chili and Roasted Salsa Verde.  So I decided to grow them again but realized I didn't have room for them in my small home garden and so I tried them at our community garden.

Early fruits and blooms

They grew well but were infested by a caterpillar that destroyed practically every fruit. Bummer.  I wouldn't spray my plants but decided to try them at our house again where the bugs weren't as voracious.  This time I grew them in containers.  

 Tomatillos are a member of the nightshade family and are a distant relative of our red tomato.  They originated in Mexico and are heavily consumed there after being fried, boiled or steamed.  With the hot pepper trend beginning in the U.S. over the last 10 years, tomatillos became sought after for their tangy, slightly citrus-y flavor and of course their amazing color.

Tomatillos in containers; late summer

Tomatillo fruits are covered by a thin husk that the fruit actually grows into after a small yellow flower blooms.  The husks continue to grow until you get a nice golfball sized fruit that means it's perfect for picking.

When I started my seedlings, I use the same growing culture as for regular tomatoes and grow them alongside them by starting them indoors at the same time.  The leaves of the tomatillo are definitely different than that of a tomato so no problem telling them apart. 

Why plant in a container?  Two reasons for me; first, I ran out of room in my garden and two, I didn't want their seedling volunteers to take over my garden then next year.  Not that I don't love volunteers, but they are very happy to multiply when they are happy where they're grown.  And besides, they grew very well in the 5 gallon pots I planted them in.  I didn't do much, just watered and fertilized with an organic mix a few times over the summer and gave them lots of sun and heat.  They did the rest.

A few pointers for growing them:

1. Make sure to plant more than one or two!  I only planted one container the first year and got all blooms and one fruit.  They need more plants in order to cross pollinate.  I also made sure the leaves and blooms all intertwined with each other so the bees would have no problems hopping from one plant to the other.  Four plants gave me enough for fresh eating as well as lots for freezing.

2.  To freeze them: Pick the fruit when it fills out the husk but before it turns yellow.  You can still use the yellow ones but the green ones are what you want.  Peel the husks and compost.  Lightly wash the fruit (they have a sticky substance on them) and dry.  Then place in a freezer bag on it's side in the amount you need to use for a recipe.  I used quart bags and filled them and placed a few hot peppers for instant salsa verde.  They freeze unbelievably well and last a long time in a deep freeze.  Just take them out to thaw, puree and cook when you need them.

So if you're a veggie risk-taker like me, then you'll love growing these plants and more importantly, you'll love eating them.

This is a great vegetable to add to your diet and perfect for a container garden!  You can find growing guidelines here at Organic Gardening.

Happy planting and blessings!

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How Gardening (Practically) Saved My Life...

Yes, I know the title sounds extreme and dramatic but let's face it; in the big picture of things it's true.  Before gardening, my dinner plate was a literal world of tan and brown with no intention for change.  I lived thinking that carbs were the new green and I embraced their ability to bring me comfort and joy.  Vegetables were the enemy and the further away I could be from them the better.  

Oh, I embraced the perennial favorite, corn-on-the-cob and well, that was it.  Really.  I sad.  It's not that I didn't want to be healthy, but hey - I was young and my body could take it!  So, I fed it lots of comfort foods and when I ate a small amount of green beans or an occasional salad, I figured I was "doing my body good." 

It wasn't until I began to have digestive issues that I began to take my health more seriously.  I was convinced that I was dying and when the doctor told me that I just needed more fiber, I was insulted.  How dare he say that what I had could be fixed by me eating better!  So, I added more fiber to my the Metamucil kind until I learned how I could get all the fiber I need from vegetables and fruit - who knew?!

Enter gardening.  I always liked to grow things when I was a kid...but these were of the flower nature.  So I started to plant lots of flowers...I mean lots.  I put them all over our small little yard and I still have a lot.  Then I progressed to herbs...after all, they flowered too and I was fascinated by the fact that you could eat and drink them and they could help you too.  Then I thought, why not plant a few tomatoes and a pepper plant or two as well?  Once that happened, I decided to can what I grew and the garden jumped into life.
So, I want to share with you how gardening is a practical way to "save" your life and learn how to eat better. 

1. Gardening Connects You to Your Food.
       I know it may sound silly, but when you grow it, you feel connected to your food.  You know the work and the effort that went into tilling and raking the soil, planting the seeds, and pulling the weeds.  It's a lot of effort and it makes you appreciate what you've had just grown.  It's way different than buying produce at the store. You didn't nurture that vegetable and you don't know where it came from - in other words, you have no emotional connection to it.  As strange as it may sound, planting the vegetables made me want to eat them!

I remember always planting a small patch of baby carrots and pea pods for our then toddlers.  I would tell them where "their" garden was and they would wander in and snack on them at will.  I'll never forget the time when our younger son came into the house with a dirt ring around his mouth after pulling some carrots...I very quickly introduced him to the garden hose!  The point is, he felt connected to his food and still loves those vegetables to this day.

2. "If You Plant It, You Must Eat It."
       This is very similar to the first reason; feeling connected to your food except in this case, it's more about feeling "responsible" for eating what you grow.  Yep, it's true.  I thought, "Wow, I just planted 10 rows of green beans and I really should can them and then eat them."  I never liked green beans.  I mean, I hated green beans.  However, they are one of the easiest veggies for me to grow and I grew them like crazy.  I had mountains of beans.  I felt very successful as a gardener but in order for that success to make sense, I needed to actually consume what I grew.   And I did, but I admit, very slowly!  

I also began to realize that if I actually ate what I grew, I could save some $$.  The practical side of me responded to this very much and I began to experiment with the vegetables, trying to find ways to "hide" them in food so I would eat them.  It eventually worked and I actually like green beans now and have fun growing lots of different varieties. 

3. Gardening Introduces You to Unique and Different  Vegetables.
      Everything from tomatillos to Mizuna...gardening has expanded my mind and palate to new flavors and textures.  After a while, growing just tomatoes, peppers and green beans radically expanded to new frontiers of vegetables like the vertical growing green; Malabar Spinach (which grew over 15 feet tall) to unique varieties of edible flowers.  I was amazed at all of the vegetable catalogs and the wealth of vegetables which were available to grow.

I began to include new and different varieties of the basic vegetables as well as including new kinds I had never tried before.  I remember talking about eggplant with my 100% Italian brother-in-law.  I began growing them, initially to give them to him and not realizing how many fruits they put on.  I knew we needed to start eating them too and eat them we did...slowly at first and now I don't think they've missed a season in our garden since...and that's been well over 20 years!  We grow them now because we love them and miss having them on our plates.  I have grown many different varieties of them as well.

There are many other reasons why gardening has "saved" my life, like the fact that it's a super fulfilling and even relaxing hobby.  I get so energized and yet still peaceful at the same time whenever I'm around my plants.  

And my health?  No more digestive complaints and I've been able to maintain the same healthy weight for over 20 years.  I thank my veggies for lending a hand in all of this and look forward to gardening for many years to come.  Most active gardeners live a long and healthy life!

I hope you are inspired to grow your own vegetables if you aren't already and maybe share how they helped to save your life as well!

How has gardening impacted your life?

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Power of Capsicum

Capsicum...aka; peppers.  We've been growing them for years.  All kinds, sizes and shapes, sweet, hot and in-between.  They are a rewarding plant to grow as they usually produce lots of fruit.  Especially banana peppers...they always make me feel like a garden genius. 

But what's inside of these savory fruits that make them so powerful?  One thing for sure is taste...they've been imported from all over the world and valued in many cuisines.  They are reported to have been in existence for 9000 years and cultivated for over 7000 years.  That's pretty amazing staying power for one vegetable!

"Capsicums are believed to have originated in regions of South and Central America. It was Christopher Columbus who collected capsicums from the West Indian regions in the 1492 and took them to Spain. It was from there that capsicums spread through the regions of Africa, Asia and Australia. Owing to the adaptable nature of these bell peppers, they grew well in tropical and temperate climates. Today, China, Turkey, Italy, Spain, India, Romania and Mexico are among the leading producers of capsicum with almost 20-27 species grown across the world." 1

Taste isn't the only thing that makes peppers powerful; they are also high in nutrition...especially once they turn red.  Remember, the green peppers are the unripened state of a pepper.  They have lots of Vitamin A, E as well as niacin and many other vitamins and minerals.  A really good vegetable to include in your diet.

So what about health benefits?  Peppers  "contain antioxidants like beta carotene (carotenoid), lutein and zeaxanthin (phytochemicals) and vitamin C. After consumption of capsicum, the body converts beta carotene into retinol, which is one of the most usable forms of vitamin A." 2

"Capsicums are known to lower the fat stored in blood corpuscles, called triglycerides, and thus help in burning calories. This can vastly improve the body metabolism." 3

"Apart from these benefits, capsicums promote cardiac health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It has anti-inflammatory properties, stimulates stomach secretions and improves digestion." 4

But that's not all.  The reason I wrote this post is to share about a component in peppers; capsiacin.  This chemical is the one responsible for the "hot" in hot peppers.  It's also been found to help relieve pain when applied topically.  I have used commercial preparations containing capsaicin for a good 15 years. 
   "Topical ointments and creams containing capsaicin are helpful in relieving pain from many different conditions, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, nerve pain and lower back pain, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center. While capsaicin is not a cure for pain caused by these conditions, it does lower the amount of substance P, a chemical that helps transmit pain signals to the brain, when applied directly to the skin." 5
I have used capsaicin faithfully for years and I feel like it's been a life saver during bouts with pain.  Capsaicin is not for the faint of heart though.  It packs a whollop of heat and needs to be used sparingly.  If my pain is intense, I am able to use quite a bit, but it's important to follow directions when using.  

However you slice them, capsicums are a powerful, pain-relieving plant that deserve a place in your garden, diet AND medicine cabinet.  Blessings!!

Have you used capsicums or capsaicin?

2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, 
4. Ibid.

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