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Winter Sowing in a Snowy Winter Wonderland

Winter Sowing Containers Outside in the Snow

WINTER SOWING TUTORIAL

WHO could winter sow? Anyone!

Yes, even if you’re a beginner gardener, you can start planting some seeds now. Even if it’s freezing cold where you live, you can plant seeds for your garden now. Even if you don’t have grow lights—which, trust me, are a must for most indoor seed starting—you could start seeds now. Winter sowing is easy and possible for anyone. Winter sowing refers to starting seeds outdoors during the winter in DIY mini greenhouses made from plastic containers. The seeds sprout when the weather warms up just like seeds that have fallen to the ground naturally.

WHY winter sow? To get more plants, of course!

Growing plants from seeds is cheaper than buying plants, and starting seeds with the winter sowing method is cheaper than starting them indoors. Plus, it’s a great way to reuse plastic containers instead of sending them straight to the recycling bin. Here are more advantages to this method of seed starting as described by Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_sowing – 1/20/19

The last one is my favorite! I’m glad I got a screenshot of that page before it was corrected. Like Abraham Lincoln said, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. In any case, it’s thanks to the internet that winter sowing has taken the gardening world by storm. Trudi Greissle Davidoff first coined the term and documented her experiments on www.wintersown.org. Today you can find instructions, photos, and discussions of winter sowing not only on that website but all over the internet.

WHAT to winter sow?

I recommend that you start with the best candidates for winter sowing: seeds of cold hardy or semi-hardy annuals and of perennials that are suited to your growing zone. Trudi has several lists on her website. You can also look for seed packet and catalog descriptions that say things like this: hardy, self-sowing, colonizing, withstand frost, stratify, stratification, or direct sow in early spring/late fall or as soon as the ground can be worked. Using such descriptions and different plant lists, I made my own personalized list of plants that I’d like to winter sow here in zone 5b.

Perennial: a plant that can live outdoors for more than one growing season

Annual:  a plant that can live outdoors for one growing season in your zone

Hardy Annuals can tolerate cold soil and cool weather, down to the low 30s. These plants can survive some frost and snow.

Semi- or Half-Hardy Annuals can tolerate cool soil and cool weather, down to 40˚F. These plants might survive a light frost.

Tender Annuals require warm soil and warm weather. These plants do not do well in temperatures below 50˚F.

You could also grow tender annuals with this method. However, if you have a short growing season like I do, it may not be worth it. Winter sown tender annuals, such as tomatoes, will be smaller than indoor-started seedlings at transplanting time, so harvesting won’t begin until later in the season. That means fewer tomatoes! If I have extra seeds for tomatoes or other tender plants, I might winter sow some, but not all of them. One year I winter sowed celery seeds and also started some indoors under grow lights on the same date. The winter sown celery seedlings were smaller, yet I planted them anyway wherever I could find some room. They never grew to be as big as their brothers, but they were edible.

WHEN to winter sow?

Winter sowing, as the name suggests, is done in the winter—that’s whenever winter is in your part of the world. It doesn’t matter if your winter is freezing cold and snowy or just cool and rainy. And you can do it at any time during the winter. Here in zone 5, some folks start at the winter solstice; others prefer to wait until after the holidays and start in January. I tend to do my winter sowing in February. Once March rolls around, I get more involved in indoor seed starting. I also go outside and start direct sowing cold hardy annuals in my kitchen garden beds. I see no need to buy potting mix and cut up jugs to use this process for seeds that are easily direct sown, straight into the garden soil.

The beauty of winter sowing is that you don’t have to worry about exactly when to sow your seeds. Unlike indoor seed starting, there’s no counting back 6 to 10 weeks from your average last frost date. Let the seeds figure that out! You plant them anytime in the winter, and when the weather is right for them to come up, they will.

Start perennials and cold hardy annuals first; then start the semi-hardy plants; and lastly, start the tender annuals.

If you’re winter sowing tender annuals in a cold zone, however, you might want to put off starting them until March or even April for the tenderest ones. If you sow them sooner and an early warm spell causes them to pop up early, you’ll have to protect those seedlings through any freezes until it’s time to transplant them into the garden. The more tender the plant, the later it should be sown. In general, you should start perennials and cold hardy annuals first; then start the half- or semi-hardy plants; and lastly, start the tender annuals.

Here’s a list of vegetables and herbs, grouped by their hardiness levels. I put this handy chart together for a book that I’m writing, and the book will include a similar chart for flowers.

Hardiness Levels of Vegetables & Herbs

HOW to winter sow?

Prepare the Containers

If you look around the internet or join any winter sowing groups, you’ll see that when it comes to making winter sowing containers, it is to each his own. This is how I do it. You can use any container that is tall enough to accommodate your seedlings as they grow and transparent enough to see your hand through its side. The most popular kind is gallon-size plastic jugs. We drink a lot of distilled water, so I use those. They’re great because they’re already sterile so I don’t have to wash them.

  1. Wash and sterilize the containers, if needed, and then let them dry.
  2. Make drainage holes in the bottom. I create slits with a small knife, and I give it a little twist to make the holes wider—4 holes in each jug. Vent holes are also needed at the top of winter sowing containers, so for these jugs with narrow openings, I just remove and discard the caps.
  3. Use scissors to cut almost all the way around the jug about 4 inches up from the bottom and leave a hinge on the handle side. 
  4. Use a hole puncher to punch a hole in the top and another in the bottom at the corner opposite the hinge. This way I can put a twist tie through those holes to fasten my container shut. Most people seal their jugs with duct tape after they’ve planted them. My method is easier than dealing with sticky tape, especially if you have to open and close the jugs later.

Label the Containers

I use a grease pencil. This year I’m experimenting with crayons, too.

I write the name of the seed variety to be sown on both the bottom and top part of the jug because the top parts will get cut off later. Plant only one type of seed per container to avoid confusion. Use smaller containers, such as 2-liter bottles, if you’re planting only a few seeds.

Remember that these containers will be outside for several months, exposed to direct sunlight and all the elements. You do not want your labels to fade, so a Sharpie will not be good enough. I use a grease pencil, but my friend Dolly Foster, who has done much more winter sowing than I have, strongly recommends the Garden Marker, which is waterproof and UV proof.

Fill the Containers

Filling Winter Sowing Containers with Potting Mix

I use a professional quality soil-less potting mix. It must hold moisture and drain well. Pro-Mix no longer makes my favorite kind, which had no fertilizers added. Since I now have to get a mix with fertilizer, I prefer an organic mix, especially when I’m planting anything edible. You may use a non-organic potting mix for winter sowing, if you want, but be sure to avoid any mix with water-storing crystals.

Mix water into the potting mix until it is damp but not soaked (clumpy but not muddy). I fill the containers at least 3 inches, which is deeper than necessary for indoor seed starting. You don’t need a ruler: the rule of thumb is to fill it to a depth that is about the same as the length of your thumb. Tamp it down a bit and add more potting mix until the depth reaches 3 to 3-1/2 inches.

Plant the Containers

The fresher your seeds, the better. When I first discovered winter sowing, I thought it would be a great way to use up my oldest seeds. Wrong! Hardly anything came up, and it was a waste of time and effort. One to three years old is OK for most seeds. I have experimented and found that I can extend the viability of seeds that don’t have a good germination rate after the first year, such as parsley, by vacuum sealing them. In any case, remember that the older the seeds, the more you should plant because fewer of them will sprout.

Small seeds can be sprinkled on top of the soil and patted down into the soil mix. You do not have to worry about spacing them if you plan to use Trudi’s Hunk-o-Seedlings technique for transplanting them later. Larger seeds should be placed farther apart and then covered with a layer of potting mix equal to their proper planting depth, which is usually equal to the diameter of the seed.

The next step is to water the containers, and I do that one of two ways. One method is to put the containers in my kitchen sink and use the sprayer to give them a gentle and thorough watering. The other method is the same one I use with indoor seed starting, bottom watering. I put the containers in trays that are at least as deep as the soil mix is. Then I add water to the trays and let the containers sit in it until their potting mix is soaked; then drain them.

The last thing to do is to cover and tie them. I slip a twist tie through the holes that I punched into the corner opposite the handle of the jug. Fit the top down snugly over the bottom of the jug on all sides, and twist the tie shut.

WHERE to Winter Sow

Winter Sowing Containers Placed Outside in the Winter

Now the winter sowing containers are ready to go outside in a sunny spot. They can go anywhere that they won’t be disturbed by pets or other animals—on the ground, on a deck, or on a table. In the past I’ve put mine on wire shelves in the corner between our house and the garage, facing southwest. There they won’t get blown around by a strong wind. It’s also easy for me to check on them because they’re right by the garage door. This year I put them in a sunnier spot, on the shelves further out on our driveway. They’re currently sheltered somewhat by the piles of snow out there.

Maintain the Containers

The beauty of the winter sowing system is that you can set and forget the seeds now to a certain extent. You just need to make sure that they do not dry out. If they’re on the ground and they’re covered by snow, they’re fine. Leave them alone. If they’re not covered by snow, peek inside to see if the potting mix looks dry—even if you see condensation is forming inside the containers. If the surface of the potting mix looks dry or the containers feel light when you pick them up, water them. Check more often as the weather warms up. They may need water on sunny days even when it’s in the 30s. Don’t let the seeds dry out.

Transplant Your Winter Sown Seedlings

Later the magic happens. The seeds sprout and tiny plants start to grow. Don’t worry if it’s too cold for them outside; it’s warmer inside their mini greenhouses. However, if you have tender annuals growing and you think a cold snap is going to lower the temperature too much for them, cover them at night. Water your winter sown plants like you would any other seedlings while you’re waiting to plant them.

Remember that these seedlings are already hardened off. They can be transplanted into the garden as soon as they’ve formed at least one set of true leaves—provided that the soil temperature and weather conditions are suitable for their hardiness level. My advice is that the sooner you can get your winter sown seedlings into the ground, the better. I have left some languishing in their jugs for too long. When I finally planted them, they did not take off. Get those little seedlings planted as soon as you can. Once your garden soil is maintaining a warm enough temperature for the plants’ hardiness level, transplant them outside. You’ll plant them out in the same order that you started them: hardy plants first, then the semi-hardy plants, and then the tender ones.

Transplanting Wintersown Hollyhocks

Water the seedlings before you transplant them, and let them sit for a while. When you’re ready to plant them, slide the whole group of seedlings out of the container. If they’re spaced slightly apart from each other, gently pull the individual plants apart, teasing the roots and keeping as much of them as you can with each plant. If the seeds were thickly sown and the plants are all matted together, cut them apart into pieces with a knife. Then use your fingers to pull each piece apart into little clumps of seedlings. Plant those clumps, spacing them as far apart as you would if they were individual plants. Water them in. Keep watering them as needed during the next few days until their roots take and the plants start to grow.

Now you can maintain and enjoy your garden with all these new plants, started from seed.

New Video Demo

You can watch me prepare and plant a winter sowing container from start to finish here on YouTube. If you like the video, please give it a thumbs up and leave your comment or question in the the comments section.

Still have questions? Leave a reply in the comments below to ask them.

Debbie Rea

What about starting seeds indoors?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been seed starting with traditional indoor methods for longer than I’ve been winter sowing. I recently added information about supplies needed for indoor seed starting to the Shop with The Gardener Wife page.

If you want me to write a tutorial for indoor seed starting, please let me know by leaving a reply in the comment section below.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Annabelle Hydrangeas

Annabelle Hydrangeas in my “Shakespeare Street Garden” – 7/4/20

Annabelle hydrangeas are, in my opinion, the easiest kind of hydrangea to grow. They thrive in part shade, and they bloom reliably and beautifully all summer long. On their own, the flowers change from white to green. There’s no temptation for me, as there is with some hydrangeas, to try to change the pH of my soil in order to make them produce blue blooms rather than pink ones.

Pruning Hydrangeas

Pruning Annabell Hydrangeas

Annabelles are smooth hydrangeas, which bloom on new wood. That makes them very easy to prune: just cut down all of the old wood stems. I like to leave the dried flowers and stems up for winter interest. Then in early spring I cut them all down, as you can see in this recent video: Pruning Annabelle Hydrangeas.

You don’t even have to prune Annabelle hydrangeas at all if you don’t want to. If the plant is young and you want it to grow bigger, just remove the faded flowers. Mine are already well established, so I like to prune them hard in early spring. The new stems grow up thicker and the flowers that they produce are bigger. That’s why it’s important to have supports in place before these plants fill out. But if I don’t prune them for a year or two, it’s no biggie. The flowers will be smaller, but they are still plentiful and beautiful.

Blast from the Past

It’s an easy and satisfying garden task—so much so that I’ve posted videos about it twice before. One the earliest videos I ever posted, #10 in my series of Plant Tales, was also about pruning Annabelle hydrangeas. I feel pretty proud of myself whenever I get the early spring pruning done. Just a couple of years ago I posted a few more pictures in this short video of my Spring Prep.

Making Flower Arrangements

Because they bloom so generously, Annabelles make great cut flowers, too. I never feel bad about cutting a bunch to make a large bouquet. And a single flower on its own makes a nice display. I make arrangements using these big white blooms with cobalt blue vases and U.S. flags when I host our family’s 4th of July party every year.

My Annabelle hydrangeas have spread quite a bit over the years, so next I need to separate and dig some out. Then I can plant them elsewhere or give them away to someone else’s garden. Wouldn’t a gift of a hydrangea like this make you happy?

Annabelle Hydrangeas in my “Shakespeare Street Garden” – 6/21/21

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Making Chili When It’s Chilly

We got the big snow that we usually get at the beginning of February. But it feels nice and cozy inside because of the smells wafting from my slow cooker. Chili isn’t on today’s menu because I made some just a week and a half ago when it was super cold. I just realized, however, that I haven’t shared my chili recipe here even thought I posted my White Chicken Chili recipe a few months ago. So I’m going to take care of that right now. Chili is good at any time of year, of course, but I especially like to cook and eat it when it’s chilly outside.

Gathering Garden Ingredients for Chili

Chili is also a great way to use the garden vegetables that I froze. However, my chili recipe did not start out as a way to use garden vegetables. I’ve adapted it from the recipe that originally came with my first slow cooker over 25 years ago. I’m actually a recipe tinkerer, not a recipe developer! Almost from the beginning, I substituted ground turkey for the ground beef, dried pinto beans for the canned kidney beans, and a salt-free herb blend for the salt. Later as a beginning gardener, I realized that chili is a great way to use the end-of-season tomatoes that were ripened indoors and then frozen whole. Those tomatoes don’t taste as good as the ones ripened outdoors, but they’re still homegrown organic tomatoes. The spices in the chili kick up their flavor. Since I grow more things in my garden now, I use my homegrown tomatillos, peppers, onions, and garlic, too, whenever possible. You could make adaptations like mine with your own favorite chili recipe if you get any of the ingredients from a garden, farmers market, or CSA.

Before Adding Beans

If you have to buy tomatoes from a supermarket, then I recommend that you get canned ones, diced or whole. Those will be tastier than anything in the fresh produce department. I also recommend that they be organic. I also recommend choosing organically grown bell peppers, hot peppers, and anything else on the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list.

I don’t grow beans for drying, but if I did, I would also use them in this chili. I prefer the firmer texture of dried beans that are slow cooked. If you like your beans softer, then use canned beans. Another option for softer beans is to pressure cook dried beans.

Garden Chili

2 pounds ground beef and/or turkey
1 1/2 cups onion, chopped
1 cup organic green pepper, chopped
2 whole garlic cloves, minced
32 ounces organic tomatoes, canned (undrained) or frozen (from the garden)
16 ounces dried pinto beans or 32 ounces canned kidney beans
2 teaspoons salt-free seasoning
2 tablespoons chili powder 
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon cumin

Optional garden additions: If I have tomatillos and jalapeños or other hot peppers from my garden, I add them, too. I don’t grow squash, but I know that some people add squash puree to their chili. You can use whatever you like! If you don’t have a freezer full of garden goodies, you can still make this recipe with store bought ingredients.

DIRECTIONS:

  1. *The night before: Sort and rinse the beans, and then leave them in a large bowl of water to soak overnight. Drain the beans before you add them to the chili. (*You can skip this step if using canned beans or if you’re going to pressure cook the chili.)
  2. Preheat a pan on the stovetop.  Add ground meat and brown. Drain the liquid, and add the browned meat to the slow cooker pot.
    • NOTE: If your slow cooker is like the Sear & Cook (my favorite) and has a nonstick aluminum pot that can be used on the stovetop, you will not need to use another pan to brown the meat on the stovetop. If using an Instant Pot or other multi-cooker, you may use its sauté setting to brown the meat right in its pot and then use its slow cooker function to cook the chili.
  3. Add everything else to the browned meat in the slow cooker pot and stir to combine. Cover and slow cook on LOW for 7 to 10 hours. Keep warm for serving.

I usually serve this chili with cornbread. You can top it, if desired, with cheese, avocado, or sour cream.

Slow Cooked Garden Chili

I hope this chili will warm you up this winter! Let me know if you make it and like it.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

National Seed Swap Day 2022

Seed Box Display at Antiques of Winfield

Happy National Seed Swap Day!

I’m not going to any actual seed swaps today as there have not been any near me since the pandemic started. Instead I’m just taking stock of my current seed stash. How’s yours? Let me know if you want to do a mail swap.

My Seed Stash 2019

I still need to reorganize my seeds. I like to organize them according to the dates that I will be using them. I keep notes on 4″ x 6″ cards about each variety, and I file these with the seed packets behind them. In the past I used dividers to divide each month into two sections, and this is the system that I still use for seeds that I want to start indoors. Last year I set up a separate box for the seeds that I want to winter sow and direct sow. This method makes it easier for me to stay on track. Whenever I have some time for seed starting or winter sowing, I know where to find the seeds that should be sown that week or month

My beautifully organized seeds are always a big mess by the end of summer. I should have reorganized them by now, but I was busy working on a big paper for grad school. However, I couldn’t resist the Menard’s 15%-off sale earlier this month, and I bought far too many seeds. Plus, as a garden communicator, I’ve received free seeds from Botanical Interests, All-America Selections, and Renee’s Garden—what a blessing! I look forward to sharing how their seeds perform in my garden.

Once I get all of my seeds organized, I will be ready to start using them. I cut way back on indoor seed starting the last two years, and I increased my winter sowing. I am, however, planning to do a little more more indoor seed starting this year—but not as much as back in the days when I would sell off my extra seedlings. I’m still in grad school, and I have to set some limits. In fact, I need to be careful about not planning to plant too much this year. Instead of taking off the spring quarter from school like I did last year, I have registered for an international immersion course which will include a trip to Amsterdam. That means I will have much less time for tending my garden and for garden writing. But you’ll probably see a post or two about gardens in Amsterdam!

I’m still recovering from my last class, a domestic immersion course that involved a trip to Philadelphia. Just last week I turned in the final project, which included a 45-page paper about transformational ministry and community gardening in Joliet. So National Seed Swap Day has snuck up on me. It’s a good reminder, though, to organize my seeds ASAP. I need to make the best use of the time left before my Amsterdam class starts.

“Anyone who thinks that gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.”

Josephine Neuse

How are your gardening plans going this month?

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Christmas Greeting 2021

I’ve emailed this greeting to my newsletter subscribers. If you don’t see it in your inbox, please check your Promotions tab and/or your spam folder. (And be sure to add Debbie@thegardenerwife to your contacts list so you don’t miss any more emails from me.) If you still don’t see it, then I hope you’ll sign up for my newsletter here.

The Gardener Wife Newsletter

Hi  folks!

I wish all of you, my dear newsletter readers, a very Merry Christmas! May your whole holiday season be filled with love, joy, and peace.

Gathering for the Holidays — love
My family is still not gathering in the numbers that we used to before the pandemic. We are not under lockdowns this year, but due to having COVID or being exposed to someone who had it, some folks still cannot travel or visit. But I’m grateful that we have vaccines now and that many of us are able to meet in person and go to church, concerts, and other events again. While it’s wonderful to get together with those I love, I’m still assured of God’s love even when we can’t do that. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39 ESV). Christmas is a time to remember how God showed his love for us by giving us Immanuel, born to die for us.
 

Preparing for the Holidays — joy

Having the gift of God’s Son and his love, I can have joy during good times and bad, whether my garden produces successful harvests or not. During this holiday season, I’ve enjoyed preparing our home, indoors and out, for our festivities. I was joyful even when working by myself on these holiday tasks. I’ve been practicing video editing, so I put together several short videos as I worked. It was fun to share these videos on social media, and here I’m sharing my garden-style holiday decorating with you.

Here are my videos on outdoor garden-style holiday decorating:
DIY Winter Container Arrangements 
Garden-style Decor for the Front 
Night View of Front Decor without Holiday Lights 
DIY Easy Winter Container  
Winter Containers for the Deck 

Indoor holiday decorating videos:
Victorian Christmas Tree
Dining Table Ribbon Festoons  
Holiday-Style Houseplants

Coming soon to my YouTube channel:
Snowman Collection Display 
Holiday House Tour 

I hope these videos inspire you to find more joy than stress in your own holiday preparations.

Looking to the Future — peace

I thank each of you for subscribing to my newsletter and welcoming me into your email inbox. I’m especially grateful that you’ve stuck with me even though I sent out only four newsletters this year. I’ve slowed down—as I had predicted I would in my January newsletter—because I’m in grad school now, working on a doctorate degree. My studies will continue in the coming year, so you still won’t get regular emails from me. However, you are welcome to subscribe to my blog, where I post shorter updates, and/or to follow me on social media if you like. And don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments to share with me. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for making my newsletters even better when I do get back to writing more.

To subscribe to my blog, click on the “Follow The Gardener Wife” button at the bottom of any page on my website, www.thegardenerwife.com.

The above example shows what you’ll see at the bottom of any page on my website. Scroll downward and click there, not here.

This is a time of uncertainty for me in many ways. I’m concerned about keeping up with my studies as I care for my family, home, and garden, and I’m concerned about what to do after I graduate. This is also a time of great anxiety and unrest in the world. While it’s tempting to work quietly in my garden and just feed my family, I know that God desires more for his people. That’s why I’m learning about global and urban ministry and why I hope to continue writing and speaking—about caring for people and souls as well as about caring for gardens and plants—after I finish this degree. We can have God’s peace even during the most difficult times.

May God bless you and your loved ones with successful gardens and with the peace that the angels announced to the shepherds long ago. “Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV).

Digging it,

Debbie
The Gardener Wife

Philadelphia Flower Show

I made it to the Philadelphia Flower Show for the first time in 2019.

Debbie Rea and Tovah Martin 2019

It is reputed to be the best in the country, and I loved it. I posted a live video of my first impression there, and later I made a video of the highlights from that show. I took about 600 photos, so there was a lot more going on. There were, however, some things that I’ve enjoyed at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show which I missed at the Philly show—cooking demonstrations by local chefs, tablescapes by local florists, and extra garden talks in seminar rooms in addition to the stages on the showroom floor. At one of those showroom stage talks, I got to meet author Tovah Martin. She spoke about “Indestructible Houseplants,” which is the topic of one of her many books. I’ve enjoyed her writing about plants and gardening ever since the early days of my favorite magazine, Victoria. She has a new book out this year, The Garden in Every Sense and Season, about ENJOYing the garden—one of my main themes here on this blog and in my newsletter.

I loved these arches in the raised beds of a display at the Philadelphia Garden Show 2019.

Speaking of indestructible houseplants, I was amused by the signs I saw on the plant containers at Midway airport when we flew to Philadelphia: “Please, Do Not Water the Plants. Thank You.” It’s true, as I’ve pointed out when giving houseplant care tips in my newsletter, that houseplants are more likely to die from overwatering than from under watering.

Philadelphia airport plants on the left & Midway airport plants on the right

Little did I know that the Philadelphia Garden Show would be cancelled the following year, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But this year, 2021, the show went on. It was held outdoors, and so it was postponed a little so the weather would be better. I would like to have seen that show because my experience at the only outdoor garden show done in Chicago, about ten years ago, was wonderful. I thought it was much better than the indoor Chicago Flower and Garden Show.

I did, however, go to Philadelphia in October as part of a grad school class that my husband and I are taking at Bakke Graduate University. During our urban immersion class, we got to see a completely different side of the city of Philadelphia than we had seen when we had come for the Philadelphia Flower Show two years ago. I spotted several nice urban gardens as we walked around various neighborhoods. And since we had Saturday afternoon off, my husband and I found a public garden to visit. I will save the details of this trip for another blog post.

Do you have a good garden show near you? Have you traveled to any garden shows? Please share in the comments below.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Celery Increase: Using, Storing, and Preserving Celery

This year’s celery harvest was a success! After a few light frost alerts and before our first hard freeze, I pulled up all of the remaining plants. The trick now is to use or preserve them all. (Note to self: start using more celery earlier in the season.) I prepped and stored a lot of it in our basement fridge. Then I began cooking with it and dehydrating some to use later.

I highly recommend growing your own celery, if possible, because its flavor—like that of tomatoes—is so much better than the store-bought kind. One first time grower said this: “Stalks were small, but the flavor was so full and multifaceted compared to store-bought celery that it was totally worth growing anyway. It smelled amazing, too.”

Another reason to grow your own celery is that conventionally grown celery is relatively high in pesticide residues, even after it has been washed. It is usually on the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list. So if I have to buy it, I prefer to get organic celery, which costs more. Thus, growing my own celery saves me money. Growing celery increases my salary!

Increase in Celery = Increase in Salary

The Gardener Wife
Celery Harvest

Celery Storage Tips

Whether you grow your own celery or not, these tips should be helpful to you.

  • For quick use: Wash, cut up, and store celery in refrigerator boxes designed for fresh produce. Mine are made by Tupperware, but you can find similar ones for less.
  • For short term storage: Wrap the entire head of celery tightly in aluminum foil. I cut off most of the leaves from my larger plants, if necessary, to make them easier to store, but you don’t have to. You can cut any yellowed leaves away later when you use the celery. Foil wrapped celery, stored in a refrigerator, will last for several weeks—or even longer as I’ve shown in this video.
  • For long term freezer storage: Wash and slice the celery. Measure it out into one-cup or half-cup portions, and put into small plastic bags. I use fold-over sandwich bags. Put these bags, loosely twisted shut, into a large vacuum sealer bag and vacuum seal them. Store in the freezer. You can toss the frozen celery directly into soups, stews, and slow cooker recipes, or you could thaw it a bit for use in any hot dishes.
  • For long-term pantry storage: use a dehydrator to dry the celery. You can also dehydrate celery leaves to make celery flakes. Wash and cut the celery to the size you want. Blanch it, if desired. Dry it with paper towels, and then spread it out on dehydrator trays. Follow your dehydrator’s directions to dry the celery. When it’s done, I use an accessory jar lid kit with my FoodSaver to store my dehydrated celery in vacuum sealed canning jars. To use the dehydrated celery later, you could reconstitute it or drop it, as is, into soups or other recipes which have liquid ingredients to plump it up. You can also grind dried celery into a powder or use the crushed flakes as a seasoning.

I used the freezer method in previous years, but this year I decided to try dehydration because I am pressed for freezer space and I heard it produces better results. It seems counter intuitive, but I’ve also learned that blanching actually helps vegetables to dry faster. University extension service guidelines recommend blanching celery to preserve its color, protect its vitamins, and destroy any harmful bacteria that could be present. On my first time dehydrating celery, I was in a hurry and I did not check these guidelines, so I skipped the blanching. My dried celery looks green enough, and I am happy with the results. If I decide to dehydrate more of my celery, I will try blanching it and then compare the results. Blanching is also recommended for freezing celery so it will hold up longer in the freezer, but I think that vacuum sealing mine works just as well.

While I like to have a good supply of homegrown organic celery stored in the freezer or pantry for the winter, its texture is never going to be nice and crunchy again. That’s why my goal is to use as much of this harvest as I can now, while it’s fresh. I’ve been making lots of potato salad and Waldorf salad lately. We’ve also been munching on celery sticks as snacks—delicious with or without a dip. If we were still eating sandwiches for lunch, I’d make tuna salad sandwiches, too. I might make a stir fry tonight, and next week I’ll make tuna pasta salad. I should also make stock or soups to eat now or freeze for later. And of course I’ll be using homegrown celery in our turkey stuffing. I can also use the bunching onions and leeks that I’ve recently harvested in many of these recipes. Eating from the garden is one of the best parts of growing your own food.

Do you have any other ideas to share with me? What are your favorite dishes that have celery in them?

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Tips for Using Rain Barrels


Cleaning the Rain Barrels before Winter
Rain Barrel at Fort Michilimackinac

Saving rain water to use for watering the garden is a sustainable practice that has been around for ages. I recently saw the simplest form of rain barrel usage during my Grand Garden Show stop at Fort Michilimackinac: simply placing an open barrel under a gutter. These days we can make or buy better rain barrels. One modern improvement is to cover them with mesh to screen out bugs and debris. Another great improvement is to drill holes and add fixtures which allow you to attach spigots and hoses to the barrel. These and other attachments make rain barrels easier to use.

Most rain barrels on the market today come with both of those improvements. Some are more decorative than others, and some are even made to look like old-fashioned rain barrels. I got the kind that are made from food-grade plastic shipping barrels because I think that recycling food barrels this way is better for the planet. Mine are made by Upcycle Products, a company in Morris, Illinois. Although I picked them up in person, you can get them now from Amazon. Another option, if you’re handy, is to search the internet for instructions to make them yourself.

I’ve been using rain barrels for over ten years now, and here are the tips that I’ve learned. Read this post before you get a rain barrel so that you know what to expect and how to take care of it. And even if you already have a rain barrel, you might learn something new here.

Rain barrels can be connected to each other. If you want to collect more water than one barrel can hold, you could join two or more rain barrels together with short hoses. Those short hoses came with my four rain barrels when I bought them. We connected one barrel to the gutter at the corner of our garage. As that one fills up, the water flows from it into the other barrels. The last barrel has a spigot which we can open and close to get the water out when we need it.

Use a diverter to connect the rain barrel to a downspout. A diverter will prevent water from overflowing when the rain barrel is full, and it will divert it back to your downspout so the excess water flows out where it should. It also makes it easy to detach the rain barrel each fall and reattach it each spring. I bought two diverters when I got my four rain barrels because I had planned to hook one of them up by another downspout that is closer to my front yard garden. However, we have not yet done that. When we do, I’ll make a video to show you how it’s done.

Position the rain barrel higher than where you want the water to flow. Instead of buying a special stand for our rain barrels, we use cinder blocks to raise them up off the ground. The spigot should be higher than your watering can or bucket. If you’re going to attach a hose to the rain barrel, then the barrel needs to be higher than the ground that you’re watering so that gravity will propel the water out to the other end of the hose. Another option—which I have not tried—is to get a pump.

Find an easy way to transport the rain barrel water. You could simply attach a hose to the rain barrel and stretch the hose out to your garden to water it. However, keep in mind that the water flows out slowly from a rain barrel hose, so it will take longer to water plants this way than it does with a regular garden hose. I prefer to use a regular garden hose and soaker hoses to water my garden beds. While I’m doing that, I can use a watering can or—better yet—a rolling garden cart to water my containers. This cart holds more water and rolling it around is much easier that carrying a watering can back and forth. You can watch how my watering system works in this video: Watering Routine.

Be careful about using rain barrel water on edible plants. Due to possible contamination from roofs and gutters, I recommend the following precautions.

  1. Clean the rain barrel before you start collecting water in it.
  2. Water the soil only; do not get the plants wet.
  3. Stop using the rainwater a couple weeks before harvesting.
  4. Consider adding a bleach solution periodically to the rain barrels in order to lower the risk of contamination of edible plants.

I took that last recommendation from the “Best Practices and Recommendations” section of this extension service article about a 2011 New Jersey study of rain barrel water quality. This study also recommends watering in the morning and not harvesting until later in the day.

Empty rain barrels before freezing weather. If water in the rain barrel freezes, the plastic fixtures will crack. Then the rain barrel will leak. I recommend doing this before your first frost alert. Remember how slowly the water drains out and plan ahead. If my four rain barrels are full, it takes several hours to drain them. So it’s a bad idea to start the night before freezing temperatures are expected. Rather than let the water drain out wherever, I direct it to where it will do the most good for my garden. This is the one time of the year that I attach a hose to my rain barrels, and I stretch the hose out to my trees. Then the trees get a nice soaking to help prepare them for the winter.

Clean rain barrels. It’s a good idea to clean the rain barrels after you empty them. The study mentioned above says to use a 3% bleach solution. Even if you live in a warm climate and can use your rain barrels year round, you should wash them out at least once a year. Be careful, as you turn the rain barrels over, not to let them land on those little plastic fixtures—that’s another way to crack them! If necessary, however, you can buy replacement parts.

Secure rain barrels and store upside-down when not in use. I have found that it is best to store my rain barrels upside-down during the winter. This prevents melted snow and other debris from getting inside them. It’s also important to secure them well when they’re empty. Without water in them, the rain barrels could topple over in a strong wind. We just bought a nice new strap to hold ours in place better. In the spring, we just have to turn the barrels over and reattach them to the diverter, and then they’re ready to use for another season of rain harvesting.

For more info on proper watering, see my earlier blog post, Watering Tips. Let me know if you have any questions or comments by replying below. And by all means—if you found this post helpful—please share it!

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

White Chicken Chili

I harvested this year’s garlic about two months ago. While I’m saving the largest bulbs for replanting, all the rest is for eating. Soon I’ll make White Chicken Chili—perfect for seasonal eating now as I’m harvesting tomatillos and still have fresh bell peppers, jalapenos, and onion from the garden.

Garden Ingredients for White Chicken Chili

The photos here are from when I first made this dish in April 2020 as I was on the Whole30 program. At that time I used  frozen vegetables with dried oregano and garlic. I store my homegrown garlic after curing it by wrapping it in paper and putting it in a cardboard shoebox. I had checked the garlic in March, and dried, hardened cloves were all that I had left by April. They softened up during cooking, but I also added a little garlic powder for more flavor. Now in early fall, I could make this chili with fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden.

White Chicken Chili

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 pounds skinless *chicken breasts
  • 1 cup onion or leeks, chopped
  • 1 cup bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 small jalapenos, seeded and finely diced
  • 1 pound tomatillos
  • 7 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano or 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 1-½ tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • ½ teaspoon white (or black) pepper
  • 1 cup chicken broth*
  • 1 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • Juice of ½ lime
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • Optional garnishes: fresh cilantro, jalapeno, avocado, guacamole, and/or lime wedges

*NOTE: You can use boneless chicken breasts, but I prefer to use bone-in chicken. It’s usually cheaper, and the bones add more flavor (you could even use water instead of chicken broth if you don’t have any broth). Besides, it’s easy to pick the bones out when you’re shredding the cooked chicken.

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Put tomatillos, onion, peppers, garlic, cumin, oregano, chili powder, salt, and pepper in the bottom of a 6- or 7-qt. slow cooker. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables in a single layer. (Note: If you have a slow cooker with a removable aluminum pot or multi-cooker with a sauté function, you may sauté the onion and peppers first in a tablespoon of cooking oil until they start to soften, about 5 minutes.)
  2. Add broth and cover the slow cooker.
  3. Cook on LOW for 6-7 hours or until chicken is done and vegetables are tender.
  4. Remove chicken from slow cooker and place in a bowl. Shred chicken with two forks and be sure to remove any bones. Return chicken to slow cooker.
  5. Mash the tomatillos; I use a meat masher.
  6. Add coconut milk, stir, and cover. Cook on HIGH for an additional 10-15 minutes or until soup is heated through.
  7. Stir in lime juice and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Serve in bowls and top with desired garnishes.

I adapted this garden food dish from a recipe by Real Food Dieticians. The biggest change that I made—and an excellent one if I do say so myself—was adding tomatillos. I like making it in the slow cooker so that the smell wafts around the house all day, but you can look at their original recipe for pressure cooker or stovetop directions if you like. This is actually a Whole 30 recipe, but if you’re not on a round of Whole 30, you could serve this chili over rice or with cornbread or tortilla chips.

Like my regular chili, this recipe is great for all cool weather seasons. Preserving my garden harvests by freezing, drying, or canning makes it possible for me to enjoy our summer crops throughout the rest of year and still stick to seasonal eating. You can do this even if you don’t grow as much as I do. Buy extra produce from the farmers market when the food is in season and cheaper or get a larger CSA share and then preserve what you don’t eat right away. In any case, the vegetables and herbs in this recipe are seasonal here now, so this is the best time to try it. Tell me what you think in the comments below.

And get ready to plant some garlic! Here in Zone 5b, I usually shoot to do that around October 10th.

Garden Egg Cups

Garden Egg Cups have become my breakfast standby ever since I did the Whole30 program near the beginning of the COVID stay-at-home quarantine in April 2020. I haven’t stopped making them since! After I completed the program, I decided to continue eating the same kind of breakfasts and lunches whenever possible.

That doesn’t mean that I’m eating the same thing every morning. Not only can you vary the ingredients of the egg cups themselves, but you also have a wide range of options for the rest of the meal. To make a Whole30 compliant breakfast with these egg cups, you need to fill the rest of the plate with veggies and/or fruit. Whole30 rules also require adding a small amount of a healthy fat, such as nuts, olives, or avocado. I used roasted almonds most of the time, but sometimes I made a Whole30 ranch dip to go with carrots, cucumbers, or mushrooms. Nowadays, my breakfast usually consists of two egg cups, one banana, and a tablespoon or two of almond butter.

Garden Egg Cups

Makes 12 egg cups, 6 servings

NOTES:
  1. This is a very flexible recipe because so many things go well with eggs. But you know me—I want to use things from my garden! So when I started making these during Round 1 of my Whole30, I used frozen leeks and bell peppers from my garden. Later that summer when my garden was producing regularly, I made my egg cups with fresh green peppers and onions from the garden. This summer I’ve been using Swiss chard and onion or chives a lot. Use whatever you have or like. You could even add meats like bacon, chicken, or ham. Just make sure that your ingredients are all Whole30 compatible if you are doing a round of Whole30.
  2. Using silicone muffin liners is a must as far as I’m concerned. Then there’s no need for cooking spray, and the clean up is easy.
  3. Egg cups can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator. I reheat two at a time for 30 seconds in the microwave. They could also be frozen for later use.

INGREDIENTS:
  • 8-10 eggs
  • ½ to 1-½ cups garden vegetables, chopped (include herbs or meats, if desired—see Note 1)
  • Salt and pepper or other seasonings, to taste
DIRECTIONS:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Line muffin pan with silicone liners (see Note 2).
  2. In a 4-cup measuring cup, beat eggs and seasonings with a fork or whisk.
  3. Add vegetables and mix into the eggs. The contents of the measuring cup should be 2-½ cups full, so add another egg or two if needed.
  4. Pour the egg mixture into muffin cups to ¼ inch below the top of the silicone liners.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes or until set.

I make these egg cups every six days. A ready-made healthy breakfast like this makes my mornings easier. Give it a try and share your favorite veggies or other ingredients in the comments below.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Salted Caramel Pear Butter

Sadly, summer is drawing to a close. But the good news is that the evenings are cooler, and we can enjoy sitting outside by a fire pit. As we sit out there, I like to listen to soft music playing through the outdoor speakers and to nibble on something tasty—preferably something that includes cheese, my favorite food! One of my favorite things to do with cheese during the cooler months is to top it with nuts and a rich sweet spread like fig jam or pumpkin butter. Even better is to use something from the garden, so I’m sharing my recipe for Salted Caramel Pear Butter. I’ve also served this wonderful and versatile spread at Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. It’s great on softened brie, as shown, but it’ll also work with any cheese that goes well with pears, such as cheddar, gouda, roquefort, or stilton. 

I don’t grow my own pears yet, so the pears that I used came from my friend Sherry’s garden. She has a large old pear tree that produces a huge harvest every few years–more than she can handle, so she gives them away. I first benefitted from this bounty several years ago. That was when I discovered that I could use a slow cooker to make pear butter. That was also when I discovered that one of my slow cookers had a hot spot in it that burned a bit of the sauce. I’d paid only $15 for that 7-quart slow cooker, so I didn’t mind giving it away. I kept the good one, which has a removable non-stick aluminum pot that can also be used on the stovetop or in the oven. Instead of having two slow cookers going at once, I made two rounds of this pear butter over the course of several days. I refrigerated the first batch until the second batch was done, and then I canned both batches. 

With my slow cooker and an immersion blender, making the pear butter was EASY. The hard part was preparing the “ugly” pears, as Sherry called them, because they were covered with spots and blemishes. It took us two full evenings, about 5-6 hours total. My husband and I watched TV while he peeled the pears with a potato peeler and I cut all the spots and the cores away. In my opinion it was worth it because the pears were free and they were homegrown.

Salted Caramel Pear Butter and “Ugly” Pears

Below is the recipe I used, and here’s a video showing how I did it. You could use apples instead of pears, if you like, to make caramel apple butter, or you could use a combination of apples and pears. If the skin on your fruits is nice, you don’t even have to peel them. The skin will soften and break down during the slow cooking and will blend easily into the sauce.

Salted Caramel Pear Butter

Makes 4 pints

  • 7 pounds pears, washed, cored and peeled, if necessary
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg (an option that I’ll try next time)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Cut the pears into halves or quarters and toss them with lemon juice and water.
  2. Put the pears pieces, water, lemon juice, and brown sugar into a large slow cooker. Cook on low for 12 hours.
  3. Use an immersion blender or potato masher to puree the fruit mixture until smooth. Mix in the vanilla and sea salt.
  4. Prop the lid partially ajar with a wooden spoon or chopstick. (For an oval-shaped slow cooker like mine, I just set the lid on top at a slight angle, leaving it cracked open a bit.) Cook on low for another 8 to 12 hours. 
  5. After about eight hours, stir the sauce and check its taste and consistency. Adjust the salt and sugar. Add nutmeg or any other spices if using them. Continue cooking until the fruit butter is the desired color and consistency. I cooked mine for the full 12 hours.
  6. Store in the refrigerator for 2-4 weeks or water bath process. While the pear butter is still hot, pour it into hot, sanitized jars (1-pint or smaller), leaving ¼ inch headspace. Follow water bath processing procedures to process jars for 10 minutes.

This is a great recipe to make when you have an abundance of pears or apples. Once all the peeling and preparation of the pears is done, the slow cooker does most of the work. You can literally walk away and go to bed! Besides serving it with brie and crackers, I’ve also eaten this spread on bagels with cream cheese and on homemade bread with butter. I think it would also be a great topping for pancakes, waffles, or even vanilla ice cream.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.