September 2014 Archives

Pumpkin Carving Tips and Tricks

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Nothing says it's Halloween like a carved pumpkin glowing in the dark. Whether you're a novice pumpkin-carver or a seasoned pro, here are some tips, tricks, and ideas to spark your creativity and ensure a gorgeous creation, while making sure you don't hurt yourself in the process.

Choosing a Pumpkin

Before you create your pumpkin masterpiece, you'll want to put some thought into the size and shape you'll want to work with. Tall and thin or short and stout, big or small, perfectly round or lumpy and unusual - there are all kinds of pumpkins!

No matter the size or shape, look for a solid pumpkin that is free of bruises, blemishes, or soft spots. Make sure that it will stand up straight at the angle you want to display it. Wobbly jack o' lanterns with candles inside can be a fire hazard. Avoid carrying it by the stem, as the stem could break and your pumpkin will bruise or crack in a fall.

Tools of the Trade

Before the carving begins, gather your supplies and make sure your work space is clean and free of clutter. Wipe down the outside of the pumpkin with a damp cloth before cutting into it.

Basic supplies include several sheets of newspaper, a long sharp knife, a damp cloth, a bowl or bucket to put the seeds in, a large metal spoon or pumpkin scraper, a pencil or marker to trace or draw with (or a pumpkin pattern and masking tape), a small knife for detail, and something to hold the pumpkin scraps in.

If you're creating your own design, you can draw it freehand right on the pumpkin and cut it out. You can also buy or download pumpkin patterns that will give your finished product a professional look. Many department and hardware stores carry pumpkin carving kits that include patterns and tools to create gorgeous jack o' lanterns, or do an online search for "pumpkin carving patterns" for hundreds of free patterns that you can download and print at home.

If you choose to use a pattern, you'll also need a small tool to poke holes through the pattern and into the pumpkin. An ice pick or a nail will work well for this task.

Preparing the Pumpkin

To keep your work area clean, carve your pumpkin over several layers of newspaper or use a plastic tablecloth. Using a large sharp knife, cut out the top of the pumpkin, angling the knife towards the center to create an angled cut that will support the lid when you replace it on top. Remove lid and cut off any seeds or membranes that are attached to it. Make a small cut out in the lid to allow smoke from the candle to escape.

Using a large spoon, ice cream scoop, or pumpkin scraper, scrape down the inside walls of the pumpkin. Remove seeds and membranes, and set the seeds aside for roasting if desired. Make sure the inside of the pumpkin is scraped clean. To make carving easier, you can also scrape away some of the pumpkin "meat" on the side where you will be cutting out your design. Do not make this side less than half an inch thick, however, or the heat from the candle flame could warp your finished design.

Draw your face or design on the pumpkin, or line up and fasten your pattern using masking tape. It helps to trim the pattern a bit to keep it flat against the pumpkin.

Carving Your Pumpkin

If using a pattern, use the poking tool (kits will come with these, or use a nail or ice pick) to poke small holes into the pumpkin about one-eighth of an inch apart along the cut lines in the pattern. Once you've poked the holes, remove the tape and pattern.

Using a small knife or mini saw, cut very carefully along your drawn lines, or along the holes you poked through the pattern. Cut from the center of the design outwards, removing the knife and reinserting it at corners. Remove and discard cut out pieces as you work.

When all pieces have been cut and removed, go over your design with the knife and clean up any jagged edges or corners that don't look clean.

Finishing Up

Pumpkins shouldn't be carved too far in advance of when they will be displayed; they are a vegetable, and will rot if opened and left out. To help keep your cuts looking fresh for a couple of days, dip a cotton ball in some lemon juice and rub it over the cuts. You can also rub the cuts with Vaseline to preserve a fresh look.

Place a tea light or votive candle inside your pumpkin, unlit, to see if it will stand up straight. If the candle leans or is unstable, place a glass or heat-resistant ceramic saucer in the bottom of the pumpkin and place the candle on top. Light your candle with long fireplace matches to avoid burning yourself.

For a bit of extra seasonal flair, rub a bit of pumpkin pie spice onto the bottom of the pumpkin lid before lighting your candle. When the candle is burning and the lid is in place, the heat from the flame will warm the spices and give off a wonderful fall scent.



The Indoor Garden: Let There Be Lights

The Indoor Garden: Let There Be Lights

With the right lighting, you can achieve a bounty of blooms with the flick of a switch. You can outwit Mother Nature all year long if need be.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "Water, fertilize, and prune your artificial-light plants exactly the same as you would plants under natural-light conditions."

Uses

Artificial lighting for your plants can be arranged anywhere--from a living room that gets morning sun to a basement that gets no sun at all. Anywhere you can install lights and keep your temperature above 65 degrees is a good enough place to grow plants. In fact, gardeners have revamped old bomb shelters into greenhouses with the help of artificial lighting.

Indoor lighting will even allow you to grow tropical plants providing you can keep the temperature above 80 degrees. Consider an indoor herb garden for all your kitchen's needs. Artificial light is wonderful for delicate plants that aren't quite ready for the challenge of life in the outdoor garden. Many gardeners begin their flowers and vegetables from seeds indoors before it is warm enough to transfer them outside. Indoor lighting will allow them to thrive.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "Reduce the number of hours of daily light in the winter for those plants that go dormant in the cold. These plants will be accustomed to having less light in the winter."

Lighting Types

Generally, you should be able to find the lighting you need at any housewares store, but online garden stores and specialty garden centers may have more tips about using artificial lighting. You need to purchase either cool white and warm white fluorescent tubes. Most plants will grow fine under either type of tube. Warm and cool refers to the color of the light waves (red or blue), not to the amount of heat produced. Special fluorescent bulbs have been developed specifically for growing plants indoors. They are a combination of red and blue light that provides an all around, even growth that encourages blooming.

TIP: Rachel advises, "When using artificial light, it is very important to keep your fluorescent tubes clean and dust-free. Replace burned out bulbs immediately."

The shape of fluorescent tubes also sheds light uniformly. Of course, you can makeover your whole basement as a plant haven and purchase more industrial type fluorescent lighting. There are even lighting systems with built in timers you can set to suit your plants needs. These are extremely beneficial because turning the lights on and off at the same time each day simulates a normal growing cycle, which can encourage healthy growth.

There are alternative plant lights that can also be purchased. In places where a fluorescent light fixture might detract from the stylish decor such as a foyer or living room, an incandescent bulb could be used above a large foliage plant.

TIP: Rachel adds, "However, incandescent bulbs used as the sole light source for a plant typically do not work well. They are more effective when used in conjunction with a south facing window or supplemental fluorescent lighting."

Fluorescent bulbs generate more than six times the light of incandesceant, making them more practical for indoor garden usage. Metal halide and sodium-vapor lamps are great for illuminating plants in large areas. Also called "high pressure discharge lamps", the strong white glow may not be applicable for standard homes, but is best for lighting up open areas like halls and atriums, as well as greenhouses.

TIP: Racjel recommends, "If you're worried about not being able to provide enough artificial light for high-light plants, consider using reflective surfaces to maximize the light your plants get. White paint or aluminum foil underneath your plants are effective and basic methods. Some fluorescent bulbs come with self-contained reflectors. Otherwise, porcelain-coated reflectors are excellent and require little maintenance. Keep reflectors clean and free of rust or dust."

Location

With the proper lighting, you can put your indoor plantings almost anywhere. How about in an old television cabinet. Mount two 20-watt fluorescent light fixtures to the top of the inside shelf and place your plants beneath. You can even mount a two-tube 24 inch fluorescent fixture on the underside of a kitchen cabinet and place your herbal plants beneath it. Lights can be suspended by chains from the basement ceiling and add a valance to protect yourself from glare. There are many places around the house you can transform into a garden center from a closet to an unused fireplace, wherever the gardener chooses.

Once you find a place for your plants indoors and install the light fixtures, you'll need to learn how much light and at what intensity specific plants require. Plants need darkness too in order to form their buds and bloom. The type of plant will determine the distance it needs from the light and the length of time it must remain under it.

Setup

While beginning indoor gardeners may face a period of trial and error when placing their plants under the lights, there are a few general tips that may prove helpful. For one, the length of your fluorescent tubes should correspond to the length of your garden. A good rule of thumb is to provide 20 watts of light per square foot.

TIP: Rachel adds, "The human eye is a poor judge of light intensity, making it hard to measure the exact amount of light needed by your plants at a glance. Some signs that you are not providing enough light include pale green or yellow foliage, no growth, legginess, and small leaves. Light meters can be bought at home and garden centers, and are also very helpful. Fluorescent lights are brighter in the center than on the ends of the tube. Therefore, the best and brightest spot for high-light plants is directly below the center of the tube. Most plants should be located with the tips of the plants 6 to 12 inches from the light source. The intensity of artificial light drops rapidly as the distance from the light source increases."

Initially, try to grow plants which will not exceed 12 inches in height; tall plants may need additional light accommodations.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "If you are intent on growing a taller plant inside, consider using fluorescent bulbs in spotlights aimed at the base and lower leaves of the plant. Also, fluorescent tubes mounted vertically make for great side-lighting."

Plants

Finally, there are several types of plants that are known to do exceedingly well under fluorescent lighting. Beginners may wish to try some of these in order to get the hang of gardening under artificial lighting. Some wonderful foliage plants to try include Swedish ivy, bush basil and coleus. Some great flowering plants include African violets, impatiens and wax begonias.

TIP: Rachel adds, "More experienced gardeners will have great results growing orchids, African violets, and leopard plants in artificial lighting."

The Multi-Vitamin Veggie: Kale

By Orion Darkwood

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Background

Kale is a vegetable in which the central leaves do not form a head. It is considered to be closer to wild cabbage than most domesticated forms. Since it's a cabbage, it can be eaten as such, or cooked like collards. Kale can be differentiated between varieties according to the low, intermediate, or high length of the stem, with varying leaf types--curly, smooth, light green to dark green, violet green or violet brown. In addition, it can be eaten raw, mixed in a salad, used to wrap meats, used in a soup or stew, and juiced. Many recipes and ways to cook this multi-use plant are online.

Kale was one of the most common vegetables in many places of Europe and Middle East during the Middle Ages. It was introduced to Canada and the rest of North America in the 19th century by Russian traders.

Kale also has many health benefits. Kale is very high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, and rich in calcium. It's also very high in iron and has a highoverall nutritional value. It is also a great body detoxifying food. Kale lowers blood pressure and improves eyesight.

Growing It

Kale is very easy to grow and maintain. The key is to plant late in the winter and late fall. Kale will turn bitter in high heat (above 85F), however, it is still edible. Kale can endure temperatures as low as 20F. The growing time from seed to plate is around 60 days (read the label on the seed package or research online for specific growing times of the different varieties). Kale can be grown in tight areas only requiring about 6 square inches and can grow to a foot or more in height depending on variety.

Kale prefers loamy, well-drained, moist (but not soggy) soil of average fertility. Surprisingly, it isn't a fan of soil that is too rich in nitrogen, so it will do best in slightly acidic soil with a pH range of 5.5 to 6.8. Light, sandy soils and very heavy clay soils will affect the flavor of kale, but it will still be edible.

Kale requires some shade, but is otherwise a very easy to maintain plant. Kale completes its life cycle in two years (produces seed) if you are looking to collect heirloom seeds. Kale grows best with certain types of other vegetables and herbs. Its companion plants include basil, beans, dill, garlic, hyssop, lettuce, marigold, mint, onion, radish, rosemary, sage, thyme, and tomato.

Picking It

Harvest Kale when the plant is approximately 8 to 10 inches high, starting with the outside leaves first. If you decide to harvest the entire plant, cut the stock two inches above the soil. The plant will sprout new leaves in 1 to 2 weeks.

Kale is a crop that can provide you with an abundance of nutrients spring and winter depending on your location. You could say that having kale growing is like having a multi-vitamin in your garden.

Orion Darkwood (pen name of William Bradford) is an avid gardener, self-reliance instructor, writer, poet and small business owner. To learn more about Orion go to www.crossedswordsus.com.

Growing Cabbage in the Fall

By Mary Frucelli

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Driving around I see everyone's gardens withered and brown. Their harvests were over, not to be seen again till next year. I knew there had to be more fall gardening to do and more vegetables that I could grow. I researched and found that cabbage is a good fall and winter crop to grow in North Carolina. I took a trip to my local garden center in October and sure enough they had cabbage seeds. The ideal planting time is mid to late October so I decided to give it a try.

I began by enriching a couple rows in my raised bed with some good compost and old straw from the straw bales I grew my tomatoes in. The soil was still in pretty good condition so it really didn't need that much. I planted the seeds as directed on the package and kept it moist. It wasn't long before seedlings emerged and were growing well. In the beginning I did notice quite a few holes in some of the early cabbage plant leaves, but I never saw what was actually eating the leaves. Those that were severely damaged I pulled out, making room for the stronger, healthier plants. Cabbage needs a lot of room to grow so the plants shouldn't be too close together.

It is now November and the plants are growing well. We haven't had many freezing nights but these plants are hardy enough to take it and keep growing. I have heard of cabbage growing in snow up North so we shall see if this is true. I am giving the plants a good watering once a week and that seems as though it is all they need. I am just waiting for the cabbage heads to emerge and start growing.

What will I do with the cabbage I grow? Cabbage is one of the most versatile vegetables you can use. It is a delicious and very healthy addition to soup, chopped raw in coleslaw or a salad, steamed with potatoes or you can stuff it with ground meat and rice and bake it with the sauce of your choice.

One of my favorite and most healthy ways to prepare cabbage is to ferment it. You can easily do this yourself and create a vegetable that will provide you with the natural fermented bacteria that is good for your digestive system. To begin, thoroughly wash and dry a jar and lid about the size of a Mason jar. Next, wash your cabbage and thinly slice it almost shredding it and place it in a bowl. Lightly sprinkle the cabbage with salt, mix it and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. The salt will help to draw the moisture out of the cabbage. Next, pack the cabbage in the jar pressing it to the bottom of the jar as hard as you can. As you pack the cabbage you should see juice coming out and the more you pack it down the more juice you will see. Pack the jar to about a couple inches from the opening and push the cabbage down so that it is submerged in the juice. Then place the lid on the jar and let the jar sit on your counter in an average 70 degree temperature for a week or two. You should see a little bubbling and the cabbage should start to look like sauerkraut. The longer you let it ferment,  the stronger it will be. At any point you can put it in the refrigerator and it will keep for a few months.

I have never had a batch go bad, but if for any reason you believe your cabbage has spoiled, do not eat it. If prepared properly it will look like sauerkraut. I usually add a little to salads but you can put it in almost any dish. You only need to use a little to reap the health benefits from fermented cabbage.

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