Michigan Gardening To-Do List: December

Photo credit: Borgtex

Here’s your garden to-do list for December:

Seed Starting

  • This month is generally when we begin winter sowing, as long as the weather is consistently below freezing. Even if you’re not able to wintersow yet, you can prepare  your containers and make sure you have plenty of seeds and soil.
  • Sow pansies indoors this month so you’ll have nice-sized plants ready to plant out in containers in March.

 

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Some years, we are still experiencing mild weather, even in December. If we are, chances are good that you still have a few things, such as kale, chard, mache, and carrots growing happily. Continue to water and harvest as needed.
  • If we’ve had a good freeze already, it’s time to sit back and dream of next year’s garden!

Perennials

  • Once the ground has frozen, use fall leaves or other organic matter to mulch perennials that are prone to frost-heaving.

Bulbs

  • As long as you can still find bulbs in the garden center, you can buy and plant them in containers for a beautiful display next spring. Simply plant the bulbs, then place the pot in a protected location such as an unheated garage, covered porch, or garden shed. This is an excellent way to add color to your garden next spring and take advantage of end-of-season bargains!

Trees and Shrubs

  • If the ground hasn’t frozen yet, make sure that you water if we’ve had a long period of drought.

Houseplants

  • Winter is our houseplants’ time to shine. Make sure yours are watered regularly and are getting the proper amount of light.
  • Watch out for pest problems.
  • Consider misting your plants once or twice a day, since dry, heated air in our homes can stress houseplants.
  • Force some bulbs for the holidays: amaryllis, paperwhites, and  hyacinths are all classic bulbs to force at this time of  year.
  • If you’ve purchased a poinsettia for the holidays, make sure to water when the surface of the soil feels dry and give it a nice, bright location in your home.

Planting and Growing Garlic

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Garlic is a must for many cooks, and the great news is that here in Michigan, it’s actually very easy to grow garlic. It can be tucked just about anywhere in the garden, and, when you grow it yourself, you really get two crops in one. You get the bulbs, which is what most people think of when growing garlic, but you also get the scapes (which are the flower stems) which you can harvest in late spring to early summer. The scapes provide a delicate garlic flavor, and are great in many dishes that would benefit from a bit of garlicky goodness.  Let’s take a look at how to grow perfect garlic here in Michigan.

 

Garlic Types: Hardneck or Softneck?

There are two general types of garlic to choose from: hardneck and softneck. Michigan gardeners will have better success with hardneck varieties.

Hardneck Garlic Varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon)

Hardneck garlic varieties are generally hardier than softneck varieties, making them the best option for Michigan gardeners. They are also the best option if you want to enjoy garlic scapes, because hardnecks are the only type that send up a storng central stem, or scape,  in spring. Hardneck varieties tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but the individual cloves tend to be bigger.

Within the hardneck family, there are nine sub-types of garlics: Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Asiatic, Glazed Purple Stripe, Creole, Middle Eastern, Turban, Rocambole, and Porcelain. The Purple Stripe and Rocambole types are the hardiest, best for gardeners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and other parts of the state with very long, cold winters. Gardeners who live in warmer zones, such as those in southern lower Michgan, can easily grow all of the hardneck types.

 

How and When to Plant Garlic in Michigan

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Here in Michigan, you’ll want to plant your garden in October and November — before the ground freezes hard, but after we start getting cooler temperatures. This will allow the bulbs to start forming roots before we get a deep freeze.

Garlic needs a site in full sun to grow well. To plant garlic, dig holes or furrows six inches apart and three inches deep in loose, well-drained soil. Place individual cloves (separate them – don’t plant entire bulbs of garlic)  in the holes, pointy end up, and cover with soil. Water them in. If you have squirrels or other animals that try digging them up, consider covering the area with chicken wire or wire mesh — the foliage and scapes can still grow  through it, but it will deter wildlife from digging them up.

Spread a six-inch deep layer of organic mulch, such as fall leaves or straw, over the planting area. Within six to eight weeks, shoots might emerge if the weather is warm enough.  This is fine — the plant will stop growing once the soil gets cold, and growth will start up again in the spring.

 

Companion Planting: What to Plant Near Garlic

Garlic is one of those crops that you can plant throughout your garden to help naturally deter pests. It actually accumulates sulfur, which is a naturally-occurring fungicide that will help protect your plants from diseases. Garlic also helps repel insects such as aphids.

Best Companion Plants for Garlic

Garlic helps the plants listed below grow better. Because garlic isn’t overly picky about where it is planted (as long as it is in full sun), it’s easy to tuck it into the garden wherever you have a spare spot. Plant garlic near: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi.

Avoid planting garlic near beans and peas, since it may stunt the growth of both plants.

 

Garlic Pests and Problems

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Garlic really isn’t bothered by many pests or disease issues. Rot can sometimes be a problem; guard against this by providing your garlic with good, well-draining soil. The most common pest is squirrels and other animals, which may dig up the bulbs. Deter them with chicken wire, as mentioned above in the “planting” section.

Another common concern gardeners have is that sometimes the garlic will send up green growth in the fall after planting, when we don’t expect to see any foliage until spring. This is nothing to worry about; growth will halt once the weather cools, and the bulb will send up new green growth in the spring.

 

Growing and Harvesting Garlic

Once you have your garlic planted, there really isn’t much to do. In spring, give the bed a topdressing of compost and/or bloodmeal, then do this again once you see the scapes. Harvest the scapes when they just  begin to curl. When the foliage has turned yellow and dead looking, it’s time to harvest your garlic. Dig it up, and let it cure in a dry place for several days.

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

I reached a point last week where I just got tired of looking at tomato plants, tired of pruning, harvesting, and battling septoria — just kind of over tomatoes this year. I left my favorite variieties growing, but I ripped out plenty of plants so i could make room for our fall crops.

Since I hate wasting food (and doubly hate wasting food that we put all of this effort into growing!) I harvested as many of the green tomatoes as I could. Several have ripened over the last week, and we’ve been eating them. The rest….I needed to figure out how to deal with.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I love pickles. I just do. And I knew I’d heard of green tomato pickles before, so I looked it up and made a few batches. The good news: they’re delicious, and it is SO EASY.

Here’s how.

What You Need:
(for 3 quarts of green tomato pickles)

8 pounds of green tomatoes
4 cups of white vinegar
4 cups of water
4 tbsp. of kosher salt
dill seeds
whole black peppercorns
garlic
red pepper flakes

Jars — either 3 quart-sized jars or 6 pint-sized jars, as well we lids and rings (or any old jar you can find, if you’re going to make refrigerator pickles)
Hot water canner (if you’re planning on storing your pickles long term)
Jar lifter

Prepping Your Tomatoes

(Note: If you’re planning to process your pickles in a hot water canner, you should fill the canner with water, add your jars, and turn the water on to sterilize and warm your jars. Just leave the jars in the water until you’re ready to use them. Place the lids and rings in another pan with simmering – not boiling- water until you’re ready to use them.)

**One of the sites I found when I searched for green tomato pickles online was Garden Betty — who wrote a great post on the topic. I adapted the spices and quantities to work for me, but she has some great ideas for other spice blends.

Gather and wash 8 pounds of green tomatoes. After tasting the ones I made, I prefer cherry tomatoes because they seemed to stay firmer after processing, but any tomato will work.

Then, cut your tomatoes in half. If they’re larger, cut them into quarters.

Now, it’s time to make your brine. Add the vinegar, water, and salt to a pan, and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, it’s time to start filling your jars.

Remove the jars from the boiling water canner with your jar tongs. Set them on a towel on your counter (so they don’t crack when they come into contact with the cool surface) and add the following to each jar:

  • 1 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you want them spicier) of red pepper flakes

Once your spices are in, start packing your tomatoes into the jars. Really, pack them in. Once they’re packed, add brine to fill the spaces between tomatoes. Use a chopstick or knife to go around the inside of the jar and remove any air bubbles, then fill with more brine if you need to. Leave 1/4 inch of headspace, then wipe the rims of your jars to clean up any brine, add your lids and tighten your rings.Pickled Green Tomatoes

Put your jars in your hot water canner, and cover with a lid. Once the water comes up to a boil, start your timer — you’ll be processing your pickles for fifteen minutes.

Once time is up, remove your jars — carefully — and place them on a towel on your counter. They’ll have to sit there for several hours to cool.

Making Refrigerator Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can also forget about the boiling water processing if you just want to make a few jars of pickles to be eaten within the next month or so. Prep your tomatoes, add your spices, tomatoes, and boiling brine to the jars, and place in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat in about a week.

What to Do with Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can snack on them, of course. Or slice/dice them up to top a hamburger or hot dog. I also diced some of mine up and added them to chicken salad that I was making for sandwiches — really good.

Which is Better? Processed or Refrigerator?

I made mine both ways so I could see which version tasted better. At this point, I prefer the refrigerator method because they are crisper than the ones I processed in the boiling water bath. However, if you added something like “Pickle Crisp” to the jars, processed green tomato pickles would probably be much more crisp.

I hope you try these! They’re easy to make, and it’s always great when we can avoid wasting food from our gardens.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Dill Pickles

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

How to Make Dill Pickles

We plant several cucumber varieties each year, at least half of which are pickling cucumbers. (An aside: a common source of confusion is what makes a pickling cucumber a pickling cucumber. The simple answer is that they have thinner, bumpier skin — the better to absorb all of that lovely brine!)

Dill pickles are actually really easy to make. Here’s how to do it!

I used this recipe because, as written, it’s good for making a small batch of pickles (three to four pints) but, even better — you can halve everything, and make just a jar or two if you don’t have that many cucumbers on hand.

First, you need to assemble your equipment:

 

pick1You need a boiling water canner (if you don’t have one, a stainless steel stockpot will do. A cotton dishtowel folded and laid inside the pot will help stabilize the jars), pint jars, rings, and new lids. **If you want to forego the boiling water processing all together, you can also make refrigerator pickles with this recipe. If you do that, you can use any clean jar you want, and you don’t have to worry about having a pot to process your jars in. I’ll explain more later.

Not necessary, but it’s also helpful to have jar tongs, a magnetic lid lifter, and a jar funnel.

Fill the big pot so that the surface of the water is two inches higher than the tops of your jars. Place jars and lids in the pot (you can do lids in a separate pot, or the same one as your jars — doesn’t matter) and bring the water to a boil to sterilize everything.

While your jars are sterilizing, it’s time to assemble your ingredients.

 

You’ll need:pick2

  • 2 cups of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water (tap water is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons of salt (pickling or kosher — not iodized table salt)
  • 4 heads of fresh dill, or 4 tsp of dill seeds
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 8 to 10 cucumbers

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and salt, and heat over high. You want to bring this mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your cukes. Cut a bit off of each end, if necessary, to ensure that the pickles will be about an inch shorter than your jar.

 

You can also cut them into halves or quarters if you want.

 

pick4Once your cucumbers are ready and your brine is boiling, it’s time to get ready to add everything to the jars. Remove the jars (carefully!) from the boiling water canner. Add a head of dill and a clove of garlic to each jar.

 

Then, start packing your cukes in. You want to jam them in pretty tightly. This keeps them from floating in the brine.pick6

 

As you can see, my nine cucumbers was only enough for three pints of pickles. That’s fine, it just means I’ll have some brine left over. Once you have them packed in, it’s time to pour the hot brine into the jars. Do this slowly, and use a jar funnel if that makes it easier for you. You want to fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top.

 

pick7Canning:

  1. Use a flat spatula, butter knife, or bamboo skewer, and press the cukes together to try to release any air bubbles trapped in your jar. If you find that the level of the brine has fallen after doing this, top it up to keep your 1/2 inch of headspace.
  2. Wipe the rims of your jars with a clean, damp cloth, set the lids on, and tighten the rings. You don’t have to go crazy tightening it — just finger-tight is good enough. The seal doesn’t come from the rings at all, but from the lid itself being vacuum sealed on as the contents of the jars cool after processing.
  3. Place your jars into your boiling water canner, and process for ten minutes. Lift them out, carefully, and set them on a counter to cool. They’ll be quite warm for a few hours yet.

You’ll start to hear the lids make popping sounds. This means they’re sealing properly. After about an hour, all of your lids should have sealed. If you press on them and they’re solid, they’ve sealed right. If the lid still pops up and down, you don’t have a good seal. You can either re-process the jar in boiling water, or just put them in the fridge and eat them within a month. Properly sealed jars will keep for a year.

 

If you want to do away with the boiling water processing all together, simply add the cukes, dill, and garlic to any jar, pour boiling brine over it, cover, and let it cool down to room temperature. Then put your pickles in the fridge and eat within a month.

pick8As you can see, it’s not difficult. And believe me, the flavor is definitely worth the effort!

 

Pickling Resources:

While this is a basic recipe I found online a few years ago (and it’s great!) my favorite book about pickling and canning right now is Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More. It’s a beautiful book full of well-written recipes that definitely inspired me to try different things in my kitchen. Definitely worth a look.

As you can see from the post, I’m still using traditional canning lids. You may have heard that these types of lids are lined with BPA — this is a concern for many of us, myself included. I do have some reusable, BPA free lids on order, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you’re interested, here is a source that Julia from Snarky Vegan shared with me.

For more pickle-y goodness, please check out this post I wrote for Planet Green: 20 Pickle Recipes to Help You Preserve Summer’s Bounty.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: August

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in August:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Plant transplants for fall crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale.
  • Direct-sow quick-growing fall crops, such as mesclun, spinach, turnips, small carrots, radishes, and kale.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • If summer annuals are looking tired, consider replacing them.

Perennials

  • Regular maintenance, such as staking and deadheading, will keep your perennials looking their best.
  • If perennials are overgrown, you can start digging and dividing them this month, and into autumn.

Bulbs

  • If you’re growing tall plants, such as dahlias, stake them as needed.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Prune any summer-blooming shrubs this month.
  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

How to Fertilize Tomato Plants, Organically

littletomatoesTomato plants grow with such speed and vigor that it’s easy to be tempted to keep feeding them, thinking that we need to add nutrients for all of that new growth our plant has put on. But the truth is that over-fertilizing tomato plants is just as bad as under-fertilizing them.

Over-fertilized tomatoes develop lots of green growth at the expense of fruit production. And as if that isn’t annoying enough, all of that tender green growth is like a dinner bell for nearby pests and a magnet for disease problems. Under-fertilization results in slow plant growth and poor fruit set, as well as blossom drop and fruit drop.

So, how do you strike the right balance between under- and over-fertilizing your tomatoes? It’s actually pretty simple, and something you only really have to worry about twice during the growing season. (Less work!)

Fertilize at Planting

At planting time, I like to add a bit of compost the the planting hole, as well as several crushed eggshells or bonemeal to fend off blossom end rot. If I have it on hand, I also like to add a bit of granulated organic fertilizer to the soil at this time.

Fertilize at Fruit Set

When you see your first tiny fruits start to form on your plants, it’s time to do the second fertilizer application of the season. This is when I break out the fish emulsion, and give each plant a good, thorough foliar feed, as well as the soil around each plant. This will provide valuable nutrients just when your plants need it most.

Supplemental Feeding

If you find that production seems to be dropping off, or your plants just look “tired,” there’s no harm in giving them another foliar feed with the fish emulsion, or with compost tea or manure tea. This can be done once per month during the growing season to keep the plants growing and producing well.

Good Soil = Good Tomatoes

As with any kind of gardening, success with growing tomatoes starts with the soil. You will want to grow your tomatoes in rich, fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Incorporating compost and composted manure at planting time, as well as mulching with organic mulches such as grass clippings or fall leaves will make a huge difference — and every year, the soil will just keep getting better.

It seems like it’s not enough; that it should be more complicated than that, doesn’t it? But that really is all there is to fertilizing your tomato plants. Most years, we don’t bother doing a supplemental feeding, and, to be honest, we’ve even forgotten to fertilize at fruit set a time or two and everything has turned out fine. One less thing to have to fuss over — always a good thing!

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: July

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in July:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Start figuring out what you want to grow for your fall garden. Either start plants (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, etc.) from seed now, or track down a good source of transplants.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • You can still sow seeds for many annuals, such as zinnias and marigolds, all through July for fall color as well.

Perennials

  • Regular maintenance, such as staking and deadheading, will keep your perennials looking their best.
  • If you haven’t mulched your perennial beds already, this is a good time to do so. It will keep weeds down and reduce how much watering you’ll need to do.

Bulbs

  • If you’re growing tall plants, such as dahlias, stake them as needed.
  • If you still have foliage from spring bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) in your garden, you can remove it once it turns brown.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Prune any spring-flowering shrubs this month.
  • Feed your shrubs with a granulated organic fertilizer, or topdress with some good compost.
  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.