Monday, August 26, 2013

Growing a pollinators' garden

I'm completely in love with bees right now.  As I've learned more about how important honeybees are for pollinating food crops, and how hard the bees work in their hives, each with their own job, I've been fantasizing about tending to a backyard beehive of my own.  But my husband reminds me that our neighbor is allergic to bees, so he probably wouldn't like living next to a beehive.  Not to mention that I have more hobbies than I have time for already.  So I've settled for planting as many bee-attracting plants in my garden as possible.

I was talking to a beekeeper who was selling honey at a local farmers market last week. We got to talking about the differences between locally sourced honey versus the name-brand honeys you find in the grocery store, which may actually come from honey produced in China!  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is nice to support the local beekeepers, and the local economy. Plus, bees pollinate so many of my favorite foods grown here in Iowa -- melons, apples, cucumbers, for example.

The beekeeper gave me a brochure with a list of bee-friendly plants for the garden.  I was glad to see that I already grow a lot of these in my backyard. Here's the list, if you want to attract more pollinators in your garden:

Annuals - Asters, calliposis, clover, marigolds, poppies, sunflowers, zinnias (my favorite!).

Perennials - Buttercups, clematis, cosmos, crocuses, dahlias, echinacea, English ivy, foxglove, geraniums, globe thistle, hollyhocks, hyacinth, rock crees, roses, sedum, snowdrops, quills, pansy, yellow hyssop.

Fruits and vegetables - Blackberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers, gourds, fruit trees, peppers, pumpkins, raspberries, squash, strawberries, watermelons, wild garlic.

Shrubs - Blueberry, butterfly bush, button bush, honey suckle, indigo, privet.

Trees - Alder, American holly, basswood, black gum, black locust, buckeyes, catalpa, eastern redbud, hawthorns, hazels, linden, magnolia, maples, mountain ash, poplar, sycamore, willows.

Herbs - Bee balm, borage, catnip, cilantro, fennel, lavender, mints, rosemary, sage, thyme.

Now whenever I buy a new perennial, I look on the tag to see if it is pollinator friendly.  And it's really made a difference.  This summer, I've seen butterflies, bees and hummingbirds when I step out my back door.

I've also seen these little guys -- Asian beetles -- which I'm not to happy about, because I know they can really do some damage on a garden. So far, I've only seen a couple.  I'm hoping I don't have many more next year.

So do you grown any bee-friendly plants on this list?  Have you had trouble with Asian beetles this year?  This is the first year I've seen them in my garden.  I'm hoping it's just a fluke because of the drought.  We've only had 1.25 inches of rain since mid-June!  I can't believe my garden is still hanging in there, but the heat this week is going to shut some plants down, I think.

Monday, August 19, 2013

2013 Iowa State Fair eats

I was lucky to visit the Iowa State Fair three times last week, twice for work and once for fun.  I took the day off on Friday and had a blast eating my way through the State Fair with my sister.  Our first stop was the corn dog stand.  We decided to stick to the original instead of trying the funky varieties offered this year (bacon maple, sweet corn & honey).

On my first afternoon at the fair, I grabbed a lamb burger at the Iowa Sheep Association's stand.  The burger was grilled perfectly.  And the lamb burgers must be popular, because people were buying them two and four at a time!

I wanted to try something a little crazy for dessert, and I saw that the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers stand was offering apples with caramel dip and bacon.  I pretty much love bacon on everything, so I thought "Why not?"  They served me an Iowa grown apple, of course.

But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when the kid behind the counter sprinkled bacon bits on top of my caramel apple.  I was hoping for chunks of bacon, not powdered bacon.  But it still was a surprisingly good combination.  I ended up eating most of this, because I loved the caramel dip!

I was also craving onion rings, and I stumbled upon a food stand offering homemade onion rings.  These onion rings are the real deal.  I had to wait 6 minutes while they cut, battered and fried them on the spot.  I think this is my new favorite fair food!

Did you visit a fair this summer?  What was your favorite food?  I wish I had the appetite to order a funnel cake, too, but I'll have to wait for next year for that one.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Tomato update: From seed to BLT

I've been so busy this summer, I haven't taken the time to give an update on my first-ever successful attempt at growing tomatoes from seed.  As you can see, it's been a pretty good year for tomatoes, even though we've only had 1.5 inch of rain since mid-June.  I run the soaker hose once a week to give the tomatoes a good 1 inch of water or so, and I think that's helped.  I posted the photo above on my Facebook page to show my mom, and one of my friends commented: "Those tomatoes aren't ripe yet!"  After a bad fruit fly infestation last year, I learned it's best to pick my tomatoes when they're just turning color, and then let them ripened on my kitchen counter.

Back in April, I started roma and orange blossom tomato seeds using a growlight and coconut fiber biodegradable trays, which I bought at Earl May.  If I remember right, the photo below was taken just three weeks after the seeds were planted. So far, everything was looking good.  I kept the trays watered, but let them dry out a little bit between waterings to let the roots get stronger.  I also fertilized them about every 2 weeks with a fertilizer specifically for seedlings.

Can you spot my garden gnome behind the tomatoes?

In mid-May, I finally got the courage to take these babies out of their indoor environment and started "hardening" them off by placing the tray under my back porch awning.  Everything was looking good until I accidentally left them outside overnight, and we got a 2.5 inch pounding rain.  When I woke up, the tomato seedlings were squashed and soaking from the heavy rain. So I dumped the excess water off and placed the seedlings in my enclosed back porch to let them dry out, but still get used to cooler temps.

A week later, I planted the the seedlings. They were pretty spindly, but the roots were so strong, they were poking through the coconut fiber "pots."  I planted the seedlings directly in the ground, without removing the pots.

Fast forward about a month later, and it's hard to believe this little seedling grew up to be a 4-foot-tall tomato plant.  This year, I'm trying to keep up the tomato plants from getting too big, rather than setting fruit, so I'm clipping the vines back every couple weeks or so.  I haven't been as careful about it as I should, but so far, the tomatoes are doing a good job setting fruit.  You might notice in the photo below that I mulch my veggie garden with grass clippings.  I also lay down a layer of newspaper underneath to help weeds from poking up.

This photo was taken in mid-June. The tomato plants are much larger now.
So that pretty much sums up my tomato growing season.  The tomatoes are actually starting to wind down because of the cooler weather this August. Oh, and the lack of rain. Can you tell I'm annoyed because we missed the rains again today?!

So how's your garden growing right now?  Do you have any tomato growing advice?  I've still got a lot to learn.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Texas brownies

I had a fierce craving for chocolate cake -- with chocolate frosting.  So I looked through my Iowa cookbooks and found this recipe for Texas brownies.  I'm pretty sure most folks call this Texas sheet cake.  They're definitely cake-like, but brownie-like at the same time.  Not sure if that makes sense, but I'm going with it :)

The frosting was definitely the best part.  It was almost like a layer of fudge on top of cake!  Can't wait to make this again for family and friends when they come to visit.

Here's the recipe, if you want to give it a try at home.  Enjoy!


Texas brownies

  • 2 sticks butter
  • 5 Tbl. cocoa
  • 1 C. water
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 2 C. flour
  • 1 Tbl. baking powder
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/3 C. buttermilk or water
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

  • 1 stick butter
  • 5 Tbl. water
  • 1 box powdered sugar
  • 4 Tbl. powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 C. walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter and combine with cocoa and water. In a separate bowl, combine flour, sugar and baking powder. Pour the butter/cocoa mixture over and mix well. Add eggs, buttermilk or water, and vanilla, beating well. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 inch pan and bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Frosting: Melt butter and combine with water, cocoa and vanilla. Add powdered sugar slowly until well combined. Stir in walnuts. 

Note: Frosting must be hot and spread on hot brownies. Cool and cut into squares.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Peach crisp

OK. So this photo looks a little bit like a mess in a bowl, but I was focused more on eating this more than taking the picture!

Peaches went on sale at my local grocery store (78 cents a pound!). I made a batch of peach jam and was planning to make a peach pie. But my hubby requested peach crisp.  I've tried a few different recipes for peach crisp (or cobbler) and haven't really found one I really like.  So I just decided to use my favorite recipe for apple crisp, but substitute peaches for the apples.  It was a good decision!  The peaches were super juicy, which is why this crisp looks a little soupy.  But the oatmeal topping was good and crunchy on top.  I ate my peach crisp with vanilla ice cream and a raspberry sauce I made based on this recipe from (Raspberries were on sale, too.)

You can find the recipe for my favorite apple crisp (and now peach crisp) from my previous post.

Do you have a favorite peach recipe?  I'm a huge fan of peach pie.  I'd like to try to make peach ice cream sometime, too.
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