Iced Tea

Mix Up Your Ice Tea With These Tips

by Sandy Swegel

I learned to think outside the box yesterday…outside the tea box that is.  All this summer heat has me drinking lots of iced tea trying to cool down.  I traditionally get my tea from a box.  Boulder tea company Celestial Seasonings makes an awesome variety of herb teas, especially the zingers, that are full of flavor.  Luzianne Tea from the grocery story is my tea of choice for making the Southern Sweet Tea I grew up with. (1 quart of water, 4 black tea bags, 1 c sugar, lemons). But my clever gardening friend Barbara walked me through the garden yesterday, introducing me to a new use for plants I was already growing.

Citrus flavors are the most obvious to use. I had tried some of the lemony herbs before…but anything with lime or lemon in its name is a great choice. I quickly learned to smell the foliage to get an idea if it would be tasty.  If I didn’t have Barbara with me, I might have googled the herb first to make sure it was edible.

For our iced tea party, I made several teas from single ingredients…a lemon verbena tea, a mint tea, and a basil tea.  We then tried the flavors alone and mixed some together.  Teas with a combination of herbs had more interest and depth but my favorite ended up being the lemon verbena with a splash of mint!

Citrus Flavors Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass

Mint flavors Chocolate Mint, Peppermint, Garden variety mint, Monarda fistula (minty with a light citrus tone).

Other herbs Anise, Fennel

Edible flowers I made the Elderflower and Queen Anne’s Lace teas a few weeks back when they were still in young bloom. Elderflowers Queen Anne’s Lace Rose Hips

Extras to add Sweetener: honey, agave, liquid stevia or sugar. Citrus slices: lemons, limes, oranges Ginger slivers Mint sprigs

The basic recipe is about the same for all the teas. We’re making the tea for flavor not for medicinal use so it won’t be as strong as herbal concoctions.  Barbara just puts her herbs in a jar, covers with hot tap water and lets it sit overnight.  I don’t plan ahead as well, so I made simple hot teas and then refrigerated and later filled with ice cubes.

Basic Herbal Iced Tea Recipe 1 T leaves per cup water Boiling water. Steep 5 minutes Strain. I made the teas double strength to compensate for the ice cubes melting.

We set the teas out on the table with honey and sliced lemons and slivers of ginger and let everyone mix and match to find their favorite.

Go forth and experiment!

Eggplant Pizza

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

by Michael Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms


5 cups heirloom tomatoes, chopped 2 large eggplants, sliced into 1 inch discs 1/4 cup onion, sliced 1 large red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, seeded and chopped 1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, grated 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated 4 or 5 large garlic cloves 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped Salt & pepper to taste


Lay sliced eggplant onto a paper towel and salt lightly. Place a couple more paper towels on top of the eggplant. This will help draw some of the moisture from the eggplant and will make it a little more firm instead of soggy.

With a food processor, finely diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. In a large skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes until sauce cooks down and becomes thick.

While you are cooking the sauce down, heat oven to 350. Place eggplant onto a cookie sheet single layer and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until eggplant is slightly brown.

Top each eggplant with sauce, grated mozzarella, and parmesan cheese. You can either place the eggplant pizzas back in the oven until cheese melts or under the broiler to give your cheese a little crispness. This is how I prefer them. Sprinkle with chopped basil and Enjoy!

Fall Gardening: Getting Ready

Preparing Your Garden For Fall

by Sandy Swegel

What a great time of year this is.  And not just because the harvest is upon us and tomatoes are ripening and winter squash are filling out.  It’s a great time because school is starting again and school supplies are in the stores bringing up great memories and nostalgia for the beginning of the school year.  Sure we all hated summer vacation ending, but getting new pencils and notebooks and going back to school and seeing old friends was invigorating. The slight nip in the night air that starts in August in Colorado stimulates a new enthusiasm, much like a new year or a new chance.

Going into the garden in August is a lot like getting ready for school again.  First, you have to get rid of the chaos and clutter of summer.  We’ve been vacationing or sneaking naps in hammocks and somehow, the weeds we were carefully hoeing when they were an inch tall in May, have grown taller than us and have seed heads. So the first step of getting ready for Fall Gardening is taking a deep breath and clearing out the weeds and debris that might have snuck into the garden.

On Your Marks First, you have to be able to see your marks.  Clear out the weeds that are choking things like the bindweed threatening to bring the corn to its knees. Pull out tough stalks of spring lettuce.  They’re done…let them go! Those radishes that have been baking in the summer heat…time to recycle them into compost. Any place with diseased-looking leaves:  clear out every last leaf to reduce the chances of trouble there in the future.

Get Ready. Get ready to meet old friends again…the cold-hardy or cool season crops.  These are all the sturdy plants that don’t mind a morning freeze.  Swiss Chard and Kale or Spinach can be frozen solid on an October morning and be perfect for dinner that night.  The secret to having fresh vegetables in the Fall and long into winter is to plant while the soil is warm so that the plant is full-grown by frost.  After it gets cold, plants don’t grow very quickly, but the garden will keep them ready to eat for months.  Get ready to plant a big garden.  It’s not the end of a garden season, but the beginning of one.

Get Set. Make a plan.  Think about how many salads you’ll want  (or how many pounds of greens you bought last year.)  For greens, you want two general different kinds:  the soft sweet salad greens that will last you until hard frost and the sturdy kales and chards and collards that will be good for cooking. The local farmers call it a “braising mix” that you can pick and stir-fry well into winter. Don’t forget carrots.   This is also time to make a plan if you want a cold frame or want to set up a row cover to extend the season.

Go. It’s just like Spring again…only this time your mind isn’t gaga over a million possible gardens.  So focus on the task at hand—growing enough food for you and your family and friends to eat all Fall and Winter. Prepare the soil. Dig out big weeds. Mix in compost or organic fertilizer. Smooth the surface. Water thoroughly. Let the soil sit for two weeks for soil activity to restore itself. Order the seed you don’t have. Try something a little different like the Asian greens or just something new. They should arrive by the time your soil has rested. Plan a season extender. You can stretch your fall garden into January or February even if you live in a cold place. You can use a cold frame, a hoop house, some row cover or just bags of Fall leaves thrown over plants on extra cold nights.

2 Easy Ways to Have More Flowers Next Year!

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Your task this week is to go stand in the part of your garden that has wildflower-y plants.  You’ll notice two things. The first thing is that there are lots of spent flowers and seed heads that need to be deadheaded. Everything from rudbeckia to dill to penstemon has mature seed heads. You can always collect these seeds and put them in little envelopes to save for spring or you can take my lazy way out and Snip off the seed head and Fling it in the general direction you’d like it to grow next year.  Flowering plants always seem to migrate to the edge of the garden bed and need some encouragement to move to the middle and back of the bed.  Keep flinging seeds knowing that some of them will germinate right in the place they fall…so Fling merrily.

Your second assignment is to find a spring or early summer bloomer and stand in front of it.  A Columbine or Penstemon, Agastache and Echinacea are good possibilities.  Often right at the feet of these now finished beauties are dozens of little plants or even seedlings that have germinated in the past month and are growing next year’s plants.  I take my hori-hori knife and gently dig or carve out (we have lots of clay soil) a nice plug of soil that keeps the baby plants roots intact and plant it where I’d like more plants.  If the plant is young and you didn’t disturb the roots much, there won’t be transplant shock…just a new perennial that will bloom next year.

Whether you are flinging seeds or digging up plant plugs, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time and fussing with seed starting trays under lights and you’ve tricked Mother Nature into letting those perennials bloom giving you more flowers next year.  New plants easy, quick and free.  That’s my kind of gardening.

Make your own Apple Picker

DIY Gardening Tools

by Sandy Swegel

My beautiful orange apple picker came to a sad end last year under the wheels of a pick-up truck that smooshed it beyond recognition. We sadly have very few apples this year because of late frosts so more than ever I need a picker to reach the apples that are there.  My orange apple picker was very pretty, but its tiny basket area was a little frustrating. I could only pick a few apples before maneuvering the entire 12-foot pole down through the tree, take out 5 apples and wind it back up the tree.  The other problem was that sometimes the apples didn’t want to leave the tree and tugging threw other good apples to the ground, bruising them. So I started thinking about hacking my apple picker.

Well, in a digital world in which “apple” no longer means fruit from a tree, you can’t just google “hack my apple picker.” A search for DIY fruit pickers turns up lots of makeshift basket contraptions with water bottles which while clever and free, didn’t change the small basket problem.  I finally thought to look at what the commercial pickers do (besides bringing in big “cherry picker equipment” or precarious ladders.)  Somehow I couldn’t imagine teams of migrant workers with little orange baskets.

The answer is razor blades!  Rather than having a picker with wire fingers, razor blades at the end of your catching device slice the stems quickly.

So here are two possibilities for getting a better apple picker:  A DIY instructable with razor blades inside a narrow PVC pipe.  And the picker the pros use.  The DIY picker doesn’t include a bag….you have to catch the apples…so maybe you can think of a way to add a bag.  Look at the professional picker with its big sack as a model.

Apple picker:

Berry picker

Clip-n-pick fruit picker:

Tweaking Your Tomatoes

Try These Two Tomato Growing Tips

by Sandy Swegel

The harvest season is going strong and it’s a good time to look around and notice what garden “tweaks” might have worked this year.  By tweaks I mean the new techniques I might have tried, or tips my neighbors gave me or even changes in location, sun or water.  Tomatoes are pretty much the most important crop in the home garden, at least from the perspective of pride and bragging rights.

Because I help several of my clients with their gardens, I have the advantage of being able to compare techniques in different locations under different conditions.  You can do this in your own garden by doing “controls” like in a science experiment.  You plant some plants in a new way and some plants like you always have.  Here are two tweaks I tried this year that were wildly successful and are now part of “How I Grow Tomatoes.”

BIG HOLE. Wider and Deeper. I’ve always know tomatoes needed a big hole with compost and manure.  This year I was really worried about two different gardens…one was a new garden on not great soil and one was an established garden where the tomatoes didn’t do very well at all last year.  What I did, made the biggest strongest earliest tomatoes I have ever grown.

The holes were big…at least a five-gallon pot size. I always think I dig a big hole, but this time I made sure that a five-gallon pot could fit in the hole before I pronounced it big enough.  I filled the hole halfway with compost and composted manure and then mixed in some soil. At the base of the hole, I spread a huge handful of Alpha One Organic Fertilizer full of blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and alfalfa meal. I filled the hole with water. I removed all but two or three of the transplant’s leaves and planted it up to its neck and filled in with the soil compost mix.  I drenched everything with water again. It looked pretty goofy – such a big hole for two leaves – but the eight tomatoes in each location that I planted like this loved having their roots directly in such a well-fed pre-watered environment.  Control tomatoes where I put equivalent amounts of food mixed in the soil in general or on the surface did well, but not as amazingly well.  I don’t think this would work with synthetic fertilizer because the roots might burn.  More food, more loose soil for air and more water to penetrate, all paid off.

Break the Soil Fungus and Disease Cycle. Lots of tomato diseases last year and a wet spring mean a lot of diseases this year.  I learned that fungi overwinter in the soil and then spread to the plant when rain or water splashes soil up to the leaves.  Early in the season when the tomato plant was small, I kept the soil surface covered with dry grass clippings or newspaper.  As soon as the plant was a couple feet tall, I started pulling off lower leaves so the bottom six to eight inches of the stem was bare.  I kept mulching low and dry on the surface. Keeping the leaves trimmed up and not letting foliage from higher up fall over, kept the air flowing too. These plants had fewer fungus problems than control tomatoes.

The other ruthless thing I did was change my attitude of letting a sickly looking plant stay for another week to see if it improved.  With tomato viruses and bacterial blights rampant this year, I planted more tomato plants than I needed and immediately yanked any plant that showed classic wilting symptoms. It helped that I planted at least two plants each of my favorite varieties so I didn’t have to throw out the only plant of my favorite in the world Black Krim Tomato.

If you had tweaks to your tomatoes this year, let us know.  We’re taking ideas to try next season. It’s a matter of pride and bragging rights.

Harvesting Melons

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

My gardening buddies had an ice tea party at a nearby market farm this week.  Long hot summer days are ripening melons and we were eager to do some taste testing, but how do you know when melons are ripe?  They all look great.  They have a good size.  We were crouching among the plants thumping and sniffing, trying to find a perfect melon. And somebody pulled a beautifulOregano 952700-BBB baby watermelon that was the darkest green…we figured it had to be ripe.  Nope, cutting it open revealed flesh that had only just started turning pink.  If only there were some way to glue the melon back together.

Farmer Mimi finally took pity on us and showed us how to know if melons are ripe.

She grows two general types of melons in her field:  watermelons and “slip” melons such as cantaloupe and muskmelons that slip off the vine when they are ready.

The slip melons are easy: they are ripe when they easily slip from the plant when you tug lightly. If they don’t come off the vine easily, leave them a few more days.  Muskmelons will also smell wonderful when they are ripe.

Watermelons don’t slip but they are just as easy to know when they’re ready if you look at the plant.  Very close to each fruit, a tendril grows.  It’s usually green and curly.  When it dries up completely and turns brown or black, the fruit is ripe.  That was so much easier than thumping every watermelon in sight.

We also got a great growing tip for getting lots of melons.  Melons like hot days and warm nights.  Here in Colorado, we have hot days but the nights cool off. Good for us but not so much for the melons.  Mimi told us that black plastic mulch under your melons will significantly increase how many melons you get and speed up how soon they are ready.

In these hot summer days, we definitely need more melons.

For everything you ever need to know about harvesting melons, using plastic mulch and knowing when to harvest:

The Secret Lives of Vegetables

Everything You Didn’t Know About Your Vegetables

by Sandy Swegel

This would be a better title for this fantastic new book that tells you how to double or even triple the nutrient value of your organic vegetables.  At a time when it seems like grocery store prices are doubling and tripling, this seems like a good thing to know.

The book is Jo Robinson’s, Eating on the Wild Side and it’s currently on the talk show/podcast/magazine circuit….but read everything you can.  It’s a new level of thinking about our vegetables and how we prepare them.

The short list of things I learned:

Eat wilder.  Food closer to its original form. Foods that are more bitter.  Eat the skins (mostly) just like your parents taught you. Foods that are deeper in color (like our purple carrots!)

Cook your food…but carefully.  I juice a lot of things and eat them raw even though that’s not how they always taste better but because I thought it was better for me.  Not true.  Many vegetables become more phytonutrient or antioxidant-rich after you cook them.

Here’s the “secret life of vegetables” part:  your food continues to “live” after it’s harvested.  Your vegetables are “respiring” on your counter or in your refrigerator.  Some even continue to grow.  There’s definitely a sci-fi movie in this.  Some of your food changes even after it’s cooked.

The top four things I’m going to use immediately.

1. Best way to eat lettuce.  Bring it in from the store or field. Wash. Dry.  Cut or tear (doesn’t matter which) into bite-size pieces.  Refrigerate.  It will be more nutrient-rich tomorrow than today.

2. Potatoes. I’ve inherited my mother and grandmother’s tendency to adult-onset diabetes and have to be careful with sugar. Potatoes are supposed to have a high glycemic index so I quit eating them, even though I love them.  Robinson gives instructions for cooking them and letting them sit in the refrigerator for a day to reduce the carb load by 25%.  Turns out potato salad can be good for you. God, I love this book.

3. Canned vegetables aren’t the lowest form of vegetable.  Tomatoes and blueberries are both higher in nutrients after canning as long as the BPA-free cans are used.   4. If you buy broccoli, eat it on the first day.  It goes down quickly in nutrient quality.

So buy the book or get all the free info in many ways:  Read parts of it at Barnes and Noble like I did last night.  Listen to NPR this weekend on The Splendid Table. Read the magazine interviews and watch the videos she lists on her website.  You’ll learn so much that you can annoy your meal companions with trivia for months.

After the Hail

How to Recover Your Garden After a Storm

by Sandy Swegel

“Gardening in Colorado sucks” is how my friend described her garden after a violent storm full of hail and tornadoes passed through the towns east of Boulder this week.  Much more vivid expletives were used by all as we surveyed the destruction brought by 2-1/2 inches of rain in less than a half hour and hail that had to be cleared by snow plows.  We were actually quite lucky.  Tornado sirens were going off all over town, but there weren’t many touchdowns.

But the garden is devastated.  Well, let me correct that. The xeric plants are doing fine.  They are thin-leaved and flexible and have adapted to millennia of hail on the high plains. Russian sage and grasses and Liatris look great. Cactus definitely didn’t care.  But the plants we love in our yards: the roses and deciduous trees had their leaves shredded by the hail and broken by the winds.  Thank God we don’t rely on our vegetable gardens as our only source of food.  Corn was broken, squash stems were ripped and shredded.  The zucchini has so many stems and leaves, it will survive, but we can forget winter squash and watermelons and pumpkins.

So what can a gardener do after hail? We cowered in our houses as tornado sirens wailing “Get to shelter immediately.” Unlike Dorothy and Auntie Em in the tornado shelter, we were in furnished basements with our wireless devices googling for webcams of what was going on outside. But once we emerged, the response was pretty much the same.  “Holy xxxx”

After the storm, gardeners have to take it easy.  Remove the huge broken branches to the curb. Clean up fallen leaves.  Get your roof patched.  But don’t start cutting back the garden.  Plants are going to need whatever leaves they have left to photosynthesize for the rest of the season.  Take a day or two off so you don’t overreact.  I spent hours picking up debris and cutting stems that were completely broken.

Perennials:  do as little as possible to let leaves keep making food.

Annuals:  Cut back broken parts of flowers like snapdragons and cosmos.  Leave trailing things like sweet potato vines be for a week or so. They will often make new leaves at each node.

Shrubs:  Cut broken parts and let them be.  Like trees, they will start putting out new leaves.  I’m not completely convinced fertilizing helps now because it will stimulate new growth.  I’ll do regular fall fertilizing with a slow-release natural fertilizer.

Trees:  The trees have had such a hard year.  They struggled with late frosts this spring that killed off their first set of leaves and they had to generate a second set of leaves.  Now the hail means they’ll start growing a third set of leaves.  They will really use their food reserves.  I hope it’s not a hard winter.  When the tree dies a year or two from now, we often forget that it was the hail this year that helped do them in.

About the only other thing to do besides keep filling the compost bins is to make sure everything is well watered and mulched going into winter. Don’t pull out plants that look dead…their capacity for regeneration is amazing.

Well, there is one more thing to do:  heal the gardener’s soul by planting some new plants to bring hope and beauty back into the landscape.

Stalking the Wild Monarch

Plant Milkweed Now

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Show and Tell time.  It’s time to take the kids or some curious adults outside and prove your superior knowledge of the ways of nature and introduce them to butterfly eggs.  It’s been a good milkweed year in the wild this year. Lots of spring rains followed by warm days have made the perfect home for milkweed plants.  Milkweeds are growing in my garden and along roadsides and ditches.  If milkweed plants are fully grown…mine are in tight bud about to bloom…you can walk up to almost any plant and look under the leaves and find little tiny white monarch butterfly eggs.

Milkweed plants, Asclepias, as you probably know are the ONLY host plant for the monarch butterfly.  The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs hatch hungry little larvae that chew up the leaves.
The larvae get big and fat and eventually form pupae, also on the underneath side of a milkweed plant.
Finally, “ta-da” a monarch butterfly emerges.
I have two favorite kinds of milkweed plants in my garden.  The “showy milkweed” Asclepias speciosa with the big pink seed head you’ve seen in fields, and “Butterfly weed” Asclepias tuberosa which is my favorite because it’s bright orange and looks good in the dry August garden next to the Black-eyed Susans.  It also makes a great picture to see a Monarch butterfly on one of the orange flowers.

Monarchs are happy to choose either of these two “milkweeds” or any of the other more than 100 different species of milkweeds around the world. So you can pick the flower you like and grow it in your own garden. Grow it and the monarchs WILL come.  I’ve had good luck with fall or winter direct sowing of the seeds that easily grow into blooming plants the next year.  After that, they reseed themselves gently.

Video links

And, just in case there are any monarch butterflies out there that don’t know how to do this, there’s an instructable!