Vegetable Gardening 101: Soil

Soil Sketch

There are a few essentials when it comes to growing vegetables, or any plants for that matter. Soil has many jobs in the life of a plant, holding nutrients, retaining just the right amount of water and supporting the plants by stabilizing the roots to name a few.

Soil is alive with all sorts of organisms. The four main organisms found is soil are as follows:
The Soil Crust- These guys live on the top the soil and are formed by living organisms and their by-products, creating a crust of soil particles bound together by organic materials. There are two types of crust, biological (what I just explained) and chemical/physical. Chemical/Physical which is an inorganic crust such as a salt crust or platy crust usually formed by trampling.
Nematodes- Earth worms! These are great little guys chow down on bacteria, fungi, and plants. Their “by-product” making excellent fertilizer. Their worm holes help to keep the soil from getting too compacted. They multiply when carbon is added to the soil, this happens from adding mulch, compost or growing a cover crop.
Bacteria- The presence of good bacteria keeps pests down, prevents plant disease and breaks down both living and non living matter into nutrients for growing plants. The benefits of good bacteria are endless.
Mycorrhiza- These are a fungi type organism who’s job is to help plants extract nutrients from the soil. They do this by growing into composting plants and animal stuff and convey their nutrients back to the plants roots.

Different types of soil are classified by the size of the particles that make them up. The goal type is “Loam” . Loam is neither too sandy or too clayey. This soil drains well but retains just the right amount of moisture. This type of soil can be achieved no matter where you live, it just takes time and lots of organic matter. Adding organic matter, every year between crops will improve your soil and in a few years you will have wonderful healthy soil. This is very important because soil feeds your plants and the plants feed you. Growing vegetables in nutrient void soil will result in nutrient void vegetables. You can purchase soil tests that will tell you if you soil is low on any of the main plant growing nutrients Phosphorus (P), Nitrogen (N) and Potassium (K) as well as the pH.

pH refers to the acidity and alkalinity of your soil. A good pH contributes greatly to a good harvest. If you don’t want to buy a pH test you can test your soil by taking 2 empty mason jars, fill each half way with soil and fill to the top with water. Shake to get everything well mixed. To one jar add a few tablespoons of baking soda, if this fizzes your soil is more acidic. To the other jar add a few tablespoons of distilled vinegar, if this fizzes your soil is more alkaline. If neither fizzes your soil is pretty well balanced. Adding some wood ash to your acidic soil will help to balance it.

Chemical fertilizer is usually a combination of P, K, N. It is water soluble, thus making a quick snack for plants. However, using chemical fertilizer over time will cause more harm than good. They tend to kill most soil organisms that produce plant nutrients naturally. Even though they are getting the three basic nutrients plants and humans need many different micro nutrients that are not available in a chemically fertilized soil. The chemical fertilizer, being water soluble washes away quickly and adds to ground water pollution as well.

Nitrogen is used by plants to build healthy stems and leaves. Plants lacking nitrogen will grow very slowly and be rather yellow-ish in color. Nitrogen is usually the first nutrient to leave the soil especially when crops like broccoli, cabbage and other brassicas as well as corn, are planted.

Phosphorus is needed for plants to grow a healthy root system and flower. This nutrient stays with the soil much longer than nitrogen and can be found in wood ashes as well as other sources.

Potassium is used by plants to resist disease, develop chlorophyll which allows them to convert sunshine to food, and strengthen their tissue. This too can be found in wood ashes as well as other sources.

Some plants use more of some nutrients and less of others by adding good organic matter and rotating your crops will ensure your soil to maintain it’s health and in time improve. Legumes could be considered  a bonus crop because most vaierties put more nutrition into the soil than they take out.

Weeds are another way of telling what’s going on with your soil. The weeds that show up in your garden can indicate the pH of your soil, how well your soil drains, if you have sandy or heavy soil, hard crusted or chemical/physical crust. Different weed prefer different soils.

So far we’ve talked a lot about soil types and soil nutrition, but lets say you live downtown and the closest thing to soil you see is what is in the pots of your house plants. Potting soil is a mixture of peat, humus and organic matter, in quantities that allow for good plant nutrition and drainage. Why people throw out their potting soil at the end of the season is beyond me! Adding some compost, compost tea or organic fertilizer is all it could be lacking. Plants with adequate water and nutrition will very rarely need repotting or get root bound. Plants send out roots for water and nutrients if what they need is readily available there is no need to go any farther.

A good rule of  thumb is healthy soil looks a lot like chocolate cake crumbs. Soil that is growing healthy looking plants (even if it just grass) is probably pretty healthy soil and with a little organic matter can produce some amazing vegetables.

I could go on forever about soil, but if I haven’t lost you already I would soon. This was just a brief overview of a very large subject. If you have specific questions I would be happy to do my best to answer them.

Next topic : Vegetable Gardening 101: Compost and Organic Material
Previous topic: Vegetable Gardening 101: Introduction

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Good Morning English Muffin


English Muffin Rings

There are three different types of English Muffins, the good ones and the really good nook and cranny ones and Sour dough English Muffins. My favorite is the Sour Dough English Muffins, then the Really Good Nook & Cranny ones, but I will settle for the other.

English Muffins as we know them have, as most things, come from a long line of evolution. Starting with a pancake type bread, that turned into a crumpet almost biscuit type, then they were made with crumpet and bread scraps. Finally when they came to the States we adapted once again to what we know today. History in a nutshell.

**If you don’t have English muffin rings tuna cans with the bottom cut out works well too.

Really Good English Muffins (cut out)
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Really Good English Muffins (cut out)
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  • 1 c Milk
  • 1 tbsp Sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp Dry Yeast
  • 1 each Egg
  • 2 cup Whole Wheat flour
  • 1 tsp Kosher Salt
  1. Warm the milk and dissolve the sugar in it.
  2. Add the yeast and egg. Mix to combine.
  3. Mix in the flour.
  4. Knead for a few minutes and let rise for an hour.
  5. Once risen, knead in the salt and let rise another half hour.
  6. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet or pancake griddle to medium heat.
  7. Once the dough has risen a second time gently pat down to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut with round cookie cutter or tuna can.
  8. Sprinkle the skillet or griddle with cornmeal and place the cut muffin on the meal. Let it bake for 7-10 minutes and flip.
  9. Bake for another 7-10 minutes.
  10. Let cool slightly and pierce side with a fork to split. (I usually don't split them, rather I cut them as needed)
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Really Good Nook and Cranny English Muffin
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Really Good Nook and Cranny English Muffin
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  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1 tsp Kosher Salt
  • 1 tbsp Butter
  • 1 cup Milk warm
  • 1 tbso Dry Yeast
  • 1/3 cup Water or Whey
  • 2 cup Light Whole Wheat Flour
  • Cornmeal
  1. In a mixing bowl combine the honey, butter, milk, and yeast.
  2. Mix and allow to sit until doubled.
  3. Add the water (whey) 1/2 tsp of salt and flour. Mix well and allow to sit for about 30 min.
  4. Add the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt.
  5. Place your English muffin rings on a cast iron pan, griddle or electric griddle heated to 300 degrees.
  6. Dust the pan/griddle with cornmeal and scoop the English muffin batter into the rings, about 1/3 c per ring. This may need to be adjusted depending on your ring size.
  7. Flip after about 5 minutes. Another 5 minutes and they are ready to eat!
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Sour Dough English Muffins
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Sour Dough English Muffins
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  • 2 cup Sourdough Starter see notes
  • 2 cup Milk
  • 3 cup Light Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 cup Whey or water
  • 1 tbsp Dry Yeast
  • 1/2 cup Wheat Bran
  • 2-2 1/2 cup Light Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1/4 cup Molasses
  • 1/4 cup Butter
  • 1 tbsp Kosher Salt
  • •Cornmeal
  1. Mix the milk, starter and 2 cups of flour together and allow to sit for 2 hours. This is a sponge.
  2. To the sponge add the whey, yeast, wheat bran, flour, molasses, butter and 1 1/2 tsp salt.
  3. Mix well and let set for 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Add the remaining 1 1/2 tsp salt.
  5. Grease your muffin rings and place on a greased baking sheet dusted with cornmeal.
  6. Scoop the dough into the rings, about 1/3c.
  7. Allow these to rest for 1 hour. Then dust the tops with cornmeal.
  8. Bake at 400 for 40 minutes, flipping the muffins after 20 minutes.
Recipe Notes

Starter- Basic Sour Dough Starter
In a wide mouth jar combine 1 cup water and 1 cup flour and mix well. Cover with a flour sack towel and secure with a rubber band.
Allow this to sit for two days on the counter.
Day 3 add 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water.
Day 5 add 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water.
Day 6 the starter is ready to use.
If you don't use the starter on day 6 place the starter in the refrigerator. Continue to "feed" the starter every few days. After a couple feedings without use remove some starter or it can sour.

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Butterscotch Brandy

Well ice fishing season is in full swing. It’s been -50 outside for a couple days but in the fish house things have been pretty toasty. The pickled eggs are already almost gone, hopefully the next batch will be ready soon. The butterscotch brandy is hot and ready!

Butterscotch Brandy

Butterscotch Brandy
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Butterscotch Brandy
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  • 1 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 cup Honey
  • 1/4 cup Clarified Butter
  • dash Vanilla
  • pinch of Salt
  • .75 ltr bottle Brandy
  1. Combine the sugar and honey in a small sauce pan.
  2. Slowly heat to dissolve the sugar.
  3. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the clarified butter (regular butter will work, but your end product will be very cloudy), a dash of vanilla and pinch of salt.
  5. Mix this well and allow to cool.
  6. Stir in the brandy and serve!
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Vegetable Gardening 101: Introduction

Tool shed sketchIt’s been -50 here the last week, but, the first big seed ordered arrived yesterday, the garden has been planned for over a month and now I’m just waiting to see dirt. Until then I will just have to dream about it.

In my “Vegetable Gardening 101” series we will talk everything garden; soils, compost, planning, beds or pots and most importantly vegetables. Join me as I discuss the topics and more. Feel free to post questions, I will do my best to answer them.

Growing a vegetable garden is a rewarding journey. Starting with a handful of seed and a little dirt; some sunshine, water, weeding and a little patience; ends in a bountiful harvest.

Happy Digging!


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My Most Expensive Vinegar

A while back I received a very good, very expensive bottle of wine as a gift of thanks. It was even signed by the vineyard owner. It was a red wine, I usually prefer white but this was the perfect blend of fruit, chocolate and floral. It had wonderful flavor. I know because it was my job to create a dessert to pair with it. I have been saving my bottle for a special occasion.

When we moved the last of our things to reach the farm were a few miscellaneous boxes, garden and yard tools that were just stacked in the barn to be organized this spring. I went out in search of something the other day, what it was I don’t remember. What I found was a box labeled “fragile kitchen”. I had been missing a couple things in the kitchen but not enough to really think twice. Until I noticed the bottom corner of the box was purple.

My special bottle of wine had froze, and in doing so push up the cork and leaked all over. I was so disappointed. Having been expose to air, once the bottle thawed it would either need to be consumed immediately or left to turn to vinegar. I’m all for a bottle of wine but 10 am on a Tuesday, alone could be a bit questionable.

In it’s most basic form vinegar is just wine gone bad. Not bad like unusable bad but bad like not drinkable as wine. Wine left exposed to air will pick up natural bacteria and aromatic yeasts which will feast on the alcohol and leave acetic acid in it’s place.

The type of vinegar is distinguished by it’s source of alcohol. For example my excellent red wine will turn to red wine vinegar, Apple Cider vinegar comes from the obvious hard apple cider, Rice Wine vinegar from rice wine, you get the picture.

The most widely used is distilled vinegar made of grain. (Malt vinegar is also made of grain but the process is a bit different resulting in a darker colored and more flavorful vinegar than its counterpart.) The popularity of distilled vinegar is growing rapidly as people are again exploring it’s many uses. Try searching uses for vinegar, you will find more sites boasting 101 ways to use vinegar. Apple Cider vinegar is a close second for the same reason, everyone having 101 ways to use it.

The alcohol content of the wine will determine the amount of time the wine will need to age to turn to vinegar and the acidity of the finished vinegar. A very rough estimation of time would be about two weeks in a warm, somewhat humid environment and about five weeks in a cool, dry environment.

If you are making your own wine vinegar it is best to follow the steps of making good wine all the way to then. Let it age as if you were planning to use it for wine and then expose it to air and allow it to further ferment. (Wine is already a fermented product) Once the alcohol has been consumed by the yeast the process is done. The vinegar will be shelf stable (not needing canning or refrigeration). Vinegar is the end of the line so to speak, it won’t turn into something else if left to sit longer.  You can taste your wine every week or few days to check this.

Fruit vinegars are another fun kitchen experiment. Put your fruit scraps in a crock or jar, add a little sugar and enough water to cover everything and let this sit to ferment for 2 to 4 weeks. (Longer if you like) This technique works great with apple scraps. When we were in Mexico I talked to a chef and was introduced pineapple vinegar, in which the same process was used. Pineapple scraps, sugar and water. Upon more searching I found a recipe for this in the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Homemade vinegar tends to be a little cloudy unless it is strained or pasteurized because it contains “mother”. The mother of the vinegar is good. Pasteurizing the vinegar will kill the mother and some of the healing properties. It would be comparable to raw milk verse pasteurized milk; both have health benefits but the unpasteurized of the two will have good bacteria that aids the body in many ways.

Infused  Herbal vinegars are a fun thing to make as well. Simply collect herbs, flowers, fruits, (you can us stalks, stems, leaves, petals, or even root in some cases) even nuts chop them finely and put them in a jar. Fill the jar with vinegar leaving about an inch of headspace. Seal with a cork or a few layers of wax paper under your jar lid. If the vinegar comes in contact with metal is will act as a corrosive and will poorly flavor your vinegar. Allow this to sit for about six weeks. It can be left longer, it will continue to get stronger. After the desired amount of time strain out the herbs and your vinegar is ready to use. It can be used for and recipe calling for vinegar; marinades, salad dressings, added to steamed vegetables, stir fry, soup, anything! Don’t be afraid to get creative with your herbs.

You can make vinegar until the cows come home and use it just as fast, if you do all 101 uses. You may also lose a few friends or at least be demoted to phone conversations only; you can only sit with someone soaked in vinegar for so long. Ok, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get my point. After reading a ridiculous amount of things you can do with vinegar I think I will just stick with the couple that I use regularly.

Distilled Vinegar
Cleaning, of course. It’s great at killing bacteria, mold and unwanted germs. With a little baking soda and vinegar you can clean anything! (I know there are a million “recipes” for cleaning with vinegar and soda, but there’s no real need. Just a dash of vinegar and enough soda to use as a light abrasive when there’s extra scrubbing required.
Laundry, I add about a cup of vinegar during the wash cycle sometimes. It does a lot in there, whitens, removes any soap residue, softens, helps to repel lint among other things.

Apple Cider Vinegar With Mother
Digestion help, I mix a shot glass of vinegar with a glass of water to aid in digestion. ACV works as an anti-inflammatory; having IBD, anti-inflammatory is good.  Also I have a very acidic body, the cider vinegar, though acidic itself actually helps to turn your system more alkaline. This is  good because cancer cells like an acidic environment, so keeping your body more alkaline helps keep cancer at bay. There are more health benefits to drinking the ACV but those are the reasons I like it.
Facial Toner, every other day I put some ACV on a cotton square and use it as a toner. It helps to heal tissues and again anti-inflammatory. If you plan to do any serious detox you will most likely get some acne and inflamed face due to toxins leaving your body. ACV will help heal and sooth this. Only use it until things are under control.  **Don’t use full strength daily, it is very acidic and even with it’s healing properties less is again more. If you would like to use this daily dilute it to at least a 50/50 mixture with water.
Hair Rinse, I mix 3/4 ACV and 1/4 water and pour over my wet hair every few days. If you’ve ever had well water you know that you can get some mineral build up on your hair as well as some soap residue sometime. The ACV strips this from your hair leaving it soft and shiny again.

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