Monday, November 22, 2010

The Super Cheap, Ultra Quick, Done-in-Five-Minutes Gift. (Plus Prizes!)

'Tis the season to be stressed, fa la la la la, la la la...

When did it become de facto to play Christmas music the day after Halloween? Personally, I boycott the stations that are Decking the Halls and Jingling the Bells. I need to celebrate the  holidays sequentially, with a day or two of rest in between. I don't have the fortitude to wake at 3 a.m. November 26 to shop after spending two marathon days in the kitchen prepping, cooking, feasting, and cleaning.  Many people finish their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving, while I'm just beginning to figure out where Santa could possibly leave toys in our crazy cluttered house. (For those friends who are done with their Christmas shopping...I may need to rethink our friendship.)

Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas. I adore twinkling lights and the kids' excitement. I relish Christmas programs and enjoy holiday music. Nine-year-olds singing Christmas carols in their fancy clothes just makes me weepy. Christmas trees need to be real--and big--and covered with homemade ornaments and sentimentality. I will never understand the "decorator" Christmas tree. Never.
I love the holidays, but I love them one holiday at a proper order. For those of you like me, who don't have your shopping done, cards mailed, and baking complete, I'm sharing a gift.

The no fail, perfect gift—that costs $5.

Best of all—you will spend a total of five minutes making this gift. Actually, I spent five minutes making five of these gifts while in my PJs and drinking Diet Coke. To me, that beats battling crowds at the mall any day.

Need a teacher present? Check.
Hostess gift? Got it.
Neighbor thank you? Easy.
Back up present for that friend who shows up unexpectedly with a gift? Ta Da!

The best part of this gift is—it isn't fattening. It can suit men or women. It's inexpensive but doesn't look cheap. It's festive but also appropriate for individuals who don't celebrate Christmas. It has a personal, homemade touch—but is great for those of us who are craft-challenged.


It's ridiculously simple. In fact, it's so simple that I'm a little embarrassed to share instructions with you—particularly if you are one of my friends who've received this gift in the past. Still—I know how time-pressed and money-challenged most of us are in December. A gift of paperwhites is easy and inexpensive. Plus really—who doesn't like receiving flowers? (Unless, of course, you have terrible allergies.)

You'll want to start your bulbs over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, so that they have enough time to grow and flower. Paperwhites are one of the few bulbs that don't require a chilling period prior to bloom, which makes them ideal for forcing.

What you'll need:

Container(s) without drainage holes. I like using clear glass vases or bowls, because the roots add visual interest.


Paperwhite bulbs (available online, at nurseries, and also at big box stores.)


How to Force Paperwhites
Select a container. Add pebbles to the container—approximately two-to-three inches deep.

Position bulbs on top of pebbles, with the pointed side up. Make sure the bottom of the bulb makes contact with the surface of the pebbles.

Add water to the container, just covering the stones. Do not submerse the bulbs in water—only the bottom of the bulbs should touch the water, or the bulbs may rot.

Place container in a sunny window, and check water level every few days. Add water as needed.

As the paperwhites grow, you may find that the stems lean and fall over. Take a piece of decorative ribbon or raffia, and tie it around the stems of the paperwhites to keep them upright. Not only is the ribbon practical, but it adds a festive touch to your gift. 

When the paperwhites bloom, move them out of direct sun to extend blooming time.

Most importantly—don't forget to start a few paperwhites for your holiday decorating. We all need some flowers during the holidays, so spoil yourself, too! You can afford to grow a few for yourself. Here's the cost of the supplies I used:

Glass container: $2.99 (Remember--you can use any container without drainage holes, so be creative. You might save money by finding some gorgeous, interesting containers around the house or at yard sales.)
Bulbs: $4.98 for seven bulbs (I typically use three bulbs per container--so $2.13 per gift)
Stones: $2.99 per bag (enough for eight containers--$0.43 per gift)

Ummm...whoops. My gifts actually total $5.49 each. Which rounds down to $5. Right? Sorry.

To make up for my poor math skills, I'm giving away a set of paperwhite bulbs—six bulbs to the winner. You can either make two gifts or you can grow two containers of paperwhites to decorate your house. Just answer the question below, and you'll be entered for a chance to win the bulbs. Please make sure to include your e-mail so that I can contact you! (Winner will be selected randomly and announced on Friday.)

Here's the question:

What is the best holiday gift you ever received?

Happy indoor growing!

XO ~


Thursday, November 18, 2010

The farmer in the 'burbs.

It's official--I'm a farmer! In a shameless bit of self promotion, I thought I'd share an article about my heirloom plant company, Garden Delights, that's appearing in the most recent issue of Urban Farm magazine. Urban Farm is a great source of information for those of us with soil in our blood--but who have limited acreage. You, too, can play farmer--in your own backyard!

(Just don't tell your neighbors, especially if you plan to add chickens.)

Happy farming!

XO ~

Farmer Julie

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eat Your Flowers.

There's a reason I'm not a food blogger. I lack the required domestic genes. I love food. I love beautiful food. But I can't create beautiful food.

I try. Truly. I drool over slick foodie magazines. I bookmark lovely recipes from my favorite food blogs, like The Pioneer Woman or Orangette. In fact, the vanilla bean scones from The Pioneer Woman's site are what inspired my latest culinary/crafty attempt.

Have you tried these scones? Oh. My. Even I think my attempt at replicating Ree's scones are darn delicious...

...if you eat them with your eyes closed. They don't look anything like her lovely, symmetrical scones. Mine are more like vanilla bean blobs...but they are tasty blobs.

People like me should stick to playing in the dirt and leave the prettifying of food to the experts.

But then—I don't always embrace commonsense.

So, in my efforts to make the scones look less horrific, I decided to try a little artsy craft, inspired by my weekend gardening chores.

I planted pansies. Lots and lots of pansies.

I love pansies. They're just so stinking cheerful. Today is one of those dreary fall days when we gardener-types lament the end of summer. It's gray. It's raining. It's nap-inspiring. The banana tree is melting from the frost, it's yellow leaves drooping like the peel of its fruit. The lantana's leaves are crackling-black—or were, until I chopped them off Sunday. The beech trees look splendid, as do the Japanese maples...but I know those colors will be gone soon, too.

But pansies? They're my saviors on these bleak days.

Just look at their adorable little faces. Such personality! Such expression! Such a bright plop of color to fight off my bouts of Seasonal Affective Disorder!

In our zone 7b climate, pansies are the perfect pick-me-up for fall and winter gardens. When I lived in the north, pansies were a spring/summer flower—they wouldn't survive the sub-zero temperatures and drifts of lake-effect snow. But in Upstate SC? They surround our mailbox, line the front walk, huddle in containers on the deck. Violas guard the lettuces and brassicas in the potager.

And, occasionally, they are guinea pigs in my domestic goddess endeavors.

Pansies and violas not only add color to the garden—they are also edible flowers. Well—they're edible IF they are raised organically. Please be careful if you think you can start munching on the flowers at Lowe's or any other big-box store or nursery, because you may well get a mouthful of pesticides or chemical fertilizer. Just a warning--no lawsuits, please.

Pansies and violas have been valued throughout the ages. Since the 4th century B.C., the Greeks cultivated violas for herbal medicinal use. Much later, the viola inspired William Shakespeare's romantic writings.

The pansy, whose ancestor is the viola, was discover some time after the 4th century B.C. in Europe. Thriving in alpine meadows and on rocky ledges, the plant was named a wild pansy. Possibly, a person living in France may have discovered the plant, as the word pansy is traced back to the French word “pensee,” meaning thought or remembrance.

The early wild pansy (now known as Viola tricolor) was different from the viola. The wild pansy grew from the ground on one main stem, then branched above ground. Viola plants branch below ground with many plants sharing the same root system. The wild pansy bloom was larger than the diminutive viola. The popularity of the flower inspired much cross-breeding to produce different colorations and designs. Today, hundreds of varieties of pansies and violas are available in a rainbow of colors.

Pansies and violas continue to be popular with herbalists and confectioneries. From tea to cure coughs to decorative designs on cakes, the viola family is both ornamental and practical.

So. I faced a dozen ugly scones. Half a flat of pansies remained after my weekend planting frenzy. Why not try to hide my ugly scones under beautiful, edible flowers?

Seriously, how hard could it be to make crystalized pansies?

First, I picked a few flowers, washed them, and let them dry.

Aren't they cute?

Next, I added two teaspoons of meringue powder and two tablespoons of water to a shallow bowl, whisking until smooth. (Some recipes call for egg white...but with the recent egg debacle, I chose to use meringue powder to keep everyone healthy.)

Using a pair of tweezers, I attempted to hold the flower on its base and removed the stem with small scissors. Then I gave up on the tweezers.

I next applied a thin layer of the meringue mixture on each side of the flower with a small paintbrush.

(As you can see...the “hold with tweezers” step didn't work so well for me. What can I say? I'm a rule-breaker. And—are those my hands??? Where did those lines come from? Eek!)

The instructions said to "hold the blossom over a bowl or plate, and sprinkle superfine sugar over the entire flower. Repeat on reverse side." I just put the flower on the plate and sprinkled the sugar on it. 

Finally, place the flowers on superfine sugar-covered parchment or waxed paper to dry. PLEASE NOTE: I missed the “sugar coated paper” step and just placed them on parchment...they stick. A lot. Definitely put a layer of sugar on the parchment first. You will be much happier.  

The flowers should be dry in 2 - 4 hours. (Hmmm. It's been about 24 hours, and my flowers are still sticky. Perhaps I went overboard with my meringue painting?) I even turned them so they would dry evenly.

You can, apparently, freeze crystalized flowers for up to a year. I don't think I'll bother.

So, here it is—my ugly but yummy scone decorated with my crystalized pansy.

I don't think the pansy on the scone makes it look any better. It looks like a soggy pansy on a malformed scone. I think I'll stick to putting pansies in salad. Or dirt.

I accept that I'll never make it as a food blogger.

But my yard and containers make me happy. Until spring.

Only 124 days until spring.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The one that got away.

Not to make you panic...but do you realize that Thanksgiving is two weeks from Thursday? Holy cow. 

I'm panicked.

Normally, I'm a bit high maintenance around Thanksgiving. I've only hosted Thanksgiving dinner twice. Like all women across America, I aspire to create the perfect meal amidst the ambiance inspired by the pre-jailed Martha Stewart. Like ninety percent of American women, I will stay up until the wee hours of November 25, trying to create the perfect fallacy of casually elegant dining. The pressure of this meal—the most significant meal of the year—is suffocating for those of us who are not innately domestically talented.

I accept that I will be tired. I accept that the kitchen will resemble a war zone. I even will try my best to let the kids “help,”  although we all know how much less stressful it is if they would just go play Wii.

What is making me hyperventilate—just a tad—is:

My turkey flew the coop.


Last year, in our family's effort to eat more local foods, I bought a beautiful, organically raised, free-range, had-a-happy-life turkey. I fretted over that bird. I pampered it, brined it, roasted it...and it was heavenly. There was no going back to Butterball.

So, this year I again ordered the bird from a lovely family farm where we purchased our turkey last year. They kindly called me when the turkey returned from the processor to let me know I could pick it up.

But then life happened.

Halloween parties. (Who is crazy enough to be room mom for both kids' classes? Take a guess.) Work, sickness, too much life...I didn't get to the store to pick up the turkey, so I sent an e-mail to ask the store to hold it a bit longer for me.

And I found out the turkey flew the coop.

Unfortunately, as we all know—especially those of us with kids--things happen. My friend at the store was so apologetic—her daughter accidentally sold my bird to someone else.


However, proactive friend that she is, she found another organic turkey supplier who thought he would have a turkey for me...and she'd let me know as soon as it was processed.

Double yikes.

Would it be 20+ pounds? Would it be as lovely as the one from my friend's store? Would it arrive frozen? Did it truly live a happy-turkey life???

So, as is my unfortunate nature of overreacting, I began scouring websites for a back-up local turkey.

After all, we had just visited a lovely farm that raised heritage breed turkeys.

I just wouldn't tell Kristen we'd be eating one of her friends.

Sold out.

Or we'd order from another local supplier. I knew a farm where a friend got her turkey last year.

Sold out.

I'd just do a quick web-search of local turkey farmers, just in case something didn't work out with my friend's supplier.

Sold out.

Now, the civic-minded locavore in me is delighted to see the interest in and support of local turkey farmers. The Thanksgiving host in me is praying that my runner-up turkey isn't second-rate.

Truly, it's just a dinner. Right?

In fact, did you know there's no evidence that the Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving? For that memorable meal in November of 1621, Governor William Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission. We know venison, lobster, seal, swans, and corn were served...but what “fowl” made an appearance at the three-day feast is lost to history.

Maybe we'll have Thanksgiving lobster this year.

Oh, wait. That's not local.

Did you also know that no pies, cakes, or desserts were served at the first Thanksgiving? By the time of the harvest celebration, the Pilgrims had exhausted their supply of they didn't have ovens. Where did this pumpkin pie tradition come from, anyway?

(Thank you, History Channel.)

In fact, it wasn't until 1789 that the government issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation. George Washington called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the “happy conclusion” of the country's war for independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

And did you know Mary's Lamb also played a roll in Thanksgiving? No, thankfully—it wasn't on the menu. However, magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale launched a 36-year campaign for Thanksgiving to be recognized as a national holiday. She wrote letters to politicians, editorials in publications...and she also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which has nothing to do with Thanksgiving.

Finally, in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to encourage retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known as “Franksgiving,” was passionately opposed. In 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

History lesson is over. I promise.

When did this turkey obsession take over the holiday? Was it Benjamin Franklin's promotion of the turkey as our national symbol, beaten by the Bald Eagle, that led to the predominance of turkey at Thanksgiving meals? According to the National Turkey Federation, 95 percent of Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving. Why not venison? Seal? Swan?

All I know is...I'm going to have a sad family if turkey isn't on the table.

Although a back-up plan of lobster might not be bad...

So, since I'm guessing you, too, will be featuring turkey at your Thanksgiving dinner, I thought I'd share a brining recipe with you. If you were lucky enough to find a free-range, happy, organic turkey that isn't pumped full of chemicals, brining makes the turkey incredibly tender and moist. It's very simple and worth the effort.

Turkey Brine


1 gallon vegetable broth
1 cup sea salt
1 tbsp. crushed dried rosemary (actually, I used fresh, and it was lovely.)
1 tbsp. dried sage
1 tbsp. dried thyme
1 tbsp. dried savory
1 gallon ice water


  1. In a large stock pot, combine all ingredients except for the ice water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often to ensure all salt is dissolved. Remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature.
  2. If your pot is not large enough to hold the turkey, pour the broth mixture into a clean five gallon bucket. Stir in the ice water.
  3. Wash and dry the turkey, making sure the innards are removed. Place the turkey, breast down, into the brine. Make sure the cavity is filled with the brine. Place the bucket into the refrigerator overnight. (I let our turkey soak in the brine for a minimum of 12 hours.)
  4. Remove the turkey and drain excess brine. Pay dry. Discard brine.
  5. Cook the turkey as desired. Brined turkeys cook 20 to 30 minutes faster, so watch the temperature gauge. Also—free range turkeys tend to cook more quickly than factory farmed birds. Keep an eye on your turkey!
If you like citrus-flavored turkey, The Pioneer Woman featured a scrumptious looking brine recipe. Check it out here:

What are you serving for Thanksgiving dinner? Seal? Lobster? I'd love to know...just in case my turkey doesn't come home to roost.

Happy holiday craziness, everyone! Breathe deep, and enjoy!


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The battle.

You plant. You water. You nurture. And when you're about to harvest, you find that the lovely lettuce you were craving for lunch is riddled with holes--eaten by a freeloader.

It's aggravating. It's irritating. If you garden with kids, factor in their disappointment, and truly—it's downright criminal.

So, what can you do to ensure that you reap the rewards of your gardening efforts?

The key to a successful, healthy garden is...


Honestly, gardening is not for the faint of heart. You need to get down on your knees, turn over leaves, and look for the little nasties that can decimate your crops. A quick perusal of the garden isn't good enough—pests camouflage well for a reason, hoping they'll find a lazy gardener so they can feast to their hearts' content.

Trust me. I know.

Since most gardeners focus on summer crops, there seems to be better awareness of the interlopers that snack on tomatoes, squash, and corn. But with the increasing number of us who are trying our hands at fall and winter gardens, we need to know what foes we face in our battle for food.

(Dramatic pause.)

To help you identify what might be munching on your crops, I'm shamelessly borrowing a few images from the Clemson Extension website, with credit cited for the terrific photos. When you have a few free moments, which I know seems like an oxymoron, please take a look at the fantastic information on the Clemson site. (I'm a Master Gardener, and I visit it several times a month—it's a wonderful resource.)

For most of these pests, it's best to hand-pick them from the plants. (Truly, my 9-year-old daughter loves this task.)

Then, it's time to decimate them.

The means of their demise depends on your sensitivity and squeamishness. Poison? Not an option. Not only are you likely killing innocent beneficial insects, but you want to eat the lettuce, not glow from it. Squishing is quick and effective—but it's high on my “ick” factor. I typically drown pests in a bucket of soapy water. My daughter likes to throw them in the river behind our house to see what fish will eat them. Of course, for a serious infestation, there are plenty of organic pest controls on the market. Neem oil and insecticidal soap are good options—but read the labels carefully. I leave the decision to you.

Remember—not only are these pests masters of disguise...many are also tiny. Look carefully, and look often at your plants.

Without further ado, here are the villains of the fall/winter garden:

Cabbage Looper

David Cappaert, Michigan State University,

Look for pin-head sized eggs on the underside of leaves. When the larvae hatch, they are almost translucent but quickly become green as they grow, with white lengthwise stripes. The young larvae begin eating on the underside of the leaves. As they grow, they will move to the center of the leaves, eating between the veins. At maturity, they will be approximately 1-1/2 inches, and they move much like an inch worm.

Cabbage Webworm

Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia,

Look for eggs on the underside of leaves in the angle along the leaf stems.

Larval webworms are about ½ inch long when mature. They're grayish yellow and marked with five brownish-purple lengthwise stripes. Their heads are black and bear a V-shaped mark.

When they first hatch, larvae feed on either side of the partly folded leaves of the plant buds. After a few days, they begin to feed beneath a protective web made from silk-like threads that they form. Sometimes the larvae are found on the outer leaves or in the angle between the main plant stalk and the leaf. They can be detected by debris and webs at the point of feeding.

Cabbage webworms tunnel into and kill the buds of young plants.

Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm

Clemson University USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,
Look for light yellow, semi-transparent eggs in clusters of 20 to 30 on the undersides of leaves.

When first hatched, the larvae are gray. At maturity, they are about 3/5 inch long and have numerous horizontal black stripes across bluish-gray backs. Along each side of the back is a longitudinal black stripe and below that, a bright yellow stripe. The underside of the body is light green, mottled with yellow.

Cross-striped cabbageworms prefer the tender terminal buds and the heads of cole crop plants. Look for plants riddled with holes.

Diamondback Moth Caterpillars

Russ Ottens, University of Georgia,

Look for single eggs or groups of two or three on the leaves. Eggs are small, nearly round and yellowish white.

The larvae are light green and pointed at each end, with tiny black hairs covering their bodies. They are about 1/3 inch long when mature and wiggle rapidly when disturbed, often dropping from the plant and hanging by silk-like threads. The larvae feed on all parts of the plant but prefer areas near the bud of a young plant, crevices between loose leaves of a firm head, and the undersides of wrapper leaves. Their feeding may disfigure the bud of a young plant.

Imported Cabbageworm

Merle Shepard, Gerald R. Carner, and P.A.C. Ooi, Insects and their Natural Enemies Associated with Vegetables and Soybean in Southeast Asia,

Look for single eggs on either side of the leaves. Eggs are yellow, oblong, bluntly pointed at the ends, deeply ridged lengthwise, and attached to the leaf by one end.

Larvae are velvety green with a narrow orange stripe down the middle of the back and a yellowish stripe along each side of the body. When mature, larvae are about 1¼ inches long. Larvae are sluggish when disturbed.

Imported cabbageworms feed near the center of plants and do more damage to the cabbage head. They chew through leaves indiscriminately.


Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Plants in all stages of growth can be covered with dense clusters of whitish-green aphids (plant lice.) Each aphid is the size of a pinhead. Aphids suck plant sap from the leaf, causing the leaves to curl and crinkle or form cups, completely lined with the aphids. In severe infestations, the plants wilt and die. The plants, if not killed, are dwarfed, grow slowly and form small, light heads.

To control aphids organically, spray Neem oil or insecticidal soap on the leaves. Make certain to coat both sides of the leaves, as well as spray in between any curled leaves.
There you have it, my gardening friends, the “Wanted” posters for our kitchen garden enemies. I hope you win your battle against these foes and taste sweet victory in your  lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli.

To the victor goes the spoils! Enjoy!