Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

From ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ and ‘Red Savina’ to ‘Elephant’s Trunk and ‘The Turtle’s Claw’, chile peppers come in dozens of shapes, colors, and degrees of spiciness—from sweet and succulent to blow-your-top off hot. A colleague here at work mistakenly planted a few ‘Scotch Bonnet’ peppers this spring and found the ‘Scotch Bonnet’s 445,000 Scoville Heat Units beyond their capabilities. So I asked her to pass the peppers along to me and I’ve been having a blast preserving their heat for warm winter dishes. One batch I dehydrated and then ground up in a spice grinder—the red-hot powder looks so pretty and innocent in its spice jar. Another batch I pickled whole, following a recipe shared with my by my friend Hali Ramdene, Food Editor of The Kitchn. I first poked a hole through each of the peppers with a skewer, then in a pint jar I added 1 clove of garlic, ½ teaspoon of black peppercorns before packing the jar with the peppers. Next, I brought to a boil 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar, then poured the brine over the peppers, filling the jar almost to the top. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a few months. I’ll keep you posted on how I put the peppers to work. In the meantime, here are three new books you should check out if you are at all chile pepper inclined (please note the various spellings of chile):

101 Chilies to Try Before You Die (Firefly Books) by David Floyd is an all-in-one guide to the tastiest, most unique and interesting chili varieties from around the world and is the essential guide for lovers of chilies and those looking to learn more about these ancient and widely consumed vegetables.

Red Hot Chili Grower: The Complete Guide to Planting, Picking, and Preserving Chilis (Mitchell Beazley) by Kay Maguire provides everything you need to grow your own chiles from scratch, with step-by-step instructions for planting, growing, harvesting—plus plenty of history, a guide to Scoville heat units, and more.

The Chile Pepper Bible: From Sweet to Fiery and Everything In Between (Robert Rose) by Judith Finlayson is quite comprehensive, including profiles of dozens of chiles, absorbing information on the historical and geographic origins of chiles, the health benefits of chiles and—finally—250 delicious and inventive recipes.

My 11-year-old friend and neighbor Leo likes learning about birds as much as I do. Sometimes his enthusiasm is greater than my armchair knowledge of our local feathered friends. So last weekend we set off together on a field trip to the Hitchcock Nature Area (in the heart of the Loess Hills) near Council Bluffs, Iowa, with a great group called Iowa Young Birders run by an enthusiastic young ornithologist named Tyler Harms.

It was a beautiful fall morning and 24 young birders, parents, grandparents, and friends enjoyed spending time in the hawk watch tower and raptor banding blind. “Some of us started the morning with Bethany Thornton in the hawk watch tower,” explains Tyler. “Bethany shared with us the importance of counting migrating raptors and some tips for identifying raptors in flight. The birds were slow to get started, but we soon spotted a distant Great Blue Heron, some Turkey Vultures starting to lift off, and an occasional Osprey riding the winds with their “m-shaped” wings. In between bouts of scanning the horizon, we were able to pick out some good birds in the trees below including a Wilson’s Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and we even heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Several other birds spotted included Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, and Broad-winged Hawks, a Peregrine Falcon, and even an adult Sabine’s Gull!”

We were delighted last week to host contributing editor Debra Prinzing while she was in town to produce a local flower story at PepperHarrow Farm, just a short drive south and west of Des Moines. The farm sits on 20 acres nestled among the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, and sits above the Middle River Valley. This is home to Adam and Jennifer O’Neal, their three children, two acres of cut-flower and produce gardens, honeybees, 12 acres of pasture for heritage breed cows and chickens. Who knew such a cool cut-flower farm was just a short scenic drive away? That’s me with Adam and Jennifer taking a break during our two-day photo shoot. We can’t wait to share our story with you on this impressive organic and sustainable family operation.

It is with bittersweet emotions that we say goodbye to friend and colleague Jane Miller, who has announced her early retirement as garden Editor of Better Homes and Gardens. A much of us gathered in the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden last week to pay our respects, including many of the original SIM Garden Group (it was a department of 23 when I was hired in 2004). Here are, from left to right, Samantha Thorpe, Doug Jimerson, Heather Knowles, Jane Miller, Jarrett Einck, myself, Susan Appleget Hurst, Nick Crow, Sandra Gerdes, and Luke Miller. Jane, we thank you for years of green-hearted friendship and collaboration and we will miss you to pieces.

Please know that I am not a very good photographer. But I do want to share with you a handful of images I took of feathered friends during my recent trip to London and the Chelsea Flower Show.

This first curious bird is an Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) found at Kew Gardens. Related to the shelduck, this pale brown and grey goose has distinctive dark brown eye-patches and contrasting white wing patches in flight. It was introduced as an ornamental wildfowl species and has escaped into the wild.

This is a handsome Greylag Goose (Anser anser), also at Kew Gardens. The ancestor of most domestic geese, the greylag is the largest and bulkiest of the wild geese native to the UK and Europe.

The Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)  is a very large white waterbird. It has a long S-shaped neck, and an orange bill with black at the base of it. Flies with its neck extended and regular slow wingbeats. The population in the UK has increased recently, perhaps due to better protection of this species. This elegant swimmer was in Kew Pond, London.

I saved my favorite for last. This cheeky little European Robin (Erithacus rubella) hopped up to me while I was sipping a beer at Kew Gardens. This is the UK’s favourite bird, with its bright red breast it is familar throughout the year. Males and females look identical, and young birds have no red breast and are spotted with golden brown. Robins sing nearly all year round. The American Robin was named after the European Robin because of its reddish-orange breast, though the two species are not closely related.

To me, there’s nothing more satisfying than digging in the dirt with a young person. So I jumped at the chance a few weeks ago to visit an Edible Schoolyard in Brooklyn, New York—actually P.S. 216, The Arturo Toscanini School on Avenue X—to produce an story for Country Gardens. I was excited to spend the day in the garden with a rainbow of elementary school kids as well as with photographer Rob Cardillo and writer Hali Ramdene. Edible Schoolyard NYC partners with public schools to transform the hearts, minds, and eating habits of young New Yorkers through garden and kitchen classes integrated into the school day. Established in 2010, Edible Schoolyard NYC is a nonprofit organization committed to bringing Alice Waters’ vision to New York City public schools. When Ms. Waters—acclaimed restaurateur and food activist—created the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California in 1995, she knew the best way to teach children the connections between food, health, and the environment was by integrating an edible education program into our schools’ everyday curriculum.

Look for the story in the Spring 2017 issue of Country Gardens. Oh, this program in Brooklyn has been such a wonderful success, they are now working at six schools in three boroughs and providing support for educators to create and develop their own programs at schools across the city.

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