Monday, July 30, 2012

Ways to Preserve Fresh Basil


In the months of July and August when the sun is at its brightest and temperatures are at their highest, most varieties of basil grow like wildfire. For cooks who find themselves unable to use all this aromatic bounty before it goes to seed, all (your basil) is not lost. There are multiple ways to preserve basil so that you can enjoy its fragrant essence all year round.

Frozen Basil Brittle
Freezing basil brittle is a quick and easy way to preserve the freshness, aroma and color of your basil without totally losing the essence of the herb. Pick four to six cups of basil leaves and wash them thoroughly. Remove any darkened or damaged leaves and discard. Roughly chop the leaves into small pieces, but not so finely that you lose the sense of “leaf.” Place in a deep bowl, and with your fingers, massage in enough extra virgin olive oil to coat. Spread the coated leaves evenly onto a baking sheet and flash freeze. Once frozen, break the brittle into pieces and store in an air tight freezer container.

Basil Vinegar
Nothing is quite as easy as this basil vinegar infusion. Simply pick, trim and thoroughly clean a bunch of basil (about six nice stems). Place it in a glass jar with tight-fitting lid. Cover with white wine vinegar and store in a cool, dark location. The vinegar will be ready to use in just two weeks and will keep for up to a year.

Pesto Ice Cubes
Preparing and freezing pesto is a great way to preserve basil. Just whip up your favorite pesto recipe and transfer into the sections of an ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop them out and store them in an air tight freezer container. When ready to use, simply thaw the appropriate number of cubes for your recipe.

Basil Oil
Making basil-infused oil is another favorite way to preserve your summer’s bounty of basil. After your leaves have been cleaned and dried, add them to a food processor with your olive oil. Pulse until thoroughly mixed and then strain out all the solids. It is advisable to store your basil oil in the refrigerator to avoid spoilage, and do not add garlic due to the risk of botulism. 

Dried Basil
Probably the most familiar method of preserving basil is by drying it. The trick here is to dry and store the leaves whole to help preserve the flavors. Cut your basil with ample stems attached. Wash it thoroughly and remove any damaged leaves. Pat it dry and bundle it by tightly tying the stems together. Hang it out of the sun in a dry, well ventilated area for about four weeks.  Carefully remove the leaves from the stems and store whole until ready for use.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Teaching Kids to Appreciate Nature

Regardless of what you believe about climate change and global warming, most people agree there is value in learning to appreciate and respect our natural surroundings. How can we instill these values in our children so that they will be good stewards of the earth for future generations? The answer lies in education and mentorship, and making the natural world a priority for your family.

Begin your child’s natural education early.

Don’t wait until your child is in elementary school to get him a bug box and start exploring the natural wonders of your back yard.  In fact, kids are ready to start learning about nature in their first few months of life. Read them books about trees and squirrels and flowers and butterflies. Once they are three or four, begin taking your field guides with you on outings and start generating an interest in species identification and habitat. 

Prioritize nature.

When your child becomes old enough to participate in group activities like t-ball or dance, consider enrolling them in nature classes and day camps that put an emphasis on outdoor education.  Show as much enthusiasm for his discovery and identification of a praying mantis that you would for him getting a base hit. When presents are called for, be sure to include items like binoculars and field guides in addition to old standbys like Barbies and toy trucks.

Be a good role model.

Your children will learn more from you than any other teacher in their lifetime. Be a good example and let your actions speak for themselves. Don’t be squeamish about spiders and mice. Instead, take the opportunity to teach your children about the value these creatures have in nature and why their existence is important to the cycle of life. When encountering them in your home, humanely capture and release them back into the wild instead of killing them.

Build an animal sanctuary.

The four main needs of wildlife are food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. A simple brush pile in your back yard can be a safe haven for bunnies and other small mammals. Even if you live in an apartment, there are still ways you can attract and help animals. A small bird feeder that attaches to a window with a suction cup or a dish of water left on a ledge can attract both birds and insects for viewing.

Enjoy wildlife together.

Turn off the cartoons and take a few minutes to sit outside with your children and watch for wildlife. Make a game out of who can spot and identify the most different birds or who can find the first insect. Look for animal tracks in the dirt or snow and help your kids identify what kind of animal left them.

Be a good steward of the earth yourself and show your kids how it’s done. That’s likely all that will be necessary for them to follow in your nature-loving footsteps.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Should You Cage Your Cucumbers?

This is my first season growing in my new small space container garden. To accommodate more cucumbers, I decided to cage them, something I’ve never done before. Caging did allow me to grow more, including four different varieties, but my results were mixed at best. Based on this season’s outcome, I’m not sure I will cage them again in the future. Here are the pros and cons of caging cucumbers that I found through my personal gardening experience.


Space – Caging your cucumbers certainly is a space saver. It only requires about an 18-inch footprint, compared about 36 square inches when grown the traditional way. 

Spraying – If you spray your cucumbers to control pests, having all the foliage compact and close makes it easier and quicker to reach all affected areas.


Pests – Because there are more shaded surfaces when cucumbers are grown in cages, critters that prefer the cooler, shaded undersides of leaves have more area for refuge. The crowded conditions also encourage rampant breeding of pests and the spread of infestations.

Sun – Caging cucumbers makes sun exposure uneven at best. The outside foliage gets plenty, while the inside stems and leaves get very little. I’m not sure to what extent that harms a plant or its ability to produce, but it is likely to invite pests that prefer shade.

Ventilation – As you can imagine, air flow through a densely packed cage of foliage is very limited. This makes it prime territory for attack by fungi like powdery mildew.

Pollination – I had tons of blooms this season, but comparatively little fruit. Although this can be partly attributed to fewer pollinators available to do their job, it had mostly to do with the blooms being inaccessible to the pollinators that were available. Many of the blooms were buried deep inside the packed foliage, where bees and other pollinators could not easily reach.

Harvesting – Not only is it harder for pollinators to find and reach the blooms of caged cucumbers, it’s harder for me to find and harvest the fruit as well. You have to be really careful when pushing aside vines looking for cukes so that you don’t damage the plant. Doing so in such a densely packed environment is challenging at best. 

My results don’t necessarily agree with those of other gardeners. For instance, some say that growing cucumbers in cages increases air flow and makes harvesting easier. In my experience, due to the density of the foliage, that was not the case. I will just need to decide whether or not the space advantages of growing in cages outweigh the disadvantages I experienced.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Building a Limited Space, Poor Soil, Desert Climate Vegetable Garden

Those of us with the gardening bug can’t easily be deterred by challenges like limited space, poor soil or desert climate. When I purchased a home in Phoenix, I was faced with all three. My love of homegrown vegetables, coupled with my disdain for hothouse tomatoes and everything genetically-modified, made me determined to build a garden space despite these challenges. After some local research and budget development, I went to work. What I ended up with was a beautiful, 40-foot long growing space designed by me and built by my landscaper to my specifications. 

My Challenge

Ninety percent of my backyard was covered by the pool and flagstone patio. That left me with very little space with which to work. It was also crucial that the garden be aesthetically-pleasing as well as functional, and that it provided enough direct sunlight without becoming an oven in the Arizona sun.

Planning & Implementation

1. Location – The available space in my backyard was very limited. I needed a location that would receive the right mix of sun and shade while not interfering with the foot traffic of my family and dogs. I had a 40-foot strip of dirt along the edge of my flagstone patio that was about a foot wide. It butted up against a five-foot tall cinderblock wall on the southwest side of our yard, providing morning and early afternoon sun. This is the exposure I needed for our 110+ degree summers in Phoenix.

2. Design – I had planned to build the planter 12 inches high, but because I only had a width of one foot, I chose to build it up to 22 inches. I used landscaping stones that would accent my existing flagstone and added a matching stone shelf on top to give it a nice, finished look.

3. Irrigation – In southern Arizona we have no choice but to irrigate. Our water here also contains a high mineral content that leaves a build-up of gray residue wherever it dries. To prevent seepage from marring the stonework, I lined the inside with six mil plastic sheeting. My landscaper tapped into our existing irrigation system and added a drip line that lies along the entire length of the planter.

The end result is beautiful, although I will have to continue to amend and improve the soil as the seasons roll by. I’ll likely have to harvest crops year-round for the next two decades to recoup my investment, but the beauty and peace it brings to my yard was worth the cost.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Single-Use Plastic Carry-Out Bags

Single-use plastic carry-out bags are well on their way to being a thing of the past. A flurry of legislation around the globe is quickly taxing or banning the bags, despite the concerted efforts and major financial investment of opposing plastic bag manufacturers like Hilex Poly. San Francisco led the charge by banning the bags back in 2007. They have been banned throughout the entire country of Italy since 2011, and Los Angeles recently became the 49th city in California alone to ban the bags. 

The Problem with Plastic

Although plastic has revolutionized countless industries since its widespread use, it has wreaked havoc on our environment. The problem is that plastic does not biodegrade.  If you take a plastic bag and bury it in a landfill, chances are it will still be pretty much intact 500 or even 1,000 years later. Plastic does photodegrade, but there are two problems with photodegradation. First, it must be exposed to sunlight to occur, and second, it never goes away. As plastic photodegrades, it merely breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. In the process, it releases toxic substances that poison the earth and kill wildlife.

Environmental Impacts

- There are a number of ways single-use plastic carry-out bags harm our environment. One that we witness firsthand every day is pollution. Due to their light weight, plastic bags get blown up against fences, tangle in trees, get caught on street signs and can be found even in some of the most remote landscapes on our planet.
- Plastic bags also clog storm drains, especially in crowded, impoverished cities with poor sanitation facilities. These clogs then cause flooding which can result in epidemic levels of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.
- Then there’s the ocean. Everyone’s heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where there exists a suspended island of plastic covering several hundred square miles. As this plastic photodegrades beneath the sun’s rays, tiny toxic particles are ingested by fish and other marine life, causing their death.

What We Can Do

- Plain and simple, start refusing single-use plastic carry-out bags. Bring your own reusable bags to the store, and not just the grocery store. Take them to your pharmacy, shopping mall and everywhere you go. Keep some in your car, your purse and your coat pocket.
- When possible, stop purchasing items wrapped or packaged in plastic. Buy your laundry detergent in a box rather than a plastic jug, and opt for fruit juice bottled in glass rather than plastic. And for goodness sakes – stop buying bottled water!
- Get involved. Take action. Vote. There are a number of ways you can get on board and help put an end to plastic pollution. Join environmental groups dedicated to the cause like Right Bag at ‘Ya! or  the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Be a part of the change that will help heal our planet.