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1-2-3 Done!™ Lavender Vinegar

Lavender
I recommend planting lavender in abundance because it has so many
uses, including as an infused vinegar that works as a facial toner,
hair rinse and all-purpose cleaner for your home. Harvest this
perennial just before it fully opens.

Lavender vinegar can be used as a fragrant fabric softener, a bath
fragrance, glass cleaner or, when diluted in water (8 parts water
to 1 part vinegar), as a facial toner, hair rinse or deodorizing
body splash. This easy recipe only has three ingredients and three
simple steps.

Materials

  • Enough lavender leaves and flowers to fill a 1-quart jar half full
  • White vinegar
  • Sterile, glass 1-quart jar with a plastic screw-on lid

Directions

  1. Place the lavender in the jar and fill with vinegar.
  2. Screw on the lid. Vinegar will react with metal so use a plastic lid. If your lid is metal, cover the top of the jar with plastic wrap before screwing on the lid.
  3. Place the jar in a dark place for 4 weeks, shaking occasionally

Winter Pruning

The first thing that everyone should know about pruning is that much like a bad haircut a botched pruning job will grow out eventually.  It’s unlikely that a person will kill a plant with poor pruning.  It may look really bad for a while, but it won’t die.

The chances of getting the job done right are improved if you use good, sharp tools, make a clean cut and consider the growth habit of the plant. And you can’t go wrong by just removing dead wood, crisscrossing branches and by limiting the removal to 1/3 of the plant’s size.

Why Prune?

The most obvious reasons to prune are to reduce the size of a plant, maintain a plant’s shape or improve its appearance.  Pruning to remove dead and diseased wood or thin out the center branches will also help keep a plant healthy.  For instances, shrub roses or hydrangeas that have grown too dense benefit from the removal of interior branches to open up air circulation; good air circulation helps keep diseases in check.

Why Prune in Late Winter

P. Allen Smith Shearing an Evergreen HedgePruning in late winter when many shrubs and trees are dormant invigorates the plants for abundant growth in spring; the wounds are exposed for a limited amount of time before the growing cycle begins; and finally, it’s just easier to see what needs to be pruned after the leaves have dropped.

When is Late Winter?

In my mid-South (zone 7) garden late winter is February.  The garden is still dormant but the spring thaw will begin within a month to 6 weeks.  The job should be handled before new spring growth begins, but after the threat of severe cold has passed.

What to Prune in Late Winter

Here is a short list of plants that appreciate a good trim in late winter.

Summer Flowering Trees – Ornamental trees that bloom in summer such as Crape Myrtles, Vitex, Smoke Tree, Rose of Sharon.

Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens – Unlike their cousin H. macrophylla, these two hydrangeas bloom on new wood so cut them back hard to promote growth and flowers.  H. paniculata can be cut back to two buds above the base of the flower stem. Prune H. arborescens back to varying heights of 1 to 3 feet from the ground.

Fruit Trees – Fruit trees flower on growth from the previous season, but pruning should be done when the tree is dormant, so there will be some flower and fruit loss.  The good news is that pruning promotes vigorous growth and larger, better tasting fruits.  Each type of fruit tree has some special requirements so do some research before you begin cutting.

Roses – Hybrid tea, old-fashioned and climbing roses should be pruned right before the leaf buds break or if you live in a northern region, pruning should be done when you remove winter protection.

What NOT to Prune in Late Winter

Not all plants should be cut back in winter.  This is a list of plants that prefer to have their haircuts in late spring or summer.

Spring Flowering Shrubs – Forsythia, quince, azaleas, Bridal wreath spirea and other shrubs that bloom in spring should be pruned immediately after they flower.

Spring Flowering Trees – Lilacs, ornamental fruit trees and

Hydrangea macrophylla – Old-fashioned, pompon hydrangeas set bloom buds on the previous year’s growth.  It’s safe to remove faded flowers and dead branches.

Once Blooming Roses – Old-fashioned roses that only flower once each growing season, such as Damasks and Mosses bloom on old wood and should be pruned in the summer after they have flowered.

Gardenias – These should be pruned immediately after they bloom.

Bleeding Trees – Maples, birches, dogwoods, walnuts and elms produce copious amounts of sap when they are pruned in late winter.  Pruning won’t hurt the trees, but it will be less messy if you wait until summer.

Essential Tools

Pruning Stem SizesGoing back to the hair cut analogy, it is safe to assume that most of us wouldn’t want to have our hair cut with a pair of rusty pinking shears.  The same is true of pruning.  The best results come from using sharp, clean tools that are suited for the task.  Here is a list of pruning essentials.

Sharp pocket knife is great for making small cuts as needed.

Hedge shears are designed to cut small twigs or shrubs, but not anything much larger than the size of a pencil.  They are a must for broadleaf evergreens such as boxwoods, hollies and yews.

By-pass pruners are suited good for cuts about the size a pencil and can be used for perennials and shrubs with thin stems like roses or azaleas.

Loppers are a tool for making big bites when you need to get some leverage.  They are best for using on dead wood because they tend to crush rather than cut.  This crushing action can damage living cells in a branch, which could cause a longer healing time for the tree or shrub.

Saws are also ideal for large branches and can be used for cutting living wood.  The more teeth on the saw the finer the cut and the easier the healing process will be on the plant.

Pole saws and pole pruners are handy for reaching into large shrubs or for working overhead.

Good to Know:  When to Call in a Professional.

If you can’t reach a limb from the ground with a pole pruner, it’s time to call a pro.  This also applies if the limbs are heavier than you can manage or if the tree is near power lines.

Paperwhites with Heart

This Valentines’ Day give paperwhites with “heart.” Follow these three easy steps to decorate potted paperwhites with a pussy willow stem heart.

Materials

  • Paperwhites planted in a 6-inch container
  • (2) fresh pussy willow branches (available at florists)
  • Wired green floral stick (available at florists or craft stores)
  • Red ribbon
  • Decorative container

Directions

    1. Insert the wide ends of the pussy willow branches into the soil at an angle so they make a V.

Paperwhites for Valentines

  1. Draw together the upper ends and tie with the wired floral stick.
  2. Pull the floral stick all the way down to the pot and push it into the soil. Insert it at an angle to make it secure.
  3. For a pop of color wrap the willow stems in red ribbon.
  4. That’s all there is to it!
Bouquets of tulips, roses and rannuculus in a wire basket

Valentine’s Day Flower Alternatives

Small Vases of Bouquets in a Wire BasketMy favorite gift to give on Valentine’s Day is flowers.  I like the idea of a hint of spring arriving at a loved one’s door just when it seems that winter will never pass.  It’s a wonderful reminder that sunshine and blue skies are on their way!

Whether your sweetheart has a brown thumb or loves to get their hands in the soil you can’t go wrong with flowers.  Although red roses are the classic Valentine’s Day flower, there are so many choices available it’s easy to be creative.  Here are some ideas for you to consider.

Basketful of Bouquets
Flowers are a wonderful way to say I love you.  To make the statement even more personal, why not put together the arrangement yourself.  Here’s a simple gift idea I featured in Woman’s Day that I still use.  It’s a whole basketful of blooms.  The beauty of this present is that the vases can be removed from the basket and put wherever the recipient wants fresh flowers.

  1. Wire Basket of VasesGather enough juice glasses or small vases (2 to 3 inches high) to fit snugly into a basket.
  2. Head out to your local florist and choose your combination of flowers.  Or try my selections of 10 stems each of white and pink mini carnations, pink and red sweet heart roses, red tulips and pink ranunculus.
  3. Make each bouquet by gathering a bunch of the same flowers in one hand just below the blossoms and then trimming the stems to 4 inches.  Wrap a rubber band around the stems to hold them securely together, then push the band up the stems just beneath the base of the flowers.
  4. Drop the bundle into a water-filled vase.  Trim more from the stems if necessary.  Repeat this process for each vase.  Add a ribbon gift card and you’re ready to deliver your one-of-a-kind gift.

Flowering Houseplants, Hot House Shrubs and Forced Bulbs
Solitaire Azalea I feel safe in saying that by February most of us are tired of winter.  Even with the daring blooms of early daffodils, winter honeysuckle and quince, it can be a pretty dismal month.  I suppose that’s why flowers are such a nice gift on Valentine’s Day.  If your special someone has a green thumb, consider giving them a flowering houseplant, hot house shrub or forced spring bulbs.  The blooms will last for weeks and with proper care the houseplants will bloom again and the shrubs can be planted out in the garden.  Here are a few to consider:

  • African Violets
  • Primroses
  • Orchids
  • Cyclamen
  • Bromeliads
  • Miniature Roses
  • Peace Lily
  • Gardenia
  • Azalea
  • Hydrangea
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Paperwhites
  • Amaryllis
  • Hyacinths
  • Tulips
  • Mixed Bulb Gardens
  • Muscari

Rose Bushes
New Dawn Rose Surronding a Window Give the special gardener in your life more than just a single bouquet, a rose bush will provide fresh flowers year after year.  And now is the time to order roses.  Just be sure to be around when it comes time to plant!  Here is a list of some of my favorites:

  • New Dawn
  • Collette
  • Old Blush
  • Russell’s Cottage
  • Sarah van Fleet
  • LaMarque
  • The Fairy
  • White Meidiland

Good to Know
Make sure the message you send is the right one!  Here are meanings to some popular flowers.
Azalea = First Love
Camellia = Gratitude
Carnation = Fascination
Chrysanthemum = Friendship
Crocus = Cheerfulness, Dedicated to St. Valentine
Daffodil = Chivalry
Daisy = Innocence
Forget-Me-Not = Memories
Gardenia = Grace
Hyacinth = Sincerity
Ivy = Fidelity
Lilac = First Love
Casablanca Lily = Celebration
Orchid = Rare Beauty
Peony = Good Health
Rose, Pink = Friendship
Rose, Red = Passionate Love
Rose, Red and white = Unity
Rose, Rhite = Youthful Innocence
Sweetpea = Lasting Pleasure
Tulip, Red = Declaration of Love
Violet = Faithfulness
Zinnia = Thoughts of Friends

Tabletop Spring Garden

Welcome spring into your home with a tabletop garden planted with spring blooms from your local garden center or grocery store.

Materials:
Potted flowering plants
Plastic baggies
Decorative container
Sheet moss

Directions:
Remove each plant from its pot and slip it, soil and all, into a plastic baggie. This is optional. If your decorative container is large enough to accommodate the plants in their pots, simply slip them into the container. Otherwise the plastic baggies make it easier to arrange the plants.

Once the plants are in the container cover the bags or pots with sheet moss to conceal. That’s it!

For the longest life, place your tabletop garden in a spot away from source of heat. Water the soil with a spray mister.

For this arrangement I used pots of forced ‘Tete-a-tete’ narcissus, primroses and variegated ivy. After the blooms fade I’ll plant the ‘Tet-a-tete’ in the garden. This variety is a prolific multiplier.

Beekeeping 101

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that the past decade hasn’t been good for honey bees. In fact, their populations have hit all-time lows. But the bee colonies in many American backyards are on the rise! Urban beekeeping is the fastest growing segment of the industry; flourishing as consumers realize the health benefits of locally sourced honey.

Beekeeping is a topic that can be covered in an entire book, but here are the basics on how to get started.

Make conservation your priority and honey the sweet reward. One third of every bite you eat was produced with the help of honey bees. It takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate a California almond crop.* Commercial farmers actually lease honey bees to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, there are no longer enough honey bees to meet the demand. As an urban beekeeper you can help bolster low populations.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Your first step toward keeping honey bees is research. Find out city ordinances about hives and discuss your plan with your neighbors. You may have to educate them about the difference between the docile honey bee and the aggressive yellow jacket. Beekeeping is not for people with bee allergies, but the rest of us can cohabitate very peaceably. Honey bees will only sting when pressed against or when you are working in the hive.

The best resources are people who are already keeping honey bees, they are like living books. And the best place to connect with these people is at a bee club. I met my mentor, or bee-tsar as I call him, at the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association. Over the years he’s provided a priceless amount of information and support.

Once you’ve done all the leg work you need to decide how many hives you want and where to place them. Two hives is a good number to start with because it’s not overwhelming and a faltering hive is easier to detect when you have something to compare it to. Plus you can use the frames and brood from a strong hive to save a weak hive.

You don’t need a lot of space to keep bees, but the area where you place your hives should be warm and dry. Bees love the sun and they love it warm so find a sunny spot. I like to face my hives toward the south because this is what they tend to do in the wild. Moisture is a real problem for bees, you want to keep the hive dry. Don’t place the hive at the bottom of a hill where moist air might collect.

Honey bee hive

Even if your neighbors are excited about your honey bees don’t place the hive right up next to the property line. A trick I learned from my bee-tsar is to place hives in front of a fence or hedge. When faced with a barrier bees will fly straight up, which will put them above head height should they decided to stray into your neighbor’s yard.

Your local bee club is a gold mine when it comes to bee type selection. Not only will members know which bees thrive best in your area, but you will be able to find a local source as well. Get your bees locally if you can because they are best adapted to your climate, seasons and plants. If they have been living generation after generation in your area they are primed to survive in that environment. If you can’t get them locally there are companies that will supply bees and queens.

I raise Italian bees, which are excellent for long summer climates but if you live in an area with short summers you need bees that don’t require a lot of food, won’t grow too fast and overwinter well such as carniolans.

Whether local or mail order you need to purchase your bees in winter for spring delivery. Honey bee producers run out quickly. Starter colonies come as packages (queen and bees), nucs (queen, bees and frames loaded with brood, honey and pollen) and swarms (queen and bees collected from the wild).

In addition to the bees you’ll need some equipment. Hives consist of a top cover and inner cover, supers, a hive body, frame and foundation and a stand. You’ll also need a smoker, hive tool, helmet and veil and gloves.

Beekeeping is not hard to start nor is it a huge time commitment, but you will never stop learning. I think that is a characteristic that makes it so appealing.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Good to Know:


Honey bees offer so much in the way of “essential services” to the garden but they’re worthless when it comes to your tomato crop. There’s no nectar in tomato blossoms and the pollen is hard to reach, so honeybees don’t bother. Bumblebees on the other hand do a neat trick called “buzz pollination.” They grab the tomato flower and vibrate their wings at such a high frequency that the pollen shakes loose. In fact, bumblebees are used in commercial greenhouses to pollinate cherry tomatoes.

Rhonda Fleming Hayes (@thegardenbuzz) author of the forth coming book Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators. To learn more about pollinating insects join Rhonda every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. CST for #pollin8rchat on Twitter.

*Almond Board of California

Raising Chickens – Purchasing Chicks

Spring time is chick time at the Moss Mountain Farm Garden Home. This time of year the hatchery and brooders are fully populated with baby birds getting ready to join the rest of the flocks on the farm.

So you may be asking yourself where one gets chicks if they don’t already have chickens. You can order them through a mail order hatchery, purchase chicks at a farm supply store or pick them up from a local hatchery.

Here are a few pointers to help you through the process.

Know the Breed

Before you start shopping do your research and get familiar with the different breeds. Much like dogs, every chicken breed has unique qualities. Leghorns are good egg layers, Wyandottes are calm and Orpingtons adapt nicely to confinement. You want to match your chicken to their environment and your needs.

Where to Get Your Chicks

Baby ChickensBaby chicks are available through mail order, farm supply stores and local hatcheries. To ensure success get your chicks from a reputable hatchery. Check with your extension service for local sources. You can expect to pay around 2 to 4 dollars for day old chicks depending on the quantity, sex and breed.

Mail Ordering : You can order as early as January and schedule delivery for later in spring. Early ordering is a good idea if you have a specific breed in mind because the selection gets slim fast. I’ve ordered from Stromberg’s with good results. You can order all female, all male or a “straight run,” which is a mix. As you can imagine chicks are very hard to sex so expect a few males/females in the batch even if you specify one sex. Most often the minimum order is 25. This is the number of chicks needed to keep them warm enough to survive transit. There are a few places that will ship fewer.

Vaccines

Make sure your chicks are vaccinated for Marek’s disease. This is an optional vaccine, but worth having. Marek’s is a virus that is extremely common and easy to catch. The symptoms include paralysis, drooping wings, thinning and blindness. Besides being painful and often terminal, a flock may be contagious without every showing signs of the disease. To be effective it is important that chicks are vaccinated as soon after hatching as possible. It will add a small cost to the price of each bird, but it’s well worth it.

Be Ready Before Your Chicks Arrive

It’s important to have everything in place before you bring home your new babies. They’ll need to stay in a heated brooder until they are well feathered with bedding, water & feed.

 

Cyclamen Care

The Cyclamen that I got for my birthday from my granddaughter is showing signs of not liking me, what can I do to help it?

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In the world of symbolism, few flowers have been more inaccurately labeled than the cyclamen. Traditionally this petite bloom symbolizes timidity, but I have never found it to be faint-hearted. Enduring and prolific, it is one of my favorite flowering plants to use in my home during winter.

In nature cyclamen is a plant that goes dormant in summer and emerges during the cool, damp weather of fall, which is why you begin seeing them at florists and nurseries this time of year. Cyclamen come in a wide range of color, from white through the various shades of pink into the deep maroon. And if that is not enough, the foliage is a masterpiece into itself. I like this plant because it blooms for such a long time. Last year, I had one that continued blooming for four months, so you can really get your money’s worth with cyclamen.

Here are some tips for keeping your plant healthy and happy.

Light
Cyclamen like lots of light so place your plant in a bright, sunny location.

Water
This is one of those plants that is finicky about water. Too much and the tubers will rot, not enough and the foliage wilts beyond repair. Water when the soil surface feels dry, but before the plant begins to wilt. After watering, empty the saucer so that the plant is not sitting in water. The roots resent “wet feet.”

Temperature
Just as they do in nature, cyclamen prefer cool temperatures when grown indoors. Hot, dry temperatures will cause the foliage to yellow and shorten bloom time. Keep them in a room that has daytime temperatures of about 68 degrees F and between 40 and 50 degrees F at night.

Fertilizer
During the active growing season, fall through early spring, feed your cyclamen with an all-purpose liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength. Do this about once a month.

After Care
Once your cyclamen stops blooming the foliage with begin to yellow and wither. This is natural; the plant is just going into dormancy. At this point you can either toss the plant out or let it die back completely and try for more blooms next year. If you want to save it, stop watering the plant as soon as the leaves start to yellow. Store the pot in a cool location where it will not get water. The following autumn when leaves begin to emerge give the plant a good soaking and move to a bright, sunny location.

Get To Know Your Slow Cooker

When it comes to handy kitchen appliances one device that stands out from the rest is the slow cooker. It’s hard to beat something you can load up with ingredients, walk away then return at the end of the day to a prepared meal. And with so many slow cooker recipes these days, we are no longer limited to chili or pot roast.

The typical slow cooker consists of a ceramic or porcelain dish with a loosely fitting glass lid. The dish sits inside a metal housing with a heating element. What makes a slow cooker work is heat plus moisture. The ceramic dish holds the heat put out by the heating element and the glass lid traps the moisture without making an air-tight seal. The release of air is one way a slow cooker is different than a pressure cooker. There’s more science to it, but this is the basic idea.

Tips for Using a Slow Cooker

One advantage of a slow cooker is you can use less-expensive cuts of meat because the long cooking time makes them tender.

Because the heat plus moisture equation is what makes a slow cooker work, don’t lift the lid except as directed by the recipe. If you need to add more ingredients, additional cooking time may be required to make sure the food is properly cooked.

Unless it is ground or specified in the recipe, meats do not have to be browned or seared before adding to the slow cooker. This step will make the meat more flavorful and tender, but it’s not necessary.

Many cooks associate slow cookers with fall and winter, but it’s a great way to prepare a meal in summer without heating up the kitchen.

Root crops such as carrots and potatoes cook slower than meats so place them on the bottom.

Some ingredients such as cream, spices and soft vegetables should be added toward the end of the cooking time to prevent over doing them. Your recipe should indicate when to add what.

Do a practice run with your slow cooker on a day where you will be home so you can check your dish for doneness. Most appliances only have a high and low setting so it’s important to know how quickly or slowly your device cooks.

Great Websites for Slow Cooker Recipes

The Crock Pot Blog
Crock Pot Cooking
A Year of Slow Cooking
Official Crock Pot Site

Forcing Spring Flowering Shrubs

It seems like every year Punxsutawney Phil, our official forecasting groundhog, sees his shadow and forecasts an extended winter.  It’s hard news to hear when you are eager to get outdoors and start gardening.

So what’s a gardener to do? One way you can defy Old Man Winter is by forcing blooming shrubs such as quince, forsythia and pussy willow into flower indoors. The process is simple and the results will brighten your home while you wait for spring. Here is how you do it.

As soon as you see the flower buds on your spring flowering shrubs start to swell, clip a few branches to bring indoors. Select branches that are heavily loaded with buds. You will usually find these towards the top of the shrub.

Quince
Once you get the branches inside it’s important to re-cut the ends at a slight angle. Then make a few slits about 2 to 3 inches long around the base. Both of these steps will help draw more water up into the stems.

Put the branches in a bucket of water and keep them in cool dark place for a few days, misting them occasionally. Then move them into a well-lit room and watch as the warmer temperatures coax the flowers into bloom.