Spicy Meatball Soup (in a Slow Cooker)

I didn't feel like going to the store the other day (ever happen to you?)  So I pulled out everything that I thought could make a meal.  I always buy Turkey Meatballs when they are on sale (because they are a family favorite) and so I had some in the freezer!  I came up with this yummy soup that was simple to make in the Slow Cooker.  It has a little kick to it to spice things up!  If you don't like spice then simply buy the plain canned peeled tomatoes.

Spicy Meatball Soup           
Makes 6 to 7 servings

12 oz. Turkey Meatballs (I use Honeysuckle Italian Style)
2 Yellow Onions
4 Large Carrots
Mushrooms (optional)
8 oz Pasta (I used Whole Wheat Penne & some leftover Noodle Style)
Canned Peeled Tomatoes with Jalapeno Peppers
3 (32 oz) low sodium Chicken Broth or Vegetable Broth
 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp. garlic salt 
Mexican Shredded Cheese (optional for topping)

1.  Wash, peel and cut Carrots.  Add diced onion and mushrooms (optional). 


Determining Your Best Planting Date (Part 2)

Now that you have figured out your Frost Free Date* what do you do with it?  I will let you in on a little secret....I found a simple chart where you just type in your Frost Free Date and everything else is figured out for you!!!  It tells you when to plant your vegetables.  No headaches and it saves you time. Here is the sample below with my planting dates for this year.

*NOTE: (If you don't know your Frost Free Date refer to my previous post here Determing Your Best Planting Date (In Spring) Part 1 )

This will be my third year using this chart and I love how it simplifies everything for me.  I didn't create this so I can't take any credit for it.  I found it on Pinterest and the rest is history!  Here is the chart on my Pinterest board called: Starting Plants Indoors from Seed. The Lazy Gardeners Seed Starting Chart Its from the website You Grow Girl.  You can download your own file for free and start using it right away.

Here are some of the great benefits of using this chart:

1. Simple: Just enter in your frost free date and your planting dates are automatically entered on the chart.  No need for you to do any calculations!
2. Staring Seeds Indoors: It tells you an early sow date or late sow date to start your seed indoors (if you choose to start your own and not buy transplants).

3. Direct Sow Outdoors: This is listed for plants that you just start from seed outside.  (These plants don't transplant well if you try to start them indoors from seed).

4. Choices of Planting Dates: You can choose either an early or late planting date.  Go with what works with your schedule.  If you miss the early then go with the late date.


Indoor Seed Staring (Part 2)


Planting seeds indoors is easier than you may think. (I say this speaking from experience).  My favorite part is that your choices of vegetables can be endless.  Instead of selecting from a few plants in the spring at a greenhouse you can order seeds (or buy them at a store) and get the variety of vegetables you choose.

NOTE: Not all seeds will be started indoors.  Check the back of your seed packets for instructions.  Many seeds such as: beans, beets, carrots, corn, peas, radishes, spinach, and winter squash are to be directly sown outside on their planting date because they don't transplant well.

1. Seeds
2. Organic plant food
3. Plant labels (can be handmade)
4. Potting Mix (soil-less mix) *see below for mix
5. Heat Mat (optional)

STEP 1:  Clean trays with bleach solution. If you are re-using planting containers or yogurt cups make sure to clean them first using a 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.  Its very important that containers are disinfected! This helps prevent damping off which kills seedlings.  Let the containers dry thoroughly before using.

Cleaning plant trays


Indoor Seed Starting (Part 1)

PART 1: Grow Lights & Stand Set-up

This is the second year that we have started our own plants indoors from seed.  We decided to do this because it saves us money and we know from the start that chemicals haven't been used on our seedlings.  

We use fluorescent lights because they are a cost effective way to provide warmth and light that the seedlings require. Incandescent bulbs will burn your plant.  You can also choose to purchase special grow lights for seed starting just keep in mind the higher cost. 

Fluorescent lights
You may be wondering if you can just put your seedlings by a window instead of buying lights.  The answer is that during the winter (when seeds are started indoors and sunlight is weak) you could use sunlight but you would also have to supplement that with artificial light. Vegetables require 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day and they won't receive that in the winter.  If you choose to use a combination of sunlight and artificial light know that plants need to be under an artificial light for twice as long as they would need sunlight.

Below you will find the simple set-up we use and instructions on how to get started:

Timer, Heat Mat, Plant Food, Thermometer, & Plant Labels


Simple Gourmet Mushroom Soup

No Processed Ingredients. 4 Simple Steps. 20 Minutes to Make. 

Our family has been eliminating processed foods so I have been learning to make things from scratch.  Cream of Mushroom Soup is one of those ingredients that is often used in recipes.  I no longer use the canned version so I wanted to find an alternative.  This from scratch version is so simple to make and tastes soooo much better than the canned.  We are never going back!  

*My mom is also going to try and make it with Arrow Root for a gluten free version.  I will update this and let you know how that works!  

Simple Gourmet Mushroom Soup
Serves: 4 to 5

16 oz. fresh mushrooms (sliced)
4 Tbsp. chopped yellow onion
3 minced garlic cloves
6 Tbsp. flour (or almond flour*)
4 Tbsp. butter
4 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cup half n half
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp nutmeg

STEP 1: In a stockpot melt the butter.  Add the mushrooms, onions and garlic and cook until soft. 

STEP 2: Add the 4 Tbsp. of the flour while stirring. 

STEP 3:  Mix in the chicken broth and cook until thickened.

STEP 4:  In a separate bowl mix 2 Tbsp of flour with the half n half, salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Add this to the stockpot and stir constantly about 5 minutes.  Soup will thicken as shown. 

Pour into bowls and sprinkle with pepper or parsley then serve!  This is so simple to make and tastes gourmet. 


Determining your Best Planting Dates (in Spring) Part 1


I have to be honest with you, the first year we started our garden I bought peppers, onions and herbs and then went home and planted them all in the same day. (Gasp!)  I had no concept of a spring frost date or the understanding that different vegetables required different planting times. Believe it or not all our vegetables survived that year, but the next year I figured out I needed to make some changes. 

The keys points to determining when to plant in the Spring:

1.Frost free date- People who garden talk about the frost free dates.  This date is based on past years frost patterns and your location.  There are 2 different dates one for Spring (first frost) and the other for Fall (last frost).  Spring is the most critical date to start out the season.

Here are some websites where you can look up the estimated frost free dates for your area: 

Farmer's Almanac-  http://www.almanac.com
Natural Gardening Co.-  http://www.naturalgardening.com 
National Climatic Data Center-  http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov


Seven Vegetable Tortellini Soup (in a Slow Cooker)

Cold. Cold. Cold.  It was 4 degrees outside today and comfort food was the perfect solution to warm our spirits.  This soup has 7 different vegetables and is healthy and delicious! 

Its also a fun soup for our little one to help me make.  I would cut up the vegetables then put them on the plate which he added to the bowl.  Enjoy making this soup and keep in mind you can add or delete vegetables to make it your own.   

Butternut Squash, Zucchini, Carrots, Asparagus, Scallions, Spinach & Tomatoes

Seven Vegetable Tortellini Soup           
Makes 6 to 7 servings

1 Butternut Squash- cut into 1 inch cubes
2 small Zucchini- cut into 1 inch cubes
4 Carrots
1 bunch of Asparagus
1 bunch of Scallions
5 oz of fresh Spinach 
Canned Diced Tomatoes (or fresh)

1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp. garlic salt 

1 package (9 oz) of Cheese Tortellini
3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
3 (32 oz) low sodium Chicken Broth or Vegetable Broth

NOTE: If there is a vegetable you don't eat you can just leave it out of the soup!  You can also make it gluten free by leaving out the Tortellini.  

Tortellini, Chicken Broth, Diced Tomatoes and Spices

1.  Wash, peel and cut Carrots, Zucchini and Butternut Squash and add to slow cooker.  (For how to cut Butternut Squash see the end of this post).  Add cut Asparagus and Scallions to slow cooker.


Building A Raised Bed

Cedar raised beds we built last year (2013)
 After 2 years of planting directly in the ground with no added soil, 4 green metal garden stakes, and a chicken wire fence we realized it was time for an upgrade. Moving forward we realized that we wanted to build something more permanent that would be a design that we loved and would last for years.  We also wanted to include a fence and a gate to keep out the animals and make it easier for us to access.

Why we choose Raised Beds: After I did my research we decided to invest in building some quality raised beds.  One of the articles we found that convinced my husband this was the way to go was from OSU's Horticulture and Crop Science Department.  Here is the article: Benefits to Raised Bed Gardening  I highly recommend reading this if you are trying to decide between raised bed gardening verses just planting in the ground.

Instructions for Building A Raised Bed: If you are interested in building your own raised bed I have included the link to Sunset's website: Your Guide to Making a Raised Garden Bed  This is how we built ours and they are amazing!  There are step by step instructions and great pictures to go along with the instructions.  

Materials for Sunset 4 x 8 Raised Bed:
(1) 6-foot-long 4-by-4
(6) 8-foot-long 2-by-6s
(1) 10-foot-long 1-inch PVC pipe
(2) 10-foot-long ½-inch PVC pipes
(32) 3½-inch #14 wood screws and 
(16) ½-inch #8 wood screws
(1) 4- by 10-foot roll of ¼-inch-mesh hardware cloth 
(8) 1-inch galvanized tube straps (semicircular brackets)
(32) cubic feet (1- 1/5 cu. yd.) soil mix*

Modifications we made to the design:  
1.  *I highly recommend using the Best Raised Bed Soil Mix from the Square Foot Garden Method (SFGM) that I wrote about in the previous post. Just click on the link above and you can find the instructions.

2. We wanted (5) hoops per bed as seen in our final picture below. (The original design called for 2).  Two hoops were not enough support for the row cover fabric.  So we added more tube straps and PVC pipe for this modification.

NOTE: The PVC hoops are used for Row Covers (special fabric that protects plants from frost and pests).  You can read more about them in this post: Using Row Covers

3. If you are interested in adding the Vertical Frame with the net (shown below) for growing vine crops vertically I explain how to build them in this post: Building Vertical Frame for a Raised Bed 
Our final raised bed design with (5) PVC hoops & added Vertical Frame in Pine bed. (Picture taken 1 year after construction).
My view on selecting lumber: We built (2) of our beds from untreated Pine and the other (2) from untreated Cedar.  We didn't feel comfortable using treated lumber when we were going to be eating the vegetables from the raised beds!
You can coat the boards with linseed oil or there is a product called  Eco Wood Treatment that is made of naturally occurring plant and mineral extracts.

Pine lumber: will be more cost effective and is readily available.  Pine will last approximately 10 years as a raised bed. 

Cedar lumber: is more expensive than Pine and can be harder to come across.  The major benefit is that it can last up to 30 years!  (Our Asparagus bed can last up to 30 years so that is why we built it out of Cedar).

Pre-made raised beds (shown above) are another option if you want to save time.
Keep in mind you can purchase pre-made raised beds at your local home improvement store or many are also available through gardening magazines.   

Do what works for you and get your raised bed ready for planting in early March or April of 2014!


The Best Raised Bed Soil Mix (from SFGM)

If you have decided to build a raised bed for your garden then you are going to need soil to fill the bed!  There are so many benefits to building a raised bed versus planting in the ground and one of the positives is that you get to mix your own soil instead of having to "fix" the soil you have.  

This has been our favorite soil mix that we have shared with friends and family.  Vegetables love this mixture and its amazing how healthy they are!  

Bush Beans and Onions happy to be in good soil! (mid summer onion tops fall over allowing the bulbs to mature)

Amazing Soil Mix (our family favorite)
taken from: Square Foot Garden Book (80's version) 
by Mel Bartholomew

1 bale of peat moss: 6 cu ft
1 large bag of course vermiculite: 4 cu ft 
10 pails (2 1/2 gallon size) of sand: 3 cu ft
2 pails of wood ashes and charcoal*  

*(we left both of these items out)
10 pails (2 1/2 gallon size) of compost: 3 cu ft
1 coffee can full of lime
1 coffee can full of organic fertilizer
TOTAL volume of mixture: 16 cu ft.

This amount will fill one garden block to a depth of 12 in or two blocks to a depth of 6 in.

Mixing Procedure:
1. Mix all ingredients with a flat bottom shovel. (We mixed little by little in the raised bed....or you can mix it on a hard surface and then move it to the bed).

2. Spray with a hose to dampen the materials (don't soak) as you mix the pile.

3. Fill garden block with mixture turning over to mix it well.  Again spray with hose as you mix.

4. Level and add enough additional mixture to fill the raised bed, level again spray once more with hose, and the block is ready for planting.  

NOTE : If you want to simplify this process you can also purchase Mel's Mix Square Potting Soil on Amazon.    

Raised Bed complete with soil and ready to plant!


The Secret in the Garden

You may be wondering what could be such a big secret in a garden?  Soil.  For beginning gardeners it tends to be something that is overlooked.  (I say this from personal experience my first year gardening).  

I want to take the complexity out of understanding your soil and help you improve it quickly and simply this spring!

Understanding your soil:  Your soil is the source of  nutrients giving life to your plants.  Healthy soil is alive and full of microorganisms and bacteria.  It has enough air space between the soil for water, air and plant roots to enter and it holds moisture and nutrients so that plants absorb them.  

The best soil will have 3% to 10% of organic matter.  Organic matter holds water and nutrients then releases it to your plants.  If you are working with your existing soil you will have either clay soil, sandy soil or loamy soil.  

1. Loamy soil is the ideal type to have (and rare).  It holds moisture and nutrients so that plant roots are able to absorb them.   

2. Clayey soil makes it hard for air, water and plant roots to be absorbed.  It dries slowly and drains poorly.  

3. Sandy soil allows air and plant roots to grow but also allows water to pass through rapidly.  It doesn't hold nutrients or moisture for long.

Two different ways to create your own compost: A compost tumbler and a simple chicken wire bin.
Whichever type of soil you have here is the secret: add organic matter (compost) to your soil and it will make a significant difference! 

Organic Matter: Compost is the most basic of all things you can add to your soil and the most beneficial.  It enriches your soil and allows nutrients to be provided to your plants for a long period of time.  It also provides the ability for the soil to hold moisture which is an outstanding attribute.  Another great benefit: When you use compost on your garden you won't need to use any other natural fertilizers!  

 You can use manure on your beneficial flower beds as long as you don't plan on eating any of your plants in them!
Application: Once a year in the spring apply a 1/3" or 1/2" layer of compost to your soil and mix it in with a shovel or rototiller.  

NOTE: Compost (organic matter from once living things) is different than manure (animal waste).  Don't use manure on your garden it can release ammonia which badly injures plants.  It can also harbor human pathogens.  Also E.coli can live in manure that is not composted for 21 months!

Read this post for Our Favorite Soil Mix (from SFGM)