Aloe Vera Culture and Benefits

Aloe is so easy to grow and so useful.

With gorgeous thick leaves and sparsely spiny edges, the aloe vera plant (Aloe vera, USDA Hardiness Zone 9-11) is renowned for its healing properties. Native to eastern and southern Africa, it is one of the oldest-known healing plants used by humans. Aloe grows wonderfully in dry regions because its succulent leaves hold moisture and make it incredibly drought-tolerant.

In temperate regions, many households, including mine, contain potted aloe vera as a house plant. It’s attractive as an indoor plant and very handy for the quick topical skin treatment of burns and scrapes. During the warm months, it is nice to bring it outdoors in a partially sunny spot where it can thrive in the fresh air and brighten a porch or patio. Southwestern gardeners have the advantage of being able to grow it outdoors as a landscape specimen. In warmer climates, the plants form robust clumps that produce spikes of reddish-orange, tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds.

One of the best things about the plant is how easy it is to grow and use medicinally. Aloe’s healing, anti-inflammatory properties are most potent when they come directly from the plant. No need to make a tincture or steep some tea in order to get treatment.

How to Care for Aloe Vera Plants

Pots and potting soil must drain well to encourage good.

Aloe vera is a succulent in the lily family (Liliaceae) that is easy to maintain. In fact, too much attention and watering will result in an unhappy aloe. Imagine the spare water that they receive in arid, tropical Africa. They don’t need too much. (Pro growing tip: only water your Aloe vera when the soil is completely dried out. I recommend watering every two weeks or so, but this can change based on the season and growing conditions. Outdoor plants typically need more water, especially in dry climates.)

When planting, pot them up in very well-drained soil–Black Gold Cactus Mix is an ideal choice. Good pot drainage is also a necessity. Place your potted plant in a spot where it can receive bright, indirect sunlight. Aloe is one of the more low-light tolerant succulents out there, but it should still get some sunshine to keep the leaves strong and robust. Plants receiving too much sunlight tend to take on a purplish color. Too little light results in thin, floppy leaves.

Aloe Vera Benefits

When grown outdoors in the American Southwest, Aloe vera will produce beautiful spikes of orange-red flowers.

The anti-inflammatory properties of Aloe vera are especially helpful for healing skin. Most know it for treating sunburns, but it also can help with frostbite, wounds, dermatitis, and other skin issues. It will also reduce redness, inflammation, and even itchiness caused by bug bites and poison ivy. (Cautionary note: It is very rare, but some people can be allergic to aloe. Test a little on your skin, and wait an hour or so to check for a reaction if you have never used it before.)

Aloe vera contains antiseptics and anti-bacterial properties, making it beneficial for treating small wounds. You can also apply it after a wound has healed to promote skin tissue repair and prevent scarring.

Outside of the skin, Aloe can be digested and work as a laxative. (Fair warning: it’s a strong laxative so use it sparingly.) Some new drinks on the market even contain Aloe vera juice, which can aid with digestion. Some studies even show the juice can help to prevent and reduce the size of kidney stones.

How to Treat a Sunburn with Aloe Vera

Let cut aloe leaves sit for 10 minutes before using them for first aid.

As a child, I loved playing outside and was very prone to sunburns. Obviously, it was not a great combination for summer fun. In those days, sunscreen was not available like it is today. My sunburns oftentimes kept me cooped up inside when I would rather be out playing. That was until the day my grandmother brought out the Aloe vera plant.

Placed on my sunburnt and freckled shoulders, the aloe brought my sunburn quick relief. I also saw the sunburns fade much quicker. Here are four steps to getting sunburn relief from an Aloe plant.

  1. Using a sharp knife, remove a portion of an aloe leaf. Depending on how much you need, this can be as big as a whole leaf or as small as the tip of the plant.
  2. Place the leaf on a paper towel and let it sit for ten minutes. This helps the dark, yellow latex to drain from the leaves. The latex can stain clothes or rarely cause reactions for people with sensitive skin.
  3. Wipe the sides of the cut to remove the remaining latex. Next, take your knife and cut the leaf down the center to get more gel.
  4. Apply the leaf directly to the skin. If your sunburn is hot and irritating, you can place the leaf in the fridge beforehand. The cold gel is extra soothing! Once you’re all done, compost the leaves.

Recipes for Using Aloe Vera in Homemade Skin Care Products

Aloe vera can be used in lots of useful skincare products.

If you have healthy Aloe vera plants, then these recipes are a great way to use some of the wonderful properties on your skin.

Aloe vera liquid soap: With hand washing being essential around the globe these days, this healing aloe soap will also help repair skin.

Aloe vera hand sanitizer: When you can’t be near a sink, this healing sanitizer cleans hands on the go.

Aloe vera after-sun salve: When the summer sun gets the best of you, this salve is a great option for cooling the skin and helping with sunburn relief.


Help Me Understand Cacti and Succulent Mix Components and Characteristics

I belong to the Michigan Cactus and Succulent Society, and I like to create my own mixes. To perfect my blends, I am always trying to figure out what materials will provide the characteristics I need for drainage, aeration, water-holding capacity and so on. I also want to understand how particle size impacts the performance of primary mix materials. Does the blend of ingredients matter the most or the particle size? Depending on the plant, I add pumice, perlite, Turface® and/or chicken grit in varying proportions to increase mix drainage. Which of these items will increase drainage and lessen root rot due to organic additives? I tend to under water and don’t water the cacti in the winter. Plus, I bring many of my plants outside in the summer (some of them) where they are subject to unpredictable weather, rain, heat, humidity. What mix will best help them under these conditions? Question [shortened] from Carol of Harrison Township, Michigan

Answer: I will try to address all of your questions in full. Covering different cacti and succulent mix ingredients and their characteristics is a good start.

Mix Ingredient Qualities

Some common mix ingredients

Let me start by saying that the particle size does impact porosity and therefore aeration and drainage. Larger particles mean more air space and less water-holding capacity. All of the mineral additives you mention will increase drainage and lessen the chance of root rot as a consequence. Here are the main C&S mix components and their characteristics. (Keep in mind, some of the products mentioned we do not carry.)

Organic ingredients with high water-holding capacity: Coconut coir, compost, earthworm castings, and peat moss. All of these ingredients hold moisture, and many also contain beneficial microbes and natural nutrients (earthworm castings and compost). It is essential to include some organic ingredients to cacti and succulent mixes. Those with low nutrient value, such as peat moss and coconut coir, are best if you want to establish your own controlled feeding program.

Inorganic ingredients with high water-holding capacity: Vermiculite and Turface®.

Organic ingredients with low water-holding capacity that increase porosity and drainage: Bark.

Inorganic ingredients with low water-holding capacity that increase porosity and drainage: Cinders, Gran-I-Grit, fine lava rock, perlite, pumice, coarse sand, small pebbles, and rock dust.

Cactus and Succulent Mix Recipes

As you know, different cacti and succulents have different levels of tolerance with respect to organic matter and drainage. You could always plant in bagged succulent mix, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix, which contains a very high percentage of horticultural perlite in addition to pumice and cinders and a low percentage of earthworm castings, compost, and bark. But if you are keen to mix your own, start with the general formula.

Cacti and Succulent Mix Formula: Most professional cactus and succulent mixes by volume are 50% solid (45% mineral, 5% organic) and 50% pore space (25% air space and 25% absorbed water). Recipes vary far and wide, but it’s wise to not stray too far from this formula. Here are some succulent mix recipes that you might consider.

Recipe 1: 30% (three parts) coarse sand, 30% (three parts) fine rock like Gran-I-Grit, pumice, etc., 30% (three parts) coconut coir, 10% (one part) compost.

Recipe 2: 50% (five parts) perlite, 30% (three parts) all-purpose potting mix, 10% (one part) coarse sand, 10% (one part) rock dust.

Recipe 3: 30% (three parts) fine bark, 30% (three parts) Gran-I-Grit, 20% (two parts) Turface®, 10% (one part) compost.

Growing Potted Cacti and Succulents Outdoors in High-Rain Areas

This hardy succulent rock garden at my home is placed under an eave to protect it from excess rain.

This one is easy. I bring my many cacti and succulents outdoors in summer, too. To protect them from excess moisture, I keep the pots on my sunny porch and below eaves away from heavy rain. A covered patio would also be ideal.

Still, I find that the hardy succulents and cacti in my Mid-Atlantic yard perform well, even through hurricane weather and cold winters, because they are planted in high rock gardens with sharply drained soil (Black Gold Cactus Mix plus added pebble and compost). I also mulch them with a cover of pebbles to keep any succulent parts from touching surface soil.

I hope that these tips help. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

DIY Potpourri From The Garden


Potpourri is a mixture of aromatic plant parts that captures the essence of the growing season for yearlong enjoyment.  To create your own, gather leaves and petals that are attractive as well as fragrant. Preserve them by thorough drying, and mix them to heighten their aroma and looks.

Potpourri Plants

Dried rose buds add scent and beauty to summer potpourri.

Some classic dried potpourri additions with exceptional fragrance include lavender flowers and leaves, rose buds and petals, and elderflowers. Pot marigold petals are also a favorite for orange-yellow color.

A lavender that performs well in almost any climate is Phenomenal™ (Lavandula x intermedia Phenomenal™, 2-3 feet high), a true hybrid hedge lavender. French lavender (Lavandula stoechas, 1-3 feet high) is another easy-to-grow species with its showy tufted flowers, strong scent, and good drought tolerance. This one is a little more tender, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10. (Click here to learn how to grow your own lavender.)

Roses with fragrance and pretty color include the easy-care, reblooming, peach-colored shrub rose At Last® or the bi-colored (strawberry and cream) hybrid tea Double Delight™. These roses yield both small buds and petals. Cut small tight buds and harvest rose petals by gripping the full-blown flowers, pulling gently, and catching nicely separated petals. Keep the petals whole. (Click here to discover more tough, fragrant roses.)

Tiny elderflower blooms also dry nicely and add a sweet, summery scent to potpourri. There are many ornamental elderberries for the garden with nice flowers or you can pick the flowers from native elderberries along roadsides.

Scented geraniums are another essential ingredient with aromatic leaves that retain their scent. Different species and cultivars have different scents including rose, citrus, and mint as well as those with the subtle smells of fruits and chocolate. (Click here to learn more about growing scented geraniums.)

Mints and lemony herbs of all sorts will also offer bright flavor to potpourri. Some of the more pungent than others. Lasting options include lemon verbena and lemon balm. (Click here to learn more about lemony herbs.)

Growing Potpourri Plants

Scented geraniums grow well in pots and offer a variety of pleasing scents.

Most of the summer plants for potpourri are common garden plants that thrive in full sun and well-drained, fertile garden soil. In-ground soils should be fortified with quality compost for best performance. Tender potpourri plants, such as scented geraniums, grow very well in containers. For these, a porous potting mix, such as Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, is a good choice.

Drying Potpourri Plants

Hanging is one of many ways to dry plants for potpourri.

Thorough drying is absolutely crucial for the creation of a potpourri.  Moisture in leaves or petals may cause mold and put a damper on their scent quality. Adding drops of essential oil (lavender, rose, etc.) can help fix a stronger fragrance.

You cannot make potpourri until all plant parts are thoroughly dry. There are several drying methods to try. Here are four:

  1. Hang herbs in a cool, dry place until fully dry.
  2. Spread the plant parts on newspaper or paper towels on a tray in a single layer. Allow all to dry completely in a cool dark place.  This can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
  3. Dry materials in an oven set at 180 degrees F for about two hours or until the various plant parts are completely dry.  Larger, thicker material takes longer to dry.  Check frequently and remove the plants as they become slightly brittle.
  4. Use a food dehydrator for fast, efficient drying.

Potpourri possibilities are endless and depend upon personal preference and what plants are available in your yard and garden for harvesting.  Here are two reliable, wonderfully fragrant recipes. They can be used for linen or drawer sachets or home aromatherapy.

Classic Summer Potpourri

Mix ingredients gently to keep them intact and looking beautiful.


  • ½ cup dried rose petals
  • ½ cup dried lavender flowers
  • 1/3 cup dried small rose buds
  • 1/3 cup dried scented geranium leaves
  • one orange peel, cut into thin slices and dried
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2-3 drops of lavender or rose essential oil or both, mixed with a teaspoon of water.


  1. Mix all of the plant parts together in a bowl (make sure they are thoroughly dry).
  2. Sprinkle or spray dried plant parts with the cinnamon and essential oil and water mixture and mix gently.
  3. Seal the potpourri in a glass jar for at least a week to allow the fragrances to combine.
  4. When the potpourri is strongly fragrant it is ready to use!

Holiday Potpourri

Evergreen needles, bayberries, and rose hips are just some of the winter potpourri ingredients that can come from the garden.

Many landscape evergreens—pines, spruces, junipers, and Japanese cedars—give off spicy, resinous scents that evoke the spirit of the holiday season. Let these be the base of your winter potpourri.


  • 1 cup of dried evergreen needles or greens
  • 1 cup of dried bayberry leaves or berries
  • 1 tablespoon of whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 orange rind cut into narrow strips and dried (orange slices also work)
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 10 drops cedar essential oil mixed with a tablespoon of water.

(You can also add the dried berries of holly, beautyberry, or pyracantha as well as rose hips and small pinecones for interest.)


  1. Mix all of the plant parts together in a bowl (make sure they are thoroughly dry).
  2. Spray or sprinkle them with the mixture of the cedar essential oil and water.
  3. Seal the potpourri in a glass jar to fix the fragrance.
  4. Set it out in bowls to scent your rooms.

These are two of many potpourri recipes to try. You may even create your own to suit your senses. The key is growing your own components for freshness and longer lasting scent.

Recipe: Chicken Fajitas with Garden-Fresh Vegetables

FajitasFajitas may seem like they have lots of ingredients, but they are so easy to make. It’s especially convenient (and more delicious) when half of the ingredients are from your garden. Making your own fajita marinade from scratch makes the recipe that much better. Most of the time is spent with the prep and fresh marinade. Cooking time is quick!

Marinade Ingredients

3 limes, juiced
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves roughly chopped
3 chipotle chiles in Adobo sauce
3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon fresh cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Other Ingredients

2 large, butterflied chicken breasts
1 green pepper, seeded and sliced
1 yellow pepper, seeded and sliced
1 red pepper, seeded and sliced
1 large Spanish onion, sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
8 warm flour tortillas
1 fresh avocado, sliced
sour cream

Purée the marinade ingredients together, then pour them in a resealable plastic bag, and add the butterflied chicken. Seal the meat in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours before cooking.

Place a large skillet on the stove and set to medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add your sliced veggies to the skillet and cook them for 4-5 minutes, until almost al dente. Remove veggies from the skillet, and place them aside on a plate.

Add the second tablespoon of vegetable oil to the skillet and add the marinaded chicken. Cook the butterflied chicken for at least 5-6 minutes per side. (Cut the chicken in the center to make sure it is fully cooked before removing from the pan.) Cover the chicken breasts with foil and allow them to rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Return the vegetables to the hot pan and flash cook them for another 3 to 4 minutes. Slice the chicken breasts and place them on a plate with the hot veggies. (If you have a cast-iron fajita plate to serve them on, even better!)

Roll the fajitas into a warm flour tortilla dressed with sliced avocado, salsa, and sour cream, and enjoy!

Recipes: Holiday Favorites from Black Gold

Making a simple gingerbread house is easy!

This is the time of year to feel thankful for the past year,  hopeful for the new, and to share food and festivities with friends. Black Gold employees took the time to share some favorite seasonal recipes. Hopefully, these time-tested treats will also bring some holiday cheer to our customers and supporters. Happy Holidays!

Holiday Gingered Sangria

Holiday Gingered Sangria (Image by Lobo)

Shawnee S. Vetanovetz is Black Gold’s Retail Customer Support Specialist, and she likes a holiday party as much as anyone else. Here’s a fast and delicious gingered sangria she enjoys making around the holidays that looks as great as it tastes.


1 bottle (750 ml) good Cabernet Sauvignon
½ cup dark rum
1 (12 oz.) can ginger ale
Juice from ½ small lime
Juice from ½ small lemon
1 lemon, lime, and orange sliced
1 slice fresh ginger


Mix together all liquid ingredients together in a glass pitcher.

Add the slices of lemon, lime, orange, and ginger.

Refrigerate (to chill) for 1 – 2 hours, if desired. If you prefer a fruitier sangria, allow the mix to refrigerate and “marry” for up to 24 hours.



Spiced Candied Popcorn

Spiced Candied Popcorn

Sales Rep Miranda Kelly takes care of Black Gold sales in the California region, and in her spare time, she loves to cook. This recipe was adapted from one she found online sometime back. Now she makes it every year. It’s a little like Cracker Jack but healthier and tastier.


4-6 cups plain popcorn
1 cup raw chopped cashews or pecans
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

In a small pot set to low heat, melt the butter and honey together. Mix in the cinnamon, ginger, and salt.

Put the nuts in an extra large mixing bowl. Coat them with about a tablespoon of the butter/honey/spice mixture.

Spread the coated nuts onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and bake for 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the same large bowl evenly coat the plain popcorn with the remaining butter/honey mixture, being sure to remove any unpopped kernels.

After the nuts have been in the oven for 6 minutes, take out the tray, add the popcorn to it, and mix it all up together. Stick the tray back in the oven and set the timer for 6 minutes.

After 6 minutes open the oven and stir or shake the mixture around on the baking sheet. Set the timer for 4 more minutes.

Once again open the oven and stir/shake the mixture so there are no hot spots that could get burnt. Set the timer for 2 more minutes at which point the mixture will once again need to be checked/stirred.

Repeat the process of checking/stirring the popcorn mixture every minute then take it out of the oven once it turns a dark brown. (Be careful! It can burn easily toward the end!) My total bake time is generally 6 minutes for the nuts then an additional 8 or 10 minutes once the popcorn has been added.

The popcorn and nuts will be slightly wet right out of the oven but will harden as they cool.


Fruited Cranberry Sauce

Fruited Cranberry Sauce (Image by John Cummings)

The holidays are not complete without this delicious homemade cranberry sauce, which is made yearly by Jessie Keith who manages communications for Black Gold. Truly, it is not your average cranberry sauce. It’s loaded with fruit, nuts, and Grand Marnier, making it more like a dessert than a condiment for turkey. It even tastes great on pumpkin pie!


1 cup sugar
3/4  cup water
2 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup finely chopped apple (a tart cooking apple is best)
3/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup Grand Marnier
1 large orange, zested and juiced


Boil sugar and water in a medium saucepan until the sugar has totally dissolved, around 5 minutes. Add in the fresh cranberries, return to a boil, then lower the temperature to medium-low heat and simmer for 8 minutes. Add the apples, golden raisins, orange juice, orange zest, and Grand Marnier and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Make sure all the cranberries have popped by squishing those that are still whole. Remove from the heat and let the sauce cool. Mix in the pecans before serving.

Add the mix atop a piece of pumpkin pie or enjoy with a festive turkey dinner.


Jessie’s Favorite Gingerbread

Jessie’s children decorated this gingerbread house!

This amazing, tasty gingerbread is another favorite of Jessie Keith’s. Each year she uses it as a base to make gingerbread houses with her children.

Wet Ingredients
¾ cup salted butter
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup dark molasses (not black strap!)
¼ cup warm water
1 tablespoon fresh, macerated ginger
1 tablespoon fresh orange zest

Dry Ingredients
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
A healthy pinch of salt
3 ¼ cups sifted flour


Cream butter and sugar until fluffy then mix in the molasses and water. Sift the dry ingredients then add them to the wet until fully combined (be sure not to over mix).

Flour your hands and pull the dough together into a flattened ball and chill for at least 12 hours. Before you roll the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Flour up a board and pin and cut your dough in two. Roll out the dough to around 1/4 inch thickness. Be sure to keep the board and pin floured to stop the dough from sticking.

Cut out your shapes and reroll any excess dough, though try not to overwork it as this results in tough cookies. Place the rolled cookies onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. The less baked, the chewier the cookie. Allow the cookies to cool before decorating. Royal icing is the best for gingerbread house building and gel food coloring provides the deepest icing colors.

Recipe: Secret Chocolate Chip Cookies (with Kale!)

chocolatechipcookies-300x225Whipping up desserts is inevitable when you have kids, so why not add unexpected healthy ingredients to their sweet treats?This recipe offers a surprising twist on the classic chocolate chip cookie with the addition of kale!  Chopped vitamin-rich kale leaves are added to the cookie dough, and believe it or not, the kids will never know!

Kale is most in season in fall, when the kids have returned to school. So, this is the best time to make these green-infused chocolate chip cookies.


  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter
  • 1 cup of light brown sugar (or you can opt for Turbinado, or unprocessed cane sugar)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1.5 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped, fresh kale (Other leafy greens, such as spinach and collards, can also be substituted.)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until well combined. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking soda and salt. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet until just combined. Hand chop the leafy greens until fine and pack them into the cup. Add the leafy greens to the mixer along with the chocolate chips, and mix until all of the coarse ingredients are evenly distributed. Chill the dough for an hour before baking.

After an hour, the dough should be cold, which helps keep the cookies from flattening out too much during baking. Line one or two cookie sheets with parchment (depending on the size of your oven), and roll out ping-pong-ball-sized cookies in the palm of your hands. Space them evenly on the cookie sheet(s), leaving about two inches between cookies. Bake for about 10-15 minutes. A shorter baking time will yield softer cookies and longer time crunchier cookies.

Recipe: Grilled Spring Asparagus

grilled-asparagusAsparagus is one of those foods that when barbecued needs little flavor enhancement because the natural flavors are so incredible on their own. It tastes even better then freshly picked from the garden in spring.

For an easy and healthy vegetarian/vegan side dish for your barbecue, try this easy recipe for grilled spring asparagus.


  • 1 pound fresh asparagus
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • The zest and juice from 1 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • grated Parmesan cheese to taste


  1. Toss together all ingredients, making sure asparagus is well coated with garlic, salt, olive oil, lemon juice, and pepper.
  2. Place on the grill and allow to cook for at least 5- 7 minutes, turning occasionally. The asparagus should be bright green and still have some bite.

Once off of the grill, sprinkle the grilled asparagus with lemon zest and Parmesan cheese. This flavorful vegetable also tastes great over pasta with chopped fresh tomatoes a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Asparagus officinalis 'Jersey Knight'
This recipe tastes best with spring asparagus harvested straight from the garden or purchased at spring market.

Traditional Fall Harvest Pies with a Twist

Savory tomato pie is a perfect side for dinner or addition to breakfast.
Savory tomato pie is a perfect side for dinner or addition to a holiday breakfast.

Unlike the cool berry and citrus pies of summertime, pies made with fall fruits and veggies are warmer, spicier, and richer in flavor. Choosing a dessert to make for holiday gatherings can be a struggle when one family member craves a deep dish apple pie with a flaky crust and gooey interior, perfectly complimented with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, but another guest insists on an old-fashioned pumpkin pie, aromatic with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. Continue reading “Traditional Fall Harvest Pies with a Twist”

Easy, Garden-Fresh Summer Salsa

A mix of peppers, both hot and sweet, is homemade salsa.
A mix of peppers, both hot and sweet, is recommended for really good homemade salsa.

Warm, late-summer days mean lots of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and warm-season herbs for ardent gardeners and farmers market lovers. And what do these veggies all have in common? They’re the ingredients for homemade salsa—making this the best time of year for salsa making and canning. The bigger the batches you make, the more you have to enjoy through late fall and winter when summer is nothing more than a sunny memory. Continue reading “Easy, Garden-Fresh Summer Salsa”

Growing Strawberries with Success

Sometimes old-time gardening advice is the best advice. When I searched for the most complete tips for growing the best strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa), I eventually turned to two classic gardening books, How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method (J.I. Rodale, 1961) and the Cyclopedia of Horticulture (L.H. Bailey, 1902). Both offered a wealth of information on strawberry growing. In fact, my new strawberry patch is already producing good fruit!

Preparing Strawberry Beds

A little bit of seed-free straw or hay makes a great bedding for strawberry plants.
Fresh strawberries for the picking

When preparing my beds for my strawberries, I took Rodale and Bailey’s advice and chose a large space, which I amended and mounded so the ground would be rich and light while offering superb drainage. According to Rodale, “Strawberries need rich, moisture-retentive but light soil in a warm position.” He suggested planting them on a South-facing slope, so I provided the next best thing by creating a mounded bed in full sun. This year I amended with Black Gold Garden Soil, which feeds plants for up to 6 months, and topped the beds off with a layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. In the fall I will add a little fertilizer formulated for fruit and berries.

My mounded strawberry beds were raised to a height of 6 inches to ensure excellent drainage. Then I top dressed with a little seed-free hay to make sure any developing strawberries would not rot on the moist ground. I plan to add some hay or light mulch once again in the fall to keep plants protected through winter and in spring. Strawberry plants can be hit by spring frosts, so it pays to protect them for the season.

Spacing Strawberries

Spacing strawberries properly is important because better spacing will ensure larger berries. As L.H. Bailey put it, ” For the very finest berries, each plant is allowed a space or hill by itself.” Truly, cramming strawberry plants together will yield smaller berries, so for each of my plants I allotted an 18″ x 18″ space around each. This has proven to be ideal. My plants are already sending out new shoots and producing sizable berries.

Irrigating Strawberries

Keeping berries well irrigated is also essential for good crops. I make sure the soil is slightly moist to a thumb’s depth before watering again. Too much water can encourage root and fruit rot while too little can cause developing fruits to be aborted, so maintaining a good moisture balance is essential.

Choosing and Harvesting Strawberries

A bowl of freshly harvested strawberries.

Strawberries harvested at the right time should be sweet and red through and though Successfully growing strawberries starts with choosing a great variety. Some strawberries are June bearing (single season)–meaning they produce just one large crop early in the season–while others are everbearing (day neutral)–meaning they produce one large spring crop and then continue producing intermittently through summer and especially in fall. Additionally, varieties may be early-, midseason-, mid-late season-, or late-bearing. I turned to my favorite source for superb berries, Nourse Farms, based in Whately, MA. Their stock is reasonable, always healthy, and they have a great selection. This year I chose the flavorful, everbearing ‘Albion‘.

Replanting Strawberry Runners

Straw creates a nice protective base for strawberries.

The last important piece to understand about strawberries is how to maintain their runners and when to replant. Strawberry parent plants need to be replaced around every three years. Strawberries send out runners, each runner terminating in a new plant. The runners need to be managed to keep plants from becoming overcrowded (once again try to maintain reasonable space between plants to encourage larger berries), but the new plantlets produced by runners can eventually be nurtured to used to replace tired parent plants. Unwanted runners can simply be snipped away or moved to create an even larger berry patch.

A perfectly formed and ripened strawberry is a wonderful thing. Berries with fully developed sugars should be red through and through and have a balanced tart and sweet flavor. When strawberry season is on, I always take the time to make strawberry rhubarb crumble (recipe below). It’s my family’s favorite way to enjoy garden-grown strawberries, aside from eating them fresh with cream. There’s nothing like picking our own for whatever strawberry delight we might create during strawberry season. Thanks Rodale and Bailey!

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Fresh strawberry rhubarb crumble is a delicious way to enjoy garden-fresh strawberries.


5 cups quartered fresh strawberries

3 cups thinly sliced fresh rhubarb

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup tapioca

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and a tsp of finely grated zest

3/4 cup white whole wheat flour

3/4 cup old-fashioned oats

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

Pinch salt

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, sliced into thin pats



Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a 7-by-11-inch baking dish.

Mix the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, tapioca, lemon juice and zest together in a large bowl, and pour the mixture into the greased baking dish.

Add the flour, oats, light brown sugar, and salt in a medium-sized bowl and whisk together. Place the diced butter to the mixture, and work it together with your fingers until it’s crumbly. Evenly distribute the crumb mixture on top of the fruit.

Bake the crisp in the oven for 40 minutes. The fruit filling should bubble along the sides and the top should be golden brown.

Serve it with ice cream if warm or whipped cream if cold.

* The same filling can be placed in a double pie crust and baked for the same period of time, if you’d prefer pie.

Old gardening books can sometimes offer the best growing advice!
Old gardening books can sometimes yield the best growing advice!