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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Saving Seed, Here we have the Zinnia

September is the time of seasonal change when plants near the end of their cycle and set seed. Perennial flowers go to seed and then die back to a dormancy state for the winter. The above the ground parts of the plant are cut back after frost to about six inches above the soil surface and the root system rests till the following spring. Annuals grow to maturity, go to seed and die, as the life cycle is over in one growing season.

The rules for gathering seed are generally the same for most of our annual flowers but here we focus on the zinnia.
Zinnias will reseed themselves, so it you like where they were located or just don't get to gathering any of them, let them alone to dry on the stalk and clean up the old plants in the spring. Between the wind and the birds those seeds will be scattered here and there without any efforts from you. But if you want to choose certain colors or want to have seeds to put in another area, then here is how to do it:


Zinnias are a favorite for anyone wanting a flowerbed to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and insect pollinators. They are easy to grow, come in a wide array of colors, bloom all summer long, are drought resistant, pest hardy, not fussy about soil and if you choose, you can get varieties up to five feet tall. These beauties from Mexico do love the sun and warm weather so it is important to wait till the soil warms up in the spring to plant the seeds.

Only save seed from open-pollinated varieties. There are some hybrid zinnia types that won't grow true to the parent from saved seed. Here is a list of varieties that are open-pollinated:
Green Envy
Bright Jewels
Canary Bird
Candy Cane
California Giant
Lilac Queen
Miss Wilmott
Persian Carpet
State Fair Mix
Cut'n Come Again

Choose the strongest, biggest blossoms for seed saving. Though cutting off the spent flowers is tempting because of their unsightliness, resist the urge if you want the seed. The only way to get the seeds is to let the pods dry out on the plant. 

These flowers are drying but not ready yet to cut off:

The flower head has to be completely dry. It'll be dark brown and dry when ready to cut. Trying to harvest too early will result in immature seeds that won't germinate. Choose the ones you want and deadhead the rest. You won't need to save every flower unless you plan on selling them or giving them away. For your own use you'll be surprised how many seeds come from just one flower head.

Cut off the dried flower heads and choose one of two ways to prepare to save them:

Some people just put the entire seed head, petals and all, into a paper bag and store them in a dry, cool, dark place for the winter.
Other people like to do the work now rather than in the spring.
The dried petals need to be pulled off and the seed cone torn apart to gather the seeds. It'll be messy so do it over a tray or something to catch the seed and separate them from the dried petals. Once you pull off the dried petals, what you'll be looking at is an arrow-shaped base which is the seed bundle. This bundle is torn apart to expose and separate all the seeds.

There are also two ways to save your seeds:

Put them into a paper bag or envelope and store in a dark, cool, dry location away from heat and moisture. The bag needs to breathe so don't use plastic. If stored in a sealed plastic bag there is the risk of condensation from moisture and heat. Seeds stored properly have a good germination rate that will decrease at about 10% per year.

The other method of storage is refrigeration or freezer. This eliminates the three risks to seeds which are heat, air and the problem of condensation. The deterioration process is halted and seed can last for years with little drop in germination rates. Put the seeds in ziploc plastic bags or tightly sealed containers and store in your refrigerator or freezer till needed. In the late spring when you pull out those seeds, don't take more than you plan to plant at the time. You don't want the seeds defrosting and then putting those you don't need back into the cold.

Seed saving can turn into a really fun hobby, not just for flowers but for your garden vegetables as well. Depending on the vegetable, the seed saving process may differ from annual flowers.
Here is a good book on the subject of seed saving:

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blackstrap Molasses...Good-bye Fatigue, Cramps

Starting a conversation with the phrase "back in the olden days" may immediately cause eyes to roll, with the thought being "here we go again", but many times those old days had the right idea.

Earl Mindell's Food as Medicine is a firm believer that what you eat can help prevent everything from colds to heart disease to cancer. The words "food" and "medicine" are once again being said in the same breath as physicians realize that it is necessary to treat the "whole body" rather than thinking that each bodily system needed its own specialist without the need to collaborate with one another to understand what is really going on with a patient.

Years ago before white sugar was the norm, blackstrap molasses was the principal sweetener used in cooking and baking. Cost and availability are usually the reason behind peoples' eating habits. The more processed a food gets the nutritional value usually decreases. Sugar is no exception.

Molasses is made from the sugar cane, a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Light and brown, powdered and granulated white sugars are all highly refined with little nutritional value. The natural sugars we see in health food stores are made with fewer steps in their processing. The fewer the steps, the less impact on the environment as well as more of the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals will remain in the final product.

Blackstrap molasses contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is the syrup that remains after the sugar cane is made into table sugar. Blackstrap is the most concentrated and carmelized type. There are three different types of molasses: unsulfured, sulfured, and blackstrap.  To make molasses from sugar cane there are two tasks required. First the sugar cane juice has to be separated from the pulp, and then the sugar (sucrose) has to be extracted from the juice. To do that there are what they call "rounds of processing".

After a first round of processing, which involves spinning the juice and heating, the remaining syrup is the light molasses seen in the grocery store. It is light in color and has a mild taste. A second round of processing is done to extract more sucrose and that result is what is processed and sold as table sugar. The resulting syrup from that round is the dark molasses seen in the grocery store.

Finally, with a third round of processing, the result is known as blackstrap molasses. This syrup is dark, thick and the most nutritious. 

Significant amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium and selenium are all found in blackstrap molasses.
Adding blackstrap molasses to the diet is like adding a source of power to your system. 

Anyone needing a boost in iron intake should consider working molasses into their food intake. Iron is critical for the proper transport of iron to all bodily tissues. Proper levels of hemoglobin and the formation of new cells in the body are maintained with ideal iron absorption. Compared to red meat, blackstrap molasses is lower in calories and doesn't contain any fat. 

Other health benefits of molasses include relief from diabetes, obesity, stress, acne and other skin problems, constipation, headaches, arthritis, anemia and even cancer. Bone health, electrolyte balance, hair care, the nervous system, stronger immune system and wound healing are all helped along with the nutritional benefits of blackstrap molasses.

It has also been found that blackstrap molasses is one of the best remedies around for menstrual cramps!
This is another one of those old-fashioned remedies our grandmothers swore by and fortunately such knowledge is making a comeback. 
Once a day, combine a tbsp of raw apple cider vinegar and a tbsp of blackstrap molasses in a glass of water. Raw Apple cider vinegar and raw honey is another combination that has survived the test of time for maintaining vitality. But being blackstrap molasses is so high in vitamins and minerals, it is ideal for helping with anemia, a real problem for menstruating women. Get the nutritional needs back in balance and a lot of those PMS symptoms will resolve themselves.   

Sulfur dioxide is often added to lighten the color of the molasses and extend its shelf life by preventing it from fermenting. Being there is a relationship between sulfur metabolism and sulfur dioxide and sulfites, the potential problems with allergic reactions to sulfites in foods may be good enough reason to look for unsulfured molasses. Another reason for that choice is that sulfur dioxide is a component in the production of acid rain.

It is doubtful you will find anyone today slathering their morning toast with blackstrap molasses as was done in Colonial days, but below are two great ways to sneak it in:

Iced Blackstrap Molasses (Earth Clinic) 

1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
hot water
3/4 cup milk or dairy substitute

Add the molasses to a glass and add just enough hot water to cover the molasses. Stir until dissolved. Add the ice and top off with the milk, soymilk, almond milk or whatever you choose. Vanilla or chocolate almond, soy or coconut milk are all tasty additions.

Ginger Molasses Muffins (Marlene Falsetti from Taste of Home magazine)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar

Beat the above three ingredients in a large size bowl.

1 egg
1 cup blackstrap molasses

Beat in the molasses and the egg.

In another bowl combine and sift together:

3 cups all-purpose flour or 1/2 all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup wheat flour 
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt

Stir the dry mixture into the molasses mixture alternatively with 

1 cup water

Fill greased or paper lined muffin cups 2/3 full.
Bake at 350 degrees for 18 - 20 minutes.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes and remove muffins to a wire rack.
Makes about 20 muffins

Another hearty muffin recipe:

Molasses Raisin Muffins

Blackstrap Molasses Cookies (the hungry hounds blog)

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup corn syrup

Using a stand mixer or a hand mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar together at high speed for 3 minutes for stand mixer or 6 minutes with hand mixer.

Add egg, molasses and syrup
Mix to combine

2 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt

In another bowl, sift together the above dry ingredients.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter egg mixture. Mix only enough to blend together.

Refrigerate for at least an hour. Allows the dough to firm up for easier handling.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees 

Make a sugar topping using:
1/2 cup sugar

Make dough balls with your hands and roll in the sugar
Place on greased cookie sheets
Bake 11 minutes
You are looking for the edges to be done, but the middles to appear under-cooked, this slight under baking helps cookies achieve the wanted soft texture yet crackly appearance

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Nicotine Habit, Why Smoking is so Tough to Give up

 As with many medical issues, people often don't change their lifestyles until faced with their own mortality by losing their health. So what is in tobacco anyway? 

Tobacco plants evolved the ability to make a nerve gas against insects. That ability is called nicotine, an alkaloid pesticide that plants evolved to defend themselves against insect pests. 

Cigarettes are the source of many irritants and poisons such as: reactive metal fragments, ammonia fumes, the paint stripper chemical acetone, hydrogen sulfide, methane, hydrogen cyanide, nitric oxide and formaldehyde. That certainly is not an inclusive list. According to David Bodanis in his book, "The Secret House", the reason cigarettes are the source of all these is because once lit the cigarette makes them itself.  During inhalation the glowing tip of the cigarette can reach 1,700 degrees F. That heat rips the tobacco and paper compounds into their constituent parts and from those basic parts, builds them up again into the poisonous, complex chemicals we started with. This is possible because under the intense heat hydrogen and oxygen come together to form water, which then superheats into steam and condenses as it cools. The chemicals have time to form in between the puffs on the cigarette which starts that process again and again. All that is going on just inside the cigarette, the dim glow behind the red hot tip.

Now imagine what is really in that smoke stream anyone around you has no choice but to breathe. The newly created chemicals of poison clot together in extremely small balls. By the time the cigarette is burned half-way down those little hydrogen cyanide balls are falling, ready to stick to whatever or whomever they land. In addition to that, the exhalation from the smoker is spewing out ammonia, cyanide, formaldehyde and mucus constituents from the nasal lining. 

According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, "Nicotine is one of the most toxic addictions-especially because of its physiological effect on the rest of the body. But the addiction itself is manifested in not only an emotional need for the drug but also a physical need; your brain tells your body it needs nicotine to prevent the symptoms of withdrawal. One reason that nicotine is addictive is that it creates pleasure in the brain, causing a feeling of relaxation. Over time, nicotine keeps your brain from supplying these chemicals that create these good feelings, and you end up craving more nicotine and the feeling it produces."

Everyone is told not to smoke. So why do people continue with such a harmful habit?  In his book, "The Secret Family", David Bodanis claims that nicotine works on the limbic system cells in the brain. By giving a boost in self-confidence many people crave, they soon think they need the stress relief cigarettes appear to offer.  Another reason that people, especially girls, enjoy their smokes is because the nicotine slows the stomach's usual movements which diminishes an appetite. Supposedly ideal for anyone trying to stay slim or lose weight. Women don't seem to realize that their idealistic body image could become an oxygen starved, wrinkled figure with thinning bones prone to fracture. Little is more harmful for maintaining a youthful facial complexion than the damage from free radicals caused by cigarettes.

The tobacco industry understands human nature. Young people vulnerable to peer pressure and normal insecurities are at a higher risk for poor decision making. Once the addictive properties of nicotine take hold, often people smoke for years until they can finally break the habit. Truth be told, many smokers claim to actually enjoy their cigarettes. Reaching for a cigarette while under emotional stress can be like having a good friend. Only true friends don't haunt you down the road.

A little encourage from popular herbalist Susun Weed:
"Tobacco is highly addictive and you can beat it. Get an extra edge on quitting by nourishing yourself with a handful of freshly toasted sunflower seeds and a cup of nettle or oatstraw infusion daily for 4-6 weeks before you stop smoking. Sunflower seeds reduce cravings for nicotine by filling nicotine receptor sites. Nettles and oatstraw strengthen nerves and cushion the impact of withdrawal."

Susun recommends the following book to help quit the habit:

The No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Own-Way Guide to Quitting Smoking by Tom Ferguson, MD, Ballantine, 1987.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Late Season Nesters....American Goldfinch

While it may seem to us that the harvest season begins the winding down of summer, in actuality, the latter part of the season is nesting time for some of our bird friends. Cardinals, Mourning Doves and Robins all have multiple broods right up until the fall months. 
But the American Goldfinch doesn't even begin to nest until late June.

The reason for the goldfinches being such late nesters is that rather than feeding their young insects, their search is for seeds. Wildflowers are going to seed by July and August, just in time to be the food source for goldfinch hatchlings. 

When you plan your wildlife friendly landscaping, in addition to choosing native plants that offer food sources, also consider what can offer nesting material. Seed fluff is the type of seed from plants such as thistles and milkweed. Goldfinches utilize this fluff to line their nests to create a soft and warm home for their nestlings as the nights begin to get chillier. 

Sunflower going to seed

Once your sunflowers start going to seed, you can hear when the goldfinches arrive. Their sound is very distinctive and pleasant. It is wonderful to hear their chatter and song amidst the drooping flower heads of these bountiful plants.

Milkweed going to seed
Milkweeds, sunflowers and native thistles are excellent choices for plants that will attract goldfinches to your yard and gardens. Many people aren't too keen on allowing thistles to go to seed in their garden areas. Granted, it isn't pleasant to work around the prickly thistle plant and even more aggravating to enjoy going barefoot and stepping on such plants. But if you have a naturalized, out of the way place that you want to encourage natural plantings, then let the thistles alone and allow them to offer the birds their seed fluff.

Other late blooming plants to have in your yard and gardens which will attract late nesters are Coneflowers, Asters and Goldenrods. These plants not only offer seeds, but they also attract insects which are a food source for many types of birds. Mourning doves and robins depend on insects rather than seeds, so having a variety of plant types is important.

Plant host trees such as the Oaks, which in turn attract caterpillars, also an important food source for the adults and chicks.

Shrubs (preferably berrying types, an example being the Viburnums) will provide shelter and hiding spots for the fledglings as they learn to fly and are more able to evade predators. Young birds are so vulnerable at this stage and many fall victim to prowling animals in search of an easy catch.

Provide a water source. Birds definitely need water, but it is also very enjoyable for them to have a place to just splash around.

Here is an excellent post on the American Goldfinch by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Fall Asters, Goldenrod

New England Fall Asters

Viburnums and Carolina Rose