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Erin SheehanI wrote last year about how to make your own mustard. It’s surprisingly easy to do, and I wanted to take it a step further. This year I decided to plant my own mustard so that I could harvest the seeds and use them to make my own mustard. What I didn’t realize, but should have, is just how small mustard seeds are, how laborious harvesting them can be, and how many I’d need to harvest to make this dream a reality!

I grew both yellow and brown mustard in pots on the back porch this year. As a bonus, the greens off the plants were delicious in salads. Spicy, a little hot, a lot like mustard, actually. A little went a very long way.

Mustard plant 

After the mustard plants bolted and completely went to seed, I had no clue what to do with them so I just left the containers out on the porch, hoping the seeds would mature. Of course, I left them too long and the seed pods started bursting, to the delight of the neighborhood birds. Jim saw them at first eying the plants with interest and ultimately clustering around the plants eating the seeds. Hurry-up, time to harvest! I cut off all the foliage and brought it inside ASAP.

To separate out the seeds, first I rubbed open the seed pods with my fingers – the yellow mustard plant had a prickly seed pod so I had to use gloves. The chaff and the seeds all fell down onto a newspaper I had laid out to catch them. The real difficulty comes in separating the seeds from the chaff. The seeds are miniscule, and it’s hard to remove the chaff without getting the seeds all over the place. Ultimately I resorted to blowing lightly on the whole pile, blowing away most of the chaff and just a few seeds.


In the end what I have is enough seeds to either make a very small batch of mustard this year or to, you guessed it, to plant mustard again next year.


I now realize that to have a large enough crop to actually make mustard, you have to plant a whole lot more mustard than I did.

So this experiment wasn’t a success but it wasn't a failure either. I loved the mustard greens and the process was enjoyable. I wouldn’t call it cost-effective to grow mustard to make your own mustard, but it’s a fun DIY project anyway!


Erin SheehanI try to grow six to eight basil plants every year on the back porch.

I find basil does just fine in pots, so no reason to waste garden space growing it. After much hand-wringing over the state of my basil plants this year, they somehow pulled through. With our unusually cold spring this year my basil had trouble. A couple of plants didn’t survive overnight lows in the 40s that came out of nowhere in May. The plants that made it simply didn’t grow, just staying the same size day after day.



Luckily my mom is more cautious about putting her seedlings outside than I am. She was nice enough to share a couple of her extra basil plants with me. Once the weather finally warmed up, even my stunted plants took off nicely. Incredibly, it’s already time to harvest.


I use fresh basil for canning spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and bruschetta. Garden tomatoes generally aren’t ripe for the first basil harvest, so it gets made into pesto.

Pesto is super-easy to make. Here’s a basic recipe to get you started:

Simple Pesto

4 cups basil leaves (up to 2 cups parsley can be substituted)
1/2 cup walnuts (or pine nuts, but they are very costly)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (Romano cheese also works)
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Put all ingredients into your food processor except oil. Start blending and pour oil in through the pour tube on your processor. Process until smooth. Add more or less garlic and cheese if you like, to taste.


Pesto can be frozen in jars and in ice cube trays. I just cover a cookie sheet with waxed paper and make mounds about 1/2 cup each. Once the mounds are frozen, I store them in freezer bags. I use them mostly on pizza, which is pretty much a staple around our house. Let me know how your pesto comes out! 


Erin SheehanHummus has gotten quite popular lately, judging by all the different kinds that have cropped up on the grocery store shelves. And for good reason: It’s tasty and healthy. Just a few years ago, hummus was almost impossible to find, but at least around here it’s become common. It’s very easy to put together and has endless variations so no need to buy it. You can save a little money by making your own and also craft it exactly to your own taste.

If you have a pressure cooker you can save even more money by cooking up dry garbanzo beans rather than buying canned. Here’s a quick-and-easy hummus recipe. Let me know if you give it a try!

Basic Hummus

hummus1  1/2 to 2 cups cooked garbanzo beans (or 1 15-ounce can)
4 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons tahini
1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water

Add all ingredients to food processor and pulse until completely smooth. Taste and add more lemon juice, tahini or garlic as needed. Keep refrigerated for up to one week.

 Some tasty add-ins to change things up are: cilantro/adobe peppers; roasted red peppers/olives; sun-dried tomatoes/oregano; edamame; guacamole; Greek yogurt/dill; or pesto.

In the spring, we eat a lot of hummus sandwiches with loads of lettuce from the garden, and, in the summer, we make hummus/tomato sandwiches. Last fall, with all our pumpkin, I made a pumpkin hummus that was delicious, but that’s a post for another day. 


Erin SheehanIn 2009, we had a bumper cucumber crop. Our harvest was so good that we had all we could eat, and I canned pickles and relish for the first time – 1,000-Island pickles using my grandmother’s recipe and cucumber relish using my mom’s recipe.



Then came 2010. And 2011. And 2012. All three years, we sowed cucumber seeds in the ground and faithfully watered. Each year the plants grew and thrived, but about when they started to blossom they abruptly wilted and, soon after, died. So discouraging! Last summer, having pulled the last of my remaining relish out of the canning cellar, I had to can relish with cucumbers my mom BOUGHT! I felt like such a failure.

Last year, Jim tried to make up for our past disastrous efforts by planting an entire package of cucumber seeds along the front fence of our home garden plot. He thought if we over-planted perhaps we’d end up with at least a few cucumbers. A few weeks after planting, I noticed a heavy infestation of yellow-and-black-striped insects on the plants. Not having any idea what they were, I called up my favorite gardening guru: Mom. She correctly identified them as cucumber beetles.

bugsReading up on cucumber beetles, I realized that they were the likely cause of our previous crop failures. Although the beetles themselves don’t generally do significant damage, they carry a bacterium that infects the plant with bacterial wilt and subsequently kills it. The beetles also eat squash plants. Our concentration of squash and cucumbers in one area of the garden attracted mass quantities of these destructive bugs.

The results from the organic control methods seemed quite discouraging and, after three years of sacrificing our crop to this beetle, I didn’t want to risk another crop failure. Jim and I went to the garden center and picked up “Eight Garden Dust” by Bonide. We carefully followed the instructions and dusted our plants. Just once was enough. Although the beetles did eventually return, we had killed enough of them at the critical time – before the plants were strong enough to survive the onslaught.

I’m not proud of using a pesticide in our garden, but the amount we used was very small, in a single dose on a controlled area, and the reward was great. We harvested more than 250(!) beautiful, tasty cucumbers.


We delivered cucumbers to neighbors much as most gardeners foist zucchinis on others – anonymously and under the cloak of darkness. Several dozen went to the local food pantry. I also replenished my supply of pickles and relish, and we ate cucumbers for both lunch and dinner for weeks. Will we use the dust again this year? Our cucumbers are in blossom so it’s time to decide. I can’t say what we’ll do, but I’m grateful for last year’s amazing cucumber harvest. If anyone has successfully combated cucumber beetles without the use of pesticides, please post your stories below! 


Erin SheehanWeeds overrun our property in June and July. All around the garden fence and in the driveway cracks, weeds grow out of control. We spend hours pulling them, and a day or two later we’re right back where we started. We don’t like to use Round-up or things like it so Jim did a little research online for non-toxic weed remedies.


First Jim read that straight-up vinegar will kill weeds when applied directly to the foliage. I don’t know if any of you have tried this but it did not work for us. The weeds grew unabated after repeated vinegar applications. Back to the drawing board. Jim then found this recipe:

Homemade Weed Killer

1 gallon white vinegar
2 cups Epsom Salts
1/4 cup Dawn dish soap

Put all ingredients into a sprayer and thoroughly soak plants on a warm, sunny day. Be careful to use this on a day when you don’t expect rain for at least 24 hours.


It worked! Nearly all of the weeds died within a day or two of application. So we get to save our knees and backs from weeding and don’t harm the environment.

The ingredients are easy to find at your local grocery store. We found a sale on vinegar and really stocked up. You may find BJs or Costco has the lowest prices for the vinegar.

Let me know if you try this recipe and how you make out. I hope you are happy with your results! 


Erin SheehanWe celebrated our second wedding anniversary June 3. Like last year, we planned a picnic for two at a nearby state park to mark the occasion. This year we had to postpone due to the weather, but it didn’t matter. We had a nice dinner, starting with a salad using our very own greens from our back porch container garden. We sat at an overlook and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the outdoors.


There was a time when I was younger that I thought a “real” celebration had to mean going to a fancy restaurant or traveling somewhere, but now Jim and I are happy with a simple evening outdoors, eating home-cooked food.




Growing up, all of our family celebrations centered around home cooking, with the emphasis on good company and good eats, not fancy surroundings and being waited on. We celebrated my mom’s birthday last Sunday. The menu couldn’t have been simpler. Each family invited brought their own burgers to throw on the grill. We had homemade hamburger buns and homemade mustard. We also had homemade pickles, homemade zucchini relish and homemade chili sauce, all canned up last year with our garden vegetables. We had a cabbage salad with fresh cabbage from the garden and deviled eggs from a neighbor’s chicken.



For dessert we had rhubarb pie with rhubarb from the backyard and apple pie with canned apples from last fall. I don’t believe you could find a more delicious feast at the fanciest restaurant in Paris!

Offering guests homemade food, especially when you are using home-grown produce, is the greatest gift a hostess can give. It’s opening your heart and home to your friends and family in a special way. I encourage you to start small: try to bake your next birthday cake. Even if it doesn’t look like the ones at the grocery store bakery, that’s OK! Let me know how it goes. 


Erin SheehanThe past couple of years, round about April, I’ve thrown romaine lettuce seeds into a couple of containers on the back porch. With just a couple of bags of potting soil and a little regular watering, those containers yielded dozens of tasty salads. This year I kicked it up a notch and planted a variety of lettuce varieties. Wouldn’t you know, a salad with five or six types of greens doesn’t just look and sound fancy, it’s delicious, especially when there’s a spicy variety or two in the mix.



There are many types of spicy greens, but so far I’ve only tried two types of mustard and arugula. Growing a delicious salad is possible, even with limited space. All you need is a container or two, some dirt and a variety of seeds.

Two spicy greens to try are mustard and arugula. Mustard grows very quickly (matures in 35 to 45 days) and, like most salad greens, it does just fine in a container. Mustard bolts quickly so you’ll want to either succession plant a bit every couple of weeks or make sure to keep on top of your plants by not letting them flower. A few mustard leaves go a long way in a salad. They are quite spicy and the taste is, well, a lot like the yellow mustard in our refrigerator.



Like mustard, arugula grows very quickly. Again, a little goes a long way. The leaves are quite spicy and peppery. It adds a lot of flavor to salads and takes well to containers. Arugula doesn’t necessarily bolt quickly, so you can have a nice, long harvest.



To go with the spicy greens you could try growing a few different lettuce varieties. I put in Bibb, Romaine, Green Leaf and Red Leaf this year. Not only do we have colorful, diverse salads, by having so many different varieties we only have to pick a little from each kind for a salad. This allows the plants to rebound. They have produced continually throughout the spring/early summer.

Next year I’d like to add nasturtiums and cress. I’ve heard they grow quickly and offer a nice addition to a salad. Greens seeds are inexpensive and, even if all you have is a porch or a deck, you can give them a try in containers. Once you’ve had your own fresh-picked salad you will never buy those packaged salads again!

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