Archive for December, 2010

Creating Infused Oils for Scents, Cleaners,and Cooking

Infusing oils or vinegars with the scents and flavors of herbs is simple to do, while adding new dimensions.

On Christmas morning, my girls are playing with their gifts from the night before. My son has traveled to visit with relatives, so I am enjoying the girls only. The first item that Katya wants to experience is the soap making kit. We open it up, and we begin to experiment. As the morning meanders on, the little ones paint, create jewelry, and make music. For some reason, it dawns on me ear lunch that my wife and I have given them presents revolving around crafts. The soap has cooled, so we remove it from the form, and my wife quizzes Katya on how did we make the soap. My daughter understands the basics of the process. She loves the fragrance, and we talk about creating more scents with herbs from the garden.
    Making an infused oil is truly a simple process. The essences made with alcohol are a bit trickier, but using oil is a matter of mixing the oil and herbs together. I have heard that you need olive oil or safflower oil for the process; however, I use any oil that I have on hand. That oil is usually olive oil in my home, yet I have used canola oil. When making an oil for cooking, I use a few sprigs of the herb in the oil. After a day, the oil as a good flavor for cooking. If I want the oil for a punch of flavor to drizzle over the meal, I blend a larger amount of the herbs with the oil, then I strain out the herbs after the oil has sat for an hour. Now that I am making soap with my daughter, we will be looking for oil as scent. We pack the herbs into the jar and the oil is poured over it. Again we wait one day. The flowers of the antique rose are used for their fragrance as well. If you are curious about why this works, the oils in the herbs and flowers are attracted to the oil being used.
     The process for creating a flavored vinegar is the same. I like gently heating the vinegar that I am flavoring with the whole spices that I am using, and then adding the herbs when it is cooling. I mention the vinegar here, because you can create a cleaner for your home that has the fragrance you want. Vinegar is a great organic cleaner. For health reasons, many choose to use vinegar over bleach and ammonia. Personally, I feel that people use too much bleach and ammonia when cleaning. Vinegar works well as a cleaner, but you do have that strong smell, which is not popular. Infusing the scent of herbs into the vinegar comes to the rescue. Need a lemon scent? Well here is my lemon grass or lemon balm to aid us. Bay leaves, roses, or thymes may be your preference. You can even incorporate cedar if you want a cleaner with an insect repellent quality. When used as a cleaner, strain your scents out of the vinegar.
    I like the fact that my children are growing up learning about the uses of plants. If I tell my daughter that I have no money to buy her something, she spots a bank on our drive, and she informs me that we can stop at the money machine. There is a disconnect in this instance. If I talk about making a meal, she understands that the vegetables are coming from the garden. She knows how we worked to make the plants grow. She understands how we harvested a vegetable for the meal. We have made pasta and bread from scratch. There is no disconnect. With more involvement in craft projects, she is seeing how more household goods are made.   

A Christmas Shrub?

Did you really need a tree? A story of giving the children what they want.

   My son has left us to spend Christmas with his family in Mexico. My parents and my brother’s family had a Christmas dinner last week. That leaves my wife, my two daughters, and I to have a Christmas here. This has been a strange season. My wife and I have both been working, and we have had several family birthdays, which has left us with little time to decorate. My wife enjoys have the tree up early, while I see the tree as a gift for Christmas eve. We compromise by obtaining our tree on the third advent most years, but this year we did not. Yesterday, I took the girls to find a tree. My wife was thinking of something really small, but I was going to leave it up to the girls. I was surprised by their choice.
    We enter the garden center, heading towards the trees. Katya stops in front of a few smaller plants. She looks, and she becomes determined that there is one certain “tree” that she wanted. This was no tree; it is a golden oriental arborvitae, which stands about two feet tall. This shrub only reaches about two and half feet high, so this tree most certainly fits my wife’s desire for small. Although, I do not think that is what she meant. I look at the choices, to suggest a larger specimen, or something different. No was her reply; this is the one. I attempt to appeal to my younger daughter, Sakura. Is this what you want?  I am not sure if she understood, but she heartily agrees. I glance over at the trees saying but, but, but no. My Katya has made her decision.
    We bring the tree home. I set it down on a cabinet, wrapping the base in a sheet of plastic to catch the water. I then surround the base with the skirt for our Christmas trees. They want to begin decorating; however, I knew that my wife prefers to be the one decorating with the children. I let Katya place an angel on the tree though. This leads the girls to break out in songs of Christmas joy. Mostly of their own creations, so I am hailed with a Hanna Montana Christmas (we do not watch the show, so where did that come from?), the Shake It, Shake It Christmas, and others. Lines of other Christmas songs enter these endeavors, and I notice that they replace the word “snowy” with “foggy” (life in Houston, I guess, or maybe this substitution comes from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer).  I proceed to prepare dinner after the performance (they did have me sing a few songs in German for them).
    During my preparation, I realized that I had a perfect vegetable dish for the holiday: swiss chard. I had harvested some chard, and I thought how perfect the bright red of the stems and deep green of the leaves were in the pan. Here is a good way to prepare chard: sautee onions in a little oil, until they brown. I then added caraway seeds, a little salt, and a little pepper. Caraway is not always popular with everyone, but I love this flavor. Cumin seeds may be a good substitute. I added a small pat of butter. Once the butter melted, I added the chopped chard and parsley to the pan. The leaves wilted when they had cooked through. I sprinkled the yellow flowers from the broccoli raab over this dish. 

   My wife prefers rice, but I think that I will make a potato dish with the chard for tonight. Roasted potatoes in a vinegarette. I have really thick lamb chops, but I am thinking of the chard as the star of the meal. I will brown the chops, and let them finish in the oven. I make a pesto with rosemary, parsley, garlic, and almonds (blended in olive oil), where a little pesto goes onto the chops as they finish cooking on the oven. Except for the almonds, I only have to go to the garden for the pesto ingredients. Maybe I should begin to grow a pecan tree, justified for the pesto. The pecan tree is the official tree of the state of Texas. I will try to convince the wife on that one.
   After the new year, I will plant this arborvitae near the girl’s teahouse. This shrub does not seem a great choice for Texas. It desires moist ground, which we do not have with this new drought. The shrub also wants only about four hours of sun each day (the tea house is in a shady spot). I think this will be a special plant for Katya. I wonder what will be the choice for next year’s Christmas.  Whatever the choice, the memories of joy as the tree, or shrub, go up will be what I cherish.

Winter Has Arrived; Is Now the Time to Buy Plants?

My daughter’s have been encouraging me to continue expand my plant collection, and this may be the time to do it.

I spent part of the morning on the first day of winter sitting on a roof, watching the leaves fall down in the breeze. I was up on the roof to clear off a heavy coating of leaves. The pitch of my roof is not too great, so I do not want the damage that might ensue from having a pile of leaves sitting there. Looking down at the garden, I was reminded that I still had to complete an edging project. My two year old, Sakura, and I left for the local garden center in the home improvement center to find some hardscape elements. With the possibility of freezes, I was not looking for plants, and I know that many hardscape items are quite cheap now. I needed (well, wanted) a garden edging for my front bed to make a clean edge along the sidewalk. Sakura had other plans. She fell in love with the picture of the flower on a camellia bush. She immediately pulled two small bushes out for the cart.
   I love camellias, but I have had problems with them. Mainly, my misfortunes with the plant stem from my dog and his backyard adventures. I have shied away from the plant for many years now. Sakura was determined though. She wanted this plant. Looking at the price, I decided that this is not so bad. In fact, plant prices are lower this time of year. Walking around the plants, I found several that I would like to have, but I know that this is not the time to purchase, like ornamental grasses. The weather report indicates that we will have a few days with freezing temperatures, which will harm new plantings. One tactic that I have employed is to buy the plant, but keep them inside the house. The camellias were planted in a protected spot, since Sakura wanted to work in her garden space. She smiled and gave the plants hugs.
    I think that I will go to my local nursery to see what is on offer. If there are good deals, I can store these in the house. Katya, the older daughter, did buy Gerber daisies that added color to our porch, so why not to the home? My habit is to allow the plants to go through their cycle, so I do not cover them to protect them from the frost. I choose plants that hopefully do well in this climate. I do not mind if a plant goes dormant; I like the appearance. Even though we have experienced a few days of freezing temperature, my garden has faired well. A few coleus died, but many survived, and I am already propagating for next year ( just cut the coleus and stick the stem in water). The blackberry vine had signs of damage, but it is going strong, and I know that I will have more fruit next year. I have been concerned about the newly planted avocado tree, Katya’s favorite. So far, so good, so I am happy. This is the one plant that I might protect from the cold front coming through this week.
    I look forward to the cold, because this will change the flavors of my vegetables. Most have a cabbage like taste, but frost causes a change in flavor in plants like kale. I have harvested kohlrabi but I think that the cold may improve the flavor of this vegetable as well. The one planting that will take place today is the garlic. I started my garlic in pots, but with this freeze, I want them in the ground. My bay leaves are quite fragrant. Is this due to the exposure to cold? I am not sure, but my soup and stews are benefiting from these fresh leaves.

    If you are looking to save money, you may want to look for a few plants, as long as you have the space to store them. Shade plants are my goal, since I have a deeply shaded area that I want to complete. Who am I kidding; the garden will never be complete.

The Pleasures of Soup

Cold days are perfect for a bowl of hot soup, and winter vegetables are great for simple soups.

I think that I have mentioned this before; I am a big fan of soups. My wife is of a different opinion. I think that she may be more willing to partake of my soups, since she has been attending classes on health. My wife works in a hospital, and she attends various lectures to improve her knowledge for patient care. Many of these lectures deal with becoming and staying healthy. She has taken particular interest in topics that touch upon our diets. What should one eat? Her concern has been snack foods. I am known for not buying sodas and snacks. I prefer cakes without frosting. My wife has traditionally indulged in these items. Seeing the effects of poor diets among her patients, she has become motivated to eat better. One of her discoveries was that eating more vegetables in a meal leads to a healthier life. I had been scaling back on the meat in a dish in favor of vegetables for some time with this thought in mind. During the winter, too many meals originating in the winter garden look similar, consequently becoming boring. Soup is a nice change for these vegetables.
    The other night at dinner, while I had my beloved soup and the rest of the family enjoyed a chicken dish, my wife took an interest in my meal. Upon trying it, she was impressed, so she wanted a bowl. I had stock for a hen that I had boiled. I have made stock from simply using vegetables taken from the garden. I always throw in a bay leaf from my tree, and maybe a few leaves from my kefir lime tree. For this soup, I melted a little pat of butter with a little dash of olive oil. A tablespoon of flour was added to make a rue. When the flour browned, I added the stock, whisking to prevent lumps. This causes the soup to be thicker, which is nice in the colder months. For warmer seasons, I use the stock alone. The next step is to make soup noodles. In a bowl, I mix about a cup of flour, a little milk, and one egg. I use my spaetzel press to create the noodles into the soup, but you do not need this piece of equipment. The mixture in the bowl should be like a batter that can drop off of a spoon. Take a little bit of the mixture, and drop it into the gently boiling soup. these glops will drop to the bottom, so gently stir the soup to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan. My favorite ingredient to add to this soup is mustard greens. I chop the large leaves into smaller pieces. They go into the soup. Once the noodles are floating on the top they are done. I then taste the soup for seasoning.
    When I am feeling creative, I toast the spices when making the rue. My standard combination is cumin, red chili powder, sweet paprika, and ground mustard. The spices change, depending upon my mood. When adding spices at the end of the soup preparation, I go for salt and pepper. My next addition to the soup would be either a little milk or a beaten egg. Milk is the more common choice. In the end, I might add another small pat of butter. I really do mean small. The final product is a hearty soup that is quick to prepare. he nice thing is using a lot of vegetables. Right now, I have more leafy greens coming form the garden. Fairly soon, I will have kohlrabi, and then root vegetables, so the soup will change. You can add pasta or other noodles, but this soup noodle is so easy to make. It is also more like a dumpling, and a dumpling could be a great addition. Maybe I can make small changes to entice my wife some more. 

How to Create a Simple Compost Pile

Composting does not have to be difficult. You could just leave everything alone, and you would have compost.

Papa, the trees are going to sleep. My older daughter informs me while we are laying on the grass, watching another leaf fall down. The baby runs to retrieve the brooms, and my daily task of sweeping around the house begins. My two little girls help in their fashion, having a great deal of fun. As I am picking the leaves up, I look down the street to see that many of my neighbors have left sacks of leaves by their curbs. Should I remind them that they are not allowed to set these out until the night before pick-up? A mischievous thought I know, but maybe they would then consider doing something else with their leaves, like a compost pile.
    Have you ever studied composting? Composting can become quite involved, and I think that you may need three bins, or some special bin, can deter people from beginning their own compost pile. We want the easy route, so we leave the bags by the street. By the way, you are required to place these leaves in the appropriate type of recyclable bag. I noticed that a few neighbors have not done so today. If I were looking for the perfect compost, I might give up on the idea of making my own. Yet I do want the benefits of this wonderful material. Those leaves that I swept up could become a mulch or organic matter for my plants next year. That could save me money. Considering strategies for making composting simple, I do a couple of things with my leaves that does not take any special effort.
    Using the leaves as mulch is one idea. I do have a shredder, and I can tell you form experience that mulching all of my leaves for mulch was quite a task. Now I throw my leaves under a bush or in a garden bed as they are. For most beds, the appearance of this mulch is not important, but where visitors may see it, I sprinkle a little cedar mulch over the leaves. As a home inspector, I will warn you that you do not want to raise the level of garden beds near the home to high. Insects use the mulch as cover to enter into the home, and moisture from the mulch can help to damage the walls of the home, so keep the mulch away from the wall.
   Creating a simple compost pile takes little effort. Layered compost piles is on traditional composting method which you can modify for your own home. If you have a yard with a row of bushes along a fence, you have a perfect spot. Throw the leaves down behind the bushes. Keep doing this until most or all of your leaves have fallen off of the trees. Then you can add a layer of green trimmings. On top of it all, you sprinkle a layer of compost from your home improvement or garden center. Finally, you leave it alone. You could repeat the steps if you so wish to build another compost pile on top of this one. Next year in the fall, you will have compost for your garden beds and lawn. This method does not produce the rich compost that you may have seen, but I do not have to pay for it, and best of all, this really helps the plants.
    I see any garden material being left at the curb for pick-up as a waste of a precious resource. Walking through my neighborhood, I notice that many gardens have no mulch. We do have mild winters; however, there are days when the plants could use a little warmth from the mulch. I have been surprised by how little rain that we have had in Houston. The garden beds with their layer of mulch fare better than the others. Mulch keeps the moisture in the ground, so we water less. Most of us might think about that fact during the summer, but have you realized that you may need mulch for the same reason at this time of year? Remember compost happens.

Photos of a Winter Vegetable Garden in Houston

Houston almost has a year around growing season, so there are vegetables that we can grow throughout the winter season.

Hey, what is that plant?” “Do you have collards?” For some reason this past week, I had a few visitors stop by asking me what plants did I have in my front garden. Most people recognized the plants as vegetables, but they thought that some chrysanthemums and asters were vegetables as well. When a man standing next to my collards asked if I grew any collards, I had the revelation that people simply do not know how these plants look. They probably do not buy them as vegetables in their local grocery store.  Although other vegetables were asked about, I picked on collards, because it is one of those vegetables that many people seem to avoid.  My mother focused on more German dishes when I was growing up, since that was her comfort zone. Having moved to the South, we were exposed to collards, but we were told that you had to cook this leaf for a long time, and with a ham hock. My mother did not have time for such a vegetable, so it did not appear on her dinner plate.In reality, collards like kale can be prepared quite quickly by pan frying. Here are some photographs from my garden to help you identify these winter vegetables that do quite well in Houston.




Young cabbage before the head forms

collards and lettuce

Collards with a red lettuce about to go to seed

fava beans

Fava Beans seem to do alright during our colder months


Garlic has a wider leaf than leeks

Horse raddish

Horse raddish leaves are edible as well as the root


Curly leaf kale, edible variety (ornamentals can be eaten, but do not taste great)

kohlrabi and arugula

Kohlrabi has leaves similar to broccoli, while arugula is light green


Leeks, smaller than garlic leaves at first


Curly and flat leaf mustards

nappa cabbage

Nappa or Chinese Cabage, lighter in texture and color than cabbage


Curly parsely

Swiss Chard

Swiss Chard, red and yellow stems help add color to winter meals


This site came out of my desire to write about my love of gardening, but also to connect it to my knowledge derived from home inspections. That is why I tied it to the home inspection site.If you have questions, you can email them to me (frank at For home inspections, call 713.781.6090.
Happy gardening, Frank


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