Catnip vs DEET: No Contest

Simple Garden Solutions For Summer Stings

Our daily deer visits have been made a bit more exciting by daily coyote sitings, possibly not unrelated. In any case, we are now hosting a limping faun, still spotted and tiny but seemingly sturdy despite the bad leg, as well as its mama and assorted kin. We’ve all been holding our breath, hoping not to see any gory culture clashes, but so far, the deer have managed to evade the coyotes. It does seem a little ironic to be supplying fresh water to the very creatures that have been relentlessly ravaging my garden, but then, it’s hot, it’s dry, and what else is there for the poor critters to eat?

So that’s a bit of a sting, but the other kind are proving far more bothersome. Since the summer is so hot and dry, I’ve been surprised to find (or be found by) so many mosquitoes of an evening, until I finally figured out that they are finding breeding pools in the deep saucers that hold my large container plantings. Given that the saucers are keeping my crops from frying in the summer heat, I guess I’ll accept the mosquitoes as part of the bargain. However, I’m more accepting than I might be because I grew so much catnip this year.

A Better, Brighter Catnip

If that sounds like a non sequitur, read on. While most of my garden is on my extensive deck, I finally planted a real one this spring, despite the deer. To keep them from feeding too heavily, I planted a wide range of less-preferred perennials and shrubs, interlaced with lots of annuals that have never (in my experience so far) been deer fodder. Along with the usual zinnias and marigolds, I planted several dozen catnip plants. Rather than the usual drab, sad-looking plants, my catnips are strapping, colorful creatures called Cat’s Meow, a selected form from Holland that is larger, brighter, and far more floriferous than the straight species.

Indeed, my Meow plants stretch nearly 3 feet high and some are 5 feet across. They are growing in mounded sandy loam top dressed with fish compost, a combination that makes all the herbs in the new garden very contented. Indeed, pretty much everything I planted is proving to be much happier in sandy loam than they ever were in my heavy clay soil. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a homely cousin of ornamental catmint (Nepeta faassenii or N. mussinii), the classic English border edge plant. It’s generally grown as a cat-pleasing or medicinal tea herb, and rightly so, since its dusty grey-green foliage certainly makes our cats happy, but it also seems rather deer repellant, which is a very pleasant bonus.

And Bite-Reducing

Best of all, the foliage can be made into concoctions that repel mosquitoes as well as deer. Nearly a decade back, researchers at Iowa State University were looking for safer alternatives to DEET. Currently the most common active ingredient in commercial mosquito and bug repellents, DEET is also a dangerous chemical for humans, especially children. A study carried out at the Duke University Medical Center revealed that DEET can cause brain cell death and may trigger behavioral changes indicative of neurological damage in rats after frequent or prolonged use.

During their search, the ISU team investigated several plant essential oils commonly used as insect repellents by organic gardeners. The most promising substance turned out to be an essential oil found in catnip that is ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET and its fellow toxic chemical repellants. A few years later, the ISU Research Foundation applied for a patent for the use of catnip essential oils and compounds. Today, you can buy a range of commercial bug-off products that are catnip oil based, but you can also make your very own. Here are a couple of recipes I’ve been using for the past few years. Both do a fine job of keeping mosquitoes and no-see-um’s at bay during our warm summer evenings.

Catnip Mosquito Spritz

2 cups catnip, stemmed
3-4 cups unflavored rice vinegar

Rinse herbs, roll lightly with a rolling pin, then place them in a clean quart jar and cover with vinegar. Seal jar and store in a dim cupboard for two weeks. Shake jar lightly every day or so for two weeks. Strain into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate unused for up to 6 months. To use, spritz on exposed skin and around outdoor dining area. Makes about 3 cups.

Catnip and Rosemary Mosquito Chasing Oil

2 cups catnip, stemmed
1 cup rosemary, cut in 6″ sprigs
2 cups grape seed oil or any light body care oil

Roll herbs lightly with a rolling pin and pack into a clean jar. Cover with oil, seal jar and place in a cool, dark cupboard for two weeks. Shake jar lightly every day or so for two weeks. Strain into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate unused for up to 8 months. To use, rub on exposed skin. Makes about 2 cups.

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Hot Tips and Gardening Tricks

Home And Garden Cures For This And That

I recently had a sizzling experience with a red hot pepper. Happily, it’ happened before and I knew just what to do. The first time I got chili burn, it took over a painful hour to figure out what to do about it. I had no idea back then, since for many years, I had harvested, canned, sliced, diced, and seeded chili peppers without a problem. Ironically, I always told readers of my various columns to use gloves when they handle chilies, though I almost never did that myself. I bet you can guess where I am headed here.

A friend recently gave us some lovely fresh chilies which I happily used in a stir fry and a salad dressing. Then I made a bean dish with yet another chile which tasted hotter than usual. As we ate, I noticed that my hand felt like it was burning. I assumed I had picked up a hot dish without paying attention. As the evening wore on, my hand felt worse. I tried every burn remedy in the house without relief. I stuck my hand in ice water. I bathed it in milk. I rubbed it with aloes. Nada. Finally I noticed that my hand was not tender, as it would have been with a real burn. Oh. Right. Hmm. I had handled that chili pepper without gloves. Shame on me.


In the mean time, the burning sensation was making me crazy. In desperation, I went online and found a chat thread called “How Can I Stop My Hand From Burning?’ Clearly, many people do this same dumb thing. Some folks were in pain for 8-12 hours or more. Many offered pain-stopping suggestions, but most sounded silly or even unsafe.

However, one gal had called poison control and learned that the intense pain of chili “burn” is an allergic reaction. Sure enough, the over-the-counter allergy remedy I often use took the burning feeling away quickly and it did not return. Ahhhh. Just the same, I bought a box of non-latex gloves. Even thought I now know how to handle the pain of chili burn, I never want to go through that experience again and hope you don’t ever have to!

Pollen Free Lilies Bloom Longer

I recently had a question about lily pollen, which stains indelibly if it gets wet. To avoid stains, remove lily stamens as soon as each blossom opens. With cut flowers for indoor use, do this as soon as possible to keep everybody’s skin and clothing clean. If you cut off the stamens while the blossoms are still on the living stem, the flowers will last a lot longer, since they will never get pollinated. That’s because as soon as they are fully pollinated (which takes a few visits from a bee or whatever), flowers begin to work on forming seeds and their bright petals fade as the hormones shift.

If you have ever gotten lily pollen on clothing, you know it is very hard to get the stain out. Silk and other natural fibers can be ruined because lily pollen stains are so intractable. After making a beautiful arrangement of autumn lilies and hydrangeas, a friend found lily pollen on the sleeve of her favorite shirt. Happily, I was able to get rid of the pollen without a trace.

Got It Taped

The trick? Plain, ordinary cellophane tape removes pollen with ease. The trick is to use the tape quickly. Don’t wet the stain with any thing at all (even water sets lily pollen stains permanently). Instead, take a piece of tape and gently press it lightly to the stain. Pull off the tape and the pollen lifts off completely. It may take a few pieces of tape, but keep at it until the stain is gone. For ground-in but still dry pollen, press down on the tape and rub it gently before removing. Keep using fresh pieces of tape until they come off clean before washing the garment.

And here’s another cool trick; you can remove slug slime with rose foliage. I recently got slug slime on the knee of my jeans (never mind how) and even a hot water wash cycle couldn’t remove it. I hate that slime-crusted feel and remembered with the rose leaf trick with relief. Just rub hands, clothing, or tools with crushed fresh rose leaves and slug slime comes right off.

In For A Penny  

Want one more? If you get stung by a bee or wasp, tape a penny to each sting site. Within about 15 minutes, the copper counteracts the sting venom and the pain and swelling will disappear. Wouldn’t it be lovely if all problems were so easily solved?

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Best Ever Garden Pie

Serves At Least One

I often make vegetable pies, using various ingredients depending on the season and what the garden has to offer. High summer pies are lighter and fresher tasting than the rich, toasty pies of winter, but this one, my new favorite, seems to capture the best of both sides of the year. It may seem like a lot of work but it really isn’t, and the result is so amazingly toothsome you won’t grudge a minute of the half-hour or so of prep (cooking time doesn’t count as work in my world). Depending on your choices, it can be vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten free, and any way you slice it, it will make a memorable meal!

The roasted cauliflower adds a distinctive texture, especially if you roast the florets until they are truly well-browned, crisp and chewy. If you can stop yourself from eating the whole batch, you’ll be delighted with the way they change up the pie from ho-hum to oh-my. The fresh corn also comes as a sweet surprise, bright and unexpected, while the mushrooms create that deep, solid  base that vegetarian dishes often lack.

Remarkable Vegetables Taste…Remarkable!

I used yellow Carola potatoes, a German hybrid that shines any way you use it, whether boiled, baked, hashed or mashed. Carolas are excellent keepers, retaining their crisp texture and full flavor for months after harvest. My best carrots this year are Mokum, which stay sweet and crisp despite the intense summer heat we’ve had. I use a lot as youngsters in salads, but they can eventually get very long, though they remain slender and crisp even as hulking 2-footers. My red peppers are Italian Sweets, long, meaty creatures that grill beautifully and crunchy and peppery-sweet raw and meltingly velvety when roasted.

Oh My Garden Pie

2 tablespoons avocado or olive oil
1 head cauliflower, cut in small florets
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 small carrots, thinly sliced (about 1-1/2 cups)
3 medium potatoes, chopped (about 3 cups)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon smoked hot paprika (or any)
12 large mushrooms, chopped (about 4 cups)
1 red sweet pepper, chopped
kernels cut from 1 ear sweet corn
1/4 cup wholewheat pastry flour **
1 pie crust (vegan if desired)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub a rimmed baking sheet with 1 tablespoon oil, add cauliflower and toss gently to coat. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and roast at 400 degrees F until lightly caramelized (30-40 minutes). Meanwhile, put carrots, potatoes and 1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic in a pot with water just to cover, bring to a boil reduce heat to medium and cook until fork-tender (12-15 minutes). Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and set aside. In a soup pot, heat remaining oil over medium high heat, add onion, 1/8 teaspoon salt, smoked paprika, and remaining garlic and cook, stirring, until soft (3-4 minutes). Add mushrooms, sprinkle with remaining salt, cover pan and cook until mushrooms have reduced in volume by about half (10-15 minutes). Stir in red pepper and corn, cover and cook for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with flour, stir to coat and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in 2-3 cups reserved carrot cooking water to make a thick gravy, reduce heat to low. When cauliflower is done, gently stir it into the vegetables and spoon mixture into a deep pie dish. Cover with crust, flute edges, and slash crust to release steam. Bake at 350 degrees F until crust is golden and crisp (40-50 minutes). Serves 4-6.

** Gluten Free Thickeners

For a gluten free version, obviously you will be using a gluten-free pie crust. For the thickening agent, substitute one of the following for the wholewheat pastry flour. The usual gluten-free thickeners include organic cornstarch (no GMO, thanks all the same), arrowroot powder, potato starch, and tapioca flour. The first two work fine for making gravies and sauces and in both cases, you blend the dry thickener with an equal amount of cold water, then slowly drizzle the mixture into the warm liquid you are thickening, stirring all the while. Cornstarch will taste raw unless cooked for 2-3 minutes in a gravy or sauce, and it will reheat a lot better than arrowroot, which tends to lose its staying power if re- or overheated. For a savory pie that will be baked after the thickener has been added to the gravy, either potato starch or tapioca flour will be the most stable. For lumpless results, blend either one into a slurry with cold liquid before adding it to the warm liquid you want to thicken.

1 tablespoon cornstarch thickens 1-1/2 to 2 cups liquid
2-3 teaspoons arrowroot thickens 1 cup liquid
1 tablespoon potato starch thickens 1-1/2 to 2 cups of liquid
2 tablespoons tapioca flour thickens 1 cup liquid

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Bodacious Breakfasts From The Garden

Vegan Starters With Staying Power

Breakfast is a tricky meal for me; if I start the day off with the traditional sweet stuff, I can feel off-balance for hours. I prefer savory breakfasts, but rarely have time to create leisurely morning meals. Thus, my usual go-tos are fast but nourishing, combining whole foods in satisfying ways that taste great and keep me going smoothly long after the sugar would have worn off.

I admit to loving fresh eggs from pampered local chickens I know personally, a treat I fully enjoy when they come my way. Most days, all of our meals are at least vegetarian and more and more often vegan. Vegan lunches, snacks and dinners are never hard to dream up, but it took me a while to figure out how to put together simple, satisfying and above all FAST vegan breakfasts.

A Wholesome Swiss Breakfast

Many years ago, I spent time with an Italian-Swiss family, living in an amazing, huge old hand-built house perched high on a  mountainside so steep I was nervous about falling off. I loved breakfasts in that house, sitting with the family around an enormous wooden table drinking tart rosehip juice and eating warm bread with thick homemade plum jam. There was always some kind of muesli as well, oats soaked overnight in water or milk and lemon juice, then enlivened with chopped fruit and nuts. I still eat muesli quite often, since mornings can be busy and as long as I remember to mix it all up at night, it provides almost instant gratification in the morning.

The softness or chewiness of this close-to-classic Bircher muesli will vary depending on how much liquid you add. If you prefer slightly runny oatmeal use more. If you like a stiffer mixture, use less, then alter till you find your own preferred proportions. Swiss Bircher muesli has quite a bit of lemon juice and just a little honey, and those elements can also be tweaked to get the flavor you like best. Try different “milks” to change it up; coconut is rich and warm tasting, while hazelnut or almond seem more refreshing on a hot day. I always add pumpkin seeds as well as the traditional chopped nuts, since they are surprisingly high in protein and low in carbs and add a most pleasing crunchiness as well. In winter, I add golden raisins and slivers of dried apricots to the oats and let them plump up overnight.

Marvelous Muesli

2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
2-3 cups nut or coconut milk (or soy, etc.)
1-2 tablespoons honey or Grade B maple syrup
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts, almonds, or any
2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
1 ripe apple, grated
2 cups chopped nectarines, peaches, plums or pears
1 cup ripe berries

Put oats, “milk” of choice, maple syrup, and vanilla in a lidded jar, shake to blend and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, fill 2 bowls with fruit, add oatmeal mixture, and top with nuts and seeds.
Serves 2.

A Bevy Of Vegan Breakfast Sandwiches

In Denmark, open faced sandwiches or smorrebrod combine an amazing range of ingredients and flavors. Breakfast sandwiches might pair rye bread with raspberry jam or almond butter and banana slices topped with chocolate shavings, or walnut butter with sliced peaches or radishes. Here are a few of my own favorites to try, with room for lots of seasonal variations. If you don’t like rye bread, try cinnamon bread with mashed banana, strawberries and mint, or warm rolls split and stuffed with mashed avocado and radish sprouts…

Avocado and Not-Really-Bacon Breakfast Sandwich

2 thick slices sourdough rye or any bread
1 ripe avocado, mashed
2 strips soy bacon, cooked and chopped
2 slices sweet onion

Toast bread, spread thickly with avocado, then top with bacon pieces and an onion slice. Serves at least one.

Apple Cinnamon Sandwiches

2 thick slices cinnamon bread
1/4 cup fresh applesauce
1 tart apple, thinly sliced
dash of cinnamon

Toast bread, spread with apple sauce, top with apple slices and sprinkle with cinnamon. Serves at least one.

Nutty Vegan Breakfast Sandwiches

2 thick slices sourdough bread
1/4 cup hazelnut butter
1 banana, sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Toast bread, spread with nut butter, top with banana slices, sprinkle with seeds and toast again for 1-2 minutes. Serves at least one.

Vegan Tex-Mex Sandwiches

4 corn tortillas
1 ripe avocado, mashed
1/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup chopped sweet peppers
1/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes

Toast tortillas, spread with avocado and salsa, then top with peppers and tomatoes. Serves 2.

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