Tips for Preventing Gardening Injuries

Woman and Man Gardening. Photo Source: Getty Images.

Spring is here! Time to get active and enjoy the outdoors! Gardening and caring for outdoor plants is one activity that allows one to combine physical activity with outdoor beauty and fresh air. Whether gardening to grow food or flowers or to landscape and maintain a yard, gardening offers low- to moderate-intensity exercise.  The pulling, digging, reaching, twisting, and bending of gardening amounts to light aerobic exercise, which improves psychological wellbeing, heart and lung health, helps prevent obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, some cancers, and so many more healthy benefits. In addition, these whole body movements increase endurance, strength, balance and flexibility, better hand function, bone density as well as burns calories. Regular garden chores can burn anywhere from 120 to 200 calories per half hour depending on the intensity of the activity.

For the most part, gardening is a safe, beneficial activity but can lead to injury if precautions are not taken.  Therefore, it is important to take note of garden safety to prevent injury from movement or improper use of tools.

Regardless of age, experts quoted in an AARP article, warn against jumping into gardening activities without preparing and warming up a little bit.  Rather, they recommend pre-gardening preparation to build strength, stamina, and aerobic power to prevent injury as well as talking to your doctor before beginning any new regiment.   The following exercises are recommended to strength garden muscles prior to gardening:

  1. Walk to warm up the muscles and build core strength. Stand tall and concentrate on core muscles as you move to support the back.
  2. Sit-to-stand exercises (raising from a chair to stand position without using hands) help to strengthen the thigh muscles and the core muscles for stability and improve mobility. Set a goal to see how many can be done in 30 seconds several times daily.
  3. Hamstring stretches help to keep the muscles loose and prevent lower back, knee, and foot pain. There are numerous ways to stretch hamstrings so it is best to find the stretching exercise that is personally best.
  4. Planks are great for building body strength as well as stretching and building strength in the arms, fingers and hands. Planks can be done on the floor or against a wall.
  5. Practice balance by standing on one foot to build stability and prevent falling.

Once one has properly prepared for gardening, safety should always be first and foremost in the way we use our body and tools in the garden. For your comfort, safety, and for the good of your back and knees, keep these tips in mind: 

  • warm up and stretch prior to activity;
  • begin with light movements;
  • stand tall occasionally to stretch the legs and roll the shoulders to relieve tension;
  • lift with one’s legs instead of back to prevent back injury;
  • avoid repetition; switch up activity every 15 minutes;
  • practice caution when raking and shoveling; learn safe use of rakes and shovels from Virginia Cooperative Extension to prevent strain to the back, shoulders, and wrists;
  • kneel instead of bending; consider wearing knee pads or using a cushion;
  • apply sun screen with a SPF of 30 and ultraviolet A and B protection;
  • consume plenty of water while working to stay hydrated;
  • wear a hat or other protective clothing as needed; mask when using chemicals;
  • wear gloves to protect hands from blisters, chemicals, sharp tools, etc.;
  • use the correct tool for the job;
  • maintain your tools and use them properly. (See Hand Tools Safety: Lawn Care Training Guide. Hand Tool Care and Safe Use and Lawn and Garden Safety Tips – CPSC Urges Care with Springtime Chores.)

Gardening not only provides physical activity but can also be a great source of happiness. You may garden to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables or beautify your world. Whatever your reason, enjoy your gardening chores but keep your body fit and work safely to prevent injury.

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Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

As the days get warmer and the ground thaws, it is time to dig spring-dug parsnips. Characterized by some as ‘the cream of the crop’, spring parsnips come from seeds sown in the spring of the previous year, grown during the summer, allowed to die back in the fall and freeze in the ground over the winter.

Parsnips.

Parsnips can also be dug in the fall after a frost or two, but those left over the winter are sweeter and more flavorful. The extreme cold converts the starches into sugar and allows the flavor to mellow.  The timing is critical for spring-dug parsnips; they need to be dug as soon as you can get into the ground with a shovel or fork and just as their tops start to show new growth.  If they are left in the ground too long in the spring and the tops start to grow out, they become woody. 

Never had parsnips?  Some mistakenly refer to them as white carrots, but while they may be related to carrots distantly, they are actually part of the parsley family.  They are a cream-colored, gnarled, carrot-shaped root vegetable.  They can be eaten raw but are best prepared by roasting, frying, grilling or steaming to bring out their distinct succulent flavor and nutty sweetness.  They have a tan peel that is typically removed before use; peeling also removes their gnarly surface.  The flesh is cream-white.  They are a very versatile vegetable with recipes ranging from roasted side dishes, soups and stews, mashed, turned into fries, and even made into wine.  They pair well with other root vegetables, too.  Like potatoes or an apple, parsnips oxidize when exposed to air after their peelings are removed. If not prepared right away, cut parsnips should be placed in water to reduce the effect.

Being white in color, one would tend to believe that they offer little nutrition.  Quite the opposite is true.  According to the USDA, a half-cup serving of parsnips are high in heart-healthy fiber providing 3 grams of fiber and only 55 calories. They are a low-fat food yet a good source of numerous vitamins (especially C and K), minerals (especially folate and manganese), and antioxidants.  (Note that the level of vitamin C is somewhat reduced with the cooking.)

Besides the home garden, parsnips are available at the supermarket and likely can also be found at the late fall and spring farmer’s markets. Spring is the best time to give them a try if you are new to parsnips.  If you are lucky enough to find this once-a-year spring treasure, choose fleshy, fresh, firm, medium-sized and even surfaced roots.  Avoid woody, over-matured, long, thin, and tail-like roots as they are off-flavored and have tough fiber.  Also avoid soft, pitted, shriveled, knobby, or damaged roots. 

Fresh parsnips should be stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they should last three to four weeks. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days.  Parsnips can also be frozen for later use by cutting into 1/2-inch cubes, water blanching for 2 minutes, cooling promptly in cold water, draining, and packing and sealing into containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Fully cooked parsnip puree may also be frozen for up to 10 months for best quality.  Drying is another method for preserving parsnips as well.

For more information on parsnips, check out Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens by the University of Minnesota Extension.

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Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tis the Season to PLAN Your Garden

With the arrival of seed catalogs, the next garden season begins. Before you place an order from catalogs or online sources featuring beautiful photos and enticing descriptions or purchase plants in the spring from garden centers, get your garden PLAN in place.

Two Garden Types. Left – flower and shrub garden planned to attract butterflies and pollinators.
Right – small vegetable garden with tomato and pepper plants. Photo: M Geiger.

It may seem that gardening is merely picking out some seed or plants, putting them in the ground, and watching them grow. Seasoned gardeners will tell you that growing a successful garden is also an investment of time, patience, and hard work and begins with a PLAN, whether it be flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. There is no need to be a master gardener to create a PLAN that brings joy or an abundant harvest.  Here are a few tips to help get your garden PLAN started or improved upon. 

P – Ponder your project.

Before getting carried away with ordering or buying seeds, plants, or stock, ask yourself some important questions.  What kind of garden do I want?  What do I like?  What piques my interest?  How much space do I have?  How much space is needed for the individual plants?  How much time can I commit to seed starting, planting, weeding, mulching, watering, maintaining, pruning, or harvesting?  What will I do with the produce?  Which plants will thrive in my plant hardiness zone? Will I plant from seed or transplants? Is there a location where a garden can be placed or would containers be a better option? How will I control weeds? Answers to these questions will help develop a plan for your location and lifestyle. 

L – Location and layout.  

Once you have decided what you want to grow, consider the location of the garden. How will it fit into your outdoor space? Do the plants require sun or shade? Most vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowering plants grow best with at least six hours of sun so a sunny location is needed unless you are considering a shade garden. How level is the ground? Should the beds be raised? How close is a convenient water source? Avoid locations near trees or shrubs, north-facing slopes, and low areas. These locations pose potential problems with shading and roots robbing nutrients and moisture, cooler temperatures and less sun, and extended periods of wetness nurturing disease and rot, respectively.

Once the location has been determined, sketch a layout of the garden site on graph paper or use a computer program. If growing a vegetable garden for your own food, calculate how much to plant per person using this K-State guide. Determine the distance needed between rows and plants. The recommended spacing is usually given on the seed packet or plant tag; it is also important to allow enough space between the rows or plantings for cultivation and access. A north to south layout is ideal according to Michigan State University. If a garden has been previously grown in the location, plan to rotate the plant families by moving them to a different location within the garden to increase soil fertility and crop yield as well as to cut down on common plant diseases that overwinter in soil.

A – Analyze the soil.

A soil test is the only way to determine soil pH (acid or alkaline) and what nutrients are needed to amend the soil to maximize plant potential. Most garden plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.8. Once the analysis has been made, you will know what is needed to amend your soil and prevent over fertilization and some plant diseases. To get an accurate soil test, sample collection needs to be done carefully. University of Minnesota has an excellent ‘how to’ YouTube video to correctly collect a soil sample. Soil testing is done by private and state laboratories. A list of certified labs in Iowa can be found on the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website. Most labs do not test for nitrogen because nitrogen is not retained in soil making it necessary to replenish it annually. After getting the results, you may want to contact your local Extension Office for help in understanding the results.

N – Notes.

Keeping good records, notes or a garden journal is imperative to learning from previous garden experiences. Notes should include sources of seeds or plants, where and how planted, time of planting, yields or outcomes. One should also record the layout, number of plants, spacing, soil test results, inputs added prior to planting and during the growing season along with any chemicals that were applied during the season for insect control, fungus, or disease. At the end of the season, notes should include “to dos” for the next growing season such as pruning, transplanting, or anything else that would improve the health and wellbeing of plants in the next garden. Pictures, seed packets or plant tags, and chemical labels are also great keepers. And it doesn’t hurt to add a “wish list” for the next growing season as well—books, tools, plants to try, resources, tours, workshops or webinars, podcasts, etc.

Along with notes, one should also take stock of any seed that may have been left from planting a previous garden or collected. When stored in cool, dry, and dark conditions, seed may remain viable for one to five years or longer. Charts indicating the average viability of properly stored seed can be found on several internet sites; some seed catalogs also have charts. Clear Creek Seed is one source for vegetables, flowers, and herbs; UNL Extension has a more extensive guide for vegetables. If you are uncertain about whether seeds will germinate, an easy germination test will be beneficial to determine viability.

Let the season begin! Make your PLAN now and put it into action to achieve your best garden yet. 

Happy Gardening!

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Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Preserving Summer Squash

One zucchini, two zucchini, three zucchini . . . . four . . .

Summer squash is now in plentiful supply.  When a plant begins to produce, it often produces an overwhelming amount of produce.  While there are several varieties of summer squash, zucchini is the one we hear about the most.  And perhaps the one we have the most ‘fun’ with when surprise care packages show up on co-workers’ desk or neighbor’s doorstep. Before giving all away, consider saving a few for off-season use by preserving.

Assorted summer squash – Photo: canva.com

Summer squash is at its very best when it is eight inches or less in length and an inch or two wide (about two to three days of growth) or, in the case of odd-shapes, picked right when the flower falls off. When picked and eaten at this size, the inside texture is consistent throughout the fruit, never pithy, and the seeds aren’t yet developed. The skin is incredibly tender, and the flavor is mild and sweet–sweet because the plant creates sugars as energy to make seeds; when picked before the seeds develop, those sugars are still present in the flesh. If left on the vine longer, the skin begins to toughen and quality decreases. When cooked the tender squash create uniform, never mushy or stringy, delicious additions to soups, kebabs, sauces, salads, and stir-fries. And, yes, they make a fine zucchini bread or zucchini cake, too.

Fresh squash should be washed in cold water to remove all visible signs of soil before using or storing. Handle carefully as summer squash bruise easily. Store fresh squash in the refrigerator crisper in plastic storage bags or rigid containers to retain moisture. Stored in this manner, squash will maintain quality for 5-7 days. 

So while we know how to use them fresh, what about preserving them?

CANNING
The USDA does not recommend canning summer squash or zucchini alone.  Rather the recommendation is to preserve by freezing, pickling, or drying.  An adequate processing times has not been established for a safe product.  Squash are low-acid vegetables requiring pressure canning to destroy the bacteria that cause botulism. The heat required to can squash results in the squash flesh turning mushy and sinking to the bottom of the canning jar. The compacted flesh does not heat evenly.  Zucchini may only be canned when paired with tomatoes using a tested recipe from The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) OR paired with pineapple juice, sugar, and lemon juice for Zucchini Pineapple. Zucchini Pineapple maybe used in salads, desserts, or other recipes calling for crushed or chunk pineapple.

FREEZING
There are three different ways to successfully freeze summer squash./zucchini.  Begin by choosing young squash with tender skin and washing.  There is no need to peel but squash must be blanched before freezing.  Blanching slows or stops the enzyme action which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture.  Blanching also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color, helps retard loss of vitamins and wilts or softens vegetables making them easier to pack. Blanching may be done in boiling water or steam.

  1. Slices – Slice ¼ – ½-inch thick.  Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes on in steam for 4 1/2 minutes; cool in ice water for at least 3 minutes.  Drain well and package.  If packaged in freezer containers, leave ½-inch of headspace.  Slices may also be flash frozen using the tray method and packaged.
  2. Preparation for Frying – Follow instructions for blanching.  Before packaging, dredge in flour or cornmeal.  Flash freeze using the tray method and package.
  3. Grated for Baking – While some grate, package, and freeze squash for future baking, it is recommended to steam blanch squash for best quality.  Steam blanch small quantities of grated squash 1 to 2 minutes (until translucent) followed by packing measured amounts into containers.  Cool containers in ice water, seal and freeze.  When ready to use, thaw containers of frozen squash in the refrigerator prior to use. If the squash is watery when thawed, discard the liquid before using in baked goods.

Varieties for freezing include cocozelle, crookneck, pattypan, straightneck, white scallop and zucchini.  Chayote is also regarded as a summer squash but requires slightly different preparation for blanching.  Chayote is diced and seeded before blanching for 2 minutes. 

Remember to label and date packages. Properly packaged and frozen, squash should maintain high quality for approximately 10 months in the freezer.  Vacuum packaging can extend the shelf life of frozen squash but cannot be used as a food preservation method alone. Flash freeze squash slices before packaging, package frozen squash and return frozen squash to the freezer. Vacuum packaged frozen squash will have a longer shelf life than frozen squash which is not vacuum packaged.

PICKLING
Follow a tested recipe for pickling summer squash. Summer squash, zucchini, or chayote work well for pickling.  Two approved and very good tasting recipes can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation: Summer Squash Relish  and Pickled Bread-and-Butter Zucchini .

Notes:  Squash may be diced or shredded by hand instead of shredding with a food processor.  Any variety of onion is acceptable.  Celery salt may be used in place of celery seed for a taste preference.  Relish can be enjoyed freshly made without processing.  Fresh or opened jars of relish should be refrigerated. [Preserving Food at Home Resource Guide, PennState Extension, p.104] For best quality and safety, consume refrigerated pickled squash within 7 days.

DRYING
Varieties that work well for drying include zucchini and yellow summer squash.  Wash and trim ends from the squash and cut squash into ¼-inch slices.  Steam blanching slices for 2 ½ -3 minutes or water blanch for 1 ½ minutes is recommended for best quality.  Utah State University Extension suggests adding 1 teaspoon/gallon citric acid to the blanching water to reduce darkening during the drying process.  Drain the slices and arrange them in a single layer on a dehydrator tray. Dry in a food dehydrator at 135-140⁰F for 10-12 hours or until slices are leathery crisp and brittle.  Store the dried pieces in airtight containers (glass jars or in moisture and vapor-proof freezer containers, boxes or bags) in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 12 months. Vacuum packaging dried squash is also an option as it will resist moisture better and extend the shelf life.

Ten pounds of fresh squash will dry to approximately ¾ pound. Dried squash can be used in soups or stews or processed in a food chopper and used in breads or baked goods.

Regardless of how summer squash is preserved or used fresh, it is nutritious. One cup sliced (100 g), fresh summer squash has approximately 18 calories, 1 g fiber, and 1 g protein. Squash is an excellent source of vitamin C. Cooked squash will have essentially the same calories, fiber and protein, but will lose approximately 75% of the Vitamin C during the cooking process.

To learn more about the many uses for summer squash, check out: Summer Squash Is a Versatile Vegetable in Iowa Gardens.

References

Updated January 2024. mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Meet Rachel Sweeney

Rachel Sweeney is the newest member of the AnswerLine team!

Rachel giving a 4-H baking presentation – Photo: rsweeney

AnswerLine is a new role for Rachel Sweeney, but Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is not. Rachel grew up on a diversified farm outside of Iowa City and was actively involved with Johnson County 4-H as a member of the Graham Champions 4-H Club. At an early age, she realized she could turn her interest in food and nutrition projects into a career, she decided to attend Iowa State University and major in that area graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics and exercise science. After graduation, she spent a year in Nashville completing a dietetic internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Rachel’s began her professional career as an ISU Extension and Outreach human sciences specialist in Nutrition and Wellness, serving southeast Iowa for nearly seven years. In this role she led food preservation workshops, food safety trainings, and nutrition trainings for child care providers. After a brief stint as a retail dietitian, she returned to ISU Extension and Outreach as a program coordinator for Iowa 4-H Youth Development’s SWITCH (School Wellness Ingetration Targeting Child Health) program, an innovative school wellness initiative designed to support and enhance school wellness programming. After two years in this role, she got a new job title, MOM, in November of 2021, and a need to balance work and family life. AnswerLine provided the perfect opportunity for her to continue to work and enjoy her young family. One month into the job, Rachel says, “I have really enjoyed my first month on the job answering client’s questions and I look forward to continuing to learn and grow in this role to best serve the citizens of Iowa and Minnesota.”

When Rachel is not answering client questions via phone or email, she is likely with her family, 5-month old son, Thomas, and husband, Jim. She enjoys gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, traveling, and being outside. As if she isn’t busy enough with work, family, and her many interests, she is also training for the swim portion of a half-Ironman relay-team competition in June! GO Rachel!!!!!

Rachel is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and stays involved with the Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Neighborhood Gardens

Urban garden shared by neighbors – Photo: mrgeiger

Using a vacant space in the backyard as a garden plot is by no means a new idea; in fact, it’s steeped in history. What if that space was to become a neighborhood pick-what-you-need garden? 

Last spring, my son-in-law (Guy) had just that idea. He enjoyed having a small garden and the fresh vegetables that came from it.  But as we know, sometimes even a small garden can produce more than a family can consume fresh.  Instead of simply sharing or tossing the excess, he reached out to his backyard cul-de-sac neighbors to see if they would like to participate in a neighborhood garden.  He volunteered to oversee the garden building and tending since none of his neighbors were familiar with gardening.  However, if everyone participated in the planting and care, anything that grew would be available to all for the picking.  The neighborhood enthusiastically accepted his idea and so the process began.

One neighbor with an oversized lot volunteered space where there was good drainage and plenty of sunshine.  Since this was a recently developed area with a lot of soil compaction, Guy brought in new soil and compost.  He designed the garden to have raised beds on three sides with a walk path in the middle for easy access to the raised beds.  The raised beds were covered with a weed barrier and a fence and gate were added for deer and rabbit protection. Everyone pitched in with the preparations as they were able.

Tomato, cucumber, pepper, and bean plants were decided upon and acquired.  On planting day, Guy invited all the neighborhood kids and showed them how to plant the various seedlings.  As spring became summer, the kids and their families watched the baby plants turn into maturing plants setting blossoms and fruit.  With the first sight of baby fruit, everyone waited impatiently for ripening and the first picking.

No one could have predicted the amazing effects of this garden.  The first of the fruits to be harvested was a cucumber picked by an adult who had never picked anything in his life; he was ecstatic and wanted to know if it could be made into dill pickles!  The children went into the garden for right-off-the-vine snacks; in fact, one little girl loved the garden so much that when she couldn’t be found any other place, she was in the garden.  The children also enjoyed searching for tomato worms and watching the moths and butterflies that visited the garden. Sometimes there was a bit of friendly competition of who was going to get the next ripe and ready tomato, pepper, cucumber or bean.  For others, it was the first time they had ever tasted a freshly picked vegetable.  In the end, even this small garden produced more than the neighborhood could use.  Everyone was grateful for the experience and is looking forward to another garden this year.

The comradery of this neighborhood is unique and special.  The same ‘loose’ organization might not work in another neighborhood; other neighborhoods may need or want a well-organized plan and established ground rules before they begin. When that becomes the case, neighborhoods or community groups should develop a garden plan, like a business develops a business plan, to address such issues as

  • How to pay for supplies?  Should there be a membership fee?  Who will handle finances?
  • Who will oversee or supervise?
  • Who are the workers and what are their tasks?   
  • What will be planted?
  • How will distribution of produce be handed?
  • Will fertilizers, chemicals, and pesticides be used?  Will the garden be organic?
  • Liability?

Other considerations and tips on starting a neighborhood or community garden can be found using these resources:

Start It Up – Eat Greater Des Moines
Starting a Community Garden – American Community Gardening Association
How to Organize a Community Garden – North Carolina State Extension

Regardless of how big or small, the benefits from a shared garden are numerous.  In addition to providing fresh vegetables, a garden can also be a tool for promoting physical and emotional health, connecting with nature, teaching life skills, teamwork, neighborliness, and security.  Spring will be here soon.  If a neighborhood garden is a consideration, it is time to start planning now.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Taking the ‘Myths’ Out of Cooking Dried Beans

Jars of dried beans and lentils.

Last spring we decided to plant beans—beans, as in eventual dried beans—for a new garden experience, health benefits, and future use in cooking, or as a meat substitute.  Beans are a rich source of fiber and B vitamins and help reduce cholesterol, decrease blood sugar levels, and increase healthy gut bacteria.

My husband chose five different varieties—Amish Knuttle, Black Turtle, Tigers Eye, Peregion, and Garbanzo (chick peas) to plant.  It was fun to watch them grow, set and fill their pods.  The foliage of the first four looked very much like any other kind of bean or soybean (edamame).  The garbanzo foliage was very different; the lacey, delicate leaves looked more like they belonged in a flower garden than a vegetable garden. 

As fall dawned, the leaves began to yellow exposing the pods which would eventually dry and need to be picked.  Enter the human harvester–me. As I spent long hours picking bean pods and later removing the beans from their pods, I had more appreciation than ever for the dried beans that I so nonchalantly pick up at the grocery store and grateful that bean farmers had mechanical harvesting equipment.  Once my harvest was complete, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful jars of beans as if they were a work of art! 

Since I had such a high regard for my beans, I felt they were worthy of being cooked properly to show their unique texture and flavor.  In the past, I hadn’t taken much stock in how I cooked beans; my method or lack thereof probably stemmed from a combination of whatever I haphazardly learned from my mother years ago, heard from other advisors in my life, or simply what I had time for.  I soon learned there are as many ways to cook beans as there are people who cook them and many of the methods stem from ‘myths’—soak or no soak, fresh water or not, salt or no salt, lid or no lid, oven or stove top.

I was intrigued by an Epicurious article:  How to Cook Beans: The Epicurious Myth-Busting Guide.  The Epicurious kitchen staff experimented with pinto beans to determine the best method for cooking dried beans, debunking many of the myths surrounding bean cooking.  I repeated their experiment using each of my bean varieties to determine what was best for each; in the end, regardless of variety, I had to agree with their recommendations.  Quick-soaking the beans, cooking in their own water, salting them at the beginning of cooking, and cooking in a pot without a lid on the stove top resulted in beans with great texture and flavor.  (Use the Epicurious link above to read more about the Epi method.)

Once the beans are cooked, they are ready for whatever comes their way.  I usually cook a quantity of beans and freeze in portion containers what will not be used in 2-3 days.  Frozen cooked beans can be used like a drained can of beans.  Thawing is not necessary when they are used in soup or baked beans. If used in a salad, side dish, or baking, they need to be defrosted prior.  Beans keep well in the freezer for about 6 months.  Dried beans will generally stay at best quality for about 2 to 3 years at normal room temperature; they will remain safe to use after that but may take longer to cook and have less flavor. 

How do you cook your beans?

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Moving Plants Indoors in the Fall

With nighttime and daytime temperatures dropping and hard frosts in the near future, it is time to turn our attention to bringing in and acclimating houseplants that have been outdoors during the summer. Most experts recommend transitioning plants from their present light conditions to lower light conditions over a period of several days when temperatures drop below 50-60 degrees which is typically in latter September in the midwest.  When time does not permit this transitioning time, plants will likely show signs stress with yellowing and leaf dropping as they adapt to indoor light conditions.

Plants should be inspected and treated for pests before bringing inside.  Aphids, mealybugs, white flies and other pests usually aren’t a problem when potted indoor plants are outside, but can quickly turn into a major infestation during the winter if they highjack their way inside. Some experts recommend bathing or soaking plants before bringing them inside in a tub of water with a mild dishwashing soap.  If plants are too big for a tub, spray them with water and wash the top and undersides of the leaves as much as possible with water and dishwashing detergent rinsing with water; in addition to removing potential insects, it also removes outdoor dust from the leaves.  It is important that the soapy water also get into the soil as it will help to kill any pests residing there, too. Wash the outside of the pots to remove dirt and any unwanted pests. It may also be a good practice to report the plants with fresh potting soil providing them with new nutrients and minimize the risk of insects residing in the soil. Once inside, plants should be checked with each watering for any sign of infestation and if spotted, treat religiously with an insecticidal soap until the problem is resolved. 

Houseplants may put on a lot of new growth over the summer and may get very large. After cleaning, the second step is to determine if they need pruning, separating, or repotting.  Some plants may have outgrown their pot and need something larger.  Others may be too large for the indoor space and need to be pruned, separated, or propagated to start a new plant. 

While geraniums are typically an annual plant, they can be successfully wintered indoors in different ways–left in their pot, pruned and repotted, propogated from cuttings, or stored as dry-root plants in a cool, dry location. University of Minnesota provides information on these methods.

Plants should be placed in the brightest locations possible in the home with a southern exposure if possible. Once the plants are inside a new kind of care begins–watching for pests, watering appropriately, cleaning up dropped leaves and petals, and fertilizing as needed. To prevent overwatering, that means letting the soil dry to the touch before watering. When houseplants need to be watered depends on many environmental conditions including light, humidity, and temperature. Depending upon the conditions of the home, some plants may need nearly as much water in the winter as they do in the summer.  Iowa State University Extension horticulturalists recommend reducing or stopping fertilizing plants in the fall and winter months, as abundant fertilizer will only promote growth that cannot be supported by the slower-growing houseplant leading to pale or spindly growth. 

Bringing houseplants, tropicals, and geraniums indoors for fall and winter is a great way to preserve special plants and save money by not repeatedly buying new plants each spring.  It does take considerable time in the fall, but in doing so, one may be able to enjoy the same plants and collections for many years and use the money saved to purchase new or interesting plants.

Updated 10-12-2023 mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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The Not So “Bitter” Truth About Eggplant

Eggplant, also called an aubergine, is now in season as a ‘fresh from the garden’ vegetable.  For many Americans, it is an underused vegetable even though it is highly versatile. It can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, and stir-fried and also used in soups, stews, curries, and kabobs.  Eggplant is nutritious, low in calories, fat, and sodium while high in fiber and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, Vitamin B6 and A.  Eggplants are also recognized as a source of phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants.  All of this “goodness” helps with maintaining good blood cholesterol, cognitive function, weight, and eye health and preventing cancer and heart disease.  As such it is a big component of vegetarian and Mediterranean diets; it is also a family favorite and we are fortunate to have a number of varieties in our garden to enjoy.

While this vegetable provides so much good, many shy away from it because they detect a “bitterness” in it or have heard that the fruit is bitter.  A young, freshly picked eggplant with smooth, glossy skin and intense color will have no bitterness whatsoever if consumed soon after picking.  Old or overripe eggplants or those that are off color or sit out for a while after being harvested are more likely to exhibit a bitter flavor.  Therefore, choose eggplants that are heavy, shiny and firm and avoid eggplants that are off-colored and/or do not exhibit a bright, glossy color. The seeds of a young, fresh eggplant are very small, so the flesh will not have accumulated the bitter compounds found in eggplants that have become overripe and rubbery. 

If bitterness should be of concern, there are some actions one can take to eliminate it.

Begin by peeling the skin to remove any bitter compounds present in the skin or between the skin and the flesh.

 “Sweating” an eggplant with salt will draw out the compound solaine, the chemical found in the seeds and flesh that contributes to the bitterness; it will also draw out some of the moisture making the eggplant more tender.  To do this, slice, dice, cube, etc the eggplant and sprinkle the pieces with salt.  (Canning and pickling salt is best, but any salt will do.)  Allow the eggplant to set for 30 or more minutes, rinse off the salt, pat dry, and continue to prepare.  Sweating an eggplant will also reduce the amount of oil it will absorb during cooking, too.

If salt is a dietary problem, another method used to remove bitterness is to soak the eggplant pieces in milk for 30 minutes prior to cooking.  Drain off the milk and prepare the eggplant normally.  Some feel that removing the seeds from the flesh is helpful.  This may be of some use in an older eggplant as the seeds enlarge with age thereby increasing bitterness.  To remove the seeds, slice the eggplant length-wise and use a spoon to scrap out as many seeds as possible.

In an ideal world, the eggplant is used the day of harvest and is fine on the counter short term.  For longer storage, eggplants can be refrigerated for about a week as long as they don’t get too cold or damp.  They should be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag. I find it helpful to also wrap it in a paper towel before placing in the bag; the thin skin is highly susceptible to moisture damage so the paper towel helps with that.  It can be sliced or cubed, then blanched or steamed, and frozen up to eight months for later use. 

Eggplant should be cooked as it has chemicals that can cause digestive upset if eaten raw.  Since the flesh discolors quickly, use right away after cutting.  Lightly sprinkling raw eggplant with lemon juice helps to prevent browning.  Eggplant is best cut with a stainless steel knife since carbon blades will cause discoloration.  Cooking in an aluminum pan also will cause blackening.  Eggplant fruits should be handled with care as they do bruise easily and those flaws quickly turn bad; a bruised eggplant will exhibit brown, corky flesh in the affected area. 

Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, same plant family as tomatoes and peppers.  There are many varieties of eggplant in numerous colors and sizes.  To learn more about eggplant, check out the eggplant fact sheet from the National Garden Bureau. (This site has fact sheets on other vegetables that may be of interest, too.) 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Purslane — Weed or Treat?

PURSLANE (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed in my garden that I curse; it comes uninvited, spreads fast, and keeps on giving.    Purslane grows nearly everywhere in the world and is known as a weed (my take on it), or an edible plant.  Some cultures embrace purslane as a delicious and exceptionally nutritious treat!

Because purslane grows so rapidly and spreads easily, most research has focused on eradication by tillage or chemicals.  The new approach is to eradicate by eating.  While I couldn’t begin to eat against the amount of purslane that pops up in my garden, a little now and then is a bit of a garden treat.  The leaves, plucked from the stems, are somewhat crunchy and have a slight lemon taste.  I like it sprinkled on salads, sandwiches, and omelets.  It can also be steamed or used in stir-fries and makes a good thickener for soups or stews because it has a high level of pectin.  Supposedly it also makes a great low-fat pesto; because purslane is so juicy, only a small amount of olive oil is needed.  Purslane is high in Vitamin E and essential omega-3 fatty acids providing six times more Vitamin E than spinach and seven times more carotene than carrots.  It is also rich in Vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium, and phosphorus.

While it is readily available in my garden,  I have yet to see purslane in the markets in Central Iowa.   If one is so lucky to not have purslane in their garden or yard but are curious to try it, likely there is a neighbor who would be only too happy to share.  Before sampling or eating, make sure that the plant is chemical free and thoroughly washed as it grows close to the ground.  And if this is a new food, don’t over indulge.  Any number of recipes can be find via Google.

Having said all these good things about purslane, I still see it as a weed and struggle to eradicate it by pulling, hoeing or using chemicals.   Using a mechanical tiller is the worst at controlling it as cultivating breaks it apart and, being a succulent, each piece becomes a new plant.  Hoeing is effective only if the root is taken and the plant is removed.  Any soil disturbance allows long-lived seeds near the surface to easy germination.  Purslane is not picky about where it grows; it loves hot weather, and does not require moisture.  Tilled soil and a little moisture is all it needs to go wild. Therefore, the best rule is to get it before it goes to seed; it takes less than three weeks from the time it emerges until it flowers and seeds.  A single plant may produce 240,000 seeds which have germination potential for up to 40 years.  Mulching helps control purslane as mulch suppresses seed germination.  For mulch to be effective, it must be thick enough to block all light to prevent seed germination; 1/2 inch of mulch is recommended.

Purslane . . . weed ’em or eat ’em?   I will be weeding more than eating.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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