How to protect your outdoor plants in the winter

Winter is here, and you’re cold. But you’ve got your fuzzy pajama pants, your favorite hoodie, space heater, and YakTrax. You’re settled in for the blustery winds and freezing rains. But what about your outdoor plants?

During these cold months, the most vulnerable part of a plant is the root system. The roots, whose job it is to absorb water and nutrients from the soil and supply the plant with the hydration, vitamins, and minerals it needs to grow stronger, are most susceptible to freezing temperatures and the cellular destruction they cause.

To understand why freezing causes cellular destruction, we first need to understand what happens to water when it freezes.

Something fascinating you didn’t know about water

I know, I know. You didn’t sign up for a physics lesson. But here’s something fascinating you didn’t know about water. It behaves like no other liquid on Earth, and that’s what’s keeping all of us (and our plants) alive.

When most liquids freeze, they shrink because the crystalline structures formed during the freezing process are tightly packed. But when water starts to freeze, it goes through a contraction/expansion cycle that ends in expansion.

That’s because when water molecules start to lock into their crystalline lattice structure, their hydrogen bonds keep them spaced apart. That leaves open spaces in the structure.

That’s nice, but what does this have to do with anything?

If your plant’s roots freeze, it means that the water around and inside them has locked into a jagged crystalline structure. That slices them up inside and out, compromising their ability to take in nutrients from the soil and maintain the plant’s health.

Freezing one time might not damage them enough to kill the plant, but freezing and thawing repeatedly will.

If you want to keep outdoor plants alive during the winter, you’ve got to keep some heat at the roots.

How to defend your plants against the freeze/thaw cycle

It’s all about slowing down the loss of heat accumulated from sunlight. Heat takes the path of least resistance, so the more obstacles you put in its way, the slower it travels. To keep more heat trapped at the ground level longer, you have to create many layers of air pockets separated by a multitude of barriers.

Think about it like this. If you need to get to a destination 15 miles away, drive through the city, and get stopped at every light, it’s going to take longer to get there than if you took the freeway. Even if the freeway route is a greater distance.

The air pockets in the insulating material are like the stretches of road between stops, and every place the pieces of material come into contact with each other are the traffic lights.

How to insulate potted plants

The first thing you need to do is figure out which kinds of pots will be appropriate. You’ll want to use those made from materials that won’t crack. Here is HGTV’s breakdown on all-weather gardening pots if you could use a few tips to make your selection.

Push them together so they help shield one another. Like penguins. Penguins even take turns in the middle, so maybe your plants would like it if you occasionally rotated them.

Wrap them in old sheets, towels, or clothes. Some people suggest bubble wrap, but others insist on avoiding plastic, as it will retain too much moisture and could cause mold to grow. Something that breathes and will hold layers of air to trap heat is ideal.

Soil is also a good insulator. You could bury the plants, pots and all.

Make sure the pots have enough drainage and water them adequately. If the soil is dry, frost will penetrate more deeply into it.

What to do if you have planters

Here’s a post from Lindsay Stephenson’s blog about using foam core to insulate roots against the surrounding cold air. Then again, just because I like playing devil’s advocate, not every expert gardener agrees that polystyrene necessarily keeps plants warmer.

Some, like Larry Hodgson of Laidback Gardener, argue cold will make it to the roots anyway and that the foam’s real purpose is to slow down the loss of heat long enough to prevent freeze/thaw cycles.

It’s true that the purpose of any insulation is to create lots of air spaces separated by barriers that slow down loss of heat and foam certainly does that. But there’s another thing worth considering.

Polystyrene off-gases chemicals that get absorbed by whatever’s in contact with it. If the chemicals leech into the soil and the plant’s roots, that’s not great for your plants. I wouldn’t eat polystyrene packing peanuts. And I wouldn’t give them to my dog. So I wouldn’t want to feed them to my plants, either.

How to insulate plants in the ground

Some people go all out and build insulating structures filled with material around each plant. Here’s an example if you like making things and want to check that out.

For others, simply covering the ground to protect the root system suffices. Straw, mulch, and burlap all work well for that.

There are enough simple and inexpensive solutions that you can find something that works for you, whether you have a little space and time or a lot.

As thorough as we try to be, we could have left something out. Have a favorite insulating technique I haven’t mentioned? Share it with your fellow gardeners and us in the comments.

4 Places to check for bad smells in the kitchen

Bad smells in the kitchen can sometimes make everyday activities like cooking and cleaning feel like traversing the Bog of Eternal Stench. Do you have terrible odors hiding in your kitchen even though you’ve (supposedly) cleaned it?

Here are the places where bad smells come from

1. The garbage

Remember the “It ain’t got no gas in it” scene in Sling Blade?

If you’ve scrubbed every surface, but the smell is still there, maybe you forgot to check the most obvious place. The garbage. Your leftovers four days ago. Onion and garlic skins. Rotting vegetables. All that stuff’s been sitting in wet coffee grounds and table scraps, liquefying into a miasma of garbage juice.

Mmmmmmmm.

After you take out the garbage, check the bottom of the trash can. If there’s a congealed layer of weeks-old garbage juice, prepare yourself.

Here is a resourceful person who has figured out the best way to clean trash cans.

Throw something absorbent in the bottom of the new liner:

  • baking soda
  • dryer sheets
  • citrus peels
  • cat litter

When you throw food away, scrape it into a coffee can or plastic bag you can tie off and keep it contained.

2. The garbage disposal

Think about all the stuff you grind up in your garbage disposal and how gross it is now. And then it gets covered in layers of grease and rotting food particles.

Blecchhh.

The easiest way to clean a garbage disposal is to run some lemon slices through it every couple of weeks. Citric acid cuts grease, kills germs, and emits fantastic aromas. Lemons and limes are most potent, but grapefruit and orange work beautifully, too.

3. The dish sponge

It’s not enough to toss the dish sponges in the dishwasher or microwave every once in a while, and it’s all good. But it isn’t, and it’s time to stop deluding ourselves.

Pretend you’re a dish sponge for a second. Here’s your average day:

People constantly grab you with their dirty hands and scrub your head against globs of greasy meat, mushy pasta, burnt eggs, and cheese.

Then they leave you on the bottom of the sink, soaking wet and matted with food. Of course you stink.

Most mold thrives in moisture and ambient temperatures (77-86 degrees F). If you want to slow it down, deprive it of water.

Squeeze excess water out of the dish sponge and lean it on its end to dry. And because killing sponge germs is like playing whack-a-mole, saturate it with isopropyl alcohol or microwave it for 45 – 60 seconds. At least once a week.

No matter how you try, you can’t stop the population in a sponge continually breeding. There are cleaner alternatives to a sponge gaining traction and might be worth checking out.

4. The refrigerator

We don’t always clean up spills in the fridge right away. Especially in the vegetable crisper where asparagus has expired and leaked a bit of rotten juice in the bottom of the drawer. Cartons of bad food languish unnoticed in the back of the fridge behind delivery containers from last night.

Go through your fridge and make sure you toss all the out-of-date stuff. You may not think there’s anything wrong with week-old pizza, but you’d be surprised how fast some foods expire and grow dangerous levels of bacteria.

Human eyes cannot see bacteria until there’s way too much of it.

If there are any spills, clean them with a homemade cleaner for an effective job without harmful chemicals.

Call it a day. Have a drink. You just vanquished billions of invisible enemies.

Have a favorite way to get rid of bad smells you’d like to share? Feel free to enlighten us via the comments. Or tell us what kind of drink you had after you cleaned your kitchen.

4 Essential herbs that grow well in pots

Fresh herbs can weave an extra dimension into our sensory experience with food unsustainable by meat and veggies alone.

But fresh herbs are expensive and often wither in the fridge too fast despite your intentions when you buy them.

If you’d like to try growing your own, this post is about four herbs that grow well in pots. I’ve grown them myself. They’re easy to care for and fill your kitchen with seductive aromas. You can also use them to infuse cooking oils or make salad dressings and homemade cleaning products.

Maybe you’ll even feel inspired to try cooking new dishes.

4 herbs that grow well in pots, indoors and out

Basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary thrive in at least eight hours of full sunlight. They have similar watering and pruning requirements. And they go great together, especially if you love Italian food.

1. Basil

Basil plant
Photo by Tone Høines on Unsplash

There are too many varieties of basil to choose from. Thai basil has gorgeous purple leaves and smells spicy and sweet. Boxwood basil grows compactly with small leaves that grow so fast you’ll be able to use it for a lot more than just cooking.

2. Oregano

Oregano plants with sign
Photo by Dayana Brooke on Unsplash

Oregano will punch you in the mouth if you overuse it. Pair it well with spices that complement its bite. By the way, its antimicrobial properties make it an excellent ingredient in a homemade all-purpose cleaner.

3. Thyme

Thyme sprigs with lemons
Photo by Nadi Lindsay from Pexels

Thyme is a little sour and perfect for enhancing flavor in chicken, fish, and veggies. Be careful not to cook it for too long, or it’ll lose its potency. This post from Foodal explains how best to cook with thyme.

4. Rosemary

Close up of rosemary plant
Photo by Babette Landmesser on Unsplash

Rosemary leaves are thick and velvety but sticky with resin. It’s hard to strip the leaves off the stems if they’re sticking to your fingers. So rub a little olive oil on your fingertips first.

Keep rosemary plants at the perimeter of your favorite outdoor space to keep mosquitos away.

What you’ll need before you plant your herbs:

  • Four 12” (about 30cm) pots with drainage holes
  • Potting soil
  • Plant food to encourage leaf growth
  • Bone meal (optional)

I was taught to put bone meal and plant food in the hole first. Bone meal promotes root and leaf growth. Plant food will give the sprout an initial growth spurt.

These plants all thrive in at least eight hours of full sunlight. So if you’re growing them inside, be mindful of their location. Test the soil moisture by poking your finger into the dirt. If the top inch or so is dry, your plants need water.

If you use fertilizer, take care to get it in the soil but not on the leaves. Regular watering and pruning are sufficient aftercare. You don’t even need to pull weeds. Gardeners who enlist beneficial insects to fight pests say a few weeds help.

So … now what?

When you start harvesting homegrown herbs, let the kitchen experiments begin. Do it for science. Do it because it’s cheaper and makes your food more delicious. Do it because you can. Here’s a bonus recipe to kick off with.

Roasted veggies to top your favorite pasta

I made this recently, and the best way to describe the flavor is that it smells and tastes like summer. Buon appetito.

Ingredients

  • 1 bulb of garlic, separated into cloves and skinned
  • 1 red onion, halved and sliced into 1/2” pieces
  • 2 tomatoes, halved and sliced into 1/2” pieces
  • 1 medium-sized zucchini, sliced in half length-wise and cut into 1/2” pieces
  • 1 sprig of rosemary, stripped
  • 1 t of chopped fresh oregano
  • ½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided
  • 1 lemon, zested and quartered
  • grated parmesan, romano, pecorino, or your favorite vegan alternative
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • your favorite pasta

Cooking directions

  1. Place your top oven rack in the highest position. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
  2. Toss cut onion, peeled garlic cloves, tomato, and zucchini with olive oil, salt, and pepper and spread in a single layer over the baking sheet.
  3. Bake on the top rack for 18 minutes, turning halfway through.
  4. Melt butter in the saucepan over low heat and squeeze the lemon quarters into it. Add a generous splash (or two) of your favorite white wine or cooking sherry and stir in herbs. Leave half of the basil to sprinkle on top.
  5. Toss sauce with cooked pasta, drizzling with olive oil if you like. Top with roasted veggies, remaining basil, lemon zest, and shredded cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

Learn more

How to use bone meal fertilizer for plants, Love the Garden.

Potted rosemary herbs: Caring for rosemary grown in containers, Gardening Know-How.

Growing thyme, Bonnie Plants.

Everything you need to know about growing oregano, Kitchn.

How to use a color wheel to choose a harmonious color scheme

Are you tired of looking at your walls? Maybe it’s time to repaint a room or two in your home. Choosing new colors and repainting your walls can make your home feel like an entirely new place. And it’s a relatively inexpensive way of setting yourself up for a new state of mind. If only you could figure out which colors would go well together.

If you don’t trust yourself with color decisions, choosing a color scheme for your rooms can seem like more work than actually painting. Don’t forget, though, that color experts have been working on these issues for centuries. You don’t need to figure it out for yourself — artistic and scientific people have done that for you by inventing the color wheel to show color relationships.

What is a color wheel?

A color wheel is a tool that artists have been using for centuries to choose colors for their paintings. Munsell Color credits Sir Isaac Newton with inventing the first color wheel in 1704. His studies of light refracted through a prism proved that colors have relationships to each other, and those relationships determine how our eyes perceive them when they’re next to each other.

Our eyes are capable of perceiving a range of light that is created by wavelengths from 380 – 700nm. Light that travels at wavelengths in that range is received by our eyes and translated into a spectrum of color ranging from violet to red.

The wheel shows samples of each category of the spectrum of light visible to human eyes. You might notice how colors next to each other appear related. It’s no coincidence that the arrangement of these colors on the wheel follows the same progression of color gradations in a prism spectrum or rainbow.

They are all arranged in relation to the three primary colors — colors that cannot be replicated by mixing other colors together.

A few basics of color theory that will help you make a decision

Primary colors

Primary colors red, yellow and blue, are equidistant from each other on the color wheel.

The three primary colors are red, yellow and blue. All other colors are made by mixing these colors together in various proportions. Mixing any two of these will produce what’s called a secondary color.

Secondary colors

Secondary colors orange, violet and green, are made by mixing two primary colors.

Secondary colors are those three colors made by mixing two of the primary colors together. Orange is made by mixing red and yellow. Green is made by mixing yellow and blue. And purple – you guessed it – is made by mixing blue and red.

How to choose aesthetically pleasing color schemes by understanding color relationships

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are two colors that appear opposite each other on the color wheel. Such pairings include red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple.

Note that the color opposite a primary color is always a secondary color. The important thing to remember about complementary colors is that they complement each other because of their contrast.

For example, green is the complement of red because it’s a secondary color that contains blue and yellow (the other two primary colors) but doesn’t contain red. Orange is the complement of blue because it has no blue in it. Placing complementary colors next to each other makes them appear more brilliant because each one in the pair has something the other lacks.

Being next to blue makes orange look more intense.

Split-complementary colors

A split-complementary color scheme involves three colors, two of which are adjacent to the opposite color on the wheel from the first. For example, red’s split complementaries would be blue-green and yellow-green.

Orange with its split complementaries, blue-green and blue-violet.

Orange’s split complementaries would be blue-green and blue-violet. Because both colors are mixes of blue, they each offer an opportunity for different but related interactions with orange.

Analogous colors

This is another three-color scheme that consists of three colors next to each other on the wheel. For example, if you chose blue as a color to build a palette around, you would choose blue-green and blue-violet as analogous colors to go with it.

Analogous colors blue-green, blue, and blue-violet.

The color wheel shows you not just colors at their pure hue, but also their tints, tones and shades.

What are tints, tones and shades?

Each of these are made from a mixture of the pure hue in turn with white, gray, and black. To lighten a hue, you add white. Mixing a hue with gray makes it duller but doesn’t necessarily change the value (make it lighter or darker). Mixing the hue with black will darken it.

All three types of mixes will desaturate the color. You can see from the windows in the wheel what the effect on each hue will be.

Here’s a video that will walk you through basic use of the color wheel.

Everything you need to make your own cleaning products

Have you been staring at empty space on the shelves where your favorite degreaser should be? This year has most of us cleaning more frequently, and sometimes that means demand outstrips supply where we like to shop.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Learning to be a bit more self-sufficient never hurt anyone, right? Besides, you can make better and safer cleaning products at home than you can find in the store.

How can you make household cleaners at home?

We tend to think manufacturing processes are inaccessible to us, but they’re not.

With just a few basic ingredients, most of which you probably already have, you can make cleaning products for any surface in your home. They’re eco-friendly and just as effective at killing germs as any commercial chemical cleaner.

And it’s so cheap and easy to make them. You don’t need to pay consumer prices for cleaning products if you keep a few common items around.

Ingredients you need to make household cleaners

Baking soda. It’s a masked crusader against unpleasant odors and works well on proteins and grease.

Washing soda. Completely different from baking soda. Nature’s Nurture tells you how to make it if you can’t find it at the store.

Hydrogen peroxide. It breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen, so there’s no guilt involved in taking advantage of its oxygenating powers.

Lemons. Ever get lemon juice in your eye? Imagine how bacteria feel swimming naked in it.

Salt. Salt is a desiccant that kills microorganisms that can make you sick. It’s also abrasive enough to sand dried food off of metal surfaces (like cast iron) but not hard enough to scratch them.

Borax. While everyone agrees Borax is natural, they don’t agree that it’s entirely safe. According to Healthline, Borax can be used safely.

Essential oils. There are so many to choose from, and they make your homemade cleaners smell fantastic in a clean way, not in a harsh or cloying synthetic fragrancey way. Even better, some essential oils like oregano and tea tree have antimicrobial properties and are great to use when you’re making a disinfectant.

Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. This is one of the most popular products for killing viruses, bacteria, and mold.

Distilled white vinegar. For most surfaces. And to dissolve stubborn calcium and lime build-up, like the unsightly crust around your faucets.

Castile soap. Dr. Bronner’s is a popular example of this gentle soap made from all-natural ingredients. It’s so mild you can use it to clean anything. Use it on surfaces like stone that are damaged by the acid in vinegar.

That’s it!

Save money, reduce your exposure to caustic chemicals, and keep plastic bottles out of the ocean. Sounds great, right? But you need recipes, so I’ve grabbed three for you.

Bonus: Recipes for three essential cleaners you won’t want to do without

1. All-purpose cleaner

One part white vinegar (or Castile soap) to one part water. Add a few drops of antimicrobial essential oils like oregano or tea tree for extra disinfectant power or just to give your concoction a pleasant aroma. If you grow herbs, throw in a sprig of rosemary or some basil to infuse the mixture with their oils.

Note that this cleaner won’t be safe for marble or granite surfaces if you make it with vinegar.

2. Streak-free glass cleaner

$4 will get you ounces of commercial glass cleaner.

It’ll also get you 32 ounces of isopropyl alcohol. I don’t want to call the water company to ask how much 32 ounces of water from the tap would be, so let’s say it’s free. You can get 64 ounces of white vinegar for $1.50.

The recipe is simple:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup isopropyl alcohol
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar

That works out to be 104 oz for about $6. And you get to stop 

3. Metal and stone cleaners

To clean stainless steel: Just make a paste with baking soda and water, like you would for a bee sting. Apply it with a damp cloth and gently wipe along the grain. The wipe with a clean damp cloth.

To clean stone surfaces: Add half a teaspoon or so of Castile soap to 2 cups of water. Stir gently to avoid frothing. Remember to wipe down with a damp cloth afterward, and they’ll dry residue-free.

Notes

For recipes that list white vinegar, you can substitute Castile soap. Vinegar is perfectly safe and effective, but it can damage marble or granite countertops. And it makes your house smell like a salt and vinegar potato chip factory.

If you clean with any recipes containing Castile soap, remember to wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth afterward, so there’s no residue.

Make sure to label your cleaners. I cleaned our entire kitchen with something that smelled lightly lemony and found out later it was homemade furniture polish. And even though they’re natural, keep them safely stored as you would bleach and ammonia.

Do you have any recipes of your own to share with us? Let us know in the comments.