Irises: A Beginner’s Guide for Late Summer Planting

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“Irises” by Vincent van Gogh, which sold for $53 million at auction

Come late summer, a gardener’s thoughts immediately turn to spring. Most likely, planting tulips or daffodil bulbs come to mind, two of my favorite flowers. However, a good friend of mine, Traci, recently moved to the area. She bought a new house and had a blank slate as far as planning her garden is concerned. She planted the idea of new iris beds for us both. And an obsession was born!

As good friends do, we fed off each others’ enthusiasm for a new undertaking. Now that both of our gardens are in, and you still have time this year to plant one of your own, I thought I’d share some of our learnings with you.

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First, a bit of iris history. The iris, famously used by the French Kings, including Louis XIV, as a symbol of power and position, was adapted as the Fleur de Lys and is now a symbol of the great state of Louisiana. Before World War II, most new iris hybrids came from Europe. But since that time they have become an American passion, and can be enjoyed in all their regal splendor, standing tall in late spring, alongside the poppies and peonies.

Although people often refer to planting iris “bulbs”, the bulbs are actually called rhizomes. The rhizome is planted right at ground level, the tops just visible, and its adventitious roots make it possible for many plants to propagate from the stem. While the rhizome grows horizontally, it rises into a beautiful fan of sword-like leaves with showy, spectacular flowers in a rainbow of colors.

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The healthy roots of an iris rhizome

I’ve compiled a couple of “Iris Newby” tips that my friend and I have learned, that hopefully will be helpful to you, too.

Where to Find Your Rhizomes. Don’t let the cost of irises deter you from starting a bed of your own. One of the best features of these hardy perennials is how quickly and abundantly they reproduce. Iris typically have to be divided every four years. So you can most likely find some neighbors, friends, family or coworkers who would be delighted to share some of their bounty with you. Gardeners are by nature eager to share knowledge and the fruits of their labor.

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An elderly neighbor of Traci’s, who could no longer garden, generously offered her as many irises as she’d like. This is what Traci ended up with, and she shared with me.

Another fantastic and inexpensive method of procuring your precious rhizomes is to find the local chapter of the Iris Society, through an arboretum, or horticulture department at a local university. Traci and I attended the annual sale of the Iris Society of Minnesota and found award-winning irises at a fraction of the price, that we knew would do well in Minnesota’s unique climate. We were also able to benefit from the experience of Master Growers, such as this lovely gentleman, who was more than happy to help a couple of beginning iris enthusiasts out.

Finally, there are many sources for high quality, distinguished irises online. Perhaps the most venerated is Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. While a peek at the 2016 edition of their Iris Lover’s catalog features resplendent Irises for $50-$60 a bulb, I shopped their summer sale and purchased several for under $10 a piece. Plus, they will throw in a bonus Iris, if you meet certain thresholds.

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Once we had all of our iris selected in the colors we favored, (both of us love the purples and blues. I also like the pinks, and yellows. Traci hates yellows and goes for some of the deep reds), it was time to prepare the beds. Irises will ship in July, August and September. They should be planted in late summer, earlier than tulips or daffodils, because they need time for the roots to get established, prior to the temps falling below 40 degrees.

Choosing a site. You’ll want to select a site where you’re going to get full sun for at least 6 hours a day. Choose a spot that doesn’t get standing water. Remember irises don’t like wet feet. You’ll need to amend the soil if you have heavy clay soil. Most importantly, choose a spot where you will be able to see and enjoy them in bloom, and hopefully, passersby will be able to enjoy them, too.

Preparing the Bed. Again, Iris do not like wet feet. You’ll need well-drained soil. Like most perennials, Iris prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil. You’ll want to use fluffy compost or aged manure, and light black dirt.

2 Final

We cleared a site, where a previous home owner had planted iris over two decades ago. The soil was compacted under gravel, so we uncovered down to the clay, turned it over, and added aged, composted manure and light, fluffy black dirt.

2A Final

Next, I set out all my bulbs, according to color and size. All of mine are Tall Bearded Iris, so mine were arranged by color scheme. You’ll want to plant them 1-2 feet apart. The closer together they are planted, the sooner you will have to divide them.

3 Final

Finally they were planted, so that the rhizomes were just visible above the soil or had a very light covering, with the roots fanned out to the sides, pointing down.

Finally, I created a map of what I’d planted and where. Anyone who has ever planted a perennial garden will attest to the fact that markers tend to mysteriously migrate, or disappear, and you end up not knowing what is where until it blooms.

Traci found some darling garden markers on Pinterest that she made for both of us, using beads from the craft store. I’m sure I have the nicest garden markers on my block. But plastic markers and a Sharpie will work as well.

While I love all four seasons in Minnesota, I can hardly wait until next spring to enjoy the fruits of my labor, as well as to share with my friend yet another mutual passion that sustains our friendship. For more information on growing irises, I encourage you to check out the American Iris Society.

 

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson enjoys getting dirt under her nails as much as a good manicure afterwards.

 

 

Hey Ladies: Fantasy Football is Good for You

Fantasy Football Letterpress

I did it! I did it! I got the number one pick in my Fantasy Football draft. Big thanks to my personal Holy Ghost of the gridiron…Vince Lombardi, who I know is watching over me. This is going to be my year.

Clearly this is a sign the tide is turning in my favor, as I haven’t finished in the top three in the past three years. You’d think I might be dejected after three years without winning, right? Or perhaps, when I tell you I’m a Vikings fan, you think, “Ahhhhh, she’s used to losing.” But no, I am not dejected.

Even if I haven’t had a winning season in 5 years, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the 2016 Fantasy Football draft night since the final seconds ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl last February.

Group of happy young people

I am an unabashed Fantasy Football diehard. According to Forbes magazine, I’m one of 6.4 million American women who are glued to screens, — television, mobile or otherwise, each game day, monitoring scores from around the NFL. That’s right. One third of Fantasy Football managers are women. It’s not a man’s game anymore, baby.

And no, we’re not letting our husbands and boyfriends manage our teams. I put someone in a headlock for insinuating that once. Kidding. Sort of. And we’re not choosing players by cutest mascot or tight end.

We do the homework. We “break down tapes,” as they say. I’ll admit, before I started playing Fantasy, I was a hometown team fan, and that’s about as far as my love for the game went. I knew the basics of football, but I had no idea what a tight-end was, where the redzone was, or which running back had the most yards-per-carry.

But with Fantasy Football you not only gain knowledge of the game you never in a million years imagined you’d care about, but you can name every Quarterback in the league, the best defense, the Wide Receiver with the most receptions, and the number of yards the leading Running Back ran for.

If you love analytics, there is no better hobby for you. You’ll suddenly find yourself listening to SportsCenter on Sunday Morning, watching NFL GameDay, or tuning in 15 minutes before game time to find out who is active or on the injured reserve.

There is the maddening, nail-biting anticipation of a Monday night game, when winning or losing comes down to the 4th quarter, and three extra points by your kicker stand between you and first place in your league. The only time I stay up past my bedtime on a weeknight? Guaranteed, it’s for Monday Night Football.

Gold Guy Fantasy Football Player

So why are more women drawn to the allure of Fantasy Football each year? Well, assuming they don’t have a huge passion for the game to begin with, women love it for a lot of the same reasons men do, including:

Connecting with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors – My dad and I talk now more than ever. He plays in 3 leagues. I like to go to him to discuss strategy, proposed player trades, line-up and bye week options.  However, I learned early on: don’t ever take anyone else’s advice. You’ll have no excuses and resentment if the advice doesn’t pan out, and you’ll get all the glory for yourself if you make the decision on your own.

I play in several leagues. One is a “girls-only” league with my friends from Facebook, who live all over the country. It’s a great way for us to keep in touch on a regular basis throughout the season, and we share a lot of laughs…from team names to the most ridiculously frilly, frou-frou traveling trophy in the history of football (if Martha Stewart designed trophies, this would be it).

Social Ritual and Tradition – Every year a group of my coworkers, from all departments, IT, Finance, Customer Service and Marketing, get together after work for some appetizers, adult beverages and our Fantasy draft. People who never meet during the course of business hours have become friends over  the years. There’s more cooperation, camaraderie, and morale boost through the friendly competition. We also have a jersey day and chili cook-off during the season, and, of course, we give each other a little good-spirited ribbing during the offseason.

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It’s Good for You – Everybody knows about the psychology of winning right? There’s the adrenaline rush. The self-confidence boost. Fantasy Football is good for your health. It’s science. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself, from the author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.

Bragging Rights, Trophies, Cold, Hard Cash  –  Or, humiliation of opponents in extreme cases, like the guy in the news a few years back who was the big loser in his league and had to get a tattoo of his most hated team’s logo. Talk about a diehard.

So ladies, this is your year. Beginners luck is REAL. Trust me. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes on more than one occasion. Give it a go. It’s good for you!

To form a league of your own, check out Yahoo Fantasy Football…it’s my favorite.

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson, doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to reveal her team’s name in this forum.

Pack Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Eat

Final Main ImageIt’s that time of year again when kids are gearing up for school or are already settling into their classrooms (do I hear a collective sigh of relief?). If you have children in grade school, you may be wondering what to do about their midday meals, specifically whether you should pack their lunches or trust they’ll eat whatever the cafeteria dishes out.

Let me just say if your little darlings are finicky eaters, they’re probably better off bringing their lunches from home. The trick is to make them appealing and nutritious at the same time. I know, easier said than done, right?

Well, good thing I have some ideas for tasty and healthy meals, as well as fun and functional ways to tote food & beverages to school!

Say Goodbye to Boring Bag Lunches

Back in the day, if you weren’t lucky enough to own one of those groovy tin boxes with your favorite TV characters, you had to carry your lunch in a flimsy, worn-out brown paper bag that was barely big enough to hold a sandwich and an apple.

These days you’ll find an awesome assortment of durable, roomy and cool-looking lunch bags, boxes and containers, many at discounted prices during back-to-school sales. Here’s a sample:

Insulated Lunch Bags. These lightweight bags come in so many patterns and styles – from cartoon characters and action heroes to cute critters and bright geometric designs – you’re sure to find something to suit any age and taste. Find fabulous lunch bags. like the one below, at Amazon.com!

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DIY Lunch Box.
Pick up a plain tin lunch box, like the one above from Oriental Trading, and let your child decorate it his or her own way with glitter, markers, magnets, stickers… you name it!

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Rubbermaid LunchBlox®.
  This Bento-style kit includes 3 colorful containers with leak-proof lids to help you organize and store snacks, fruit, veggies, dips and sandwiches, plus a Blue Ice® pack to keep food chilled and fresh. Everything snaps together to fit inside tall or flat lunch bags. See the complete LunchBlox line at Rubbermaid.com.

Best Bets for Beverages and BrothsContigo water bottles

Contigo AUTOSEAL® Gizmo Kids Water Bottle. The BPA-free reusable water bottle is leak- and spill-proof and has an easy-clean transparent lid. Go to reuseit.com for all kinds of clever water bottles for kids!

 

Crayola® Juice Box Holder. No more crying over spilled juice! Just place the juice box in this sturdy, squeeze-proof plastic container and the juice stays put! Get one now for only $3.99!

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THERMOS Brand FUNtainer Food Jar.

The compact, double-wall stainless steel container holds up to 10 ounces and keeps food hot or cold for hours. Choose from a variety of FUNtainers at Target.com.

Kid-friendly (and mother-approved) menu ideas:
* Pita-bread pizzas — If they like pizza, they’ll devour these! Take pita rounds (without the pockets) and top them with pizza sauce from a jar, pepperoni and grated mozzarella. Bake in a toaster oven and wrap them in foil to stay warm.
* Sandwiches in fun shapes — Use crust or cookie cutters to turn ordinary sandwiches into something “magical” like butterflies, hearts or dinosaurs! Get a 5-Pack of Sandwich Crust Cutters at Amazon.com
* Pinwheels — Spread cream cheese on a flour tortilla, cover it with deli ham or turkey, shredded cheese and lettuce, roll it up and slice into bite-size pieces.
* Kabobs — Take wooden skewers and lace them with chunks of ham or turkey, cheese and fresh fruit like pineapple or apple.
* Mini pot pies — make these ahead of time, heat ’em up and wrap in foil to keep them warm. Here’s an easy pot pie recipe from Betty Crocker.
* Pasta — Most kids like mac & cheese, spaghetti & meatballs and ravioli. Needless to say, homemade is better than the pre-made kind you pop in the microwave. Try these delicious, kid-tested pasta recipes from allrecipes.com.
* Vegetable alphabet soup — Heat it up in the a.m., put it in a thermos and it’ll still be “mmm, mmm good” at lunchtime.
* Ants-on-a-Log — A good-tasting, good-for-you snack that’s fun to make and eat! Just spread peanut butter on stalks of celery and sprinkle with raisins.
* Veggies & dip — A great way to get youngsters to eat their vegetables! Fill a container with baby carrots and include hummus or ranch dressing for dipping.
* Yogurt — Click here to find the best yogurts for kids.
* Something to drink — low-fat milk and ice water are the best choices for beverages. Juice boxes are good, too, as long as they’re low in sugar. Sodas are a no-no, of course. Even diet soft drinks have been proven to be unhealthy.
* Include some fresh fruit (grapes, berries, an apple or pear), string cheese, crackers, maybe a granola bar or cookies (from scratch) for dessert, and they’re good to go!

Visit our Kid Stuff Pinterest board for more school lunch ideas!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. tried brown-bagging her lunch once in first grade but gave it up after the paper bag ripped and she lost half her meal on the sidewalk.

4 Deliciously Different Things to Do with Zucchini

If you have an overabundance of zucchini in your garden, you’re probably thinking “what the heck am I going to do with it all?” Yeah, I’ve been there and I know from experience that if you don’t pick them soon enough, your zucchini will turn into overripe, torpedo-size gourds!

Sure, we joke about leaving bags of the green stuff on neighbors’ doorsteps and using giant zucchini as door stops, but the truth is there are so many wonderful ways to prepare summer squash, you’ll wish you had more!

Let’s start with these amazing recipes!

zucchini shrimp scampi

This savory shrimp scampi uses spiralized zucchini in place of pasta and has only 214.3 calories per serving! 

Zucchini Shrimp Scampi (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or more, to taste
1/4 cup chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-1/2 lbs. (4 medium-size) zucchini, spiralized
2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley flakes

Directions: Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pink, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and lemon juice, season with salt & pepper. Bring to simmer. Stir in zucchini noodles until well combined, about 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and parsley, if desired.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Damn Delicious.

Watch this video on how to spiralize zucchini.
Don’t have a spiralizer? Shop for one now at Amazon.com.

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Try this good-tasting, good-for-you snack with your favorite dip!

Baked Parmesan Zucchini Crisps   
Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced to about 1/4 inch-thick rounds
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper
Directions:
1. Lay out paper towels and place zucchini slices on the paper towels. Sprinkle zucchini with salt on both sides. Cover zucchini slices with more paper towels and press down. Leave for 20 minutes. Paper towels should be wet and zucchini slices fairly dry.
2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. In a shallow plate, combine Panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano, salt & pepper; set aside.
4. In a 2nd shallow plate, add flour seasoned with salt & pepper.
5. In a 3rd plate, beat eggs with salt & pepper.
6. Dredge zucchini slices in flour, dip into eggs then dredge in Panko mixture, pressing to coat.
7. Place zucchini slices on prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all zucchini rounds are done. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until zucchini rounds are golden and crispy. Serve with your favorite dip.  (We like it with ranch dressing.)
Recipe from jocooks.com.

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This yummy zucchini quiche is easy to make and there’s bacon in it… need I say more?

Zucchini Bacon Quiche (Serves 6-8)
Ingredients:
1 tube (8 oz.) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 tsp. prepared mustard
6 bacon strips, diced
3 cups thinly sliced zucchini (about 1-1/4 lbs.)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten*
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese*
2 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano*
1/4 tsp. dried basil*

Directions:
1. Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in a greased 10” pie plate with points toward the center. Press dough onto the bottom and up the sides of plate to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard.
2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels; drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of drippings. Sauté zucchini and onion in drippings until tender. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cheese, seasonings, bacon and zucchini mixture. Pour into crust.
3. Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover edges loosely with foil if pastry browns too quickly.
*I changed this Taste of Home recipe by adding an extra egg and replacing mozzarella with Colby Jack cheese and dried basil/oregano with Adobo seasoning. My husband devoured it!

Southwest Zucchini Boats

These fun zucchini boats are packed with flavor and they’re healthy, too!

Southwest Zucchini Boats (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
4 medium zucchini
1 lb. ground beef
3/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

Directions:
1. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise; cut a thin slice from the bottom of each with a sharp knife to allow zucchini to sit flat. Scoop out pulp, leaving 1/4″ shells.
2. Place shells in an ungreased 3-qt. microwave-safe dish. Cover and microwave on high for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender; drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Remove from heat; stir in salsa, bread crumbs, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese. Spoon into zucchini shells.
4. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 4 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Microwave 3-4 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and zucchini are tender. Serve with sour cream if desired.
Photo and recipe from Taste of Home.

Looking for something on the sweeter side? Check out these recipes for Chocolate Zucchini Bread and Cake from my 8/4/15 blog post.

You’ll find tons more zucchini recipes on Pinterest too!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. is hoping these recipes will entice her husband to eat more vegetables.