Get creative when seeking outlet for green thumb

DANVILLE – Maria Sermersheim doesn't believe you need an acre to have your own garden, whether it's for flowers or vegetables.

"We are hearing that 35 percent more families ... will start a garden this year," said the coordinator of the nutrition program for the Univerity of Illinois Extension office in Danville.

Sermersheim is out to show people how easy it can be to create a food or flower garden, whether it's on a sheet of cardboard, in a 5-gallon plastic pickle bucket or their child's baby shoes.

"It's fun and easy to create a garden of specially grouped vegetables, a combination of flowers and vegetables or just the flowers of your choice," she said.

At a recent demonstration at Danville Gardens on container gardening, Sermersheim put together some of her favorite combinations so people could see what they look like. Combinations include:

– The pizza garden, which contains tomato, broccoli, onion and garlic plants.

"You can't plant cheese, so I use yellow and white flowers circling the vegetable plants for my cheese, maybe with a red flower of some kind thrown in, if you like pepperoni," Sermersheim said with a laugh.

– The salsa garden. This contains tomato, jalapeno and bell pepper, onion and garlic plants surrounded by diamond frost and sweet potato plants that will cascade down the outside of a large container as they grow and make the sweet potato the hidden surprise under the plant.

– The pepper garden, which has red golden, yellow golden, serrano and jalapeno peppers.

– The salad bowl. This contains cabbage, different kinds of leaf lettuce and broccoli, but other plants can be added. It has a lush, all-green look.

– The herb garden in a basket. This is perfect for carrying from the backyard to the kitchen counter to harvest the herbs needed for recipes.

Sermersheim is also big on using odds and ends for planting flowers and vegetables and reuses everything from her children's clothing to olive oil tins.

"Containers don't have to be expensive," Sermersheim said. "At garage sales, I find all kinds of interesting shapes, sizes and colors of containers that make great conversation pieces, brighten your patio while being home to your plants for the summer. Some can even be taken inside for the rest of the year."

Sermersheim also said that the herb garden basket makes a great room freshener.

"I love to bring in the herbs and run my hands over the plants. They set off such a wonderful aroma," she said.

"Don't be afraid. Don't say that you don't have a green thumb," Sermersheim said. "People probably 36 and younger have never experienced gardening. I grew up gardening in Panama and worked in Mexico. It comes naturally to me, but people who haven't done it in years or have never done it should find it very rewarding."

It's a natural thing for Marilyn Myers of Danville too.

"I'm a farm girl," she said. "I got to have my hands in dirt."

Myers' yard has balanced gardens of various shapes and sizes with green and flowering plants, but a backyard deck features lots of container gardens, including a baker's rack of herb plantings.

"Had to put my herbs on the top shelf," she explained. "Last year, they were on the bottom, and one day I looked out my window, and there was a rabbit just snacking away."

A half-circle-shaped shelving unit boasts various containers from bunny rabbits and frogs to clay-colored geometrical shapes. The wire shelving had belonged to her grandmother and as a child Myers used it in her bedroom for her dolls.

"One of the great things about the containers you plant in and the things you put the containers on is that they can have a lot of meaning," Myers said.

Cardboard may hold answer for creating new garden spot

To get creative in your own backyard, Maria Sermersheim, nutrition program coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension in Vermilion County, recommends placing a single sheet of cardboard, cut into the shape of your choice or just a square or rectangle, to create a regular flower bed or vegetable garden on top of grass in a new spot.

"Be sure, if you are using a larger space to overlap the pieces of cardboard to keep the grass from intruding. The cardboard barrier will kill the grass below, just like leaving anything too long on the grass will," she said. "Cover the cardboard with 4 to 8 inches of compost or topsoil and plant the plants of your choice."

In about a month, the cardboard will have disintegrated, but the grass will be gone and the patch will be ready for the next growing season. Sermersheim said no tilling is required.

Sermersheim creates her own salsa from the garden.

HOMEMADE RED SALSA WITH TOMATILLOS

"This chunky, smoky salsa tastes amazing with tortilla chips," she said. "Tomatoes, tomatillos, lots of garlic and spicy jalapeno peppers roasted in a pan, on the grill or in the broiler gives this salsa a rich earthy flavor."

Prep time is about 10 minutes, cook time also 10 minutes. Makes 3 cups.

Ingredients:

4 fresh tomatillos, husks removed

7 fresh tomatoes, (roma, plum, celebrity, etc.)

6 garlic cloves

2 fresh jalapeno peppers

1/8 bunch fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion

1 medium bell pepper

Salt to taste

Directions:

In medium pan on stove, place tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic cloves (with peel), bell pepper and jalapenos to roast.

Remove vegetables from heat. Remove and discard tomato cores, jalapeno stem and garlic peel.

In a food processor, coarsely chop the charred vegetables. Transfer to a medium bowl and mix with chopped cilantro, onion, salt and olive oil.

Serve with tortilla chips or use as a low calorie, low cholesterol topping for a baked potato

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