Community Gardens Bonus for Kids!

Introducing the brand new book in the Wild Tales & Garden Thrills series by D.S. Venetta….

It’s The Muddy Fingers Garden Crew to the Rescue!

Jamal Livingston is stressed out. His community garden is in jeopardy of closure, because volunteers are squabbling and an angry neighbor is threatening to have the garden shut down completely. Which would be horrible! Not only do Jamal and the others share their produce with the local food pantry, they teach others how to garden and eat healthy.

When Jamal shares the news with his friends at school, the children are beside themselves. Close the garden? When it’s doing so much good? Absurd, and the students of Beacon Academy won’t stand for it. If the neighbors won’t volunteer to work the garden, then they will. The kids are experts now. They can handle any gardening challenge.

It’s the moment Jamal learns the true power of community outreach. But as the kids work their plan, they quickly discover there’s more at play than cranky volunteers and an unhappy neighbor. A lot more, including Mother Nature herself. The kids might have piles of energy, but can they overcome all obstacles and save the garden? Find out in book 3 of the Wild Tales & Garden Thrills series…

As always, there are vocabulary words and organic gardening lessons in the back of each book. PLUS delicious recipes like Oven-Roasted Okra, Zucchini & Cheese Supreme, Veggie Stuffed Peppers, Strawberry Balsamic Crisps, and the ever popular Cabbage-Carrot-Apple juice!

Available summer 2017. For more details, visit www.dsvenetta.com

Let’s Can Peppers!

Wahoo~my Hungarian Wax peppers are ready to be canned!!  It’s the moment my son has been waiting for.  He can’t wait to get started harvesting–well, in between entertaining the neighbor girl peering at him through the chain link fence, that is.  In between introducing him to all 100 of her imaginary brothers and sisters, her fleet of horses, her real life dogs…

Well, you get the picture.  The boy was distracted, but still managed to snip this bounty of peppers.

Beautiful.  From red to yellow (and a few green we’ll chalk up to the distraction factor), my son has given me quite the beginning for a canning fiesta.  Mind you, he didn’t lug this basket up to the house himself.  I did.  He was busy impressing the young girl with his digging abilities, creating a hole deep enough to step in clear up to his thighs!  Needless to say, she was thrilled. More

Skillet Potatoes and Onions

If you live in the South, you’re probably harvesting potatoes and onions right about now. Okay, you probably have harvested your potatoes, but apparently I missed a few on the first go round of my harvest session. And the second.

Well, to be fair, my son was part of this process so it’s anyone’s guess how these babies were missed. But here they are, gorgeous and sumptuous as ever.

Potatoes and onions are good friends when it comes to cooking. These two root veggies blend well together morning, noon and night. I prefer mine layered with cheese–as does my family–so I decided to combine them for a side dish at dinnertime. I also prefer cast iron when skillet-cooking in the oven. Adds to flavor, I think. And the dish is definitely a crowd-pleaser. The applause you’ll receive when you pull the skillet out of the oven is wonderful. And well-deserved.

Skillet Potatoes and Onions

2 1/4 lb. potatoes, sliced

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup butter

1/4 tsp. paprika

8 oz. shredded cheddar

salt and pepper to taste

2 TBSP bacon bits, optional

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Melt butter in a 9″ cast iron skillet and sauté onions until translucent, about 4-5 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté 1 minute longer. Sprinkle with paprika and remove from heat.

Remove onions to a plate and wipe down skillet. Brush bottom and sides of skillet with shortening or butter. Arrange enough potato slices to cover bottom of skillet, overlapping slices. More

A Model For School Gardens

Ever wanted to start a school garden and didn’t know where to begin?

Then you must check out the incredible work being done by Millennia Gardens Elementary in Orlando, Florida. In collaboration with Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Green Works Initiative and the help of countless dedicated volunteers (and of course, enthusiastic students!), this school is paving the way for future school gardens everywhere. Education is at the heart of their mission, with an emphasis on environmental stewardship and healthy living.

These students are learning to recycle, beginning with tires. Have you ever seen an old rubber tire look so good?

I haven’t. They’re simply beautiful–and the butterflies are flocking to these flowers in droves. In a touching tribute to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub attack, rocks were painted with the names of each victim and placed in the garden for all to visit and reflect upon.

An education board placed near the butterfly garden explains the life cycle of the butterfly, labels the parts of plants and flowers and even discusses the value of other important pollinators. Where was this classroom when I was growing up?

But the fun doesn’t stop here. These students have established an impressive hydroponic garden, pictured here with an abundance of strawberries. If that wasn’t enough, these budding humanitarians grow lettuce and donate it to Sea World to feed rescued manatees.

They have also established a lovely raised bed garden.

Sound expensive to maintain? Not really. These ingenious youngsters have employed a “pedal-a-watt” system where they actually power the pumps and timers to keep their garden growing green and lush by cycling. Yep, you heard me right! These kids pedal to their heart’s content and deliver the much needed energy to their garden equipment. Now that’s what I call saving money on electricity. And, expending youthful excess energy and calories!

However, the “awesome” factor doesn’t stop there. Check out these wind-turbines…

They’re just one more way the kids are practicing sustainable methods of living. Notice that black pile of dirt in the background? Millennia Gardens Elementary is one of the only schools in the county to recycle their food waste, allowing the city to convert it to a rich, organic compost that will feed their garden.

Wow. Talk about a bright future–these kids are setting a stellar example for schools nationwide. For more information on what they’re doing and planning for the future, visit their website:  www.ecoclubfl.com

Vacation Woes & Garden Envy

Two aspects of gardening we don’t often discuss, but I know exist. At least they do for me.

Recently I helped out a fellow gardener by harvesting some of their crop while they were out of town. Didn’t have to ask me twice. Free bounty? Count me in! However, I was reminded of what it means to be a gardener on vacation.

Weeds. And lots of them. The longer you enjoy your time away, the worse your garden woes at home. Especially after a big rain. Yikes. My back hurts just looking at all the weeding that needs to be done! Every summer the same thing happens to my garden. I’ve resorted to covering most of my beds with heavy black paper to ease the burden, but invariably there are weeds. Usually in my peanuts–about the only crop I grow over the summertime, due to the heat.

But the good news? The bounty was some of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Look at the size of these eggplant plants! They were over three feet high. And take a gander at all that bounty! If you recall, my eggplants were a measly 18 in. tall. “Shrimps” by comparison.

But my envy didn’t stop there. The jalapenos were also amazing and abundant. And tall. Way taller than my plants. In fact, all of the plants were bigger than mine. I’m not sure if his plants are organic or not, however I do know one thing. I’m jealous!

However, looking on the bright side. I do get to enjoy the fruits of his labor–literally. The eggplant was delicious, as were the peppers!

Wild Ain’t Always Pretty

As an organic gardener, I employ the art of crop rotation in my garden. Basically, after harvesting a bed of glorious bounty, I till the soil and follow the crop with something that is amenable to improving the soil, or at least not depleting it any more than it already has been. For example, after harvesting my corn, I follow with beans in my simple easy-to-follow rotation mantra beans-leaves-roots-and-fruits. (Makes for an easy singalong with kids.) Beans-leaves-roots and fruits! Beans-leaves-roots and fruits!

You get the picture. However, sometimes during my rotation process after my husband mows down my garden with his handy dandy tractor attachment and I amend the soil with my lovely compost, I find some leftovers. Hangers-on. Hold-outs. Call them what you will, but my peanut row–the one that followed my corn–is inundated with clumps of corn and squash.

While they do make decidedly nice companions, this scene ain’t pretty. Definitely not pretty. Now mind you, I prefer productive over pretty, but I’m not sensing these corn are going to be very productive. Too much, too close. Ordinarily I’d pull the unwanted plants from my bed, but this time, I’ve decided to watch and wait, and see what happens. Never know–maybe I’ll get some squash out of the deal! (You probably can’t see them, but there’s squash and that row, too.)

And yes, those are weeds you see all around. But I’ve been out of town for a bit over the last two weeks and weeds are an unwanted consequence. I find it much easier to convince my son to water my plants while I’m gone than to weed them. **sigh** It ain’t pretty, but so long as I can reap the bounty of some fabulous peanuts this summer, it will all be worth it. I’ll keep you posted!

Homemade Sun-dried Tomatoes

Ever wondered how to sun dry a tomato? I mean, the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is exquisitely intense, wonderfully versatile–and I learned–the perfect addition to any raw diet.  It makes an awesome base for uncooked tomato sauce.

But I digress. Personally I never wondered about sun-dried tomatoes and how they were created. I figured the name said it all, right?  I imagined them splayed out across specialty terra-cotta baking stones in Italy or California, sunning until they reached crispy, crunchy chewy perfection (depending on how you like them!).

It wasn’t until I witnessed Mother Nature’s first sun-dried tomatoes in my garden that it dawned on me.  (Actually, it was the scorch of summer and my lack of attention that did it, but who’s checking?) I planted these gorgeous Romas in spring and they dried by summertime, all by themselves.  Don’t you love an independent vegetable?

Nothing I like better than a vegetable that will grow itself or a child that will do his or her own laundry. It’s heaven!  But seriously, are these not feats to be coveted? At least respected, admired?  In my house they are and when my tomatoes began to sun dry themselves well, I celebrated.  Hip-hip-hooray!  We have sun-dried tomatoes!

For all of you cringing right now thinking, please no, tell me you didn’t actually eat those rotten things.  Rest assured, I didn’t. Who knows what may have tainted those shriveled beauties? Not me and I don’t eat anything from my garden without full certainty of its “wholesome goodness” prior to ingestion.  I have kids watching my every move. Never know which “moves” they may wish to emulate and trust me–rushing them to the ER is not on my list of things to do!

So how does one sun-dry tomatoes?

Easy. Same way you dry those herbs in your garden–set the oven to low (150-200) and bake them for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the heat strength of your oven.  Cut them into quarters and push the seeds out (or not).

These are a mix of Roma style and regular.  (Is there such a thing as regular tomatoes?)  Next, spread them across a baking sheet.  I used this vented one for more even “drying.”

At this point, your best course of action is to monitor them throughout the process, turning when necessary. If this seems like too much work, you can always lay them out in the sunshine for a hot couple of days.  Mother Nature does know what she’s doing!

After about 4 hours, my small batch was ready; crispy-crunchy-ready.

I imagine if I immerse these in olive oil they’ll return to a more palatable texture (like mine chewy), but these would still be great as a salad sprinkle.  The raw diet recipes we used during our challenge called for soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in water prior to use.  Good idea.

Tasty, toasty and easy, you’ll want to try this one for yourself!

Growing as A Garden

Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than a field of wildflowers?   Have you ever driven along a country highway, struck by nature, overwhelmed with the sudden urge to pull off the road and simply enjoy?

Okay, this does happen a LOT in Wyoming, where the mere glimpse of wildlife can send your brake pedal crashing to the floor (hopefully that’s the only thing crashing), but I find a field of wildflowers can stop me in my tracks.   Much safer, too.   Moose and buffalo can be so unpredictable.

But here in Florida, there are no enormous animals to consider, so long as you stay out of the water, only flowers distract you from the roadsides, filling the landscape with the breath of spring. Winter has eased its pinch, warm days and cool nights fill out the month of April. I used to think fall was my favorite season, but now, I’m second guessing that notion.

My garden is chock full of new plantings, my backyard is covered in wildflowers (seeds scattered by myself and the kids years ago but now completely self-proliferating). My jasmine is bursting with blossoms.  Bees literally follow me from garden to jasmine, jasmine to garden. I have blueberries out there and the bees love them as much as they love jasmine!

Throughout my daily travels, it occurs to me that life is in full swing.   The birds and the bees are doing their thing — the birds choosing to “take” from the fruit of my labors (read blueberries) where the bees tend to “give.”  But they’re instinctual little beasts and do as they were born to do.

Much like my sweet children.  As they grow, it’s becoming more and more apparent I will be walking down the path of most resistance, lurking in their shadows as they struggle through adolescence.  Teen boys have it no easier than girls, mind you.

They want to blend in.

They want to be like their friends.

Unlike our conversations of the past, where “standing out from the crowd” and “being your own person” were concepts they embraced, I now see the threads of homogeneous thought weaving silently through their minds.

Sure, it’s okay if that kid’s different, but not me.  Not you.

We can’t be different.  We can’t be unique.  No, no.

“Mom, you’re embarrassing me.”

“Mom, whatever you do, don’t say anything to Coach.”

“Mom, you’re not funny.”

“I’m not?”  I glance around my person, as though expecting to find a lifeline tossed my way.   “Are you sure?”   I plant my hands on my hips.   “You used to think it was fun when I honked at you on the playground, or waved at you during class.” I paused, glancing around the yard.   “Or danced in our field of wildflowers…”

Groan, grunt, grimace.  Arms flail as they reply in unison, “Not anymore.”

Not anymore, I murmur under my breath, then drop my gaze to the ground. Not anymore.

Lifting my head, I look at them more closely.  All legs and arms, long and lanky, smart as whips and filled with attitude I realize, No, I imagine not.  It’s easy to see you’re growing up (way too fast) and duly falling into line with your peers.  I know you can see the beauty in this field as well as I can, but you’re focused on the reds and pinks, the subtle blend of harmony they create when clustered together.

Those little white flowers over there…   Where you can appreciate them, you don’t want to be them.

I understand.  It’s normal.  From the classroom to the playground and everywhere in between, kids are sensitive to the shades of gray.   They’re not ready to stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

Yes, I totally understand.  But as I immerse myself in the gift of spring, this once a year treat, this glorious field of diverse color, I realize the effect is mostly lost upon our youth.  Where I see a gorgeous palette of subtle blends, I also delight in zeroing in on the standouts.  They leap out at me.

But I’m an adult. I’ve had years of practice shrugging off the pressure from my peers, the insatiable need to blend in.  I’m okay being known as the Crazy Garden Lady.  No longer requiring the validation of strangers, the safety of similar, I can dance with abandon.

With time, my kids will get there, too.  Once they’ve had the chance to develop their own identity. It’s okay. I get that not everyone wants to be the Crazy Garden Lady (though I can’t imagine why not.  Think of the fun they’re missing out on!). But one day they’ll come to terms with themselves and see this field as I do; beautiful in bits and pieces, as well as a whole, weeds, bare spots and all.

Earth Day for Kids!

Earth Day began back in April of 1979 coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement. Poor air and water quality were fundamental to the movement, along with protecting endangered species, a push that drew support from all sides of the political spectrum in an effort to save the earth we inhabit. (Could you imagine such an agreement in today’s tumultuous political times?) We’ve come a long way since those first days but we’re not there yet. While many of us yearn for a gas and oil free lifestyle, our technology is not quite there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real differences in our everyday lives.

Most of us recycle our plastics and glass, newspaper and cardboard. Many of us conserve water with every flush, every faucet turn, but how about moving our conservation efforts into the hearts of our children? From composting to gardening, to recycling and thinking futuristically, kids relish the opportunity to be part of a cause and the health of our planet is certainly a good one. One way to encourage kids in the garden is to make it fun.

From insects and worms to wild critters and mysterious finds, there’s never a dull moment between the rows of a garden and D.S. Venetta proves it with her series of chapter books, Wild Tales & Garden Thrills. Not only will kids be engaged by the stories, they’ll learn the basic tenets of organic gardening and why it’s so important for healthy living habits—including the health of our planet. Composting, companion planting, crop rotation, seed-saving–it’s all there. As a bonus, each book includes vocabulary words, fresh recipes & organic gardening lessons in the back!

CAUTION: by the time the kids finish the first book, they’ll be insisting you start your very own garden and compost pile (if you haven’t already!). Next, they’ll be convincing their teachers at school.

It’s not hard. None of it’s hard. But it does require effort. Thought. Intent. And that’s what the annual Earth Day celebration means to me and my family: we are the custodians of the planet. If we each do our part, we can live in harmony with nature. Animals, too, but that’s another post for another day. 🙂

Here’s to wishing you joy and good health on this Earth Day, and hope you reap abundance from this beautiful earth.

Books available from your favorite indie bookstore, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million. Do your kids love their ereader as much as mine? Perfect! These books are also available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo with full-color illustrations.  Coloring books featuring all of the illustrations from the books are also available–perfect for engaging the younger set! Visit author D.S. Venetta’s website for more information.

Time to Plant Your Sweet Potato Slips

Summer is fast approaching (in Florida, anyway) which means it’s time to get your slips in the ground and growing.  They require a long growing season and they require warmth.  But they don’t grow from seed potatoes, rather the “slips” created from your sweet potatoes.  How does one create a sweet potato slip?

The technique is easy.  You simply cut your sweet potato in half, perch it upon the mouth of a jar or glass (suspended by toothpicks works well) submerging the bottom half in water.  Voila!

creating slips

Place in a sunny location and keep the water level high enough so that the bottom half remains wet and then watch your potato sprout.

After a while—times vary, but you can expect to wait days, even weeks in some cases—shoots (leaves) will form on the top of your potato.  You can gently remove these and place them in water, again half-submersed, and a tangle of roots will develop.

slip roots

When they reach a couple of inches in length, you simply transplant them to your garden and water them in.

Sweet potatoes like loose sandy soil and don’t need a lot of fertilizer or water, which makes them especially kind to the novice Florida gardener, such as myself.   You can amend the soil with some compost to add nutrients, but don’t worry if you can’t.  These girls are pretty hardy.

Depending on the variety, potatoes can be harvested from 100 – 140 days.   I planted my first crop in June and began harvesting in October but continued through December.  They don’t like the cold, so we cleared the remainder out and collected them for storage before the temps dipped too low.

As with any tender transplant, take care with your new rootings and they will grow fast and furious.   Wonderful news, because sweet potatoes are not only easy to grow, but they’re as healthy as it gets.  Roasted, mashed, baked or broiled, these babies will keep you healthy and happy and hoppin’ ready for a new crop come fall!

sweet potato slips ready for sprouts

Mine are on the shelf and ready for action.  The colorful one in the middle was a gift from my daughter. 🙂  She made it at one of those clay-fire-glaze studios.  Cute, isn’t it?