Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Save Your Poinsettia for Year-round Beauty

End of January usually finds me scouring my landscape for an opening suitable for my potted Poinsettia. Over the years, I’ve had meager success in transplanting these beauties to my yard. They’re still alive mind you, but not thriving as I had hoped.

poinsettias not doing well

The reason?  Well, I’d toss the blame off to a lack of sunlight. The front of my house faces north and the plants simply don’t get enough light to keep them happy. The rear is too hot for these gals, so I’ve steered clear of any attempt to spruce up my backyard with them. However, if I’m to be truly objective about the state-of-affairs, I’d have to bear some of the responsibility.

leggy poinsettia

I’m not good with watering. Okay, I’m not good with “remembering” to water. Or feed. I know, it’s a problem. Ask any of my plants that do not sit in the direct path of the sprinklers and they’ll tell you the same thing. She forgets us. A lot!

Hmph. Well, this year I’ve made new resolutions, one of which includes beginning my day with a stroll around the house. If I see the plants, I’ll remember to water them, right?

Of course I will. It’ll be great. I’ll find a spot to the west and nestle my potted Poinsettia in the ground. Prior to bloom, they prefer less than 12 hours of sunlight, which makes west my better bet, keeping them in the complete darkness from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am. I’ll water them regularly (Poinsettia don’t like to dry out) and feed them a well-balanced fertilizer come spring.

When summer rolls around, I’ll cut them back to encourage healthy new growth for the upcoming holiday season. When December arrives, I’ll cut back on the fertilizer and allow my gorgeous girls to bloom. Easy peasy.

Some general thoughts for growing Poinsettia: They prefer indirect sunlight, protected from cool drafts.  As a native of Mexico, this plant doesn’t like the cold, so whenever the temperature dips below 50-55 degrees, you must be vigilant and cover it else it shrivel up and die.

Stimulating them with a little “root tonic” couldn’t hurt.  The shock from their lovely potted plant status to in ground can be quite daunting.  Hopefully, you have some worms on the welcoming committee as you place them in ground and all will be well.  All-purpose fertilizer should suffice throughout the year. Prune during the warmer summer months.

poinsettia and fern

I think I’m going to think of them like my ferns. Keep moist, keep out of direct sunlight and fertilize.

Note:  For my Arctic Amigos living north of the Florida border, don’t try this at home.  Save your plants, but keep them as indoor plants only.

Potato Planting Begins

Here in Central Florida, it’s time to plant the potatoes. Potatoes prefer cooler conditions, but are susceptible to frost and freezing. While neither happens often if Florida, they do happen, and we will have to cover our plants accordingly to protect them. But I digress. First things first, we need to plant them or there won’t be anything to protect!

basket of potatoes

As an organic gardener, I rotate my crops from bed to bed to stay ahead of the bugs and maintain healthy soil. We follow beans with potatoes, so we’re using our old Lima bean row this year for our new potatoes. We’re growing red potatoes, though many varieties exist. To keep things straight, I use an excel spreadsheet, though pencil and paper work fine. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be glad you did. It helps to keep your beds straight from season to season.

Before you begin, keep in mind that you will be “hilling” your beds as the plants grow.  This means that as your potato plants begin to grow leaves and attain some height, you’re going to want to draw or “pull” in more dirt around the base of the plants.  Hay mulch can also be used to serve this purpose.  The idea here is to ensure good coverage of the developing “tubers” or new potatoes as they grow.  Potatoes have an “upward” growth habit, whereby they will grow upward as the root system expands.  If they near the soil’s surface and become exposed to sunlight, they will turn green, and green potatoes are NO good.  (They’ll make you sick if you eat them.)  You can also start with a trench when planting potatoes.  Makes it easier to hill in the future, but with my garden I simply plant them “low” and hill as they grow.

my potatoes

We’re planting ours next to our peas because the two are great companions in the garden. However, tomatoes are not, so keep them apart. Tomatoes and potatoes are prone to early and late blight and can infect one another. Other good companions for potatoes include: bush bean, members of the cabbage family, carrot, celery, corn, dead nettle, flax, horseradish, marigold, petunia, onion and marigold. Other bad companions include: asparagus, cucumber, kohlrabi, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash family, sunflower, turnip and fennel.

potato holes

After we till our soil to improve aeration, we amend with compost and composted cow manure (they love the stuff).  Next, we form holes for our potato seed—about 2 inches deep.

Now it’s time for cutting our potato seed. Inspect each potato seed and look for the eyes. Eyes are the sprout nubs covering your potato. The idea here is to cut your potato seeds in half or even quarters, depending on the size of the potato and the number of “eyes.”  Each cut piece should have at least one eye, as this is where the future sprout erupts!

eyes on the potato

When planting, I like to put the cut potato piece “eye-side-up”—don’t want to make it too hard for my babies!—though I’ve learned that potatoes are prolific growers and will thrive in your compost pile without a second thought from you, without any regard to their “eye” orientation.

But just in case—keep it easy and plant “eye-side-up.”  Cover your potatoes with a mix of dirt and all-purpose organic fertilizer and water well.

Potatoes are heavy feeders so feed them every so often with a nice mix of fish emulsion, or a dose of good old-fashioned worm poop.  Potatoes are “pigs” when it comes to consuming nutrients which is why you want that cow manure and fertilizer mixed in at time of planting.

organic plant food

Another consideration is to stagger your planting. “Staggering” your planting dates means to plant only a portion of your potato seeds at one time, say a third of the row, then another third in two weeks, followed by the last third two weeks later. This ensures a constant supply of fresh potatoes. An important consideration in my home, because our “fruit cellar” (aka garden garage) is not sufficient to store potatoes long-term. Too warm. Staggering also prevents whining from the family.

“Potatoes for dinner?  Again?”

Apparently they don’t want potatoes for dinner EVERY night.  Hmph.

In about 2 – 4 months after planting and continuous hilling, you’ll reap a lovely bounty of fresh potatoes. And trust me, there is a difference between fresh-from-the-garden-potatoes and store-bought.  They taste sweet pie and smooth as butter.  We like to roast ours with garlic and rosemary.

prepping potatoes

And remember, no matter how you prepare your potatoes, they taste better when you grow them yourself. :)  But do remember these babies are not frost-tolerant and must be covered should the air turn cold. You can use a frost blanket or a household sheet, but either way, make sure you cover them from in the event of frost or you’ll wake up to this ugly site.

frost bitten potato

Brrrrr. I get the chills just looking at those poor suffering beauties! So do be cautious and happy gardening!

Break Out the Catalogs

It’s time to buy your seeds!  If you haven’t been seed saving, that is.  Now mind you, for those of you who are saving seeds I completely understand how you could become so excited over your tomato crop making sauce and ketchup that you completely forgot to save a few ripe tomatoes for the purpose of saving seeds.  Yes, you plopped them right into the boiling water for skin removal without even thinking.  It happens.  It’s okay.  More Brandywine tomato seeds are on my list, too. I mean, I had such awesome luck with these guys this year I definitely need more.

seed shopping

But take heart!  You’re enjoying the thrill of gardening, reaping what you sow and cooking the dickens out of it.  For my raw food fans, the concept remains the same.  Chopping seeds in your Cuisinart isn’t helpful for seed saving so slow down…take a deep breath and think before you throw the switch. :)  I’m just sayin’…

Keep in mind when the seed catalogs arrive and you eagerly run to the mailbox (or jog—ice tends to be slippery) and pull out those gorgeous pages filled with plump ripe fruits and vegetables, a colorful array of flowers and herbs, you want to look for heirloom seeds.  Not hybrid, not super-duper-extra-sweet or double the normal growth potential…  Uh, uh.  You want heirloom and preferably organic.  Why?

my salsa tomatoes

Because once you plant those hybrid seeds, the ones meant to overcome Mother Nature’s deficiencies (don’t let her hear you say that out loud) and harvest the produce and save your seeds, you’ll be sorely disappointed next season.  Hybrids and the like aren’t natural and when you replant the seeds, your new crop of plants will not reproduce the original fruit if they germinate at all.  If you’re lucky, you may plant hybrid Better Boys one season—thrilled with the beasts of bounty they produce—but next season?  These bad boys might only yield a crop of cherry-like tomatoes.  It happens.

So save yourself the heartache and buy heirloom.  And remember to buy only what you’ll actually eat. Plant seeds according to package instructions and keep moist.  Think of them as babies and treat them as such.  This spring I’m putting corn back on my list. Now that I know how to control those dastardly insects, I think I can reap a golden harvest this year. Wish me luck!  Until then…happy gardening!

Sugar Snaps

Sugar snaps have to be one of the easiest plants to grow in the vegetable garden. They don’t need a ton of attention, or water, or food. They aren’t prey to many bugs or diseases. Basically, this plant is your all-around go to gal in the garden. And in Florida, this is the perfect time of year to grow them because they tolerate the cooler temperatures very well.

sugar snap peas are thriving

The only thing you have to be wary of with these beauties is their support structure. They need it–and won’t be happy without it. While my tomatoes are content to sprawl across the ground when given the opportunity, my sugar snap peas are not. You can use tee-pee structures like this one, or a trellis system of sorts.

sweet pea teepees

Whichever you choose, be mindful that you might have to guide your darlings onto the support structure if they can’t readily find it. For instance, these tee-pee supports I made worked well–but only for the plants directly surrounding their base. The sprouts in between tee-pees were at a loss for where to go and I ended up with huge plants along the tee-pee towers and scraggly spindly ones in between.

Another thing to remember: they will latch on to anything, including your water mister so be sure to make sure it’s “out” of their way. Other than that, enjoy these lovelies and they will produce gorgeous plump pods for you to devour–straight from the vine or in pea form, alongside those mashed potatoes you love so much.

Tomato Update

They made it!! My tomatoes endured the torrential November downpours and gusty winds, the chilly cold fronts and the spindly trellis system I concocted to support them. Despite my incompetence and Mother Nature’s testy moods, my tomatoes have survived. It’s a good day in the garden.

tomatoes made it through

To celebrate, I enjoyed the first harvest in my salad this afternoon–a salad fully clipped from my garden–and both were divine. Mind you, my tomatoes are not picture-perfect gorgeous. How could they be? After the struggle and strife they suffered, it’s amazing they’re still attached to the vine!! But I don’t mind a few scruffy edges. Not when the flesh is sweet and delicious.

tomatoes in December

It really was. I should have taken a picture of my salad but my stomach took action before my brain.

Next time. Next time I’ll remember the camera. Perhaps over dinner this evening…? I’m serving sautéed chicken with a chopped tomato-Parmesan topping. In addition to a side of sautéed garlic and kale. YUM.

Don’t Let This Happen To You

It’s not pretty. In fact, this photo should come with a warning label: ghastly and unsightly. Seriously, I almost ran for the hills when I saw it.

My zucchini have been stricken by some horrible affliction. Not sure whether it’s the result of a virus or a steep fluctuation in temperature, but they are horrid.

lumpy zucchini

ACK! Pull the hand from your eyes–I told you it was horrible but you must look. You must understand what can happen to you. This zucchini is enormous in size, but inedible. At least, no one in my family is going to dare eat it. Holes, lumps, scars, it’s awful. Simply awful. Some would suggest this is the result of a virus. The Cucumber Mosaic Virus, to be exact. Passed from aphid to zucchini–or cucumber, squash, any member of this veggie family–the virus will attack your plant and cause these unsightly lumps. The good news, it won’t move from plant to plant or linger in your soil (whew!) but it will destroy your zucchini plant. Disclaimer: humans can spread it from plant to plant so be careful!

The other option is extremer fluctuation in temperature. I’ve read where swings in temperature say 10-20°F can affect your zucchini this way. It has certainly been the case with my garden. One day we’re a balmy 80°F and the next, a frigid 35°F. Brrrr….

Either way, I’m sad to see my zucchini succumb to Mother Nature, but she can be nasty when she wants to be. She can also bless you in ways you’ve never imagined. So I won’t mention this little incident to her. Just keep it between us, okay? But DO be aware. ;)

 

 

I Can Taste Victory

And it’s glorious! After battling worms and bugs and flying creatures, at last I can see the red through the vines–the tomato vines!

line of tomatoes

Okay, so they’re not red, yet, but I can visualize them just the same. Fabulous red tomatoes–gobs of them–will soon be dangling from my beautiful, leaf intact, tomato plants. Yes, as many of you know, I’ve had my share of hornworms and bug invaders, blossom-end rot and general leaf wilt but today? I am on the road to tomato bounty victory. And it feels good.

What’s my secret? Why, many, thank you for asking, the most important of which I daresay is dust. Dipel dust, to stop the caterpillars and worms before they get a chance to grow fat and hungry.

dusted tomato

Prior to that flash of brilliance were the screen I used to cover my babies when they were young and tender. The Florida sun is hot and brutal in September.

tomatoes under cover

I gave them their usual dose of eggshells and Epsom salts, and paid daily visits–except when traveling–where I plucked and pinched (leaves mind you, not worms) and generally admired the gorgeous girls. You remember pinching, yes? That little sucker, there, between the branches.

don't forget to pinch your tomatoes

I made sure to mulch well and check my water source often. Although I use water from a well source, the misters sometimes clog and it’s crucial to catch this issue early. And how will my tomatoes reward me?

With gobs of decadent plump red tomatoes. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: I’m staring down 35°F weather over the next two days. Tomatoes do not like 35°F temperatures. Not even a little bit. Ugh. I’m going to cover them and keep you posted.

In Love with Kale

No, I’m not talking handsome men named Kale but gorgeous vegetables! With the cooler weather, these babies are thriving in my garden and I’m using them in everything from soup to salad. Kale is packed with Vitamin K, A, and C. In fact, one cup of cooked kale has over 1000% more vitamin C than spinach. Add 3 grams of protein and you’re golden.

plentiful kale

Salad is an easy option for this vegetable, but cooked kale is easier to digest. Cooking–steaming kale in particular–helps with its cholesterol lowering ability. Hot soup counts, doesn’t it?

kale in chicken soup

My new favorite way to eat kale is in chicken soup. I made this homemade version the other day and with a few dashes of Parmesan cheese, the combination is to die for. Reminds me of wedding soup, sans meatballs.

For a quick snack, try kale chips. They’re easy and delicious. Simply brush the leaves with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until golden brown.

kale chips

Of course, you remember my kale scramble, don’t you?  This meal graces my breakfast table at least once a week. Because it’s delish–and, I have that much kale.

add eggs to kale

If you’re not growing kale, give it a try. And if it’s TOO cold outside, don’t worry. Kale works great for containers, allowing you to easily bring the fresh greens inside!

Beautiful Broccoli

I know most folks don’t care for the cold weather, but here in Florida it marks broccoli season and around my house, that’s one of the few vegetables everyone can agree on. Okay, that’s a lie. My son doesn’t prefer it–unless it’s covered with cheese and appears on his plate without stems.

Ack. What do kids know, anyway? Broccoli is beautiful, good for you, and fairly easy to grow. And it thrives this time of year.

broccoli head

While my son might not like to eat broccoli, he doesn’t mind helping with the harvest. We cut two nice sized heads this morning and plan to cook them alongside our spaghetti and meatballs this evening for dinner. I’ll steam them first, to soften them up, then pan sauté. Once browned, I’ll cover them with shredded cheddar and a sprinkle of garlic powder and pepper. It might sound a bit crazy to some, but it sure does taste good. And in the end, isn’t that what counts?

If you haven’t planted your broccoli yet and you live where the ground doesn’t freeze, rendering your garden about as plantable as a cement parking lot, it’s not to late to give these babies a try. They’ll take about 2 months of growing before you can harvest, but if you plant now, your January dinner table will thank you. For complete details, tips & tricks, check out my how-to grow section on the sidebar. Happy gardening!

Mysterious Tracks

Something has been traveling my bed of carrots. Of course, my first thought is varmints, figuring a family of slugs had marched through my carrot sprouts. I can’t help it. When you’re dealing with the wild of nature, you have to consider the possibility. An animal is usually responsible for any unknown marks through the soil–or kids. Beds of dirt are highly alluring to children.

tracks through carrot bed

But I’m going with creatures, since I know for a fact my kids weren’t anywhere near the garden the day before. Something about a mutiny or such, I don’t recall, but it’s neither here nor there. This culprit was definitely from the wild of nature. Now, some species of critters tend to be more obvious than others. Take this humongous pile of dirt. Yes, that one pushing up from beneath my black paper.

mound of dirt beneath paper

Now I don’t know how familiar you are with moles, but this is a sure-fire sign that one of the little buggers has been hunting around my garden–next to the sweet potato section. Any guesses why? Hint: No, it’s probably not my delicious potatoes sitting underground, but more likely something disgusting.  Worms. Grub worms, those ick things that crawl around within the dirt and devour my plants, killing them. Ugly, beastly, the moles love them. YUCK. My next response? Gorge away, my dear mole, to your heart’s content and goodbye grub!

unwelcome grub

Not that we like killing any sort of wildlife, mind you, but nature does have its cycle of survival, and grubs, well, grubs lose in the battle when it comes to moles. They lose when it comes to armadillos, too.

But I digress. What happened to cause those odds-shaped tracks in my carrot row?

worm-discovery

Earthworms. Fleeing earthworms, to be exact. Seems they rather enjoyed the torrential downpour we’ve had  of late–a couple of weeks ago–but once the saturated ground dried up, the earthworms decided to vamoose (also known as run, scat, hightail it out of the carrot bed).

Which is unfortunate. I’ve tried to save the fleeing worms in the past, but once they become dried-out and disoriented, they succumb to the ants rather quickly. It’s sad, but nature can be brutal. Just ask my tomato plants. While the above variety of worm fell victim, the variety below usually prevails.

hornworm number two

Ugh.  Where are my gloves?! It’s time to go plucking. (Gotta love gardening…there’s always an adventure!)