Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Feeling Blue & Loving It

Spring has arrived which means there’s a bunch of stuff to do in the garden. Great times! I get to till and toil and snack on sugar snap peas all while strolling the rows of organic vegetables. This doesn’t make me feel blue. That happens when I approach the house.

new berries 2015

And pass my blueberry patch! Aren’t they gorgeous? The blueberry blooms are out in full force along with the berries I love and adore.

blueberry blooms 2015

Berries the birds love and adore as well, but we’re not discussing those bad boys right now. We’re discussing berries. Decadent, full and delicious berries. I’m not sure how plentiful my harvest will be this year due to the fact that we didn’t have a very cold winter. Blueberries require a certain amount of “chillng hours” to produce fruit. Chill hours are considered between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. I’m taking the blooms I see as a good sign, though. Blooms mean berries. They also mean “bait” for birds. Grrrrr…

Another consideration to bear in mind is that blueberries need to cross-pollinate, so you must have at least two different varieties in your garden. I chose Southern Highbush Sharp Blue, Windsor, Jubilee, Jewel and Gulf Coast  varieties because they require the least amount of chill hours. If you can get your hands on some Highbush Misty, they are supposed to get along particularly well with Highbush Sharp Blue. I also have some Rabbit Eye varieties to round out my berry garden.

delectable blueberries

These varieties work well for Florida because we don’t get a lot of cold weather and these require the least amount of chilling hours. Choose wisely, according to your growing region. And now is the time to find blueberry plants at your local garden center (in warmer regions, later for my Arctic Amigos), another sign that spring is in the air!

Once you have these babies in your hot little hands, plant them in organic-rich slightly acidic soil (4.0 — 5.0 pH) and mulch well. Feed with a 12-4-8 fertilizer and prune during the summer months after harvest for more vigorous growth. They aren’t what I consider high maintenance, but they do require some.

Blueberry & yogurt stock photo

And they’re well worth it. In yogurt, cereal, pie, cobbler or fresh off the bush, these berries are my all-time favorite. You know you want to grow some. What are you waiting for? Get going and DO share how it’s going!

Ingenious AND Easy!

Okay, you know I’m always looking for an easier way to garden. Not that gardening in and of itself is difficult, but it does require time and effort. How much time and effort depends solely upon the gardener. Enter smart new idea…

corn channelsPlant your seeds in channels instead of holes. Yep, that’s it! Create channels down the length of your raised beds and drop your seeds–kernels, in the case of corn–and cover with compost. Done. (Told you it was easy, didn’t I?)

Look at those gorgeous lines in the dirt. And all I had to do to make them was drag my tiller through the dirt. Because I have sandy dirt in this section. My sweet potatoes used to be located here and those gals LOVE sandy soil, although corn doesn’t. Which is why I filled in my channels with compost. Composted cow manure will work, as will mushroom compost. Anything to enrich the sandy soil will do and is an absolute must. Corn won’t be happy without it.

corn channels filled with seeds and compost

Oh, and don’t forget the fertilizer. An all-purpose organic fertilizer works well but do remember to keep it handy. Corn plants are heavy feeder. Real oinkers in the garden, so keep them fed–especially with lots of nitrogen–and moist (channels work well to keep the water directed toward the roots) and your corn will provide more ears of pleasure than your heart could desire. Additionally, dusting with dipel dust worked so well for my tomatoes, I’m convinced it will also prove to be the secret weapon for my corn plants so I’ll dust my corn to keep the varmints at bay.

corn sprouts in channels

When thinking about the nearby plants in your garden, remember that corn and tomato don’t get along. At all. So keep in mind to keep these two away from each other when planning your rows.

Tomatoes In Need of Eggs

My tomatoes are rockin’ and rollin’ and ready to go in ground. Woohoo ~ what a great day! (Below, the sprouts were two weeks old.)

tomato sprouts 2 weeks old

And it’s a day I’ve been planning for, insisting the family not put their eggshells in the compost bin but instead, straight into my hot little hands. I need these babies for my tomato transplants. Eggshells and Epsom salts. Together, they are my fail proof preventative against blossom end-rot. You know, those ugly black spots that can form on your tomatoes?  (Shown below, the sprouts are now 3 weeks old and ready to head outside!)

tomato sprouts a week later

The spots are caused by a lack of calcium which is why I give my tomatoes a blast of calcium right from the start. Using discarded, dried and washed eggshells, I crumble them into small pieces and scatter around the base of my tomato plant. Next I sprinkle a bit of Epsom salts around the same and cover with compost. I’ll follow by forming a well around my tomatoes to increase their water retention.

they're in!

If the weather in Central Florida remains exceptionally warm, I’ll cover my babies with a screen to block out the hot midday sun. Once they reach about a foot, I’ll remove the screen and begin dusting. Dipel dust keeps the worms off my leaves by eliminating them before they get a chance to eliminate my tomato plants. All’s fair in gardening and nature!

Wow. SO excited! For more details on growing tomatoes, check my how-to grow section located on the sidebar to the right or menu bar above.

Check, Check & Check!

With spring upon us—well, some of us, anyway—it’s time to finalize your garden plans.  Getting a head-start on the growing season will ensure you have a bountiful harvest. After my fall tomato experience, I’m certain spring is going to be even better and have already started my tomato sprouts. (Positive thinking will get you everywhere!)

sprouting tomatoes 2015

By being positive and prepared, you’ll be certain to be ready for YOUR first day of planting, when all threat of frost has passed.  While this day varies from region to region based, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities. 

But why wait?  Do like I did and get those seeds started now!  Which brings us to the first item on the checklist:

1 – Order seeds.  Grow what you’ll eat—not what’s easy.  I know it’s tempting, but there’s no sadder day than the one when you witness perfectly good food withering on the vine because no one wanted to harvest it. The “excitement” factor was missing. The “ah-ha” moment, if you will. Rule number one: Gardening should be fun!

2 – Design layout.  If building container beds, get your lumber now.  I don’t know about you, but my husband likes a bit of notice before he’s asked to perform.  Getting your creative juices warmed and flowing now will help speed the process later.  “Oh, honey…  About that little favor I mentioned! “

3 – Sharpen your tools.  Or simply clean them off, know where they are, organize them.  You get my drift. The last thing you need is to be searching for that trowel when you need it.  Mine is indispensable because it weeds (its primary function), digs, buries and levels.  You gotta love a multi-tasker.  Other essentials include gloves, hat, sunscreen and water bottle. 

For you serious gardeners, you might want to add a long-handled hoe (I prefer the triangular-shaped head) for the job of cultivating your rows.  Not me.  I’m a busy gal with a bad back — “till as you go” is more my speed!

4 – Turn your compost.   You do have a compost pile, don’t you?  It’s too easy not to—just toss, pile, and turn.  Easy as 1-2-3! Seriously, composting is easy and productive. Why just look at these gorgeous potatoes my compost served up for me.

compost potatoes

Love a generous compost pile, in and out of the garden.

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting.  Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close.  Besides keeping the harmony, it provides a natural pesticide helping ease your workload.  The sooner you break out the excel program (my preferred garden journal), the sooner you’re planting seeds and keeping track.  Bear in mind your crop rotation as well—unless this is your first time playin’ in the sunshine! 

6 – Check your water supply.  Now’s the time to fix those leaky drip hoses or grease any squeaky sprinkler heads.  And if you can’t fix them–replace them–before spring fever hits and they’re scooped from the shelves by other eager beavers.  Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency in the eyes of the store manager.

7 – Gather your mulch.  Discarded newspapers, lawn trimmings, hay, pine straw and bark…  All of these lend themselves well for use as natural mulch, though be sure to wet your newspaper down (or layer it with another form of mulch for a good thick cover).   Trust me.  Your neighbors will not be happy when your “mulch” blows across their lawn. 

8 – Prepare soil.  Remove weeds and add compost.  100% organic, it provides an excellent soil amendment, rich in the nutrients your plants need.  Also, till your beds ahead of time.  This will introduce air into the soil and accelerate bacteria activity, which in turn helps release nutrients into the soil.  Word to the wise:  after you’ve taken the time to remove weeds from your soil, be sure to cover your beds with row covers (or a hefty dose of mulch).  Otherwise, you’ll be wedding again before your seeds/seedlings arrive on scene.  In my house, that’s call for mutiny.

corn gluten

Also, consider ordering a bag of corn gluten now so you’ll have it on hand come season. Once your seedlings have sprouted and are on their way, you’ll want to sprinkle corn gluten on the soil around them to help keep the weeds at bay. Those tiny golden granules are amazing.

9 – Soil test.  If you’re not sure what shape your soil’s in, take a sample to your local garden store.   I take mine to the seed and feed and they test it on the spot.  You do-it-yourselfers will prefer a home test kit.  They’re simple to use and give a good idea where you stand soil-wise.  Then, depending on what you’re planting, you might want to adjust the pH (acidity-alkalinity) by adding lime to raise pH, or peat/pine/sulfur to lower it. 

10 – Dream.  Until your seedlings are ready to hit the garden, sit back and wistfully dream of the day when your beds will be lush and full, and flourishing with life.

It helps to pass the time until planting season really begins!

 

Why Must They Suffer?

February brings cold and this week, even Florida won’t escape the freeze. As a gardener, it’s important to stay vigilant. I’ve set my tomato seeds in sprouting trays and will keep them safely indoors during the dip. But what about my poor babies left out in the cold, exposed garden?

They’ll have to be covered. The sensitive ones, anyway. Broccoli and cabbage don’t mind the cold. Peas, either. But my new potatoes I put in ground a week ago? This photo proves how susceptible they are to a wintry blast…

frost bitten potato

Many of my plants are not happy about this cold front. At all. But as I plan my method of protection, I can’t help but wonder, Why do plants suffer during cold snaps?

The answer may surprise you. Like other living forms, plant cells contain water and water can freeze.  According to scientists, during a frost, if water in plant cells freezes, it can damage cell walls.  Why?  Because solid ice takes up more space than the liquid from which it was frozen.  The crystals then rupture the tough cell walls and when the ice melts, any liquid drains out, dehydrating the plant. Soil can also freeze, which threatens plants’ abilities to get nourishment.

Is it true that watering your plants when it gets cold will help protect them?

Yes.  When water from sprinklers turns to ice, the heat released protects the plant from injury. As long as a thin layer of water is present, on the bloom or on the ice, the blossom is protected. This is important. It’s not the layer of ice that provides the protection. It’s the water constantly freezing that keeps the temperature above the critical point. It’s one way citrus growers protect their crops.

orange freeze

Other factors that can affect how damaging a cold spell will be include how long the temperature remains low, whether or not it’s a clear evening versus a nice warm “blanket” of cloud cover, are the plants located in low spots or high across the landscape—even the difference in heat retention between dark soil and light!  Amazing, yes.  But true?

I sure hope so! Temperatures are dropping this week and I’m hoping my black paper will help soak in the sunshine. I’ll keep you posted.

I Wouldn’t Normally Share This…

But I believe you need to see it.  With spring fast approaching, I’m preparing my tomato seeds for their sprouting trays and later transplant into the garden. I can’t tell you how many people would love to grow tomatoes but simply feel it’s too difficult. It’s not. This photograph proves it.

tomatoes on their last leg

These are my fall tomatoes. They look horrible. They’re half-dead, many are broken in half, the support system has long been destroyed, yet they are still producing. Yes, you heard me right. They are still producing delicious tomatoes. Back in December, after an early blast of blustery winds and freezing temperatures, I nearly gave up on them. My beautiful plants had been devastated by Mother Nature’s feisty behavior, and I thought, what’s the point?

Yet I couldn’t completely let go. I figured, what the heck? I don’t have anything else to replace them at the moment. Why not let them go? More

The Strawberries Are Here!

February means strawberry season in Florida which also means strawberry picking—at least for my kids, it does.

strawberries a plenty

You the season is here when the strawberry displays in your grocery begin to grow in size—enormous size—taking up space from the front to the back and all across the produce aisles. Plant City is ground zero for everything strawberry and celebrates the season in grand country tradition with the Plant City Strawberry Festival. Otherwise known as BIG fun, the event runs from February 26 – March 8.

Every now and again the kids and I try our hand at strawberries. They aren’t hard to grow but we never seem to harvest enough to quench our hunger for the gems. Mind you that’s because we use them in everything from smoothies to dessert, pancakes to pies.

strawberry delightWhen growing strawberries, pine needle mulch is a must. Berries like their soil acidic and pine needles will do the trick. They like fish emulsion for feed, in addition to worm poop and general all-purpose organic fertilizer.  Make sure to keep their soil well-drained and you will soon have yourself a ton of beautiful red berries.

If you’d like to find a farm near you and try your hand at strawberry picking follow the link provided by Pick Your Own. This is an international source, mind you, and in addition to strawberries, you’ll be able to locate blueberry farms, pumpkin patches—all kinds of stuff! Looking for something new to try? Check out the All Recipes strawberry page. YUM. Or how about trying your hand at homemade strawberry preserves? The kids and did and were surprised how easy it was to do. For complete instructions, refer to the recipe on my blog here.

Why not have your own “picking party” and invite friends over to harvest your strawberries? My kids always enjoy gardening more when joined by their friends. Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy the sweet taste of Mother Nature.

 

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. More

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!