Garden skinny – my personal scoop on 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!)

 

 

Bursting with Zucchini

I do love a plant that grows without effort. And when I say grow, I mean REALLY grow–producing big, beautiful and abundant zucchini. Aren’t they beautiful?

first zucchini

Sure, they might look oddly shaped, but they taste the same as perfectly shaped zucchini. I’m sensing this happened due to a burst of water–repeated days dropping tons of rain–then, nothing. Well, not nothing, but the spray misters in my garden are no comparison to the inches of rain we had, proving just how important water is to your garden. Note to self: water more during fruit production for huge produce. More

September in the Garden

Is one busy time! Now that the dog-days of August are behind me, I’m gung-ho in the garden. So far, I’ve planted red beans, black beans, lima beans, broccoli, cabbage, kale, tomatoes, peppers, scallions–and these are in addition to my peanuts, okra and sweet potatoes still in ground. As the latter wane and the former blossom, it’s a great time to be in the garden. Mornings usher in cooler temps, a slight breeze and I think even the bugs have eased a bit.

Of course, I don’t have to worry about bugs, right? My babies are tucked away beneath the screens of safety!

broccoli under cover

Wishful thinking. Unfortunately, white flies are tiny enough to penetrate my barrier. Crickets don’t have anything else to do but crawl around the perimeter, looking for a way in. At least my tomatoes are safe from the dreaded brown moth that lays the hornworm eggs. UGH. I am definitely beating those beasts this season. And with my new daily maintenance schedule–a quick spin around the garden before breakfast and after dinner–I am SO on top of any marauders, they won’t stand a chance! More

Football Means Peanuts!

Football season has kicked off and that means boiled peanuts! South of the Mason-Dixon line, anyway. Down here you can’t go to a football game or tailgate party without your Styrofoam cup of steaming peanuts. Just isn’t done.

Now as nature would have it, your peanuts are ready to be pulled from the ground right about now. A few eager beavers might have already done so, but for the bulk of us—now’s the time. Your blooms have gone, your pegs have dropped and your leaves have yellowed.

peanuts pulled from the ground

To harvest, you’ll want to lightly dig down around one of your plants to check their progress. Using a fork, gently lift the pegs from the dirt.  A ripe peanut will feel firm, its outer shell somewhat dry and “papery.”   More

Make Your Own 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 this spring 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 this 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!

New How-To Grow Section

This fall I’m switching it up and adding a new “How-To” grow section under my “Gardening Guide for Easy Vegetables.” It will outline instructions on how to grow beautiful, healthy organic vegetables. Over the next few weeks, more pages will appear, each outlining directions from seed to sprout, problems to watch out for, good companions, bad companions and specialty tips, as in the case of tomatoes.

It’s my way of organizing information in an easy to find navigation of my site. Since every plant is unique and beautiful and requires different care, I’ve listed some basics.

Ashley's overflowing with growth

General tips of the trade:

Plant depth will reflect seed size. The smaller the seed, the more shallow planting depth.

Heirloom seeds are preferred over hybrid, because we practice self-sustaining gardening and seeds harvested from hybrids won’t reproduce the fruit they were harvested from. Instead, you’ll get a surprise veggie!

Keep in mind that plants like soft, fluffy beds. If your soil is too dense or too loose, like Goldilocks, your plants will complain. Homegrown compost fits the bill best!

Mulch keeps the moisture in and natural hay or pine straw works perfect, though pine should be reserved for your more acid-loving plants like potatoes, peanuts, strawberries and blueberries.

Companion planting helps keep your plants healthy and happy. Two plants that work well with everyone are lettuce and okra.

Fish emulsion is a great all-around organic fertilizer. Gives mild dose of nitrogen and stinky enough to keep the bugs at bay.

Now, I’m getting ready for fall gardening–care to join me?

Back to School–Gardens!

Back to school means back to lessons and in the warmer regions, I think that should include garden lessons. And why not? Kids LOVE gardening. And when you love what you do, it’s easy to learn!

Not sure if it’s a possibility at your school? Never hurts to ask. All you need is a small plot of land in a sunny spot, a nearby water source, and an adult willing to supervise. Gardens are easy when you have an assortment of hands involved.  Literally.  And fun! 

Our school garden

You can find lessons here on my website, scour the internet or make some of your own. The University of Florida is also a great source for school gardens. They even host an annual school garden contest. Once you decide on a spot, outline your garden and commence digging. Middle schoolers and upper elementary kids LOVE this part. Little ones can help rake the weed debris.

work that garden

Next, mark your beds. Wide, raised beds are preferred, and line your walkways. Helps to keep the weeds at bay. We do like to keep the maintenance manageable.   I learned THAT from my children! 

Awe, Mom.  Weeding again?  Why were weeds even invented?”

Can’t answer that one for you, except maybe oxygen?   They’re green, they must help the environment, right?  Either way, it’s amazing what a group of energetic kids can accomplish!

site weeded and ready for planting

Last, choose your seeds. Everything tastes better when you grow it yourself, but do begin with the most popular vegetables suitable for your region. Think: potatoes, carrots, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, watermelon… This list goes on, but these vegetables provide for an easy start to any garden. More

Colorado Gardens

On a recent trip to Colorado, I fell in love with the plethora of flowers. From the mountainside to the myriad planters and arrangements, color and blooms were everywhere. Everywhere! If only my flowers did so well in the heat of Central Florida–I’d put them outside my front door, on my patio, around my yard…

hanging beautyOh, wait. I already have them out my front door, on my patio, around my yard. But mine aren’t like these. Mine wilt at the first sign of sunshine. They scream “water me!” every second of the day. They whine and complain “it’s too hot, save me from this horrid heat…”

The nerve. If I lived in Colorado during the summertime, my flowers would wake to a wealth of warmth and sunshine. They’d crane gently toward the light, beg for water only when they sorely needed it. They’d love me and I’d love them. We’d get along swell. Just swell. I’d hang a colorful assortment like this one everywhere I could stab a hangar.

I’d incorporate Swiss chard like these into my every plant bed.

Edible Colorado landscaping

I’d adorn my every corner with lovelies like these…

wildflowers a plenty

Oh, how my days would be filled with color and joy. Flowers make me happy! In Colorado, they have mountain flair.

Western wagon garden

Restaurants beckon one to linger…

Cafe front

If you ever have the chance to visit Colorado during the summer, go. Enjoy. Breathe in the beauty and fresh air. More

Bug-Free Zone

I don’t know about you, but gardening in Central Florida can prove a constant battle with the bugs. Course, having a “nature swamp” behind you certainly complicates matters. Bugs zip in, dive-bomb your plants and veggies, and then flee to the cover of safety when they see you approach. It’s frustrating, especially as an organic gardener. My okra are suffering. I can’t simply spray them with toxic substances that will kill and repel the little beasts. I must garden with a sense of eco-responsibility and parental caution. I can’t put just anything into their growing bellies!

Tough being so responsible. But not one to give up, I think I might have found my answer. Sitting by the pool after a grueling day of battle, I shared the dilemma with my husband. As if reading my thoughts, hubby peered over at me and asked, “You’re going to tell me next that you need a greenhouse, aren’t you?”

Bingo. I smiled in reply. That would solve the problem, though I didn’t share the same aloud. I don’t know about you, but married people communicate on entirely different levels than non-married types. One must ease into these things. Simply blurting out the truth doesn’t always work. Okay, blurting out your truth thoughts to a spouse SELDOM works, though it does happen. On occasion. When I’m not thinking straight.

But on this particular day I was thinking fine and dandy and guess what? While pondering my response, it occurred to me: Why not bring the greenhouse to the garden?

Looking up and around me, I thought, a screen enclosure works wonders around the pool. Why not the garden?

Hah! I rose and went for the computer to begin a search. This could work!

Floating covers are sold for the same purpose, but in Central Florida, they tend to mold in the summertime (as does everything else). Screen, on the other hand, does not. After a quick search on the internet, off to the hardware box store I went and purchased a roll of screen. Transferring the wire hoops that I used for the purpose of pest/bird protection in my peanut row, I draped the screen over my okra plants and secured it with landscape pins.

drape screen over wire hoops

Voilà. A screened greenhouse for my garden! The sprinkler system fits neatly beneath the screen. The bed is covered…

screen enclosure

Marvelous, darling. Simply marvelous. I mean, don’t my little guys look happy under there? Water penetrates with ease. The screen protects my plants from the blaze of afternoon sun and bugs can’t break through the barrier.

bug-free screen zone

Genius, is what this is. Genius. Now, for this row of baby okra I used 4 ft. by 25 ft. However, as my plants grow, I’ll need a wider strip of screen. Luckily, the rolls come in 5, 7 and 8 ft. lengths as well. Come fall, I’m definitely installing this concept for my tomatoes and other bug-sensitive plants. What do you think?

Summer Salsa

Been vacationing over the summer and out of the garden (thank goodness for automated watering systems!) but this week I made salsa. I mean, what else does one do with fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro? They make salsa!

jalapeno beauties

Unfortunately, my tomatoes took a beating during our week of thunderstorms. While I might have found the cure for blossom-end rot, splitting skins is something only a greenhouse can prevent. Constant moderate watering is the key with tomatoes, gradually increased as they set blossoms and begin to produce fruit. Once it’s time for harvest, back off on the water to avoid splitting. As you can imagine, torrential downpours are not helpful to this cause. But not one to argue with Mother Nature (learned my lesson years ago), I chose to toss out the bad and focus on the good. :) More