Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

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!

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.