Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Broccoli Babes

As my peanuts finish out for the season, it’s time to introduce a new crop. To best utilize my garden space, I interplant based on crop rotation rules. Crop rotation is an organic gardening practice where you change the placement of your plants from season to season. Doing so improves the structure and quality of your soil as well as minimizes the risk of disease and pest infestation. I use a rotation of beans-leaves-roots-fruits. Basically, this means that after my “beans” have produced, I plant “leaves.” In this case, beans = peanuts and leaves = broccoli. Peanuts fix nitrogen into the soil and broccoli requires lots of nitrogen to produce big green leaves so this rotation makes good sense.


In between the broccoli sprouts will be spinach. Both love nitrogen and are good companions in the garden. Other crop rotation considerations are how my tomatoes followed peanuts from earlier this season, corn followed my bush beans. These peanuts (shown above) actually followed okra, although I normally try to follow a fruit group, say tomatoes, squash or peppers.


Above is my fall garden to date (just prior to the insertion of my tomato stakes and cables). Blueberry bushes are located in the farthest row. Black beans are in the ground next to them. Then there’s my corn, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, broccoli and spinach. Still to come this season are sweet onions and carrots, cabbage and chard. Potatoes will go in around January. Can’t wait!

Tomato Support is Crucial for Success

I’ve struggled with this issue for years. What is the best method to support my tomato plants?

I’ve tried tomato cages. However, once the tomato plant becomes a healthy size and produces big, fat beautiful tomatoes, the cage can fall over, breaking my tomato branches.

wild tomatoes

The cages are also hard to remove once the tomato plants have finished producing. I’ve tried bamboo stakes, propping my tomato plants up from all sides, yet this system doesn’t provide the lateral support my tomato branches need.

staked tomatoes

It becomes very difficult to sustain growth when heavy tomatoes droop and drop. And during heavy winds, bamboo stakes can easily fall over. Heavier stakes work nicely, yet encounter the same problem once the tomatoes grow and fill out. (That’s soft plant tape shown above.) There is no lateral support.

sturdy tomato stakes

Then there was my experiment with the Florida Weave system.

Florida Weave

It was a great idea, except that the twine gave way to humidity, rain and wind. The natural material stretched, causing it to lose support. Not good when “support” is the goal.


This season, I’ve gone back to using solid stakes combined with solid cable, interspersed with bamboo (shown above). The green cable is actually a clothes line found at the hardware store. Two levels of cable line were run to ensure that my tomato plants will have lateral support as well as stalk height support. I’ll secure the plants to the cable using soft plant tape. Tape will minimize any damage to the tomato branches. Bamboo stakes will then be placed in and around the cable system to help keep the plants in place.

And yes, that’s basil in between the tomato plants. Basil and tomato are good companions in the garden, with basil said to improve the flavor of the tomatoes. Perfect!

As always, don’t forget to pinch your suckers. You know, those little sprouts that pop up between your tomato branches. You don’t want leggy, scraggly plants which is what you’ll get if you allow these “suckers” to suck the life out of your tomato plant. Instead, remove them and direct all of the plant’s energy into one or two main stalks.

pinch it

Good luck!

Corn Channels

One of the best ways to ensure that your corn retains the moisture it needs for good development is what I call “corn channels.” Basically, these are deep grooves formed in the soil where I then plant my corn seeds. Simple! First, my husband tills the garden with his tractor and then I follow-up with my hand tiller.

tractoring dollar

I could use the channels formed by his tractor, but then my corn plants would not be spaced as I prefer.


Corn likes to snuggle. It keeps them safe from high winds. Remember this scene?

corn by storm

Not a pretty day in the garden when your corn sisters have fallen over after a windy day. By planting them closely together, I’m actually protecting them from this very threat. That’s why I pack them tightly together, about 8 – 12 inches apart down the row and also from bed to bed. I place walkways every second row of corn and align my sprinklers accordingly.


I think these babies look pretty happy! Next, I’ll interplant lettuce between the corn. The two seem to work well together (remember: lettuce loves everybody when it comes to companion planting!) and will help conserve space. I’ll also be adding hay mulch once my corn becomes better established.

THE Herb for Your Workout!

After a stroll through my herb garden this morning, I clipped some lovely herbs; lemon verbena and oregano. I love herbs. Not only as food and additives, but for their many medicinal effects.


Lemon verbena tea has long been used to calm the nerves and lessen anxiety. But did you know that it can be the perfect exercise supplement?

Research has shown that the high antioxidant potential in lemon verbena decreases damage done to the muscles during the workout, without inhibiting the body’s development of additional muscle mass and increased stamina. So next time you reach for a pre-workout drink, choose lemon verbena tea. Plus, its specific mix of compounds can reduce your hunger cravings and increase your body’s fat-burning ability, helping you lose those unwanted pounds you’re trying to work off!


And if that wasn’t enough, lemon verbena works to reduce inflammation that can wreak havoc on our joints and mobility. As we age—or get injured—it can be difficult to fully heal because our joints are in constant motion. Using lemon verbena has been shown to reduce joint pain and aching, resulting in a reduced recovery times for joint-related injuries.


I also clipped some oregano. Not your everyday variety, but this is Mexican oregano which imparts a more earthy, grassy, citrusy flavor. This herb is actually a member of the verbena family and is a wonderful addition for chili, meatballs and tomato sauces.

Aruba Green Education Symposium

I just returned from a week in Aruba, visiting with the elementary-aged students and talking organic gardening. What a great group of kids–smart, well-mannered and VERY engaged in the topic. And if that wasn’t enough to make it a GREAT trip, the scenery was fantastic! Considering that my gardening in Central Florida during the summer slows to a near standstill, my trip to Aruba was a wonderful way to continue my passion for gardening. I was invited to speak as part of the Green Education Symposium, an educational outreach from the National Library of Aruba.


It was my first visit to the island and I was thoroughly impressed. From the gorgeous scenery to the warm and generous people, Aruba is an amazing mix of tropical breezes, turquoise waters and desert inlands.

Aruba mangroves

White sandy beaches were littered with cactus and Divi trees, mangrove lagoons were a sanctuary for birds and fish, and the colorful buildings of downtown Oranjestad offered an abundance of visual pleasure.

Aruba beach cactus

Scheduled to be the first Green Island–totally self-sustaining via renewable energy sources–Aruba is all about organic gardening and sustainable gardening practices (one of my favorite topics!). And where is the best place to begin such an aggressive overhaul for a community-at-large? The children, of course! Some of my favorite gardeners…

Aruba school visit 2

Teaching the youngest among us the value of sustainable living ensures a long and prosperous future for the people and the climate of Aruba. A worthy goal to be sure, one we can all learn from.

Healthy Gardening = Healthy Planet

Healthy Living = Healthy Humans

Win-win! And kids know that vegetables taste better if you grow them yourself. For more information on Aruba’s quest for green, visit their website: Aruba Environment.

BACK to School Special!

Kids are going back to school and what better way to greet them than with a brand new book?  Wild Tales & Garden Thrills, by D.S. Venetta, is a new fiction series for elementary-aged children (grades 2 – 4) that connects kids with nature and the food they eat. And what better place to do so than a school garden?

EVERY school should one!

Venetta, Dianne- Beans, Greens and Grades (final) 800 px @ 300 dpi

Lexi and Jason Williams take center stage at school when Principal Gordon enlists their help to establish a garden at Beacon Academy. The kids are THRILLED to be selected as Green Ambassadors for this important project, but quickly learn how challenging it can be to work with others toward a common goal. Not only must they teach their fellow students how to garden, Lexi and Jason feel the pressure to make it fun and exciting (or become known as “The Most Boring Gardeners Ever” in school history). When the principal reveals a generous amount of grant money has been offered to continue the green program if the children succeed, the stakes rise.

No worries! Lexi and Jason are up to the task, assisted by their student council members. But as they formulate, organize and implement the plan for Beacon Academy’s first school garden, the kids are sidetracked by trouble, toils and trauma. Everyone has their OWN opinion on how to care for their plants, what should be done, and who should be doing it.

Hey–wait a minute. Who’s in charge around here? Find out in book 2 of the Wild Tales & Garden Thrills series!

And don’t miss the back-to-school special offer! Get the entire series–coloring books included–for over 30% off. Talk about getting kids excited about gardening–this series is it! Visit for full details.

Sustainability Education has never been so FUN!


“This is a story that kids will be absorbed in without realizing how much they’re learning–about seeds, planting, plant life cycles, bugs, fertilizer… If you’re looking for a chapter book to get kids excited about nature, gardening, and science, this one would fit the bill.” ~ Queen Bee Books


How To Grow Peanuts

These are the gems of the South, sold in stores green and ready for boiling. Wonderful for roasting, making homemade peanut butter, this is the garden crop for kids.

oven-baked "roasted" peanuts

And peanuts are easy to grow. Really, while you’re on summer vacation, these guys will be basking in the sunshine. Peanuts like it warm and are light feeders, however they do like their calcium. Be sure to supplement, say, tossing in a few crumbled eggshells at time of planting. You’re peanuts will be happy. And because they grow underground, be sure your soil is light and fluff–soft beds are always best!

add compost to peanut plants

After the last frost, plant your peanuts in the ground, about 3-4″ deep. Amend the soil with a bit of compost or composted manure, just to give them a good start. Note of caution here, if you live where the crows and critters are prevalent, consider covering your bed of peanuts with a screen material, securing it over them.

peanut debris

This will prevent the marauders from stealing your buried peanuts and sprouts.  They will. I’ve seen them. The evidence is shown above. Once your plants grow to be about 4-6″ you can remove the screen. They’re safe now.

peanut flower blossom

Water heavily until your peanuts set their pegs.  Pegs are the spindly “legs” you’ll see dropping from your peanut plant after the appearance of beautiful yellow flowers. The peg is actually the flower’s stem and peanut embryo. It will bend toward the soil and bury itself. When it does, help out by mulching around the plants with hay/straw.

row of peanuts

To harvest, check for peanuts about two months after the appearance of blooms. Similar to potatoes, you must poke around the soil GENTLY as you search for ripe peanuts. They are delicate at this stage, their outer skin papery and thin. Think about the skin of a newborn baby. VERY soft and delicate until it becomes accustomed to the air and sun. Same thing. If you find your peanuts are of nice size, ease the entire plant from the soil and shake excess dirt.

peanut roots

Lay out in the sun for several days, preferably on a screen or something similar to keep it off the ground. This will toughen the skin. Next up, separate the peanuts from the plants and place in a warm, dry spot for a few weeks. This will cure them and prepare them for storage. If kept in an air-tight container, your peanuts will last for months. These are the same peanuts you can plant next season. Or, better yet, use them right away for boiling. Using fresh green peanuts cuts boiling time, considerably.

boil stove top

If you’ve never had a boiled peanut, try one. They really are worth the exercise, then start a batch of your own using the recipe found here on my blog. Southern Boiled Peanuts are divine!

Problems: Other than the previously mentioned crows and critters, peanuts don’t have a lot of trouble growing. Crickets and grasshoppers seem to prefer other vegetables in my garden over peanuts. Occasionally, your peanuts will get spots on their leaves, maybe a fungus of some kind, but in my experience, the damage is minimal. However, if they suffer extremely moist conditions, they can develop a fungus known as aspergillus which in turn produces a toxin known as aflatoxin. Boiling can eliminate this danger, but it might be best to discard of the fungus-peanuts. Your call.

Good Companions: Beets, carrots, corn, cucumber, squash.

Bad Companions: Kohlrabi, onions.

Health Benefits: Except for those plagued by peanut allergies, peanuts are quite healthy. Not only an excellent source of vitamin E, niacin, biotin and folate, peanuts contain resveratrol, the same ingredient found in red grapes that infamously make red wine healthy for the heart! Studies have also found high concentrations of antioxidant polyphenols, and that roasting actually increases the benefit of this antioxidant. Wunderbar! Just remember, they are high in fat, so consume in moderation.

How To Solarize Soil

Now that its summertime and the family and I are consumed with thoughts of frolicking through rolling waves and sparkling pool water, my garden is at rest. July in Central Florida is simply too hot to grow most fruits and vegetables so we gardeners go dormant. Not completely, mind you. Peanuts and peppers thrive in the heat, but most beds have been closed.

But closed doesn’t mean “off-duty.” Quite the opposite. As any savvy gardener knows, work WITH Mother Nature and you will reap plentiful rewards! What are we doing this July?

heavy duty black paper

We’re solarizing our garden. Using heavy black paper, we cover our empty beds and allow the sun to do the work. What work?

Ridding our soil of microscopic varmints. Nematodes, to be precise. The kind that devour plants from beneath the surface. They’re a horrible nuisance in the garden. Absolutely horrible.

However, not one to despair, I vow to rid my garden of every last beast if it’s the last thing I do. I’ve got a fall garden to think about and I WON’T be put off.

So I’m solarizing my garden. I’m covering every last row with heavy black paper and using the power of the Florida sun to cook the beasts out of hiding.  If they want to survive, anyway, they’ll have to “abandon garden” and flee for safer—cooler—soil.  Solarize is the technical term. Basically it means to cover your beds with plastic paper–I’m going with hot black–and leave it in place for six weeks.  The heat gathering beneath the paper will cook the soil and whatever is underground will cease and desist.  Simple, eh?

effective paper weights

I do love simple. Key to remember in this process is to secure the paper. Florida summer means heat but it also means afternoon thunderstorms. Winds pick up and if you haven’t secured your paper in place, Mother Nature will whip it up and away and into shreds. She’ll toss it everywhere but where it was supposed to be. Remember: work WITH Mother Nature, understand her ways, and you can succeed. I used heavy white tile, miscellaneous rebar—whatever is heavy enough to keep the peace (read: the paper in place).

mound of dirt beneath paper

Occasionally one must be wary of other underground pests such as moles. Those babies can move a lot dirt and re-shape your paper. Be vigilant. You will prevail.

Come fall, everyone will be happy. Mother Nature will have cooled off, the varmints will have cleaned out, and my soil will be ready for seeds. Wunderbar!

BEWARE Squash Predators

It’s squash season in most gardens and if you ask me, this is one beautiful plant. Planted next to one of their favorite companions–corn–they are quite happy.

school squash and corn

But one must be vigilant, because there are critters out there aiming to devour squash plants and can do so in a matter of days. And the results can be devastating.



For those of you who have never seen a squash bug and wouldn’t know how to spot one if he were crawling along your planter, take a good long gander…

squash bugs

Ugly. Plain and simple.  These bugs are not pretty and they’re ruthless in their attack.  (Apparently summer squash is one of their favorites.)  They also lay eggs.  Check the undersides of your leaves for these telltale signs you might have a problem. More

Hydroponics, Aquaponics, What’s the Difference?

It’s called aquaponics, not to be confused with hydroponics.  Have you ever seen the very cool water white towers dripping with lush green plants? You know, the ones grown without dirt, without fuss?  Well this is one step above hydroponics because not only does it utilize the “fast feed” system of cultivating plants in water, it does so by adding fish poop into the mix.  Huh?

system of pipes

Stay with me.  It was an odd concept for me to grasp, too.  I’m used to digging in dirt, remember?  Aquaponics is actually a combination of aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water).  It’s the method of growing crops and fish together in a re-circulating system (think: ebb and flow) where the byproducts from the fish are filtered by the plants as vital nutrients, after which the “cleansed” water is returned to the fish.

Basically you set up a simple fish tank (shown above covered with blue blanket due to temps and the fact these fish aren’t fond of bright light), hook it up to plastic plan beds filled with special water retaining gravel and turn the power “on.”  I do love EASY!

According to  “By using gravity as a transport, water is drained from the fish tank into a gravel bed.  Here, beneficial bacteria break down the toxic ammonia in fish waste to Nitrite and then to Nitrogen, a key nutrient for plant development.”  The key here being gravity and/or “raised beds” which equals “no bending!” More