Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Time to Spring Into Action

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 (thank you, late winter!), I’m certain spring is going to be EVEN better. Remember: positive thinking will get you everywhere!

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, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities.

But why wait? 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! But it should also be productive.

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, hunny bunny! 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. My 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.

Love a generous compost pile.

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting. Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close. Besides keeping the harmony, companion planting provides a natural pesticide which eases your workload later. 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 then the sky is the limit!

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 they’re scooped from the shelves by other eager beavers. Note: 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.

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. Maybe you’ll even want to dump a bag of mushroom compost into the mix. The stuff is magical!

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!

Edible Landscaping Ideas

We’re thinking “out” side of the garden and moving our focus to the house–or patio! After all, why should we limit ourselves to traditional methods of gardening when there are so many other ways (and places) we can garden?

Gardening is simply too exciting.  Take rosemary, for instance.  I love rosemary and not just because it thrives without much attention—always a plus for me—but because the mere touch releases a heady rise of fragrance into the air.  It stops me in my tracks.  It reminds me of the simple pleasures in life.  And in this fast-paced world we live, it’s something we could all be reminded of more often.

My rosemary is located just outside my patio door, one herb of many in my kitchen garden (unlike my vegetable garden, this one is located close to the house for easy access when cooking).  What began as a small plant, no more than 12 in. tall (a Christmas gift I received a few years back), it now consumes the entire corner of my herb garden!

I’ve cut it back several times and used the clippings for rosemary lemonade, gift tag attachments, cooking additive, an aromatic sachet and the like, but a trip to California changed the way I look at rosemary.  California will do that to you, won’t it?

In the dry desert climate and undoubtedly fertile soil, this plant lines the sidewalks, flanks entryways and generally grows like a weed, albeit a fragrant one.  But then it hit me—why not at my house?  If I can grow the plant in my herb garden, I can grow it elsewhere, right? What a beautiful concept…practical, productive, this plant can serve as both décor and edible delicacy. I do love a multi-tasker.

Then I got to thinking, if my rosemary can have dual functionality, what other plants can do the same? How about a lavender lined walkway, bordered in front by a sumptuous row of assorted lettuce varieties? Colorful, delectable, munchable.

Shoot, while we’re at it, why not move the whole garden up to the house? I have to change out those pretty flowers each season, anyway.  Why not replace them with edible foliage? A lovely carrot-edged path? And if it gets too cold, I’ll transition them into containers.  They look lovely inter-planted with flowers, as well.

Why, with this new attitude twist, I feel like I have an entirely new garden adventure ahead of me! How about you?

Companion Planting and Your Garden

As my spring garden season approaches, my mind is filled with visions of splendor.  With a freshly tilled garden, I can see my plants grow lush and full, their bounty promising a fruitful harvest.  What do I want to grow this year?  More important question, What do I want to eat?

Tomatoes.  Or should I say, pasta sauce.  I’ve been having such good luck with my tomatoes that I might increase the yield this spring. Second?  Beans, of course.  Who doesn’t love beans?  And onions–but not in adjoining beds.  No.  These two do not care for each other and will not yield the fabulous crop of my imagination.  Why not?

They’re not good companions in the garden and companion planting is KEY when it comes to organic gardening.  What is it and why do we do it?  In a nutshell–or bean pod–it’s organizing your beds according to plants that help one another, and steering clear of those combinations that don’t.

Companion planting is based around the idea that certain plants can benefit others when planted next to, or close to one another.  It exists to benefit certain plants by giving them pest control, naturally, without the need to use chemicals. In some cases, plants can give one another a higher crop yield. Some are even touted to improve the flavor of neighboring plants. Take basil and tomato, for instance. Plant these “friends” together and your tomatoes will be even more delicious!

Backyard gardens use companion planting on a small-scale, but it can be applied on larger-scale operations. By having a beneficial crop in a nearby field that attracts certain insects away from the main crop, commercial growers have found the practice to be very beneficial. It’s called trap cropping.

While companion planting has a long history, going back to the Native Americans and their employment of the “Three Sisters,” the benefits have not always been understood. Sounds simple enough: plant corn and beans together, allowing the beans to climb the corn stalk while fixing nitrogen into the soil. Squash plants shade the ground, preventing weeds and retaining moisture. However, recent tests are proving scientifically, that this practice works!

 

The French marigold, along with other plants, is well-known for companion planting. It exudes chemicals from its roots, or aerial parts, that suppresses or repels pests, protecting neighboring plants. (My roses love marigold!)

Companion planting also exists in a physical way. For example, tall-growing, sun-loving plants may share space with lower-growing, shade-tolerant species, resulting in higher total yields from the land. This is called spatial interaction and can also yield pest control benefits. For example, the presence of prickly vines is said to discourage raccoons from ravaging sweet corn.

Nurse cropping is a method whereby tall or dense-canopied plants can protect more vulnerable plants through shading or providing a wind break. Oats have long been used to help establish alfalfa and other forages by supplanting the more competitive weeds that would otherwise grow in their place. In many instances, nurse cropping is simply another form of physical-spatial interaction.

Beneficial habitats-sometimes called refugia—have received a lot of attention in recent years. The benefit is derived when companion plants provide a good environment for beneficial insects, and other arthropods, especially those predatory and parasitic species that help to keep pest populations in check. (Ladybugs are super-beneficial insects, too!)

So as you contemplate your next crop, take companion planting into account and organize accordingly.  It really will make a difference, particularly when it comes to alleviating trouble spots.  From bugs to weeds, companion planting is the way to go.  And anything that takes the “work” out of gardening is a friend to me. For an idea of who likes who in the garden, check out this list of companion plants compiled by Mother Earth News.

Ten Cool Things You Might Not Know About Potatoes

As my potatoes grow and flourish and my mouth waters over these buttery delicacies, it occurred to me that many folks don’t know much about these gems, other than the fact that they LOVE to eat them.  But potatoes don’t have to be an enigma.  How much do you know about potatoes?

Let’s see!

1 — Most everyone has heard that the skins are where the nutrients hide.  For example, the flesh contains less than 20% of the potassium, a third of the vitamin C, and about 10% of the niacin.  Where’s the rest?  In the skin!  So for your healthiest meal, be sure to consume the skin.

2 — While there are a ton of different varieties, potatoes come in five basic types:  russets, yellow-skinned, white, red, blue/purple. Whew ~ that’s a lot of tater tots!

3 — What makes a “new” potato new?  Think of them as the baby crop, the first potatoes harvested in spring when you simply cannot wait to get these babies into the kitchen!  At this stage, the potato vines are still alive and the skins are near papery thin.  It’s the main way my family eats potatoes.  But if you allow the vine to die back and the potatoes to cure  underground, their skin will toughen up making them more suitable for storage.  Another difference is in the starch.  “New” potatoes are sweeter and less starchy than their more “mature” counterparts.

4 — When it comes to food prep, all potatoes are not treated equally.  Russet potatoes are fluffier when cooked, due mostly to the fact that their densely packed starch molecules expand and separate during cooking.  Wonderful for creating mashed potatoes!  Idaho potatoes work well for this purpose, too.  But if you’re in the market for a sturdy gratin-style potato, opt for “waxy” potatoes like Red Pontiac and Reddale.  Some middle-grounders are Yukon Gold and Kennebec.  These tend to be more moist than “starchy” varieties, yet fluff relatively well and hold together, too.

5 — For best storage, taters like it dark, preferably around 45° – 55°.  If you don’t have a root cellar (ideal conditions), then try a dark corner of your pantry or garage, depending on your climate.  Warmth and light can cause potatoes to sprout.  I found a basket to place inside my pantry that allows for air flow, but keeps the potatoes in the dark when the door opens and closes–which happens A LOT when you have two teenagers roaming the house.  TIP: Don’t refrigerate, as this converts some of the potato’s starch to sugar.

6 — Sweet potatoes are not true potatoes.  They ‘re root vegetables; an enlarged part of the root used by the plant to store energy.  The potatoes are tubers that form from the stem of the plant, only underground.  Who knew?

7 — Green potatoes are not green because they’re young or old. They’re green because they’ve been exposed to sunlight.  This is one of the primary reasons we “hill” potatoes.  Due to their upward growth habit, potatoes can break the soil surface and will then turn green.  And green potatoes = green face (as in sick)  The culprit? Solanine; a mildly toxic compound that occurs naturally in the night shade family (Solanaceae) of plants.  The exposure to sunlight increases the toxicity.  Don’t eat potatoes raw, either.  (Your belly will thank you!)

8 — And move over rye and wheat, potatoes can make some pretty tasty Vodka!  Did you know that you can mash the potatoes, heat them in a pressure cooker until the starches turn to sugar and then using a distillery kit, run the potato juice through (to remove any impurities), creating potato vodka?  Blind taste tests tend to rate it distinctively delicious!

9 — Potatoes are excellent producers, IF you know how to coax them into continual production.  Ever heard of the Lutovsky box?  Designed by Greg Lutovsky, it’s a system whereby you can grow 100 potatoes with one plant in the space of 4 square feet.  How?  Basically you build a raised planter bed (2 X 2) and plant your potato seed as normal.  As the potato plant grows, you build up the sides of your box, adding dirt as you do so (mimics hilling effect), and the plant will continue to grow, upward, upward, upward, increasing production. Woot! Woot!

**You’ll need to choose late-season potato varieties, those that mature 90 days or more as they will continually produce tubers.  Short-season varieties won’t work, because they produce a limited number of potatoes and then the plant dies.

10 — Some varieties of potatoes produce fruit after they flower, fruit that looks like green, cherry tomatoes. Confusing for a garden gal like me.  How did a tomato plant make its way into my potato bed?

I mean, that’s bad—very bad!  While these two are part of the same plant family, they are NOT good companions.  But my fears were for not.  This little fella was normal (simply a first for me!).

So there you have it.  And if you needed one more reason to try your hand at growing these wonderful plants, homemade potato chips may be just the thing to convince you.  Forget deep fryers, we eat healthy around these parts.  How can you eat a healthy potato chip, you might ask?

How about slicing them paper-thin, coating them with a fine layer of extra-virgin olive oil (or safflower), bake them at 375°F for about 45 minutes, or until desire crispness has been reached and then dig in.  Kids adore them and you’ll feel better knowing it’s good for them. I do love win-win. 🙂

Check my Recipe section for more recipes or my How-To Grow Potatoes page if you haven’t yet figured out how to grow these wonderfully, delicious, buttery sweet potatoes.  Mmmmm…

Mulch Necessities

Mulch is an integral part of organic gardening. Not only does it help conserve a precious resource, it breaks down and contributes to the organic matter in the soil. And, if that wasn’t enough, mulch helps prevent weeds. Win-win-win. Gotta love it!

Not to mention it’s inexpensive (or can be!). I use pine mulch from my neighbor’s yard. It’s free and easy, and a great way to acidify the soil–important for plants like potatoes and blueberries. Gardenias and azaleas love acid, too.

I also recycle the fall décor placed by my front door every October. Scarecrows and hay bales lend themselves well to fall festivities and ambiance, but hay also works well in the garden.

April and May, when I’ve harvested my sweet onions and potatoes, if the mulch is still in decent shape, I’ll use it around my peanuts. If not, I’ll simply till it back into the soil.

Garden leaves work well as mulch, as do grass clippings–so long as no pesticides are used on the lawn. If so, keep it FAR away from your organic garden!  Newspaper is another good source of mulch. The ink used these days is non-toxic and safe for garden use. Just make sure you’ve read all of the important pages, first.

Plastic paper is sold as mulch. Many gardeners prefer red, because the red light wavelengths stimulate the growth of tomato plants via a reaction with a pigment in the tomato plants – study done by Montana State University. Penn State did their own study that revealed blue did an even better job. Go figure. Other colors are also available.

Whichever method of mulching you use, do use one as opposed to none. It’s better on all counts!

Don’t Let This Happen To You

Sweet peas need your support. I mean, they’re easy to grow, delicious to eat, tolerant of the cold… What more could you ask for from a vegetable?

Nothing. So don’t make the same mistake I made. Give them the support they need to grow tall and strong and oh-so-delightful! They deserve it. You deserve it. Besides, it will make your life easier in the long run. Trust me.

Look at this sad state of affairs in my sweet pea bed. It’s embarrassing! Now I’m no stickler for perfection. I know that plants grow all by themselves out in nature and that includes living with weeds. But they don’t grow as well when forced to crawl along the ground. They interfere with their neighbors–in this case, broccoli–and they’ll develop all kinds of nasty leaf ailments. Listen. These gals are as gorgeous as they are sweet. You don’t really want them to sit in dirt, do you?

Of course not! I couldn’t stand the thought of anything soiling these delicate blossoms.

Now that we have that settled, take a word of advice from this avid gardener. When staking your pea trellis, make sure the lowest line of support is about 8 inches from the ground. Any taller, and your sweets will be struggling to reach it. They grow quick–and straight up–so make sure there’s something for them to grab hold of once they get going.

That way, they’ll be able to wrap their gorgeous tentacles around the line (clothing line, in this example) and keep on reaching for the sky. The next support should be about the same distance above the first. You might be able to stretch a few more inches between your lower support level and the next, but if you have the material, use it. You’ll be glad you did. Incorporate a third and fourth level while you’re at it, using bamboo for added support as they grow.

These sweet peas grow to be 3-4 feet in height and get quite heavy once they start producing pods. And they will produce–a TON.

In fact, sweet peas are one of my favorite plants to grow. I’m the only one in the family who eats them, because I visit the garden daily and consume sweet peas during my visits. They’re what I refer to as “garden snacks.” You know, the harvest that never makes it to the house?

Absolutely delicious!

 

My BEST Gift This Season

Santa doesn’t visit me much anymore. Not because I’m naughty or anything, but because I’m older, wiser. And I buy a lot of my own stuff these days. So… Not a lot of boxes under the tree with my name on them. No worries. I don’t need anything come end of December. If I need it, I buy it. If I don’t, I set it back on the shelf. Need vs. want. It’s a lesson I tend to harp on with my kids.

However, this year I had a brainstorm. It’s lettuce season in Central Florida which means I’m making several trips to the garden per week collecting lettuce leaves, washing and drying them and of course, devouring them. I mentioned this to my daughter, along with a hint that I could really use a salad spinner.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“An automatic lettuce dryer.”

You can imagine the disgruntled look on her face. “Seriously? You want me to buy you a lettuce dryer for Christmas?”

I nodded. “I do.”

Being the good daughter that she is, she obliged her crazy mother’s request. And can I tell you? It’s the best-gift-EVER. Really!

It looks simple enough–can be found in most any homeware department–but the results?

AMAZING. Wash, deposit, press, spin, pluck and voila! You have yourself freshly dried lettuce from the garden!

Warning: Please do not skimp on the washing step. There’s nothing that wrankles a husband’s nose quicker than crunching down on gritty lettuce.

Exactly. Lettuce isn’t supposed to be gritty. It’s supposed to be crisp, yes. Gritty, no. And lettuce fresh from the garden tends to collect dirt. Lots of dirt. So take a word from the wise and wash your lettuce thoroughly. I usually rinse mine in the garden, using the overflow to water my plants as opposed to allowing it to run down the sink drain.

I will give it another quick rinse in the kitchen–but a very quick rinse–then I deposit it into the spinner bin (I actually collect my leaves from the garden using the spinner bin). Push down on the center “spin” button and away we go! Can you see the droplets of water collected on the inside bowl?

Fabulous. Less than a minute later, I pluck freshly dried lettuce from the bin and transfer it to my salad bowl. Genius.

Now I realize the holidays have passed, but perhaps you have a birthday fast-approaching? Special anniversary? Aw heck, why not go out and spoil yourself with a surprise purchase. You’ll be glad you did!

And if you harvested too much lettuce for one serving, refer to my terrific storage tips. Click here for full details on how to store your lettuce for days (although pass over the tedious drying methods used in my example. It’s needs an update!!).

Poinsettia Perfection

leggy poinsettiaMany of you know that I’ve been working hard to save my Poinsettia plants from year to year. Not because I’m cheap and don’t want to purchase beautiful new plants every year (though there is a nugget of truth in that statement), I do like a challenge. And this year, I’ve conquered the everlasting Poinsettia challenge.

I’ve achieved partial success in the past. They survived from years past, but were a bit too leggy and awkward for me to consider a glowing success.

But this year was different. I strategically placed them in and around my current landscape–in the line of sprinklers, mind you–and crossed my fingers. Sure I fed and clipped them throughout the year but that was pretty much it.

And how was I rewarded? With these darling Poinsettia. Aren’t they fabulous?

poinsettia success

They’re full and gorgeous and look right at home next to my existing Indian Hawthorne. I also saved a white Poinsettia. Isn’t she a beauty?

white poinsettia

Lovely. Simply, lovely.

What’s the secret?

Indirect sunlight and 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.

Also, it prefers less than 12 hours of sunlight, which makes the west and north side of my property best. Better bet is to keep them in complete darkness from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am. Remember to water them regularly (Poinsettia don’t like to dry out) and feed them a well-balanced fertilizer come spring.

dualing poinsettia

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. 

When summer rolls around, I’ll cut mine 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. Your turn! 

Pesto Perfection

I love pesto–on most anything. From bread to pasta, cheese to chicken, its sharp distinct flavor and powerful punch makes me reel with delight. Even in the garden, it’s one of my favorite herbs to grow. One simple “brush” with this plant, and I carry its fragrance for hours.

pesto-toast

And for you garden and foodie enthusiasts, it’s very easy to grow. Sunlight, tad bit of fertilizer, well-drained soil and you’re off to the gourmet section right in your very own kitchen. If you grow it out in the garden, basil prefers to be near its “bestie” the tomato plant. Basil is said to improve the flavor of your tomatoes. Love it!

basil-and-tomato-companions

Making pesto is easy. Basil, Parmesan, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, DONE. (I don’t use salt, but it’s definitely a classic addition for this recipe.)

pesto-ingredients

My Cuisinart makes the process of preparing pesto all the more simple, though you can use any blender, really.

pesto-blend

Which is about all you need to do. Basically, you blend everything until a smooth paste forms. (Told you it was easy!) Better yet, you can make this recipe 1 day ahead. A tip for preserving its freshness: cover the top of your sauce with a 1/2 inch layer of olive oil before chilling.

Next, enjoy–over warm pasta, fresh bread, or that boring chicken you needed to spruce up. Or dare I say…turkey?

No worries. It’s all good!

Classic Pesto Sauce

4 cups fresh basil leaves (about 3 large bunches)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 pine nuts

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1 tsp coarse kosher salt (I like Himalayan salt!)

Combine basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic in a blender. Blend until a paste forms. If your basil flies up the sides of your blender, gently push it back down and encourage assimilation with the other ingredients. Add cheese and salt and blend until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and enjoy!

pesto

Variations abound for pesto sauce, including choice of nuts, choice of greens, choice of cheese. For example, walnuts can provide an omega-3 advantage while your cheese can be a combination of Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo, Asiago–have fun with it! How about adding parsley leaves to the mix? Maybe a cilantro version? Mint? Feel free to experiment!

Infusing your passion for gardening with the joy of cooking…

Fall 2016 Update

Well into the fall planting season, you might be wondering how my garden is growing.

Fantastic! My corn is thriving. Lined with lettuce, everyone is happy!

corn-and-lettuce

The corn is sprouted its first silk, lovely as a blonde beauty and a sure sign harvest time is nearing.

blonde-silk-beauty_corn

My tomatoes are burgeoning with fruit. Brushed with Dipel Dust, the worms haven’t got a chance!

tomatoes-in-progress-fall-2016

Dipel Dust is the white stuff on the leaves!

tomatoes-and-dipel-dust

Broccoli is expanding its reach. Still young and tender, but showing great promise. Those are my newly planted sweet onions next to them. For the most part, the peanuts have been pulled and boiled, making room for Brussels sprouts and cabbage.

img_3563

I’ll also be introducing a sole rosemary plant. I have a herb garden close to my house, but since I’m about to till it up for soil refreshment and bug removal purposes, I decided you can never have too much rosemary. Soon, I’ll have it near and far!

lovely-squash

My squash is satisfied and going strong. Can’t wait!

christmas-jalapeno-peppers

Alas, my peppers are waning but still producing. An assortment of green and red, they remind me of the upcoming holidays. Joy to the world…my garden is gorgeous!