Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Christmas in the Garden

It’s been a postcard-perfect day here in Central Florida (no, those aren’t Christmas trees).  The sun is shining, the temperature’s pleasant and the kids…well the kids are chomping at the bit for Santa’s arrival!

But aren’t we all?  Presents cascading in mounds from beneath the tree, candy canes poking from stockings stuffed fat with trinkets and sweets, the delicate aroma of pancakes drifting through the house (nice images though far from reality in our house!), the magic of Christmas morning lives.  And it’s not limited to the tree, oh, no —  I discovered it can also be found in the garden!

Wandering out to the garden for the first time since the hard freeze of last week (I’ve been suspended in a fog of green depression, mind you — and shopping and baking and mingling, all the while trying to keep up with my regular life), I learned something.  Yes, my plants are dead as scarecrows, but not all is lost. 

Well, the corn are toast, but the carrots and garlic and cabbage are not!  Neither are the onions and broccoli.  Hallelujah! 

If I could have, I would leaped for joy and clicked my heels, jingling bells included.  I don’t leap anymore (joints won’t allow such foolishness) and I have no bells (kids broke them), but I do have potatoes and that is cause for celebration.  Joyous celebration!

Look at these beauties!  Aren’t they gorgeous?  Planted back in October (as a fervent potato enthusiast, I like to chance the odds), these plants had enough time to produce some beautiful round potatoes. 

Some of these were the offspring of my spring potatoes and some were from grocery store purchased organic Yukon gold.  I can’t really tell the difference — I’m better at eating them than growing them — but they are in far better condition than what could have been their fate.   (Dry brown leaves don’t photosynthesize nearly as well and thus, produce, nothing.)

Needless to say, I’m pleased as a reindeer on his way home from Christmas.  Time to eat boys and girls!

“What’s for dinner, Mom!”

Why, it’s funny you should ask…  Sloppy Joes and healthy potato fries!  

“YUM!”  came their choir of response.

Kids love this kind of food.   And my husband?  Well, there’s always leftovers, right?  Sure he doesn’t prefer last night’s meal, but it’s not like I’m starving him or anything.  It’s hard to please everyone all of the time.

Which is why I quit trying.  We all must compromise.  It’s the way of the family dinner table. 

At least in our house.  “Have another serving, kids.  There’s plenty to go around!”

“Making Compost out of Debris”

Yes, “making lemonade out of lemons” sounds better, but I have no lemons — they froze! — along with half my garden.  I’ve lost everything remotely tropical and I’m none too happy about it. 

I mean, I can’t cover the entire yard.  Not the orange trees or the grapefruit.  Not the Lantana (pretty weed flowers) or the palm trees.  And the garden?

At least I tried.  I tried to protect my limas, I did.  I also tried to protect my sweet peas.  But that dastardly Jack Frost nipped them clear to their buds!  But what did I expect? 

He is a villain after all.  I think.  I must admit, I’m not well-versed in my winter fables, but as a Floridian, I haven’t found it a necessary dimension to add to my repertoire — until it froze in Florida.

Four times before Christmas!  And destroyed my lima bean plants.

And my sweets, although this was expected.  Good news here:  I can still salvage any underground treasures that may be hiding beneath the surface.

I did manage to cover my Poinsettia.  Located on the back patio, this was a much easier task.  Aren’t they brilliant?

There is a bright side to this cold weather.  While it won’t be a white Christmas, it feels like Christmas.  I don’t know about you, but something just doesn’t seem right about perspiring while Christmas shopping.  Unless of course, you’re that last-minute shopper darting through the mall, shoving people out of your way because you can’t find that little doo-dad Billy asked for two days before Christmas (forgot to include it on his list to Santa and now it’s YOUR job to see that he gets it!). 

Yes, well, kids need to learn “in every life a little rain must fall” and that the real meaning behind the season is about giving, not receiving;  giving love, sharing blessings and basking in the joy of spirit (good luck with that).  Some adults could stand a refresher course on this lesson.

But back to that bright side — just look at these carrots!  Glorious and green, they’re thriving in this weather!

And my cabbage — they’re cool and comfortable.  (Remind me next year to only attempt these plants in my fall garden.  Easy, reliable — and I don’t have to freeze my little cotton tail covering them!)

But alas, need another reason to be merry and bright despite the loss of green?  Get creative!  I grew tired of dashing off to the compost pile during this cold snap, and decided I needed a kitchen composter.  So I made one!

Okay, I didn’t actually make it.  I painted it at my local “clay, glaze and fire” place and they baked it into perpetuity for me.  After scouring the internet for one and finding none that matched my kitchen (I DO like to coordinate my colors), I decided I should create my own!  And what a great idea.  Using a standard carbon filter for the lid, I now have a place to deposit my kitchen scraps (and hold them indoors for days without stinking up the entire house!).  Isn’t it grand?

No more dashing outside and freezing my pumpkins–no, no!  We’re talking solutions, here, and cute ones at that.  And to think I was distraught over my garden.  Not me.  Hope springs eternal (so long as we allow it!). 

Last Year’s Poinsettia

Unlike many of you, I will NOT be purchasing any Poinsettia this year. 

No, it’s not the economy, though we ARE trimming the budget like everyone else.  No, it’s not because I’ve turned Scrooge (though sometimes I consider the idea, inundated by commercialism the way we are) — and have you seen the malls?  Makes me wonder if times are as bad as the newscasters claim, or is it simply a matter of economics:  retailers are lowering prices to draw us in, ramping up customer service to sell us their products…  Some are even resorting to cookies and hot cocoa (a marketing manipulation to which I fully succumb — especially when it’s Williams-Sonoma).

But as usual, I digress.  I’m easily distracted that way.  I won’t be buying any Poinsettia this year because mine from last year are thriving!  Yes, absolutely thriving.  Unlike my green peppers (which are finally showing signs of leaf formation), my Poinsettia are growing and glorious.

Granted, I don’t have enormous blooms to show for my efforts, but truth be told, I haven’t been feeding them as well as perhaps I should have been.  My fault.  But when you’re the type of individual who sometimes forgets to eat yourself, well, you can see how it might affect the other living creatures around you!  You can include critters on that list, too.  My kids eat when they’re hungry and not a minute before.  Then of course, they’re starving.  Tortured by a mother who doesn’t care about their health and well-being.

Yes, they tend toward the dramatic.  But we do encourage creativity around here!

Back to my plants.  They have survived.  More than survived, and yours can too (be sure to feed them!).  Next year, you’ll celebrate more than the holiday season, you’ll celebrate your gardening talent AND the fact you won these fabulous blooms “free and clear.”  Another positive when times are tough.  Remember, you can also clip and root them to increase your future bounty — Poinsettia plants make great gifts!

They make great trees, too.  Check last year’s blog post for a gander at just how BIG these plants can grow.  Unfortunately, this tree no longer exists.  The homeowners cut it out and have replaced it with — you guessed it — store-bought potted Poinsettia.  Go figure.

Sweet Potato Confessions

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday has passed, the turkey consumed, the sweets devoured, I have a confession to make.  Remember those nice round sweet potatoes I unearthed on Thanksgiving Day?  Yes, you remember, my harvest, and that of Mother Nature’s?  Well, all is not as it seemed.

At the time, I was only out for a brief visit.  So busy cooking and preparing my feast, I didn’t have time for a full harvest session, though had I, I would have discovered this issue earlier.  Yes, my sweets have issues.  But don’t we all?  I mean, really, are any of us perfect?

Me — I’m uninterested in perfection.  I’m interested in production.  But my sweet potatoes are delivering neither.  In cultivating my beautiful, perfectly aligned rows, I neglected to give my sweets enough space to spread out and set their roots.  Roots that need to reach into the soil in order to produce potatoes (potatoes grow under the ground). 

And they can’t reach into the soil when my walking rows are so cleverly lined with weed-protection paper!  It seems while solving one problem, I created another.  Sure, I have a minimum of weeds, but I have a minimum of sweets, too.  And just when I found a recipe for sweet potato gnocchi I wanted to try.  Hmph.

Tip from Captain Obvious:  When preparing your beds for sweet potatoes, be sure to give them LOTS of space to spread their vines and delve their roots.  While they don’t require a lot of attention, they DO require plenty of area.

A fact I’m well aware, but somehow overlooked.  Oh, well.  There’s always next season.  (Thank God I’m not dependent on my garden for my survival!)  But since one never knows what the future holds, I’m grateful for the fact my learning curve is occurring now rather than later — when I might actually need these skills.

Beats the alternative, right?

Bounty of Beans

I think I’ve found my niche —  I’m an excellent bean grower!  Black beans, red beans, limas, my beans are growing gangbusters.  Except my garbanzos.  Still working out the kinks in their seasonal preferences.  But who’s complaining?  No one in my family.  I’m the only garbanzo bean eater around here and eat them I do — with salads and crackers (humus), Indian-style and fresh from the can (soon to be vine).

Look at these beauties — I have gobs of them!

And to think each bean produces a plant that supplies about 100 beans, well, you do the math.  It’s an awesome ratio in my garden.  Easy to grow, easy to harvest, it doesn’t get any better.  And I love beans.  From black beans and rice to chili and sides, these babies are the pure gold in my kitchen.

Another reason to love beans?  The store well.  Make great decorations, too.

Are beans my favorite plant in the garden?  Next to potatoes you bet they are!  While I love my garlic and peppers, tomatoes and corn, my carrots and onions, peanuts and squash, there’s nothing easier to grow than beans AND (as if that weren’t enough) I get two growing seasons!

Wow.  I’m exhausted with exuberance just thinking about them.

P.S.  If you’re accustomed to cooking with canned beans but ready to use your own harvest for that favorite recipe, word of caution:  most canned beans contain an exorbitant amount of salt.  My first batch of cooked beans were a disappointment because I didn’t realize how much salt I needed to add to my recipe to make up for this difference between canned and fresh.  It was a lot.  A real lot!

Giving Thanks

I imagine Thanksgiving looks different in each household, each part of the country.  In my home, the day is spent at home, cooking, playing, enjoying the simple pleasures of life.  While I don’t have much time for the garden today (food assignments gobble up the majority of my day!), I did venture out to check on the sweet potatoes.  What Thanksgiving table would be complete without sweet potatoes?

And add this to my list of blessings — my slips have grown into sweets.  Varying sizes and shapes, this is what I’ve come to expect from this golden harvest.

On the other hand (more aptly other end of the garden), those sweets leftover from last season and started themselves — proof Mother Nature is quite prolific — have done quite well. 

Though when compared to Mother Nature’s batch, I’d say I didn’t do too bad.  Good size, nice shape, they’ll all taste the same in the mashed sweet potato dish!  More important, it just goes to show, you ALWAYS have time for the garden.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Keep Lettuce Fresh

I love growing fresh lettuce.  Not only is it easy to grow (important in my garden) but it’s delicious!  Buttercrunch is one of my favorites because it tastes much like its name — soft and buttery. 

 For an easy and healthy lunch, I like to mix it with some spinach, garbanzo beans, avocado and goat cheese.  Drizzle some olive oil and balsamic vinegar and — voila! — lunch is served.

While I enjoy fresh lettuce, my biggest problem was keeping it fresh.  I have a lot of lettuce growing in my garden — so much, I can’t eat it all in one or two sittings.  And old lettuce is no good.  Not only sour-smelling, it tastes awful.   So what’s a girl to do?

Research the internet!  In doing so, I discovered the perfect way to keep my lettuce fresh for days — up to 10 — and it’s simple.  Gather and snip your lettuce, then wash it.

Rinse and semi-dry.  This is important.  You don’t want to completely dry your lettuce, as the moisture helps retain its freshness when you store it.

Once you have cleaned all your leaves, roll out a line of paper towels (keep squares connected) and dampen.  This can be a delicate process, depending on your brand of paper towels, but basically you want to ring out enough water, leaving your towels slightly damp.  Lay out your lettuce across the towels.

 Then roll it up!

Take your roll and place it into a plastic bag and remove as much air as possible before sealing.  Store in refrigerator.  That’s it!  When you want a fresh salad, simply go in and grab your bag, taking as much lettuce as you need, re-sealing the bag as before and then returning it to the refrigerator. 

Now I realize most will raise their brow at my claim of 10 days of freshness, but I did in fact use mine up to that point and found the taste to be pleasant, the texture firm.  This is similar to the way I store fresh from the garden herbs.   So toss those tiny seeds across your soil and enjoy fresh salads every day!

Flattened Fields of Corn

I used to like windy days.   Cool breezy air, the opportunity to wear my jackets and boots, the beginning of the holiday swing… 

But this is too much.   This past week we’ve experienced an early cold front, the arctic air blowing — and I don’t use the word lightly — clear down our state, bringing with it chilly nights and near frosty mornings.  While I love the nippy temps, I don’t care for the effect on my garden.  My rows of corn are hurting. 

Near flattened.  Amazingly the taller ones seem to be faring rather well, with the younger apparently most susceptible to the force of nature.  Always one to look for the brighter side, I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.  At least I can “push” these smaller ones back into position — once the wind eases its sweeping strokes across the landscape.  If the older ones had been the ones to fall, my near ready ears of corn would have been lost.

Not good.  But this is an issue with corn.  And one that makes me wonder:  What do they do in Iowa and the central part of our country?  I have to believe wind and fronts are a problem there — what do they do to protect their crops?  Grow stronger, healthier corn?  I mean, I’m no expert.  It could be as simple as that, right?

Maybe.  Either way, corn have shallow roots and mine have been laid flat.

Greenhouse for Green Peppers

Sort of.  I call it a “modified” green house as the intended effect is the same, albeit the outcome may be different.  At least in my case.

It all started with a few dastardly bugs, too much heat and not enough rain.  Same old — same old, right?  I live in Florida, have this beautiful green swamp behind my home (host to an enormous amount of insects) and full sun.  Full HOT sun.  And humidity.  The result?

My peppers are suffering.  So I decided to protect them.  After a bit of research, I found the perfect support system:  9 gauge wire, cut to the length of my choice covered with a lightweight fabric. 

Simple enough.  Flexible, the wire can easily be cut and shaped into arches long enough to cover the width of my bed AND accommodate for the height of my plants.  

Next, I draped a light “frost blanket” sheeting across the tops of each “hoop” and secured it in place with anchor staples (also found at the hardware store). 

Voila.  A greenhouse.  Take THAT you dastardly insects!  Air and light can permeate this delicate material, but insects cannot.  I think even water can get through, though I’m not taking any chances on that count and hand watering the row when needed.

So take note.  Whether it’s the greenhouse effect you’re after or frost protection, try this idea on for size.  The wire costs about $10.00 while the blanket material is about the same.   I purchased it for last year’s freeze, then stored it for later use.  (And use, I am!)   Anchor staples will run you about $5.00.  Fresh peppers?

You said it:  Priceless.   All in all, not a bad investment for a backyard gardener.

Tribute to Tomatoes

It’s almost time for tomato harvest.  My plants have survived the insidious worm assault — haven’t spotted a worm in weeks! — and have begun to bloom and sprout.   Just look at these beauties!

Not only do we have blooms, but tomatoes are beginning to sprout, too.  Take a look at this round perfection.  (Quick — spray it with anti-blossom end rot!)

What happened to this fellow, I have no idea.  Perhaps its an ugly ripe variety?  The packet said slightly-ribbed, but really?  This is what they call slightly? 

Hmph.  Maybe he’ll grow out of it, much like the Ugly Duckling became a beautiful swan…

Hopefully it will taste good.  This particular variety is an Italian heirloom called Pantano and supposed to be wonderful for making sauce.  Can’t wait!

Until harvest, I’ll simply sit back and enjoy the sights.  Gorgeous, aren’t they?

Simply gorgeous.