Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Strawberry Season Means Strawberry Picking!

At least when you have kids, it does!   Okay, with my kids, it does.  And grandma.  Don’t forget her.  Exciting outings are usually her idea, anyway.

December through April is strawberry season in Florida and in our area, this is code for BIG FUN.  From the Plant City Strawberry Festival to our local Strawberry Farm, we love this time of year! 

Sweetens school lunches.  “Peanut butter and jelly, Mom and make it fresh strawberry!”

And afternoon snack time.  “Can we make strawberry smoothies?  Pleeeeeease.”

Of course we can!   If that’s how I get fresh strawberries in your belly then that’s how we do it.   Beats the ice cream alternative.

We in the gardenfrisk household grow our own strawberries, though for some reason, they never turn out quite as large and luscious as the ones at the farm.   Pesticides?   Maybe.  Commercial strength fertilizer?  Could be.   But since I don’t know for sure, let’s just say the kids and I have some work to do this season to compete with Farmer Jones down the road.

Pine needle mulch is the first key.  As for food, I hope they like fish emulsion.  Stinky, but it seems effective.  So long as we don’t drench them in the stuff while the fruit is blossoming we should be good to go, right?  For a complete review on the subject of growing strawberries, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association provides a fantastic educational download for kids and adults alike.

These gems were saved from last year.  Half of the plants went into our school garden while the other half went to our home garden.   No fruit yet, but we’re patient.   Do we have a choice?

Besides, to get our strawberry fill, we simply run to the strawberry fields and pick to our heart’s content!

If you’d like to find a farm near you (this is an international source, mind you), check this link.   In addition to strawberries, you’ll be able to locate blueberry farms, pumpkin patches–all kinds of stuff!  And speaking of blueberries, just look at these buds.

Aren’t they amazing?    While they don’t seem like much now — a tad scraggly, actually — soon the leaves will start sprouting…the blossoms will start blooming…the bees will come buzzing…the birds will come biting–

Hmph.    There’s a great way to ruin a blueberry growin’ girl’s day.  The birds.  

I plan to keep them out this year and WITHOUT the horrible netting business.   What a fiasco of unintended consequences!  Netting works well to keep the birds out, but it also keeps the bees out.  Not good.  I’m sure you remember the story about the birds and the bees…

But let’s not linger in last year’s loss, no-no!  2011 is a brand new year with brand new buds and whole host of optimism.   Remember:  what you lack in skill you will make up for with enthusiasm.  Important tip for novices like me.

Fresh Lettuce

I love fresh lettuce.   Fresh spinach, too.   Even more now — now that I’ve learned to store them!  (For easy storage tips, check my earlier post 

And don’t they look marvelous in my Longaberger basket?  One of those girls’ night out binge purchases.  But I must say, it’s stood the test of time pretty well.  I hate to admit how long I’ve owned it (let’s just say, this baby could be in college by now!).   The free-fall of years reminds me of how “young at heart” I’m growing!  Though it does tend to beat the alternative, doesn’t it?

Back to the garden.  Just because you have fresh lettuce in the garden, doesn’t mean you eat it everyday.  This, I’ve learned by doing.  While I had every intention to include the healthy greens on my daily menu, I realized a girl gets bored eating the same thing over and over! 

Pity.  My waistline is shrieking, “Lettuce!  Lettuce!  Eat more lettuce!”   But those M & M’s in the candy dish keep drowning out the voice of reason.   It doesn’t help that my daughter is becoming a grade-A baker, either.   She’s learned the secret to baking phenomenal brownies and now I’m paying the price.  Because I’m the adult.   Because I can tell her, “No, honey, only 10 M & M’s for dessert.”  

Who’s telling me no, as I scarf another handful in passing?  Certainly not my husband– if he knows what’s good for him.   And he does.   Bless his heart

So as I continue to fill my basket with good intentions, I long for my other vegetables to mature.   The good news?

My cabbage are almost ready.  The bad news?   There’s half a pan of brownies sitting in the fridge, calling my name.   Oh wait, er–never mind!

I think that was my stationary bicycle.

Worm Poop a.k.a Worm Castings

The art of vermiculture.  Yes, you heard it here first.  We have begun worm composting! 

Because we can’t wait until spring to get into garden mode, we’ve decided to get a jump-start — and what better way than with worms?  Okay, my daughter would have something to say about this, but my son?  He’s all for it!  I mean, what boy doesn’t like worms?  In fact, he treated me to a dissertation on the subject as we drove home from school.  He and his young friends, it turns out, are well-versed in the subject.  Found a mound of the wrigglys beneath an old tree on the playground.

Well, hold the cabbage!  Did I hear you say you have worms at school?   Then why aren’t they in the garden?  These babies make the golden goose look like an ugly duck.  *QUACK*   We need worms and lots of them!  Actually, we need their poop.

Loaded with nitrogen, worm poop (worm castings for you scientific types) is an excellent organic fertilizer.  And I should know.   The students at school threw handfuls of it in their garden when we first planted and I’m not ashamed to admit, their tomatoes and peppers completely outshone mine at home.  Kids.   Go figure.   Next time I won’t be so quick to advise caution and restraint in the “worm poop throw” event.

So lesson learned (and what better place than among fellow students), I’ve decided an endeavor in the worm poop business would be a good idea.  My garden needs all the help it can get frankly, and I’m open to suggestion.  After a few clicks online, I found out how to make my own worm poop lodge.  Rest comfy, my sweets, and eat to your heart’s content.  The bathroom’s down the hall to the left.  Don’t worry about the mess.  I’ll get it.  Wink, wink.  (They have no idea what I’m up to, I’m sure of it!)

We bought the bin; your standard 78 qt. plastic variety.  With the help of my husband, we drilled holes across the top, sides and bottom (about 1/16″ to 1/8″ should do — any bigger and your worms may find themselves an escape route!). 

Then filled it with shredded newspaper, about 2/3 full.  Next, we moistened the paper.  Not too much.  Apparently worms are finicky and like it damp, but not too damp.  Think damp sponge.  Roll of the eyes here.   They remind me why I don’t have a cat, though I will indulge them.  After all, I do have ulterior motives.

Fortunate enough to secure our worms (must be red worms or Eisenia foetida) from a local angler shop, run by an experienced angler, I was informed that worms like peanut hulls and eggshells, coffee grinds and banana peels.  Wonderful!  I just happen to have some old peanuts leftover from last summer.  Eggshells? 

Not on your life.  Those are going to my tomatoes this spring.  Coffee grinds and bananas are all theirs.   Generous to a fault, aren’t I?

And since we want them to make healthy poop, we threw in a few old lettuce stalks from our fall garden.  Adds to the “nitrogen” factor.  (We’re always thinking!)

Then the worms.  Rather than purchase the pound I originally intended, our new angler friend suggested I go with these two smaller containers.  Seems worms multiply at alarming rates — not surprising when he explained that each worm comes equipped with both male and female attributes.  Easy mixing

He was also kind enough to show us the adult worm’s egg sack.  Clearly identifiable on the upper body, this sack is supposed to “migrate” down toward the tail (do worms have tails?) and then off the body where the eggs “hatch.”   He said we can expect as many as a 100 babies per adult!  For those of you interested in full details, check out this link.

Quickly calculating the numbers in my head, I nodded.  “You’re right.  We’ll go with the two small tubs.” 

My son did the honors.  He is the resident expert on worms and all things fishing so it seemed a natural fit when gardens and fishing cross, right?  Gently, he sprinkled them out into their new home.    Aw…look at those little pumpkins.   Aren’t they adorable?

In worm terms they’re cute.  Amazingly beautiful, actually, when you consider their production capacity!  And we are interested in production.

Can’t wait.  In fact, we’ve checked on them three times already.  Impatient bunch.  A good thing we did, because we discovered a few had crawled up near the lid.  On their way out?

Hope not.  And I hope the holes don’t prove too big.  Eagerly opening our bin to find no worms?  That’ll be a sad day.  Shudder the thought.

Frosty Mornings

With Christmas behind me and the new year ahead, I find myself looking forward to spring.  I’m sure many of my Arctic Amigos feel the same way about now, buried under feet of snow, no sign of their garlic bulbs, their tulips and daffodils mere glimmers of hope, reminding them “this blizzard, too, shall pass.”  And as any organized organic gardener would do, I’m plotting mine out in Excel.

“What?”  Glancing about, I ask,  “Doesn’t everyone?”

Realizing I’m standing alone, I think, perhaps not.  But it does make for easy record keeping; where I planted what and when, which variety matured first, when did I begin harvest, what goes where next… 

Sure, most gardeners use a journal for this type of business, but I’m visual.  And I like color (excel allows me to color code everything from roots to leaves, from fall to spring — oh joy!).

Okay.  So it’s not that exciting, but it does add a bit of fun to the process.  More work, but more fun.  Works for keeping track of Girl Scout cookies sales, too!  So while these carrots are tolerating the frost, hunkering down and going about the business of growing, I’m going about the business of planning.

My cabbage are thriving in the cold.  

As are my broccoli.

Even my tender sweet peas are tolerating the chill.  Not in stellar fashion mind you, but at least they’re still alive.

And tomorrow…  Well, it will probably be more of the same (with the winter we’re having).  Eventually the ground will soften and yield to my touch and I’ll till and I’ll plant and I’ll begin the process anew.  I’ll try new techniques, I’ll expand on what’s working…  And I WILL grow tomatoes to perfection.  If my students can do it, I can do it. 

That’s how the mantra goes, anyway.

Sunshine and Carrots

Nothing like a beautiful golden bounty of carrots to lift your spirits — especially after losing most everything else.   Aren’t they divine?

Perfect for stuffing.  I think.  Never tried it but certainly willing!  As with everyone, Christmas is a busy time of year for us.  Between cooking and kids, family and entertaining…  It’s a wonder I know which direction I’m running!

Which reminds me, I have NO time for blogging.   Besides, I hear Santa’s already begun his journey — saw him sailing over Australia, in fact (thank you, Norad Santa Tracker).  I don’t know about you, but we here in Florida can’t wait for our turn!  Is it bedtime, yet?

Merry Christmas everyone!

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!