Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

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!

Sweet Onion Savvy

I just picked up my sweet onion sets and couldn’t wait to get them in the ground. They take about six months to grow, meaning my November planting won’t be ready to harvest until at least May, maybe June. But the wait is worth it.

fresh sweet onions

Come spring, I’ll have tons of sweets. And I do mean tons. My local seed store sells these gals in batches of 100, so whether I need that many or not, that’s how many I’m planting. Which brings me to rule number one in my garden: keep it simple and make it easy!

onion-sets-in-channels

Remember my corn channels? I have onion channels now. It’s my new favorite way to plant. I simply drag a hoe down the row, place my onions at the proper distance apart – about 3-4 inches – then back fill them with my compost, ultimately covering them 1 inch deep. Mine are actually closer to 6-8 inches apart, but then again, I want to make sure my babies have room to grow and EXPAND.

back-fill-onion-sets-with-compost

Next, I set the gals upright and water well. Easy! Onions require a moderate amount of fertilizer in equal parts of N, P, K and medium water. Remember not to give them too much nitrogen, or you’ll end up with all leaves and no fruit. No good! Relatively few bugs prefer their pungent taste and smell which makes them all the easier to grow. Wunderbar!

set-onion-sets-upright

And they’re quite content next to their friends, broccoli.

Me? I’m quite content thinking about all the goodies I can make with delicious sweet onions. French Onion Soup, Onions Au Gratin, Baked and Savory Sweet Onions, Sautéed Cabbage and Onions–the list goes on!

Harvesting Eggplant

I love eggplant. Not only delicious, but it’s easy to grow and beautiful to gaze upon. From the delicate purple blossoms accentuated by bright yellow centers to the sleek black bodies of fruit, I love everything about eggplant.

eggplant-blossom

Unfortunately, I’m the only one in my family who enjoys this robust fruit, hence the reason I only have one plant in my garden. One, lone plant, tucked away within the rows of its close family member, the tomato.

eggplant-and-tomato-friends

Both part of the nightshade family of plants, eggplant and tomato can thrive planted alongside one another, however, beware of allowing them to follow one another in your crop rotation. Not a great idea, because verticillium wilt fungus that infects tomatoes one season can live in the soil for years and likely infect subsequent crops. Peppers and potatoes are also members of the nightshade family so consider these four plants as one unit when it comes to crop rotation.

A few varieties of tomatoes are resistant to this fungus, ie. Carnival, Celebrity and Santiago. I happen to grow Celebrity and Beefsteak, so I’m half-resistant! Just another example of why crop rotation is so very important in your organic garden.

first-eggplant-harvestAnd since I’m both gardener and chef in my household, I grow and enjoy eggplant as much as I want — serving it up sautéed golden brown with tomato sauce, or layered in lasagna.

sauteed-eggplant

Simply delightful! Check out my recipe section for Sautéed Eggplant full details.

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.

baby-broccoli-and-mature-peanuts

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.

my-fall-garden-2016

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.

tomato-stakes-and-cables

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!