Garden skinny – my personal scoop on gardening

Use it or lose it

From muscle tone to precious resources, you can view this old favorite from several different perspectives.  In light of the upcoming Climate Conference in Copenhagen, let’s focus on the latter.  While I’m no advocate for the global warming crisis – because I believe it’s a bit presumptive of us to make such vast predictions based on the tiny window of time we humans have inhabited this earth – scientific “models” are just that: “models” – I think we can all agree there’s no sense in waste.  From frugal consumption to garbage disposal, we should all practice clean living habits, and be good stewards of our environment.  I mean, even a dog knows better than to soil his living space, shouldn’t we humans?

Call me a waste-not-want-not kinda gal, but this is a motto I can live by, starting with my morning java.  You’re already dispatching your leftover veggie omelette to the compost pile, how about your coffee?  Used coffee grounds are in high demand around my garden so once I’ve had my fill, the used grounds are scattered among the blueberries, raspberries, azaleas and gardenias – don’t fight kids, there’s enough for all of you! – and my rose bushes, too (you all can thank me later with a bounty of produce). 

stores easily under your cabinet

I even save the old coffee and dilute it with water, to make a spray for insects.  I recently read in an organic gardening magazine one woman had good results keeping the white files from her tomato and basil by doing so.  Granted, it’s not a scientific fact – remember, I tend to question these things – I figure if it worked for her it can work for me!  If it’s easy, the questions become less frequent.  And why not pour some around the base of your potatoes, while you’re at it.  They love acid, they should love coffee, right?

And don’t forget that newspaper you’re reading.  When you’re finished, use it as mulch along your walking rows to keep the weeds at bay.  I’d place mine (if I still took my news the un-green way) beneath the hay so I don’t ruin that lovely “welcome to the garden” feeling I get every time I gaze at my neatly lined rows of straw.  It’s the little things that please me most.  (Big smile, here.)  That, and productivity.  Don’t forget, there’s a reason I’m saving the earth via my garden:  I have mouths to feed and years to enjoy.

But don’t stop there!  After school, what water the kids don’t drink, dump the remainder of their thermos into your houseplants – not down the drain.  Same goes for juices, etc.  I use these in the compost pile, though liquid in the bin does add to the mess factor on the way out — kids are working to fine tune their balancing skills for this amazing feat — another positive side effect. 

However you manage it, I’m a believer in wasting nothing.  Not because science dictates such, but because it makes sense.  Common sense; something we strive for everyday in our household. Without it, momma goes insane!

How do you spell easy?

O-K-R-A.   When you think of “easy,” think okra.   Not only is this vegetable easy to grow, it’s easy to maintain, harvest, pair with others, rotate year round.   Why, it literally gets along with everyone!   Low water needs, low nutrient desire, you can’t miss with this one.   Keep in mind that while it’s easy, it does tend toward the slimy and seedy (we’re talking plants here, not people), but to a very low degree, especially when ingested fresh. 

Speaking of easy, the Big Easy loves this baby, packing it into everything from gumbo to etouffe and all things Creole, while southerners have long favored the fried version.   Southerners like most things fried — I know this, because my mother grew up on Georgia cooking and we ate everything from fried chicken to fried plantains (odd, yes, but the family transplanted to Miami as did her culinary preferences).  Fried okra ranks as an old favorite.

My son is a big fan of okra — only lets my mother fry it for him — while my daughter…   She needed a bit of coaxing.   “C’mon, honey.  You can’t crinkle your nose.  You haven’t even tried it, yet!”   Once I convinced her it tastes best fresh from the vine (it’s actually a branch, but it sounds better when you say vine) she agreed, sort of.  I think she was more enthralled with the idea of eating it right from the plant than anything, but as a mother, my motto is:  whatever works

Another reason to include okra in your garden — it’s good for you.  Okra has wonderful health benefits, including vitamin C, calcium and potassium.   But even better, it contains glutathione, an antioxidant and cancer fighter which attacks carcinogens and ushers them away from cells, into the urine, and eventually out of the body.  Studies have shown encouraging signs for the role of glutathione in preventing the development of oral and throat cancers, too.   For more information on the natural health benefits of food in general, check out the book, The Doctors Book of Food Remedies written by Selene Yeager and the editors of Prevention magazine – another favorite of mine.

So this spring, try a round of okra (don’t bother until then, because okra likes it hot) and you’ll be glad you did.   Trust me! 

P.S.  If anyone who resembles the likes of an okra plant tells you to “trust them” – run!

An experiment in neglect

I’m a busy lady with two small children, volunteer activities, after school sports and an up and coming career in writing.  Neglect is no stretch of the imagination for me which made my experiment all the more enticing.  Easier — considering the fact that overhauling my summer garden drained me to the bone.

And so it happened.  One afternoon, after a full day of tilling and mound shoveling, I spied my leftover watermelon rows and thought, there’s no way.  The tiller is due back at the rental store, my back is aching, and my husband is staring at me, the question clear in his eyes, Are we through here?

Yes.  We’re through here.  I have no desire to weed and till another inch let alone a ten by seventy patch of garden!  Besides, I’ve nothing to plant in these last rows, so why bother excavating when all it will mean is more maintenance?  Come spring, if I want to expand, we can scrape these weeds clean with the tractor – a much easier prospect.  So it was settled.  I’d ignore this end of the garden until spring.

Over the next week, tiny shoots of watermelon broke through the ground.  Admittedly my first thought was more grunt than anything, but I quickly put the annoyance aside and admired the little cuties, reminding myself I was NOT weeding that section.  No problem.

Next thing you know, the vine is meandering into my peanuts, flowering, and out pops a miniature watermelon!  The kids noticed it first, with hoots of excitement (apparently, they find this sweet and delectable fruit more enticing than the cabbage and broccoli we were currently planting).  Not wanting to spoil their fun, I joined in and exclaimed my admiration, “Look at those beautiful stripes of green!”

It wasn’t until my son’s family birthday party when the real excitement broke out.  Everyone was in attendance, kids running wild in the backyard – we have plenty of them, ages five to fifteen – whereby my little “authority on everything,” intent on extolling his knowledge and know how to the others, led them to the garden.  Much to his delight — success!  Not only were they amazed he knew the name of each plant, bean and herb, he was also growing watermelon.  Watermelon!

Well, grab the basket and run tell your parents, this kid’s got his own watermelon patch!  Unbelievable!  Indulging the children’s enthusiasm, the adults trailed after to see what all the fuss was about and sure enough, my son had already clipped and claimed a pretty good-sized watermelon for the harvest basket.

Everyone oooohed and aaaahed over the specimen, and a nephew asked me for instruction on how to clip basil.  Pleased by his interest though surprised by his choice, I began to explain – until suddenly, my heart stopped.  From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of another nephew leaping over rows as if he were running an obstacle track!

I hollered at him, “Stop!” while at the same time, my niece called out for permission to cut another melon.  My attention duly divided, I couldn’t respond until — thankfully — my son took over the job of teaching his cousin how to correctly traverse the rows.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned to see her ripping the fruit from the vine.  “Take it,” I murmured.  It’s yours, now.

Returning to the task at hand, I showed him how to pinch the basil, the only part he wanted.  To our left, kids were swimming for sweet potatoes and to our right, they were snipping okra.  It was an amazing scramble of activity.

“Can I have this green pepper?” asked my sister-in-law.

“Sure.”

“Sissy, what’s this?”

I looked up to see her holding an eggplant.  Glancing up from the basil, my nephew ventured, “May I have a watermelon, too?”

Pleased everyone was enjoying the harvest, I replied, “Of course.”  But I can’t make any promises as to quality.  By the warm pleasure that swamped his expression, I’m not sure it mattered.

He doesn’t know it isn’t watermelon season!

Beans, beans and more beans!

Limas and black beans are bursting full and more fun for a boy to pick than was anyone’s guess.   And I thought swimming for potatoes was the key to a good time.   No, no!   Boys love their beans, from harvest to table.   Talk about a project to keep them busy!  While my daughter has no use for beans whatsoever, her brother has become an expert.   He’s an expert on most things, but that’s a “gene” thing, not to be confused with “bean” thing.   Set a basket of beans in front of the lad with privileges to wield a small safety knife and he’ll go to town!  After one brief lesson, of course.

boys and beans

Setting up a “bean station” next to the kitchen sink, his compost bin nearby in the sink, he snipped away the ends, peeled the string down the side and tossed the beans  into the awaiting cup, the skins into the awaiting bin.  Thankful not to be included, his sister kept unusually quiet and used the remainder of our mashed pumpkin to bake some bread – delicious bread.   For recipes, check out pickyourown.org and learn more than one way to cook a pumpkin!

We blanch our lima beans, then dunk them in ice water, followed by a “quick dry,” whereby we store them in the freezer, sealed in a plastic baggie.  I’d love to know an alternative method for storing veggies in the freezer that doesn’t require a plastic bag — anybody have a suggestion?

Once you cook your first batch, I have to say, you suddenly realize what these beans are supposed to taste like – butter fresh and delightful – with nothing more than a dash of butter, seasoned by salt and pepper.

Thank Heaven for seed and feeds!

Onions are in, onions are in!  And not a moment too soon – yahoo!

This is big excitement for me, cause I have tried to sprout my sweet onion seeds – repeatedly — but to no avail.  Zip.  Nada.  Nothing.  The nice fellow at my local feed and seed said, “Might be too early.”  I nodded, declining to inform him that my seed plant date data sheet clearly states I could start “trying” in August.

But okay.  I’ll go with it.  A simple case of “operator error.”  It isn’t the first time for me and won’t be the last, of this I can be sure, but perhaps the true culprit was distance.  They were too far from my sight – as in, the garden – and were allowed to get too dry.  Listing says, these isty bitsy guys need consistent moisture.  Alrighty, then —  on to plan B!

So I started the next batch on my back patio, you know, so I could see them, and remember to water them — much like I do with my fragile broccoli sprouts.  But nope, this didn’t work either (temperamental little things).  So not only can I NOT claim an advance toward my goal of self-sustainability — this failure is ruining coveted visions of giving my sprouts that “hair trim” so cutely illustrated in the book!

Whatever.  Some times, you just have to let go.

September was blowing in and I was still onion-less, so I trotted down to my local seed store.  Now mind you, my local seed store is a Godsend.   They patiently answer all my questions – my very basic questions – most probably thinking:  Should you be gardening?  But ever the professionals, they never let on, though it does remind me of my school days.  I was that kid up front asking so many questions, my fellow students would snicker, dunce.  While I never actually heard them utter the word, I know they were thinking it.  Want to ask who got an A on the test come Friday?

You guessed it (me, for the slow kids in the back).   And that’s the point.  If you keep at it, you will succeed – with the help of your local seed and feed store.   It’s an invaluable resource, not to mention a great place to buy your hay, compost, organic fertilizers and the like.  For those high on excitement but short on time, many stores offer ready to go veggie plants making it super EASY to get your garden growing! transplants

But pssssst…  Don’t let on you’re interested in sustainable gardening and seed preservation procedures —  kinda puts a damper on their seed sales, if you know what I mean.   And trust me, you don’t want them to set out the unwelcome mat for you cause you’re gonna need them when those seeds you’ve been drying get mistaken for crumbs, or knocked off the counter by an overzealous Labrador.  Sometimes, you drop them on your way out to the garden.   Get the picture?

Visit your seed store early and often and you’ll enjoy a row of sprouts like these beauties – though they do resemble a bad hair transplant a bit, don’t they?

Got Pumpkins?

Make pumpkin pie!  And yes, I’m talking about those pumpkins from your front porch step.  In our effort to become less “environmentally wasteful,” the kids and I carved out our pumpkins, tossed the stringy mess into the compost pile, saved the seeds for roasting and/or next year’s crop and commenced to cookin!  We found this great recipe online from www.pickyourown.org and it worked like a charm.  And it’s a heck of a lot easier than I would have imagined!

pumpkin pies

Once you completely carve the pumpkin, you cook it.  We steamed ours stove top, but they have instructions for microwave and oven, too.  Because we didn’t have a steamer big enough, I put a metal colander inside one of my biggest pots, cut the pumpkin into large pieces, then covered it with tin foil.  Twenty minutes later – cooked, squishy pumpkin!  It peels off the skin with little or no effort, then you place it into a big mixing bowl and add sugar (we used organic, purchased from our grocer), spices, evaporated milk and eggs.  The recipe is enough for two pies, unless they’re both deep dish.

Tip: use a hand blender or mixer.  We didn’t, and ended up with cooked egg whites “floating” in our pies.  While it didn’t affect the taste, it did detract from the appearance so be forewarned — in case you’re gifting your pies.   We did cut corners a bit and used the store-bought prepared pie pastry, covering the edges with foil so they didn’t burn, which means we can’t officially say it’s from scratch – but pretty close.  And really, shouldn’t we let those who have perfected the business of pastry get credit?  (But if you’re a die hard scratch cook, go for it.)  We then placed them in the oven for about an hour and they were delicious!  Check my recipe page for full details.

As to next year’s crop, keep in mind you’ll have to plant in June if you want pumpkins by Halloween, as it takes 3-4 months to reach maturity, and beware the rainy season.  Pumpkins are susceptible to fungus and mold.  For more details on growing pumpkins in Florida, go to UF’s solutions for your life.  It’s a wonderful resource for real life gardening.

Don’t let this happen to you

It’s called lack of planning.  Well, not lack of planning because let me tell you, my garden was planned.   I’ve got it laid out on an excel spreadsheet, color-coded, special needs listed, including next season’s layout accounting for crop rotations!  So planning is NOT the issue.  Poor planning is the issue and as much as it pains me to admit that, it’s true.  Despite my earnest at the keyboard with The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible and my regional seeding and planting data at my fingertips, I failed to account for watering needs.  Sad, but true.

I was too focused on companion planting, making sure friends were near one another and adversaries were not.  It never occurred to me to check their watering schedule!  I mean, don’t all plants need water?  My spring garden was irrigated evenly and all plants were happy.  Why, people would always comment how wonderful our garden was growing.  I replied, it’s the water and fertilizer — simple!

No, not really.  Garlic and onions are friends.  Says so in all the books.  But one needs moderate water and one needs low.  I ask you, How good of companions can they be, if they don’t have the basics in common?  Well, that’s beside the point.  Much of life is accepting what is, even if that means accepting your own shortcomings.  Fine.  The world is still turning.  And I’m resourceful, if I’m anything and I’ll fix what I’ve done!  Yes!  Rain coats!  By jove, I think you’ve got it!

"rain" coats

Nope.  Not so good.  The water collects on one end and washes out the beautiful raised bed below.  Sure, this can be fixed by stretching it out further on that end (though garbage bags only come in so many sizes).  But then another issue presents itself.  Not enough water.  Yep.  You heard me right.  So I’ve removed the plastic and am contemplating a “sprinkler move.”  I’ll have to set up two zones, then do my best to account for all of the “friends” residing therein.

But there’s another problem.  I didn’t check harvest dates.  So here I have this beautiful stagger – onion, garlic, onion, garlic – only to become annoyed when I realized the garlic would be in ground until spring!  Oh, the onions will be out in a matter of months, but not so, the garlic.  And this undermines weed control.  Remember, my garden is planned.  It’s so planned, it includes following the line of harvested vegetables with a black, plastic ground cover to keep weeds from taking over while I’m waiting for spring planting.  A fabulous idea, right?

Until you visualize a half-harvested row.  Every other section will still be gone but every other will be in ground, which means NO cover.  GruntGrimace. Growl.  What was I thinking?  Why wasn’t I thinking!

Looking on the bright side, as one can only do when faced with such dilemma, is to imagine the “quilt-like patchwork” appearance I’ll have.  It’ll be my very own old-fashioned section that will conjure up lovely images.  At least the hideous plastic is gone.

Lookee who I found in the compost pile!

My neighbor warned this might happen.  I’ve been so busy tossing everything into my compost pile, planning for my next growing season, I didn’t pay attention to what was growing in it this season.  A tomato plant!  I knew right away what it was, because there’s one thing about tomato plants and that is – they are aromatic.  I’m no “olfactologist,” but I can tell a tomato plant when I smell one – it’s a distinct fragrance.  

survivor!

And I’m excited!  Another experiment in the making – woohoo!  But due to the fact that I yanked the thing out of my compost pile like the intrusive weed that I mistook it for, my expectations are somewhat dimmed.  Tomato plants are not known for their transplanting capability.  And while I have a few in my garden disproving that notion, this one might not survive, as its roots were fairly ripped.  And torn.  (I can be fairly aggressive when there’s work to be done.)

But looking on the bright side of the compost pile, it might just be the stimulation this little guy needs to get busy and get growing.  It’s already day two, and he hasn’t shown signs of stress, yet!  Give him time, my husband says.  Give him time

Black turtle? But I thought we were talking beans!

We are!  Black beans!  And lots of them!

What a great day it is when you stroll out to your garden and discover your black beans are producing at the rate of rabbits!  Forget your first batch acted like turtles and moped around at a snail’s pace.  Forget your disappointment when you learned the hard way to thoroughly dry a bean before you go tossing it into the pot (hint: don’t shell them, immediately seal them in an airtight plastic container, shelve them in a dark spot in your pantry and expect to eat them – trust me, it only leads to heartache). 

Why, forget the past.  It’s a new day and a new harvest!  So get your fingers peeling and your salsa shaking ’cause it’s time to dance!  Really, black beans are an awesome bean to grow.  Granted, they’re not the first that comes to mind when planting a garden in Central Florida, but I ask, why not?  We have the perfect climate.  I mean, when you think of black beans, you think of Cuba, right?  Puerto Rico, Miami, South America…all warm and sunny exotic locales, just like my home here in rural Central Florida.  As a big fan of latin cuisine myself, I thought back to my first rule of gardening:  what do I want to grow?  What do I want to eat, is the real question!  And me, I love black beans!black bean and blossom

In learning to grow these beauties, I learned a few interesting things.  First and foremost, when you endure the labor to deliver these babes, make sure you know what to do – and what not to do – once you get them home.  Peel them, admire them, place them in a comfortable container, but don’t go and seal it all safe and secure.  Not unless you want to come home one day, carried away with dreams of how you’ll prepare your first batch of homegrown black beans, only to discover they’re covered in mold!  Or fungus.  Not properly schooled in the differences between these two horrific intruders, I couldn’t tell you which smothered the life out of my beans, but one of them did.  And it was devastating.  Explain that to your six-year-old when he learns of your debacle.  And it’s the only bean he’ll eat.  Yep.  Pulled my hair out on that one.

So take it from me – let them air out a while.  Like a fine bottle of red wine, let them breathe.  Place them on a plate, an open bowl, maybe in a paper bag, but whatever you do, don’t seal off their air supply because when first peeled, these beans are moist and apparently stay moist for quite some time.  How long, I couldn’t tell you.  Not yet, anyway.  This new batch is only my second, so I’m guarding them with my life.  Though…the fact they are my second batch is good news, indeed.  Better, when you learn the plants which produced these gems, grew from beans I was able to salvage from my initial harvest.  A step toward sustainability – achieved!

And it’s not a difficult process, at all.  If you can grow a pole bean, you can grow black beans.  (Sorry Arctic Amigos, but you’ll have to barter with your friends south of the border – these pups are sensitive to frost)  You’ll note the pods look fairly similar, with long slender bodies, rounded in all the right places, but unlike pole beans, it’s easy to know when to pick them.  They change color.   Handy, isn’t it?  First, they take on a nice lavender shade, an early sign you can pluck away, but if you miss this stage, don’t fret, you can still harvest them, only they’ll be a bit on the dry side when you open them.  And who cares?  These beans are meant to be dried.  So what if they take the initiative and begin the process on the vine?

blk beans ready

Word to the wise:  don’t eat them as you pick them.  I know you’re excited about your first harvest – they’re black beans, for goodness sake!  But another fascinating fact I learned along the way was that these beans contain – get ready – contain lectin phytohaemagglutinin.   It’s a toxic compound found in beans, most concentrated in the kidney bean.  When eaten raw, soaked for an insufficient amount of time, or even cooked for long hours on too low a heat setting, it can cause some bad things to happen to your body.   When I researched black beans, the same warning popped up for them, which alarmed me, because I’m that gal in the garden, poppin the produce in my mouth BEFORE it makes it to the kitchen sink.  Remember – my veggies are grown without the assistance of dangerous pesticides so I’m not real worried about ingesting nasty chemicals and the like (who knew the bean itself could be the problem?!).  So take heed, stay on the safe side while crouched in your bean rows — make sure you soak, soak, boil, boil and then eat.   And enjoy! 

Check out my recipe pages for serving suggestions.

How sweet it is!

green pepper harvest

Sweet bell peppers, to be exact.  After a few days of rain my green peppers have burgeoned!  They’re so big, they actually look like I purchased them from the supermarket.  Well, the organic section, anyway.  Nice, firm, medium sized.  They definitely haven’t been pumped with any growth boosters, or super duper color enhancers (if such a thing exists) which makes this bounty all the more exciting.  Because they are huge, relatively speaking.

Huge and homegrown!  Now, the question, what do I do with them?  I’ve already given a couple away to family, but I still have a bowl full.  And while I love a good salad, green peppers are not one of my favorite ingredients.  I prefer them cooked, in black bean soup, maybe a little paella…even meatloaf!  But once I get through these dishes – three nights, four bell peppers, five more back in the garden about to pop – seems to me I better get cooking, as in, trying to figure out some new and exciting ways to serve these babies up!

It’s a good thing I staggered my garden, otherwise I’d be talking fourteen instead four.  Green peppers will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but after that, they make better compost.  Any suggestions?  I’m all ears.