Take Cover!

Mama Nature is throwing us one last dose of chill!  And while some don’t think it will dip into frost territory, we’re not taking any chances.  We’ve been burned (think icy burn) before and will not be again. 

Just look at these sweet little things.  Would you take a chance with their survival?  Didn’t think so.   So after some discussion, we used this lightweight frost blanket to cover our beans, tomatoes and peppers.  It’s not the only option.  We could have “insulated” them with mulch, or thrown a bed sheet over top.  Though whichever way you choose to attack this problem, the goal remains the same:  protect their leaves from frost.

Our potatoes are growing well and quite robust and should be able to tolerate a “near dip” experience.  Though just to be sure, we gathered some oak leaves to ensure a snuggly evening.  Talk about perfect segue–our lesson this week was mulch!  

What kind of mulch?

Natural of course, like leaves, bark, hay and would you believe newspaper?  

Oh, yes.  So long as you keep it from flying into your neighbor’s yard by trapping it somehow–we used hay–newspaper mulch is a great way to recycle.  If you prefer the lovely look of all hay, then simply toss the paper out back like the old news that it is–and onto your compost pile!   

If you don’t have one yet, you will soon.  Composting is too easy and too efficient–even for those city dwellers we know.  One afternoon surfing the net will prove you can compost indoors AND keep it clean.  A must.  We are tidy when at all possible.

Attention Gardener Wannabes–Now’s Your Time!

Always wanted to start a garden but afraid you didn’t have enough time or know how?  Well fret no more–you have enough of BOTH. 


Seriously.  Next week we begin our series “Ashley and Julie’s Garden — follow their progress!”  These two have always wanted their own garden, but were reluctant to take that first step, concerned it would lead them down a road on a downhill slide.  Not fun.  So instead they politely reply, “I’d love to start a garden, if only I had the time.” 

Typical, right? For many women these days, it is difficult to find the time.  Between kids and work and husband and life–who has extra anything to wander through brilliantly layered rows of a vegetable garden–despite the desire pumping through their veins, the urge screaming for release… 

Oh–wait.  That’s the kids in the bathroom.  Real life aside, these women yearn for the luxury of snipping fresh lettuce for their salad, clipping fresh beans to include on the dinner menu, pulling sweet carrots for the most delectable carrot muffins–and they can.  Once they catch on to the secrets of simple garden management, they can enjoy the benefits of growing their own vegetables.  Have kids?  Believe it or not, they’ll relish the adventure and together you will experience more joy than you ever dreamed possible. 

It’s the simple things.  Make that easy-to-do-and-not interrupt-my-schedule things that add quality to our every day moments.  So, if YOU have ever wanted to have your own garden but thought it utterly impossible, stay tuned:  we’re going to change your mind!

Series begins Tuesday.  Ashley will utilize a raised planter bed frame while Julie will opt for an in ground garden.  Join us, won’t you?

Trust me.  We’ll have fun.

Transplanting Tomatoes (before the official start of spring!)

Are we lucky to live in Florida, or what? 

Sure, I run the risk of one last freeze.  Happens every year.  Nearly.  But maybe I’ll be spared this spring.  After all, Mother Nature tortured me in December…  Do you think she could be so cruel?

Nah, me neither.  She’s an all right gal.  So what if I don’t agree with her sense of humor, or her downright obstinate ways when it comes to wielding her power, but she has been good to me.  Overall, I can’t complain.  (Are you listening, Mrs. N?  I’m the good one!)

So out the door these sproutlings went, straight into the garden.  I started them early January and yes, I did have to drag them inside a few times and spot them a sweet place by the warm and blazing hearth.  But just look how they’ve rewarded me.  Aren’t they grand?  Real beauties.  My kids helped clear the row of hay and I tilled the section with ease.  Once you know the secrets of preparation this part is EASY. 

Then, I gingerly pulled each out and placed it into a hole amended with a mixture of my very own compost (AKA homemade dirt), epsom salt and eggshells.  Brilliant.  And the key to eliminating blossom-end rot.  I hope.  Formed a well around my babies and watered them in.  Finito.  Easy as tomato pie.

Mud pie.  I meant mud pie.  Last time I tried to make an authentic Italian tomato pie for my husband, things didn’t go very smoothly.  Time-consuming, irritating…  It was the crust that gave me issue.  And my handy-dandy Cuisinart contraption that promised to do the hard mixing did nothing of the kind! 

False advertising, if you ask me.  But I digress–into the land of disappointment (where I do not care to dwell).  My tomatoes are in!  Who has time to weep?

I have a watering schedule to attend, fertilization needs to consider…  And companions.  Who shall I plant next door?

If you think I haven’t already arranged for that play over in my excel program, you’re kidding yourself.  What else do you do during winter?  Besides scour the seed magazines and drool over the gorgeous photos and plethora of produce. 

Beats Christmas shopping.

Sweet Peas in Spring

Finally my sweet peas are ready!  After maintaining a steady grip during the cold, during the heat, and everything in between, my sweet babies have matured. 

Crisp on the out side, sweet delicacy on the inside, these are worth the wait.

And easy to store.  I’m freezing mine fresh — because I haven’t decided how I want to use them in the future.  But when I do, I know they’ll be delicious.  Already tried some.

Garden peas are especially precious in our garden as they are a limited commodity.  They prefer cool weather and now that it’s warming up here in Florida, I know these sweets will be on the way out.  It’s been so warm, my young broccoli are already bolting in rebellion.

Oh, well.  Just another day in the life of a gardener.  We take what we can get where we can get it!

Kids Planting and Progressing

For the kids, this was a week of “seed fun.”  

With the warm wave of weather here in Florida, we’re taking our chances and planting now–to ensure our crops are ready before graduation.  We do have our priorities, you know and the harvest party is top of the list! 

To begin, we toured the garden to check on our plants’ progress.  The cilantro is turning coriander.  No longer content to remain in its original form, this plant is now shooting  toward the sky, sporting lovely white blooms.  Soon, these flowers will produce coriander seeds–which of course we will harvest.  I know there’s some parent out there ready and waiting with the perfect recipe.  And if not, the kids and I will find something to do with them.  (BTW, we’re open to suggestion.)

Our baby carrots are tender and sweet.  No, they’re nowhere near ready, but their greenery is quite delicate.

And just look at those potatoes.  The kids can almost taste those healthy potato chips and fries now.  

“Wipe off the drool, kids.  We still have a while to go.  And for increased production, cover those babies with dirt!”

And production we need if we expect to have enough potatoes for a party’s worth of chips!  Healthy of course, lightly coated with olive oil and herbs and baked to golden perfection.  (Food talk keeps the kids motivated.) 

Yet more fascinating than food are our beans.  Personally, I find the early stages of bean development to be the most visual examples of Mother Nature in action than most anything else.  More than leaves sprouting and stems growing, this life cycle literally unfurls before your very eyes. 

Why, just look at them!

You can almost feel the energy as it opens from the seed, erupting in a burst…

…exploding in green bloom.  Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

Magnificent.  Not into beans?  We also planted cucumber and corn seeds, as well as transplanted tomatoes.

The kids learned tomatoes are best planted deep, covering the bottom two “leaves” as they bury the base.  By doing so, they’ll encourage stronger root growth and development for their small tomato sprout.  Important–as we anticipate big strong tomatoes come spring!  And on our way back to class, we spotted this early gem.

Delectable little devil, isn’t it?  Can’t wait to make preserves out of that little pumpkin!  Oh, didn’t I mention?  We’re going to learn how to can!  Berries, tomatoes…

It’s the simple things in life.

Grocery Inflation

As if we needed yet another reason to garden–have you seen the price of food lately?  From fresh vegetables to coffee and cotton, prices have jumped.  And don’t even ask about the price of chocolate.  Our beloved sweet may become a rare commodity, indeed.  No kidding.  Seems West Africa farmers are giving up the crop in pursuit of better wages in the cities while at the same time, world demand is increasing.  Have you heard the health benefits of dark chocolate?  Heavy on the cocoa, easy on the milk.  Not a good combination when it comes to the demand side of the equation. 

Then of course there’s a certain hedge fund manager who bought a ton (literally, I think) of cocoa beans for investment.  Downright evil market manipulation is what I call it.  How could he be so cruel?  Why, I have a mind to grow some cocoa plants myself.  I’m in Florida, they grow near the Equator…  Sounds like a feasibility study’s in order!

Thank goodness gardening is easy and fun, else we’d all starve of malnutrition and chocolate deprivation.  Plant, water, harvest, consume–easy!  

Okay.  You caught me.  I’m luring you in.  But truthfully, gardening doesn’t have to be hard.  In fact, once you learn the secrets to mutinous-proof weed maintenance, it’s even easier.  If you don’t believe me, ask my kids. 

Or, follow along as I guide my friend Julie through the process of starting a family garden.  We’ll begin from scratch and work our way through each step of the process, much like we did with Mandie.  Remember her?  She’s still gardening, I think.  (Please, Mandie–tell us you’re still you’re still growing green and strong!) 

But there are more great reasons to garden than it’s easy and fun.  Think of the health benefits (non-toxic, because we only garden organic), the convenience (who has time to run to the store every time they feel like a fresh strawberry and spinach salad?), the educational aspect (last time I checked, botany was still a subject at school), and of course, who can forget the main reason:  gardening for the sheer joy of it.  For the kids, it’s more the adventure factor–creepy crawlies tend to be exciting for them whereas we seem to have lost the enthusiasm for that kind of thrill.  (Wait–I know it’s here somewhere…) 

Stay-tuned and watch the fun as Julie and her family venture into the land of green.  Better yet, how about join her and start a garden of your own and share your experience wit us?  We learn by doing!  A lesson best achieved in the company of fellow enthusiasts. 

Though it sure would be nice if cocoa plants grew like this row of garlic.  I could wait a season.  But five years is pushing it.

Too Many Strawberries?


What!  How could you have too many strawberries?

Oh.  You took the kids strawberry picking this weekend.  Yes, I understand.  They do grab berries at alarming rates, don’t they…

And now you’ve had your fill of strawberry shortcake, strawberry smoothies, strawberries and cream, strawberries on your corn flakes.   What else could you possibly do with a strawberry?

How about tossing some in your salad?  When combined with a mix of velvety soft buttercrunch and crispy firm spinach leaves from the garden — they make for the most delectable lunch. 

Looks good, doesn’t it?  It is.  The secret to this salad’s appeal is the striking  contrast between fresh tangy berry and sweet mild goat cheese.  It’s melt in your mouth good.  Check my recipe section for details!

First time I realized strawberries made a wonderful addition to salads was dinner at my cousin Nancy’s home.  She added nuts along with a variety of fresh ingredients, but for me, the strawberries were the main attraction. 

Of course, the joy of picking them ourselves added to the pleasure!  This little guy just looks like he’s having fun, doesn’t he?

He was, we were…  Picking your own fruits and veggies is great fun for the entire family.  To find a u-pick farm near you–check this great website

Then you too, may find yourself in the midst of a sea of berries.   Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Replanting Beans

After our sorrowful discovery last week, the kids were back in the garden with their beans, albeit a new batch.  But that’s part of the lesson, isn’t it?  In real life, things don’t always work as planned.  Especially when your garden coordinator fails to watch the weather report!

Lucky for me, children are forgiving by nature and we spent little time crying over what could have been and proceeded to look forward to what can become!  (Is that grammatically correct?  Probably should check these things ahead of time when writing about students!)  Especially when your upper elementary kids come out to plant black eye peas.

However, in the business of gardening, scientific elements take center stage, not grammar, hence the assignment for upper elementary.  “Hey kids!  What’s the scientific abbreviation for Molybdenum?”

Would you believe they knew the answer?  I can hardly pronounce the word let alone rattle off its abbreviation!  But that’s why we’re in school, isn’t it?  To receive an education. 

Does it matter the adults learn, too?  I mean, my schooling was a long time ago.  And my brain quite full of important information…

Bet these kids don’t know that whites shouldn’t be mixed with darks in the laundry!  (Actually, many of them do.)  Back to the garden.  We planted black beans and limas this week, intermingling them for an intricate weave of color come spring.  And this time, the kids will be watching for the weather.  They have strict instructions to keep an eye on Mother Nature and inform their teacher at the first sign of temperature drop.

Who will then inform me, who will then promptly cover our little darlings in the garden.  See?  Problem solved.  We did notice our sweet onions popping through the soil.

Looking good, but they need to be covered, so the kids headed over to their compost pile.  Collecting the fresh organic matter we covered them and continue our wait.

Won’t be long now.  A few months and we’ll be in the salsa business!  Er–once we get some tomatoes in the garden.  But with another potential freeze on the horizon, I’m not yet willing to risk their introduction outdoors!

Spring Garden Checklist

With spring only a month away, it’s time to finalize your garden plans.  By being prepared, you’ll be certain not to miss your first day of planting.   While this day varies from region to region based on frost dates, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities. 

But why wait?  You can start many of your seeds indoors and get a jump-start on the season!  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.

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, honey…  About that little favor! ”

3 – Sharpen your tools.  Or simply clean them off, know where they are, organize them.  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.  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!

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting.  Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close.  Besides keeping the harmony, it provides a natural pesticide.  The sooner you break out the excel program (my preferred garden journal), the sooner you’re planting seeds.  Bear in mind your crop rotation as well–unless this is your first time playin’ in the sunshine!  For serious techies, try this nifty program for planning your garden.  Really cool.

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 spring fever hits and they’re scooped from the shelves.  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.  If your worms have been busy, be sure to harvest their castings ahead of time, giving the “worm poop” plenty of time to dry before use.  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.

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 may want to adjust the pH (acidity-alkalinity) by adding lime to raise pH, or peat/pine/sulfur to lower it. 

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!

Calling All Parents and Teachers!

Your children need you!  Join Michelle Obama as she calls upon kids to adopt a healthier lifestyle.  It’s time to get our youngsters out of the cafeteria and into the garden–their school garden.

From aphids to zinnias, beets to watermelon, children can gain a wealth of valuable knowledge from participating in a garden, but they need guidance.  And who better to guide them than you?

“A garden?  Are you serious?  I don’t have time for that!”

Ah…but you do.  You just don’t know it–yet.  Gardens don’t have to be time-consuming.  Nor do they have to be stressful.  I mean, where in the garden manual does it say you must sacrifice every ounce of your free time and sanity for the sake of growing vegetables?

It doesn’t.  Vegetable gardens can be successfully managed with minimal time, so long as you have a plan.  I learned this tidbit of wisdom from my kids, not to mention the demands of real life, my husband, etc.  Like many of you, the last thing I have time for is a garden, but when the rewards are so great, and the lure is strong… 

It’s tempting.  So tempting, I started my home garden on a whim and desire and haven’t looked back since–it’s been that rewarding.  Even my kids help! (Now that I’ve learned to manage the load.)  Trust me.  Weeding, watering, pruning and picking doesn’t have to be hard.  When you plan your schedule around the natural cycle of life, you don’t have to fight it.  Instead, you focus on the important things, like seed selection, plant feeding, bug plucking, picture-taking and harvest.  That’s really all the kids care about, anyway.

And care they do.  They LOVE being out in the garden!  So long as you make it fun and keep it interesting, they’re good to go.  For example, weeding takes strong hands.  “Who here has strong muscles?” 

Hands fly up.  “I do!  I do!” 

“Good.  I need some weed warriors to attack this zone and rid the area of weeds.” Children swarm the area with incredible speed, pull with unbelievable precision.  Reminds me of Star Wars.

“Who knows a plant’s favorite food?”

Blank stares.

“Worm poop!” I exclaim.

Eyes light up, expressions explode with delight.   Now we’re talking.  “Okay, who wants to feed the plants?”

Hands fly up.  “I do!  I do!”

“Who knows how do dig?”  I do!  I do!  “Who can work like a bulldozer and grade the surface smooth?”  I can!  I can!  “Who can build a moat around their seeds to keep the water close?”  Me!  Me!

You get the picture.  Kids love to garden.  With the right lingo and a little direction, they are all over it.  All you have to do is sit back and snap away.  Photos, that is.  You’ll want to document every wonderful moment.  Especially when they find the unexpected earthworm, or the unwelcome hornworm.  It’s all in the discovery.

But schools are strapped for cash.  Who pays for all this wonder and lesson? 

It’s true, someone has to buy the seeds and choose a location.  Someone has to set the schedule and build a curriculum.  And someone has to show up to supervise.  As garden coordinator for our school, I give about two hours of my time per week.  That’s it.  This involves about 3 classes, 3 different ages.  (Yes, we’re a small school.)  But the math works for the same; when you add classes, you add volunteers. 

Don’t know where to begin?  No problem.  There are a plethora of resources to choose from, both locally and nationally.  Where I live, the University of Florida agricultural department encourages school gardens and provides an amazing amount of information to get your school garden started.  They’ve also come up with an ingenious motivator in the form of a school garden competition.  What kid wouldn’t want to have the best and brightest blooms? 

An abundance of private organizations exist as well, like The Edible Schoolyard out in California founded by Chef Alice Waters, Kids Gardening! located up in Vermont and Lifelab (also out in California), just to name a few.  Funding an issue?

Try the National Gardening Association’s website for ideas.  Also, check with your local seed and feed store for some help with donations in exchange for a little blurb in your school newsletter and/or website.  The cost to them will be minimal yet the exposure they’ll reap will be exponential.  If you’re building raised beds instead of in ground, consult with your local hardware/lumber store for some help.  Connecting the community and children is a win-win for all involved.

From an education aspect, these gardens can become part of the actual curriculum (Kids Gardening! provides a ton of tools for teachers), or they can simply be part of a volunteer effort.  Either way, the kids will thank you.  One need only glance at a few of our school garden photos to see the pleasure the kids derive from being outside, steeped in the glory of nature.  In fact, pass them around at your next PTA meeting and you’ll see the hands fly up.  “Who wants to help with our school garden?”  I do!  I do! 

And we haven’t even discussed the harvest party!  When kids actually “reap what they’ve sown,” it connects the dots between planting and harvest like nothing else.  Every weed they pulled, every seed they buried, every sprout they watered culminates into the most delicious food they’ve ever tasted.  Add the fact it presents the perfect opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating choices, ie. oven-baked French fries, homemade (baked) potato chips, salsa, coleslaw, fruit smoothies to name a few, and you have the perfect combination–and a captive audience.

Gardening is all what you make of it.  Exciting and fun or dreary and doldrums, it’s up to you.  To help you get started, you can find a few lessons in the Kid Buzz section of this website.  For more information, check these suggestions from About.com homeschooling.  Above all else, keep in mind the kids don’t care how fancy a garden you design, they only care about getting involved in the process.  Start with what you can afford, what you can manage time wise and the rest will follow.  Remember:  elbow grease is free yet the payoff is priceless.

Share this link and let’s get something wonderful started.  Gardening is an adventure–share it with a child!