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!”

Pull Up the Covers

It’s cold outside!  But we’re not talking flannel, we’re talking row covers  —  a skill every child can manage.  They make their beds, right?

Of course they do and they can make their plant beds, too!  “Out with the old and in with new.”  Not only is this a smart tactic for winter break, but for weed prevention as well.  After all, we’ll be gone for three weeks and we need to prepare the plants for our absence.  We also need to prepare our beds for spring!

Because life in the garden continues.  Despite the season and despite our recent loss, the broccoli and cabbage will fill out, promising a luscious harvest upon our return.  The carrots and onions will hold until January.  But for now, we eagerly pull plants by their roots.

We toss them on to the compost  — another thing to look forward come spring.  We’ll have our own soil amendment!

After all our hard work, they’re gone, but not forgotten.  How could you forget such beautiful tomatoes?

And we cover and clip black paper into place. 

We’re preparing for the potatoes to be planted next month whereby we’ll practice our crop rotation; a staple of good organic gardening.  And best of all?  We get to do it all over again come spring!  Woohoo!

School’s out.

“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!). 

Frost Tolerant Plants

Which are and which are not?  It’s an important question with a valuable answer.  One the kids learned this week.

Central Florida froze.  Unusual this time of year but certainly not unheard of, our temps dipped into freezing territory and despite our frost protection efforts, they killed our plants. 

The kids took it kinda hard. 


(A little dramatic, aren’t they?)  They’re passionate about their garden and hate to lose the first leaf.  Usually create a ceremony for such events.

These squash were hurting from fungus BEFORE the frost and truth be told, they probably didn’t stand a chance either way.

However, it’s worth taking note that not all plants dislike the cold.  Some actually prefer it, like broccoli, cabbage and spinach.  These plants don’t thrive in warm weather but they do in cold.  And look at these sweet creatures.  

Our strawberries managed to tolerate the frigid mornings. 

So take heart kids — while our tomatoes suffered a horrible blow all the more horrid because they were SO beautiful and lush — a significant feat when it comes to the garden), we still have a ton of plants to look forward to harvesting, like carrots and onions and sweet peas, to boot!

On another bright note, we clipped our basil before the freeze and dried the leaves in the oven.  Simply put them on a baking sheet and set the oven to low and bake for a few hours (or until dry and crispy).  Voila

Pizza, anyone?  Pasta?  This dried basil of ours rivals any store-bought kind and…as these savvy students were quick to point out–costs a lot less!

So while our lesson today was the identification of frost tolerant vegetation, we learned about drying herbs, too. 

Next week?  Crop rotation.  We’ll pull out the old and prepare for the new — with a very specific order in mind.  You see, an integral part of organic gardening is crop rotation.  And similar to knowing which plants make friendly companions in the garden while growing, crop rotation involves knowing which plants like to be where which plants used to be.  Confused?

You won’t be next week!  Until then, gardeners… 

It’s just another day in the life of the garden.

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?

Vacation’s Over!

With Thanksgiving behind us, leftovers gone, the kids have returned to school for their lessons.  And lessons they learned, especially in the garden.  As any experienced gardener knows, leaving a garden untended invites all sorts of drama.  Weed overgrowth, bug infestation, disease infection — it’s enough to send you running for the hills. 

But hold on cowboys and grab your hats, these students aren’t your average gardeners.  No, no!  They’re tough and determined (brave enough to endure the chill of Florida’s winter) and they have a job to do.  Weed warriors, begin!

Besides all that exciting stuff, it’s harvest time (code for:  time to reap our rewards).  Yay!  Is there a better time to be in the garden

No boys and girls, there isn’t!  Harvest time is when you FINALLY get the chance to reap the bounty from all your hard work and reap these kids did — all while learning valuable lessons about reproduction.  “How does a plant continue to grow without the help of a gardener?” 

Good question.  How about we take a look for ourselves.  Since our pole beans are the first vegetables ready for harvest, I cheered, “Everybody, start plucking!”  Woohoo!  A dozen kid pulling from the vine–now it’s a harvest party!

“Open up your beans and let’s look inside.”  Ooohs and aaahs all around.  “Perfect.  These beans are ready to eat.  But what happens if there are no gardeners with voracious appetites?”  (You can use big words like voracious with these kids because they’re educated.) 

“The pods will dry on the vine like those brown ones,” I said, indicating the dried and shriveling pod.  Passing it around, we discussed the differences between the pods we plucked and this pod I picked.  “Left unpicked, this bean will dry and the pod will shrivel up until the day it pops open and spits the beans out onto the ground.  Really!  I’ve seen it happen.  Pop!” 

Now that I have their full attention, I explain how the beans ultimately make their way into the soil and prepare to sprout anew.  Here’s a neat video presentation of the life cycle of a bean.  And the best part?  “You guys get to eat your beans for snack this morning!”  Hoorays and leaps for joy.  “Yep.  You have to wash them first, but then you can eat your first organic bean.  The one you grew yourself!” 

I think I’ve discovered the secret to getting kids to eat vegetables.  Have the kids grow them!  Talk about excitement over snack time–you’d think we were talking chips and Cheetos, but no, we’re talking healthy greens.  Warms a parent’s heart, I tell you.  Pure joy. 

The kids will also collect some beans for drying, preparing them for planting come spring.  It’s a great way for them to take an active part in the life cycle of a bean plant, witnessing the glory of nature firsthand.

Forget visions of sugarplums (that is so yesterday), these kids are dreaming of broccoli!  And now that they’re cleaned free of weeds, they’re ready to premier in their own harvest party.

Bounty of Beans

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

Look at these beauties — I have gobs of them!

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Thanks

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

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

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

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

Going Raw

Recently a friend of mine turned fifty, though you’d never know it to look at her.  She exercises and eats right.  Spends quality time with her family and friends.  You can imagine when it came to appetizers for her birthday get-together, healthy and fresh came to mind and of course, earning a reputation as gardener-extraordinnaire, I was assigned a vegetable dish! 

“Use whatever you have too much of in the garden.  Anything you might want to get rid of.”

Too much of?  Get rid of?

Not in MY garden!  Now that I know how to can and freeze, there’s nothing I have in excess.  I use it all — all that’s worth keeping, that is.  But the issue remained;  bring something healthy. 

The wheels began to spin.  Not the crazy ones, the creative ones.  (Perhaps I should have used the phrase “creative juices” instead?)  Well, I thought about my garden and what I like to eat.  Yes, I’m selfish that way.  Should have been what she likes to eat but oh no, when it comes to my garden it’s all about me, or more aptly, what I think I can conjure up! 

My grand idea?  Sweet red peppers.  Probably because I don’t have any in my garden.  Mine aren’t doing well, you see…bugs, humidity.  Not good.  But I love them and think they make a great addition to any party table.  And what better way to prepare them than with my new food processor? 

I’ve heard a lot about “raw” diets of late, the health benefits, the fresh taste, and decided they should be added to our dinner table.  Less cooking makes for better nutrient consumption you know.  And I am all about what’s best for the family.  It is my job to feed them.  But what?  How?  While there are a few recipe books on the market, I haven’t really found any that call out my name and shout, “Buy me!  Buy me!” 

Undaunted, I decided to go it alone and bought a food processor.  I enjoy experimenting and besides, if my raw food fad falls to wayside, I can always use a food processor, right?  So what does one do when faced with the perfect opportunity to practice?

They practice!  So away I went, combining all my favorite ingredients in one dish.  Caught in the rush of creativity, I whipped up this gorgeous flower presentation on the fly.  I am a gardener, you know.  Flowers are a natural for me.

And the best part — besides being delicious – it’s fairly simple to make.  Red peppers, garbanzo beans, basil and goat cheese served over top a fan of romaine lettuce.  I tasted it and thought, not bad.  Fresh, light, could use a little Parmesan, or maybe a drizzle of balsamic.  I’m no chef, but I do like to eat and these happen to be some of my favorite things.

Ready to go, I placed the tray on my lap and we headed down the street, whereby I learned a valuable lesson.  Rule number one:  when using a food processor with fresh vegetables, check for excess liquid.  Apparently, when you whir and chop at high speeds, the natural water from your veggies — in my case red peppers — tends to seep out of your lovely sauce, collecting at the bottom of your dish. 

And when your husband turns a corner, it spills over the edge — and all over your jeans.  Lucky for me, blue and red are close relatives on the color wheel and my attire wasn’t completely ruined for the evening.  Spotted, but hardly noticeable.  Now, carrying a dripping tray into the house….

That’s another story.  Nabbed!  But I still received all the ohs and ahs (friends are helpful that way) and proceeded to the kitchen.  At least my beautiful appetizer survived in one piece and with the help of a “hostess with the mostess,” the juice was drained and the food served whereby she promptly advised me to save this extra vegetable juice  in the future and use it for sauces or drink mixes. 

“Of course.  The perfect solution.”  Exactly what you’d expect from the woman who can throw a party together in a matter of hours, barely bat an eyelash over food detail, all the while her ambiance and decor glowing as though planned for weeks.  The woman’s entertaining might is legendary.

However, while impressed with my creation at home, it somehow tasted different to me at the party.  A little too fresh, if that’s possible.  Okay, who am I kidding.  It tasted like water.  Aghast, I looked around the room.  The pressure began to build.  Everyone was still mingling, but it wouldn’t be long before they made their way to the food table.  And of course all eyes and appetites would be on my pepper-filled petals. 

Then it hit me.  Standing feet away was a friend whose reputation for cooking rivaled that of “entertaining gal.”  Bingo.  He’ll know what to do!  Beckoning him over, I boldly asked for help.  I explained my latest adventure into the field of raw food prep, followed by my current dilemma.   “What do you think it needs?”

He tasted and quipped with a shrug of his shoulders, “Lemon or lime.”

Ping!  Of course.  That’s exactly what it needed!  Child’s play for a man of his culinary expertise and the perfect solution for my problem.  With the simple addition of fresh squeezed lime juice (the fruit more readily found behind the bar), my dish had been transformed into fresh sweet red pepper magnificence.  A heady moment indeed.  With that, he named it Margarita Sweet Peppers and the dish was a hit.  For the full recipe, check my recipe section.

So now I’m inspired.  I bought the food processor for this very purpose — add more fresh ingredients to my meals and keep them raw — and now I have my first victory to report.