Tomatoes, Eggshells and Epsom

I’ve decided to start my tomatoes, a little head start on the season, if you will.   Tomatoes, because I’m still reeling from the devastating loss of my gorgeous fall crop.  Nasty Jack Frost nipped them right before my eyes, days before they matured to peak perfection.  Bad Jack Frost.

But I will not be shaken from the garden.  My roots are grounded, my will is strong.  Granted the old man is still hanging around (blustering old fool), but I won’t be intimidated.  In fact, I will outsmart him!  I’ll start my tomatoes indoors, near a warm sunny window–where he can’t get to them.  We’ll laugh and we’ll frolic and we’ll watch the old blow hard scourge the landscape into a frightful state–while we’re snug and secure indoors.  My tomatoes soon will realize it’s safe to sprout, and will poke their tiny green heads from the soil, followed by their skinny little bodies.

And I will feed them eggshells.  The secret for beautiful, robust, blossom-end rot free tomatoes!  It’s the calcium, you see (in addition to even watering and good potting soil) that will set their fruits strong and sure.   Plus, for good measure, I’ll throw in some Epsom salt.  Read somewhere these were wise moves and I’m a wise woman!  I believe it has something to do with adding magnesium and sulfur to the soil.  Magnesium helps promote chlorophyll formation and sulfur helps activate plant proteins and enzymes needed for growth. 

Hmmm….  Very interesting.  I feel a lesson coming on (watch out students).  Elements found in the garden will be ones you never forget–not after the gardenfrisk is through with you!

Anyway, deep breath, back to my tomatoes.  They’re off to a good start.  Found a strange squash or cucumber sprouting in one seed cell (which was promptly removed).   Not sure how it ended up there, other than a case of mixing compost and potting soil.  Which can happen.  It’s busy around here come this time of year, what with seed saving and sprouting trays, compost buckets, potting soil, dog chasing, kid ruckus…I’m lucky I managed to save any seeds at all! 

My tomatoes and I are ready–let the spring games begin!  A tad early, but tomatoes are fussy.  They don’t like it too cold or too hot.  And while some of us may have forgotten what the summer heat feels like here in Central Florida, too busy heating their frost-nipped extremities, I have not.  Nor will I allow myself to believe the heat won’t really hit until July.  It froze twice in December, didn’t it?

Mother Nature and I are friends, but she does deserve a certain degree of my humble regard.  After all, she does reign queen when it comes to gardening.

Strawberry Season Means Strawberry Picking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterscotch Cookies, Anyone?

Now that the brownies have vanished (okay vanished isn’t quite true — I mean, we know where they went), my daughter has moved on to cookies.   Sweet of her, isn’t it?  She’s actually baking in preparation for a family get together this weekend.   No special occasion, no particular reason, we’re simply getting together because we haven’t seen each other in a while.

Odd, when you live in a small town.   But it happens, doesn’t it?   We get so busy with our own lives, doing our thing, we forget to make the time for those we care about the most.   It’s almost as though we “assume” their presence in our lives until next thing you know, it’s been three months since you’ve seen one another! 

One of my best girlfriends pointed out this sad fact to me years ago.  Living only 30 minutes apart, we barely had time to visit, what between her three kids and my two.  Add a couple of husbands, a few jobs…next thing you know, months have passed without so much as a lunch date!   When she moved to Tallahassee, I was heartbroken.   “Now I’ll never see you.”   

She looked at me and stated quite bluntly, “You never see me now.”

While my first reaction was hurt, I couldn’t argue.   She was right. 

Thankfully, our family has a resident Woman-in-Charge-of-Family-Gatherings who coordinates such events — my beautiful stepmother.  Realizing it had been a while since our last gathering, considering the fact that my international pilot brother was in town, my cross roads trucker brother was on hand, my sister and I both without events, she scheduled dinner.  Casual, easy, a let’s-just-hang-out-together kind of evening.  The resident Woman-in-Charge-of-Everything-Else (my illustrious mom) will be there, too.  Odder still, what goes on in small towns!  

It’s actually very nice to be able to include everyone at the dinner table, and we do so, blending adult children and offspring, grandparents and friends, the new traditions continues;  my daughter is baking for said event.   Which means I’m tasting.  Well, I am Resident-Chief-Taste-Officer-of-all-Things-She-Bakes!  Where do you think her sweet tooth came from–the tooth fairy?  

Nope.   She inherited it from me, and I inherited mine from my dad (her second favorite person to bake for — after her daddy, of course).   Nibbling into the first morsel, the cookie melted in my mouth, drenching my palate with sheer glory.  The girl has outdone herself.   Using a recipe she found in Cuisine at home cooking magazine, she made butterscotch cookies and I’m here to tell you, these cookies are fantastic!   Who knew you could pack so much flavor into a simple cookie? 

I’m talking real flavor;  a mix of ginger and brown sugar, butterscotch and confectioner’s.  If you like cookies, you need to try these.  You’ll find the recipe on my blog as it’s not available online.  Plopping the remainder of the sample in my mouth, I gazed up at my girl from my spot on the couch, my shirt shamelessly covered with sweet white powder and swallowed.   “May I have another?”

She grinned.   “You like them?”

“Like them?  I love them.”

Rule number one:  if you want seconds, you’d better compliment the chef.  Cooking may be her passion, but positive reinforcement is her natural desire.   And you don’t want to be dropped from the invite list when it comes to her dessert table

Rule number two:   try to keep your cookie consumption to a minimum.   There are others waiting for the cookie dish so please move aside.   Chagrin.   Snag.  Thank you, come again!

The good news is we can always make more.   And with Valentine’s Day drawing near, you may find yourself wanting to ply your way into the heart of someone special — and these cookies will certainly do the trick!   Unless your sweetheart is allergic to butterscotch whereby I’d try a different course.   Chocolate does make for a handy backup plan, though, and comes in all shapes and sizes.

Just a friendly reminder.   Family, friends and love…isn’t that what living is all about?

Fresh Lettuce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that was my stationary bicycle.

How to Plant Potatoes

That’s what we learned this week and what an exciting lesson!  Who knew you could put a potato in the ground and watch it sprout into a basket full of potatoes? 

Very few of these kids, that’s who!  But they do now, firsthand.

To begin, we had to clear our row of weeds.  We tilled the soil until it was nice and soft — our plants prefer soft beds (like most kids, one of the girls chimed in!) — and pulled the soil to the side for later use.  Potatoes growth habit is up, so we’ll need this extra dirt later, to mound around the plant as it grows. 

In fact, with no yard and little space, you can actually grow potatoes using a box methodVery cool

But we have plenty of space, so let the digging begin!   Now that we know all about crop rotation, the kids know that following our black beans with potatoes is a great idea.  Lots of nitrogen ready and waiting in the soil for our heavy feeder — Mr. Potato Head.   We added a bit on bone meal to the soil (6-9-0) as well to help promote good leaf and root growth. 

These kids know that stands for N-P-K = Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium.  Nitrogen promotes good leaf growth.  Phosphorous helps in building a strong root system, leading to better fruit (potato) production.  Potassium is important to overall plant processes, including photosynthesis and protein production.  Crucial, because it can affect the nutritional value of the vegetables you grow!

We’re growing our potatoes from tubers, or the “actual potato itself,” which are best purchased from your local seed store.  Because they sell certified seed potatoes, our plants will be less prone to disease.   FYI – you can buy organic potatoes from the grocery store, just know the risk of disease runs higher.  Commercially sold potatoes may not do as well, because many are treated with chemicals specifically aimed at preventing sprouting.  A bad thing, considering this is a gardener’s goal!

As we examined our potatoes, the kids were asked about the small “dots” dimpling the potato surface.  Did they know what these were? 

Some clever children knew we called these the “eyes” of the potatoes, though my favorite guess was:  the belly button?  Kids.  Too cute. 

Eyes are where the potato develops its sprouts, many of which were bursting forth for us to see.  Photo is of an older seed sprout; not one we planted.

While we could plant the smaller potatoes  whole, the kids learned how to cut the potatoes in two, thereby increasing their yield, or “potatoes produced.”  We’re planning on making homemade potato chips with our harvest so the more the merrier – we need all the potatoes we can get! 

Spacing our potatoes about one foot apart, we set them in the soil, sprout side up, then covered them over with an inch or two of soil.  Now, we’re in business!  And we can’t wait.  Our mouths are already watering over those yummy potato chips in our future. 

French fries, anyone?

Worm Poop a.k.a Worm Castings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Seedling Trays

The kids are getting a jump-start on spring.  Sure, it’s cold outside —  the temps are chilly, the wind is biting and the frost is back, but these kids are eager to garden.  What better way, than to start from seed?  Lima beans, to be exact.

Fun and easy, starting seedling trays is a great way to bring the outdoors in–particularly appealing this winter.  To begin, we fill our trays with potting mix, tuck our beans in about an inch deep then water them in for a head start on life.  

Each student will be responsible for their own seed.   They’ll water it every day, because they know seeds like to be kept moist. 

They’ll keep their tray near a sunny window (or fool it with a flourescent “grow lamp”) and they’ll keep it warm; one of the keys to good germination.  And they’ll watch it grow.  Better yet, they’ll record each and every moment on the pages of their seed journal — complete with cute veggie decorations!  Gardening should be fun, ya know. 

By starting our bean seeds now, we’ll be harvesting in no time.  And isn’t that what gardening is all about–the glory of harvest?  Sure catching bugs is fun and the smell of herbs are delightful, but vegetables should be eaten and fresh from the vine.   So while we’re learning about the growth cycle, we’ll savor the bounty.

And learn a whole heck of a lot while we’re at it!

Quality Time in the Garden

“Mom, I brought snacks.”

Lifting my head from my tilling work of the potato row, I smiled at my son.  “Really?  What’d you bring?”

“Pistachios.  Do you like pistachios?”

“Sure do.”

Passing me, he promptly dropped to the ground and wrestled to open the canister (our fall purchase from his sister the Girl Scout).  “Can I have some of your water?” he asked.

“By all means.  We can share.  Your pistachios for my water.”

“Um-hm.” 

Returning to my task of tilling dirt for the addition of our compost–the compost he was supposed to be shoveling into the row but had since abandoned, I noted, “So I gather you’re on break?”

“No, I’m not on break.”

This gave me pause.  “No?”

“No, I’m just eating pistachios.”

“But you’re not working.  That’s what we call it when you stop to eat.  It’s called a break.”

Adamantly, he shook his head to the contrary. 

“Do you intend to shovel and pop nut shells at the same time then?”

“No.  I’m just eating them.”  He looked up.  “Want some?”

Giving in to the futility of the conversation block, I replied, “Sure.”

He reached up and plopped an already shelled nut into my mouth.  That is good.  Straightening, my lower back screaming tight, I decided break or no break, this was as good a time as any to sit down and eat nuts.  I lowered myself down to the ground next to him and stuck my hand out. 

He deposited another already shelled nut into my hand.  “Here ya go,” he said — service with a smile.

“Thanks.”   Running through half the can, we talked about nothing in particular, content with our simple enjoyment of tossing shells over the potato row (they are biodegradable after all, and it was fun to aim for the variety of holes in the dirt).  

“He throws, he hits–scores!”  My son cheers.  “And the crowd goes wild!”

I’ve heard this chant before, though I can’t place my finger on exactly where, and delight in his gardening-turned-sports-drama.   No TV, no DS, no itouch…just us, hanging out in the garden on break (or whatever he thinks we’re doing). 

It was nice.  Easy, simple.  Just plain old-fashioned nice.  Looking at him, the shells piling up, I asked, “Can I have a kiss?”

Without hesitation, he leaned over and planted one smack dab on my lips.  I smiled.  “Thanks.”

I don’t receive too many of those anymore, not with him growing up so fast, his self-conscious awareness as his buddies look on… 

And I miss them.  I miss him.  No longer as exciting as an afternoon on the playground with his friends, a play over with his neighbors, an afternoon of football and chips with his dad, I take what I can get.  I’m sensible.  I accept the changes. 

Later, when the game ends and he snuggles up close to me on the sofa, I remind him one day he’ll whisk me across the dance floor when he’s taller than me–

–to which he responds with a shy yet delighted roll of his eyes.   “Mom…”

I grinned and gave him a squeeze.  “Sorry.”  But that’s the way we moms roll.

Students Reap What They Sow

Winter break is over and the kids are back in school–and in the garden. 

Can I tell you how excited they were?  They attacked weeds with gusto–not a minor feat when you consider they were out of school for two weeks!

But upon their return, it was business as usual in the garden.  Plants need food, so we delivered.  But this time, instead of worm poop, we fed them coffee grounds, courtesy one of our teachers (and Starbucks). 

Anyone can stop be part of the solution and with Starbucks help, your plants will thank you.  At least the acid-loving ones like berries!  And potatoes, azaleas… 

What a great program.  Giving is like a boomerang and Starbucks will surely reap a harvest of success from these simple acts of goodwill.  The kids thank you!  (Coffee grounds smell a LOT better than fish emulsion.) 

As will our strawberries.  But I digress.  The real payoff came in the form of harvest. 

We clipped our first broccoli.

 

Isn’t it beautiful?  One of the students thought so and ate it on the spot.  Carrots anyone?

Perhaps you prefer scallions? 

 

Both survived the freeze quite well.   Take a look.   Aren’t they fabulous? 

If only we grew forty-two more…we’d be all set!  One for everybody!  Well, there’s always spring…

To which we look forward.  One of the basic tenets of organic gardening is crop rotation.  Come spring, we will move our plants around, encouraging the utmost in growing conditions.  Check out the kid’s section on this blog for details.  Next week we plan to start our seeds, beginning the with our pole beans.  Will you join us?

Back to School Lunch

Today is our first day back to school after a brief winter break and my daughter surprised me by requesting fresh carrots in her lunch. 

“Carrots?”

“Yes.   I want to get some from the garden.”

Really…  Well, well, well, I thought.  What do we have here?  A new year’s resolution?  A change of heart?  I mean, this is the child who would live off sweets, if you’d let her!  But not one to argue with healthy good sense, I said, “Well have at it!”

“I want some,” her brother piped up. 

I looked at him.  Busy emptying a few packets of artifically-flavored oatmeal into his bowl, I thought, really?  “You want carrots?” 

“Yes,” he said, followed by a bare shrug of his shoulders.  “Sure.  Why not?”

I think someone wants what his sister has, but if that’s what it takes to fill his belly with vegetables, than I’m all for it.  “Will you grab some for him, while you’re in the garden?”

“Sure,” she replied.

“And shoot, how about grabbing a couple for me while you’re there.  I’ll put them–”  Oops.  Almost said put them in the meatloaf which is a bad idea.  The minute these two hear I’m sneaking carrots into their favorite dinner I’ll have a rebellion on my hands!  “–in my salad,” I smoothly finished.  And smiled.  We mothers do need to keep one step ahead of these little darlings.

“Okay!”  And off she went with a friendly reminder from her father:  don’t wear your school shoes down there!  They’ll end up wet.

What a great dad.  Returning to my morning business of preparing lunches, I marveled at what a wonderful day this was beginning to be.  Carrots in her lunch!  Carrots for his breakfast!  Woo-hoo!  It’s a party!  And you thought New Year’s Eve was reason to celebrate.

A few minutes later my daughter bounded back into the house.  “Look at these!  They’re picture-perfect!”

Did someone say picture-perfect?  Hold on a second while I get my camera–we need to capture the beauty of those golden babies for eternity!

Not one to miss out on a photo opportunity, my son vied for his position in front of the lens.  “Take a picture of me, Mom!”

Of course, my sweet.  Everyone needs their moment in the limelight.  “Okay.  Lights, camera, action!”

Doesn’t he look interested in that carrot?  Good enough for me.  In fact, it warms a mother’s heart to see my kids take to fresh vegetables (for whatever reason).  And while they moan and groan on occasion about the required work associated with the garden, it is nice to know they enjoy the harvest.  Vegetables never tasted so good as when you grew them yourself!

Sure there’s something to be said about bragging rights and showing off your homegrown carrots to your friends at school — although these kids are growing their own beautiful carrots behind the classroom — but they do taste better than store-bought.  Same with potatoes and fresh herbs.  When it comes to taste, there’s simply no competition between the vegetables you buy and the vegetables you grow. 

Don’t believe me?  Try growing some yourself! 

 

How can you resist these gorgeous specimens?