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!

Compost and Crop Rotation

Calling all kids!  Calling all kids!  It’s time to turn the compost!

Talk about a good time–I don’t know which they enjoyed more–shoveling dirt or handling tools!  New toys, is more like it.  Young people are always looking for the latest and greatest and if they can’t find that, well then, they’ll settle for something new.  New to them, that is. 

Fine with me.  Our middle schoolers and upper elementary students had a field day with the job of turning their heap of hay and weeds AND they were being productive.  An awesome combination in my garden journal.  Better yet, as they worked their way through, they were amazed by the dirt they had “grown.”  Composting is pretty cool.

While these composters were at work, another group  was busy pulling out the broccoli.  The broccoli eaten, the plants bolted, it was time.  Besides, it was time to plant our scallions.  As part of our crop rotation plan, we will follow our “leaves” with “roots” as in bean, leaves, roots and fruits.  If you dance around and repeat this order in a sing-song tone, the kids tend to remember it.   They also roll their eyes, snicker, giggle and refuse to dance with you–but they do remember it.

But of course, before we can plant we must remove the weeds.  A job more fun when done with friends.  Avoiding roots and other buried treasures in our dirt bed, the kids planted their onions and covered them with a nice layer of soft dirt. 

Peering into the bag of leftover onions sets, one boy asked if he could have them.  As in, take-them-into-your-classroom-hide-them-in-your-locker-and-cause-ruckus, have them?  

No.  He wanted to plant them in his home garden.  I smiled.  There was no way I could resist that kind of enthusiasm, so of course, I handed him the bag.   

Moving right along, the lower elementary kids descended upon the garden and I had to give them some bad news.  It’s not always “sunshine and candy” in the garden.  Nope.  Sometimes gardeners (a.k.a. me) miss weather cues (too busy to watch the weather channel) and are caught off guard by surprise frosts.  Not good when you have fragile vulnerable Lima transplants in the ground.  Yep, you guessed it.  Frost-bitten.

Back in the old days, farmer kids had to rely solely on their garden for food.  Lucky for us, we don’t have to rely on our crop for survival.  But hey–look at our potatoes!  Heads turned.  See how wonderful they’re growing?

Ooohs and aaahs abounded as they forgave me, then we toured around the garden for a focus on the positive.  Our carrots are sprouting, our sweet onions are doing well…

Then, to make it up for my error, I suggested we engage in a bit of transplanting (one of their favorite things to do!)  We began with oregano.

Discovered this little guy along the way.  Ugh.  Unwelcome in our garden, he was dispatched to another section of the yard. 

Added some lavender.  One child mistook it for rosemary, whereby we did a “smell” comparison.  They touched the rosemary with one hand, the lavender with the other and compared.  Spicy, strong, soap, perfume…  We had lots of observations, to which I added, “One smells like the kitchen, and one smells like mom.”  

All in all, it was a good week in the garden.

 

If this cabbage isn’t a testament to the glory of a garden, I don’t know what is.  Simply gorgeous.

Hydroponics and Worms

Ventured out to the WindHorse Wellness Center this past weekend for a review on worm composting.  My little guys weren’t doing as well as expected (imagine that)  and I wanted to know why?   Why would any worm want to escape from the fabulous Wormery Lodge crafted especially for them? 

They can’t deny it.  I know some of them made a break for it by the dried carcass I spotted on the garage floor.  I would have attributed it to another case of stray-crazy-worm-syndrome, save for the few that continued to loiter near the lid of my container. 

Hmph.  The nerve.  To think I showered them with daily visits of spritz and scraps.  But seeing no sense in dwelling in the misery–and having no interest in repeating the misfortune–I decided to consult with the experts.  You can imagine my delight when the serendipity of coincidence landed this wonderful email in my inbox:  Lesson in worm composting this weekend at WindHorse!

Well, glory be!  Could the heavens be nudging me in that direction?  (Of course.  How else do you think that message ended up in my mailbox?)  So away I went where I met the sensational Angela Ringler — one of the eco-fabulous Green Girls from www.KarmaFarmOnline.com (the place to buy eco-friendly products) and learned everything I needed to know about worm composting.  Does this woman know about worms!

She gave an excellent demonstration using a specially made worm composter.  Granted, this one was a far cry from my do-it-yourself doozy, but “style” wasn’t my problem.  Getting up close and personal with her worms, I realized it was far more serious.

I’d been dooped.  Unintentionally, I’m sure, but my local angler was incorrect when he cited the worms he carried were red wigglers.  (I think.)  Sure, they wiggled a lot, but they weren’t as red as Angela’s.  Hers were red-red–worm red, brick red.  Plain red

Mine?  While mine were gorgeous, they lacked the rosy rouge of her girls and stood bland by comparison.  So, I set them free into my compost pile near the garden, with the very high hopes they may find their way into my veggie patch.  Remember the old saying?  “If you love something, set it free.  If it doesn’t come back, it was never meant to be yours.  But if it does, love it forever.”  To my worms I say this isn’t goodbye…it’s simply until we meet again.

Enough drama.  The point remains, her composter was awesome, easy and stink-free.  So lovely, she keeps it in her house!  Love that convenience.  Would get one for myself, but besides the fact my family eats too much for the composter she utilized, I have no place to put it.  Thank goodness she showed us how to make the perfect at-home bin!  Would you believe it looks a lot like mine

Two simple improvements to my bin and we’re in business!  Number one:  add a piece of screen mesh to the lid.  This covers the holes, provides excellent escape prevention, yet maintains plenty of air circulation.  Number two:  add a spigot to one end, bottom center.  As worms eat, they not only poop, but pee.  (Gee, did we forget that little fact?  Where are those birds and bees when we need them!)   This liquid is like a magic tea.  You spritz it on your plants for not only great nutrient supply, but disease and bug control to boot!   Who knew! 

While at WindHorse, I had the pleasure of viewing their hydroponic towers; the perfect solution for small spaces with minimal mess.  Don’t they just look easy?  Plants are said to grow up to 50% faster, because they don’t expend unnecessary energy growing roots through soil in search of nutrients.  It’s readily available in the liquid solution.   And if this wasn’t enough good news, this system uses about 10% of the water consumed by traditional crops.  Wow.   These berries are a beautiful testament, wouldn’t you agree? 

And you’re not limited to the smaller plants, either.  During a brief stroll through the hydroponic garden, I learned you can also grow tomatoes this way.  Just look at this beast! 

Simply flourishing–robust and green.  The iron fence next to this tower lends needed support (which I highly recommend).  My thanks to Al–resident hydroponic gardener–for his allowing my unexpected visit!  Would make an excellent field trip

In fact, March 19-20 they’re hosting their WindHorse Equinox, “a festival of international food & fun!”   Sounds like great times, but better than food, there will be a fellow on site giving a class on how to make your own hydroponic system.  Is that great, or what? 

Can’t wait.  And can’t wait to get my red wigglers.  In fact, I’m going to Karma Farm online to buy my next batch.  This way I’ll be sure to get the real thing.  For hydroponic growing centers in your area, check with your local agriculture department for a listing.  Or surf the web!  Amazing the amount of information available at your fingertips these days.  Have fun!

If Men Were Plants, Mine Would Be A…

Have you ever wondered about the similarities between plants and men?  Probably not!  Most sane people don’t.  But me, when I’m not writing, I spend a LOT of time in my garden – maybe too much — and my thoughts?  Well, they naturally veer in that direction.  That’s when I realized men and plants have much in common!

Ever wonder, if your man were a plant, which would he be?  Just for fun, I’ve listed a few.

Corn – Tall and slender with silken hair, this man provides well and yields a harvest of golden treasure.  While pleasing to look at, beware:  he also tends to be needy; easily blown over by the slightest of breezes—not the man for you hardier types!

Peanut – This good ole boy is made of solid stuff, on the inside and the outside, not to mention he’s filled with sweet old-fashioned appeal.  For most ladies, it’s a tough combination to resist.  Add the fact the kids love him and you’ve got a yourself a marrying man! 

Watermelon – This well-rounded fun-loving guy is always welcome at a summer barbecue and usually proves a big hit with the kids.  Prone to balding, his colorful personality distracts one from notice.  However, take heed.  If left to his own device, this one can grow wild and get quite out of hand!

Garlic – This fellow is somewhat distant, as he spends long periods of time out of sight, only to emerge when conditions improve.  Strong and distinct, he’s not for everyone, but given the right environment, he can show great depth, even mellow his pungent tone with time.  A worthy peer, indeed.

Okra – Strong, of firm build, this one likes it hot and enjoys it spicy—very at home in the Big Easy, too.  Generally speaking, he blends well with others, can plant himself anywhere, but caution:  he can be seedy, even a bit slimy at times.

Potatoes – These fellas are generous producers, enjoyed by most everyone as they appeal to a variety of tastes.  They can get easily crowded, though, so give them plenty of space.  If you do, you’ll have yourself a real winner with this one.  Note:  be patient with the sweeter types—they need a little more time before they’re ready to hit the dinner-date table.  But if you can wait, go for it.  You’ll reap the gold with this gem!

Onion – Sometimes sharp, sometimes sweet, this notable companion enhances every dish he meets.  But don’t be fooled.  You have to watch yourself around this double-edged treat.  He tends to “age” those around him quicker than most, and will often make you cry.  But if you like a challenge, give him a try.  He will infuse your life with flavor!

Raspberry – Sweet at first sight, this guy may follow up with a tart bite.  He generally likes to be left alone—literally thrives out in the wild of nature.  Ah…an adventurous type yourself, you’ll feel drawn to this bright and colorful character, but be forewarned:  he’s got thorns and lots of them.

Squash – Talk about diversity, this one has it!  From sunny yellow summers to cold and cozy winters, this man will keep you well supplied no matter the season.  The cutest of pumpkins, he’s always welcome during the holidays, and his cousin plays a mean racquet ball—for you sportier types.  But keep him moving; stagnation easily leads to illness with this one.  Rest assured, if variety is your thing, take heart.  This dazzling character can fulfill your desires, tenfold.

Carrots – Bred from firm and solid fiber, these men are steady and strong and always there for you.  Given proper attention, they can also become quite sweet in nature; a true hidden treasure, if ever there was one.  They do need some elbow room, a bit of thinning at times, but if you’re willing to work for it, this one’s a keeper!

Beets – Down to earth is putting it mildly with this guy–he’s knee deep in it!   Quiet, mellow, well-rounded…  It’s a wonder he doesn’t rank top of the list for every woman in town.  Perhaps he can come on a bit strong, in an easy-going sort of way.  But if you have thick skin and like to keep it real?   This one’s for you.

Lettuce – This boy likes everybody and everybody likes him.  Similar to the granola-type male, this fella stays healthy and fit, slim and trim.  How could he be anything else?  He has a knack for blending well with any crowd and blend well, though be careful–once he mingles, it’s hard to separate him from the mix!

Tomatoes – This popular guy is an all around favorite with the ladies, most drawn to his bright and cheery appearance and radiant personality.  A real reliable kind of guy, sweet with a hint of tang, meaty and quite robust—he comes in all sizes.  Yes, this one is tempting.  Be sure you’re in for the commitment—he’s going to need it if you expect him to produce.

My husband?  He’s definitely a raspberry with garlic tendencies, albeit aging like a carrot. 

Me?  He claims I’m a Venus flytrap.  Yes, I gave him the evil eye—at first.  But then, I got to thinking.  Imagine the unique and stunning plant for a moment, with her beautiful red, heart-shaped petiole, her pair of symmetrical lobes hinged near the midriff—I mean, midrib.  Lovely so far, isn’t it?  Catches insects and spiders with a bat of her eyelashes.  Tolerates fiery tempers–er, fire well.  Tolerates fire well.   Actually uses the flames to suppress the competition around the neighborhood.  (Sounds like a feisty gal to me!) 

Sure, she can be difficult to grow, but what plant doesn’t have its difficult days?  You know, the more I think about it, the more I heard compliment.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Transplanting Beans

Talk about excitement–this week the students transplanted their bean sprouts into the garden–woo-hoo!  Pull those seed journals out and get scribbling because we have things to report!   Now, before we go on, let’s acknowledge the (sad) fact that not all seeds germinate.  As in nature, some make it and some don’t.  Glancing over the seed trays, it was apparent several of ours didn’t sprout.  But why?

It’s simple really.  Beans are like Goldilocks.  They like their soil not too wet, not too dry… actually. they like it just right.   And as their trusty gardeners, it’s our responsibility to maintain proper germination conditions.  As their supervisor, it was an issue I wanted to explore. 

“If yours didn’t sprout, I want you to dig for your bean.”

The burrowing began.  “Hey–who stole my bean!”

Peering over his shoulder, he wasn’t telling tales.  There was definitely no bean in the soil.   “Now, let’s not be too quick to judgment, kids.  There could be another reason your bean is missing.”  Met with suspicious scowls, I continued, “Remember, your beans are heavier than the light fluffy dirt.  If you flood your seed tray with water, the seeds can float to the soil’s surface.”

“Hey,” another perked to attention.  “Mine’s mushy.”

“Why do you think that happened?”

The pointed finger flew through the air.  “She watered my sprout too much!”

“Oh she did, did she?”  You see, much like adults, it never tends to be our fault.  It was someone else.  I’m sure of it. 

Another bean came up dry.  Actually split into two pieces.  He frowned.  “Mine didn’t get enough water.”

“You see, just like in nature, if there’s not enough rain or too much sun, the seeds won’t grow will they?”  Heads swung from side to side.  Not one to commiserate, I exclaimed, “How about we plant the ones we have!”

The kids jumped to attention.  “Okay!”  Well that was easy.   Guiding them to the correct row, the kids weeded the bed and tilled the soil. 

Plants do prefer soft beds.  Next, we dug holes twice the size of our sprout’s root ball.

Gently–and I do mean to emphasize gently–we removed the sprouts from their containers and placed them into the awaiting holes.  

“Okay, now, same as a castle, let’s build a moat around our sprouts.  This is called a well and it will collect the water, directing it straight to the sprout’s roots.”

Oh, ho–do these kids know about building moats!  They went straight to work and formed the most beautiful wells you’d ever want to see.  (It’s all about the lingo.  Speak in kid terms and you can communicate anything!)

Stepping back, surveying our handiwork, we had to admit, these transplants looked great.  We’re going to have ourselves one lush row of limas to be sure.  But better than the ample harvest on our horizon was the sheer cooperation these kids demonstrated.  Transplanting bean sprouts can be tricky business.  Many of the kids needed help transferring their delicate sprouts from tray to dirt and you know who helped them?

Their fellow students.  To watch as one child took charge and assisted the other place his hard-earned sprout into the ground warmed this mother’s heart.  Weeks of watering and tending their trays really made an impact on these kids–to the point they felt a vested interest in the outcome of their transplant.  Which doesn’t bode well for our co-op concept.  (Kids are funny that way —  they’ll remember exactly where their sprout is and make sure everyone knows it’s theirs.) 

But that’s okay.  It all works out in the end.  One thing I’ve personally discovered is that if you want to get a child to eat vegetables, have them grow them themselves.  I’ve never seen so much plucking of fresh veggies and popping them in their mouths as I have in this garden!

But who can blame them?  They are gorgeous, aren’t they?  Definitely a feat to be proud.  We’ll worry about doling out beans later.  For now, we simply enjoy.

Health Benefits of Herbs and Plants

Ever suspect you might have bad breath, and not an ounce of mouthwash on hand (but don’t dare lean to your lunch date and ask)?   And speaking of bad breath, how’s your sinus?  A bit stuffy today?  Not to worry — simply munch that sprig of parsley on your plate, dab a pinch of chili pepper on your tongue and problem solved.   It’s the natural solution.   Parsley freshens breath while the capsaicin in the pepper clears the mucus–voila!

And let’s say that handsome waiter bumps your arm with the oven hot skillet dish you ordered (an accident, though you couldn’t be mad at him if you tried), leaving a mild red burn in its place.  Sure, mild is relative, but if you’ll pluck a branch of aloe from the attractive plant nearby, then squeeze some of its gooey gel over the burn, the healing will be almost immediate.  Disregard the “stink” factor — we’re concerned with saving skin here, not sensibilities.

One of my favorites is the cocoa bean.  There’s a reason we reach for a chocolate bar when we’re feeling blue:  it’s the natural antidepressant.  Yes, we women are innately brilliant this way.   Neurotransmitters send relaxing messages to your body while the phenylethylamine makes you feel like you’re falling in love.   (Hint to men:  if you’re standing nearby while she’s devouring said chocolate, you may reap some lovey-dovey mood benefits!)  Chocolate is also good for your cardiovascular health, due to its polyphenols (think red wine).  So take heart fearless men and consume to your heart’s content!  So long as the chocolate in question doesn’t belong to a female.  If so, I’d take sword and shield and run for cover.

And if your sweetheart takes you out for a night of sushi, but your stomach disagrees, nibble a bit of the pretty ginger on your plate.  It does wonders for an upset belly, though my preferred remedy is Coke.  Much like chicken soup eases the symptoms of a cold — and I couldn’t tell you why —  this soda cures a tummy ache like nobody’s business!   And if you’re still feeling sick, it may mean something more serious.  Try leaving a few sliced onions around the house.  It’s said the onions attract the harmful bacteria from the air, thus keeping them from entering your system.  Could be an old wives’ tale, but most old wives I know are pretty smart!

So more than a place to grow gorgeous herbs and vegetables, your garden is like nature’s pharmacy.  I knew this gardening thing was a good idea. 

Weed, Till, Mulch and Plant — the kids were busy!

And having a great time.  Really.  Even weeding can be fun with the right attitude!

The middle school students joined us this week and wielded hoes like professionals, tilling and weeding, managing near amelioration.    “Boys, boys–over here.  We don’t need a cleared five foot perimeter!”  Left unsupervised, the whole field may have been cultivated, had they their way.  Though to their credit, the border did look nice.

Next came the hay.  Pulling and tossing and separating…  “Can I go back to class?  I’m allergic to hay.”  

That might have been a good thing to know before you mulched half the garden with it.  “Sure, but are you okay?” 

“Yes, I just get itchy.”

I smiled.  “Me, too.”

Next, the elementary kids made note of their broccoli.   It’s bolting.  With our warmer weather of late, the broccoli went straight to flower.  “Can we eat them?”

Of course they’d ask that question.  Why wasn’t I prepared?   With a shrug, I replied, “Well, they are edible…”  

Hands dashed out, blanketing the plant with greedy plucks.   “Mmmm!  They’re good!”   Another student wasn’t as certain and returned a frown.  “Bitter.”

Lower elementary was in charge of planting carrot seeds.  If you’ve ever seen a carrot seed, you know this would amount to an exciting project.  The seeds are quite tiny, easily dropped, spread to the walkway, stuck to the skin… 

Luckily their garden coordinator was close at hand for help.  “How about you carve the channels into the soil and I’ll demonstrate how to “roll” the seeds out over the dirt forming a fine line.”

Worked for them!  We then sprinkled some bone meal over the area, followed by a thin layer of dirt.  Bone meal offers a punch of phosphorous which we learned helps grow big roots and big fruits.  “Hey, that rhymes!” 

I winked.  “Yes it does.   Makes for a great way to remember, don’t you think?’   Night, night carrots.  Sleep tight in your soft comfy bed.

We rounded out the week with our kindergarteners.  Taking their turn at weeding–an interesting sight to see, what with shovels dipping, dirt flinging, rakes scraping, boys wandering, girls squealing;  it was a great time had by all!

But the best moment came when one of the boys discovered an earthworm as he transplanted his strawberry plant.  Oh, the glorious hoots and howls and shrieks, “Let me see!”   “Let me see!”   “Don’t hurt it!”  “He’s stabbing it!”

WHAT?  “No, no, let him go!  We need him in the garden.  Remember, plants love worm poop.”

Ewe…. 

At least it stopped them in their tracks.  Gently prying the worm from their tight-fisted grip, I set him back in the dirt, quickly covering him with soil.  Whew!  That was a close one.   “See, he’s happy and so is your strawberry plant.  Look, there’s one growing now!”

Distraction is key, as every keen adult knows, to moving the process along.  Eager stares scoured the area for sight the coveted strawberry.  I pointed to a white flower.

“That’s not a strawberry,” one child said while another noted, “but it is pretty.”

“Look closer.  See?   In the center is the beginning of a strawberry.”

Well, that impressed them.  As it should.  Next on the list was lavender.  Bodies leaped from the ground.  Passing around the small plant, the kids were amazed by its sweet rich scent.  “Smells good, doesn’t it?”

Heads nodded agreement all around.   “Okay, we’ll plant it right here, and watch as it grows pretty purple flowers.”

With one plant, our plant-to-child ratio wasn’t appealing so we promptly moved on to our final task.  Harvest.

Oh, the splendor of pulling your very own carrots from the ground! 

Just make sure each child has one to pull, or the whines of injustice will drive you clear from your state of euphoria.  

Thankfully, we had enough to go around and sent each child home with a petite bunch of veritable gold treasure.  “I’ll take that, thank you!”

Be sure to wash them before you eat them!  When you grow your own, this little tidbit of advice should be taken to heart, else you end up with a mouth full of dirt (and who knows what else!)

p.s.  Our beans are sprouting.  Aren’t they fabulous? 

A few of the kids expressed concerned.  “What will happen if we don’t get them into the ground soon?” 

“Will they grow out of their tray?”

You have to appreciate the logic of the young mind.  They’re always thinking, always pondering the “what ifs” of life.   Faced with their steep concern, it was my job to reassure them.  “No, they won’t grow out of their tray.”  Not exactly, anyway.  “But we do want to get them into the garden soon.  Maybe next week?”

Cheers all around!

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.