Mandie’s Sweet Potato Tangle

There’s something to be said about letting nature do her thing.  Take a look at these sweet potatoes (yes, that mass of vine is sweet potato!)  Can you imagine the golden harvest this woman is going to realize come fall?  Break out the casserole dishes, roll out the pie pans, we’re having sweet potatoes for dinner!  And dessert. 

Appetizers, anyone?

Now Mandie would not normally allow her garden to grow so wild and unmanageable, but she’s sort of displaced at the moment.  Air conditioner broke and in Florida, during August mind you, this is no minor issue.  Why, her two little boys could die of heat exhaustion if she didn’t move them out and quick!  But with a mother’s survival instinct comes a gardener’s back burner.  The sweet potatoes must now fend for themselves.

Which you see, they seem to do quite well.  Not surprising, since these babes are one of the easier veggies to grow.  Lovers of sandy soil, light water and minimal food — sounds more like a beach babe waif than sweet potato, doesn’t it? —  bothered by a few bugs, yes, but nothing they can’t survive.  Why, this crisis is a no-brainer for them!

last year's offspring


As if this example wasn’t proof enough, I have a wild child of my own, growing with abandon in the opposite end of the garden. 

Looks better than the ones I’m actually paying attention to and trying to grow!  

Go figure.

this year's crop


So if you want an easy, healthy vegetable to grow, consider the sweet potato.  Chocked full of anti-oxidants, Vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), Vitamin C, as well as a good source of Vitamin B6, this one is an all out winner on the serving plate.

Lost My Strawberries…

To what, I’m not sure.  Could be fungus, nematodes, who knows.  The end result is the same.  They’re dead, or dying, a slow and painful death.  Who it’s more painful for, I’m not sure.

Our strawberries were a hit in the garden.  Kids loved showing them to their friends, plucking berries from the vine, popping them into their mouths.  Who can resist a plump, ripe strawberry on a spring day?

No one in this family, I assure you.  So now what?  Well, since I don’t know what killed them, I had to remove the entire bed.  But before I did, my daughter clipped runners from some of the healthier looking plants in a last ditch effort to salvage what we could.  These particular plants are the Quinault variety, an everbearing variety that I hope will survive to produce for another season.  Or two.  I am an optimist, first and foremost.

Of course, this could be the problem, too.  (Not the optimism part!)  It may be a simple matter of life cycle.  Perhaps, beneath the scorch of summer sun, my sweet berries sucked in their last breath of carbon dioxide, releasing it with a sigh of oxygen.  Plants are so giving that way.

After we removed the plants, I decided it would a good idea to solarize the bed, killing any bugs or fungus that may be present.

This process uses a clear plastic covering to heat the soil.  Try to attach it to the ground, retaining as much heat within the covering as possible.  For best results, leave the plastic covering on for about 6 weeks.  This is an organic (except for the plastic) way to kill harmful organisms that kill your plants.

Placing the plants and runners into soil, we hope to get them in the ground come fall, perfect timing for them to get reestablished and producing come spring.

We love our strawberries.  They’re such a great crop for Florida and kids.  So with our fingers crossed and our toes counted, we look forward to a successful rooting and healthy propagation of these baby berries of ours.

As well as strawberry smoothies, strawberry shortcake, strawberry topped sundaes, fresh from the garden goodness…  The list goes on!

Have you started your sprouts?

I have.  I’m bound and determined to grow tomatoes from seed.  If my compost pile can do it, I can do it.  I simply haven’t succeeded, yet.  But I will.

My first attempt was this last spring.  My sprouts were off to a great start, but I think a bit too late.  By the time I transferred them into the garden, the scorch of summer proved overwhelming.  They fried.  Not the first day, though, as luckily for me it was overcast.  Which cast false hope.   It was the second day, despite a good dose of morning water, when they fried.  Didn’t stand a chance, really.  Have you been to Florida in July?

It’s hot.  Big fun, tons to do, but hot.  So, we’re trying again and so far, so good.  Not only have my tomatoes poked their tiny green leaves from the soil, but my peppers are fantastic and leafy, along with my herbs.  Small leaves, yes, but sprouts are small. Very small.  (Yes, that little sprig is a tomato sprout — trust me.) 

And just to prove Mother Nature isn’t the boss of me, I’ve planted lettuce, a real no-no in the Florida heat.  Mine are in containers on the patio, away from the heat.  Seems you can have your gourmet salad mix, and eat it, too!  I do love my salads.

So if you’re a southern gardener like me, and it’s much too hot to toil away in the garden –we are talking serious health risks, here, just ask my kids; they’ve researched it to be sure they’re off the garden hook this month), then start your sprouts on the patio.  Feed them with some fish emulsion and keep them moist — not wet, not dry, but moist. 

Another issue I encountered.  My seedlings were cast in a solid rock of soil which did not promote easy growth.  Too much water.  But can you blame me?  Usually my plants don’t get enough water — I was a little anxious — so I over-watered.  It happens!

But I learned my lesson.  This fall, with loose soil and an extra dose of patience, I will put my sprouts in the ground with confidence (so long as the temperture cools a bit, first).  And you can, too!

So find a place on your patio to place them and get to work.  I found this pretty display rack through an online vendor to make the best use of space and keep the sprout trays off the ground.  The husband won’t complain about the mess and they look decorative as opposed to “farmy.”  I mean, when you’re sitting out to dine al fresco by the pool, you don’t want to feel the fingers of chores tickling at your neck, do you?

No Ma’am, I don’t!  And neither do the kids.  It’s enough to coax them out there on a hot summer day without a constant reminder while they’re playing around the house.  Jimney Cricket, that would be a challenge of the first degree!  

But even better, having them close at hand is a constant reminder of my success.  A good thing.  I need all the positive reinforcement I can get, especially when it comes to my sprout mission.  So what are you waiting for?  If you like peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins and parsley, get going!

Out of the Garden

Yes, I’ve been gone.  Doing exciting things, mind you, but not in the garden.  No.  Where have I been?

First, I was chasing scallops with my family off the west coast of Florida.  Not really fair, as they’re pretty easy to catch.  They basically sit there while you reach down and grab them.  Fun for the kids, though and we do eat what we catch.  Couldn’t that be considered living off the land (or sea), at one with nature? 

It felt natural.  The sun, the sea, the salt… 

Either way, I wasted no time before I was off rubbing elbows with romance writers!  This past weekend was the annual Romance Writers of America Convention and what fun.  Two thousand women roaming the halls of one hotel – can you imagine? – filling their minds with craft, career, the dream of publication.  (You don’t realize what 2000 people looks like until you all sit down for lunch and then whew, that’s a lot of estrogen!)

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  There were a few men scattered throughout the venue, but they were completely outnumbered.  Brave.  Very brave.

Some of the highlights?

I was hall mates with Nora Roberts.  Yep.  Her room was two doors down from mine and we crossed paths more than a few times.  No, I didn’t accost her.  Not because I didn’t think about it.  (Hello?  This is Nora Roberts were talking about.)  It wouldn’t be good manners.  But it was pretty neat.  Here’s a woman who’s reached heights in her career most only dream of.  How can you not be in awe, I ask?

I am.  While there, I also had the opportunity to reconnect with some editors, agents and writers I haven’t seen in a while.  A good thing.  After all, these are the people who understand my need to write, even when it doesn’t make sense to the rest of the world.  Met some wonderful new editors, agents and writers and look forward to talking with them again soon.

The best part?  My passion for writing was set on fire.  More than love it, I’m driven to pursue the dream of becoming published, and connecting with readers around the world.  So stay tuned for my first series of short stories to appear online here (on the blog) in the upcoming months, followed by what I hope will be a variety of fun-filled, heart-touching fiction and non-fiction books — about gardening, about life, about women and all they love.

Yellow Cucumbers are a Bad Sign

When your kids tell you what they want to plant, be SURE this means they will EAT it.   My kids told me to plant cucumbers and yes, of course, they would eat it.

But apparently, my kids fib.  Have eyes bigger than their bellies.  Whatever.  Fact of the matter remains, we don’t eat cucumbers in this family. 

Not that I don’t love them, I do!  With rice vinegar, in a salad, stuffed into a veggie sandwich from the mall…  They’re super.  But at home?  In my garden? 

Nope.  We don’t eat them and today I had the luxury of sweating in the hot July sun to remove the batch. 

Not fun.  I didn’t know this, but cucumbers have sharp vines with pricklys that hurt.  And grasping rotten fruit is not my idea of a good time.  I’m supposed to be on vacation right now, not gardening in the hot July sun.  In Florida, you’ll die of dehydration!  

Definitely not recommended.  Now my patio containers, on the other hand, filled with lettuce and herbs…  They’re thriving.  My tomato seedlings are warming to germination, and my Poinsettia love the shade, but my cukes?

Nasty.  A weed infested nightmare.  Good thing I mulched well.  It cut down task difficulty, considerably.

So come fall, when the kids put in their request, I plan to make sure they are foods I’ve actually witnessed them eat.  Gardening is great fun–until you have to pull overripe and abandoned fruit.  Then, not so much.

Too Many Super Hot Chili Peppers?

Me, too.  I’ve gobs of them.  Thought it was a good idea at the time, until I realized, we don’t eat THAT much salsa, or chili, or…

Whatever else it is one chooses to do with super hot chili peppers.  And while eating hot foods during hot months in other countries is the thing to do, apparently it’s not here.  At least not for my family.  Sure, a bit of salsa to go with the chips by the pool is appreciated, but not my super red-hot chili peppers — these babies are hot!

So I ask you, what do you do when you have too many hot chili peppers?  You show them who’s boss, that’s what, and hang their hides out to dry!

Excuse me?  Are we still talking peppers, here?

Yes Ma’am, we are!  I found this perfect solution for my pepper surplus while browsing the latest edition of Organic Gardening magazine.  If you can call leafing through the pages of the magazine while having a conversation with your children and husband, all while listening to the nightly news browsing — BUT — I am a multi-tasker, if nothing else.  Not always great at it, but good.  Passable. 

I noticed this how-to column, didn’t I?

So here’s the deal.  Take all those glorious chili peppers you’ve taken such pains to care for under the scorch of summer sun, and lay them out on a cookie sheet, preferably over parchment paper (keeps them fresh and clean). 

Set your oven to 150 – 200* Farenheit and “cook” for about 3-4 hours, depending on how hot and fast your oven works (yes, we’re still talking oven here — not oven operator).   Spicy humor never hurts when working in and around the kitchen

Once dry, remove the tray and allow to cool.  You’ll know they’re ready when they appear wrinkled and shriveled.  Test one by pinching it to be sure.  It should crumble apart easily.  If yes, break off stems and crush pepper body to desired consistency.  Store in an airtight container and use on pizzas, pasta, whatever your heart desires!

Note to my fellow Florida gardeners:  don’t add super hot chili peppers to your fall crop.  Wait until you’ve run through this supply before committing limited resources to something you can’t possibly eat enough of, quick enough!  It’s a lesson I’ll be taking to my excel chart for crop rotation layout.

Mandie’s still growing strong!

Most of her garden is cleared out now, but her tomatoes are still thriving.  Sort of.  Despite the weeds and stake neglect, they’re still producing —  Whoa, Dolly, look at them go!  While they may not be pretty (July heat is tough on a girl), they’re still supplying Mandie with fresh from the garden goodness. 

And just look at that sweet potato!  Off to a wonderful start, this plant will literally take over and fill the planter box with sumptuous golden sweets, with little or no effort on her part.

A good thing.  Apparently, Mandie’s summer has been a busy one, taking them in and out-of-town and around the state.  But didn’t I say, summers are for vacation?

They are indeed.   But don’t forget:  August starts Central Florida’s fall planting season, with pole beans, broccoli, collards, corn, onions, squash–the list goes on!  In fact, I’m seeding my tomatoes right now for transplanting in September.  Didn’t have good luck with my spring batch, but fall is a new season and hopefully new results. 

We can all hope, can’t we?  Besides, my local ag center is offering a course in master gardening which I just might check out.  Would make this whole gardening adventure a lot more fruitful if I knew what I was doing.  I’m mean really knew what I was doing.  Then I might actually warrant Mandie calling me Master!  (Not that it’s proved an obstacle, mind you, but it would make for a nice feather in my cap.)

For now, Mandie is holding her own, looking forward to starting her fall garden.  This woman is hooked

But fresh vegetables will do that to you.  They not only do they taste better, but every bite’s infused with pride, pleasure, and the will to continue the process.  So get ready and plan YOUR fall garden — right along with Mandie.   If she can do it, YOU can do it.  Trust me.  Too busy means nothing until you’ve walked in this woman’s shoes.

Too Late for Brussel Sprouts?

A controversial vegetable in our household, yet my brussels sprouts thrive.  Despite the heat, humidity and bugs, my first attempt has proved successful.   While this plant prefers cooler weather, much like cabbage, it has remained true to my devotion  — a little love talk helps — and provided a wonderful bountiful harvest.  Granted, a little worse for the wear under the summer temps, but good, solid growth.  Interesting growth habit.  Looks a bit like a palm tree, doesn’t it?

Why did I choose to grow brussels sprouts?  Because I like brussels sprouts.  I enjoy their fresh, crisp taste and healthful benefits and I alone tend to their needs.  No one else.  You can imagine my pleasure when a friend came to harvest this weekend and gushed with delight at the sight of my brussels!   Whoa, Nelly.  Could it be?  An equal devotee to the brussels sprout?

Indeed.  Like most things in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  To each his own goes the old saying and critically important when planning your next crop of vegetables.  I mean, sure okra is easy to grow, but who eats it?  It’s reputation for slime is legendary (obviously spread by folks who’ve never tasted it fresh from the plant — not a speck of slime to be found!) and its common preparation, fried.  Which doesn’t sit well with the whole “fresh from the garden” goodness.  Corn, on the other hand, epitomizes home-grown summer splendor, but not always gardener friendly.  Heavy feeder, heavy drinker.  Beans?  What’s not to like about beans — easy, yummy and keep for months!

But brussels sprouts?  Few fans, to be sure.  With one success under my apron, do they warrant an entire row this fall?  Not hardly.  Who can eat that many brussels sprouts by themselves?  Not me.  Not even frozen.  Remember, I have Limas and peas, cabbage and broccoli, spinach and lettuce  — when do I have the time to slip in another serving of brussels sprouts?  My “greens” are covered.

Starches, beans, fruits and nuts… my food pyramid is on target.  But the brussels experiment does remind me, thoughtful planning is essential to a well-rounded dinner plate.  For that matter, lunch and breakfast, too.  The key to remember is grow what you’ll eat.  Limiting your harvest to the family favorites keeps your meals fresh and timely, with little need for freezer storage.  After all, in the old days, they didn’t have the luxury, did they?  They ate what the season yielded.  It’s no coincidence we eat sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving and peach cobbler during the summer — it’s what Mother Nature intended!  Like most mothers, she understands the value of planning meals ahead of time.  Something I’m still working to master.

Transplant update

Well, as with everything in life, you win some and you lose some.  Back in March, I had a wild hair tickling my fancy and decided to transplant my rose garden, making way for my herb garden.  The spot is closer to the kitchen, I’ve successfully transplanted roses before…  But this time, I lost one.

Not good.  Especially as this one was my premier producer, supplying me with an endless supply of big beautiful pink roses.  On the bright side, this one survived.  Pretty, isn’t it?

This apricot rose has adapted well to its new location (brightening the garbage can storage area).  A bit lonely, as her friend didn’t make it, but seeing’s how she’s a tough and independent sort, she’ll do fine.  I’ll miss the glorious pink flowers.  Perhaps I’ll buy a replacement.  Haven’t decided.  But in memory to the old gal, I’ll leave you with a beautiful blossom to brighten your day.

While gone, she’s not forgotten.  A reminder to stop and smell the roses?  Maybe.

Just do so — before it’s too late.

Growing Garlic!

The garlic is ready!  FINALLY.  Talk about delayed gratification.  I mean, we only planted it last fall.   But these babies are worth waiting for.  Look at them!

Don’t they look scrumptous?  Not quite as clean as the store-bought garlic (don’t know how they get those bulbs so sparkly white), but just as delicious and tons more healthy. 

These are Shilla.   I think.  One may be Sonoran or an unspecified type I purchased from my local supplier–lost track when I moved them from their curing stage to the kitchen! 

Oh, well.  Garlic is garlic, right?  I bought several varieites from an online organic supplier.  Shilla are supposed to be garlicky/Dijon in flavor.  As if I could tell.  I’m no connoisseur.  All I know is they taste wonderful!  And the smell of fresh garlic in the kitchen is one of my favorites.  Second, that is, to sautéed garlic and onions.   Yum.

Garlic are ready when their greens die back.  (Not a pretty sight, is it?)  To be sure, you can check their progress by gently digging away the dirt–it’s soft, because your beds are tilled to perfection–and inspecting the bulb.  If it’s still oval-shaped, cover them back up and wait.  If it has the bulgy appearance you’re accustomed to seeing, they’re good to go. 

Unearth them and lay them out on a screen in an open, airy location until the “skin is dry and necks are tight” — this is straight from my vegetable bible by Ed Smith.  Highly recommend the book.  Other sources recommend you braid them, or cure them much like you would with onions.  This is done to prepare them for storage, though you can eat them fresh, if you prefer.  And who doesn’t prefer fresh garlic?

For total sustainability, you’ll want to save the largest cloves for replanting in fall.  And do, because this is a very easy crop to grow.  Doesn’t require a too much fuss, suitable for warm or cool regions — though hardnecks tend to do better in northern regions while softnecks and early season hardnecks are better adapted for warmer areas.  The one fuss factor:  garlic don’t like it too dry or too moist, but an occasional finger poke into the soil is all you need to manage them.

My advice?  Try your hand at garlic.  Wonderful cooked or raw, it’s one of the most versatile vegetables you can grow!