Hornworms and Tomato Curls — We Have Issues!

BIG issues.  Look at this fellow, chomping away on my tomato plant.  Pig.  He’s the sixth one in two weeks!  Not only does he favor tomatoes, but he’s partial to peppers, too. 

Then I strolled by the black bean plants and spotted this little beast.  Can this kid eat, or what?

Of course there are the usual flies in an assortment of colors.  This one is blue, but they come in gold and green.  Lovely if they weren’t hurting my plants.  I’d show you the crickets hopping through my beds, but they’re a tad more agile than caterpillars and worms and hard to photograph.  Hmph.

Oh.  And don’t forget the aphids.  Pests.  On a brighter note, I did harvest my first two squash today — this one included.

My sweet peppers were happier on the patio.  Screens do a lot to keep the bugs away.  This transplant went into the ground green and healthy and now look at him.  Poor thing.

What’s a gardener to do?  I’ve sprayed with insecticidal soap.  I keep them watered, fed and healthy.   For the most part

Vigilance.  That’s the answer.  I make bug watch walks twice daily now, just to be sure.  And if the bugs weren’t enough, I have leaf curl. 

My tomato plants are curling at the leaves and I don’t know if it’s due to a virus or the climate.  Could be either, but hopefully not both.  That would be bad.  Very, very bad.

But I won’t despair.  The “middle” of any growth cycle is always trying.  Do you know what happens to your body during middle age?  It isn’t pretty.  It’s difficult.  Everything becomes harder; harder to lose weight, harder to retain muscle, harder to see, harder to hear…  

Not to mention sagging middles in your novel!  (That’s writer talk.)  The period between sprouts and harvest is no different.  It takes work.  Maintenance.  Weeding, feeding, watching and waiting, but then comes harvest.  One of my favorite times in the garden!

For now, I work, I watch, I prune, I pick (worms right off my leaves) until the time comes when I can pluck, and pull — and EAT! 

Yes.  Harvest is a great time in the garden, but it won’t happen if I don’t work through the middle.  Neither will my golden anniversary.  Or my golden years, my gold-rimmed glasses…

Golden, like this squash.  Okay, it’s yellow but you get the point.  Life is golden, no matter how you slice it.  Beats the alternative, anyway.

Growing by Leaps and Bounds!

We’re talking both kids AND plants — these students have energy to share!  And share they do; their tools, their seeds, their worm poop.

Well, some things are easier to share than others, but from what I’ve seen, these gardeners are all about sharing the adventure of gardening.  Especially these little ones.

Our kindergarten students were in charge of planting black beans.  First they amended the soil (threw black dirt and formed two rows).  “Can I use my hands?”

“Yes, if you’re wearing gloves.”

Next they dug holes in two neat lines (carved them as they saw fit).   “Are these too close?”

Spying the holes side by side, I suggested they might want to stretch them out just a wee bit further.

Then they planted seeds in an orderly fashion (wildly orderly fashion!) and pointed at their handiwork.   “Is this good?”

“Remember:  only one or two per hole!”   Not handfuls.

Ensuring a good start, they sprinkled them with fertilizer (covered them with worm poop) until finally they tucked them in for a nice fall harvest (patted them down with their shovels).

Voila —  we have our bed of black beans!  At the rate these kids planted, jungle of black beans may prove more accurate. 

But if need be, we can “thin” the growth.  At least this way, we will be certain to have a superb “bean to sprout” ratio!

Sort of like our corn.  We’re going to have a bumper crop, for sure! 

Lower elementary planted sweet peas along the fence. 

When I asked who likes peas, only one boy claimed he didn’t. 

A response to which I duly smiled.  “You’ll LOVE these peas.  Plucked fresh from the vine, they taste like sugar.”

He returned a skeptical look. 

“Really,” I assured him.  “Vegetables never tasted so sweet until you grew them yourself!”

Another child piped in, “You can eat them right from the plant?”

“Yes sir, so long as you wash them first.  You never know what night visitors you may have had or what they may have been doing.”

Ewe.  But true.

And don’t forget the herbs! 

These girls worked like the three amigos, dropping their dirt and scattering their seeds like master gardeners — all this before running off to work on their kinetic challenge!

It’s all in a day’s work for these kids.  And just look at their progress!  

The “Brownie” beans are flourishing.  These were planted first and are really doing well.

The tomatoes are thriving.

The carrots are poking free.

Why, it’s beginning to look like a real garden out there —  thanks, gardeners! 

Until next time…

My Garden Blooms Anew…

Sigh.  What a beautiful sight.  No longer barren and half-dead, my garden blooms with life once again.  Fall, a time when many areas are closing down for the winter, here in Florida, I get another shot of bloom.  My corn is sprouting, my beans are flourishing, my onions are packed in for the long haul to spring and there are my tomatoes — flourishing — right along with their sweet pepper cousins! 

Which requires the utmost vigilance.  I’ve already removed TWO tomato hornworms from them; one before he managed any damage, the other after he ate the top of the plant!  Argh.  And two black caterpillars.  Don’t know what they were but certain they were up to no good.

My peppers had a better go of it on the screened patio, protected from the onslaught of scavengers now trying to devour them out in the wilds of the free, open space of my garden.  But I’m there everyday, spritizing and plucking and shooing the insects away, so they should survive. 

A wasp has landed on my bean plant.  Not sure if he’s a friendly, but any bug carrying a stinger automatically warrants a “friendly” status in my garden.   Translated:  I’m not going near him.  Besides, he doesn’t seem interested in eating the leaves.  Only perusing them. 

And that’s okay.  They ARE gorgeous and heart-shaped leaves.  What bug wouldn’t want to land on those pumpkins! 

But I digress.  Back to the garden.  Here we extended the garden by about twenty feet.  I’m sure my husband won’t mind if I liberally use the word “we.”  I did supervise.  Well, not actually in person, but I did direct the expansion.  I have four more rows and now we’re growing pumpkins — real pumpkins — and they need space.  While I realize it’s a little late in the season to get started on pumpkins, my first sprout was lost to, uh, shall we say, “early expansion efforts.” 

Okay.  My husband missed it upon first clearing.

My fault, of course.  I mean, who plants a lone pumpkin in a small cleared space at the edge of the garden then asks for the adjacent area to be cleared?  With a tractor?

Perhaps in hindsight, it wasn’t one of my better decisions.  But I’m an action-oriented kind of gal and that sometimes means, do first, think it through second.  Ugh.  It’s a curse.

Did you see the rogue sweet potato down in the corner?  Avid growers these sweet potatoes, so I simply let them be.  We’ll see how Mother Nature’s vine does compared to mine.

Granted everything is small at the moment — particularly these carrots — but in a month’s time my entire garden will be full and lush and headed well on its way toward harvest!

Sheer heaven, it is.  Sheer heaven.

The Kids Are Off and Running — Literally!

It’s great to see their excitement.  When it’s time to garden, the kids line up, water bottles in hand, anxious to head for the garden.  Once the door opens they dash out, run cross field and straight to the garden!  I tell myself their exuberance has nothing to do with escaping the monotony of being in one room all day long, cooped up as the teacher pours information into their absorbent minds.  No.  This an excitement solely geared toward the adventure of gardening. 

That’s what I tell myself.  Besides, it is exciting

First stop — a quick review through garden etiquette.  No stomping across beds, no throwing worm castings or top soil on the walkways (black gold!), no putting unidentified things into your mouth, no digging without gloves, no rough handling of the sprouts…   Now that we have that settled, we’ll amend the sandy soil.  In additon to putting in  seeds, we’ll be transplanting ; a delicate process indeed.  (Don’t mind those brown weeds you see – we’re not after perfection but production – and those dead old things pose no risk.)

Our tomatoes and peppers have had a great start but now it’s time to introduce them to their new home.  And don’t forget the basil! 

Fifth grade students handled the task with grace and aplomb.  (These kids really are amazing.)  Settling in the tomatoes and peppers, they moved on to the onions and carrots, astonished by the size of the tiny carrot seeds. 

With incredible focus, they learned to “pinch and roll” the multitude of seeds into the channels drawn across the top of the bed, gently covering them with a fine veil of black dirt, not to mention of healthy shake of worm poop!  Er–I mean, worm castings.  We do want to keep this scientific, and all.

Finished with the task at hand they were ready for their next assignment.  It was then I had to break the news.  “Sorry kids, but it’s time to head back to class.”

Met with the expected frowns and protest, I assured them we would meet again next week for another exciting chapter of gardening! 

Cheers abounded as they cleaned up their work area and trotted back to class.  Turning back, I collected my things and thought, not bad for their first attempt at transplanting.  And to think we only lost one tomato.  It was during the process of “staking” the plant to its bamboo support when one boy pulled it out and asked, “Is this okay?”

I nearly fainted from shock.  “Agh!  No–you killed it!”  (You have to understand, I raised these babies from seeds!  It’s devastating when you lose one.)

He looked at me and I looked at him.  I nodded.  “You’ll have to give that one a nice burial, perhaps in the compost pile.”  Then I assured him, “Don’t worry.  It happens.  And look.”  I pointed to the tender sproutlings left behind.  “At least you had the trio!  We’ll just stake those two and we’re good to go!”

Then the Brownie Girl Scouts whipped in for an afternoon of gardening and boy o boy —  talk about energy and enthusiasm — these girls were all over the business of planting pole beans and got right to it! 

From dishing out dirt, tossing in seeds, patting in fertilizer, it was all I could do to keep up with their frantic pace.  I can’t be sure, but we may have pole beans growing all over the garden at the rate these spirited gardeners worked! 

But I never met a bean I didn’t like, so we’ll welcome them anywhere they show up.  Next up:  corn.  And lower elementary.  Talk about energy in the garden–you can’t beat this! 

Working in shifts, these kids were meticulous in their corn planting duties, surprised you could plant the kernel from a corn cob and it would turn into a whole plant.  Didn’t even phase them that our kernels were red.

“Ever seen red corn before?”

Hands shot up.  “I have!  I have!”

With a hand to my hip, I raised a brow.  “Really now…”

When I said they were telling me “stories” they assured me that was not the case.  They’ve seen it.  For sure.  (There is such a thing, but it’s fun to test their determination which I must admit, remained adamant.)

Our kernels are red, because they were chemically treated to keep them viable and strong for planting and sprouting.  While we’re growing organic, it can be hard to find untreated non-hybrid seed, so this will prove our exception.

Digging diligently, they added dirt and raked it smooth, careful to keep to the rows and not the beds.   We spaced out the holes, staggered our pattern and discussed the reason why.  (Corn grows real tall and needs a little elbow room!)

We even tossed out the worm poop to give them a good and healthy start.  Plants LOVE worm poop and kids LOVE tossing it.  And they refuse to call it “castings.”  It’s poop.  Plain and simple.  You gotta love kids

Another great day in the garden was had by all, not to mention great progress was made.  We’ll invite the little ones (primary/kindergarten) later next week to try their hand at bean plopping and poop tossing (something tells me they will LOVE LOVE LOVE it!)  

And what’s NOT to love about the care and feeding of your plants?

And the Sweetest Potatoes are…

My own!  I planted one row of sweet potatoes this summer.  Half with sweet potato plants I bought at the store, the other half from slips I made myself (from last year’s crop).  Take a look for yourself —

These are the ones I purchased.  Notice how, in general, they look a bit yellowed and peaked.  Skimpy vines, not full and lush. 

But these bad girls are mine!  Look at those beautiful green leaves, the gorgeous purple blossoms.  Sure, there’s a yellow blemish or two — but nobody’s perfect.  

No Ma’am!  So next spring, make sure you get those slips ready in time for summer planting because it’s easy, cheaper…not to mention more productive!  And just think of the mouth-watering sweet potato pie you can make come fall.  Or those healthy sweet potato fries.  Sweet potato casserole, anyone?  Yum.

Spearhead YOUR School Garden!

Our school has started a garden (with a little help from willing parents and teachers).  How about starting one where you live?  If not school, maybe your local community center?  Gardens are easy when you have an assortment of hands involved.  Literally.  And it’s fun! 

The garden we decided on is a good size, about 20 feet by 30 feet.  We chose a nice sunny spot with a brief wave of shade in the afternoon — a good thing under the Central Florida sun.  People aren’t the only ones who benefit from a break in the heat!  First there was the big job of weed removal.  Our middle schoolers began the chore, breaking up a large part of the grassy area, followed by the little ones.

We decided on a variety of vegetables and herbs;  beans and peas, corn and broccoli, tomatoes and peppers to name a few, accompanied by some fragrant basil and rosemary and a solid staple of parsley!   Once the temperatures get a bit cooler, we’ll indulge in some broccoli and cabbage, potatoes come December.  

Actually, our upper elementary students will begin the broccoli and spinach indoors and watch them grow before making the transplant to the garden.  They’re studying leaves and roots and seedlings make for a fine project.

Of course when you have this many kids in nature at one time, you never know what exciting things you’ll discover.  “Look there!”

“What is it?”

Nobody knew, exactly.  I think there were a few bugs I saw for the first time, actually.  Leave it to the youth to teach you a thing or two about the wild!

Within days, our weeds were pulled and our rows outlined, using weed-preventer paper.  We do like to keep the maintenance manageable.   I learned THAT from my children! 

Awe, Mom.  Weeding again?  Why were weeds even invented?”

Can’t answer that one for you, except maybe oxygen?   They’re green, they must help the environment, right?  Either way, it’s amazing what a group of energetic kids can accomplish!

To keep things simple, we’ll use the current fence line for our pole beans and peas to climb at will.  We’ll also garden in “sections” and ease into a good crop rotation for the future.   We are organic, you know. 

As part of the process, we’ve designated an area nearby for a compost pile.  Now all those scraps from lunch and snack time won’t go to waste!  Well, technically they’ll still be waste, but now it will be “waste not want not” —  we’re making compost here,  not garbage!

And in the middle of it all, we have children learning the meaning of hard work (trust me, weeding and tilling is NOT for the weak), the camaraderie of working together, the basics of botany, the value of recycling, and the wonderous thing we call life as they watch plants sprout, grow, produce — amaze and delight!  Not to mention an excuse to get OUT of the classroom.  Does it get any better?

So  consider the same for you and your school and share the adventure of gardening!  Stay tuned as these kids explore and discover their own world of gardening.

Make Corn Husk Dolls this Fall!

Here’s a fun way to use all those corn husks this fall — make dolls!  These kids are having a ball  (is there a lot of rhyming going on here?)  and it’s quite simple.

To begin, remove husks from corn.  It’s best to use soft, pliable husks but if you have some already dried, no problem.  Just soak them in water for about 10 minutes to soften.  Gather together about 4 – 6 corn husks, thin ends at one end, and tie with string or twine.  I used yarn in this example but it won’t hold up in the long run, so use something more sturdy.  For hair, include the silk from your corn.  Tuck it inside your gathered husks before tying.

Next, hold husks at tied end and fold over to create head.  Tie at neck.  Look at that gorgeous blonde hair!  Yarn is a good substitute for hair.

For arms, take another husk and roll it lengthwise into a tight tube.  Tie at ends to create hands and slip in between the body of your doll. 

For added bulk, roll another husk from end to end and under husks, beneath arms before you tie the waist.

For a girl, you’re finished.  For a boy, divide husks into two sections and tie and knee and ankle.  Kids can decorate how they wish.

Try it!  My kids really enjoyed it.

Tomato Transplants Are In

I did it!  I transplanted my precious seedlings into the garden.  (Those specks you see are organic weed-preventer granules.)

I started these from seed about 6 weeks ago and decided it was time they moved into their new home.  It was touch and go there for a while.  Poor little babies.  Sun was scorching, heat was dreadful — I had to water them twice while I was out there!  But they made it.  The fates were shining upon me (actually rained upon me – better luck, in the case of sprouts) and all turned out well. 

Until the next day.  Not one to waste water, I turned off the sprinkler due to the massive rainstorm the night before.  Bad idea.  I was so busy during the day, I forgot to check on them!  Wasn’t until late afternoon I remembered.  Ugh.  Multi-tasking gone wrong.  They almost died. 

My peppers suffered, too.   But a fresh spritz of water brought them back to their grand stature in no time!

A good thing, because I nearly fell over from heat stroke getting them in.  It’s hot in Florida and presents quite the dilemma for this gardener.   Do you keep your sprouts on the patio for a longer period of time, sparing them (and yourself) the horrendous heat of September?  Or do you go ahead and get them in to set roots, deep and early. 

Remember last year?  Our first frost came and caught my tomatoes in full bloom!  I had a wagon full of green tomatoes and my family was none too happy about it.  No red tomatoes means no red tomato sauce.  A bad day in an Italian household, let me tell you. 

So this year I’m going with sooner rather than later.  I put out these lovely kitchen towels for inspiration. 

My plants are in and have plenty of time to develop the strong root system they need to produce big beautiful tomatoes. 

All I have to do is baby them during the day.  Which is okay.  I can manage it. 

On second thought, maybe I should set a timer

Peanuts! Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

It’s peanut time!  Which also means it’s football time — more specifically, time to make the boiled peanuts for consumption during the football game!  In my house, anyway.  But beware:  in order to make boiled peanuts you need salt and lots of it.   Ick.

But peanuts are enjoyed lots of ways!  Roast them, eat them natural.  Make peanut butter.  Though if you try that last one, be prepared to have a good blender.  Haven’t tried it myself.  Mine get boiled.  With salt.

The kids and I harvested peanuts and boy do we have wagon-loads.  Literally.  We dug these out and it’s only a third of our two rows.  Yum!

We grew Valencia which take about 3 – 4 months to grow.  After they blossom, pegs will start to form and dip into the ground, where the peanuts will develop.  Once your leaves begin to yellow, dig up a “test” peanut and check to see if its ready.  Should be firm with a dry papery skin.   Gingerly pull the entire plant from the ground, else you leave a few peanuts behind, and shake the dirt free. 

You’ll need to dry them out for a day or two in the sun, then remove peanuts from the plant and continue drying in a warm dry area.  We set ours out on the screen patio.  Times vary for drying times, but we went with a week or so. 

Aflatoxin is listed as a concern with raw peanuts, mostly when there’s too much moisture.  Most sources I read suggest this risk is reduced by drying and moreso by roasting.  Boiling may eliminate this problem altogether! 

Hey…   Maybe that’s why it started?

Either way, peanuts are a great crop.  They’re easy to grow, easy to harvest and make for a great fall season snack — roasted, boiled or even eaten raw (with caution, of course).

When the Last Petal Falls

The tears continue.  Recently, a friend of mine passed away, the conclusion to a long battle with cancer.  While a blessing for her in the end, her death marks the beginning of new challenges for her family.  Especially her children.

While adults understand that with every beginning comes an end, life is a cycle…  Kids don’t.  Not really.  In their tangible view of the world, they find it difficult to wrap their minds around the abstract; the intangible.

Discussing the topic of death with my seven-year-old son, specifically the need for sensitivity in our words and gestures, he replied with bold-faced innocence, “But Mom—when you die, I’m going to wear bright colors and have a party.”

His sister vehemently intervened.  “You’re going to be happy if Mom dies?”

 I knew where he was going with this line of reasoning—she didn’t.

“What?” he asked, offended by her tone.  “I’ll always have her in my heart.  She just won’t have her body anymore.”

My daughter was appalled by his logic.  But I pulled him into a hug.  Maybe kids do understand.  More than we think.

Granted we understand speculating on the issue and actually living without your mother are two very different things, something my son cannot possibly understand — it’s a concept difficult for adults to grasp — but he was engaged in thought, trying to make sense of it.  Yet how does one make sense of it?  My friend was young.  It was too soon.  Her family needs her. 

Life doesn’t always make sense.  It doesn’t seem fair.  It’s not right a beautiful woman with so much to live for should die.  But they do.  Good and wonderful people pass from this earth everyday.

“But Mom, maybe God needed more angels.”

I peered at him and a smile formed on my lips.  “You may be right.  And He couldn’t have asked for a better one.”

Taking a deep breath, I give pause.  I look around me and work to understand that life is a trial.  It’s a lesson in acceptance.  It’s a cycle of birth, blossom, decline and death. 

A spirit has returned home.  Her memory will endure.  Her love is everlasting — it will live in the hearts of those she loved and those who loved her.  Questioning “why” doesn’t seem to matter.  Moving forward does.  Together, those of us who held her dear will carry her with us and continue forward on this journey called life.