backyard garden

3 Ways to Make Your Garden More Successful

Garden Success Comes in Stages

Time to address those delightfully colored seed packets clenched tightly in your hand. I know you’re excited, as well you should be. It’s fall planting time! And in Florida, it’s one of the all-around best times in the garden. With temperatures cooling, it’s a wonderful time to be outside among the fruits and vegetables. Once hurricane season ends, that is.
And seed sowing is a wonderful step in the process, because it’s filled with the thrill of anticipation, a dash into un-chartered territory, the belief that all things are possible. It’s this enthusiasm that will ensure your seeds get a good start on life. Forget they do this kind of thing on their own, all day long, in nature everyday…

YOU are the master of your garden. You control what grows where and when. You are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the plants in your garden. Sure, Mother Nature does this all the time, but now it’s your turn. Are you ready?

Amend the soil

The first thing you must do before planting those seeds is to make sure your soil is ready and willing to provide a comfortable soft bed for your baby sprouts. I love to use mushroom compost to amend the soil, because my plants LOVE it. However, for fall planting, I also want to use my compost.

With a little help, moving the entire compost pile was no big deal. And guess what? We were rewarded with a pile of sweet potatoes! I don’t even bother growing potatoes in the garden anymore. Why should I? My compost pile does the work for me!

Sowing seeds

Depth, distance, and time are the three main ingredients to sowing seeds. First, you must know how deep to plant them. A good rule of green thumbs is to consider the size of your seed. Tiny seeds like carrots, lettuce and broccoli are planted very shallow, say about 1/4″ deep. Makes sense, right? If you plant them too deep, how will they ever break through all that dirt to reach the surface?

A step up from these are eggplant, squash, pepper and beets. These require a bit more coverage at about 1/2″ deep. Moving up the size scale, you have other seeds like beans and corn which prefer to be buried in about an inch of soil.

What about potatoes? Those big old things? They love to be underground and prefer a depth of about two inches, as do garlic and sweet onions. Helps them burrow in for the long cold winter.

Once you know how deep, you must know how far apart to space them. Many plants like to snuggle and be close while others don’t. Gives them “the fungus.” They need space—to breathe, to move, to be happy. And speaking of happy, plants have their friends and their foes and it would behoove you to know who’s who, else there be trouble.

Plants have feelings?

Sort of. Plants do respond to music, but we’re talking “companion planting” here and that means strategically planting certain fruits and vegetables close to one another (or far) in order to optimize natural growing conditions. For example, if you know the dill plant attracts the hornworm and you know hornworms can devour a tomato plant down to bare stem, are you going to place these two next to one another?

companion planting

How about rosemary and cabbage? Rosemary acts as a natural repellent for the cabbage moth who just so happens to love to eat cabbage plants. You see what I mean? Corn and beans are great friends, as corn provides the trellis for beans to climb. Garlic repels aphids while tarragon seems to disgust most insects. Take a look at your selection of seeds and do the research. It will save you a basket full of heartache later on.

Stagger Planting

Another key concept is time; time of year, time per section. While some climates allow for an extended growing season (Florida: think twice a year!), most plants still prefer certain growing conditions to thrive. While Floridians may love their beaches and coleslaw during the summer months, cabbage prefer it cool, even a tad nippy.

Time also applies to “time spent within each section or row,” otherwise known as “stagger planting.” Imagine you’ve had great success with your first crop. The next question becomes, “How am I going to eat all this bounty?”

stagger planting in the garden

A wagon full of tomatoes is great fun to harvest, until you have to eat them all and quick—before they rot. You can always can or freeze them, but who wants to waste bounty of gorgeous red tomatoes? No one. Better idea is to plant a few seeds today, a few 10 days later, repeating the process through your planting season. This ensures a continuous supply of tomatoes—no saving needed.

Example: Many tomatoes mature between 55-80 days. Say your first planting date is May 1st and your growing season effectively ends in October (frost is back). You might consider planting the first week of May, third week of May, early to mid-June, end of June/1st of July. You have a lot of seeds, don’t you? Wonderful! By “staggering” your planting dates this way, you’ll stagger your harvest too, giving you and endless stream of tomatoes, fresh from the vine while ensuring your last batch is mature prior to fall’s frosty nip.

Because I’m in Florida, I’ll do this twice a year, beginning sprouts on the patio in August and then transplanting to the garden through early October. My last harvest will fall sometime in December (when the first freeze hits).

Amend your soil, practice companion planting, and stagger your process for a successful, continuous harvest!

3 Things Great School Lunches Have in Common

I don’t know about you, but now that it’s back-to-school time, I find myself focused on school lunches. It’s the least I can do. I mean, my kids have been cleaning up after themselves, doing their own laundry, dishes, and general household chores since they were seven. Yes, you read that right. My daughter was nine, but my son was tasked with the job of doing his own laundry at seven. Not only did it make me proud to watch him, it made me chuckle to see him leap up onto the washing machine to turn the dials. Such an athlete!

Now some of you are probably wondering how I managed this feat, or why I’d even try. I’m a stay-at-home Mom. I have the time. Eh, maybe I should do all the chores, maybe I shouldn’t. That’s a discussion for another day. (Way, way into the future!)

According to my kids, it’s my lifelong quest to become known as the Meanest Mom Ever. I beg to differ. I look at it as my job to teach them independence. One day they’ll be out on their own and must be able to do things for themselves. That, and they went through a wholly “ungrateful” spell treating me like I was put on this earth to do their bidding.

Not. But now that we’ve worked through that period of time, we’re on good terms. I make their school lunched for them every morning, and they say “thank you.” Wunderbar. And it’s off to school you go!

With that settled, what makes for great school lunches?

#1 ~ Enviability. (Is that even a word?)

Kids want to be the envy of their friends when it comes to their lunch offerings, because at some point, they invariably become just that: offerings.

“Hey, I’ll trade you my bag of trail mix for that blueberry muffin.”

“Wanna trade my blackberries for your peanut butter sandwich?”

While I’m thinking my kids want food that tastes great, they’re thinking value, as in, What can I get for the stuff my mom packed me?

#2 ~ The “Cool” Factor.

I’ll never forget the day my kids took carrots from our garden to school for lunch, then were amazed by the curious stares they received.

“What’s that?”

“Duh. It’s a carrot.”

“No, I mean, what’s that green stuff on the end of it?”

“The leaves.”

Had these children never seen a carrot in its natural state?

Sadly, the answer was no. Many of them had not. But how would they? While we gardeners enjoy gardens in our backyard, our patios and window sills, others don’t. They only enjoy what the grocery store stocks for them to enjoy. On the bright side, the discussion did serve as the catalyst for their first school garden!

#3 ~ Variety

With a backyard garden bursting with bounty fall through spring, we never lack for variety. From blueberries to tomatoes, broccoli to zucchini, there’s something for everyone to eat. My son prefers carrots. My daughter prefers broccoli. Both pack well into a lunch and combine deliciously with peanut butter or ranch dressing. But my kids get bored easily, so I’ve learned to rotate the offerings. Some days it’s fruit and yogurt, other days it’s veggies and dip. Sometimes we go with a sandwich, other days they prefer a salad. But always, always, always, I pack enough to eat and share and keep it interesting.

Because like it or not, I’ve found their friends to be very interested in “tasting” what my kids bring to school for lunch. I’ve even garnered a few compliments over the years.

“Mom, Sarah loved your oatmeal-carrot cookies.”

“Awesome!” I replied, knowing full-well that my daughter does not prefer these delicacies due to the raisins I include in the mix. But she knows that others do and like the smart cookie that she is, she requests them to be included in her lunch. And anything else I might like to experiment with, because for her there’s no downside. Someone will eat it, even if it’s not her. (We gardeners do love to share–it’s half the fun!)

In fact, my neighbor just called me to deliver a bucket full of limes. Yep. She has too many to eat for herself and hates to see them go to waste. I concur. And in the rare instance when my kids do bring home lunch leftovers, they summarily toss them into the compost bin. Leftovers make excellent dirt.

Waste not, want not!

Make Earth Day Your Own

Earth Day began back in April of 1979 coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement. Poor air and water quality were fundamental to the movement, along with protecting endangered species, a push that drew support from all sides of the political spectrum in an effort to save the earth we inhabit. We’ve come a long way since those first days but we’re not there yet. While many of us yearn for a gas and oil free lifestyle, our technology is not quite there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real differences in our every day lives.

Most of us recycle our plastics and glass, newspaper and cardboard. Many of us conserve water with every flush, every faucet turn, but how about moving our conservation efforts into the kitchen, the backyard? Eating is a must for life, but sometimes we prepare too much. We seal the leftovers, eat what we can, but why not compost? What goes in, must come out, right? 🙂 As I tell the kids, there’s nothing easier than growing our own dirt. Kitchen scraps, fall leaves, grass cuttings–it all works! And the things our compost pile can grow–squash, beans and sweet potato (as seen below). It’s so EASY!

compost progress

It’s a real way to make a real difference. A good beginning. As with any new endeavor, start small, allow those new lifestyle actions to grow into habits. How about saving the gas it takes a truck to haul your fresh veggies around town, across the country, and grow your own? It’s a lot easier than you think. I mean, if my compost pile can do it, you can do it. And instead of depositing that old newspaper into the recycle bin, use it as “mulch” around your plants in the garden. Does a wonderful job of retaining moisture and breaks down into the soil without any harmful effects. More

Trying My Hand at Chickpeas

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are one of my favorite beans. I love them in hummus, fresh on my salad, mixed with Indian curry spices… In my opinion, there’s nothing not to love about these beans. Which brings me to my latest venture. As I always say, “Grow what you’ll eat.” I eat chickpeas. I should grow chickpeas. My compost pile seems to have no problem growing them! (That’s them, to the left. They look sort of like ferns.)

 compost chickpeas

Shoot. If my compost pile can do it, I can do it, right?

First up, I amended my soil with the very same compost. Seems a no-brainer. Next, I set out a drip hose (chickpeas like low water and NOT on their leaves) and planted my organic beans along its line. Once they sprouted, I scattered some corn gluten (excellent weed preventer) and voila — chickpea sprouts! NOTE: Wait until you have sprouts before scattering your corn gluten. Otherwise, you guessed it. Like unwanted weeds, your chickpeas won’t sprout, either.

chickpeas

Aren’t they adorable? Chickpeas don’t require a lot of fertilizer, especially nitrogen. As with other legumes, they fix nitrogen into the soil, so choose a fertilizer that is low to nil on the nitrogen. I like a bit of seaweed emulsion and bone meal.

Each plant will yield several pods, each containing about 2 peas. Not a lot, which is why I planted so many! Seeing as how these are doing so well, I’m already planning another row of them. After all, I have 23 beds in my backyard garden. Why not fill them with the stuff I love?

Vacations and Gardens

They sometimes don’t mix.  Unless you plan accordingly, vacations can wreak havoc on a garden.  Shoot, even when you do plan accordingly they can shower your garden with weeds and bugs, slugs and grubs.  The mere thought of leaving my garden for a week at a time gives me the heebie-jeebies. But hey, I’ve got to live, don’t I? 

Yes.  More than live for my garden, I’ve got to traipse across the wilderness, scour new horizons in search of greener grass and bluer skies and drag my kids alongside me.  My heart soars at the sheer whisper of exotic destinations and far off places. 

Until they introduced those intrusive body scanners, anyway.  Ick.  Unfortunately, body scanners and groping TSA agents are not the only things capable of making one mutter, “ick.”  No.  Vacations away from your fabulous and fertile garden can make you turn away in horror, too.  Just look at what happened to Julie’s gorgeous greens. 

She wasn’t gone for long.  It all happened so fast… 

It’s enough to make a girl want to up and quit this whole garden experiment, toss the newfound joy aside like an uncomfortable pair of heels.  They’re scuffed.  It will take effort to refurbish them to their original shine.  Is it worth it?

Chin up, ladies–of course it’s worth it!  You’re a gardener now.  You must understand that Mother Nature likes to toy with a gal, test her fortitude and make sure she’s worth those glorious tomatoes she’s perfected over the centuries. After all, once she’s entrusted you with her precious commodities of fruits and vegetables, she’ll expect you to perform in turn. 

And perform you will.  As Julie has proved with these lovely near ripe tomatoes.

Just look at these budding beauties.  Kinda makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

P.S.  Remember:  Mother Nature does this all day long, all by herself.  You’re included in the growing process at her whim.  If she wants your garden to grow, it will.  If not, oh well.  One only has to consider my compost pile tomatoes to be sure this woman knows how to garden. (Yep.  This plant is growing completely unaided in my compost pile.)

Then look at my corn.  Granted this shot includes only a few stalks flattened by wind–but trust me–there were more.  My husband claims I need to plant more rows, shorter rows, insisting a denser planting formation will protect the interior stalks leaving only the outer corn susceptible to annihilation.  (Apparently men from Ohio know a little something about growing corn.)  Fine. I’ll take it under my cap and consider it.

 

Next season.  For now, I suggest you take this as a warning–in case you had any doubts about the ferocity of Mother Nature’s temper.  Not sure what I did to deserve this, but don’t think I didn’t fight back and right those stalks at once!

I can be impossible, too. 🙂

Meet Ashley

Meet Ashley.  When she heard her friend Julie was taking part in our new garden venture, why don’t you know she went straight to her husband and suggested they build a planter box?  I use the term “they” quite loosely here, though she did help.  And–she prepared nice snacks for him and the boys, smiled pleasantly as she held the boards so he could nail them in place and assisted where possible.  (This is all excellent wife behavior and it works–most of the time, anyway.)

Would you look at this amazing piece of engineering perfection?  It’s a veritable masterpiece!  Compliments help, too.  🙂

Note to building crew:  lining your planter is a fine idea, but keep in mind your plants’ drainage needs.  Soggy roots are like soggy fruits–not delightful.  Be sure your planter is capable of draining.  Then, add a load of fresh dirt and you’re on your way!

For her first garden, Ashley chose a few of her family’s favorites; another wise move.  Growing vegetables that are easy and fun but no one cares to eat is a losing proposition.  Trust me.  Watching your fruit wither on the vine–literally–is a sad day, indeed.  (Kinda gross, too.)  For starters, we have beans, squash, melon, carrots and potatoes. 

How is she fitting all those veggies in there?  I’m glad you asked.  Organization 101.

Prior to planting, it’s a good idea to lay those colorful packets out across the dirt.  This way, you can eyeball their placement, keeping in mind their friends and foes.  Plants have their favorite companions, you know, and they’ll simply wilt and whine when planted too far apart. 

If you must squish a few “squabblers” together, so be it.  One thing I’ve learned is that Mother Nature appreciates enthusiasm.  She’ll give you a pass without fuss the first time you break her rules.  She won’t punish you with rotten diseases or nasty infestations to ruin your moment, but next season?  You’d better get another box.  Oh, honey…!

Once you’ve decided where everyone will be residing, dig according to your seeds’ needs.  Rule of thumb:  tiny seeds prefer shallow surface planting while larger ones go deeper.  And potato tubers?  We dug them a special section situating them lower than all their neighbors.  Important, because as they grow, you’ll want to continually mound them with dirt.  This forces greater potato production and we do want to produce, don’t we?  Yes, we do. 

Speaking of produce, Ashley’s gone crazy excited and decided to try her hand at composting, too!  Leftovers no longer go in the garbage–they go in the sink!  (Until we find a more attractive alternative.)  Then, her handy-dandy-super-helpful young sons will transport this bin to the outdoor compost pile.  Neat system, isn’t it?

Boys love composting, because it can lead to great worm hunting.  And any boy worth his sea salt knows:  if you plan on catching the big one, you’d better have some worms on hand.  Could there be any more fun than finding them on your own?  I think not.

Finally, spray a little water over your planter to get your new seeds settled in and then it’s off to the picnic.  In no time Ashley will witness an explosion of sprouts across her planter followed by leaves and veggies and harvest and–

Whew!  I’m excited just thinking about it!

For those of you wondering how Julie’s garden is coming along, well, you know, life, spring break…  Well, life just plain happens.  In the real world, our best intentions can easily be sidetracked by a few rows–but not to worry–she’ll be looking for a mini excavator rental company and digging into her yard in no time!  Tanned from the beach, to boot. 

While we’re on the subject of gals in the garden, check out BloominThyme’s new garden series at Galtime.com in the Living section.  Join us, won’t you?

So far so good

Mandie survived her first week!  Okay, not a major feat at this point but it is encouraging.  Cold temps, good rain, it’s been easy.  See?  I told you there was nothing to it.  Literally. 

Though she did install this nice trellis.  When her conch peas shoot from the ground, they’re going to need something to grab  a hold of and this is an easy, portable and reusable way to go.

Unfortunately, there’s not much excitement in an empty garden box.  But it’s only the first week.  Most plants don’t sprout until at 7 – 10 days.  So what do you do for a little pick me up thrill? 

Buy sprouts!  Mandie picked up a few tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce and transplanted them this weekend.  If nothing else, it does wonders for the overall appeal.  Now, when she looks out her back window, there’s life out there!

Watering them in, she will maintain moisture by checking her soil with a dip of her finger.  For a busy woman like her, she needs to make her time count.  Watering deeply once a week as opposed to a spray every day will satisfy her plants needs and accommodate her schedule. 

Then there’s the cold.  We’re forecast for another spell of near freezing temps which is enough to send shivers of fear right up the stems of her tomatoes.  Broccoli likes it cold and with most of her other kids still beneath the surface — and protected — she’ll only have to concern herself with the few  in danger above ground and cover them the night before. 

Covering your plants is simple.  Using frost blankets made specifically for the garden or creating your own plant “castle” of your own, the goal is to keep them insulated from the cold, keep the frost off the plant.  Otherwise, you’ll be headed back to the seed and feed, pronto.  The peppers she bought will hold.  These boys like it warm and won’t do well in these conditions.

Last freeze I lost a bundle of potatoes due to the persistent cold temps.  My efforts worked for a few days, but hours spent near twenty degrees killed my gals, but good.   However, didn’t your mother teach you there is always a silver lining?  

She was RIGHT!  Tilling the same bed this weekend to prepare for a new crop of onions, I discovered potato babies in the soil!  Combined with the carrots I pulled it makes for great motivation.  Nothing like giving her a taste of things to come to keep her working, right?  And while nothing is growing wild and crazy today, she knows this is what she has to look forward.  Fresh from the garden produce!

Stay tuned!