easy

Peanuts! Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

It’s that time again when peanut blossoms take center stage.  Gorgeous and delicate, these sweet yellow beauties are the sign of good things to come.  Below the bright green leaves are spindly legs—better known as “pegs”—bend down in search of soft dirt.  Once found, they bury themselves for the process of forming peanuts.  Like carrots, they prefer loose soil (makes it easier to reach down and form nice full shells).  At this point, you may want to mulch around their base, much like you do for your potatoes.

Memories from last year’s crop drift into the forefront of my mind.  I love peanuts.  Not only because they’re easy to grow, low maintenance—what, we’re growing peanuts?—partial toFlorida’s heat and practically pest resistant, but because they remind me of my childhood.

Football season is right around the corner and my mom used to treat us to pots full of boiled peanuts.  She’d add salt, despite my suggestion to the contrary (her mother was from South Georgia and I don’t believe these folks ever met a dish with too much salt) and let him soak stove top for hours.  Me?  I like a bit of Cajun spice in mine.  Salt only makes me retain water and that I can do without!

If you’ve never grown peanuts for yourself, you should.  Kids love peanut butter and it’s a recipe they’ll enjoy making at home, not to mention hubby may appreciate the boiled or roasted version—as they mix quite well with a frosty mug of sudsy beer. 

When planting your peanuts, be sure to include rich organic compost and/or composted manure.  And throw in a hand-full of crushed eggshells.  These nuts really like the calcium kick!  Here in Florida, we grow Valencia peanuts which take about 3-4 months until harvest. 

If you remember, we simply cracked open the shell and buried the peanut.  About two months after bloom, when your leaves begin to yellow, you’ll want to lightly dig down around one of your plants to check their progress—easy to use a fork to lift the pegs from the dirt.  A ripe peanut will feel firm, its outer shell somewhat dry and “papery.” 

Once ready, gently pull entire plant from the soil, shake off the excess dirt and lay on a screen in the sun for 2-3 days before shelling to cure.  This is for the purpose of longer storage.  If you’re boiling your peanuts, you want them green.  Do not attempt to boil roasted peanuts.  They’ve already been cooked!

But don’t worry—if your peanuts have already dried out and you get a craving for boiled peanuts, you’re in luck!  By soaking dried nuts for 24 hours you can “re-hydrate” them prior to the boiling process.  Check my recipe section for details.

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 more so by roasting.  Boiling may eliminate this problem altogether! 

Hey…   Maybe that’s why it started?  Peanuts are also healthier when cooked—something about the heating process releases their nutrients for easier absorption. 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).

Compost 101

What is compost?  It’s the mixture of decomposed remnants of organic matter (those with plants and animal origins) used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients. 

How do you create compost?   

Air + Water + Carbon + Nitrogen = Compost

Like most living things, the bacteria that decompose organic matter, and the other creatures that make up the compost ecosystem, need air.  These microbes also need the right amount of water; think “wrung out” sponge.  If too wet or too dry, optimum conditions for bacteria activity will not be met and decomposition will be slowed or halted.  This is the reason some folks “turn” their pile.  It improves air flow!

Me?  I’d rather put Mother Nature to work.  I’ve learned my compost pile works fine without a single turn from me.  (LA-zy!)  Basically, I pile plants, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and the like and let nature takes its course.  The materials break down and become black gold in our garden.  Composted soil provides nutrition for vigorous plant growth, improves soil structure by creating aeration, increases the ability of soil to retain water, moderates soil pH, and encourages microorganisms whose activities contribute to the overall health of plants.  LOVE it!

What not to compost?  Diseased plants, weeds gone to seed, coal ashes, dog/cat manure, lawn clippings that may contain herbicides. 

Once you’ve established a location for your compost pile, it’s important to know how much carbon versus how much nitrogen to include.  Too much nitrogen and your pile will smell, because excess nitrogen converts to ammonia gas.  Too much carbon and the pile breaks down too slow, because microbes need nitrogen to increase their population.  The ideal is a 30:1 C/N ratio. 

 Carbon is used for energy by the microbes and comes in the form of leaves, straw, hay, sawdust, etc.  These are the “browns” of composting.  Microbes also need nitrogen for the proteins that makeup their tiny bodies.  Matter high in nitrogen are the “greens” of composting (though not always the color green) and consist of “fresh” plants, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and the byproduct of animals such as manure and worm castings.

There are two types of composting:  hot and cold.  Hot composting is accomplished more quickly and best done within a bin.  Made up all at one time, it’s allowed to compost without further addition of material, although it does require frequent turning and proper moisture control.  Bacteria give off heat as they digest the material.  The enclosed pile will insulate the heat raising the internal temperature to 120 – 190 degrees.  This attracts more bacteria whose breakdown continues more rapidly. Hot compost is good because it kills pathogens and many weed seeds.

A cold pile (70 – 90 degrees) takes longer though it manages a steady stream of material additions; perfect for the family backyard pile (as in mine).  Simply begin your pile with the organic material of your choice, i.e. leaves, kitchen scraps, etc. and continually add to the top of the pile.  Within 6 – 24 months (depending on climate conditions) the material will break down—though turning the pile will speed up this process.  The bottom of the pile composts first (higher heat due to insulation).

When your compost is ready, you’ll know it.  Your material will be unrecognizable from its original form and look like gorgeous black dirt.  Like I said, around these parts we call it “black gold” for the garden!

Monster Okra

Now this is enough to scare you plum out of the garden–so don’t let it come to that.  Okra are one of the easiest and tastiest veggies to grow and when eaten fresh from the vine (stalk, stem…) are not slimy in the least.  They are divine.  My son prefers them fried–and they are good this way–but I like them fresh.  But if you let your okra grow to gargantuan proportions, they will be tough, stringy and icky.  Leave these mammoth pods for seed saving.

And the only way to prevent this from happening is to visit your garden every day during harvest time.  Like I said, okra are EASY to grow and grow they will–inches a day!  Or so it seems.  These are Tami’s okra (no, we haven’t forgotten her) and in need of plucking.  But in between home and the beach, work and vacation, it can be downright hard to visit your garden every day.  (Yet another reason I close most of my rows for the summer.  Summers are for vacation in my household!) 

For optimum taste, you want your  okra about two inches, maybe a tad more if you’re frying them. This little guy is perfect, isn’t he?  Gorgeous AND delicious. 

Speaking of gorgeous, her pepper plants are thriving.  Beautiful and green and only a couple of holes to speak of, these babies are blooming and producing.  Now remember, perfection is overrated.  I don’t mind one bit if the leaves have a couple of blemishes.  So long as they don’t kill the plant or prevent peppers from blossoming, I’m good.  How about you?

Now her tomatoes are wild and wooly and taking full advantage of her divided attention.  They need pinched and pruned, but Tami’s been too busy to do either.  Like I said, Florida during the summertime can be very distracting.  Sunny skies, warm waves and beautiful beaches…  Who can stay home?

It’s tough.  Forgive her.  She’ll get back into the swing of it soon.  Why, she has this cute little melon fella to take care of! 🙂 

Isn’t he adorable?  Precious.  Just precious.  So if you’re in the same predicament as Tami, don’t worry.  You’re not alone.  For all you lucky gardeners out west and up north, take heart–this is YOUR season to shine.  And do share!

How To Harvest Chive Seeds

So my chive plant is ready for harvest and how do I know? 

Passing by them on my way to the cilantro this gorgeous April Florida day, the sunshine high and bright, the breeze a bit brisk, I noticed the flowers had some dark seed-looking things were perched within them.  Now the chive flowers have long since lost their bloom which is a good sign we’re on our way to seed production.  Happens that way with so many of my vegetables, I figured why not?  But with a double-take, I peered at these easily visible babies and thought:  no way.  It can’t be that easy. 

But ever the optimist, I plucked those old buds right off the stem and headed indoors.  Shaking the black dots off the petals, I gathered them into a pile on my desk, right next to my computer screen.  A quick search of the internet should provide me with some photos and sure enough, a few keystrokes later I was grinning.  It absolutely was that easy!!  Small black bean-shaped seeds, it read.  Yep, that’s exactly what I had in my hot little hands!  But they’re actually flat.  At least to my aging eyes it appears that they’re flat. 

Well I marched right back outside to harvest the rest of them!  Excited gardeners are full of energy and exuberance–and we don’t wait for nuthin’!  As I pushed through the screen door–my herb garden is now conveniently located just outside my patio–the wind kicked my hair to and fro, this way and that.  Seems even in April we get “cold fronts” here in Central Florida and mine is howling today.  And don’t you know, one of the instructions noted “it’s best to harvest chive seeds on days with minimal wind.”  Of course it did. (Mother Nature and I have somewhat of a contentious relationship.  She’s contentious and I do my best to smile.  Sugar and flies and honey and bees, you know!) 

Undaunted, I snipped the rest of the dried buds from the plant and plopped them directly into my awaiting Mason jar.  Under the circumstances, I decided it was the only way to ensure minimal loss since I wasn’t working under minimal wind conditions.  It’s a living. 🙂

How to Save Broccoli Seeds

Learning how to save broccoli seeds is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.  I knew the appearance of flowers meant I was on the right track, but I never could figure out where the seeds came from.  Oh sure, a quick search on the internet provides all the answers, but I was trying to use nature as my guide.  Surely something would look familiar soon.  Marigold seeds came directly from the flowers, why not broccoli?

Because that isn’t the way nature works.  You see, broccoli seeds are hidden in the pods BELOW the broccoli flowers.  You can see them here, beginning to plump as they form. 

But these aren’t quite ready yet (photo taken in February).  You need to allow them to fully develop before attempting to harvest.  For example, this plant is from my fall garden.  It’s April now, which gives you some indication as to the time required for these pods to form.  You can’t rush Mother Nature.  (She gets a bit itchy when you do.)  First you’ll see the flowers form and eventually the pods.  Mind you, I waited months for these, but it’s worth the wait knowing you can achieve self-sustainability.

For easier harvest, pull the entire plant out and allow the pods to dry on the stalk.  Now the kicker is how to get them out without destroying them.  Broccoli seeds are quite tiny.  In fact, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to recognize them when I see them.  From the various sources I checked, it seems your first task is to save these pods, allow them to dry and then “pound” them open to get the seeds. 

Pound them?  That sounds so harsh.  How will this not crush the seeds?  Perhaps I can “pry” them open and allow the seeds to tumble out into my awaiting seed packet.  Better yet, how about I lay them out on white paper so that I can see the little fellas!  (Old eyes need all the help they can get.)

That’s much better.  Now rather than pound them out, how about I twist open the pods, much like I do with my bean pods?  Seems so much more humane.

And if it works, it works —just look at those little beauties!  Remember, these are very tiny so this photo may be deceiving.  Be sure your work space is conducive to working with broccoli pods (translated: an area where you won’t lose them if they roll off your paper—which they might do!)  Then, with your awaiting seed packet, fold the paper and roll them in…

Ta-da!  You’ve saved your broccoli seeds!  How cool is that?  Now mark your packet with all the pertinent details like where you harvested them and when and of course what type of seeds along with which variety!  You can make your own custom seed-saving packets by using my template found here.

Kids and Cabbage

Both cute as buttons, we brought them together in the kitchen to eat what they grew! How fun is that? When kindergarteners are involved, believe me—it’s WAY fun.  First we had to harvest the cabbage from our garden and these two girls really have it down to a team sport.  When the cabbage is large and round, simply twist and pull.  Twist and pull and snap to one side if necessary.

Ta da!  Cabbage for coleslaw!  And what a beauty! 

 

So on the menu this week?  Coleslaw:  a mix of cabbage, cucumbers, sweet onions—all of which we are growing in our garden. Goodbye, grocery store! These kids are growing their own meals now. 🙂

And making coleslaw is EASY. Simply chop up a head of cabbage, 1 sweet onion and 1 cucumber then toss them together with a little bit of red wine vinegar, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.  And “to taste” is key, because as you know, taste buds run as different as kids on a playground—every which direction, to be exact.

So “add a little, taste a little, add a little, taste a little….” It’s how old southern women make their coleslaw (and this recipe came from my mother—an old southern woman). But the results? Just ask the kids—oh wait, their mouths are full!

For those who didn’t “prefer” the coleslaw, no worries! We’ll compost it and make dirt. Now that’s what I call self-sustaining! And totally organic.  The plants love us for it.

So how about it? Follow our lead and plant cabbage, cucumbers and sweet onions in YOUR garden and you too, will have all the ingredients for the best coleslaw EVER.

Woo-hoo–spring is practically here!

Already?  Great beets alive, pull your heads out of the sand and get busy!  There are seeds to buy, ground to prep, compost to turn—

Oops—did we forget to start the compost pile?  Can’t find it under all the snow?  Well, leave it be then, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy.  Like gather the tools, plan for location, check the water supply…  Now where did that sprinkler go? 

So many things to think about could scare a gal clear out of the garden, but hold on to your tool belt, because we’re going to make this easy!  As pie.  (Because we all have time to bake pie, right?)

No, we don’t, but we DO have time for a garden.  Whether you prefer flowers or vegetables, it all works the same.  First we peruse the glorious pages of our seed and bulb catalogs, indulging in visions of beautifully lined walkways and patios bursting with bloom.  Remember:  edible landscape is all the rage now.  Next we imagine the luxury of plucking fresh produce from our very own garden, our very own salad buffet just outside our front door, organic and healthy, host to a fiesta of ladybugs and bees.

Perfect.  These babies love to mix and mingle with the butterflies and dragonflies hovering nearby.  Are you with me?  Can you feel the excitement, the powerful rejuvenation after a long and cold winter?  It’s true.  Springtime is the season of renewal. From the soft grass underfoot to the blossoms at our fingertips and the vegetables in our basket, spring is when we take heart in nature and plan for another harmonious year ahead. 

A wonderful outlook to be sure, so don’t ruin it with angst or reluctance.  And to keep your restless mind from wandering, here’s your short list for things to do:

1 – Figure out where you want (have space) to plant your flowers/vegetables.

2 – If this space is overgrown, cut everything back.  “Hey, a little room here?  We need room here!”

3 – Not enough seed catalogues?  Break out the search engines type the keywords of your heart’s desire!

4 – Educate yourself on companion planting, ie. who likes who, who can’t be in the same row as who.  (You know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes plants can be so difficult.)

5 – Sharpen your tools.  Or find them.  Whichever works best.  I suggest 3 to start:  weeder, cultivator and hoe – if you’re serious about this, that is. Otherwise, ditch the hoe. It’s a back-breaker.  Check my Prize Picks section for some of my favorites!

6 – Dirt check.  Not all dirt is created equally so a soil test would be a good start.  Give you an idea of how much work this garden thing will really entail.

7 – Gather your mulch.  Newspapers, pine bark, old dead leaves…  They’re all members of the organic mulch building blocks association and the make for the perfect weed prevention/fertilizer.

8 – Don’t forget to locate your hose.  Plants won’t grow if you don’t water them.  Genius!

9 – Buy a wind chime.  Some birds need scaring and you need relaxing.  Makes for nice ambiance, too.  We do want to visit our garden, don’t we?  Daily visits are one of the secrets to successful gardening.  (Just ask Jax from my novel, Jennifer’s Garden —  the man knows his business!)

10- Dream.  Wistfully daydream and contemplate about the wonder your garden will become.

Once spring ever gets here, that is.

Planting Potatoes

It’s so easy, even a 9 yr. old can handle it.  Seriously.  My son helped me today and while I took on the job of tilling the row (to keep it neat and the dirt off my walkways), he did most everything else.  You see, as organic gardeners, we rotate our crops within our existing beds.

So first things first.  Decide which row to plant our potatoes.  I use an excel spreadsheet to keep everything straight, but pencil and paper work fine, not to mention there are a host of websites out there with fancy, automated, technologically advanced “crop rotation plan” drawings! Phew, that’s a mouth-full.  Anyhoo–point is, do something to keep your beds straight from season to season.  You’ll be glad you did. 🙂

Keep in mind when forming your bed for potatoes, that you will be “hilling” them as the plant grows.  This means that as your potato plant begins to grow leaves and attain some height, you’re going to want to draw or “pull” in more dirt around the base of the plant.  Hay mulch can also be used to serve this purpose.  The idea here is to ensure good coverage of the developing “tubers” or new potatoes as they grow.  Potatoes have an “upward” growth habit, whereby they will grow upward as the root system expands.  If they near the soil’s surface and become exposed to sunlight, they will turn green and green potatoes are NO good.  (They’ll make you sick if you eat them.)  You can also start with a trench when planting potatoes.  Makes it easier to hill in the future, but with my garden I simply plant them “low” and hill as they grow. 

We’re following our peanuts and beans this season, which puts us next to carrots and beets—great companions for one another and no harm to our potatoes.  Important considerations, both.  My son and I amended our soil with compost, but cow manure is also a good choice for potatoes (they love the stuff).  Next, we form holes for our potato seed–about 2 inches deep.  Then, we analyze our potato seed (aka potatoes ready for planting) and look for the eyes.

The idea here is to cut your potato seeds in half or even quarters, depending on the size of the potato and the number of “eyes.”  Each cut piece should have at least one eye, as this is where the future sprout erupts!  When planting, I like to put the cut potato piece “eye-side-up”—don’t want to make it too hard for my babies!—though I’ve since learned, potatoes and tomatoes are prolific growers.  As it stands, these two are the most likely to sprout in my compost pile and you KNOW I didn’t toss those rotten old potatoes into the compost with any regard to their “eye” orientation!

But just in case—make it as easy as possible and plant “eye-side-up.”  Now cover your potatoes with dirt and water well (excuse my hose–still working on a more professional-style irrigation system).  The rest is up to Mother Nature!

Okay, you DO want to feed them every so often with a nice mix of fish emulsion or a dose of good old-fashioned worm poop.  Potatoes can be “pigs” when it comes to nutrients which is why you want that compost and cow manure mixed in at time of planting.  You may have noticed that I only planted half my row today and this we learned from experience.  “Staggering” your planting dates ensures a constant supply of fresh potatoes, else you lose them to storage problems and whining from the family. 

“Potatoes for dinner?  Again?”

Apparently they don’t want potatoes for dinner EVERY night.  Hmph.

In about 2 – 4 months we will have ourselves a lovely bounty of fresh potatoes and let me tell you—there IS a difference between fresh-from-the-garden-potatoes and store-bought.  They taste sweet pie and smooth as butter.  YUM.

Sharing is Caring–Tastier with Food!

Now I don’t grow cranberries, but I do have a few orange trees in my yard and this time of year I need them–and NOT for fresh orange juice but for a delightful baked bread!  Cranberry Orange Bread to be exact which happens to be a staple around our house this time of year.  Not only do we devour several loaves ourselves, but we deliver them to friends and families as gifts.

Not a cranberry fan?  Don’t worry.  These babies turn tart cranberries into sweet delicacies (probably something to do with the rich bread that surrounds them).  In fact, people look forward to these loaves every year they’re THAT good.  Now I must confess I didn’t create this recipe–simply not that talented in the kitchen–but I can tell you it’s easy to make. 

I discovered it on a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine years ago (so many, I don’t think they  make it anymore!) during a stay at the Captain Lord Mansion Bed & Breakfast.  They served it fresh from the oven, accompanied by a warm bowl of oatmeal and it was memorable.  Even better with butter melted on top, though entirely unnecessary.  It’s quite delicious on its own. 🙂

They say to make it exactly as written though if you’ve read any of my posts, you know I don’t do ANYTHING exactly as instructed.  It’s a curse!  Or gift, depending on how you choose to look at it.  But either way, don’t hesitate to give this one a go.  You’ll be glad you did!

Cranberry Orange Bread

Preheat oven to  350°F.

Sift together in large bowl:

2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

5 cups flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

3 tsp baking powder

In small bowl using a hand mixer, place the following ingredients one at a time. Beat vigorously after each addition.

2 eggs

8 TBSP melted butter

2 cups orange juice

1 cup water

Make well in dry ingredients and pour at once wet into well. Stir until moist.

Fold in

2 cups whole cranberries (can be frozen)

Pour into 3 greased and floured pans and bake for 1 hour — careful NOT to over bake.  Check with knife — should come out clean.  Serve warm and enjoy.  Freezes well.

Composting on Vacation

I think I’ve come up with a new invention.  I call it the Travel Composter.  Not sure if it will take off or not–maybe needs a catchier title–but I think it’s a great idea nonetheless.  It occurred to me over the past summer (past, as in, my kids went back to school today — yay!). Yes, well it occurred to me that everyone should have a Travel Composter.  Easy, odorless, compact and storable (or packable) this item is a must for eco-minded people.  Think of the guilt it would relieve!

And I am so all about relieving guilt.  No room in my life for the emotion, at all.  But this past summer, I felt it–to the core.  Gut-wrenching, heart-aching guilt.  Can you imagine? There I was, clearing the dinner dishes while on vacation and–as is my habit–automatically went for the kitchen composter to deposit my food scraps.  Ouch.  A kitchen composter that wasn’t there. 

Well of course it wasnt.  It was at home.  I was on vacation.  Staring at the plate of leftovers, my first instinct was to return them to nature.  My gaze drifted outdoors.  I’m in a rural setting.  No one will notice.  Maybe the wildlife will enjoy them. 

On second thought, maybe not.  If gone uneaten, they might cause an unsightly mess or worse–a stench.  Then of course there’s my husband.  If he saw me toss the scraps outdoors he would not be happy.  Nor would he let me keep them until we returned home.  Already tried that and it didn’t go over well. 

Trust me.  It’s never good when your husband spies you stashing away leftovers in a Ziploc bag.  “What do you think you’re doing with that?”

Wasn’t it obvious?  “Um…taking the leftovers home for the compost pile?”

“No, you’re not.”

What?  Why not?”

“I’ll not have my car smell like garbage number one and number two, you’re not saving the planet by taking them home.  They’re biodegradable.”

Hmph.  Doesn’t he appreciate the fact that I’m environmentally conscious?  That this will serve a higher and better purpose as organic fertilizer than it will as building supply for the local dump?

Not when it stinks up his car, he doesn’t.  Though he does have a point.  Is it worth ruining the interior of an automobile for items that will biodegrade anyway, no matter where you deposit them?  But what about the bottles, jars and cans we had to throw away?  The place where we stayed had no recycle bins, no options for guests to do the right thing. 

I have to admit, I was bothered.  It wasn’t right.  It’s too easy to accommodate individuals such as myself.  We only ask for a separate container.  A bin, a bag, heck–I’ll drive my trash to the corner if you’ll point me in the right direction!

But alas, there was no such offer.  Which is sad.  While I don’t like anyone being forced to comply with recycle standards and practices (I’m a Libertarian at heart), I would like to see them offer the same.  It would keep the skip in my step, the smile on my face, not to mention the guilt out of my heart.

On a brighter note, there are some companies out there doing the job I wish I could have done.  One of the largest in the Southeast happens to be GreenCo.  This company works the greater Atlanta area by taking food waste from not only restaurants and hotels, but grocery stores, colleges, hospitals–all sorts of places!–and hauls it to their area facilities.  Once there, they turn it into organic fertilizer which they sell to retailers who in turn, sell to the public.  Talk about full circle–the public who made the waste can then re-use the waste.  Ingenious!

Isn’t it nice to know someone out there cares?  Sure does relieve the guilt I feel about not doing so myself.  Perhaps I should restrict my future travel in Atlanta to these green-minded organizations.  At least I’ll feel like I’m giving back, literally.

How about you? Are you doing your part to recycle? Do you know of any companies who are?  If so, let us hear about them!

p.s.  Go ahead and feel free to take my idea for the Travel Composter, too.  Really, I don’t mind a bit.  Just get out there and make a difference (and earn a mint in the process! :))