Florida

Birds, bees, and blueberries

We learn by doing.   It’s an age old saying for a reason.  Sure, we read books, study the almanac, listen to the experts.    All wonderful and recommended arenas for the novice gardener — let alone beginner — but sometimes, there’s simply no substitute for experience.   The tried and true kind. 

Take my blueberry patch.   My pride and joy, my special morning ritual (well, once it’s established I plan to make it a morning ritual – plucking fresh blueberries for my yogurt and bran flakes…strolling amidst the chirps and peeps).   Well, you understand.  You work hard for these sweet, luscious, high in anti-oxidant fruits and you don’t want to lose them to the natural elements.   Wind, pests, birds.

Birds are a definite problem when it comes to berries.   They too enjoy a plump serving of berries with their breakfast!  But they’re hungry varmints and will eat you out of house and home – house and garden – if you let them.  But me, I count myself as smarter than the average bear (no pun intended to my other native blueberry fan).  I figure I can outwit these flying friends with a simple bird net.   Says so right on the package.   Bird nest for fruit and shrubs

Wonderful.  Problem solved.  All I have to do is cover my plants — all twelve of them — and I’m off and running in the blueberry race.  Woohoo!

First recommendation:  don’t choose a windy day to start your net project.  Blueberry blossoms are extremely sensitive to the slightest tactile cling and snare easily.  Translated: touch them and they pop off the vine.   Bad.  Very bad.   No blossoms means no berries.

With a little practice, though, I became quite good at throwing and securing my net without touching my delicate blueberry blossoms and only lost a few to the endeavor.   Can you really miss what you never had to start?  If you’ve noticed, philosophy seems to be on overdrive in my garden.

But abstract distractions aside, I finished my task an hour later, rising with a nice long yoga stretch to the back before I secured my last stake in the ground.  Second recommendation: don’t attempt this after several hours of weeding and tilling in the garden.   Problem is, I’m more doer than planner.  Oh look, I still have two hours before I need to pick up the kids!   What else can I slip in before my time runs out?

That’s when I heard it.

Bzzzzzz.  Bzzzzzzz. 

I looked up and honed in on my little bee friend.   Okay, it was one of my BIG bee friends, but nonetheless, a bee friend.   There he was, patiently, persistently, hovering about the outside of my netting.

Realization trickled down through my tired, aching limbs.    He’s outside the netting.   Outside my netting!

In addition to my Rabbit Eyes, I planted High Bush blueberry varieties.   They need cross pollination.   By bees. 

Aaaaargh!   Not only had I effectively kept the birds out, I was keeping my bee friends out, too!  Bad, bad, bad.  If you want your blossoms to grow and provide — which I do — you need bees.

Now I was in a bind.  What to do?  Leave my hard work in place, or tear it down so the bees can enter safely and do their business?  Since I’m no expert, this was a tough call, because I don’t know when the plants actually need pollination.   Do they bloom after pollination and blossom into blueberries?  Or do they need pollination between bloom and blueberry?   How the heck do I know?   I’m just a berry enthusiast trying my hand at a blueberry patch!   I have no idea how Mother Nature runs these things.

After two minutes of hair pulling, you know I pulled the netting down.   No way around it.   It made more sense that when there are flowers present — and I have tons of flowers present — they need bees.  Bees work the flowers! 

Later that night, I shared the events with my husband who promptly replied, “The bees will get through.”

“No,” I stated, calm and matter-of-fact.  I was calm by now, having had several hours to absorb the incident.  “The netting holes are this big,” I made a circle with my thumb and forefinger to simulate the size less than a dime.   “The bees are this big.”   A centimeter larger, and granted, undetectable with my fingers, but my point was clear.   Too close to call.   A bee may try it, but he would most likely be snagged.   Wings.   They’d throw him over the threshold of size “allowability.”

Determined as any man would be, my husband remained convinced there was a way to beat the problem.  Sure enough, next day, the birds were swooping on my plants, sending my heart racing.  Eyeing my poles already in place, I was determined to win this one.   No wind, it was much easier to assemble my netting “cage” and took ten minutes.   Satisfied it would work, I went to the garden.

Tormented by thoughts of harming the bees, I thought maybe the answer was mobile netting.  I could put up and take down the netting on a daily basis, according to the bird’s feeding schedule.   “Do they have a feeding schedule?”   Mine seem to eat all day long!

Trekking back to the house from the garden, collecting my kitchen compost bin along the way, I heard it. 

Yep, you guessed it.   My bee friend was back!  I swung my head around hoping to catch sight of him and sure enough, there he was, hovering about a blueberry plant.

Inside the netting.   I rushed over for a closer look, wondering  how exactly he managed entry.  Pleasure poured through me.  There, where my two nets overlap, was at least a foot of space.  Perfect.  Bees could easily maneuver this section while birds could not.  They wouldn’t even attempt to sail through for fear they would be unable to escape, and thus be trapped.  (Birds don’t hover as well as bees.  They need some distance for landing and take-off.)

Heaving a sigh of relief, I headed into the house.  Problem solved. 

And not a moment too soon.  My blueberries are nearing maturity!

Look at these beauties.  They’re still green, but big and round and about to turn blue.

Potato or Potata?

Frittata, masha o potata fritta, it doesn’t matter.   Potatoes are THE crop to grow.   Especially for all you first timers.   It’s really hard to mess up this crop — believe me — I’ve come close, several times. 

But they still come up daisies, even when they’re pushing daisies.   As I mentioned before, my potato princesses died during the long hard freeze of January 2010.  A sad day, but salvation came in the form of their babies.  They survived! 

Amazing, but true.  I planted these at the end of October.   (the green you see are my chickpea companions which ultimately perished as well)  It was a risk, I knew, but I’m a risk taker at heart and figured potatoes in Florida?   How cold can it get?   Twenties, sure, for a night, maybe two.   I can hold off Mother Nature for that long, no problem.   Really?

Try four, maybe five and yep, you guessed it.   She kicked my fanny.   Like I always say (now, anyway), don’t go messing with Mother Nature.   You do NOT want her on your bad side because she WILL show you who’s boss.   Hint:  it isn’t you.

So back to my success story.  Yes, I went ahead, against the advice of my potato seed supplier and planted my crop of potatoes.  I love potatoes and haven’t had fresh papas since summer.   I missed “swimming” for the little guys, you know what I mean?    And yes, as forewarned, I lost them.   But tilling the soil for the next rotation – onions, in this instance – lo and behold, what do you know…potatoes!   Some nice sized ones, too.

Talk about thrill.  Well I looked down a few rows at my newest up and coming crop of these pups and thought, good job.  You planted them after the freezing cold, they should do fine.

Wrong.   Well on their way – poof — another wind blows down from Canada and we have near disaster.   Near disaster, because like I said, I know how to protect them.   With a quick glance upward, I first check with the lady upstairs.   Then breathe a sigh of relief. 

With some warm hay mulch and frost blanket, we can hang on for a few days. 

Thankfully, that’s all it was this time, though I did “miss the memo” regarding the last two nights.  I only happened to catch the late evening weather anchor mention the chance of frost — even freezing — but my husband waved it off. 

“It’s not going to freeze tonight.”  Translated: I’m not going out there at this hour to cover the plants and neither are you.  Then he rolled over and went to sleep. 

Hmph.  Lucky for me, the girls only incurred a few brown tipped leaves during their shivery nights, but now seem no worse for the wear.  A good thing, because I have several new potato recipes I can’t wait to try!

So, if you’ve always wanted to garden but felt your thumb was a bit too brown, trust me.   Potatoes are the answer.   Short on space?   I recently discovered a great solution.   The Lutovsky Potato box!   Produce 100 lbs. of potatoes using only 4 sq. ft. of space. 

No, I’m not kidding.   Visit the link and see for yourself.   Whether you have limited outdoor space or live in an apartment, you can grow and store a TON of potatoes.   They are generous producers and very forgiving.

Spring is in the air

I don’t know which I like better, harvest time or planting time.   I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love harvest time!   Reaping the reward for all my hard work?  That’s about as good as it gets when it comes to the garden.

Until you venture out after months of cold.  Okay, this is an exaggeration, but darned if it hasn’t felt like months of cold in Florida this past winter.  Locked up indoors all this time, you wander out to the garden and notice the buds sprouting anew.  Actually, it was the bird swooping down upon my largest blueberry plant that caught my attention, but what a lift to the spirit!   Especially after losing those gorgeous tomatoes to the freeze.   And the potatoes, the beans…   My peas are still touch and go, but let me tell you, when I first caught glimpse of my blueberry buds, followed by the emergence of their pink little blossoms… 

I went light-headed.   They survived!   Sound the alarms!   My blueberries made it through the winter.

Yes, I know.   They grow wild in North Carolina where the mercury dips a tad lower than Central Florida, but the exhilaration is the same, I assure you.   These sweet bushes had me convinced they were dead and gone–until these buds appeared.   And blossomed!  Yes ma’am, these pups will prosper, of that I’ll make certain.  I’ve already purchased my anti-bird netting having learned my lesson after those hungry varmints, er, I mean, beautiful winged neighbors of mine feasted on the sumptuous berries last summer.   Sure, I like to share, but not give away the farm!  There are limits! 

Limits these kids pay no mind to whatsoever.   As though it were open season on wild fruit.   Grrrr…   Even the kids shoo the beasts off!

Eh, hem.   Back to my original point.   I love springtime!   I’m back in the garden, tilling in my first batch of compost, affectionately referred to as black gold, something I’d sell, in kind, if I were able, but that’s another post.   For now, I’m eagerly anticipating the boost in growth I am certain to witness.   Once my seeds get a taste of black gold they will race for the skies, grow twice as big as before, three times —  maybe four!   My compost is so potent, I have sproutlings rising out of nowhere!  I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure this little jewel is not the Lima bean I planted yesterday.   After confusing this gem with the pole beans, I can IDENTIFY a Lima bean leaf when I see one.

The biggest reason to celebrate spring?   I can eat all the Girl Scout cookies I want.   Well, maybe once I’m able to fit into my jeans, again, but at this rate, with all the exercise I’m getting in the garden, it will happen in no time! 

You see?   Yet another reason to revel in spring!   Warm sun on your skin (not your face — you don’t want any more carving than absolutely necessary), the pump of your heart, the flow of blood tingling down through your tippy-toes…   Spring is the time to get active and I for one am whole-heartedly filled with the gusto.  Already planned for crop rotation.   A tricky endeavor for me, since I realized there was not quite the rhyme and reason to my fall planting I thought there was–but I’m good, nonetheless.  So what if I extend my garden a few feet to accommodate the corn and watermelon, the sweet potatoes and pumpkins.   I have the space, why not give em some elbow room?

And the sproutlings are too cute.   Nearly as cute as newborns and a whole host easier to care for, they are gobs of fun.  Kinda like a puppy.   So long as it’s not me chasing the sweet pea through the house, slipping on splatters of excitement as my heart races with each near miss of the china cabinet.   Oh, yes, those days are OVER.  These days are HERE!  Not that we parents don’t love every hair-raising minute, but I’m getting too old for that kind of thrill.  Remember, I’m on schedule to achieve centenarian status.   A bone fracture could take me out of the running.

As it stands, I plan to enjoy the moment.  Line my rows with fresh hay, tend to my babies while keeping a steadfast eye on their elders — the garlic should be nearing maturity, along with my sweet onions —  and focus on my aggressive planting schedule.   Do you know how many bean bushes you have to plant to produce a serving for four?  For one night? 

More than I believed.   Whew.   Tons more.  But this time, I’m ready.  

And excited!

P.S.  My cabbage have offspring!  Look at these kids.  Aren’t they darling?  Not only did their mama provide me with a bowl full of cole slaw, but the kids promise more of the same.  These are the result of scoring the base of the cabbage plant after cutting the mature head for consumption.  Yum.

One potato, two potato

Three potato, score!   We made it!   Our potato houses were a success! 

Sort of.   Most of the plants still died off, but only after the hardest of freezes, so the good news:  I have found my potato frost protection.

My daughter and I came up with the idea.   Okay, so it was my loopy idea, but she handled the construction end and beautiful construction it was!   And quite practical, I might add.   (She gets that from her father.)   But when in need, resourcefulness must transform into creativity–momma style! 

So here’s the dilemma:   What do you do when you’re so eager to plant potatoes, yet uncertain as to what your winter holds in store–do you bite your nails and wait, or go full tilt and get those babies in the ground!   (Oops, that wasn’t a question, was it?)   All right, so I showed my hand too soon, but of course, you go ahead and plant those tubers!   They have sprouts, it’s warm outside–what else would you do?   I mean, no one’s stopping you, right?

No one, but Mother Nature, that is. 

Hmph.   Watching the weather forecast last week, I grunted under my breath.   Record lows were expected in our area for not one, but TWO weeks!  Are you kidding me?  C’mon!   Who invited the Ice Mistress to the party?   According to my kids, the culprit is most likely Jack Frost.  Saw him in a couple of movies last month and he looks to be quite a troublemaker, if you ask me.   But refusing to give in so readily, I lock my arms across my chest.   I have made my decision, and I’m sticking to it. 

Have no choice, really, since the potato seeds have already blossomed into lovely young women.   Only one question remained:   How best to protect them?   That’s when my creative juices started to flow, coursed wildly through my body, the ideas quickly ricocheting from one end of my mind to the other until it hit— 

But of course!  Every lovely young princess needs her very own castle…   Why not my princess potatoes?   A firm structure would not only be aesthetically pleasing, and provide protection from the frost, but it would insulate them against an extended duration of freezing temperatures—the real killer out there. 

I’m proud to report our experiment worked.   Aren’t they beautiful?   My daughter worked through the cold afternoon to decorate the potatoes’ new home–er, castle.   (Pay no attention to her lack of jacket–she thinks she’s a polar bear.) 

After all sections were completed, we placed them over the potatoes, added some mulch “landscaping” to beautify their surroundings (keep them warm), then retreated to the roasting temperatures of our own humble abode, holding our hands to the fire.   And waited.   It was a grueling evening–never mind the toasty flames and delightful movie–but we were confident our gals would make it through the night.

Upon our return the next day, we were thrilled to learn they survived!   Mostly.   Well, compared to the ones not fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of their very own castle.   They were crispy critters, but not these girls!  Just look at their beautiful shades of green, fanning about them like the fullest of ballroom gowns.

After several nights in a row of freezing temps, though, our girls took a beating.  

For a while there, I thought we could still save them.

At this point, I could probably still categorize them as “living” things.

But after the weekend, I’ve since given up on the notion.   

Ever the optimist, I look for the positive.  No matter how dreary things seem, there’s always a trickle of sunlight.  In this case, flurryRedirecting the kids’ attention, I shout, “Hey kids, look!  It’s snowing outside!  Hurry, come see!”   The immediate patter of running feet through the house warms my heart.  

After all, an afternoon of family fun will heal any disappointment the garden can dish out.

P.S.  But just to prove I’m no quitter, I’ve already buried another half dozen tubers in the next bed over.   We’ve had our record cold.  What are the odds it will happen again this season?   (If you responded highly probable, I’ll kindly ask you to refrain from raining on my parade–at least until sometime between Feb and March, when my next attempt goes into the ground.)

Remember:  Gardening is an adventure!