garden

My BEST Gift This Season

Santa doesn’t visit me much anymore. Not because I’m naughty or anything, but because I’m older, wiser. And I buy a lot of my own stuff these days. So… Not a lot of boxes under the tree with my name on them. No worries. I don’t need anything come end of December. If I need it, I buy it. If I don’t, I set it back on the shelf. Need vs. want. It’s a lesson I tend to harp on with my kids.

However, this year I had a brainstorm. It’s lettuce season in Central Florida which means I’m making several trips to the garden per week collecting lettuce leaves, washing and drying them and of course, devouring them. I mentioned this to my daughter, along with a hint that I could really use a salad spinner.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“An automatic lettuce dryer.”

You can imagine the disgruntled look on her face. “Seriously? You want me to buy you a lettuce dryer for Christmas?”

I nodded. “I do.”

Being the good daughter that she is, she obliged her crazy mother’s request. And can I tell you? It’s the best-gift-EVER. Really!

It looks simple enough–can be found in most any homeware department–but the results?

AMAZING. Wash, deposit, press, spin, pluck and voila! You have yourself freshly dried lettuce from the garden!

Warning: Please do not skimp on the washing step. There’s nothing that wrankles a husband’s nose quicker than crunching down on gritty lettuce.

Exactly. Lettuce isn’t supposed to be gritty. It’s supposed to be crisp, yes. Gritty, no. And lettuce fresh from the garden tends to collect dirt. Lots of dirt. So take a word from the wise and wash your lettuce thoroughly. I usually rinse mine in the garden, using the overflow to water my plants as opposed to allowing it to run down the sink drain.

I will give it another quick rinse in the kitchen–but a very quick rinse–then I deposit it into the spinner bin (I actually collect my leaves from the garden using the spinner bin). Push down on the center “spin” button and away we go! Can you see the droplets of water collected on the inside bowl?

Fabulous. Less than a minute later, I pluck freshly dried lettuce from the bin and transfer it to my salad bowl. Genius.

Now I realize the holidays have passed, but perhaps you have a birthday fast-approaching? Special anniversary? Aw heck, why not go out and spoil yourself with a surprise purchase. You’ll be glad you did!

And if you harvested too much lettuce for one serving, refer to my terrific storage tips. Click here for full details on how to store your lettuce for days (although pass over the tedious drying methods used in my example. It’s needs an update!!).

New Year, New Food

Every year, many of us make the new year’s resolution to eat healthier and exercise more. It’s a worthy goal to be sure. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years about making well-meaning resolutions, it’s the fact that resolutions without staying power won’t succeed. Not even with the best intentions.

What do I mean by staying power?

Simple. Have you chosen a method of exercise or diet with the allure of holding your attention? Your desire? If not, don’t bother wasting the effort. It won’t work. One look at any gym membership contract should convince you. They don’t offer you a month-by-month deal for a reason. Most people don’t enjoy going to the gym. Pay for the year, attend for a month or two. Why? It becomes tedious, monotonous, and a chore in and of itself.

No good. Despite my teenage son’s conviction that “Mom loves chores” — I don’t. No one does! But I do like to dance (a GREAT way to get the heart pumping and the calories burning). I also like to eat. Chocolate, cheese, and of course, ice cream. Fortunately for me, I also like salads, vegetables, hummus, juice–I love it all!

So this year I’m going to share some of my secrets to staying slim and healthy. First and foremost, look for something you enjoy doing–dancing, walking, jogging, gardening–and do it. Just do it. Every day, every other day, start small and work your way up to bigger and better workouts. For me, cranking up the music and dancing around my house for a half an hour works wonders. In fact, I enjoy it so much, I’ll keep the music playing and clean the house. Check mark: chores!

When it comes to food, I eat what I want–chocolate, cheese, ice cream–but I do so in small increments throughout the day. The key to eating smart is to eat early and eat often. Eight small meals a day will serve you better than 3-4 big meals. Why? Because you’re eating all of the time so you’ll NEVER feel deprived–an important aspect when it comes to changing dietary habits. You’re also avoiding the pitfall of fighting a hungry belly. Eventually, your stomach will shrink in size and feel full sooner. A good thing!

What should you eat?

Good question. Below are a few of my favorite healthy alternatives, beginning with my ever-popular belly-cleansing ulcer-easing juice recipe, Cabbage-Carrot-Apple juice.

A bowl of yogurt and berries works wonders for your digestion, too, including a powerful punch of antioxidants. Did you know that raspberries have one of the highest content of fiber among fruits? They do!

As does a freshly-plucked salad from the garden. I love chickpeas–for protein AND regularity.

Speaking of chickpeas, homemade Roasted Red Pepper Hummus is always a winner with me. I devour mine on the end of a pretzel stick, celery stalk or cracker.

Tomato Sauce will please the entire family at dinner time…

I like a healthy dose of pesto, as well.

Garlic is good!! And with all the tomatoes bursting in my garden, I need to find LOTS of ways to consume them.

Need more ideas? Check the Heart Healthy tab of my recipe section. Surely there’s something with staying power for you to enjoy. Happy New Year!

Christmas Food Faves

During the holiday season, people eat. (At least I know I do!) They gather around the kitchen and bake together, stuff turkey together, whip up potatoes and pies–or any wonderful mix of dishes that bring comfort and cheer. And this time of year, some of my favorite vegetables are in season and ready for harvest. At least in Florida.

Compost sweet potatoes make for the most delectable side dish. Even better when topped with marshmallows!

top sweets with marshmallows

 

Brussels sprouts and bacon add intense flavor to any turkey meal.

Savory Brussels Sprouts

My husband prefers corn with his turkey. Why not spice it up and roast it with those last jalapeno peppers from the garden? There’s one good thing about warm weather in December. Tomatoes and peppers enjoy a prolonged harvest season!

roasted corn

Me. I like mashed potatoes and stuffing with my turkey. I also like pie. Pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie–they both work!

sweet potato pie

Speaking of pumpkins… I miss my little wee-one!

kids love pumpkins

She’s a teenager now, but I remember this day in the pumpkin patch like it was yesterday. **sigh** She used to let me buy her clothes, drive her around town and snuggle. But alas, things change. Hug your loved ones. It’s that special time of year…

Merry Christmas!

Pesto Perfection

I love pesto–on most anything. From bread to pasta, cheese to chicken, its sharp distinct flavor and powerful punch makes me reel with delight. Even in the garden, it’s one of my favorite herbs to grow. One simple “brush” with this plant, and I carry its fragrance for hours.

pesto-toast

And for you garden and foodie enthusiasts, it’s very easy to grow. Sunlight, tad bit of fertilizer, well-drained soil and you’re off to the gourmet section right in your very own kitchen. If you grow it out in the garden, basil prefers to be near its “bestie” the tomato plant. Basil is said to improve the flavor of your tomatoes. Love it!

basil-and-tomato-companions

Making pesto is easy. Basil, Parmesan, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, DONE. (I don’t use salt, but it’s definitely a classic addition for this recipe.)

pesto-ingredients

My Cuisinart makes the process of preparing pesto all the more simple, though you can use any blender, really.

pesto-blend

Which is about all you need to do. Basically, you blend everything until a smooth paste forms. (Told you it was easy!) Better yet, you can make this recipe 1 day ahead. A tip for preserving its freshness: cover the top of your sauce with a 1/2 inch layer of olive oil before chilling.

Next, enjoy–over warm pasta, fresh bread, or that boring chicken you needed to spruce up. Or dare I say…turkey?

No worries. It’s all good!

Classic Pesto Sauce

4 cups fresh basil leaves (about 3 large bunches)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 pine nuts

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1 tsp coarse kosher salt (I like Himalayan salt!)

Combine basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic in a blender. Blend until a paste forms. If your basil flies up the sides of your blender, gently push it back down and encourage assimilation with the other ingredients. Add cheese and salt and blend until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and enjoy!

pesto

Variations abound for pesto sauce, including choice of nuts, choice of greens, choice of cheese. For example, walnuts can provide an omega-3 advantage while your cheese can be a combination of Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo, Asiago–have fun with it! How about adding parsley leaves to the mix? Maybe a cilantro version? Mint? Feel free to experiment!

Infusing your passion for gardening with the joy of cooking…

Sweet Onion Savvy

I just picked up my sweet onion sets and couldn’t wait to get them in the ground. They take about six months to grow, meaning my November planting won’t be ready to harvest until at least May, maybe June. But the wait is worth it.

fresh sweet onions

Come spring, I’ll have tons of sweets. And I do mean tons. My local seed store sells these gals in batches of 100, so whether I need that many or not, that’s how many I’m planting. Which brings me to rule number one in my garden: keep it simple and make it easy!

onion-sets-in-channels

Remember my corn channels? I have onion channels now. It’s my new favorite way to plant. I simply drag a hoe down the row, place my onions at the proper distance apart – about 3-4 inches – then back fill them with my compost, ultimately covering them 1 inch deep. Mine are actually closer to 6-8 inches apart, but then again, I want to make sure my babies have room to grow and EXPAND.

back-fill-onion-sets-with-compost

Next, I set the gals upright and water well. Easy! Onions require a moderate amount of fertilizer in equal parts of N, P, K and medium water. Remember not to give them too much nitrogen, or you’ll end up with all leaves and no fruit. No good! Relatively few bugs prefer their pungent taste and smell which makes them all the easier to grow. Wunderbar!

set-onion-sets-upright

And they’re quite content next to their friends, broccoli.

Me? I’m quite content thinking about all the goodies I can make with delicious sweet onions. French Onion Soup, Onions Au Gratin, Baked and Savory Sweet Onions, Sautéed Cabbage and Onions–the list goes on!

Corn Channels

One of the best ways to ensure that your corn retains the moisture it needs for good development is what I call “corn channels.” Basically, these are deep grooves formed in the soil where I then plant my corn seeds. Simple! First, my husband tills the garden with his tractor and then I follow-up with my hand tiller.

tractoring dollar

I could use the channels formed by his tractor, but then my corn plants would not be spaced as I prefer.

deep-channels-for-corn-planting

Corn likes to snuggle. It keeps them safe from high winds. Remember this scene?

corn by storm

Not a pretty day in the garden when your corn sisters have fallen over after a windy day. By planting them closely together, I’m actually protecting them from this very threat. That’s why I pack them tightly together, about 8 – 12 inches apart down the row and also from bed to bed. I place walkways every second row of corn and align my sprinklers accordingly.

corn-in-progress

I think these babies look pretty happy! Next, I’ll interplant lettuce between the corn. The two seem to work well together (remember: lettuce loves everybody when it comes to companion planting!) and will help conserve space. I’ll also be adding hay mulch once my corn becomes better established.

Clever Watering Technique

So here’s a clever method for watering your plants — bury a plastic bottle!

tomato-water-bottle

That’s right. Think of this method as recycling at its finest. You consume the contents of, say, a water bottle, then you poke holes in the sides, bury it next to your plant and ta-da! You have a root watering system. VERY important for tomato plants. It’s quite efficient for tomatoes, because they HATE water on their leaves. It can lead to fungus and tomatoes HATE fungus. Come to think of it, I hate fungus, too!

tomato-soda-bottle-water-method

When I discovered this image while perusing Pinterest, I thought, “Very cool.”

Of course, I had to give it a whirl. Stay-tuned! I’ll keep you posted on how well it works. Speaking of cool watering systems, check out this futuristic-looking hydroponics setup. It’s a hydroponic green sphere that allows for growing vegetables all winter long.

hydroponic-gardening1

Pretty cool, huh? And all the rage. More and more gardeners are opting for hydroponic systems. Not only are they “cleaner,” but they allow for more control, longer growing seasons and conservative watering practices. Win-win-win! Check out my blog post on Hydroponics for more details.

How To Grow Peanuts

These are the gems of the South, sold in stores green and ready for boiling. Wonderful for roasting, making homemade peanut butter, this is the garden crop for kids.

oven-baked "roasted" peanuts

And peanuts are easy to grow. Really, while you’re on summer vacation, these guys will be basking in the sunshine. Peanuts like it warm and are light feeders, however they do like their calcium. Be sure to supplement, say, tossing in a few crumbled eggshells at time of planting. You’re peanuts will be happy. And because they grow underground, be sure your soil is light and fluff–soft beds are always best!

add compost to peanut plants

After the last frost, plant your peanuts in the ground, about 3-4″ deep. Amend the soil with a bit of compost or composted manure, just to give them a good start. Note of caution here, if you live where the crows and critters are prevalent, consider covering your bed of peanuts with a screen material, securing it over them.

peanut debris

This will prevent the marauders from stealing your buried peanuts and sprouts.  They will. I’ve seen them. The evidence is shown above. Once your plants grow to be about 4-6″ you can remove the screen. They’re safe now.

peanut flower blossom

Water heavily until your peanuts set their pegs.  Pegs are the spindly “legs” you’ll see dropping from your peanut plant after the appearance of beautiful yellow flowers. The peg is actually the flower’s stem and peanut embryo. It will bend toward the soil and bury itself. When it does, help out by mulching around the plants with hay/straw.

row of peanuts

To harvest, check for peanuts about two months after the appearance of blooms. Similar to potatoes, you must poke around the soil GENTLY as you search for ripe peanuts. They are delicate at this stage, their outer skin papery and thin. Think about the skin of a newborn baby. VERY soft and delicate until it becomes accustomed to the air and sun. Same thing. If you find your peanuts are of nice size, ease the entire plant from the soil and shake excess dirt.

peanut roots

Lay out in the sun for several days, preferably on a screen or something similar to keep it off the ground. This will toughen the skin. Next up, separate the peanuts from the plants and place in a warm, dry spot for a few weeks. This will cure them and prepare them for storage. If kept in an air-tight container, your peanuts will last for months. These are the same peanuts you can plant next season. Or, better yet, use them right away for boiling. Using fresh green peanuts cuts boiling time, considerably.

boil stove top

If you’ve never had a boiled peanut, try one. They really are worth the exercise, then start a batch of your own using the recipe found here on my blog. Southern Boiled Peanuts are divine!

Problems: Other than the previously mentioned crows and critters, peanuts don’t have a lot of trouble growing. Crickets and grasshoppers seem to prefer other vegetables in my garden over peanuts. Occasionally, your peanuts will get spots on their leaves, maybe a fungus of some kind, but in my experience, the damage is minimal. However, if they suffer extremely moist conditions, they can develop a fungus known as aspergillus which in turn produces a toxin known as aflatoxin. Boiling can eliminate this danger, but it might be best to discard of the fungus-peanuts. Your call.

Good Companions: Beets, carrots, corn, cucumber, squash.

Bad Companions: Kohlrabi, onions.

Health Benefits: Except for those plagued by peanut allergies, peanuts are quite healthy. Not only an excellent source of vitamin E, niacin, biotin and folate, peanuts contain resveratrol, the same ingredient found in red grapes that infamously make red wine healthy for the heart! Studies have also found high concentrations of antioxidant polyphenols, and that roasting actually increases the benefit of this antioxidant. Wunderbar! Just remember, they are high in fat, so consume in moderation.

How To Solarize Soil

Now that its summertime and the family and I are consumed with thoughts of frolicking through rolling waves and sparkling pool water, my garden is at rest. July in Central Florida is simply too hot to grow most fruits and vegetables so we gardeners go dormant. Not completely, mind you. Peanuts and peppers thrive in the heat, but most beds have been closed.

But closed doesn’t mean “off-duty.” Quite the opposite. As any savvy gardener knows, work WITH Mother Nature and you will reap plentiful rewards! What are we doing this July?

heavy duty black paper

We’re solarizing our garden. Using heavy black paper, we cover our empty beds and allow the sun to do the work. What work?

Ridding our soil of microscopic varmints. Nematodes, to be precise. The kind that devour plants from beneath the surface. They’re a horrible nuisance in the garden. Absolutely horrible.

However, not one to despair, I vow to rid my garden of every last beast if it’s the last thing I do. I’ve got a fall garden to think about and I WON’T be put off.

So I’m solarizing my garden. I’m covering every last row with heavy black paper and using the power of the Florida sun to cook the beasts out of hiding.  If they want to survive, anyway, they’ll have to “abandon garden” and flee for safer—cooler—soil.  Solarize is the technical term. Basically it means to cover your beds with plastic paper–I’m going with hot black–and leave it in place for six weeks.  The heat gathering beneath the paper will cook the soil and whatever is underground will cease and desist.  Simple, eh?

effective paper weights

I do love simple. Key to remember in this process is to secure the paper. Florida summer means heat but it also means afternoon thunderstorms. Winds pick up and if you haven’t secured your paper in place, Mother Nature will whip it up and away and into shreds. She’ll toss it everywhere but where it was supposed to be. Remember: work WITH Mother Nature, understand her ways, and you can succeed. I used heavy white tile, miscellaneous rebar—whatever is heavy enough to keep the peace (read: the paper in place).

mound of dirt beneath paper

Occasionally one must be wary of other underground pests such as moles. Those babies can move a lot dirt and re-shape your paper. Be vigilant. You will prevail.

Come fall, everyone will be happy. Mother Nature will have cooled off, the varmints will have cleaned out, and my soil will be ready for seeds. Wunderbar!

These Dollars I DON’T Need

These are dollar weeds. Also known as hydrocotyle, or pennywort, they’re an incessant nuisance. They grow ferociously in moist, well-watered areas. Like my garden.

dollars everywhere

Basically, they’re lily-pad like leaves attached to vines that grow deep in the soil sprouting leaves every six inches. I spray them with garden safe weed-killer but it only succeeds in killing off the leaves I hit. The vines beneath the surface simply detour, or sprout new leaves. The only way to rid your garden of them is to pull them. UGH. No fun.

tractoring dollar

Or call tractor-man. He’s always helpful when it comes to churning up roots and dirt. More