garden

Hornworms Anonymous

I quit.  I’ve had it up to here with the dastardly hornworm.  He’s BACK in my garden and devouring my tomato plants at alarming rates.  Egads–have you ever seen anything so horrid?

It’s not pretty.  Probably can’t see him in there, tucked beneath the leaves.  But look closely.  Head like a walrus on one end, cute little tail like a puppy dog on the other, these creatures can eat their weight in tomato leaves in the space of ten minutes, taking out your entire plant by the end of the day.  (Those missing leaves are his doing.) More

Updates

Remember the horrible squash washout?  The one where someone–Mother Nature, mystery visitor or something–washed the end of my squash row to nothing?

Well, I solved the mystery.  I didn’t tell you, but it happened again. Twice.  The first time I thought it may have been the rain, but the second? More

Now We’re Talking Icky Eaters

Plants.  Plants are icky eaters.  They eat stuff like worm and chicken poop, cow manure, fish emulsion, blood and bone meal and seaweed.  Yuck.

But those are the organic sources for the important nutrients like N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium) that plants need, so that’s what we give them. More

What the Heck Happenend?

Yesterday morning I strolled out to the garden, ready for a day of transplanting tomatoes and peppers.  You may recall I started my seed trays a month or so back and now felt ready to settle the little darlings into their new home.  The kids had their cousins over for a sleepover and I’d enlisted their help. Gardening is BIG fun for those kids without their own garden at home (though I was pleased to learn their public school has a garden).  As we strolled down the rows, tomato trays in hand, we stopped short.  There, in the middle of my perfectly lined walkway was a pile of mud.  Looking further, we noticed the entire end of squash were washed out.  I mean, seriously washed out.

More

Friends Planting Friends in the Garden

This week the kids learned the concept of companion planting.  Simply put, grouping plants together by how they can help each other is one of the secrets to organic gardening.  (So is worm poop, but we’ll get to that later.)  Squash bugs LOVE squash plants but they HATE radish.  So how about we plant radish next to our squash?

Our radish help our squash by preventing an attack of squash bugs!  How great a friend is that? More

Companion Planting and Your Garden

As my fall garden season approaches, my mind is filled with visions of splendor.  With a freshly tilled garden, I can see my plants grow lush and full, their bounty promising a fruitful harvest.  What do I want to grow this year?  More important question is what do I want to eat?

Pumpkins.  Or should I say, homemade pumpkin pie.  The kids and I are set on pumpkins this year, both at home and school, so those babies are first on the list.  Second?  Beans, of course.  Who doesn’t love beans?  And onions–but not in adjoining beds.  No.  These two do not care for each other and will not yield the fabulous crop of my imagination.  Why not?

They’re not good companions in the garden and companion planting is KEY when it comes to organic gardening.  What is it and why do we do it?  In a nutshell–or bean pod–it’s organizing your beds according to plants that help one another and steering clear of those combinations that don’t.  For more details, my friends have Companion Planting have explained it pretty well:

Companion planting is based around the idea that certain plants can benefit others when planted next to, or close to one another.  It exists to benefit certain plants by giving them pest control, naturally without the need to use chemicals, and in some cases they can give a higher crop yield.

Generally, companion planting is thought of as a small-scale gardening practice, but it can be applied on larger-scale operations. It has been proven that by having a beneficial crop in a nearby field that attracts certain insects away from a neighboring field that has the main crop can prove very beneficial. This action is called trap cropping.

While companion planting has a long history, the benefits of companion planting have not always been understood. Traditional recommendations, for companion planting have been used by gardeners for a long time, but recent tests are proving scientifically, that they work.

Other ways that companion planting can be beneficial is to plant a crop like any Legumes, on an area where it will feed nitrogen into the soil, then it will not be necessary to use any chemical fertilizers for the next crop.  (Corn and beans are excellent companions.)

The African marigold, along with other plants, are well-known for companion planting, as they exude chemicals from their roots or aerial parts that suppress or repel pests and protect neighboring plants.  (My roses love marigold!)

Companion planting also exists in a physical way. For example, tall-growing, sun-loving plants may share space with lower-growing, shade-tolerant species, resulting in higher total yields from the land. This is called spatial interaction, and can also yield pest control benefits, for example, the presence of the prickly vines is said to discourage raccoons from ravaging sweet corn.

Another type of companion planting is called Nurse cropping, where tall or dense-canopied plants may protect more vulnerable plants through shading or by providing a wind break. For example, oats have long been used to help establish alfalfa and other forages by supplanting the more competitive weeds that would otherwise grow in their place. In many instances, nurse cropping is simply another form of physical-spatial interaction.

Beneficial habitats-sometimes called refugia—are another type of companion planting that has received a lot of attention in recent years. The benefit is derived when companion plants provide a good environment for beneficial insects, and other arthropods, especially those predatory and parasitic species that help to keep pest populations in check. (Ladybugs are super-beneficial insects, too!)

So as you contemplate your next crop, take companion planting into account and organize accordingly.  It really will make a difference, particularly when it comes to alleviating trouble spots.  From bugs to weeds, companion planting is the way to go.  And anything that takes the “work” out of gardening is a friend to me. 🙂  For an idea of who likes who in the garden, check out their complete list of companion plants.

Going Back to School

Kids head back to school next week which means I as garden coordinator head back with them.  While we didn’t spend a lot of time in the garden over the summer (peanuts are fairly low-maintenance), we have BIG plans for the year ahead, beginning with our pumpkin patch.  As you may recall, last year our pumpkins hit a rough patch of fungus and did not produce the orange beauties we were expecting.  Why not?

Well, we could chalk it up to ambitious gardeners, seed crowding, Florida humidity, the normal stuff–but this year we’re doing things a bit differently.  We have moved locations, giving the pumpkins ample space to stretch out and spread their vines.  We also plan to put mulch beneath them to ward off grass growth.  Kinda hard to cut the lawn around the pumpkins and vines which caused some of the problems.  But no worries.  We will master the art of pumpkin growth this year!  We’ll also harvest our peanuts and generally prepare the garden for our fall crop. 

As to our lessons, we will coordinate garden and classroom for a seamless and common sense approach to education.  Translated:  what they’re learning in class will correspond to what they’re learning in the garden.  Easy enough when it comes to botany and chemistry.  It’s life science in middle school that will prove a bit more, “challenging” shall we say?  Oh yes, we’ll be talking reproduction in the garden, 101. 🙂

If anyone has any suggestions for curriculum or craft ideas, I’m all ears!  On the current agenda we have:   art in the garden to express their creative side, journaling to practice their power of observation and writing skills, science projects with our attempt at building a solar oven, measuring and graphing for a slice of math among the beds, the power of self-sustainability beginning from seed to harvest, then learning to save their seeds for next season, and of course cooking.  We eat what we grow which makes everything taste better.  For added fun, we’re incorporating Spanish into our garden, with bilingual plant signs to vocabulary lists.  Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Oh–and don’t forget the field trip to the worm fun.  Talk about a good time, worms are it.

So follow along with us as we share our garden lessons and crafts and by all means–share some of yours.  We’ll consider it a coop garden of sorts, albeit virtual in nature.

Food Inflation

Now there’s a great way to ruin my day–tell me we’re facing a steep rise in food inflation and my grocery bill is going to hit the roof.  Wheat, soy, corn, milk, meat, it’s all going up.  Up, up, up.  Add this to the fact that our economy isn’t in the greatest of shape and I’d say someone needs a spanking.

Yes, Mother Nature is being a very bad girl this year, though I will give her credit for showering my state of Florida with rain (and won’t mention that she chose to do so while I was on vacation in the sunny–not!–Florida Keys), she is killing the middle of the country with her drought conditions.  In fact, it’s going have a global impact.  Even the price of eggs is expected to shoot up–aagh!

Now my kids won’t miss things like chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers (yes, it’s all going to be affected), but they will miss their eggs and toast.  Make that French toast for my daughter.  On the positive, I think this drought provides an excellent incentive to go grain-free.  Just think of it, you’ll be healthy, your joints will be happy and your moods will please everyone around you. 🙂  It’ll be great!  Except for one small problem:  we have no rain and the price of fresh vegetables is sky-rocketing.

Hmph.  Well, that brings me back to the garden, I guess.  Now I’m not suggesting you folks in the southern half of the country head outdoors and start tilling dirt (please don’t–you might keel over from heat stroke) but it would be a good idea to start planning for your fall garden.  You gardeners in the northern half start adding rows while you can.  And while you’re planning and adding, make sure you have a good rain collection system nearby.  It will help save on the cost of water.  Check out how one homeowner managed the task of homemade cistern.  Easy! 

Another good idea is to go hydropnic;  the method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil.  And the water is recycled through the system for added efficiency.  Perfect!  And completely out of Mother Nature’s hands.  Fast, too.  Need salad in a week?  Grow hydroponically!  You can use towers or buckets–your choice.

No matter which way you choose to garden, now is as good a time as any to consider the prospect.  The food you grow is a lot cheaper than the food you buy.  It’s fresher and healthier, provided you go 100% organic.  But I heard cheaper and THAT’S the bottom line when it comes to food inflation.

Save Those Seeds!

Saving seeds is one of the keys to organic gardening. Not only do you know where they came from, you know what went into producing them—important in this day and age of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Seed saving is all about purity; a concept you must keep front and center in your mind, because if you’re not careful, you can create some hybrids of your own! For example, I’m not sure how it happened, but I have some Pantano variety tomatoes growing in my San Marzano tomato row.  Did I mix up my seedlings or did they cross-pollinate last season?

Hmph.  Not sure. What I do know is that one must be conscious of which seeds go where. To help keep things straight, I’ve created some seed packets to store my seeds, complete with section to keep notes. You can find easy how-to instructions on my website in the Kid Buzz section.

So what is the first step to seed saving? Keep your seeds separate, organized by harvest and variety and learn the recommended “shelf life” for each. Trust me—planting old seeds doesn’t work. Not only will the not germinate, but they take up valuable planting space before you discover the error!

Step two: dry them before storing.  No worse disappointment (other than your Italian red sauce won’t cling to the noodles) than to have saved moldy seeds. Yep.  It happened to my beans one year. I thought you could go straight from pod to packet but oh no, not unless that pod dried on the vine can you do so.  They must be dry, dry, dry.

If you harvest your beans—shell or bush—when they’re perfect and gorgeous, allow them to dry out for a day or so before packing them away for next season. They’ll keep longer.

Easier yet, allow them to dry on the vine. However, be aware that if you don’t harvest them in time, you may find some have already “popped” open and settled into the surrounding soil which means they’ll germinate in place next season.

Peppers are similar in that you remove the seeds and set them out to dry before storing. With the squash family (and okra) you’ll want to remove the “film” coating before storing.  Simply wipe clean and set out to dry.

But all seeds are not treated the same when it comes to storing. Tomatoes require a bit more effort. Once you remove them, you need to put them in a glass (or bowl as shown above) and fill with water (at least an inch or two above the seeds).  Allow to sit undisturbed for a few days. When a white mold begins to form over the seeds, scoop it out and any seeds that go with it.  The seeds left on the bottom of your glass are the ones you want—floating seeds are duds.

Drain water from glass through a fine sieve so you don’t lose any of your precious gems and then rinse with cold water.  Place seeds on a paper plate (paper towel over regular plate will work) and allow to dry completely; a process that may take a few days.  Then slip them into your seed saving packet and you’re good to go!

If you leave your lettuce and broccoli in the ground long enough, seed pods will begin to form and then collection becomes a simple matter of split and save! Find details here.

Carrots and onions are a tad more complicated. Okay, that’s a lie. They’re tough and out of my competency range. But if you’re the adventurous type I’d give it a whirl. (I did!)  And why not? All you have to do is allow the plant to go to flower whereby it will produce seeds. Tiny seeds, yes, but seeds nonetheless. If you can collect them from the flower before they blow away, you’re golden! If not, you’ll be back at your local garden shop.

So this year as harvest approaches think “seed saving” as well as “seed harvesting.” And next season make a point to buy heirloom seeds.  Hybrids won’t reproduce for you—at least not the same gorgeous fruit they produced on the first go-round!—but heirlooms will.  And as always, choose organic!  Happy gardening!

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!