harvest

Perfect Pizza Topping

As a budding Italian (I married into the family), I continually strive to improve my culinary talents with regard to all things Italian. Tomato sauce, gnocchi, homemade pasta, pizza dough… There is an art to creating these dishes and of course, success depends on which Italian is tasting the final results. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I’ll admit that pizza dough is tough one. It’s an endeavor my daughter and I tackled a few years back and the finished product looked good…

pizza!

But it wasn’t my favorite. The red sauce was delicious, the crust only so-so. And if you’ve ever met an Italian, they are VERY particular about the pizza dough they prefer. Everything else is simply sub-par. Hmph.

One recipe we have been working to perfect is our peppers. Mixed with oil and spices, these are wonderful served on a slice of fresh bread or–as I prefer–on pizza.

fill pepper jars to the brim

Normally I grow Hungarian Wax peppers for this purpose, however, lately we’ve expanded our selection to Sunset peppers. They look the same, taste nearly identical and work like a charm when it comes to pizza topping. Now there are some who will turn their nose away at my detour from the classic Hungarian style pepper, but me? I go with what works, what’s available, and what tastes good. I’m easy that way!

And canning peppers is easy. All you do is harvest, rinse, slice and remove seeds, cover with salt overnight to dehydrate the peppers, then rinse and dry the next morning, fill your jars, seal your tops, boil for 15 minutes and allow to cool. Done! For complete instructions, check my recipe page for Hungarian Wax Peppers.

Sweetest Tears You’ll Never Cry

Something about homegrown sweet onions doesn’t make you cry. You leap for joy, you eat your heart out, but you don’t cry–not when you’re cutting them you don’t. I only cry when I run out for the season!

fresh sweet onions

And they taste sweeter than any onion I’ve ever purchased from the store. Yep, they’re that good and very easy to grow. In fact, the only problem I can find with sweet onions is waiting for the harvest!

sweet onions almost ready

They don’t require a lot of attention or bug spray, only water, which is why I make a point to heavily mulch my onions. Makes sense when you consider their body is made up of mostly water. And when they’re ready, they’ll die back so you know when to harvest. More

Harvesting Sweets for Thanksgiving!

Oh, what a fabulous day when the sweet potatoes are ready! Now mind you, we could have harvested these babies a few weeks back, but it’s oh-so-much more fun to harvest them in time for the holidays. Sweet potatoes are a staple on our Thanksgiving table. Actually, in our house these potatoes make a year round appearance because not only are they delicious, they’re healthy.

Wonderful! We do love healthy. But now is the time when sweet potatoes are actually “in season” in Central Florida. So, with this in mind, we scooped away the dirt and voilá ~ potatoes!

Kids LOVE this part. Harvesting potatoes is commonly referred to as “swimming” for potatoes and once you let that cat out of the bag, the kids come running. Really puts a nick in my child’s playover when their friends want to garden (ugh-moan) instead of kick the soccer ball around. But gardening is that much fun.

Now, when digging for these guys, one must be careful. An aggressive scrape from your shovel WILL leave a mark on that potato you don’t see until you hit it. Gashes detract from your potato’s storage ability so do be aware.

swimming for sweet potatoes

Best tactic is to don the gloves and get to fingering your way through the dirt.  Most potatoes will be collected under the main root system, however, don’t be surprised if you find potatoes on extended vines several feet away. In our case, we actually found some beneath my lovely black-papered walkways!

our school harvest sweet treats

It’s an adventure. Anyhoo, once you’ve gathered a basket full, gently rinse the dirt from their bodies and set in a cool, dry place to store. Anxious to cook them? Thought you would be. Why not try this Deep Dish Casserole? It has an orange twist to it and is absolutely divine on the tastebuds.  Sweet Potato French Fries are also delightful and of course, Sweet Potato Pie proves a huge hit with everyone. No matter how you slice these golden girls you’ll be pleased with the outcome. And remember, sweet potatoes are healthy. Loaded with vitamins A and C, these are superfoods when it comes to anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory power. Enjoy!

Got Onions?

And lots of them? Well, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering where and how you’re going to store them all. You see, my local seed store sells these sweets in bundles of 100. While it’s fun to plant 100 bulbs and harvest fresh sweet onions for your dining pleasure, 100 onions coming to maturity at one time is a lot. Once more, I planted the excess bulbs from our school garden, driving my total up to near 150.

“Hey, Trip–want some onions?”

“Sure.”  The neighbor friend grins and heads on over to pull a dozen for himself which leaves me with 138. 

A few nights of French onion soup will swallow up another dozen, a carmelized onion tart, sautéed onions for the burgers…an open invitation to the neighbors to pull to their heart’s content and well, I’ve only just broken the 100 point. Staring at my beauties resting quietly in their beds, I’m wondering, Who else would like some fresh onions?

my sweet onions

Gardeners do love to share but we don’t like to waste. So while sitting in my chiropractor’s office waiting for him to twist my back into shape, I got to talking with another patient and lo and behold, a fellow gardener! We do frequent the same places, don’t we? After a while, conversation drifted toward our abundance of harvest and upon learning of my onion dilemma, he shared an onion storage tip with me.  (You’re going to love this one!)  More

Confessions From A Corn Field

Sort of.  I have a confession to make.  I have no plans to plant corn this year. *sigh*  It’s proven a tough plant for me.  Too tough.  Which makes for a very sad day in my household because corn is delicious–especially fresh from the cob.  It’s fun, because the kids can craft corn husk dolls on their way to the compost pile.  It’s versatile, because we can eat it standing between the beds of our garden or hauled up to the house and boiled, roasted or grilled.

kidney beans and corn

And giving up is not in my DNA.  But since I’ve gone organic (the first season after my wonderful neighbors helped me start my garden), I can’t seem to feed my corn enough, de-bug it enough, de-disease it enough.  I won’t say I’ve scored a zero in the endeavor, but the cobs I have harvested are few and far between. The consensus seems to be… More

Hungarian Wax Beauties

Wahoo~my Hungarian Wax peppers are ready to be canned!!  It’s the moment my son has been waiting for.  He can’t wait to get started harvesting–well, in between entertaining the neighbor girl peering at him through the chain link fence, that is.  In between introducing him to all 100 of her imaginary brothers and sisters, her fleet of horses, her real life dogs…

Well, you get the picture.  The boy was distracted, but still managed to snip this bounty of peppers.

Beautiful.  From red to yellow (and a few green we’ll chalk up to the distraction factor), my son has given me quite the beginning for a canning fiesta.  Mind you, he didn’t lug this basket up to the house himself.  I did.  He was busy impressing the young girl with his digging abilities, creating a hole deep enough to step in clear up to his thighs!  Needless to say, she was thrilled. More

Why I Adore Fall Gardening…

It’s cool outside, somewhat cloudy overhead, the ground soaked through.  Rich, composted dirt, lush green growth, there’s a sense of calm hanging in the air.  Walking alongside my beds, admiring Mother Nature in all her glory, it occurs to me that there is more than vegetables and produce here.  There is color, texture.  Emotion, peace.  It’s a sensory experience.

Take my black beauty eggplant and cinnamon basil.  I never noticed this before, but they share common coloring.  Side by side, they’re beautiful, striking.  Leaning close, the scent of spicy basil is distinct, memorable.  Moving further, I’m drawn to my red cabbage. More

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!

Maintain Vigilance

One thing to keep in mind about gardening is maintenance.  Not only do things go “bump in the night,” they go chomp in the garden.

Tami’s lettuce have gone to flower, now taller than her okra, and the bugs are in hog heaven–sans the swine.  Ick.  At this point, Tami need only remove the plants and put them in the compost pile–her new compost pile!  Yep, she’s decided to join the organic ranks and start her own compost pile, beginning with the pile of oak leaves she recently raked up.  Smart.  Very smart.  Best of all, it’s mere feet from her garden.

The okra are growing gangbusters and spitting out “cobs” all over the place.  One thing to keep in mind when you’re growing okra, is these guys are fast operators.  Once they begin producing, you’ll want to visit every day.  This will ensure you harvest your okra at its most tender because trust me, large cobs of okra are tough and NOT delicious.  Great for seed saving though!

Always a silver lining (if you know where to look).  Moving right a long… Tami has her first watermelon.  Isn’t it adorable?

Won’t be long before this little guy is burgeoning from the vine.  Note on watermelon harvest:  in Florida, these babies have a tendency to explode during hot summer days, so while you’re visiting each and every day, keep an eye on the melons.  Give em’ a tap and when you hear the nice dull “thump” sound, pull that rascal from the vine and haul it onto the picnic table.  Another good indicator is to check the curly tendrils.  Light green = not ready.  Brown and dry = thump it baby, thump it!

Another technique is to press your thumb nail into the skin.  If it makes an indentation, not ready.  No mark, you should be good to pull.  Tomatoes are a much easier fruit when it comes to harvest detection.  Red, they’re ripe.  Green they’re not–unless you’re a Southerner and like your tomatoes green.  Tami’s are looking mighty fine.

Her basil could use a little pinching.  I prefer to pinch the budding blossoms from mine before they reach 1/2 inch, then toss them into my lunch salad.  Mmmm…  Aromatic and delicious.  Did you know that basil eases digestion?  Wunderbar.  Nothing like making my roughage go down “easier.” 🙂

Have you seen the recipe for my favorite summer salad?  Strawberry and goat cheese and oh-so-delicious!  Add basil for an added delight.

And since we’re speaking of maintenance, these squash need some attention.  Fungus.  Very hard to rid the Florida garden squash of fungus, what with all our rain and humidity, but we must. 

This plant wants to survive and produce more squash.  It simply needs a helping hand.  So Tami will remove the diseased leaves and allow the center healthy green ones to thrive.   Remember, your plants want to produce and sustain you.  They just need a little help sometimes!

Whipping Up Some Potatoes

Okay, maybe not whipped per se, but definitely a whirlwind of yum in the kitchen.  Last week we harvested potatoes, this week we eat them! Gosh, I love gardening, don’t you?

And these were easy to make.  A little olive oil, fresh chopped rosemary, salt and pepper and this time, we added a bit of Parmesan to the mix in lieu of sweet onions.  Delicious.  From kindergarten to middle school these potatoes were a hit.  Next!  Recipe can be found here.

In the garden this week, the kids pulled out the remaining potato plants, squash, and corn in preparation for crop rotation.

Now you’re probably wondering, corn?  I don’t recall seeing any corn.  Well, they weren’t much to see unfortunately.  I mean, they were exciting for the kids, but not much when it comes to cobs.

Perhaps we didn’t feed them enough.  Corn are pigs in the garden and maybe our eyes were smaller than their appetites.  They’re cute, but should be twice the size. We’ll work on it.

Moving right along, peanuts will fill our beds over the summer.  As part of our crop rotation, these guys are awesome because they fix the soil with nitrogen–especially important after the hogs wiped it clean of any and all nutrients.  Yes, I’m talking about corn and squash, even potatoes.  Peanuts love the heat, too and will take near about the entire summer break to grow and mature, about 3-4 months.  Remember: plants like soft beds of dirt–especially peanuts.  The plants drop pegs or “stems” into the ground and that’s where the peanuts form.  If the soil is too hard, the peanuts will have a hard time of it. So make it easy and loosen that soil!

We won’t follow our row of black beans with peanuts, because they’re part of the same rotation family.  Instead, will “close” that row off and wait until fall, maybe plant some broccoli or cabbage, both of whom love nitrogen.  Why?  Because they’re “leaves” and leaves love nitrogen.  Sing it with me kids:  beans, leaves, roots and fruits! (It’s our preferred order for crop rotation.)  Beans, leaves, roots and fruits!

Seed Sale begins on Monday which means the kids have furiously cutting and gluing their seed packets together and filling them with seed.  We have a wagon-full of black beans and pole beans to sell, plus some squash, sunflower and even tomato (some of which will have to be handed out the week after as you can’t rush Mother Nature!).  Cucumber didn’t fare so well, but we won’t give up on them.  There’s always fall! 🙂

Not only will we raise money for the garden, but the students will reap the rewards of independence knowing they are FULLY sustainable.  From seed to harvest to dish, glove to tool to feed and mulch, they’ll take pride in the fact it all stemmed from their effort.  The way I see it, self-reliance breeds self-respect.  And that’s a good thing.