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Wild Ain’t Always Pretty

As an organic gardener, I employ the art of crop rotation in my garden. Basically, after harvesting a bed of glorious bounty, I till the soil and follow the crop with something that is amenable to improving the soil, or at least not depleting it any more than it already has been. For example, after harvesting my corn, I follow with beans in my simple easy-to-follow rotation mantra beans-leaves-roots-and-fruits. (Makes for an easy singalong with kids.) Beans-leaves-roots and fruits! Beans-leaves-roots and fruits!

You get the picture. However, sometimes during my rotation process after my husband mows down my garden with his handy dandy tractor attachment and I amend the soil with my lovely compost, I find some leftovers. Hangers-on. Hold-outs. Call them what you will, but my peanut row–the one that followed my corn–is inundated with clumps of corn and squash.

While they do make decidedly nice companions, this scene ain’t pretty. Definitely not pretty. Now mind you, I prefer productive over pretty, but I’m not sensing these corn are going to be very productive. Too much, too close. Ordinarily I’d pull the unwanted plants from my bed, but this time, I’ve decided to watch and wait, and see what happens. Never know–maybe I’ll get some squash out of the deal! (You probably can’t see them, but there’s squash and that row, too.)

And yes, those are weeds you see all around. But I’ve been out of town for a bit over the last two weeks and weeds are an unwanted consequence. I find it much easier to convince my son to water my plants while I’m gone than to weed them. **sigh** It ain’t pretty, but so long as I can reap the bounty of some fabulous peanuts this summer, it will all be worth it. I’ll keep you posted!

Chive Plants Ready for Seed Harvest

Is your chives plant ready for seed harvest? How do you know?

Passing by them on your way to the rosemary on a gorgeous April day, the sunshine high and bright, the breeze brisk but temperate, you notice your chives plant flowers have some dark seed-looking things perched within them.  The chives flowers have long since lost their bloom (a good sign you’re on your way to seed production), but now what?

“Begin by plucking” is my motto. I pluck those old buds right off the stem and head indoors.  Shaking the black dots off the petals, I gather them into a pile on my counter and run a quick search of the internet for confirmation. Small black bean-shaped seeds.  I look at the computer image, look at my seeds. 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, by golly, it’s time to march back outside and harvest the rest of them!  Excited gardeners are full of energy and exuberance–we don’t wait for nuthin’!  Especially when it comes to harvest. However, remember the brisk April wind I mentioned? Harvesting chives seeds is best done on days with minimal wind.  Of course it is.

But fear not, enthusiastic gardener! You work quickly and meticulously snipping and collecting, depositing into your homemade seed packet. These babies are valuable! You love your chives, don’t you?

Of course you do. Label your packet and hold them until it’s time to plant chives again. If you’re planting indoors, plant chives seeds in the dark at about 60-70F. Once they sprout, move them into the light. If planting outdoors, wait until threat of frost has passed and sow in the ground. Keep in mind they prefer warm rich light soil and lots of sun. By the way, it’s helpful to know that you don’t have to wait until your chives go to seed. You can divide your plants into clumps and replant as a method of increasing the “chives love.” Just be sure that each small plant has about 10-12 buds on it.

Protect Your Tomato Transplants

And believe me, your tender tomato transplants need protection–from all kinds of harmful factors! I garden in Central Florida where spring begins in February and the heat quickly follows. So for me, an important consideration when transplanting my tomato seedling from patio to garden is the sun, and how much my babies can tolerate. Another consideration is bugs. Bugs love warm weather and open spaces, and I have both.

The solution?

Screen. Similar to my screen patio, I use screen to protect my plants in the garden. At least for the first month, anyway. It’s a pretty basic proposition. You can purchase screen material in rolls from your local hardware store–maybe even cut sheets–and the rest is obvious. Measure your length, cut your fabric and cover your plants. My setup is similar to a “pup tent.” I use posts with twine/cable strung between them for my tomato support. I also use the posts as support for my screen. I do love a multi-tasker!

Next, I stabilize my “tent” with anchor pins. These poke through the screen material quite easily and keep the screen in place and away from my plants. Caution: Heavy spring winds can rip the anchor pins from the soil, so check frequently and stabilize as necessary. We had a big windstorm last week and some of my babies were battered.  Not good!

My plants are happy. And when they’re happy, mama’s happy.

Create A Butterfly Garden Today!

Kids love butterflies. And who can blame them?  Talk about excitement, there’s nothing sweeter than watching the fluttering wings of a butterfly in action, knowing they’re making one of the most important contributions in nature. these kids had a ball! Kids get it. So why not help them create their very own butterfly garden?

Which plants will attract butterflies?

Glad you asked.  Bright colors will attract the butterfly as well as sweet delicious nectar.  It also makes it easy for them to find you! Best colors?  The brightest, of course!  Be sure to include bright red, yellow and orange, pinks and purples, too.

Nectar plants are a “must-have” in your butterfly garden, but you can also include non-nectar plants like milkweed and daisies.  Butterflies enjoy them, and it gives them a place to lay their eggs.  Another hint for success?

Keep your flowers close together if possible.  It helps focus the attention of both children and butterflies. In this Montessori garden, we chose the butterfly bush (for obvious reasons), orange and pink pentas, pink and purple petunias, orange-yellow crossandra, sunset gold lantanas and various shades of ixora.

Other good choices would be zinnas, marigold, coneflower, lilac, impatients and asters.  Really hard to go wrong, just check what grows best in your area.

And make sure the kids are hands-on. As you can see, they are amazing when it comes to the garden and quite capable when it comes to the business of transplanting.

With one simple instruction on how-to dig a hole slightly larger than your flower container, they can gently pull the plant free, supporting the stem with one hand and the root ball with the other, then place it into the awaiting hole. Encourage them to lightly pack the dirt back in around it and water thoroughly.

In no time your garden will be filled with bright and lively color, and do you know what?  Butterflies will find you by the end of the day.  Now listen, don’t let this shady photo fool you.  In Florida, fast-moving weather changes are one of those things in life you can count on. Bearing in mind that most butterfly garden flowers prefer full sun, we never worry about a little cloud cover.  We welcome the shade! Especially considering our type of heat.

And speaking of heat, include some stones near your garden to capture and retain the sun’s heat–butterflies like soaking in the rays.  They also like splashing in puddles, so create a small “pond” nearby for them to drink up.  After all, you don’t want them leaving this beautiful enclave for a water trip, do you?

No way!  We don’t want them flitting anywhere but here.  Now what are YOU waiting for?  Get busy and send out the invites!  You’ll have butterflies fluttering around your yard in no time.

Got Seeds? Make Sure You’re Buying the RIGHT Ones!

It’s time to buy your seeds!  If you haven’t been saving your seeds, that is.  Now mind you, for those of you who are saving seeds, I completely understand how you could become so excited over your tomato crop and making sauce that you completely forgot to save a few ripe tomatoes for the purpose of saving seeds.  Yep, you plopped them right into the boiling water for blanching without the first thought to seed-saving.  It happens.  It’s okay.  More tomato seeds are on my list, too.

seed shopping

But take heart!  You’re enjoying the thrill of gardening, reaping what you sow and cooking the dickens out of it.  It’s understandable that you get carried away. As for my raw food fans, the concept remains the same.  Chopping seeds in your Cuisinart isn’t helpful for seed saving, so slow down…take a deep breath and think before you throw the switch. 🙂  I’m just sayin’…

But there’s something very important that you must keep in mind when the seed catalogs arrive. After you eagerly run to the mailbox (or jog—as ice tends to be slippery) and pull out those gorgeous pages filled with plump ripe fruits and vegetables, a colorful array of flowers and herbs, and peruse the list of seed offerings–make sure you’re searching for heirloom seeds.  Not hybrid, not super-duper-extra-sweet or double the normal growth potential…  Uh, uh.  You want heirloom and preferably organic.  Why?

my salsa tomatoes

Because once you plant hybrid seeds, the ones meant to overcome Mother Nature’s deficiencies (don’t let her hear you say that out loud) and harvest the produce and save your seeds, you’ll be sorely disappointed next season.  Hybrids aren’t natural and when you replant the seeds, your new crop of plants will not reproduce the original fruit — if they germinate at all.  Say you plant a hybrid Better Boy variety one season—thrilled with the beasts of bounty this seed produces—then save some seeds for next season, you need to be aware that your next crop might be a disappointing array of cherry-like tomatoes.  It happens. And it’s sad when it does.

So save yourself the heartache and buy heirloom.  Heirloom is straight up what it promises on the label, year after year after year.  Plant your seeds according to package instructions and keep moist.  Think of them as babies and treat them as such.  This spring I’m putting Hungarian Wax back on my list. Last season was disappointing, but this year? We’re going gangbusters!

Wish me luck!  Until then…happy gardening!

Edible Landscaping Ideas

We’re thinking “out” side of the garden and moving our focus to the house–or patio! After all, why should we limit ourselves to traditional methods of gardening when there are so many other ways (and places) we can garden?

Gardening is simply too exciting.  Take rosemary, for instance.  I love rosemary and not just because it thrives without much attention—always a plus for me—but because the mere touch releases a heady rise of fragrance into the air.  It stops me in my tracks.  It reminds me of the simple pleasures in life.  And in this fast-paced world we live, it’s something we could all be reminded of more often.

My rosemary is located just outside my patio door, one herb of many in my kitchen garden (unlike my vegetable garden, this one is located close to the house for easy access when cooking).  What began as a small plant, no more than 12 in. tall (a Christmas gift I received a few years back), it now consumes the entire corner of my herb garden!

I’ve cut it back several times and used the clippings for rosemary lemonade, gift tag attachments, cooking additive, an aromatic sachet and the like, but a trip to California changed the way I look at rosemary.  California will do that to you, won’t it?

In the dry desert climate and undoubtedly fertile soil, this plant lines the sidewalks, flanks entryways and generally grows like a weed, albeit a fragrant one.  But then it hit me—why not at my house?  If I can grow the plant in my herb garden, I can grow it elsewhere, right? What a beautiful concept…practical, productive, this plant can serve as both décor and edible delicacy. I do love a multi-tasker.

Then I got to thinking, if my rosemary can have dual functionality, what other plants can do the same? How about a lavender lined walkway, bordered in front by a sumptuous row of assorted lettuce varieties? Colorful, delectable, munchable.

Shoot, while we’re at it, why not move the whole garden up to the house? I have to change out those pretty flowers each season, anyway.  Why not replace them with edible foliage? A lovely carrot-edged path? And if it gets too cold, I’ll transition them into containers.  They look lovely inter-planted with flowers, as well.

Why, with this new attitude twist, I feel like I have an entirely new garden adventure ahead of me! How about you?

Companion Planting and Your Garden

As my spring 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, What do I want to eat?

Tomatoes.  Or should I say, pasta sauce.  I’ve been having such good luck with my tomatoes that I might increase the yield this spring. 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.

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. In some cases, plants can give one another a higher crop yield. Some are even touted to improve the flavor of neighboring plants. Take basil and tomato, for instance. Plant these “friends” together and your tomatoes will be even more delicious!

Backyard gardens use companion planting on a small-scale, but it can be applied on larger-scale operations. By having a beneficial crop in a nearby field that attracts certain insects away from the main crop, commercial growers have found the practice to be very beneficial. It’s called trap cropping.

While companion planting has a long history, going back to the Native Americans and their employment of the “Three Sisters,” the benefits have not always been understood. Sounds simple enough: plant corn and beans together, allowing the beans to climb the corn stalk while fixing nitrogen into the soil. Squash plants shade the ground, preventing weeds and retaining moisture. However, recent tests are proving scientifically, that this practice works!

 

The French marigold, along with other plants, is well-known for companion planting. It exudes chemicals from its roots, or aerial parts, that suppresses or repels pests, protecting 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 prickly vines is said to discourage raccoons from ravaging sweet corn.

Nurse cropping is a method whereby tall or dense-canopied plants can protect more vulnerable plants through shading or providing a wind break. 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—have 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 this list of companion plants compiled by Mother Earth News.

Mulch Necessities

Mulch is an integral part of organic gardening. Not only does it help conserve a precious resource, it breaks down and contributes to the organic matter in the soil. And, if that wasn’t enough, mulch helps prevent weeds. Win-win-win. Gotta love it!

Not to mention it’s inexpensive (or can be!). I use pine mulch from my neighbor’s yard. It’s free and easy, and a great way to acidify the soil–important for plants like potatoes and blueberries. Gardenias and azaleas love acid, too.

I also recycle the fall décor placed by my front door every October. Scarecrows and hay bales lend themselves well to fall festivities and ambiance, but hay also works well in the garden.

April and May, when I’ve harvested my sweet onions and potatoes, if the mulch is still in decent shape, I’ll use it around my peanuts. If not, I’ll simply till it back into the soil.

Garden leaves work well as mulch, as do grass clippings–so long as no pesticides are used on the lawn. If so, keep it FAR away from your organic garden!  Newspaper is another good source of mulch. The ink used these days is non-toxic and safe for garden use. Just make sure you’ve read all of the important pages, first.

Plastic paper is sold as mulch. Many gardeners prefer red, because the red light wavelengths stimulate the growth of tomato plants via a reaction with a pigment in the tomato plants – study done by Montana State University. Penn State did their own study that revealed blue did an even better job. Go figure. Other colors are also available.

Whichever method of mulching you use, do use one as opposed to none. It’s better on all counts!

Don’t Let This Happen To You

Sweet peas need your support. I mean, they’re easy to grow, delicious to eat, tolerant of the cold… What more could you ask for from a vegetable?

Nothing. So don’t make the same mistake I made. Give them the support they need to grow tall and strong and oh-so-delightful! They deserve it. You deserve it. Besides, it will make your life easier in the long run. Trust me.

Look at this sad state of affairs in my sweet pea bed. It’s embarrassing! Now I’m no stickler for perfection. I know that plants grow all by themselves out in nature and that includes living with weeds. But they don’t grow as well when forced to crawl along the ground. They interfere with their neighbors–in this case, broccoli–and they’ll develop all kinds of nasty leaf ailments. Listen. These gals are as gorgeous as they are sweet. You don’t really want them to sit in dirt, do you?

Of course not! I couldn’t stand the thought of anything soiling these delicate blossoms.

Now that we have that settled, take a word of advice from this avid gardener. When staking your pea trellis, make sure the lowest line of support is about 8 inches from the ground. Any taller, and your sweets will be struggling to reach it. They grow quick–and straight up–so make sure there’s something for them to grab hold of once they get going.

That way, they’ll be able to wrap their gorgeous tentacles around the line (clothing line, in this example) and keep on reaching for the sky. The next support should be about the same distance above the first. You might be able to stretch a few more inches between your lower support level and the next, but if you have the material, use it. You’ll be glad you did. Incorporate a third and fourth level while you’re at it, using bamboo for added support as they grow.

These sweet peas grow to be 3-4 feet in height and get quite heavy once they start producing pods. And they will produce–a TON.

In fact, sweet peas are one of my favorite plants to grow. I’m the only one in the family who eats them, because I visit the garden daily and consume sweet peas during my visits. They’re what I refer to as “garden snacks.” You know, the harvest that never makes it to the house?

Absolutely delicious!

 

Poinsettia Perfection

leggy poinsettiaMany of you know that I’ve been working hard to save my Poinsettia plants from year to year. Not because I’m cheap and don’t want to purchase beautiful new plants every year (though there is a nugget of truth in that statement), I do like a challenge. And this year, I’ve conquered the everlasting Poinsettia challenge.

I’ve achieved partial success in the past. They survived from years past, but were a bit too leggy and awkward for me to consider a glowing success.

But this year was different. I strategically placed them in and around my current landscape–in the line of sprinklers, mind you–and crossed my fingers. Sure I fed and clipped them throughout the year but that was pretty much it.

And how was I rewarded? With these darling Poinsettia. Aren’t they fabulous?

poinsettia success

They’re full and gorgeous and look right at home next to my existing Indian Hawthorne. I also saved a white Poinsettia. Isn’t she a beauty?

white poinsettia

Lovely. Simply, lovely.

What’s the secret?

Indirect sunlight and protected from cool drafts.  As a native of Mexico, this plant doesn’t like the cold, so whenever the temperature dips below 50-55 degrees, you must be vigilant and cover it else it shrivel up and die.

Also, it prefers less than 12 hours of sunlight, which makes the west and north side of my property best. Better bet is to keep them in complete darkness from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am. Remember to water them regularly (Poinsettia don’t like to dry out) and feed them a well-balanced fertilizer come spring.

dualing poinsettia

Stimulating them with a little “root tonic” couldn’t hurt.  The shock from their lovely potted plant status to in ground can be quite daunting.  Hopefully, you have some worms on the welcoming committee as you place them in ground and all will be well. 

When summer rolls around, I’ll cut mine back to encourage healthy new growth for the upcoming holiday season. When December arrives, I’ll cut back on the fertilizer and allow my gorgeous girls to bloom. Easy peasy. Your turn!