how to

Peanuts! Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

It’s that time again when peanut blossoms take center stage.  Gorgeous and delicate, these sweet yellow beauties are the sign of good things to come.  Below the bright green leaves are spindly legs—better known as “pegs”—bend down in search of soft dirt.  Once found, they bury themselves for the process of forming peanuts.  Like carrots, they prefer loose soil (makes it easier to reach down and form nice full shells).  At this point, you may want to mulch around their base, much like you do for your potatoes.

Memories from last year’s crop drift into the forefront of my mind.  I love peanuts.  Not only because they’re easy to grow, low maintenance—what, we’re growing peanuts?—partial toFlorida’s heat and practically pest resistant, but because they remind me of my childhood.

Football season is right around the corner and my mom used to treat us to pots full of boiled peanuts.  She’d add salt, despite my suggestion to the contrary (her mother was from South Georgia and I don’t believe these folks ever met a dish with too much salt) and let him soak stove top for hours.  Me?  I like a bit of Cajun spice in mine.  Salt only makes me retain water and that I can do without!

If you’ve never grown peanuts for yourself, you should.  Kids love peanut butter and it’s a recipe they’ll enjoy making at home, not to mention hubby may appreciate the boiled or roasted version—as they mix quite well with a frosty mug of sudsy beer. 

When planting your peanuts, be sure to include rich organic compost and/or composted manure.  And throw in a hand-full of crushed eggshells.  These nuts really like the calcium kick!  Here in Florida, we grow Valencia peanuts which take about 3-4 months until harvest. 

If you remember, we simply cracked open the shell and buried the peanut.  About two months after bloom, when your leaves begin to yellow, you’ll want to lightly dig down around one of your plants to check their progress—easy to use a fork to lift the pegs from the dirt.  A ripe peanut will feel firm, its outer shell somewhat dry and “papery.” 

Once ready, gently pull entire plant from the soil, shake off the excess dirt and lay on a screen in the sun for 2-3 days before shelling to cure.  This is for the purpose of longer storage.  If you’re boiling your peanuts, you want them green.  Do not attempt to boil roasted peanuts.  They’ve already been cooked!

But don’t worry—if your peanuts have already dried out and you get a craving for boiled peanuts, you’re in luck!  By soaking dried nuts for 24 hours you can “re-hydrate” them prior to the boiling process.  Check my recipe section for details.

Aflatoxin is listed as a concern with raw peanuts, mostly when there’s too much moisture.  Most sources I read suggest this risk is reduced by drying and more so by roasting.  Boiling may eliminate this problem altogether! 

Hey…   Maybe that’s why it started?  Peanuts are also healthier when cooked—something about the heating process releases their nutrients for easier absorption. Either way, peanuts are a great crop.  They’re easy to grow, easy to harvest and make for a great fall season snack—roasted, boiled or even eaten raw (with caution, of course).

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!

Tragedy in Wormville

It’s a sad day when I must report to you that my worms are gone. Yep.  Every last one of them, gone, bye-bye, escapees from the worm bin leaving only their stinky remnants behind.  Which is your first clue.  Stinky.  Remember, a properly maintained worm bin doesn’t stink.  It doesn’t smell, doesn’t bother anybody…  It just exists for them to produce. 

So when I returned home from a week in the mountains and removed the lid, you can see how the unpleasant waft gave away the fact there was a problem. Combined with the dried carcasses on the garage floor around my bin, it was no stretch to realize what had happened.  My heart sank.  I poked through the nasty gooey debris, but nothing.  No sight of those gorgeous red wriggly bodies to be had anywhere.

Now mind you when I left, the bin was healthy and clean and my babies had plenty to eat.  They were fabulous!  And worms should be able to make it a week without my help.  Granted my husband remained home while the kids and I jaunted through hiking trails, leapt from waterfalls and cavorted along the paths of Rock City but remember:  he’s not exactly a fan of the worm bin, especially as it’s located within close proximity to his vehicle.  I can only hope he wasn’t standing there cheering them on.  “Run, Willy, Run!”

I wouldn’t put it past him.  While supportive of my endeavors, he’s a reluctant worm farmer to say the least and he’d rather buy bags of the dried stuff from our local seed store.  “Aren’t you trying to be a localvore, honey?  Why not support your local merchants and buy their worm poop?”

Very funny.  I’m working toward self-sustainability, remember?  As for my worms, I won’t give up.  I hate to give up.  After our planned trip to the worm farm this month, I’ll be armed with the secrets of successful worm binning just you watch.  Until then, I’m open to suggestion! 🙂

Spring Sweet Onion Harvest

Oh how I love this time of year!  After six long months of tending, weeding and waiting (the latter of which this gardener doesn’t do particularly well), my onion tops went brown and fell over so I duly dug these puppies up–gently.  Woohoo!  Someone ring the cow bell and dance the farmer’s jig–the sweet onions are ready!  And we have some doozies.  Big ones, round ones, small ones and–

What the heck?  Red ones?  I never planted any red ones.  How did these little pumpkins end up amidst my splendor of sweet white onions?

Hmph.  Told you those bags of seeds and plants you buy come stocked with all sorts of surprises.  Remember Tami’s blueberry/weed?  Well here’s the proof it can happen to anyone.  Red onions were mixed in my batch of onion sets.  Oh, well.  We humans are fallible, aren’t we?

I forgive them.  Besides, these look awfully tasty.  A bit of “Siamese Twins” growth going on, what with them joined at the bulb, but who cares?  I bet that won’t make one iota of difference once I chop them into salsa.  Or maybe I’ll cook them up with some of my black beans.  Mmm…

Yes, maybe it’s time for some black bean soup.  Those onions I don’t use right away I’ll store in my special covered onion basket or chop them up for the freezer.  I could always braid them to hang and store.  Looks kinda cool. 🙂  For best storage prep, lay your onions out for a sun bath (in Florida, you might want to do this under the shade of a tree).  Give them about a week to crisp their delicate papery skins.  Helps in lengthening storage time.

One year, a few of my onions began to flower.  Had I waited (remember, patience is not my strong suit), I could have learned the art of onion seed saving.  Though come to think of it, I didn’t have a lot of luck with the onion seeds I purchased and planted.  Should I really go to all the trouble of doing it myself?

Perhaps.  They are extra sweet when enjoyed fresh from the garden.  And barely a tear in the kitchen when it comes to slicing and dicing.  *sigh*  We’ll see.  Don’t count me out of the onion seed saving business yet.  There may be hope for me still… 🙂

I’ll keep you posted.  But until then, consider some sweet onions for your garden.  One fall day of planting makes for a lovely spring harvest.

Tami’s Growing Strong

For a first time gardener, Tami is doing AWESOME.  In this bed you can see her plants look great—squash, peppers, tomatoes and basil are all thriving together in harmony. If you remember, she planted the basil right in between her tomatoes, because these two make wonderful companions in the garden.  Funny, they make wonderful companions on the dinner plate, too.  Coincidence?

She’s pinched tomato suckers and pulled basil flower heads to keep these two healthy and happy.  To continue this progress, she can prune her tomatoes once they begin to grow past the top of her tomato cage.  This will also help to keep them full and strong.

The next bed over is residence to her okra and lettuce AND her first harvest.  Already!  Can you believe it?

Okra and lettuce make great companions, especially here in Central Florida because the canopy of the okra shades the more delicate lettuce leaves allowing them to flourish with ease.  (I’m about ready for a salad.  Anyone else?)

Upon closer inspection, we notice remnant damage on her okra leaf from the aphids and ant battle.  Not sure if this is from the diatomaceous earth of the aphids sucking the life out of the plant.  Will have to get back to you on that one.  But the plants appear to be fine in general, with no lasting trauma.

Next up is our pole beans which suspiciously resemble bush beans.  Now these varieties can produce very similar bean pods, but the big clue?  No climbers. 

Hmph.  Never know what’s in these bags we buy these days.  Remember our weed plant inside the blueberry?  It happens.  Course in my garden it’s usually do the fact that I occasionally forget what I’m planting where—despite my fabulous excel program!  Sheesh.  Yet another reason to become self-sustaining!  (Just keep your brain cells more organized than mine.)

Go figure.  Anyhoo, everything looks great.  Beans are plump and her cucumber and watermelon are bursting with life from their in ground “hill” site.

Worms Can Be A Dirty Business ~ But NOT Stinky!

Cleaning my worm bin this weekend I learned a few things.  Number one, proper worm bins do not smell–a fact I attempted to share with my husband as he walked by and warned, “Don’t track any of that stinky stuff through the house.” 

Now see, if he were taking part in this project with me, he would know better.  Worm castings done right, don’t stink.  Ask my fab friend Angie who turned me on to worm bins (though admittedly, I think she’s a lot better at this stuff than I am).  Course, if you want to talk “stinky” try fish emulsion.  That stuff smells like low tide on hot dry summer day.  Nasty.

As he stood there glaring, waiting for a response I threatened, “If you’re not nice to me, I’m going to blog about you.”

He shrugged.  “Big deal. I live that blog.”

A smile tugged at me.  True.  But now he sounded like the kids.  “Why do we have to be the gardeners?  It’s your blog!”

“It’s our garden, children.  Now run along and grab some more weeds, will you?”

As I return to the business of harvesting worm poop, I gather the bottom most bin and gaze in wonder at the gold–er, make that black–mine of a bounty they’ve produced.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Next, I smear the fresh worm castings across the cardboard.  By doing so, I’m separating the worms from the poop. 

Don’t want to lose any of these beauties!  So I painstakingly remove them one by one (or clump, if I’m lucky) to be sure they don’t suffer an arid death.

Next, I lift the baby and return him to the safety and comfort of his bin where I will add fresh food and continue my “layering process.”  This is where the lower bins are the oldest, upper bins are the newest.  Easier to add food this way, right? 🙂  

Now as I’m doing this, I’m thinking to myself there’s got to be an easier way. Granted worm castings don’t stink, but plucking worms from their midst is a tedious task.  I’m not about to lose a single one.  Not only are these pumpkins valuable to me, I hate the loss of life any life.

It does inspire me to schedule that trip to my local worm farm. I’ve been wanting to go and I’m sure they can guide me in the best methods for salvaging the worm poop from my bin.  And come to think of it, it sounds like a great field trip for the kids at school.  Plants love worm poop and kids love worms!  Is it a wonder why the students love their garden so?

Number two lesson?  Make worm pee in the process!  Not only does it provide the perfect method for cleaning your “worm removal” tool…

But it also make great plant food and insect repellent! (You’re all a tingle with excitement, aren’t you?)  Oh, how I do love a multi-tasker!

Dry your harvested poop until crumbly.  Here’s a gander at how they differ.  And no, it’s not your imagination.  The dried worm poop in this photo still has some “undigested” eggshells.  What can I say?  I’m an impatient sort and organic gardening is WAY exciting.

Then store in airtight bag for later use.  Your plants will thank you.

I’ll bet some of you have some helpful tips for me.  Do share!

It’s All About the Potatoes

This week it’s been all about the potatoes, from my home garden to the school garden—we’ve planted potatoes.  And rather than bore you with the details yet again, I’ll share this one picture with you. 

These are the youngest children we have involved in the garden and if you ever questioned how much fun kids in the garden can be, well, you won’t question it anymore.  These boys and girls are each planting a cut potato seed for our future French fry bake lesson we have planned for April and they couldn’t be happier (or more pleased with themselves).

They each dug their hole, they each placed their potato inside and they each covered it with a mix of existing dirt and cow poop (potatoes LOVE cow poop, don’t you know?).  And while it felt zoo-ish and zany at times—tends to happen when you have 30 children below the age of 9 together at one time—it was downright fun.  A LOT of fun. If you have kids and you’re not gardening together?  You are definitely missing out. 

And if you have a child that refuses to eat their vegetables, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  when they grow the vegetable by their own little hand, they will eat it (and enjoy it!).  Trust me, these kids love to haul their bounty straight into the kitchen and cook those puppies right up!  (Puppy as slang, kids, not cute & furry.) 

It is WAY yum.  And if your school doesn’t have a garden than sign them up for one.  Raise your hand, gather a few friends, spring is on the horizon.  How will you pay for it all?  Easy.  After a small initial investment in seeds, you can harvest your first bounty, save your seeds, create custom seed packets made and decorated by the kids (see my Kid Buzz section for easy instructions) and you’ve got yourself a school fundraiser!

Who wouldn’t pay $4.95 for a packet of seeds grown by their school’s students?  Shoot, if I”m willing to pay $3.50 for a box of Girl Scout cookies that disappear within minutes, I should be willing to pay $4.95 for dozens of seeds that will produce hundreds more!  Our sunflowers did.  Our beans did.  Our tomatoes did. And all were easy and fun to grow.

Think about it.  Spring is just around the corner!

Organic Pest Control 101

This week the kids learned about organic pesticides.  Besides the obvious “plucking and chucking” method, they learned there are other ways to control the pests attacking their plants. First and foremost are the “beneficials.”  This a fancy term for good bugs that eat bad bugs.  Which bugs are good?

How about the ever popular ladybug?  She LOVES to eat aphids, but so do green lacewings. These two also enjoy whiteflies and mites, tomato fruitworms and pinworms, as do trichogramma wasps.  But praying mantids also like to eat these critters.  Have a problem with mosquitoes? Look no further than your friendly dragonfly–they gobble these stinging beasts by the hundreds! Frogs will delight in a menu of mosquitoes, too, but these fellas also like slugs and snails–very bad bugs in the garden.  Besides their cool names, assassin and pirate bugs are all-around general pest-fighters so invite them to stay for sure.

But good bugs are not your only weapon against bad bugs.  You can also plant herbs and flowers to repel the pests you don’t want, not to mention beautify your garden!  Some bugs are “repelled” by certain scents so you’ll want to be sure to include these in your garden.  One of the all around best is French marigold. 

Not only does it repel nematodes (microscopic bugs in the soil), it also discourages whiteflies, flea beetles and aphids.  Geraniums repel red spider mites and horseradish repels potato bugs.  Snails and slugs hate wormwood. 

Speaking of “good scents,” you can also use aromatic plants to prevent pests.  Ants don’t like peppermint and spearmint.  Cabbage moths will steer clear from rosemary.  (Hey, this reminds me of companion planting!) And the one plant that repels them all, including some kids?  Garlic.

If you don’t want to grow garlic, consider using it to make a spray for your vegetable plants.  Ground a few cloves and cayenne pepper together, steep them in hot water (like you do tea bags) and allow the mixture to sit 24-48 hours.  Then watch out bugs, this yucky smelling spray is coming to a plant near you! Or how about steeping some wormwood instead of garlic? Caterpillars will run! You can also create a spray by mixing your compost or old coffee with water.  Let it sit for a few days and **presto** anti-bug spray.   Caution:  wear gloves and don’t touch your eyes before washing your hands. 

Yuck for you and yuck for bugs.  And all your sprays will work a little better if you add a bit of dish soap to the mix—or combine it with water and use it on its own!  Soapy water stops pests in their tracks.

I’ve also heard that bugs don’t care for the aroma of onions, so this week the kids planted a bunch.  Scallions, sweet onions…and right next to our bed of lettuce.  Hmmm…  Salad anyone?

And if the bugs like our onions as much as we do well then we’ll just break out one of our other methods!  Be sure to check out the Kid Buzz section for a complete list of our garden lessons!

Garden Upkeep

Growing vegetables is exciting indeed.  Planting, harvesting–even weeding can be fun (if you’re creative!).  But one thing that isn’t fun is fungus.  Yep.  You heard me right.  Fungus is no fun and it can kill a plant in no time.  It’s also a common problem for Florida gardeners because our climate is HUMID.  And we have afternoon thunderstorms without warning–another bad deal for our plants, since they already received their daily dose of water.

We can work in harmony with Mother Nature and adjust our watering schedule, but sometimes this isn’t enough.  And one day you walk out to find your pumpkin patch is succumbing to the conditions.  As organic gardeners, there’s not a whole lot we can do except try our best to prevent such catastrophe.  Or react to it as we did this week.  The middle school students removed as much of the dead leaves as possible to prevent spreading and allow more sunlight onto to the otherwise healthy leaves.  Hopefully, our plants will survive and thrive, but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

On a brighter note, our black beans are loving life and I’m loving these photos.  Isn’t it amazing?  Almost like you can see them actually growing and developing. Way cool.

Our bean fort is beginning to fill in, too.  This contraption happens to be big fun, despite its drooping “roof.” 

Of course the middle school boys had all sorts of ideas for fixing this drooping issue, but perhaps it’s best to hold off until we have the proper tools and materials (and not borrowing the project materials from fellow students!). 🙂

Another area in need of attention was our sunflowers.  Growing wild and wonderful, these babies need support!  Enter elementary and the fix is in–we used soft green tape and tied them to the fence for support.

As well as bamboo stakes for those off the fence.  Either way will work and help give these gorgeous gals the support they need to grow tall and strong.

Last but not least, our tomatoes needed pinching. 

Pinching?

Pinching.  In order to increase their vigor you want to pinch these little “suckers” (named as such because they suck needless energy/nutrients from the plants main stems) throughout the life of your tomato plant.  Simply spot them and pinch them.  Easy!

Our kindergartners finished out the week by planting stevia.  Stevia is a natural sweetener and is easy to grow, simple to harvest and a snap to use.  In fact, this past spring I used a few leaves from my home herb garden to sweeten the cucumber soup we prepared at school!  Yum.

 

Building Our Bean Fort

How fun is that?

It’s WAY fun and what an endeavor this has turned out to be–for adults and kids alike!  Just look at this beauty.  Isn’t it amazing?

But let’s start from the beginning, when our middle school students took on the task of building the framework for this project.  It began with a request for my future engineers.  Hands shot up.  Then my architects.  More hands shot up.  Then my laborers.  More hands shot up (don’t you just love eager and exuberant?) and then the assistants, coordinators, you name it.  “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”  Enthusiasm 101. 

Once we assembled our crew, the design process began. 

Now I’m no engineer–but I am smart enough to know how to delegate, so I handed the technical aspects over to the kids. 

Good thing too, because every time I did pipe up it wasn’t as fruitful as I’d hoped.  (But I’m a writer not an engineer!)  No matter.  The kids politely moved past my suggestions and continued solving the problem amongst themselves.  They dug the foundation, tied the framework together.

Then they worked to stabilize the structure and all was running efficient and smooth, much like a well-oiled machine, especially when they came up with the bright idea to use PVC pipe for our roof support beams.  In case my husband is reading this–Yes, I know.  You told me to bring our PVC pipe from homeYes, it was a great idea

What can I say?  (I forgot.)  Moving right along…  While all this fort construction was going on, we turned our compost pile.  Look at all that gorgeous dirt!

Any-hoo, back to the roof.  All was running well–

Until it came time to attach the roof.  A bit of a “mutiny of ideas” ensued as to how we best support the lattice top–cross-wise, lengthwise, overlap–though fortunately it was short-lived.  

“We’re working together around here, right?”  I looked around at disgruntled faces and nodded my head (this is an excellent psychological warfare tactic–nod and they will agree).  “Right?”

Right.  And back to the roof we went, now secured attached and utterly stupendous.  It’s certainly something to be proud, wouldn’t you agree?  I mean, this is a masterpiece of teamwork, energy, determination (all the more amazing under the warm and humid conditions we had to endure). Gotta love Florida!  At least it gives us TWO growing seasons which equals TWICE the fun, right kids?  (We’re nodding again here.) 

Enter lower elementary, a.k.a. our bean planters. 

Their job was to “build” the walls.  Okay, maybe not actually build but certainly plant the seeds for future “wall” growth.  And we want our walls to be dense so don’t be shy kids–plant as many as you can!

This bean fort is going to be really cool.  Almost private, like a real hideaway.  And it will fit a good 5-10 kids!  “Party in the fort1!” Depending upon their size and agreeability, of course.  Better yet, won’t this make for a great photo opportunity?

We think so and since we plan to hang out a bit, we want it to be comfortable.  What’s more comfy than a hay covered floor? 

Awesome.  And more than beautiful, our bean fort will be edible. 

 Yep.  Green beans will be hanging within our reach.  Organic green beans.  Yum. Pluck em, peel em, plop em in! 

But that’s not all we did this week!  Upper elementary planted tomatoes.  And because they’re experts in the garden, they know plants need nutrients to grow full and lush and were sure to include them. 

What do tomatoes need? Epsom salts and eggshells!  Or magnesium sulfate and calcium for you non-gardener types.

Blossom-end rot (ugly black spots) on our tomatoes can be due to a lack of calcium.  And nobody wants to eat rot spots.  But we also like BIG tomatoes so we included magnesium sulfate because magnesium helps chlorophyll formation while sulfate aids in strong healthy cell development. 

 And we do look forward to our plump red tomatoes.  Makes sense to give them the best start we can.  Besides, handling crinkly eggshells (pre-cleaned) and crystallized Epsom salt is kinda neat.  

So what do you think?  Need a bean fort in your neck of the woods?  It’s easy to do, great fun and will be the oh-so-popular place to be! 

The hardest part will be waiting for it to fill in… 🙂

Oh, and lower elementary will be keeping a journal on the entire process, sort of our “record keepers” for the project.  Love teamwork.  But we are a community of gardeners and gardeners enjoy sharing the adventure!