mulch

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!

Potatoes Are Popping!

My potatoes are nestled all snug in their beds…

potatoes nestled in hay

Bursting with joy as spring finally arrives! They’re gorgeous, aren’t they?

white and red potatoes

And quite content. After surviving a few frosts, the girls are popping. This is a mix of white and red potatoes and will be ready in another few weeks. I could harvest them now and walk away with “new potatoes” for my next meal, but I prefer to wait. There’s nothing better than fresh from the garden potatoes. They’re buttery and creamy and unlike anything you’ll get at the grocery store.

rosemary potatoes and parmesean

I might roast them with fresh rosemary or bake them with cabbage. (Recipes for both can be found in my recipe section!)

potatoes and cabbage steaming hot out of the oven

Either way, garden potatoes are a treat. And no issues with my 2016 crop–woohoo!

Have You Planted Potatoes, Yet?

I have and they’re going gangbusters. Just look at those gorgeous girls!

potato beds in early January

Yes, those are vacant spots in my row. Apparently, some of the gals haven’t sprouted, yet. Seems they’re taking their sweet time to emerge from the soil. Could be the weather. Could be my watering schedule. Could simply be a matter of nature. Not everyone grows at the same rate, you know.

There’s also the possibility of “theft by animal.” A few mornings, I awoke to find deep tracks through my garden. Wild hogs, armadillos, raccoons… I’m not sure who has been visiting me, only that somebody has.

Ugh. Living with nature is a beautiful thing, up to a point. But I will turn my positive attitude cap around and look on the bright side: I can always refill my bed with new potato sprouts. Besides, wild animals have to eat too, right?

mulch potato plants

Of course they do. I simply wish they’d chomp elsewhere. Now, back to my potatoes. I’ve planted them in a nice organic mix of compost from my backyard pile (shown below) and composted cow manure and have mulched them well. Mulch provides the moisture retention potatoes need, as well as encourages them in their upward growth habit. For complete details on how-to grow potatoes, check my How-To section.

Compost gold

 

I have one bed of red potatoes and one bed of white. Different size, different flavor–variety is the spice of life! And in about 2-3 months, I’ll be reaping my first gems from the ground. Can’t wait!

Check, Check & Check!

With spring upon us—well, some of us, anyway—it’s time to finalize your garden plans.  Getting a head-start on the growing season will ensure you have a bountiful harvest. After my fall tomato experience, I’m certain spring is going to be even better and have already started my tomato sprouts. (Positive thinking will get you everywhere!)

sprouting tomatoes 2015

By being positive and prepared, you’ll be certain to be ready for YOUR first day of planting, when all threat of frost has passed.  While this day varies from region to region based, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities. 

But why wait?  Do like I did and get those seeds started now!  Which brings us to the first item on the checklist:

1 – Order seeds.  Grow what you’ll eat—not what’s easy.  I know it’s tempting, but there’s no sadder day than the one when you witness perfectly good food withering on the vine because no one wanted to harvest it. The “excitement” factor was missing. The “ah-ha” moment, if you will. Rule number one: Gardening should be fun!

2 – Design layout.  If building container beds, get your lumber now.  I don’t know about you, but my husband likes a bit of notice before he’s asked to perform.  Getting your creative juices warmed and flowing now will help speed the process later.  “Oh, honey…  About that little favor I mentioned! “

3 – Sharpen your tools.  Or simply clean them off, know where they are, organize them.  You get my drift. The last thing you need is to be searching for that trowel when you need it.  Mine is indispensable because it weeds (its primary function), digs, buries and levels.  You gotta love a multi-tasker.  Other essentials include gloves, hat, sunscreen and water bottle. 

For you serious gardeners, you might want to add a long-handled hoe (I prefer the triangular-shaped head) for the job of cultivating your rows.  Not me.  I’m a busy gal with a bad back — “till as you go” is more my speed!

4 – Turn your compost.   You do have a compost pile, don’t you?  It’s too easy not to—just toss, pile, and turn.  Easy as 1-2-3! Seriously, composting is easy and productive. Why just look at these gorgeous potatoes my compost served up for me.

compost potatoes

Love a generous compost pile, in and out of the garden.

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting.  Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close.  Besides keeping the harmony, it provides a natural pesticide helping ease your workload.  The sooner you break out the excel program (my preferred garden journal), the sooner you’re planting seeds and keeping track.  Bear in mind your crop rotation as well—unless this is your first time playin’ in the sunshine! 

6 – Check your water supply.  Now’s the time to fix those leaky drip hoses or grease any squeaky sprinkler heads.  And if you can’t fix them–replace them–before spring fever hits and they’re scooped from the shelves by other eager beavers.  Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency in the eyes of the store manager.

7 – Gather your mulch.  Discarded newspapers, lawn trimmings, hay, pine straw and bark…  All of these lend themselves well for use as natural mulch, though be sure to wet your newspaper down (or layer it with another form of mulch for a good thick cover).   Trust me.  Your neighbors will not be happy when your “mulch” blows across their lawn. 

8 – Prepare soil.  Remove weeds and add compost.  100% organic, it provides an excellent soil amendment, rich in the nutrients your plants need.  Also, till your beds ahead of time.  This will introduce air into the soil and accelerate bacteria activity, which in turn helps release nutrients into the soil.  Word to the wise:  after you’ve taken the time to remove weeds from your soil, be sure to cover your beds with row covers (or a hefty dose of mulch).  Otherwise, you’ll be wedding again before your seeds/seedlings arrive on scene.  In my house, that’s call for mutiny.

corn gluten

Also, consider ordering a bag of corn gluten now so you’ll have it on hand come season. Once your seedlings have sprouted and are on their way, you’ll want to sprinkle corn gluten on the soil around them to help keep the weeds at bay. Those tiny golden granules are amazing.

9 – Soil test.  If you’re not sure what shape your soil’s in, take a sample to your local garden store.   I take mine to the seed and feed and they test it on the spot.  You do-it-yourselfers will prefer a home test kit.  They’re simple to use and give a good idea where you stand soil-wise.  Then, depending on what you’re planting, you might want to adjust the pH (acidity-alkalinity) by adding lime to raise pH, or peat/pine/sulfur to lower it. 

10 – Dream.  Until your seedlings are ready to hit the garden, sit back and wistfully dream of the day when your beds will be lush and full, and flourishing with life.

It helps to pass the time until planting season really begins!

 

Potato Planting Begins

Here in Central Florida, it’s time to plant the potatoes. Potatoes prefer cooler conditions, but are susceptible to frost and freezing. While neither happens often if Florida, they do happen, and we will have to cover our plants accordingly to protect them. But I digress. First things first, we need to plant them or there won’t be anything to protect!

basket of potatoes

As an organic gardener, I rotate my crops from bed to bed to stay ahead of the bugs and maintain healthy soil. We follow beans with potatoes, so we’re using our old Lima bean row this year for our new potatoes. We’re growing red potatoes, though many varieties exist. To keep things straight, I use an excel spreadsheet, though pencil and paper work fine. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be glad you did. It helps to keep your beds straight from season to season.

Before you begin, keep in mind that you will be “hilling” your beds as the plants grow.  This means that as your potato plants begin to grow leaves and attain some height, you’re going to want to draw or “pull” in more dirt around the base of the plants.  Hay mulch can also be used to serve this purpose.  The idea here is to ensure good coverage of the developing “tubers” or new potatoes as they grow.  Potatoes have an “upward” growth habit, whereby they will grow upward as the root system expands.  If they near the soil’s surface and become exposed to sunlight, they will turn green, and green potatoes are NO good.  (They’ll make you sick if you eat them.)  You can also start with a trench when planting potatoes.  Makes it easier to hill in the future, but with my garden I simply plant them “low” and hill as they grow.

my potatoes

We’re planting ours next to our peas because the two are great companions in the garden. However, tomatoes are not, so keep them apart. Tomatoes and potatoes are prone to early and late blight and can infect one another. Other good companions for potatoes include: bush bean, members of the cabbage family, carrot, celery, corn, dead nettle, flax, horseradish, marigold, petunia, onion and marigold. Other bad companions include: asparagus, cucumber, kohlrabi, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash family, sunflower, turnip and fennel.

potato holes

After we till our soil to improve aeration, we amend with compost and composted cow manure (they love the stuff).  Next, we form holes for our potato seed—about 2 inches deep.

Now it’s time for cutting our potato seed. Inspect each potato seed and look for the eyes. Eyes are the sprout nubs covering your potato. The idea here is to cut your potato seeds in half or even quarters, depending on the size of the potato and the number of “eyes.”  Each cut piece should have at least one eye, as this is where the future sprout erupts!

eyes on the potato

When planting, I like to put the cut potato piece “eye-side-up”—don’t want to make it too hard for my babies!—though I’ve learned that potatoes are prolific growers and will thrive in your compost pile without a second thought from you, without any regard to their “eye” orientation.

But just in case—keep it easy and plant “eye-side-up.”  Cover your potatoes with a mix of dirt and all-purpose organic fertilizer and water well.

Potatoes are heavy feeders so feed them every so often with a nice mix of fish emulsion, or a dose of good old-fashioned worm poop.  Potatoes are “pigs” when it comes to consuming nutrients which is why you want that cow manure and fertilizer mixed in at time of planting.

organic plant food

Another consideration is to stagger your planting. “Staggering” your planting dates means to plant only a portion of your potato seeds at one time, say a third of the row, then another third in two weeks, followed by the last third two weeks later. This ensures a constant supply of fresh potatoes. An important consideration in my home, because our “fruit cellar” (aka garden garage) is not sufficient to store potatoes long-term. Too warm. Staggering also prevents whining from the family.

“Potatoes for dinner?  Again?”

Apparently they don’t want potatoes for dinner EVERY night.  Hmph.

In about 2 – 4 months after planting and continuous hilling, you’ll reap a lovely bounty of fresh potatoes. And trust me, there is a difference between fresh-from-the-garden-potatoes and store-bought.  They taste sweet pie and smooth as butter.  We like to roast ours with garlic and rosemary.

prepping potatoes

And remember, no matter how you prepare your potatoes, they taste better when you grow them yourself. 🙂  But do remember these babies are not frost-tolerant and must be covered should the air turn cold. You can use a frost blanket or a household sheet, but either way, make sure you cover them from in the event of frost or you’ll wake up to this ugly site.

frost bitten potato

Brrrrr. I get the chills just looking at those poor suffering beauties! So do be cautious and happy gardening!

Meet My New Garden Project

Meet my new “garden coaching” subjects.  Justin and Eyry have decided to start a garden (yipee!) and have graciously accepted my offer to help, so long as I can take pictures and post online.  No problem.  Now they’ll tell you they’re novice gardeners, but one look at their new plot and you’ll cross your arms and knit your brow and say, sure they are…

Okay.  Those are some gorgeously formed beds, I’ll give you that–but they’re not that hard to make.  Seriously.  Not when you have the right tools, they’re not.  And I’m not talking about a well-trained husband–as shown above–I’m talking gas-powered tiller!  More

Tomato Update

Okay, so I’m not sold on the red paper thing.  Not because I doubt it reflects the perfect rays of sunlight to ripen my fruit to ruby red perfection, but because it’s interfering with my plant’s ability to absorb water.

You see, cutting slits in the paper for my tomato plants to grow does not allow sufficient water to get to the roots.  Florida downpours can do the trick, but my sprinkler?  Not so much.  My plants are stressed and susceptible to attack by the fungus and worse, the dreaded hornworm.  In fact, much of the water ends up in puddles on top of the paper–despite my every effort to weight the paper down in all the right places, encouraging the pools to funnel down toward my plant.

Nope.  Not working for me.  I’m sure there is an answer to this dilemma.  It just remained out of my reach for this first season of experiment. 

 Needless to say, I’m open to suggestion.  I hate to give up, but I hate wasting time, too. On to brighter beds, my Hungarian Wax Peppers are doing well.  Not huge by any stretch of the imagination, but they are producing some rather robust peppers.  Used one last week for some homemade Pico de Gallo.  Tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro, little lime juice and voila!  A delightful homemade salsa! 

You see, there is good news.  Even though my tomato plants look horrible, they have produced.  And isn’t that what’s important?

I think so.  Did find an interesting development with my sunflowers this week.  Now granted, I’m no expert with these mammoth marvels but I had no idea that the flowers could actually form all the way down the meaty stalk.  In our school garden, the flowers were solely at the top of the plant.  Our second batch, too. 

But mine?  I have blossoms running all the way down the stem!   Which is pretty cool, if you ask me.  Not only do I get the huge flower up top, I get the added benefit of these little beauties.  

I realize this may be an anomaly, but that’s okay.  I’m not too picky when it comes to my plants producing.  They produce, I pick ~ and that’s about as far as I care to dwell on the matter.  Remember, I’m a happy gardener!  And happy gardeners don’t sweat the small stuff.

Progress Report

The kids are going strong.  Crops are coming in, as well as weeds — but we’re on top of them.  First, we loosen their grip in the soil and then we pull them free, forming small work piles ultimately headed for our compost pile. 

Granted it’s not the most exciting part of our garden, but it is a necessary one!  These weeds are battling for the same sun and water as our plants and we are rooting for our vegetables to win out!

Go veggies!

And there is plenty of weeding to go around.  While we mulched these corn stalks to prevent weed growth, they still have a plethora (abundance) of weeds growing around their base.  Most of these should be removed.  A few survivors won’t hurt, but  a “carpet” of weeds is definitely not helpful to our plants.

Maintenance is the key at this point.  For our tomatoes, we learned how to pinch the suckers from the vines.  These small growths at the elbow of main stalk and branches “suck” away energy from the main branches.  Very bad. 

We want our efforts directed toward tomato production, not branch production!

As the tomato plants grow larger, we must also stake them.  This basically means to tie the stalk of the plant to a sturdy stake (we used bamboo) so that when to tomatoes start coming in, they won’t topple over our plant. 

We could have used a cage, but using ties is easy and allows the plant plenty of space to breathe and spread its branches.  You can also utilize a trellis, encouraging the plants to climb.

As usual, we’re always on bug lookout.  It only takes one day for a hornworm to devour an entire plant.  Which would be wholly disappointing after all our hard work.

This little brownish varmint below had to be removed else he do damage.  I’m not sure exactly which type of worm he is, but we take no chances when it comes to saving our tomatoes!

If we’re lucky, we’ll spot a ladybug.  Maybe a frog, or two.  But so far, nada.  Could it mean we have nothing for them to eat?

Probably not.  We have holes in our poles bean leaves so something is chomping.

Another task is training the pole beans to grow up the fence.  We do this by gently tugging the leading vine toward the links of our fence and winding it through.  Aren’t they gorgeous?

Our sweet peas aren’t ready for training, yet.  As it is, they’ve only just peeked out from the ground.  But once they get going, we’ll do the same for them.

All in all, I’d say we’re off to a great start!

Yellow Cucumbers are a Bad Sign

When your kids tell you what they want to plant, be SURE this means they will EAT it.   My kids told me to plant cucumbers and yes, of course, they would eat it.

But apparently, my kids fib.  Have eyes bigger than their bellies.  Whatever.  Fact of the matter remains, we don’t eat cucumbers in this family. 

Not that I don’t love them, I do!  With rice vinegar, in a salad, stuffed into a veggie sandwich from the mall…  They’re super.  But at home?  In my garden? 

Nope.  We don’t eat them and today I had the luxury of sweating in the hot July sun to remove the batch. 

Not fun.  I didn’t know this, but cucumbers have sharp vines with pricklys that hurt.  And grasping rotten fruit is not my idea of a good time.  I’m supposed to be on vacation right now, not gardening in the hot July sun.  In Florida, you’ll die of dehydration!  

Definitely not recommended.  Now my patio containers, on the other hand, filled with lettuce and herbs…  They’re thriving.  My tomato seedlings are warming to germination, and my Poinsettia love the shade, but my cukes?

Nasty.  A weed infested nightmare.  Good thing I mulched well.  It cut down task difficulty, considerably.

So come fall, when the kids put in their request, I plan to make sure they are foods I’ve actually witnessed them eat.  Gardening is great fun–until you have to pull overripe and abandoned fruit.  Then, not so much.