okra

Cute, But Unwelcome

These little guys are awfully cute, you have to admit. I mean, look at them. Out for an evening stroll, they’re not causing anyone any harm.

pesky piglets

Or are they?

According to my neighbor, these little fellas tore up his entire backyard. Ruts, holes–it looked like a Polo field at half-time. “Call out the divot-stompers!” The pristine grassy field is a mess (courtesy polo clubs and pony hooves). Not ideal for the home garden.

With this in mind, we scared off the piglets with a stiff bark and a quick dash down the fence line from the dogs next door and haven’t seen or heard from the little buggers since.

Cooper and Fadra

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How to Grow Okra

It’s summer which means okra around these parts. This veggie loves warm weather and is the perfect plant to grow in Florida. From March through September, you’ll find okra in my garden. I start these plants from seed. in ground. about 1/2 – 3/4” deep, then stand back and watch them grow. It’s almost that easy.

clemson spineless okra

In about a week or so you’ll see the first leaves popping up through the soil. Okra cab grow several feet in height so be sure to give them plenty of space when planting, about 12-18” apart. More

Red Okra?

Who’d a thunk it? It’s pretty neat, though, don’t you think?

row of red okra

We went out to clip our standard fare green okra (Clemson Spineless) this morning and lo and behold, our red variety have been sprouting up a storm! (Yes, you caught me. I’ve missed a few days of visits.) It’s a Billy Bob variety (and no, I’m not kidding) that apparently thrives in our warm Florida climate.

clemson spineless okra

Gazing at these ruby beauties up close and personal, you know the first thing my son and I had to do was taste them.

red okra

Guess what? They taste the same! Can’t wait to see if they cook they same.  🙂

I’m Ready for Fall Gardening!

And I have a new secret weapon.  But first, how did I get to the point where I needed a new secret weapon?  I mean, I’m organic, I rotate my crops, my soil is in tip-top condition, right?

Yes, well, just when you think you have it all figured out, the bugs find you.  The ones you can’t see.  The ones that lurk beneath the surface and devour your plants one by one–even as you plant them!  It’s awful.  Discouraging.  My spring garden was not what it could have been.  So I solarized the beds to kill the varmints and now I’m ready for fall planting.  Yes, those are my plastic-covered rows plus everything but the kitchen sink.  Do you know how hard it is to keep that stuff down during an afternoon storm in Florida?

It’s not easy and I have no shame in using whatever it takes to keep my paper down–bricks, tiles, rusted iron rods–you name it, I used it.  However, when I pulled back the black sheets, my soil didn’t look so good.  Now “they say” that solarizing the soil helps to release the nutrients within.  Hm.  Funny, but it didn’t look that way to me.  Rather than healthy nutrient-rich soil, it looked like a bunch of hot sand to me. 

So I decided to amend my beds.  Now I have a compost pile, but it’s nowhere near enough to cover my garden.  As you can see, my garden is big — 100 X 40.  And I have a big appetite for this fall’s garden.  You might be thinking that I marched right down to the “compost store” and loaded up on the stuff.  Nope.  I’ve been hearing rumors about something better.  Similar, but better.  It’s called mushroom compost and according to those who have gardened with the stuff, it’s simply AMAZING.

And cheap.  We were able to buy a trailer full of the stuff for $10.  Yep.  No kidding.  $10.  Enough to fill the entire bed of a full-sized pickup truck.  (In Central Florida, we contacted Monterey Mushroom Farm–but they have branches across the US.)  Once home, it was time to unload the secret weapon.  Caution:  mushroom compost stinks.  Raking it into beds is not only hard work, but stinky.  As you mix it in, it’s not so bad.  But take a couple of tips from me.

***Rent a tiller.  You’ll still have to shovel the compost into your row, but rent a tiller to mix it in.  Unless you want your workout for the week to count as one day in the garden and then you’re good to go.  🙂

***And use the commercial-grade paper to line your walkways, NOT the black weed paper.  It disintegrates.  If you double it up, like I did here between my squash and zucchini rows (pictured below).  It will hold up better, but trust me–raking those beds was like déjà vu.  Feels like I’ve done this before!

As it stands, I have my red beans, okra, squash and zucchini in.  Here’s another tip:  instead of forming individual holes for your beans, make channels down the length of your bed–like you do for carrots, only deeper–and then drop the beans in, about 4 – 6″ apart and then cover with an inch or so of dirt  .  We used organic compost to cover the beans, hoping that it will hold the moisture better than that depleted-looking sand next to it.  Normally, I form wells around my newly planted seeds, as seen above with the squash and zucchini.

The kids helped with this one and the job went much quicker.  (Yes, this Labor Day weekend we labored.)  I formed the channels, she dropped them in, he covered them with compost.  The white dots you see are snail bait.  This was last season’s tomato row and I didn’t have time to solarize it, nor do I think that red paper helped in dissuading the varmints from taking up residence.  

But our efforts will prove worth it.   Ultimately, once I uncover all the beds, I’ll use the heavier black paper to replace the lighter-grade paper you see her walking on above.  I enjoy gardening, but I do not like to repeat my efforts when I don’t have to–it’s not smart!

And we’re smart gardeners. 🙂  I’ll keep you posted on how my magic mushroom compost works out!

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!

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!

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.

How do you spell easy?

O-K-R-A.   When you think of “easy,” think okra.   Not only is this vegetable easy to grow, it’s easy to maintain, harvest, pair with others, rotate year round.   Why, it literally gets along with everyone!   Low water needs, low nutrient desire, you can’t miss with this one.   Keep in mind that while it’s easy, it does tend toward the slimy and seedy (we’re talking plants here, not people), but to a very low degree, especially when ingested fresh. 

Speaking of easy, the Big Easy loves this baby, packing it into everything from gumbo to etouffe and all things Creole, while southerners have long favored the fried version.   Southerners like most things fried — I know this, because my mother grew up on Georgia cooking and we ate everything from fried chicken to fried plantains (odd, yes, but the family transplanted to Miami as did her culinary preferences).  Fried okra ranks as an old favorite.

My son is a big fan of okra — only lets my mother fry it for him — while my daughter…   She needed a bit of coaxing.   “C’mon, honey.  You can’t crinkle your nose.  You haven’t even tried it, yet!”   Once I convinced her it tastes best fresh from the vine (it’s actually a branch, but it sounds better when you say vine) she agreed, sort of.  I think she was more enthralled with the idea of eating it right from the plant than anything, but as a mother, my motto is:  whatever works

Another reason to include okra in your garden — it’s good for you.  Okra has wonderful health benefits, including vitamin C, calcium and potassium.   But even better, it contains glutathione, an antioxidant and cancer fighter which attacks carcinogens and ushers them away from cells, into the urine, and eventually out of the body.  Studies have shown encouraging signs for the role of glutathione in preventing the development of oral and throat cancers, too.   For more information on the natural health benefits of food in general, check out the book, The Doctors Book of Food Remedies written by Selene Yeager and the editors of Prevention magazine – another favorite of mine.

So this spring, try a round of okra (don’t bother until then, because okra likes it hot) and you’ll be glad you did.   Trust me! 

P.S.  If anyone who resembles the likes of an okra plant tells you to “trust them” – run!