organic

Make Your Own Sun-dried Tomatoes

Ever wondered how to sun dry a tomato? I mean, the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is exquisitely intense, wonderfully versatile–and I learned–the perfect addition to any raw diet.  It makes an awesome base for uncooked tomato sauce.

But I digress. Personally I never wondered about sun-dried tomatoes and how they were created. I figured the name said it all, right?  I imagined them splayed out across specialty terra-cotta baking stones in Italy or California, sunning until they reached crispy, crunchy chewy perfection (depending on how you like them!).

It wasn’t until I witnessed Mother Nature’s first sun-dried tomatoes in my garden this spring that it dawned on me.  Actually, it was the scorch of summer and my lack of attention that did it, but who’s checking? I planted these gorgeous Romas this spring and they dried by summertime, all by themselves.  Don’t you love an independent vegetable?

Nothing I like better than a vegetable that will grow itself or a child that will do his or her own laundry. It’s heaven!  But seriously, are these not feats to be coveted? At least respected, admired?  In my house they are and when my tomatoes began to sun dry themselves well, I celebrated.  Hip-hip-hooray!  We have sun-dried tomatoes!

For all of you cringing right now thinking, please no, tell me you didn’t actually eat those rotten things.  Rest assured, I didn’t. Who knows what may have tainted those shriveled beauties? Not me and I don’t eat anything from my garden without full certainty of its “wholesome goodness” prior to ingestion.  I have kids watching my every move. Never know which “moves” they may wish to emulate and trust me–rushing them to the ER is not on my list of things to do!

So how does one sun-dry tomatoes?

Easy. Same way you dry those herbs in your garden–set the oven to low (150-200) and bake them for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the heat strength of your oven.  Cut them into quarters and push the seeds out (or not).

These are a mix of Roma style and regular.  (Is there such a thing as regular tomatoes?)  Next, spread them across a baking sheet.  I used this vented one for more even “drying.”

At this point, your best course of action is to monitor them throughout the process, turning when necessary. If this seems like too much work, you can always lay them out in the sunshine for a hot couple of days.  Mother Nature does know what she’s doing!

After about 4 hours, my small batch was ready; crispy-crunchy-ready. 

I imagine if I immerse these in olive oil they’ll return to a more palatable texture (like mine chewy), but these would still be great as a salad sprinkle.  The raw diet recipes we used during our challenge called for soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in water prior to use.  Good idea.

Tasty, toasty and easy, you’ll want to try this one for yourself!

New How-To Grow Section

This fall I’m switching it up and adding a new “How-To” grow section under my “Gardening Guide for Easy Vegetables.” It will outline instructions on how to grow beautiful, healthy organic vegetables. Over the next few weeks, more pages will appear, each outlining directions from seed to sprout, problems to watch out for, good companions, bad companions and specialty tips, as in the case of tomatoes.

It’s my way of organizing information in an easy to find navigation of my site. Since every plant is unique and beautiful and requires different care, I’ve listed some basics.

Ashley's overflowing with growth

General tips of the trade:

Plant depth will reflect seed size. The smaller the seed, the more shallow planting depth.

Heirloom seeds are preferred over hybrid, because we practice self-sustaining gardening and seeds harvested from hybrids won’t reproduce the fruit they were harvested from. Instead, you’ll get a surprise veggie!

Keep in mind that plants like soft, fluffy beds. If your soil is too dense or too loose, like Goldilocks, your plants will complain. Homegrown compost fits the bill best!

Mulch keeps the moisture in and natural hay or pine straw works perfect, though pine should be reserved for your more acid-loving plants like potatoes, peanuts, strawberries and blueberries.

Companion planting helps keep your plants healthy and happy. Two plants that work well with everyone are lettuce and okra.

Fish emulsion is a great all-around organic fertilizer. Gives mild dose of nitrogen and stinky enough to keep the bugs at bay.

Now, I’m getting ready for fall gardening–care to join me?

Colorado Gardens

On a recent trip to Colorado, I fell in love with the plethora of flowers. From the mountainside to the myriad planters and arrangements, color and blooms were everywhere. Everywhere! If only my flowers did so well in the heat of Central Florida–I’d put them outside my front door, on my patio, around my yard…

hanging beautyOh, wait. I already have them out my front door, on my patio, around my yard. But mine aren’t like these. Mine wilt at the first sign of sunshine. They scream “water me!” every second of the day. They whine and complain “it’s too hot, save me from this horrid heat…”

The nerve. If I lived in Colorado during the summertime, my flowers would wake to a wealth of warmth and sunshine. They’d crane gently toward the light, beg for water only when they sorely needed it. They’d love me and I’d love them. We’d get along swell. Just swell. I’d hang a colorful assortment like this one everywhere I could stab a hangar.

I’d incorporate Swiss chard like these into my every plant bed.

Edible Colorado landscaping

I’d adorn my every corner with lovelies like these…

wildflowers a plenty

Oh, how my days would be filled with color and joy. Flowers make me happy! In Colorado, they have mountain flair.

Western wagon garden

Restaurants beckon one to linger…

Cafe front

If you ever have the chance to visit Colorado during the summer, go. Enjoy. Breathe in the beauty and fresh air. More

Bug-Free Zone

I don’t know about you, but gardening in Central Florida can prove a constant battle with the bugs. Course, having a “nature swamp” behind you certainly complicates matters. Bugs zip in, dive-bomb your plants and veggies, and then flee to the cover of safety when they see you approach. It’s frustrating, especially as an organic gardener. My okra are suffering. I can’t simply spray them with toxic substances that will kill and repel the little beasts. I must garden with a sense of eco-responsibility and parental caution. I can’t put just anything into their growing bellies!

Tough being so responsible. But not one to give up, I think I might have found my answer. Sitting by the pool after a grueling day of battle, I shared the dilemma with my husband. As if reading my thoughts, hubby peered over at me and asked, “You’re going to tell me next that you need a greenhouse, aren’t you?”

Bingo. I smiled in reply. That would solve the problem, though I didn’t share the same aloud. I don’t know about you, but married people communicate on entirely different levels than non-married types. One must ease into these things. Simply blurting out the truth doesn’t always work. Okay, blurting out your truth thoughts to a spouse SELDOM works, though it does happen. On occasion. When I’m not thinking straight.

But on this particular day I was thinking fine and dandy and guess what? While pondering my response, it occurred to me: Why not bring the greenhouse to the garden?

Looking up and around me, I thought, a screen enclosure works wonders around the pool. Why not the garden?

Hah! I rose and went for the computer to begin a search. This could work!

Floating covers are sold for the same purpose, but in Central Florida, they tend to mold in the summertime (as does everything else). Screen, on the other hand, does not. After a quick search on the internet, off to the hardware box store I went and purchased a roll of screen. Transferring the wire hoops that I used for the purpose of pest/bird protection in my peanut row, I draped the screen over my okra plants and secured it with landscape pins.

drape screen over wire hoops

Voilà. A screened greenhouse for my garden! The sprinkler system fits neatly beneath the screen. The bed is covered…

screen enclosure

Marvelous, darling. Simply marvelous. I mean, don’t my little guys look happy under there? Water penetrates with ease. The screen protects my plants from the blaze of afternoon sun and bugs can’t break through the barrier.

bug-free screen zone

Genius, is what this is. Genius. Now, for this row of baby okra I used 4 ft. by 25 ft. However, as my plants grow, I’ll need a wider strip of screen. Luckily, the rolls come in 5, 7 and 8 ft. lengths as well. Come fall, I’m definitely installing this concept for my tomatoes and other bug-sensitive plants. What do you think?

All-Natural Sports Drink

Hello summer! And with it–the need for hydration. Whether you’re in the garden or on the playing field, running track or playing at the beach, the need for water is strong. However, for some of us, the need for electrolyte replenishment is strong. For most of us, simple water will suffice when it comes to re-hydration. However, if you exercise over 30 minutes, then you should consider a sports drink that will supply the balance your body needs to function at peak performance. “Electrolytes are essential minerals, including sodium and potassium, that regulate heart beat and blood pressure. When we sweat, we lose sodium and chloride (salt) and to a lesser degree, potassium, magnesium and calcium.” ~ Dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner.

branch of lemons

When I’m out in the garden or the gym–aka my home–I tend to stay active for an hour or more, so this drink was of interest to me. Add the fact that there’s no artificial coloring–no artificial anything–I was hooked. I had to try it. This recipe uses orange juice, but fresh lemons will work just as well. :)

Blatner’s homemade Gatorade:

3 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup orange juice

2 1/2 tablespoons honey

1/4 teaspoon salt (I used Himalayan Pink Sea Salt)

Makes four servings. Per 8 ounce serving: 50 calories, 14 grams carbohydrate, 160 milligrams sodium.

I made this and it tastes like Gatorade-light. There’s no heavy sweet or salty taste as is with the original sports drink, but instead, a nice, light refreshing beverage with a hint of orange flavor. You don’t taste the salt, though I was able to detect the faint taste of honey. It really is a great alternative to Gatorade.

Find this and other homemade drink recipes here. Then, get outside and get active!!

Summer Salsa

Been vacationing over the summer and out of the garden (thank goodness for automated watering systems!) but this week I made salsa. I mean, what else does one do with fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro? They make salsa!

jalapeno beauties

Unfortunately, my tomatoes took a beating during our week of thunderstorms. While I might have found the cure for blossom-end rot, splitting skins is something only a greenhouse can prevent. Constant moderate watering is the key with tomatoes, gradually increased as they set blossoms and begin to produce fruit. Once it’s time for harvest, back off on the water to avoid splitting. As you can imagine, torrential downpours are not helpful to this cause. But not one to argue with Mother Nature (learned my lesson years ago), I chose to toss out the bad and focus on the good. :) More

Lovin’ Me Some Tomatoes!

Just had to share how wonderful my tomatoes are doing. After battling hornworms and stink bugs  and a host of crickets (diatomaceous earth works wonders for creepy crawlies), my tomatoes are beating the odds. Remember, I’m totally organic and out in a wide open field of sunshine which makes my tomatoes more vulnerable to stress. Too much heat, too many bugs, the occasional thunderstorm that wreaks havoc with pelting wind… You get the drift. It’s tough out there!

better bush tomatoes

But they are doing well. Not terribly beautiful, but producing some serious beauties. I’ve chosen Better Bush (shown above), Beefmaster (shown directly below), followed by Celebrity.

beefmaster tomatoes

A few brown spots, plucked leaves (hornworm damage) and various spots, but all seem to be thriving. I try and harvest mine when they begin to turn red. I do so in an effort to beat the beetles and worms who love crawling in and devouring my tomatoes as they mature. Simply pick and place in a sunny window. Voilá — red tomatoes within days! More

Cure For Critters

Remember those pesky critters that stole my peanuts as soon as I planted them? I’ve figured out how to prevent them from doing so again. Bird netting supported by wire hoops.

Brussels beneath netting

Wire can be purchased at your local hardware or big box store–I used 9 gauge–and cut to shape with a pair of wire clippers. Length will depend on the size of your beds, but basically you’re looking to form hoops over your rows. Be sure to allow enough space for your plants to grow beneath the bird netting and accommodate your sprinkler system. The wire is flexible and bends easily.

Next up, you’ll need bird netting. It’s sold in rolls and can be found at hardware/big box stores, too. Originally I used my bird netting for my blueberry plants, but now that they’ve bloomed and been harvested, I can use it for the vegetable garden. Wunderbar!! More

Carrots: My New Favorite in the Kitchen

My carrots are on their way out–actually have been for quite some time. Planted in the fall, these beauties have been hanging out for a while “in ground” until I summoned a need for them. Mind you, it’s supposed to be a little over 2 months to harvest, but as with all things in the garden, there is leeway. Lots.

If your carrots aren’t getting enough water, they might take an extra month. If they aren’t getting enough food, same idea. My carrots are very tolerant when it comes to these things because they have to be; I’m their gardener! But it’s not that big of a deal, really. I mean, over Easter we harvested a bunch of carrots and made carrot cake. A couple of weeks later we harvested a bunch for carrot soup, and they were all good. Some were a bit small due to overcrowding (not enough “hair cutting” on our part), but once we cut the greens off and cleaned the skins, we plopped them into a food processor and came up golden. :)

carrot soup with cream

So, since we like to experiment with our garden harvest, we tried carrot soup. Sampled some during a Mother’s Day luncheon and it was so delicious, I had to try my hand at making a bowl of my own. The results were mixed within the family–I loved it, my husband tolerated it, my son thought it tasted like curry and my daughter wrinkled her nose. Carrots aren’t her fave. More

Time to Plant Peanuts

Peanuts are easy and fun.  Not only do they mature through the summer season, they take their time doing so–while YOU go on vacation!  Simply plant these gems Yep, plant in May and check back in August/September to reap your bounty!

Okay, just kidding.  You don’t want to leave anything alone that long–except maybe your laundry chores–because who knows what could pay your garden a visit in the meantime? And I’m not kidding. I planted my peanuts last weekend only to stroll along the beds during the week to discover this.

peanut debris

I did not remove those sprouts from the dirt. Some friendly “visitor” did. Not sure if it’s a squirrel or raccoon, but whoever it was likes peanuts but not the sprouts. I’m leaning toward the “bad boy” squirrel and his pals. Not happy with those varmints.

critter peanut thief

Other than theft, peanuts are easy and trouble-free. Not prone to insects or disease, they are pretty tolerant and gardening with me–plants need to be tough.  I vacation!  I write!  I have other things to do!  (Don’t we all?) More