organic

Have You Exercised Your Soil Lately?

Soil is key to healthy plants.  Duh. But with spring upon us, it’s an important concept to keep in mind. Healthy soil = healthy plants. What makes a healthy soil? Fertilizer? Water? While these two ingredients certainly help, to have truly healthy soil, you need to aerate. Aerate basically means to turn your soil, or add “air” into the compacted ground by redistributing the soil, making for better decomposition. However, one must take caution when aerating established garden soil, because you don’t want to disturb the microorganisms and/or beneficials (good creatures) living beneath the surface. Think worms. You want these little guys to remain happy in your garden and poking them with the sharp blade of a tiller or spade will not make them happy.

gorgeous-worms

How do you aerate your soil in a compassionate manner? Depends on the current condition of your soil. If you’re preparing an area for the first time, your best bet is to go full speed ahead using a push tiller.

rent the tiller

Your goal is to turn up the soil, introduce air, loosening the dirt several inches deep. You can also use a spade for this process. Stab the blade in, dig up the soil, turn it over–stab, dig, turn–over and over. It’s a tedious process but provides great exercise. Hah.

stab shovel both sides

For established gardens, avoid the push tiller and opt for a spade or a hand tool. For example, between planting seasons — I have two here in Central Florida, fall and spring — I turn and till as I work through established beds using a hand fork or shovel, whichever is handy. As I do so, I’ll add compost to increase beneficial organisms into the soil which in turn aids decomposition, aka, more organic compost! Additionally, throughout a single growing season, I’ll poke around my plants with a hand tiller/fork to ensure they’re not becoming compacted by say, heavy rains and the like. We do tend to get torrential downpours.

my beds are formed

Aerating soil not only facilitates the decomposition process of healthy soil, it also ensures light, fluffy beds for your plants. And remember, plants prefer light fluffy beds of dirt because it enables their roots to grow and spread freely. It also allows them to soak up those nutrients you’re “folding” or “tilling” into the soil in the form of organic fertilizer.

loosen and till as you go

Caveat to aeration? You’re turning up weed seeds embedded deep in your soil. Not good, because you’re basically replanting them, encouraging/enabling them to sprout. Ugh. But as every gardener knows, weeds are part of the deal. Some of us are meticulous when it comes to weed removal in and around their plants. Others (like me) have accepted that a few weeds around the garden don’t hurt that bad. They merely look bad. Which brings to mind an old saying along the lines…an immaculate house means a dull life. Loosely translated: I have other more exciting things to do than weed!

Now that you have that spring in your step, head outside! The sun is shining, the temps are warming (or will be soon), and there’s no place you’d rather be than outdoors.

Easter Dessert

Looking for the perfect dessert this Easter? This carrot cake is perfect and differs from most in that it’s light, fluffy and kid-friendly—from the making to the eating! Not only can they help by harvesting and shredding the carrots, they’ll love to decorate this spring treat (bunnies, anyone?).

bunny cake

While this recipe calls for cream cheese frosting, a bit tangy for some youngsters, it would also be great with a creamy white/vanilla frosting, too.

Fluffiest Carrot Cake

2 cups self-rising flour

2 tsp cinnamon

1 ½ cups vegetable oil

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

3 cups freshly grated carrots

½ cup raisins (optional)

½ cup walnuts, finely chopped (optional)

pre-made fondant for decorations

Preheat oven to 350°F. 

Grease or butter 9 x 13 or 2 8-inch round pans. In a large bowl, combine oil, eggs and sugar and beat well. In a separate bowl, combine flour and cinnamon and mix together until creamy smooth. Add dry ingredients to wet and blend well. Fold in grated carrots, followed by any optional items of your liking!

Pour batter into pan and bake for about 35-45 minutes or until knife inserted into center comes out clean. Serve with cream cheese frosting (even plain, this cake is so good).

Approximately 1 large or 2 8-inch cakes.

light and fluffy slice

 Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese, refrigerated

2 TBSP unsalted butter, softened (at room temperature)

1 ½ – 2 cups powdered sugar (depending on how thick you like your frosting!)

1 tsp vanilla extract

dash of grated orange zest (optional)

Combine cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract and blend until smooth. Add sugar gradually, 1/2 cup at a time, beating until blended. Stop when you have reached your desired consistency. For stiffer frosting, use more sugar. For creamy frosting, use less. Stir in optional flavorings at end. Spread (or drizzle) frosting over cake and enjoy!

You can purchase packages of pre-made fondant at most major craft stores (Joann’s Fabrics, Michael’s…) and forming your figures is easy. We used a tube of green cake decorating color for the greens on our carrots—for a more feathery effect. Don’t forget the pre-made flowers and sprinkles—talk about EASY! You’ll have a stylin’ cake in no time!

Feeling Blue & Loving It

Spring has arrived which means there’s a bunch of stuff to do in the garden. Great times! I get to till and toil and snack on sugar snap peas all while strolling the rows of organic vegetables. This doesn’t make me feel blue. That happens when I approach the house.

new berries 2015

And pass my blueberry patch! Aren’t they gorgeous? The blueberry blooms are out in full force along with the berries I love and adore.

blueberry blooms 2015

Berries the birds love and adore as well, but we’re not discussing those bad boys right now. We’re discussing berries. Decadent, full and delicious berries. I’m not sure how plentiful my harvest will be this year due to the fact that we didn’t have a very cold winter. Blueberries require a certain amount of “chillng hours” to produce fruit. Chill hours are considered between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. I’m taking the blooms I see as a good sign, though. Blooms mean berries. They also mean “bait” for birds. Grrrrr…

Another consideration to bear in mind is that blueberries need to cross-pollinate, so you must have at least two different varieties in your garden. I chose Southern Highbush Sharp Blue, Windsor, Jubilee, Jewel and Gulf Coast  varieties because they require the least amount of chill hours. If you can get your hands on some Highbush Misty, they are supposed to get along particularly well with Highbush Sharp Blue. I also have some Rabbit Eye varieties to round out my berry garden.

delectable blueberries

These varieties work well for Florida because we don’t get a lot of cold weather and these require the least amount of chilling hours. Choose wisely, according to your growing region. And now is the time to find blueberry plants at your local garden center (in warmer regions, later for my Arctic Amigos), another sign that spring is in the air!

Once you have these babies in your hot little hands, plant them in organic-rich slightly acidic soil (4.0 — 5.0 pH) and mulch well. Feed with a 12-4-8 fertilizer and prune during the summer months after harvest for more vigorous growth. They aren’t what I consider high maintenance, but they do require some.

Blueberry & yogurt stock photo

And they’re well worth it. In yogurt, cereal, pie, cobbler or fresh off the bush, these berries are my all-time favorite. You know you want to grow some. What are you waiting for? Get going and DO share how it’s going!

Ingenious AND Easy!

Okay, you know I’m always looking for an easier way to garden. Not that gardening in and of itself is difficult, but it does require time and effort. How much time and effort depends solely upon the gardener. Enter smart new idea…

corn channelsPlant your seeds in channels instead of holes. Yep, that’s it! Create channels down the length of your raised beds and drop your seeds–kernels, in the case of corn–and cover with compost. Done. (Told you it was easy, didn’t I?)

Look at those gorgeous lines in the dirt. And all I had to do to make them was drag my tiller through the dirt. Because I have sandy dirt in this section. My sweet potatoes used to be located here and those gals LOVE sandy soil, although corn doesn’t. Which is why I filled in my channels with compost. Composted cow manure will work, as will mushroom compost. Anything to enrich the sandy soil will do and is an absolute must. Corn won’t be happy without it.

corn channels filled with seeds and compost

Oh, and don’t forget the fertilizer. An all-purpose organic fertilizer works well but do remember to keep it handy. Corn plants are heavy feeder. Real oinkers in the garden, so keep them fed–especially with lots of nitrogen–and moist (channels work well to keep the water directed toward the roots) and your corn will provide more ears of pleasure than your heart could desire. Additionally, dusting with dipel dust worked so well for my tomatoes, I’m convinced it will also prove to be the secret weapon for my corn plants so I’ll dust my corn to keep the varmints at bay.

corn sprouts in channels

When thinking about the nearby plants in your garden, remember that corn and tomato don’t get along. At all. So keep in mind to keep these two away from each other when planning your rows.

Tomatoes In Need of Eggs

My tomatoes are rockin’ and rollin’ and ready to go in ground. Woohoo ~ what a great day! (Below, the sprouts were two weeks old.)

tomato sprouts 2 weeks old

And it’s a day I’ve been planning for, insisting the family not put their eggshells in the compost bin but instead, straight into my hot little hands. I need these babies for my tomato transplants. Eggshells and Epsom salts. Together, they are my fail proof preventative against blossom end-rot. You know, those ugly black spots that can form on your tomatoes?  (Shown below, the sprouts are now 3 weeks old and ready to head outside!)

tomato sprouts a week later

The spots are caused by a lack of calcium which is why I give my tomatoes a blast of calcium right from the start. Using discarded, dried and washed eggshells, I crumble them into small pieces and scatter around the base of my tomato plant. Next I sprinkle a bit of Epsom salts around the same and cover with compost. I’ll follow by forming a well around my tomatoes to increase their water retention.

they're in!

If the weather in Central Florida remains exceptionally warm, I’ll cover my babies with a screen to block out the hot midday sun. Once they reach about a foot, I’ll remove the screen and begin dusting. Dipel dust keeps the worms off my leaves by eliminating them before they get a chance to eliminate my tomato plants. All’s fair in gardening and nature!

Wow. SO excited! For more details on growing tomatoes, check my how-to grow section located on the sidebar to the right or menu bar above.

Valentine Fun in the Garden

Have you ever wondered about the similarities between plants and men?  Probably not!  Most sane people don’t.  But me, when I’m not writing, I spend a lot of time in my garden—maybe too much—and my thoughts?  Well, they naturally veer in that direction and I realized men and plants have much in common!

Ever wonder, if your man were a plant, which would he be?  Just for fun, I’ve listed a few.

Corn – Tall and slender with silken hair, this man provides well and yields a harvest of golden treasure.  While pleasing to look at, beware:  he also tends to be needy; easily blown over by the slightest of breezes—not the man for you hardier types.

Peanut – This good ole boy is made of solid stuff, on the inside and the outside, not to mention he’s filled with sweet old-fashioned appeal.  For most ladies, it’s a tough combination to resist.  Add the fact the kids love him and you’ve got yourself a marrying man!

row of peanuts

Watermelon – This well-rounded fun-loving guy is always welcome at a summer barbecue and usually proves a big hit with the kids.  Prone to balding, his colorful personality distracts one from notice.  However, take heed.  If left to his own device, this one can grow wild and get quite out of hand!

Garlic – This fellow is somewhat distant, as he spends long periods of time out of sight, only to emerge when conditions improve.  Strong and distinct, he’s not for everyone, but given the right environment, he can show great depth, even mellow his pungent tone with time.  A worthy peer, indeed.

line of garlic

Okra – Strong, of firm build, this one likes it hot and enjoys it spicy—very at home in the Big Easy, too.  Generally speaking, he blends well with others, can plant himself anywhere, but caution:  he can be seedy, even a bit slimy at times.

Potatoes – These fellas are generous producers, enjoyed by most everyone as they appeal to a variety of tastes.  They can get easily crowded, though, so give them plenty of space.  If you do, you’ll have yourself a real winner with this one.  Note:  be patient with the sweeter types—they need a little more time before they’re ready to hit the dinner-date table.  But if you can wait, go for it.  You’ll reap the gold with this gem!

Onion – Sometimes sharp, sometimes sweet, this notable companion enhances every dish he meets.  But don’t be fooled.  You have to watch yourself around this double-edged treat.  He tends to “age” those around him quicker than most, and will often make you cry.  But if you like a challenge, give him a try.  He will infuse your life with flavor!

Raspberry – Sweet at first sight, this guy may follow up with a tart bite.  He generally likes to be left alone—literally thrives out in the wild of nature.  Ah…an adventurous type yourself, you’ll feel drawn to this bright and colorful character, but be forewarned:  he’s got thorns and lots of them.

school squash and corn

Squash – Talk about diversity, this one has it!  From sunny yellow summers to cold and cozy winters, this man will keep you well supplied no matter the season.  The cutest of pumpkins, he’s always welcome during the holidays, and his cousin plays a mean racquet ball—for you sportier types.  But keep him moving; stagnation easily leads to illness with this one.  Rest assured, if variety is your thing, take heart.  This dazzling character can fulfill your desires, tenfold.

Carrots – Bred from firm and solid fiber, these men are steady and strong and always there for you.  Given proper attention, they can also become quite sweet in nature; a true hidden treasure, if ever there was one.  They do need some elbow room, exhibit a bit of thinning at times, but if you’re willing to work for it, this one’s a keeper!

carrots-anyone

Beets – Down to earth is putting it mildly with this guy—he’s knee deep in it!   Quiet, mellow, well-rounded…  It’s a wonder he doesn’t rank top of the list for every woman in town.  Perhaps he can come on a bit strong, in an easy-going sort of way.  But if you have thick skin and like to keep it real?   This one’s for you.

Lettuce – This boy likes everybody and everybody likes him.  Similar to the granola-type male, this fella stays healthy and fit, slim and trim.  How could he be anything else?  He has a knack for blending well with any crowd and blend well, though be careful—once he mingles, it’s hard to separate him from the mix!

lush lettuce

Tomatoes – This popular guy is an all around favorite with the ladies, most drawn to his bright and cheery appearance and radiant personality.  A real reliable kind of guy, sweet with a hint of tang, meaty and quite robust—he comes in all sizes.  Yes, this one is tempting.  Be sure you’re in for the commitment—he’s going to need it if you expect him to produce.

school tomatoes

My husband?  He’s definitely a raspberry with garlic tendencies, yet aging like a carrot.

Me?  He claims I’m a Venus flytrap.  Yes, I gave him the evil eye—at first.  But then, I got to thinking.  Imagine the unique and stunning plant for a moment, with her beautiful red, heart-shaped petiole, her pair of symmetrical lobes hinged near the midriff—I mean, midrib.

Lovely so far, isn’t it?  Catches insects and spiders with a bat of her eyelashes.  Tolerates fiery tempers—er, fire well.  Tolerates fire well.   Actually uses the flames to suppress the competition around the neighborhood.  (Sounds like a feisty gal to me!)  Sure, she can be difficult to grow, but what plant doesn’t have its difficult days?  You know, the more I think about it, the more I heard compliment.

I Wouldn’t Normally Share This…

But I believe you need to see it.  With spring fast approaching, I’m preparing my tomato seeds for their sprouting trays and later transplant into the garden. I can’t tell you how many people would love to grow tomatoes but simply feel it’s too difficult. It’s not. This photograph proves it.

tomatoes on their last leg

These are my fall tomatoes. They look horrible. They’re half-dead, many are broken in half, the support system has long been destroyed, yet they are still producing. Yes, you heard me right. They are still producing delicious tomatoes. Back in December, after an early blast of blustery winds and freezing temperatures, I nearly gave up on them. My beautiful plants had been devastated by Mother Nature’s feisty behavior, and I thought, what’s the point?

Yet I couldn’t completely let go. I figured, what the heck? I don’t have anything else to replace them at the moment. Why not let them go? More

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!

Break Out the Catalogs

It’s time to buy your seeds!  If you haven’t been seed saving, 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 making sauce and ketchup that you completely forgot to save a few ripe tomatoes for the purpose of saving seeds.  Yes, you plopped them right into the boiling water for skin removal without even thinking.  It happens.  It’s okay.  More Brandywine tomato seeds are on my list, too. I mean, I had such awesome luck with these guys this year I definitely need more.

seed shopping

But take heart!  You’re enjoying the thrill of gardening, reaping what you sow and cooking the dickens out of it.  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’…

Keep in mind when the seed catalogs arrive and you eagerly run to the mailbox (or jog—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, you want to look 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 those 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 and the like 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.  If you’re lucky, you may plant hybrid Better Boys one season—thrilled with the beasts of bounty they produce—but next season?  These bad boys might only yield a crop of cherry-like tomatoes.  It happens.

So save yourself the heartache and buy heirloom.  And remember to buy only what you’ll actually eat. Plant seeds according to package instructions and keep moist.  Think of them as babies and treat them as such.  This spring I’m putting corn back on my list. Now that I know how to control those dastardly insects, I think I can reap a golden harvest this year. Wish me luck!  Until then…happy gardening!

Sugar Snaps

Sugar snaps have to be one of the easiest plants to grow in the vegetable garden. They don’t need a ton of attention, or water, or food. They aren’t prey to many bugs or diseases. Basically, this plant is your all-around go to gal in the garden. And in Florida, this is the perfect time of year to grow them because they tolerate the cooler temperatures very well.

sugar snap peas are thriving

The only thing you have to be wary of with these beauties is their support structure. They need it–and won’t be happy without it. While my tomatoes are content to sprawl across the ground when given the opportunity, my sugar snap peas are not. You can use tee-pee structures like this one, or a trellis system of sorts.

sweet pea teepees

Whichever you choose, be mindful that you might have to guide your darlings onto the support structure if they can’t readily find it. For instance, these tee-pee supports I made worked well–but only for the plants directly surrounding their base. The sprouts in between tee-pees were at a loss for where to go and I ended up with huge plants along the tee-pee towers and scraggly spindly ones in between.

Another thing to remember: they will latch on to anything, including your water mister so be sure to make sure it’s “out” of their way. Other than that, enjoy these lovelies and they will produce gorgeous plump pods for you to devour–straight from the vine or in pea form, alongside those mashed potatoes you love so much.