organic

Vacation Woes & Garden Envy

Two aspects of gardening we don’t often discuss, but I know exist. At least they do for me.

Recently I helped out a fellow gardener by harvesting some of their crop while they were out of town. Didn’t have to ask me twice. Free bounty? Count me in! However, I was reminded of what it means to be a gardener on vacation.

Weeds. And lots of them. The longer you enjoy your time away, the worse your garden woes at home. Especially after a big rain. Yikes. My back hurts just looking at all the weeding that needs to be done! Every summer the same thing happens to my garden. I’ve resorted to covering most of my beds with heavy black paper to ease the burden, but invariably there are weeds. Usually in my peanuts–about the only crop I grow over the summertime, due to the heat.

But the good news? The bounty was some of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Look at the size of these eggplant plants! They were over three feet high. And take a gander at all that bounty! If you recall, my eggplants were a measly 18 in. tall. “Shrimps” by comparison.

But my envy didn’t stop there. The jalapenos were also amazing and abundant. And tall. Way taller than my plants. In fact, all of the plants were bigger than mine. I’m not sure if his plants are organic or not, however I do know one thing. I’m jealous!

However, looking on the bright side. I do get to enjoy the fruits of his labor–literally. The eggplant was delicious, as were the peppers!

Homemade 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 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 in 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!

Earth Day for Kids!

Earth Day began back in April of 1979 coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement. Poor air and water quality were fundamental to the movement, along with protecting endangered species, a push that drew support from all sides of the political spectrum in an effort to save the earth we inhabit. (Could you imagine such an agreement in today’s tumultuous political times?) We’ve come a long way since those first days but we’re not there yet. While many of us yearn for a gas and oil free lifestyle, our technology is not quite there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real differences in our everyday lives.

Most of us recycle our plastics and glass, newspaper and cardboard. Many of us conserve water with every flush, every faucet turn, but how about moving our conservation efforts into the hearts of our children? From composting to gardening, to recycling and thinking futuristically, kids relish the opportunity to be part of a cause and the health of our planet is certainly a good one. One way to encourage kids in the garden is to make it fun.

From insects and worms to wild critters and mysterious finds, there’s never a dull moment between the rows of a garden and D.S. Venetta proves it with her series of chapter books, Wild Tales & Garden Thrills. Not only will kids be engaged by the stories, they’ll learn the basic tenets of organic gardening and why it’s so important for healthy living habits—including the health of our planet. Composting, companion planting, crop rotation, seed-saving–it’s all there. As a bonus, each book includes vocabulary words, fresh recipes & organic gardening lessons in the back!

CAUTION: by the time the kids finish the first book, they’ll be insisting you start your very own garden and compost pile (if you haven’t already!). Next, they’ll be convincing their teachers at school.

It’s not hard. None of it’s hard. But it does require effort. Thought. Intent. And that’s what the annual Earth Day celebration means to me and my family: we are the custodians of the planet. If we each do our part, we can live in harmony with nature. Animals, too, but that’s another post for another day. 🙂

Here’s to wishing you joy and good health on this Earth Day, and hope you reap abundance from this beautiful earth.

Books available from your favorite indie bookstore, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million. Do your kids love their ereader as much as mine? Perfect! These books are also available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo with full-color illustrations.  Coloring books featuring all of the illustrations from the books are also available–perfect for engaging the younger set! Visit author D.S. Venetta’s website for more information.

Time to Plant Your Sweet Potato Slips

Summer is fast approaching (in Florida, anyway) which means it’s time to get your slips in the ground and growing.  They require a long growing season and they require warmth.  But they don’t grow from seed potatoes, rather the “slips” created from your sweet potatoes.  How does one create a sweet potato slip?

The technique is easy.  You simply cut your sweet potato in half, perch it upon the mouth of a jar or glass (suspended by toothpicks works well) submerging the bottom half in water.  Voila!

creating slips

Place in a sunny location and keep the water level high enough so that the bottom half remains wet and then watch your potato sprout.

After a while—times vary, but you can expect to wait days, even weeks in some cases—shoots (leaves) will form on the top of your potato.  You can gently remove these and place them in water, again half-submersed, and a tangle of roots will develop.

slip roots

When they reach a couple of inches in length, you simply transplant them to your garden and water them in.

Sweet potatoes like loose sandy soil and don’t need a lot of fertilizer or water, which makes them especially kind to the novice Florida gardener, such as myself.   You can amend the soil with some compost to add nutrients, but don’t worry if you can’t.  These girls are pretty hardy.

Depending on the variety, potatoes can be harvested from 100 – 140 days.   I planted my first crop in June and began harvesting in October but continued through December.  They don’t like the cold, so we cleared the remainder out and collected them for storage before the temps dipped too low.

As with any tender transplant, take care with your new rootings and they will grow fast and furious.   Wonderful news, because sweet potatoes are not only easy to grow, but they’re as healthy as it gets.  Roasted, mashed, baked or broiled, these babies will keep you healthy and happy and hoppin’ ready for a new crop come fall!

sweet potato slips ready for sprouts

Mine are on the shelf and ready for action.  The colorful one in the middle was a gift from my daughter. 🙂  She made it at one of those clay-fire-glaze studios.  Cute, isn’t it?

Protect Your Tomato Transplants

And believe me, your tender tomato transplants need protection–from all kinds of harmful factors! I garden in Central Florida where spring begins in February and the heat quickly follows. So for me, an important consideration when transplanting my tomato seedling from patio to garden is the sun, and how much my babies can tolerate. Another consideration is bugs. Bugs love warm weather and open spaces, and I have both.

The solution?

Screen. Similar to my screen patio, I use screen to protect my plants in the garden. At least for the first month, anyway. It’s a pretty basic proposition. You can purchase screen material in rolls from your local hardware store–maybe even cut sheets–and the rest is obvious. Measure your length, cut your fabric and cover your plants. My setup is similar to a “pup tent.” I use posts with twine/cable strung between them for my tomato support. I also use the posts as support for my screen. I do love a multi-tasker!

Next, I stabilize my “tent” with anchor pins. These poke through the screen material quite easily and keep the screen in place and away from my plants. Caution: Heavy spring winds can rip the anchor pins from the soil, so check frequently and stabilize as necessary. We had a big windstorm last week and some of my babies were battered.  Not good!

My plants are happy. And when they’re happy, mama’s happy.

Get Your Blueberries Early!

I love blueberries, plain, on yogurt, in a pie or straight from the bush…

Blueberries are magnificent in every way. And best of all, they’re easy to grow. Seriously. Sun, pine (acid), water, done. That’s it. (That’s pine mulch around the base of the plant.)

All you do is dig a hole, add water and pine bark mulch (acid), and they’re good to go. Oh, and twine. I’m not the only one who loves blueberries. Birds love blueberries and are usually out and about at the crack of dawn dive-bombing the plump ripe berries before you’ll ever get a chance to stop them. Sheesh! If you run twine over the bushes, it’s “problem solved.” I used to use netting until I learned it keeps the bees out, too. Not good. Blueberry blossoms need bees.

Blueberry bushes will begin showing up in your local plant stores soon and if I were you, I’d grab a few. A few—because they need other blueberry bushes for pollination. You do want some, don’t you? Of course you do! And now is the time to find blueberry plants at your local garden center. Just remember, blueberries need to cross-pollinate, so make sure you purchase at least two different varieties for your garden. I have several, including Southern Highbush Sharp Blue, Windsor, Jubilee, Jewel and Gulf Coast. If you can get your hands on some Highbush Misty, they are supposed to get along well with Highbush Sharp Blue. I also have some Rabbit Eye varieties to round out my berry garden.

Special note: Blueberries require a certain amount of “chillng hours” to produce fruit. Chill hours are considered between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. I chose these varieties because in Florida we don’t get a lot of cold weather and these bushes require the least amount of chilling hours, ranging from 200-500 hours. So choose wisely according to your growing region.

Plant 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.

Best results = tons of berries. Look at those beauties!

Quick fun facts about blueberries:

July is National Blueberry month.

Blueberry muffins are the most popular muffin in America.

Blueberry muffins are the state muffin of Minnesota. (Who knew muffins had state status?)

Maine produces more blueberries than any place in the world. (I’ve actually visited some blueberry orchards in Maine and was quite frankly, surprised to find them there!)

Blueberries are relatives to the rhododendron and azalea bushes.

Not only interesting and beautiful, blueberries are FULL of antioxidants. So get shopping! The early bird gets the best bush.

 

Strawberry Season is Here!

And a very popular time for kids in the garden! Okay, at least for mine, anyway. And grandma. Don’t forget her. Exciting outings are usually her idea, and strawberry picking tops the list.

February and March are peak strawberry months in Florida. For those who live in and around the Central Florida area, the Plant City Strawberry Festival takes place from March 2-12th and includes headline country music stars, like Willie Nelson, the Gatlin Brothers, Rascal Flatts, 3 Doors Down and more! From the Strawberry Festival to our local Strawberry Farm, we love this time of year!

Sweetens school lunches.  “Peanut butter and jelly, Mom, and make it fresh strawberry!”

And afternoon snack time.  “Can we make strawberry smoothies?  Pleeeeeease.”

Of course we can!   If that’s how I get fresh strawberries in your belly, then that’s how we do it. (Beats the ice cream alternative.)

We in the gardenfrisk household used to grow our own strawberries, though for some reason, they never turned out quite as large and luscious as the ones at the farm.   Pesticides? Maybe. Commercial strength fertilizer? Could be. But since I don’t know for sure, let’s just say the kids and I have some work to do this season to compete with Farmer Jones down the road.

 

Pine needle mulch is the first key.  Strawberries prefer acid soil. As for food, I hope they like fish emulsion. It’s stinky, but seems effective. So long as we don’t drench them in the stuff while the fruit is blossoming, we should be good to go, right? You can grow them in containers and allowing them to climb on a trellis. They love it! For a complete review on the subject of growing strawberries, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association provides a fantastic educational download for kids and adults alike.

Another great use for strawberries is to make your own preserves. For easy instructions, check my recipe page. It’s great fun and could be the perfect spring gift!

If you’d like to find a farm near you (this is an international source, mind you), check this link.   In addition to strawberries, you’ll be able to locate blueberry farms, pumpkin patches–all kinds of stuff!

Lemon Blossoms Abound

Tis’ the season for lemon blossoms. I have one potted bush outside my patio that produces nicely. Last season, it produced almost half a dozen lemons. However this year, I’m hoping for much more.

Just look at these gorgeous blooms!

And every bloom equals a future lemon.

A few are currently bursting from the stem.

Gets you excited, doesn’t it? Which brings me to the bad news. I’m going to have to wait months before these babies are ready for picking! Ugh. Guess I’ll spend my time gazing upon them until then. If you’re interested in trying your hand at growing lemons, remember these important tips:

Lemons require LOTS of light. They are sensitive to the cold and need protection from frost. They prefer well-draining soil that is slightly acidic. Keep soil evenly moist, though do water deeply at least once a week. And if you’re growing your lemon tree in a pot like me, remember to keep it outside when the blossoms are bursting. You need bees to complete this transformation from blossom to fruit. Happy gardening!

Now THIS is the FUTURE of Gardening

When I saw this structure, I sat back with my mouth agape. Wow. Just wow.

It’s easy to assemble and anyone can utilize it in their home. Described as a “spherical garden that empowers people to grow their own food much more locally in a beautiful and sustainable way,” this Growroom by Space10, an IKEA lab, is the result of a “future-living lab on a mission to design a better and more sustainable way of living.”

Intended for use as a neighborhood garden in cities, it could easily be used for a backyard, a corporate headquarters, a library…the possibilities are endless! How’s that for a lunch hour with the co-workers?

And it only requires plywood, rubber hammers, metal screws and diligence to complete the 17-step architect designed garden project.

“I want one! I want one!”

Perfect. When you’re ready to get started, download your instructions here.

Great way to be a part of the locally-sourced food movement.

“Local food represents a serious alternative to the global food model. It reduces food miles, our pressure on the environment, and educates our children of where food actually comes from. … The challenge is that traditional farming takes up a lot of space and space is a scarce resource in our urban environments.

The Growroom … is designed to support our everyday sense of well being in the cities by creating a small oasis or ‘pause’ architecture in our high paced societal scenery, and enables people to connect with nature as we smell and taste the abundance of herbs and plants. The pavilion, built as a sphere, can stand freely in any context and points in a direction of expanding contemporary and shared architecture.” ~ Space10

Good luck and happy gardening!

What Happened to My Brassicas?

I’m a bit disappointed as I write this post. My coveted Brussels sprouts and cabbage have not blossomed as I’d hoped. As I’d worked so hard to ensure.

I don’t know what happened. I watered, fertilized and weeded. Consistently. Carefully. Lovingly. I even applied snail bait for those horrid beasts that attack from underground. Could also be nematodes, though I’m not sure how to rid my garden of those creatures. I’ve tilled, rotated, solarized…

But alas, it has been to no avail. This cabbage was planted months ago. Months!

It’s not like I’ve never had success before. I have. Just look at these beauties. Gorgeous! I’ve grown both red… More