Until Next Year…

The school garden had a fabulous semester.  Not only did our wall of sunflowers work out beautifully, but so did our bean fort.  Pumpkin patch?

Not so much.  But we’re moving on to bigger things and brighter days as we move our garden’s location come spring.  However due to harvest times, some of our produce–like onions and carrots–will be left behind.  They need more time to mature.  But not our tomatoes–look at these beauties!

No freeze, no frost, it’s been a warm December here in Florida (thank goodness!).  A definite relief, as last year we lost our entire crop to an early freeze. 🙁 Not a happy day. Kids took it pretty hard.  Lost everything.

But what if your tomatoes are not ripening on the vine and a frost is headed your way?  Simple–you bring them indoors!  Yep. Just pluck them from the vine and haul the load indoors and set near a sunny window (a patio will do!) and allow to ripen fully.  So long as there is a hint of red on your fruit, you should be good to go. 

I “learned this by doing” last year after Mother Nature surprised me with a hard freeze first of December.  While tomatoes don’t like the cold, they can be covered during a night’s frost.  However, if you’re in for a hard freeze for more than several hours, your tomatoes are toast.  Or may as well be.  It’s not a pretty site.

And I have sauce to make!  In fact, tried my hand at it last week but apparently it tasted more like salsa than sauce–according to my Italian husband, anyway.  Personally, I thought it tasted “fresh and light” and utterly delightful.  I know you’re thinking:  like salsa!  But keep it to yourself, will you?  I thrive on positive reinforcement and salsa jokes simply don’t work for me.  How about instead going with something like:   “Almost, honey!  Just a little thicker next time, so it sticks to the pasta.”   And smile.  I do like smiles.

See?  I’m easy!  As to cooking the perfect sauce with your fresh tomatoes?  More on that in a future post.  Now the kids and are off to enjoy the season–

Merry Christmas!

Building Our Bean Fort

How fun is that?

It’s WAY fun and what an endeavor this has turned out to be–for adults and kids alike!  Just look at this beauty.  Isn’t it amazing?

But let’s start from the beginning, when our middle school students took on the task of building the framework for this project.  It began with a request for my future engineers.  Hands shot up.  Then my architects.  More hands shot up.  Then my laborers.  More hands shot up (don’t you just love eager and exuberant?) and then the assistants, coordinators, you name it.  “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”  Enthusiasm 101. 

Once we assembled our crew, the design process began. 

Now I’m no engineer–but I am smart enough to know how to delegate, so I handed the technical aspects over to the kids. 

Good thing too, because every time I did pipe up it wasn’t as fruitful as I’d hoped.  (But I’m a writer not an engineer!)  No matter.  The kids politely moved past my suggestions and continued solving the problem amongst themselves.  They dug the foundation, tied the framework together.

Then they worked to stabilize the structure and all was running efficient and smooth, much like a well-oiled machine, especially when they came up with the bright idea to use PVC pipe for our roof support beams.  In case my husband is reading this–Yes, I know.  You told me to bring our PVC pipe from homeYes, it was a great idea

What can I say?  (I forgot.)  Moving right along…  While all this fort construction was going on, we turned our compost pile.  Look at all that gorgeous dirt!

Any-hoo, back to the roof.  All was running well–

Until it came time to attach the roof.  A bit of a “mutiny of ideas” ensued as to how we best support the lattice top–cross-wise, lengthwise, overlap–though fortunately it was short-lived.  

“We’re working together around here, right?”  I looked around at disgruntled faces and nodded my head (this is an excellent psychological warfare tactic–nod and they will agree).  “Right?”

Right.  And back to the roof we went, now secured attached and utterly stupendous.  It’s certainly something to be proud, wouldn’t you agree?  I mean, this is a masterpiece of teamwork, energy, determination (all the more amazing under the warm and humid conditions we had to endure). Gotta love Florida!  At least it gives us TWO growing seasons which equals TWICE the fun, right kids?  (We’re nodding again here.) 

Enter lower elementary, a.k.a. our bean planters. 

Their job was to “build” the walls.  Okay, maybe not actually build but certainly plant the seeds for future “wall” growth.  And we want our walls to be dense so don’t be shy kids–plant as many as you can!

This bean fort is going to be really cool.  Almost private, like a real hideaway.  And it will fit a good 5-10 kids!  “Party in the fort1!” Depending upon their size and agreeability, of course.  Better yet, won’t this make for a great photo opportunity?

We think so and since we plan to hang out a bit, we want it to be comfortable.  What’s more comfy than a hay covered floor? 

Awesome.  And more than beautiful, our bean fort will be edible. 

 Yep.  Green beans will be hanging within our reach.  Organic green beans.  Yum. Pluck em, peel em, plop em in! 

But that’s not all we did this week!  Upper elementary planted tomatoes.  And because they’re experts in the garden, they know plants need nutrients to grow full and lush and were sure to include them. 

What do tomatoes need? Epsom salts and eggshells!  Or magnesium sulfate and calcium for you non-gardener types.

Blossom-end rot (ugly black spots) on our tomatoes can be due to a lack of calcium.  And nobody wants to eat rot spots.  But we also like BIG tomatoes so we included magnesium sulfate because magnesium helps chlorophyll formation while sulfate aids in strong healthy cell development. 

 And we do look forward to our plump red tomatoes.  Makes sense to give them the best start we can.  Besides, handling crinkly eggshells (pre-cleaned) and crystallized Epsom salt is kinda neat.  

So what do you think?  Need a bean fort in your neck of the woods?  It’s easy to do, great fun and will be the oh-so-popular place to be! 

The hardest part will be waiting for it to fill in… 🙂

Oh, and lower elementary will be keeping a journal on the entire process, sort of our “record keepers” for the project.  Love teamwork.  But we are a community of gardeners and gardeners enjoy sharing the adventure!

Nifty Kitchen Companions for Gardener Extraordinaires

Let’s face it, after the garden chores are done the kitchen chores begin.  It’s a fact of life, right?  I mean, we grew all this food for a reason; to eat it!  But does that mean it has to be difficult?  Time consuming or wasteful?  Not at all–not if you have the right tools.  (According to my husband, every problem in my household stems from lack of the proper tool.)

But he has a point.  We live in a day and age where innovation has gone extreme–attractive and useful–but extreme.  There’s almost nothing that can’t be automated or made easier and I’ve reached the point where I’ve stopped fighting it.  While a greenie-pioneer-woman at heart, I’m no fool.  My life is busy and complicated and if I plan to accomplish half the things I set out to do, I’ll never realize success without a little help from technological advancements.  From refrigerators to freezers, air-tight containers to sure-seal pressure canners, my garden bounty has benefited from the use of gadgets.  My compost pile suffers, but my bounty spoils not!

And some of these tools are downright cute.  Just look at this watermelon slicer/seeder.  Is it the most adorable knife you ever saw or what?  My kids think so.  And it’s one of the few knives long enough to slice the length of our homegrown watermelons.  Then of course there are the herbs to be cut.  We bought a mezzaluna herb knife for ease and safety of chopping, but the darn thing is sharp.  I’m afraid to let my kids anywhere near it!  (Which doesn’t bode well for sharing kitchen duty and thus must not be tolerated.)

How about using your home coffee grinder instead? This one from Krups can reduce your fresh herbs and dried spices to a silky fine texture in no time, suitable for any gourmet soup or sauce.

But these are just a few!  Whether it’s your harvest time now or something you have to look forward, check out this month’s Prize Picks section for more gardener must-haves in the kitchen.

Ashley’s Topsy Turvy Experiment

Ashley received a lovely gift in the form of a Topsy Turvy Tomato plant.  What every gardener-extraordinaire needs, right? Well, yes and no.

You see, gardeners are do-it-yourselfers and generally like to get up close and personal with their vegetable plants.  A Topsy Turvy simply hangs there, doing all the work for you.  How much fun is that? 

Not much at my house–worse, it’s one of those doggone things you must remember to water.  Not a good match, Topsy Turvy and I.  But Ashley’s a good sport and gave the contraption a whirl.  She hung it from her tree and hoped for the best.

Things went well, for a while, but one stiff wind put an end to her tree-hanging tomato experiment and down it came.  Crashing to the ground.

Now what?  Re-hang it?  Send it off to the compost pile?  Or move it to better digs. 

Ashley voted for the latter.

Doesn’t he look more comfortable? 

I thought so and for each visit to her garden, I photo-journaled his progress.  Growing alongside her raised planter, he seemed to prosper.  Thrive, really!

Until something happened.  I have no idea.  Could have been the heat.  Could have been the drought.  Could have been anything.  Whatever it was, as some of you may recall (from last week’s photos), he didn’t look so good.

But I told you not to lose heart.  With a little love and care this pumpkin (term of endearment) would be back on track in no time. 

Ashley was diligent and didn’t give up.  Remember:  she’s been bitten by the garden bug (a good bug, not one of those nasty beasts that eats you out of home and garden). 

She moved the boy to the patio and continued to feed him.  She watered and watched and generally lost sleep over the lad’s predicament like any good mother would. 

And do you know what happened?  That puppy produced!  Look at those gorgeous plump and juicy red tomatoes just begging to be sliced and slipped between two pieces of bread or layered in fresh salad greens. 

Any you slice them, these babies will be brilliant.

Absolutely brilliant.  Can you believe it?

I can.  But I’m plum crazy.  (Make that tomato.)

Garden Tomato Pizza Sauce

Put those tomatoes to work–make a pizza sauce!  I did.  Fresh ripe ruby-red tomatoes make the most delicious sauce and don’t worry if yours aren’t ruby-red ripe (mine weren’t either).  They still taste divine.  Add a few of your garden garlic, half a sweet onion, some dried oregano and my garden goal has been achieved:  tomato sauce made entirely from my garden!

Except for that olive oil you bartered for with your cousin Vinny from Italy.  But that’s okay.  I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage–not an olive tree in sight here in Central Florida.  There aren’t any bay leaf trees, either (but I’m not looking for any).

And if my family knows what’s good for them, they won’t point the fact out.  Best to leave mom to her fantasy world.

Speaking of my family, my daughter prepared the homemade pizza dough all by herself and put the pizza together.  She’s an awesome chef.  Sweet!

As to my sauce, it was easy.  Simply de-stemmed the tomatoes, cut them in half, pushed the seeds out and tossed the tomato flesh into my Cuisinart and pressed ON.  Beautiful!  Next, I poured the tomatoes into a pan and added the fresh garlic, half a sweet onion, dried oregano.

–and yes, a bit of salt (you’d be amazed by how much salt is pre-added to canned tomatoes) and allowed the mixture to simmer for several hours prior to spreading onto the dough.

Bake for about 15 minutes and you have ooey-gooey-golden-dinner-delight!  Pepperoni side for the boys, cheese for the girls–a feat to be proud of, for sure.

Put an End to Blossom-End Rot

Finally!  The solution to blossom-end rot.  No longer will you have to suffer through unsightly spots.  No more will you find yourself spraying a problem that already exists.

Absolutely not.  We have discovered the secret.  Having endured the ugliness of blossom-end rot one too many times, I planted my tomatoes this spring with great care and foresight.  You know what I’m talking about.  After nurturing these tiny little beings from their tender beginnings, you refused to set them out in the harsh sun too soon. 

You watered and fed them on the patio waiting for that perfect opportunity, the moment they were ready to be hardened off.  Sounds so cruel when you put it that way but alas, it’s a fact of life.  Tomatoes want to be outside soaking in the full glory of Mother Nature’s sunshine.  But in transplanting them you must–absolutely must–include a dose of eggshells and Epsom salts

Yep. Because blossom-end rot is due to a calcium deficiency.  Magnesium too (I think) and these two ingredients are the secret weapon in the battle of blossom-end rot.  My tomatoes are here to prove it.  Just sprinkle a little bit of Epsom salts in the well around your plant, crumble in a few washed and dried eggshells and voila!  These babies were green and gorgeous as they developed and their skin remained this supple, smooth and unmarred all the way to maturity.

Sure we had other issues like cracking and worms, a few even “sun-dried” on the vine (I was busy on vacation) but we didn’t have blossom-end rot!  🙂  Lesson learned, mission accomplished. 

Of course, my compost tomatoes didn’t have this problem either, but I’ll be the first to admit:  I’m no match for Mother Nature when it comes to gardening.  She wins, no contest (though I do enjoy a good challenge).  The only other comment I have is regarding variety.  Now no offense, but this Pantano variety (mixed above with Romas) is not my favorite.  They’re horribly unattractive and thus unappealing to my palate.  Does that make me a bad person?

Besides, they were no where as easy to grow as my Romas.  And since my goal is sauce, I think I’ll stick with the Romas.  I also grew a San Marzano variety this spring, but they didn’t fare as well.  I think it was a water issue, as in, my sprinkler was malfunctioning (unbeknownst to me!).  Never good–especially with the heat wave we’ve been experiencing.

Live and learn.  And love those tomatoes!

Summer Heat in the Garden

While I love a good old-fashioned sun-shiny day, I don’t enjoy heat stroke–which is what you’ll end up with in Florida these days, if you’re not careful.  Now granted I’m not known for being real careful and I do tend toward action before planning, but even I know to stay out of this heat!  If only our plants could be so wise.  Or fortunate.

Look at this poor thing.  Drooping, withering, begging to be let into the patio.  Reminds me of my dog (though he’s not satisfied with merely being on the patio, oh no!).  He wants to be in the house, on the tile, never mind he’s wet from his recent dip in the pool. 🙂

Silly boy.  Sad plant.  This is Ashley’s topsy-turvy experimental tomato plant and looks a lot like the tomatoes in my garden (which BTW have no blossom end rot, thank you very much).  Only my compost pile tomatoes seem to be enjoying the weather. 

While this fellow was having a good run there for a while, he’s no longer enjoying the ride.  So like any warm-hearted gardener, she’ll take this poor baby inside and place him on a sunny corner of her porch. She’ll water him and feed him and nurse him back to health and hope he responds. 

Which he will.  Given the proper care and feeding he can thrive once again.  It only takes effort.  Why, one only has to look at her lettuce to know this woman has basketfuls of effort! 

Whoever heard of lettuce growing outdoors in the heat of Florida?  Not me.  Mine are long since burnt, I’ve the plastic store-bought bags of lettuce to prove it.  We’re fresh out of greens at my house!  And carrots.

But Ashley’s harvesting those, too.  Sure this little guy is a tad on the slender side, but he’s golden and gorgeous and he’ll taste just the same. 

Guess there is a silver  (icy and refreshing) lining to an otherwise scorching day:  Gardeners can achieve success, despite the heat.  Save for those leggy basil of hers.

Didn’t stand a chance really, because basil will do that to you.  If you don’t diligently pinch their buds they will quickly grow legs that can outrun Twiggy! 

“What? You don’t know who Twiggy is?”

Hmph.  Fine.  When I think of her contemporary, I’ll get back to you.  Until then, enjoy your summer garden! 

Or what’s left of it.

p.s.  Julie’s still recovering from vacation.

Hornworms and Fungus (& other fun stuff)

Ashley has been busy!  Doing what, you ask?  Harvesting, of course!

One of the more glorious times in the garden, she is reaping what she sowed (is that a word?).  Anyhoo, she is happy as a lark with her first bounty of potatoes, zucchini and beans.  You know this by how CLEAN they are!  I assure you these babies didn’t look like this when she dug them out of that inky black dirt.  Way to grow, Ashley!

And while you may not be aware, she was privately battling a topsy-turvy experiment gone wrong (one stiff breeze whacked the entire contraption from her tree) but is happy to report:  success!

Isn’t it beautiful?  You’d never know the trauma this poor thing endured by looking at it, would you?  And quite lush now that it’s comfortably (and safely) secured in a real planter with real support. Not that I have anything against topsy-turvy, mind you.  In fact, I’ve heard of several that have done fine, just not this one.

Off to Julie’s and lo and behold, we discover this unfortunate sight.

Yep, those white spots are fungus (or mildew) and are not good.  Most probably a result of humid conditions (surprise — it’s Central Florida!) and/or leaf watering, but if these leaves aren’t removed and quick, this nasty stuff will spread.  Some might attempt to spray it with a mix of antibacterial soap and water, allowing the mixture to dry before rinsing it off with a hose, but me, I’d remove them and move on.  Because I don’t have time to spray, dry, rinse and repeat.   Of course…my kids are home on summer break…  Why, there may be all sorts of things I suddenly “have time” for! Division of labor works wonders on a schedule. 🙂

Another more gruesome discovery were these piles of frass (poop).

“Oh, hey–thanks for sharing!” 🙁

Sorry, but I had to show this photo.  It’s important you learn how to spot signs of hornworm invasion–other than the more obvious stems-without-leaves syndrome!

These are common pests and quite the pigs, I might add.  Found one myself this morning during my daily garden visit.  The beast was so big and fat I thought he’d explode at my mere touch!  Of course he was dispatched immediately.

Prevention would be most opportune in combating these fiends, specifically Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).  Purported to be organic and safe to everything but hornworms, this may be the answer.  One thing for sure, I’m going to check into this magic potion because I absolutely dread the “hornworm search.”  Unless they’re HUGE, I have a hard time seeing them (don’t usually wear my glasses to the garden) and HUGE hornworms can down a plant in a matter of days so by the time they reach this size, I am so-out-of-luck.

I’ll keep you posted!

Garden Ties that Bind

There’s a reason some ingenious gardener came up with the idea of using pantyhose for tying tomatoes to a trellis–they’re soft and don’t injure the plant.

This tie has outgrown its use, or rather the tomato plant has outgrown it.  Doesn’t it just look painful?  Ouch.  It’s also the reason green garden tape was invented. 

Only a guess (as I wasn’t the mastermind behind this million-dollar-invention) but it’s a smart one and my first choice when it comes to tying tomatoes.  Easy to use, easily expands…  Simply a great product for the garden and available in most garden centers.

Speaking of ties that bind, look at this fella.  He’s grabbed hold of his zucchini neighbor and then some!  One of the downsides to planter box gardening…when there’s no way to grow up, they will grow out–spreading all over the place!  The perfect solution is to have them organized for such sprawling.

Which Julie does.  Lined her babies right along the border, save for the one above.  Makes for more exciting gardening when you mix it up!

And mix it up we do–with companion planting!  Peas and carrots are doing well together and so are Ashley’s beans.  She’s added this lovely new trellis for them which just goes to show, tall, short and most places in between, trellis’ come in all sizes!  More important–they all work.

Ashley has also been expanding her gardening repertoire…by adding this rosemary plant next to her back door.

Edible landscape, here we come!  The only thing her garden needs at the moment is a bit of detective work.  Her basil leaves are yellowing which could be a sign of not enough sun and/or water.  Perhaps pests or disease are at play.  Could be a combination, but by the looks of those brown spots, I’d start there; invasion!

Removing damaged leaves will go a long way to helping your plants recover and heal as well as checking your water supply. I’ve noticed that when my plants start looking shabby, I double-check the sprinkler system to be sure it’s functioning properly.  Nine times out of ten–that’s the culprit.

And don’t forget to pinch!  Pinching those center clusters of white blooms on your basil will encourage thicker growth–a must when you have pesto on the menu.  “Honey…Wha’t for dinner?”

It’s almost like that Italian husband of mine could hear me write the word!  Do love him so

Bounty of Spring Squash

Would you look at Ashley’s squash?  They’re fabulous!

“Time for dinner, kids!”  And while she’s at it, she’ll throw a little fresh salad together.  Why not?  She has plenty! (Sure they look a tad peaked, but it was hot today!  Not to worry, they’ll clean up fine.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen potato plants this big.  These things are monsters!

And despite conventional wisdom (and space restriction on our part), they DO get along with squash.  Like old friends these two, wouldn’t you agree?

See, we can get along, without any trouble at all.  Though her cucumber needs some assistance.  This baby is sprawling–like she owns the place–antics for which we simply have no room.  Like a good mother, Ashley will guide her to the fence and encourage some good climbing behavior. 

Speaking of good mothers (with sensitive spots), Julie’s garden is doing well, though she hasn’t the heart to remove this stray melon. 

While it may seem fun right now, this fellow has no business mingling with those carrots.  It’s Julie’s job to remove the wayward lad–before he gets unruly.  Which he will.  He’s a melon and talk about wandering!  Don’t get me started.  He’s only going to get bigger.  Sorry, but the boy needs to go. 

Her tomatoes are doing well, even sporting little tomato sprouts.  However, they’re also sporting squiggly white lines. 

Do you know what that means?  (I didn’t either until I looked it up.  Never posed a problem at my house.)  Anyhoo, these lines indicate she has leaf miners.  Not good.  Granted the damage is mostly cosmetic, unless of course a large number of leaves are affected.  If so, the overall vigor of her plant could be significantly reduced.  If left intact, the tunnels–those lines are actually tunnels–can allow fungus and bacteria to enter.  

Best thing she can do at this point is to remove the damaged leaves, water well and keep it healthy.  Beneficial wasps are natural predators for leaf miners, so sending an invitation to her neighborhood wasp center could prove helpful.  Otherwise, her tomato plant is healthy and robust should recover from the trauma.  Good work, Julie!