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December 7, 2011

Luffa harvest - free sponges

In the end of July of this year I planted a few Luffa plants, just to see how it would work out. It took about five months, as expected, to get to the most exciting part - the harvest. I learned a few things about luffa, one of them being, that we should wait for the fruit to be completely ripe. When the fruit changes color from green to light brown, it is time to pick.

Now comes the fun part, peeling the skin. When the fruit is ripe, as shown on these pictures, peeling is completely effortless. If you pick a greener luffa, peeling could be a challenge, but not a huge one. In the picture below the whole peeling process took maybe two minutes, the skin just falls off.

Once all of the skin is gone we are left with a sponge like this:

Now, the remainder of the flesh needs to be washed out; a garden hose works perfectly for this purpose. The seeds come out pretty easily as well, and in abundance. You could seed your whole garden next year with just the seeds from one plant. If you have chickens, they love these seeds.

Some people bleach luffa sponges, but I do not see the reason to add chemicals to the perfectly organic and usable product. These sponges are pretty hard when they are dry, but with added water, as you use sponges, they are just like luffa you can buy in the store.

November 16, 2011

Grocery store gifts: sweet potatoes and peanuts

It's harvest time!

Sometime in July I planted sweet potato slips grown from a store-bought potato, as well as some peanuts, from a grocery store bag as well. The sweet potato harvest in a picture below is just from one slip; and that's what you should expect usually, six to ten potatoes from one slip. Sweet potatoes are pretty undemanding, they will grow in slightly fertilized sand, in fact these grew in just that, very poor sandy soil.

Peanuts do not demand awesome soil either, as a member of legume family they fix their own nitrogen. The harvest in this picture is just from one peanut. Not a bad outcome, somewhere from ten to twenty peanuts from one. I imagine, if I plant a pound of peanuts next year, I will have twenty pounds harvest, that will make a huge bag.

I tasted one peanut and it was still quite raw. The kernels should be somewhat darker in color; and the plant leaves themselves should turn yellow or light brown, indicating that the "children" are taking in the nutrients. I will give them another month, after that I will take another sample. Peanuts are an indeterminate vegetable, so we cannot count on a 100% maturity; as long as most of the peanuts mature the harvest should be deemed as a success.

The beauty of a garden is that once you grow something, it will always be there. I have tons of volunteer tomatoes, peppers, dill and bok choy. Sweet potatoes and peanuts are self-propagating as well. Since it is impossible to dig out every little root, they will continue giving for the seasons to come.

November 8, 2011

What can we grow in November in Florida

Think Green!

Our fall, winter and early spring months are perfect for growing your greens. Granted, greens is a broad term, but most common vegetables gardeners grow and enjoy in Florida are lettuce, bok choy and radish. Radish, although not commonly thought as "green" does provide it's contribution for a salad in a form of young tender leaves.

I usually grow a lot of Romaine lettuce from October through the end of April, seeding every month:

If you have never grown lettuce in Florida, you owe it to yourself to get a package of Romaine and seed it now. There is absolutely no comparison to the lettuce you can get in a grocery store. Lettuce picked from your own yard straight to the plate is crispy, juicy and tasty. Could you believe it, lettuce actually has taste? Try growing it in your garden to find out, you would be amazed.

I also grow other greens, such as Kale, Mustard greens, bok choy and broccochini (broccoli that does not grow heads). Pictured below is Kale, a green that is extremely high in vitamins and minerals:

You can seed radish every two weeks, just a small patch, to have fresh radishes through the end of April:

And last, but not least, you can start now and grow your favorite herbs, dill and parsley. Here's dill:

And Italian parsley:

You can also seed snap peas now to have a harvest in March and April.

Plant all these vegetables in full sun, this is very important. Florida gardening is "upside down". In the summer we shade tomatoes and peppers, and in the winter we give our greens full sun. If you plant greens in the shade they will grow spindly with very few leaves and radish might not produce the bulbs.

November 6, 2011

Three sisters garden: they are growing

It's been two months since I started a Three Sisters Garden project, and I'm happy to report that so far all off the sisters are doing extremely well. I'm glad that I staked the beans because the corn did not have a chance to grow tall enough prior to the beans taking over. Now the whole concoction is taller than me:

Squash is blooming:

And corn is blooming as well:

We have three weeks left till Thanksgiving, which is when usually this garden is supposed to be harvested, so hopefully we will not have an early frost and will enjoy the fruits of this age-old arrangement.

October 16, 2011

Grow tomatoes, eggplant and peppers over the winter in Florida

Who says we cannot have our cake and eat it too? In Florida we can. With some adjustments, we can grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplant year round, except for the summer season. The only thing we should do is to protect the plants from the frosts. Barring elaborate covering or green house set ups, we can grow these vegetables in containers and bring them inside on frost nights. If you want to venture on to winter growing of these warm season vegetables, you should plant them in some nice containers now:

Here's some eggplant:

Cubanelle Peppers:

and some tomatoes ready to be transplanted.

One thing all these vegetables have in common, they like 65F to 85F degree weather, which can be easily achieved througout the winter in Florida, except for the North Florida. In Central and South Florida we can grow these vegetables in containers and just bring them inside on frost nights. Even in the event they don't fruit in the coolish weather, we can still have an earlier start on the harvest, by probably two to three months by just growing them in this manner.

October 14, 2011

Update on growing peanuts

I had these peanuts from a grocery store growing since June, and now they started to flower. Peanuts take a long time to grow and that is why it is important to seed them at the right time so they would have adequate amount of warm weather to develop and fruit. Pictured below is a peanut plant flowering:

Here's my peanut patch, of maybe six to ten peanut plants. The orange flowers are cosmos, not peanuts. Cosmos seeded itself and I let it be for the beauty and pollinator attracting ability.

Peanut plant is supposed to bury their "children" into the ground. So far I am not observing that behavior, but will keep an eye on them and will report on the progress.

October 12, 2011

Another update on three sisters garden

Thanks to the cooling weather, corn, beans and squash are finally starting to perform. All of the beans and squash have germinated, and corn picked up the speed as well.

I planted two squash seeds on each corner of the three sisters garden, and all the seeds have germinated. I hate killing a perfectly healthy plant, but at some point a decision will have to be made. The amount of space allocated to the three sisters garden cannot support that much squash, so one of the squash in each corner will have to go to let the remaining one have the room and the sun to grow to it's full capacity:

The idea of this project is to have a triple harvest at Thanksgiving: corn, beans and squash, all growing together and supporting each other by nutrients, shading and support functions.

October 10, 2011

Sweet potato harvest

Back in July I planted some sweet potato slips from a grocery store potatoes, and now, in October, it is time to harvest the crop. I was astounded by the size of the potatoes:

Just a few of them weighted at four pounds, but total of six pounds from two little twigs grown from a potato:

You can see on these pictures that potatoes are cracked and split, this is because we had so much rain lately. These potatoes are still very edible, but for the storage you need potatoes that are intact. This is why it is advised to grow sweet potatoes in hills, that is in soil piled up well above the ground to provide good drainage. I do not have the space in my garden to dedicate to storage sweet potatoes, but if this is your goal, you need to grow them either in raised beds or in hills.

Usually, it is expected to harvest two to five pounds of sweet potatoes from every slip, depending on the fertility of the soil and growing conditions. But hey, would you complain if you grew even one pound of potatoes per slip from a store bought potato? This is free food at it's best.

October 9, 2011

Update on growing luffa in your garden

Finally I'm getting some good results. Luffa that was planted some time in June is coming to some nice fruit.

But luffa seeded a whole month and a half after the initial one is doing much better: larger fruit and healthier vines all around:

This "later" luffa also has more developing fruit that does not fall off:

This leads me to believe that luffa does not really like our summer heat and prefers cooler weather. So, for the fall harvest we should seed it sometime in August, like any other squash family. In spring it probably should be seeded in February. I have a total of five plants going, and by counting the developing fruit I would have at least twenty grown gourds to make my sponges. Not a bad proposition.

October 8, 2011

Growing small grains

I germinated some bird seed for sprouts sometime in June. We happily juiced the sprouts but the plants still had the roots and stems living. I felt bad throwing them into compost, so I planted it in the corner of the bed. There were probably forty or so plants there, but some survived summer heat and neglect. Now I have a small grain harvest:

I'm not sure what kind of grain these are, as far as I remember the package listed wheat, millet and milo, possibly some others. But the experiment is worth the try. You might not produce enough grain to feed the family, but will have some to make artisan bread and have more free seeds for the next season. I am going to try to seed maybe forty square feet of grain next spring. I imagine they should be seeded in February, just like any other warm season vegetable.

October 6, 2011

Pickleworm control

Pickleworms are common on cucumbers and squash. I don't use pesticides, so my pest control is manual. Luckily, these worms are easy to identify. They like to wrap themselves around in the leaves of the squash or the cucumber and lay the eggs there so that their youngsters have immediate access to food.

You need to pay attention to the leaves. When you see damage to the leaves, examine the under part of the leaves, and especially when you see leaves curled up and sealed like this:

When you open the curled part you would find a small green worm sitting there:

Destroy this thing immediately and keep checking the leaves for other pickleworms. The plant will survive with some leaf damage, but it will be a problem, if unchecked, when you start harvesting because pickleworms will destroy fruit. You might try BT to control the worms, but it has to be applied regularly as it washes off with rain and watering.

October 4, 2011

Warm season vegetables in October

After a two month lull in production we are starting to enjoy fruits of our labor in October. Warm season vegetables that were seeded in July and August are ready for the harvest and will continue fruiting till Thanksgiving. Cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and peppers are our main crop in this season.

Tomatoes started to fruit:

Peppers are blooming and will start to fruit soon:

Warm season vegetables are quite tricky to grow in the fall because we have to start them when it is excruciatingly hot, in July, but harvest time is limited by cooling weather and potential frost. But it is still worth it because we can enjoy second season of these wonderful fruits. You might want to extend the season by getting a green house and planting fewer plants so they can fit in there, if the green house is small.

October 2, 2011

What can we grow in October in Florida?

In October we can seed all cool season vegetables and herbs directly into the ground. The weather is cool enough for optimum development of these plants. My zone is 9A, but check your zone for refined planting dates. Even if we get frost in December, these vegetables are not badly damaged by it and survive frosts just fine. Here's an alphabetical list of these vegetables:

BeetsBok ChoyBroccoliBrussels sprouts
CabbageChinese CabbageCarrotsCauliflower

Check proper spacing prior to seeding these vegetables.

Radish is a popular vegetable and can be seeded througout the season every two weeks or so to ensure continuous harvest. It grows very fast, you can have radishes a month after seeding.

Approximately at this stage radish needs to be thinned to about three inches between the plants. The thinned out seedlings can be used as greens in salads.

Lettuce is another popular vegetable and can be seeded continiously through March. Pictured below is Romaine lettuce, but you might try other types, such as Black Seeded Simpson and Mesclun Mix; both grow very well in Florida and are easy to grow.

October 1, 2011

Want free fertilizer?

Get some chickens!

Just thought I'd share...  :)

September 30, 2011

Three sisters garden update

I was going to wait until the corn gets established enough for the beans to climb over it's stalks, but the corn is not exactly going gangbusters. I need to get beans and squash into the ground because we only have two solid months until the possible first frost date. So, I decided to cheat a little, and added bamboo posts to support the beans.

Now, even if the corn fails I would still have the beans and the squash, which will make it a two sisters, but I am hoping for the best. I planted six bean seeds around each stake.

Also planted two squash seeds per each diagonal corner of the three sisters garden. If both come up, I will leave the stronger one and snip the smaller one. We will see what develops.

September 27, 2011

Lazy compost pile

If you grow squash and you don't have a compost pile going, here's a double whammy.

Squash is a heavy feeder, in fact the best squash you can grow is on a compost pile itself. At the same time squash requires a lot of room. Usual spacing for squash is about three feet on center, but it would love to crawl even farther if you allow it.

So the solution is to grow squash next to the compost pile, or start one next to the growing squash. Here's the squash I have going, it's a yellow straight neck variety. Yellow squash is pretty easy to grow, and I love easy.

Designate a space next to the squash and start piling up some garden waste. Break up spent plants into manageable pieces and add to the pile. Weed your garden and add weeds to that pile as well. The only thing you have to watch for is not to add weeds that have gone to seed because this pile will not be hot enough to kill seeds. The regular compost pile that is capable of killing the seeds should be at least three feet high. We are not building that huge of a pile for the purpose of lazy composting, so eliminate weed seeds from the pile.

At this point it looked like the pile was lacking carbon, so I added a layer of chicken coop cleanouts, partially decomposed wood shavings. Now the pile looks balanced.

For a compost pile you need roughly equal amounts of green and dry matter. Green matter includes weed greens and kitchen waste. Dry matter includes anything that was once a green matter but dried out, such as fallen leaves, pine needles, palmetto leaves, etc. If you don't have any of these, shredded newspaper and office paper will do as well. Use your imagination.

Keep the pile watered and turn it once a week until squash takes over. You can keep adding to the pile until squash sends the stems over it. Then just wait until the sqush is done and dig both, compost pile and spent squash leaves and stems into the ground to enrich the soil.

September 24, 2011

Replanting Lettuce and Kale into the ground

I have seeded romaine lettuce and kale in containers about two weeks ago to get an early start. Now these seedlings are grown enough to be replanted into the garden.

This late in September you can seed all greens, including lettuce, kale, bok choy, mustard greens and collard greens, directly into the garden beds. But if you started some in containers, here's some tips on replanting them.

Prepare the bed by digging in remaining mulch and compost and raking the surface to smooth. Dig a hole deep enough to bury the whole plant so that only a few leaves are above the surface. This is very important. By no means replant the seedlings so that the stem is sticking above the ground. These young roots are not strong enough to support the weight of the plant, so you will end up with an undeveloped weak plant. The amount of space occupied by the roots shoud roughly equal the amount of space occupied by the leaves. If you plant too shallow, the top of the plant will be heavier than roots and will stunt the growth.

If in doubt, error on the side of planting deeper. Don't worry, the plant will grow a new healthy stem. Just bury up to the leaves. To take the plant out of the container, put the stem between your index and middle finger and turn the container upside down, then gently lower the plant with the soil that was in the container into the hole.

Lettuce spacing is about eight inches on center:

Kale spacing for the dwarf curly kale that I planted is about a foot. But if you are growing a regular, not dwarf variety, then spacing should be about 18 inches on center, just like broccoli.

Just like with any other transplants, water right after transplanting if the soil is not wet and keep watering to keep moist until established. Right now we are experiencing daily rains, so watering can be eased.

If you are seeding directly into the garden, mind the spacing requirements, and also plant two seeds per hole to limit bald spots. Even if both seeds germinate, you can snip the weaker one with scissors and use in your salad.

September 22, 2011

To ferilize or not to fertilize?

...that is the question. I meant synthetic fertilizers in that context.

Strict definition of organic gardening does not allow use of synthetic fertilizers, and for a good reason. If we are in it for a long term then we need to build the soil, not just feed a plant. Soil building includes adding a lot of organic matter so that the soil becomes moisture retentive as well as drainable and rich in nutrients for the plants themselves and supporting fauna - earth worms and other organisms.

But what do you do if you are in an emergency situation - your plants need feeding but you did not have an opportunity to properly build the soil yet? I would compromise at this point, as long as you have a long-term plan on building rich soil in your garden.

What kinds of synthetic fertilizers should we use? I would forgo generic 6-6-6 or 10-10-10 NPK (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)) because while these are just enough to sustain plant's requirements, they are not sufficient to feed a human body. We are in it for the healthy food, are we?

In an emergency situation like that, for example if I do not have much time until the season's end and the plants are not doing so well, I would add some synthetic fertilizer, but one that contains more minerals. Here's the one I use in these situations:

It is quite expensive, about eleven dollars for this bottle, but it is worth it. First, it covers a lot of ground, literally. Second, it contains trace minerals such as copper, iron, zink, magnezium and calcium. Plants can survive just on NPK, but evidently they need more than that, not mentioning that we, consumers of the fruit, need these minerals. Speaking of calcium, you can add it quite inexpensively to the plants that need it the most: tomatoes and peppers. Just get crushed oyster shell at Tractor Supply, a huge forty pound bag for about eight dollars, or crush egg shells finely and sprinkle around the plants. Calcium is needed to prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes and peppers.

Fertilizers in this Miracle Gro mixture are not evenly balanced, like 10-10-10, for example. Instead, they are more like 9-4-12, so they are heavier on nitrogen and kalium. Folks at Miracle Gro must have figured it out.

Bottom line is, nothing will replace good organic soil building, for the long and short term as well. But if you see that your plants are stunted and growth season end is within reach, use the synthetics to give your plants a boost, but select a good one and plan for future organic sourses of fertilizers, namely cover crops and compost building.

September 19, 2011

Do you have a counter top composter?

If you are a gardener, and you are concerned about health quality of your produce, and you have kitchen vegetation leftovers, then, well... you should have a collector for your kitchen waste.

I simply use a 34 oz plastic coffee can for this purpose:

Now, it is not mandatory to have plastic can like I have. It can be metal, but be aware that it will rust in a number of months, although it is not a big deal if you are a coffee drinker, like your's truly. Just replace it with a new one. The point here is that you have some sort of container to collect your kitchen waste and you do add it to your garden soil.

What can go into that pile? A short answer would be - anything plant based. A detailed answer would be - all your vegetable peels, including onion, garlic, carrot, etc., also broccoli stems, cabbage stems, you got the point. Coffee grounds with the filters, tea bags and any non-cooked vegetable leftovers.

Now, for the cooked ones - I would not recommend putting spaghetti and rice there. Not that it cannot decompose, anything will decompose with time outside of plastic, but these items will attract rodents and flies, and you do not want that. Absolutely no oil or other buttery products. These will clog up your soil and will take ages to decompose. No meat. Granted, meat is great fertilizer for your plants, but it will attract mice and ants, and this will present the problem, unless you bury these items very deep into the ground. 

So, once your container is all filled up, just dig a hole about a foot deep in the unused portion of your garden and bury the contents into that hole. You would be surprised to find that after just a few weeks all that stuff will be reduced to nothing just due to the workings of nature. Happy composting!

September 17, 2011

How to replant lettuce

It is September, and we can start seeding and planting lettuce. Granted, in Central Florida the days are still very hot and young lettuce seedlings might not survive the heat and harshness of the soil. I am a big advocate of seeding in nursery containers and then replanting into the 16-oz styrofoam cups instead of seeding into the ground. The obvious exceptions would be radish, beets, carrots, beans and peas. In other words, vegetables that would take too much work seeding and replanting, as they are pretty resilient as is.

In Central Florida the optimum time to seed lettuce is the beginning of October, but I wanted to get an early start, so I seeded in nursery containers, namely some blue styrofoam trays that they sell mushrooms in. Once lettuce is sprouted and is starting to show first true leaves, it is time to replant it. The process is quite easy. Get yourself a table spoon and some bowl where the seedlings will be held while being replanted. With a table spoon pick up a portion of the seedling mess from the bottom and reposition into the bowl:

Sprinkle some soil into the indentation to keep the remaining roots moist and covered.

Be careful with the young seedlings. Separate them from each other by gently crumbling the soil that contains multiple seedlings. The point here is to separate the seedlings, not yank them. Their roots are very gentle, so be careful. I have to mention though that lettuce plans are quite resilient. Not saying that you can be rough on them, but you don't have to be scared either. As long as you don't break the stem and don't yank the plant from the root base, the plant will survive and do quite well.

Now, get yourself some 16-oz styrofoam cups, break drainage holes on the bottom, and fill them about half way with potting mix:

Gently separate one seedling from the bunch, lower it into the container holding by the leaves, not the stem, and fill with the dirt up to the leaves:

Finally, place containers into a bowl filled with water so that the cups suck up the water from the bottom instead of being watered overhead, which can lead to having some dry pockets. I would not be offended though if you sprinkled some water on top of the plant to speed up the process.

And this is it, my friends. Now put these cups under the tree or other source of dappled shade and you don't have to worry about replanting them into the ground until you have time. These plants can stay in the cups until they are four to six inches tall with no problem.

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