Social Icons

June 29, 2011

Electric garden tiller: "Good Ol Rusty"

Without my Good Ol Rusty it would be impossible for me to build the garden that I have and to continue expanding it. The grass in Florida is extremely difficult to get rid of, once it is in the yard. I have possibly the worst kind of it, the Bermuda grass: the kind that sends the roots deep and wide and is very resistant to the gardener's efforts of eliminating it.

If you own a gas-powered tiller, you are in a good shape. I did not want to spend hundreds of dollars for the tiller, so after some research I settled on an electric one, who's name is Good Ol Rusty. He's been with me for about two years and done a lot of hard work in my garden:

When he was young, he looked like this:

Mantis 7250-15-02 3-Speed Electric Tiller/Cultivator with Border Edger and Kickstand

Here's some good things about him: He is quiet. Yes, he does the job without much grunting. He is familiar: tilling with him is like vacuuming, done in the same motion. He is easy to start, no need to pull any strings.

The negatives are, he is shallow; he is only tilling for about nine inches deep, and he jumps when he encounters a rock or a large root. Whether you decide to get someone like him to help you with your beds, or rent something like him, that would be a good decision because trying to dig beds by hand is a grueling and punishing task that might make you reconsider that whole gardening adventure.

June 28, 2011

Double-digging garden beds Part One

There are three most commonly used types of gardening: containers, raised beds and tilled beds or rows. I found that a variation of tilled beds, called double-dug beds, works best in hot climates like Florida. Usually we encounter the extremes of hot/wet, hot/dry or cool/dry gardening conditions. Plants, on the other hand, like constant moisture and temperature. Containers and raised beds dry out too quickly in the hot sun, unless they are filled with special mixes and are watered and fertilized often.

Double-dug beds, with their depth of at least twelve to eighteen inches, provide coolness to the roots, good drainage and ample moisture. I discovered that even in hottest and driest weather I only need to water the plants twice a week, as opposed to every day or even twice per day in raised beds or containers.

Double-dug beds are also the cheapest method to build a productive garden. They do however require a good amount of physical work, initially. When I started with double-dug beds, I went gung ho. This was a mistake as it proved to be a challenging task. For someone just starting out with the double-dug beds I would suggest starting small, maybe even as small as four by four feet bed. By combining a productive double-dug bed with square foot garden design, even a bed this small can produce a lot of vegetables.

To start with, you need to designate an area in your yard where the bed will be, and then measure and outline its boundaries with boards or garden hose. Once you are happy with the layout, use spray paint to mark the edges. Now the fun part starts. You need to remove the grass. If you ever tried digging in your yard where grass is growing, you know that this is not an easy task. Not impossible, but very labor-intensive. For that task I use "Good Ol Rusty", The electric tiller. It does not till deep, but does a fine job stripping the top layer of the grass, which is what I am after.

Pictured above is the three by ten feet future bed stripped of grass by the electric tiller. I rake up stripped grass and put it aside; it will be used in a compost pile later.

Now, the physical labor part gets into play. Using a shovel, dig out a portion of the bed, a foot long for a whole width of the bed. Take out the soil and put it aside. This soil will be needed to finish the bed at the other end. The depth of the bed should be at least a foot. Here you can see how deep the bed is, showel depicted for scale:

Once you take the soil out, loosen the soil with the shovel or a garden fork for another six inches, or as deep as you can go.

Double-Digging garden beds Part Two

June 23, 2011

Plant for pest damage

I am a huge fan of Eco-system gardening: I like my vegetables organic and I do not want to do any additional work, such as spraying insecticides if I can help it. An Eco-system will not happen by itself and it will not happen overnight. But it is not an unattainable goal either. I have been gardening on our property for almost two years now, since we moved, and I can attest that not only I do not use any pesticides, even organic ones such as BT or soap spray, but I also have minimal pest damage.

I am a follower of John Jeavons system, detailed in his book "How to grow more vegetables". He states, and I have proven it in practice, that pest control starts in the soil. I am double-digging my new beds and adding a lot of organic material to the new beds when I am building them. After I plant, I mulch heavily, and then dig that mulch in after the harvest. I usually plant more than we can eat, so some insect damage to the fruit is not a big deal. It also helps, as Jeavons suggests, to plant in season and give plants proper care, e.g. watering.

Here's a swiss chard leave eaten by some insects. It is not the plant's fault, this plant should have been cut to the ground and watered every day to allow only new leaves, because swiss chard is a cool season vegetable and can only stay in "maintenance" mode during the summer:

Something chewed a hole through this tomato:

and this one:

Why? Because these roma tomatoes are done fruiting and should have been harvested, as well as kept being watered and shaded during our hot and dry season in May and June. 

There are some chewed holes in okra leaves:

But it is not really a big deal. Okra grows in it's proper season now and is cared for, so it will be fine. John Jeavons rightly suggests that pests should be dealt with control, not death and poison. If I sprayed these tomatoes or okra plants with some pesticide, chances are the leaf-chewing insects would be dead, but beneficial insects that eat them would be dead too. Then, the next higher up insect or animal on the food chain will not have enough of food and go elsewhere, which can lead to some other insect over-populating the garden.

John writes in his book that they did an experiment, where they planted a bed of green beans and let insects have at it. Some thirty percent of the leaves were eaten by pests, but bean yield itself increased, compared to the controlled bed. Interesting...

Garden Eco-system is delicate, but also very robust; my garden is a testimony to this practice. If you are interested in John's work, here's the book that is prominent on my bookshelf:

June 22, 2011

How to replant pepper seedlings

If grown in proper season, peppers are pretty easy to grow. In June and July we can seed peppers to be set out into the garden in August and harvested up until the first frost, which usually happens in December. I seed peppers in styrofoam trays leftover from mushrooms. They are free and have sufficient depth to start pepper seeds. You will have to poke some holes in the bottom of these trays to allow drainage. After the seedlings come up and show second leaves, they are ready to be replanted:

In this close up you can easily see that pepper seedlings have four leaves, two of the original seed leaves, which are called first leaves, and two of the seedling leaves, which are called first "true" leaves.

I use 16 oz styrofoam cups for my seedlings. Poke some holes in the bottom of the cup for drainage. I use a pen for that:

Fill the cup to about one-third with soil, I use Miracle-Gro potting mix for that. It is pretty cheap, about eleven dollars for a two cubic foot bag, and works very well. Carefully insert a teaspoon into a seedling tray and pick up a seedling from the bottom. Hold the seedling by the leaves, not the stem, and set it into the cup:

Fill the cup with the potting mix up the leaves. Water thoroughly so that some water runs off from the bottom holes:

Now the seedlings can stay outside, preferably under a tree where they will be cool, but still have some dappled sun. When the seedlings are six inches tall, or in about a month, they can be set into the garden.

June 21, 2011

Fodder food: alternative greens in the garden

I am trying to eat mostly organic, within budget, but in the summer having greens in the salads is always challenging. Yesterday, instead of rushing to Publix for a head of lettuce, I took a walk around the garden instead. Here's what I found:

Horseradish leaves:


 Sweet potato vines:

and Amaranth:

All these greens are edible. Sweet potato and amaranth leaves have food value of spinach, they can be consumed raw but I lightly blanch them before eating to soften them up. Purslane is a weed and will seed itself in containers and garden beds where there is no thick mulch. Horseradish leaves are edible raw and give tangy taste to the salad. Young horseradish leaves are tastier and more tender than older leaves, but you still have to cut the stem out and only use the greens part.

There are other fodder foods that can be used in the salad: mustard greens, swiss chard - both of these will "oversummer" in the garden if they were established in prior fall. Other non-traditional greens include green bean leaves, cowpea leaves and radish tops. On a broader scope, practically any green can be eaten, except for the nightshade family, such as tomato leaves, regular potato leaves and pepper leaves. Here's the recipe for the fodder food salad. Hope you like it.

June 20, 2011

Time to harvest cowpeas

It is June and cowpeas have been growing nicely. I use cowpeas as you would use any green been in my cooking. To harvest, I use scissors and cut off at the end of the bean itself. This way the plant is not damaged by pulling as well as it makes it easier to cut off the ends when preparing for cooking or freezing later:

One end is already cut so my future work will be reduced in half.

Sometimes you will see large red ants on the cowpea plants and also aphids on the beans. The ants are easy to get rid of, just shake them off the plant and they will fall onto the ground. Aphids are easily washed off with the garden hose or other means. Ants herd aphids on cowpeas and other plants, such as sunflowers. They are not harmful and do not do much damage to the plants or the crop.

Aphids on the cowpea bean

This amount of cowpea beans was harvested from a small four by four feet area in the garden. You can keep picking cowpea beans for about a month. After most of the green beans are harvested, leave a few on the vines to mature and dry; this way you will have your own seeds next season. Dry cowpeas can be used just as any other dry bean in your cooking, except they don't need to be soaked or cooked for as long as the other beans.

Now that one end of cowpea beans was cut off while harvesting, it is easy to process them for cooking or storing. I don't blanch cowpeas before freezing because they will not discolorate anyway and blanching involves additional steps that are not necessary before freezing cowpeas.

June 19, 2011

Canning crushed tomatoes

Tomato harvest is upon us and if you are like me, you have a lot of tomatoes in your back yard garden. I grow Roma variety specifically for canning. Lately I only can crushed tomatoes. The advantage of canning crushed tomatoes in a raw and simple form is that they can be used later as a base of salsa, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, chili, gumbo, you name it. Canning crushed tomatoes saves time and provides versatility.

First, I chop tomatoes with skins on (never a problem in later cooking) and put in a large pot:

Simmer chopped tomatoes with no added water for about fifteen minutes:

I do not add salt or lemon juice to my crushed tomatoes, they are acidic enough to hold their own. After simmering, ladle tomatoes into a clean hot jar:

Put clean sterilized lid (dipped in boiling water) and the ring on the jar. Hand tighten, but do not over tighten.
Put a kitchen towel on a bottom of the pot so that jars do not have contact with the metal bottom. Place jars into a large pot, tall enough to cover the jars with hot water from the tap for about an inch.  

Bring to a boil and then boil for twenty minutes, then take the jars out of the pot using a jar lifting tool. Set on the counter to cool. The lids should not have a bubble on top of them; if they do, press on the bubble with your finger. The bubble should go down and stay down. If it does not, and pops back up, use this jar for your immediate cooking, storing it in a refrigerator. Here's the finished product, canned crushed tomatoes: 

The jars should be stored in a dry cool place, such as your kitchen pantry. I cannot testify if they will last for more than a year as we eat them way before that... :)  Enjoy!

June 18, 2011

Saving Radish Seed Part 2

The seed pods need to dry thoroughly so that the seeds could be thrashed easily. There are a few seed pods on every little branch:

Break the pods from the branches and put in a large bowl. With the palms of your hands rub the pods, taking  a few pods at a time. You will end up with the seed/pod shell mess like this:

Sift the seeds through the colander. You might have to do the process of sifting a few times to clean remainders of the pod shells:

The end product:

Granted, the seeds are not as clean and free of pod matter as you buy in a seed packet in the store, but the seeds are still very manageable and have never presented a problem planting. Throw the remaining pod shell stuff into the garden as mulch and they will produce you a good number of radish volunteers when they are ready. I love free stuff!

June 17, 2011

How to grow bok choy in the summer

It is very difficult to grow lettuce or other salad greens in Florida summers. But the salad of only tomatoes and peppers gets boring. I decided to try to grow bok choy for the greens and so far the experiment proved successful. Bok choy is a type of oriental cabbage that has juicy green leaves and stems, and can be eaten raw or cooked. I planted Toy Choy variety that does not grow tall. I planted it in a shady spot completely shaded by tomatoes from all sides, except Northern side. I water it every day and pick the leaves almost every day as a tasty addition to my salads:

Here's a close up of a couple of bok choy plants:

Ten to twenty plants will give you daily pickings for probably a couple of months. Bok choy needs to be watered daily and grown in the shade. It is very high in vitamins A, B, C and K. So, try growing some bok choy in your summer garden and enjoy tasty alphabet nutrition!

June 16, 2011

Grow okra in your summer garden

Okra is one of the most prolific and heat resistant plants. You can grow okra with minimal effort but it will reward you with outstanding yields of okra pods that can be eaten fried, baked, or in soups and gumbos.

Okra seeds are quite large and easy to sow. You can sow them directly in the garden, about a foot apart, or start them in containers, I use styrofoam cups for that purpose, and then set okra seedlings into the garden when they are a few inches tall. If seeded directly into the garden, seeds need to be watered daily, or as needed so that the soil remains moist at all times.

Okra grows pretty fast and needs daily watering until it's established, or about three weeks old. Beyond that, if there is no rain, you should water okra twice weekly, but thoroughly, so that roots can follow the water into the deeper soil.

Here's okra, a month old:

It already has some young pods on it:

Pods should be picked when they are three to four inches long so that they are tender and not woody. Pick okra often and don't let the pods to grow large and tough. At the end of the season, however, let a few pods from different plants to grow and dry on the plant, so that you could have the seeds for the next summer.

Okra can be planted anytime from late March through August. So, if you don't have any okra in your garden, it is not too late to start seeds now. Grow some okra in your garden, and it will reward you with beauty and abundant vitamin and mineral packed crop.

June 15, 2011

Sweet potatoes from store bought potato

We can still plant sweet potatoes in June. In fact, they can be planted anytime from beginning of April through second week of July and harvested in October and November. You can purchase sweet potato slips, but you can also grow your own potato slips from a store bought potato. A note of caution, a store potato might be treated with the retardant agent to prevent growing. I however never had that problem in my efforts of growing the slips. So, get yourself some sweet potatoes from the store, insert three toothpicks to hold the potato in suspension and submerge the lower part in water:

In about a couple of weeks the potato will start growing slips. You can expect six to ten slips from one potato. Once the slip is about six inches long, break it off the potato and insert into another jar filled with water, like this:

The slips will grow new roots and will be ready to be transplanted into the garden in about two to three weeks. Once they are in the garden, water them every day until they are established. Here's a sweet potato vine hiding under a young okra:

If sweet potatoes are grown in a fertile loose soil, you can expect to harvest four to ten potatoes from one slip. Enjoy!

June 14, 2011

Tomato tomato tomatoe ... Variety!

If you want to have a continuous crop of tomatoes in your southern garden you need to plant many varieties, not the same tomato tomato, even if it is your favorite and a high-producer. I usually have at least five different tomato varieties growing in my garden. There are many reasons to introduce variety: if one fails, you still have others going on; determinate (fruiting at once) tomatoes can be harvested and canned, releasing the spot for planting something else, while indeterminate varieties will keep fruiting all summer. Tomatoes come in different sizes, shapes and colors so that you can never tire of the same type of tomato on your salad plate. I usually plant Roma for canning, it is a determinate type, as well as cherry, grape and beef stake type of tomatoes for eating. Here's what's going on in the garden third week of June:

Roma is practically done fruiting:

Beef stake type (Early Girl, indeterminate) has red and green tomatoes and will keep fruiting probably another month:

Grape tomatoes, indeterminate, will keep fruiting till August. Update: Last fruit harvested from these tomatoes was July 23rd.

Another beef stake type, Tree Tomato is still green, and that's OK, I don't want all tomatoes turning red at once:

All these tomato varieties were seeded and planted at the same time, but by the nature of each variety they fruit and ripen at different times giving us a continuous harvest and enjoyment.

Growing cow peas or cowpeas or black eyed peas

As the name of this vegetable can be spelled in many different ways, as it is that useful to the gardener. Usually Florida gardeners are wondering what can they start in the summer. Regular beans do not do very well in the heat and humidity of our summers, but cowpeas do not care! I usually seed them throughout the whole summer, starting in May and finishing in August. I always have cow peas in different stages of development growing in my garden. I plant them in piles as I do everything else, whenever I have a free spot after pulling some plant that was done fruiting.

At any given time I have cowpeas that are dry and ready to be harvested as a dry bean:

Some others are fruiting or starting to fruit, and can be used as green bean:

And yet others are just starting to come up:

When I first started I just used the dry cow peas from a grocery store bag. Now I have my own seeds. Cowpeas produce in abundance. Usually, when I am done gathering them as a green bean, I leave a few pods on the plant to save as a dry bean. The yield of dry bean done this way is somewhere between twenty and forty seeds per plant.

June 13, 2011

Not too early to start peppers

This is a second week of June, and not too early to start peppers! I seeded peppers a week ago, and now I have some cute seedlings coming up. I used to plant a variety of peppers, but now I only  plant cubanelle pepper as a sweet pepper and some chili peppers. I had some success with bell peppers, but not enough to put effort into it. Banana pepper was good, but Cubanelle, while having similar qualities is better. Cubanelle pepper is very versatile; it can be eaten green, as we do mostly, as well as letting them go ripe, where they develop into some nice red color and distinct sweetness.

Here's a picture of a cubanelle pepper on the vine. They are very prolific.

Peppers take their time to grow. If you seed now, you can put plants into the ground beginning of August and they will start to fruit end of September. You will have plenty of time to enjoy the harvest till the first freeze! Seed your peppers now.

Florida Gardening

Florida Gardening Blog

Visitors from all over the world

Grow Your Own Food

Grow your own food, be independent, healthy and happy.