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July 31, 2011

Grow luffa in your home garden

What is luffa? It is a gourd type plant, also sometimes spelled as loofah or even lufa, and is mostly known for using its mature fruit as sponges. The idea of growing my own organic sponges appealed to me, so I decided to try out luffa this year in my garden. I had the seeds for about two years, just never got around to planting them, so I germinated the seeds in styrofoam cups to see if they even come up. They certainly did, what a resilient plant, and were transplanted into the garden:

I seeded this luffa plant on June 16th, and it is not too late to seed it now, but probably not in August since it requires about 150 days to mature. If you missed this growing season, there will always be spring to try this plant out.

In less than a month the vines covered my six-foot fence completely. These vines love to climb, so the taller the support you have for them, the better:

At a month and a half of its age luffa started flowering. Here's the male flower:

As with any squash-type plant, male flowers come first and in abundance. Many of them will drop off prior to female flowers being ready. But no worry, once female flowers start to open there still will be plenty of male flowers to pollinate. On this picture (in the middle) you can see a young immature female fruit that will start flowering in a few days:

Not every female flower will result in a mature fruit, that's just the rules of Nature. But I already can see that luffa will be a very productive plant, based on the number of female flowers getting ready. Young fruits of luffa can be eaten just like zucchini, and mature fruits can be dried and used as free organic sponges. I am looking forward to update you on the progress of this beautiful plant, I like it already.

July 28, 2011

Cowpeas as a cover crop and green manure

What a versatile vegetable! Not only it is insanely productive, not bothered by pests and requires little attention, it also provides fertilizer for the garden even after it stops producing. The idea of a cover crop is to grow nutrient-rich plant, such as legumes, and plow it under to improve soil fertility. A cowepea in Florida is just that plant. We can plant cowpeas from March to September and dig them in even after we harvest the crop. Ideal time for digging cowpeas in as a green manure is when they are still young, have lush green leaves and their stems are not too thick, like this:

Granted, if you plow cowpeas under at this stage you will forgo most of the crop. If you need to improve soil fertility in a hurry, then this method is acceptable, after all a pound of cowpeas at a grocery store is only $1.69 or even cheaper. But in the event that you want to have a harvest and utilize cover crop quality of cowpeas, the more mature stage of this vegetable is still acceptable. Below is a picture of a cowpea patch that I kept harvesting until the plants are mostly dry:

In this situation you will just have to chop them smaller, for the stems - about three to four inch long, if you have patience.

Then just dig the stems and leaves into the ground. It will help if your shovel is sharp because you might have to break stubborn stems with it:

Keep the soil moist, water it if there is no rain. It might also help to cover the soil with newspapers or cardboard to keep it moist. This cover crop should decompose in about a month, just in time to transplant tomatoes into the ground.

July 26, 2011

Can you learn how to garden?

I used to belong to the "brown thumb" league. Seriously. Houseplants or outdoor plants that somehow ended up at my house were promptly killed. Not intentionally, but nevertheless. My first attempt at vegetable gardening happened about seven years ago when I purchased a tomato plant from Lowes. I had no idea how to do a vegetable garden, but the tomato was doing pretty darn good in a container, so I decided to give it some more "love" in a form of lawn fertilizer. Needless to say, it shriveled and died in a couple of days. This experience was a disappointment, but it did not stop me from trying further. I started buying bookshelves of books and trying different things with plants and seeds. Well, seven years later, I can proudly say that I grow more than half of our family's food from my not so large garden.

There is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, but you have to go on a journey. Gardening is easy if you master a few tricks. I must confess that the most important thing about gardening is soil preparation. Granted, I am biased towards growing organic, so my soil preparation is a bit more labor intensive than non-organic gardening approach.

Once you have your garden beds ready, you need to learn about the seasons, or what can be grown at your location at what times. Then you have to plan your garden so you do not grow too much of one thing and too little of the other.

Do not get discouraged if your first crop fails, it can happen. When we first moved on our property almost two years ago I did not have the time to properly prepare the beds, so my first harvest was dismal. This was a fall harvest, but I spent the winter double-digging the beds and the following spring I had a boat load of tomatoes and squash. Step by step, it is a learned skill. I hope blogs like mine are an encouragement and help in your quest of becoming a gardener and providing some wonderful produce for your family.
My bookshelf has many gardening books, but if you are interested, the following three are my favorites, as in most entertaining and useful:

1. Vegetable Gardening in Florida

2. How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine

3. The New Self-Sufficient Gardener

July 24, 2011

When to harvest cowpeas and okra?

My readers asked, when do you pick okra and cowpeas? "When they are ready", seems to be an obvious answer, but it is not always that simple, especially if you grow these vegetables for the first time. Okra and cowpeas mature very fast once they start producing. If you miss just a couple of days of picking, it is very easy to let the harvest run away from you. This okra pod is almost twelve inches long and is not dark green color anymore, so it is too late to pick this one:

Usually it is advised to pick okra when it is three to four inches long. But what if you missed that stage? I have my own test for okra: squeeze it between your fingers, and if it feels soft and easy to squeeze, as well as moist to the touch, then you can still pick it. I missed two days of picking and now have okra over six inches long, but it is still edible. Here's what a pound of okra looks like:

This overgrown okra will make a fine roasted okra dinner. The "non-pickable" okra should be left on the plant to mature and go to seed. Did you know you can make coffee out of okra seeds? Just roast them on a non-greased pan and grind in a coffee grinder. Then brew like regular coffee, it tastes almost the same, but probably does not have caffeine.

Cowpeas, as I learned, are best picked when they start showing "bumps", but are still dark green in color:

It is easy to miss some cowpea pods as they like to hide under the leaves. But no worry! Let them mature on the vine and you will have dry cowpeas for cooking or the seeds for the next season. Yellowish cowpeas can be picked when they are dry or almost dry and then threshed to get their seeds:

July 22, 2011

Grow chickpeas from a grocery store

I've been just a pantry sprouting queen lately. Everything I plant turns to green! The latest project was seeding chickpeas (garbanzo beans) from the grocery store bag. As usual, I buy store brand. I'm not even sure if they have a name brand beans in the store. But anyway, the project turned out very successful. I got myself some chickpeas in a bag:

Filled 16 ounce styrofoam cups with soil and let it moist from the bottom by placing the cups in the container filled with water up to two inches or so. Then when the soil felt moist on the top I placed one chickpea into each container about an inch deep:

About a week later all four seeds have sprouted:

The reason I planted chickpeas in the cups is to do a "controlled germination".  You usually do this to determine germination rates. Let's say you have some old seeds or some unknown seeds and you do not know how well they will germinate. You want to know germination rate before you commit effort and garden space to these seeds. So you would plant ten seeds and see how many germinate. Let's say seven germinated, then you know that your germination rate is seventy percent, and you take that number into account when you plant these seeds into the garden.

In my case with the chickpeas I had a hundred percent germination rate. I am comfortable seeding these beans into the garden. The only thing I would change is I would pre-soak the beans before planting. Just put the beans you want to plant into some container, cover with three inches of water and let sit for twelve hours. Garden conditions are not as perfect as styrofoam cup germination, so we want to give the seeds some heads up. Other than that, keep in mind seed spacing; for chickpeas it's about four inches all around. They grow lean and tall and do not spread out. I would not bother installing supports for them as they would most likely lean on each other. Give chickpeas a try!

July 20, 2011

Vegetable yields per plant

My cool new little toy, mechanical kitchen scale. Green, baby!

Would not it be nice if we could plant a garden and always have plenty of vegetables and desired variety. Actually, yield planning is the hardest part because of so many variables that are out of our control, e.g. pests and weather. I read somewhere that an old farmer said "plant one plant for the weather, one for the pests and one for yourself". We probably should not take advice literally because it's quite an overkill, but it would be prudent to plant maybe 10 to 20 percent more than you need to account for the losses.

Many county extension offices post vegetable yields files on their websites. I also included that very common information here for the convenience of my readers.

How do you use this information? Look at your grocery store receipt. For example, if you are buying a pound of carrots per week, then you need 10 feet of row of carrots every seven weeks because 10 feet row yields 7-10 pounds of carrots. We can see that spacing for carrots is 2 inches, therefore you need to plant 60 carrot seeds (10 feet = 120 inches. 120/2" = 60). Multiply that by 120% (for the losses) and you get 72 seeds. Easy.

A one foot row of carrots spaced 2 inches:

I have to mention that I don't plant in rows, I plant in blocks of square feet. A 10 feet row can be broken down in 10 smaller rows of 1 foot each and 6 of these smaller rows could be planted in one square foot of a garden because the 2 inch distance now becomes the distance all the way around.

If you are planting square foot method, I would recommend increasing the suggested distance. The plants need room to breathe; they get that room if planted in rows, but will be crowded if planted the same distance in a square foot garden. How much to increase? I would double it to be safe. Even with the increased spacing you will still need less land to plant the same amount of vegetables compared to rows because the space between the rows becomes planting space.

Here's the updated schematic with increased spacing:

Now, a square feet will produce 9 carrots, but you only need eight of these squares to produce the desired 7 pounds of carrots, which is not a lot of land.

July 19, 2011

Woodpecker at work

I caught this woodpecker on camera this morning. He looks like a well dressed gentleman in a black tuxedo and a little red hat. He sure is hardworking, just pecking away.

Click on the picture to enlarge.


Also, got him on a video:

July 18, 2011

How to replant tomato seedlings

It is a third week of July and gardeners are busy preparing for the fall season. If you do not have any seedlings going, seed some tomatoes now. They take anywhere from four to six weeks to mature enough to be planted into the garden, and then about three months to give fruit. Our first frost usually comes around the second week of December in zone 9, and other zones accordingly , so you would want your tomatoes be done fruiting by the frost dates.

I seed my tomatoes in styrofoam "nursery" containers and after they show second leaves which are also called "first true leaves", they are replanted into the individual containers.

You should be careful about not exposing the roots of the seedlings to the sun, so the replanting is done, ideally, after the sunset. Carefully move the seedlings from the nursery container into some sort of a bowl and cover their roots with soil while you are replanting. I just hold the seedlings bunch with my hand while turning the nursery container upside down. Then I lower them into the bowl. Loosen up the seedlings so they separate from the bunch, fill a 16 ounce styrofoam cup with soil up to one-third, place the seedling into the cup holding it by the leaves, not the stem, and fill with the potting soil mix:

The soil should cover the seedling up to the leaves. One good thing about tomatoes is that they grow roots from the stem, so the more length you give them to grow the roots by covering the stem with soil, the better. Even if you have a brand new bag of potting mix and it feels moist, you should moist the styrofoam cup to the top. The best way to do that is to place the cup into some container filled with water and wait until the top of the surface feels and looks moist:

I usually plant around a hundred tomato seedlings of different varieties per season. Of course, not every seedling will survive, but that amount keeps our family well stocked with fresh tomatoes for eating, cooking and canning. Tomato plant produces on an average three to five pounds of tomatoes. To get even production plant different varieties according to their maturity dates; some tomatoes mature as soon as 58 days, others take longer, up to 120 days. Maturity dates are usually listed on a seed packet. Indeterminate (vining) tomatoes produce longer than determinate (bush) varieties.

When the seedlings in the cups are about four to six inches tall, they are ready to be replanted into the garden. From the cup to the garden it usually takes about a month. Set your cups in the dappled shade, preferably under a tree or a shade screen to filter the afternoon sun. The seedlings do not have an opportunity to send their roots into the coolness of the soil as they are confined in a small container. Keep them watered so that the surface of the cup is never dry. It might take daily watering if there is no rain. I normally use a garden hose on "shower" to give them a light bath and water thoroughly. Do not worry about overwatering; excess water will run off from the bottom of a container if you punched drain holes in it.

July 16, 2011

Planting black beans from the grocery store

This year I tried planting some black beans from the grocery store. Beans are usually planted in March and September and seed to harvest time is around two to three months. Spacing for the beans is three to four inches, and if you plant in a "square foot" method fashion, then there is no spacing for the rows. I planted approximately sixteen square feet of black beans just to try them out. They were not pre-soaked, I planted them dry. Depth of planting is about an inch. Here's these black beans two months after seeding:

Black beans from the grocery store, as probably any other commercially grown beans are bush beans and they do not need support, they vine on each other. They do send out vines outside of the boundaries of their bed, but that is easily fixed, just direct the vines back on to the other plants.

Black beans have some pretty purple flowers:

And they are loaded with bean pods. I have to admit that they are not as tasty as green bean varieties if you try to cook them as a grean bean, but I grew them for the purpose of dry hulling and having organic black beans.

Some pods are getting ready to be harvested:

These beans are very heat tolerant. Instead of planting them in a suggested time frame of February-April I planted them in mid-May. They tolerated heat and humidity pretty well. A robust bean, thumbs up!

Related posts:

July 14, 2011

Grow peanuts from a grocery store bag

It's been just a week since I seeded some peanuts from a grocery store bag. They all have germinated. Granted, you will not always have a successfull guerrilla planting like that, but most of the time seeds saved from your regular vegetables will germinate and grow well. I planted four peanuts in Styrofoam cups as an experiment with growing grocery store peanuts. In this picture you can see that something else came up along with peanuts, it looks like a squash, maybe a sunflower. The reason for that is that I reuse my potting soil, so there could have been some seeds leftover from previous plantings. I will let this seedling grow and see what develops of it.

Now, usually, as in with tomatoes or peppers, I will let seedlings to get their first set of true leaves. I will not do that with peanuts because they have long roots, so keeping them in cups for too long will detriment their growth. So, the day peanuts germinated, they are put into the garden.

Usually, I would seed legumes directly into the garden, but this was an experiment and I wanted to see controlled germination. It worked, so now I know that I can safely plant peanuts from the grocery store directly into the garden.

July 12, 2011

Crop rotation in your home garden

Let me start with an example of bad crop rotation (I do not always do as I preach ... :))

As you can see on the picture, the roots have bumps on them and are swollen. You can click on the picture to enlarge and see the details. These roots are tomato roots damaged by nematodes. Nematodes are a problem in Florida and they usually attack nightshade family of plants, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

One school of thought to remedy nematode problem is to "solarize" your soil, which involves covering the soil with plastic and let it sit in the heat of the summer, thus raising soil temperature to some 130 degrees and killing nematodes. I do not like this method because in addition to killing nematodes it will also kill beneficial insects and organisms that are much welcome in the garden, especially earth worms. If I were a fisherman, or fisherwoman, I could dig at least a shovel full of worms from my garden every day. And I like that! Earth worms make best manure because they eat and excrete plant matter, as well as dig furrows in the garden and aerate the soil.

So my answer to nematodes or other damaging pests is crop rotation. In a small garden crop rotation might be a challenging task. I have devised an "easy" plan to accomplish this.

First, divide vegetables that you plan to grow in three groups: Nightshade (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and regular potatoes), Cover Crop (cowpeas, snap peas, beans) and Other (carrots, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, okra, amaranth, radish, etc).

Second, draw your garden on a piece of paper and divide it in three parts, that's your master plan. I actually divide each bed into three parts, which takes care of dividing the whole garden. Then rotate your crop:

FallNightshadeCover CropOther

WinterOtherOtherCover Crop

SpringCover CropNightshadeOther

SummerOtherCover CropCover Crop

FallCover CropOtherNightshade

WinterOtherCover CropOther

SpringNightshadeOtherCover Crop

SummerCover CropCover CropOther

Pictured above is a 2 year rotation plan. As you can see, Nightshade family is not planted in the same space for a year and a half, which I think is a pretty reasonable time.

Since Nightshade family is most successible to pest damage, it is important to move it around; the rest of the vegetables, Other and Cover Crop are interchangeable: you can create your own rotation schedule with them freely depending on your vegetable needs.

In addition to crop rotation I always tuck flowers, especially Marigolds, and herbs in "Nightshade" and "Other" parts of the garden to provide bio-diversity and beauty to the garden, as well as attract beneficial insects.

July 11, 2011

When to plant cowpeas?

Right now! In Florida, zone 9, we can plant cowpeas from mid-March to mid-September. Southern and Northern Florida gardeners will have to adjust their schedules accordingly.

Cowpeas are excellent source of green beans as well as a cover crop, the plant that can be dug in or tilled into the ground to make "green manure". They are also invaluable as a crop rotation plant, especially to be a successor plant after tomatoes or peppers. I just pulled some tomato plants that finished producing, dug in the mulch that was around the plants and raked the soil to make the bed level and fine:

I usually plant my cowpeas straight from the grocery store bag, but I saw these seeds at Lowes, purple hull variety, and decided to give them a try because they look so pretty.

Make indentation rows in the soil using the rake, something like six inches apart. If there was no rain, sprinkle some water over the bed to thoroughly wet the ground.  Then place seeds into the rows three inches from each other:

Using the same rake, cover the seeds with soil and you are done!

Cowpeas do not need support because they will grab on each other. I put a bamboo stake in the middle of the bed just to mark cowpea variety, otherwise I would not even bother. Keep them watered every day until they come up, and then every day, again (if there is no rain) until they are about a foot tall. After that they will shade the ground well enough to need watering once a week if there is no rain. 

Cowpeas grow very fast; pictured above are grocery store cowpeas seeded just five days ago.

I planted an approximately three by four feet section of the bed and it took the whole package of cowpeas (28 grams). But I expect at least five pounds of green beans from that planting, as well as some seeds for the future plantings. Cowpeas are very productive, plant some now.

July 10, 2011

Saving tomato seeds Part 2

Now that we have tomato seeds scooped out and left in a cup to ferment, we watch for the signs of actual fermenting. These will be cloudy water and foam or film on the top of the water with the seeds. This process takes anywhere from three days to a week, sometimes longer, depending on the temperature in your home. But when you see foam or film on the top of the water, the seeds are ready:

Now put the seeds into a strainer and rinse with cold water until there is no tomato particles and seeds are clean:

And spread the seeds on a coffee filter. I usually write the variety name on the filter because if I save many seeds of many varieties, things get mixed up pretty fast:

Set the coffee filter somewhere where it will not be disturbed and let dry for a week or two. You will know that the seeds are dry when they easily separate from the coffee filter and from each other. At this point you can store the seeds in the bottom of the refrigerator for the next planting season.

If you want to seed some tomatoes now, you do not have to wait until the seeds are dry. Just plant rinsed fermented seeds in a nursery container and you should be just fine.

July 8, 2011

Saving tomato seeds, save tomato seeds from a tomato

If you have some tomatoes in you garden that you want to save seeds from, or just want to have some seeds for planting, here's how we can harvest seeds from a tomato. Before we go into a step-by-step explanation, let's think about how a tomato propagates itself in nature.

A tomato falls on the ground where it rots and the seeds get into the soil, then they germinate. Not every vegetable need to rot in order to produce new seedlings, but for tomatoes it seems to be an important step. So in our seed saving venture we want to imitate nature.

Get some tomatoes. If you are just starting a garden and do not have your own tomatoes, as well as do not have any seeds, get some tomatoes from the store. To increase your chances for success, get a few tomatoes of different varieties. The problem with germinating store bought tomatoes might be with "terminator seeds" - seeds that were processed to disallow germination (not likely), or that tomatoes were picked very green and seeds had no chance to mature (more likely). In either event, trying a few of different varieties will increase your chances for success.

Cut tomatoes in half:

Using a pointed teaspoon start scooping the seeds into some bowl:

About that many seeds will be scooped from two tomatoes, I would estimate about fifty seeds:

Top the seeds with water, not tap (chlorinated) water, but some well water, or spring water from a bottle or a gallon or even distilled water. Chlorinated water will halt fermentation, so do not use your tap water. 

Now put that bowl on the window sill or simply on the counter. In a few days you will see foaming and film on top of the water covering the tomatoes. That's a good sign; that means your seeds are fermenting. Fermenting tomato seeds emulates nature's rotten tomato. Granted, I cannot attest that a non-fermented seed will not produce germination, but the consensus in a gardening community is that you want tomato seeds fermented. 

After you see the signs of fermenting, give it another couple of days, then rinse the seeds in the strainer and spread them on the coffee filter. Set aside to dry. For storage, the seeds need to be bone dry, which will take a week on average. If you want to plant the seeds, they do not need to be dry and can be planted right away.

July 7, 2011

What can we plant in July in Florida?

What can we plant in July? Surprisingly, a lot of things! July is one of the busiest months of the year for seeding future crops. We are now officially in a fall preparation mode. Florida has three, or in some sense four growing seasons, and fall is one of the most important ones. Most popular vegetables to grow in the fall are tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. But all these need six to eight weeks from seed to transplanting into the garden, which gets us here, in July, to start the seeds.

If you have never seeded a plant you might feel intimidated. But no fret, it is really very simple. Once you get a hang of it you will never resort to buying plants from the box store again. Plus, did I say seeds are cheap?

First, you need to get yourself some seeds and some "nursery" containers to plant them in. I use blue styrofoam containers that are leftover from the mushrooms you find in a grocery store. If you do not have these, you might look around your house to find something suitable: it has to be at least three inches deep and allow poking some drainage holes on the bottom. Probably glass and metal are not good candidates, but I have seeded plants in cardboard boxes before with no issues.

Poke some holes in the bottom of your container and fill it with soil. I use Miracle Gro potting mix and found it to be very good seeding matter. It is cheap, about nine dollars per two cubic feet bag, which is a lot of soil.

Here's a container filled with potting mix and holes on the bottom:

Next, you want to moisture your soil, even if it came from a fresh bag. Fill some container with water, I use a sink for that, and let the nursery container sit in the water, about half of it's size deep. The water will moisturize the container from the bottom eliminating the chances of having dry pockets that you would have if you watered from the top:

You will know that soil is moist when you see (and feel) the moisture on the top of the soil. It will change color (darken) and will be wet to the touch.

Now you need to make some "rows" where the seeds will be planted. I use a regular pen for that, but any blunt thin object will do. Just make some indentations in the soil about quarter an inch to half an inch deep. In my blue containers I usually make three rows. Put the seeds into the rows. Again, a container like that takes about twenty seeds, but the rule of thumb - the spacing between the seeds should be about a half an inch:

Now cover the seeds with the surrounding soil and you are done. Place the containers outdoors in a shade. A porch or lanai works best, but if you don't have these, just put them under a tree or a bush. Keep the soil moist and in about a week you should see the seedlings coming up. Tomatoes usually come up first; peppers and eggplant might take up to three weeks, so do not give up on them, keep them watered!

In addition to fall planting preparation we can still plant cowpeas, okra and sweet potatoes if you have slips ready.

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