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November 20, 2012

Sweet Potato Invasion

Could not help but to brag... Here they are...

The best thing about these sweet potatoes is that I did not plant them. They grew from the remnants of the last year's harvest. I always leave the smallest roots in the ground when I harvest sweet potatoes, and the ones that survive frost start vining and fruiting once again. Another good thing about this amazing vegetable is that it breaks down hard soils. Sweet potatoes are relatively easy to care for, just water when they are young and make sure the soil has at least some nutrients in it. That's about it. 

Now, part of my Thanksgiving dinner is covered, for free. :)

November 5, 2012

Improve garden soil with legumes

John Jeavons calls beans "the givers" of the garden. And yes, they are; in more ways than one.

Just picked my second crop of green beans today, what a beautiful bounty.

This season I planted my all-time favorite Kentucky wonder (pole bean), as well as two types of bush beans - Italian and Nash. All of the beans are doing very well and are producing heavily. Beans and other legumes are the givers that improve the soil by binding nitrogen in the air to the soil. After the harvest is done we dig the stalks and leaves into the garden adding to the humus content of the soil. 

The good thing about Florida is that we can grow legumes year round. Maybe that is a gift from mother nature to compensate for our poor soils. But literally, there is not a time when we cannot plant or harvest some sort of legume. 

Right now it is too late, at least in Central Florida, to plant beans, but we can plant peas and Fava beans. That is in fact what I am planning to do this week - plant me some peas and Fava beans. I have about ten Fava seeds that I had for about four years or so, but never gotten around to planting. Hopefully they come up. And peas - we can plant them now, and all the way till March. 

All in all, looks like my Thanksgiving dinner is covered - I am going to try a new recipe this year for the green beans, and the main ingredient in that recipe will be the beans from my garden.

September 12, 2012

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

The time to clean and prepare the beds for the cool season planting is here. But there are other things still growing in the garden, our summer favorites - sweet potatoes, okra, and cow peas. So it is time to start harvesting sweet potatoes. The harvesting process in itself is fairly simple, just pull the vines (and oh, yes, they can be very long), and then feel the ground with your hands for the tubers. Alternately, you can use a shovel to just turn the soil, but I prefer to use my hands (with the disposable gloves to protect from ant bites). Sweet potatoes do not normally sit deep in the ground, and often you can even see the tip of the potato above the ground. Finally, even if some potatoes are missed and overwinter, the better. I have so many volunteer potatoes in my garden that I don't even plant the slips anymore and always have plenty of sweet potato to harvest; once you have them, you will always have them.

This bowl of potatoes was harvested just from one partial bed, I would say 4 feet by 10 feet, all volunteers. Free food, what can be better! Now I am facing the task of preserving the harvest.

Depending on the amount of sweet potatoes you harvest, no preservation could be needed at all. If you only have a few pounds, then just brush off the dirt, lay them on a cardboard in the sun for a few hours to harden, and you can store them in the pantry. Usually, that's all I do with the harvest.

On the other hand, if you have a large harvest, then it probably would not fit into a regular pantry. Authoritative sources, such as University of Florida, advise to store sweet potatoes in "cool storage" - between 55 to 65 degrees. Well, that's great, but we don't exactly have root cellars in Florida, and the average house garage is far from being "cool" storage, even in the winter. Indigenous people throughout the ages stored sweet potatoes either in sand, or in ash, or in hay. These methods would work even in a hot garage or other storage, but the potatoes themselves should be absolutely perfect, with no nicks or damage; otherwise they will certainly start to rot, and infect their neighbors in the storage bins.

This year I decided to can my sweet potato harvest, and here's why: canning is a sure way to preserve these root vegetables with little risk of spoilage, and the subsequent cooking is practically non-existent, just heat up and eat. I don't care for "sweet" sweet potatoes, such as pies, but like them in a way of home fries with salt and cayenne. Canned sweet potatoes can be perfect for either scenario.

So, to can sweet potatoes all you need is a pressure canner (I have a cheapo Presto from WalMart), some canning jars and other paraphernalia related to canning. All that can be easily obtained from WalMart or Tractor Supply.

Peel and slice sweet potatoes in about 1/2 to 1/4 inch slices, and put in water. They would turn dark immediately if left in the open air that oxidizes them. As you can see, the water in this basin is quite murky, that's because sweet potatoes have a lot of starch in them:

Once all potatoes are cut up, sterilize canning jars (I use quarts) and stuff raw potato slices into the jars. This is called "raw packing". Shake the jars as you stuff the potatoes to minimize dead space. Add a tea spoon of coarse salt (a preservative), and fill with boiling water. Then, can at 10 pounds pressure for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Pressure canned like that, the potatoes can store for a long time at room temperature, and used whenever you have a hankering for some Thanksgiving-tasting side dish.

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Grow sweet potatoes from store bought
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September 8, 2012

How to build a garden - Part 3

Finally, my garden building project is coming to a completion. The beds are all built and I filled some of them with the grass clippings just to hold the landscape fabric down, although this step is not necessary.

Now, what's left is covering the fabric between the beds with mulch, hauling in the soil, and of course, the most important part - planting.

With the help of a vigorous 24-year old I had my beds loaded with nice soil, and even started transplanting tomatoes and parsley. Mulch is partially laid out, and the paving stones are placed on the top of the mulch - for stability and preservation of the landscape fabric.

I am not yet completely done with this project, still have mulching to do, and arranging the stones, but the planting work can be completed even without the mulching part. In fact, we are in the middle of transplanting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant seedlings right now, in our second warm season of the gardening year.

Now, for the cost.

In addition to the landscape fabric, I used:
47 landscape timbers @3.59, to the total of $169
I will use approximately 40 stones for this garden, $1.24 = $50
Hauled in bulk soil from a nursery - 6 cubic yards, $270
And 1 cubic yard of mulch, $23 (bulk)

So far total is $548.

Yes, it is a lot of money. My total growing space in this 12x22 foot garden equals to 176 square feet (not counting walkways). What can I grow in a 176 square feet? You can run calculations based on the vegetable spacing requirements, but just for this season I will fit these vegetables into this garden:

50 tomato plants
30 pepper plants
20 dinosaur kale
10 parsley
10 dill
and maybe some other greens tucked in here and there.

And the minimum yield will be (that is if I totally suck as a gardener - usually you should get much more that these estimates):
50 pounds of tomatoes
30 pounds of peppers
20 pounds of kale
2 pounds of parsley and dill

Think about it. How much would you pay for a pound of organic tomatoes? I have an answer - $4.99/pound. Even more so for the organic peppers. Quite frankly, Publix or WinnDixie do not sell organic kale, period, so I cannot even run a comparison.

Well, my point is - if you can afford building a garden space like that, this is a fast and least effort consuming method of jump-starting a garden in a previously unused lawn space. If you cannot afford to have a garden built like that, you can always revert to a free (but labor-intensive) double-digging method.

Update 9/14/2012: All planted and ready to enjoy:

Update 10/23/2012: In full bloom and starting fruiting:

How to build a garden - Part 2

How to build a garden - Part 1

September 1, 2012

How to build a garden - Part 2

The raised bed garden building continues. Today I started laying landscape fabric over the grass. Prior to that step I gave the lawn a good tight cut, and laid the fabric overlapping about six inches on the seams.

Why did I go with the landscape fabric and not the cardboard, or newspapers, a popular choice in building raised beds? I did not want to give crabgrass and Bermuda grass any chance of surviving; and these two are my biggest enemies in the garden. Granted, the package said that "no landscape fabric will stop Bermuda grass and crabgrass", as it grows even through asphalt, but I am taking my chances because the fabric will be covered with a foot of soil, and secondly, I have a row of raised beds that is built on top of the grass, and it survived just fine, even  being only six inches tall. The only problem with this bed is that the grass creeps in through the sides; the problem that I am hoping to overcome by having the bare barrier around this new bed.

After the fabric was laid, the bed construction has begun. I am building this garden from landscape timbers so it will last a long time and not cost too much money.

The timbers are laid on the edge of the cut area where the sod was taken out, but leaving at least a six inch strip of bare land all around the bed area.

I am making my beds three timbers high, which will give me nine inches of height from the ground. From there, I plan on filling the beds with soil, tapering three inches over the edge of the bed, which will give me a total of a foot of growing depth. This depth will be totally sufficient for most vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, short carrots, all kinds of greens, like kale or lettuce, all herbs, cucumbers, beans, beets, and so on. The only vegetables that might need a deeper soil would be squash, daikon radish, and maybe the vegetables that need deep sturdy staking (as I cannot drive stakes through the landscape fabric). All in all, looks like I can grow practically anything in these beds.

And here we are, first bed is complete. I chose to go with an L-shape to make the square area more interesting, as well as space-saving.

It took two men three hours to build this bed. They used heavy duty landscape nails to connect the timbers together. 

So far, the cost of material is $36 in landscape fabric (I picked up two tubes of 3x100 at Walmart).

I already bought the timbers, nails, and paving stones, but do not know at this point how much of these will be used to build this garden space. Will calculate when the beds are complete.

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How to build a garden Part 1
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August 31, 2012

How to build a garden - Part 1

I was in need of more garden space, so instead of my usual endeavor of double-digging the beds, I decided to build a raised bed garden for a change. There were a few reasons for that decision.

First, the area that I was working with was kind of low laying, so the dug beds would have suffered from too much standing water.
Second, I wanted to build  a good size gardening space in a hurry; it needed to be ready for planting before the fall season.
And third, I wanted to experiment with the raised bed design where there is no grass in between the beds. I wanted to see what it would cost to build such an area, what kind of work would be involved, and how feasible the whole thing was going to be.

This is the area I started with:

The building wall is East facing. So, this area gets morning sun up until 2PM or so, and then gradually starts to shade. At around 5PM the whole area is shaded from the hot afternoon sun. This is actually perfect for our damaging Florida sun, as the plants will get their needed sunlight, but would not be burned by the heat of the afternoon rays.

To make it efficient and cost saving, I decided to make the garden area in multiples of 4, which is a half of a regular landscape timber. So, my garden area is going to be 12 foot wide and 23 feet long (1 foot subtracted for the entry), making it two beds, one bed 10 feet long, and the other 12 feet long.

Now, the measuring started:

After the measuring was complete, I started to take off the top layer of sod so I could prevent the weeds from creeping in to the garden beds. I decided to keep about 6 inches of a barrier around the beds, of bare ground that would be maintained bare by raking.

Certainly, it is difficult to take a precise measurement of sod on such a large area, so I gave myself some play room by taking about a foot of sod off around my measured perimeter.

While at it, I dug out a little apple tree that was growing in the area and brought it up eight inches so that its roots do not stay soggy when we have our summer rains. I have good hopes for this apple tree.

So, here it is, first step of how to build a garden. The whole process took me about ten hours of work.

How to build a garden - Part 2

August 16, 2012

Mulch Types

Normally, when people think of mulch types they recall the stuff that is sold in bags in box stores. After all that's what's called mulch. But behold, there are many more possibilities for mulching the garden.

Yesterday I was cleaning my garden beds in preparation for the fall planting season and instead of piling the weeds into the compost bin I put them aside, in a wheelbarrow. Why? Because weeds make excellent mulch. Note right here though, if the weeds have seeds on them, do not use them as mulch, but compost instead. I lucked out and picked the whole wheelbarrow of non-seeded weeds, such as grasses and small brush, as well as spent vegetable stems, including my beloved cowpea. To top off the pickings I cut the branches of some vegetation that was intruding through the chain link fence. So, here is what I ended up with:

Certainly, you cannot just pile that stuff into the garden beds and call it work well done. As I was talking to my mother on the phone (wearing the passive headset : Amazon link), I managed to chop all this stuff with my trusted Felco friend into small pieces within two hours. Now I have two bucket fulls of nice mulch:

So, now I have something to work with. I spread this mulch into the bed I was working on, about four inches thick. This amount was enough to cover about twelve square feet densely:

Unusual mulch type you say? Hang on just a second.

This mulch consists of mainly two types of material: Green (weed grasses and leaves) and Brown (dried spent vegetable stems such as cowpea, amaranth, and okra, as well as brush stems). This is a perfect composting combination. This mulch will serve a dual purpose up until I am ready to plant in September. It will keep the ground covered to protect it from drying out, it will decompose some on the bottom to provide nutrients, and it will encourage insect life which is needed for the garden ecosystem.

Whatever you do, mulching with any types of mulch is better than keeping the ground bare. Weeds are opportunists, they will propagate whenever they find a spot that is not covered. You might want to look around your yard to see if there anything that can be chopped up and used to improve your beds.

August 11, 2012

Mulching Lawn Mowers

Mulch, mulch, mulch -- you cannot get too much mulch in the garden.

What's good about mulching?

  • Mulch suppresses the weeds. Who wants to pull nasty weeds all the time? It is much better to take preventative measures and disallow weeds from sprouting in the first place.
  • Mulch keeps moisture inside the ground by slowing evaporation
  • Mulch keeps plant roots cool by reflecting the sun and providing a barrier between the damaging sun rays and the depth of the ground
  • Decomposed, mulch adds to the fertility of the soil

Today I added this thick layer of mulch to one of my 4x4 foot beds where eggplant is growing. I used mulching lawn mower (my new toy, yay!), it's electric! lol. But, in any event, this bed was suffering badly because the ants made a pile in that bed and I was skirmish to de-weed the bed at the fear of ant bites. But finally I got over myself, put the gloves on and took the weeds out and gave ants a good two-day bath. They found a new home, I suppose. But the bed was sitting there naked. So I mowed the lawn with my mulching lawn mower, bagged the mulch of course, and put it around the plants. I can see how the plants love it already.

Now, some people have concerns about adding grass clippings as mulch because it might compact. I have not found this to be a problem. And even if grass compacts a little, all it takes a little raking to loose it again. It is far better to have grass clippings as mulch than not mulch at all.

I always struggle to find enough mulch in my garden, and believe me, I use every shred of weeds and garden waste to mulch. But only since I've gotten this new shiny toy of mine that I have plenty of mulch.

Two things to keep in mind: first, if you are an organic gardener, then you cannot fertilize and pesticide your lawn. I don't use any chemicals on my lawn, that's why my grass mulch is safe for my garden. Second, don't let the grass go to seed - if it does it will sprout in the garden beds. If the grass went to seed, it is better to not mulch it, but just leave it on the ground to fertilize the lawn and have it replenish itself.

And finally, if you are curious how I make grass mulch out of my lawn with my electric mulching lawn mower, watch this YouTube video I have:

In any event, we have about two months until we go heavy into the fall planting. If you have a lawn and a mulching lawn mower, start piling these grass clippings into your beds. Six or even twelve inches of clippings is not too much for the beds. They will decompose to almost nothing before you start planting your fall plants, but will provide a lot of nitrogen and other nutrients for the garden.

August 1, 2012

When to Start Tomato Seeds in Florida

Just a gentle remainder, we are starting tomato, eggplant, and pepper seeds in Florida in late July to early August. So, if you have not gotten around starting your tomato seeds, make some time to do that very shortly. Gardeners in South Florida have some slack time till the end of August, but Central and Northern Florida should get their seed packets and nursery containers out ASAP. When in doubt, check the USDA zones post here.

There is a valid reason for such tight schedule of seeding warm season vegetables, namely, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. These vegetables will start producing at 90 days after seeding at the earliest, but 120 days on average. If we seed these vegetables now, it will bring us to Thanksgiving harvest, after which we can expect first frosts, in early December.

We are lucky in Florida to have two warm seasons, Spring and Fall, but these seasons are tight on planning. Spring season starts right after the last frost, but the weather gets hot pretty quickly after that. This year, for example, the heat firmly set in March, which is very unusual. So, gardeners who waited longer than they should had problems with fruit not setting on tomatoes, and generally plants suffering from heat and lack of rain.

In the Fall, on the other hand, we cannot plant too early because the Summer is too brutal for the new seedlings, but we cannot wait too long either because of the danger of the early frost.

Bottom line, the best time for all Florida zones to plant tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant from seed is now. I am planning on making time this weekend to do all my seeding.

How many plants do you need? Granted, this depends on the garden space you have available, and your family size, as well as your eating habits, but I can share how much I plant (I usually over plant though! :)

I plant a hundred tomato plants in a combination of grape tomatoes for the salads and making crushed tomato cannings, some Romas, maybe twenty plants for the tomato paste canning, and maybe ten plants of some exotics, like Cherokee, better boy, Rosa, and such, for fun and variety. So, most of my tomatoes are grape because they are easy to grow and are very versatile. A hundred tomato plants, if you sort of observe square foot gardening principle, takes roughly 120 square feet of garden space, or one to two 4x20 garden beds. I do not plant all tomato plants in the same bed, but rather spread them out in the garden intermixed with cosmos flowers, Marigold, and herbs. The square footage is just for the estimation. One tomato plant should produce about five pounds of tomatoes. So, based on that you can decide how many plants to seed.

Peppers - I usually plant about forty plants which gives plenty of peppers for eating and freezing. And eggplant, I plant maybe ten plants, they are very productive, and we do not eat a lot of eggplant.

July 25, 2012

What to do with overgrown okra

If you planted any okra this season, right now you would be drowning in okra pods, and the okra plants themselves would be rivaling your oak trees. Yes, this is how prolific this plant is; once it is established in a reasonably good soil and you give it some water, it will grow to no ends. This summer we have plenty of water from Heavens, so okra should be thriving in your garden.

With that, of course, comes responsibility of harvesting okra pods, and I am not kidding when I say "responsibility". Okra pods can get overgrown in a matter of hours, not even days. So, just yesterday, okra pods were little and did not look like they were ready to be picked, but today the same pods are tough to the touch and are huge. So, what do you do with that overgrown okra?

First, do a "finger" test. Squeeze the okra pod with your thumb and your index finger. Does it give? Meaning, is it soft at all? If the answer is yes, then you can pick that pod and use it in your usual cooking, like fried or roasted okra recipe. If it is too tough to squeeze, leave it alone. Seriously. Let it ripen on the vine and then collect the dried pod for the next season's seed. You can also make okra coffee in a pinch, so, it is a good idea to save dry okra seeds for these two reasons at least. Last, but not least, you can preserve your okra crop by canning, pickling, or drying. Ball book of canning.

If you are a type of a gardener that appreciates home-grown mulch and compost, then okra is your best friend, just like bean stalks, cow peas, and corn. Okra has very fibrous stalks, meaning, that it provides a lot of compost material for the garden. Once you decide that you had enough of okra harvest, pull the plants and shred them into small (about two inch pieces) with your shredder or hand pruner and use in the garden right away - as a mulch at first, and when it is decomposed, as an additive to your soil. Really, you cannot waste any part of the okra plant. It is a simply amazing gift to the garden, both in food production and as a garden soil builder.

July 21, 2012

Growing Tomatoes in Florida Heat

In my never-ending quest to grow tomatoes year-round in Florida I have embarked on trying them out in our excruciating summer heat. We know that there are two problems with growing tomatoes in Florida summer months: the sun kills the plants, and what it does not kill, the heat and humidity finishes the job by preventing pollinating. Usually, we have the last of our crop in June and then park our garden tools till September.

But this year I decided to experiment and seeded a few grape tomatoes sometime in late May. The seeds germinated and little plantings were replanted into the 16oz styrofoam cups and were kept under the tree in the shade until they were ready to go into the soil.

Now the problem here is that my whole garden is in the sun, there is practically no place where these young tomatoes could have had any relief from the heat and sun rays. I know that the secret to growing tomatoes in Florida summer is to keep them protected from the damaging sun. So, I figured, I will grow them in containers, in one place where I have some shade, by the fence that borders the woods. In fact, this is a very favorable environment because not only the plants would have shade for the most part of the day, but there is also some air movement, which tomatoes love as well.

Here's a picture of the fence and the woods behind it, just to get a perspective:

If I were to set the containers next to the house, even in complete shade, it would not work because tomatoes like a little breeze, but next to the house it would be still air, in addition to the heat emanating from the concrete walls. So this setup next to the trees was ideal.

Lo and behold in my adventure the plants are doing pretty good and are already flowering:

Granted, the humidity now is awful and left alone, the flowers probably would not pollinate. You need to emulate the bee - every morning before it gets too hot, shake the stem with the flowers at about the same frequency as a buzzing bee, not very long, maybe 10-20 shakes, if I can say that. This will loosen the pollen, and a little baby tomato will start forming. And no, we don't need real bees to pollinate the tomatoes in Florida heat; tomatoes are self-pollinating, meaning they don't have male and female flowers.

So, if you have a corner on your property where it gets a little breeze and shade for the most part of the day, go ahead, and try a few tomato plants even now. I would suggest growing them in containers so they don't get too soggy from all these rains, plus you can control container placement better than a stationary bed. Growing tomatoes in Florida summers is challenging but worth a try. I would suggest growing only cherry or grape varieties as they are not very demanding of the sunlight.

July 15, 2012

Raised Garden Beds

Woo hoo! It's been a whole month away from my blog, and I feel pretty ashamed of myself. But, to my excuse, we cannot do that much in the summer in Florida, other than waiting for the cool weather to come back so that we can start planting our veggies. But I do have an exciting project to share with you - a plan how to build raised garden beds on the cheap!

My mother moved to a new place and was eager to start a garden. The problem with her property is that it looks like it's located on the beach, there is nothing but white sand, and what's worse, there is no suitable vegetation to build compost from. So, we had to make a raised garden bed for her.

Being a senior citizen on a budget, she only had so much money to spend on that venture, so we had to be creative. After reviewing a multitude of options, mostly comparing by longevity and cost, we settled on a plan that involved landscape timbers. Granted, these are treated, but because in today's day and age that treatment is not as deadly as it was two decades ago, we decided that it was OK to use these, besides, there is only a small surface of dirt that would be immediately contacting the treated part.

She wanted a large garden bed, so we purchased fifteen (15) landscape timbers, 8 foot length each. Stacked three timbers high, these gave her a nine (9) inch of height and four by sixteen (4x16) perimeter. The timbers are held together with eight inch stakes that look like huge nails. They have them next to the timbers at Lowes or Home Depot. Here's a close-up of the raised garden bed structure:

To fill this mass of a garden she would need a lot of soil. But, she has a few oak trees on the property, and a lot of fallen leaves. She raked them up and fill the bed half way up with these leaves. The, we called around and found a place that delivered top soil. She filled the rest of the bed with top soil, humping over the top of the bed because the leaves will decompose and settle pretty quickly, and she did not want to end up with a half-filled bed. So, here's the finished raised bed:

The cost was around $180 total (not counting the mulch) - $90 for the timbers and about $90 for the soil including delivery.

I should note here that this soil is not sufficient to grow healthy vegetables; although it is nice and black, it is not very loamy, so there will have work to be done enriching it with compost and vegetable matter.

What I like about this setup is that you can sit on the edge of the bed while doing your weeding or other garden work. Another good thing is that this is actually a huge bed; if you are into square foot gardening, this bed will give you sixty four (64) squares. You can feed a family on 64 squares!

All in all, the project turned out very nice and worthy. Considering that you could build a humongous raised garden bed with soil for $180, it is certainly a thing to consider.

June 13, 2012

How to Grow Amaranth Greens in Florida

We all can agree that growing greens in Florida’s summer is no easy feat. Last year I tried growing baby bok choy in the shade, as well as trying different forage type greens, such as sweet potato leaves and cow pea leaves in my salads. While they worked OK, something was still missing. And that something was in a realm of a regular salad type green. So, this year I am trying something different.

Enter a new type of leafy vegetable: Amaranth Green.

I ordered the seeds from Bountiful Gardens because they offer all open-pollinated, non-GMO, heirloom seeds. The description for the amaranth, that is leaf amaranth, not the grain type, was that it loves heat and loves moisture. OK, heat is no problem in June and beyond, and moisture I can reasonably provide. Granted, we had a lot of rain lately, so moisture was supplied by nature.

True to the seed company promise, amaranth survived and is doing quite well. I only planted a few plants, but have been snipping the leaves for the salad for about two months now. Lately we have been suffering some excruciating temperatures, but amaranth stood to the challenge.

Amaranth Greens

The only problem with it is that it is quite difficult to start from seed. As usual, I start my seeds in nursery containers, and noticed that with this plant it is not easy when it comes to to achieving good consistent germination. The seedlings themselves look (and behave) quite weak for a few weeks, but when transplanted to the garden they do take off strong. I also tried to seed amaranth greens directly into the soil, but cannot attest to the success of that method because I mixed up replanting of the transplants and direct seed in the same bed. I think it would be better still to start it in nursery containers. All in all, it is a worthy green to try. It is somewhat dry and tough, compared, let’s say to romaine lettuce, but as we know, everything dies in our gardens in the summer, so a plant that keeps providing a harvest during the hot days is a winner no matter what. It tastes kind of like spinach, not a very strong taste, which is a good thing. I usually just chop it up in fine strips and make it a base for my salad. My verdict – thumbs up for that unusual vegetable, leaf amaranth green.

You can grow greens indoors in the summer. Click the image to learn more...

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May 28, 2012

Grow Flax Seed in a Home Garden

My adventure with the small grains, namely Flax Seed and Barley finally came to fruition. I harvested both grains about two weeks ago. I did not have the time to properly process Barley, so it all went to the chickens (who loved it!), but did process the Flax Seeds. It turned out to be a rather easy process. To harvest I simply pulled the whole plants and put them into the garden cart. I imagine, commercially they harvest just the seed heads with the machinery, but I cut or pulled the seed heads by hand and literally separated seeds from the shaft. The shaft is very useful in itself, our ancestors used it to make linen. But I will use it in compost, or even possibly as straw mulch.

The seed heads need to dry crisp before threshing, so I let these sit outside in the shade for a couple of weeks.

After the seeds were very dry, I just rubbed the seed heads between my palms so that the seed itself was separated from the surrounding seed head. The process was quite easy. Then I sifted this mess several times through a regular colander until most of the debris was gone.

Last few sifts involved a fan (do this outside!) to sift the seeds at a height of approximately twelve inches from the lower bowl so that the light-weight debris can be blown away and the heavier seeds remain.

And here is the final product! These flax seeds certainly do not look as clean as when you buy them in the store, but they are certainly useful and very nice.

All in all, my yield was about 1:20. I seeded two tablespoons of the flax seeds and harvested almost a quarter a pound. This venture is certainly worth trying, and I plan to seed these (now free seeds) in October or when it gets cooler, to harvest in the following Spring.

May 26, 2012

Shredding garden waste for compost: wood chipper, lawn mower, or else?

I have to admit, I spent quite some time researching the options of shredding my garden waste for composting, such as tomato, corn, okra, and other plants, as well as weeds, and the good stuff - your cover crops. Surprisingly, in this day and age of seemingly everyone growing a garden, there is very poor choice of garden waste processing machinery. I hate even saying "garden waste" as these spent plants are an awesome source of future nutrients and humus for the garden.

Anyway, it looks like we have two choices: a wood chipper and a mulching lawn mover. That's it. A reasonably priced wood chipper - under $1,000 - is still not an adequate choice! Most of these have a limitation of material thickness, up to 2 inches in diameter. Well, my corn stalks are at about that thickness, and okra plants can run even thicker. But even if we upgrade and go with the unit that chips 3 inches, we are still limited by "no green" restriction. These chippers are designed to handle twigs, not plants from the garden. Even if you pull a tomato plant, it would be kind of dry on the bottom, but green on the top. So, the wood chipper, unless it's a Fargo kind (which will run several thousand dollars), is not adequate, so, save your money.

A second choice is to get a mulching lawn mover at a price tag of $300 - $500 and run it over a pile of spent garden plants. This is much better than a chipper because it does not have size limitations, but to run it efficiently for this purpose the blade has to be frequently sharpened. Sharpening the blade involves taking out the spark plugs, then unscrewing the blade, and sharpening it with the hand file or some power tool. Then, putting the mower back together. Excuse me, I am a female. Not that I am afraid of power tools, but the process sounds too involved for what I am willing to do.

Accidentally, I stumbled upon another choice. This choice does not require electricity, gasoline, or any complicated maintenance. And, it accepts basically any thickness or green range of garden waste. Enter Felco. It is a hand pruner, and at a $55 price tag was a reasonable choice for my needs.

 It is made in Sweeden, not in China, so I imagine it will last a long time. It is incredibly sharp and very easy to operate. I harvested the last of the tomatoes from ten to twelve plants, pulled up the cages, and shredded the tomato plants to fill this five gallon bucket in two hours total. It is amazing that a whole mess of tomato plants that would normally take several cubic feet by volume if not shredded, took only this little bit of space in a five gallon bucket.

I cut the plants into chunks of about two inches long. This would be sufficient to throw into the compost pile to speed up decomposting, or even use this mass as mulch (which is what I did, mulched around my cubanelle peppers). I researched quite a bit on a brand and make, and settled on this tool because it had some outstanding reviews on Amazon, plus, the shipping was free. The only thing I wish it had - some kind of harness, so I could carry it with me at all times: that's how much I love this little tool!

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May 20, 2012

May Activities in Florida Garden

Whew! Somebody aircondition Florida, please! It has been an extremely hot spring.

At the end of May we usually finish harvesting spring season vegetables and put our garden tools away till September, for the most part. Even harvesting becomes a chore because it is too hot to go to the garden and pick tomatoes. I let quite a bit of tomatoes to fall to the ground, luckily, chickens picked them up. I sometimes let the chickens into the garden at the end of the harvest season to clean up.

Now it's a good time to preserve the harvest. I usually just can crushed tomatoes. It's the easiest way and the end product is very versatile. Tomatoes are pretty easy to can. Because they are acidic, you can use water bath method, no pressure canning required.

If you planted tomatoes in succession, you might still have quite a bit of green tomatoes in the garden; these will continue to ripen till July. This year I want to try growing tomatoes over the summer, in complete shade. This might or might not work, time will tell, but it's a worthy experiment.

Other than that, cowpeas and okra are Florida gardener's best friend. They love heat and pretty non-demanding. Plus, both can be used as a great compost builder.

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May 1, 2012

Holy cow, cabbage in Florida

Ferry-Morse seeds did it again! Who could have thought that we could grow nice firm heads of cabbage in our Florida heat, and harvest them in May! But, stranger things have happened. Harvested this baby today, and it weight at over three pounds of organic fresh cabbage:

I planted these seeds somewhere around the end of January, and started harvesting cabbage about two weeks ago, so kind of close to what the package said (66 days to maturity).

Now, these seeds are not open-pollinated, they are hybrids, most likely, so even if I was adventurous enough to save the seeds, they would not perform the same as their parent. But for a paltry $1.59 (and I only seeded maybe a third of the package, if that), I would harvest probably 30-40 pounds of cabbage, if not more. This variety, just like any type of cabbage, needs moist conditions, so I have to give it some water every day. It also is susceptible to snails, but they do not do a lot of damage. Some leaves, mostly the outer ones, would be chewed up, and these go into the compost or to the chickens. There is still a lot of fresh organic cabbage left for the humans. I would certainly plant this variety again, in the fall, as cabbage is not afraid of freezes.

April 12, 2012

Khaki Campbell Ducklings

A bit of an update: they have grown and are becoming beautiful birds. I had to give away nine of them, but kept three ducks, a male and two females.

Chaki Campbell ducks

Here's new addition to the homestead: Khaki Campbell ducklings. This breed is supposed to be the best layer of all domestic ducks. But laying eggs is far down the road for them. For now they are just cute bundles of joy. In this video they are three days old.

April 9, 2012

What can we plant in April in Florida

In April we are getting close to be done with the cool weather season crop and are getting ready for the warm weather harvest; so all in all, April is a very fruitful month. My garden is in full bloom and glory, although in need of daily watering: the weather has been unusually hot and dry.

My favorite grape tomatoes are about my height now and are covered with blooms and tomatoes:

Cucumbers (Sumter) love climbing and producing some nice cukes, but need daily watering:

Squash survived the borer attack with the help of aluminum foil and is ready to start showing some nice fruit as well.

And of course, some sun flowers for the faithful chickens:

But back to the original question: what can we plant in April? It would be seriously stretching it to start even warm weather vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, from seed now. It will be simply too hot for them to survive and produce in the dog heat of June and July. You could still seed some beans now (I like Kentucky Wonder), as well as cow peas, okra, and plant sweet potato slips.

If I was just starting a brand new garden now, knowing what I know now, I would concentrate on building the soil. If you are in that situation, just get yourself a few containers of tomatoes and peppers from the box store and keep them in some dappled shade - for the feeling of accomplishment of your gardening efforts. But to prepare for the fall season planting, start getting as much plant material as you can get and build your compost piles. I like a two-box method: you pile plant material in the first box until it gets about waist high, then water it about twice a week and turn when you can, and in about a month or so transfer the whole pile into the second box.

The original pile will be greatly diminished by breaking down, so the contents of the second box will be much smaller than the original. Keep filling the first box. Once again, when it gets to be waist high, empty the second box into the garden, and transfer the contents of the first box to the second one. And so on, ad infinitum. This is hard work, but very rewarding in the quality of your garden soil.


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