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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.

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