Saturday, November 22, 2008

Oh bountiful harvest

It's Thanksgiving in a few days and it's a time of harvest for most of the western world. Here in the USA we celebrate Thanksgiving and when I was a kid in the UK we celebrated Harvest Festival. I thought it would be a great time to harvest some beautifully-grown fall vegetables from our garden in honor of this time.

Then I remembered that we haven't successfully grown crap. We planted our garden in August and it's November now and we still have nothing to show for it, yet we're still at it. This is surely a testament to two things: 1) My lack of gardening skills 2) My tenacity.

So I went to the garden determined to have something to show for this week of harvest and found the following jaw-dropping yumminess you see below. Allow yourself a moment to take it all in.

First we have my one red cracked tomato that does not have blossom end rot. It's a tiny thing, but it's red and doesn't appear to be bug-eaten, so it got plucked from the vine. It's smaller than a real tomato and larger than a cherry tomato and it's got more cracks than our driveway, but it's ours. Maybe we'll slice it up and get out a Ritz cracker and each take a tiny nibble. Mmmmmm.....

Next we have a peanut. I actually think our peanut plants might be doing okay. I'm not entirely sure when we pull them up. I've heard that you should pull up one peanut to check for doneness. I pulled one up out of the ground and now realized I have no idea how to tell the difference between an under-ripe and fully-ripe peanut. Will read up on that.
Finally we have some carrots. These weren't really supposed to come up, but everytime I hit the garden I find smallish carrots that are growing next to my larger carrots and crowding them out. I am not a good thinner apparently. So these ones below are being sacrificed for the greater good. Two of them are only slightly smaller than a sickly baby carrot, so maybe we'll actually take a nibble and see how they taste.
So there you have it. The most pathetic harvest you have ever seen. Almost 4 full months of tending to this garden almost daily and that's all we have to show for it. Yes, yes, we have had plenty of great experiences, but nothing to lay on the ole' Thanksgiving table.

Farmer B took one look at this harvest and said "Can you imagine being a Pilgrim and coming over here knowing you had to grow all of your own food just to survive?" I quickly reminded him that my people waited a bit longer and came over on British Airways, thank you very much.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unexcused absence

Are you there blog? It's me, Kate. It has been 5 days since my last entry. I have been remiss in my writings and will try not to let real life get in the way again.

Actually we had out-of-town family visiting us and when we have company the first thing that gets the boot is the ole' computer. That, and I've had quite a few custom orders to get together for my real online business, so I put that first. And it's been cold here in Central Florida and I don't do cold. I go into full-out hibernation mode when the temperature dips below 75 degrees. I'm one of those annoying Floridians that complains that we don't have seasons and we have too much hot weather, but when nature responds with a helluva cold front, I curl up into the fetal position and rock in the corner.

The garden has had a hairy week. The first exciting bit of news is that I was cyberjinxed by my gardening friend from Our Engineered Garden and another blogger called Dani. Both told me they expected to see Blossom End Rot on my tomatoes after I discovered my crack problem. Well wouldn't you know that it happened? I plucked my first red tomato off the vine only to discover a blackened sunken end - blossom end rot. I stood in the garden cursing two people I've never met before for using their cyber-psychokinesis to rot my one red tomato. Actually the rest of the tomatoes seem to be clinging to life, so maybe this was a fluke. We'll see.

Then I noticed that my taller-than-the-cage yellow bell tomato plant was falling over and the tallest stem was starting to break in half. I grabbed a stake and jammed it into the ground and realized I needed to tie the stem to the stake…but with what? Hmm… I have no clue what you tie a plant to a stake with so I found some pretty red ribbon in my sewing box and tied it on with that. I figured it'd be soft and wide enough so it didn't cut into the stem and it was pretty and red - a plus. I'm sure there is some sort of gardening tie-up stuff I should purchase for this, but the ribbon seems to be doing the job for now.

Fast forward to last night. I watched the 11 o'clock news and our local weather idiot said that my county wouldn't have a frost or freeze, but some of our neighboring counties would. I felt good about that and started wondering what I'd do when our first frost or freeze finally happened, but I knew I had a long time to think about it since we never get frosts or freezes until about January or February. Then I woke up this morning, looked out front and saw this:

Do you see all that white? That would be frost. The car windows were icy and the grass was frosty and all I could think about was the garden. How would it react to this? It wasn't mega-frost, but it was definitely frost. I've never known a November frost (or a December one for that matter) so I wasn't sure what to think. I went out there after it warmed up a bit and snooped around and everything looked as it did before the frost. The half-dead stuff was still half-dead and the green stuff was still green. I'm not sure how to tell if the frost did any damage, but I'll keep checking for chattering teeth and goosebumps on my peppers.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy Bloom Day!

It's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day for November and time for me to lay it all out there for the world to see. I've never had a bloom-worthy Bloom Day, but I'm determined to participate every month, so here's what's blooming in our garden.

We still have a couple of large sunflowers clinging to life. They're supposed to be 8 to 10 feet tall, but we didn't get many over around 5 feet tall. Aidan likes the tall sunflowers that are bigger than him, so I'm glad we chose to grow these. Do you see the dirty neck on that kid? He knows how to play hard when we come outside.

And here's what's in the planter boxes out front. A handful of different colored impatiens and a purple pansy. Snore. At least they're alive and it's a nice splash of color in an otherwise very boring area.

I also have plenty of blooms on my tomato plants and bell pepper plants and a few random flowers that pop up on my one barely-alive pumpkin plant, but that's about it. I'll take what I can get.

Night Launch

I know this is a gardening blog, but it's my gardening blog so I give myself the right to go completely off-topic should the mood strike me. Since I'm mood stricken right now, I thought I'd post some photos of last night's space shuttle launch…after all, we were standing next to our garden when we watched it, so I'm calling it garden related.

The Space Shuttle Endeavor lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 7:55 p.m. on November 14th. Our family is famous for forgetting to watch shuttle launches, but honestly, when you live in Florida it is easy to forget since it's a way of life for us. We were determined not to forget last night's launch because there is just something special about a night launch. No matter how many launches you see, it's always just an amazing moment when you first peer out of the backyard and see the glow of the burners and know that seven very gutsy astronauts are hurtling toward space at about 18,000 mph.

Ever since I was a kid and I stood outside of my school with my class watching the Challenger take off with teacher Christa McAullife on board and it blew up, I always get a bit nervous watching a shuttle take off. I always try to imagine how scary it must be for the astronauts inside and I think of how odd it is that most of the country is inside watching Wheel of Fortune while this amazing thing is happening right outside of my window.

We had the boys dressed in their PJs ready for bed and we all walked out into the backyard and looked East.
The moon was hidden behind the clouds at first and it was a very dark night We're very close to the coast so we always get a great view. It's much harder to find the shuttle in the daytime, especially if there are low clouds. But a night launch is totally different. You stand there in the darkness waiting for the glow and then it happens - a bright orange glow lights up the sky starting at the horizon and quickly filling the night. If you're inside you can see the orange glow light up your windows. Photos really do not do it justice. We were lucky enough to have a full moon, which made for a very beautiful night.
The bright orange glow sort of arcs up into the sky and the clouds get really bright and you focus on the bright yellow glow of the shuttle. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can hear the rumble of the rockets. Last night we heard someone blaring Elton John's "Rocket Man" from some speakers at a party up the street. No matter where you are you always hear people clapping. There is something so spectacular about it that you feel the need to clap or cheer when you first see it over the horizon. But soon after you hear a quiet silence as people old enough to remember the Challenger suck in a collective nervous breath in the hopes that nothing will go wrong. As you watch, the bright white plume of smoke off the shuttle's tail follows the ball of fire as it lifts up into the sky.
It's impossible to photograph from a home camera, but when the shuttle gets quite high in the sky you can watch the solid rocket boosters separate from the shuttle and fall back to the Earth. The shuttle eventually becomes a tiny white speck and you're left watching what's left of the smoke trail fading in the night sky. Eventually the sky darkens again and it's all over. Then we all raced back inside and hit rewind on the TV and watched it all over again.
I love that our boys can experience this. One day when they're old and grey they'll be able to tell their grandchildren about watching the space shuttle take off right from their own back yard. I'm sure space shuttles will be obsolete old-fashioned pictures in a history book by then - just like the rockets from the 1960s are to us now. But I'm glad they get to experience this part of history first-hand with Farmer B and I at their side.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I have a crack problem

I never thought the day would come when I could admit to having a crack problem. I always thought I'd be above such things, then one day the reality hits you and BAM! - you realize that yes, crack has wrapped it sticky fingers tightly around you and won't let go. Once you realize that you have a crack problem, you can't take it away. You just have to move forward, try to recover and learn from your mistakes. I suppose admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. I'll chalk this up to another important lesson learned.
We are, of course, talking about my tomatoes. I've pulled about three of my baby yellow bell tomatoes off the plant that are split right down the side from top to bottom. I thought it was a fluke since I don't really know what I'm doing and didn't think I'd find the same thing on any other plants.
Then yesterday Aidan was very excited to notice that we have some tomatoes turning orange and red on one of our tomato plants.
This is a huge step forward since everything else in the garden has remained a nice shade of green, turned brown and dropped off. This splash of color is new and exciting in our gardening world. We excitedly hopped into the garden to marvel at the brightly colored things...
...when we saw the cracks. Yup. We have tomato fruit cracking. I looked up the cause of cracking and wouldn't you know it? The finger of blame can be pointed firmly in my face, thank you very much. Here is one of the primary causes of cracking:

Rain and excess irrigation will often cause cracking and if the fruit lacks leaf cover then the effect is even more dramatic. Tomato crops that do not receive water at regular intervals but rather receive it periodically at large intervals are likely to have cracking.

Did you read that? "Excess Irrigation." Does THAT sound like anything I've done? Maybe watering the garden for 14 hour intervals when I accidentally left the sprinkler running overnight - not once, but twice? Yeah. Just great. I assume you can't eat a cracked tomato because I'd guess it's dry or weird or something. Oh well. Maybe one of them will be crack-resistant and we'll get to eat one damned thing from this garden one day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Guilt-Free Darwinism

I thinned out our radish seedlings this weekend and I was rife with guilt again. I've mentioned before how thinning out seedlings makes me sad and this time was no different. I feel like I'm killing something that's trying its best to grow and thrive in our garden, when we don't get a lot of growing and thriving going on. We seem to focus on wilting, shriveling and dying. I assumed I was the only nutjob who feels extremely sad pulling out baby plants to make room for others, but then I read an article I found online in The Washington Post by Barbara Damrosch called "Call It Guilt-Free Darwinism."

Apparently thinning guilt is not as uncommon as I thought. Gardeners enjoy nurturing their plants, but sometimes it becomes so excessive that the guilt of thinning is just heart-wrenching for some. The article says that some people don't even like to prune for the same reasons. I laughed at that until I remembered my reaction to my aunt's scalping of my tomato plants and then it wasn't so funny.

Her advice?

"...keep motherly love out of your mind and Darwin at your elbow."

I'm a fan of Darwin's theories and survival of the fittest makes sense in nature, but it's hard when you're the one looming over a line of cowering little green plants trying to decide whose time it is to go and whose time it is to live.

Damrosch talks about her friend who had major thinning guilt:

"Recently she had a breakthrough while thinning late-planted lettuces. By holding her finger at the base of the one she was saving while she yanked a few of its neighbors, she was able to focus on protecting the survivor instead of mourning the castoffs. The finger trick lessens that tug on the roots of the plant left standing, and it helped my friend to see thinning as a positive act. Just as with pruning (another tough-love garden skill), she was giving her plants a better chance to be productive by removing competition from their beds."

So that's it. Eliminating the competition to increase the survivor's chances of thriving. Well I eliminated a TON of radish competition this weekend. I left their limp little corpses to one side…and now they haunt me when I go to the garden.

It made me wish we had a compost bin set up so at least their deaths would be put to good use - you know, the whole Lion King "Circle of Life" thing? Maybe I'll keep looking into one of those rotating metal compost bins until I find one that's got the right price. And before anyone suggests an open wooden compost bin, please know these three things. 1) I have dogs, one of whom loves to dig and one of whom loves to eat crap 2) I have two boys who love going where they shouldn't 3) Farmer B doesn't build stuff and neither do I - see my pea trellis for proof. So I'll continue my search for one of those barrel bins so I can thin without a guilty conscience.

Friday, November 7, 2008

MacGyvering Gone Wrong

When my aunt came to visit last weekend she looked at the peas just starting to poke through the soil and told me I needed to "cage them in." Ah yes, she was speaking of the trellis thingamabob that I've never needed because nothing has ever grown high enough to need one before…unless you count my tomatoes that she recently scalped, but they're in tomato cages. I went to Home Depot with the boys this week. They don't sell pea cages.

My aunt said that since these peas only grow about 2 feet tall that I can make a dome over them with chicken wire or just create a tent over them with sticks from the yard and they'll do just fine. She said they'll be sort of low and bushy, but they'll be off the ground so should be happy enough. She made me feel guilty when she said that their new little tendrils are clearly looking for something to climb and I must make something ASAP.

The problem with this is twofold. I don't really make things for the outside. I'm more of an inside kind of girl when it comes to making things. And Farmer B has been away for training so I've had to stare at these baby peas getting bigger and bigger with nothing to climb on and no man around to build them anything.

So I took the idea of a dome in my head… I rummaged around the shed and found some of the fencing that we used to put around the garden. I used Farmer B's wire cutters (that I've never seen him take outside) and yanked and pulled until I cut a piece off the mega-roll of fencing.

I poked it in the ground just over the peas and then realized that the peas in the middle probably couldn't reach it. I had pea guilt again.

So I had the boys go around the yard collecting sticks for me. I then poked the sticks all around the peas and between the new fenced dome so they'd have something to climb up.
Oh it looks trashy. And not very stable. And trashy. And the reason it's not a real MacGyver job is because when he threw random stuff together it actually worked. This… I'm not too sure about.
The best part will be when Farmer B comes home and goes out into the garden tomorrow to see how things are doing. He'll take one look at the mess over the peas and give me the whole "What the heck happened here?" speech. I've already got an answer.
The boys did it. Isn't it cute? Don't ask them about it though. They'll deny everything. It's supposed to be a surprise.

If that's wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Bee Story

I'm quite captivated by non-gross insects and having our garden has helped that interest grow. Today I watched a bee collecting pollen from one of our sunflowers and although I know people have seen this a million times, it was fascinating to watch through the lens of my camera.

The bee was using his front legs to grab pollen and pile it up on his head. He really piled it on and seemed to smash it up there like a big yellow hat.He was wiggling his back end to fill his legs with pollen and his legs looked really heavy with fluffy yellow balls. He made sure to fully circle the center of the flower and seemed quite intent on getting a bit of pollen from each part of the disc.
He even flew around a few times and dropped little pieces of pollen off his back legs in flight.
If our garden has taught me anything so far, it's to stop and appreciate the small stuff. I hate being cliché, but it's true. Without a garden I would never have discovered the beauty of dragonflies, the grossness of tomato hornworms or the fascination of a bumble bee at work. So even if we don't grow anything edible from this garden, at least we've gained something from it: a little appreciation of the small things in life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lettuce keep planting

I knew we wanted to give lettuce a go in the garden when I heard that it's quite easy to grow and hearing that is my Achilles heel. As soon as I hear something grows easily here in Central FL, I buy it, plant it, and kill it. I'm good like that.

We dropped by the Home Depot garden center yesterday afternoon after school and picked up nine small Romaine lettuce seedlings. As we're walking up to pay the boys noticed that the end cap was full of white eggplants. They were captivated with the idea of white eggs from this plant and purple eggs from the other plant we already have in the garden - just perfect for Easter - so we bought one. I'm well-aware that at some point I'll have to explain what an eggplant is to them.

I know I mentioned that we don't really eat eggplant, so if we grow a purple one AND a white one, I'll be scouring the web for recipes. At this point, I'm thinking I won't need to be scouring anything for recipes.

So the lettuce went in. It was quite green, but photographed quite yellow.
And the eggplant went in. Aidan wanted to put it next to Basil Boddywicket the gnome for good luck, so we went with that.
Aidan helped water in all the plants and for the first time did not water his tennis shoes too. Learning is taking place.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Pumpkin Birth Story

As you may have read, we have been trying unsuccessfully to grow a pumpkin since our garden was planted this summer. The pumpkin plants went from about 20 strong seedlings to one almost-dead plant and one just-clinging-to-life plant. This is about on par with my gardening luck. And as you may have read, I learned that pumpkins need to be pollinated by bees or other insects or they'll just wither and die. You can enter into the seedy world of hand pollinating pumpkins if you aren't prudish, but something's gotta get the boy flowers with the girl flowers or you won't have any pumpkins.

So I was excited when we saw our first male flower back in September. I know it was male because male flowers have a long stem. Everything I read said to begin expecting female flowers shortly after the males arrive. We waited and waited. Over a month went by. More male flowers. More male flowers… Farmer B and I decided that this plant might be of an alternative lifestyle, but we were going to love it and nurture it nonetheless.

Then Halloween weekend we're out in the backyard, when Mr. Keen-Eye Aidan screams "WE GREW A PUMPKIN! A PUMPKIN! LOOK! FOR HALLOWEEEEEEN!!" And dammit if he wasn't right. There on the end of the pumpkin vine was a little green pumpkin at the base of our first female flower. I know it's a female flower because they're closer to the stem and have a tiny green pumpkin at the base.
I jumped into the garden and searched madly for a male flower. Must pollinate now! Quickly! And I saw him - there was one pathetic droopy very sorry-for-himself shriveled up male flower clinging to life at the other end of the vine. Well this wasn't going to make any baby pumpkins. I had to try something so I snatched him off the vine and bunged him at the female flower who seemed to recoil her petals with disgust. I hear ya sister...

Maybe this is a bust. When we were at the local VFW pumpkin patch this weekend I spoke with the old guy manning the patch who said he had just gotten back from a class at the local extension office on what we can grow around here. He said that he asked them about growing pumpkins and they said "Don't try it. It'll never happen." So he decided to give up on his pumpkin quest and focus on sweet potatoes.

Maybe we ought to learn how to grow sweet potatoes too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Halloween Scalping

I had family visiting over Halloween weekend so I took a nice break away from the computer. It was really nice to have family in town and the boys loved the attention. One of these family members is my Aunt Jill - she's one of those long-time gardeners who knows what's she's doing and has more mad skills than she knows what to do with. She even has a greenhouse and knows how to use it. She's got one of those English country gardens that you see in magazines and romantic movies with gorgeous big blooms and bees darting from patch of color to patch of color. It's really quite sick. The downside is that since she's from England (as are all of my family) there are some different growing conditions between England and Florida - obviously. But she still taught me more in one day than I've learned in the past 5 months.

We walked out in the garden together and she eyeballed each of my plants and then asked me for my secateurs. I, of course, stared at her dumbly and after much discussion we figured out that it's the English term for handheld pruning shears. I gave her the shears so she could prune up a few things and came in the house to tend to the boys.

When I walked back out to the garden I literally felt ill. I never thought any gardening incident could cause my heart to pound in my chest like I was watching an intense horror flick, but it did. My tomato plants were in the middle of a scalping of epic proportions. The pile of discarded tomato parts and severed limbs was enormous, and where my bushy plants had once thrived were little green naked sticks inside tomato cages. I wanted to knit them little cozies to wear because they looked so sad and exposed.

My aunt saw the look of pure horror on my face and spent the next 20 minutes reassuring me that she had done the right thing. She told me that my tomato plants were full of "sucker shoots" that grow off the main shoots but do not produce flowers, but merely take the goodness from the plant. She also showed me that one tomato plant that happens to have one strong main stalk has 3 very large green tomatoes, but that the plants with 8 or 9 stalks have lots of tiny cherry-sized tomatoes. She assured me that if I would keep them pruned (preferably from the get-go) that I'd end up with bigger fruit and less useless crap and small tomatoes.
Just when I was getting used to the idea, Farmer B strolled up. His chin hit his chest and he stood there mouth agape for a very long time. Yeah, I was there 20 minutes ago - I knew how he felt. It was quite funny.
Then she told me that some of my problems were probably coming from caterpillars. I assured her that I don't have caterpillars anymore since I've inspected the plants for days and haven't found any. She then pulled some off my peppers and tomatoes and well…what could I say? She is a gardening genius in my world and I felt quite honored to have been scalped by a pro.

(Oh and if you're wondering why my tomatoes look a bit yellow in the photos, I accidentally left the sprinkler on again - for about 14 hrs. Don't tell Farmer B. I didn't. He was very understanding the first time...but...I'm sure I'd get that look and a discussion about how much the well pump cost the second time around.)
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