Spring is the perfect time to start growing vegetables and herbs.
I have been gardening intensively for about six years, so sometimes it is hard to remember why I hesitated to start in the first place. I had tried it once about 20 years before, failed utterly, and thought I had a black thumb. The catalyst for me was the economy imploding in 2008. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I needed an activity that gave me more control over something as basic as growing my own food. So I tried again. If you are thinking about starting a vegetable garden but fear of failure is holding you back, this post is for you. I will break gardening down to its simplest elements so that you want to start.
Sun, soil and water. Getting these three ingredients right is the most important thing you can do.
A friend asked me if it was too late to plant seeds for a spring vegetable garden. In Florida, that’s not a dumb question to ask the first week of March. While the rest of the country is packed in snow, Florida is warming up fast. We have about 13-14 weeks of perfect vegetable gardening weather, and maybe another 2 weeks bordering on too-hot weather before most plants cry “Uncle.”
I told my friend to start now with her seeds and throw in some transplants to kick-start her container garden. That will shave off 4-8 weeks for some vegetables and space out her harvest.
Before I planted, I topped off my raised beds last week with a manure/compost mix. My friend, Mary Frances, said the secret to her tomato bounty is lots of manure so I’m following her lead.
I am relying mostly on transplants with some plants from seeds that I already put into the ground. Here is what I am planting this weekend:
I am so tired of eating broccoli from the winter garden that I pulled all 15 plants out this morning. Well, first I harvested the last of the stalks and will serve it to dinner guests tonight. Let them oooh and aaah over their tenderness. I am ready to move on to something new.
I’m dreaming of white eggplant. Purple tomatoes. Green beans. Red peppers.
Yet I can’t cut ties with my other winter vegetables. The Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi need another week or two to mature. Hurry up, I coax them. I’m already gardening in shorts. Winter is over in Orlando. Figuratively speaking they are about to turn into pumpkins!
Besides, I need the room in my raised beds for tomatoes, beans and peppers. I’m going to have to make some brutal decisions. I’ll give them one more week, maybe start the spring garden in containers and keep a close eye on rising temps. The fact that my blueberries are ripening — six weeks early! — is another sign that spring is arriving early.
Another option would be to build more raised beds. Hmmmm.
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I learned how to make Greek yogurt in a cheese-making class. It was the most simple lesson of the class, and ultimately may be the most useful for me.
I eat Greek yogurt every morning before work. It’s fast, high protein, and the perfect base for fruit, nuts and seeds. What I didn’t know until now is that Greek yogurt is plain yogurt with the whey strained out. It has twice the protein of regular yogurt, according to webMD, and one of the most nutritious foods you can eat.
Class instructor Liz Dannemiller, owner of Green Flamingo Organics, strains raw yogurt to make Greek yogurt.
In class we used raw yogurt. Raw dairy is somewhat controversial because of the risk of food poisoning. Raw milk is sterile straight from the cow or goat. Big commercial dairies use pasteurization, a high-heat sterilization process that kills microorganisms that may have been picked up in packaging. Raw milk isn’t pasteurized. So at Florida farmers’ markets and health-food stores where raw dairy is sold, it will be labeled “Not for Human Consumption.” I am willing to take the risk because of my dairy’s reputation in the farm-to-table community, but everyone has to educate themselves and make their own decisions about using raw dairy. If you can find non-homogenized yogurt that has been pasteurized, that also is an option.
Here is how I made my Greek yogurt:
My neck of the woods suddenly is an epicenter of the local food movement. Well, that may be an overstatement, but consider this: Winter Springs recently got its first farm-to-table restaurant; The Fresh Market will open in two weeks; and my favorite new spot, a new 35-acre farmers market just opened with a petting farm. This last development has neighbors buzzing most.
Robinson’s Citrus from Haines City, Fla., sells navel oranges, tangerines and grapefruit.
When Good Neighbors Farmers Market opened the first Saturday of 2014, it seemed everyone in the neighborhood came to check it out. It’s no wonder. The land on which it sits has intrigued me for years. Majestic oaks have shaded this farmland in the middle of a suburb. I would drive by it often and peer through the trees to see an occasional steer or piece of farm equipment. And then suddenly the owners were announcing the Farmers Market on Facebook with 70 vendors and a petting farm!
The first Saturday, organizers reported that 2,500 people showed up. Ticket collectors at the front entrance collected $2 per person. Charging admission has raised a few eyebrows for those who just want to shop. It’s the only negative comments about the market I’ve heard so far.
At the front gate, a display of farm equipment sets the mood. Vendors’ booths are spread out comfortably on the pine needle floor under the trees. A barn with farm stalls stands to the left. In the back are some food trucks, with several large picnic tables nearby. The relaxed atmosphere is both a market and Saturday morning getaway. I have begun a new weekly ritual to ride my bike to the market.
View of the front-yard garden landscape 17 months after installation. This January morning saw frost.
In a relentless quest to make my yard produce food, I just planted onions as border grass. Fifty red onion bulbs went into the ground Saturday, lining a stone path in the front yard garden landscape that leads to a grape arbor. If my shallots-as-border-grass experiment is any indication, it will take about a couple of weeks to see shoots.
More than a year ago, my husband, Lars, and I used a landscape architect, Andy Robinson, to help us transform our thirsty front lawn into a garden landscape with paths, trellises and an arbor. You can see the garden landscape project page here. My yard yields Meyer lemons, blueberries, pineapple, olives, grapes, herbs and more to come. Andy got to know me as a gardener and had the foresight to leave open planting spaces for me to fill without compromising the design.
It’s a nice problem to have too many Meyer lemons ripening all at once on my tree. After polling my friends on Facebook about what to do with them, I picked my favorite suggestion: Make limoncello.
My sister Jill and I drank limoncello every night on a tour of Italy, usually at the insistence of waiters who brought it to us complimentary at the end of dinner. Whether we charmed them or they were plying us with alcohol for a better tip we will never know. But our first experience with the apertif became one of our lasting memories of that vacation. Limoncello is short code for fantastic good time.
It is so simple to make: I used Giada de Laurentiis’s recipe from the Food Network. I prefer to use Vodka as the base although some people prefer the hardcore, 190-proof Everclear.
I chose five ripe lemons and made a half recipe, knowing even a half-batch would be enough for us and friends.
I peeled long strips of lemon using a potato peeler and cut out the white pith from the peels, discarding the white stuff. Pith is bitter so you want to get rid of that. I put the peels in a clear pitcher and poured a half-liter of Vodka on top to steep at room temperature for two weeks. The recipe calls for it to sit for 4 days, but I was busy.
Make your simple syrup of sugar dissolved in water over medium heat on the stove. Let it cool completely. Pour that into your pitcher with the lemon peel and Vodka. Let it sit overnight.
My vegetable garden survived the Polar Vortex!
Every winter I roll the dice by maintaining a full winter garden even though I know one freeze can wipe it out. Early this morning, temps reached a low of 30 at home in Winter Springs, Fla., with winds making it feel worse. I had I spent 90 minutes the night before anchoring bed sheets with stones to save my vegetable garden and front yard edible landscape. I raced against the clock to finish before sunset, but the winds made it more difficult than I thought. I wrapped up the work an hour past sundown.
Romaine lettuce planted in early December.
If growing your own food is on your New Year’s resolution list, pick something that you can do now. My suggestion is to start with lettuce. Here’s why:
- Lettuce can tolerate Central Florida’s cool weather. Not freezes, mind you, but it does well in our mild winters.
- Lettuce grows quickly. I have Buttercrunch and Romaine growing now, and I’m on my second wave of the season since October.
- Lettuce is much better grown in your garden than bought in the store. I haven’t bought Iceberg in years. You won’t either after tasting your own lettuce.
- Lettuce does fine in partial shade. A lot of my friends lament about their yards not having full sun 6 hours a day, which most vegetables need. Lettuce, like many greens, will grow with partial shade.
- Lettuce is easy to start with seed but if you want the quickest results, buy six- or nine-packs of transplants at your nursery.
- And finally, the most practical reason to grow lettuce now: it will supply you with salad ingredients for months. If losing weight or eating healthy is on your New Year’s resolution list, growing salad greens will help the cause.
Red sails lettuce grows in the back and buttercrunch in the front in my early fall garden.
If you are skittish about planting in December or January because a freeze may kill your crop, then hold off till March. That gives you time to check out seed catalogs for varieties that you won’t find in nurseries. I turn to seedsavers.org and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for my seeds. On my list: past favorites Forellenschluss and Yugoslavian Red Butterhead. And I will also try something new to keep it interesting.
Yugoslavian red butterhead lettuce grown last spring.
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We decorate liberally with poinsettias at my house. They are bright, festive and easy to maintain. We place the potted Christmas flowers inside and out. For the second year in a row, I used poinsettias as the focal point of a Christmas flower arrangement that welcomes visitors to my front courtyard. However, I made a nice switch with one of the complementary flowers and I like it even more.
Out with Dusty Miller. In with snow cap Asian jasmine. Yes, jasmine is typically a ground cover, but it works in this dish garden arrangement. I loved the pink, white and green flowers spilling out of the terra cotta platters. I alternated them with sweet alyssum to fill out the dish gardens.
Last year’s arrangement: Poinsettia dish garden with Dusty Miller and sweet alyssum.
For complete instructions on how to make the holiday flower arrangement, check last year’s post and substitute the jasmine for the Dusty Millers. And don’t hesitate to look for other creative matches. For best results, stick to these simple design rules when choosing flowers:
- Choose one plant with height — it’s your drama plant
- Choose one plant that spills out of your container
- Choose another plant that fills in the spaces in between your tall plant and spiller
- Choose a variety of leaf textures and complementary colors
- When you’re shopping for the plants, arrange them together to see if you like the combination before buying them.
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