I read a lot of gardening magazines and shake my head at some of their suggestions for garden gifts. Who knew you needed 20 tools to plant veggies? The fact is you don’t. I have survived and thrived with a spade, shovel and trowel for years. But I do have 7 gift ideas for gardeners that I bet they would use:
1. Compost bins — This is the most practical gift you can get a gardener. I started with one and now have three. My first bin was a hard plastic snap-together contraption that took 5 minutes to assemble. It served me well for a year. As my garden beds multiplied I needed more compost so I added a two-bin “tumbler” system. It’s easier to turn over the contents to give the decomposing pile the oxygen it needs. No pitchfork needed! (Click here for how to make compost.)
2. Potting bench — Styles vary from the practical cedar bench to an old bureau that you find in an antique store. You want it to be a comfortable height for working standing up. Mine has a few drawers, a top shelf and a bottom shelf. I use it for potting plants, of course. It beats stooping over pots on the ground.
3. Trellis — These also come in many styles and can double as an art piece in your garden or along a walkway. My favorite trellis is a five-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. It looks smashing with spring peas growing through the metal girders. Flat trellises are best for gardeners who are tight on space. It allows her to grow peas, beans, squash and cucumbers vertically to maximize garden space.
Do you want to start gardening but think you don’t have time? People ask me how I grow my own food when I have a full-time job and a social life. I fit gardening into my weekend routine and spend as little or as much time as I have. Over time I have developed routines that save time. Here are my best tips for starting a vegetable garden and keeping it manageable.
1. Start small. Pick a couple of vegetables that you like to eat or want to try. Your garden center will carry plants appropriate for the season and region. Don’t hesitate to ask the garden workers there for advice on what to plant or consult planting guides online. The University of Florida or county agricultural extension office are good resources. Plant about six of each vegetable to ensure you have enough to put on the table at dinnertime. Don’t feel pressured to plant everything. Start with a few varieties and expand your garden as your confidence grows.
Spinach and onions
Florida ideas for winter include dark green vegetables such as broccoli, collard greens, kale and spinach; alliums such as onions, shallots and garlic; broccoli, kohlrabi, lettuce, radicchio, cauliflower, mustard greens, carrots, rhubarb and strawberries.
Final score on my winter squash: Squirrels 30, Julie 0. They simply outsmarted me on my own gardening turf and left me nothing. I ripped out the productive vine Saturday and conceded defeat.
It could have been glorious. I let this squash plant travel everywhere. The vine intertwined with my tomatoes, peppers, beans and on top of a rosemary bush. It spilled out of the raised bed and onto the pergola floor nearby. I was lenient with it because every few feet it produced dark green gourds. They were going to be a Thanksgiving side.
The first sign of mischief was early fall. The first squash had a bite taken out of it. The squirrel didn’t bother to take it away; just bit a chunk and left it on the vine. Then I found half-eaten squashes around the garden beds. I responded by lifting the vines off the ground with hooked stakes to make it hard for the thieves to reach them. I rationalized that if I could get just a few whole squashes, it would be worthwhile. Surely, I could save a few.
My husband Lars urged me to give it up. The plant had so overtaken the garden that it looked messy. It attracted a snake. Now we had to watch where we stepped. I’m scared of snakes, but I wasn’t ready to concede.
Every season I grow at least one new vegetable. This fall it was heirloom peas, Texas cream peas to be exact. My mother remembers her family growing them in nearby Sanford, Fla., so I figured the growing conditions favored them. I have had mixed results with heirloom vegetables, but she declared these peas grew like crazy. I wanted to try.
After finding the seeds at victoryseeds.com, I planted three rows of six in late August in a backyard raised bed. My goal was to harvest them in time for Thanksgiving dinner and serve them to my mom. With that in mind, I took extra care to get them to the table.
When I planted the seeds, the weather was 95 degrees. I kept the soil moist with water until they sprouted. Once they grew to a few inches, I protected the tender pea shoots with bird netting until they were established. I didn’t want squirrels or rabbits to snack on them. Once they grew to five inches or so I gave them poles to climb. By October the peas started to come out in bunches.
My Florida fall garden won’t truly get under way until daytime temps drop out of the high 80s. Still, my raised beds and garden landscape are producing fruits, vegetables and herbs for the table. I bide my time waiting for temperatures to drop 10 degrees for winter vegetable planting.
Texas cream peas are starting to produce pea pods.
So what’s growing in the garden in October? In the raised beds in the back yard, I have Texas cream peas, Juliet hybrid grape tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, golden bell peppers, mystery squash, buttercrunch and red sails lettuce, radicchio, romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, Malabar spinach, dill, basil, parsley, rosemary and lemongrass.
Buttercrunch lettuce and radicchio in the front, basil, parsley and red sails lettuce in back.
Acorn squash? The plant from compost will reveal itself soon.
Southern heirloom Texas cream peas sprout a week after planting.
For Floridians sweating in 95-degree heat, it takes an act of faith to plant a fall vegetable garden now. However, early September is the time to plant your garden beds with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, peas, beans, cucumbers and corn. It is also time to refresh your herb garden and start cooler weather plants from seeds.
However, before planting I tend to my soil. My compost bins have been converting yard trash and kitchen scraps at an amazing clip this summer. If you don’t compost yet, here are 5 steps for getting started. Garden centers also sell it, but I prefer to make my own compost to reduce waste. Last week I worked a bin’s worth of compost into the soil, loosening my planting area to give roots an easy path.
I have been planting a few vegetables a week, slowly clearing out the summer crop of Malabar spinach that overtook my raised beds. Last week I direct sowed Texas cream peas. It is a Southern bush pea that my mother’s family grew. Although I had to hunt for the seeds, I found them online at victoryseeds.com, and bought enough to share with my mother and another Southerner who appreciates heirlooms. The plants are already showing in the garden. I had to water them almost every day for a week to make sure they germinated in the high heat.
Swiss chard claims a partially shaded spot in the raised bed.
I saved money and made my own organic pesticide for my vegetable garden. It uses onion and garlic peels as its base, which are known as natural insect repellents. But before you think — ah, I can use this to keep mosquitoes off my kids, too — take a whiff. This spray has an odor.
I saved onion and garlic peels in a quart-sized plastic bag in the fridge until the bag was full. I dumped the scraps into a bucket and filled it halfway with water, leaving it on my back porch to steep for a week. In hindsight, I could have cut that short to a few days. But I got busy at work and didn’t have time to finish the process until the weekend.
Most of the year, my grapevines provide shade for my backyard pergola.This month, the vines are also producing ripe grapes. I harvested 3 cups this past week and made muscadine grape jelly.
Muscadine grape vines are a good choice for Floridians who want to create a shady spot in their garden or yard. They are native to the state and grow quickly. I planted six vines standing four feet tall last summer along the pergola posts. The vines went dormant and lost their leaves in the winter but by March they started to green. As they grew, we tied them to the posts and guided the vines through the slatted roof. By late spring, we had shade. By summer, green grape clusters started to appear.
I planted lemongrass several months ago without much purpose. I had a vague notion its flavor and scent could be useful. A recent purchase of heavenly smelling lemongrass eucalyptus soap confirmed that thought. I wanted to learn how to use the plant for my own natural skin care recipes. This weekend I did and made a sugar scrub from scratch.
After researching various extraction methods — one which involves steeping broken stalks in a jar with equal parts Vodka and water for 3 weeks — I chose a quicker method. The following is a hot oil infusion method I found on eHow Health, following with a sugar scrub recipe.
For the lemongrass hot oil infusion you need:
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 lemongrass stalk
- double boiler pot
Nine swallowtail caterpillars are nesting in my fennel. Even though they are eating the fronds, I resisted the urge to pick them off. These future pollinators will transform into black swallowtail butterflies and help my organic garden.
I remember the first time I bought small fennel transplants at an organic nursery. A nursery worker picked up a good-looking plant and handed it to me to inspect. My eyes went straight to a small caterpillar laying in the leaves. I picked it off and flung it. My helper’s jaw dropped but she didn’t say anything. Doubtless, she was following the adage the customer is always right. But no, I was ignorant, thinking it was a “bad” caterpillar. Now I know better.
Fennel, dill, parsley, celery and carrots are host plants for the black swallowtail, according to several sources I consulted (see links below.) They will eat the leaves so you have to want butterflies for pollination and beauty. I am trying to create a natural garden ecology that relies on beneficial insects for pest control and pollination; compost for soil health and chemical-free solutions to keep the plants intact.
The nine caterpillars have taken over two fennel plants in one raised bed. The plants’ fronds are almost stripped bare. Caterpillars have not found my parsley, carrots or fennel plants in another raised bed nearby, and I hope it stays that way.
I will be keeping an eye on the caterpillars’ development into butterflies. They may not all survive the full 4 weeks of development. Their predators include birds and five-striped skinks, which also make their home in my garden. I am content to let nature sort it out.
Other chemical-free solutions: