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Barefoot and Dirty

Making Gardening a Social Event

We work our gardens every year, toiling in the soil, getting dirty and hot and sweaty. Sometimes our spouses or children help, but we are often alone with our thoughts. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and gives us plenty of time to think about things that we need to think about, it does seem to be an anti-social kind of hobby at times. Yes, there are the garden clubs, but anymore, those are often conducted online with infrequent meetings and potluck suppers. That’s why I’m not a member of any garden clubs. Seed swaps are also conducted online, and again, that’s okay. However, if there’s one thing gardeners love to do, it’s talk about their gardens. We love talking about plants, showing off plants, sharing plants. One thing you can say about gardeners is that we are a generous lot. “Oh, you love my daylilies? Here…I’ll dig you up a division to take home.” “My pride of Barbados is really beautiful this year. Want some seeds?” “How do I grow such big, beautiful roses? Well, bury a banana peel and some crushed eggshells at the base of it.” We love to share and we love to help.

In days gone by, neighbors would discuss their gardens and share their knowledge over the garden fence. In this day and age, however, we don’t often know our neighbors in the city, and we live too far away from our neighbors in the country. That’s just the way it is. Socializing is done much too often by way of social media. I’m not saying social media is bad, but I do think it is used too often to replace true socializing. There are different ways to make gardening a social event, however. Here are some of my favorites:

Garden Swaps

A garden swap is just that, an event where gardeners with excess plant material can make trades. It can be as small or large as you like. Basically, it’s a garden-themed party. It’s quite simple to put one together and it’s a great way to make new gardening friends in your area. Fall or spring are really good times for one of these parties. People are cleaning up their gardens, dividing perennials, pruning plants, collecting seeds. They all have extras to share. Set up a time and date, print out invitations or flyers (depending on how large an event you want to have), and get the word out. The only conditions are that everyone must bring a snack of some kind and anyone with garden treasures to share gets to make trades. Set up a large table to hold the trade goods and have everyone sign in with what they have to trade and how many of each. If you bring three items to trade, you can go home with three new treasures for your garden. Having something to trade isn’t required. Often there are new gardeners that have nothing, but can certainly learn plenty from gardening veterans. Some are just looking for new gardening friends. If there do happen to be extras left over after the trading is complete, they can be divided among the new gardeners. For someone like me, someone who loves growing exotic plants from seed, it’s easy to just plant lots of seeds, pot up the seedlings, and give them as party favors to everyone who shows up. That way, no one goes home empty-handed.

Canning Parties

Canning parties are an awesome way to get help with putting up produce at the end of the season. These are another easy way to make a time-consuming chore a social event. Again, it’s simple to put one of these together. Find someone to host it who has the kitchen space. Set a time and date. Post the information. I find it’s easier to limit the number of participants in this one due to kitchen constraints. The rules are simple. Everyone brings a snack. Everyone brings the ingredients (homegrown or store-bought) and jars to make a set number of jars of one thing, such as a dozen jars of jelly or relish. If you bring enough to make extra jars, that’s fine, too. Once everyone has arrived, pour the wine, pass the snacks, and start chopping. At the end of the day, everyone should have at least one jar of each thing that was made. This is a good way to avoid having 3 dozen jars of mint jelly in your pantry (Been there, done that, the struggle is very real.). You’re trading for a variety of other things, plus you get all kinds of new recipes and ideas for next year’s garden. Not only that, but with several hands working together, the work goes much faster and much more pleasantly (Okay, the wine might help a little, too.).

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A variety of canned goods, including applesauce, dilly beans, greens, pickled beets, Asian preserved radishes, and spicy carrots.

Community Gardens

Living in a rural area as I do, I don’t have the option to participate in a community garden, but for those who live in urban settings, a community garden is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get out and meet others in your community, but it’s also a great way to pass on the love of gardening to children who might not have the opportunity to experience such a thing otherwise. Community gardens are an excellent way to bring people together, young and old, in a peaceful setting to enjoy nature and food fresh from the earth. As I stated, often people living within the big city don’t get to know their neighbors, but working in a community garden allows for neighbors to work together.

Horticultural Therapy

No, I’m not suggesting that everyone should get a therapist’s license, but often, places that provide horticultural therapy for senior citizens or individuals with disabilities do need volunteers. Horticulture is used with these individuals to provide various benefits: a sensory garden for those with disabilities, opportunities to practice both gross and fine motor skills for those that need to work on those areas, or simply providing a useful and marketable skill to help those with disabilities to become more independent and self-sufficient. Imagine the confidence boost for a disabled adult who can now provide food for himself and his loved ones! These institutions can always use volunteers to help with the day-to-day chores involved in such an operation, and as someone who worked with individuals with autism and other disabilities for years, I can honestly say that this is a rewarding and enjoyable way for a gardener to spend their time and pass on their knowledge.

Erikas Flowers

Floral design is a great way to work on fine motor skills for those with arthritis.

These are just a couple of ideas. Of course, you can always form your own garden club with your own rules, etc., but if you simply don’t have that kind of time, these ideas might be a good alternative. Enjoy yourself and your garden, and if you have any other ideas, please don’t hesitate to share! I always love talking gardening and plants, so contact me at firegoddess1970@yahoo.com!

Hobby Gardens

There are as many reasons to garden as there are gardeners. Sure, everyone knows food gardening. Flower gardening and herb gardening are the other most popular forms of gardening. I engage in all three. However, there are other types of gardens, as well. I like to grow small gardens to support my hobbies. In my bid to become more sustainable, I try to produce as much of the things we need as possible. It’s also a good way to use that Master’s degree I paid for so dearly! I realize that not everyone has unlimited gardening space, but oftentimes the plants we use in our arts and crafts are perfectly suitable to mingle with the flowers in your front yard or the vegetables in your kitchen garden. Plus, you don’t have to have a degree in horticulture to grow plants. Many of the plants that are used for crafts are easily grown.

Everyone in my family is an artist of some kind. My son writes. My daughter draws and paints and has done some floral arranging. My husband carves and builds. I draw, sew, embroider, press flowers and leaves, and engage in herbalism in various aspects. I sew dolls, both fancy and primitive, and clothes for the family. I’m that person who goes shopping and rarely buys anything because my standard reaction is “oh, I can make that myself”. In order to keep myself in craft supplies without emptying the bank account, I’ve learned to grow many of my supplies.

My daughter and I both have very sensitive skin, so I make soaps and lotions that are gentle enough for us to safely use. For that, I grow many herbs that condition the skin, such as rose, calendula, chamomile, aloe and elder. I also grow many flowers and herbs for their fragrance since we also avoid synthetic perfumes. Jasmine, rose, magnolia, and mint are just a few of the plants that provide wonderful fragrance for soaps and lotions. I have a small copper alembic still that I use to distill hydrosols (floral waters) from many of my plants. I’m working on distilling my own essential oils, but haven’t quite mastered that one, yet. I continue to persevere, though! The mint plant currently engulfing my back porch provides a great deal of material with which to experiment (If anybody needs mint plants, feel free to email me. I can hook you up!). It is to this end that I grow a great deal of aloe. With our brutal sun, burns are common occurrences. Soap enriched with aloe is just the thing to take away the burn.

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Night-Blooming Jasmine

We also prefer herbal medicines. Of course, here’s my disclaimer: ALWAYS seek professional medical help for serious ailments and injuries! For insect stings, abrasions, burns, coughs, etcetera, however, we stick to our herbal concoctions. My son likes to tease and refer to them as my “magic potions”. He says they work like magic, so it must be witchcraft. For my “potions”, I grow plants such as yarrow, aloe, comfrey, lavender, mint, the plantain from my vegetable garden (see my previous post on weeds), echinacea, fennel, and a host of others. Of course, many of my “hobby” plants are upstanding members of the vegetable garden or flower gardens, etc. My gardens are often intermingled and multi-purpose. Calendulas and yarrow are easy to slip in among the flowers in the front flower beds, as are purple coneflowers and lavender, leaving room in the herb garden for other plants.

My husband has recently developed an interest in brewing his own ale. I’m currently in the process of designing a new garden to support that hobby. That one will include hops (of course!), grains such as barley, and a variety of herbs like angelica, mint, and caraway. He likes Strega, an herbal liqueur, so I’m currently researching the herbs used to make it to see if I can incorporate them into his garden, as well. We already grow wheat in our vegetable garden, so he can use that for his brewing, too, as well as many of our fruits and vegetables.

I’ve begun looking into dyeing my own fabrics for some of my dolls. Yes, I use tea already, but I want to try dyeing some homespun and muslin for some of my old-fashioned dolls. I set aside a small little plot in our yard and did some research to decide which plants I wanted to try. One of the plants that I wanted for yellow dye was turmeric. It is a plant that I know will grow here and it was listed as one that was good for beginners in dyeing. I took a small section of turmeric root, cut it into sections and potted them up. I now have 6 healthy little turmeric plants waiting to be transplanted. The best part is that these plants will yield supplies for my dyeing experiments, but will also yield food for the kitchen. I have several packets of seeds for various dye plants, such as true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), hopi dye sunflowers, and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) waiting to be planted in the spring. Of course, the beets and purple carrots in my vegetable garden will work for dyeing fabric, as well.

My flower gardens provide many beautiful specimens for my daughter to use in her floral design, not to mention plenty of subjects for her drawing and painting, as well as my drawing and photography. They also provide plenty of material to fill my flower press.

These are just some of the gardens I grow to support our hobbies. There are so many hobbies that can be enjoyed with homegrown supplies. A weaver’s garden can include flax and cotton. Cotton actually grows in more than just white. We experimented with a pale green cotton this summer that was just lovely. Take it a bit further and include dye plants, such as indigo, goldenrod, turmeric, madder and sunflowers, to name only a few. For those who enjoy basket-weaving, a garden full of various ornamental grasses and reeds is a simple project that can yield a myriad of supplies and still provide a lovely addition to the landscape. Wheat would be a perfect example of a plant that can be grown for both crafts and food. For those who press and dry flowers, a garden is a place to grow all kinds of plants that will provide lovely colors and textures for your art. The list is endless.

The point is that there is no need to make gardening separate from your other hobbies. Yes, gardening can save money at the grocery store, but it can also save you quite a bit at the craft store, as well. It is also a nice way to try new plants for your gardens. Besides, the fragrance from herbs hung to dry is absolutely amazing! Another great reason is the satisfaction of knowing where your supplies come from and how they were grown. So, if gardening is a hobby you happen to enjoy, take a look at your other activities. Do any of them use plant materials? If so, think about growing your own. Many plants that seem difficult are actually quite easy to grow and can fit in nicely with any flower bed arrangement. It’s a great way to experiment, and you may find new garden plants that you absolutely love or discover new aspects of old favorites (who knew aloe vera flowers were so lovely?).

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Aloe in full bloom

This is the hand cream I use after gardening. It works miracles and smells like my summer roses.

Gardener’s Hand Cream

Makes 3 oz.

Ingredients:

• 1-1/2 tsp. cocoa butter
• 1 tsp. grated beeswax
• 1 tbsp. almond oil
• 3 tbsp. rose water
• 2 tsp. emulsifying wax
• 10 drops rose oil

Directions: Melt cocoa butter, beeswax, and almond oil in a double boiler. Remove from heat. Warm rose water and emulsifying wax slowly until wax has melted. Whisk rose water mixture into the cocoa butter mixture very slowly and continue whisking until the cream cools. Add rose oil and stir. Store in a sterilized jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator.

The Winter Garden

As Halloween draws near and nights get cooler, the time to plant our winter garden grows closer. Here on the coast, winter is when we grow the crops that the rest of the country grows in early spring. Snow peas, sugar snaps, brassicas, lettuce and greens…all are winter crops here. We don’t experience any hard freezes, so our garden continues producing a variety of yummy treats all year.

One project that my husband and I enjoy every winter is our Asian food garden. My son loves Chinese food, so that’s the only garden that excites him. Many Asian vegetables are perfect for cooler weather gardening. In the winter, we grow napa cabbage, bok choy, snow peas, and Thai basil, among others, and one year, we even experimented with button mushrooms (which did quite well and which we will expand upon this winter). My husband was stationed in Japan in the Marines and developed a taste for Japanese food. Udon and soba noodles are a staple in our house, so we like to grow the vegetables to go with them. My recipe for vegetable lo mein follows.

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We also grow our root vegetables such as turnips, beets, carrots and radishes during the winter. We do like a variety of root vegetables. These keep company with lettuce and mustard greens, arugula and winter wheat. Citrus trees can produce all year, so our key lime and meyer lemon do their part. I also typically plant herbs that like cooler temperatures, such as cilantro.

Various greens provide a fresh addition to our winter menus, as well. We grow lettuce, kale, various salad greens, and mustard greens in our winter garden. My husband absolutely love greens, and they can well. A quick and easy lunch is a jar of mustard greens sauteed with onions and bacon.

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Winter gardening, for us, is a particular pleasure. Winter is a rainy season, so we don’t have to haul water to thirsty plants. The soil is moist and pliable instead of hard and cracked. Temperatures are lower, so we can garden into the afternoon without risk of heatstroke (I’m actually being serious this time. It’s a real danger here in the afternoon.). Besides, it’s really nice to go out and cut a fresh salad to accompany Thanksgiving dinner.

Our winter season is short, so we preserve as much as we can during that time. Brassicas begin bolting in early March. Besides, bringing in a big harvest and firing up the stove to can it all is a good way to warm up the kitchen! We all have our favorites. My husband loves bread & butter cauliflower and pickled beets. My daughter likes carrots and salad. My favorite is fresh cilantro chopped up on top of tacos and taco salads. We all love chicken and root veggie casserole. The recipe follows.

This year, we plan to build a cover for our pepper bed to try and overwinter our pepper plants. In their native habitats, peppers can be grown as tender perennials, so we decided to try it for ourselves. It would certainly save time when we start planting our spring garden. We are also planning to try to get another harvest of quick-growing summer squash before the winter weather comes since we are having an unusually warm fall.

So, while the rest of country watches the snow fall and thumbs through seed catalogs, we’re putting on our jackets and heading out to garden. The season is short and we like to make the best of it.

What kind of crops do you like to put in your fall and/or winter garden? I'd love to hear about your garden adventures! firegoddess1970@yahoo.com


Chicken and Root Vegetables

Serves 4

Ingredients:

• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 boneless chicken breasts, chopped
• 4 large potatoes, chopped
• 4 parsnips, sliced
• 4 large carrots, sliced
• 2 turnips, chopped
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 8 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
• 2 tsp. chopped fresh basil
• 2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
• 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme

Mix all ingredients in a large casserole dish and toss to coat everything evenly. Cover and bake at 400 degrees until chicken is cooked through and vegetables are fork-tender, between 30 and 45 minutes. Good to prepare ahead of time and freeze for later.

Vegetable Lo Mein

Serves 4

Ingredients:

• 12 oz. lo mein noodles, or any thin Chinese egg noodles
• 2 tbsp. sesame oil
• 3 tbsp. soy sauce
• 1-1/2 tbsp. oyster sauce
• 1-1/2 tbsp. Chinese rice wine
• 1-1/2 tsp. honey
• 1 tbsp. peanut oil
• 1-1/2 tsp. minced garlic
• 1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
• 3 green onions, sliced
• 6-8 fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
• 1 medium head of napa cabbage, shredded
• 8 oz. fresh snow peas, trimmed

1. Prepare noodles according to directions on package until al dente. Drain noodles and rinse under cold water. Drain again, shaking off all excess water. Return noodles to pot and toss with sesame oil until well coated. Set aside.

2. In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine, and honey. Mix well, and set aside.

3. Heat wok over high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Add peanut oil. Add garlic, ginger and green onions. Stir-fry about 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add cabbage and stir-fry until wilted, about 3-4 minutes.

4. Add noodles, sauce and snow peas and toss well. Cook, stirring, until peas are bright green but still crisp, and everything is heated through. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

Garden Envy Led to a Thriving Tropical Paradise

Sherry SmithI’ve always loved the traditional cottage gardens. Tall, stately hollyhocks surrounded with mounds of sweet Shasta daisies filled with a profusion of flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds flitting among roses and phlox, bees buzzing through lilacs. It all seems so peaceful and relaxing, not to mention beautiful beyond compare. I’ve always wanted such a paradise in my own yard.

I have friends all over the United States, and they all share lovely photos of their pretty blossoms on Facebook. Yes, I admit to a touch of garden envy. So many of them can grow beautiful foxgloves and peonies in their yards with little to no effort. I, on the other hand, live in an area where cottage garden flowers generally die an agonizing death, either by burning up in our 100+ degree temperatures or rotting away in our 70+ percent humidity. I know. I’ve tried. It’s just heartrending to see what happens to foxgloves here in the subtropics. Let us also not forget that I live on the coast which also comes with its own touch of salinity. I’ve tried growing foxgloves in every way I can imagine. In the sun, they cook. In the shade, they rot. In between, they rot, then cook. It’s not pretty.

All of this said, I still wanted my flowery paradise, a setting where I can sit and drink iced tea and commune with the butterflies and hummingbirds. Here, Shasta daisies will grow in the shade. I can grow my heirloom roses. Hollyhocks will grow here, but rust is a high risk. Phlox doesn’t last long, although Sweet William will grow here. So, I channeled my inner plant nerd and set to work on the problem.

I compiled a list of flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Next, I took that list and crossed off the ones that won’t survive our heat and humidity. That narrowed it down considerably, I must say. My final step was to take out my sketchpad and pencils, sit on my back porch with the ever-present iced tea (This IS the South, after all!), and sketched out a design. Once I had my plans set, the next step was to embrace the heat stroke and start digging. Once it was all said and done, it looked nothing like the cottage garden of my dreams. Instead, I created a tropical paradise that invites just as many butterflies and hummingbirds as any cottage garden. As an added benefit, I get to enjoy the heavy perfumes of tropical beauties like gardenia, jasmine, magnolia, almond verbena and roses.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus

Pride of Barbados, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, attracts both hummingbirds and butterflies by the hundreds. Butterfly flowers, Asclepias tuberosa, provide a splash of color as well as a magnet for more butterflies. An almond verbena tree, Aloysia virgata, coupled with Plumeria are definitely suitably fragrant and beautiful substitutes for lilacs. Bird of paradise, Strelitzia reginae, is a dramatic eye catcher in the garden. Hibiscus flowers come in all different colors. The creamy white jasmine and gardenias glow in the moonlight. White needle flowers, Augusta rivalis, are another beautiful addition. Ornamental ginger plants and colorful pentas provide splashes of color and texture. Bare spots are filled with cheerful zinnias and marigolds. Tiny little rain lilies, Zephyranthes spp, add a blooming carpet around them all. Cheerful geraniums, impatiens, and begonias fill pots and barrels in the shade of the porch and are tender perennials here where we don’t get any freezes. Jungle geranium, Ixora coccinea, is a lovely evergreen shrub that also attracts butterflies. Passionflowers, Passiflora incarnata, provide a lovely climbing habitat for the Gulf fritillary butterfly which feeds exclusively on Passiflora species.

Passionflower

Passionflower

So, I don’t have a cottage garden, but I do have a tropical paradise where butterflies and hummingbirds are perfectly happy to linger awhile and keep me company when I choose to take my tea out to the porch and enjoy the fragrances of the tropics. When my friends send me pictures of their foxgloves, yes, I get a little envious twinge, but I immediately respond with a picture of my hibiscus. I might also be guilty of sending them pictures of my flowers in full bloom while their cottage gardens are buried under a few inches of snow, but I plead the fifth …

Weeds, Celebrities ... or Something Else Entirely?

Sherry SmithSeptember has begun. The rains are back. Here on the coast, temperatures are still soaring and the humidity is absolutely spirit-crushing. All that said, fall gardening is upon us. My husband and I have planned our fall garden, and have begun work on clearing out the garden beds and building back up the soil. Plant nerd that I am, I love growing things. I love getting dirty. I love the smell of freshly turned soil. I do not, however, love weeding.

Weeding here means sitting in full sun, completely coated in mosquito repellant (which the vampiric pterodactyls largely ignore), in wet clothes, while sweat pours down your body. If this isn’t pleasant enough, we seem to be quite gifted at growing weeds and I do believe some of ours are rooted all the way down to China. I sometimes get visions of myself on one end and a lady in a conical hat (I want one of those!) on the other end having a grand tug of war. My mind tends to wander while weeding.

While earning my Masters in horticulture, I took various classes on weed science. What I learned is that I have the distinction of being able to say that I happen to be harboring an international celebrity in my garden: Cyperus rotundus, otherwise known as purple nutsedge. This lovely individual is affectionately known as “the world’s worst weed”. On lists of noxious weeds worldwide, it comes in at number 1. Go me! This plant is known as an invasive from more countries than any other plant in the world and is known to infest at least 52 different crops around the world. My crops are among those 52. Hey, if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it big! At the time I learned all this, I asked my professor what my odds are of uninviting this international celebrity. He asked how I was treating it. I responded that we hand-pulled our weeds. He cheerfully informed me that in another 15 years, barring new infestations via wind, animals, etc., we should be free. Well, at least it wasn’t hopeless, right?

Nutsedge

Cyperus rotundus “Purple nutsedge”

Another of our friends is Oxalis articulate, also known as pink sorrel. Here in Galveston County, we go from spring floods to summer drought to fall rains. After the rains, the pink sorrel appears as if by magic overnight. We have a rock garden in one corner of the front yard in which I grow desert plants such as aloe, dragonfruit and yucca. After a rain, the entire rock garden is full of pink sorrel. We pull out hundreds of them, but the next storm brings thousands more.

The third on my list is Plantago major, commonly called broadleaf plantain. This beauty grows rampant in our vegetable garden. It is well-established and every year the colony grows larger. This past spring, my husband came inside the house and got a drink. He had a peculiar expression on his face. When I asked what was wrong, he told me our spinach mustard tasted terrible. I told him we had already harvested all of that. He begged to differ, claiming that he had just eaten a big leaf of it. I asked him to show me, and sure enough, he had eaten a leaf of plantain (important lesson to be learned: be sure of the identity of any plant before consuming it). Apparently, the taste leaves something to be desired.

So, I hate weeding. I have tons of weeds. We have super-weeds. It doesn’t get cold enough to kill them off. Landscape fabrics are highly not recommended for use here as they just provide our weeds something to anchor themselves onto. We don’t like to use herbicides on our property. I had to get creative when dealing with weeds.

My passion is ethnobotany. When I curl up with a titillating book, it’s generally something along the lines of Medieval English Gardens. I decided to figure out how to deal with my weeds. Well, plantain is highly medicinal. It has expectorant qualities, tones the mucous membranes, is good to treat catarrh (mucous buildup in the throat and nose), antispasmodic, is topically healing, and is good for use on insect bites and stings. Okay. I can work with that. I now have an herbal salve that I make that incorporates plantain. I let it grow in one corner of my vegetable garden undisturbed and harvest it each spring for medical applications.

Next, I looked into the sorrel. Well, how awesome! It’s edible. It has a tangy citrus flavor. It is high in oxalic acid, but taken in moderation can be enjoyed in salads. It can also be cooked, which is said to neutralize the oxalic acid. Okay. It can stay. It does have pretty pink flowers, so it’s not an eyesore or anything. It can keep my aloe and agave company.

Sorrel

Oxalis articulate “pink sorrel”

Last, I looked into my resident celebrity: the purple nutsedge. I discovered that humans and purple nutsedge go way back … to the cave people, actually. The tuber is used in ayurvedic medicine for digestive issues, and the essential oil of the tuber is used heavily in the perfume industry and is a painkiller. The tuber is also used to treat depression (Oh, the irony! Having to pull it every day was depressing me!). I’ll use the tubers I yank out of the ground to treat the depression caused by having to pull thousands of them.

So, I’ve learned to look at those plants that pop up all over my yard and gardens in a different light. Instead of asking “Just how hard is it going to be to pull you up?”, I now ask “So, just what can I do with you?”

The Fall Garden, Affectionately Known As "Summer Garden, the Sequel"

Sherry SmithHere it is, the end of summer. My daughter is back to her college classes, and the tropical storms are moving through. The flooding rains have returned, bringing relief to the poor pepper plants I’ve been nursing through the soul-searing heat of summer. Our vegetable garden consists of 4 raised beds that each measure 4 x 8 feet, 1 large raised bed that measures 12 x 32 feet, plus some large pots in which we grow cherry tomatoes. One of our smaller beds is planted with a variety of chiles. We have jalapeños, ghost chiles, island hellfires, brain strains, serranoes, habaneros, and Brazilian rainbow chiles. It’s all about the chiles here. Of course we grow sweet peppers, too, but we do love our homemade salsa (I’ve included a recipe for ghost chili wing sauce below). While peppers love long hot summers, they tend to slow production during the soul-searing heat of our summers. We get early summer harvests, followed by a handful of peppers here and there, followed by a heavier fall harvest … if the poor plants don’t burn.

While a good portion of the country is busy preserving their summer harvest, we are planning our fall garden. With the benefit of being able to garden year-round, we actually have 4 gardens per year, one for each season. Right now, we’re beginning preparations for our fall garden. Obviously, anyone can grow a fall garden, but ours is just a second summer garden. We don’t experience any frosts until late November, if any at all before our bout of winter weather begins at the end of January, so we grow a second summer garden. We’ve filled our pantry with jams, jellies, preserves, tomato sauce, salsa, pickles, relishes, and tomatoes with chiles. Our freezer is stocked with corn, green beans, Southern peas, and pumpkin purée (can’t wait for holiday baking season!). The onions and garlic are cured and put away. We’re cleaning out the garden beds between storms, chopping up plants to work back into the soil. While the rain comes down, we sit down and plan our next garden.

Jars

Summer 2016 harvest

My husband and I work as a team. He claims I’m the expert while he’s the manual labor. Don’t believe it, though. My version is a little closer to reality. I’m the dreamer, and he’s the realist. The problem with planning a garden with a horticulture major (plant nerd!) is that I want to grow EVERYTHING! His job is to keep me in check. As for the manual labor, I’d say that’s both of us, equally. I haul rocks and dirt just as much as he does. In any case, seed catalogs are my favorite mail, aside from the seeds themselves. Our planning sessions are usually quite entertaining. First, we make a list of the things we want to grow. Next, we look at various varieties of those crops and see how many days to harvest. If it’s less than 90 days, we’re good. We plant our fall garden in September and our winter garden in December … 90 days. So, once we pick out the varieties we want to grow, we decide where we’ll plant them. We use a modified version of square-foot gardening, so I have an excel spreadsheet with our garden beds blocked out on it. We use that as a planning diagram.

Once we have everything plotted out, I begin leafing through the catalogs. That’s when we have issues. It usually goes something like this:

Me: Oooh, ground cherries are less than 90 days. Let’s grow them.
Him: What’s a ground cherry?
Me: It’s a fruit.
Him: What does it taste like?
Me: I don’t know.
Him: Then why would we grow it?
Me: Why not?
Him: What would we do with it?
Me: I’ll figure something out.
Him: What if we don’t like them?
Me: The chickens will be happy.

As I said, I’m the dreamer who wants to grow everything, and he’s the voice of reason. We’ve learned to compromise. I’m allowed to grow one, maybe two, experimental crops per season, and we have to agree upon them.

So, we’ve planned our fall garden, we’ve got the diagram printed out, and we’ve agreed on the crops. We’ve decided to grow white Sonoran wheat, red ripper cowpeas, burgundy pole beans, scarlet runner beans, bush beans, yellow straightneck squash, zucchini, bush pickles (yes, the ones from my previous blog post. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!), Mexican sour gherkins, ground cherries (I won that one!), cilantro, and determinate early tomatoes. We’ll also get our garlic and onions started for next year and the snow peas started for winter, and we still have our pepper bed. Our experimental crops are Mayo Indian amaranth and, of course, the ground cherries (Cossack Pineapple). Now, we just have to wait for the rain to stop so we can go enjoy our gardening adventures in the spirit-crushing humidity left behind. At least our rain barrels are all full, it’s not over 100 degrees anymore, and I get to be barefoot and dirty outside again.

Chart

Garden Diagram, Fall 2016

Ghost Chili Wing Sauce

Ingredients:

• 1 teaspoon vegetable or olive oil
• 1/2 cup minced onion
• 1/4 cup minced fresh chile peppers (I use serranos)
• 6 ghost chilies, minced
• 6 cloves fresh garlic, minced
• 2 cups water
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 cup white vinegar

Directions:

1. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, cook onion, fresh chiles, ghost chilies and garlic in oil until onions are translucent, about 4 minutes.
2. Add remaining ingredients, except vinegar, to saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring often.
3. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
4. Pour saucepan contents into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
5. Add vinegar to mixture. Blend until combined.
6. Pour mixture into a sterilized jar with a lid.
7. Will keep in the refrigerator for 1 year.

"You Can't Grow That There!"

Sherry SmithLiving on the Gulf Coast, in the subtropical zone 9, I am constantly told that I can’t grow various things. The horticulture major side of me just nods and smiles, the plant nerd side of me says “but I want to try anyway”, and the redhead side of me says “just watch me!” The fact is, gardeners know about the heat zone map, minimum and maximum temperatures and the necessary number of chill hours for various crops. What many gardeners, particularly beginners, don’t know is that these factors are more like guidelines than hard and fast rules.

My husband loves blueberries. I personally have a fondness for warm blueberry muffins fresh from the oven. We are all quite fond of homemade blueberry jelly. Store bought blueberries are nice, but nothing compares to fat ripe blueberries picked at their peak. Living in an area that is more predisposed to growing citrus and bananas, blueberries seem like an impossible dream. I, however, believe that nothing is impossible.

When I first started looking into planting blueberries, I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t possible. Our summers are too brutal. Our soil is too alkaline. Our winters are too mild. I’ve never dealt well with being told that I can’t do something. My father always said it was my red hair. Whatever the case, I saw blueberry bushes for sale and I was determined to try.

Winter before last, I did my research. I discovered there are different types of blueberries. Rabbiteyes (Vaccinium ashei) grow in the south. Awesome. I continued my research. They require a soil pH of 4.0-5.5. Okay. I can mix my own soil. They require at least half a day of full sun. Cool. I can do that. Irrigation water should have little to no calcium bicarbonate, so tap water isn’t healthy for them. No problem. We harvest rainwater. I can use that to water them. Blueberries have shallow fibrous roots. Again, no problem. I mulch everything anyway because of our summer droughts. So my project began.

Building a raised bed

Building the blueberry bed

I decided it was best to get our bushes planted in late winter. As February came to a close, and March settled in, we got to work. To begin, we chose a location. The spot we chose was a protected area against the house where the plants will get full sun all morning up until late afternoon, when temperatures soar. The house also provides protection against our tropical storms and high winds. My husband built me a raised bed approximately 2 x 4 x 2.5 feet deep. We mixed our own soil to fill it, a combination of peat moss, coconut coir and a pine bark-based potting mix. Once the box was filled, we chose our blueberry plants. At this point, I researched available varieties to see which ones could likely survive our area. We decided on ‘Climax’ and ‘Premier’. My husband also decided we needed to get ‘Pink Lemonade’ because he liked the name (he’s scientific that way). We planted our little bare root plants in their new home and mulched them thickly with a layer of pine needles about 3 inches thick. We fertilize with aluminum sulfate in low doses twice per year. Our little plants leafed out and grew, and even produced a handful of flowers which weren’t allowed to produce fruit (Our hens took care of that for us. They are no longer allowed near the blueberry box unsupervised.) Still, the doubters continued to doubt.

Well, here it is a year and a half later, and our blueberries are happy as can be. We even got a small harvest of big fat berries this spring (which didn’t last long enough to even make it inside the house). They have grown, branched out, and are even providing a small splash of fall color with the leaves turning red as August prepares to give way to September. Next year, I hope for an even bigger harvest (I still can’t guarantee they’ll make it inside).

Blueberry

Our first berry

With a little research, knowledge, and careful construction of a microclimate conducive to blueberry growth, we have done the supposed “impossible”: grow blueberries in the subtropics. While I realize that I haven’t truly performed an impossible task, I do feel that my success is a good example of why it is important to think outside the box and not necessarily look at generally accepted truths as hard and fast rules that cannot be bent a little. Grow what you love. If you live an area unconducive to growing what you love, then do some research. Look at things a little differently. Take each factor as a single obstacle to be addressed. If you live in the north but love mangoes, fine. Grow your tree in a container that can be moved inside over the winter. If you live in the south and love blueberries … well, you know. The point to gardening is to grow healthy, tasty food for your family. If you’re going to put in the work to garden in the first place, you might as well grow your favorites. As for me, I think I shall grow apples. I can’t grow apples here? Hmm, we shall see about that …