Saturday, July 28, 2012

Okra swales

I started growing okra a couple of years ago because it does so well in our summer heat. But it does best with some extra irrigation. To make irrigation (over and above the automatic irrigation) easy, I build swales just like I do for squash vines and plant the okra around the edges.

First step in building the mound is to put down a good layer of leaves or other water retaining material, because we have sandy soil. I use compost to form the rest of the mound. I also add kitchen scraps three or four inches under the soil in middle of the swale to add all those micronutrients. I mulch everything with pine needles to keep down the weeds.

The swale arrangement does a good job of capturing rainfall or irrigation water, because the water does not leave the mound. Also, there are fewer problems with weeds outside of the swale areas, because it is drier.

Okra growing around two swales--the far swale is receiving a good dose of rain barrel water.
This year I created a double swale shaped like a squared-off figure 8. I planted two seeds in each of the nine planting holes arranged around the swales. I had to replant three of the locations when the original seeds did not germinate. The newer seedlings caught up quickly and now we're gathering okra most every day and save it in the refrigerator until we have enough for a meal. Yum! There's a jambalaya in our future and then maybe some fried okra.

It's easy to water, as shown in the above photo; I just run the hose from our three elevated rain barrels to each swale and let it run for five to seven minutes while I weed or just enjoy the early morning in the garden with the pollinators.
Four pepper plantings around a swale.
I also plant peppers around a swale with the kitchen scrap compost in the center.  The peppers don't need as much water as the okra, but the swale makes it easier to irrigigate when it's really hot.

A green anole keeps the okra bug-free. That's a good lizard!

The okra flowers are just gorgeous. You can probably see its resemblance to various hibiscus flowers and that's not a coincidence--okra belongs to the mallow family (Malvaceae).

In our upcoming book,"Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida," Melissa and I have arranged the crops by family for easier planning for crop rotation.  The new book will be released in Feb. 2013.

I hope you're having fun with okra this summer.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Monday, July 23, 2012

An early morning garden tour

Just after dawn on Saturday morning in the garden...
A male black swallowtail butterfly looks like a jewel with the early morning sun backlighting his wings.

The same butterfly with the sun at its back. He must have been newly emerged because
he stayed on this grass flower head for a long time.

A female butternut squash flower waiting to be pollinated. A squash flower requires
8 or 9 visits by pollinators before it will set fruit.

This luna moth has been through a lot. Adults live only long enough to have sex and lay eggs.
They have no mouth parts, so their energy comes entirely from their larval stage, which feeds on leaves of walnut, hickory, sweetgum, maple, oak, persimmon, willow and other trees. Around our yard they have plenty of larval food--sweetgum, oak and maple.

A blue bee lit on the dew-covered spiderwort just as I snapped the photo.

Earlier in the season, I dug a volunteer squash from between the peppers. Oddly, it turned out to be a birdhouse gourd. It blooms at night so even in the early morning, the flowers do not look fresh--I suppose it's pollinated by moths or bats.  This is also called a bottle gourd or a calabash, which reminds me of Jimmy Durante.

The birdhouse gourds I planted up near the pumpkins look like this now.  See "The birdhouse gourd adventure". Most of the seedlings that I transplanted to the rim of the swale did not make it, but I still have some good-looking seedlings that sprouted in the center. More birdhouse gourd adventures to come.

There are wonders to behold in the landscape. I'm pleased to share my current wonders, for tomorrow's will be a different story.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Friday, July 20, 2012

The herb garden: a (mint) family affair

Spearmint is growing into the basil area.
My herb garden faces WSW and is just outside the back door. It receives no morning sun, but lots of the hot afternoon sun. This location is really handy when I need to harvest something quickly as I'm cooking.

Many of our classic herbs are in the mint family (Lamiaceae), mostly because they produce wonderful (to us humans) smelling volatile oils. These same oils help repel some of their predators.

I had a couple of problems with members of the mint family spreading too aggressively in my small herb garden. I needed to deal with these unruly herbs--and now.

Mint rhizomes had spread four feet from the original plants.
The first problem was the spearmint (Menta spicata). I'd sown some seed here a couple of years ago and a few sprouted. I placed them in two pots and sunk them into the ground. The mint in one of the pots died, so I was left with only one sunken pot. But this past year some more mints germinated and I had a problem that I needed to fix before "things" got out of hand.

Their sturdy rhizomes were more numerous than the visible sprouts threatening the basil plants would indicate. I pulled them all out. But I wanted to sink another pot of mint in the garden so I'd have enough mint for my teas and other cooking projects.  I coiled two lengths of rhizome into a pot filled with compost, watered it well, and sank it behind the first pot.

Two sunken pots of mint in the herb garden.
The other day I made a delightful cold cucumber soup with mint as the main herb. Here's a link to the recipe I used.  Except I used plain non-fat yogurt (with some water to make it about the same thickness as buttermilk), white rice vinegar, and I did not remove the cucumber seeds. Yummy; and quite refreshing for a hot day.

The rest of the mint I gave to two neighbors. I suggested that they plant the mint in pots, so they would not have a run-away-mint problem like I did.
Greek oregano makes a good groundcover--maybe too good.

The next problem was the Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum ). I'd purchased a 4" pot with a spindly little plant a couple of years ago. And it has turned into this massive carpet of groundcover, spreading onto the sidewalk and into the chives.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are the smallest species in the onion family. A perennial onion that stays green here in north Florida year round. I've had this group of chives for five or six years now.

Between the chives and the rosemary is a good sized population of another onion family member meadow garlic (Allium canadense), which is a native here in Florida, but it dies back in the summer. So now there is an empty spot in the garden, but it will sprout again when the snow birds begin to return to their winter abodes here in Florida. Read my post, "A native herb amongst the Mediterraneans" for photos and more information.

Family feud: Mints vs. Onions
The onions would lose, probably.
The oregano had grown into the chives, and probably would have eventually choked them out altogether.  I certainly did not "need" all that oregano, so I carefully pulled it from around the chives, from the sidewalk, and from the sprinkler head. I uprooted some of the chives in the process and used them to start two new bunches behind the original population.

As I was uprooting the runners, several toads, large and small, jumped away. Not only is the oregano a beautiful groundcover and a butterfly magnet with its flowers, but now I know that it also provides habitat for my garden bug predators.

A toad flushed from its hiding place
in the mat of oregano.

Other mint family members in my herb garden

The sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual. It can reseed, but won't spread with rhizomes. It is planted toward the back of the garden. Like most mints, it roots easily in water or damp sand. I'm rooting some now to plant in the garden in the fall. Read my post, "The royal herb: sweet basil."

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a woody or shrubby mint family member that is planted in the right-hand corner of the garden. I trimmed it way back last fall, so it's still a reasonable size now. When my husband and I walk by, we bush a hand along the rosemary to unlease its intense aroma. Anything that causes you to breathe deeply and say, "Mmmmm!" or, "Ooooh!" is a good thing.

The last herb in my garden right now is some sweet leaf (Stevia rebaudiana), a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) that came back from last year's plants. I used the leaves in some teas and tried using it in some sweet salads, but we did not care for the super sweet taste. I'm not sure why I left it there; maybe I'll find a better use for it.

After I cleared out the rambunctious mint family members, I mulched the whole bed with street needles--pine needles I gather from the neighborhood streets.

I think all of my actions have resolved the family feud in my herb garden--at least for a while.

When I was done, the herb garden looked much neater.
How does your herb garden grow?

Green gardening matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is gardening political?

The White House's organic vegetable garden
 The other day I posted this photo of Michelle Obama out in the White House vegetable garden on my Sustainable Gardening for Florida Facebook page. I asked the question:
"Do you think Michelle's garden has changed the nation's mindset about organic gardening?"
I was expecting a discussion on organic vs. standard gardening, or maybe a comment on the raised beds. But no, the first two comments appeared to be politically motivated:
" she actually working in the garden herself ... or does she have someone else pull weeds and hoe ???"
"...I think most people have the same thought."
Then a couple of people countered with:
"You guys..she started a garden..brought attention to gardening..brought attention to healthy foods that come from a garden..and you want to find some kind of fault..are you kidding me?????? You think most people have the same thought? No they don't..GOOD people recognize GOOD works... and most people are good..BECOME good people and find the good..GEEZ..this crap has got to STOP!"
"She promotes gardening across the country, serves produce from the garden at State Dinners bring further attention to the garden and the results and has written a book about it."
When I finally logged back into the Facebook again, I said:
"Gosh, we're all gardeners here, aren't we? I think she has opened an important discussion and made a significant difference in how people think about vegetable gardens. She has introduced many of the local school kids to gardening, too. If we get kids involved in gardening now, the future will be better for them and for all of us.
And the profits from the book sales goes to the National Park Service, which maintains the White House property and so many other parks that house our natural treasures."
The first commenter came back with:
"and alll those people in white shirts re secret service personal protection --- eh ??? well , she is ussing and promoting monsato seeds and what not , i wouldnt trust her any further than i could throw a cow !"
And so it continued... Someone pointed out that "the seeds for The White House Garden are from High Mowing, a seed company that is so far removed from Monsanto that the difference is night and day." I could have pointed out that the people in the white shirts are the White House chefs who have fully particpated in this project.
So, IS the organic vegetable garden on the White House property a controversial topic? 
What I recall is that the big chemical companies were quick to criticize the project saying that the garden could not succeed without their chemicals. That Michelle was giving ordinary Americans the wrong idea.
Some say that this is politics as usual and that the unrestrained anger toward the Obama's and anything and everything they do is fair game.
I disagree.
Some of the first ladies have initiated some great projects that seem to have been appreciated by the whole country and not made into a political scandal. Ladybird Johnson had a wonderful vision of beautifying the country and her legacy is the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Barbara Bush worked on literacy in the country and wrote a book from her dog's point of view. Laura Bush also worked on various literacy projects, which were appreciated by the left and right.
For example, my leftward leaning friend and author, Lucia St. Clair Robson, was invited to and attended an authors' breakfast at the White House. She went out of respect for the office and to particpate in lively discussion. Later she received this Christmas card from Laura.
Today, I think that people lack that respect.  It's a sad state of affairs when even gardening becomes political.
Can't we all just garden together for the greater good?
Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The birdhouse gourd adventure

A 3-year old birdhouse gourd sprouts in the compost.
Three years ago I thought it would be fun to grow a birdhouse gourd vine. They are not really edible so I'm not sure what my original motivation was. One of the vines did extremely well, scrambled into some nearby tree branches and grew to about twenty feet high with numerous gourds hanging from the tree like Christmas tree ornaments.

Some of the gourds ended up in the compost and sprouted just like this one. I was on my book tour (for Sustainable Gardening for Florida) and was a vendor for several gardenfests. The timing was right for two of them and I'd potted all the seedlings into 4" pots and gave them away to kids. I'd kept one gourd as the sample so they could see what they'd get. When the seedlings were gone, I stuck the sample gourd into some branches of a shrub in a thicket. I thought some bird would break into it and build a nest, but that didn't happen. Last winter, I put it onto the compost pile.

Last week I saw that the seeds were still quite viable and had sprouted in the compost again.

The new spot for the gourds at the edge of the cleared area.
I've been working on getting some beds done in time for some fall pumpkins. (More on this later.) I did not wish to provide any room in my regular beds for the gourds, but I had a spot at the edge of the clearing that I could use for them.

I'd saved out a bunch of dead leaves from various gardening activities. I've been using them as a water-retention layer at the base of the beds I've been building. I had some leftover leaves. I dumped two wheel barrel loads of leaves for the gourds. (I'll use the rest of the leaves for building a new compost pile.)

I dumped a load of finished compost on top of the leaves and fashioned a squash mound with a center swale. I planted the best-looking seedlings around the the edge of the mound and broke up the rind and the less mature seedlings and placed them in the center of the swale. After all that, I watered the whole mound and especially soaked the center. I will not use too many resources--water and otherwise--to grow the gourds, but if they do grow as successfully as the one vine three years ago, I will make a purple martin apartment house and install it down by the lake. Maybe inviting more purple martins into the yard will reduce the mosquito population.

Top view of the planted seedlings with the rind and the less mature seedlings in the center of the squash mound swale.

I will keep you updated on my gourds, pumpkins, birdhouses, and more.

Green gardening matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Maypop, a native butterfly & bee magnet

Passionvine, purple passion flower, maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is a beautiful perennial native vine with a wonderfully complex flower with crimped petal-like tepals. It dies back to the ground in the winter, but pops up in more places the next spring–in May usually.

Like most gardeners, I love beautiful plants that attract many pollinators. And for a vine like this, adorning the trelliswork is the ideal location. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Find out what became of this beautiful vine; read my post over on Native Plants & Wildlife

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Garden Writers: Who Are We Writing For and Why is it Important?

When I write about why I let some of my basil flower,
who is listening?
When we write online, who is reading and what are we trying to accomplish? Haven't you wondered, as your words fly off into the void of cyberspace, where your message will land? Will the readers even speak English; what type of gardening do they practice; or are they just looking for pretty pictures? Articles for magazines and newspapers are easier to target, because we know the demographics of the readers. When we write for an Internet audience, we may have access to traffic totals or find out what search terms were used to reach our pages, but we really have no idea who's reading, except for those who are motivated to respond. Knowing the search words and what people are looking for helps us target our future writing, but responses from readers are the most important and interesting feedback. They often pose questions that spur further writing.

Over the past few years, some garden writers have discussed and lamented the disappearing garden writing for newspapers and garden programming on TV. The New York Times has a section called home and garden, but the number of garden stories continues to shrink to maybe one or two a month. HGTV now has no real garden shows--quick landscaping yes, but not real gardening. Even when garden stories run, they may be syndicated with little relevance for their local audience. For example, the Miami Herald recently ran a story on a Michigan woman's butterfly habitat. Very little of her experience will translate well to the tropics of south Florida.  Why can't they solicit stories from the region--there are plenty of butterfly habitat stories in south Florida? So, maybe our online writing is filling the gaps left elsewhere.

To find out what changed everything for my writing, read the rest of this story over on Garden Rant.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt