Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Fairy Garden is Born

Last weekend, my parents were in town and I took my Mom out for a 4-wheeler ride around the area where we live. There are so many old barns and houses that the property owners are just allowing to sit and go to waste. It's sad to see all of the wasted materials. While driving past one of these houses located on property that belongs to a cousin of my husband, we found 2 old chairs laying next to a barn. I had seen the chairs several times before but could never convince my husband to help me get them home. He could not understand why I wanted those old rotten chairs, but my Mom (who I credit with my creative and often unorthodox ideas) immediately realized the potential. We loaded them up on the back of the 4-wheeler, secured them with some rope, grabbed a couple of loose peices of barn wood for good measure and hauled our treasures home. The looks on husband and Dad's faces when we pulled up with those old chairs on the back of the 4-wheeler were priceless. My husband, I believe, thought I had finally completely lost my mind. My Dad just kind of shook his head. He is no longer shocked by the junk my Mom and I drag home, whether it be from a thrift store or the side of the road or in this case, the middle of the woods.

To the left, is the one of the chairs as we found it. They were both in terrible condition, so I guess I can understand my husband's doubts about my sanity at that moment. I told him I was going to convert it to a plant stand and he seemed slightly less concerned about my mental state. After my parents left to go back home, I decided I better work quickly so my new treasure didn't end up in the burn barrel. I really wanted to preserve the back side posts of the chair but that nasty vinyl cushion had to go. On the first chair I worked on, the side post broke so I had to get the saw and cut them both off. On the second chair that I attempted, I was successful in preserving the posts. Some of the upholstery tacks stayed in place as well, so I was able to use those to wrap the twine and make a crude trellis. Next I was ready to give them a quick light sanding. I was not attempting to give them a smooth finish, it just seemed like the easiest way to clean them up a little before painting them. My youngest daughter chose a light puple for the base of her Fairy Garden. I used acrylic paint that was slightly watered down and a cheap kids paint brush to ensure that I got a distressed finish. After the paint dried and I ran some twine for a trellis, I sealed it with an outdoor spray sealant. I used 3 coats, but I will have to reseal at least once a year. I should have listened to my Mom, and used a marine varnish, but I was in a hurry and didn't feel like making the 30 minute drive into town to buy it.

My daughters and I started gathering our fairies and various other supplies needed to finish the perfect little shade garden for them. We found an old terra cotta bowl-type container, it's already distressed green finish was a perfect compliment to the chair. After cutting a piece of the barnwood to fit across the bottom rungs to support the container, we filled in the gaps with Spanish Moss that we found near the pond on our property and put our fairies into place. Before this thing got any heavier we decided we better move it to the front yard under a large Live Oak tree. We then filled the pot with English Ivy that will fill in the back along the trellis, Wandering Jew (Setcrea) and Caladiums. I also planted a Hosta near the foot of the chair and we will continue to add to our lovely little shade garden.

I do believe that our fairies will be very happy here and I can't wait until the ivy fills in the back. It's the perfect addition to our whimsically themed front yard shade garden. Now to move on to the other chair, I can't wait to see what that one turns into!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Attack of the Killer Tomato Hornworms!

Well, they were actually Tobacco Hornworms, but Tomato Hornworms made for a better title. Anyway, when it comes to Tobacco/Tomato Hornworms the potential devastation is the same and the difference only comes down to the color of the "horns" on their bottoms.

My 3 year old daughter and I discovered these viscious little beasts on one of our daily garden inspections. She immediately fell in love "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and demanded that we allow them to stay in the garden so they could become "big fat caterpillars, build a cocoon and become beautiful butterflies". If you have small children and have ever read the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle then you know what I'm up against. I convinced her that we should at least move them away from the garden so that they could eat some nice green leaves, then I checked my favorite site for all of my tomato questions, http://www.tomatodirt.com/ and discovered that these were not harmless little green caterpillars. I had a tomato killer on my hands. These little buggers left unchecked are capable of devouring an entire tomato plant in just a few days!!!

As to the fact that I refer to them interchangably, they are very similar in appearance. The most obvious distinction between the two is the color of the horn. On Tomato Hornworms it is dark blue, dark green or black and on Tobacco Hornworms it is red. Mine were definitely red and that's actually how I found them. There bodies are the same color as the tomato leaves making them a little difficult to spot. You should also be on the lookout for leaf wilt and missing leaves. The best way to prevent full blown crop devastation is to inspect your plants daily in the early morning or late evening and catch them early.  If you happen to be unfortunate enough to find these vile little creatures gorging on your prized tomatoes, the best defense is to pick them off and drop them into a bowl of soapy water. The lovely folks at Tomato Dirt were kind enough to give me a little more advice via a very prompt reply to a message sent to their Facebook page regarding prevention of future infestation. As soon as your plants are done producing in the fall, till the soil to deeply bury any larvae that may have been left behind. That should kill 90% of the eggs. Then in the winter burn your leaf piles in the garden area. Not only will it kill any remaining pests and fungi that may be lurking about waiting to feast on next years crop, but it will add nutrients to your soil. I am happy to report that no Hornworms have been found in my garden for 3 days now. It pays to be totally obsessed with your garden!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Organic Veggies... not this year :(

By now, it should be fairly obvious that I have little to no clue what I'm doing in the veggie garden. I'm giving it my best shot, however and this blog is a great way for me to document the successes and failures. For me this garden serves many purposes. It's not just about the fresh produce for my family, it's also an excuse to spend time outdoors, great exercise, and an opportunity to challenge myself. One of the goals that I initially set was to grow completely organic vegetables. Due to the fact that I didn't properly prep my soil with compost, I've had to resort to, *gasp*, using Miracle Grow. It really hurts to admit that, almost as much as it hurt to purchase and apply it. After two applications of it, some areas of my garden still aren't growing quite as fast as they should be ,but overall the plants do look healthier. I started my compost heap at the back of the field so maybe next year I can do it without the chemical fertilizers. The compost pile consists of coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and veggie peels, and  yard debris such as leaves and grass clippings. I do have some friends that are appalled by my decision to use the dreaded Miracle Grow, or MG, as I now call it. In the grand scheme of things, I feel that a little fertilizer is still 10 times better than most commercially grown vegetables that have been shipped across the country or even from other ones. I'm looking into other methods of fertilizing, but being a novice gardener who had never even heard the term "side-dressing" until a couple of months ago, I'm going to try to keep it simple...for now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

DIY Trellisses... no tools required

I first decided to build trellisses for my garden when I realized that I had planted my cucumbers to close together. The cucumbers are not an issue at the moment, since they all died, but I have replanted some and will get more in this week. I searched gardening blogs and pinterest for weeks trying to come up with something that I could build on my own that was also cheap and relatively quick to build. Through my searches I found that you can pretty much make a trellis out of anything... you just need a little imagination, time and patience (that one I'm a little lacking in sometimes). While digging around in the shelter where my husband stores the heavy equipment for his forestry business, I found a huge pile of approximately 1x1 stakes that are about 6 feet long... perfect for my project! They are, I believe, old tobacco stakes that he and his dad salvaged from an old barn that was being torn down a few years ago. I'm not sure what type of wood they are but they are weathered and smooth in some spots, they should hold up well in the garden.

I used a hammer to help drive the stakes a few inches into the ground at equal intervals around the base of the plant. (this step is much easier to do if the ground is wet) I used twine to secure the top. Then starting at the base wrapped the twine around the poles leaving a few inches between rows (make sure you can easily fit your hand through or harvesting could be tricky). Last, I ran a piece of twine down the center from top to bottom. On the first one I used 3 pieces, but then decided that one piece would be sufficient for the rest.

Through my searches I discovered that there are many benefits to growing vegetables vertically. So, even though the cukes don't need them right now, I built them for my squash and zucchini. Most people with small backyard gardens do it to save space, but it also helps prevent disease and pest problems when your veggies are up in the air instead of laying in the dirt. Keeping the plants weed-free and harvesting should also be easier and I won't have to worry about my kids stepping on them when they help in the garden. Last, but certainly not least, they trellisses are pretty and should be gorgeous when the vines are covering them. So, far I have built 8 of them, but I will be building more when the cucumbers start growing.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Good News and Bad News



The week before last, my husband, the kids and I took a week long (and much needed) vacation to the Florida Keys. While we were gone, my mother-in-law watered the garden for me since we had absolutely no rain that week. I tried not to worry about the garden too much while we were gone and only called to check on it a couple of times. I came home to mostly good plants... My son's watermelon looked great, some of the tomato plants had flowers (one even has a few very tiny tomatoes), The squash and the zucchini are doing great. They have big healthy leaves and very strong stems. Corn looks ok, but more on that later. I'm also not sure about the okra...it's off to a slow start but I believe they should be one of the last plants ready for harvesting.  

tomato flowers
Now for the bad news... all but two hills of my cucumbers are dead. I'm not sure what went wrong. They were in the same section as the squash and zucchini (which are all doing fabulous) so they had the same amount of sunlight and water. Normally, I would think it was something I had done wrong. Especially considering the fact that I am a novice vegetable gardener. However, it does seem odd that I lost 80% of the cucumbers and nothing else...so, I'm just going to assume that I got some bad seeds. I removed all but the 2 good hills, raked it and rebuilt the hills (a little further apart this time) and replanted 8 hills today. I'm going to stop by our local nursery tomorrow to see if they have some transplants available.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Weather Obsession and a Case of Insane Plant Love

Last Saturday, we got about two inches of rain in just a couple of hours. It came down so fast that my backyard and garden very quickly flooded. I was just standing on my back porch watching the torrential downpour and trying not to panic. I just wasn't sure that my poor little plants and seedlings could take it.
When the rain finally subsided, I quickly threw on my garden boots and ran to check on my babies. The corn and sunflowers were fine. There was standing water between the rows, but since I had anticipated that problem, I had built the rows up a little. Cukes, squash, zucchini, okra, watermelon and bell peppers were all fine. Once again, a little standing water but not near the plants. Then I took a look at my tomatoes and I nearly had a heart attack! My little babies that I had taken such good care of and grown from seed were laying in the dirt. I just stood there staring, almost in tears at the prospect of losing all of those beautiful plants.  I walked down the rows and then gently lifted one of my plants from the ground. I then realized that the stems were not broken but the leaves were caked in mud that was weighting them down. I very carefully went over each of my 16 little plants and gently brushed the dirt from the leaves. Later that afternoon, they were standing up straight and happy again! 

We have more rain in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow, but they're a little bigger and stronger so I think they'll be alright. Now, my biggest concern is a forecasted low of 41 degrees tomorrow night. I'm working on a strategy to get everything covered to protect from the potential frost. We have tarps, some old bed sheets and stakes. I should be able to rig adequate plant covers from those items. 

Best of luck to the fellow Georgia gardeners this weekend... The weather will be crazy but with the right prep work and diligence we should all be able to keep our plants safe, happy and ready to provide a bountiful harvest!

***UPDATE***  April 6, 2012 5:30pm
Latest weather forecast in my area is calling for a low of 46 degrees with a light wind which means no danger of frost!!! Phew... that is a huge relief. My plants are safe...from frost damage anyway!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sprouts and Signs

It's a busy time in my garden, for the plants anyway. While my little seeds are busy sprouting, I'm on constant patrol... trying my best to keep up with the ever changing "sprout count" and doing my best to keep the weeds out.

Up until this point, I have been in complete control of my little seed/seedlings. They lived in a climate controlled home with the proper amount of sunlight, water, wind and nutrients. Then I had to turn them over to the elements. All of the tomato and bell pepper seedlings appear happy and healthy and over the past two days many of the seeds I planted lasted week have sprouted. I'm trying not to "love them to death" (too much water, handling, etc.) but it can be difficult to let nature take over.

In the meantime, I decided to keep myself busy by making signs for my garden. I used some scrap wood we had lying around and painted the names of the veggies on them with a craft acrylic paint. (see above pic) I then attached the signs to small posts that we also happened to have on hand, sprayed  them with a clear outdoor sealant and put them in the garden. It might not be a necessary project, but for the time being it's keeping me from meddling too much with my plants well-being.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Garden Helper... Olivia

My 3 year old daughter is in love with our garden and has been by my side every step of the way. Every morning, right after breakfast she can't wait to go check on the garden. She helps pull weeds, sings and talks to the plants and loves to "make sure they are happy plants".

Olivia enjoyed reading to the tomato, bell pepper and marigold seedlings while they lived on our kitchen table. When they were a couple weeks old, we started taking them outside for a few hours each day to get them used to full sunlight, wind and slight variations in temperature (a process called hardening). A few days after we started, we had to transplant the tomatoes to larger containers. We carefully removed the netting from the peat pellets (they are supposed to be biodegradable, but I read on several gardening websites that they break down too slowly and can constrict root growth, so we took them off) then planted them in the plastic 6 pack containers that I had saved from some flowers we bought.

On March 24, we planted all of our seeds. It was a week or two earlier than we were supposed to but we have had an exceptionally warm spring here in south Georgia so we went for it. The soil was nice and warm, it's been in the 80's during the day and the 60's at night... perfect planting weather.

We have four rows of corn, three rows of sunflowers, twenty hills of cucumbers (it's a lot but we'll be making homemade cucumber relish when they come in), four hills of squash, four hills of zucchini, one row of okra, sixteen tomato plants (roma, early girl, and sweet one hundreds), eight bell pepper plants and one "giant" watermelon that my 11 year old son is growing for 4-H competition. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Focaccia with Rosemary

Cold and rainy winter days always inspire me to bake. Sometimes cookies or cakes and other times bread. Today is a bread day so I'll share my recipe for whole-wheat rosemary focaccia. Focaccia is an Italian flat bread. This particular recipe, which I adapted from an Italian cookbook, is one of my families favorite breads. I use a combination of whole wheat and regular bread flour, brush it with extra-virgin olive oil and top it with coarse sea salt and fresh rosemary from my garden.

1 pkg yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
pinch of sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour
3 tbsp olive oil
fresh rosemary
coarse sea salt

* in a medium bowl, mix yeast, water and sugar... allow to sit about 5 minutes until yeast has dissolved and starts to foam
* use wooden spoon to mix in the whole wheat flour... gradually mix in the bread flour, stirring until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl (you may not need the entire 2 cups)
* knead dough for about 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface
* place dough in a lightly oiled mixing bowl, cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place 30-45 minutes, until dough has doubled in size
* punch dough down and knead for 2 minutes
* brush a shallow baking pan with olive oil, place the dough in pan and use fingers to press it into an even layer (it's ok if the dough doesn't go all the way to the sides of the pan, mine rarely does)
* scatter with rosemary leaves, cover with a cloth and leave to rise about 30 minutes...preheat the oven to 400 during this time
* just before baking use your fingers to make rows of small indentions in the surface... brush with olive oil... sprinkle lightly with coarse salt and bake for about 25 minutes.
* cut into squares before serving... serve right from the oven or at room temperature

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Upcycling - a little trashy (#1)

Wikipedia defines upcycling as "the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value". It's a bit of a passion of mine. I'd like to say that it's because I am so "green" and "eco-conscious" (really I'd like to be) but actually, I'm just a cheap-skate. My latest upcycling project is an old fabric softener jug turned watering can.

How to make it

Rinse your old jug very well. When you think it's clean enough, rinse it a few more times. (Your plants/seeds will not like the fabric softener)

Using a very small drill bit or hammer and nails (take obvious safety precautions and/or use common sense) make approximately 20 holes in the cap.

Make a "fancy" label. (see above pic...lol)

Fill with water and sprinkle on your plants.

*As a side note*  This is great for young children to use on seeds because the water comes out very slowly and will not disrupt the germination process or the delicate roots of young seedlings.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My first full Veggie Garden

I am determined to have fresh, organic, nutritious veggies for my family this year. I have done exhaustive research on the best veggies to plant for my families needs and for zone 8 (south Georgia), when and how to start my seeds, where to place my garden, and will be taking a soil sample to my local county extension office this week. I will post the results of the soil sample and what additives I need when I receive them. I used the following link to layout the plans for a basic 3x6 raised bed garden. Mine will probably be slightly larger but still, it's a good layout.

Gardener's Supply Kitchen Garden Planner Garden Designer

The above is my basic plan for the main garden (bell peppers, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, squash and zucchini). I am also adding 3 rows of corn on the north side of the garden. I chose the north side because the corn grows so tall that I don't want it to shade the other plants too much. I also plan to incorporate marigolds in the main garden to help naturally ward off pests and several rows of sunflowers to the south to help attract pollinating insects.

I bought my seeds this week and will start the bell peppers and tomatoes tomorrow. All of the plants except for corn and sunflowers will be started indoors. We've had an extremely mild winter, but I still want to get an early start on the actual plants.