Archive for August, 2011

Homeschooling in Florida

Posted in Homeschooling with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2011 by PickMeYard

Homeschooling is not for everybody, but it’s definitely for us.  The learning doesn’t stop when the bell rings and everything in our life is a potential science project.  We have a room in our home set up as a classroom and we re-decorate it a little bit every year to refresh it.  Grayson puts in a long work day 5 days a week, but he chooses his own schedule.  My 4-year-old loves to do her homework.

Our homeschooling classroom.

I am frequently asked if socialization is an issue.  The answer to that is a big… NO.  We get involved with clubs, community and volunteer stuff, and lots of sports.  I’m constantly telling Grayson that we can’t do it all.  Two clubs and two sports at a time is about all I can handle.  It’s still difficult to make time for friends and family because our schedule is booked solid all the time.  We have a list of things a mile long that we want to do.

People also ask if homeschooling is difficult for me.  The first year was a learning curve but I’ve found my groove.  There are times when it feels burdensome, but it is an absolute blessing most of the time.  If that changes, we will cross that bridge when we get to it.  For now, we feel so lucky!

We are members of a huge homeschooling association in Florida called The Florida Parent Educators Association.   They are incredibly helpful with so many homeschooling topics.  They also host an enormous (over 30,000 people) homeschooling convention in Orlando every year that is worth attending.  It answered many of my questions and surpassed my expectations.

A dog's eye preserved in a container of formaldehyde.

We love our home classroom.  The dog’s eye in the above photo is for educational purposes and sits on Grayson’s desk.  I’ve noticed that when he gets frustrated with something he’s studying, somebody inevitably makes a joke with the eye.  It provides instant comedic relief and a giggle.   Thank you, dad! Can we have a heart with heartworms wrapped around it too?

Come grow with us!

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Hatching a Dinosaur Egg

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by PickMeYard

We hatched some modern-day, baby dinosaurs out of their eggs this week … alligators!  It’s a fantastic experience, but it’s only legal at Gatorama in Palmdale, Florida (it’s the only place I know of in Florida, anyway).  Gatorama only offers this to the public for 11 days at the end of August.  We try to go every year, but sometimes we blink and miss it.

Alligators are a part of our life in SW Florida.  We have to be careful in our yard because they tend to lurk in the bushes at the edge of our riverbank.  We are always alert when walking around our yard.  It isn’t a frequent occurrence to see one in the yard, but it is very common to see them coasting around our yard.  It’s kinda like a moat that doesn’t quite go all the way around our castle.  So, forget the dogs, beware of the gators… it’s a dead-end.

Alligators are a threatened species in Florida, even though there seem to be a lot of them.  Apparently, only 2% survive into adulthood in the wild.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants a special license or permit to handle the gators.  It is illegal to harass or feed alligators in Florida.  If an alligator is fed, they lose their fear of humans, and then we’re really in trouble.

Alligator feeding at Gatorama... Yikes!

A little girl holding a young gator at last year's Swamp Cabbage Festival.

An alligator nest... and big moma's always near-by!

That's me helping a baby alligator out of the egg.

Loring & Grayson hatching baby gators.

Helping baby alligators into the world.

The baby gator is still attached to its egg with an umbilical cord.

Enormous alligator skulls.

The owner of Gatorama holding a baby gator.

Alligators are a part of our environment in Southwest Florida.  There’s a lot of water around here.  We try to stay a healthy distance from them.  However, if you ever find yourself face-to-face with a gator on land, you can toss something to the side of its snout and it will go for whatever you tossed to it.  It might buy you a few seconds.

Come grow with us!

An Eight Legged Summer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2011 by PickMeYard

This summer seems to be the summer of the spider in Florida.  Yes, the sunshine state is home to many, many species of spiders throughout the year, but they seem to be everywhere this summer.  My friends and family have noticed that I’m unusually obsessed with the eight legged critters lately.  My son has become equally enamoured.  We’ve spent a lot of time taking photos of them and researching them online and in books.

We have a regal jumping spider that hides inside her thick, cottony web on our gate and she is very perturbed with us. We know her hiding spot and check on her several times a day. These spiders are considered to have the best eyesight of all bugs.  We have one living in our mailbox too.  I think I know why they’re called jumping spiders… because they make me jump!

A Regal Jumping Spider that lives on our gate. Can you see her in her web?

The highly venomous black and brown widows have also made their homes all around our yard.  I admire them for a second and then I quickly squish them.  There’s not enough room for both of us for obvious reasons.  I’ve run across several of them in my garden and I don’t let them out of my sight for a second, not even to get my camera.  Their egg sacs are a tell-tale sign that they are close-by.  The eggs look like mine bombs… round, light-colored and spiky.

Widow spider egg sacs in our macadamia nut tree.

A spider that we are seeing in every square foot of our yard (not really, it just seems that way) is the beautiful and intimidating orbweaver.

The tropical orbweaver weaves her massive web every single evening at dusk and then removes her entire web every morning at dawn.  It took us awhile to figure out what she was doing.  Since Grayson and I milk the goats late at night, we’ve gotten used to the nocturnal critters, (especially the skunk that the dog keeps bothering).  We analyze the spiders every night and try to get as close as we can to get a good look.  It’s never comfortable though.  All it takes is a quick tap on the arm and a “watch out!” to send me to the moon.  Either I get Grayson or he gets me but it always ends with a scream.  I know he’s going to do it too and it still scares me.  I think we freak these poor spiders out way more than they freak us out.

A big, beautiful and nocturnal tropical orbweaver.

A tropical orbweaver in her nighttime web, right next to my car.

The garden orbweavers build their webs every morning and take them down for the night.  Isn’t that amazing?  As the female gets older, she gets bigger and scarier looking.  They’re colorful and big and build elaborate webs.  They are as intimidating as a spider can be, in my opinion.  However,  they are not venomous to people and are rarely known to bite.

A colorful garden orbweaver.

A garden orbweaver on the riverbank. She is one of hundreds along the bank.

I was wrong.  The Golden Silk Orbweaver is as intimidating as a spider can be.  They tend to have huge, golden bodies and long spindly legs with tufts of black bristles… yikes.  Every Floridian knows this spider well.  They’re very common here. They look like they would be terribly venomous, but they’re not (to people).  I’ve been told they will bite, but a wasp sting will cause you more pain.  Fortunately, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of this.  However, I have had them land on me many times when trail riding with my horses as a kid.  The spiders would always want off me fast.  The frantic screaming must have scared them away.

We have a golden silk orbweaver living outside our back door now.  I keep holding my camera up close to her so I can get a photo, but she starts to bounce up and down on her web when she sees me.  Sooo, there’s no photo.  These spiders are often referred to as the Florida banana spider as well.  I found a great website that has lots of Golden Silk orbweaver photos and great information about them… click here.  The site says they always have banana spiders throughout their barn in the summers.  On one particular summer, they took notice that every spider packed up and disappeared a week before a major hurricane hit.  This might be a good reason to keep them around.  If the spiders are too much to handle though, they can easily be relocated without touching them.  Tear down their web and they will rebuild it somewhere else.

For a really fun bug blog, check out The Bug Lady.  My favorite post is the one about the Brazilian Armadeira spider… it tries to kill you.  It is also referred to as a banana spider, but this species is the most venomous spider in the world.

I hope I didn’t give you the heebie-jeebies with this post.  We all live with spiders, even in the big cities.  If it makes you feel any better, Florida’s Fabulous Spiders says that bees and wasps kill more people in the U.S. every year than spiders and snakes combined kill in ten years.

A garden orbweaver spider in our garden with her dinner... a lizard!

Come grow with us!

 

A Child’s Perspective

Posted in Inspiration with tags , , , , on August 16, 2011 by PickMeYard

My 4-H kid wanted to try his hand at photography this past year so I gave him a camera and let him go.  He was 9-years-old when he took these shots and I was super curious to see what his photos would show.  I schooled him a little on how to use the camera and what to look for when he was picking his subject.  I begged him to make his photos interesting.  The rest was entirely up to him.

Grayson taking his shots for his 4-H photography contest.

Grayson didn’t use all these photos in the contest.  He did win several first place awards with a few of them though and I wanted to share some of our favorites with you.  Here goes…

Florida cattle.

A Southwest Florida cowboy and his horse.

Resting Florida cowboys.

The photos are all from a child’s perspective, but I have to add commentary to them.  I can’t help myself.

The following photo looks like an environmental nightmare.  However, the plant has a Department of Environmental Protection office right on their property.  When the smoke gets thick, they immediately take action to lessen it.  It was particularly thick when Grayson shot this photo.  There was hardly any smoke (and a boring photo) just a few minutes later.   Southern Garden Citrus has 3 million orange trees that absorb 613,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.  They use predator insects for pest control and only use chemical methods on particular trees when necessary.  Their orange groves provide habitat for lots of wildlife such as fish, birds and deer… and too many wild hogs.  They don’t discard any part of the orange.  The pulp, skin and oil are all used for products.  Florida is the 2nd largest producer of oranges in the world, (Brazil is 1st, but it’s a fact that Florida oranges are juicier).

Southern Gardens orange juice plant. The third largest in the nation.

Organic Florida farm. The sugarcane is planted as a wind break.

Organic Florida farm truck.

I hesitated to post the following photo.  All political views and solutions aside, this is how the food gets to most tables.  We have to grow more food.  Most countries consume more than they produce. According to an agent at the University of Florida IFAS office, there is expected to be 30-50 billion people on the planet by 2050.  Food will become a scarce commodity.  Out of the 7 billion people on the planet, 1 billion of them are starving right now.  How do we keep up with the food production? It would be detrimental to the U.S. to rely on foreign food production.

Grayson’s perspective is that this guy gets to garden and get paid for it. (I think I need to have Grayson pull more weeds).   The dust in this field on the day Grayson took this photo was unbearable.

A very hard job.

Sugar cane fields behind the U.S. Sugar Corporation in South Florida.

A controlled fire in the sugarcane fields of Clewiston, Florida. Planting begins in late August.

Sugarcane can live, and is productive, for 4-5 years on good mulch soils before it is replanted.  In Florida, rice is grown in rotation with sugarcane.  51% of sugar comes from cane and 49% comes from sugar beet.  Sugarcane used to be sprayed with nasty chemicals several times a year to control a pest called the cane borer.  However, a small wasp (called Cotesia) was brought in and it kills the sugar cane borer.  So, sugarcane is not sprayed with chemicals for pests anymore.  They do spray a fungicide though.  They’re working on new varieties that will not be as susceptible to disease and will have increased production… probably genetically modified, which I am against.

Florida is the nation’s largest producer of sugarcane with over 400,000 acres.  Did you know the average American eats (or drinks) 67 pounds of sugar a year?  Florida is also the #1 producer of sweet corn, watermelon, bell peppers and snap beans.

Morning on the Caloosahatchee River.

This is our six-toed urban farm cat. He uses those paws like hands.

Grayson's honeybees coming home.

Our Labradoodle and LaMancha (paws and hoofs).... best friends.

Come grow with us!

Ylang-Ylang

Posted in Flowers with tags , , , on August 15, 2011 by PickMeYard

We tend to gravitate toward growing edibles in our yard.  If we’re going to take the time and money to feed, water, protect, nurture and whisper sweet nothings to our trees and plants, then we’d like to get something in return.  Vitamins and other nutrients are the goal from our edibles, but we’ll settle for flavor sometimes.

Our ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata) doesn’t give us any edible delights, but this tree gets a free pass in our yard anytime.  It provides us with the most extraordinary and divine flowers we’ve ever known.  Just one cut flower in the center of our table makes the house smell better than any store-bought “smell-good” ever could.  My husband couldn’t believe how great the house smelled when he came home the other day.  It was aromatherapy at its finest.

A highly aromatic ylang-ylang flower.

I planted two small ylang-ylang trees in our yard about four years ago.  I knew I was taking a risk by trying to grow them in our zone because they’re so sensitive to frost, but I had to try. We’ve had some unusually cold winters in our zone 9b over the past few years and it kept damaging the young ylang-ylang trees.  I didn’t cover them or help protect them from the cold in any way.  The trees survived though and would recover from the cold and frost each year.  By the time our Florida rainy season would start in the summer, the trees looked like they’d never seen a cold day.  It seems like we waited forever for them to flower.  We were wondering if they ever would.

It was such a wonderful surprise this summer to find the trees full of flowers.  To stand under the tree is intoxicating and heavenly.  It was definitely worth the wait and our family is in complete agreement about that!

A medium sized ylang-ylang tree in our yard.

Picking a ylang-ylang flower.

A close-up of a ylang-ylang flower.

A young ylang-ylang flower developing on the branch.

A cluster of ylang-ylang flowers.

The flowers are hard to spot on the tree.

Ylang-ylang flowers in different stages of developement on the branch.

The kids enjoying the scent of a ylang-ylang flower.

Click on TopTropicals.com for a more on this special tree…  their site has a wealth of information.

Come grow with us!

The Kaffir Lime Tree

Posted in edible leaves with tags , , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by PickMeYard

Every time someone new visits our yard, we take them straight to our kaffir lime tree (Citrus hystrix) to introduce them.  We find that most people have never heard of it.  However, those that are familiar with it absolutely love this fabulous tree.

This is one of our kaffir lime trees. It needs pruning. The butterflies love this tree.

The first thing I do is pick a leaf off the tree, crush it and stick it right up to our guests nose and say, “smell this”.  The reaction is always the same… oh wow!  We never fail to send our guests home with a freezer bag full of the fresh leaves.  They freeze perfectly for later use.  They can frequently be found in the freezer section of most Asian markets in the U.S.

The kaffir lime leaf has a unique shape and flavor. Citrusy and aromatic.

It’s tough to describe the flavor and smell of the kaffir because it is unique.  It’s very pleasing though.  Most people love it right off the bat.  Personally, I don’t think I could live without it in my life.  Okay, that might be a tad dramatic, but you get my drift.  It’s exquisite.

I have a kaffir lime tree growing in my front yard and in the back.  My kids love to grab a leaf as they walk by the tree, crunch it up in their hand and hold it for awhile.  Sometimes they’ll bring some leaves in the house to throw in their glass of water or lemonade.  I do cook with the leaves quite a bit too, especially in my coconut milk, lemongrass chicken and Thai curries.  The leaves are used to flavor and are not usually eaten.  For some more kaffir lime leaf recipe ideas, check out ThaiTable.com.

It is the leaf of this citrus tree that is generally used for culinary reasons, not the fruit.  We’ve started using the fruit recently though and now we wonder why we didn’t start using it sooner.  The fruit tastes exactly like the leaf but it’s very sour (a little bitter maybe).    We think the kaffir lime makes a wonderful drink and we even add the zest to the drink.  I like to add a little of the zest to my yerba mate too.  I’m sure there are thousands of ways to use this incredible flavor.  I will not be letting them fall off the tree to rot anymore.

Funny looking, bumpy, and very sour kaffir lime.

A kaffir lime cut in half.

The kaffir lime tree grows well in zones 9, 10 and 11.   It is susceptible to frost damage.  My trees have been through a couple very cold Florida winters recently and only had minimal damage.  They recovered quickly from their frost bite.

Check out LifesDandies.com for more information on finding a kaffir lime tree in Florida.

I haven’t grown a kaffir lime tree in a container for myself, but I’m certain the tree would do well if it was taken care of properly.  It would need to be fed during its growth cycle and shouldn’t be overwatered.  My favorite book on growing edible trees in containers is Growing Tasty Tropical Plants*in any home, anywhere… by Laurelynn G. Martin and Byron E. MartinI love this book for its pictures because it inspires me and gives me great ideas. The book gives some information on how to grow tropicals inside, but I think it could use a lot more.  It still remains one of my favorites.

A female Eastern Black Swallowtail on our kaffir lime tree.

Have I talked you into growing a kaffir lime tree for yourself?  I hope so.

Come grow with us!

A Garden Tea Party Fit for a Princess

Posted in Inspiration with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2011 by PickMeYard

We don’t usually need a reason to have a little tea party, but this was a birthday tea party for my 4-year-old.  She invited her friends over for a Princess Tea Party and asked them to wear their favorite princess dress.

A gazebo was set up in the garden and decorated with sheer Ikea curtains and adorned with flowers and butterflies.

Each chair had a slip cover and a handmade garland with ribbons and flowers for each girl to take home.

The Frog Prince waited patiently on the table for his true love.

A handmade flower chandelier with big butterflies around it hung over the table.

Another view of the flower chandelier.

The table setting was definitely fit for a group of princesses.

We made traditional tea sandwiches for the moms and the girls.

We made the girls sandwiches into a variety of shapes.

Cupcakes and cookies.

A colorful fruit salad with persimmon, oranges, blueberries and pomegranate.

Princess candies.

Tea cups for the moms.

Water with lemons and rose petals from the garden... no insecticides.

Princess tea cart... each girl took her tea set home as a gift, along with a bunch of other gifts!

Each little girl was given a paper bag and a bin full of craft items to decorate their bag.  They used their bag to carry home an assortment of gifts such as a snow globe with their picture in it, a purse and a little ceramic tea set.

... and the Princesses!

They were all treated like real princesses for an afternoon.

They played on the ship playground and did several party games.

... and GiGi worked tirelessly to make the fairytale party come true. That's her lighting the birthday candles.

My mom brought the gazebo over to our house, decorated the gazebo, made the chandelier, made a table out of plywood, set the table, brought a ton of extras and stayed up until the early morning hours to finish it all for the party.  Mom, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Come grow with us!