Archive for the Gardening Experiments Category

Sugar Cane

Posted in Gardening Experiments with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2011 by PickMeYard

I harvested all our backyard sugarcane before the early, December freeze in Florida this year.  I grew our sugarcane in a round, mulched area where an oak tree died of old age (and serious riverbank erosion) and was completely removed.  

This photo was taken last summer. The canes were still young.

I plant our sugarcane from buds that I get from stem cuttings.   I plant them in the ground when it warms up in the spring and then I harvest the cane right before our first freeze in the winter. Sugarcane grows best in tropical climates where they can keep harvesting their stands over and over (sometimes up to 10 times) because it doesn’t freeze.  The new stalks that grow up are called ratoons.

The U.S. Sugar Corporation is suffering due to the extreme freezes that Florida has endured over the past two years.  They’re having trouble finding acceptable seed cane for next year’s crop.  U.S. Sugar farms 150,000 acres of sugarcane fields.

Newly planted Florida sugarcane. This photo shows what used to be the Everglades.

When I harvest our own sugar cane, I cut the sugar cane down at the base, just above the ground.  Then, I cut off the green tops.  I overwinter the little cane buds and sprouts in a big pot.  I grow them in a different spot in my yard each year.  This is our third year of enjoying the yummy cane. 

Some of our backyard sugarcane after being harvested. My kids eagerly wait for me to peel & cut it up for them to chew on.

Cane starts I collected to overwinter and use for my next crop.

The sugar cane harvest has taught me a skill that I’m quite proud of… using a machete like a Jamaican.  I’ve learned to peel the sugar cane swiftly and easily.  I’ve even started a machete collection.  A kitchen knife will not suffice for cutting sugarcane. 

Raw and peeled sugarcane.

Slicing the sugarcane into small pieces makes it easy to chew on. It's extremely juicy!

I tend to cut up huge bowls of sugarcane so there’s no arguing over it and everybody can have as much as they want. This is a photo of a small amount.

Sugarcane is in the grass family and is easy to grow as long as it has warm temperatures and full sun.  Click here to learn how to grow sugarcane from a store-bought piece.

I’ve recently learned that there are different types of sugarcane.  The type most home gardeners would grow is “chewing cane” which is very sweet and good to chew on.  The commercial sugar cane growers grow “crystal cane” which is better for processing the sugar crystals.  “Syrup cane” is grown for making syrup.  I found a great website from the University of Florida on the different canes. 

Are you wondering why someone would actually grow sugar when most of us are trying to stay away from it? I have always believed that raw sugarcane is very healthy because that’s what I was taught in Jamaica.  They chew it for good digestion and healthy teeth.  We always buy cut sugarcane and juice from vendors along the roadway in Jamaica.  For a sugarcane juice nutrition breakdown, click here.  I’ve never found anything comparable in Florida markets, so I grow my own.

We are hooked on growing our own backyard sugarcane for life.  My family has found great pleasure in cutting and chewing our sweet, sweet sugarcane.  I’m going to grow much more of it this year.  I’ll keep expanding my machete collection and I’m even looking into a household sugarcane extractor.

Sweet, sweet sugarcane.

Come grow with us!

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Mulch or No Mulch?

Posted in Gardening Experiments with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2010 by PickMeYard

To mulch or not to mulch is a question that drives me crazy every gardening season.  I lose the war against the weeds every year in the summertime when it’s hot and rainy.    

Two years ago, we expanded our vegetable gardening area.  We had a friend with a machine that scraped up the sod for us.   I used a newly purchased roto-tiller to till the area.  I mixed up a fabulous COF  (complete organic fertilizer)  fertilizer recipe created by the gardening guru, Steve Solomon.  Then, I planted tons of  black-eyed peas as a cover-crop  for the summer.  They seemed to grow up overnight… and so did the weeds.  It was a nightmare.  I had created a huge garden area that seemed impossible to keep up with.  It quickly turned into a huge patch of weeds to my knees.  The theory that the black-eyed pea plants would shade out the weeds did not work.  I’m sure the snakes were thrilled.  I remember lots of spiders  moved in.  However, we did have several bountiful harvests of black-eyed peas.

The black-eyed peas were young plants in this picture. The weeds had already won.

After a month or so of looking at our forest of weeds, my husband weed-whacked it all down for me.  I roto-tilled it again.  Then, I covered the entire area with a thick layer of newspaper.  I topped the newspaper with a thick layer of chipped-wood mulch.  This mulched area was weed-free for about a month… maximum.  The weeds came back with a vengeance.  That’s when I marched down to my local hardware store and bought the black plastic.  To be honest, it was a life-saver back-saver.  I don’t care what the organic, sustainable gardening police say… this method is what has allowed me to keep my sanity. 

The black-eyed peas after they'd been weed-whacked.

Clear plastic was our choice as a summer time mulch this year.

The problem with the plastic is that it breaks down.  It disintegrates into dust and must be replaced.  Plastic is an inorganic mulch and ends up in a landfill.  It’s definitely not the ideal mulch, but it keeps me from being overburdened and giving up.  It keeps the weeds arrested and detained. 

A mess of black plastic destined for the landfill.

Any mulch you use in your garden, whether organic or inorganic, is a good thing.  It not only keeps weeds at bay, but it conserves water and helps you grow bigger, better crops.  It acts as insulation by keeping the soil cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  Your garden will survive without mulch, but there is a noticeable difference when it is used.  I mulch my potted plants too.

Sweet potato vine mulched with chipped-wood.

Organic mulch breaks down in your garden soil and helps to provide nutrients.  Some people use grass clippings from their lawn as mulch.  It adds a lot of nitrogen to your garden, but sometimes it’s too much.  I know quite a few people who use pine needles, but it is very acidic.  It can cause an imbalance in your garden soil.  Oak tree leaves can do the same thing.  However, I think it would take an excessive amount for this to happen.

When I used chipped wood in my veggie beds, I found that it didn’t want to break down into the soil easily. It ended up becoming a burden to me because the chips got in the way.  However, the chipped wood did wonders for all my fruit trees and looks beautiful.  

Papaya tree mulched with chipped-wood.

I still love the idea of finding a sustainable, organic mulch that will actually keep the weeds manageable.  But, I also want it to look nice in our yard.  My husband and I keep looking at all the spilled hay that our goats spread around their area.  Goats won’t eat hay once it falls to the ground, so it becomes bedding.  I think we could let a few bales of hay sit outside for a while and weather, then use them as mulch.  I’m going to give this experiment a try on a few of our garden beds for our fall vegetable garden.  I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Gardening is not an exact science and I believe the saying, “different strokes for different folks” definitely holds true when it comes to a family garden.   I prefer the saying, “just do it”. 

Come grow with us!

Sea Grapes: Part II

Posted in Gardening Experiments with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by PickMeYard

Sea grape trees give lovely grapes to make jelly with, but they have some other very clever uses.  Our beloved family friend, Dr. Nune, showed us the most ingenious use of the sea grape leaf… plates and bowls!  Her family used to make these in India when she was a child.  We were so intrigued. 

Dr. Nune picked a palm frond to use to sew the plate together.

After she picked the palm frond, she stripped all the leaves off it and used the center strip of the frond.  When the leaves are stripped, it is a long, pliable stick.  She used scissors to cut the long strip into short sticks.  

Dr. Nune stripped the leaves off the frond by pulling them and cutting with scissors.

She used the center palm frond strip sticks to hold the seagrape leaves together.

This is one part of the plate sewn together. We tried staples too, but they didn't work as well.

She connected several leaves together with the palm frond sticks.

Finished seagrape plate.

The leaves are pliable when they’re freshly picked and green.  They could be sewn together and left to dry but they won’t be pliable anymore and crack easily. 

We also made bowls with the leaves.  I imagine these would be a hit at any party and they’re easy to make. 

Grayson making a bowl from a seagrape leaf.

A seagrape leaf bowl sewn with a palm frond center stick.

A seagrape leaf bowl filled with a bite of Tortuga Rum Cake.

Oh yeah, this is the life!

Come grow with us!

How you feeeeling… hot, hot, hot!

Posted in Gardening Experiments with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2010 by PickMeYard

Most of the United States planted all their vegetable crops in the spring.  We’re different in Florida.  We do most of our cool weather vegetable planting in late September or October.  I don’t even look at the “suggested planting times” on the back of seed packets anymore.  I have just learned what to grown in Florida and when.  It’s definitely not an exact science. 

In late September I usually plant carrots, onions, turnips, strawberries, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, cabbage, corn, collards and lettuce.  Most of these won’t grow well in the heat of a Florida summer… except the collards.  Collard greens do grow in the summer but they taste much better when they’re grown in the winter and the frost makes them taste even better.  Carrots will grow, but the heat makes them taste horribly bitter and yucky.  Tomatoes will grow too, but the heat prevents the fruit from setting.  Cherry tomatoes are an exception and can sometimes take the heat.  Lettuce is a cool weather crop that will bolt in the heat.  “Bolting” is when the lettuce sends out a shoot that goes to seed.  When a plant “bolts” it usually makes the leaves unpalatable.

Herbs usually have a hard time surviving the heat in a Florida summer.  If they’re grown in pots they can be moved into the shade. I keep my pelargoniums alive in the summer by moving them into the shade.  Rosemary doesn’t mind the heat.  Lemon balm, lemongrass and  cuban oregano thrive.  I was glad to see my thyme made it through last summer without a problem.  My new favorite is provence lavender.  I have finally found a lavender that thrives in humidity.  I’m going to plants lots more of this.

Provence lavender in a Florida summer (June).

Provence lavender flowers that thrive in humidity and tolerate heat.

The African basil is thriving in the heat and the bees love it.

Lemongrass. I had cut it way back in March and it's full again.

Our summer herb bed.

Summer herbs in pots.

In the summer time in Florida  we need to grow crops that can survive  the heat and humidity.  The problem with summer is the army of insects that usually arrive.  We’ve learned to tolerate them and we always figure out new ways to fight back without using pesticides.  Our favorite summertime crops are callaloo, peppers, eggplants, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, ginger, turmeric, chives, collards, cucumbers, watermelons, sugar cane, water chestnuts, sunflowers, malabar spinach and passion fruit.  There are so many different varieties of these.  We love the white eggplants and all the interesting kinds of peppers and watermelons.  This summer we’re also growing cassava, malanga, different kinds of peppers, tomatillos  and pigeon peas. 

A young callaloo plant.

A large vegetable amaranth.

A cassava plant.

Bitter melon growing in a pot.

Dried black-eyed peas on the bush.

The top one is a fresh black-eyed pea "snap" and the bottom ones are dried black-eyed peas. Both make a delicious meal!

Young pigeon pea plant in a pot.

Large pigeon pea plant in a pot.

Flowering pigeon peas.

A scotch bonnet plant with a flower. Scotch bonnet is a very flavorful and hot pepper. I cut off just a sliver and cook it with my food. It adds delicious flavor and just enough heat.

We’ve let the chickens loose around the yard for the summer and they are enjoying themselves immensely.  They’re helping with the bug population and are able to find cool places to wait out the afternoon heat.  They’re also taking a break from the egg laying which is necessary for them.  

This is our little bantam hen. Her name is "Sweet Pea" and she is hard at work foraging in the peas.

One of our floofy-headed chickens is chillin' under the rosemary bush.

My dad set up a hydroponic garden inside his screened-in lanai last summer.  It gets full sun but the screen provides some protection.   The bees can’t reach his plants but he still got some gorgeous vegetables in the middle of summer.  He also has a hydroponic garden set up outside the lanai.  His garden changes constantly just like ours.  It looks  completely different every time we see it.

My father's hydroponic garden inside his screeened-in porch.

More of his inside hydroponic garden.

His newly planted hydroponic garden outside of his screened-in area.

When the gardening experts tell me it can’t be done, I usually try anyway.  Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not.  Since I’m a backyard gardener and not a commercial grower, I have little risk in losing a crop or two. 

The beauty of Florida is that we can grow food all year round. 

Come grow with us!