Monthly Archives: May 2013

Planting Okra

Okra SeedsOne of the big problems with living in Pinellas County is that we aren’t sure what climate zone we live in. Most climate or hardiness zone maps show the Tampa Bay area as being at the north edge of zone 10 (or 10a). Unfortunately our weather is sometimes zone ten (South Florida) and sometimes zone nine (Central Florida).

Okra, according to many websites, can be planted in Central Florida from March to August. In South Florida, the spring planting season is supposed to be over in April. Since this has been a cool spring (still in the low 70s at night) decided to go ahead and get some okra in – even though it might theoretically be too late.

Ready to PlantI prepared the other end of the garden bed much as I did for the sweet potatoes. I used a four-tine cultivator, a garden rake, and my hands to get out most of the weeds and their deep roots. Then I did the trench/water/mix procedure until I had some dampness incorporated into the soil. In contrast to the way I handled the sweet potatoes I decided to add quite a bit of worm castings along the length of the row. as you can see, I added my cardboard mulch.

The seed packet indicated a spacing of 18 to 24 inches – so I spaced the first plant 2 feet from the nearest sweet potato seedling and used 18 inches for the rest. With my handy Swiss Army knife I cut out squares at the proper spacing. This time I left each cardboard sqare attached along one edge – a hinge. Since I’m planting seeds and not seedlings I want to retain as much water as possible in each spot.

VermiculiteI mixed some vermiculite (I always have some around) with water – making it pretty soggy. Each hole got a handful to act as “potting soil.” Seeds and brand-new sprouts don’t need any fertilizer – it can harm them. The vermiculite will insulate the seedlings from the worm castings until they grow their roots down far enough.

In each of the holes I placed three seeds – I’ll thin them once they’re up. I pushed them down a quarter inch deep – though the packet said they should be planted 4 inches deep! I suspect a typo.

Once the seeds were planted and covered in wet vermiculite I closed the individual covers to keep things nice and moist . I’ll pop them open in a couple of days to see if the sprouts are breaking through.

With much prayer,


Is today a good day to plant sweet potatoes?

I ordered some sweet potato slips from an online company. Unfortunately they never arrived. I’d rather not mention the company name until I get the problem resolved. Or not.

LayoutGardenBedAs an alternative, I went to Lowe’s and picked up a nine pack of Beauregard sweet potato plants. I’ve never grown sweet potatoes – I’ve rarely even eaten them – but they’re a traditional summertime southern crop. What the heck.

As you can see from the photo my backyard is not heavily overgrown with grass. After laying out a 4’x16′ bed I lightly cultivated and pulled most of the weeds. I’ll depend on a cardboard mulch to take care of the rest.

WateringCultivating talcum powder sand isn’t exactly hard work—but watering it is! For a fun experiment (if you don’t live around here) get some talcum powder and put it in a dish. Sprinkle a little water on top. Does it soak in? I didn’t think so.

Here’s how I did it. I dug a trench with a cultivator, filled it with water, and cultivated again. Repeat, over and over. The water just puddles on top of the soil unless you stir it in. Once the soil and water were mixed I added a cardboard and log mulch to keep the water from evaporating too fast.

What spacing to use? The little plastic thing that came with the plants suggests 12”. An online source suggests 9”, with 32” between rows. Since my bed is four feet wide (until the grass moves back in) I punched the holes 9” apart. I dug each planting hole with a stream of water Plantedfrom the hose, and stuffed the plant in the resulting puddle. I don’t need a trowel.

I also threw a handful of worm castings in each hole to get the plants off to a quick start (I’ll talk about my red worms some other time).  I checked online to see how much fertilizer sweet potatoes need – and it doesn’t seem like they need much. I’m going to try growing them with nothing added except the worm castings. We’ll see how they do.


One thing that I forgot to mention – something you always need to do when planting. Pray. It really does help.


Here’s a close-up of a sweet potato plant.

God bless


Compost Basics

Getting Started

Dirt1The first weekend after moving into my new house I started a compost pile. Yes, this came before doing anything else in the yard. Why is compost so important? Well, the “soil” in most of Pinellas County has to be seen to be believed. It is a very fine sand with little organic content—I often refer to it as “talcum powder.” It has minimal natural fertility and drains so quickly that it retains neither moisture nor added fertilizers. The only practical way to improve it is to mix in lots of organic matter. Because of our heat and humidity the organic matter decays very rapidly and must be constantly replenished.

Adding compost to my coastal Florida “soil” improves its structure, fertility, and water retention but it won’t give me the beautiful soil seen in magazines. The only place around here you can find that kind of soil is in container gardens filled with imported soil.

What is compost? 

Compost is simply organic matter, stuff that was once alive, that has partially decayed. Rather than write a detailed description, I direct you to a decent, short article on Wikipedia:


What I’m going to describe below is the way I do things. I am an engineer who designs machinery for a living—not a doctor or pathologist or nutritionist. While I’ve been doing this for years with absolutely no ill effects, everything I write is merely my opinion. You must do your own research and decide if my methods are for you. I take no responsibility for what you do. And I don’t expect you to take any responsibility for me!

My first compost pile (at my new house)

Once my bin was complete I began raking leaves. I have two large oak trees – planted in 1972 – in my front (south) yard. The people from whom I bought my house spent all their time remodeling the inside. They hadn’t done anything with the yard. Needless to say, there were plenty of leaves to rake up.

I raked the leaves onto an old plastic tarp that I had found; this became my poor man’s sledge to drag them into the back yard. I piled them up next to my bin. As the pile got too big I used my bagging lawnmower to shred the leaves and dump them into the bin. I also mowed the back yard, bagging the grass clippings and dumping them in with the shredded leaves. This added some nitrogen to the mix. As I filled the bin I added buckets of water – many buckets – to moisten everything down. By the time I was finished that first weekend my 4 foot tall bin had leaves piled six feet high.

Over the next two weeks I continued raking and mowing, shredding and piling. I estimate that I managed to fit at least 75 cubic feet of shredded leaves into 2 fifty-cubic-foot bin (it quickly heated up and began settling). After I had overfilled it for the third time, I started a new bin.

Unfortunately, the compost was drying out much too fast. I decided to wrap the whole bin in plastic. I had to do that on the outside since it was already full. When I built the new bin I put the plastic on the inside. I’ll show you what I did in my next column.

There are many online resources explaining the different ways to do composting. People seem to like to stress about getting the carbon – nitrogen ratio just right, adding accelerators and starters, turning the compost, or even buying incredibly expensive manufactured bins and compost tumblers. I do none of these things – too expensive and too much like work.

My method is simple – and probably dates back to the early days of agriculture. I simply keep piling stuff up until I decide it’s time to stop. I add water as needed to keep the pile moist. And I wait. In Florida, with its heat and humidity, I generally start using the compost 3 to 6 months after I stop filling the bin. That’s all there is to it.

How it works

Short answer: God designed things to work that way! I’ve been told – actually I’ve read – that scientists have determined that microscopic organisms – bacteria and fungi – eat my yard waste and turn it into compost. These writers claim a that there are many many different types of these little critters at work. Some of them do their best work at cool temperatures. Others can’t even start growing and reproducing until the temperature rises above 140°F! And yet, these bacteria are found almost everywhere. Pretty amazing. All of the bacteria and fungi that are needed to do the composting process are already present. You don’t have to add any starter culture. They just get to work.

Can I save money by making my own compost?

Let me put this is delicately as I can. Many people buy a manufactured composting bin, purchase starter cultures, or spend money on compost accelerators. These folks will have the satisfaction of making their own compost but will spend far more money than the same amount of compost would have cost at a discount garden center.

If you expect to earn minimum wage for your labor, no.

If, like me, you build your own, cheap, composting bins and work in your garden instead of spending money on a gym membership then the answer is a resounding yes.

In future posts I’ll have a lot more to share, but now I must do some painting before the day gets too hot.

Happy gardening,