Why I do What I Do

This ugly little green fruit is called Solanum uporo, or the Cannibal’s Tomato.

canibal's tomato

It is a bitter nasty fruit that grows on spiny eggplant like leaves. It is also mildly poisonous if not cooked properly. I’m not only growing it on purpose, I’m isolating it and preserving the seeds so that I can continue to grow it. Why?

The cannibal’s tomato is a plant that dates back hundreds of years. It was native originally to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Hawaii. It acquired its common name due to the fact it was used by some of the natives to assist in the digestion of “tall pork”. Apparently eating your neighbor is a little hard on the digestive system and enzymes in the leaves were used to assist with that. And learning that fact, was the moment that made me realize I needed to own this plant.

I cannot resist something with history be it art, antiques, or a seed. So while some people reenact epic Civil War battles, I collect seeds from Antebellum gardens. Others enjoy Victorian artwork and literature, I grow 200 year old flowers. The beauty and the history in something that is on the verge of never existing speaks to me. It is livable, touchable, edible artwork. In the same manner an art collector is always after that holy grail, that one unique item, I can’t stop collecting plants.

When I grow heirloom vegetables, I think of the emigrating families from Europe. What their journey must have been like, what they were thinking as they came, and why they chose to bring the seeds they did. I think about the slaves from Africa who cultivated their own gardens of food from home alongside the plantations they worked in because preserving that heritage of food was important. I want to grow everything at least once to feel that connection with the people who brought it here.

If I live to be 100, I will never see them all and that is what drives me. One more seed, one more plant. I never know what they will teach me or make me feel. And that is why I do what I do.


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Pest Control

The most common question people ask me about gardening organically is how to control pests naturally. Just like controlling pests in the home, controlling pests in the garden does not have to be overcomplicated, but it has to be done, so here are some tips.

First, just like in the home. you want to keep on top of your “housekeeping”. If you leave piles of newspaper, empty pizza boxes, and leftover food laying around, it won’t be long until your house is crawling with bugs. The same is true for your garden. Weeds are the clutter that gives bad bugs a place to hide and breed. Frequent weeding is your first step to minimizing your bug population. Rotten fruit, dead leaves, and sick plants are their food so remove these as well and their populations will drop.

Next, just like in your house, you want to keep your garden bright, airy, and smelling fresh. This will welcome your beneficial insects and repel the damaging ones. You can do this by planting your vegetable in the correct light, in the correct season, and inter-planting with companion plants or pest controlling flowers. The marigold has natural pest controlling properties and works well with all members of the nightshade family such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Nasturtiums put off an odor that repels squash bugs. They work very well with all members of the cucurbit family, cucumbers, squashes, melons, and pumpkins. They are also edible both raw and cooked.

Lastly, should a bug find its way in, handle it the same as your home. Be vigilant and exterminate immediately before it has a chance to find another bug and start a family. I like to start with the most environmentally friendly technique first, then work my way up as needed. Squishing is a highly recommended technique. Simple remedies such as soapy water (made with all-natural soaps only) can take care of most pests. Spray first thing in the morning when the insects are out and still moving slow. Should you still have a problem with smaller pests or fungus issues, try neem oil. It also works as a fertilizer for leafy greens. Kaolin clay is another useful method for many of the same issues.

If your problems are larger, such as cut worms or squash vine borers, try BT. It will only affect larvae and caterpillar type insects, so it is harmless to bees, ladybugs, and earthworms. It can be harmful to butterfly larvae, so if you want to be extra careful, inject it into the plant stem instead of spraying. Spinosad is another powerful but organic means of pest control. It can be harmful to bees when wet, so be careful where you spray. It is also effective for naturally treating fleas on pets and head lice on people. If you need to bring out the big guns, then there is pyrethrum, a relative of the marigold. Be warned it kills everything, even earthworms, so this is not the sort of thing you want to douse a whole vegetable bed with. I only use it on locusts and fire ants. If you have been looking for a natural fire ant killer, this is it. Pour it on the mound and watch them run for their lives and die.

As with most things in gardening, preventing the problem is simpler than solving it, but hopefully this will give you all the tools you need to keep your garden healthy and pest free all season.

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Nature never ceases to amaze me. No matter what humans need, somewhere there is plant that makes it. Why people started making artificial anything is beyond me.

A perfect example is the Soapberry Tree.

Western Soapberry

The soapberry tree is a member of the maple family and grows in warm to tropical climates. It is well suited for Florida and makes an excellent companion plant to several of the better known wild edibles that grow here such as beautyberry, chinkapin, and sumac. Although it is considered a tropical, it can take a light freeze and can also be grown in a large container.

It is used in India and Asia medicinally for treating eczema, psoriasis, and lice. It is also used around the world as an insecticide, an expectorant, a contraceptive, and for treating migraine headaches.

It is most commonly used though as an easily obtained natural soap.

The nuts of the tree contain saponins. To use them, all you have to do is put 3-4 of the nuts in a mesh bag and toss it in with your laundry. That’s it. No mixing, cooking, or other ingredients needed. If you have hot water, cold, water, or hard water, it doesn’t matter. They get everything clean and leave your laundry smelling fresh. Since they contain no chemicals that can irritate the skin, they are a perfect choice for those with skin allergies or chemical sensitivities. I have not found anything that works better on cloth diapers or toddler stains. Depending on the hardness of your water, you can get 3-4 loads per bag of berries. Once they break down, they can be composted, leaving nothing to harm your skin or your yard.

Absolutely perfect. Once again, nature delivers.

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Secondary Edibles

One of the bigest advantages to being a gardener, is that you get to try more food. When you shop for food, you are limited to what is available for you to buy. When you grow, what you eat is up to you.

Aside from the endless types of seed and alternate sources of cooking greens, there are more simply, the parts of common vegetables that never make it to the grocery store. These are known as secondary edibles.


When you shop for produce, you get accustomed to looking at vegetables a certain way. Broccoli is a single stalk, usually bunched together with other stalks. Cabbage is small, light green, and shrinkwrapped. When you start growing your own, you realize most vegetable plants have other parts to them. Both cabbage and broccoli are huge plants with large outer leaves. It just makes common sense that if the inside of the cabbage is made of cabbage, shouldn’t the outside be also? Yet outside of ethnic and specialty stores, these items are rarely sold as food.

As a home grower, if your objective is to grow your own food, why not eat more of the food you are already growing? Secondary edibles are a great way to increase your yield because they do not require any more effort than what you are already doing. Eating the secondary parts of plants also takes some of the “pressure” off of growing. Didn’t get a ton of tomatoes or squash this year? That’s OK, because you still grew food and that was the objective.

Some secondary parts may not be as easy to prepare as the primary. A few require cooking due to chemicals present in the leaves and cannot be eaten raw. Secondary edibles are commonly eaten around the world and recipes are available online, so read up on the preparation before you try anything. Obviously if you are alergic to the primary part of a plant, don’t be in a hurry to try the secondary. Some may have a different flavor than what you are used to, but to me that is one of the joys of gardening. To know that what is in my refrigerator or on my plate could not be purchased anywhere else.

Try some of these to start, and then do some research on your own. With this much available, you will be suprised how easy it becomes to grow your own food.

Asparagus – Fern (raw or cooked)

Beans – Leaves, Flowers (raw or cooked, every bit as tasty as the beans themselves)

Beets – Leaves (raw or cooked)

Broccoli/Cabbage/Cauliflower – Outer leaves (taste better cooked, edible raw)

Carrot- Leaves (raw or cooked)

Celery – Leaves, seeds (raw or cooked)

Cucumber – Young leaves (cooked only)

Okra- Leaves (cooked)

Onions – Leaves (raw or cooked)

Parsley – Root (raw or cooked)

Peas – Leaves, Flowers (raw or cooked)

Pepper/Eggplant – Leaves (after cooking only)

Radish – Leaves (raw or cooked) Note: these are so good, they have become my favorite cooking green. Much milder than collards and since radishes mature in only 30 days, these can be an almost constant source of greens.

Squash – Seeds, Flowers, Young Leaves (Cook the leaves) The squash flowers are really good in eggs. Pick the male flower only or you won’t get fruit.

Tomato – Leaves (Cooked only)

Turnip – Leaves (raw or cooked)

Watermelon – Rind (try making watermelon rind pickles, they are very good)

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Sweet Potato

If you only ever plant one thing, plant sweet potato.

Sweet potato is the easiest vegetable you will ever grow here in Florida. Sandy soil? No problem. Don’t like weeding? It doesn’t need it. Have trouble remembering to water? It will forgive you. It is pest resistant, virtually disease free, and it tastes great too.

Sweet potato can be started either from tubers, or from slips. Plant these in the ground once the weather starts to warm up, February is good. They will take off quickly on their own and once the summer rains come, they will cover everything. Their lush foliage crowds out all other plants, making weeding unnessesary. The plant is not very frost tolerant, and the leaves will die back, but it is very good at self sowing itself and will most likely be back in the spring. Save some small tubers or slips to replant just in case.

All parts of the sweet potato are edible. The greens have a high protien content and nutritionally complement the root. Tender shoots are best, as larger leaves can taste bitter and cooking them is recommended. The root of course, has almost infinite cooking possibilites from boiled, baked, and fried to pasta and noodles.

So brown thumb or not, get your hands on some sweet potato slips this spring and see how easy it can be to grow your food.

My favorite way to cook sweet potato:

3 medium sweet potatoes

3 medium red potatoes

1 medium onion, minced (divided into 1/3 cups)

1 half pint of heavy cream

1 cup shredded parmesean or romano cheese (divided into 1/4 cups)

tarragon, salt, pepper

Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Place a single layer in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the cheese, 1/3 of the onion, tarragon, and a small amount of salt and pepper. Repeat the layers until the dish is full. Pour cream over all and sprinkle remaing cheese on top. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10-15 more minutes or until bubbly and potatoes are tender.

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Cranberry Hibiscus

As if the Roselle plant were not already the near perfect plant, those of you who planted in the spring when I did, are now finding out it also fruits.

The Roselle plant is pretty enough with it’s bushy greens, but when it starts to flower, it is gorgeous. Large white flowers cover the shrub, followed by stunning red calyxes.  These are the fruit of the Roselle plant, also called Cranberry Hibiscus.

The Cranberry Hibiscus fruit is common all over the world. In Germany and France the flowers are imported where they are made into syrups and jams. In Africa and Asia the leafy greens are a popular cooked vegetable and the flowers are made into medicinal teas and syrups to relieve coughs. In Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, the dried flowers are boiled in water and sweetened with sugar to make a popular homemade drink that is served everywhere, much like iced tea is in our country. At festive occasions it may be flavored with ginger and rum. It is popular all over the world for jams, jellies, and syrups because the flowers have a natural pectin in them, so jam can easily be made with just the flowers, water, and sugar.

Roselle fruit was once a popular commercial export in Florida and was called the Florida Cranberry. It died out in the 1950’s due to freezes and it never really regained its popularity here, but it is easily grown and thrives in the Florida climate.

The fruit is high in vitamin C and antioxidants. It is used around the world as a diuretic, for coughs, to reduce cholesterol, for hypertension, to lower blood pressure, for urinary tract disease, to reduce fever, and as an antimicrobial treatment for E-coli. Studies have even shown extracts of the plant  to have possible uses in the treatment of cancer, liver disease, and diabetes. Besides all that, it tastes great.

To get the fresh flowers, you will most likely have to grow them yourself, but the dried ones are readily available in most Latin and Trinidad markets in Florida.

Here are a few uses for the amazing Roselle Fruit.

Roselle Tea

You will need 2-3 fresh or dried Roselle fruits (pit removed) per cup of hot or cold tea.

Bring water to a boil, then add the roselle fruit. Reduce heat slightly and simmer until the water is bright red (8-10 minutes). The longer you seep it, the brighter the color and stronger the Roselle flavor will be. You can leave the pit in the fruit, but the tea will be much more tart. Remove from heat and sweeten with stevia, sugar, or honey. It can be used as a hot or iced tea.

Roselle Jam

4 Cups of roselle flowers, peeled, finely chopped

1 Tblsp. Lemon Juice

1/4 Tsp. Lemon Rind

2 Cups of sugar

Water (to just cover flowers)

Add flowers, lemon juice, and lemon rind to a saucepan. Cover with just enough water to reach the top of the mixture. Boil until mixture softens and water level is reduced. Remove from heat, add sugar. Return to heat, stirring so that it does not burn and continue cooking until mixture forms a soft gel when a spoonful of it is dropped on a cold plate. Pour into canning jars and either refrigerate, or process in a water bath for storage.

Roselle Syrup

1 Pound Roselle Fruit (whole)

2 Cups Sugar

2 Cups Water

Soak the fruits for 10 minutes in cold water, then remove the outer petals. In a pot add the petals, the sugar, and the water. Simmer for 45 minutes until reduced by half and starting to thicken. Jar and store in the refrigerator. Can be used as a syrup or to make a healthy beverage. Mix 1 Tablespoon of the syrup with an 8oz. glass of cold water, seltzer water, tonic water, or mineral water. It can also be flavored with ginger or other spices and used as a mix for alcoholic beverages and punches.

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Luffa Sponge

Most people are surprised when they first learn that those scrubby natural sponges sold at bath and specialty shops don’t come from the sea. In fact, they are an easy to grow vegetable and they come from a vine.

A truly renewable natural resource, these sponges are the perfect solution for “green” cleaning. Unlike cellulose sponges, luffa is recyclable and compostable. In the bath they exfoliate and restore circulation to your skin. In the kitchen they clean dishes and pots with a mildly abrasive surface. Larger ones can be used to wash your car. Smaller, softer ones can be used as a face scrub. They last as long as commercial sponges and can be washed with lemon juice and sun-bleached to keep them fresh. What’s more, if you live in Florida, you can grow all you want right in your own yard.

The luffa sponge (or loofah) is a relative of the cucumber and its leaves are similar in appearance. The luffa fruits are edible when they are very small, but develop a tough fibrous interior as they mature. Once established, the vine will cover a wall, fence, or archway with dark leafy foliage and bright yellow flowers. The flowers attract hundreds of beneficial pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and bumblebees so plant them anywhere you want to look at beautiful buzzing summer insects.

Luffas aren’t picky and will grow just fine in the ground or in a container. They do need something to climb up, but a fence or even a rough wall will do. Unlike other squashes, the luffa vine is virtually pest and disease free and is not troubled by the powdery mildews that plague other squashes. They do best in bright, full sun, need lots of water, and require 140 frost free days. For Florida gardeners, that means planting anywhere from June to September. The humidity and summer rains are exactly what this plant needs. The seeds are inexpensive and easily obtainable, making it a simple project to cover a whole wall or fence. Weeding should be done when the seedlings are small, but once they are established the vine will crowd out weeds on its own. As with other low maintenance plants, once you get this plant going, it will take off and do the rest of the work without you.

You can harvest your bath sponges when the fruits get large and begin to feel fibrous or hollow. You can leave them on the vine to dry if the weather permits, but in heavy summer rains, it might be best to let them dry out in a sheltered area to prevent rot.  Once the skin has dried, you peel it off like a banana and you will see the sponge inside. Squeeze the seeds out over a bowl or other container and save them to plant next season or feed them to your chickens. Rinse your sponge under running water until it is clean and let it dry. It is then ready to use or to give as a gift.

If you already make your own soaps or cleaning supplies, why not grow a fence full of luffas next year to go with them? Your friends will be amazed you grew them yourself and you will be amazed how easy it was.

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When it comes to fruit trees, papayas are the closest thing you can get to instant gratification. They grow from seed to fruiting tree in under 12 months and then continue to bear all year long. They do not require any special oil sprays or treatments, and are tolerant of beginning gardeners.

They are a low-maintenance plant and their list of demands is small. They prefer full sun, but will make do with less. They can be container grown making them ideal for the apartment or condo gardener. The better the soil you plant them in, the more fruit you will get and the faster you will get it, but sandy soil is OK too as long as you fertilize them . If you really want to ignore a papaya tree, shade your chicken coop with one. The tree will be where the good fertilizer is and chickens love the dropped fruits. Papaya trees can’t take a hard freeze and usually don’t live more than 4 years, so plan on planting a new tree every two years or so and you will always have papayas.

The fruit itself can be eaten green or ripe. It is low in calories compared to other fruits and high in fiber. It contains Vitamin A, Complex B Vitamins, Potassium, Calcium, Beta Carotene, and more Vitamin C per serving than citrus fruits.   The seeds are spicy and can be used as a black pepper substitute. In some cultures, the leaves of the tree are cooked and eaten like spinach, and the flower buds are thrown into stir fries.

Aside from food, the tree is a tropical medicine chest. Parts of the plant and fruit have been used for tenderizing meat, treating cuts and bruises, digestive issues, rope making, as an anti-inflammatory medicine, the treatment of worms, malaria, as a hair conditioner, and even as contraception both in males and females.

Quite a lot to get back from a tree that does not ask for much in return. If picking fresh tropical fruit from your own yard every week is one of your gardening goals, I suggest starting out with a papaya tree. You won’t be disappointed.

Click Here for a Grilled Shrimp Fajita with Papaya Salsa Recipe:

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Grilled Shrimp Fajitas with Papaya Salsa

Papaya Salsa

3/4 cup ripe papaya, diced
3/4 cup fresh pineapple, diced
1/2 cup mango, diced
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
1 chili pepper, serrano or jalapeno, seeded and minced (or more, if you like spicy salsa)
1 garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

Salsa: Combine all ingredients; cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. For best flavor and texture, do not make more than 2 hours before serving.

Shrimp Fajitas

1 pound cleaned shrimp (or cubed very firm tofu)
2 teaspoons jerk seasoning
8 flour tortillas
1 1/2 cups black beans, cooked, drained and mashed
1 cup light sour cream

Coat shrimp with jerk seasoning. Marinate at least 1 hour or overnight in refrigerator. Skewer and grill or broil over medium heat. Divide black beans, salsa, sour cream and salsa between tortillas; fold up one edge to form a pocket and roll to hold filling.

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Busy Day Pickles

This is the easiest pickle recipe ever. So fast, you can put up a couple of jars in as little as 15 minutes. Perfect for when you have a few surplus cucumbers, but not enough to merit a whole half day of canning.

This recipe is very adjustable. You can use it to make chips, spears, bread and butters, or gherkins. If you have the time and want to do some serious pickling, this recipe can be sized up for a quantity batch and processed in a hot bath canner. If you don’t, you can make a small batch and store them in the fridge.

Ready to make some pickles? Good, let’s get started:

First you will need:

Cucumbers  – Larger ones for spears and chips, smaller ones for gherkins. Do not use full size supermarket cukes. Once the insides have had a chance to get all “seedy”, you can’t make crunchy pickles. You want small, compact, and very fresh cucumbers.

Some canning jars – Ball, Mason, whatever. Quart size is best, but pint works too. If you are not planning on processing these for storage, you can even use old mayonnaise or pickle jars as long as they are glass.

White Vinegar – 5% acidity. HAS to be this kind. No red wine, no rice, no homemade. Strong white vinegar.

Distilled water – Water from a well is OK if it doesn’t have a lot of sulfur and minerals in it. You don’t ever want to use fluoridated or treated city water.

Kosher or Pickling salt


Fresh garlic cloves, peeled and washed

Fresh dill stalks washed and dried

Pickling spice (if making sweet pickles)

Fresh grape leaves, washed and dried (optional)

So here is the base recipe for 4 quart jars, size up or down as needed:

In the bottom of each jar put 2-3 cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of peppercorns, a bunch of fresh dill, and a grape leaf. If you don’t like garlic, use less or leave it out. If you are making sweet pickles, add a tablespoon of sweet pickling spice.

*Why the grape leaf? The enzymes in the grape leaf naturally preserve the crunchiness of the raw cucumber. There are lots of other additives you can use or ways to get crunchier pickles, but this is the one I’m using in this recipe. Plus it looks cool in the jar*

Wash your cukes thoroughly and cut off the ends. (The blossom end is another thing that makes for soggy pickles). Then slice your cukes up how you want them, or leave them whole for gherkins. Pack the jars tightly all the way up to the headspace of the jar. Add 2-3 more garlic cloves and another grape leaf on top.

In a large pot:

1 Quart of Water

1 Quart 5% White Vinegar

2-3 Tablespoons Pickling or Kosher Salt

1-2 Tsp White Sugar (for Sweets, add 1/4-1/2 Cup)

Cook until sugar is dissolved, then taste. If you want it sweeter, add more sugar, saltier, add more salt. As long as you don’t mess with the vinegar/water ratio, you can play with it however you like. Once it is perfect, bring to a boil. Remove from heat and funnel into pickle jars filling just to the bottom of the jars rim. You want to leave that 1/2″ or so as headspace. Put your lids on, let them cool, then put them in the fridge. In a week you will have pickles. Try the same thing with carrots, cauliflower, or any other crunchy vegetable.

If you want to take the time to can them for storage, the only additional steps are to sterilize the jars and lids before filling them and to boil the jars in a water bath canner afterwards. Follow your manufacturer’s instructions for processing times on pickles.

And that’s it. 15 minutes to crunchy homemade pickles. Even on a busy day.

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