Sunday, July 29, 2007

Come and get 'em while you can


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 29, 2007)

There is a popular misconception among people who have never lived in Florida. To them, ours is a one-season state: hot-and-humid.

"How can you stand it?" they'll ask. "

You have no autumn, no spring, no winter -- just summer all year round?

"Well, I like summer. I'd rather be hot than cold. But all that is beside the point, because I disagree with the basic premise.

The way I see it, Florida is bursting with seasonal changes. Every month seems to trigger the arrival of a new flower or fruit. The air is continually filled with a revolving door of fragrances -- gardenias one month, orange blossoms another. Jasmine, honeysuckle, loquat, ginger: Each plant in its own season delights the nose and stimulates the senses.Yes, it gets hot here, but it also gets cold. No matter how mild the winter is, there's always a period of dormancy when deciduous trees become a skeleton of their former selves.

In the flush of spring, leaves emerge, and later there's an autumnal flutter when the bright orange, red, yellow and amber-colored remnants of swamp maples, sycamores, tupelo trees and Chinese tallows fall to the ground.

Right now, we're entering one of my favorite periods, grape season.

A special kind of grape grows in our Southern climate. It's a muscadine with a funny name -- scuppernong. Many people don't realize grapes grow in Florida, let alone that they can be handpicked right here in our own neighborhood. Anyone who appreciates the incomparable taste of locally grown produce should consider this a wake-up call -- grape season is upon us!

Scuppernongs are a large, round, thick-skinned, bronze-colored fruit. They're a seeded grape that is exceedingly sweet, making it an excellent candidate for wine, juice, jam or jelly. But I never get that far. I think scuppernongs are best eaten by the handful -- preferably out of a very large bowl filled to the brim with the antioxidant-rich fruit.

Every year my daughter, son and I go to Tommy Free's U-pick farm on the shores of Lake Apshawa in Clermont to pick grapes. Our August expeditions to Free's farm have become something of a seasonal tradition. For less money than it takes to rent a video, we can take home a bulging bag of fruit more flavorful than anything you can buy in stores.

Picking is easy. Grapes grow on vines trained to cover long fence lines. You simply walk down the rows, reach under the leaves and pluck the largest, juiciest fruit you can find. It's a bit like a treasure hunt with sweet treats as the reward.

In a recent phone conversation, Tommy Free said, "This is the biggest and best year ever."

Free knows what he is talking about. He has been growing grapes at his family's 2-acre farmstead since 1987. The U-pick season begins at Free's Lake Apshawa Farm on Aug. 4 and continues until the grapes are all gone a few weeks later.

Unfortunately, family farms have become endangered species in these land-hungry times. During the past decade, developers have gobbled up many a vineyard, grove or field. After chewing up the land, they spit out tract houses on napkin-sized lots.

Often, the only hint that a farm or grove existed at all is in the name of the subdivision.

How many citrus trees remain in Orange Tree Country Club or in Greater Groves? It's a sad but ironic fact that developers frequently name their subdivisions after the very plant or animal they've managed to destroy in the process of "resculpting" the land.

Last year six farms were listed on, a Web site devoted to helping people around the world find local farms where they can pick fresh fruit and vegetables. This year in all of Central Florida, I know of only three U-pick grape growers still in business: Tommy Free's Lake Apshawa Farm, Valley View Vineyard on the outskirts of Howey-in-the-Hills and Shady Oak Farm in Lakeland.

Grape season may just be beginning, but considering the insatiable appetite of developers, I wouldn't be surprised if these and other produce-bearing operations disappeared from the landscape in the not too distant future.

So, act now.

Gather up the kids and take a drive in August to one of the few remaining U-pick grape farms. Make it an outing, something the whole clan can do together. If your family is anything like mine, your trip to the vineyard will yield far more than golden globes of goodness. It will include a harvest of memories to be savored for a lifetime.

That's one seasonal feast too good to miss.

Monday, July 23, 2007

'New-new' just doesn't fit her recycling style


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel July 22, 2007)

I can't remember the last time I bought a new dress. Or a new blouse, pants, jeans or shoes. Not "new-new" anyway. The fashions I'm fond of aren't purchased in conventional retail outlets. They come from thrift shops.

To some people, secondhand outfits are -- pardon the pun -- unsuitable.

Not me. I'm pleased to slip into a gently worn skirt or button up a soft sweater someone else gave away. I find thrift-shop shopping -- whether it's for clothing, household items, appliances, books or the myriad other treasures waiting to be discovered in secondhand stores -- to be far more than an exercise in frugality. It's a way of life: eco-friendly, affordable and fun.Mention recycling and most people envision bins filled with aluminum cans, glass jars and plastic bottles.

But what about torn jeans, stained shirts or out-of-style fashions? Clothing tossed in the trash bin doesn't -- poof! -- magically disappear. It ends up at the county dump. With our landfills filling up at an unprecedented pace, it seems senseless and unnecessarily lazy to throw away last year's outfit and those stylish but blister-producing shoes when alternatives are so readily available.

Give them to a thrift shop.

If you think clothing stacked in the back of the closet is too bad to be any good, think again. Even thrift shops recycle. They sell their threadbare, torn or dirty donations to rag sorters and textile materials recovery facilities (TMFs). The TMFs then turn the fabric into wiping and polishing cloths or fiber to be used in new textile products. Everything is salvaged, down to zippers, buttons and hooks.

Even clothing too damaged to become rags gets reused. Those fabrics are sent to a fiber converter that turns them into filler for mattresses, pillows and cushion stuffing. Some become carpet underlay, insulation for houses, deck panels and sound-deadening materials used by the automotive industry. The next time you get into your car, truck or van, look at the roof liner, door panel, under the hood and in the trunk. Nearly 80 pounds of the material in every automobile started out as someone's unwanted garments.

Many items donated to thrift shops make their way around the world. According to a municipal solid-waste report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 61 percent of clothing recovered for secondhand use is exported to foreign countries. Savers, the nation's largest for-profit thrift chain with two of its 200-plus stores in the Orlando area, recycled 160 million pounds of clothing last year by sending it overseas.

Not only does the recycling of unwanted garb provide a means to help others, it enables givers to support charitable organizations that reflect their principles.

There are secondhand stores throughout every region sponsored by a broad spectrum of charitable groups. Animal lovers can support Humane Society thrift shops.People who want to fight hunger can give goods to local food-bank resale shops. There are thrift stores to support women's shelters, children's homes, local hospitals and churches of most denominations. There are also large national nonprofit chains such as Goodwill Industries International, Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, plus for-profit companies such as Savers. All are in business to keep landfills free of unnecessary waste while supporting worthwhile charitable causes.But even with all those options, many people still find it too inconvenient to bundle up and take their unwantables to a thrift store or drop-off center.

They'd sooner throw out an item than take the time to drop it off at a local recovery spot. It's too bad curbside pickup of textiles isn't part of the local recycling network in Central Florida like it is in other counties across the nation.According to a report by Gary Liss & Associates for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, municipalities in Carroll County, Iowa, St. Paul, Minn., San Jose, Calif., and Somerset County, N.J., already have in place regular curbside collection of fabric-based materials.

Years ago when our family lived on Cape Cod, the town dump had a wonderful "swap shop" at the landfill facility. Anyone who had an item to give away could leave it in a tightly packed but well-organized wooden building. Dump-goers could browse the shop, taking away reusables that caught their fancy. I wasn't the only town resident who repeatedly returned from dump runs with a trunk filled with "new" treasures.Unfortunately, swap shops like the one I frequented in Orleans, Mass., are few and far between.

Much as I'd like to wave a magic wand and create similar free-exchange services in every community, I know that's not going to happen.

What can happen is the growing realization that giving away is better than throwing away, and that "buying used" can be a money-saving, socially conscious and environmentally friendly thing to do.

It can also be fun.

On a recent trip to my favorite thrift shop I spent a pleasant hour poking through racks, bins and shelves filled with the discarded detritus from other peoples' lives.My search yielded the following treasures: a "new" best blouse ($2); two pairs of name brand shoes ($1.50 -- on sale, two-for-one); three silk ties for my son (99 cents each).

To paraphrase a MasterCard commercial -- total purchase: $6.47.

The little way you can make a big difference: Priceless.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Son demonstrates flair for growing, surprises

(First appeard in Orlando Sentinel July 15, 2007)

If there's a gene for gardening, my oldest son inherited it.

Like his father and grandmother before him, my third child is a born gardener. Whatever he plants, grows.

No, that's not entirely accurate. Plants under his care don't merely grow -- they flourish. You would agree if you saw the broccoli he started from seed a few months ago. I never saw such large heads. They were the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of broccoli. Broccoli on steroids, except organically grown.

Some people are good with plants. They have that proverbial green thumb. That's Timothy.

Last winter, my 24-year-old son took a large swath of dry ground between our two houses and transformed it into a lush garden.

I lost track of how many loads of manure, peat and compost he added, but his efforts turned the pale, sandy ground into rich, dark loam. When he finished augmenting the soil, he fenced in the area and set about planting vegetables, flowers and fruit trees.

His garden overflowed with more than produce. It was filled with whimsy.

In one corner was his "bed & bath room." A cheery stand of gerbera daisies popped out of an old dirt-filled bathtub balanced atop a white kid-size bed frame.

A few feet away, an unwanted sink found new life as a planter for sweet-smelling dianthus. Flowers emerged from old shoes and worn tires and, of course, from the ground itself.

I loved the garden's haphazard design. Surprises were everywhere.

What didn't surprise me was how well things grew. Timmy has demonstrated a passion for plants since he was old enough to toddle outside and smell the roses. In fact, roses were his first love.

Scattered around the property today are about a dozen stands of red knockout roses derived from a single cutting he made 15 years ago. On one of our long-ago treks around town, we spotted a beautiful plant in someone's yard. After asking permission to take a snip home, Timmy rooted his find. Of course, it thrived.

Creating many more "babies" from that first rose remains one of Timmy's ongoing gardening projects. Lately, though, he has a new campaign: integrating vegetables into beds usually reserved for ornamentals.

Like many homes, ours is surrounded by foundation plantings. Pentas, bush daisies, milkweed, impatiens, porterweed, snake plant, ginger, various sages, caladiums and bluebells are among the plantings.

Lately, Timmy has been easing edibles in between the perennials and replacing some of the more work-intensive plants entirely with vegetables and herbs.

Parsley has been one of his most successful additions. Outside the front door, the curly-leafed herb acts as an attractive edging to the flowerbed. With its broad shape and bright green color, parsley holds its own against typical foundation plants such as liriope, mondo grass or society garlic. But unlike the others, it can be eaten.

When I'm outside, I'll sometimes break off a stem and chew on this under-appreciated herb. It's so much more than a garnish.

My favorite use for parsley is in hummus, a Middle Eastern spread made of garbanzo beans, lemon juice, garlic, sesame tahini -- a peanut butter-like paste made of sesame seeds -- and lots of parsley. My husband, Ralph, loves to dip rice crackers or baby carrots in freshly made hummus.

Every couple weeks I cut off huge clumps of this rich source of antioxidants and chop it into small pieces before adding it to the blender with the other ingredients. Ralph insists it is the fresh parsley that makes our hummus special.

Broccoli is another edible Timmy has successfully integrated into the flowerbeds.

With its pretty florets and large leaves, broccoli shares many characteristics with ornamental plants. It's quite the looker planted among the bluebells and alongside the snake plants.

Many people -- former President George H.W. Bush among them -- have nothing good to say about broccoli. They turn up their noses at this highly nutritious food. That's too bad, because the veggie they snub is a storehouse of goodness. One medium stalk provides 200 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance for Vitamin C. It's cholesterol-free and low in fat, calories and sodium but high in fiber and Vitamin A.

Maybe our nation's 41st leader never had the pleasure of eating well-prepared, freshly picked broccoli. It's an entirely different creature than the overcooked, limp, khaki-green offerings served in most restaurants.

Light steaming is our preferred cooking method. Broccoli is also good stir-fried with garlic and olive oil or as an addition to roasted vegetables. It is even yummy raw, dipped in something such as, well, hummus.

Timmy has me hooked on his latest gardening endeavor. I love the idea of intermingling flowers with edibles and especially appreciate the convenience of having meal ingredients just a few steps away from the kitchen. If you're looking for a way to jazz up your garden, you might consider sneaking some of your favorite veggies into the flowerbeds. The result might be downright delicious.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Plant's charm turns to smothering


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 8, 2007)

Aren't they pretty? Such a beautiful blue color.

I couldn't help myself. As soon as I spotted the striking wild morning glory blooms enveloping the trunk of an ancient oak, I veered the car off the road and took out my clippers. It was such an incredible color. Blue like the sky. So cheery and innocent.

All I wanted was a little snippet. What could be the harm?

Oh, my gosh! That was 15 years ago, and I can't get rid of the stuff.

Yes, the color is pretty. Yes, the leaves are bright green and a charming heart shape. And, yes, the darn thing certainly has the climbing bit down. I should have been clued in by the way the original vine "enveloped" the oak trunk. Morning glories have "enveloping" down pat.

At the moment, these beastly beauties have completely overtaken most of our banana grove plus the ground all around it. Like a suffocating hug that never ends, these insidious flowers just keep on giving until all other life is slowly snuffed out.

Originally, I placed these daylight bloomers against a raw clay wall. One growing season later, they were advancing across the entire yard, smothering all other plants in their path. With great effort and lots of brute strength, my eldest son and I managed to uproot the clay wall contingency. Unfortunately, a broken-off piece or two must have landed on the ground by the banana plants and the rest, as they say, is history.

And to think it all began with just one tiny cutting. I guess that's why they call it an invasive plant.

I've made the mistake of encouraging invasiveness time and time again. There's an old Peter Cook-Dudley Moore routine that has become a part of our family's collective lexicon: "I have learned from my mistakes and I can repeat them exactly." In this case, that's all too true.

I did it with the morning glories and before that with purple passion vine. I've added wedelia to the landscape and red passion vine.

You might think I'd have learned from the purple passion vine fiasco not to introduce the red variety to the landscape. You would be wrong.

What is it that makes some people (me) so incredibly susceptible to foolhardy landscape decisions? Is it the lure of free flowers? The enticement of beauty by the roadside, ripe for the taking? Is it the rush that happens when you score a snatch of something potentially wonderful? Is it Hope dazzlingly draped in an emerald leaf with an azure flower? Whatever it is, I'm guilty as charged with reckless plant propagation.

I've seen the blight. Hallelujah!

So, what am I going to do about the lovely morning glories that are so undauntedly engulfing all other plants in sight?

Nothing right now.

The lawn around the banana grove gets mowed regularly, and that keeps the creeping vines somewhat subdued. But the trees themselves are so hidden beneath a cloak of blue-flowering blooms that you can barely recognize their usually distinctive shape.

At some point, I'd like to slash back the flowers and give the bananas a chance to do their thing -- provide tasty fruit for us to eat. But that chore is way down near the bottom of the priority list. It may take a while to get to.

Meanwhile, I still catch myself periodically admiring the brilliant blue blooms and wishing morning glories weren't so gosh-darn difficult to control. Bit by bit, I'm finally learning to stifle the urge whenever it surfaces to transplant "just a snippet" to another spot. No matter how heartily I promise myself that this time will be different -- I'll keep the vines contained -- I'm learning to turn a deaf ear to my own empty vows.

Contain a wild morning glory vine? Ha! That'll be the day!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Carp: Lake's friend, weed's enemy

(First appeared in OrlandoSentinel July 1, 2007)

I was dubious. I doubted they could do it. Fortunately, I was proven wrong.

In the past five years, my husband and I watched our pristine lake become more and more clogged with floating vegetation. In 2005, anxious for answers, I contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sent out a biologist to survey the situation. Travis Connaway, a biological specialist who knew his stuff, arrived a few weeks later. Within minutes, Connaway made his assessment. Large stands of bladderwort had enveloped the lake.

Bladderwort is an invasive, free-floating plant common in many of Florida's lakes and waterways. Not one of the more noxious weeds such as the dreaded hydrilla, it can nonetheless cause problems. Because it grows so prolifically, bladderwort can render a lake unsuitable for swimming or boating. That's how bad it had become in our lake. We couldn't enjoy a relaxing dip without becoming entangled in itchy strands of weedy growth. Yuck!

To solve the problem, Connaway offered us three options. Method No. 1 was to hire a company to come out with a mechanical device to rid the lake of weeds.

This would be expensive, and Ralph and I had our doubts as to how successful it would be. We had already tried pulling out floating clumps of weeds by the armful each time we went for a swim. Occasionally we extracted massive piles of soggy weeds from the lake, piling them on our boat before transferring them to shore. If anything, that process seemed to increase the weed population, because bits and pieces inevitably broke off, floating away to start new plants. Hardly the win-win solution we were after.

Method No. 2 involved herbicides -- dousing the lake with chemical compounds supposedly targeted to specific aquatic weeds.

Yeah, sure. I'm not a proponent of herbicides anywhere else on our property, so why would I consider dumping huge amounts of chemicals into the very water we swim in? What if the herbicides killed other things besides the unwanted bladderwort, such as beneficial vegetation, frogs, turtles, fish and other wildlife? In total agreement, Ralph and I would rather live with a weed-congested lake than a chemically "pure" one.

Method No. 3 sounded like the only truly applicable option, but would it really work? It involved fish -- triploid grass carp, to be specific -- deposited in the lake to act as living, swimming weed-eating machines.

According to Connaway, the carp, which can be purchased only with a permit from licensed suppliers, consume great quantities of vegetation. In fact, that's all they eat. These sterile swimmers -- they have been genetically altered in the hatchery to prevent reproduction -- live for about 10 years, chowing down on aquatic vegetation like aquatic cows that entire time.

At maturity, they grow to be about 3 feet long and about 40 pounds. That's big!

Ralph and I talked it over and decided on the carp. Unfortunately, I procrastinated. It took another whole year of watching the lake fill up with yet more weeds before I was truly motivated to remedy the situation.With permit in hand, I contacted a local hatchery and ordered our fish. The permit said we could stock up to 110 fish in a lake our size, but being frugal and somewhat wary, we decided to start out with just 75 and see how it went.

On the allotted day, I drove to the fish farm to pick up our purchase. The fish -- 10- to 12-inch youngsters -- were scooped out of holding tanks by hatchery workers and placed inside water-filled plastic bags packaged in cardboard boxes. The boxes were then transferred to the back of my van, and I drove off $600 poorer but with visions of a soon-to-be weed-free lake in my mind. About an hour later, I was home with most of the family on hand to help release the fish into the lake.

That was 13 months ago. Today our lake is the picture of good health. Although the water level has decidedly dropped because of the prolonged drought, the bladderwort infestation has almost vanished. A few rogue weeds still drift by on occasion, and there's a patch about 50 feet by 30 feet in the small end of the lake where a large mass of bladderwort remains, but, in large part, the fish have done their job.

What I can't understand is where they are. I'm out in my boat almost daily, and when I'm not rowing, I'm often swimming or simply looking out at the lake. I see birds and turtles and the occasional gator, but where are our carp? They must be there, because the weeds are seriously reduced, but I never see them.

When I called the biologist to ask that question, he assured me they were somewhere in the lake.

"You should see them in schools, making ripples in the water," he said.

I haven't. But I guess it doesn't matter. Wherever they are, they're probably doing their thing, contentedly chewing up water weeds. I'm happy just knowing we found a satisfactory solution to our problem that was safe for the environment and in sync with nature.

Now, if I can just find a similarly suitable solution to the wild morning glories I foolishly added to my landscape a few years ago . . .