Monday, July 28, 2008

Start of grape season brings ode to delights of locally grown food

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 27, 2008)

The end of July marks the beginning of grape season in Florida, and in case I forgot to circle the date on my calendar, I received a gentle reminder the other day from local grape grower Tommy Free.

"The grapes are going to be amazing this year," Tommy said. "We'll probably have twice as many fruit as last year, yet half as many places to sell them."

Free is referring to the closing of Clermont's IGA grocery, one of the few markets willing to accept locally grown produce.

"The vines are just covered with grapes this year," Tommy lamented. "I just hope we get enough pickers."

Farming is fraught with difficulties -- weather conditions, pest infestations, a shortage of workers, increasing land taxes. It's tough enough work without adding to the mix insufficient outlets for bumper crops.

I love to pick grapes, especially Florida's large, flavorful muscadine and scuppernong grapes. Every year our family looks forward to visiting Free's Lake Apshawa Road farm and nursery in Clermont. But the amount of fruit we pick -- a few shopping bags filled with the luscious bronze- and black-skinned fruit -- hardly makes a dent in the potential harvest at Free's 8-acre vineyard.

"Are you calling other people?" I asked Free.

"I've got a long list of regulars," he said. "People like yourself who come every year. But still, this year we're going to have more grapes than usual."

How fortunate we are to live in an area where locally grown produce is not only readily available, but owners of small farms and vineyards also still take the time to telephone regular customers and remind them when it's time to pick.

My friend Jennifer Baehne just finished picking a few Concord and muscadine grapes at another farm, Valley View Vineyard on State Road 455 in Howey-in-the-Hills.

"I liked the Concords best," said Baehne, who spent part of an afternoon sampling the flavors of several different grapes at the hillside farm owned by Fred and Tracey Estok. Like Free, the Estoks open their farm to fruit lovers throughout most of August. In addition to grapes, Valley View Vineyard offers peaches, figs and persimmons in season.

I've spent so many years harvesting locally grown fruit from vines, bushes and trees that I've come to think of it as a necessity instead of a luxury. It's hard to imagine having to live on a diet of grocery store produce without the addition of homegrown or locally raised fruit and berries.

Even the freshest-looking fruit sold in supermarkets has had to travel miles to get there. Often it is picked when under-ripe and appears on store shelves in less than ideal condition. It may be waxed, gassed or treated with pesticides. If it comes from another country, it might have been fumigated before being allowed into the United States.

When you frequent your local farm for in-season fruit, none of that is an issue. The very nature of a U-Pick operation is to allow the picker to select the ripest, freshest food available.

If it's important to you to eat food free from pesticide residue, the farmer is usually on hand at a small-time U-Pick farm to tell you exactly how his produce is grown. Questions can be asked and answered directly.

There are many good reasons to support neighborhood farmers. "Think globally -- buy locally" has become a mantra of the environmental and sustainable agriculture movements. I support efforts to find and eat the freshest food available, especially when those foods are grown close to home.

But that's not why I plan to visit Tommy Free's U-Pick grape farm this week.

I'm going because picking fresh fruit is a fun way to spend time. Scuppernong grapes -- which are only available for a few short weeks of the year -- have an incomparable flavor too good to miss. Not only that, but there's something unforgettable about eating fruit minutes after it has been picked, still warm from the sun.

Whether you're a veteran picker like me or a U-Pick newbie, visit a local farm soon and fill up a basket with fresh Florida flavor.

To find a farm near you, go to

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wildlife sightings are eye-opening antidote to monotony of turnpike travel

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 20, 2008)

In a little less than two hours, I saw a female wild turkey foraging for seeds, a blue heron with a large fish in its mouth, a slow-moving alligator drifting down a narrow canal, two deer grazing on grass and four wild hogs huddled snout to snout in a feeding frenzy.

You might think I was spending time at a nature preserve, public park or wilderness area.

I wasn't.

I was in my car cruising south along Florida's Turnpike in the area surrounding Yeehaw Junction.

If you've spent any time traversing Florida's 460-mile north-south toll road, you're familiar with the straight stretch of multilane macadam that shuttles drivers from Wildwood to Miami. Although I don't do much traveling out of state these days, I frequently make the four-hour trek to South Florida to visit my parents.

It's a long, monotonous drive made more so by the straight cut of the road through mile upon mile of flat, open prairie. It's a land where cattle are more common than people and an expansive skyline seldom is interrupted by signs of civilization.

To break the boredom, I usually turn on the radio or switch to the MP3 player soon after I'm south of St. Cloud. My favorite songs and the programs on NPR help make the hours pass pleasantly.

Music might satisfy my ears, but my eyes still long for excitement.

While staying attuned to passing cars and oncoming traffic, I shift into "animal alert," scanning the roadsides for signs of wildlife. I'm especially likely to enter "wildlife awareness" mode when I find myself behind the wheel during dawn or dusk. Those are the magical hours when nocturnal animals are most likely to be seen.

As much as I dislike the long drive south, I love the opportunity it provides to spot wildlife. No matter when I drive down that lonely stretch of pavement, some natural encounter is bound to occur.

Fascination with wildlife has been a lifelong preoccupation. As a young child, I remember driving with my parents in their tan Rambler station wagon from our home in southeastern Pennsylvania to the Catskill Mountains, where my mother's family lived.

From the back seat, I could look out the window and scan the horizon. It was the perfect perch from which to search the landscape for deer, raccoons and hawks. I spent most of my time on those three-hour treks doing just that -- staring out the window watching the countryside roll by while my mind drifted off into one daydream after another.

During my early parenting years, opportunities to glimpse seldom-seen animals arose whenever our family took a vacation. Back then we had a camper -- a Class C RV -- that we traveled in with the kids. On monthlong excursions across the country, I sat behind the wheel watching the roadside while my husband, who has always disliked driving, contentedly prepared food and helped the children.

"Bighorn sheep off to the left!" I'd call out as we ventured through the rugged peaks of Wyoming.

Or, "Quick!" I'd say as we traveled through the Kansas countryside. "Look at the prairie dogs standing by their mounds!"

It was fun back then to share my observations with Ralph and the children -- exciting to see them get excited by some unexpected spotting. I miss that during my solo runs to South Florida. As thrilling as it was recently to spot wild hogs huddling together over some tasty roadside tidbit, I wish someone had been in the car to see it too.

Someone was with me a few days later when, at 4 a.m., I once again found myself approaching the turnpike on-ramp. With a hot cup of caffeine-laced PG Tips tea in one hand and the steering wheel held firmly in the other, I and my youngest son were just beginning our 45-minute drive to the airport when a doglike animal ran onto the road.

"What's that?" I asked Toby as we simultaneously leaned forward and stared out the window. "Do you think it's a coyote?"

"Definitely," he said as we had a clear image of the critter hesitating for a moment before turning around and returning to the woods.

"Cool!" I replied as the SunPass buzzer beeped, registering our automatic payment.

"Not a bad price to pay for a coyote sighting," I thought to myself as I rounded the entry ramp and merged onto the toll road.

"Not bad at all."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Don't throw out your grass clippings - they're 'green gold' for your lawn

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 13, 2008)

The recent rains certainly have made plants happy. The green leaves on shrubs, flowers, trees and vines seem more brilliant than ever. Even browned, nearly dead-looking lawns that barely grew during the prolonged drought have responded to daily downpours by sprouting overnight into dense forests of swaying green blades.

The rumble of lawn mowers and the roar of weed-whackers trying to keep up with this flush of plenty has become an omnipresent sound in neighborhoods.

With so many people outdoors mowing and maintaining swaths of green, it's an ideal time to consider what to do with those grass clippings.

The homeowner has three options:

1. Mow the lawn and leave the grass clippings in place.

2. Mow the lawn and bag the grass clippings for trash pickup.

3. Mow the lawn and use the grass clippings for mulch around plants.

By far, the first two options are most frequently chosen.

Grass clippings left in place are good for the lawn, adding valuable nutrients to the soil as they decompose.

But many people don't like the look of cut blades drying in the sun on their otherwise green lawn. To combat the problem, they rake the clippings into piles, stuff them into trash bags and drag their heavy loads to the curb where the green blades will make their way into overloaded landfills.

Drive down any subdivision on a summertime yard trash pickup day and curbsides will be dotted with garbage bags stuffed with what I call "green gold." I'm always amazed how few people realize the value of the natural matter they toss away.

Grass clippings are filled with organic goodness. They are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and lesser amounts of other essential plant nutrients. These thin blades of green are loaded with vital elements, and they have them in a ratio -- four parts nitrogen to one part phosphorus to three parts potassium (4-1-3) -- that's ideal for lawn health. That's the same proportion you'd be seeking if you went to buy a lawn fertilizing formula at your garden center.

I can't help but wonder why so many people waste their money on chemical compounds when the product they need is right there beneath their feet.

Not only are grass clippings chock-full of important nutrients, but those nutrients also decompose rapidly, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium into the soil with efficiency and ease.

I have been using grass clippings as mulch for as long as I've been gardening. Second only to eel grass -- a type of seaweed that washes up on Cape Cod beaches and that we used extensively when we lived there -- freshly mowed grass is my favorite mulching material. I use it around all sorts of plants because it is easy to handle and aromatic when freshly cut. Also, grass clippings can be fitted with ease into even the most delicate of spots, a characteristic that makes them ideal mulch for young seedlings and mature plants.

You don't have to look any further than your own garden for proof of how beneficial grass clippings can be when used as mulch. Ground that has been repeatedly layered with the byproduct of mowing will be teeming with worms.

Earthworms -- nature's best indicators of healthy ground -- are drawn to the nutrient-rich clippings. They digest the organic matter and then return it to the soil in a form readily accessible to the mulched plants. As natural tillers, earthworms work their way in and out of the decomposing clippings, causing the soil to become lighter and richer.

In our nursery, when people come to purchase bamboo, I'm constantly telling them to use the grass they cut as mulch around the bamboo and other landscape plants. Over and over, I repeat: Don't throw away grass clippings -- give them to the plants.

But while people nod and say with surprise, "Oh, I didn't realize you could do that," I can tell they are just being polite. The throwaway mentality is so ingrained in the American psyche that it's difficult for people to consider new behaviors.

But consider them we must.

It may be difficult, but we must learn to be better stewards of the land. Using our grass clippings is a small way to create a healthier environment. Instead of taking time and money, mulching with "green gold" saves a little bit of both.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Walk in Florida woods flushes out nightjar

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 6, 2008)

I think I saw a whippoorwill the other day.

To avoid the heat, Ralph and I took our late afternoon walk on the high paths that crisscross a densely wooded part of the property where the tree canopy keeps the air a few degrees cooler. We were strolling along through pines, oaks and wild persimmon trees when, upon our approach, a large bird swept out of an oak into the branches of another nearby tree.

"What kind of bird do you think it is?" Ralph asked.

"Maybe an owl or a hawk," I ventured.

As we stepped closer to the tree into which it flew, the bird took off again to yet another nearby oak.

"I don't think it's a hawk," I said, suddenly convinced by its size, shape and flight pattern. "And I'm not sure it's an owl either. Maybe it's a nighthawk or a whippoorwill."

We watched the bird fly two more times, each flight just a short jaunt from one tree to another. I never got close enough to see it for long, but each time it flew by, I noticed more and more details. Its thick body was brown, its head large. It seemed to have the size and shape of a whippoorwill or, perhaps, its larger cousin the chuck-will's-widow.

Often heard but seldom seen, the song of this year-round resident is a ubiquitous nighttime sound in many Florida's rural regions. The chuck-will's-widow -- Caprimulgus carolinensis -- is a member of the nightjar family of birds. Its relatives include the whippoorwill, Common Poorwill and six other nocturnal nighthawks.

Because its song is so compelling, there have been many occasions when I've been drawn outdoors to search the night sky for this insect-eating bird. No delicate trill, the nightjar's three-part-whistle begins after dark in spring and early summer. For me, the similar sounds of the whippoorwill and the chuck-will's-widow have become symbols of summer itself. They remind me that chilly nights have ended and the warm weather has arrived. They also let me know that, while daylight is gone, a world of adventure is just beginning for certain avian species, bats and other mammals large and small.

Almost always, I'm surprised by how close the birds seem to be. Is the singer on the lawn right outside my porch? It sure sounds that way. Or maybe it's in the low branches of an oak or sitting atop a fence post nearby. I look out into the dark, listen hard, straining to locate the exact place from which the sound emanates. Unsuccessful again. Maybe that's why I was so excited to think I had finally chanced upon an unexpected daylight sighting.

Ralph and I stood in the woods for several minutes, waiting to see if the bird would fly by again. It didn't.

"Makes you appreciate nature photographers, doesn't it?" my husband asked, recalling some of the many amazing movies we've watched of birds, fish and wild animals.

"Those photographers must spend hours and hours just sitting and waiting for something to happen," he said, swatting away a hovering fly.

It was at that point, I suppose, we decided to move on. Our walk led us off into a different part of the woods where no other birds were flushed out of hiding by our noisy footsteps.

Later that night, I stepped outside just after dark. Sure enough, in the distance, coming from what sounded like the exact spot where Ralph and I had seen the large-winged brown bird flutter by a few hours before, was the compelling call of what was either a chuck-will's-widow or whippoorwill. Over and over, it repeated its three-toned message as if to say, "Find me now! Find me now! Find me now!"