August 30, 2011

Organic Vegetable Gardening Toolbox

Theresa Badurek, Urban Horticulture Extension Agent, Pinellas County Extension

As we approach the fall vegetable garden season here in Central Florida we need to take a look at the tools we have to help build a successful organic garden. The intention here is not to achieve organic certification, but to grow healthy food for our families and use healthy practices for our planet. If you are starting a new garden or going organic for the first time, you should understand that it may take time to build a healthy garden. The soil structure must be built and you must hone your practices to watch for pests and diseases.

Soil Preparation
Organic matter and any organic fertilizers should be worked into your soil at least three weeks ahead of planting. If you are using compost and mulches be sure that there are no large clumps of unrotted organic material. These can harbor disease problems as well as hinder seedlings or their growth. When your conditions are right, these organic materials will be processed by microorganisms like fungi, algae, bacteria, molds, and earthworms. As they do this they make important nutrients available to your plants. This is one reason why it is important to NOT use pesticides in your garden. Pesticides destroy these critical organisms that work so hard for your garden. For detailed information on the various soil amendments, please refer to the publication link at the end of this article.

Seeds and Transplants
While it may seem obvious to buy organic seeds and starts, or transplants, there is much more to your plant material than that if you want a successful organic garden. The most important thing you can do is select the right crops and varieties for our area and plant them at the right time. We are often tempted to plant crops or varieties that we know and love from some other geographic location, but these are often not suited to our unique subtropical climate. How do you know what and when to plant? Print the following publication, Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide. Use this to plan your garden layout and bring it with you when shopping for seeds and plants. Pay special attention to Table 4, “Suggested Varieties for Florida Gardens” and Table 3 “Planting Guide for Florida Vegetables”.

A good organic soil will be full of organic materials that help the soil retain water, as will good garden mulch. There is more you can do to use water wisely in an organic garden, though. To begin, a good soaking once a week throughout the root zone will be necessary unless there is sufficient rainfall. Drip or trickle irrigation will help you conserve water while avoiding wetting the leaves. Wet leaves can encourage disease, and disease prevention is an important tool in the organic gardener’s toolbox. If you use overhead irrigation, be sure to water in the early morning hours, not in the evening. Always follow local watering restrictions.

Pests and Diseases
So, how do you keep uninvited guests from eating all of your hard work in the garden? Well, you must have a regular scouting routine for pests. At every step of your gardening adventure you should be looking for signs of pests. Hopefully you selected resistant varieties from the “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide” publication (see link above) and inspected your plants for pests and diseases before purchase and planting. Learn to recognize the beneficial insects that help control the “bad guys” that cause damage. Not using pesticides will help preserve the “army” of beneficial insects in your garden. A great guide to start learning about beneficial insects is “Natural Enemies and Biological Control”:

There are more things you can do to help prevent and control pests and diseases, though. Here is a sampling from the “Organic Vegetable Gardening” publication whose link you will find at the end of this article:
  • Use a mulch; vegetables touching the soil may rot.
  • A good garden mulch tends to reduce damage caused by nematodes.
  • Keep out weeds which harbor insects and diseases.
  • Water in morning so plants are not wet at night.
  • Dispose of severely diseased plants before they contaminate others.
  • Hand-pick insects.
  • For cutworms, place a cardboard or tinfoil collar around plant stems at ground level.
  • Clean up crop refuse early.
  • Rotate garden areas.
There is so much to be gained from a beautiful organic garden- fresh healthy produce, a safe environment for the gardener, and a balanced ecosystem that allows nature to do some of the work for you. For more information and tools for your organic garden, please see this Organic Vegetable Gardening publication

August 26, 2011

Family Money- The Coupon Craze

Nan Jensen, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Pinellas County Extension

Consumers across the country are increasingly looking for ways to save money to deal with the higher costs of goods and services and the effects of the slow economic recovery. “Couponing” has become increasingly popular and a common strategy to reduce expenses in the family budget.

Coupons typically are found in magazines or newspapers or distributed by stores that print their own coupons. Grocery stores and companies frequently offer special deals and coupons on-line. Printing coupons from the Internet and obtaining them digitally from online coupon aggregators has become common. Sites include,,, and others. Some sites such as offer free samples and product updates. Twitter accounts such as @freestuffrocks and @freenology provide updates and news feeds on free goods.

While couponing can save money, think about the time you invest. What we often don’t see with extreme coupon users is the amount of time spent researching and collecting coupons, money spent joining coupon sites or time spent researching store policies on redeeming them.

To help you get the most out of your couponing experience consider the following tips:
  • Save time by organizing your coupons in an envelope, coupon file, or even a zipper-style plastic bag---anything that is small enough to take with you to the grocery store. Arrange them in alphabetical order, by categories or the aisles in your grocery store or how often you buy the product.
  • Don’t buy something just because you have a coupon. Buy only what you need to stay on budget.
  • When it comes to food, consider the nutritional value of the item. Many times food coupons are for snack foods and other packaged items that have limited nutritional value.
  • Read coupons carefully for requirements and restrictions.
  • Match up weekly sale items with coupons to get the best deal. Stock up on nonperishable items for your pantry when they are on sale. Stores usually repeat the sale price on different categories on a 12-week cycle, so buy enough staples to last until it is on sale again.
  • Trade coupons with friends and family, and even involve your children. Couponing can be a great way to teach children about money.
  • Compare prices. Another brand may be cheaper than the item with the coupon. Check unit pricing for the best deals.
Also check coupons for expiration dates, product sizes and amounts you can buy. If it doesn’t fit your needs, save your money.

Some stores will accept expired coupons. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

After checking out, read your receipt to be sure your coupons were properly credited.

If you use on-line coupon sites, consider how much personal information you have to give up in order to get them. Some websites require consumers to download software and agree to individual licensing agreements. Read the fine print.

For more information on other financial topics visit

August 23, 2011

Buy Green Products and Save

Mary Campbell, Extension Director and Urban Sustainability Agent

There are many reasons why more and people are buying green products. Recent studies show that even during the recent recession, more people are still interested in green products. Sales of green products, such as organic foods and natural personal care items, have jumped 15 % since 2006, according to research firm Mintel International. Green products have less of an impact on the environment than comparable non-green products. This may mean that the product can be recycled or is made of recycled products, and it may save natural resources, energy and water. It may also have less packaging to save paper or plastic or be a locally produced and sourced product. Local products are considered greener since they do not have to be transported long distances. Green products can also have less of an impact on people since they contain fewer toxic components or are non-polluting. A less toxic environment supports healthier communities.

Partner environmentally friendly products with cost savings and that is a win-win we all love. Compact fluorescent light bulbs use 75% less energy and last 10 times longer than standard incandescent bulbs. If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars. That sounds pretty green, but what does Energy Star mean?

According to the Energy Star website, ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices. Americans, with the help of ENERGY STAR, saved enough energy in 2009 alone to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars, while saving nearly $17 billion on utility bills.

Energy Star is a third party certifier that uses standard criteria to qualify a product as energy efficient. There are third party certifiers for many different products. There is no one certifier for all green products. The best way to know if the product you are considering to purchase is really green, look for a third party certifier. Check out some of the more common certifiers from the US Small Business Administration. Green Seal sets product standards and awards its label to a wide variety of products .
If the product you are considering is not certified, check the label yourself and look for these things:
  1. Non-toxic (no Caution, Warning or Danger on the label)
  2. Can be recycled or has recycled content (example: 30% post consumer content recycled paper)
  3. Saves energy or water
  4. Durable and reusable
  5. Made from natural or renewable materials
  6. Produced locally
  7. Healthier for people
Be wise about how you spend your money and look for the win-win combinations of “saves money”, saves the planet, and protects people.