It's HOT outside!

   Pretty sure that this beautiful specimen was up to no good.

Pretty sure that this beautiful specimen was up to no good.

Here in Florida, we are sweltering. I guess the rest of the country is pretty warm too but for others it may be more of a welcome change. Those lovingly tended northern gardens are thriving in the balmy temperatures while farmer's markets are bursting with produce. In the meantime, I jealously scroll through Instagram trying to remember what it's like to have plants that aren't shriveled by mid-morning. And the bugs! In fact, we just completed a true Florida right of passage, tenting the house. This took care of the termites and myriad of other insects sharing our home - but not the garden. So today's column is an homage to those pesky, ever-hungry and often beautiful creatures that love to eat the same plants we do. 

I really don't mind sharing. I let swarms of tiny caterpillars devour my giant dill weed, hoping to support the local butterfly population. I hand pick those fledgling grasshoppers only when I see them begin to multiply exponentially. I even tolerate a few aphids just to keep the ladybugs happy. But even I have my limits. When I wandered out one morning to find that my formerly indestructible and beautiful collards were being quickly demolished by dozens of ravenous caterpillars - the battle was on. Luckily they were contained to one plant so I simply removed the affected leaves (and what looked like eggs) to dispose of them with the yard waste... but I did feel guilty. Even more so the next day when I found this gorgeous guy hanging around in the exact same spot and swiftly dealt with him.

   I had little tolerance for this Harlequin Bug who was busy piercing the stem of my beloved collards and sucking out the juices. He's history.

I had little tolerance for this Harlequin Bug who was busy piercing the stem of my beloved collards and sucking out the juices. He's history.

   These little green hoppers were too cute to squash the first time I saw them but as their numbers grew, my sentiments quickly changed.

These little green hoppers were too cute to squash the first time I saw them but as their numbers grew, my sentiments quickly changed.

Needless to say I've become a bit more diligent about checking on the welfare of my garden beds. Luckily we get a lot of rain here in the summer months but just a couple of days without our usual afternoon downpour and even the hardiest plants are reduced to a sad, wilting heap. I'm also concentrating on those veggies that seem to be happiest here in the South. Kale and collards, a holdover from winter, continue to produce impressively and my peppers seem perfectly happy with the heat and humidity. I wrote off my attempt at cucumbers which, along with the patty pan, succumbed to some seriously invasive powdery mildew. I'm now trying my hand at cantaloupe. The finer herbs are obviously suffering but I figure if I can just get them to survive until fall, I'll again have a burgeoning culinary assortment at the ready. I do my bug recon morning and night (when it's coolest) just to be sure that they haven't completely taken over but otherwise I'm enjoying these lazy days of summer. Soon enough it will be planting time and I can feel guilty about not being more industrious but for now I'm content with my limited harvest. Let someone else toil over tomatoes.

   Some VERY hungry caterpillars!

Some VERY hungry caterpillars!

Gifts for the Garden

The next obvious step once you're eating healthy plant foods is growing them! I have always loved gardening but never had much luck before. My hectic schedule, the hot and humid Florida weather and all those very hungry bugs seemed to conspire against me at every turn.

That's all changed! What finally pushed me to get productive was all the fresh herbs I needed for my cooking class homework. Buying them at the market was kind of a pain and getting expensive so, very slyly, I gave my son a garden planning guide for Christmas and with some help from my industrious family, I now have four beautiful raised garden beds. It was surprisingly easy (trust me, master carpenters we are NOT) and now I can just pop outside whenever I need a bunch of parsley or a sprig of thyme.

Napa cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, mustard greens and kale are growing happily in their raised beds.