Easy peasy winter veggies — it's not too late to start!

The more I grow vegetables, the fewer vegetables I grow.

In my first garden 20 years ago, I planted big beefsteak tomatoes. I had one beautiful harvest before every hornworm caterpillar, mockingbird, squirrel and virus discovered the free buffet.

I never won after that. One year I arranged rubber snakes near the bed and asked my son to move them around every day after school to fool the birds and squirrels. The only fool was me. The kid did such a good job, I jumped every time I set foot in that garden! What the wildlife didn't get, something else did: blossom end rot, yellow leaf curl, my own mistakes.

Then I discovered tiny tomatoes. They ripen long before anything realizes they're there, and they require much less care than their more impressive cousins. I can't brag about my cherry Sun Golds or marble-sized Everglades, but I can grow 'em!

Exasperation has made me give up on more than beefsteaks. After a couple of bouts with powdery mildew, I said adieu to cucumbers. And I discovered it takes a lot more green bean bushes than the space I've got to grow enough for a fresh-picked side dish for dinner.

Nowadays, my veggie bed's basic: teeny tiny tomatoes, lots of leaf lettuces, sweet peppers. For grins, I'm giving broccoli and brussels sprouts a try for the first time.

It's not too late in the season to start your own veggies. Here's a new product especially for busy people and non-gardeners, and helpful tips from some local vets.

It doesn't get easier than this.

H2Grow was inspired by a horticulturist-missionary looking for ways to help gardeners in developing countries. It's so easy, it makes the EarthBox look complicated. The Sarasota-based company invited me to test the system and provided it at no charge.

The 25-pound basic unit is a sturdy sack with a built-in irrigation system that evenly disperses water, and a patented blend of organic soil and slow-release (non-organic) fertilizer. It comes assembled with clamps on either end and a water-pressure regulator to which you attach a garden hose. Mine also came with a timer for the spigot, a container and a dibber for planting, all of which are convenient but not necessary to use H2Grow.

I planted Brussels sprouts. They're new to me, so they're a good test. I put just four in the bag, because they get pretty big, and I put four more starters in my traditional bed to compare results.

They went in Oct. 28. All the plants are doing well, but those in H2Grow are much larger. In fact, they're getting lots of attention from my neighbors. My little bed is in an otherwise inhospitable side yard visible from the street, and I've had admirers age 11 to 82 stop by to comment on their remarkable progress.

The timer takes care of turning on the hose for one minute every morning, and I don't have to worry about weeds or soil-borne pests. Nice!

"It's completely labor-free — great for the non-gardener, the elderly, children, busy baby boomers," says Dan Hoffman, H2Grow's director of strategic planning.

You can attach up to four more units, and the system can sit on a table — great for someone who can't get down to the ground.

The downside? Prices start at $69 for the basic, 12-pound version. My kit costs $219. The company recommends using it for just one season; replacing my 25-pound unit would cost $84.99.

It's available online at www.H2Grow.com; no extra charge for shipping.

"Why so much?" I asked Dan.

They've played around with prices, he says, trying to make it less expensive. But ...

"Everything is made in America, and that costs more," he says. "And there's a lot of technology built into it. We've been working on this for more than three years. It will work anywhere in the country."

If I had an important loved one who dearly wanted to grow veggies but couldn't, I might splurge on H2Grow for a holiday gift. But for me personally? I'll stick to mixed results the old-fashioned way. Catch a 20 percent break during the official product launch Dec. 2-9.

Tips

• Be sure to plant varieties for this area. You can find recommendations (and more) at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/vh/vh02100.pdf. It's too late now to start veggies that might get frostbite, but broccoli and greens usually do well all winter. Broccoli will continue to give you florets even after the main head has been cut.

Pole beans are hardier than bush beans.

Gardening in containers saves on water and fertilizer, and they're easier to take care of.

Frances Mallett, 93-year-old Port Richey gardener and Florida native

• For vegetable gardeners who suffer from arthritis, buy or build a crib that sits high off the ground. I've seen beautiful ones in gardening magazines. I've also seen people use stacked cement blocks and stacked tires to accomplish this. You can paint them to make them look better.

Patricia McGhee, Town 'N Country

• If you leave a cucumber on the vine too long it can become bitter. To make the cuke tasty again, cut 1 to 2 inches from the end opposite the stem and rub the pieces together. It's called "milking" by the old-timers, and it really works.

Robert Bowden, director of Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Find more local garden topics on her blog, www.digginfladirt.com, or join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.

Easy peasy winter veggies — it's not too late to start! 11/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 12:28pm]

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