Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts

Dec 10, 2014

Why Winter Squash is the Perfect Homestead Food Crop

This year, I've made a concerted effort to try as many different varieties of winter squash as possible - because I believe winter squash is the perfect food to grow on the homestead. I'll tell you why in a moment, but first I want to encourage you to try as many varieties as you can, too. I don't think I've ever met anyone who loved all varieties of winter squash - and many of the more common varieties are not among my favorites. Therefore, I recommend going to local farmer's markets and farm stands to buy and taste new-to-you winter squash. Who knows which ones will be your favorites and a great new addition to your garden? (Most grocery stores don't even begin to cover the very wide array of winter squashes that are available. This guide gives you an idea of the many types of winter squash, but even it is incomplete.)

Now, on to my list of why winter squash is the perfect homestead food crop:

Carnival squash.
1. Winter Squash is Prolific. Most winter squash has pretty high yields. For example, one butternut plant should produce 10 - 20 large squash, depending upon soil and sun conditions. And squash are one of  the easiest plants to grow. Just direct sow the seeds, add water, and watch the plant go wild! Oh, and did I mention that squash leaves shade the soil so you have to water less often? And weeds are naturally suppressed?

2. Winter Squash Is Super Easy to Preserve. While you can dehydrate, freeze, and can winter squash, you don't need to! It will easily last until spring if you keep it in a cool, dry location. Traditionally, that was a root cellar, but if you're not fortunate enough to have one of those, the garage or even just a cool cupboard works just fine.

3. Winter Squash is Nutrient Dense. The exact nutrients and calories in winter squash depends upon the
All winter squashes can be pureed into soup.
variety, but all winter squash are high in nutrients - and very filling. All winter squash are high in antioxidants, vitamins A, B6, and C, and fiber.

4. Winter Squash is Versatile. Winter squash kept the pilgrims alive, inspiring the 17th century poem "We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,/If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon." But while the pilgrims may have grown tired of eating pumpkins and other winter squash, you should not. There are a great many ways to cook it. Our favorite method is to cut it open*, scrape out the stringy part and the seeds, add a dab of butter, and roast at 350 - 400 degrees F. until fork tender. If desired, you can sprinkle a dab of brown sugar over the finished squash. But other methods of cooking abound; try broiling, microwaving, adding to soups and stews, stuffed, or mashing like potatoes. For recipes, check out my Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook.

Roasted winter squash seeds.
5. Winter Squash Seeds Are Edible and Nutritious. Never, ever throw out winter squash seeds! They are rich in Omega 3s, zinc, maganeze, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and fiber. Click here for instructions on how to roast pumpkin and other squash seeds. (You can also sprout winter squash seeds.) We've found the flavor of the seeds mirrors the flavor of the squash, so butternut squash seeds taste different from pumpkin seeds which taste different from sweet meat seeds.

6. Winter Squash Seeds Are Easy to Save. Just remove the seeds, let them dry fully, then store them. It will take only a few seeds for the average family to have plants enough to feed them for another year. Of course, if you save seed from a hybrid winter squash, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not they will sprout and produce decent food. So when you can, choose heirloom varieties for seed saving. (Do remember that if you grow other varieties of squash, or any plants in the cucurbit family, they may cross-pollinate, leaving you with seeds that may not be true to the parent plant. For more on this, click here.)

Roasted winter squash.
7. Winter Squash is Great for Homestead Animals. Many farmers and homesteaders feed their livestock excess winter squash. It saves money on feed costs and is good nutrition for many animals. Traditionally, pumpkin and winter squash seeds were fed to chickens, ducks, sheep, and goats as a de-wormer. (Chickens will eat the seeds whole; for other animals, grind them and mix into feed.) I haven't found scientific proof this works, but it's certainly easy enough to toss the critters some winter squash once or twice a year. In fact, I never compost winter squash; I give any leftovers, the stringy inner stuff, and the seeds to our chickens. They love it!

8. Other Parts of Winter Squash Are Edible. You can eat winter squash flowers, just like you would slightly more traditional zucchini flowers. Wait until you're certain the flower has been fertilized and is starting to grow a squash, then snip it off and cook it. Squash flowers are yummy! The Indians also used to eat winter squash leaves. I confess I haven't tried this - because where I live, squash leaves always end up at least somewhat affected by powdery mildew. (Click here and here for my natural treatments for powdery mildew.) But here is more information on eating the leaves.

* One complaint about winter squash is that some varieties are difficult to cut open. While the tough skin of winter squash is what makes it easy to store for long periods of time, it's true that a kitchen knife is no match against some varieties, like hubbard or sweet meat. The solution is to use a hatchet or sawzall to cut up these varieties. Not interested in doing that? Select winter squash with more tender skins, like butternut and delicata.

Sep 29, 2014

Eating Groundnuts (Apios americana) - & Why You Might Want to Grow Them

Groundnuts from my garden.
A few years ago, I read about groundnuts (Apios americana, potato bean, hopniss, or "Indian potatoes"...not peanuts, which are also sometimes called ground nuts). I was instantly excited. Here is a vine with pretty flowers that doesn't mind some shade. And it produces food! And not just any food; the tubers contain 15 - 17% protein, much higher than the potato they taste a lot like. 

Groundnuts don't grow wild in my area, so I bought two tubers on eBay and planted them in a pot with well-draining soil. When the vines turned yellow in the fall, I tipped the pot over and discovered many more tubers had grown. They were all pretty small, though, so I replanted them in the pot. (I've since learned it takes two years to get tubers of edible size.)

Last summer, the plant thrived. It grew pretty green vines with pinkish flowers. When the vines turned yellow in the fall, I couldn't wait to tip the pot over and see if I had edible tubers. I did! Plus plenty of small ones to replant.

Groundnut flower.
Harvesting Ground Nuts

Groundnuts are unlike anything else I've ever seen. The tubers grow on "strings" (really roots). They remind me a bit of an old fashioned sausage string; tuber, root, tuber, root, tuber, root, all in one piece (see the photo, above). You'll want to put small tubers back in the soil so you'll have a crop for the future. Tubers that are at least 1/2 inch wide can be eaten. To prepare, just snap the tubers off their string-like root and scrub clean.

Cooking Groundnuts

When I researched recipes for ground nuts I realized three things:

1. Most people wait to harvest groundnuts until the first frost; like a lot of other root crops, the frost sweetens them.

2. Really, you cook groundnuts just like potatoes.

Some people peel their tough skin before cooking them, but most people boil the groundnut whole (skin on); the skin then comes easily before eating. 

Groundnuts are usually either boiled and chopped, fried, or roasted in the oven. Most people compare them to potatoes, but a few compare them to sweet potatoes, especially if roasted. I find they taste like a cross between a potato and a bean.

Please note that groundnuts take longer to cook than potatoes. For example, if you're boiling them for "mashed groundnuts," they'll need to boil about half an hour. Also, do try to avoid very large groundnuts, as they tend to cause gas.

3. You can eat the beans, too! Eat them cooked like green beans. (Oh, and the flowers are edible, too. Just remember, you want flowers and bean pods if you want your groundnuts to spread.)

Favorite Groundnut Recipes:

* Groundnut chips
* Groundnut flour
* Crock pot groundnuts and lamb 
* Glazed groundnuts

Sep 3, 2014

What to Do with Strawberry Runners

If you grow strawberries, chances are your plants will produce runners - shoots that eventually grow leaves and create additional strawberry plants. (Technically, they are known as "stolons.") These runners are both a good thing and a bad thing. They are bad because they eventually over-crowd your strawberry plants, making them much less productive. They are good because they are an easy way to get new strawberry plants.

How to Get Rid of Strawberry Runners

If you don't want new strawberry plants - and don't know anyone else who wants them, either - you'll want to pinch or cut back runners as soon as they appear. This will keep your existing strawberry plants healthy and productive.

How to Use Strawberry Runners for New Plants

If you want new strawberry plants from your runners, there are two methods you may wish to try. The first, and easiest for novice gardeners, is to wait for the runners to grow new plants with at least three leaves. Then cut the runner (the stem that connects the baby plant with the mother plant) off and dig up the baby plant. Replant it wherever you like.

The second method is also easy: Before the runner produces leaves, place a four inch pot filled with good, wet potting soil beneath the runner. Press some of the runner down into the potting soil. Make sure this piece of runner is covered with soil, then place a small rock on top to keep the runner in place. Make sure the soil in the pot stays moist. After a few weeks, the runner should have rooted in the potting soil; remove the rock. When there are at least three leaves on the baby plant, cut off the runner stem. Plant the new strawberry plant wherever you like.

Aug 15, 2014

Treating Powdery Mildew with Vinegar

Powdery mildew is something I battle each year. At first, it looks like white, powdery spots on my squash, but gradually it turns leaves yellow, then dry and brown. Unfortunately, powdery mildew also drastically reduces the productivity of plants, so you'll have less food (or flowers) from them. Fortunately, there are easy organic ways to treat powdery mildew:

 * Choose plants that are resistant to powdery mildew.

* Water at the base of plants. Moisture on leaves encourages powdery mildew to appear. You can't control rain or humidity, but you can keep irrigation water off leaves.

* Consider preventative measures. If your plants get powdery mildew each year, consider treating them before you actually see signs of the disease.

* Treat at the first sign of powdery mildew. The quicker you respond, the more you'll be able to control powdery mildew.
A squash plant with powdery mildew. The leaf center front is badly affected. The leaves just above and to the side show classic beginning symptoms of powdery mildew. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
* Choose an organic form of control. I've blogged before about how ordinary milk does a great job of treating powdery mildew, but this year, I found vinegar works even better.

To use Vinegar to Treat Powdery Mildew:

1. Fill a clean spray bottle with 32 oz. of warm water.

2. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar.* I've used both organic apple cider vinegar with the "mother" (like Braggs) and white distilled vinegar. I can't see a difference between them; both work equally well treating powder mildew on my plants.

3. Close the bottle and shake it.

4. Spray directly on plant leaves (both the tops and bottoms). Although I've never had any trouble with the vinegar mixture burning plants, some sensitive plants may react badly to the spray; therefore test first on one leaf, and check for damage the next day. After this initial test, spray affected plants every day for one week, then every other day from thereon.

Incidentally, vinegar is also the best aphid killer I've ever used.

* To mix a larger quantity, use 1 gallon of water with 2 - 3 tablespoons of vinegar.

Aug 11, 2014

Easier Gardening Through Edible Perennials

This year, I've really been struggling with a series of health issues. Maybe you have several little ones and are just plain tired. Or maybe gardening isn't something you love and you'd like to grow some food but spend less time in the garden. Whatever your reasoning, there is one really easy way to make gardening - well, easier: Plant perennials.

Most vegetables are annuals, meaning you need to replant them each year. But there are some veggies (and lots of fruit) that are perennials, meaning you plant them once and you don't need to replant them again for years. Berries, fruit trees, and nut trees certainly fall into this category (although they do require pruning to continue producing well). Here are some other perennial edibles to consider:

* Rhubarb. I've been amazed by how much food one rhubarb plant provides for our family! The first year, you shouldn't harvest the plant at all. After that, however, you can get 3-4 harvests until it's time to leave the plant alone in late summer so it can produce all the energy it needs to live through the winter.Although rhubarb plants can grow for decades, they should be divided every 4 years or so, when the stalks start getting spindly. TIP: For higher yields, choose a variety with green, not red, stems. (WARNING: Rhubarb leaves are poisonous.)

* Asparagus. If you have well draining soil, do yourself a favor and create an asparagus patch. You'll have to wait two years before you begin harvesting, but the patch will produce delicious food for at least 20 years.

a young (and small) artichoke plant.
* Artichokes. Globe artichokes are large plants - and quite showy; harvests begin the first year and the plants continue producing food for about 5 years. You'll want to divide artichoke plants every 3-4 years, making new plants to keep or give away.

* Ramps. Ramps (also called wild leeks) grow wild in some parts of the United States. They love shady, moist areas, and will spread and thrive in such an environment - each year producing a new crop (as long as you allow a portion of your plants to stay in the ground).

* Groundnuts. These are another edible that grows wild in some areas of the U.S. They don't mind some shade, and produce a pretty, flowering vine. I recommend growing them in a container, or they may spread too aggressively. The edible part of the plant grows underground and looks something like a round potato; it's eaten in much the same way, too. As long as you leave some tubers in the ground each year, you'll have a continuous supply for the rest of your life.
Ground nut vine.

* Sunchokes. Also called Jerusalem Artichokes. Grow them in a container because otherwise they spread like mad. During the late summer, this plant produces sunflower-like flowers, and in the fall through winter, you can harvest and eat the tubers, which grow underground and are somewhat similar to a potato. Like groundnuts, you'll have a new crop each year as long as you leave some tubers in the soil.

* Sorrel. Sorrel is an old fashioned salad favorite with a lemony flavor. It tastes best in spring, but can be eaten throughout the growing season. The plants live about 3-4 years.
An overgrown horseradish patch.

* Horseradish. This plant is very easy to grow and you can begin harvesting it one year after planting. It usually will last a gardener's lifetime.

* Egyptian Walking Onions. These amazing plants gradually bend down to the earth and deposit baby onions there. Fun to grow - and you'll never have to buy onions again.

* Chives. Chives add lots of flavor to your meals, take up very little room in the garden, and live year after year. We have a handful of chive plants and even though we eat them regularly and I both freeze and dehydrate some for the winter months, we have way more than we could ever use.

* Other Perennial Herbs. Depending upon where you live, there are quite a number of perennial edible herbs, including bay laurel, mint, sage, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. I always suggest growing most herbs in pots, since they have a tendency to spread otherwise.

Jul 7, 2014

Controlling Aphids - Organically

As soon as summer's heat hits, aphids appear in my garden. Some are gray, some black, some green, and some yellow. All are tiny and literally suck the life out of my plants, if I let them.

Happily, it's usually not too difficult to get rid of aphids organically. But you really must catch them early - when there are just a few. The best way to spot them - or any type of gardening problem, for that matter - is to make sure you're in the garden regularly. A stroll every day or every other day, examining plants for problems, is excellent. Then, if you spot aphids...

The First Line of Attack Against Aphids

The minute you spot aphids, get out your garden hose and give them a good, strong spray. It helps to have a nozzle on the hose that you can set for a hard spray. Blast those aphids off, looking especially under leaves and at new growth. This may mean carefully peeling back the center leaves of a cabbage, for example.

For the next several days, check the garden carefully for more aphids. Blast them with water again if they re-appear. But if their numbers seem higher, or if blasting the leaves of certain, tender plants destroys the leaves, move on to another method.
You'll often see ants near aphids. Ants will disappear once aphids are gone.

Other Methods of Controlling Aphids

* Vinegar spray. Vinegar kills aphids on contact, but it can also burn plants, so it should be used with care. Fill a spray bottle 1/3 of the way with white distilled vinegar; fill the remainder with water. Spray directly on aphids. Watch out for ladybugs and other beneficial insects, since they won't like the vinegar-water, either. To be extra safe, I let the vinegar-water sit on the plant for a few minutes, then I spray it down with water.

* Dishsoap. A gentle dishsoap, like Dawn, kills aphids by clogging up their bodies. To a pint of water, add 1 teaspoon of Dawn. I don't recommend a higher concentration, because that can burn plants. Spray directly on the aphids, avoiding beneficial insects.

* Lemon.  Like vinegar, lemon kills aphids right away. To make a spray, first grate the rind of a lemon into a saucepan. Fill a spray bottle with water, then pour the water into the pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to sit overnight. Strain and pout the liquid into the spray bottle. Spray directly on aphids, avoiding beneficial insects.

* Neem oil. Neem trees produce neem oil - a classic organic pest control substance. The oil works against aphids by making plants taste unpalatable to aphids, and by preventing larvae from maturing. Neem oil is readily available at garden supply centers, or online. Spray it over affected plants.

* Nasturtiums. I love these sunny, vigorous plants! My only gripe against them is that aphids adore them - to the point where they will often (but not always) hit nasturtiums before chomping down on other plants. So nasturtiums planted near edibles often sacrafice their lives for the sake of your edibles. Do note that aphids are extremely difficult to eradicate on nasturtium plants (because there are just so many leaves for them to hide under). And once they destroy your nasturtiums, there's no gaurantee they won't move on to other plants. But ideally - if you don't use chemicals in your garden and you have a reasonably decent ladybug population - ladybugs and their larvea will feast on the aphids while they feast on your nasturtiums, thus eradicating the problem.

What Doesn't Work:
A ladybug devouring aphids.
* Smashing them. Some people claim smashing aphids sends out a warning to other aphids to leave. Been there, done that, it doesn't work.

* Garlic, chives, and onions. Some say planting these keeps aphids away from anything nearby. Again, I don't find that this works. (This year, I have cabbage planted among wild onions and chives. Yet the first plants the aphids attacked were those cabbages.)

* Marigolds. Marigolds are pretty in the garden, but I've never found they keep aphids away, as people claim, even when planted year after year and left to sit in the garden throughout winter.

* Bringing in ladybugs. One year, I purchased ladybugs at a local gardening center and released them among my aphid-infested nasturtiums. They flew away. So I bought another batch and - in desperation - gently sprayed them with Pepsi, which makes their wings stick down, so they can't fly. They still didn't control the aphid population and flew away as soon as the Pepsi wore off. It's really ladybug larvae who eat the most aphids, so a better bet is to encourage ladybugs in your yard by planting lots of flowers they love and never using chemicals in your garden.

* Fantastic soil. Some say aphids only appear on plants growing in poor soil. I have to disagree, since I've seen aphids attack plants in fantastic soil. But I am sure weaker plants are more susceptible to all types of insect pests - and that plants growing in fantastic soil are stronger and more able to fight off aphids.

Jun 25, 2014

Lazy Ways to Weed the Garden

Weeding is important. Not only does it make our gardens look nicer, but it keeps weeds from choking out desirable plants, sucking up all the nutrients and water that should go to them. But sometimes we Proverbs 31 Women are just too busy or tired to hoe or weed by hand. I'm having one of those times currently. How do I deal with it? I weed the lazy way.

* I offer rewards to children who weed. Really little ones can't weed without supervision (or they might pull up desirable plants), but my 8 year old can do some weeding unsupervised, as long as I'm specific about where she's allowed to weed and what plants aren't weeds in that area. For example, I can safely have her weed among mature plants, but I wouldn't have her weed around seedlings. The reward itself (and how much weeding warrants it) is up to you.

* I pull weeds, but I don't worry about getting the roots. (More on this, below.)

* I simply cut off the weeds at ground level, removing all the leaves. With the latter two methods, the weeds will regrow new leaves, but if I repeat the removal of the leaves a couple more times, the weed will die. Unless it's a very persistent weed, like dandelion or buttercup.

* I have my husband till garden pathways. I do this only in our main veggie bed. He tills just the surface of the soil, so the topsoil isn't disturbed too much, and the weeds die and feed the soil by composting.

* I am very sure to at least remove the flowers from all weeds. This prevents them from spreading by seed. And it's also a great job for kids, since it's pretty difficult to mess up.

* I don't get very fussy about where I put weeds. Instead of hauling them over to the composters, or the chickens, or the rabbit, or even to the garbage can (if they are too seedy or invasive to compost or not safe for the animals), I may just toss them on the ground in the garden. Here, they will feed the soil and act a little like mulch. If I'm worried about looks, I may toss them under a bush where no one will see them. Or I might lay mulch over them, if the garden hasn't been previously mulched. Usually, however, I don't worry about looks. In a few sunny days, the weeds blend in with the soil.

* For invasive weeds - those that are really impossible to get rid of by pulling or removing leaves, like buttercups - I don't reach for the Roundup. Instead, I try one of the methods in my "World's Easiest, Safest and Best DIY Weed Killers," like boiling water or vinegar. I also make a mental note of the area and - in the fall - lay cardboard down over the invasive weed. Water it well and weigh it down with stones or bricks, and the weed problem will be cured - or mostly so - by spring.

May 28, 2014

How to Grow Honeyberries - and Easy-to-Grow Super Food

Honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) aren't something you're likely to find in the grocery store, but they can be a fantastic addition to your yard. The berries look like elongated blueberries - and they taste like blueberries*, too. (Some people say they are more like a cross between blueberries and raspberries.) But here's the reason I grow them: They ripen earlier than blueberries, are more shade tolerant, and don't require acidic soil.

One of my second year honeberry bushes
Honeyberries grow in bush form, 5 to 7 feet tall, making them a great-looking hedge. They are native to Russia, which means they are quite hardy - most varieties to -40 degrees F. They grow well in zones 0 - 8, depending upon the variety. Honeyberries like part sun in warmer regions and full sun if you're in a colder zone. You'll need at least two bushes of different varieties because they must cross pollinate in order to produce fruit.

For best results, plant honeyberries in moist, well-draining soil. They like a pH of 5 to 8. For the largest berries, mulch well, using at least 2 and up to 4 inches or organic matter like leaves, straw, or bark. No pruning is necessary, except to remove dead or broken branches, but some pruning after harvesting can encourage bigger berries the following year.

During the bush's first year, you may get a handful of fruit, but it usually takes 3 years for the bush to really start producing optimally. The berries should be picked when well ripe - they will be dark blue. If the berries taste tart, you're harvesting too soon.

It's very difficult to find nutritional information on honeyberries, but all sources touching on the topic claim it's a super food. The berries are high in vitamin C and
antioxidants, and may reduce blood pressure, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disease.
* Despite the many similarities honeyberries have with blueberries, they are from different families. Honeyberries are in the honeysuckle family. Other names for honeyberries include haskap, blue-berried honeysuckle, blue honeysuckle, edible honeysuckle, and sweetberry honeysuckle.

May 12, 2014

Free Online Films for Garden Inspiration

Sometimes we all need a little inspiration to get us out into the garden. If that's you, or if you simply want a better idea of how much food you can grow in a small space or how easy it really can be, you've come to the right place. I have two fun-to-watch, inspiring, and FREE online films for you.

The first is called "My Urban Garden." It's an older, short documentary about a mother who jammed her backyard with an amazing variety of vegetables to feed her family.

The second film is newer and longer, but well worth carving out some time to watch. It's called "Back to Eden" and features a gardener who, while he talked (and sometimes ranted) to God in the garden, learned that growing his family's food needn't be as hard as we often make it.


May 2, 2014

DIY Seed Tape - Make Your Own Seed Tape and Save

Until this year, I'd never used seed tape. But this spring, I've found it's extremely helpful when gardening with children. Kids (at least mine) want to do it all themselves. But giving a packet of tiny seeds to a young child is just asking for waste, frustration, and not very many plants. On the other hand, seed tape is very easy for children to use, and makes gardening that much more fun.

But seed tape is expensive! It's not unusual to see 7 feet of seed tape to sell for about $7. The good news is, it's cheap and easy to make your own seed tape - the kids can even help.

What is Seed Tape?

Seed tape is simply a strip of paper with seeds glued to it. To use seed tape, lay the strips in your garden, cover them with a bit of soil, and wait for the seeds to sprout.

Other Reasons You Might Use Seed Tape

Aside from the kid factor, there are a few reasons you might want to use seed tape. Typically, seed tape is used with seeds that are small and difficult to handle - like carrot seed. By using seed tape, you can plant more precisely and avoid wasting any seed. If you want very neat rows of plants, seed tape is also very helpful. And it can give novice gardeners a better sense of confidence.

DIY Seed Tape

Gather together:

White glue (like Elmer's school glue - the liquidy kind that's white)
Cheap toilet paper (single ply paper is best, but if you have two ply toilet paper, it's fine to separate the layers and use just one ply)
Waxed paper to protect your work surface
Optional: A seed sower or tweezers

1. Cover your work surface with a layer of waxed paper. This will help prevent the seed tape from sticking to the work surface.

2. Roll out a section of toilet paper. If desired, cut the toilet paper in half, lengthwise; the idea here is just to use up less toilet paper.

3. Place dots of glue on the toilet paper, using the spacing desired for whatever seeds you are using. (Read the seed packet for specific advice on seed spacing.) You can make just a single row of dots or, if the toilet paper is wide and you want to plant closely, multiple rows.

4. Carefully place a seed on each dot of glue. If desired, you can place two or three seeds on each dot of glue, to ensure at least one seed germinates on each dot. (Tip: a seed sower is an inexpensive and handy tool for handling tiny seeds. Or, just use tweezers.)
5. Allow the glue to dry. I recommend lifting the toilet paper off the wax paper from time to time, to ensure it doesn't stick. If you will be making seed tape for more than one type of seed, be sure to write the name of the seed (like "carrots" or "Tom Thumb lettuce") on the toilet paper seed tape.

6. To store the seed tape until you're ready to use it, gently roll it and place the tape inside an envelope. Be sure to label the envelope with the type of seed is inside.

8. To use the seed tape, water the garden area well, then lay the tape in the garden, wherever you want the plants to grow. Cover lightly with soil. You're done! The seeds will germinate and pop up through the glue and toilet paper. Don't worry if some toilet paper shows after planting. It will quickly disintegrate.

Apr 2, 2014

Mason Jar Plant Protectors

Early each spring, I set out my hardy, winter sown seedlings in our garden. The only trouble with this is that sometimes the slugs and snails - thriving in spring's wet weather - eat my seedlings before they have a chance of growing bigger. And if I set seedlings out in an area where the chickens scratch, I can say goodbye to those, too.

This year, I realized there was an easy way to protect these seedlings from slugs, snails, chickens - and even frost: Glass or plastic jars.

I used pint sized canning jars, but you can use any type of glass or plastic jar. Just place the jar over the seedling, open end to the soil. To make them more stable where animals might knock them over, just press the jars into the dirt a little, so the rim is buried.

So easy! As a bonus, the jar works like an old fashioned cloche, keeping the seedling warmer so it grows a little faster. Click here to read about using milk jugs to protect seedlings.

Mar 24, 2014

Identifying Beneficial Insects in the Garden

Recently, a novice gardener who'd read my post "Good Bugs vs. Bad Bugs" asked how to recognize beneficial insects before they are full grown. I think that's an excellent question! While I do recommend gardeners leave all bugs alone unless they are certain they are attacking plants, it can be helpful to know what "good bugs" look like when they are young so you can be extra careful not to disturb them

Now, there are quite a few beneficial insects - those that don't harm plants, and feed on insects that do harm gardens. They vary, depending upon where you live. But here are a few of the most common ones, plus a great source for looking up more. Please note that slight differences in color or shape are possible.

Ladybugs: We all know what cute little ladybugs (or lady beetles, as they are sometimes called) look like. But their young look very, very different! All ladybugs, but especially the young, feast on aphids and other small, soft bodied insects. You can help attract ladybugs to your garden by planting things that have yellow pollen and nectar, like squash and mustard. Also, don't immediately kill aphids when they appear in your garden. (But watch aphids carefully or they will literally drain the life out of your plants.) You may also consider making a ladybug feeder for your garden.
Adult ladybug, courtesy Jacopo Werther/Wikipedia Commons.
Ladybug larvae, courtesy Dûrzan cîrano/Wikipedia Commons.
Ladybug pupa, courtesy Pudding4brains/Wikipedia Commons.

Lacewings: Lacewing larvae eat aphids, thrips, scales, moth eggs, small caterpillars, and mites. To attract lacewings to your garden, don't immediately kill aphids when they appear. Also, consider planting dill, angelica, and fennel, and allow some dandelions and Queen Anne's lace to grow nearby.

Adult lacewing, courtesy Charlesjsharp/Wikipedia Commons
Lacewig larvae, courtesy Ellmist /Wikipedia Commons
Just hatched lacewing larvae, courtesy Staticd/Wikipedia Commons

Aphid Midge: Aphid Midge larvae eat - not surprisingly - lots of aphids. The best way to attract them is to not immediately kill aphids when you see them in the garden. You can also trying planting sweet alyssum, yarrow, mustard, dill, parsley, and cilantro.

Aphid midge larvae, courtesy Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University/Wikipedia Commons.
Courtesy UC IPM.

Damsel Bugs: Damsel bugs eat aphids, small caterpillars, leafhoppers, thrips, and more. Attract them to your garden with caraway, cosmos, fennel, spearmint, goldenrod, and marigold.

Courtesy UC IPM.

Praying Mantis: This interesting insect feasts on caterpillars, butterflies, flies, bees, wasps, and moths. Praying mantis are considered difficult to attract to the garden, but cosmos, raspberry, and flowering shrubs are considered plants they like.You can also purchase praying mantis at gardening centers.

Adult praying mantis, courtesy Shiva shankar/Wikipedia Commons
Praying mantis egg case, courtesy Lykaestria/Wikipedia Commons

Assassin Bugs: These insects love to eat hornworms, Mexican bean beetles, Colorado potato beetles, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, aphids, lygus bugs, and caterpillars. To help attract assassin bugs, allow some Queen Ann’s lace to grow in your yard, and consider planting some daisies, goldenrod, and oleander.
Adult assassin bug, courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia Commons.
Assassin bug nymph, courtesy Riechvaugen/Wikipedia Commons.
Assassin bug larvae, courtesy M. Purves/Wikipedia Commons.

Mealybug Destroyers: These bugs - a member of the ladybug family - are imported from Australia. The larvae feast on insect eggs. Adults eat lots of mealybugs, aphids, and other soft bodied insects. Having aphids and mealybugs in your garden will attract mealybug destroyers, but in most cases, you'll need to purchase these "good bugs" at a gardening center.
Adult mealybug destroyer, courtesy gbohne/Wikipedia Commons.
Mealybug destroyer larvae, courtesy Jagrob/Wikipedia Commons.

Minute Pirate Bug: This bug eats lots of thrips, aphids, mites, scales, whiteflies and other soft bodied insects. They are attracted to marigolds, cosmos, spearmint, goldenrod, and fennel.

Minute pirate bugs, courtesy UC IPM.

Other Beneficial Insects: Many flying things, including wasps and certain flies, kill "bad bugs" in the garden (as do spiders). In addition, most beetles eat pesky bugs. For more information on these creatures, plus other beneficial insects, please see the University of California's Agricultural and Natural Resources website, which includes photographs of insects at various stages of life.

Feb 10, 2014

Drought Gardening - How to Grow Food in a Drought

Parts of the U.S. are experiencing droughts this year. This likely means grocery store food prices will increase - which makes this year a great year to grow your own food. (Actually, every year is a great year to grow your own food!) But what if you're living in a dry area? How can you grow food during a drought? What are the tricks to drought gardening? And, even if you aren't experiencing a drought, how can you conserve water in the garden?

* Don't intensive garden (space plants closer together than the seed packet recommends) or grow food in raised beds or containers. All these methods require more watering.

* Place plants far apart; generally at least 1 1/2 times more than seed packet guidelines. This allows plant roots to spread far underground, searching for water and nutrients. Naturally, this works best if you have plenty of room for a garden. (For more information on this method, read Steve Solomon's free Gardening Without Irrigation; also, "Steve Solomon's Garden Innovations.")

* Use cisterns (or buckets or other containers) now to capture all possible rainwater. You can use rain barrels, too, but rooflines tend to harbor animal feces, chemicals, molds, and fungi, which all run directly into rain barrels. (NOTE: It may be tempting to use gray water - such as from your clothes washer - for watering, but this water may contain human feces, and therefore isn't recommended for edibles.)

A soaker hose in action.
* Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses. This brings water directly to the base of plants, where it is needed.

* Learn how to tell if the garden actually needs water. With a trowel, remove the top three or four inches of soil; stick your finger into the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels dry, it's time to water. Also, there are critical times in a plant's life when it needs more water. See Old Farmer's Almanac for more information.

* Water in the morning, before the heat of the day. If you water later, much of the water will evaporate. (You might be tempted to water in the evenings, but this can leave plants damp - especially if you use a method other than drip irrigation - and this leads to disease.)

* Water deeply. This allows you to water less frequently and encourages a deeper root system in plants. To this end, try inserting a bit of PVC pipe with holes drilled throughout or a soda bottle with holes punched in it, near the base of plants. This is an especially good strategy for plants that require more than average water, such as tomatoes. Or bury clay pots in the soil near plants. (Regular terracotta pots will do, as long as you cover the tops with saucers to help prevent water evaporation; in addition, you can purchase clay pots made just for irrigating.) Fill the pots with water and the liquid will gradually seep from the pots, watering the plants.

* Add organic matter to your garden. This includes compost, mulches, and aged manure. Science has proven that healthy soil retains water much more effectively than soil that's depleted of organic material. To that end, you might try clear fallowing: Don't grow anything in the garden area for one year, but leave behind the remains of previous crops. (Alternatively, leave behind the remains of a cover crop.) This acts as a mulch, helping to retain moisture in the soil. This obviously works best if you have room for more than one garden area.

* Mulch heavily. Use about six inches of straw, hay, shredded leaves, wood chips*, or other organic materials over your irrigation hoses. However, make sure the soil is warmed up before you lay mulch down in the spring. Also, don't let mulch touch the stems of plants. (*Not sawdust or bark mulch; and don't even use wood chips if you till your garden, since it will rob the soil of nitrogen if tilled in)

Weeding conserves water for desirable plants.
* Weed, weed, weed. If there are weeds in your garden, they are using up precious moisture; remove them ASAP.

* Choose plants that come to harvest quickly. The less time plants spend in the soil, the less water the crop will need. All seed packets should indicate how many days it takes for the plant to become harvestable; if you have a choice between a plant that is ready in 75 days and one that is ready in 30 days, choose the 30 day plant.

* Focus on a spring and fall garden. More than likely the weather will be more moist and less hot during these seasons. This means growing mostly cool season crops - but there are lots of great cool season crops to choose from.

* Select drought resistant plants, such as mature rhubarb, okra, and peppers. For more ideas, visit Native Seeds, which specializes in plants that grow in arid locations; see also Burpee's list of heat tolerant vegetables.

* Use windbreaks to prevent wind from sweeping across your garden and taking water with it.

* Shade cloth placed over the garden in the heat of the day helps prevent plants from expiring so much water. You can use hoops to hold the shade cloth in space, or simply tie a shade cloth to posts or fences in the garden area.

* Try the dry gardening method of "dust mulching." This means cultivating the first two or three inches of soil to slow the wicking of water; this keeps more liquid in the soil just below the cultivated area. Dust mulching should be done after the garden is irrigated, or after a rain. (This method, while traditional, is controversial. Read more here.)

Dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes. Via CUESA.
* Dry farm your tomatoes. This only works if you have soil that's high in organic matter. Water the tomato only when the leaves start to yellow and completely stop watering the plant once it fruits. The plant yield will be less, and the plant will look ugly, but the tomatoes are said to taste superior.

* Don't fret about wilting. It's normal for plants to wilt in the afternoon heat. They will recover as the day cools. If, however, plants are wilted before the heat of the day, they require water.

* Look at the desert tribe gardening techniques of Native Americans. They sometimes built gardens that were not level; the planting area was low-lying, and small trenches were dug to funnel water toward the plants. Sometimes one end of the garden was higher and a ramp was formed out of the earth to funnel water down to plants. Creative thinking about funneling what water is available to your plants makes your job a lot easier.

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.