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

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.

Dec 30, 2013

Getting More from This Year's Garden

Did you know you can begin sowing seeds as early as late December? I rarely mention it until after Christmas because few of us have time to sow seeds in the midst of Advent and Christmas - but getting going on your garden NOW will make your garden all that much more productive. And no, it doesn't matter if you have huge snow drifts in your yard.

So if you want to get the most from your garden this year, please check out these archived posts. They will teach you how to sow seeds earlier than you ever imagined, and how to get growing as soon as possible in 2014, and how to solve some problems you may have had with last year's garden.

* How to Winter Sow (aka, get your seeds started even if it's snowing!)  You can also learn how to winter sow, start seeds indoors, and start seeds directly in your garden soil in my Starting Seeds ebook. It's free in .PDF format, or you can buy it in Kindle format for only 99 cents.

* Total Beginner's Guide to Growing Vegetables.

* All about types of seeds - including heirloom, hybrid, and GMO.

* How to Plan a Small Vegetable Garden. Planning makes a huge difference in garden productivity.

* Easiest Vegetables & Fruits to Grow.  If you're a new gardener, it's usually wise to stick to the easier-to-grow stuff.

* How to Start Your Garden as Early as Possible - it's all about soil temperature and how to manipulate it.

* How Many Vegetables to Plant?

* Storing, Sorting, and Testing Seeds. Last year's seeds, that is.

* How I Choose my Garden Seeds. Sound advice on picking seeds that will grow well in YOUR garden.

* The Vegetable Garden: Location, Location, Location.

* Conserving Water in the Garden. For many of you, the high cost of tap water is a big concern; here are some ideas on using less water in the garden.

* Growing Your Own Kitchen Herbs. As you can see from my breakdown of money saved by growing my family's food, one of the easiest ways to save money at the grocery store is to grow your own herbs. And the best part is, you need very little space to have a productive herb garden!

* The #1 Biggest Mistaken When Growing Herbs. Herbs are very easy to grow, but here is a common mistake to avoid.

* The Organic, Pest Free Garden - Part I: Bugs.

* The Organic, Pest Free Garden - Part II: Critters.

* The World's Easiest, Safest, and Best DIY Weed Killers.

See all the Proverbs 31 Woman's gardening posts here.

Dec 16, 2013

How to Rotate Crops - the Easy Way! - for a More Productive Garden

This summer, I discovered a beautiful - but strange - butternut squash in my garden (see below). After a little research, I learned the squash was diseased with gummy stem blight. The worst part was, the soil where the squash was growing was now contaminated and would spread the disease to any other squash planted there. How to overcome this? Crop rotation.

Over the years, I've not always done the best job of rotating crops. Every article I read on the topic seemed so complicated, I was frankly overwhelmed by the thought of crop rotating. So I promise this article will show you easy ways to rotate your crops.
This squash's pretty pattern comes from gummy stem blight.
Why Crop Rotation is Key to Garden Health

Crop rotation is the answer to many a garden's ills. Crop rotation:

* Increases soil fertility
* Results in a more abundant harvest
* Helps prevent disease
* Helps reduce pest problems

In simple terms, certain plants use up specific nutrients in the soil and attract certain pests and diseases. By planting the same plant (or plants in the same family) in the same location every year, the soil becomes depleted of certain nutrients - and disease and pests think they've found heaven. At the very least, without crop rotation, your crop yields will decline. At worst, your garden will be plagued with pests, disease, and deformed produce.

Easy Ways to Rotate Crops

There are several ways to plan crop rotation.

1. Keep it simple and focus on not planting anything from the same plant family* in the same spot more than once every three years.

2. The first year, plant something that puts nitrogen into the soil (like beans). The second year, plant something that sucks up a lot of nitrogen (like greens). The third year, plant something mostly neutral (like herbs). Repeat.

3. Eliot Coleman, author of The Winter Harvest Handbook and The Four Season Harvest, among other gardening books, has done extensive research on this and other vegetable gardening topics. He recommends rotating your crops this way: Year 1: tomatoes; year 2: peas; year 3: cabbage; year 4: sweet corn; year 5: potatoes; year 6: squash; year 7: root crops; year 8: beans. If you don't grow one or more of these plants, however, you can simply substitute something from the same family.* For example, let's say you don't grow tomatoes. (What are you, crazy??? But I actually do know a few folks who don't like them.) Substitute potatoes, peppers, or eggplant instead.

Of course, all this means you need to keep track of what you plant, and where. A quick sketch is all that's needed. Keep it someplace safe, like a gardening notebook, a household planner, or tacked on the garden shed wall.

Taking just a few minutes to do this each year will save you a lot of time, effort, money, and disappointment in years to come. Trust me!

* To learn more about plant families, visit Garden Organic.

Related Articles: 
How to Plan a Small Vegetable Garden
The World's Easiest, Safest, and Best DIY Weed Killers
How to Turn a Toilet Paper Roll into a Seed Pot
How to Start Your Garden as Early as Possible
How to Winter Sow Vegetables and Ornamental Plants

Dec 11, 2013

How Much Money Can You Save Gardening and Homesteading?

Have you ever wondered if you're saving money by growing your own food? While saving money isn't the only reason for gardening and homesteading, I still like to keep track of expenses. A great many people are under the impression that gardening and homesteading cost more than buying food at the grocery store. And while I've proven before that both chicken keeping and vegetable gardening are frugal, I haven't checked costs in a few years. So this year, I kept a careful record of the food we produced.

But before you read on, you should know:

* My estimates are conservative. Quite conservative. Although the food we produce is organic and ultra-fresh, whenever possible, I compared the cost of our produce with prices at our local chain grocery store. Yes, it would be more accurate to compare what we produce with farm fresh, organic produce (or even grocery store organic produce), but frankly, we can't afford to buy organic. But if I did use farm fresh organic or grocery store organic with what we produce, this would greatly increase the value of our home grown food.

* When I couldn't find a particular food locally, I looked for a price online - always trying to choose the lowest price I could find. I did not include the cost of shipping I would have to pay if I chose to buy these items online.

* My garden is small: The main bed is 12 x 14 ft. with wide pathways; I also have a bed about 33 x 3 ft.) (To see how I laid out the garden this year, click here.)

* My garden is still producing! I still have carrots, parsnips, collards, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, in the ground. And, of course, the chickens are still laying eggs. I used totals from December 8, 2013 for my calculations.

* I didn't harvest as much of certain things (like herbs) as I could have, simply because I couldn't use as much as I grew.

* I had to exclude the value of certain items that I can't buy locally and couldn't find online.

2013 TOTALS:

Total Pounds of Food Produced: 538.12 lbs.

Total Estimated Cost of Purchasing that Food: $1,770.89

Total Cost of Producing our Food: $278.00

Money Saved: $1,492.89


Seeds: $75
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
Fertilizer: $10
Compost: free
Water: $80

Chicks: $9
Chicken Bedding: $10
Chicken Feed: $84 


Eggs, 815 = $163
Chicken meat, 20 ½ lbs. = $40.79

Apples, 13 1/4  lbs. = $25.00
Basil, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Beets, 1 lb. = $2.49
Blackberries, 3 lbs. = $15.84
Blueberries, 7 1/2 lb. = $79.20
Buttercup squash, 2 1/2 lbs. = $2.22 (I can't find this type of squash locally, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Butternut squash, 44 1/2 lbs. = $39.60
Cabbage, 6 lb. = $2.94
Calendula flowers, 8 lb. = $48.00 (online price)
Carrots, 4 1/2 lb. = $8.37
Chives, 6 1/2 lbs. = $64.48
Cilantro, 1 1/8 lb. = $4.74
Collards, 14 1/2 lbs. = $144.42
Dandelion flowers, ½ lb. (I could not find these locally or online)
Dandelion greens, 35 lb. = $52.15 (online price of fresh leaves)
Dandelion Root, 2 1/8 lb. = $17.50 (online price)
Garlic, ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads = $3.00 scapes (online price listed by local farmers);$3.49 heads
Green onions, 1 lb. = $2.36
Ground nuts, 1 lb. = $50.00 (online price)
Kale, 17 lbs. = $169.32
Kohlrabi, 1 lb. (I couldn't find a local or online price)
Kiwi, 1 lb. = $3.99 (for common kiwi, not the Arctic kiwi I grow)
Leeks, 5 lbs. = $25.00
Lettuce, 11 lb. = $36.19
Mint, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Oregano, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Pattypan squash, 44  lbs. = $39.16 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Parsnips, 2 lbs. = $1.99
Passion vine, 1 lb. = $6.00 (online price)
Peas, 5 1/2 lbs. = $13.69
Potatoes, 11 1/4 lbs. = $11.14
Radishes, 8 lb. = $9.44
Rosemary, 1/2 lb. = $4.96
Sage, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Spinach, 1 1/4 lb. = $1.98
Squash blossoms, 3 1/2 lbs. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Sunchokes, 40 lbs. = $360.00 (online price)
Strawberry, 3 1/2 lbs. = $12.32
Tomato, 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green = $96.49 red, $70.34 green
Wild onion, 2 lb. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Wonderberries, 1 lb. = $16.60 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I compared them to the online price of huckleberries - a close relative)
Zucchini, 60 1/2 lbs. = $78.05

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

Oct 30, 2013

October on the Homestead

Despite the fact that it's October - a time when people in my area are no longer growing vegetables, unless they've planted a fall garden (which is sadly rare) - we are still harvesting crops. Although I failed to get anything but a few carrots planted in late summer, the collards and kale I planted last spring are still producing quite a lot of food. Even my spring-planted zucchini is still giving me squash - though at a slower pace than in summer.

I've harvested only a few carrots because I'm still waiting for a good frost to sweeten them up. That goes for the parsnips (which I typically leave in the ground until just ready to use ) and Jerusalem artichokes, too. I did harvest my first batch of ground nuts, but I haven't yet used them because I've just been too busy for experimentation in the kitchen.
Ground nuts.
The main veggie bed, covered with leaves.
 We plucked our first butternut squash out of the garden...Amazingly delicious! All the butternuts are ripe enough to eat now, but I'm waiting for the skins to harden so I can store them long term in a cool location. To test for this, I press my thumbnail into the skin of the squash. If it doesn't leave a mark, the squash is ready. However, the vines may die back before this happens; no worries. We love butternut squash and could probably eat it all within a short amount of time. Otherwise, I can freeze it.

Most of my green tomatoes have already ripened. This year, I had little room to ripen them in my pantry, so I just set them in boxes (single layer) in the kitchen. They are ripening very quickly this way and I'm freezing most of them as they do. The tomato crop was great this year, giving me far more tomatoes than I hoped for, so I think I will try canning some homemade catsup soon.

I'm also doing some light spring prep in the garden. One of my beds has become so overrun with buttercups (an impossible to pull up weed) that I mowed back the weeds and covered the area with cardboard held in place with a few bricks or stones. This should kill off most of the weeds while also making the soil looser and more full of worms and microorganisms next year.

In addition, fall leaves are everywhere, and I'm making good use of them. When they fall in the garden, I leave them be. They will rot and add nutrients to the soil. If they are very thick, I have my husband shred them and we put them in the compost. (For more ideas for using fall leaves in the garden, click here.)

We're getting 5 - 6 eggs per day. This is the morning batch.
Our chickens are still laying quite well. They haven't yet molted and show no signs of slowing down. Australorps, some say, lay better during the cold months than many other breeds of chicken. We'll see.

We thought we were going to loose one of our hens this month. She was quiet, always sitting in some corner far off from the rest of the flock, and not doing much. In the beginning, her symptoms were so subtle, we weren't positive she was sick - and by the time we decided she definately was, we saw no reason to separate her from the rest of the flock. If she had something contageous, she surely had already given it to the rest of the hens. So we just watched the flock closely.

Then suddenly, our sick hen perked up and was back to normal. It's a reminder than even hens sometimes feel under the weather without being seriously ill.
Kennedy loves maple leaves!

Our rabbit is all set for the colder weather, too. His hutch is already in a sheltered location, but while rabbits have thick fur, in the wild, they get much of their winter warmth from snuggling with other rabbits deep in a rabbit hole. If it gets much colder, we'll line three sides of his cage with cardboard for extra warmth. He has a little house in his hutch, too, which we've lined with hay. As a side note, did you know rabbits purr? I sure didn't. When we pet him, he doesn't make any noise, but you can feel his throat vibrating.

2013 Produce Totals 

(All but the squash and tomatoes were/are from a 12 x 14 ft. garden plot; the squash and tomatoes were in an area measuring 33 x 3 ft.)
Eggs 751
Chicken meat 20 ½ lbs.

Apples 13 1/4  lbs.
Basil 3/4 lb.
Beets 1 lb.
Blackberries 3 lbs.
Blueberries 7 1/2 lb.
Buttercup squash 2 1/2 lbs.
Butternut squash 3 ½ lbs.
Cabbage 6 lb.
Calendula 8 lb.
Carrots 1 3/4 lb.
Chives 6 1/2 lbs.
Cilantro 1 1/8 lb.
Collards 13 3/4 lbs.
Dandelion flowers ½ lb.
Dandelion greens 35 lb.
Dandelion Root 2 1/8 lb.
Garlic: ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads
Green onions 1 lb.
Ground nuts 1 lb.
Kale 17 lbs.
Kohlrabi 1 lb.
Kiwi 1 lb.
Leeks 5 lbs.
Lettuce 11 lb.
Mint 3/4 lb.
Oregano 1 1/2 lb.
Pattypan squash 44  lbs.
Parsnips 1 lb.
Passion vine 1 lb.
Peas 5 1/2 lbs.
Potatoes 11 1/4 lbs.
Radishes 8 lb.
Rosemary 1/2 lb.
Sage 1 1/2 lb.
Spinach 1 1/4 lb.
Squash blossoms 3 1/2 lbs.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Strawberry 3 1/2 lbs.
Tomato 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green
Wild onion 2 lb.
Wonderberries 1 lb.
Zucchini 60 1/2 lbs.

Oct 29, 2013

Got Fall Leaves? Here's What to Do With Them!

Every year, I'm amazed that my neighbors rake the leaves off their lawn and put them in neat (initially, anyway) piles along the street for the city to pick up. Don't they know what a gold mine they are throwing away?! Apparently not. But you, my dear readers, have no such excuse. Because, if you don't know how useful fall leaves are already, you're about to learn!

* Add them in layers to your compost bin. Leaves are one of nature's great plant foods. However, it's important to not dump a huge pile of leaves into the compost bin all all once; they will become slimy mush and will slow down decomposition in the compost pile. So add a layer of leaves, then a layer of "green" (nitrogen-rich) things, like kitchen waste, then another layer of leaves, and so on. Shredding the leaves first speeds up their decomposition. (Running the lawn mower over them will shred them nicely.)

* Use them as mulch. Ideally, shred the leaves first, then place a few inches of the leaf mulch around your plants, keeping the leaves a couple inches away from the stems. Often, though, I don't bother to shred them; we get a lot of winter rain, so that keeps the leaves from blowing around. By spring, even unshredded leaves will be decomposed (or nearly so). Not only do the rotting leaves feed the soil, but they help prevent weeds while retaining moisture in the soil.

* Throw them in the garden bed. If you have any bare garden beds, sprinkle fall leaves over them, then lightly dig them in. The leaves will rot over winter, feeding the soil and encouraging good-for-your-garden worms and micro-organisms. Just don't add huge quantities that will stick together and be slow to decompose.

* Make leafmold. Yes, you can buy it - but why buy it when you can make it for next to nothing? Leafmold is a rich compost that builds up nutrients in the garden - but it is, after all, just rotten leaves. To make your own, just devote a compost bin to fall leaves. Or fill a plastic bag (black contractor's bags work best) about three-quarters full. Close the bag securely and poke small holes all over the bag. In a year or two, you'll have leafmold.

* Use them for overwintering. If you are overwintering vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and leeks in a raised bed or under a tunnel, placing fall leaves over them will keep them sufficiently warm in most climates. If you get snow, you'll need to completely cover your overwintered crops with leaves, then add at least another foot of leaves on top. In climates where there's just a spinkling of snow, just a few inches of leaves is usually all that's required. Leaves for overwintering don't work well if you don't have a raised bed or something else to hold the leaves in place.

* Start a lasagna garden. This is a simple way to turn bad gardening soil into spectacular growing soil - and one main ingredient is leaves. Essentially, you're just layering "greens" (nitrogen rich materials) and "browns" (carbon rich materials) on top of the soil; you'll need about twice as many browns as greens, and you should stack everything two or three feet high. Read more about lasagna gardening here.

Not all leaves are created equal. Some are quicker to decompose than others, and some add more nutrients to the soil than others. Thick leaves (like holly leaves) must be well shredded before you can use them in the garden. And Eucaliptus, walnut, and camphor and cherry laurel leaves actually inhibit plant growth, so they shouldn't be used at all.

But leaves left on the lawn will kill it - and there's no reason to throw leaves away if they can make your garden more productive. Give it a try!

Oct 2, 2013

September in the Garden

September has whizzed by! What with the beginning of school and a family road trip, I've spent very little time in the garden. At this point, I'm mostly weeding (the more I keep the weeds under control now, the fewer weeds I'll have next year) and harvesting, but as you see from the photos, it's pretty hard to keep up with the weeds, what with all the rain we are having.

Once again, plans for a true fall garden have fallen by the wayside. I can never seem to quite get my act together in the summer to successfully start seedlings. I did plant some carrots to overwinter, and they are doing just fine. The lettuce I planted, though, just couldn't tolerate our hot summer weather, and is now dead. I also allowed the peas I planted to dry to a crisp. I really need to invest in some hoop tunnels so I can shade fall crops planted in summer (and extend our growing season, too).

There are still lots of greens in the garden.
Even so, the collards and kale will last in the garden all winter, though they will just barely grow. I also keep the parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes in the ground until I'm ready to use them - usually after a good frost, since that sweetens them up. I may keep most of the carrots in the ground, too, because they sweeten so wonderfully after a frost. (In my area, I don't have to do anything special to overwinter these crops, but if your area gets quite cold, you'll need to insulate them with a thick layer of hay.)

Volunteer tomatoes growing amongst the squash and fall leaves.
I've harvested the cabbage, which was hardly worth growing. I like huge heads that I can chop up and freeze for borscht, but this variety yielded pretty tiny heads. I'm also still getting some summer squash; I have given away bags of pattypan squash, and have made about a gazillion jars of zucchini chips. And there are still tomatoes - a wonderful crop that's allowed us to eat tons fresh, plus have quite a few for preserving. The volunteer tomatoes I allowed to remain in the garden have quite a few green tomatoes on them - and I've a handful or so of red ones, too. They were definitely worth allowing to sit in the garden, especially since I didn't do anything for them - I didn't even give them a supportive cage.

Next up will be the butternut squash. I'm really pleased with my crop this year; I will store most of it in a cool location in the house, after allowing them to cure.
Buttercup squash.

2013 Produce Totals 
(All but the squash and tomatoes are from a 12 x 14 ft. garden plot; the squash and tomatoes are in an area measuring 33 x 3 ft.)

Eggs 667
Chicken meat 20 ½ lbs.

Apples 13  lbs.
Basil 3/4 lb.
Beets 1
Blackberries 3 lbs.
Blueberries 7 1/2 lb.
Buttercup squash 21 1/2 lbs.
Cabbage 6 lb.
Calendula 8 lb.
Carrots 1 lb.
Chives 6 1/2 lbs.
Cilantro 1 1/8 lb.
Collards 11 3/4 lbs.
Dandelion flowers ½ lb.
Dandelion greens 35 lb.
Dandelion Root 2 1/8 lb.
Garlic: ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads
Green onions 1 lb.
Kale 12 ½ lbs.
Kiwi 1 lb.
Leeks 5 lbs.
Lettuce 11 lb.
Mint 3/4 lb.
Oregano 1 1/2 lb.
Pattypan squash 41 1/2  lbs.
Parsnips 1 lb.
Passion vine 1 lb.
Peas 5 1/2 lbs.
Potatoes 11 1/4 lbs.
Radishes 8 lb.
Rosemary 1/2 lb.
Sage 1 1/2 lb.
Spinach 1 1/4 lb.
Squash blossoms 2 1/2 lbs.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Strawberry 3 1/2 lbs.
Tomato 38 3/4  lbs.
Wild onion 2 lb.
Wonderberries 1/2 lb.
Zucchini 57 1/2 lbs.

Sep 6, 2013

How to Plan a Small Vegetable Garden - How I Do It

Do you have trouble planning your garden - especially your small vegetable garden? Reader Kelly Teater of Knit Together asked me for a layout of my garden. And while I've tried to show lots of photos of my garden, I agree it may be easier to see how I do things if I share some drawings. I hope this will help you plan your own garden beds.

Main garden bed.
Let's begin with what my main garden bed. It's in the back yard, near the fence. When we first moved here, it was nice and sunny. Now, due to neighbors' trees, it's part shade. That's why this year I chose to plant it only with things that don't mind shade. The bed was quite prolific this year, offering us more than enough greens (and we love our greens!), plus other goodies. It measures 12 x 14 ft., including wide pathways that my husband tills (so I don't have to hoe or hand weed them).

The bed is made up of five berms, each a couple of feet wide. I chose to make berms because our soil is heavy clay. Bringing in garden soil and turning it into berms or raised beds was the cheapest, simpliest option. (If I'd wanted to ammend our soil, it would have taken much more garden soil, plus sand, and still might not be satisfactory.) Berms or raised beds make for slightly warmer beds, too, meaning an easy jump in the spring and a slightly longer growing period in the fall. Many people ask if I have a problem with the berms eroding. I do not. In the spring, before I plant, I dig compost into each berm and reshape them a bit.

The downside to berms or raised beds is they require more watering than gardens planted directly in the soil.

As you can see from the illustration above, I planted this bed pretty intensively this year. This did not deter production, but it did require more fertilization and water. (For an idea of how close I planted things, the general recommendation for kale, according to Mother Earth News, is single plants, 1' 4" each way (minimum); rows, 1' 2" with 1' 6" row gap (minimum). My plants are only about 4 inches apart. In another example, I planted my loose leaf lettuce just 1 inch apart; Mother Earth News recommends single plants, 0' 4" each way (minimum); rows: 0' 4" with 0' 6" row gap (minimum).)

First Berm: This is primarily a kale bed. I planted a couple of varieties. In the early spring, I also interplanted radishes - twice. Also interplanted are carrots.

Second Berm: This is primarily the collards bed. To one side, I also planted some parsnips and cabbage. Again, carrots are interspersed throughout.

Third Berm: The pea bed. In early spring, I planted just a few spinach plants in this bed; for the first time, I had success with spinach - I believe because the peas helped shade this cool-weather plant. Next year, I'll plant far more spinach, planted close together. And again, there are carrots here, too.

Left Hand Berms: One has tightly spaced beets and loose leaf lettuce. (I always recommend loose leaf because if you leave three leaves behind when you harvest, leaves will just keep coming. If you plant head lettuce, you really only get one harvest.) The other held leeks (planted in late fall and overwintered), and now has winter carrots.

On the sunnier side of the bed (the right), I have pots of herbs and one grow bag of potatoes. (This year, some sort of disease got these potatoes, but last year, I had an abundant crop from this grow bag, despite the fact that it's not in full sun. And I always recommend growing herbs in pots because #1, they make take over the garden if they are planted directly into the soil and #2, it allows you to move them around into bare spots in the garden.) In the very back of the bed, against the fence, are some honeyberries (only their second year; they didn't produce this year) and thornless blackberries. Really, blackberries like sun and well drained soil, but this year those vines actually produced some really deliscious, huge berries.

Also in the backyard, and not part of this drawing, are the kiwi vine (quite ornamental, too, and growing on an arch), Jerusalem artichokes (in a grow bag), ground nuts (in a pot), and all along the back of the house, strawberries.

Front garden bed.
In the front yard, right in front of the house, I have one long front garden bed. It was there when we purchased the house, but was narrow and full of heavy clay soil. This year, my husband widened it and I amended it with chicken manure and compost. (This winter, I'll add more of both, and cover it with cardboard to discourage weeds.) This is not a berm garden; everything is planted either in pots/grow bags, or directly into the level soil.

The graphic here really doesn't do the bed justice; I have both summer and winter squash in this bed, and (as you know if you've ever grown either) a single plant fills in a lot of space very quickly. So try to imagine the entire bed covered in big, beautiful squash leaves. General advice is to plant squash about 4 feet apart. I did just a bit less than this, but you'll want to be careful not to get squash too close, or you'll have problems with air circulation and sunlight, which will reduce production. As my squash gets quite large now (in September), I am training them forward, onto the lawn, to save space.

In the back of this bed, near the house, I have two columnar apple trees and three blueberry bushes in pots. There is also a brick planter that's original to the house; it contains a few cabbages, lots of wild onions, plus my vigorous ornamental and medicinal passion vine. In the left hand corner of the bed, near the front, is a rhubarb plant. (This was it's first year, so I won't get a harvest from it until next year.) Next to it is a single zucchini plant - more than enough to keep us constantly in zukes!

I also have two pattypan squash plants and two large, vining, prolific butternut squash. The two pattypans have us giving away an awful lot of food, since we don't like this summer squash once it's preserved); next year, I'll probably only plant one - which will give me more room for some other plant. I also had one buttercup squash just behind these squash; it didn't do very well. I believe it just wasn't getting enough sun because it was closer to the house. This bed also had two grow bags of potatoes, many pots of herbs, some chives planted directly into the soil, and all those volunteer tomato plants. (Which are producing some fruit - though not as much as the plants I purchased.)

Side garden.
I have another tiny bed to the side of our house that holds six tomato plants, only about a foot or so apart, some onions, a handful of strawberry plants, and some wonderberries that scatter themselves throughout the bed each year. Here, everything is directly planted into the ground - which is some of the best soil in our yard. (The total of the long front bed and this small one is about 33 x 3 feet.)

From such a small amount of space, I think I get a pretty decent amount of food. (Click here to see our totals as of August.) The keys are:

* to give the plants the correct amount of sunlight
* to plant pretty closely
* to provide the correct amount of water and fertilizer.
* To grab space wherever there is some. (I'm not afraid to plant edibles among ornamentals, as long as the location is right for the plant.)
* To plant early and late season crops that don't mind some cool weather. (Examples include kale, radishes, and peas.)

I'm also careful to plant flowers nearby, to attract pollinators. My favorites are borage and nasturtiums; both self sow each year and are edible.

Could I get even more from my beds? I do think I have room to grow pole beans (or something similar) up a tepee, just behind the squash. They will get less sun, so I need to be sure to choose a plant that doesn't mind a bit of shade. And I could shrink the pathways in my main garden bed so I'd have more room for plants. But that means hubby couldn't use his tiller...and I would never hear the end of that!

All the layouts in this post were created using Mother Earth News' free vegetable garden planner.

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.