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

May 6, 2015

Eggshells for Slug and Snail Control: Do They Really Work?

I live where slugs and snails are everywhere. And I'm always looking for ways to keep them from destroying my vegetable garden. So naturally, all those Pinterest posts about using eggshells for slug and snail control caught my interest. It's one of the few tricks I haven't tried.

I've tried beer traps. They work great, but you must dump out the drowned slugs/snails every day and replenish the beer. I've tried copper borders. These work great, zapping the slugs/snails so they don't want to cross the copper - but they are only practical if you have raised beds or containers...and even then, only work so long as no leaves cross them and no dirt gets on them. I always hand pick and crush snails (sometimes putting boards down for them to hide under, so I know exactly where to find them), and I feed slugs to my chickens. (My current flock won't eat snails, whereas my last flock loved them.) But still, there are always more, more, more slimy creatures who think my garden is a smorgasbord. 

So usually, I sprinkle Sluggo everywhere. This definitely works, and (unlike most similar products) it's safe for non-slimey critters. The trouble is, I need it most during our rainy springs - and it has to be re-applied after every rain. Which becomes expensive. Plus, when do slugs and snails love to come out? When it's raining! Some years, the rain has been so persistent, I've had to totally replant my vegetable garden because slugs/snails have completely destroyed my original crop.

So eggshells seem like a perfect answer. They are readily available - totally self-sustainable, since we have backyard chickens. And they don't become less effective due to rain. Theoretically, I should only have to apply them once - maybe twice - in the growing season, because they break down quite slowly. (Which is an added bonus: They feed nutrients to the soil, helping to fertilize next year's crop.)

But the question is: Do they really work? That's what I set to find out.

How to Use Eggshells to Deter Slugs and Snails

1. As you use eggs, hang on to the shells. I put mine in a plastic shopping bag that hung from a hook in my kitchen. I didn't bother to rinse the egg shells; I just plopped them into the bag after cracking the eggs. Odor wasn't a problem.
2. Let the egg shells dry for a couple of days, at least. I waited until my bag was full, then let them sit an additional two days. Some of the eggshells weren't perfectly dry, but this was not a problem.

3. A little at a time, I put the eggs in my food processor and pulsed them. (I tried the coffee grinder first, since that's what I'd seen done on Pinterest. It didn't work at all. You might be able to use a blender, though I've not tried it. Either way, I think a food processor or blender is better, since they are easy to sanitize. If you could find a coffee grinder that works on eggshells, I'd recommend dedicating it just for that purpose, since coffee grinders are difficult to clean thoroughly.)

When I was done, the eggshells looked like this:

4. Finally, using a tablespoon, I liberally sprinkled the ground eggshells around my spring seedlings. The eggshells work because they hurt the slug/snail to cross, so don't be stingy with them, and make sure you get them all the way around your plants.

5. Then I waited.

The Good News:
It rained lightly. I watered several times. And slugs and snails did not eat my seedlings! And I sure love the cost of this organic pest control.

The Bad News:
When I watered, the eggshells did jump around a little, and some got covered by soil. I imagine a hard rain would knock them around more. So I will have to reapply more often than I initially thought.

Also, grinding the eggshells in my food processor scratched the plastic cup badly. I'm going to have to reserve that cup just for processing eggshells. In the future, I may experiment with crushing the shells with a rolling pin or something similar. (But if you try this, know that the eggshells must be ground pretty finely or they won't deter slugs and snails.)

If you have leftovers, you can either store them in an air tight container for a later applications, or you can offer them to your hens in place of oyster shell. Laying hens need plenty of calcium or they'll have health problems. Their own eggshells provide it nicely. (It's important,however, to crush the eggshells; not only does this make them easier for chickens to consume, but it prevents hens from identifying food with their eggs. Trust me, you don't want chickens that eat eggs from their nesting box!)

Apr 27, 2015

11 Proven Ways to Make Your Garden More Productive

I don't know about you, but when I take the time, energy, and money to plant an edible garden, I want it to produce as much food as possible for my family. With that in mind, here are my top 11 tips for getting the most from your vegetable garden.

1. Build up the soil. The number one thing you can do to make your garden more productive is to improve the soil. When I began gardening on my own (without my parents guiding me), I had terrible soil. It was heavy clay and had only ever grown grass, as far as I could tell. I planted a vegetable garden there, anyway, not really knowing much better. Sure, stuff grew. But it was nothing like the uber productive garden I had several years later, after adding trucked in soil and lots of organic matter. Do yourself a favor. Take the time to test your soil and add the recommended amendments. Then continue adding as much organic matter to the soil as possible. In the fall, rake fallen leaves into the garden beds. Add aged animal manure. Make compost, and add it to the soil in the spring (and throughout the summer, if you have enough). Mulch with organic materials like grass clippings or straw. All these things feed your plants far better than any store-bought fertilizer. You'll be amazed and how much better your garden grows!

2. Round off your raised beds or berms. Not being a math person, I was amazed to learn that the simple act of gently rounding the tops of your raised beds can give you a considerably more space to plant. For example, if your raised bed is 5 feet across, rounding the soil gives you a foot more growing room than if the soil in the bed was flat. If you have a 20 foot bed, that means you have 20% more growing room!

3. Stagger spacing. Neat freaks hate this one, but planting in perfect little rows is a less efficient use of space than staggering rows. If you stagger so plants are in triangles in your growing area, you'll get 10%  more growing space.

4. Plant intensively. Tighten up the spacing that plant tags and seed packets recommend - but don't go overboard. Intensively planted gardens require more water, more fertilizer, and more organic matter added to the soil. And plants that are too close for comfort never reach their full size or are as productive as they would be if they had a little more room.

5. Get rid of weeds. Few people enjoy weeding, but leaving weeds in the garden crowds out desirable plants while also stealing water and nutrients from them. So pull out those weeds when they are small. Use mulch. And whatever you do, don't let weeds go to seed. Get rid of weeds in walkways, too, by tilling pathways, or covering them with cardboard. Cover crops planted in the fall help, too. Buckwheat and oats are particularly good at crowding out weeds. (Learn more organic tips for weed control here.)

6. Grow vertical. The more plants you have growing up on trellises, fences, and other supports, the more room you have for additional plants. Good choices for vertical gardening include: pole beans, peas, cucumbers, smaller-sized squash (large squash are difficult to support if grown vertically), and indeterminant (vining) tomatoes.

7. Attract pollinators. I've heard some gardeners complain that their squash or cucumbers or...whatever...never produces - presumably because they never get pollinated. And I wonder how many other gardeners could have more productive gardens if their edibles were better pollinated. The key to great pollination is to eliminate all chemicals in the garden - and to plant flowers pollinators love. Perhaps an especially good way to do this is to plant attracting flowers in the middle of your edible garden, so pollinators must pass your fruits and vegetables to reach them.

8. Interplant. For example, in the spring, plant radishes among the lettuce and spinach. While the radishes are growing, the lettuce and spinach are small, and there's plenty of room for them all to grow. By the time you harvest the radishes, the lettuce and spinach will be ready for the extra room the removal of the radishes brings.

9. Use succession planting. For example, early in the spring, you could plant peas. When those are harvested, plant in some quick-maturing corn. When that is harvested, put in some fall lettuces. For best results, plant seedlings, not seeds, in the garden, and choose quickly maturing varieties.

10. Choose the right varieties. When choosing the seeds for any vegetable, I always choose one of the quickest-maturing varieties I can find - and I need a really good reason to select a variety that takes longer. That's because the quicker the plants grow and are harvested, the sooner I can replant the area with more plants, the more food I can get out of my garden.

11. Use season extenders. By adding cold frames or tunnels to your garden, you can gain several weeks of growing time at the beginning and end of the season. In fact, you can grow food right through winter!

Mar 25, 2015

Organic Gardening Isn't Just About Ditching Chemicals

More and more people are interested in growing food without chemicals. But true organic growing is much more than just avoiding chemicals - something that seems strange and new to many home gardeners (and even to many farmers).

Commercially Grown Organic

The organic produce you find in grocery stores - and from some farmer's markets - is more like conventionally grown food than truly organic food. As I've written before, certified organic produce may be sprayed with synthetic sprays; the USDA rules allow this under certain circumstances, and some organic farmers do it on the sly, while others are seemingly unaware that their plants were sprayed per-field.

More often, though, commercial organic fields are sprayed with natural ingredient sprays. Automatically. Whether the plants need them or not. And now it's coming to light that these sprays mostly haven't been tested for human safety. Some that have, it turns out, are harmful to humans. (Here's an example. Remember, natural doesn't mean safe. There are plenty of things that are natural that can make you sick or even kill you.) In addition, much of this organic produce is grown in other ways similar to convention produce, with little thought about the most important aspects of organic gardening.


"More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease."

The True Organic Garden

The true organic garden, however, is much different. More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease. How is this achieved? By loading the soil with organic matter.

Some organic gardeners dig into the soil, turning it over or tilling it in preparation for planting. These gardeners also dig in aged manure and/or compost to feed the soil and replenish it from previous plantings. Once the plants are several inches high, good organic gardeners add more organic matter to the top of the soil. They might sprinkle aged manure around, or lay down an organic mulch, like straw, that will hold in moisture, keep down weeds, and slowly decompose, further feeding the soil

For those who choose a "no dig" method - meaning they don't dig into the soil, except to make a hole for a plant - the key is to layer organic matter on top of the existing soil. Lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching) is a great example of this. Layers of anything that's organic and that will decompose and feed the soil - like straw, bits of vegetables and fruits from the kitchen, grass clippings, and shredded black and white newspaper - are piled onto the soil. This creates a rich bed for planting.

With either method - the dig or the no-dig - the soil is constantly receiving nutrients in the form of decaying matter. (Just like in nature, where tree leaves and other organic matter are always falling to the soil and decomposing there.) This not only enriches the soil and encourages beneficial microbes and worms, but it, in turn, fertilizes or feeds the plants growing in that soil.

What About Disease and Pests?

Some argue that if you rotate crops and use the organic methods mentioned above, you'll never have pest or disease problems. This simply isn't true - although organic practices will decrease the likelihood of pest and disease in the garden.

The best organic gardeners take a daily stroll through their garden so they can catch pest and disease problems early - when they are easiest to control. Many pests can be hand picked off plants. Home gardeners can also use things like milk and other natural, completely harmless ingredients, for warding off disease, as well as simple pesticides like ordinary soap.

Is Fertilizer Necessary?

Because the focus of organic gardening is to feed to soil, fertilizer often isn't necessary. However, if your soil hasn't had much chance to build up good nutrients, or if you're growing heavy feeders like tomatoes, spinach, or celery, you will probably want to use fertilizer. But you don't need to go out and buy commercially prepared "organic" fertilizer. Instead, try to use certain types of animal manure, compost tea, comfrey, and other ingredients I discuss here.

Organic Home Grown is Better

I think you can now see why home grown organic food is so far superior to anything you can buy in a grocery store. When you buy supermarket produce, you simply don't know what you're getting. And once you've tasted fresh from the garden vegetables and fruits, it's tough to go back to store bought.

Happily, organic gardening isn't difficult, but it is a different mind-set from conventional vegetable and fruit gardening - one that is much closer to nature.

Feb 26, 2015

Grow the Dirty Dozen Ebook

Did you know that according to the CDC  90% of Americans test positive for pesticides? Including pesticides that have been banned for home use due to serious side effects? Ugh.

This is why each year The Environmental Working Group releases their famous list of "The Dirty Dozen" - the 12 types of produce that test highest for pesticide residue. Looking at this list, published heavily in newspapers and magazines, can be pretty depressing. A lot of kid favorites are on it.

Theoretically, you can stop your family's exposure to pesticides by buying organic only produce. But not only is this expensive (double ugh!), it may not offer 100% protection. In recent years, there have been several cases where produce labeled "organic" was illegally sprayed with chemicals. (Here is just one example.) And, as I've written about before, even government guidelines for certified organic produce allow the use of chemicals if farmers feel their crop may fail without them. I also recently read that organic produce can legally be sprayed with chemicals as long as they have natural ingredients - but that some of those natural chemicals may be harmful to humans. (Triple ugh!)

So what's a mom to do? One option is to plan your garden according to what foods are the worst offenders. That's where my new book Grow the Dirty Dozen: Stop Buying Produce with Pesticides and Start Growing Your Own Organic Fruits & Vegetables comes in. And by growing the most pesticide-laced foods, you not only know exactly what is in your food, but you'll feel better and save a ton of money.

Grow the Dirty Dozen offers step by step advice for novice and expert gardeners alike. You'll learn which produce is most pesticide-laden, and exactly how to grow it yourself, organically.

You'll also find the best tips for preserving your harvest through freezing, canning, drying, and cold storage. There's even a special section on genetically modified (GMO) produce, how to avoid it, and how to grow it organically.

As our food supply becomes more and more contaminated, growing our own food becomes ever more important. It isn't hard. And it doesn't require acreage. Your kids can even help. And learning how to do it doesn't cost much, either - Grow the Dirty Dozen is only $2.99 at Amazon.

Feb 16, 2015

Backyard Winter Gardening: A Book Review

Over the years, I've read a number of books on winter gardening, but Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening is by far the best - for the simple reason that it gives easy to follow advice on the simplest ways to grow and harvest food in the winter.

Warnock is best known for his "Forgotten Skills" books, which look at the way pioneers sustained themselves and how we can recreate these skills for modern life. So it's no surprise that the methods included in Backyard Winter Gardening are old standbys easily duplicated today. Specifically, Warnock focuses on cold frames and hot beds.

A cold frame is just a low, bottomless box with a glass lid that's set over vegetables. Warnock explains he's used many types of cold frames, including the store bought variety and cold frames made with straw bales and a piece of glass. But, he writes, his simple, inexpensive, homemade two by four cold frames work best. Happily, they are extremely simple to make and even someone without building experience should be able to create one.

The author also uses hot beds; they have the same construction as his cold frames, but before planting vegetables in them, the author puts fresh manure or green clippings beneath the soil; as these decay, they keep the temperature in the box quite warm.

Using one of these two devices, Warnock grows an abundance of vegetables in winter, including beans, cabbage, lettuce, peas, spinach, and even melons. Between these fruits and veggies and the produce he keeps in his cellar, he easily feeds his family all winter.

In addition, Warnock offers details about his geothermal greenhouse - an underground greenhouse that requires no electricity and gets quite hot (100 degrees F. or more), even in Utah's coldest, snowiest winters. Here, the author grows tomatoes year round and keeps tropical fruit trees.

Warnock also mentions overwintering some veggies. This produce isn't really growing during winter; it's just staying fresh by staying in the soil. He includes carrots, beets, and other vegetables in this list, and also shows readers how to harvest them pre-winter and store them in a cool location, like a cellar or garage. I was especially excited to see that if stored correctly in a box in a cool place, many vegetable tops will continue growing, giving fresh greens all winter.

Throughout, Warmock stresses that choosing the right seed for growing food in winter is essential. Not all varieties do well in the cold, dark months. To help readers find the right type of seed, he includes the names of some of his favorite varieties and gives advice on the best places to find winter vegetable seeds.

The only thing I feel this book is missing is some information about using tunnels for winter gardening. I do realize the author is trying to focus on the most old fashioned and easy ways to winter garden, and tunnels are more of a modern invention. But at the back of the book, the author excerpts some of his gardening journal, mentioning tunnels briefly, but never explaining why he doesn't recommend them. (Elsewhere in the book, he mentions the high winds his area receives, so I assume this is why tunnels don't work well for him. Still, it would be helpful to read what he feels the pros and cons of tunnels vs. cold frames and hot beds are.)

In addition, it's important to remember that Warnock is somewhat selective in the foods he mentions in the book. For example, he neglects to mention parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, or collards, all of which are good winter vegetables. On the other hand, he talks about his amazing trials growing cantaloupe in hot beds (!) and has a chapter dedicated to mangels, an excellent through little-known crop for livestock.

Finally, several times in the book, Warnock refers readers to his website or blog. For example, he suggests checking his blog for an update about growing cantaloupe in winter. But when I arrived at his site, the search feature wasn't working. In fact, his blog looks a little neglected, with loading problems and infrequent posts.

All in all, however, Backyard Winter Gardening is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to those who want to grow more of their family's food.

Feb 13, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed

Once you've chosen your garden site, the next step is to get that location ready for planting. There are about a gazillion ways to do this, but today I'll type about some of the most practical ones.

But first, you should decide what sort of garden you want. For example, do you want a traditional, flat in the ground garden? Or a raised bed garden? Or berms? To help you decide, check out my post "Which Gardening Method to Choose?," which lists the pros and cons of each of these methods.

Preparing a Site That's Never Been Gardened Before

If you've chosen a site that's never had a garden, chances are it's covered with weeds and grass. (If there's nothing or very little growing there, your work is increased because you'll need to amend the soil more heavily; more on that in a moment.)

There are two main methods for reclaiming this sort of location. One is to cut away the grass; the other is to cover it.

Before you cut away the grass, mow it - then mark out your beds. If you're not using a traditional row method, remember that you'll want to be able to reach at least halfway across each bed; this ensures you don't have to step into the garden beds in order to weed or harvest, which is important for soil health. To mark the area, use stakes or a little sprinkled flour.

Remove the grass by using a spade or sod cutter. You don't need to dig deep - just deep enough to get all the grass roots out of the soil. (If you leave roots behind, pretty soon the area will be grassy again. No fun!) The sod you remove can go face down in your compost pile, or anywhere else in the yard. (Got an area that isn't grassy and you wish it was? Lay the sod where you want it, grassy side facing up, then water it in.) If you're going to plant directly into the soil, you'll now need to add some topsoil or compost to the area, to fill in the space the sod used to take up.
Lasagna beds. Over time, the organic layers will decompose and the beds will become lower.

You could also cover the area to create a garden bed (especially recommended if the area is weedy, not grassy). The easiest way to do this is with a method called "lasagna gardening" (a.k.a., "sheet mulching). Once the grass is mowed and the beds marked, place cardboard where you want the beds to be. Corrugated cardboard works best. Just flatten some cardboard boxes out and lay them on the ground, overlapping so that sunlight can't peek through to the soil. Some people like to add a few layers of black and white newspaper, too. The idea here is to kill any weed seeds by depriving them of light. As the cardboard and newspaper decay, they will also attract tons of worms, who will do a great deal to make the soil much better for gardening. Once the cardboard and (if desired) newspaper is down, water it well.

Now add layers of organic material over the cardboard/newspaper. Good choices include peat moss, a little wood ash, thin layers of grass clippings or dead leaves, and compost. If you have quite a bit of uncomposted organic matter (like fruit and vegetable scraps), you can even add a layer of those; just be sure they are well buried by other things, or critters like raccoons will come along and make a mess. The more layers you add to the bed, the better the soil will become.

The lasagna method works best if you create the bed early - in the late fall or early winter before you want to plant. But you can create lasagna beds in late winter or early spring, too. Just be sure that your last layer is topsoil or compost - soil to plant your seeds in.

Also note that if you want raised beds with wooden or stone sides, you'll need to construct those first, then use the lasagna method to fill them up.

Amending the Soil

When you considered where to locate your garden, I recommended testing your soil with an inexpensive soil test kit available at gardening centers. If you haven't done this yet, do it now. Supposedly, spring and fall are not the best times to test soil, but if you want a garden bed for this year, it's impractical to test in the summer. So go ahead and do the test, and amend the soil according to the test's instructions, adding whatever organic matter is recommended. In the long run, this will save you a lot of time, money, and heart ache. There's nothing worse than planting something only to find your plants aren't growing because they lack certain nutrients. Ugh!

Building the Beds

Once the soil is all ready to go, it's time to make your beds. If you're planting directly in flat soil, you can either till the soil with a rototiller, or use the double dig method by hand. If you want to plant berms (raised beds without wooden or stone sides), bring in good garden soil and shape your berms as desired. If you want raised beds with sides, now's the time to build them and fill them with great gardening soil. If you used the lasagna garden method, your berms are already formed.

Incidentally, I've found that most soil touted as gardening soil and sold by the yard (by far the least expensive way to buy it) usually isn't that great. Sometimes killer compost has been added to it - compost that was made with manure or other organic matter that has Round Up in it. (In which case, the soil is going to kill anything you plant in it.) It's a good idea to always ask what's in the soil and whether it's been exposed to chemicals. Unfortunately, there is no test I'm aware of for seeing ahead of time whether the soil has Round Up in it. But even if the soil hasn't been exposed to this chemical, you should expect to add plenty of organic matter to it, to boost it's fertility. That means adding lots of good compost - ideally, your own compost.
Raised bed gardening.
See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Jan 16, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Aside from the bit of research you did in part I of this series, choosing a location for your garden is the most critical aspect of having well producing plants. Taking a little time to think through your garden location can make the difference between a garden that produces abundantly and one that barely produces anything.


Your new garden needs sunlight. While there are some leafy green vegetables that grow in part shade, almost all vegetables and fruits are far more productive if they get at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. Ideally, those 6 hours happen in the morning and/or early afternoon; afternoon sun is the hottest and therefore sucks more water from the soil. So how do you determine if a potential garden site gets that much sun? By observation.

The old fashioned way of doing this is, in my opinion, the best. First thing when the sun comes up, go out into the garden, and sprinkle any shaded areas with flour. Then go out into the garden at noon and do the same thing. And finally, at around 3 pm, do this again. To make things more clear, use something to differentiate between the three different markings; for example, divide each area with an inch wide "line" where no flour falls, or use a hose to mark off the different area. Now you should have a clear idea of the sunniest spot in your yard; plant your garden there.
From The New Garden Encyclopedia, 1943

A similar method is to draw a rough map of your potential garden area (or whole yard) on a piece of paper. Beginning when the sun rises, go out in the garden and note where it is shady. Lightly color in corresponding areas on your map. Go out again every hour (or at the very least, at noon and about 3 pm) and do the same thing. Make sure the shade on your map is a different color, according to the time of day represented. (At Get Busy Gardening, they use a slightly different notation method. Choose whatever makes most sense to you.) From your map, you should be able to easily tell how much sun any given area receives.

A newfangled way to test a spot for sunlight is to use an electronic sunlight meter. Stick the meter into the soil first thing in the morning (just before sunrise), and remove when night falls. The meter will tell you whether or not the location gets full sun. The only problem with a meter like this is that it only reads the specific location where it's put. To read an entire garden site requires many days of moving the meter around.

Now a word of caution: Sun exposure changes according to season, so don't expect that a shade map made in winter will accurately represent the shade in summer.


Naturally, water is essential for a garden. While some areas generally get enough rainfall to support a vegetable garden, drought will be a huge problem unless your garden has reasonable access to irrigation water. I recommend having your garden near enough a water spigot that a hose can reach all part of your garden with ease.


Certainly, soil health is a vital aspect of a productive garden - but as long as you're willing to bring in decent soil, poor soil in your chosen garden location isn't detrimental. To learn more about what type of soil you have, click here. If, after testing your soil, you determine it's not very healthy, be sure to read up on how to combat the situation.

See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed

Jan 9, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research

It's no secret that, God willing, we'll be putting our house on the market in a few months. So while I have the itch to start winter sowing, that's something I just won't be doing this year. (Wah! We're really going to miss garden fresh produce, that's for sure.) If the house sells quickly, I might be able to plant a winter garden at our new location. And, yes, I'm anxious to get started.

Are you like me, starting a veggie garden from scratch? Then this series of posts will guide you through the entire process - from planning to getting the plants in the ground. Today, we'll start with the most important part of getting in a brand new garden.

First, Know Your Zone

The first important step is to know your USDA gardening zone. Just go to this USDA website, click on your state, find your city, and see what color it is. Every color on the map coincides with a USDA gardening zone number. (Another name for this number is your "plant hardiness zone.') Be sure to jot this number down - and use the number when you're researching which plants will grow in your area. When purchasing seeds, always be certain they are appropriate for your zone. Seed catalogs will say something along the lines of "Grows in zones 10 - 12." If your number is within that range, you should be able to grow the plant. If it's not, you won't be able to grow it.

Now, Know Your Frost Dates

You also need to know when your area usually gets it's first and last frost of the year. The Victory Seeds website has a handy list with this information. Again, be sure to write down the dates. This information will help you determine when to plant seeds or seedlings. Generally speaking, you'll want to wait to put seedlings out in the garden until the last likely frost of spring has passed. (With winter sowing, you don't have to worry about this date.) You also need the date of the first likely frost of winter so you know when to expect most plants to stop producing (unless you have them in some sort of greenhouse).

Next, Find Your Local Cooperative Extension

The Cooperative Extension System is a national network of experts who disseminate research on many topics, including gardening. Every state has at least one Cooperative Extension office - and most have several. They are a gold mine for gardeners! Look up your local Extension by using this Cooperative Extension map. Just click on your state and a list of extension offices comes up. Choose the one nearest your location.

Your state's Extension Office(s) will have an informative website, with lots of gardening articles - many of which are specific to your gardening zone. In addition, you can call your Cooperative Extension and ask specific questions that a gardening expert familiar with your area will answer.

Finally, Read Books About Gardening in Your Area

In addition, I recommend finding books that are specifically about gardening in your zone. A good first place to look is your closest library, but a search online will often turn up even more books.

With all this information in hand, you are well on your way to understanding your local growing conditions. It won't take long, and it will save you lots of time, heartbreak, and money!

See Also: 

Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site
Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Preparing the Garden Bed

Jan 1, 2015

Vegetables to Harvest in Winter

Many of us who grow our own food are stuck in the rut of thinking we can only harvest that food in the spring, summer, and fall. But the truth is, some vegetables are hardy enough you can harvest them into winter - without any special protection (like a greenhouse or row tunnels). Naturally, your winter weather affects how reasonable it is to plan on winter harvests; you probably don't want to dig through several feet of snow just to grab some carrots! But even in very snowy areas, a few pots placed in a sheltered area (like a porch or under the eves) can provide some fresh winter food.
Carrots planted in spring or summer can be left in the ground and pulled from the garden as needed during winter. In regions with more than a sprinkling of snow, cover the carrots with a thick layer of straw or leaves. In mild regions, where you'll get little or no snow, they don't need covering up. Added benefit: Carrots exposed to hard frost are sweeter.

Green Onions (Scallions)
Green onions (also called scallions) are really just immature onions. Plant them in the fall, and you can either clip the greens all winter long, and expect full sized onions come spring or summer - or pull the whole plants, as needed. Where there will be snow, be sure to cover the green onions with a thick layer of straw or leaves.
Brussels sprouts in snow. (Courtesy Walkerbros and Wikimedia.)

Cauliflower and Broccoli
Until the first hard frost, cauliflower and broccoli can be harvested from the garden.

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts from the garden are sweeter and more tender than those from the grocery store - plus, they are quite hardy. They can survive through several frosts (and will become sweeter with each), though snow will kill them.

If mulched with a thick layer of straw or leaves, leeks can be harvested even in a snowy winter. (In mild regions mulching isn't necessary.) Varieties with thicker stems (like American Flag) are the best choice for winter gardens.

Radishes are one of the fastest growing veggies, so plant them in the fall, and feel free to harvest them in early winter. Don't keep them in the ground too long, though, or they become woody and unpalatable.

Just cover them with a thick pile of leaves or hay (unless you live in a mild region), and beets can be harvested well into winter. Like radishes, however, they will eventually become woody.

Turnips and Rutabagas
Hardy turnips and rutabagas just require a mulch of leaves or hay in areas where it snows. They take longer to get woody than beets or radishes.
Kohlrabi. (Courtesy Randal.b and Wikimedia.)

Parsnips take quite some time to mature in the garden, but they are still a favorite in my household. It's fine to pull them up and eat them anytime they've finished maturing, but they grow sweeter if you wait until after a hard frost. In mild regions, there's no need to mulch them, but if your area gets more than a little snow, do cover them with a thick layer of straw or leaves.

If planted in the late summer or early fall, kohlrabi can sit out in the garden until a good, hard frost.

Kale, Collards, Cabbage, and other greens
Greens love cold weather, and will continue to live in the garden until a very hard frost comes along. Some other greens to try include mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard, and lettuce; some varieties are more hardy than others, and most of these greens will die after a hard frost. Kale and collards will likely survive a few frosts.

Jerusalem Artichoke
Another favorite at our house, Jerusalem artichokes taste best after a good hard frost. Read more about how to grow and eat them here.
Jerusalem artichoke tubers. (Courtesy Hans B. and Wikimedia.)

Bet I surprised you with this one! No, you can't really grow tomatoes in the winter without giving them extra warmth and protection, but you can pick all the green tomatoes off your plants before the first frost, then allow them to gradually turn red. In this way, we've had fresh tomatoes until the end of the year. Learn the easiest way to ripen green tomatoes here.

REMEMBER: Timing is Everything
None of these plants are going to really do much growing in winter. So the trick to successful winter harvesting is correctly timing seed sowing. To do this, you'll have to look at each seed packet, to determine how many days it will take the seeds to grow into mature plants. Next, you need to know when the first fall frost is in your area. (Check your cooperative extension website for this date.) Now, time your planting so that each seed will have ample time to mature before that first frost hits. See? Not hard at all! And well worth it for garden fresh produce in winter!

Dec 31, 2014

Most Popular Posts - for 2014, and for all time!

The most popular post!
It's always fun for me to see which posts are most popular on this blog. (They are never - never! - the posts I imagine will most interest readers!) Oddly, what shows up as popular depends upon what source I look at; but studying stats from Blogger, Pinterest, and other top sources, it's easy to see which posts are all time favorites and favorites for the year. And since recent months have brought a great many more readers to Proverbs 31 Woman, I thought it would be fun to share these lists with you - especially since many of the posts are from years' past. It's a pretty eclectic list; enjoy!

(P.S. Want to see more popular posts from Proverbs 31 Woman? Check out the Pinterest page "Most Popular Posts at Proverbs 31 Woman.")

Top 5 Posts for 2014:

1. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

2. 10 Things I Learned During Our Tiny House Test Run

3. The Letter of the Week Series, especially Letter R

4. Free Art History Curriculum: Claude Monet

5. Walmart Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Top 10 Most Popular Posts of All Time:

 1. How to Train Chickens  (it completely cracks me up that this is the most popular post among readers!)

2. 6 Ways to Teach Kids the Books of the Bible

3. Best Free Apron Patterns on the Net

4. How to Clean a REALLY Dirty Stove

5. Best Ideas for Upcycling Jeans

6. Canning Pickled Green Beans (Dilly Beans)

7. Harvesting and Making Your Own Chamomile Tea

8. How Much Money Can You Save Gardening & Homesteading

9. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

10. Easiest Fruits & Vegetables to Grow

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.