Showing posts with label Gardening 101. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening 101. Show all posts

Jul 5, 2016

The Best Method for Growing Potatoes

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

 Potatoes are an important part of the American diet, yet an awful lot of people don't grow their own. There are many of good reasons to change that; the first is that potatoes rapidly absorb whatever is in their soil, so if you're buying commercially grown potatoes, all the pesticides and man-made fertilizers that are used on them are readily found in the vegetable you're eating. Also, organic potatoes are hard to come by in many regions, and are considerably more expensive. Finally, there are now some GMO potatoes sold in grocery stores, and they are unmarked, of course.

The good news is, there's more than one way to grow potatoes at home. You don't need a huge patch of land to grow excellent, organic potatoes. On the other hand, the Internet is full of bad advice on potato growing methods...so let me save you time, energy, and money by sorting through the various methods for you.


The Potato Box

Potato grow boxes. (Courtesy of
You may have seen a dramatic claim that you can "grow 100 lbs. of potatoes in just 4 square feet" of space. It is seemingly everywhere online. The first time I read about this method, I got pretty excited - but after I researched a bit, I discovered it's not as wonderful as it sounds. No, I didn't try this method myself; rather, I spoke to gardeners all over the U.S. who'd tried the method...and failed. They followed the directions perfectly, but got no where near the promised 100 lbs. of potatoes. Many only got 10 or 15 lbs.

After talking with these gardeners - all of them experienced vegetable growers - I came to several conclusions. One is that the original source (and many of the imitators) don't mention what type of potatoes to grow in the box. To make the box work well, you must choose late season varieties. These will take 90 days or longer to mature, but they'll "set tubers" throughout their growing season. (Short season varieties set fewer tubers before the plant dies back.)

You must also plant more than one layer of seed potatoes in the box and cover no more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves at a time. Using late season potatoes, some gardeners have succeed in growing 80+ lbs. of potatoes using a potato box.


Potato Sacks
This method is very like the potato box, except the container is a burlap sack. You can see an example of this method over at Home Grown Fun. One problem particular to this method is drainage - water pours out of the bags, not really letting the soil absorb much moisture. If you still want to experiment with this method, use a drip irrigation method. Yield will depend upon the size of the bag; a large bag will yield less than a well-planted potato box.
Potatoes growing in a garbage can. (Courtesy of Mad Mod Smith)

Garbage Can Potatoes

Here, a garbage can is the growing container. To work properly, though, you'll first need to use an electric drill to put plenty of holes in the bottom and sides of the can. Place a little gravel on the bottom of the can, or place the can on top of some bricks so drainage is improved. Add a little soil to the bottom, plant the seed potatoes, and add dirt as they grow. This method works about as well as a potato box.


Potato Tower

This method uses wire panels (like chicken wire) with potatoes planted in loose soil on the bottom. Straw is placed over the potato plants as they grow. (Some people put straw only on the edges of the tower and use compost or good soil in the center, so the plants mostly come into contact with the soil and the straw really just holds the soil in place.) You can see an example of a potato tower here.

Potatoes growing in tires. (Courtesy of Tony Buser)
If you have little space for growing potatoes, this is an acceptable method, but don't expect the huge yields some people claim. To up your chances of a good yield, use late season potatoes, plant more than one layer of potatoes, and never cover up more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves.


Potato Tires
For this method, an old tire is placed flat on top of the soil. Additional soil (and seed potatoes) are placed inside the center of the tire. As the potatoes grow, more tires and soil are added on top of the first tire. This is one method I've never tried because I just don't like the idea of the tires leaching into the soil of any edible tuber. Expect results similar to previous methods.


Grow Bag Potatoes
Again, this method is very similar to the ones I've already mentioned, except you're using a store bought "grow bag" as your planter. These grow bags are made from special, porous fabric. (Here are some that I similar to the ones I use.) I've seen tutorials for making your own, but I don't think they'd work at all the same, because the genius of these bags is their fabric; it seems to encourage potatoes to grow more tubers than other container methods I've tried. For best results, use late season potatoes, plant more than one layer of seed potatoes, and never cover up more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves. Also be sure to use taller grow bags. I have had yields of 25+ lbs. per grow bag.

Potatoes grown traditionally. (Courtesy of Ishikawa Ken)

Old Fashioned In the Ground Potatoes

If you do this right, it will result in the highest yield of potatoes. The down side is that it takes more space than other methods.

The traditional method is this: Dig some trenches in your garden, ideally about 20 - 36 inches apart, as space allows. The trenches should be about 6 - 8 inches deep and 3 inches wide. Plant potato seeds in the trenches, about 12 inches apart. Cover with 3 - 4 inches of soil. As the potatoes grow, add more soil to cover much of the plant.

Or, you can plant potato hills: Designate a circular area for the potatoes and plant as described in the row method.

More Tips for Growing Potatoes 

* Yes, you can use store bought potatoes for planting, but your yields will be lower. Store bought potatoes are sprayed with chemicals the help prevent them from sprouting and slow growth.

* For best results, buy certified seed potatoes. Not only will they grow better than store bought potatoes, but they are far less likely to develop disease problems.

The bumps where potatoes will eventually sprout are called "eyes." (Courtesy of Steve Johnson)
* Wherever you grow potatoes, give them full sun (at least 6 hours a day).

* Some late season potatoes to try: Kennebec, Katahdin, Butte, All Blue, Bintje, Diseree, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian, and King Harry.
Bintje

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes? http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/potato/types-of-potatoes.htm,
Bintje

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes? http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/potato/types-of-potatoes.htm
Bintje

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes? http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/potato/types-of-potatoes.htm,

* Whatever soil potatoes are planted in should be light and airy. This allows roots to spread and tubers to produce more abundantly.


* Potatoes can't grow until the soil is 45 degrees F. If you plant before that time, especially if you plant directly in the ground, your seed potatoes are likely to rot.

* Prepare your seed potatoes correctly: Cut them into small pieces, making sure each piece has at least two eyes. Leave plenty of potato around the eyes, since the new sprouts will feed off those pieces. (Seed potatoes that are about the size of an egg can be planted whole.)

* Chitting (pre-sprouting) can increase yields: Cut up seed potatoes about two weeks before planting and place them in a single layer on some newspaper, eyes pointing up, in a warm location (about 70 degrees F.), away from direct sunlight.

* The earliest you can plant potatoes is two weeks before your last frost date.

* One of the most common mistakes when growing potatoes is to plant them too late, especially if using late season varieties.

* Don't "hill" (or add soil to) the potato plantings until the plants are 8 inches tall.

* Water well, but it's best to water in the morning, so the plant can dry out before the cool temperatures of evening. Watering too much or in the evening can result in potato rot.
Kennebec potatoes are my favorite to grow.

* If you want potatoes that can be stored, don't dig them up until 2 or 3 weeks after the foliage dies back. Some variety of potatoes store better than others; Russet, Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac, and (my favorite) Kennebec store well. Before storing, allow potatoes to sit in a single layer in a dry, cool place for 3 days.

* Don't store potatoes near onions because both veggies release gases that cause the other to spoil faster. Store potatoes in a cool, dark, location.



Jun 2, 2016

Pros and Cons of Rasied Bed and In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

I wish I could adequately describe to you how we feel, sitting in a nearly empty house with virtually nothing to do but wish we were on our new homestead. My daughter says (daily): "It feels like we'll never get moved!" She struggles to finish her school work because she's so busy dreaming about the bunnies she's going to raise. My son goes outside into our empty suburban back yard, then comes back inside minutes later. "There's nothing to do. I can't wait until I have the woods to explore!" My husband tries to fill his time with mowing and edging the lawn, but what he really longs to do is get his BBQ set up on our new property and start making accommodations for our next flock of hens. This being in limbo stuff is for the birds, people.


The only way I am surviving is by planning. Even this is a little tricky, since I've only seen our property once. But one of the things I've been pondering a lot is my garden - specifically, will I used raised beds, or not?

Truth is, I love the look of a traditional, in the ground vegetable garden. And given that I want to eventually grow as much of my family's produce as possible (and maybe even enough to sell at a local farmer's market), it's tempting to make an easy-to-expand, old fashioned, in the bed garden. However, there are some good reasons to consider raised beds, too.

Urban raised bed. Courtesy of Carol Norquist.
Pros and Cons of Raised Beds

* Raised beds warm up quicker in the spring and stay warmer in the fall than gardens planted directly into the soil. This is a pro if you live in a cooler area, but may be a con if you live where it's hot.(Too much heat can burn plants and drastically raise the need for watering.)

* Raised beds have good drainage if you purchase soil or build your soil "lasagna" or sheet mulching style. This is a pro if your ground is lousy or you get a lot of rain, but it may also be a con, since raised beds generally require more frequent watering.

* Raised beds, if built quite high, are ideal for those who have trouble bending over to care for a garden. High raised beds may also help keep out critters like small dogs, wild rabbits, and gophers.

* Raised beds may be easier to keep weed free. If you purchase soil, it should not contain weed seeds, and because raised beds are usually planted rather intensively, it will be difficult for weed seeds that blow in to overtake the raised beds.

* Raised beds aren't the cheapest option, a definite con. Even if you construct berms (border-less raised beds), if you bring in soil, it will still cost a few hundred dollars.

Potager style raised beds. Courtesy of

* Purchased soil may not be that great. Often, it is low in nutrients and may even contain traces of Round Up that can harm (even kill) the plants in the soil.

* It may be harder to keep improving the soil in raised beds. Raised beds (unless in the form of border-less berms) eventually fill up. That means you are limited in the amount of organic matter you can put on or in the soil, because it will, at some point, overflow. Eventually, the soil in raised beds will be depleted and require replacing.

* Typical raised beds aren't suitable for some edibles. For example, you'll need deeper than average raised beds to grow carrots, and tomatoes do best if you give them several feet of space for their roots. Sprawling veggies, like pumpkins, will need space to spread down and out of raised beds.

* If you are gardening in the city or suburbs, raised beds may be considered "neater" looking by your neighbors and city officials. (Although a well maintained traditional garden can look tidy and beautiful, too.)


My garden, two years ago.
Pros and Cons of In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

* Traditional in-the-ground gardens don't require store bought soil. Even if your soil is lousy, you can improve it by amending with organic matter and using lasagna or sheet mulching methods. However, it does take time for soil to improve.

* In-the-ground gardens make for weed-free pathways if you're willing to lightly till them. However, you'll need to prepare the garden area by laying down cardboard (watered and weighed down) the fall before you plant, in order to keep the growing areas relatively weed free. (For tips on preparing a garden site, click here.)

* In-the-ground gardens are easier to mulch, and more mulch means less watering and better soil over time.

* You can continually improve the soil of in-the-ground gardens with organic matter (like composted manure, dry leaves, compost, straw, etc.). You will never have to worry that soil will overflow, as with a raised bed.

* In-the-ground gardens generally requires less frequent watering than raised bed gardens.
In-the-ground garden. Courtesy of Jean-noël Lafargue.

* If you live in a hot climate, an in-the-ground garden is less likely to burn plants than a (hotter) raised bed is.

* It's cheap and easy to expand in-the-ground gardens because there's no building materials or soil to purchase.


And....my final decision for our new homestead? Because we'll be living in a cooler, wetter climate, I think it's probably best to go with raised beds. But I reserve the right to change my mind!

May 19, 2016

Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

 Years ago, I remember talking with a friend about growing vegetables. "I read The $64 Tomato and now I'm scared to start a garden!" she said. I'd never heard of this book, so next time I was at the library, I checked it out. Oh my goodness! Now I knew why my friend was afraid to start gardening! The author of The $64 Tomato spent ginormous amounts on his garden, and after figuring out his costs, yes, indeed, his tomatoes cost his $64 a piece. Crazy! But let me assure you, friends, this is not the norm! Most people save money when they grow their own food. For example, the last time I figured how much our vegetable garden produced, I learned we saved a minimum of $1,492.89 over buying our veggies at a grocery store.And I wasn't doing anything extraordinary.

Here's how I recommend starting a garden without breaking the bank

Save on Raised Beds
Raised bed gardens don't have to be expensive. (Courtesy


There are advantages to raised beds - namely, the soil in them gets warmer more quickly in the spring and stays warmer in the fall, which increases yields. They can also be a solution to problems with poor soil - if you fill them with great dirt. But there's no reason you need to spend a fortune buying or making raised beds.

You could go without, just layering organic matter on top of the soil in a method called lasagna gardening. Or you can use old fashioned berms - a method I've used successfully for years, and which is basically raised beds without any structure holding the dirt in place.

Other ideas include building raised beds from found materials (like free pallets - make sure they are the safe kind, rocks found in your yard, excess building materials like bricks, etc.) You can even use logs to create raised beds.

It's easy - and not expensive - to build great garden soil.
Save on Garden Soil

I do understand the desire to start your garden right away. When I began growing food in earnest at our current suburban home, I spent a couple hundred dollars to bring in soil to create berms. Even with that expense, I saved some money on our food bill. But the soil wasn't terrific (which is often the case when you buy garden soil in bulk), and maybe you don't have enough money laying around to purchase soil. (I think I was actually fortunate the soil didn't contain traces of Round Up. That seems to happen fairly often, and makes the soil deadly for any plant.)

So, begin at the beginning. Test your soil first; you can buy inexpensive soil test kits at gardening centers. (I've successfully used Leaf Luster brand's kit.) Follow the kit's instructions on how to amend your soil using organic matter. Or, if your soil seems really terrible and you can't truck in dirt, consider lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching). As soon as the top layers are composted (rotted through), you can begin planting.

Assuming your soil isn't the depleted clay I was dealing with when I first began homesteading, you can also plant directly in the dirt, amending with good organic matter as you go. Start a compost pile. Use grass clippings as mulch. In the fall, shred fallen leaves and add them to your garden bed. Dig trenches in the soil, near plants, and place vegetable and fruit leavings in them. And if you have livestock like chickens, rabbits, goats, etc., be sure to compost their manure and add it to the garden soil. Pretty soon, you'll have soil so good, money can't buy it.


It's a good idea to start with inexpensive garden tools. (Courtesy of
Save on Gardening Tools


Confession: I have cheap gardening tools. I do want to upgrade to more durable tools, but right now I can't. And if you're just starting out in gardening, I actually recommend you don't buy expensive tools. For one thing, you have no idea what type of tools you need or like best! So don't be afraid to buy less expensive tools right now.

Which brings me to the subject of tillers. Every spring, I see people all over Facebook and Craigslist, desperately seeking someone to till their garden. But you don't need a tiller.

There's a whole gardening philosophy that says tilling is really bad for the soil. It disrupts the good bugs n the dirt, ruins top soil, brings up weed seeds, and just plain makes you - and your plants - work harder. So, you see, there's no need to spend oodles on a tiller.

It's easy - and much cheaper - to start plants from seed. (Courtesy
Save on Plants

Don't buy seedlings; they are too expensive. Plus, the plants will be at least somewhat stunted when you change their environment and plant them in your garden. (And especially don't buy starts at big box stores, since there is no way to know if thwinter sowing, or planting seeds in "mini greenhouses" made from re-purposed plastic containers, like the lidded bins salad greens often come in. For more on seed starting, check out my ebook Starting Seeds, which gives step by step information. (And is only 99 cents!)
ose plants will thrive - or not -  in your garden.) Instead, start plants from seed. You can do it - really. The easiest method for beginners is

If you have a friend who gardens, you might also consider a seed exchange. For example, if you don't use all of the seeds in a seed packet, offer them to your friend - and in turn, she will give you some of her extra seeds.

You might also try cuttings, especially of tomato plants. You can buy one or two tomato plants (or maybe a friend will let you take cuttings), snip off a branch, pop it in the soil, and viola! You'll soon have a new tomato plant.

As your skill increases, you can consider saving your own seed, too.

Above all, though, be realistic about what you can grow. Make sure it will thrive in your gardening zone and in the conditions in your garden. (Don't expect tomatoes to produce abundantly in part shade, for example.) And when you're just starting out, keep your garden small. As your skill increases, you can add extra beds to your garden.

Save by Going Organic

Some methods of watering are more economical than others. (Courtesy of
Buying chemical fertilizers and pesticides is expensive. Plus, it's not great for the soil, the water table, or your health. The happy thing is, growing organic is a lot less expensive because it's mostly about building the soil up so your plants thrive. See "Save on Garden Soil," above, for cheap, easy ways to do this.


Save on Water

Irrigation can seriously increase the cost of your garden, but there are several things you can do to reduce watering costs. First, mulch your garden, to help keep moisture in the soil. (Use an organic mulch, like bark or straw and the mulch does double duty, decomposing and helping to improve your soil.)

Second, water only when necessary. (If you insert a finger into the soil and it feels dry two inches down, it's time to water.)

Third, don't use a sprinkler system, which throws water where it won't help your plants grow; instead, use a soaker hose or hand water at the base of plants.



May 10, 2016

Newbie Vegetable Gardening Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them

Anyone who grows veggies was once a newbie - and as beginners, all of us made mistakes. But you don't have to make the most common vegetable garden mistakes if you follow these simple guidelines.

Mistake # 1. 
Not Prepping the Soil.

When I was a kid, I helped my dad with our large vegetable garden, but when I married and tried to start a veggie garden all on my own, I made a big mistake: I had no idea that my hard, clay soil was totally unsuitable to gardening! My veggies did grow, but they sure didn't thrive. Trust me: Ignoring your soil can make a huge difference between vegetables that produce abundantly and vegetables that seem stunted.

So before you do anything else, prep your soil properly. This means getting rid of any grass, weeds, and rocks; testing the garden soil; and amending the soil with organic matter. To learn the details of how to do all these things, click here.

An expert's large garden along a canal in Amiens, France. (Courtesy of Vassil.)
Mistake #2. Starting Too Big.

If you've never gardened before, don't make your first garden a huge one. Time and time again, I've seen newbie gardeners loose interest this way. They just get too overwhelmed, and soon weeds are everywhere and vegetables are on the ground, rotting.

Instead, start with a small patch. As your skills as a veggie gardener grow, expand your garden. It's a lot less frustrating and wasteful!


Mistake #3. Not Paying Attention to Sunlight.

Another common newbie gardening error is not putting the garden in "full sunlight." Yes, there are some edibles that will grow in part shade, but almost all of them are far more productive in full sun.

What exactly is "full sun?" Six hours a day of complete sunlight. In an ideal world, those 6 hours are morning sun, since hotter afternoon sun will wither and dry out plants more quickly. To learn how to figure out how much sunlight your proposed gardening area gets, click here.


Mistake #4. Not Choosing the Right Plants.

If you buy your seeds from a catalog, you'll be tempted by all sorts of plants that just aren't suitable for your climate. All gardeners have been tempted! But if you want a productive garden, you need to focus on seeds and plants that are well suited to your climate.

Plants that grow well in one region may not grow well in another. (Courtesy of Mark Ahsmann.)
First, you need to know your USDA gardening zone. You can easily learn that information at the USDA website. Whatever number the USDA assigns to your area is the gardening zone number you need to look for in seed catalogs and plant tags. Click here for more information on understanding your local gardening climate.

I also recommend that you find a local seed company, if possible. Seeds grown in your area are quite simply most likely to thrive in your garden. If you can't find a local seed company, look for a business that grows seeds in a climate similar to yours.


Mistake #5. Planting Too Early.

Every gardener wants to start his or her garden as soon as the sun comes out in the early spring. But this is a great way to kill plants. Instead, learn you first frost date, and don't plant any veggies before that time. Here's a handy site listing first and last frost dates for the U.S. 

Of course, if you winter sow your seeds, you don't need to worry; you can plant your seedlings out in the garden as soon as they are the right size.

A well mulched potato patch. (Courtesy
Mistake #6. Not Mulching.

Mulch not only prevents the garden from being overrun by weeds, it adds valuable organic matter to the soil, boosting it's fertility, and lowers the need for watering. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and compost. (The latter is most often dug into the soil, but it can also be used on top of the soil, as a mulch.)

Don't allow the mulch to touch plant stems (because this will make them susceptible to disease). Fine mulch (like compost or grass clippings), should be about 2 - 3 inches thick. Mulch with bigger pieces (like bark or straw) can be applied up to 4 inches thick.


Mistake #7. Over Watering and Fertilizing.

Plants will rot and become susceptible to disease when over-watered or -fertilized. Instead, test the soil before watering by sticking a finger about a two inches down into it. If the soil feels dry there, water deeply. Always water in the mornings. (Evening watering may lead to excess dampness and therefore disease; afternoon watering results in too much moisture loss).
Too much water actually damages plants.

If you decide to fertilize your plants, choose an organic fertilizer, and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. If you make your own fertilizer (learn how here), I recommend fertilizing once or twice over the entire season. If your soil is well prepped with organic matter, you may not need fertilizer at all.




Mistake #8. Not Harvesting.

Strange as it might at first seem, a lot of inexperienced vegetable gardeners hesitate to harvest their edibles. In fact, a few years ago, I called this the #1 biggest mistake gardeners make. For example, maybe a few beans seem ready, but not enough to feed your family of four - so you let those beans sit on the vine. However, not only will those beans likely go to waste, but when you don't harvest veggies when they are ready to be picked, it sends a signal to the plant that it's time to stop growing. The plant slows production and will eventually go to seed, becoming useless for food.

Instead, harvest even small amounts of edibles when they are ready. (They make great snacks!) Not sure when the food is ready for picking? Click here for advice.


Mistake #9. Not Strolling Through the Garden.

When it's growing season, I grab my morning tea and wander around the garden, just looking. This may seem like a waste of time, but I assure you it's not. By strolling through the garden and observing, you can catch many problems in their early stage - when they are still easy to manage. For example, you may notice something is beginning to munch on one of your lettuce's leaves. This gives you time to research what it might be causing the damage - and act before the critter eats your entire crop.

These daily wanderings also help prevent food waste. Sometimes you can be in the garden one day and all the tomatoes are green, and the next time you see them, a few days later, they are rotting. But that's not gonna happen if you take the time to wander through and enjoy your garden.

Perhaps best of all, daily strolls through the garden are good for you. Study after study (and plenty of good old fashioned experience) shows that gardening makes gardeners healthier. Some of the positive affects are from eating better and getting more exercise, but a good portion of it is simply the peaceful, relaxing experience of being around plants. Take the time to enjoy!



Sep 11, 2015

4 Things to Do in Fall for a Better Spring Garden

Right now, the soil in your garden is worn out. Tired. Hungry for nutrients. So don't ignore it! By giving your garden soil a little "food" now, you can be sure it's rarin' to go next spring. (Don't have a garden spot yet? Now is also the best time to prepare one! Click here for information on how to do that.)



#1. Test and Amend

Right now is the best time to do a garden soil test. Just grab an inexpensive soil testing kit from a garden center (or here, on Amazon) and follow the directions. (It's easy!) If your soil is depleted of any major nutrients, the test kit will also explain what to add to the soil to correct that. Be sure to use organic nutrients, since they break down slowly in the soil and help encourage worms and other good-for-your-garden bugs.


#2. Add Leaves
Courtesy of David Goehring and Wikipedia Commons.


You know all those leaves that are dropping like crazy from the trees (or soon will be)? They are the perfect soil amendment! So don't rake them up and put them at the curb. Spread them over your garden soil. Seriously, that's all you have to do. If you want to speed the process of deterioration, run over the leaves with your lawn mower a few times, to break them up.


#3. Add Food Scraps

Some people like to add finished compost to the garden at this time of year, but I save compost for the spring, when it will give my new plants a huge boost of nutrients. In the fall, I prefer to bury food scraps in the garden. Anything you'd compost, like fruit and veggie scraps - and even cardboard - is perfect for this. (See a complete list of compostable items here.) Just dig a little trench, add the scraps, and cover them. By spring, they will have decomposed. In the meantime, they slowly add nutrients to the soil and attract worms and beneficial bacteria.


Clover cover crop. Courtesy of Quadell and Wikipedia Commons.
#4. Plant a Cover Crop

You might think that letting the soil sit bare for a "rest" is the best thing you can do. But the truth is, planting the right crop is far better for the soil. "Cover crops" are crops that help prevent soil erosion during winter, crowd out weeds, and feed the soil in the very early spring when you cut them down and turn them over into the soil. Some popular cover crops include annual rye, clover, buckwheat, and hairy vetch. Learn more about cover crops at the University of Oregon Extension Office site.



Mar 30, 2015

What's The Difference Between Mulch and Compost?

Here's a question I frequently hear: Mulch vs. compost...What's the difference?


Mulch Is...

Mulch is anything that is laid on the ground around plants in order to retain moisture in the soil and prevent weed seeds from seeing the sun. Mulch also helps keep the soil warmer, which is especially useful in the spring, fall, and winter.

Examples of mulch include landscaping fabric and plastic (usually black, but sometimes other colors; red is popular around peppers and tomatoes, since it warms the soil better than other colors). Organic mulches have the added benefit of feeding the soil and giving it nutrients as it decomposes. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and yes, compost.

Compost Is...

Compost is made from organic matter (such as vegetable and fruit leftovers, leaves, and paper products) that has decomposed. Finished compost looks like black or dark brown soil. It's usually tilled or dug into the soil (or used as a layer in lasagna gardening) in order to add nutrients to the dirt.

When is used as mulch, it may help block sunlight from weed seeds, but it doesn't do a very good job of retaining moisture in the soil. Also, just tossing compost on top of the soil, without working it in or covering it with some other type of mulch, means much of the nutrients in the compost aren't readily available to plants.

How to Mulch

Lay down your choice of mulch (I recommend organic mulch, since it feeds the soil and attracts worms who aerate the soil...and who poop, adding excellent nutrients to the soil) around plants, or on any bare soil. The mulch should not touch plant stems, or the stems become susceptible to rot and disease. The thicker the layer of mulch, the more it helps retain water and prevent weeds.

Sometimes mulch is also used to protect plants that are being overwintered. For example, in many places in the U.S., you can keep carrots, parsnips, and beets in the soil over winter. If you get snow, it's best to cover the crop with a thick layer of straw or other mulch - at least seven inches of it. The tops of the root crops will die, but the mulch prevents the edible root from going bad.

How to Compost

In essence, toss fruit and vegetable scraps, thin layers of grass clippings, thin layers of shredded grass, weeds (that haven't gone to seed), and paper products (large ones shredded) into a pile. Everything will decompose and turn into compost.

For details on the fastest ways to get compost, please read my post "Composting the Easy, Cheap Way."


Mar 20, 2015

Avoiding GMO Seeds & Finding Organic Seeds

A few days ago, a local gardener came to me with questions: "How do I avoid GMO seeds? Are all seeds organic? Do I have to buy seed potatoes or can I just use grocery store potatoes? I'm so confused!" These are all great questions - so let's take them one by one.

How Do I Avoid GMO Seeds?

Currently, GMO (genetically modified) seeds are not sold directly to home gardeners.  So the packets of seeds you see everywhere at this time of year are all GMO-free. (Farmer's who wish to grow GMO crops must purchase them in bulk from special outlets.)

However, if you are growing wheat or corn, you may wish to take some extra precautions; there's evidence that farmer-grown GMO wheat and corn have cross-pollinated (mated with) non-GMO varieties.

GMO wheat has mysteriously been found growing in Oregon. GMO wheat has not been approved by the government and should only be growing in labs - but if it's growing in Oregon, it's likely it's growing elsewhere, too.

As for corn, Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, claims that "over fifty percent of the heirloom corn varieties we have tested appear to be contaminated with GMO crops." I have not seen anyone else make a similar claim, but I'm also not aware of any other seed source that tests its seed for GMO contamination. Baker Creek makes it a point to only sell corn seed that has tested GMO-free.

So if avoiding GMOs is important to you, buy your corn and wheat seed from Baker Creek. Personally, I also wouldn't save my own corn seed, since it could easily cross-pollinate with a farmer's GMO seed, even if its growing miles away.

In addition, Monsanto, the giant corporation that's created most GMO seed, has bought up many seed sources and is patenting the names of many heirloom varieties. If you wish to avoid lining their pockets, you'll want to buy your seed elsewhere. Here's a list of a few companies not affiliated with Monsanto.







Are All Seeds Organic?

No. Most seed is grown on plants that are sprayed with chemicals. How much of that chemical enters the seed, we don't really know. How much the chemicals in the seed transfer to our soil, or to the vegetable or fruit the seed produces, we don't know - although the amounts must be very, very tiny.

That said, for those who are hard-core organic, organically grown seed is available. Bear in mind, they, too, have likely been sprayed with chemicals - it's just that those chemicals are made from natural ingredients (which is not the same as saying they aren't harmful to humans). One good source of organic seed is Territorial Seed Company. (Not all of their seed is organic, so be sure to pay attention to whether or not Territorial gives it that label.)


Do I Have to Buy Seed Potatoes or Can I Just Use Grocery Store Potatoes? 

You can grow potatoes from grocery store potatoes - but it's not a good idea. Grocery store potatoes are one of the foods most laden with pesticides. And both conventionally grown and organic grocery store potatoes are sprayed with chemical inhibitors that delay or prevent stems from popping up and creating a healthy new plant. Conventionally grown grocery store potatoes are sprayed with synthetic or natural inhibitors, and organic potatoes are sprayed with natural (but again, not necessarily unharmful) inhibitors.

So if you plant grocery store potatoes, they are going to grow more slowly and not be as prolific as if you'd planted seed potatoes, meant for growing in the garden.

Seed potatoes, by the way, aren't seeds. They are small potatoes with lots of eyes on them. (Potato eyes are the bumps or divits where stems eventually sprout.) Unless the seed potatoes you buy are marked "organic," they are grown conventionally, with synthetic chemicals.


Do you have more questions about seeds? Email me! Or, read "How to Buy Vegetable Seeds" and my free ebook Starting Seeds.


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.



Sunlight

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.

Water

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.

Soil

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