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

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.


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

Jul 16, 2014

Attracting Bees to Your Garden - and Dispelling Some Bee Myths

I know everyone keeps talking about the decline of bees - but if you could come visit my garden, I think you'd believe they've all come to live here! The truth is, there are a lot of misconceptions about bees. But the good news is, it is very, very easy to encourage bees to come to your yard - which benefits not only the country's bee populations, but also how productive your plants are.

Misconceptions about Bees, Pollination, and Colony Collapse

When you mention pollination to most people, they think of honeybees. But there are other pollinators (ants, bats, birds, butterflies, wasps, and more) - and honeybees aren't the only type of bees that pollinate. In fact, honeybees aren't even native to North America! Honeybees don't even know how to pollinate certain plants, like tomatoes and eggplant, and are really bad at pollinating others, like blueberries, pumpkins, and cranberries. To top it off, honeybees have a long history of illness and death in North America. They are just not designed for this environment, and are quite delicate compared to native bees.

And not only are our native bees much more hearty, they generally don't live in colonies - and they aren't suffering colony collapse. This is a great thing in general, but it will require commercial farmers to think in more old fashioned terms; instead of trucking in colonies of honeybees for pollination, they will have to consider how to attract native bees to their farms. (For more information about honeybee colony collapse and native bees as pollinators, please read "As Honeybee Colonies Collapse, Can Native Bees Handle Pollination?" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison website and "Are Native Bees Suffering the Same Colony Collapse Disorder as Honeybees?" at BayNature.)

From No Bees to Bees Galore!

So now you know the world isn't coming to an end because all bees (or pollinators) are dying. But there are still good reasons to encourage bees (native and honeybees) in your yard.

When my husband and I first moved into our house, we had virtually no beneficial insects and very few bees. Some of this was surely because there were very few plants to attract them. But once I started gardening, things didn't get much better. I was using chemicals in the garden - making it a place that wasn't hospitable to bees and other beneficials. But as soon as I stopped using chemicals (see below for more info on this), I noticed a change within about six months. Ladybugs began staying in our garden, for example, and bees started appearing regularly. Today, the beneficial insects are at an all time high in my garden - and there are bees everywhere! Here's what I do:

* I no longer use any chemicals in the garden - with the rare exception of a carefully controlled use of Roundup on invasive weeds that will completely overtake the garden if I don't spray them. I always try old fashioned methods of eradicating weeds first, and I treat all diseases (extremely rare in my garden) and pest infestations organically, usually with manual methods.
* I make sure to feed the soil with compost and organic mulch. Healthy soil makes healthy plants, which results in plants that resist disease and pests - and attract bees and other beneficials.

* I try to rotate crops. This is extremely difficult in a small garden, but I do my best because I know it helps keep plants healthy.

* I plant things just for the bees and other beneficials. Borage has made a tremendous difference in my garden. It's very pretty, can be eaten by people (I don't eat it, though), self-sows itself every year - and the bees absolutely flock to it. Other plants the bees really love include butterfly bush (though this is invasive in some parts of the U.S., so be sure to contact your local extension office before planting), lavender, and sedum. Other plants bees love include: basil, sage, thyme, chives, and oregano that are allowed to flower, sunflowers, asters, dandelions, clover, lilac, cosmos, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, bachelor buttons, bee balm, honeysuckle, wildflowers native to your area - and of course they will love all your flowering edibles, too. Give them lots of variety.
Sedum "Autumn Joy"
* You can also create a place for bees to drink. A bird bath with stones in it is a nice choice.

Bee Killing Plants?

You may have seen something online about plants from Lowe's testing 51% positive for bee-killing pesticides. This is a bit unfair to Lowe's, because they get their plants at the same places almost every store gets their plants. But you can avoid buying chemical laden plants by shopping at local nurseries where you can ask - and get knowledgeable answers about - growing methods. Or just grow your plants from seed. Check out Starting Seeds - which is free - for instructions on how to do this.

Butterfly bush
Worried About Getting Stung?

Yes, I think about this; we have bee sting allergies at our house. But even with all the bees in my yard, I don't get stung. I am mindful of the bees - for example, I don't push past the borage to look for fruit on the squash plants. But I weed and water and so on - and the bees are so busy doing their work, they don't pay me any mind. Maybe they even see me as a collaborator in the making of the garden...who knows?

Jun 9, 2014

8 Tips for Transplanting Seedlings and Plants Successfully

Beginning gardeners often have trouble transplanting seedlings and other plants. Their seedlings may die, or larger plants might shows signs of shock, looking as though they may die at any moment. But here are some easy ways to ensure your plants survive - and thrive - whether you're a novice or an intermediate gardener.
1. If transplanting a seedling, make sure the plant has it's true leaves. (Seedlings will at first have a set of very small leaves; after that, larger leaves appear, which are called "true leaves. See the photo, above, for an example.)

2. If transplanting a seedling, make sure it's been hardened off first. (Not sure how to do that? Download my free ebook, Starting Seeds, for a full explanation.)

3. Water the plant the day before transplanting. This ensures the plant is well hydrated.

4. Choose the cool of morning or an overcast day to transplant. Lots of sun or hot weather are just too harsh for a plant that's been transplanted.

5. Water the plant thoroughly before transplanting. It's important the soil already around the roots be good and wet.

6. Disturb the roots as little as possible - and make sure all the roots are covered with soil (not explosed to the air and sun).

7. Once the plant is in the hole, fill in soil around it - then be sure to pat the soil down firmly.

8. Water thoroughly after transplanting to encourage roots to spread.

May 12, 2014

Free Online Films for Garden Inspiration

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

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

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


May 7, 2014

Top 10 Tips for New Vegetable Gardeners

There is a growing movement in the United States - and a good one, too. More and more people are interested in growing their own food. But if you've never gardened before, growing food can seem like a HUGE undertaking. It's really tough to know where to start. If that's you, here are my top 10 best tips for starting your first garden:

1. Start small. I know you're excited and dreaming of an enormous garden, but if you're new to gardening, a small garden allows you to experiment - and fail - without big losses. Plus, a huge garden can be completely overwhelming to take care of if you're a newbie. Keep it small and sweet and you'll enjoy learning to garden far more.

2. Consider using containers. Container gardens require more water (because the soil dries out much more quickly), and can be costly once you buy proper potting soil and planters. To trim costs, you can use recycled containers. Just make sure they are actually big enough for whatever you are growing. Always err on the side of a pot that's too big, or you run the risk of a plant that is sickly or dies. The tricky thing here is that different plants require more or less "leg" room. Tomatoes, for example, have roots that reach way, way down - as much as 24 inches or more. Give them at least a 24 inch pot or 5 gallon bucket. Lettuce, on the other hand, doesn't send it's roots very far at all, so a 14 inch pot or Tupperware container only 4 inches deep will work fine. For more specific advice on what sized container to use for special plants, Google "what size pot for [plant name here]." For more valuable tips on growing food in containers, click here.

3. Test it. If you'll be planting directly into your yard's soil, it's very important to test your garden soil. Buy an inexpensive soil testing kit and follow the instructions that come with it. Read more about soil types here.

4. If your soil isn't good, you can buy garden soil and have it delivered to your house. For a very small garden, you might be able to buy soil in bags and bring it home yourself. Be aware, though, that quality varies a lot. Since soil is the most important element in gardening, research your soil options well.

Berms in my garden.
5. If you want to plant directly in the ground, I recommend using a raised bed or berm for your first, small garden. You don't have to spend a lot of money on this. Berms are by far the cheapest - they are really just raised beds without sides. (I know; you'd think the soil would erode terribly...but it doesn't.) If you want sides on your raised bed, choose an inexpensive material - hopefully one you already have laying around or can buy cheap on Craigslist, such as used wood planks or bricks.

6. Know your hardiness zone. This is absolutely must know information because it will tell you what plants you can grow (all seeds and seedlings are marked with information about what zones the plant grows in) and when you should plant it. To find your zone, click over to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

7. I'll give you a pass on starting things from seed for your first garden. If you want to go buy read here about choosing seeds here. Download my free ebook on how to start seeds, too. It includes lots of ideas for starting seeds on the cheap, without special equipment.
seedlings, do so. Ideally, buy them from a source that actually starts and grows them in your area - otherwise you may end up with a plant that doesn't grow well where you live. Be sure to read up on the seedlings you buy, though. Google the specific variety and learn when it should be planted and how it should be cared for. (Next year, plan on starting your own seeds. You can

8. Learn how to water plants. Hand watering is okay if your garden is really small, but you still have to know how long to water. Generally, plants with deep roots (like tomatoes) like deep, infrequent watering. In fact, a lot of gardeners give their tomatoes a good water when initially planted, then don't water them again until the tomato leaves start drooping. Lettuce, on the other hand, with it's shallow roots, needs much more frequent watering. A good general rule of thiumb is this: If you can stick your finger in the soil and it's dry 1 - 2 inches down, it's time to water. Also remember: Raised beds and containers will require more watering than most in-the-ground gardens.

9. Don't be afraid to start harvesting. Plants shut down and stop producing food if you put off harvesting, so frequent picking is a must!

10. Plant some flowers, too. Not only will they make your garden prettier, but they will help attract bees that will pollinate your plants and make your garden more abundant! Some easy to grow, bee-attracting choices include borage, goldenrod, lemon balm, tansy, butterfly weed and bush, lantana, and sweet alyssum)

Bonus Tip: Know that gardening is something that's learned through years or reading and experience. Truly, people who've been gardening all their lives are still learning in the garden. So don't expect that after one season of growing, you'll know exactly what you're doing. You'll have learned a lot, no doubt, but expect to learn more each year.

Got a gardening question - or two or three? Send them my way, and I'll help!

Mar 24, 2014

Identifying Beneficial Insects in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy UC IPM.

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

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

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

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

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

Minute pirate bugs, courtesy UC IPM.

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

Mar 12, 2014

17 Upcycled Seed Starter Pots - and how to use them

How much do you spend on seed starting supplies? If you are buying anything more than seeds and soil, you're wasting money! That's because it's so easy to start seeds using materials you already have on hand:

Salad container turned seed starting container.
1. Salad containers. If you buy greens or salads in plastic containers with lids, these are perfect seed
starting containers. (In fact, they are my favorite!)

2. Cookie, donuts, and other sweet containers. The kind that are plastic with a lid. Again, these are ideal for seed sowing.

3. Toilet paper and paper towel tubes. If you fold the ends under, they make perfect little pots that are biodegradable. (Learn how to make these pots in my free ebook Starting Seeds.)

4. Newspaper. It's easy to fold these into individual seed starting pots. (Learn how my free ebook Starting Seeds.)

5. Plastic soda pop and water jars. Just cut off the tops of plastic jars to make them a suitable height. If you like, duct tape the tops back on, to make a mini greenhouse.

6. Milk and juice jugs and cartons. Treat the plastic jugs just like soda jars. Cut cartons down to height -
Seed pot from a toilet paper tube.
even the single serving cartons work!

7. Yogurt tubs. Also tubs from cottage cheese, Cool Whip, ricotta cheese, and so on.

8. Aluminum soda pop and beer cans. These can be tricky to cut in half (Use caution! The cut edges will be sharp!), but they do work as nice little seed pots.

9. Styrofoam, plastic, and wax-coated paper disposable cups. The kind with domed plastic lids are perfect for making little greenhouses, but even lid-less types work.

10. Aluminum cans from canned food.

11. Aluminum roasting pans. Cheap ones from the Dollar Tree are just fine - or, if you buy rotisserie chicken, the pans they come in work great, too. Ideally, use the type with clear plastic lids.

12. Coffee cans.

Seed pot from newspaper. No special tools needed!
13. CD/DVD cases. The type you buy blanks in.

14. Chinese takeout boxes.

15. Plastic or Styrofoam takeout boxes.

16. Old Tupperware-style containers.

17. Cereal boxes. Just cut down their height.

And a few containers I don't recommend:

* Egg cartons. They aren't deep enough for seedlings to develop healthy roots.

* Ice cube trays. Again, unless they are unusually deep, the seedlings won't develop good root systems.

* Egg shells. Again, the problem is no room for roots.

* Citrus halves. No room for roots!

* Plastic berry boxes. These may seem ideal, but they have holes all over them, and this defeats the wonderful mini greenhouses effect of boxes with lids. If you have plastic berry boxes, go ahead and use them, but plan on using something else to create a greenhouse effect

* Glass jars. All seed starting containers need to have drainage holes...and you can't put drainage holes in glass.

How to Use Upcycled Materials for Seed Starting Pots:

1. Make sure the container has good drainage. Unless the container is paper (like a toilet paper tube), that means poking some holes in the bottom. At least 3 will work for a very small container, like a yogurt cup. For larger containers, like a salad greens box, use 5 - 8. If the material of the container is thin, you may be able to carefully poke drainage holes using one blade of a pair of scissors. Be careful! And make sure you're creating a hole, not just a slit. Otherwise, I recommend using either a hammer and fat nail or an electric drill.

2. Make sure the container is clean.

3. Add new soil - not soil from the garden and not soil that's been used before (unless you know how to sterilze old potting soil). You can use soil designed just for seed starting, but I have great success using plain old potting soil.

4.  Thoroughly dampen the soil. Make sure it's wet all the way to the bottom of the container.

5. Plant the seeds, according to seed packet directions.

You can now leave the containers as is, but you'll have better success if you create mini greenhouses that hold in moisture and heat:

6. If the container came with a clear plastic lid, make a few slits in the lid carefully using a pair of scissors or Exacto knife. Place the lid securely on top of the container. Within a few minutes, the container should fog up. If it doesn't, either the lid isn't a tight enough fit or the soil is too dry. As the seedlings grow, gradually cut away more and more of the lid until the plant is ready to go into the garden.

7. If the container has no lid, you can still create a greenhouse effect by putting a plastic Ziplock-style bag
over the top of the container, open end down. (Stiff freezer bags are easiest to use; if the bag wants to sag and not stand upright, place a few sticks in the seed pot to hold the plastic up.)

8. If you have many small seed pots (for example, toilet paper tube pots), you can put them in a plastic tub, old Tupperware-style container, roasting pan, or a plastic greens box from the gocery store. Make sure the larger container has some drainage holes and use the container lid (with air circulation slits) to cover the seedlings. Or, cover the large container with plastic wrap, loosely placed on top.

For more information on how to gradually acclimate seedlings to the outdoors, and how to use winter sowing or grow lights to create healthier seedlings, download the FREE ebook "Seed Starting."

Mar 10, 2014

The #1 Biggest Mistake When Growing Vegetables

You know those gorgeous vegetable gardens you see in books and magazines? Here's a little secret: They aren't as productive as they should be.

Why? Because photographers want the gardens to look lush and full...which means the gardener must put off harvesting her crops until after the photo shoot. And putting off harvesting is the #1 Biggest Mistake you can make when growing vegetables. 

Last year, I explained that failure to harvest herbs often leads to declining harvests. The same is true with vegetables. Often, gardeners get a few peas or cucumbers on, for example, and think, "I'll wait to harvest those until I have enough to serve for lunch." Or enough to freeze. Or to can. But when vegetables sit on the plant, ripe and ready to harvest, the plant thinks it should start going to seed - so it stops producing food and focuses its energy on making seeds. This naturally results in small crops and plants that go to seed early. (Besides, vegetables that sit on the plant for very long quickly loose their flavor and nutrition.)

But the fix is easy: Pick veggies as soon as they are ripe! Instead of letting those peas or cucumbers stay on the vine, pick them. (Eat 'em fresh, or add them to a salad.) If you do this, you will get the most from your plants.

Dec 30, 2013

Getting More from This Year's Garden

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

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

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

* Total Beginner's Guide to Growing Vegetables.

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

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

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

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

* How Many Vegetables to Plant?

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

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

* The Vegetable Garden: Location, Location, Location.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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