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

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 not harvesting 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.

Dec 11, 2013

How Much Money Can You Save Gardening and Homesteading?

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

But before you read on, you should know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 TOTALS:

Total Pounds of Food Produced: 538.12 lbs.

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

Total Cost of Producing our Food: $278.00

Money Saved: $1,492.89


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

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


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

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

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

Jul 17, 2013

How to Use Manure in the Garden

Once upon a time, manure was abundant and every garden was fertilized with it. But these days, we drive cars, not horse-drawn wagons and carriages, so many of us have lost touch with just how awesome a resource manure really is. It's still among the best things you can put in your garden to increase soil health and plant production - so whether you live in the city of the country, here are some tips for finding and using manure to it's best advantage.

First, Know This
All commercially sold fertilizer is analyzed for the stuff it brings to the soil, which is expressed with an NPK rating. For example, Miracle Grow's all purpose (non-organic) fertilizer has an NPK rating of 24-8-16. The first number represents the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer; the second number, the phosphorus; and the third, the potassium.

Nitrogen helps leaves and stems develop and is ideal for leafy vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, kale, and collards. Too much nitrogen inhibits flower and fruit growth, however. Phosphorus helps develop root systems, flowers, and fruit. Potassium increases plant health, making the roots more hardy and helping the plant fight disease. It also helps develop fruit.

Manure also has NPK ratings, which you'll learn below, but know that because you're dealing with an organic product, actual numbers may vary.

Add caption
Horse Manure
Many people consider the gold standard in manure is horse manure. In the old days, horse manure was carefully collected and rarely was wasted. Even city families without horses swept the street in front of their home in order to collect this valuable stuff. Today, if you don't have horses of your own, you might be able to get some horse manure for free just by asking friends who own horses. Otherwise, you can purchase manure from nearby stables and truck it back to your house.

Horse manure, however, must be aged before it can be placed in the garden. As with most manures, applying it in the garden before it's sat around and decomposed will "burn" your plants, probably killing them. Fresh manure may also contain E.coli, making it a threat to your health.

If you're buying horse manure, only buy "aged manure." If you're getting the manure for free, you might have to take it while it's still "hot;" if that's the case, you'll need an out of the way corner to mound the manure until it ages. Just how long does it need to age? That depends upon how it's composted. (Is the pile turned or not? How hot is the weather? How large is the pile?) You'll know it's done when it's "crumbly, evenly textured, earthy-smelling, dark material that looks like a commercial potting soil mixture. It will probably take about one to three months for each pile to compost during the summer and about three to six months in the winter...[horse manure] compost should 'cure' for at least a couple of weeks before use," according to WSU Cooperative Extension.

Horse manure has a 1.5–1.0–1.5 N-P-K rating.

Caution: Recently, some gardeners have reported some horse manure as toxic. Apparently, horses who eat hay or grass sprayed with herbicides are producing manure that still has enough herbicide in it that - once it's applied to the garden - kills plants. So before you bring manure home, it pays to bring up this topic with the horse owner. (Learn more here.)

Chicken & Other Bird Manure
Now that many people are raising backyard hens, chicken manure is gaining in popularity. Chickens poop a lot. Why not use that poop to improve your garden? If you don't have chickens, some industrious  homesteaders now sell the manure at farmer's markets and feed stores - or you can buy commercially bagged chicken manure at many gardening centers.

Again, chicken manure must be aged before you put it into your garden. Putting fresh manure in the soil may harm plants - and it might make you sick, too. Expert advice varies on how long to age chicken manure; some say 6 months, others say a year. I would err on the side of caution and age it for a year...although I have used 6 month old chicken manure in the garden, but only in autumn garden beds that will remain inactive until spring.

How to compost your own chicken's manure is a matter of preference. If you have enough land, you can just make a pile somewhere out of the way. But if you live in the suburbs, this can get pretty stinky. Dedicating a compost bin to chicken manure is a non-smelly, safe way to go.

Chicken manure rates at about 1.7-2.4-1.7. If it's mixed with bedding materials, it's more like 2.8-2.3-1.7

Turkey manure is about 1.4-1.0-0.9. Pigeon: 4.2-3-1.4. Duck: 5-23-17. All must be composted before being used in the garden.

Rabbit Manure
As you may remember, last month we brought home a pet rabbit. He's a miniature, and not full grown, but oh my, is he a manure-making machine! I don't mind, though, because rabbit manure is a valuable fertilizer. And, unlike other manures, rabbit manure can go directly into the garden without aging. (That's because rabbits are herbivores.)

To give you an idea of how much manure one rabbit produces, our little bunny produces enough pellets to fertilize about 4 plants each week. (By the by, I figure that our rabbit more than pays for himself. I would be hard pressed to purchase as good an organic fertilizer for the cost of his feed.)

If you don't have rabbits (learn more here about raising them for meat on your homestead) but know someone else who does, they may be willing to give you pellets for free. Otherwise, you may begin to see rabbit manure sold by enterprising homesteaders at farmer's markets and feed stores.

Rabbit manure comes in at about 3.5-1.0–1.8.

Cow, Sheep, and Goat Manure
Cow manure isn't as great as many other manures, but it's still good enough you may find it at gardening centers. If you know a local farmer, you may be able to buy cow manure from him, too. It does have to be aged for about a year, however, and is only 0.5-0.5-0.5.

Sheep and goats produce better manure for the garden, coming in at about 1.5–1.0–1.8. Because these animals are herbivores, their manure doesn't have to age before going into the garden.

Manures You Should Never Use
Cat and dog manure should never be used in the garden because they can contain parasites and pathogens that attack humans. Most modern sources recommend avoiding pig manure for the same reason.

Yes, that's right. Manure from humans can go into the garden, too. In fact, it's done all around the world; even here in the U.S., farmers often get "sludge" (dried up human poop) from local cities. I won't go into the details of safely using human manure, since I'm pretty sure most of us would only resort to it if we had no other fertilizers to use, but you can learn all about it in the The Humanure Handbook, a free .PDF book.

What About Weeds?
Manure may contain weed seeds, especially if it's not composted using a "hot system" (where the pile reaches at least 155 degrees F.). But according to Cornell University, even hot composted manure may contain persistent weed seeds, so it's smart to plan ahead and know how you're going to deal with weeds in the garden. (Two easy methods are laying cardboard down on top of the soil and using thick organic mulches.)

How to Use Manure in the Garden
For added safety, the University of Main's Cooperative Extension says manure should be added to the garden at least 120 days before harvesting crops that may touch the soil. This includes root crops and leafy greens. Otherwise, apply 90 days before harvest. Very often, gardeners and farmers apply manure in the fall, after harvest - but if you'll have a winter garden, you may have to rotate areas of your garden for active growing and for "active feeding" (or manure-ing) the soil.

To get the most from manure, it's best to dig it into the soil. The general recommendation is to use about 40 lbs. of manure per 100 square feet, dug down 6 to 9 inches. With herbivore manure, I'm not quite so exacting. For example, when I empty out the rabbit's manure tray (which is located directly under his wire-bottomed hutch), I simply dig a trench around a plant I want to fertilize, sprinkle his manure pellets in pretty liberally, cover, and then water well.

Always water deeply after applying any manure. 

Also remember it's true you can have too much of a good thing. Over-applying manure of any type can actually throw the balance of nutrients in the soil way off, making it impossible to grow anything. To avoid this, most manures should be applied just once a year - usually in the fall or early spring. It's also wise to do a soil test once a year. You can buy inexpensive soil test kits at a gardening center - or online. For best results, conduct the test in the fall, before digging in any manure. The test will reveal if your soil is imbalanced - and what to apply to the garden to correct that imbalance.

May 20, 2013

The #1 Biggest Mistake When Growing Herbs

Herbs are really easy to grow. Most grow, literally, like weeds, taking over the garden if you aren't careful.* But how many of you have planted herbs only to be disappointed by how little they grew? Assuming you've given your herbs adequate amounts of sun and water, if it seems like they just won't grow, you're probably making the #1 Biggest Mistake: Not harvesting them often enough.

That's right. Rather than waiting patiently for the herb to grow "big enough" to harvest, you really should begin harvesting as soon as the herb has several leaves. That's because cutting away herb stems and leaves stimulates the plant to grow more stems and leaves.

Many herb growers also fuss over how to harvest their plants - but you really don't need to. There are only two basic rules:

* Let 3 or 4 leaves stay on the plant/stem.
* Ideally, cut off each stem just above some leaves.

Honestly, I don't always follow these rules. For example, when I harvest sage, I cut the mass of leaves haphazardly, sometimes leaving leaves behind on stems and sometimes not. And my sage plant is still vigorous and productive.

So quit being so nice to your herbs. Hack away at them! They actually appreciate a good haircut!

(Need tips for preserving herbs? Click here!)

* To prevent herbs from taking over the garden, plant them in pots.

Jan 27, 2013

Your Gardening Zone - Important Updates You Don't Know About?

I recently ran across the PlantMaps site and realized my gardening zone information and first and last frost dates are different here than anyplace else I've looked. Why? Because the site takes into consideration recent weather patterns.

I encourage you to check out your local information. I discovered my gardening zone had dropped a number - that's HUGE when it comes to having a successful garden!

UPDATE 1/28/13: One reader has written to tell me PlantMaps has completely incorrect temperatures for her area; for my area, it looks accurate. So do look at the specific temperatures the site claims for your area before deciding whether the information is reliable for your gardening zone.

Jan 7, 2013

The Vegetable Garden: Location, Location, Location

Vegetable gardens don't need to be huge.
With the surge of interest in victory gardens, ripping up lawns, homesteading, and self sufficiency, you'll find plenty of Internet ideas for creative vegetable garden spaces. But are they practical? Often, the answer is "no." Before you go to all the work to prepare a garden bed, it makes sense to think through what a vegetable bed needs and whether or not certain locations are practical for your family.

What a Vegetable Bed Needs:

1. Lots of sun. At least 6 hours a day is required if you want a productive garden.

2. Decent soil. If your soil isn't ideal, however, there are ways to get around that. (Read this post for more information.)

3. Water. The garden will need easy access to a faucet or other water source. Even if you get a considerable amount of rain during the summer, raised beds and container gardens will probably need more water than what they get naturally. And if there's a drought, a faucet will save your garden.

Possible Locations:

The Backyard
Front yard gardens don't work for everyone.
Backyards are the traditional spot for family vegetable gardens - and for good reason. If the garden gets messy, you needn't worry about how your home looks or whether you are displeasing your neighbors. However, not everyone has sun in their back yard.

If you have children, you'll also want to carefully consider their outdoor play area. If your front yard is fenced and large enough for the children to run around, then there's no reason not to take up part (or all) of the backyard. But don't use up your yard space, expecting to rely on the park as a place for children to run free; children who can play in their own yards get more outdoor time than those who must wait to go to the park. And remember: Children in the midst of play are often forgetful. No one wants their kids trampling freshly-planted seedlings while they play kick-ball, for example.

Other things to consider:

 * Getting rid of little used play equipment can free up a lot of space.

* It may be tempting set aside shady areas for kid-play, while using up sunny spots for gardening. Do consider that your children will long to play in the sun, too.

If your children are quite young, consider some sort of barrier to protect the back yard garden. This could be a fence - although it’s important to remember a fence will cast shade onto the garden. Or it could be a bit of decorative metal lawn edging, there only to remind the kids where the barrier is.

Espalier fruit trees grow flat against walls or fences.
The Front Yard
It's very common to see homesteading blogs, books, and videos touting the benefits of front yard veggie beds. Lawns use too much water and are useless, they say. But before you use a sunny front yard for your vegetable garden, consider two things:

1. Is there plenty of open (ideally, grassy) space for the children to play elsewhere?
2. Will your front yard garden be subject to theft?

If you can entirely fence in your front yard, then you won't have too worry too much about theft, but in many urban and suburban locations, tall fences are not allowed in front yards.

In my experience, front yard gardens (especially those close to the sidewalk) invite stealing - and few of us want to work hard on a garden only to have someone steal the fruits of our labor.

The Side Yard
If you have a side yard that gets plenty of sun, count yourself fortunate. Often, side yards are wasted space, so putting a sunny side yard to use for growing food is an excellent improvement!

Attach planters to walls, fences, or railings.
Fences and Walls 
If you have sunny fences or walls anywhere in your yard, consider them prime planting areas, no matter how narrow the space may be. Espalier fruit trees (which are carefully pruned so they grow flat against a wall or fence) are the traditional way to use up this space, but vines are also a good choice. You can even make or buy planters that hang flat against the fence or wall (or attach to the railings of a deck or balcony); these are most appropriate for plants with shallow roots, like herbs.

A Mixture
For many families, use of the back, side, and front yard is the best option. For example, we have our main vegetable bed in the backyard. It's not huge; there is still plenty of space for children to play - and for chickens to scratch. Our side yards are both too shady to grow food, but I do maintain a lovely dandelion crop there. (Don't laugh! We eat dandelion greens in the spring and I harvest some of the roots year round for use as medicine.)

We have a front lawn because we know from past experiences (and our neighbor's experiences) that if we plant a veggie bed there, most of our food will be stolen. However, I do have some less obvious edibles in the front yard - mostly right near the house where it would take some guts to come and steal them.
Green roofs are neat looking, but not necessarily practical.

A Note on Rooftop Gardens
Urban homesteading blogs and magazines frequently endorse rooftop gardens, but such an undertaking requires a considerable amount of planning and money. Before you take any other steps toward creating a rooftop garden, check with your city and county to make sure they are legal in your vicinity. Because a poorly done green roof can cause major damage to buildings (possibly even causing the roof to collapse), many local governments that do allow them have very strict rules on their construction.

You'll also need a licensed contractor to inspect your building to ensure it can physically support a rooftop garden. A contractor or landscaper with experience working on rooftop gardens is a real boon, because he or she can also suggest what sort of materials would work best with your current building. For example, you might need windbreaks, even if you wouldn't need them for a garden in the ground. In all cases, a contractor will want to add as little weight to the roof as possible; for example, he or she might suggest using foam instead of pebbles.

Plans or kit for this green roof hen house are available at
Another important consideration is how quickly the rooftop garden will dry out and whether it will be easy to water. Gardens on roofs may get more sun than those on the ground and usually dry out more quickly because the soil layer is so thin. A good contractor or landscaper should suggest a practical and easy way to water the garden. 

Finally, remember that rooftop gardens only work for plants with shallow root systems. When it comes to edibles, good choices include most herbs and lettuces.

NOTE: A more viable option for most people is a backyard hen house with a green roof. Most online tutorials for this sort of thing seem questionable to me; I think they will lead to early rot of the hen house roof. That said, a living hen house roof is do-able. Just remember that if the hens can get up to the roof, the plants you grow there are not suitable for human consumption and should be reserved for chicken food.

Sep 17, 2012

Want a Garden Next Year? Do These Things NOW

Source: Wikipedia Commons; Ham House Estate
Although it's counter-intuitive, now is the perfect time to start getting ready for spring gardening. Whether you want to turn a patch of grass into a vegetable plot or you need to expand or improve your current gardening soil, fall is the time to do it.

To Turn a Weedy or Grassy Area Into a Garden Plot:

1. Cover the area with three layers of corrugated cardboard, weighed down by stones or bricks or anything heavy. Water it down, then let the weather do it's thing. (If you live in an area without much rain, go ahead and water it once a week.) Do it now, and by spring, the weeds and grass will be dead and the cardboard, by then rotted mostly away, will have improved the soil.

If you have the time, you can also add layers of other organic material, such as kitchen scraps (only from produce, please), aged manure, and so on. (I don't recommend straw or hay, since it can contain many, many weed seeds that can survive this treatment.) Cover the organic matter (cut into small pieces) with the cardboard.

Cardboard is a gardener's helper.
To Expand an Existing Garden:

1. Follow the steps above.

To Improve Existing Garden Soil:

Method A: 

1. If you can't do a soil test kit (see below) or the soil test shows your soil has no imbalances, add organic matter such as produce scraps, aged manure, shredded newspaper, brown leaves, grass clippings, etc. to the garden. For best results, either bury the organic matter several inches down, or cover it with good garden soil, compost, or weighed down cardboard. By spring, the organic matter will be decomposed and the soil rich and improved.

Method B:

1. Test the soil using a soil test kit. Do this as soon as possible, since the wet conditions in fall can skew the results.

2. Follow the amendment instructions that come with the test kit. Add amendments to imbalanced soil now, and the soil will be ready for planting by spring. If you wait until spring, the amendments won't really "kick in" until months have passed.

Happy gardening!

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Jun 20, 2012

How to Fertilize a Vegetable Garden

Root crops require different fertilizers than leafy crops.
If you've taken the time to plant a vegetable garden, there's little doubt you want the highest yield possible from that garden. Most gardeners believe that frequent fertilizing is the best way to achieve this...But is it?

Easy Does It
First, let's talk about why fertilizer - organic or synthetic - can be a bad thing: Fertilizers contain salt. Just as too much salt is bad for humans, too much is deadly for plants, also. Salt kills fruits and vegetables by blocking their ability to absorb the water and nutrients they need to survive. The first sign of salt death is slow growth. Then the plants begin to wilt and turn yellow. Finally, they die an untimely death. So remember: Too much fertilizer = plant death.

Soil Type
Soil type plays a huge role in how often fertilizer is needed. If, when you irrigate, the water disappears quickly, you'll need to fertilize more frequently than if the water sits in the soil for a long time. In addition, adding nutrients to the soil that are not needed causes a soil imbalance, which can lead to serious gardening difficulties - so testing your soil is vital before fertilizing. Finally, vegetables and fruits grown in pots will need more frequent fertilization than those grown directly in the earth.

Corn and tomatoes require more fertilizing than most other crops.
What sort of plants you are growing also determines how often you'll need to fertilize. Some plants are "heavy feeders," consuming more nutrients than others. Tomatoes and corn, for example, are very heavy feeders and therefore need more frequent fertilizing than, say, lettuce or peas.

Choosing Fertilizers
All commercially sold fertilizers are labeled with a ratio telling gardeners how much nitrogen (often abbreviated "N"), phosphate ("P"), and potash ("K") are in it. For example,  for every 100 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer you purchase, you get 5 pounds of nitrogen (the first number), 10 pounds of phosphorus (the middle number), and 5 pounds of potassium (the last number).

The wrong kind of fertilizer will make tomato plants fruitless.
Generally, where leafy top growth is desirable (like with lettuce and corn) you'll want more nitrogen than root crops like carrots. (Although if you like to eat the green tops of root crops, you may wish to give them as much nitrogen as leafy crops.) On the other hand, phosphate promotes root and fruit production and potash encourages hardiness and durability.

Probably the most misused fertilizer is nitrogen. Many gardeners lavish it on their vegetables and fruit, but it can easily result in lots of leaves - and not much else. For example, potatoes over-fertilizes with nitrogen have lots of leaves, but not many potatoes, and tomatoes, too, can end up with tons of leaves but no fruit.

One of the reasons for the over-use of nitrogen (and other fertilizers) is that many gardeners expect instant results. However, it takes about three or four weeks for fertilization to "kick in."

Finally, consider whether you want to use organic or synthetic fertilizers. The choice may seem obvious, especially once you know that organic fertilizers help create the microbiological growth that supports good soil structure and helps retain water and nutrients in the soil. (Synthetic fertilizers do not.) However, organic fertilizers vary widely in what nutrients they provide, especially if they are not commercially packaged. Certain organic fertilizers (especially  manure) are also higher in salt.

Fertilizing the Vegetable Bed
If your garden bed is imbalanced, fertilize according to the missing nutrients. For example, if your soil test revealed your garden is low in potash, you'll want to mix a fertilizer high in potash into the soil before planting. For the rest of the gardening season, use a fertilizer that's high in potash.

If a soil test reveals your soil isn't lacking in any area and you still want to fertilize, here's a good way to proceed, according to the Colorado State University Extension Office:

Leafy vegetables like lots of nitrogen.
1. Apply "small amounts of a nitrogen-only fertilizer several times during the growing season." First, before planting (mixing it into the soil with a spade or rototiller); use up to 1/2 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet." Water in.

2. "Every four to six weeks, apply a nitrogen fertilizer such as ammonium sulfate (20-0-0) or bloodmeal (15-1-1) at the rate of no more than 1/10th pound of nitrogen per 100 linear feet of row."

Other Extension Offices (like the University of Connecticut Extension Office) recommend using a balanced fertilizer - that is, one that has equal amounts of N-P-K. For example, a fertilizer marked 8-8-8. A fertilizer that is nearly balanced (like 8-10-8) works, too.

Make Your Own
Now that you know how to fertilize, you may run to the gardening center and...experience sticker shock. So here's a how to on how to make your own fertilizer.

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Feb 1, 2012

Easiest Vegetables & Fruits to Grow

If your parents didn't garden, if you've never tried (or had success) growing houseplants, if you can barely keep your lawn alive, starting a vegetable garden can be intimidating. But if you've decided the benefits (better nutrition, fewer or zero chemicals, lower grocery bills, a little more self sufficiency) outweigh your fear, start with edibles that are simple to grow. (And P.S.: Although I'm a good gardener, I can't grow houseplants, either!)

Happily, a great many edibles are easy to grow - as long as you have decent soil, have chosen seed that grows well in your area, and are giving the plant the correct amount of sun. Here are a few to try:

Lettuces. It's ridiculously easy to have fresh salad fixings available all spring, fall, and (in milder regions) winter. Lettuces don't even need full sun; in fact, they tend to do better in a little bit of shade, which makes them a great thing to grow under vining crops like cucumbers or green beans. And if you grow your own, you can experiment with a vast variety of lettuces of all kinds of colors, shapes, and tastes. Supermarket lettuce will soon seem a bland food, at best. To keep lettuces growing for the longest amount of time, remove the outer leaves first and always keep at least three inner leaves in tact.

Collards. Again, these couldn't be easier going and they also don't mind a little shade. They grow like weeds and if you harvest only the outer leaves, they will produce for a long time. I suggest not waiting until the leaves are as huge as supermarket collards; the older, bigger leaves are more bitter and tough.

Green Beans. There's a reason school teachers often use beans for classroom lessons on seed sprouting! Plop 'em directly into the ground and they will thrive. Warning: You may have a tough time getting any green beans to the table once your family learns how fabulous they taste picked fresh off the vine. Heirloom varieties are usually pole beans, which require a trellis to climb. Bush beans are usually hybrids, but take up less space.

Cucumbers. Whether you like them fresh in salads, want to dehydrate them to make "chips," or want to pickle them, cucumbers are a vining crop that's easy to grow. Choose smaller varieties for pickling.

Tomatoes. Although tomatoes have a "difficult-to-grow" reputation in some circles, if you just give them what they need, they will produce abundant crops of tomatoes that make grocery store tomatoes seem like outright garbage. Start by giving them excellent soil. If you pot them, put them in a huge pot - they need plenty of room for their roots. Make sure the pot has excellent drainage. Place them in full sun. And feed them regularly with a fertilizer designed for tomatoes. (For more details on growing tomatoes, read "Dare to Grow ONE.") Tomatoes come in two basic types: Determinate and Indeterminate. Determinate varieties are bushy. Indeterminate types vine.

Radishes. Plant the seeds in the soil in early spring and radishes can be your first crop of the year. In addition to eating them raw, you can cook them like any other root vegetable.

Summer Squash/Winter Squash/Zucchini. Squash need full sun and take up quite a bit of room, but they produce like mad. (One way to make them work in a small garden is to train them up a trellis, as shown in the photo to the left.) Zucchini takes up less space, but is still an easy, abundant plant.

Peas. Like green beans, just plant pea seeds directly in the soil and watch the grow! They'll produce pretty flowers first, then superb food. Some varieties have better tasting pods than others.

Kale. Like collards and lettuce, this is an easy keeper that doesn't mind some shade.

Carrots and Parsnips. If you don't mind carrots and parsnips that aren't perfectly shaped, you'll find these vegetables easy to grow and so much more delicious than store bought. Perfectly shaped carrots and parsnips are more difficult to grow, but if you want to try for them, get a huge Rubbermaid style box, drill tons of holes in the bottom, and fill it with excellent, fine soil. It is twigs, rocks, and clay soil that deform carrots and parsnips.

Garlic and Onions. Both of these are best started from bulbs or cloves, and require next to no attention while they are growing.

Herbs. Pretty much all herbs grow like weeds. Grow them in pots, or they may overtake your garden.

Strawberries & Blueberries. Strawberries are easy to grow from runners or plants, as long as they get full sun. I suggest buying the ever-bearing kind. I've even had luck growing them in part shade. You can also try wild or Alpine strawberries in shadier locations. Blueberries are other good choice. Purchase young plants from a local nursery. They like acidic soil, so if yours is not (or you're not sure if it is), grow them in huge pots and feed them acidic fertilizer.