Category Archives: Edible Landscaping

Beneficial Insects and the Garden

February 12th, I’m teaching a short class on insects in the garden at the Carondelet Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.  Right now I’m working away at the handout and boy have I learned a lot putting this class together!

One of the main things I’ve learned is that to be a successful organic gardener, you need to do more than just stop using chemicals.  There are several things that come up again and again to create a healthy garden that doesn’t need chemicals.

According to Wikipedia, “Ecosystem restoration is the return of a damaged ecological system to a stable, healthy, and sustainable state, often together with associated ecosystem services.”

Our yards are a small ecosystem.  Chemical agriculture upsets the healthy functioning of that ecosystem on the promise of making our jobs easier.  The sterilization of that ecosystem actually takes away the benefits of it’s healthy functioning.

Steps to Good Garden Management:

1.  Choose the right plant.  Each cultivar of plant responds to the environment in it’s own way.  Save seeds, and swap seeds with neighbors.  Seed saving allows us to grow plants that are specially in tune with our neighborhoods.  Ordering seeds with special resistance may also help.  After several generations of saving that seed, the seed will be even more attuned to your yard.

2.  Rotate Crops.  Insects go through a life cycle.  Generally this means, egg, larvae, pupae, and adult.  Each of these stages require different places to live and grow.  By rotating crops, you break the insect life cycle by disrupting their tidy circle.  Additionally, if you have a serious infestation in a season, insects that overwinter in the soil may be stopped by tilling that soil before planting a different crop in it in the spring.

3.  Plant and harvest at the right time.  By planning the planting and harvesting at the optimal time, you allow the plant to be healthier.  Healthier plants resist diseases and predators more efficiently.  Some plants may be planted in timing with the expected hatching of an insect to allow them to gain as much growth as possible before they descend upon the plant.

4.  Remove plant residues.  Plant residues harbor parts of the insect life cycle.  They may also harbor pathogens.  Remove these residues and compost them.  Keep dead leaves cleaned from beds.  Composting will raise the temperature during the decomposition process and kill many of the organisms in there.

5.  Use proper amount of food and water.  Don’t over water or over feed.  Too much water can create an environment that allows pathogens to breed and multiply.  Too much water also increases the salt deposited in the soil negatively impacting the soil health.  Soil amendments may also impact the ability of the plants to grow effectively.

6.  Preventative devices.  Sticky traps, Foil Rings, Row Covers, and other innovative devices can work to your benefit.  Things that crawl need paths to crawl on, by understanding your insect, you can help deter them from filling their needs to thrive.

7.  Improve the soil.  Healthy soil is the foundation for plants to grow and thrive. Test your soil.  Use compost.  Soil needs not just good organic matter, but a replacement of what has been taken from it by the plants.  Compost your garden waste, kitchen waste, animal waste, etc.

8.  Mulch Mulch is an amazing thing to increase water retention and over all soil quality.  I use straw.  This has radically changed the strata in which I grow my food.  Mulch cuts down on my need to water and weed.  It is a double edge sword however.  While it allows beneficial insects to complete their life cycle, it also allows pests to as well.  I tend to turn it under every other year and that seems to be a good solution for me.

9.  Understand the insect life cycle.  Know your enemy!  Know your friends!  If you know what they need, you can break the life cycle or encourage it.  Also, if you know what all the stages of an insect look like, you can help yourself not eliminate something beneficial.  A couple of years ago I found a fascinating bug in the garden.  I had no idea what it was and I thought it was a spider.  Come to find out it was a stage in the lady bug life cycle.  Thank heavens I left it where it was.

10.  Plant Borders   Borders allow insects to complete their life cycles as well.  Beneficial insects like flowers with spikes, umbrells, and daisy like heads.  Because they are omnivorous, they lack the long mouthparts needed for large deep flowers.  By inter-planting mints, queen anne’s lace, and echinacia like plants, you can keep the beneficial insects near your crops and increase the likelihood that they will be there to stop your pest.

11.  Keep your landscape plants in good shape.  Keep your landscape healthy and cleaned up.  This will allow your insects that need it to utilize it to complete their life cycle.  This will also allow other creatures to use your landscape as well.  Native plantings will work better in your little ecosystem than exotic ornamentals.

12.  Monitor for insect damage.  Know when you have an infestation.  Know what is in your yard.  Use IPM to tweak everthing to your advantage.

13.  Keep bird feeders in the garden.  Feed your local birds.  Build birdhouses, anything to attract them.  Birds will not only eat the seeds, but come into the garden and help you clean it of insects.  Between plantings, I allow my chickens to go through and clean in the garden.  They aren’t allowed there all the time because they also love greens, but they do a great job getting grubs.  Your native wild birds will also pick those pests off and help you just the same.

14.  Try to encourage amphibians and reptiles.  If you see a snake, leave it.  If you see toads, leave them.  These will also diminish your populations.

 

Try to keep things natural.  Don’t give into marketing tactics that promise an easier time of it.  Many of them are short term solutions and not long term.  If you are going to do one thing from the list first, my recommendation would be to mulch, mulch, mulch.  It has made it possible for me to garden without going crazy.  I hate cultivating.  I hate weeding.  Good luck!

 

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Pear Tree of Giving

Being involved with the sustainable backyard tour has helped me connect with my community.  Last week I walked my neighbors over to a wonderful gardener who lives nearby to introduce them.   My neighbor is from Mexico and is interested in growing sunflowers.  The gardener has a great collection on his property.  They talked and will be getting some seedsfor some stunning teddy bear sunflowers.

On the way home, we walked the alleys and found a ton of neglected apple trees and a huge mature pear tree.  Earlier today I was talking to a gardening friend and mention this pear tree.  We walked over to see it and decided we were going to pick it, because the property is uninhabited. 

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This thing is huge!  We pulled up and I saw someone sitting in the neighbors yard.  I mentioned to my friend that we should probably ask the guy if he thought it would be ok.  We get out and low and behold its a former coworker of my friend and he’s the caretaker for the property with the pear tree.  After some catching up we got to work.  Soon neighbors from all over the block turned out with bags and we all had a lovely time picking pears together.  We managed to clean out the pears up to 6 feet off the ground and get permission to come back tomorrow and pick the rest.  We didn’t even get the big ones yet! 

In exchange, we are going to prune up the tree and make it easier to deal with.  Some of the pears we were pulling off were easily a pound each.  The maintenance guy tells us that he throws out 50 bushels a year.  We got back home and I think we ended up with 8 bushels.  I took 4 for canning, my friends us going to keep two, and the rest are going to the neighborhood gods pantry. 

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Looking back at the tree, it appears as if we did not even get a quarter of them. 

In my book this is yet another reason to live in the city.  Gardeners have come before us and their legacy can still feed us.

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Sustainable Backyard Tour 2012

While I checked out the yards for this years tour, I thought I would snap some pictures to give everyone a little preview.  I’m very excited about the Carondelet area offerings!  The area I’m coordinating is south St Louis near the river.  Take a look at some of the fantastic things you will see on the tour if you follow my node!  There are gardens, up-cycled elements,  unusual plantings, chickens,  rabbits, solar power, and composting just to name a few elements of our area.

Click on the link to register to go on the tour.  This signs you up to receive a map a few days ahead of time.  Its a lot if fun and free.  Meet some great people, get some great ideas and come out June 24

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These are pictures of right now.  Think how great these yards will look in five weeks!

Whirlwind Days

What happened to this week???

It has been raining and raining a lot here in St. Louis.  Last Saturday (I think), Phil and Terry from Home Eco came over to film some B-roll for the show Green Time on local channel 24.  I’m helping organize this year’s Sustainable Living Tour on June 24th.  Terry and Phil started it out and they are some of the quality people that have come into my life since I put my house on that tour last year.  It’s been a tremendously fun thing to be involved with.

Anyway, Terry asked for volunteers to be on the show and I was thinking like a three minute informational blurb, but I’m always up for an adventure and I don’t mind public speaking so I volunteered.  Really, let me show you around my yard!  I can talk to you all day about it.  I like my yard.  I want to see your yard, I can totally geek out on yards.  So Phil and Terry came over and we filmed a bunch of stuff and Phil said he would splice it and get it ready for the interview part on Thursday night.  Awesome.

While getting ready for them to come over I took a ton of seeds out to work on starting flats and transplanting.  It started raining off and on all day.  During one rainstorm, I went in to put my hair up in curls so I wouldn’t look like my usually bedraggled self for when they got here.  We were pushing it to the line to get the yard together but thanks to my dear wonderful husband, we did it.  Somehow we managed to fit the filming in the yard in between rain storms and I went inside and sat down to play some Everquest I hate to admit.

The next morning I got up and remembered that container of seeds I took outside.  Now sitting in a couple inches of water, they were soaked.  It’s amazing how water soluble glue can be.  I kept them together as best as I could and laid them out to dry.  It took all week because of the rain and humidity.  They seem to be ok,   I’ve been trying to get them in flats all week.  Didn’t happen though.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday….  what happened there?  Who even knows?  Sometime in there I went to Heather’s house and we planted dozens of native shrubs and worked on yard clean up.  I even found a fountain and cleaned it and fixed it in her backyard.  Pretty cute little thing.  Serious sense of accomplishment.  Working over there reminded me of when I used to be a boss at landscaping.  So funny.  I had a crew of teenage boys helping me out and trying to aggravate each other at the same time.  We planted plum, filberts, blackberries, golden currants, and elderberries.  Her yard is going to look amazing once it fills out.  She got a great deal on bare root plants from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Leftover plants went to Dittmer, MO and home with me.  I took some over to my garden C and planted their yard with all five.  They just got a new vinyl fence which has completely changed the face of their yard.  The shrubs are just the right thing to really make the yard look lush now.  I decided to subject my poor neighbor to my gardening and planted blackberries and one plum in her yard.  Then decided to force them to take tomato, cucumber and who knows what else starts for their garden.  Oh, I also found a ground cover that I think will do really well in her front yard and planted some to test it out.  I’m rearranging the universe.

Sometime in here I had a garden hose explode, got a grant and went to spend the money.  Perfect timing is amazing.  I was able to replace the blown hose and get all the straw I needed to mulch the garden across the street.

Wednesday, I went to garden B and started it up.  It has been so hot and humid, I started on it about 6PM so that I wouldn’t get heat sick.  She has three raised beds that are basically FULL of lemon balm.  Before I headed out I forced a flat of vegetables on some of my favorite vegetarians and grabbed another to take with me to garden B.  I also took a plum and two elderberries.  No one was home there so I set to work tearing out lemon balm.  It’s kind of like trying to suffocate yourself on lemon scented household cleaners.  Once I got the shovel in and started working it out bit by bit it went pretty well.  Justin, the teenager that lives there came out and pleasantly surprised me by helping out.  We had a great conversation and I had a ton of fun working with him.  His mom got home by the second bed and we pulled lemon balm and dug up Mulberries until it was too dark to see.  We managed to get the middle bed planted with patty pan squash.  Hopefully we can get those grown up without having to worry about chemicals.  Squash bugs are really bad here.  I’ve read you can inject Bt into the stems to control it as an organic solution, but I’m on the fence about Bt being ok.

Somehow I ended up staying up until 1 am talking to friends of friends on Ventrilo about all sorts of sustainability, political and educational issues.  Wow!  Such a stimulating and inspiring conversation.  I got to know a guy who lives on Vancouver Island who has successfully done many of the things I have only done on small scale like Aquaponics.  He doesn’t live to far from Compassion Farm either.  Dirk Becker at Compassion Farms has proven to be an invaluable source of information on sustainability issues to me through Facebook.

Thursday morning was breakfast with the girls.  We have gotten together for probably 15 years and had breakfast together.  We’ve done it more often and less often, but it’s always fun and relaxing.

After breakfast I took my friend Cynthia grocery shopping at Sappington Market and found a new sign they had up that I dearly love.  Great idea!  If you live in St. Louis, shop here, it’s a wonderful resource that we have and needs all the support it can get.

I got home just in time to again set my hair for finishing up the filming on the show.  I had no idea what to wear so I decided to err on the side of over dressed.  How often do people get a chance to be on TV, even if it is a small local channel?  I went over and caught a ride with Terry.  I love spending time with her and can talk to her for hours.  She is a wonderful muse for my gardening obsession.  We got to the station and found a parking place.  For those of you who don’t know, KNLC is run by and housed in the same building as a homeless shelter.  You have to walk through the shelter to get to the studio.  I’ve never been in a studio or a homeless shelter so this was a wonderful adventure for me.  It’s a very welcoming and comfortable place.  Such nice people.  We met the host, Don Fitz, and I found him to be very charming and interesting to talk to.  He asked great questions that really made me think and look at things in new ways.  Amazingly, we weren’t doing an informational blurb but about 20 minutes of interview that will not get edited.  He doesn’t want to know answers ahead of time and doesn’t like to edit anything.  It was so much fun.  I got nervous at the last minute, but I’m so grateful to have had the experience.  It was a wonderful opportunity.  When filming was over, the camera lady came over and started asking me all sorts of questions that she had about sustainable living topic.  It was a pleasure to answer such a nice lady.  I could have talked to her a lot longer but they had to film the next show.

Terry took me to see City Garden after the filming and it’s amazing.  Beautifully landscaped, and all I can say is that any place with giant bunny sculptures is ok by me.  After that we went to Mei Kong on Grand for supper.  I love Vietnamese food.  We sat there way too late talking about everything and having a wonderful evening.  I thought we left about 8PM, but as I was getting in my car to come home, my husband called to find out if I was dead.  It was 10PM, I can’t believe how quickly time will fly with good conversation.    I have had so many good talks with people this week!  What a fantastic week.  Where the heck did it get to so fast???

Oh, this morning I got up and ran out to get my groceries and look up a couple of gardens I had heard about.  After I left the Mexican grocery I spied these beauties in a store window.    All I can say is have a fantastic Cinco de Mayo!

Peach Trees

The last two weeks I have been thinning the fruit on the peach tree.  It’s really difficult for me not to be greedy and leave all those lovely little peaches on the tree, but it’s not worth the risk.  Last year was the first year this particular tree really set fruit and I didn’t think about it and ended up pinned to the chicken coop under half a tree with my favorite rooster fluttering about trying to save me.  The trees have the ability to set much more fruit than their wood can bear.  My husbands grandmother always said to pinch off one out of every three.  The idea is to give them enough room to grow and to reduce the weight on the tree.  There are advanced ways to optimize market price and crop using this, but I’m writing a backyard blog and that can be a drawn out dry topic that doesn’t really help hobby growers.

Some people pinch the flower buds ahead of the bloom, I wait until fruit sets.  There is an argument that this can reduce the amount of fruit that sets next year, but I haven’t found it to be a problem.  My rationale is that the weather here is highly volatile.  If I pinch the blooms and we get a frost (which we almost always do), the frost may kill off more of my remaining blooms than I want.  If I wait until fruit sets, I generally don’t have to worry about the frost any more.  This year is an anomaly and the fruit set very, very heavy.  I have read that you don’t want to wait more than 60 days from flowering to finish pinching the fruit.  If I wait that long, I’ve forgotten and it’s not going to get done.

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After thinning, example 1

I thinned them pretty hard this year.  I probably did three out of four since we didn’t have a frost in my yard to knock off the blooms.  We had a cool enough spell it bit the pear tree, but not the peaches.

Now, I didn’t take it down to the amount I would like to eat or process because I’m going to loose about a third to birds and a few more to tarnish beetles.  I had some problems with the tarnish beetles last year, and suspect with the mild winter I will again.  Here’s to hoping the chickens are getting them.  This year’s flock is much more interested in foraging than last year’s was.  They were all too young.

Tarnish beetle control might be an interesting thing to touch on.  I picked them off and killed them last year as soon as I saw them.  I also have fed birds to the point where there is a ton of birds in my yard all the time, including a hawk that checks for vulnerable chickens early in the morning.  Rodale’s “Garden Problem Solver” suggests sticky traps, pyrethrum, rotenone, or sabadilla for control. (Today you can get one for 50 cents on Amazon!)  I’m on the fence about even organic chemicals for the most part, so I tend not to use them unless it’s really bad.    White sticky boards seem to be the thing to use.  You can take white poster board and coat it with sticky glue as an inexpensive solution.  I wonder if the mouse traps would work since they are white and sticky.  I would watch these and make sure that you aren’t catching beneficial insects.  As always, keeping your garden clean goes a long, long way for control also.

Even though I’ve thinned this so hard, I still have branches touching the ground all ready.  I have to think on that.  Makes it hard to mow the grass.  After a year of chickens in the orchard area though, I’ve been surprised to see what weeds are growing back there.  We hate mowing grass and have been discussing just mulching the backyard instead of trying to have any lawn.  It would entertain the chickens more anyway.  We’ve never had grass back there to begin with and were using the chickens to build soil for a year before planting grass seed.  I even have the bag of seed ready to go.  But look what the orchard is full of, lol…

The orchard area weeds.

I believe it’s wheat!  I’m not even aware of feeding the chickens any wheat, but there you go.  I feed them oats and varied layer feeds depending upon what I can get, but most of that is ground in some way.   Which ever feed this was must not have ground the wheat.  (I bet Chism Heritage Farm will post in the notes and remind me about the wheat I fed them that I’ve totally forgotten about and should probably be feeding them.) They are kind of pretty and I’m inclined to leave them.  It does make the yard look like a mess though and we will be doing some filming in a couple of weeks so I need to make a decision.  I’m inclined to put in mulch, my husband has already torn out a bunch of the wheat where he was trying to level out a weird place in the yard.