Category Archives: Vegetable gardening

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!

 

Plant of the Month – Mustard

Anxiously awaiting for the cold to break drives me crazy every January.  The cabin fever resulting from being indoors gives me a chance to plan and plot for the coming year’s garden.  It also makes me horribly anxious to get planting.  So anxious, I felt it wouldn’t hurt to get a jump start on some herbs.  Things I can grow in pots on my windowsill.  The herbs have sprouted and with them my hopes for the garden.

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This is the month to plant cole crops if you want to push the season, but the best plant in my opinion is Mustard.  Mustard is an amazing plant to me.  I get giant leaves and after it goes to seed, I find mustard growing in every nook and cranny around the yard by fall.  I have some in a pot on my porch that have survived the cold of winter.  I noticed one yesterday in the cracks in my brick sidewalk.  So easy to grow and excellent for cold weather.  Tasty too.

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Mustard can be harvested young for salad greens, or for sauteing or stewing.  Large leaves should be cooked in a good stock or with a ham bone.  Flowers can be used as edible garnish.  The seed can be ground to make your own homemade mustard.

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Plant mustard in flats or in rows 1/8th inch deep.  Mustard will last quite a while before bolting in cold weather.  In warm weather, it can bolt in as little as 30 days.

Varieties:

This is by no means a complete list, but it should be enough to send your imagination soaring.  I tried not to include hybrids, please forgive me if I did.  Kitazawa Seed Company seems to have the biggest selection of greens out there.

If you want to try something different, make your own mustard.  There are many recipes out there for mustard sauce.  I have had a lot of luck with this one that I redacted several years ago for a food festival.  Amounts of everything are really flexible.  If you want to start with the ground mustard seed and experiment with the amounts of other ingredients you will probably find interesting combinations that suit your pallet more than this one.

Medieval Mustard

  • 1/2 C Mustard Seed
  • 1 TBS honey
  • 1/4 C red wine
  • 1/4 C vinegar
  • more wine as desired

Toast mustard seed in a dry cast iron skillet until it begins to pop.  Grind it in a mortar.  Add honey, wine and vinegar to make a thick paste.  Thin as desired with more wine.  If you prefer a sweeter mustard, add more honey.  Substitute vinegar and wine as desired to alter flavor.

(Based on recipe in “The Forme of Cury”  ca. 1390 Lumbard Mustard)

Planning Your Garden

One of the topics that seems to hang most people up about gardening is how to go about planning it.  Last night at Iron Barley, I spoke to a packed house on this issue for the Carondelet Community Urban Farm.  It was a blast, but unfortunately we did not make enough handouts to meet the demand.  To rectify that for those that were there, here is the handout:

Garden Planning

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We had a lot of great questions last night and hope to be able to go more in depth in future installations of our Urban Tech series.  Stay tuned for more classes!  If you have any questions about garden planning, or would like some time with a consultant please contact us at the garden on facebook and we will see what we can do.  This is all volunteer and we will be able to help as we have time.

One of the main pieces of advice I can give you is know yourself and start small.  Make a list of common vegetable you can eat.  Start with the easy ones.  Find a style of gardening that works with your mental state.  I don’t like a lot of work but don’t mind putting in some effort to get it off the ground right so I choose biointensive planting.  I really hate to water the garden.  Some people hate to dig more than water so Lasagna Gardening might be the way to go.

This is the time of year that seed catalogs come in daily.  Sit down with them and fantasize.  In addition to a few standards, pick something that looks fun.  After you get the basic garden planned out, think about crops that might fit in the beds before the tomatoes are out or after you harvest your broccoli.  But remember each step adds complexity, don’t get carried away.

Keep a journal.  Hobby Farm has a great printout available on line to help you in that endeavor.  When the season is over, think about how much you can comfortably expand next year, try to keep it small enough to be fun and not overwhelming.

Good Luck.

Click on the pictures below to purchase helpful books on this topic (and help support this blog):

Why would you grow potatoes?

“I’ve never seen anyone grow potatoes before, I just can’t figure out why you would.  They are so cheap at the store!”  – Mr. Trivia, (he says this to me about twice a week.)

There is no explaining to Mr. Trivia why I do what I do.  I’m his favorite crazy person as he is mine.  He’s one of the better neighbors I’ve ever had and entertainment wise he has to be the best.  He knows EVERYTHING about St. Louis history.  I love talking to him, but that has nothing to do with why there are 40 lbs of potatoes planted in his yard.

It occurred to me though that I should consider why I grow them.  There are a lot of options as to why.  Is it entertainment?  nutritional?  flavor?  environmental?  Why?

Entertainment wise, I LOVE IT!  Potato plants are somewhat impressive and pretty.  The flowers vary in color.  The plants put on an impressive show of foliage.  If you straw them they provide even more impact to the viewer.  They are easy to grow.  If you need something that won’t fail to encourage you, throw some on the ground.  They will grow and make you feel good about your green thumb.  Potato bugs are somewhat fascinating, don’t really do much damage, and look like fleas.

Potatoes are high in potassium, vitamin C, and B6.  The starch in potatoes is resistant to digestion and functions similarly to fiber in your intestines.  Organically grown vegetables have a higher nutritional content than vegetables from industrial agriculture.

All the micronutrients found in these roots have to be processed from the surrounding soil.  If the soil is low in Iron, Niacin, Thiamin, or Riboflavin, the gardener may not necessarily recognize that while growing.  The organic farmer will be rotating crops and adding soil amendments that will replace these nutrients and any hidden deficiencies have a better chance of being corrected.   The industrial farmer will apply the big three Potassium, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen.  If he is growing on soil that has had the same crop over and over and over again, those others will naturally be depleted and provide a potato that isn’t a healthy.  As a potato sits in storage it also looses nutrients.  If I grow a potato, I can dig it out of the ground as a living thing and eat it.  If I buy a potato, it has been in transit or sitting on a shelf and has had that time to loose nutrients.  Vitamin C is especially easy to degrade.

I love food.  I love to cook food, grow food, and eat food.  I love to touch it, chop it, process it.  I especially love to taste it.  My brother at Chism Heritage Farm grows pasture raised organic chicken.  It is succulent and that can’t even begin to describe the difference between that product and a similar product at the grocery store.  Recently, my husband brought me some fried chicken from the grocery.  I took a breast and couldn’t even finish it, it was so bland.  The difference wasn’t the way it was cooked, it was the meat itself.  The same thing happens with fruits and vegetables.  No one disputes the difference between a home grown tomato and a store tomato, why wouldn’t it apply to potatoes as well?  They are even in the same family of plants.  Home grown potatoes are just different.  Better.

Roots absorb nutrients by diffusion, mass flow, root interception, and foliar absorption.  Diffusion in particular is when a high concentration of nutrient flows across the membrane of the skin of the root because there is a lower concentration of that element inside.  Nature wants to naturally balance it out.  If there is a poisonous chemical in the soil, it would be a natural process for it to cross that membrane.  Since potatoes are roots, it will accumulate in the potato.  There are many studies showing abnormal concentrations of cadmium and other toxins in roots growing in polluted fields.  This unsettles me and I would like to know where those roots are growing so I have some expectation of what might be in my food.

I live by the Mississippi River which is more and more polluted all the time.  I would not like to contribute to that.  I drink that water.  King Corn + Big River Special Edition DVD SET goes into detail on what is going into that water already from industrial agriculture.  I’m uncomfortable with the concept that my saving money on potatoes might in some way pollute someone else’s or my own water.  It’s too easy to grow potatoes for that to be worth a few pennies.

More than half of the world’s potato fields are grown with Russet Burbank potatoes.  A contributing factor of this is McDonald’s, but people also buy them because they like them and the taste is familiar.  This effectively sets us up for problems associated with monoculture.  People remember the Irish potato famine, but now believe that technology will save us from that and it will never happen here.  Not so.  Technology may move fast enough to make a dent, but chances are that what will happen is a deluge of chemicals on our fields resulting in pollution and not necessarily saving the crop.  It all depends upon what starts killing the potatoes.  Why take the risk?  The easy solution is to grow other varieties and keep some genetic diversity in our seed stock.  If we grow lots of varieties of potatoes, we have lots of variety of flavor as well.  I’m constantly amazed that in a society that seemingly values gourmet food and cooking so much that there are whole channels dedicated to it on television, there isn’t a demand for more variety.  In the Seed Savers 2008 year book, there are 15 pages of potato varieties.  Each page has apx. 40 varieties.  That would make about 600 varieties available through them alone.  Why does the world have half of all potatoes in one variety???  That’s just crazy to me.  Half the world isn’t the same growing conditions.  Out of those 600 potatoes, there are some that are better tasting and better suited to almost everywhere!  Now I don’t have a good variety planted this year.  Before I got some of the more obscure ones, I went with some cheap ones from Rural King to get my legs underneath me for growing them.  I don’t want to waste a limited supply of seed potatoes by failing to grow them.  I have my confidence now and hope that my financial situation will improve enough for me to pick up seed potato for next year from Seed Savers.  I can’t wait to start trying different varieties and flavors!

So, my neighbor can’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing because cost is the overriding factor in his brain.  Potatoes are cheap, but they are also ridiculously cheap to grow.  50 lbs of potatoes was $12 and three bales of straw was $9.  If I only get 70lbs of potatoes out they are $0.30 a pound.  If I get out the high end possible (which won’t happen) of 400 pounds, they are $0.05 per pound.   I’ve spent a whole hour or so working on them.  They don’t need weeded because of the straw.  They will taste amazing.  I can get them as baby potatoes or big potatoes.  All in all I think I end up a winner on cost.  When you add in all my other reasons, I really feel ahead and I’ve had some really nice relaxing entertainment while doing it.

Resources (Information Links):

Links for tubers:

Trichogramma Wasps

I was pleasantly surprised by my friend Marcail from Carondelet Garden today at lunchtime.  He was enlisting me to be a “general” in the war on squash vine borer.  I was intrigued.  Recently, while filming the show “Green Time” on KNLC Channel 24, the host asked me what I do about these horrible pests.  I didn’t really have a good answer.  I have planted them in a new location that hasn’t had a garden in a while is this years trial plan.  My side yard always gets them, some years sooner than others.  Rodale says to inject Bt into the stems to control the infestation, but it seems Bt may not be a good solution either.  Click here for an abstract on researching showing Bt in the blood of pregnant women.  Organic gardening is complicated and seems to have some slippery slope options available to it.  I’ve held off on Bt since reading that research.  Is it bad?  I don’t know, I have to think about it for a while.

So I decided the wasps would be worth a try.  Will it imbalance the other caterpillars in the neighborhood?  I don’t know.  I have some unanswered questions about that, but I think rebugging will always be my preferred solution to chemicals.  I went to meet Marcail and picked up the wasps.

The wasps come 5000 eggs on a little sheet of paper.  They are little grey specks.  My husband immediately opened the container to look and I couldn’t get him stopped, so there a four or five microscopic wasps buzzing about my house.  They had already started to hatch.  The instructions say to place in shade where ants can’t get them.  I decided for now I would put them on the sill on the south side of the garden.  They will get a little sun in the morning but not much.  I may go set some pebbles in the bottom of the container and set it in a cup of water to keep the ants out later.

Marcail ordered these in and passed them out to some urban farmers in our area.  This way the whole neighborhood is inoculated.  Brilliant.  Hope it works I will let you know as the summer goes on if I notice a change.  The squash always get infested the first week of June so I should see a difference soon.  I have some volunteers coming up in the garden I have chosen to leave in place to see what they do and I will be able to monitor those.  I’m tempted to order a package for garden “D” where all the zuchinni are planted.  That garden is squash heavy this year.

Order:

Orcon TR-C3SQ Live Trichogramma, 3 Squares/12,000 Eggs

Recommended Reading:

Rebugging Your Home & Garden: A Step-By-Step Guide to Modern Pest Control

Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver: Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs

Sweet Potato Slips Part II

So you have these potatoes sitting in water with shoots sticking out of them, what do you do now?  Sorry I didn’t post this sooner for those playing along.
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Carefully twist them off the potato.  You should get a tiny bit of the tuber at the base of the stem.  Stick the stems in a jar, bowl or cup with water in it.  In two days come back and check the roots.  When they are about an inch long, take them to the garden and plant them.  It’s that easy.  The time is in growing the shoots on the potatoes.
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Sweet Potato Slips Part 1

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!

Wordless wednesday

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Gardening with friends

I love to garden with friends.  With such a nice start to my week, my ambitions nearly exceeded my stamina yesterday.  It had finally become time to work on garden D.

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Its hard to decide where to put garden space.  Gardens are a strange thing.  They take up a lot of space physically and mentally.  For 6 months my girlfriend and I have been talking about what to do with this space.  I had to figure out what her vision for the space was and how I could fit in my needs. If you’re going to dig up so much space in a friends yard you need to make sure that friend will be okay with it. This is the biggest garden I’m putting in outside of my own yard.  The last thing I want to do is anything that would put a wedge in this friendship.

It was with some trepidation that I gathered up my seeds and went to my girlfriend’s house.  The worry was unwarranted.  My sweet husband manned the tiller and our friend Gary mowed the grass.  I admire my husband so much for being such an amazing machine.  It’s like he can’t even feel the heat of the sun beating down on him.  We decided to do four foot wide beds that were about 60 feet long.  Soon my girlfriend and I were raking out the dirt and planting seeds.

We worked away and about 20 feet down the third row look at each other and giggled.  We’d been discussing our plans for going to different farmers markets to sell vegetables and talking about the different vegetables we like.  She is full of ideas and hopes to plant enough garden to cut flowers to sell from.  The pleasant conversation and the working of the soil worked like magic on our souls.  When we looked at each other we couldn’t help but giggle at the wonderful time we were having.  Our work connected us and let us feel connected to the earth and everything around us.  We planted 3 rows of vegetables and thought about how much of it we could possibly eat.  Hopefully there will be enough to fill out a table at a farmers market after we have taken our share.

The day was hard work but we finished it with a sense of satisfaction. We also had the joy of knowing we had had a pleasant afternoon.  Sustainability is easier with friends and it’s a joy to achieve with friends.

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After this we sat with our gatorade and look at a book she had gotten at the library.  I was impressed with all the fantastic projects it had in it.  Easy simple ideas to really help around the garden.  Check it out at the link below.

Planted yesterday:

Some of these are the brand I planted and some are not.  They are the type however and I am providing these links for convenience sake.  It is late and hot for lettuce, but these two varieties are supposed to be better in the heat and we will shade the beds where they grow.

We are so excited to see what our friendship will grow and how it will grow.  I love gardening with friends.  Try it!

Tedium and Chickens

One of the most tedious of garden jobs to me is pricking out seedlings into flats.  I have a ton of flats that are overdue for transplant.  The weather this spring has been so odd, I’m off my game.  Today, I was lucky that my dear friend who owns garden D came over to talk to me while I moved plants around.  That always helps me stay on task.  We had a nice (albeit muggy) afternoon talking and transplanting.

I’ve been out doing promotions for the backyard tour and one of the questions that comes up a lot is the noise of chickens.   Chickens talk a lot.  Roosters yell a lot.  Roosters don’t just crow at sunrise.  I find chicken noise to be incredibly peaceful for the most part.  They have very communicative little noises.  Play, food, surprise are all things they are able to communicate.  One thing that they do drives me bonkers, but they don’t do it much.  If the hawk flies over, one will run out and start and alarm cluck that is incredibly loud.  The others will then go hide.  The red hen sounds the alarm for hawks and the turken does it for cats.  Very weird little system they have.

Two of the chicks moved next door this week to their forever home.  They have lush new accommodations, but cannot figure out how to get to their nest boxes at night.  My neighbor goes out every night and picks them up and puts them up high.  While we were transplanting starts and tossing worms to the chicks, I noticed that one of the old hens was up in the kids fort.  I couldn’t believe it, I had no idea they went up there.  It provided our answer about the chicks, they should be capable of getting into their nest boxes on their own.

Good place to escape my blood thirsty dog boy, but bad place for escaping the hawk.  The hawk swoops over the yard and over to the tree on the left beyond the fort.  I’ve seen it just that low about right there where she is standing.

Looks like I have two roosters.  One of the Lankenvelters turns out has decided to be a boy.  Isn’t he beautiful?  His name is now “soup”.  This issue is probably the biggest one I get questioned about when speaking to people about chickens.  Roosters are not allowed in many municipalities.  Sad, but it’s the way it is.  You can order chicks that are “female”, but there are mistakes in sexing.  Always expect that the supplier will get some wrong.  Hens get old.  If you want pets, that’s ok.  If you are producing eggs, it may not be.  Feed costs money.  It’s not too bad to feed a pet, but a non productive chicken is another thing.  I’m only allowed a certain number of chickens.  My chickens become soup when they stop laying.  I don’t have room for chickens as pets.  That’s my decision, but it is something to consider before you get backyard urban chickens.

My other roo is an unusual breed called Derbyshire Red Cap.  He isn’t technically mine.  He belongs to my friend Heather.  She has not named him soup.   She would like to find him a home and I’m good with that.  It will take quite a while to get him up to an edible size because of his breed.  The comb that is growing on his head is fascinating to me though and I find him quite beautiful as well.  Sadly, his comb is obscured in this picture.

So with good company and inquisitive chickens milling about we had a really nice afternoon transplanting.  I can’t imagine how people could focus on the noise when chickens can be such nice companions.  The white rock at the top has the worm game all figured out and won’t stray too far from me when I’m outside.  They are the breed that picked up the fastest on the human having good treats.