Category Archives: Soil Improvement

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!


Sad Conversation

So, I tool around on the internet when I suffer from my insomnia and last night was a big winner in the insomnia department.  I adore Reddit sadly and find it a great way to kill time when I can’t sleep.  Last night this link came up:  Congress Delays Farm Bill as Drought Spreads

I am very fond of politics and sad at the state our nation is in related to politics at the same time.  I know I am terribly, terribly liberal and I feel that the Democratic party is too moderate for my tastes.  I don’t feel like there are real choices in our political system and it’s a choice of voting for who is pandering most effectively.  That is not what this post is about though.  I feel that I need to give fair warning where I stand politically though because these issues have somehow been wrapped up in Republican vs. Democrat debates and good solid science is just left to the winds.  Each person enters into this debate with different emotional afflictions though and I can’t say that I am not.

I’m frustrated at the farm bills.  I’m frustrated because with my limited understanding of them, it seems that they support all the wrong kinds of farming.  We subsidize foods that are not the most nutritious, but are fillers.   There are other problems, but I don’t want to belabor my point.  I have a degree in plant and soil science from SIU-C.  My focus was horticulture and landscape design, I don’t want to misrepresent myself.  Part of my program however was to take courses that covered the scope of American farming.  Crop sciences, Agricultural economics, etc.  I did an externship at a seed supplier who distributed seed to rural farmers in Illinois.  My father worked for my grandfather on the family farm when I was little.  I worshipped the two of them and even at such a young age would love to sit and listen to the men talk about how they were running the farm.  My grandfather always brought people home for meals and distributed Badger equipment and Purina feeds.  I remember sitting at the back of the family room during some kind of meeting about pork production and raising hogs on concrete pads.  I loved the farm and that love of working with food stayed with me.  My brother owns that farm and that family room now and I am constantly amazed at his stamina in working full time, having four kids, and producing some of the most delicious meat I’ve ever tasted.

The above article lead me to respond in a sarcastic manner about our congress and the influence that big farming has over our nations farmers.  I remember watching commercials during the evening news from my grandmothers bed on all sorts of herbicides and other chemicals playing over and over and over again.  I never questioned the necessity of them.  The indoctrination started as far back as I can remember.  I went through my externship never questioning the seed production in our country.  I watched signs go up on test plots in the country and thought those test plots represented real progress in my lifetime.  Then I went to work.  I got my chemical applicators license and sincerely believed that Round Up was so harmless that you could probably drink it.  One of my coworkers accidentally drenched his clothing in it and kept working, by the end of the day he was silly and hallucinating and we all thought it was a funny incident and terribly harmless.  I hate to think of the long term effects of that.  I dutifully went out and sprayed peoples landscaping beds and trees with who knows what.  No mask.  Long sleeves, long pants, but breathing it all in as I sprayed above me.  I thought the chemicals were a god send.  It saved so much on labor.   I could make so many people have pristine yards.  I watched my now husband spray all sorts of crazy chemicals on things.  He is still breathing in who knows what to this day.  He is now an IronWorker and builds things like oil refineries.  Soon, he will be leaving to Canada to work on the pipeline coming through Alberta.  We all get up and go to work and do what we need to do to get by, but sometimes I think it deadens us to what is going on around us.  Should my husband go build a pipeline and support big oil?  Ethically, probably not, but that is a hard decision to make when you have bills to pay and children to feed.

It’s difficult to gain perspective and see what is actually happening around you and try new things.  You want your time to be most effective at meeting your needs and it is easy to walk willingly into bad ideas that are seemingly cost effective at the time.  Take Round Up ready corn for example.  This is the product that started to open my eyes.  One thing I learned in college was that nature constantly changes and adapts.  I’ve used Round Up, I’ve watched certain weeds in certain yards get harder and harder to kill after multiple applications.  I could see that weed seeds that resisted the Round Up survived my applications and inevitably, nature would find a work around if I kept it up.  Then Round Up Ready Corn hit the market and it was a wake up call to me.  I couldn’t understand how that could work.  Nature would adapt.  It seemed entirely obvious.  That was a while back, now we see this from two years agoFarmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds.  Have we done anything with this knowledge?  Why, yes:  Losing the War on Weeds.  We are often choosing to go back to tilling, more chemicals, and other practices that roundup ready was supposed to save us from.  I don’t see how things have really changed, we just keep reinventing a type of farming that isn’t proving to be viable.

Anyway, that brings  us to this:

My sarcastic comment was responded to by and earnest and hard working farmer.  I don’t want to belittle him.  He is doing what he feels is right and trying to do best by his land and his family.  The problem that I see here and was commenting about in my first comment is that sometimes, salespeople and culture get into our heads and undermine what we think we know.  This man would not intentionally harm his land, he wouldn’t hurt his profits, and he wouldn’t try to harm anyone around him.  The frustration for me comes in that we are not speaking the same language.

Part of landscaping and really the majority of my career has been sales.  I’ve been to so much sales training it’s not even funny.  There are so many seminars out there to teach you how to use vocabulary and perks to sell anything.  Part of the main goal of most is to emphasize what the product will do for you.  Save time, save money, increase comfort.  This process of sales develops a vocabulary with your customers.  Your customers learn this vocabulary and use it with each other.  They then become in the know and it increases the difficulty of discussions with folks outside your normal parameters.

This man believes he is farming sustainably.  My sustainably and his sustainably are not the same.  His definition:  “producing profit on a consistent basis and not degrading the land.”  “includes GMO crops, chemical herbicides and pesticides.”

My definition:  Utilizing nature’s own mechanisms for control of pests and invasive weeds without the use of fossil fuels or other limited quantity substances.

Here is Wikipedia’s take on Sustainable Agriculture.  I really like what it says there.  I suspect the other guy wouldn’t disagree too much with it either.  We have commonalities in our goals.  I want to make money at farming.  I want to improve my soils and provide for my children.  I’m choosing a vastly different path.

Our beliefs about this definition don’t come from our politics necessarily, but the same mechanism has created a gulf in our vocabulary that makes it difficult for our minds to meet.  How do we bridge this gap as a nation or as just humans and work past it to make a better world with better soil?  We all want to feed people, we all want to provide.  We are the nurturers and the farmers and the keepers of this earth.  How do we bridge the divide in our current culture?  I find this a monumental and sad question that I have no answers for.

Plant Your Potatoes, It’s St. Patrick’s Day!

Family tradition says to put the potatoes in the ground on St. Patrick’s day.  I always aim for that week, so Thursday the potatoes went into the ground.  I got a great deal on a sack of potatoes at Rural King this year.  I’m planting Red Pontiac, nothing too far out sadly.  But I like them and they grow well for me.  Maybe in the future I will get some heirloom to grow, but not this year.

Due to crazy kidling stuff, we got behind on the digging and borrowed a tiller to get caught up.  It’s a terrible nuisance.  It won’t run consistently, but we loaned it to our mechanic and hopefully it will come back in better working order.  We have the best mechanics on our block that anyone could hope for.

A note on tilling.  I very much am a fan of double dig followed by mulching.  It cuts down on the amount of labor you will spend on your garden later in the year.
Another reason is the superior results.  On the left you can see a bed that was cut solely with the tiller.  Lots of weeds, lots of clods of dirt to work around, and not very deep.  On the right is a bed my husband tilled that I had double dug.  It is beautiful.  Since this is new land it’s low on organic matter and probably nutrients.  After these pictures, we put a 3-5 inch layer of compost down and a 1-2 inch layer of composted horse manure, then tilled them both again.  The one on the right is now a dream and the one on the left will do for this year.

For the potatoes, we tilled the soil and laid out the potatoes on it every 6″.  The beds are 4 feet wide, so I put the potatoes in two rows, one foot in from each side.  I find this makes it much easier to mulch as they grow.  By the end of the growing season this will be a pretty impressive pile of straw and potatoe leaves, last year it came up to my chest.

As you can see, I laid out whole potatoes.  Many people recommend cutting them into pieces and letting them cure before you put them out.  I don’t have that kind of space or time and I was planning to plant 40-50 lbs of potatoes.  I’m not sure how to accomplish that sort of curing without one of those bun carts like bread companies use.

After you lay out the potatoes, put on a layer about 6 ” thick of compost.  This is the free compost from our city park.  Sometimes you have to pick a little trash out, but it’s never very much, mostly plastic water bottles and sometimes wires.  So, fill out the bed with the compost and move onto the manure.  This batch came from just across the river at a riding academy.  Free off of Craigslist.  We lay the manure on 2-3 ” thick over the whole thing.  Dr. Ron’s 1000 cats think this is the best thing we’ve done so far.  When I look at the window at night there are always cats laying around in this bed now.    We don’t mix this up, we don’t dig holes for the potatoes or a trench, we just make it as simple as we can, there is a ton more gardening to do and we need to conserve our energy.

Lastly, we put on straw mulch.  Right now we don’t have it on thick enough yet.  There is a knack to getting the right amount of straw mulch on a bed.  You don’t want to completely smother everything, but you need enough to keep the weeds down.  I can see the compost through the straw so I know there isn’t enough on.  We were battling incoming rain though and needed to get as much done as possible.  I will go out soon and add some more straw.

We also got mesclun mix planted and green onions.  I wanted to get my onion sets in too, but the rain started and we didn’t make it.  The leeks I planted are up though and most of the other flats are planted for this week.  I also put in some gladiolus and a few other bulbs to pretty up the place.  It occured to me last year I get too focused on the vegetables and neglect filling the niches with flowers.  They certainly make the place more enjoyable.

See also:  Potato Upkeep

How long does it take to dig a garden bed?

Today I decided to time how long it takes me to do this.  A lot of people tell me they just don’t have time to garden.  This is a 4 x 20′ garden bed.  I have fibromyalgia and have to be careful not to over do things or I pay big time.  Because of that, when I am digging new beds, I try to dig one foot down the first day and dig the second layer down the next.  This way I end up with good double dug beds.  I only have to do this when opening up new ground, after the first time, it is just a matter of maintaining and cultivating (oh, and don’t walk on the beds).  So…

One pass on one 4 x 20′ bed with one shovel is…… one hour and 15 minutes.

This is with picking out bricks and rocks and pottery and bottles.  Also figure in time for occasional day dreaming.  I think an hour would be a reasonable amount of time to figure in if you don’t have hard clay soil or brush.  I will let that air for a couple of days, then go back and do the next pass.  The next pass on this particular ground will have a lot more bricks and building debris in it than the first pass, so it will probably take me two hours.  When I am done, it will look like the bed on the right and be ready for a layer of straw mulch.


I am a total fan of turkens.  I’ve never had a bad one.  This breed is ugly, but seemingly perfect for urban agriculture.  They tolerate confinement, eat very little, can’t fly, and are very friendly.

turken girl

This year I have had Red Star, White Rock, Red Rock, Black Aurucana, one silver lace wyandotte bantam and Saipan Jungle Fowl in addition to turkens of many colors.

Today my partner in garden inspiration, Heather and I ordered our chicks for this year.  I think the plan we just came up with is 8 turkens, 3 white rocks, 5 red caps, 3 feather footed for the neighbor, 3 lakenvelters, and 3 black minorcas.  The second coop is open and I’m not sure when the delivery date will be.  I have to think about where I want to put it while they are growing, it’s more appropriately called a chicken tractor.  I may have time to do some renovations, may not.

The turkens lay daily never skipping a day.  They start out with fairly large eggs and within a week or two are regularly laying large grade eggs.  I’ve had really good luck with White Rocks and the Aurucanas as well.  Good reliable layers.

I won’t be able to tell the difference in feed with this batch since I’m putting them all together.  I know from past experience however that the Turkens eat far less than other breeds.  Very cost effective and they make good meat as well.  Excellent dual purpose breed and a joy to own.