Tag Archives: garden

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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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The side yard went through some radical change last week.  Two of the principle players of the Carondelet Urban Farm, Mark and Handy Dan came over and set up this lovely functional pig pen in the side yard.  The farm has a pair of pigs at another location breeding for food.

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In about an hour and a half, Spiderpig was in his new home!  What am I going to do with him you ask?  I don’t know.  My main concern was a constant source of manure.  The rabbits and chickens just don’t provide enough.


He’s a neat little guy, a micropig.  We feed him restaurant scraps and help the community be more sustainable.  He couldn’t be easier to take care of and he is enjoyable company.  I keep straw for his bedding which keeps the smell down and look forward to cleaning out the hog floor for the garden.

The chickens like him too.

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Adding livestock to the garden increases the output of vegetables and makes gardening a more satisfying experience overall.

This is what I am reading this month. (Click on the picture to buy and help support this blog!)  Hopefully I can get a review out soon.  It’s really geared to raising regular hogs in a hog operation, but I think it will provide useful information to having a pig in the yard.

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.

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.

Sweet Potato Slips Part 1

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.


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.


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!

Potato Upkeep

About a month ago I planted potatoes.  The weather has been very mild so they are ready for the next step.

When the potatoes are 9-12 inches high, they are ready for a good thick layer of mulch.  I use straw, it’s easy and inexpensive in this area.  My brother uses horse manure and sawdust.

Loosen up the bail and pile it on until about 3 inches show out the top.  This is why I like using rows instead of a hexagonal layout, it’s just easier for me.  These two rows took seven bails of straw.

Here you can see one bed that is finished and one that isn’t.  The cats across the street love this so I just check it occasionally to make sure they haven’t thrown it everywhere and straighten it up if they have.

Here they are both completed.  They make the rest of the garden look pretty puny at this point.  The corn is only 6 ” high and most of the plants are still in the greenhouse waiting to get some size to them before going out into the garden.  We are slowly working our way across the garden adding in compost and manure.  This ground is so full of building debris, even that isn’t going to help as much as it should, it’s pretty weak ground still.  Next year it should be beautiful though.

Every time the potatoes get about a foot higher than the mulch, add more until they start flowering.  After they start to flower, they can be left to grow until they start to die back.

See also:  Potato Planting Time

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.

before thinning, example 1

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.