Tag 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.


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)

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


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):

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!


I got the best surprise this week when I was raking the mulch back into place.  The chickens apparently did not kill all of the asparagus!  I’m so excited.  They still have time mind you, but I now have hope.  This is the digginest bunch of chickens I’ve ever had.  I think they just like it.  I’ve supplemented their greens, gave them pig livers, everything I can think of to satisfy any nutritional deficits, but they still love to dig.

The south half of the patch is gone, but there are still a good eight plants sending up shoots.  It was a new patch I planted last year so it’s still very sparse.

The sweet potato slips are coming along.  I found a source for some white fleshed sweet potatoes and started those too, I hope they put something up.  Some of the potatoes haven’t sent shoots up yet, but they have lots of roots in the water.  Because of the weather I have moved them out to the “greenhouse”.  They are loving the sun.

Most of the flats are planted, I need to scrounge up another couple of dozen at least.  Hopefully, I can get a hold of those this week.  In the meantime, I need to go water all the flats I have planted all ready.  I’ve run out of rain barrel water sadly I think I need to add another storage barrel.  110 gallons has served me well until now and with all this recent rain I shouldn’t be out.  Oh well.

Here is my youngest son’s job for the next hour….

A bow tie and a superman shirt, how can life get any better than that???

Farmer Wisdom

gleaned from the checker at Buchheit’s….

“Put your tomatoes out when the Oak leaves are as big as your thumbnail”

I would love to be a checker at Buchheit’s if it were closer.  The young lady on the register was telling us what she had learned that day from another customer.  The gentleman stated this and his rationale was that the Oak trees have developed to be able to tell when to put their leaves out and won’t do it until the weather is sufficiently clear.  Makes sense to me.  What other nuggets of information are we losing with our consumer culture?  This sounds like a great “rule of thumb” that should be passed on.  Even if it doesn’t work 100% of the time, I bet it provides for a fairly good success rate.

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

Sweet Potato Slips

Time to start your slips.  I did this last week and then forgot to blog about it.

Take your sweet potatoes, cut them in half, and put in jar of water with half the potato below water.  I use toothpicks to hold them in place.  Then place them in a warm well lit place.  Mine are on top of a radiator.  They still may not be warm enough since we already have the heat turned way way down, but I’m hoping.

In a few weeks you should have slips ready for planting.

This weekend I am getting my flats started.  I have no idea where I will put them, but it looks like I have a week before cold weather again.  So this is what I am planting this week:

  • Broccoli
  • Rooted Parsley
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Head Lettuce
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Parsley
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Leeks
  • Green Onions
  • Chives
  • Collards
  • Regular Tomatoes
  • Kale
  • Mustard

What is going directly into beds:

  • Potatoes
  • Onion Sets

So, what does Rodale say to do this month?

  • Plant asparagus and give Pulverized phosphate and potash rock.
  • Cole crops can be planted out in hot bed or sheltered location.
  • Plant out horseradish, onion, and rhubarb.
  • Dig last year’s parsnips.
  • Plant early potatoes in hot beds.
  • Plant Garden sage and Tomato seeds.


Leeks, Time to Start for real!

Tooling around on Sprout Robot inspired me to get started a few days early on the garden.  They have a very user friendly site to help tell you what you need to plant now and remind you in the future.  So, I decided to dig out my leek seeds and give it a go.  I haven’t collected enough two liter bottles for the green house yet and it’s 41 degrees outside, but I cleaned out a south facing window and went to work.



Leeks are a pretty tasty vegetable.  I’m Scottish by heritage so maybe I’m predisposed to like them, but you can use them in everything.  Click on the picture for a tasty inspiring blog for some ideas.

Allium porrum

Biennial in the onion family. Cultivated and eaten regularly in Roman times.    Used mostly for flavor, but have a slightly higer content of nutrients than onions.  

Can be grown throughout US, but like rich loamy soils.  Must have good drainage.  Can grow two crops a year, one started in flats indoors in the spring and second started in the garden in late spring for a later harvest.  Can be left in garden over winter and harvested as needed if your winters are not too harsh.  Pull and store heeled in in cool cellar where winters are harsh.

When the leeks get to be full height, pull soil up around base to blanch.

Weeks to maturity:  19

Harvest window:  4-8 weeks

Spacing: 6 inches

Getting Started 

Step 1:  Sterilize some soil.

This may sound intimidating, but it’s a lot like watching a pot of water waiting for it to boil.  Tediously boring in other words.  So, last night I set the oven on 190 degrees F and started making supper.  I was making a delicious squash and roasted red pepper soup.  I used chicken stock because that is what I had, added a pinch of red pepper flake, and drained and rinsed black beans after it was pureed.  Very yummy and filling.  Anyway, by the time I had the squash peeled and cubed, the oven was up to temp, so I went out and filled three of my pyrex dishes up with potting soil and covered them with foil.  


Next I put in a meat thermometer so I could make sure I was reaching and maintaining the needed temperature.


I left the soil in the oven until it reached 190 degrees for thirty minutes.  This is not a short process.  I think it took three hours for the soil to reach the right temperature.  Once it was there long enough, I turned the oven off, left everything as it was and went to bed. 

Why do this?  Well, there are tiny little bacteria and bugs and no see ums that can undermine what you are doing.  Don’t have your little sprouts take off and mysteriously die on you.  This is an easy step that can help prevent that and take the guess work out of the process.  Too many times gardening can provide disheartening experiences, why make more for yourself?

Step 2:  Decide how many starts you are going to need.

On my post about my mad gardening plan, you can see that I have outlined what I am putting in the garden this year.  The Spring Side Yard plan shows an area where I am going to plant leeks.  (Oh look at the crooked lines little brother, lol)  Anyway, I know that that bed is approximately 4 x 6 feet.  I also know that leeks should be planted at 6 inches apart.  That puts about four leeks per square foot and I have 24 square feet.  So, multiplying four by twenty four, I get a result of 96.  I need to end up with 96 leeks to transplant.  I’ll plant a few extra just to make sure I end up with enough.

Since I don’t have the greenhouse operating, I need flats that I can have in the house without making a huge mess.  I keep some old plastic flats at my potting station outside and under the porch so I dug one out.  When not in use, I try to keep them out of the sun to lengthen their life span.  These I’ve had about 8 years now.  Each of these flats have 72 places to plant in them.  I will need to plant about a flat and a half. 


Step 3: Plant

I have a wall mounted oven, so I just open the door and put the flat there.  It’s not going to be heavy enough to damage the door and makes for an easy work surface.  I uncover the soil and pack it into the flat.  Drop the flat a few times from a short distance to make sure the soil packs in and isn’t harboring extra air in it. 


I’m trying out some seeds from Global Foods this year, they don’t source local, but I try not to mail order seeds if I can help it (I like to support local business) and I thought I would find a Baker Creek seeds display with leeks in it and did not.  Weirdly, Global Foods has some seeds “for planting” in the spice section by the Mexican isle.  In Missouri, you can use your food stamps to buy garden seeds (which I think is brilliant!) so that also helps us out right now while we are temporarily on food stamps. 

Ok, three seeds per little pot section should do well for you.  Later when they sprout I will pluck out the weak ones and only really grow one per pot.  I love onion sprouts so I will probably use the little ones I pull for a sandwich.

Step 4:  Water and put in the sun.


I”ve gently watered the seeds and put a propigation tent over them.  It’s easy with these Morse-Perry flats because they come with the plastic cover.  They are now in a south facing window in my living room where I won’t forget them.  Hopefully I can get the green house running and move them out soon.

Keep an eye on them and don’t let them dry out.  The delicate seed starts need that constant mosture to grow strong.  Leeks have a short germination time of 14-21 days and do best if kept about 70 degrees F.  They will germinate as low as 40-50 degrees though.

Other thoughts for the week and some shameless adverising:

So I like to support local small businesses and I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  That being said, sometimes you can’t get what you need locally.  I shared a link for Baker Creek seeds and I love them.  They are here in Missouri as well, please if you haven’t bought seeds this year, consider buying them from that company.  In the last two years I have found their displays around town so I can support a business here while also supporting them.  Sappington Market has had them in the past and Maude’s Market has them now.  It’s also time for sign up for Maude’s CSA, she is taking application for the spring CSA now.

It’s a good time to pick up mushroom kits for your kitchen as well.  Oyster mushrooms are a good way to get started growing your own mushrooms, they are really easy to grow.  Generally I order my kits from Fungi Perfecti.  When the kit is spent indoors, you can mix it with a bale of straw in your back yard and get some more flushes out of it.  The most exciting thing I found out this week is that Home Eco has some basic kits in stock at an excellent price.  About $10 cheaper than ordering the kit from Fungi Perfecti.  If you haven’t stopped by Home Eco, please do.  It is a mecca of sustainable living supplies.  I love going in there.  I’ve pretty much been broke since I discovered them last year but they can help you out in living a more sustainable lifestyle.  You can get this stuff online, but you can save shipping and support your local economy by shopping in their store.  You will also get to take advantage of their experience and expertise.