Tag Archives: winter 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)

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.


Sustainable Seedling Flats

Another week and it’s time to start some seedlings assuming I can find enough plastic bottles for my greenhouse.  I may have to skin it in sheet plastic for this season.

So, last weekend I went home to my family farm and worked on seedling flats with my brother.   I was thinking we could rip up some pallets and decide the sizes from the wood we had available.  My brother, in his overachieving way had other ideas.  He had some pine he had just made into boards on his saw mill stored away in the old hog house.  They were out there drying out so we grabbed four of them, threw them on the wagon and went back to the main house where his workshop is.

He asked me what sizes they should be.  That’s a fairly good question.  I somehow feel the need to just make wood into things and not worry about measurements so much.  I thought well about the size I want to carry I guess.  I looked it up in Rodale to see if there was a recommended size, but all I could find were scribble notes my three year old apparently needed to put in there.  The one thing I do know is you need to leave cracks in the bottom for water to get out.  Stuff the cracks with something permeable like sphagnum moss or coffee filters before you put dirt in.

OK, so we decided on a size and set to work.  We decided to make them twice as long as they are wide.  We cut a bunch of long boards and short boards.  We had planned to make a ton more than we ended up making, but there are things to do an distractions to be had.  One major problem was a grain wagon that had a stuck axle.  So my husband and my dad worked on the axle and my brother and I started in on the boxes.

We made the frame by nailing the long pieces on the outside of the short pieces.  Next, we took a few long pieces and cut them down the center and nailed them to the bottom leaving 1/8 to 1/4 inch gap between each piece.  Then we took one of the long newly narrow pieces and cut it in half and nailed it to the ends for handles.  We discussed routing in dents for grips, but we decided not to get any more tools out.  I think that would be a good choice if you want to take the time to make nice boxes.  The cut pieces work pretty great too.

Here is one without handles on it:

From the back, and the completed pile!

Now, we stopped here.  The wood was just too green yet.  I don’t know how long they will last, but considering the wood was harvested and milled without transport I’m pretty happy with them.  I don’t have to carry them very far either.  Hopefully I can keep them in working condition for a few years.  It’s also nice to have trees from home.  They are pretty rustic, but I’m very happy with them.    I think my brother is going to use some pallets he has laying around to make his.  Hopefully, I can get up there to help him with them.  He ended up not keeping any out of the day.

If you would like something a little more concrete measurement wise, I put this together:

So good luck on getting together your flats.  Plastic flats tear easily and don’t break down, please consider using something a little easier on the environment.  There are plenty of sources of scrap lumber out there.   Avoid plywood and particleboard though.


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.

The Garden Plan

Insert ominous music here….

So, last year I ran out of things to do outside in my yard.  Very depressing.  Of course that means this year I must have grand plans that may not be attainable.  The lot across the street is one that will test my resolve.  If I can do the 16 beds, I should be able to grow a complete potato heavy diet for four.  I also need to dig a bed or two for my nice neighbors to garden in as well.  They have no sun thanks to a gorgeous linden tree that occupies the whole of their tiny back yard and a strange deck built by an obnoxious bohunk previous owner that overlooks my six foot privacy fence.  Fortunately since the bohunk abandoned the city for renecky parts unknown I have had awesome neighbors in that house and don’t mind the deck anymore.

the lot from the south

Anyway a refresher on the lot (from another angle because I know you can’t remember from my blog entry I made an hour ago, lol).  So, I have some reservations about working over here.  As I said before, there used to be multifamily structures over here.  Those structures almost certainly had basements.  All the houses in my neighborhood have basements.  There are two holes about where I am standing to take this picture that the neighbor has been throwing sod into.  I will continue to throw sod.  What concerns me more is the sunken area at

the sunken spot

the back.  Fortunately I have no intention of building anything and I don’t think I will fall into the ground, but the difference in rain runoff and weight might affect the lay of the land and cause me some problems.  Right now the sunken area is limited to a spot in the back which is easy enough to deal with.  I need a good rainstorm though to see how the water in this area works.

My Mad Plan

So I have mad cad skills and decided one night to work out the garden plan in cad.  Pretty easy to do actually. They lack a polished look and have spelling errors I have to admit.  Across the street is heavily based on the four family garden from How to Grow More Vegetables buy it, it’s awesome.  I think there is a new version than the one on that link however.  Go visit the Ecology Action people they are the same folks and have years of experience with biointensive gardening.

Spring/Summer Side Yard

Summer/Fall Side Yard

So the mad plan is based on my wish list worked into 4 x 20 foot beds.  After laying things out across the street, I have found that up to four more can be put in.  I left one for the neighbors but really they could have up to five.  Two I would be hesitant to put in until we understand the underground nutso stuff going on over there.  I have to guess that the sinkhole is part of a basement that wasn’t bulldozed full.  The rest of the basements should still be under there.  I may check city hall for old building specs for that site.    Theoretically this will also impact drainage on the site, should be a fun year.  Until recently my side yard leaked oddly into my basement, but I think whatever the passageway was has filled in with sediment at this point.  That garden is also on an old building site.

Another note should be that I plan to freeze, can, and root cellar much of the harvest.  There are ways to plant to extend harvesting and some of that will happen, but mainly it works better for my brain to have things ripen at the same time.  I’m not market gardening which also impacts how to plan.

This does not negate my need to use other sites for gardening.  Winter Squash, Summer Squash, Cucumbers, and Gourds cannot be grown in more than one variety within half a mile of each other or they will cross pollinate.  I have three other yards I will be placing varieties of those in this summer as well. (Also, after the Thai Bottle Gourd fiasco, I’m not really allowed to have gourds in the side yard again, lol.  I don’t recommend Thai Bottle Gourds for urban gardening.)  Probably also grow some other herbs and peppers there as well.  I think peppers just need 10 feet, but the ant population on my lot make peppers difficult to grow.  I had much better luck last year.  Previous years have had too much insect damage.

Our interpretation of a plastic bottle greenhouse

With this most recent layoff, my dear husband has been getting the plastic bottle greenhouse underway.  I’d like to have it done by mid-March in time to start my seeds for spring in flats outside.

current sad state of seed starting

As you can see in my dreary, wet, and scary basement I have a grow light that can’t really provide enough light for very many flats.  I do have artichoke and rhubarb on an experimental run down there.  Hopefully, I can get them going and out to the greenhouse and have some chance of getting artichokes in this climate, we will see.Back to the greenhouse, however.  The last year has had a surge in directions for building one of these online.    Since we are trying to entirely upcycle, we got the jist of it and plowed ahead.  We have much of the lumber from the old deck in the bird cage from the St. Louis Zoo.  We retrieved it as it was being disposed of.  It’s cedar so it should work.  Some of it was used for raised beds for a couple of years so it has seen better days.

Last fall he harvested a bunch of bamboo from one of his coworkers yards.  It won’t be enough, but it was a start and there was terrible poison ivy in the bamboo thicket.  I thought there would be room to get to the old compost bins back behind the greenhouse, but I think we will move them to the opposite end and use the rest of the parking pad for lumber storage.  I have a stray cat that lives back there and I’m a little worried about how all this change has impacted his psyche, but he’s been sleeping underground in the sewer anyway while it has been cold, Hopefully, we can rearrange the wood in such a way that he will find a comfortable niche.  Any help I can get with mice here is much appreciated.  I love the dumpster that lives behind my house and not having a trash day, but that combined with derelict buildings does not do well for controlling the rodent populations in the city.

So, now onto collecting the two liters (non coca-cola company because of the shape) and putting them on the building.  We did have to break down and buy some screws to finish the building framing.  We used old nails we scavenged from our house and some old projects, but ran out. AND the first picture just will not post the right way up, when you see this it may or may not be correct, but wordpress isn’t cooperating with me.

Update:  Adventures in the Plastic Bottle Greenhouse