Monday, April 29, 2013

Garden Days - starting to grow

Here is the “salad” bed. Cucumbers are at the back so they can run up the trellis, carrots in the middle and 4 types of lettuce in the front.

This bed has golden bantam corn in the back, two bhut jolkia (ghost) peppers and a bell pepper. The peppers will get a cage once they get bigger.
This bed is very similar with chubby checker corn, two chocolate habaneros and a bell pepper. Corn is something new in my garden, but I thought it would be worth a shot to try. If I only get one ear of corn I’ll be happy.

Here we have a 4th of July tomato with Eureka beans in the front. The tomato is a new hybrid from Burpee so we’ll see how it does.

Again, this bed is very similar with an old faithful Husky cherry tomato and more Eureka beans. The tomatoes got new cages this year. They usually get so big, the cages needed to be bigger to support them.

Here is the last bed which has Sugar Snap peas in the back will a small trellis to support them, Yukon Gold potatoes in the middle and two bell peppers in the front.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Garden days – getting started

The cold weather is behind us and that means one thing… time to start the garden. With raised beds, I have a little routine that I’ve developed over the years and it seems to work pretty well. My beds were made with 2x10’s and originally filled with a 50/50 mixture of compost and topsoil. Every year I add more compost as well as leaves in the fall. This adds more organic matter and nutrients, free of charge.

In late Feb or early March I take the shovel and turn all the soil in the beds. I usually throw in a handful of my homemade fertilizer mixture at the same time so that the soil can wake up and get a jump start. By doing this, the beds are ready to go when it’s time to plant.

Safe planting date for this area is usually Apr 15th and I try to push it earlier by a week or so every year. Some years I have to contend with frost and some I don’t, it’s a gamble but spring fever gets the better of me. This year I had to add an extra bed since I wanted to try a few more things. As usual, peppers and tomatoes were started from transplants, everything else was seed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Water wise

With spring fast approaching, it’s never too early to begin planning for those times when Mother Nature doesn’t provide enough water to fill your requirements. Water is probably the most precious resource there is and all too many times we waste it without even thinking about it. How many times have you driven by a house or business to see a sprinkler system blasting away while its pouring rain? Along with smart usage, runoff control is also important to help reduce pollution and sediment carry. 

Mulching is a great method of conserving water. Proper mulching reduces evaporation and maintains good soil moisture retention. An added benefit is that it also helps reduce weeds.  Mulch can really be anything from grass clippings to barks to pine straw or simply compost. Two to three inches of mulch will make a world of difference.

Rain barrels are another very simple method. They help conserve water and reduce runoff by capturing rain water that can be used later. Rain barrels can be elaborate and expensive or simple and cheap, it’s really up to you.  My first rain barrel was nothing more than a large trash can under the eve of a building. Then I added a gutter and downspout to collect more. As a result of capturing more water, I upgraded to a couple of 30 gallon barrels with faucets and overflow pipes that I installed. During one really dry summer, I decided I needed even more storage so I replaced the barrels with industrial storage tanks. In a few years I’ve gone from 32 gallon capacity to 425 gallons. I can now water everything in my yard all summer long and never use a drop of water from my faucet.

Simple steps can make a big impact on the environment.

 175 gallon main tank with 55 gallon over flow

Upgrade to a 250 gallon overflow for a total of 425 gallons

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chemical use - pesticides

Believe it or not, pesticides are usually unnecessary in your landscape. Nature has a way of correcting itself and balancing things out. Not all bugs are bad or cause damage; some “good” bugs actually help your landscape and protect it from other “bad” bugs. Pesticides are usually indiscriminate and kill both good and bad insects. By encouraging beneficial insects, you can actually help control the pests without any chemical intervention and let Mother Nature work things out.

Beneficial insects provide a service to your landscape by going after the real pests.

  • Ladybugs do an incredible job of keeping aphids in check
  • Praying mantis help control beetles, caterpillars and moths although they will eat just about anything they can catch
  • Parasitic wasps can help control horn worms keeping your tomatoes safe
  • Hand picking is another tried and true method of insect removal
  • A hard blast from the water hose or a spritz of soapy water can take care of just about any other pest problem that might show up.

If you haven’t noticed a pattern here, there is a natural method alternative for every chemical control. Having a yard full of bugs can actually be a good thing.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Chemical use - herbicides

Herbicides are another one of those chemicals that everyone believes they have to use.  What on earth did people do before there was a magic weed killing spray? What is a weed anyway? A weed is simply a plant growing in an undesired location. Most people think of dandelions in a lawn, but your beautiful lawn grass in a flower bed is also considered a weed. All weeds aren’t bad and a little acceptance can go a long way in saving you time, money and aggravation.  It’s OK to have a few dandelions or clover in your lawn. They add diversity and attract pollinators that benefit all the plants in your landscape.

Before you spray something on a plant to remove it, ask yourself why you want it removed and if there is another way to do it. If you do need to put out a chemical control, don’t broadcast treat, spot treat. There is no reason to spray an entire yard to remove a handful of undesired plants. Something like poison ivy may need to be sprayed for health or safety reasons if you are allergic, while dandelions can be pulled by hand.

There are several natural alternatives to the nasty chemicals that work just as well.

  • Boiling water - This will kill a weed in minutes and is an effective method for just a few weeds in a driveway or in tight spaces. 
  • White vinegar – Regular old white vinegar works as a non-selective herbicide meaning it will kill anything you spray it on. It works just as well as the big named brand sprays and you don’t have to wear gloves to use it. 
  • Hand pulling – Good old manual labor works surprisingly well for both the weeds and your health. They are actually weed popper tools that makes removing weeds fun. Even without a special tool, there is something satisfying about getting your hands dirty and showing those weeds who’s boss.

All of these methods are effective and target the weed only and that is key.  Be selective about what you choose to remove and how you remove it. Not all weeds are bad and they may add a little interest to your landscape.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Chemical use - fertilizers

To address the issues of fertilizers, first we must understand the relationship between soil and plants. There are thousands of microscopic organisms in the soil that break down and convert minerals and nutrients into a form that plants can absorb. Plants can only absorb so much of these nutrients and they can do it only so fast. By feeding the soil, the microorganisms get happy and multiply making your soils better. This makes your plants better. Think of it like digestion, you eat, you digest and you grow. The same thing applies with plants.

Fertilizers, in their most basic form, are designed to make plants grow.  Great idea, right? Sprinkle some magic powder and the next day you have a full grown plant. The problem is that most synthetic fertilizers supply a dosage of nutrients higher than what plants can actually absorb. The excess often leaches into the ground water or runs off into streams. Another byproduct of a lot of these fertilizers is salt, which can have a negative effect on other nutrients and organisms in the soil actually making the plants dependent on the fertilizers. The synthetics are like steroids for plants. They are high dose with quick results and bad long term effects. I argue the actual need for fertilizers. Think of all the forests, meadows and prairies that are full of plants and none of these places have ever seen a single spec of artificial fertilizer.

If you want to eliminate synthetic fertilizers in your landscape, make a few changes to replace them with natural alternatives.

  • Stop bagging your grass clippings. This is a great source of nitrogen and organic matter and it’s completely free. Use a mulching blade to chop the pieces smaller and leave them on your lawn. If you cut your grass at the appropriate height, the clippings will decay quickly. 
  • Mulch your fallen leaves. Why spend the time raking and bagging them, simply chop them up with the lawn mower or string trimmer and let them decompose. This is another way to add nutrients and organic matter to your soil.
  • Add compost.  Compost is incredibly beneficial, adds organic matter back to the soil and you can make it yourself... for free!   
  •  Alfalfa pellets. This is commonly sold as horse feed; it’s very cheap and provides a balanced dose of nutrients that breakdown slowly. 
  •  Fish emulsion. My personal favorite! If you can get past the smell, it is like a magic elixir for anything you put it on. 
  •  Compost/Alfalfa Tea. This is another little homemade gem that is really great for a low dose of nutrients and microorganisms. Add a little compost or alfalfa to some water, throw in a little molasses, keep it stirred and in a couple of days you have all the benefits and goodness of the compost or alfalfa in a liquid form.
These are just a few alternatives to expensive, unhealthy synthetics fertilizers. There are many, many more so there really is no good reason not to try something different. The results are amazing!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thinking about chemical use

Properly managing chemicals in your landscape is extremely important. Making a change here is the biggest single thing you can do to make your landscape a better place. Trying to maintain a golf course lawn is an effort in futility. First, it isn’t a naturally occurring thing which means you will waste lots of time and money and use lots of chemicals trying to maintain it. Sure it’s pretty, but is it a healthy landscape? There is no plant diversity; the chemical usage eliminates most of the insect diversity which in turn eliminates wildlife diversity. 

Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are horribly misused in most landscapes. Farmers use them and are required to take safety courses and get certified to use them. Home owners however can walk into just about any big box store and buy the same chemicals like it was toilet paper. Think about it this way, none of these chemicals are used in any forest on the planet, yet the forestes somehow manage to grow and flourish. It’s unfortunate that TV commercials make most people believe that in order for anything to grow in their yard, they must dump pounds of chemicals... and that all insects are bad and need to eradicate... and that every weed has to go. Ignorance is bliss. 

I can honestly say that I started out the same way. I believed what I was seeing on the commercials and I bought every chemical available and loaded my yard down. I soon realized that my yard was becoming dependent on these chemicals and none of them were healthy for me. Have you read the warning labels on this stuff?  As I educated myself, I quickly learned that most of this stuff isn’t needed and there is always a natural alternative.