Category Archives: Garden

Potato Bug Prevention the Organic Way

There is nothing more disappointing than doing all the work of planting and tending potatoes for them to be a large healthy meal for the Colorado Potato Beetle rather than you. Before we began gardening organically we fought these hungry pests with a barrage of noxious chemicals. Every old gardener I know told me “Dust those potatoes with Seven.” Well we did…and it didn’t work. This was around the time we were discussing going organic. The more I read about the pesticides and commercial fertilizers we were using the more scary my vegetables seemed. So we just quit using them.

 

I will never forget the last time we used commercial pesticides; it was a desperate attempt to save the potatoes. Those potato beetles ate the Seven dust and my beautiful plants. There were so many of them; we had been over run. The garden seemed a large mess to me when the idea to clean it flashed through my mind. I dug out the shop vac and towed it to the garden. My husband gave me the look he gives when questioning my sanity; but, he said nothing and fetched the extension cord. Within thirty minutes the hungry horde of beetles were snug in the vacuum and we were able to eat potatoes at the end of the season. As much fun as vacuuming your garden can be; there are things that can be done to prevent such excessive methods.

 

Crop Rotation

The Colorado Potato Beetle is a very adaptive insect. Despite Colorado getting all the blame, this insect likely came from Central America and it has been all over North America for a long time. They prefer the warm weather so they go underground for the cold months. In warmer areas they may have as many as 3 breeding cycles. Wherever you plant your potatoes they will show up; however, you can cut down on the infestation by practicing crop rotation. The potato beetle prefer plants of the nightshade family so it is best to rotate your tomatoes and potatoes together if you have limited rotation space. The suggestions on space of rotation vary depending on what you read; .3 miles or .5 kilometers is a safe distance. However if you have more limited space just rotate the best you can. The goal is to hinder these pests because really there is no stopping them completely. The other benefit of crop rotation is that you will be able to keep your soil nutrients more balanced. Each type of plant takes particular nutrients to grow; so if you keep the same type of plant in the same location the ground will get robbed of that nutrient over time.  

Mulching

As with crop rotation, mulching is just good practice. Mulching slows the weeds down and heavy mulching will keep you from having to till the rows. Every time you till the soil, nutrients are lost so less tilling means healthier soil. Mulching also keeps the ground from getting hard and holds moisture. If you are not sold on mulching at this point there is more. Mulching also attracts the insects that eat your plants; it is a natural pesticide. Beneficial bugs like Ladybugs love hay and they also love to eat the Colorado Potato Beetle’s eggs.

Hand Picking

When it comes down to it hand removal of the Colorado Potato Beetle is the best method to protect your plants. The potato beetle is a slow mover so getting a hold of them is not an issue. If you have bug phobia wear gloves. These critters also cannot swim so as you pluck them from your plants put them in a can with an inch or two of water in the bottom. The adult beetles move a little faster than the young ones so you may have to tap the side of the can ever so often until you are finished and can dispose of them. The adult beetles and younger ones are easy to spot because they are bright colors that stand out against the leaves; however, you will have to look under the leaves for the yellow eggs and the newly hatched. The adults are striped and the younger ones are red. Be aware that if you dump the freshly picked beetles anywhere near your garden or your neighbor’s garden they will seek and destroy any potato and tomato plants they can get to. We have chickens. So I usually take the can of beetles far from the garden, in the barn where the chickens are fed and I place it next to their feed for a little extra treat.

Bug Police

Chickens are some of the most neurotic and hungry animals on the planet. Our chickens are true pasture range which means they do not have any fences and have the run of the place. There are issues with free running chickens such as sometimes they dig up your lovely mulch, eat your tomatoes and cucumbers, or follow you all over asking for more food; but, the benefits clearly outweigh all of that. Chickens eat bugs from sunrise to sunset. And while they are eating bugs out of the garden they scratch around and act as miniature rototillers. All that labor and then they pay you in eggs. Eggs from pasture raised chickens are much more nutritious than free range eggs.

BT and Neem Oil

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria that attack the larva of the potato beetle and can be used in the early stages of breeding. And Neem Oil can be used on the adults to prevent their breeding cycle. Be cautious however with the usage of Neem Oil because you can harm pollinators such as bees that are necessary for your plants. The last thing we need is for bees not to reproduce. If you do use Neem Oil choose a time of day when the bees are not around and giving ample time for the oil to dry before they show up.

 

Resources

An excellent article on the entomology of the Colorado Potato Beetle from the University of Florida:

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/potato_beetles.htm

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most versatile plants a garden can have so ensuring a high yield is worth some extra precaution with your planting methods. Setting up tomatoes to be successful initially will result in less work and more fruit as the plant matures.

Starting from Seed

It is important to use seed that has been preserved properly. If seed has been dried with proper methods it will have a natural fungus on it that will aid the plant in being resistant to disease. If you have a natural source for your potting soil it will likely have mycorrhizal fungus in it. Mycorrhizal fungus is a symbiotic organism that assists plants in absorbing nutrients and water. If your tomatoes are lacking in nutrients not only will they not grow properly they can be susceptible to disease. If there is any question about whether your soil contains mycorrhizal fungus you should add the fungus when plant your tomatoes.

From Pot to Garden

It is beneficial to your plants to “harden” them off before setting them into the ground. To do this begin exposing your greenhouse plants to the outside in the warm parts of the day, with each exposure being longer until you are leaving them out at night. Before planting be sure you have the supplies you will need.

  • Hoe and Shovel – Tomatoes need a deep hole with dirt pulled up around them.
  • Dried Egg Shells or Organic Calcium
  • Organic Fish Fertilizer   

The Hole

Setting up your hole is the most important part of planting successful tomatoes. You will want the hole to be roughly two times the height of your tomato. That sounds excessive; but, you will need room for the additives and to sink your plant almost to the top leaves. At the bottom of the hole crush up a small handful of dried egg shells or calcium and drop it in. Then if you are using solid fish fertilizer drop the recommended amount into the hole with the calcium. If you are adding mycorrhizal fungus be sure to put that in as well.  Fill the hold until you can place the tomato into the hole with only the top three branches of the stem being level with the top of your ground.

Placing the Plant

In the pot, tomato plants may look large and fruitful so it can be disappointing if you plant them with proper depth as it will make your lush plants seem very small. Tomatoes will root out along the stem if the stem is underground resulting in a much larger root base for nutrient and water collection. So to give your tomatoes the best start they must be planted as deep as possible. Prune all of the lower stem branches leaving the top three. If you do not prune before setting it can cause rot and disease in your plant. Set the plant in the hole and gently fill in the dirt being sure to crumble any clods and remove any rocks that might cause air pockets or impede root growth. When you get to the top gently hand pat to secure the plant.

Water, Mulch, and String

Depending on the dampness of your soil, and imminent weather, will determine if you water heavily. Tomatoes do not like excessive water; but, they do need some to ease root shock. If you are using liquid fish fertilizer you need to apply that after getting your plants set. As soon as possible you will want to mulch around your tomatoes with straw or hay. Mulching helps retain water,  keeps the dirt from packing, hinders weed growth, and it promotes “good bugs” that will eat the bugs that will eat your tomatoes. There are all sorts of ways to string your tomatoes. I have had almost equal success with cages, stakes and twine, or using fence panels. When considering what to support your plants with take into account the breed of tomato. If your plant will be producing large tomatoes you will need a stronger support system.   

Herb Garden Tips

We built some raised beds out of reclaimed lumber and parts out of an old washing machine. I thought they would be a perfect place for my herb garden. The one hitch was that the chickens were as fond of the beds as I was. I began to look at garden borders and small fences and was disappointed at how expensive they all were. I only needed a temporary diversion for my herbs until they get established. So I pulled from my historical experience and decided to construct a stick fence. We have a large pile of brush for cooking with the grill so I sourced that for my fence. Larger branches were used for the vertical posts and I used smaller branches to weave in and out of the vertical posts. The stick fence worked great. My chickens were extremely confused and moved on to easier pastures. It cost me nothing and  I can efficiently recycle the fence when my plants are big enough to expose to my bug patrol.

How to Plant Onion Sets

Onions are one of the most healthy foods in our human diet; they are an immune system booster. Growing your own onions is simple and they act as a natural pesticide in your garden making for a more successful garden. You can seed onions and allow them to grow into onion sets; but, this takes time. Onion sets should be planted in early Spring, depending on your planting zone, so if you plan on starting from seed you need to take that into account. Onion sets can be purchased just about anywhere that sells seed. I prefer to purchase organic and non GMO onion sets. This year I have started some onion seed in the greenhouse for our Fall garden. We have a long enough warm season in Kentucky to be able to have two cool weather gardens.

Preparing the Soil

Your soil needs to be loose enough to allow your onions to expand in the soil until they get rooted enough to pull the dirt out from around them. We have two large gardens so we plough with the tractor. Your dirt needs to be turned over the first time before the last freeze and again just before you plant. We grow our onions in rows. When making your rows you need to pull the dirt up and create a furrow to set the onions. Growing onions in an onion bed is also a very efficient method as you can keep the soil loose and water more efficiently. You can also grow onions in planters.

Garlic and onions grow good in raised beds. And apparently so do farm dogs named Sunny.

Setting and Covering 

If you are planting for whole onions you will need to space your onions three inches apart; you can space them two inches apart if you want green onions only. Be sure to plant the root side down and set them firmly in the ground. Some people do not cover their onion sets at all; however, I have found that mine don’t stay where I put them unless I cover them some. When you cover the onions just pull up a little dirt leaving the very top of the onion exposed.

Pulling Dirt

When your onions begin to grow green tops and start to show bulb growth you can start to pull some of the dirt away from them so the bulb can grow. Be cautious about pulling too much dirt and disturbing the roots. I use a fork set aside for garden because it is a more precise tool. From this point in the growth process all you can do is wait, weed, and water. I usually put mulch around our onions to keep the soil moist and the weeds down. If your soil gets too hard packed be sure to hand till it or the bulb will not grow.  

Starting Seeds in a Greenhouse for Organic Gardening

Starting your own seeds is a wonderful way to ensure that your plants are grown by the methods you think are best and is also a much more cost effective form of gardening. Plants can be grown in a variety of different places; you do not necessarily need to have a greenhouse. And you also do not need to have expensive greenhouse equipment to grow good food. Your plants will need some extra care with their environment no matter where you choose to keep them. Other than the basics of what a growing plant needs to thrive there are endless possibilities of seed starting methods out there and likely some you will create on your own.
Cost
Cost is always a factor in gardening. If you don’t monitor your expenditures you can find yourself spending more than you would at the Farmer’s Market. Your initial costs will be higher than successive years, because of the set up. When trying new things like different pots or seed be sure to start small in case it does not work out.
Seeds
Saving seed is an easy way to be cost effective; of course the first year you will need to purchase your seed. If you know others who garden they may be willing to share seed with you saving you from buying so much seed. People who save seed usually have more than they can plant. There are also seed companies that do seed exchanges and offer free seed like Seed Savers Exchange, many local libraries, extension offices, and community centers. There are numerous community resources if you know where to look. If you plan on saving seeds you will want to purchase seed that is organic and heirloom for the most successful plants. Some seed from hybrid plants will sometimes not germinate; and the ones that do will not be the same as the parent plant causing unpredictability in your harvest. I usually purchase non genetically modified seeds just for the fact that I know what they are and how they will affect our bodies. In my opinion there has not been enough research done on GMO’s to know the long term effects. It is also a good idea to seek out seed that is open pollinated.
Temperature
Temperatures for the plants must stay above freezing and below 80 degrees and they will need some air to prevent mold. If you start your plants later you may want to provide them with additional heat. We do not use additional heat unless there is going to be freezing temperatures. In the instance of a freeze we heat the greenhouse with a small, low heat, propane burner. Some people use passive solar heat by placing buckets of water in the greenhouse to heat during the sunlit hours; however, I found that open water in my greenhouse resulted in an early mosquito infestation. You can use heating pads under your plants to promote early sprouting; but, you have to be cautious about heating them too much and drying them out. I love to work in the greenhouse so my seeds get started fairly early.

Containers
When we first started growing plants I used whatever containers I had to start my seeds in. Every yogurt cup, plastic container, or pop bottle bottoms at the house or other people’s house I could scrounge was filled with dirt and seeds. While on this glamorous garbage crusade, I gained a sense of what was going to work and what was not. Most plants do not need very much space to start; with the exception of tomatoes. Tomatoes need to stay indoors for longer than other plants so they need more root room. Containers that are more than two inches all the way around are going to be adequate for most plants and three inches for tomatoes. Be sure your containers have holes in the bottom for water to drain through.
As I started to plant more, having better pots seemed to be a logical next step. I experimented with peat pots some because they seemed to be a good natural option. They were a disaster. My plants did not thrive in the peat pots because they do not hold water very well allowing the plants to dry out more quickly and the pots are not very stable if you need to move them. Peat pots do not dissolve well in compost so their disposal is also an issue. We try not to purchase plastic if at all possible; however, this year I made an exception for good plant pots. I shopped around and found a company in the United States that makes pots out of recycled material. The pots are durable enough to last many seasons lessening the impact on our environment. And the pots were not very expensive.
I use masking tape and permanent markers to label each plant. While this seems like a time waster, I have found it to be effective in monitoring my plants. Sometimes you will need to move plants around. When I have seeds that do not sprout I empty the pots so I am not wasting fertilizer on empty dirt. Having each pot labeled is very useful in relocation or if you have too many plants and want to share them with friends.


Soil
Most people who grow their own plants use sterilized potting soil. Like everything else in my life I feel the need to fight the tide of normalcy. We use organic material and peat from our woods to seed our plants in. I have several spots on the farm where an old tree has fallen years before my time and I will dig out under the tree scooping up all of the rich dirt and rotten tree bits.
The disadvantages of digging out your own soil are only two things by my thinking. The living dirt will have weeds in it. I don’t mind the trade off; I just have gotten good at recognizing what our weed seedlings look like and am religious about putting my chosen seeds in the center of the pots. Another disadvantage is a small amount of extra work digging. I have come to think of the digging in the same way that I think about all of our farm work…it saves me money in gym membership. We try to be smart about doing manual labor by using the right tools and not overdoing it; the work will always be there tomorrow and it will never really be finished. You have to come to peace with that or go crazy.
The advantages of digging out your own soil are overwhelming. The cost of seeding several plants can rack up quickly. Dirt you get from your own place is free. The satisfaction of knowing what is in your dirt can only happen when you know for sure where it came from and what has been put on it. Purchased potting soil can have all kinds of additives and it is packaged in plastic; and we all know plastic is not environmentally friendly.
Another enormous advantage is that my soil comes with mycorrhizal fungi already in it. Mycorrhizal fungi is a symbiotic fungus that protects plants from disease and gives them the ability to better absorb nutrients from the soil. You can purchase this fungus to put in with your soil; but, why when it already exists naturally. Using dirt for seedlings from the same area that they will be transplanted to creates less issues with root shock. To make the collection of my soil a little more muscle friendly we purchased a garden trailer for the 4 wheeler. That trailer has been one of my most effective farm purchases. I use it for so many things and it is a fun mode of transportation.

Fertalizer
Fertilizer is something I do purchase for my seedling; although, there are other options such as making your own fertilizer. We do use our own compost and animal dung for fertilizing outside. I have found liquid fish fertilizer to be the most effective for young plants. It smells incredibly bad so usually I do all of my other work in the greenhouse and then I fertilize and run out of the greenhouse. The smell mostly subsides after a few hours. After sprouting I typically fertilize once a week.
Hardening
If you have a very enclosed and warm place that you keep your plants you will need to get them used to the outdoors. This is called hardening the plants. Basically you expose the plants to the outdoors in larger increments of time over the period of a week and you start to water them less to simulate their outside conditions. Start the first day with a partially sunny location for a few hours and increase until you are leaving them out at night as well. When the week of hardening is up your baby plants are ready to be on their own.
Helpful Websites
http://www.seedsavers.org/csrp – Seed Savers Exchange is a non profit seed library

Building a Small Greenhouse from Reclaimed Materials

If you live in an area that has a limited growing season and you want to grow your own food; putting plants in the ground rather than all seed will be your means to a good harvest. If you are like us, and not independently wealthy, you may not be able to afford to purchase plants in the quantity or type that you want. When we first started to seriously garden, our tomatoes and peppers were purchased in convenient locations like Walmart and Lowes. As we began to educate ourselves about food, and the effects of pesticides and genetically modified foods on human health, we started to look for healthier options. We started to purchase our plants from a local nursery that is organic. I felt very good about this until I realized how much it was going to cost us each year. The cost of plants was a huge factor in how large our garden was. We were willing to put in the labor; but, were having difficulty justifying the cost. At this point we started to make plans to build a greenhouse. However, it was not until disaster struck our farm in the way of a tornado that we actually set to building. The tornado did not hit the house, thankfully. It did a fair amount of damage to our trees and it moved the kid’s trampoline, from the yard to the other side of the hay field, completely destroying it. The broken trampoline became an opportunity. It became the roof of the greenhouse.

Poles were cut, holes were dug, poles were set, and slowly the greenhouse began to come together. James pieced the trampoline frame together to fit the span of the poles cut from our woods and secured the frame to the poles. The shelves inside of the greenhouse were built out of reclaimed lumber from the old part house that was torn down when we were building on to the house. In its current state the only materials that were purchased new for this project was the plastic. Modifications are continuing to be made as we learn better what will work and what will not. With any type of farming, especially sustainable farming, no project is ever totally complete. There are always ways to improve and new techniques to learn; that is part of the adventure.  

Outside the greenhouse we have been constructing raised beds for herbs out of reclaimed lumber and the inner parts of an old washing machine.  The soil under these beds is very rocky and poor so covering them with raised beds is a functional use of the land and clearly more beneficial than mowing and weed eating that space. 

What ever path is most practical for you to grow your own food is the correct path for you. Don’t be afraid to get creative in growing your own food. I have seen fellow farmers grow seedlings in everything from upcycled food containers to egg shells to ice cream cones. The process of learning how to best to accomplish food production is part of the experience.