Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Organic Gardening For Beginners

   Since their inception, there has been controversy surrounding GMO’s and the unnatural enhancement of the natural world, and rightfully so. My intent here is not to bash modern commercial agriculture, or the ways in which they utilize advances in science to better meet the nutritional needs of an ever growing and hungry world, or modern chemical gardeners for that matter. To me it’s about choice. These things used to be solely for commercial use, but over the years they have become more prevalent in backyard gardening.

   Chemical additives have become such a part of our lives that I’m sure there are people out there, possibly reading this right now, who consider organic gardening to be archaic, costly, and perhaps even dangerous when it comes to food safety -none of which are true.

   Growing foods organically on a commercial scale is not very competitive, which is why there are fewer organic commercial farms than non-organic farms in the world and their products are so expensive. When it comes to a personal garden though, it’s actually cheaper to garden organically than it is to use chemical insect repellants, commercial soil additives and “super” plant fertilizers, and I believe it to be considerably safer and healthier as well.

   Another misconception about organic gardening is that without all the chemicals your garden yield will be less than ideal and infected with everything under the sun -if the insects and critters leave you anything at all. Granted this is a risk, but not as much of one as you might think. Gardening is risky business under any circumstances -nature tends to happen sometimes regardless of our efforts to control it. Organic gardening simply has more practical risks and tradeoffs. For instance, when you take natural steps to prevent critters and insects you won’t always be successful, but you won’t be blindly killing everything either, and treating plant diseases organically may not always be the cure, but you’ll never be at risk of contracting diseases yourself from chemical cures. Organic foods will only feed your plants a healthy diet so they can flower and fruit as optimal as they naturally can.
   If you’re looking for absolutes, guarantees and fast and convenient perfection, organic gardening may not be for you, but if want to learn how to work with nature, utilizing natural intervention and encouragement -you’re on the right path.
   If you don’t naturally have green thumbs you might believe that gardening in general is not for you, especially if you’ve given it a try before and your efforts withered and died. What you might not realize is that even under the loving care of the most green-hearted gardener, a plant can still get sick or infected and prematurely die -nature happens. As in all that you do, just because your project failed, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks, take note and move on -learn and grow with your garden. A good gardener is patient, understanding and determined, at least with plants. If these qualities are not how you would describe yourself, I encourage you even more to give organic gardening a try as there is no better environment in which to develop such things, and fewer rewards are greater than those reaped from a well-tended garden.
   I have no intention of just providing a generalized garden recipe and leaving the reader to muddle through all the possible pitfalls on their own, especially for new gardeners. I would rather outline the entire process from planning to harvest and truly empower the beginner to become a successful gardener. If you’re looking to transition your gardening from traditional chemical to organic, then there’s plenty here for you as well.
Let’s get to work!

Making a Plan-
   Think small and easily manageable, you can always upgrade next season. A small rectangular garden with a center path and a couple 10’ rows to either side is a great design. Raised beds are another great way to make a garden easier to manage. We’ll discuss raised beds in more detail later.
   If you’re growing outdoors in beds or the ground, research what types of fruits and vegetables are best grown in your region. If you grow in a greenhouse you can drastically extend your regional growing season. Once you have a list of your options, note the time it takes for plants to mature and bear fruit -this will allow you to properly plan your growing season and harvesting time.
   You can space out your harvest by planting the same crops in two or three week intervals to spread out your harvest. Or, you may want to harvest all at once and have a “Canning week” -it’s entirely up to your preference.
   Some plants continue to produce fruit all season while you pick away, like tomatoes, while other plants bear fruit once and they’re done, like onions and carrots.
   Some plants naturally attract garden friends and repel some of the unwanted ones. Consider adding these to your garden.

Attract friendly insects with-
  • Cucumbers
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
Deter the unfriendly critters with-
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Sage
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

   The herbs will naturally repel many of the unwanted pests that will inevitable find your little haven, so even if you have no interest in harvesting these herbs, they’re still beneficial to add here and there to improve your garden’s over-all environment.
   Some plants benefit greatly from growing next to certain other plants, just as some species don’t grow well next to others. This is called “Companion Planting”. Onions for instance, repel carrot flies and aphids making them great companions to plant next to carrots and tomatoes. Peas however do not like onions growing next to them, but a simple row of carrots between the two will solve the dispute. This is a whole other school of knowledge, but here’s a limited list to help get you started.

BASIL- Most friendly with tomato, pepper and oregano. Keep away from sage.
BEANS- Most friendly with carrot, celery, corn, eggplant, peas, potato and cucumber. Keep away from tomato, pepper and onion.
BROCCOLI- Most friendly with basil, beans, celery, cucumber, dill, garlic, lettuce, mint, onion, rosemary, sage and thyme. Keep away from tomato and pepper.
CABBAGE- Most friendly with celery, dill, onion and potato. Keep away from tomato, pepper, eggplant, lettuce and beans.
CARROTS- Most friendly with lettuce, onion and tomato. Keep away from dill.
CELERY- Most friendly with beans, cabbage, onion, spinach and tomato. Keep away from corn and potato.
CORN- Most friendly with beans, cucumber, melons, peas, potato, pumpkin and sunflower. Keep far away from celery and tomato, at least 20 feet.
CUCUMBERS- Most friendly with corn, beans, dill, peas and carrots. Keep away from sage and tomato.
DILL- Most friendly with corn, lettuce, cabbage, onion and cucumber. Keep away from carrots and tomato.
EGGPLANT- Most friendly with beans, peas, thyme, peppers and tomato.
GARLIC- Most friendly with cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, tomato, pepper, broccoli, lettuce and celery. Keep away from beans and peas.
LETTUCE- Most friendly with dill, broccoli, beans, carrot, cucumber and onion. Keep away from celery and cabbage.
MELONS- Most friendly with corn, beans, pumpkin and oregano.
MINT- Most friendly with broccoli and cabbage.
ONIONS- Most friendly with carrot, dill, lettuce, tomatoes broccoli and cabbage. Keep away from peas.
OREGANO- Most friendly with cabbage, broccoli, tomato, pepper and cucumber.
PEAS- Most friendly with corn, beans, carrots, celery, cucumber and eggplant. Keep away from onions and tomato.
PEPPERS- Most friendly with tomato, cucumber, eggplant, basil, oregano and rosemary.  Keep away from beans, broccoli and cabbage.
POTATO- Most friendly with beans, cabbage, carrot, celery, corn and onion. Keep away from tomato, cucumber, pumpkin and sunflower.
PUMPKINS- Most friendly with corn, melons, beans and dill.
ROSEMARY- Most friendly with cabbage, beans, carrot and sage. Keep away from basil.
SAGE- Most friendly with broccoli, rosemary, cabbage, beans and carrots. Keep away from cucumbers and onions.
SPINACH- Most friendly with peas, beans, cabbage, celery, eggplant and onion.
SUNFLOWERS- Most friendly with corn and tomato.
THYME- Most friendly with cabbage and broccoli.
TOMATOES- Most friendly with pepper, onion, carrot, celery, cucumber, garlic, lettuce, basil and oregano. Keep away from corn, potato, cabbage, peas, dill and rosemary.

   A perfect example of the symbiotic relation between plant species is the “Three Sisters” -a companion planting technique used by Native Americans for centuries. In the center of a small mound, corn is planted, surrounded by a small ring of bean and squash seeds.  The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles and stabilizing them both. The beans provide extra nitrogen to the soil that the other plants utilize, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight and acting as a living mulch -and the prickly hairs of squash vines also deters pests. Corn lacks certain amino acids the human body needs to make proteins and niacin, but beans contain both. With corn providing grain and carbohydrate, beans for protein, and squash for vitamin A, the Three Sisters provide a balanced diet in a single mound.
   Following the rules of companion planting will greatly enhance your garden’s ability to naturally ward off certain insects and diseases and improve the over-all health and wellbeing of all your plants.

Designing Your Garden-
   Once you have your garden occupant list figured out, layout their new home. Draw your garden on paper, noting the recommended spacing of each plant on your list, but don’t be afraid to crowd them a couple inches here and there. Experiment on paper until you’re happy with the vision of your new garden.
   Consider incorporating a small water hole in your garden, perhaps at the end of the center path, or in between raised beds. This can easily be done by digging a shallow pool and lining it with clear plastic sheeting (Black sheeting will absorb too much heat for a small pool), or embedding a shallow tub of some sort. Don’t worry about your garden pool becoming a breeding ground for insects because in the midst of a garden it will invite frogs and toads, which will become blessed allies. Put a layer of gravel in the bottom of it and a larger rock or two, something for the pool friendlies to have a place to hide when you come around -they don’t know you’re friends. Don’t be surprised when your little water garden becomes the occasional bird bath (you can even use the top of a large bird bath for a small garden pool). The only drawback to having birds rooting around your garden for tasty, leaf-eating insects is they will often scratch around in the process, which isn’t good for seedlings, but there are ways to deter birds until your plants grow up a little, which we’ll discuss later.
   Critters like rabbits and squirrels will often take chomps out of your fruits to quench their thirst. Having a watering hole around will give them a more accessible option.
   Once you have a design you’re happy with, now you need a place to put it. Survey your property and choose a spot with a good amount of sunlight consistent with your plant’s needs. Plot out your new garden site with some sticks and string.

Raised Garden Beds-
   A surefire way to make a garden easier to manage is growing in raised beds. This is a great way to get around having poor soil conditions. Raised beds get you off the ground a little, which makes tending physically easier on the body. Watering in a raised bed directs the moisture to plant roots more efficiently and consistently than in open ground. The soil of a raised bed never gets compacted, which can reduce crop yields up to 50 percent -water, air and roots all have difficulty moving through soil compressed by tractors, tillers or human feet. Rather you have ideal earth in which to plant a standard garden or not, raised beds are something you might want to consider.
   A good sized raised bed to start with is 4’x4’, which is a nice little garden that still allows you to easily reach all your plants. Space individual beds 3’apart if you want to use more than one. Grid layouts like this allow you to consolidate plant species for individual care -a tomato/pepper bed, a green leafy bed, an herb bed, and so on. You should reconstitute the soil and rotate crops every season if you do this to prevent the buildup of certain minerals. A 4’x4’ garden may not sound or look like much, but they’re easy to manage and you can always add more beds next year, and you’ll surely be surprised by how many vegetables can come out of successful 4’x4’ garden.
   Use 2”x8” non-treated lumber, they come in 8’ boards and the lumberyard can even cut them in half for you. Lay them up on their sides in a square formation and tack a nail into each corner to hold them in place. Square them up by measuring from one corner diagonally across to the opposite corner, note the measurement. Then measure again the same way between the other diagonal corners. Bump the corner in or out to adjust. When the two measurements of this “X” are the same your box will be square. Unless the boards are exactly the same length and you measured in precisely the same places on each corner, it won’t be perfectly square, but it really doesn’t need to be. Use deck screws to fasten them securely together, 3-4 screws in each corner.
   If you have burrowing pests around, you can attach chicken wire or the like to the bottom of your boxes.
   Chop up the soil under your boxes as best you can, uproot and turn the grass so it will become food for your garden. Fill your bed with garden soil as outlined below.

Garden Soil-
   Ideal garden soil is rich in organic matter, drains well and yet retains moisture.  A day after watering, a squeezed handful of good garden soil should hold together but easily crumble apart.
   As many gardeners as there are in the world, there are as many recipes for making garden soil -and you too will someday have your own preferred recipe I’m sure. A common ratio is ⅓ top soil, ⅓ compost, and ⅓ peat moss, with a little coarse sand, perlite or other such agent to add in drainage and aeration. You can purchase organic potting soil to start with if you like, there’s no shame in it, but make sure it contains no chemical fertilizers. If you can also get ahold of some organic compost to fortify your top soil or potting soil with that’s great, but I’ll teach you how to fortify organically yourself and how to set up a compost pile for next year.
   If your soil is dry and rocky and even grass has a hard time growing, you’ll probably need to at least bring in some good top soil to work with and you can enrich that.
   If your land is at least grass-friendly then you can most likely turn it into good garden soil yourself with a little work.

From Yard to Garden-
Assess your soil’s drainage properties by digging a hole 6 inches wide and deep and filling it with water. It should drain between 5 and 15 minutes.
   If your soil doesn’t drain well consider adding some coarse sand or creek pebbles to your list of things to eventually till in.
   Consider these organic additives for added drainage, aeration and moisture retention-
·         Mulched leaves and grass clippings (no roots or seeds)
·         Wood chips (No treated lumber)
·         Tree bark
·         Peat moss

   The primary nutritional factors plants need are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Plants need all three to thrive, but at different stages in their development and at different ratios for different species. If you can start with a good balance of these three you won’t need to feed your plants throughout the season.
Nitrogen (N) -Green leafy growth
Phosphorus (P) -Roots and flowers
Potassium (K) -Overall health and blooming
   Young plants will utilize all three to get off to a good start. You need to know the differences if you plant specifics, or in separate family beds. Leafy vegetables, like lettuce will thrive with a higher nitrogen ratio, while higher levels of phosphorus and potassium will cause lettuce to “bolt” or bloom, which makes them bitter. Carrots will thrive with higher levels of Phosphorus than the other two, and flowering, fruiting plants like cucumbers and tomatoes will thrive with higher levels of phosphorus and potassium with lower nitrogen.
   If you have compost to begin with, pick from the following list of organic additives to customize your soil for specific nutritional needs, to add more nitrogen to a bed for instance. If you’re starting with only top soil, formulate a complete organic fertilizer recipe from the list below.

Organic soil additives to consider for base nutrition-
  • Compost (N, P & K) -decayed fruit, vegetable, green and brown matter.
  • Manure (N, P & K, mostly N) -Fresh is too potent, best when seasoned six months to a year.
  • Wood Ash (P & K, mostly K) -Not the white ash, no charcoal or treated lumber. Changes your soil’s PH if used in large amounts. More on that later.
  • Egg shells (N, P & K) -Specifically high in calcium, which many plants thrive on.
  • Green grass clippings (N, P & K, mostly N)
  • Coffee and tea grounds (N, P & K, mostly N) -Will change your soil’s PH if used in large amounts.
  • Oak leaves (N, P & K) -Great for mulching too.
  • Chopped banana peels (N, P & K. mostly K) -Packed with potassium and micronutrients.
  • Pine needles (N, P &K, mostly P) -High in phosphorus and great for mulching too, but wait until your plants have grown a few inches tall to use as mulch.

*All of these are great compost additives as well, which we’ll discuss later, but your plants will still benefit from these amenities throughout the season.

   As for how much organic matter you need, remember you’re looking for around one third of your garden’s contents to be organic compost, the other two-thirds are top soil () and other components () like wood chips, coarse sand, pebbles, peat moss and so on for drainage, moisture retention and aeration.
   If you keep record of what you use each season you’ll be able to recognize what additives work best and what your plants could have used more of, and gradually you’ll develop your own unique garden soil recipe. You won’t get it perfect the first time and if you do, you got lucky, but there’s no need to be impatient when this is a life-long endeavor. Take a chance, make some choices and go with them, see what happens. If you only absorb half of the information I’m sharing here you should still manage a healthy garden -from here on out it’s about dialing it in, which takes time and the occasional mistake. But mistakes are understandable and won’t dissuade us, right? Right.
On to more notes…

Soil PH Level-
   Pick up a soil PH testing kit at your local garden center and test the soil of your future garden site. PH testing kits are inexpensive and easy to use. Most vegetables thrive in a slightly acidic soil -between 5 and 7 on the PH scale -7 being neutral.
   Wood ash will raise your soil’s PH level to a more alkaline level, while coffee and tea grounds will lower it to more acidic levels. If your soil is anywhere between 5 and 7, only add small amounts of these for nutritional value to keep from drastically changing your soil’s PH level. If you need to change your soil’s PH level a whole point or more in either direction, there’s no universal ratio of amounts to use since the current condition of your soil will determine how effective other additives will be. When you’re ready to add all your additives and till, try mixing in a couple cups of ash or grounds into a 4’ x 4’ raised bed, or a pound to a 10’x10’ open ground garden. Water in and test again.
*The standard method of adjusting PH levels is with Lime or Sulfur. I prefer to use ingredients more readily available, but if the ways I’ve outlined don’t adjust your PH level enough, or you’re working with large plots of land, you’ll have to consider using Lime or Sulfur, or be limited to growing crops specific to your soil’s PH level. If you want to use Lime or Sulfur I suggest contacting your local office of the Department of Agriculture and having them test your soil so you’ll know precisely how much of these to add because the type of soil they’re added to matters.
*Wood ash contains salts which are a little too harsh for direct contact with sproutling roots, so if you’ve had to add a lot to change your soil’s PH (like 5 pounds to a 10’x10’ area), put a few inches of ashless soil down and sow seeds in that.

   Now that you have a game plan for what your garden needs and your list of additives, now you can add some sweat to the equation.
   For raised beds -mix up a recipe and fill your boxes to within a couple inches from the top. Pack lightly, rake smooth and you’re ready to go.
   For a ground garden -till up the grass in your garden spot so they’ll become food for your new garden. Add your additives and till away. If you would rather keep the machines out, turn it all over to the depth of a standard shovel blade. Add your additives and chop and turn until it’s all well incorporated.
   Shape your garden into rows or mounds as desired and secure any stakes or lattice your plants may need for support.
   If you’re going to put up a border fence to deter critters now is the time for that. If you don’t like fences, there are other steps you can take to discourage critters from helping themselves to your hard work, which we’ll discuss later.
   Water your new garden well and let it rest for at least a couple days, a week is better.
   Now you’re ready to plant!

   Not all seeds are created equal.
   Heirloom seeds come from plants under controlled environments to protect the integrity of the breed from cross-pollination. Plants grown from Heirloom seeds are more likely to produce seeds of their own like their parent. However, if you plant different species of Heirloom plants in your garden, tomatoes for instance, there’s a chance they’ll produce hybrid seeds from being naturally cross-pollinated.
   Hybrid seeds are the product of deliberate cross-pollination, designed to have specific attributes of different species. This is typically done to produce faster growing plants, larger fruits and bushy “patio” plants. The resulting seeds from Hybrid plants will not necessarily have the same attributes of the parent, regardless of additional cross-pollination that may, or may not, occur in your garden, as hybrid attributes are not particularly stable from generation to generation.
   GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds are specifically engineered to have certain attributes, typically to produce plants that are resistant to certain diseases and insects. Seeds harvested from GMO plants tend to be sterile. Seeds are not always clearly labeled “GMO”, but if they’re resistant to something that’s typically why.
   Organic seeds are harvested from pants that have been protected from chemical contamination and genetic manipulation. Organic seeds can be Heirloom or hybrid and will grow much better under organic condition as they are not specifically designed for chemicals additives.
   Read your seed packets carefully so you know what exactly you’re growing.

Sowing Seeds-
   Once you have your garden seeds, select 3-5 seeds for every plant you wish to grow. Soak them overnight in warm water before sowing.
   The general rule for seed planting depth is 1½ times their size. Speck-sized seeds like lettuce should just be sprinkled on the soil with soil sprinkled over them, small seeds like pepper and cucumber should be planted ½ inch deep, and larger seeds like beans and corn should be planted 1 to 2 inches deep.
   Plant spacing depends on the resulting species. Excessive over-crowding can hinder the growth potential and over-all health of certain species, but a little crowding beyond the standard recommendation is not uncommon. Lettuce and other ground cover crops can be thinned out as they grow so sow away (Always pinch or snip plants off at ground level to thin them out as opposed to pulling them up by the roots as this may disturb the roots of its neighbors). Average stand-alone plant spacing is 2-3 feet apart. Root plant like carrots and onions are 2-3 inches apart. Pumpkins, melons and squash are best grown 2 feet apart, 3-5 plants atop a single mound. Rows of corn should be 2 feet apart with the plants spaced 2 feet apart along the rows.
   After you see your plants through a season you’ll get a better idea of how they’ll grow in your garden under these conditions.
   Lightly pack the soil over the seeds to ensure good soil to seed contact.
   Water in well, misting for shallow seeds. To make sure you’re putting down enough water, when you think you’re good, poke a stick in a spot with no seeds and open it up and see just how deep your water went. You want at least a couple inches of moisture below seed level to get them going and encourage deep roots. Water once a day, perhaps twice a day during hot, windy conditions to keep the seeds moist until they pop.
   Once your seeds show their first “true leaves” (Plants sprout with a single set of generic “starter leaves” first) choose the healthiest looking seedling from each group of 3-5 that you sowed and snip off the others at the soil level. Begin a weekly water schedule.
*I prefer to advise sowing seeds directly in the garden like this because a lot of things can go wrong when transplanting unless you know exactly what to look for, when the time is right, how to harden seedlings off and how to handle them during this process. I encourage you to experiment though, seek advice elsewhere and try out new techniques. A good gardener, like their plants, is always looking for new ways to grow.

   Under optimal conditions, the standard requirement is one inch of water per week, so it’s advisable to set up a rain gauge in your garden until you “just know” how much water your plants need from week to week. Over and under watering are easy ways to undermine a good garden. Over-watering drowns them and under-watering encourages shallow roots, which makes plants weaker and more susceptible to disease.
   A rain gauge doesn’t need to be complicated. Any container with straight sides and the same amount of opening space as flat bottom space will work, such as a coffee can. Put in a ruler or make one inch marks on the side to gauge weekly water levels. A simple rain gauge can be made by cutting the top off of a plastic bottle where the sloping cone of the top meets the straight sides. Remove the cap and invert the top down into the bottle. Secure the funnel with duct tape (a funnel top just helps keep debris out). Use a permanent marker to mark one inch increments up from the bottom.
   Secure your new rain gauge somewhere in your garden so it won’t blow over in the wind and is open to the sky, and placed where you’ll readily hit it with water whenever you water. You can tie a bottle or can gauge to a stick and simply stick in the ground. Make sure you hit your gauge as often as you hit the rest of your garden. Empty your gauge after each watering and check it soon after it rains and note the amount before it evaporates away.
   Certain conditions may put greater watering needs on your plants than an inch a week, but your plants will let you know. When a plant’s cells are adequately filled with water it will stand as erect as it can. If a plant needs water it will wilt, droop and sag like a half-filled inflatable toy. Excessive heat will also cause a plant to droop as it attempts to get away from the heat source, so don’t rush to water if high temperature may be causing this. If it’s the heat causing wilting your plants should stand up again after sunset, or as soon as it cools down.
   Water the ground as much as possible, not the plants. Wet plants are more susceptible to disease. Your pants do need a bath from time to time though, especially in windy and dust conditions. The surface of leaves will absorb sunlight more efficiently when they’re clean, and plants breathe from the underside of their leaves, so once a month or so give your plants a good spraying down, but do it early in the morning so they’ll have plenty of time to dry out before nightfall.

Organic Feeding-
   Tomato, Pepper, Cabbage, Broccoli and Cauliflower all thrive with extra calcium. Crumble eggs shells directly under these plants so they get an extra nutrient boost with every watering.
   If you’re able to fortify your garden soil with an ample amount of compost you won’t need to regularly feed your plants -over feeding can be harmful. If you want to give your plants a boost after hard times (bad weather, sickness, pruning), or to compensate for weak nutritional soil, give them a drink of compost or manure tea.
    Take manure or compost and fill a bucket full. Fill up with water and set a loose lid on it. Allow the mixture to sit for a week to ferment and allow the nutrients to dissolve. Strain off what you need and dilute with clean water until it’s light brown, like weak tea. This may not smell very good to you, but it’s the best organic fertilizer on the planet and your plants will love it.
   Don’t feed your garden more than once a month under any circumstances, more is not always better. Unless your plants are somehow growing in near sterile soil this will be plenty. Over-feeding is another common cause of garden failure from food-poisoning.

   Mulching helps keep your garden soil from rapidly drying out, as well as deterring weed growth. After you plants are a few inches tall, mulch with pine needles and you’ll not only keep the weeds down, but give them a healthy nutrient boost every time they get water. Oak leaves and wood chips are a good second choice.
   Pull up weeds as you find them, they’re leeching vital nutrients. Get them while they’re young so pulling them up by their roots won’t disturb your plants.

Critter Control-
   Keep birds away from your garden by hanging old CDs on strings. Anything that’s highly reflective will help scare them away -strips of foil, pinwheels, pie tins, etc. This technique works well for critters in general. Small critters like birds, rabbits and squirrels are always on high alert for danger so it’s hard for them to relax around flashing lights, it’s just too busy an atmosphere for them to hang out and comfortably snack on your goodies so they’ll look elsewhere for easier takings.
   To further deter birds, place rubber snakes out in the open around your garden and the birds will look elsewhere for a less risky place to dine. Even though birds may disturb your mulch from time to time, if that’s all the damage they do, their help with keeping the insect population down is worth the trouble of having to spread the mulch around again. If they get to be a nuisance though, now you know what to do.
   Put pet hair into a loose knit cloth and fold it into a pouch. Hang these pouches around your garden and critters will think your dog or cat is hiding somewhere in your garden, waiting to pounce.
   Have slugs? You probably can’t see them because they tend to hideaway in the day, but their shiny, slimy trails will alert you to their presence. Set out a jar lid of grape juice near the plants in question and check it early in the morning before the sun comes up. Coral them up and relocate them far from your garden. They won’t crawl across ash either so an ash border around a plant works well to keep them away.
   Keep the dogs and other critters out of your garden by sprinkling a defensive line of ground hot peppers and garlic around your garden. Replace after heavy rainfall.
   Once your plants are a few inches tall, make shiny collars for them using aluminum strips from a soda can, or aluminum foil. Place the collars loosely around the stalk, an inch deep in the soil and an inch above the soil. This will turn many damaging bugs away.
   If you spy ants crawling on one of your plants, don’t panic, investigate, see what they’re up to -they’re most likely cleaning your plants of other insect eggs and larvae. If they’re gnawing on your leaves then spray them with a bottle of water, mild soap, ground hot peppers and garlic juice and they’ll think again about feasting on your plants. This “bug juice” works well to deter most insects.
   Be diligent. Take a stroll in your garden as often as you can, it’s good for the spirit anyway. Inspect your plants for insects and pick them off as you go. Make sure to peek at the underside of leaves where a lot of bugs like to camp out.

Critters You Want-
  • Lady Bugs
  • Praying Mantises
  • Spiders
  • Frogs and Toads
  • Wasps and bees


   If your plants do not get properly pollinated they will not produce quality fruits, if any at all. The dusty pollen needs to get from one flower to the next on the same plant, or often from one part of the flower to another part of the same flower. If you’re growing in a greenhouse, or don’t have a healthy bee population around your property, or you just want to ensure good pollination, you can do this yourself.
   Once a day as soon as flowers open you can gently shake each plant to help spread the pollen around.
   If you have even more patience you can use a small, soft artist’s brush. Once a day during the flowering stage, loosen the pollen from flower’s male parts (called antlers, the little fuzzy topped antennae looking thingys between the petals and the centermost thingy) and brush the pollen onto the tip of the flower’s lady parts (called the stigma, the centermost protrusion, often another antennae looking thingy). Do this to each flower on each plant and you’ll not only ensure robust fruiting, but this will deter cross-pollination if you thoroughly rinse the brush between species. This is how hybrids are created, directing the pollen from one plant to another of the same species to produce a desired effect. Doing this with different colored flowers of the same species will inevitable vary the coloration of their offspring. This is why you can find so many different and spectacular color variations of the same species at flower shops. Some gardeners dedicate their lives to this extremely patient art.
   When growing corn in small amounts, less than one acre plots, it’s recommended to self-pollinate them because they’re a wind pollinated crop. Without acres of rows to keep the pollen concentrated on the plants it can easy be lost in the breeze. As soon as the flowery parts on top of the corn stalk begin to dust when you tap the stalk, and the little fruit pods below show whitish silk from their tops, place a paper bag over the flowers and gently shake the stalk, then place the bag of fresh pollen over the silky parts of the fruits and tap the bag to dust the silk with pollen. This procedure may be tedious, but repeating this for each plant, daily throughout the flowering period, will ensure healthy fruit production. My first attempt at growing corn produced lush, vibrant plants that produced pitiful, underdeveloped ears. I did a great job of helping them grow but then they didn’t pollinate well. The following season was dramatically better after my research for what went wrong revealed the necessity of self-pollinating corn in a small garden.

Treating Disease-
   Plant disease is the greatest fear of any gardener and why GMO plants resistant to certain diseases are so popular. As an organic gardener, prevention is the best defense. When plants are too wet too long they invite mold and disease, which is why it’s important to water early in the morning. When it rains in the evening don’t hesitate to go out and shake your plants free of excess water if you can, this will help.
   Keep leaves from touching the ground as this too will invite mildew and the like. Stake plants that need it and prune low-hanging branches if needed to keep them off the ground. Always thoroughly clean your pruning instruments after touching a diseased plant, that goes for your hands as well.
   A natural remedy you can try is a little baking soda, mild soap and water. At the first sign of trouble, dark or white spots on leaves or fruit, wash the plant down with this tonic. If the condition only worsens after a couple days, remove the diseased parts and continue treatment. Dispose of the plant if it doesn’t improve after a week or so of treatment before it infects your other plants. This won’t cure every condition, but it will help with some.
   There are too many diseases and treatments for me to outline here, so anytime you experience something wrong in your garden, research for answers. Hit the internet, send pics to gardening friends, including me, learn and grow.
   Never put diseased plant parts in your compost pile -burn them.

   The best time to harvest from your garden is early morning, just after the dew has dried. Crops are cooler and have a higher water content and crisper texture than later in the day.
   Plants grown for their leaves should be harvested when they’re young and most tender. Harvest early in the season and often. Snip leaves not too close to the core of the plant and more new leaves will be ready in a just few days.
   A lot of gardener’s end up giving their hard-earned gems away at the end of every season because it’s really easy to grow more than you can ever eat in one season. Why not fill up your pantry instead? Dehydrate, pickle and can away! Refer to my post “Home Canning For beginners” to get you started.

Saving Seeds-
   Seed saving is a wise practice and can save you the trouble of purchasing seeds again the following year. Not all your seeds will germinate and there’s no way around this unpredictable nature. Most seeds last about 3 years under prime conditions, but some only 1-2 years, while other seeds have been known to germinate a decade or more after storage.
   Wash new seeds and allow to dry on newspaper for a week. Store them in sealed containers like spice jars, pill bottles, film canisters and so on. Add something to absorb any remaining moisture in the seeds or they may rot -silica gel from the floral aisle at your local craft store, or you can fold up some powdered milk in a paper towel. Replace moisture traps every year.
   Label and date your seed containers and store in a cool dry place away from light. It’s very important for stored seeds to not undergo extreme temperature fluctuations. Some gardeners like to store seeds in their refrigerator, or even the freezer, which is fine, but if the power goes out for long -there goes your seeds. The most secure way to store seeds is to bury them 2’ underground -below the frost line.

   There are many different types of composting bin designs to fit any lifestyle. Since I don’t use a bin to compost I won’t recommend a specific design for you to use, I use a pile. Bins are great, especially for esthetics purposes, but a managed pile serves the same purpose.
   A compost pile, or bin, is simply the controlled decay of organic material by heat, moisture and the proper ingredients. Set-up a compost pile in full sunlight and cover it with black plastic sheeting to attract and hold heat, bins are typically black for this purpose as well. Add only organic material that you know has not been exposed to chemicals. There two types of compost ingredients -green and brown.  Green additives are things like grass clippings, vegetable waste, coffee and tea grounds (Though brown in color they’re considered green because of their rich nutrient content), eggshells, banana peels and so on. Brown additives are things like twigs, tree bark, dry leaves, straw, pine needles and so on. Make sure all the remnants of your garden find their way into your compost pile as well. Chop all the ingredients into small pieces to help them break down.
   Turn your pile over once a week with a shovel or pitch fork to keep everything well incorporated. Compost needs to stay moist to properly cook so give it a good shower after turning.
   Do not add meat to your compost pile or bin or you’ll attract critters. Bones are great, but dry them out and crush them with a hammer first.
   Add a can of beer to a new compost pile to help get things off and cooking.

More Tips-
   Make your peppers even hotter by watering them less than your other plants, tapering off even more as they mature. They’re native to hot, dry climates after all. Cool them down a little by watering well.
   Lettuce doesn’t like a lot of sun so plant them beside tomato plants for some companionship shade.
   Improve a plant’s fruit production by removing suckers (The little leaflets that will sprout from internode junctions where the branches meet the stem). Once your plant sets fruit, pinch these off as they appear because they will only leech nutrients that your plant could be pumping into the fruits.
   Rotate crops every year so the same family is not planted in the same area of your garden. This helps prevent soil borne diseases.

   I hope this article has helped some of you to reconsider getting your hands dirty, or to take a bold leap into a whole new world. No matter who you are, where you’re from or where you’ve been, there’s always a place for you in a garden.
Let’s get growing!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Home Canning For Beginners

   Whenever I recommend canning, people tend to look at me as if I just suggested they take up chainsaw juggling. Another common misconception is that you need to be good at cooking to be good at canning, not to underestimate the cooking ability of successful canners, but the two are not synonymous. If you know the basics of food preparation, boiling water and you can follow simple recipes -you can do this. Some food items and recipes do require more care and more involved canning techniques, but the Water Bath Method of canning is simple and sufficient to safely can many food items for long-term storage.

   The benefits of canning your own food are tremendous -saving money for starters, but more importantly, you know exactly what’s in your food -none of the mystery preservatives and chemicals found in commercially canned foods. And the pride that comes with doing it yourself… priceless!
   Water Bath Canning heats the contents to 212 Fahrenheit a sea-level. Water boils at lower temperatures at higher elevations, thus longer processing times are required the higher up you are from sea-level. This method will successfully kill bacteria for long-term storage of high-acid foods, such as high-acid tomatoes, fruits, jams, jellies, juices, sauces, relishes, and so on, as well as any contents with added vinegar for acidity -otherwise known as pickling. All other low-acid foods like meats, seafood and vegetables require higher temperatures to thoroughly kill all possible contaminants. If you want to can low-acid foods you should invest in a pressure “canner”, not a pressure cooker. Do not use a pressure cooker unless it’s specifically designed to double as a pressure canner. Pressure canners are not particularly cheap, but if you plan to utilize one, the benefits you’ll continually reap will greatly outweigh the initial cost.
   Some people don’t worry about the dangers of canning low-acid foods in a water bath, but there’s obviously risk involved. I’ve heard that thoroughly cooking meats and soups and pretty much anything before water bath canning will make it safer, but I suggest getting your feet wet with safe, easy Water Bath Canning methods before jumping into any deep ends of thought, like pressure canning, or when not to use one.

Here are some of the basic supplies you’ll need-
·         Canning recipe book
·         A wide-mouth funnel and ladle
·         Canning tongs
·         A large pot (deep enough to fill with water 1 to 2 inches over your jars and safely boil without boiling over)
·         Canning jars, rings and lids
·         A wet cloth

    A wire rack for your canning pot is optional, but some canners swear by them, as a wire rack allows for more equalized heating and helps prevent the bottom of the jars from overheating and possible cracking. If you don’t have a rack, you can place extra canning rings in the bottom of the pot to elevate the jars for more equalized heating.
   Jars do not have to be new. You can save old jars, put out an APB and collect them from your friends, and survey yard sales and antique shops for used jars -just make sure the lip of the jar is not chipped or marred in any way.
   Rings can be reused as well, but the lids need to be unused to make a proper pressured seal.

*Always be careful of steam and hot jars as they can seriously burn.

Basic Water Bath Canning-
-There’s no need to sterilize your jars, lids and rings by boiling them beforehand since they will be sterilized along with their contents during the canning process, so simply wash clean with soap and water and thoroughly rinse.
-To estimate the proper amount of water to have ready in your canning pot, fill the allotted jars with water, place them in the canning pot and fill with water 1 to 2 inches over the jars. Do not empty the water from the jars into the pot and don’t forget to add the rings if you plan to use them for elevating bases.
-Preheat your water bath pot and jars. Jars can be preheated in the water bath prior to being filled.
-Prepare your food. Wash, cook, slice, chop, whatever your preference and recipe calls for. Fruits should be ripe and all bruises and damaged areas removed.
-Pack food into jars, typically leaving ½ inch of headspace (Area left between the food and lid), but refer to your recipe, and top off with clean water, brine, vinegar solution or syrup according to your recipe.
-Remove any air pockets with a non-metallic instrument such as a plastic knife or chopstick by gently moving the food around to release trapped air pockets.
- Wipe clean the rims of the jars with a damp cloth. This is extremely important to ensure a proper seal.
-Place lids and rings on the jars. The rings should only be snug -the seal is created with vacuum pressure. Do not crank them down or you’ll never get them open again, if they seal at all.
-Carefully place your jars into your pot, leaving space between the jars if you’re not using a wire rack. Top off with hot water if needed to keep 1 to 2 inches of water over the top of the jars. Bring to a boil. The processing time begins when the water comes to a rolling boil. Add hot water as needed to keep the jars under water at all times.
-At the end of the processing time (Refer to your recipe) carefully remove the jars with your tongs and place them on towels to cool. Do not poke, wipe, or mess with them in any way. You’ll typically hear the lids “pop” as they cool.
   After the jars have completely cooled, usually overnight, check the lids to make sure they properly sealed. The lid should be indented in the center and not give with gently pressure. If the lid does give, or pops when you press it down, it did not properly seal and should be reprocessed or eaten soon. The most common reason for an unsuccessful seal is forgetting to wipe clean the lip of the jar before placing the lid on, but check the lid and lip of the jar for damage you may have missed.
   You may remove the rings for reuse -if a proper vacuum seal was achieved the rings are no longer needed. Wash the jars in cool water, label with the contents and date for storage rotation, and place them in a cool, dry, dark area.

   If you’re in doubt about a food item’s acidity, simple add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to each pint or quart to ensure high acidity -it won’t affect the taste much, if at all, but along with acidity it will add nutritional value.
   Don’t panic if foods change color after processing, as this is often due to the caramelization of natural sugars and other natural chemical reactions. Corn, for instant, can turn brownish during canning because of some varieties high sugar content, but corn can also turn brownish because of over processing or minerals in your water. Remember, you didn’t add any chemicals to preserve coloring and this is why commercial canners do -simply to preserve a fresh, colorful appearance. The flavor is not directly affected by processing color change. You may have some trouble convincing your children of this, but this is a good opportunity to educate them about all the questionable stuff that actually goes into commercially processed foods, and just how natural and healthy this process really is.
   Drastic changes in temperature can crack and break your jars. Always put hot food into hot jars, cold food into warm jars, and never put hot jars onto cold surfaces or in drafty areas. Preheat jars in your canning pot, or set up another pot of water specifically for preheating.
   Adjust your processing times according to your altitude. Longer processing times are required for higher elevations. Typically it breaks down like this- 5 additional minutes for altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000feet, 10 additional minutes for 3,001 to 6,000 feet, 15 additional minutes for altitudes of 6,001 to 8,000-feet and 20 additional minutes of processing time for 8001 to 10,000 feet of elevation.
   To make syrup to add to canned fruits -bring water and sugar to a boil, stirring frequently.
·         Light syrup -2 C. sugar + 4 C. water = 5 C. syrup
·         Medium syrup -3 C. sugar + 4 C. water = 5 ½  C. syrup
·         Heavy syrup -4 ¾ C. sugar + 4 C. water = 6 ½ C. syrup

Here are a couple simple fruit canning recipes to help get you started. (Elevations under 1000 feet)

*Choose firm, naturally sweet apples like Gala, Fiji or Rome for best results. Red delicious apples are softer so expect a much softer finished product. Experiment with mixing different varieties.
·         Wash, peel, core, remove bad spots and slice into large wedges or thin slices, depending on your preference and firmness of apple variety.
·         Bring a gallon of water to a boil.
·         Place prepared apples in the boiling water, return to a boil and boil for 1 minute.
·         Pack hot apples into hot jars, gently jostle the jar as you do to minimize air space, leaving ½ inch of headspace.
·         Fill the jars with the apple water left over from boiling, leaving ½ inch of headspace.
·         Seal and place jars in water bath canning pot.
·         Boil 20 minutes for pint or quart jars

*Processing releases the natural sugars in apples, but for a little extra sweetness dissolve 2 cups of sugar in your apple boiling water. For even more sweetness fill the jars with light syrup instead of apple water. For crisper apples you can “cold pack” them like the berry recipe below.

Raw Berries
*Use only fresh berries.
·         Wash, drain, cap and stem.
·         Place ½ cup of hot, light syrup or water in each hot jar.
·         Fill jars to within ½ inch from the top with fresh berries, shaking gently while filling.
·         Add more hot syrup or water leaving ½ inch headspace.
·         Seal and place in water bath canning pot.
·         Boil 15 minutes for pint jars, 20 minutes for quart jars.

   See! Isn’t that easy? Explore on-line for recipes, get your friends involved, call up granny and plead for secret family recipes, experiment, have fun!
   Keep record of all the recipes you use and tips and tricks you pick up along the way -someone may reach out to you someday and plead for your secret recipes.