fertilizer

Companion Planting and Your Garden

As my spring garden season approaches, my mind is filled with visions of splendor.  With a freshly tilled garden, I can see my plants grow lush and full, their bounty promising a fruitful harvest.  What do I want to grow this year?  More important question, What do I want to eat?

Tomatoes.  Or should I say, pasta sauce.  I’ve been having such good luck with my tomatoes that I might increase the yield this spring. Second?  Beans, of course.  Who doesn’t love beans?  And onions–but not in adjoining beds.  No.  These two do not care for each other and will not yield the fabulous crop of my imagination.  Why not?

They’re not good companions in the garden and companion planting is KEY when it comes to organic gardening.  What is it and why do we do it?  In a nutshell–or bean pod–it’s organizing your beds according to plants that help one another, and steering clear of those combinations that don’t.

Companion planting is based around the idea that certain plants can benefit others when planted next to, or close to one another.  It exists to benefit certain plants by giving them pest control, naturally, without the need to use chemicals. In some cases, plants can give one another a higher crop yield. Some are even touted to improve the flavor of neighboring plants. Take basil and tomato, for instance. Plant these “friends” together and your tomatoes will be even more delicious!

Backyard gardens use companion planting on a small-scale, but it can be applied on larger-scale operations. By having a beneficial crop in a nearby field that attracts certain insects away from the main crop, commercial growers have found the practice to be very beneficial. It’s called trap cropping.

While companion planting has a long history, going back to the Native Americans and their employment of the “Three Sisters,” the benefits have not always been understood. Sounds simple enough: plant corn and beans together, allowing the beans to climb the corn stalk while fixing nitrogen into the soil. Squash plants shade the ground, preventing weeds and retaining moisture. However, recent tests are proving scientifically, that this practice works!

 

The French marigold, along with other plants, is well-known for companion planting. It exudes chemicals from its roots, or aerial parts, that suppresses or repels pests, protecting neighboring plants. (My roses love marigold!)

Companion planting also exists in a physical way. For example, tall-growing, sun-loving plants may share space with lower-growing, shade-tolerant species, resulting in higher total yields from the land. This is called spatial interaction and can also yield pest control benefits. For example, the presence of prickly vines is said to discourage raccoons from ravaging sweet corn.

Nurse cropping is a method whereby tall or dense-canopied plants can protect more vulnerable plants through shading or providing a wind break. Oats have long been used to help establish alfalfa and other forages by supplanting the more competitive weeds that would otherwise grow in their place. In many instances, nurse cropping is simply another form of physical-spatial interaction.

Beneficial habitats-sometimes called refugia—have received a lot of attention in recent years. The benefit is derived when companion plants provide a good environment for beneficial insects, and other arthropods, especially those predatory and parasitic species that help to keep pest populations in check. (Ladybugs are super-beneficial insects, too!)

So as you contemplate your next crop, take companion planting into account and organize accordingly.  It really will make a difference, particularly when it comes to alleviating trouble spots.  From bugs to weeds, companion planting is the way to go.  And anything that takes the “work” out of gardening is a friend to me. For an idea of who likes who in the garden, check out this list of companion plants compiled by Mother Earth News.

Sweet Onion Savvy

I just picked up my sweet onion sets and couldn’t wait to get them in the ground. They take about six months to grow, meaning my November planting won’t be ready to harvest until at least May, maybe June. But the wait is worth it.

fresh sweet onions

Come spring, I’ll have tons of sweets. And I do mean tons. My local seed store sells these gals in batches of 100, so whether I need that many or not, that’s how many I’m planting. Which brings me to rule number one in my garden: keep it simple and make it easy!

onion-sets-in-channels

Remember my corn channels? I have onion channels now. It’s my new favorite way to plant. I simply drag a hoe down the row, place my onions at the proper distance apart – about 3-4 inches – then back fill them with my compost, ultimately covering them 1 inch deep. Mine are actually closer to 6-8 inches apart, but then again, I want to make sure my babies have room to grow and EXPAND.

back-fill-onion-sets-with-compost

Next, I set the gals upright and water well. Easy! Onions require a moderate amount of fertilizer in equal parts of N, P, K and medium water. Remember not to give them too much nitrogen, or you’ll end up with all leaves and no fruit. No good! Relatively few bugs prefer their pungent taste and smell which makes them all the easier to grow. Wunderbar!

set-onion-sets-upright

And they’re quite content next to their friends, broccoli.

Me? I’m quite content thinking about all the goodies I can make with delicious sweet onions. French Onion Soup, Onions Au Gratin, Baked and Savory Sweet Onions, Sautéed Cabbage and Onions–the list goes on!

Squashing Compost Myths

“Compost piles stink. I would never have one. because I couldn’t tolerate the stench, I don’t have the time, and I DON’T want the rodents.”

black gold compost

Forget the black gold that a compost pile will deliver. Forget the organic treasure trove of nutrients this soil amendment will provide for your plants. Forget the health of the planet. Composting is crazy.

compost cross-section

Ever heard this sentiment before? I have. Often. And it’s because many people have a misconception about composting. It doesn’t have to be stinky and messy, attract bugs and wildlife. Quite the opposite. It’s an easy, simple, very worthwhile endeavor. Not only do the plants in my vegetable garden love it, my pile grows a few of its own veggies for me! Look at this gorgeous pumpkin plant. I didn’t do a thing to grow it, except dump the Halloween pumpkins onto the pile. Amazing.

compost pumpkins

Remember the incredible sweet potato I harvested from the pile a few months back? Stupendous. More

My Secret Weapon

When it comes to gardening, there’s nothing better than amending your soil with compost. Not only does it feed your plants, but it aerates the soil, invites the worms to slither in and generally keeps the environment in balance. However, there is ONE thing better than my backyard compost and that’s mushrooms.

Mushroom compost, to be exact. It’s inexpensive (when you buy it straight from the farm – Monterey Mushroom Farm – $10 for a trailer-full), readily available at most warehouse garden stores, but stinky. What makes it stinky?

I’m guessing there’s a fair amount of composted manure in it. From what animal? I can’t be sure. It’s just a guess on my part, but make sure you grab those gloves before you head out. And while it looks nearly the same as cow manure compost, I think my plants actually prefer the mushroom stuff over the cow stuff. 

Some of the biggest fans are squash and zucchini. I’d bet cabbage and broccoli would benefit, too, but the squash family shows the most improvement. Come to think of it, I bet my corn would love some mushrooms. I mean, they are heavy feeders, same as their squash friends!

found a big one

What else am I growing this fall? Tomatoes, green peppers, jalapenos, lettuce, carrots, peas, red beans, black beans and soon to be garlic and sweet onions. How about you? What are you growing?

 

Feeling Blue & Loving It

Spring has arrived which means there’s a bunch of stuff to do in the garden. Great times! I get to till and toil and snack on sugar snap peas all while strolling the rows of organic vegetables. This doesn’t make me feel blue. That happens when I approach the house.

new berries 2015

And pass my blueberry patch! Aren’t they gorgeous? The blueberry blooms are out in full force along with the berries I love and adore.

blueberry blooms 2015

Berries the birds love and adore as well, but we’re not discussing those bad boys right now. We’re discussing berries. Decadent, full and delicious berries. I’m not sure how plentiful my harvest will be this year due to the fact that we didn’t have a very cold winter. Blueberries require a certain amount of “chillng hours” to produce fruit. Chill hours are considered between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. I’m taking the blooms I see as a good sign, though. Blooms mean berries. They also mean “bait” for birds. Grrrrr…

Another consideration to bear in mind is that blueberries need to cross-pollinate, so you must have at least two different varieties in your garden. I chose Southern Highbush Sharp Blue, Windsor, Jubilee, Jewel and Gulf Coast  varieties because they require the least amount of chill hours. If you can get your hands on some Highbush Misty, they are supposed to get along particularly well with Highbush Sharp Blue. I also have some Rabbit Eye varieties to round out my berry garden.

delectable blueberries

These varieties work well for Florida because we don’t get a lot of cold weather and these require the least amount of chilling hours. Choose wisely, according to your growing region. And now is the time to find blueberry plants at your local garden center (in warmer regions, later for my Arctic Amigos), another sign that spring is in the air!

Once you have these babies in your hot little hands, plant them in organic-rich slightly acidic soil (4.0 — 5.0 pH) and mulch well. Feed with a 12-4-8 fertilizer and prune during the summer months after harvest for more vigorous growth. They aren’t what I consider high maintenance, but they do require some.

Blueberry & yogurt stock photo

And they’re well worth it. In yogurt, cereal, pie, cobbler or fresh off the bush, these berries are my all-time favorite. You know you want to grow some. What are you waiting for? Get going and DO share how it’s going!

Enjoying Okra

I’m planting okra this week and I’m doubling–no, tripling!–my beds this year. Why? Because I discovered just how easy it is to grow, freeze and fry these babies up for a delicious side dish to our dinner meal. While fried okra might not be the healthiest version of this veggie, it is one of the tastier versions not to mention my son’s favorite. Hint to parents: when you grow your child’s favorite vegetable, you will be amazed by how eager they are to take part in the planting, feeding and harvesting duties of said vegetable. As a woman in charge of a 4000 sq. ft. garden, I’ll take all the assistance I can get!

okra small and large

Now back to the business of growing. Okra are one of the easier veggies to manage. All you need is warm weather, a general fertilizer and water. They thrive on their own without a lot of maintenance on your part and will continually produce for an extended harvest. One thing to note about okra is size. Size does matter. Big okra are tough and un-delightful to eat. Small okra are tender and very delightful to eat, say about 2 – 3 inches in length. For those of you who are scrunching your noses right now because you can’t understand how anyone would eat the slimy pods, try them “fresh from the stem.” Freshly picked okra are not slimy, but rather crisp and delicate in flavor. More

Friends Planting Friends in the Garden

This week the kids learned the concept of companion planting.  Simply put, grouping plants together by how they can help each other is one of the secrets to organic gardening.  (So is worm poop, but we’ll get to that later.)  Squash bugs LOVE squash plants but they HATE radish.  So how about we plant radish next to our squash?

Our radish help our squash by preventing an attack of squash bugs!  How great a friend is that? More

Hair and Bumps?

This can’t be good.  I understand nature isn’t always pretty, the dark side always lurking just out of sight, hidden from the light of day…  But really.  This is too much.  Hair and bumps on my carrots?  Dare I say, warts?

It’s what they look like.  At least that was my first impression when my son hauled the harvest in.  They were a huge mess of warts and hair and reminded me of some gnarly old man in a horror movie (or book!).  It was not what I had in mind when preparing our salads for dinner.  I was envisioning gorgeous fat smooth orange beauties.  Sure, a little hair never hurt.  Can always strip it clean from the length of them (ouch).  But these fellas?

No siree bob was I touching them!  ICK.  And scrutinizing them further, wondered if a brave attempt would even be worth the trouble.  Once the bumps and hair were skinned from them, there would hardly be anything left to speak of.  Nah.  These are compost food.  The pile out back has been hunkering for a little beta carotene and here’s its chance to swallow them whole. And make fresh dirt.  Mother Nature is a beautiful creature, isn’t she? 

For those of you wondering what on earth happened to these golden babies, it’s probably due to a couple of things.  Water for one.  I’ve been having the hardest time with my sprinklers this season and more bound and determined than ever to install that soaker hose system I’ve been thinking about.  You see, if you water too much, your carrots can crack and split.  if you water too little, they can develop small feeder roots that shoot from the main root in search of water.  Helpful little buggers, aren’t they?  Bumps are probably hair that actually had a chance to grow a bit. 🙂

Too much fertilizer can cause the same hairy problem and I have a hunch that this may be part of our problem as well.  I say “our” because speaking of helpful, my kids tend to water and feed without restraint.  They don’t understand there’s a happy medium to be found.  They hear fertilize and they fertilize.  Vacation didn’t help, either.  We may have left our bounty in the soil longer than necessary.

Huh.  It’s a process.  Or learning curve–something which I tend to slide down the front side of more often than I care to admit!  So here we sit with no gorgeous carrots for my salad.  And it’s dinner time. *sigh*

Worms Can Be A Dirty Business ~ But NOT Stinky!

Cleaning my worm bin this weekend I learned a few things.  Number one, proper worm bins do not smell–a fact I attempted to share with my husband as he walked by and warned, “Don’t track any of that stinky stuff through the house.” 

Now see, if he were taking part in this project with me, he would know better.  Worm castings done right, don’t stink.  Ask my fab friend Angie who turned me on to worm bins (though admittedly, I think she’s a lot better at this stuff than I am).  Course, if you want to talk “stinky” try fish emulsion.  That stuff smells like low tide on hot dry summer day.  Nasty.

As he stood there glaring, waiting for a response I threatened, “If you’re not nice to me, I’m going to blog about you.”

He shrugged.  “Big deal. I live that blog.”

A smile tugged at me.  True.  But now he sounded like the kids.  “Why do we have to be the gardeners?  It’s your blog!”

“It’s our garden, children.  Now run along and grab some more weeds, will you?”

As I return to the business of harvesting worm poop, I gather the bottom most bin and gaze in wonder at the gold–er, make that black–mine of a bounty they’ve produced.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Next, I smear the fresh worm castings across the cardboard.  By doing so, I’m separating the worms from the poop. 

Don’t want to lose any of these beauties!  So I painstakingly remove them one by one (or clump, if I’m lucky) to be sure they don’t suffer an arid death.

Next, I lift the baby and return him to the safety and comfort of his bin where I will add fresh food and continue my “layering process.”  This is where the lower bins are the oldest, upper bins are the newest.  Easier to add food this way, right? 🙂  

Now as I’m doing this, I’m thinking to myself there’s got to be an easier way. Granted worm castings don’t stink, but plucking worms from their midst is a tedious task.  I’m not about to lose a single one.  Not only are these pumpkins valuable to me, I hate the loss of life any life.

It does inspire me to schedule that trip to my local worm farm. I’ve been wanting to go and I’m sure they can guide me in the best methods for salvaging the worm poop from my bin.  And come to think of it, it sounds like a great field trip for the kids at school.  Plants love worm poop and kids love worms!  Is it a wonder why the students love their garden so?

Number two lesson?  Make worm pee in the process!  Not only does it provide the perfect method for cleaning your “worm removal” tool…

But it also make great plant food and insect repellent! (You’re all a tingle with excitement, aren’t you?)  Oh, how I do love a multi-tasker!

Dry your harvested poop until crumbly.  Here’s a gander at how they differ.  And no, it’s not your imagination.  The dried worm poop in this photo still has some “undigested” eggshells.  What can I say?  I’m an impatient sort and organic gardening is WAY exciting.

Then store in airtight bag for later use.  Your plants will thank you.

I’ll bet some of you have some helpful tips for me.  Do share!

Garden Class is in Session

This week we did something a little different–we invited the upper elementary students to garden with the kindergarteners.  And what a wonderful idea this turned out to be because you see, there’s nothing better than student instruction to get the job done.  Well, that and a little sing-song from the garden coordinators!

First off we toured the garden–talk about excitement–have you ever seen a real live sunflower?  These things are amazing!  Huge, glorious and best of all, easy to grow.  At least in our magic school garden where everything grows easier than my home garden.  (But don’t get me started.)  Take a look for yourself as our sun beauties begin the process of awakening…

Then unfurl their long and luscious petals…

Followed by a burst of glorious sunshine–flower style!  I never realized I was such a fan of sunflowers until we grew them ourselves (kinda like kids and vegetables).

Can’t wait to harvest some sunflower seeds!  After admiring our flowers, we moved on to inspect the bean fort.  Look ma–our walls have beans!  Not to mention we get to walk around inside of it. 🙂

Next we took care of maintenance and weeded our carrots.  Pinch and pull, no tools allowed here!  Our babies are WAY too delicate for anything pokey and sharp.

And pull caterpillars from our black beans.  This fella was delighted with the prospect until he decided one bit him.  Though it could have been the thrill of the hunt that got him.  Not entirely sure.

Then it was time to plant our sweet onions.  Upper elementary demonstrated this feat while the younger ones looked on.  And as they worked, we discussed what comes next–

Caring for our garden.  Water, sun and food.  What do plants eat?  Why gross, stinky stuff of course!  Ask the kids.  They each received a voluntary whiff of fish emulsion.  Eweeeeee…..  Yuck is right!  But plants also like worm poop and blood meal and while you’re at it, why not serve up a little compost tea?  Makes for a well-rounded organic plant diet!

For this week’s lesson, check the Kid Buzz section:  Caring for your garden where it’s all about N-P-K!