Sunday, May 22, 2016

Suck em Up Organic Gardeners!

How much simpler can one get in the organic garden? When I start seeing those pests cropping up in the garden I always break out my little hand held vacuum. The wet/dry vacuum is best because by adding a small amount of soapy water inside, as you vacuum up the bugs, they end up in the water and die. I like that!
Why spray anything, whether organic or a homemade solution? It takes the same amount of effort to set the wet vac up as it does a spray rig. I keep mine handy on a wall mount inside the potting shed along with a couple of nice extension cords. Where ever I plug into an extension cord I tie a knot. This way if the cord snags on something as I’m dragging it around it doesn’t come unplugged. I also don’t like using really heavy cords and prefer keeping it lighter with a thinner one. It makes dragging it around a breeze.
Most experienced gardeners are already familiar with which bugs are bad and which ones are good. It’s a good idea to learn about bugs, especially the bugs common to your area. We certainly don’t want to suck up the good guys.
There are many good books as well as resources to be found on the Internet. My favorite book is called Texas Bug Book: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly , written by . Malcolm Beck  and John Howard Garrett . Both  authors have hands on experience that makes it easy to relate while reading. 
Attract Beneficial InsectsThe Leaf-Footed Bug

Common Garden Pests

Sometimes you might find Stink Bugs in clusters on the tomatoes sucking the juice from them. That usually makes it more fun for me when using my wet/dry vac because I can get a bunch of them all at one time. If some fly off, which they will do, I just wait about an hour or so and go back with the vac. Once things have settled down, believe me, they will come back.
I always feel so bad for my northern garden friends who have such an awful time with the Japanese Beetles. I don’t have a problem with them in the south, but have seen the nasty photos posted of them destroying their gardens. My best advice when asked is to do like I do in Texas and suck em up!
The Squash Bugs are a common garden pest throughout the U.S. for most gardeners. Many gardeners have given up on trying to grow summer squash all together. This is another excellent opportunity to use the vacuum. I can usually find them trying to hide out down at the base of the plant. You have to use one hand to pull back a few of the large leaves to expose the insect and aim the hose right for them.
The vacuum is not a full proof method that will get rid of all of the bad bugs, but it will sure cut down on a whole bunch of them. The most important helper in getting rid of the bad bugs is having plenty of good bugs. The good bugs are natural predators that will consume the pests. Making sure you have plenty of diversity and natural habitats will help ensure and attract beneficial insects.

Using Trap crops for bad bugs helps tremendously! It helps by attracting the bad bugs to them. Some helpful plants I use for the Leaf Footed Stink bug are Sunflowers and Sorghum. When I have them growing at a good distance from my tomato plants I find very few pests on the tomatoes. Research for this method was done by the Louisiana State University and found it to be quite effective for organic farming and gardening. 

Happy Gardening!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Herbal Tea Gardening

I love experimenting with Herbal Tea Blends. During our hot summers here in Texas a tall pitcher of homemade Iced Tea reflects all of the hard work and time spent in the garden. 

We grow many different herbs throughout the garden in hopes of creating a wide range of diversity among the fruits and vegetables. Many are grown as companions as well as attracting a full range of beneficial pollinators and insects.

I do however enjoy focusing on growing many that are my favorite flavors for Tea and Culinary uses in the kitchen. Although many of our herbs are enjoyed freshly harvested from the garden, it is fun to dry and store them for later use. 

While many herbs are said to be best harvested right before they bloom so that much of the essential oils and flavors are at their height throughout the leaves and stems, I have always found the flowers of many herbs to be the essence of the plants.

Not only do they add beauty to your dried tea blends, I find they truly obtain the flavors of the herb.

For this herbal tea blend I've dried and combined different herbs that compliment the base of the blend.

 For the base I've used Roselle Hibiscus. This is a tropical herb that can be grown in the southern regions of the U.S. It has the close flavor of a cranberry.

I've complimented it by using Bergamot (Bee Balm) leaves and flower petals. The Scarlet Red Bergamots have a very slight citrus flavor and is what is used to make Oswego Tea that you may have noticed in the markets.

Next, for a subtle touch I used Lemon Balm leaves, Pineapple Sage leaves and a pinch of Berries and Cream Mint.

There are a whole bunch of wonderful herbs to grow in your garden for making Tea. I hope to talk more about them soon and some hints on growing them yourself.

 If you do not have the same herbs that I've used for this blend, you can first look for Hibiscus Tea or one called Red Zinger. It will be as close as you could get to my blend.

You can also use most green teas or black teas for making the Honey Spiced Peach Tea Recipe I am sharing. But we have used Fresh Organic Peaches to make a simple syrup, so I would be looking for some, unless you grow your own.

We have several peach trees here in the garden and can't wait until they begin making fruit!!

2 Qt. Pitcher for Iced Tea

Simple Peach Syrup

1 cup water
3 to 4 peaches, peeled, pitted and diced
1 tsp. fresh ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. fresh ground ginger
1 cup honey

Bring water, peaches, cinnamon and ginger to a gentle boil on medium heat. Cover and turn heat down to low. Let simmer stirring frequently for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Mash any peach pieces left. Strain liquid into your pitcher. Add honey to warm liquid and stir.

Brewing your Herbal Tea

Fill a long tea filter with 3 tbsp. of loose leaf tea. Fold down the top edge and put a staple in it. Bring a little over 1 quart of water to a boil and remove from heat.

Place in the tea bag to steep. Let steep for at least 20 minutes. Add this to your pitcher with the Simple Peach Syrup and Honey. Stir well. Add ice and fill the rest of the pitcher with cold water.

Stir it all very good and it is ready to serve.

 Note: If the tea is not going to be served right away, I will skip adding the ice and leave the tea bag in the pitcher for an hour or so to bring a little extra flavor to it.

Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How To Attract Ladybugs To Your Garden

The best way to protect your garden in spring is to attract ladybugs as early as possible. By planting various wildflowers and herbs in the fall you get a head start in spring. They will be the first to bloom to allure the ladybug. 

The favorite blooms that will attract the ladybugs are the ones with tiny white clusters of flowers. 

I usually plant tons of Cilantro in and around my garden. Cilantro is easy to grow and will be the first to bloom hoards of white clusters.  

Other plants that work wonders are things like Sweet Allysum, Yarrow and Dill. 

The ladybugs will then fly to flowers like Marigolds, Zinnias and Cosmos. They will lay many eggs along the way and soon you will find them in many stages throughout your garden. 

The next thing you will discover is the ladybugs moving in on various garden crops and feasting on aphids throughout the season.

It is important to know the life cycles of your beneficial insects. That way you can best recognize them and not mistake them for a pest.

The Ladybugs lay tiny white eggs under the foliage of different plants. Usually they lay a cluster of 10 to 15 eggs. As soon as the larvae begins to hatch out they look for aphids to eat. 

In the larvae stage the ladybugs are said to look like tiny alligators and can be various colors depending on its variety.

 From the larvae stage the ladybug goes into its pupa stage before it emerges into a lovely ladybug. I found this ladybug chart fascinating to get a look at some of the different types of ladybugs in the adult stages.

You may be surprised to learn that the ladybug is not always red with black spots. There are literally thousands of different types of ladybugs in all kinds of colors around the world. 

Many have spots while others have none and some actually have stripes. Their colors range from orange to red, to pink, yellow, green and even black. 

Although they all benefit the garden, it is said that the ladybug called hippodamia convergens is the best one. They will make your garden home for a very long time and eat thousands of aphids. You can recognize this ladybug by two white slash marks above her wings.

It is true that the Lady Beetle is also well known as the Ladybug. They are indeed blessings from above when dwelling in the natural garden. They feast upon your aphid pests so that no pesticides are ever needed. They have also been known to eat various scale and mites that may infest your garden as well.

Happy Gardening!

Lovely little ladybug
sent from heaven above
please watch over my garden
and fill it up with love.
~Author Unknown

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Backyard Biodiversity For Beginners Part 2 - Soil

The fluttering of a butterfly's wings can effect climate changes on the other side of the planet. ~ Paul Erlich

Beginning our quest in achieving backyard biodiversity was really a matter of simple science. I pondered on this a bit as my 3 yr. old grandson was asking me questions in the garden. 

It's as simple as our 4 basic elements for growing a garden. The sun, the soil, the water and the seed.

Our first step will always be building the foundation. Which for the garden the foundation is the soil. 

You may have been using chemicals and want to change to living a more sustainable and healthy organic lifestyle. Or perhaps you may just be starting out on your first try at gardening.

We must begin with building a soil that is alive with living organisms. 

Keep in mind that if you have been using chemicals and pesticides you will most likely be missing most of the vital elements in your soil.

Depending on the applications, traces of some chemicals can remain in your soil for years. You may consider having your soil tested before growing edible vegetation.

We must begin somewhere and the easiest way to understand how to create diversity is to picture a natural forest. Since we are making healthy soil we will concentrate on the forest floor itself. 

Depending on your area and what materials are available to you will determine what your forest floor will consist of. As you can see in our diagrams the trees provide most of the forest floor by falling leaves.

In the forest you have a natural canopy that provides all the nutrients for the soil. 

Ideally we want to create a natural canopy in our backyards. It is always a good idea to plant native trees and shrubs that would naturally grow in your area. This natural canopy would not just provide you with rich organic soil that is teaming with life, but also a natural habitat for wildlife as well. 

For your forest floor you need a whole lot of organic matter. Begin your compost pile. Rake leaves and gather grass clippings and pile it up. Save your produce kitchen scraps as well as eggshells, coffee and tea scraps and bury them in the pile. 

I usually pour my kitchen scraps at the bottom of the pile and then rake down some leaves to cover it up. 

Because the area in which I live is considered prairie, trees are scarce here. The original farms in this area grew large fields of watermelons which are very heavy feeders. Heavy feeding crops strip the soil of all its nutrients.

They can be replaced with organic matter when farmed properly. Growing cover crops and good rotation methods are basically what is called for.  

We have had a hard crusty sand at the surface and not far below that is clay. This is not so uncommon in Texas.

I would have to believe that this land was once rich in organic healthy soil since farmers found it very productive for farming their watermelons. They sure left it in very poor condition when they were finished. 

This is why it is such an urgent matter all over the planet to go back to good sustainable farming practices. We have to put back into the earth what we take out of it. Below is a simple diagram showing how nature would put nutrients back into the soil.

Since an abundance of organic matter was not available to me here, other than our own composting, I've had to get very creative.

We've had to grow many permaculture type plants to add more organic matter to our land.

Most people rake the leaves out of their flower beds and lawns, bag them up to be carried off to the land fill. Some burn them or have someone that picks them up and carries them away. 

They find leaves to be such a nuisance, when the very thing they should be doing is leaving them in the flower beds instead of trying to replace them with some sterile mulch that seems rather pleasing to the eye for the perfect manicured landscape. 

The leaves need to be composted and put back into the earth. In a healthy ecosystem like a natural forest, sterile would not provide the nutrients in which to feed itself. Without the organic matter you will have a hard time creating your backyard biodiversity without having to constantly add fertilizers and supplements to your landscape. 

This can be done, but it is also very costly and time consuming. If needed to purchase it will be important to find a trusted source for organic materials.

If you take a deeper look into the edge of my cornfield, you will see the forest floor that we have created. You will most likely not find bare ground in any of the garden. Bare ground is what leads to pests and diseases. 

If you were to rake back the leaves a bit you will find a healthy rich soil that is loaded with life. I've also created a canopy in the corn field. The corn is my tree reaching for the sky, while pole beans climb it's trunk for support and aiding in adding nitrogen back into the soil. 

The pumpkins will climb through the forest floor seeking shelter from the hot sun as it finds shade under the corn. The pumpkins will also aid the corn as a living mulch to help retain moisture in the soil. This is the Native American system called Three Sisters. 

Much can be learned from a people that were so close to earth and acknowledged how nature worked to provide for itself. In this little ecosystem of the Three Sisters will beneficial insects and micro organisms in the soil care for the health of the plants. 

There will not be any need for chemicals or pesticides because the balance in nature takes care of itself. The materials for creating this small ecosystem cost nothing but the time and energy spent in raking and saving organic material and applying it in layers throughout the garden.

I believe when we quit trying to out smart nature and learn how perfect nature works all on its own we will soon be on the right track.

It never hurts to share with your neighbors to encourage them to have a healthy backyard. Greatly what our neighbors do will also reflect what happens in your own yard.

Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How To Grow Traditional 3 Sisters Garden

We have lived upon this land from days beyond history’s record, far past any living memory, deep into the time of legend. The story of my people and the story of this place are one single story. We are always joined together ~ Pueblo Elder

The legends of corn can easily be told by the Native American Indians. They knew how to grow it and how to achieve sustainability from it through hundreds of generations.
Actually all corn is Indian Corn and not just the pretty colored corns you see around the holidays.  It is native to America and Mexico and there were once around 250 different varieties of native corn.
Most have since become lost and extinct. It is said to have originated from the Mexican areas more than 7,000 years ago and thought to have been cultivated from wild grasses.
The Native American people were the original agriculturist in our country. They understood what worked best naturally.
They gave the utmost respect to the soil and water and knew that one must always give back to the earth what one takes from it.
It’s quite apparent that a great deal of the settlers that came to this country never acquired the same respect for the land and its inhabitants. It certainly still shows itself today in the way that big farms have reduced themselves to farming with poisonous chemicals and genetic engineering that is causing a staggering loss of diversity and natural life to the critical point of extinction.
Even today, if one would listen to the wisdom given by the Native American Indians, they would learn so much about gardening and farming.
There is a Native American by the name of Buffalo Bird Woman of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe who has given a detailed account of how her family sustained themselves with their garden. (ca. 1839 – 1932) I love going to her writings for reference as well as the inspiration she seems to give me.

What has stuck with me the most I think is that the closer we get to the original heirloom native varieties of seed the more success there is for the harvest. This is one of the reasons it is so important to protect heirloom seeds.

I sought after a Native Texas Dent Corn variety that happens to be  near extinction. It was important to find the perfect variety that would serve the same needs for my own family that the Indians had for theirs.
The Native Americans grew their corn to dry it during harvest so it would last them throughout the winter months. They would grind it into cornmeal to eat as well as crack it for feeding their livestock during harsh winter weather.

The beans the Indians grew was for the purpose of having dry beans. Dry beans were easy to harvest and put away for winter storage.
The beans we chose was a Native American Cornfield Bean that grew well over the top of the corn. The pods dried on the vines and we picked and shelled them for our pantry as well.

The timing was perfect as our beans were ready for harvest at the same time as the corn. The beans had benefited from the corn by using its stalks to climb on. They in turn benefited the corn by adding nitrogen back into the soil that helps feed the corn.

The squashes they grew were varieties that would store well throughout the winter months.
It also was grown on the outside of the mounds the corn and beans were growing in. The squash would in turn provide a natural living mulch and ground cover for the corn and beans as it stretches across the ground.

The squash in turn enjoyed the protection from the harsh hot summer sun growing beneath the corn and beans.
It’s a remarkable combination of companions that fit each other so very perfectly.

We switched from growing pumpkins with the corn crop and turned to a heirloom variety of Butternut Squash. With the Butternut we had no problems with the troublesome squash borers that injure and kill the pumpkins so easily in our area.
The Butternut Squash was ready for harvest near the same time as the corn and beans. The flesh is sweet and rich orange and wonderful in many dishes.
I’ve seen many gardeners have lack of success at trying to grow the Three Sisters Way. I’ve had previous failures as well.
The lesson’s that I learned is you must grow it just like the Native Americans did. That doesn’t mean growing it in rows. You have a more abundant harvest and stronger stalks when it is grown on mounds or circles. It’s a natural support system for the trio.
There is also less problems with timing and harvest when you grow for drying purposes. Sweet Corn or Pole Beans that must be eaten fresh interrupts the entire process and is difficult to harvest. If you want to imagine trying to pick sweet corn or green beans while pushing your way through a tangled web of vines and trying to tip toe over squash vines then you’ll understand.
It’s odd how we have so much more success when we notice the little details  that end up making all the difference in the world. It’s easy to see why protecting our heirloom varieties from cross contamination and extinction is so critical.  What a beautiful and perfect tradition that must live on. This is to the hope of our future generations.

Happy Gardening!


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Growing Organic Potatoes Made Easy

Red LaSoda Seed Potatoes

Valentines Day means more than just Cupids here in the garden. It really means Potato Planting Thyme in Texas!

Mr. Garden, also known as El Spud by some has the easiest system for growing clean and easy potatoes in raised beds.

This year it seems one of the several compost piles had lots of extra oak tree leaves. We always use what we seem to have the most in as far as organic material goes. Last year it seems it was pine straw that was used. 

Part of the raised beds get filled with leaves. Then as you can see, Mr. Garden tosses in some seed potatoes.

Then we get in there and space them in nice straight rows about a foot to 18" apart. Pretty easy so far!

Next he simply covers the potatoes with more leaves. 

Our four raised beds take about 6 lbs. of seed potato. Mr. Garden likes to buy them just the right size (smallish) so we have no need to cut them like you would for the really big seed potatoes.

All that will be left to do is to water them in and wait for them to grow. As they grow you will just simply add a bit more leaves on the top. 

Be sure to check out my potato harvest article from last year.Storing and freezing harvested potatoes.

Here's to a Fresh New Year and Bountiful Harvesting!

Happy Gardening!


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Growing Heirloom Tomatoes From Seed

There are a few important situations that tomato seedlings require when starting them indoors. Timing, soil, temperature, lighting and proper watering methods will get your off to a great start.

Tomato seeds require temperatures of around 65 degrees and plenty of air circulation and sunlight in order to germinate.

You will want a good organic seed starting mix to begin with. We actually make our own by using a mixture of compost, peat moss and perlite. Our chicken manure is worked directly into the compost pile and provides much fertilizer.

The watering should be a good soak for the initial watering in. After that the pots need to become nearly totally dry before soaking again.
When the requirements are met your plants should be ready for their first transplant after 4 to 6 weeks before they are ready for the hardening off process and going directly into the garden.
My seeds were sown on the last day of January. It has now been 4 weeks and I have my first very nice umbrella of leaves. This is the perfect time to transplant them into bigger pots.
It will still be another 4 weeks before the average last frost date for my garden zone. What that means basically is I will not be putting them outdoors before that time.
But what I want to concentrate on now is getting a strong healthy root system and a nice straight healthy stem. In doing so my plants will hold up through the entire season.
The deeper the root system the stronger the plant will be in holding up through strong winds. The roots will also be down deep in the garden soil allowing them to reach the moisture level that is not always available towards the surface.
Your main stem needs to be strong and healthy as well. This is very important because the main stem has to go through the entire season of holding clusters of heavy tomatoes. You don’t want it to snap or contracting diseases.
Understanding heirloom tomatoes and the parts of the plant will help you grow a healthier plant with larger yields.
The most important thing to know about all tomatoes is that there are basically two types.
The first type is called a determinate, which is basically a bush type variety. Bush types are the best ones for growing in pots and containers for your patio. No pruning should be used when growing this variety. Staking or caging can sometimes be needed when the plant becomes heavy with fruit or if you are in a windy location.
The second type of tomato is called the indeterminate varieties which are the vining tomato plants. With this type pruning and tying the plant will be quite necessary. This is especially true with heirlooms and older varieties. Some heirlooms will vine well up to the top of your house.
We grow the vining indeterminate varieties of heirlooms predominantly in our gardens. So the first thing I will do is pinch off those first little leaves that I am touching in this photo. Then I will pinch off the first little side shoot right above it.
It is very important to make sure you have washed your hands good with soap and water before handling your tomato plants. They are very susceptible to disease at this delicate stage. It is also better to use your fingers rather than scissors. Scissors can transmit diseases. If you are using scissors be very sure that you have sterilized them. The young leaves and stems are very easily pinched off with your fingers, so I really don’t find scissors necessary at this point.
After I have pinched the leaves I am going to transplant into  a much deeper pot. I prefer a 1/2 gallon size at this point because of the length of my stem. Add just a sprinkling of your homemade garden soil mix to the bottom of the pot. Then set your plant all the way down into the pot. Cover the stem with more soil just to underneath the nice umbrella at the top of the plant.  Now new roots will grow from the stem beneath the soil.
I’ve only needed to water my seedlings once during the first planting. Now my plants will receive their second soaking and placed back indoors until they are ready for the garden. It is important not to keep your plants drenched in water while indoors. This can also cause problems with damping off and disease while they are inside.
There are still many cloudy days during this time of year. Be sure your plants get good air circulation during the warmer days and plenty of air on the sunny days.

Happy Gardening!