Growing Sunflowers In Your Veggie Garden Is A Bright Idea

Tall yellow sunflower

Let’s talk about sunflowers. Beautiful, vibrant sunflowers. While they are not a plant the average vegetable grower considers putting in their garden, standing tall between the tomatoes and the melons, I’m going to take a few moments here to suggest they should be.  Seriously, you need to be planting these lovelies.  Even in my tiny garden, I usually carve out a small space to grow a few sunflowers.

Sweet yellow sunflower

Why?  Besides the joy of seeing their bright happy faces in the morning, I have a handful of other good reasons:

  • They draw and feed needed pollinators – bees love sunflowers
  • They are super easy to grow from seed
  • Planting them close to your cucumbers can improve the cucs flavor
  • They add a bright splash of color
  • And after all is said and done…you can harvest and eat the seeds!

Since sunflowers grow straight up, they don’t require much of a foot print and you don’t have to plant an army of them to gain their benefits.  I usually only give them a two foot square of ground in which to grow.  But even with that small space, once planted, they will soon be towering over my garden, beckoning the bees and butterflies.

Towering Sunflower

They couldn’t be easier to plant.  Super forgiving of the soil and environment, you pretty much just plant the seeds, cover with dirt, and water.  And…boom!  Sunflowers!

Orange Sunflower and Buds

If you do decide to plant these beauties, you will need to make a few decisions.  Sunflower varieties come in different heights, colors, and seed size.  So be sure to read all the info about the seeds you are considering to make sure they will accomplish your goals.  I have come to prefer the tall varieties with big seeds like Mammoth and Pike’s Peak (the variety pictured at the top of this post), but a shorter variety with smaller seeds might suit your needs better.  That bit is totally up to you.  But don’t be afraid to stray from the standard yellow – feel free to throw in a few other color varieties as well, like the orange one pictured below.

Pretty Orange Sunflower

If you are just growing them for their pollination benefits and beauty, then you can pull the plants out when the flowers have all drooped and begun to dry.  But if, like me, you want to harvest their tasty and nutritious seeds, then you will need to leave them alone and let time do its work.

wide open tall sunflower

After the flowers have grown big and bright and happy in the sunshine, and had visits from many pollinators, they will begin to droop over at the top.  As this process continues, the petals will fall off and the flowers will look dead…but don’t be fooled.  It is during this time that the seeds begin to grow big and tasty.  Unfortunately, the birds think they are tasty, too.  So I usually take precautions to make sure I get to enjoy the seeds instead of the neighborhood birds.

Mesh Bag

I simply slip one of these over each flower head…and wait.  Pretty much any breathable covering that keeps the bird from getting to the seeds will do, but if you are looking for the same ones I use, I buy them in bulk from HarrisSeeds.com.

Lots of Flowers with Mesh Bags

I know they don’t look pretty like this, but just think of the yumminess to come.  Once the flower heads have grown their seeds, you can snip each one off its stalk.  At this point, you can pull the stalks up out of the garden and send them off to your compost pile if you’d like.  The flower heads should go inside to a cool dry spot to dry out for about a week or so.  Once the heads are all dried out, it’s time to harvest those seeds.

Pile of Dried Sunflowers

The seeds are underneath all the fuzzy stuff on the surface of the flower’s face, so step number one is to rub all that off.  You can wear gloves for this if you would like.

Ready to harvest

Once you brush all that debris off, you will see the seeds packed tightly in the center of the flower face.

Seeds Ready to Harvest

That’s a lot of seeds in just one sunflower!!  Gently loosen the seeds and remove them from the dried flower head – some varieties are packed tight and can take a little work.

Removing Big seeds

And that’s it!  What was once a bright flower bringing needed bees and butterflies to your garden…

Side view of Yellow Sunflower

Well now be a tasty snack for you to enjoy all winter.

Seeds

I mentioned earlier about different varieties having different seed size.  If you are hoping to eat your seeds, then choosing a variety with larger seeds will make that easier.  While you can still eat the smaller seeds, the process is not as labor intensive if you have a variety with snack sized seeds (what the seed catalogs call the bigger seeds).

Here you can see the difference I’m talking about.  This is a harvest of the smaller sized seeds.

handful of small seeds

And here is a comparison with a larger variety.

Handful of big seeds

Big difference.

So when you are planning your garden for next season, please consider carving out a little space to plant a few sunflowers.  You, and the bees, will be glad you did.

Forward facing yellow sunflower

Now get out there and garden!!

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Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Small Garden

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

I LOVE sweet potatoes.  LOVE them.  Tasty.  Pretty.  Healthy.  Easy to grow (seriously, super easy).  Store well. You don’t need to devote a lot of space to them, either.  As a result, they are a staple in my little backyard garden.

A Sweet Potato in the hand

Growing these little orange jewels in Texas is pretty straight forward and relatively problem free. The biggest issue I have with them is controlling the wealth of vines the sweet potatoes try and spread out across the garden.  Left to their own devices, those vines would cover half my backyard like something out of a sci-fi film!  But as long as you don’t leave them to fend for themselves for long periods, you can tame those enthusiastic vines.

So…where do you start? Well, you are going to plant your sweet potatoes in the Spring, so you need to start preparing your slips in February.  “Slips” are the little sweet potato shoots you plant in the garden that grow into your sweet potatoes.  You can buy them from nurseries and from many sources online….or you can grow your own, like I do.  Much like my post about growing white potatoes, if you want to grow your own sweet potato slips, you need to head to the store and buy a few sweet potatoes.  If you buy from a nursery or online, you will know the exact variety of sweet potato you are growing, but if you buy from the grocery store, you will not.  I know that I prefer sweet potatoes that are dark orange, so I look for that type in the store.  I buy a few, bring them home, and cook one.  If it is the tasty thing I was hoping for, I sprout the remaining sweet potatoes.  If it wasn’t what I was looking for, I head back to the store.  You will have the most luck sprouting organic sweet potatoes, so opt for those if you can.

Okay, so now you have a handful of sweet potatoes you know you like.  Now what?  Here’s the super hard part.  Ready?  You set them out on your kitchen counter and leave them alone.  Difficult, right?  Just let those sweet potatoes sit there until they start to sprout out of one end.

Sprouted Sweet Potato

Now that you have some sprouting going on, you need to put the other end of the sweet potato in some water and set it in a sunny spot, like on a window sill.  I usually use a small jar for this.  To be clear, you put the end with NO sprouts coming out of it in the water, and the sprouted end is the one on top.

Sprouted Potato in a jar

As you can see from this picture above, the potato will continue to grow sprouts out the top, and little roots on the bottom.  Each of those little sprouts on the top are a “slip.”  You can get quite a few from one potato.  I usually just need to sprout two sweet potatoes to get all the slips I will need, and then some.

Once your slips are several inches long, and have a leaf or two forming, you can remove them from the sweet potato and plant them immediately in the garden.  It doesn’t matter if they get a little longer and more leafy before you plant them (like the one below), so don’t feel pressured to rush them into the garden if it’s not warm enough outside yet. You want to set them out when it is warm during the day and all danger of frost has past.

If you feel good about it being the right time to plant, then you are going to want to snip each slip off the potato with sharp, clean scissors – right at the point where it comes out of the potato.

Sweet potato slip

One note – you don’t have to cut them all off at once.  If several are big enough to cut off and plant, but a few aren’t, then remove the ones that are ready and set the potato with the remaining sprouts, still attached, back on the window sill.  Once they have grown a little more, you can snip them off and plant them with the others in the garden.

Now that you have your slips ready to go, you need a good spot for them in the garden. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, so they will a need nice, deeply tilled, sunny patch that is relatively free of rocks.  Rocks, and other obstacles, will cause the sweet potatoes to grow crooked.

Bent Sweet Potato

Bent Sweet Potato

Looks a little like a boomerang!  (Still tasty, though!)

Root vegetables also need well drained soil – they will rot in the ground if they get water logged.  Squishy, rotted, potatoes….ew.

How big a patch you decide on, will depend on how many potatoes you want to grow.  I usually plant about 7 slips in a square that is roughly  2′ 6″ x  2′ 6″ – and from that small space I am harvest enough sweet potatoes to get me through the Winter.

So, pick your spot, make sure it gets plenty of sun, make sure it doesn’t get water logged, till it up nice a deep, remove all the rocks and other debris you can, and add in a little compost if you think your soil needs it.

Time to plant!  Sweet potatoes grow in a cone shape below the main plant (which will be the grown up version of that slip you are about to plant), so you want to leave a least a 8 inches or so between slips.  Planting the slips is almost as hard as that “setting them on the counter” thing you did earlier.  You take that cute little slip and…drum roll….stick it into the dirt.

Planting the slip

That’s really it…you just gently push the slip into the soil a few inches.

CU of slip being planted

Boom!  Sweet potato planted!  The little baby slips will need to be kept watered for a few days till they establish roots and can move on to a more regular watering like the rest of your garden.  You don’t want them soaked all the time, just don’t let the sprouts dry out completely for a few days.  After that, your sweet potatoes will be off to the races – meaning they will start sending out vines like you wouldn’t believe!  Seriously, they will grow all over the place if you let them.  So before that starts happening and your garden is overrun, you will need a plan.  I have found placing a trellis in the ground right behind the sweet potato patch when I plant a good solution.  Then as the vines grow, I toss them up on to the trellis (they won’t agree to this on their own, you will have to direct the vines yourself).

Sweet Potato Vines

Don’t be fooled by this picture – this was still early in the season when the vines were just getting going.

You can trim back particularly long or unruly vines if you need to, but since the vines are the potatoes’ source for gathering sunlight you will need to leave plenty to feed the sweet potatoes.

One note more on the vines.  Vines laying on the ground will, eventually, send down roots that will grow more sweet potatoes.  Those sweet potatoes won’t grow fast enough to really show up this year – they will be the ones that spring up in your garden next year.  So, if you allow your vines to sprawl happily through your garden, then next year you will have little sweet potato plants sprouting in unexpected places.  This may, or may not, be okay with you, so plan accordingly.  Since one or two vines are bound to get away from you somehow, even with your diligence, this is going to happen to you a few times.  Depending on where they pop up, it might be a pleasant surprise.  On the plus side, it’s not like they are invasive in some way.  Just a few errant sweet potatoes now and then.

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

When to harvest?  It will take all Summer long and into the Fall for your sweet potato crop to mature.  If you are in the mood for a sweet potato in late Summer, and your soil is loose enough, you can gently stick your hand down into the soil near one of the plants and see if you can find a potato of adequate size for your dinner.  They are attached to the main plant by a small root, so they are easy to snip off, leaving the rest of the plant undisturbed.  As for the remainder of the crop, you will know all the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the vines begin to die off.

Dying vines

Dying vines

When this happens, it’s time to dig.  Ever so gently, so you don’t damage the potatoes, dig up the entire patch.  I tend to go about it like an archaeologist – I dig slowly and carefully, unearthing one potato at a time.

Just uncovered

Be sure to over turn the entire area in your hunt – some sweet potatoes manage to wander a bit from the rest of the group.

Fresh out of the ground

Ah!  Orange deliciousness.

A pretty big reward, for relatively little work.

Big bowl of Sweet Potatoes

I’m sure you have your favorite way to prepare these nutritious powerhouses, but here are two of mine.

Baked Sweet potato

You can’t go wrong with the baked sweet potato – they also cook up nicely wrapped in foil on the grill.

But one you may not have ever tried, is oven baked sweet potato disks.

Sweet Potato disks

You just peel the sweet potato, slice really thin (like with a mandolin), toss with olive oil and pepper, spread on parchment paper, and bake at 350º till just starting to brown. You do have to keep an eye on them towards the end – they go from perfect to burned in seconds.

That’s it!  Even the garden with a small area to work with can grow sweet potatoes!  And devoting the space for them is so worth it!  Now get out there and garden!

Grow Cantaloupe Vertically And Get A Lot of Tasty Fruit From A Small Footprint

Two HalvesCantaloupe fresh off the vine is a thing of beauty.  It is so sweet and so juicy it will need to take center stage on your plate.

Holding cantaloupeBut some gardeners who love cantaloupe don’t grow it in their backyard garden because the vines take up so much space.  I, for one, love cantaloupe far too much to let a little thing like limited space stop me.  So what did I do?  I did what I always do…I went vertical.

The Trellis with growing vinesThis simple arched trellis of mine can easily support eight cantaloupe plants – far more than I would be willing to plant if they needed ground room to sprawl.

How did I build that amazing structure, you ask?  Well let me tell you all about it.  I knew there were a number of factors to consider when deciding what to use as a trellis for my melons.  First, most cantaloupe varieties grow very long vines, so I knew I would want something that was tall enough to allow the vines to grow up and over.  (This trellis is over six feet high, with the sides four feet apart.)  Second, since cantaloupe are a heavy, dense fruit, you need a very sturdy trellis that can handle the weight of a bountiful harvest without collapsing.  And finally, I wanted something that had tight enough gaps to make it easy for the vines to climb the structure with minimal help from me.  I opted for the same welded wire I used to build my potato towers.

Welded Wirewire rollLike I mentioned above, I wanted a trellis that was a little over six feet high at the top and four feet from side to side.  So I measured out my length of wire and snipped off the amount I needed.

cutting the wireI then hammered four U-Posts into the ground just inside the points that would be the four corners of my trellis – since the trellis is going to hold a heavy load, I opted for slightly bigger U-posts than the wire might usually call for and I hammered then as deep as I could for maximum stability.  I planted my posts so that the open U was facing the inside of the trellis and the hooks were facing out.  Once my U-Posts were in place, I attached the welded wire to the posts using the hooks on the posts and zip ties.

Trellis postMy choice of the welded wire made it easy enough to bend into the arch I wanted, but lacked some strength in that very arch that needed some extra support.  For that, I took a stick of 1/2″ PVC, grabbed it out towards the ends and gently bent it into a curve that matched my trellis arch.  At the point it was simple as pie to slip that PVC curve up inside the arch with the pipe fitting fairly well into the open U of the posts.  The final step was to add a few zip ties to hold the PVC in place.  At that point, the pressure of the PVC pushing out against the U-Posts in an attempt to straighten, coupled with the zip ties, will make a very sturdy arch trellis that is all ready for your cantaloupe vines.

The TrellisFor the watering of the cantaloupes, I ran a soaker hose on a timer along the sides of the trellis as you can see in the picture above.  I also like to take advantage of any empty space in the garden, like the one in the middle of the trellis, to squeeze in another crop of something – in this case onions.  I knew the onions would grow during the cooler season before I planted the cantaloupe, and be harvested before the cantaloupe vines took over the area.

Next step was to plant the cantaloupe.  I planted several varieties, some from seed and some from nursery transplants, all along the welded wire sides.

Just getting startedAs they grew, I encouraged them to weave up through the trellis rather than grow along the ground.

When they actively started climbing, they continued to weave through the trellis on their own, but I watched for vines trying to wander off the trellis from time to time and corralled them back onto the arch.

Trellis with growing CantaloupeOnce the vines had gotten long and happy on the arch, and the weather had heated up, I  started getting little baby cantaloupes hanging all over the trellis.

Baby CantaloupeSeriously adorable, aren’t they?

Cantaloupe vines are pretty strong and keep a tight hold on the fruit as it grows, but with the melons hanging out there in space, it is a good idea to offer them a bit of support.  My choice was to buy these mesh produce bags with drawstrings in bulk online.

Mesh BagThe place I purchased these no longer carries them, so I have been on the hunt for a new supply.  The ones I found at HarrisSeeds.com are not the same, but close enough.  You want something big enough to hold the full grown fruit, but not so big that there is WAY too much bag.  And that drawstring is pretty important, as you are about to see.

Once the fruit starts getting big, it’s time to GENTLY slip it inside a bag and then tie the drawstring to the trellis so that the bag takes some of the weight.

Hanging CantaloupeThe bag will help protect the growing melon from birds and other pests, and take some of the stress off the vine.  When it is time to harvest, you simple untie the bag and pop the cantaloupe off the vine.

Small Cantaloupe in BagOne of the other benefits of the mesh bags is that when a cantaloupe is perfectly ripe, it will separate from it’s vine.  Should the cantaloupe reach complete ripeness before you harvest it, that beautiful melon will separate from the vine due to the fact that it is hanging from it and fall.  Without the bag, tragedy might result.  But with the bag, the fruit falls safely into the bag and waits patiently for you to come back out to the garden and find it.

Hanging in a bagIf, however, a melon forms on the OUTSIDE of the trellis wire where it is supported by the trellis itself, you can decide whether you feel a bag would be beneficial or not.

This one that grew on the top of my arch, for instance, is safe and sound up there with no need for support.

Cantaloupe on top of trellisBut this one, that grew on the side, is more of a question – it might be fine, but it still might fall to the ground when it ripens.  In the end, I put a bag around this one for safety.  Just couldn’t risk that awesomeness smashing to the ground.

Cantaloupe on the trellisNow a quick word about trying a shorter trellis.  I did a shorter trellis last year with garden gate sections that was super sturdy, but only about three feet high.  The vines enveloped it in no time and it took a lot of effort to keep them from wandering off into the garden.

Smaller structureSo I do highly recommend going with a tall structure for these vining fruits.

All that is left at this point, it admiring and enjoying your fabulous cantaloupes.

Ripe MelonFresh melon from the garden is a treat worth the work, so don’t let having a small area to garden keep you from planting them.

BreakfastSo good!  Oh my goodness!

Now get out there and garden!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting a Trap for Garden Pests – Namely Aphids and Whiteflies

Baby Tomatoes I love the tomatoes from my garden…but so do aphids and whiteflies.  Both of those tiny little buggers, plus things like leaf miners, attack plants all over your garden, leaving devastated veggies in their wake.  And to make matters worse, these teeny little pests can be close to impossible to get rid of once they are established. I am not a fan of using heavy chemicals – so what’s a gardener to do?  When at all possible, I prefer to defend my garden in the first place and prevent or repel unwanted insects, reducing the number of pests that gain a foothold and have to be fought.  And what defense are we going to talk about today?  Sticky yellow cup traps.

Yellow cup and marigoldsCheap and simple, these yellow plastic cups are covered in a sticky substance that feels like a cross between glue and Vaseline.  The idea here is that the pests that are drawn to all your produce with yellow flowers will see that big beautiful yellow cup, think it is a big delicious flower on their favorite plant to attack, land on it…and get stuck. Big insects like bees and butterflies can usually escape unharmed, but the nasty little guys you don’t want making a home in your garden get stuck and never have a chance to destroy your beautiful tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, etc.  The cool thing about this product is that it never hardens like glue and won’t wash off in the rain, so it keeps right on working until the cup is too covered in bugs to still be effective. This is a preventative, not a cure, so be sure to set these out in the garden when you plant in the Spring and Fall so they can get right to work on helping stop the problem before it starts.  Now, you can BUY yellow sticky traps that will accomplish much the same thing, but this suggestion is much cheaper…and I think easier to manage.

Here’s what you need:

Tools you will need

  • Bright yellow plastic cups – they have to be bright yellow
  •  Some sort of wooden stake
  •  Tanglefoot – I’ll get to this in a minute
  •  A drill with some small screws

I buy the yellow cups at my local Party City, but I’m sure there are lots of sources where you can find these.  They do need to be the bright yellow of tomato flowers for them to do their job.  Take one of these plastic cups and insert one end of a wooden stake into the cup:

AssembledThen, using your drill, affix the cup to the stake by putting a small screw through the bottom of the cup and into the stake:

Screw cup to the stakeYou can coat the cup with Tanglefoot at this point, but I find it is easier to place it where you want it in the garden first.  That Tanglefoot is sticky stuff, so the less you handle the trap after its applied the better. Select a location very close to the plants most likely to be attacked and just stick it in the ground:

Plant it in the gardenNow it’s time to coat the whole thing with the Tanglefoot – also called Tree Tanglewood and Tangle Trap.

TangletrapYou can purchase this at some nurseries and home improvement stores – or on the internet from lots of sources.  I like to buy a can with the brush attached to the lid for easy application of the gooey contents.

Brush attachedWhile trying not to get this sticky stuff all over yourself, coat the entire outside of the cup with the Tanglefoot – don’t forget to do all the way around and the top as well.  You want a nice thick layer, but it doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth or pretty.  You just want to make sure there is Tanglefoot on the entire exterior of the cup so that an aphid will be stuck no matter where it lands.

Brush it onThat’s it!  The trap is set.  It won’t take long at all for you to start seeing flying insects stuck fast to your cup.  Eventually, you will have enough insects stuck to the cup that it will be need to be replaced.  You can toss the whole thing and start from scratch, or you can carefully remove and toss the cup, and reuse the stake and screws.

Bugs stuck to cupsA word of caution.  As I keep saying, this stuff is sticky!  It never hardens like glue, so if you brush against it, you will get sticky stuff stuck to you…usually with a few bugs as well…yuck!  I can’t tell you how many times I leaned over near one of these and ended up with sticky goo and dead flies in my hair.  Luckily it washes out…but…ew!

There you have it!  A simple, cheap, non-pesticide way to help prevent an infestation of aphids, whiteflies, and the like.  Happy Gardening!

 

Lady Bugs in the Garden

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Photo courtesy of Michael Botos – http://www.botos.com/weekly/ladybugs.html

Lady bugs are awesome in general, but amazing when it comes to your garden.  These little beauties love to snack on aphids, mites, and other nasty little soft bodied larvae that want to destroy all your hard work by slowly killing your beloved plants.  That, and they are adorable.

Since having lady bugs living in your garden can help keep some of those destructive pest populations under control and is just plain awesome, what should you do to make that happen?   First off, try and attract them to your garden.  This is a good option if it is the first of the Spring season when the pests aren’t really an issue yet, or if you don’t really have a pest problem, but want to help prevent developing one by inviting the lady bugs to set up shop in your garden and eat up any bad pests as they arrive.  How do you do that?  Create a safe place for your lady bugs to live and make sure they have water to drink and tasty pollen to eat.  Give them those things and they will be hanging out in your garden ready to pounce on any aphids or mites that decide your garden looks nice to them, too.

Housing: Lady bugs need a little cover…a nice safe place where birds and other predators can’t easily spot them.  Mulch, foliage, tall grass, dense plants, etc…  Or you can go and get all cute about it like I did and build a little lady bug house and hang it in your garden.

Lady Bug HouseI took a little bird house I had in the garage, covered the larger hole that was meant for birds (since part of what you are trying to do is keep the birds AWAY from your lady bugs), drilled smaller holes the lady bugs could use to crawl in and out, and filled the inside with straw.  A few months after hanging this in my garden last year, I started spotting lady bugs climbing around on it, and this year, I saw lady bug larvae on it, so I am going to call it a success.

Water: You need some source of water that the lady bugs can use. It doesn’t need to be a large source, and you don’t want something that will just stagnate and invite mosquitoes to move in and start having babies.  I have a few misters in my garden that water certain areas and leave a few nice puddles of water every morning.  The potted plants on the patio inside the garden area have saucers that overflow a bit each day to keep the water fresh, but collect enough to feed the small community of beneficials living out there.  If you don’t have a naturally occurring source of water, you could create one or set out small saucers of water – just make sure you freshen the water frequently.

Pollen:  FLOWERS!!  Flowers in your vegetable garden are a good idea all the way around.  Many of them deter bad bugs, and attract and feed the good ones.  And then there’s the part where they are lovely to look at and smell nice.  Having the right flowers in your veggie garden will draw the lady bugs to the area in the first place, and then when they see all the other lovely accommodations you’ve made for them, they might just stick around and settle down for a while.  They like lots of different kinds of flowers: dill, fennel, yarrow, zinnias, cosmos.  My personal favorites, and the ones I have in my garden each year are Alyssum, Sunflowers, Peas and Marigolds.

AlyssumAlyssum is a sweet little flower that comes various shades that is low growing.  Not only do lady bugs find this flower delicious, but so do the pollinators like bees and butterflies.  I have this in a hanging basket on the edge of my garden – a tempting treat to draw lady bugs and the pollinators to my garden.

SunflowerSunflowers are a fun addition to the garden.  If you plant a tall variety, they will tower over your garden during the peak of the summer with their bright happy faces.  Much like the Alyssum, bees love these flowers, too, and will be pleased you planted them.  If you plant them near your cucs, it can improve the cuc’s flavor – a nice prize for feeding the bees and lady bugs.  And one more happy benefit of planting this sunny flower for your lady bugs is that you can harvest and eat the seeds!Sunflower seed harvestYummy!

Purple Podded Pea FlowerPea plants form sweet little white flowers that turn into pea pods – or in the case of the picture above, purple flowers that become purple podded peas.  Lady bugs love to snack on the pollen in these delicate little flowers.

And then, of course, you get peas out of the deal.  What a delicious bonus!

Purple Podded PeasNow let’s talk about Marigolds.

Marigolds among the tomatoesI consider these little guys one of the powerhouses in my fight against garden pests.  One year my tomato plants were devastated by aphids.  I was heartbroken.  In my desperate search to find a solution, I read that marigolds help protect your tomatoes, and other plants, from the evil aphid.  I tried them the next year and it worked.  Now I plant these mighty warriors around the base of all my tomato plants every year…and have no issues with aphids at all!  Then you have the added benefit that they are one of the pollens your lady bugs are fond of – everybody wins.

If you plant the tasty flowers, provide water and a place to live, hopefully the lady bugs will show up all on their own.  But if you haven’t managed to attract them naturally, and find you are having a pest problem they can help with, you may need to pop down to your neighborhood organic nursery and pick up a little tub of them to release in your garden.

A few words about this:

1. If your pest problem is truly out of control, the lady bugs may enjoy the feast, but it probably won’t be in time to save your plants.

2. Once you release the large number of lady bugs that come in the container, you still have to have an environment where they want to stay.  If there isn’t sufficient food, water and shelter, they will just head on out as soon as they can.  Many many of them will leave anyway, but if your space is lovely to them, hopefully enough will stay to help combat your pest problem.

That said…let’s release some lady bugs!  Keep the tub in the refrigerator until you are ready.

Lady  Bug TubWait until evening, and then water your garden well so there will be plenty of water for them to drink as they warm up and start moving around the space.  I have read in several places that one way to get them to stay in the garden and not fly off right away is to spray them with sugar water so they will be too sticky to fly off and will already like your garden and want to stay by the time they can fly – I’ve never done that and have no idea if it works or not.

Once you take them out of the fridge and open the tub, they will start to warm up and move around.

Lady Bugs EmergeMy approach was to walk around the garden and sprinkle them in different places so there wouldn’t be too many in one spot competing for food and water.

Releasing the lady bugsWarning: they WILL crawl out of the tub and on to you – like something out of a horror film.  Since they don’t bite or do anything harmful, this isn’t a big deal unless bugs crawling on you freak you out.  Luckily someone had warned me about this part and I had prepared myself emotionally.  They are adorable, after all.

Lady Bugs crawling on my handOnce all the lady bugs have been released into the garden.  Find yourself a comfy spot to sit down…and wait for all the lady bugs that made it inside your clothes, to wander back out.

Lady Bugs in the tub

At this point, the ladybugs should start doing their thing – wandering around your garden chowing down on tasty treats like aphids.  Two days after the batch pictured below got to snacking, I couldn’t find a single aphid left in the garden.  Good job, Ladybugs!

Ladybugs on my eggplants

Ladybugs on cuc plant

Ladybugs eating Aphids on Pepper plant

If you have been successful in getting a few lady bugs to make their home in your garden space, then it is very important that you learn to recognize not just the adults, but the eggs and larvae too.  You certainly don’t want to undo all your good work by accidentally squishing the eggs or freaking out and killing the larvae as they bop around on your plants.

Here are a few photos courtesy of Michael Botos (http://www.botos.com/weekly/ladybugs.html) that will show you what your lady bugs look like before they are all grown up.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Botos (http://www.botos.com/weekly/ladybugs.html)

Lady bug eggs are bright yellow ovals that are clustered together and standing on one end.  And the larvae look like ugly little alligators.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Botos (http://www.botos.com/weekly/ladybugs.html)

If you see these little guys in your garden you will know you have done a good job making a happy place for lady bugs to settle in and build a family.  Hooray for you!

The last point I would like to make about lady bugs concerns pesticides.  If you are looking to control pests with lady bugs, then chances are good you are already committed to an organic approach in your garden.  But in case you are tempted to use pesticides, keep in mind that they will kill your lady bugs and other beneficials as well as the bad bugs you were trying to get rid of.

Hope this helps you lure and keep these beautiful little aphid eaters in your garden!

Lone Lady BugHappy Gardening!

How I Built My Backyard In-Ground Garden

With it still being Winter in Texas, this is no time to be thinking about a Spring garden, right?  Wrong…oh so wrong.  If you already have a garden space, it is time to be planning what you will be planting this year, prepping your garden, and planting things like onions.  If you don’t already HAVE a backyard garden, but are thinking of starting one this year, and I hope you are, it is time to start planning AND building.  The success of your garden depends greatly on the quality of your soil and proper planning of what to plant where, so you don’t want to wait until it’s time to plant and rush though the prep process.  So what kind of garden should you go with?  When it comes to backyard gardens there are many directions you can go: container gardening, raised beds, in-ground, or a combination.

Containers are good for small spaces, but need a lot of water in the heat of the Summer.  Raised beds are good if you have bad soil and don’t want to have to amend what you already have, but you will have to fill those beds with soil and compost, and the cost of that can add up.  In-ground let you use a lot of what you already have and don’t require as much water as containers or raised beds, but do require a lot of labor to break up the existing soil and get it ready for planting.  Each one has it’s benefits – it’s really up to you to decide which will work best for you based on space, money, and time.

When I was taking my first baby steps into gardening, I started with containers.  Mostly standard pots at first, then I added a large tubs and a couple of sheep troughs.

My little patio garden.

My little patio garden.

I learned a lot from this small garden and got some tasty produce, but my ambition grew and soon that patio space was just not enough for all the things I dreamed of planting.  No question about it, I needed to expand.  The main problem I faced was that I have a tiny backyard, and most of it is graded for drainage…so not suitable for a garden.  Hmmm….what to do?  The only part of the yard that wasn’t part of the drainage slope was the 5 foot space directly around the patio.  Perfect!  Now what?

I decided I wanted an in-ground garden – building raised beds around the patio would have hemmed me in a little too much, and while raised beds allow for a longer growing season since they warm sooner than in-ground gardens, they also require more water during the hot months to keep them from drying out.  Unfortunately, my yard soil was atrocious (almost entirely clay) and would need some serious amending to make it usable for the garden.  Time for the fun, and the hard work to begin.

After a bunch of online research and talks with area nurseries, I decided I would amend my gross clay soil with compost (lots of compost), lava sand, Texas Greensand, and regular sand.  A note about compost – I am not a fan of manure based compost.  I know a lot of people swear by it, but since it is made from livestock animal manure, if it is not cured properly for any reason, it can carry things like E. coli.  Most of it is probably completely safe, but since I want to eat the food from my garden, it is a risk I am unwilling to take.  As for the other amendments; the lava and Texas Greensand add nutrients and minerals that my plants will love, and the regular sand helps to further break up the dense clay of my original soil.  If your soil is not as clay based to begin with, the regular sand it probably not needed.

 

We needed to rent a small trailer to gather up the bags and bags and bags of amendments.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

And then pile it all in the backyard.

We marked off the perimeter of the garden, and Todd brought out the rented tiller.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

It took a long time and a lot of blisters to till up the hard clay soil.  Luckily, Todd is a determined man and doesn’t give up easily.

Bye bye grass.

Once the clay had been thoroughly broken up, it was time to start mixing in the amendments.  We decided to do it in stages to be sure the whole garden received enough of each amendment.  First up was the compost…lots and lots of compost.  We dumped the bags in the center, then I spread it over the surface with my hoe, then Todd came through with the tiller.

compost, compost, compost.

compost, compost, compost.

Next up: lava sand and Texas Greensand.  I mixed them both together before tilling them in to the garden.

The lava sand and Texas Greensand made such a pretty color.

Tilling in the lava sand and Texas Greensand.

Last amendment: regular sand.

Finally, with all the amendments tilled in, my new garden soil is something my plants will find delicious.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

But we weren’t done yet.

With my busy schedule, we knew that if we didn’t put in a good watering system, my poor garden would perish in the Texas heat when I became too busy to water it every day. Todd, the man who can do just about anything, came up with a plan to supply my garden with water.  Unfortunately, I can’t go into detail about the particulars of this part of the garden because it was Todd’s brainchild and involves a lot of plumbing…I try to avoid all things plumbing.  Basically, we put a sprinkler type system in the garden itself – the green valves run on a sprinkler timer and the red valves always have water available – there are three of each in the garden.  From the green valves I run small hoses to each plant with small emitters – since they run on a timer, I can decide how much water the garden needs and what time of day is best and can easily change it as the weather heats up in the dead of Summer.  As for the red valves, I can hook regular hoses to those for any other water needs I have in the yard.

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Putting in the watering system.

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Valves at the corner and at each end.

Once the watering system was in, the garden was ready for some edging…and PLANTS!! In this picture you can see the little black hoses that run from the green valves to the individual plants.  (I will have more on this in a future post.)

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Happy little garden

With good dirt and plenty of water, my garden quickly thrived.

How to build an in-ground garden.

My garden growing like crazy!

I know it seems like a lot of work – and, boy howdy, it was – but if you are interested in having a garden, all that labor is totally worth it.  Eating your own strawberries, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, etc…there is nothing like it.  So even though it is still chilly outside, start making your plan and gathering your supplies.   Before you know it, the weather will warm it will be time to get some tasty things growing!

 

 

It’s Time to Plant for Fall!

 

IMG_5929This is a gardening alert:  It is time to be planting that Fall garden you’ve been thinking about – at least if you live in North Texas, like I do.  I know it’s still hot, but gear up and get out there.

Grab your hat, sunglasses, and cooling neck band, and get out there!

Grab your hat, sunglasses, and cooling neck band, and get out there!

Here in Texas we have a nice long Fall growing season, starting in late August and going until the first freeze – usually sometime in December.  And since we start out good and warm in that time window, we aren’t limited to just cool weather plants.  Fact is, you can grow just about anything in the Fall in Texas, as long as you get it growing soon enough for it to mature to harvest before it is killed off by a hard freeze.  The good news is that there are lots of plants that mature quickly enough for that and lots that are cold hardy enough to handle a few light freezes – unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of cross over between the two lists.

To help make it easier for you to plan your Fall garden, here is a list of common garden plants and roughly how long it takes each to mature:

The Fastest Garden Growers (mature in 30 to 60 days)

Beets,     Bush Beans,     Chard,     Kale,     Leaf Lettuce,     Mustard Greens,     Radishes,     Spinach,     Summer Squash (yes you can plant it in the Fall),     Turnips,     Turnip Greens

The “Middle of the Road” Growers – speed-wise (mature in 60 to 80 days)

Broccoli,     Chinese Cabbage,     Carrots,     Chard,     Cherry tomatoes,     Cucumbers,     Corn,     Green onions,     Kohlrabi,     Lime beans,     Okra,     Parsley,     Peppers

The Slow Growers (mature in 80 days or more)

Brussels Sprouts,     Bulb onions,     Cabbage,     Cantaloupe,     Cauliflower,     Eggplant,     Garlic,     Irish potatoes,     Pumpkins,     Sweet potatoes,     Tomatoes,     Watermelon,     Winter squash

Now, the other important part of the equation as you choose what to plant for the Fall, is which things are the most frost tolerant and which aren’t.  By comparing the two list, you can see things like Kale grow fast and hold up well to the frost…so if you like Kale it’s a great Fall choice.  But Eggplant takes a long time to mature, and is not frost tolerant, so might be a bit of a gamble in the Fall.

Here are some of the common garden crops that tend to be frost tolerant, but that will still die off in a hard freeze:

Beets,     Broccoli,     Brussels sprouts,     Cabbage,      Carrots,     Cauliflower,     Chard,     Collard greens,     Garlic,     Kale,     Lettuce,     Mustard Greens,     Onions,     Parsley,     Spinach,     Turnips

And here are the garden crops that are not frost tolerant – these guys will perish if the temps just touch freezing:

Beans,     Cantaloupe,     Corn,     Cucumber,     Eggplant,     Okra,     Peas,     Peppers,     Irish potatoes,     Sweet potatoes,     Squashes – both winter and summer,     Tomatoes,     Watermelons

Another thing to keep in mind, is that here in North Texas we get a few very short dips to freezing in the first part of Winter – and usually don’t get long hard freezes until after New Year.  Those plants that aren’t frost tolerant may die during that dip, even though temps after that climb back up and the plant would have been fine.  That means that if you can keep your frost susceptible plants warm for those tiny dips in the first part of the Winter, you can sometimes keep them alive and producing for a little longer.  You can use frost blankets and cloches, or, you can try what I did last year, Christmas lights – the old school ones that get warm, not the new LED ones.  I draped them all around my delicate plants and they came through those short dips to freezing just fine.

Keeping little plants warm with old school Christmas lights

Keeping little plants warm with old school Christmas lights

Whatever you decide to plant, it’s time to do it now…so stop reading my blog and get to it!

Variety is the spice of life – even in the garden!

For me, one of the fun parts of having my own garden is all the variety you can grow, even if you don’t have a lot of room to work with.  You don’t have a plant a bunch of one thing to be successful, in fact, if your garden size is limited, I encourage you not to.  I suggest you can get the most out of a small garden by planting a bunch of different types of things. That way, you don’t end up with a huge surplus of one type of produce that is ready to harvest all at once – unless you want to, of course.  By planting lots of different things, that all ripen at different rates, you can get a steady flow of produce from the garden to your table.  Once the growing season is well underway and things start to be ready for harvest, you can have, at least, one ingredient from the garden at every meal.  And that, my friends, is worth all the digging.

When I say “different types of things,” I mean, not only planting several varieties of something like peppers, but also to plant every kind of fruit and veggie you like, that you can possibly cram into the space you have. Don’t get so focused on growing tomatoes that you miss out on lettuce, and melons, berries…oh goodness, I good add to this list for days.  As I have found in my small space, with a little planning and some creative vertical supports, you can grow an amazing variety of produce.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t feel limited by the selection at the local nursery.  Go online – there are SO many seed stores online that sell, not only seed packets, but also plants.  Grow purple carrots and orange cauliflower.  Try all the different types of kale.  If it’s rated for your zone, go for it!  All the variety is fun…and if you don’t like something, or all your squash gets destroyed by pests or weather, you only lost a tiny portion of the garden.

Not convinced?  Need a little more motivation to put on your gloves, grab a shovel and start digging?  Alrighty then…lets chat for a moment about the kind of variety I know for a fact you can get out of a small garden like mine.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have roughly 200 square feet of in-ground garden, two six-foot long sheep troughs, and a three-foot round metal tub for all my planting.  Now I am going to share with you all the variety you can squeeze out of that kind of space.

This year my garden yielded:

Lots of Leaf Lettuces

Leaf LettucesGreens: Kale, Chard, and Beet greens (plus the beets are awesome too)

GreensA wonderful variety of beautiful tomatoes!

TomatoesEggplantEggplantSo many squashes!

Zucchini, Butternut, Spaghetti, and Magda squashesString Beans, Sugar Snap Peas, and Soybeans, oh my!

String BeansSugar Snap Peans and Soybeans

Okra – oh how I love okra

Okra

Melons – Cantaloupe and cucumbers

Cantloupe and Cucumber

Onions

OnionsPeppers, peppers, peppers

Sweet Bell, Poblano, Serrano, and Pepperchini peppersSunflowers – will be harvesting seeds any day now!

Sunflower

A wide variety of herbs – only a few pictured here

Basil, Sage, Oregano, and ChivesAnd last, but certainly not least….berries!

Berries

See what you can do with even a small garden?  Remember, all this came out of roughly 200 square feet of space.  Look out in your backyard and consider where you can squeeze in a garden, or what you can do to make great use of the garden space you already have.  If I can do it, you can do it.  I hope this visual display of all the bounty a home garden can produce has motivated you to grab a pair of gloves and a shovel…and get digging.

A Lot of Garden in a Little Space

To say that I love to garden is putting it mildly.  Even before I had my very own garden, I knew in my heart that I NEEDED one. I have spoken to so many people who tell me they would like to have a garden, but just don’t have the space.  For folks living in an apartment or a house with no yard at all, that is probably the case.  But if you have a yard, and a burning desire to have a garden, I am here to tell you that, with a little creative thinking, you can find a way.  The reason I am writing this blog is not only to share what I have learned about gardening in general, but also to talk about how to get the most out of a garden in a small space.

I guess the best place to start, is to tell you how my own little garden came to be.

A little over a decade ago, after years of living in apartments with only a plant or two in a pot on the balcony, I moved into my cute little house and set about starting a vegetable garden.  Unfortunately, my backyard is very small and most of it is graded for drainage, and therefore I figured it was not suitable for gardening.  Whatever was a budding gardener to do?  I decided containers were the way to go, so I started with these wonderful sheep troughs I found at a local feed store, a galvanized tub, and a few other random containers.  Image

They served me fine for a few years, and I learned a lot about growing vegetables, but it just wasn’t enough.  Soon my need for a full fledged garden motivated me to find a way to squeeze an in-ground garden into my tiny backyard.  There really was only one option – the area immediately surrounding my back patio.  Five feet wide, and wrapping the approximately fifty feet around the perimeter of the patio, this new garden would give me about two hundred square feet of planting space.  Not the vast garden of my dreams, but it would have to do.  Even with its small size, installing this new garden was a lot of work for me and my Todd.

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After marking off the area, Todd fired up our rented tiller and turned that stretch of grass into a pile of dirt.

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One of the big issues of an in-ground garden in my little patch of Texas, is that the ground is entirely clay: not conducive AT ALL for happy plant growth.

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That meant adding in lots and lots of soil amendments like compost, sand, lava sand and Texas greensand.  The goal in my choice of amendments was to turn the hard clay into a loose, delicious concoction full of nutrients my new plants would love.

We had to go over the area several times to get it nicely mixed in, but we knew the plants were going to appreciate all that tasty stuff.

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Here is what it looked like when we were all done, but before I started planting.  I know it doesn’t look like much, but with creative use of vertical supports, I have turned this small space into a garden that produces plenty for my small household.

In the following two pictures, you can see what my garden looks like today.

(In future posts I will talk in detail about all my vertical supports)

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Growing in this garden right now, I have two kinds of string beans, six kinds of peppers, eggplant, zucchini, okra, nine kinds of tomatoes, sunflowers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, madga squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, beets, chard, blackberries, strawberries, acorn squash, onions, soybeans, lentils, and all kinds of herbs.  That is a whole lot of produce packed in a tiny garden.

So please trust me…if you only have a tiny space, but you really want a garden, there is a way, you just have to get creative and find it.