Monday, March 30, 2009

Pretty with a Purpose

I love having flowers in amongst the vegetables.  They're like little surprises, splashes of beauty in the beds, and make me smile every time I visit the garden. But the flowers aren't there just for my enjoyment.  They have an important job to do, namely, to attract beneficial insects to the garden.  Anyone who's grown anything worth eating knows that there are hoards of other critters who'd be plenty willing to eat it!  It's amazing how the aphids find the fava beans every year, or how the bean beetles appear on the poor bean plants so fast that it seems like they just come with them! It's enough to make you want to reach for the industrial pesticides!  Well, . . . almost.  After all, isn't it those same nasty pesticides you're trying to avoid by growing your own veg? Before you start spraying, remember this: for each one of those insect pests munching on your vegetables there's another creature that wants to eat IT!  I remember last year I nearly reached for the pyrethrin spray to deal with the hundreds of aphids munching away on the fava beans. I'm glad I didn't because within a few days the lady bugs had moved in and made short work of the aphids.  And we had an amazing (and delicious) harvest of fava beans, no chemicals necessary! 

Nature is all about balance, and if your plants are healthy (from growing in good fertile soil) they can tolerate a few munches from the pests until the predators arrive.  The insect predators need more than just their prey insects as food however.  They also need pollen and nectar, which they get from flowers, and a water source. That's not a bird bath I have in the garden, it's a bug bath!  The stones are there so that the little guys can drink without falling in and drowning.  There are a couple of wonderful articles here and here that list many types of beneficial insects and the flowers that attract them. The flowers that I routinely add to my garden are lobelia (this is one of my absolute favorites flowers anyway), calendula (which are not only pretty, but edible!), marigolds (natural source of pyrethrin and great companion plant for tomatoes), poached egg plant, fennel, agastache, nasturtiums (also edible), gilia, and cosmos.  And the next time you reach down to pull out that dandelion, don't! Dandelions are really great early nectar sources for all kinds of insect friends, including honey bees!  There really is quite a selection of beautiful flowers you can grow in your garden to attract beneficial insects, so find a little bit of extra space in your vegetable plot for them.  You and your vegetables will be glad you did!  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Raised Beds Rock!



Last Sunday the weather was beautiful, (well, beautiful for March in Pittsburgh, anyway!), and I finished prepping the garden for early spring planting.  Did I spend hours behind a fume and noise-spewing rototiller? Nope!!  I spent about 10 minutes pulling out a few tiny weed sprouts, then spreading some nice organic fertilizer, lime, and compost onto the bed for my early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.  No digging necessary!  (OK, I did use a hand trowel to dig in the lime and the fertilizer before I put the compost on top.)  So why is it that I'm not battling weeds and working up a sweat with power tools (or at the very least getting my back into it with a spade)???  Did we luck out and inherit some magical plot that was totally weed-free or discover some great new herbicide??  Nope!!  It's because we put in raised beds when we got this plot about 5 years ago. Just check out the "before and after" pictures of our garden. Although the "before" picture was taken in March before the weeds got a real upper hand (root?), believe me, it was full of the thistles, mug wort, and other nasties that run rampant throughout this community garden. (Not to mention the fact that there were still tons of good old Pennsylvania clay in this plot.  Not the best medium for growing much of anything!) There are other benefits to doing raised beds than just getting the upper hand on weeds too.  Since you basically divide your garden into separate, designated planting spaces and walking spaces you avoid compacting the soil in your growing space (as long as you don't go strolling around in your raised beds!)  That means that once you have the soil prepped initially, you shouldn't have to till the soil again, EVER! (Yep, no heavy digging, with or without power tools!)  And with raised beds you can really enrich you soil and plant things closer together than you might do in a "regular" garden.  There's a great book called Square Foot Gardening that talks about this in depth, and gives great ideas on how big your raised beds should be, when to plant what, and how much space to give various vegetables--it's really a great book!  

So, how do you get started?  First, decide where your raised beds will be, and where you want your paths to be.  We made our paths about 3-4 feet wide, which seems like a lot of "wasted" space, but believe me, it's really nice to have this space to maneuver around the beds.  Next, prep the soil in each of the raised bed areas by double-digging.  While you dig your bed remove any roots from perennial weeds, rocks, and lumps of clay.  Once you have the beds dug you can install the frame of the raised beds.  We made ours 6' X 4'.  This is relatively convenient because the lumber is generally sold as 10' X 6" X 2" sizes.  (You'd get 2 sides out of one of these pieces.)  The 6" depth means that you can bury the sides of the raised beds about an inch or two down, and still have a decent amount above ground as the raised part.  Burying the sides of the beds gives more of a weed barrier than just putting them on top of the ground, and also prevents the soil inside the bed from migrating out through any space in the bottom.  And it gives more stability to your bed.  At this point you'll probably need to add more soil to your beds.  We scraped the path areas (shaving off and removing the tops of weeds there, and then sifting any nice soil into our raised beds.)  If necessary you can purchase top soil to add to your beds, and of course add lots of nice aged compost.  

To make your path areas weed-free, lay down either landscape fabric, or corrugated cardboard as a barrier, and then cover it all with a generous layer of wood mulch.   This should keep your paths weed-free for at least a couple of years.  When the mulch breaks down and the weeds start creeping in, just put down more cardboard and mulch.    

This sounds like a lot of work, (and initially it is), but believe me, it's well worth the effort!  The time you take putting in your raised beds in the beginning will be made up for by the easy spring plantings you'll have in your future!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I'll Get it Right This Year! (I Think)

I will NOT start the tomatoes yet.  I will NOT start the tomatoes yet.  I will NOT start the tomatoes yet. . .  I really need to repeat this mantra until the end of the month because EVERY year I wind up with tomato plants that are overflowing their pots and my shelves weeks before they can go in the ground.  Why?  Because I get a whiff of spring in the air and I think "Start those tomatoes!"  In fact one year I could swear I started them in January. Do NOT try this !! (Unless you want 4-foot high tomato plants taking over every window in your house in March--this is not a pretty sight!)  So THIS year I'm going to get it right!  (I hope.)  

Last year I actually made a planting schedule for myself as part of my garden journal.  And I was smart enough to include notes about what to do better the next year, which included a stern warning not to start tomatoes until the END of March.  I promise I will listen this year! So, here's my summer plant seed-starting plans:
  • March 8:  Start fava beans. These are actually spring plants that can go in the ground in April, and they grow really fast, so they only need a couple of weeks of growing inside. Start Swiss Chard for early plants.
  • March 14:  Start peppers, ground cherries (like tomatillos but smaller and sweet), basil, lobelia, poached egg flower, Gilia flower (these are some flowers that attract beneficial insects to your garden.)  
  • March 21:  Plant sugar snap and shell peas direct in the garden.  Transplant cabbage, kale, leeks,  broccoli and cauliflower seedlings to garden.  Plant radish, beets, lettuce and salsify seeds directly in garden.
  • March 27:  Start tomato and squash plants, along with calendula, marigolds, nemophila flowers (more companion plants).  
Of course many of these plans are contingent upon Mother Nature.  I recall having to come out in the snow to cover up my new transplants in years past!  But that's all part of the gardening game.  Mother Nature has veto power over any of my plans!