WHAT’S BUGGING YOUR GARDEN


By Engrid Winslow

Cartoon of a person armed with cans of pesticide spray.

Image by André Santana from Pixabay

Mysterious holes in the leaves of your favorite rose? Earwigs buried deep in the leaves of your lettuce? Flea beetles mangling your perennials and vegetables? Most people are averse to creepy crawlies in their gardens but, please, BEFORE you reach for the chemicals to blast them into the stratosphere, consider that all of the insects are essential to having a healthy garden and planet. So here are a few suggestions for less toxic remedies to try in your garden.

Slugs – small saucers of beer tucked under leaves will attract them and they will fall in and drown. Slugs aren’t picky so don’t waste a craft brew on them – Coors works just fine.

Earwigs – There are a couple of things you can try for these and one is a small saucer of soy sauce with a little bit of vegetable oil and you’ll get the same results as with the slugs, above. You can also roll up several sheets of newspaper and get them fairly wet. Slide them under your plants in the evening and throw them away in the morning.

Aphids – These are a very weak, soft-bodied insect that feed on tender new foliage and buds. You can bet that if you have aphids, you will soon have a host of ladybugs feasting on them. If you can’t wait, then use soapy water with a few drops of oil and spray or dab on the foliage. You can also use garlic spray.

Cartoon drawing of an aphid.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Flea and other beetles – Diatomaceous earth is a mineral composed of the skeletal remains of tiny sea creatures. It has edges that are sharp and will pierce the bodies of beetles and cause them to dry out. It will harm beneficial insects and earthworms, so use sparingly. Also, don’t breathe it into your lungs.

Cartoon drawing of a grasshopper.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Other insects – Use a lightweight row cover to protect young plants and the ones that are being chomped on the most.

There are other products available at most garden centers now that gardeners are more aware of the consequences of the use of most pesticides to insects, animals, fish and even people. Some of the best tools in your arsenal are: (1) creating biodiversity and selecting plants that attract pollinators and (2) nurturing the soil by using products such as compost and nettle teas. Recognize that most pests run their course if you are patient and wait for their predators to show up.

Keep Your Lettuce Sweet

by Sandy SwegelRows of Lettuce

It’s only the beginning of June, but hot days can already cause your lettuce to begin to turn bitter or bolt. But an attentive gardener can keep her lettuce sweet and tasty with a few easy tricks.

Lettuce generally turns bitter when it begins to mature or bolt. The most obvious environmental factors that cause bitterness are high heat and water stress. There are some studies that suggest long day length also speeds bolting. It’s a bit too much trouble to test this and create darkness for your lettuce but there’s a lot you can do to sweeten your lettuce.

Keep it cool.
Light row cover over the lettuce in the easiest way to cool it down. Just keep the sun from baking it. Alternatively next year you can plant the lettuce somewhere it gets shade in the hottest parts of the day.

Keep it well watered.
Sometimes we don’t notice how hot it is becoming and we don’t increase our watering to compensate. Make sure your lettuce is consistently well watered and doesn’t go through stressful too wet/too dry cycles.

Thin your lettuce.
Loose leaf lettuce can get bitter from being planted too densely and not thinned. This is probably just water and nutrient stress from overcrowding, but give those plants a little more room. By thinning as lettuce grows.

Pick it in the morning.
A cool night is often enough to sweeten lettuce so pick the lettuce in the cool of morning, not just before dinner. Bring a bucket of water with you to harvest and put the lettuce directly into the water after picking.

 

And if your lettuce is already bitter?

No need to eat it bitter or toss it into the compost pile. Wash and dry the lettuce and put it in a crisper in the refrigerator for at least a few hours and up to a couple of days. Lettuce is one of those plants that keeps growing even after it is cut so it will often respond to its new cool humid environment by “sweetening up.”

If your lettuce is still bitter? Send it to compost or toss it in with other vegetables when juicing. You’ll get the vitamins but not notice the bitterness amid the other strong vegetable tastes.

Photo credit:
http://phys.org/news/2015-11-lettuce-quality-conditions.html

Two Ways to Guarantee Your Outdoor Seeds Grow

by Sandy SwegelPre-sprouting seeds

The next few weeks are crucial for new gardeners. Every year in Spring, first-time gardeners buy some seeds and dig up a garden on the first really warm weekend and sprinkle the seeds out. Then they wait. For some, within the month, weather conditions will be good and they’ll have their first garden seedlings and they will be totally hooked on the magic of gardening.

For others, something bad happens that the newbies don’t know about. They don’t realize they have to water. Or a couple of hot days come and burn the new seedlings to a crisp. Maybe the neighborhood crows watch you plant and come to eat every last pea. Sometimes the soil is cold and it’s just too early to germinate seeds. These newbie gardeners lose hope and say they just have a black thumb and give up gardening.

If you’ve had failures but are still willing to give a garden from seed a try, I have two techniques that virtually guarantee your seeds will germinate outdoors. These are especially good ideas if you’ve given up trying to grow some things because they never work for you. For years I just thought I was broccoli-impaired until I tried these hints.

First of course, you have to start your garden bed.

HOW TO START A GARDEN BED.

You can till and/or turn the soil by hand but you don’t have too if the soil is not solid concrete.
Dig out the weeds. Get the roots if you can.
Take a rake and make the soil level and a bit smoothed out.
Water soil with a soft sprayer if the soil is dry.
Sprinkle seed over the soil. How much seed and how far apart is written in the little print on the packet.
Pat the seed lightly with your hands so there is contact between the seed and the soil. Bury the seed slightly if the packet says so.

If you live in someplace humid and warm, that’s enough. Your seeds should come up.

If you live someplace dry or with fluctuating temperature or you’ve had failures in the past, try these two success techniques:

Sprouts

#1 ROW COVER

Lay a sheet of row cover loosely over the seeded bed. You want it nice and loose so the plants can grow and the row cover lifts with them. I use some heavy rocks to hold down the row cover so it doesn’t blow away. The row cover helps the seeds stay moist enough to germinate and raises the soil temperature a few degrees so the seeds germinate faster.

Water with the soft sprayer. Note….I water right on top of the row cover. You don’t have to lift it to water underneath often causing the seeds to float away. It’s permeable so the water makes its way through.

#2 PRE-SOAK AND PRE-GERMINATE the difficult seeds.

Pea sproutsSeeds like peas or carrots respond well if soak them in warm water in a bowl overnight, drain them, then plant. The soaking activates the enzymes that break the seed coat and speeds up germination. If it’s a seed you really have trouble with, you can put the seeds on a wet paper towel in a baggie and wait a few days until you see the sprouts.

These two shortcuts…pre-germination and row cover…work for me all the time. And I get better germination which means I get more plants per packet of seeds and save even more money.

Now go out and grow some food and flowers!

 

Photo credits:
http://daphnesdandelions.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html
http://learningandyearning.com/tag/pre-sprouting/

Mini EZ Hoop House

Mini EZ Hoop House

by Sandy Swegel

 

Do you have little hoop houses in your garden? If no, Why Not?

They are super easy and there are hundreds of DIY plans on the internet.

Judging from the number of articles in garden magazines on DIY hoop houses, everyone is very interested in these. But looking at gardens around town, no many people get around to using them.

 

You can be different.

Mini Hoop houses or low tunnels will give you an extra month of growing right now.

Your seeds will germinate better.

You’ll have fewer flea beetles and other pests.

You’ll worry less about watering.

Here’s my five-minute hoop house:
6 pieces of 2 ft rebar
¾ “ irrigation hosing cut into 5 foot sections.
Plastic cover. (I get leftover scraps from a nearby market farmer, but painter’s plastic will work for a year or two.) Simple row cover works too. Or plastic wrapping from a mattress. It doesn’t take much to keep all that heat from escaping.
Old bricks or rocks to hold down the plastic.

 

 

 

Here are some super simple designs to inspire you.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/low-tunnel-construction-mini-hoop-house.aspx

The best part about the popularity of mini hoop houses or low tunnels is that you can now buy pre-made, fold up tunnels for less than $25 at garden centers, hardware stores or online

Really, the garden wants you to come out and grow your own food. It’s really easy to get a head start!

Gardening as Winter Looms

by Sandy Swegel

Nothing like the first deeply freezing temperatures followed by a warm day to get people in Zone 5 areas asking if the gardening season is really over if they can still tackle their garden to do lists even though Thanksgiving is around the corner.  We have two conflicting impulses…the really good bulbs are on sale at our local garden center AND there’s an inch of snow and refrozen ice on the garden bed.

What does happen to our soil in winter? Once soil temperatures are in the forties, all the creatures and denizens of the soil put themselves to sleep through dormancy or through laying lots of eggs or spores that will hatch when temperatures are warmer.  Seeds stop germinating or else require weeks and weeks at low temperature to come up.  They’re smart…no point in germinating if sub-zero temperatures in another few weeks are going to kill young growth. So the soil goes into stasis until the temperatures warm.

Here are some of the questions I hear people asking as our soil begins its freeze:

Can I still plant bulbs? Can I transplant daylilies now? Yes, if you can pry the soil open and get water to the plant, there’s a good chance your bulbs will bloom and the daylily will be fine. Daffodils especially prefer getting planted earlier to have some time to make roots. Sometimes blooming is delayed the first season, but I have had good success in planting bulbs too late…especially if I throw in some compost in the hole and don’t plant too shallowly. I’ve also had years when the bulbs just ended up being frozen mush…so plant earlier next year.

Can I put in a cover crop? In Zone 5, it’s too late.  The temperatures are too cold for seed germination.  Put lots of mulched leaves over the soil to cover it.

Do I have to water? Ideally, you got the garden well watered sometime in Fall through rain or irrigation.  If not or if there are long dry sunny spells, you should winter water.

What do I do with my Fall greens that are freezing solid? Keep eating…they get better every day.  Spinach frozen at 8 am is delicious at room temperature.  If you cover greens with row cover or a cold frame or even throw big bags of leaves over the plants, you can keep harvesting easily through January or longer if you haven’t eaten them all.

Can I still use herbs? Yep, remember where your herbs are and you can put your hand through a foot of snow for snippings of intensely flavored frozen thyme or oregano leaves.

Can I still fertilize? You can, but the soil organisms won’t be processing it.  Organic fertilizer like alfalfa meal stay on the soil and will eventually be used when things warm up next Spring.

Is there something I should plant?  Winter hardy violas and pansies don’t mind a little snow and ice.  In a sunny location, they’ll keep throwing up blooms all winter long…a surprise of color in a white or brown winter-scape. Plant well hardened off plants and keep them watered.

For more details on the science of soil in winter, check out this article from the Bountea compost tea company. http://www.bountea.com/articles/lifeinwintersoil.html

Photo Credit:

http://indianapublicmedia.org/focusonflowers/year/;

Truffles – Orange Frost Fest

How to Become a Plant Nerd

by Sandy Swegel

You know you are a Plant Nerd When…
(Or How to Become a Plant Nerd)

You know every garden starts with graph paper. You draw a scale drawing with trees and fences.

You create an Excel file listing the times to seed and days to harvest. Your file shows when to plant second crops for fall veggies.

You automate your garden
You put a timer on for watering. Your smartphone calendar alerts you six weeks before the last frost. You have to use a moisture sensor to know when to water.

You know the scientific names of your weeds.

You make the most of what you have.
You never plant in rows…you know it’s more efficient to plant densely in quadrants. If space is limited, you grow vertically. If all you have is a balcony to grow on you figure out how to make a hydroponic system out of a Rubbermaid container.

Your garden is full of experiments.
You test everything before you believe it. You have one section of peas planted with inoculant and one section planted without inoculant to see if it matters. You plant carrots with tomatoes and measure yield to see if it made a differences

You collect data.
You have a max-min thermometer to see the actual temperature in your yard. You write down how many days it took pepper seeds to germinate. You record when the apple trees blossomed and when you got your first tomato. You weigh your giant pumpkin to see if it weighs more than you do.

You make use of technology.
You use frost cloth and low tunnels to extend your season, and red plastic mulch to increase tomato yield.

 

You have taste testings to see which tomato tastes better.

You know the variety names of the vegetables you eat.

You love problems in the garden because it means you get to come up with a solution!

In other words, you garden smarter not harder.

You’re my superhero.

 

Photo Credit:  http://www.pinterest.com/pin/174796029262705028/

 

 

 

Two Tips for Starting Seeds in the Ground in Spring

by Sandy Swegel

 

Two weeks ago during a warm spell I had a little seeding frenzy and made tiny rows of lettuces and Micro Greens in a community garden plot along with the usual St. Patrick’s Day peas.  Every thing is coming up now (OK with their weed friends too).  There are two things I do whenever I put seeds directly into the ground to make sure I’m successful.

Here’s my basic process for seed starting that works for me.

Weed and smooth soil out.
Water soil with a soft sprayer if the soil is dry.
Sprinkle seed over the soil
Pat the seed lightly with my hands so there is contact between the seed and the soil.

TIP #1
ROW COVER
I lay a sheet of row cover loosely over the seedbed.  You want it loosely so the plants can grow and the row covers lifts with them. I use some heavy rocks (of which there are many in our soil) to hold down the row cover so it doesn’t blow away.  The row cover helps the seeds stay moist enough to germinate and raises the soil temperature a few degrees so the seeds germinate faster.

Water with the soft sprayer. Note…I water right on top of the row cover.  It’s permeable so the water makes its way through.

Sometimes there are seeds that are slow to germinate.  That’s when I use

Tip #2
PRE-SOAK AND PRE-GERMINATE the difficult seeds.
Seeds like peas or carrots respond well if you soak them overnight, drain them, let them sprout in a baggie with a damp paper towel for a day, then put them in the ground.  The peas get cute sprouts.

 

I get a high germination rate even from difficult seeds when I use these two tips.  Which means I get more plants per packet of seeds and save a little money.

It’s Spring!  Enjoy playing in the Dirt!

Photo credit: http://frontrangefoodgardener.blogspot.com/
http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/row-covers?page=0,1

Seed Starting in July

by Sandy Swegel

As a gardener, I’m always surprised by the veggie seed sales in July.  I know from a marketing point of view the prime seed-buying season has past and companies have to move product still in inventory.  But from a gardening perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to give 50% discounts in July because a gardener should be starting lots of seeds now.  It’s the perfect time to start seeds!  Of course, I always think it’s the perfect time to start seeds.

How to know what to plant in July?  Stand in the garden and look around.

What do you not have enough of?  I don’t know why I thought ten chard plants would be enough when I love to eat the red-stemmed chard.  There’s barely enough to eat for this week much less into the Fall.  And kale?  I didn’t know last Spring that I’d get into juicing this summer….I’ve gone through all my kale and spinach.  And carrots add so much sweetness to juice I clearly need more.

What do you want to can? More beans, please.  More cucumbers.  Beets for pickling.

What do you want growing in Fall? Broccoli is so good in Fall.  Our CSAs are starting their broccolis now for Fall sales.

Typical plantings in July:

Beans Carrots Cucumbers Beets Kale Spinach Chard Scallions

You can try some of the atypical plantings too.  I’ve seen research from Iowa that says you can still plant corn up to the fourth of July and get a reasonable crop.

It’s probably too late for squash or tomatoes to grow from seed….but those seeds store for many years, so if there are varieties you know you’ll want to plant next year, it’s fine to buy the seeds now.

While you’re in the veggie garden, this is also a good time to plant perennial herbs and flowers that will last for years and bring pollinators.  This is also a great time to seed annuals that reseed themselves.  Cosmos and marigolds are good examples.

The biggest challenge to starting seed in July is making sure the seedbed stays moist during germination.  A sprinkler set with a timer to run just a short while every day helps.  Or my personal favorite and much written about helper:  row cover.  Put your seeds down. Water thoroughly. Lay some row cover over the seeded area with rocks to hold the row cover down.  That will give you some extra needed protection from the hot July sun.

Tools of the Trade: Row Cover

Every pursuit has tools that make it easier to be successful. Ask any gardener and they’ll pull out their own favorite tool with a wry grin and and a long story about why you have to have this tool

Row Cover is one of my own top secrets of success. I use it in all seasons at all different times of the growing season.  Also known as frost cloth, it is a light-weight white fabric that looks just like interfacing. Row cover’s great attribute is that it creates a protective barrier between the seed, plant or soil against the ravages of sun, wind and cold. It’s also handy for protecting against insects like flea beetles. Here’s how I use it throughout the seasons:

Spring Right now, row cover is in the garden over areas that I’ve seeded that I want to help germinate.  The row cover protects the germinating seeds and seedling from getting too dry because the gardener forgets to water often enough.  It also is a physical barrier that protects against harsh sun, wind or hungry birds.  Temperature under the row cover is a few degrees warmer which is enough to speed up germination.

Any Season When you are transplanting, row cover can be the secret tool that enables your plants to survive transplanting.  I use it when I transplanting out seedlings I’ve grown indoors, or plants from the nursery, or even perennials I’m moving in my own yard.  Keeping leaves from desiccating from sun or wind is the keep to successful transplanting.

Mid Summer Lettuce lovers keep their greens from bolting too soon by covering them with row cover.  In Spring the row cover kept heat in…now, it keeps the hot summer sun out and lowers the temperature around the plants.  Lettuce stays sweeter longer.  Eventually, lettuce still bolts, but about the time that happens, it’s time to reseed the garden for fall greens.  Row covers then keep the seeds moist enough to grow.

Fall So often a frost comes one early fall night that kills lots of your warm season plants.  It’s a shame because there are often another two or three weeks of good growing time for tomatoes or other tender vegetables.  Five degrees of protection under row cover means your tomatoes survive a light frost.

Winter If you have a greenhouse, row cover inside the greenhouse and give you an extra zone’s warmth. I visited an unheated greenhouse in snowy Colorado this week that had lettuce planted last Fall and now being harvested for fresh greens.

When to take row cover off  The one-time row cover isn’t helpful is when your plants need to be pollinated. Bees and moths and butterflies need to be able to fly from flower to flower gather nectar and pollinating the plants.  Lettuces and greens don’t need the pollinators, but strawberries and peas and anything else that flowers and sets fruit does. Once you start to see flowers, you need to pull the row cover aside.

Keeping the row cover on OK, if you’re in a windy area that’s the biggest challenge. Big farming operations dig a trench alongside their beds, put the row cover in and then fill in the trench with soil to hold the row cover down.  Home gardeners can place a few rocks strategically placed or even a heavy piece of lumber.

more info:

http://tinyurl.com/b28755y

http://tinyurl.com/bh983my

Last Frost – Counting the Days

The gardener’s mantra in winter is, “how many days until the last frost?” But if you ask three gardeners you know what the last frost date is in your area, I’ll bet you get three different answers. That’s because determining “average” last frost is a lot like betting. Scientists can’t really add up a bunch of dates and divide by the number of dates and get an “average.”  So they go for the technically more accurate “median” last frost and give you probabilities. You know probabilities….like the days that had an 80 percent probability of rain and the sun shone all day….or the picnic you planned on a day with 20% chance of precipitation and you got drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm. We just can’t definitively predict the weather.  And we can’t say….gee, global warming…I guess I can start my seeds early.

But good gamblers know how to hedge their bets….and that’s what we do with the last frost. We go to the official climate records at https://www.noaa.gov/

There, you select your state, then find your city and look in the third column that lists the 90% probability for temperatures above 32 degrees.  That means that in the last 100 years they were keeping records, the temperatures went below 32 after that date only ten of those years. Good odds.

Hedging your bets though means being ready just in case. Ten of those years it did freeze after the magic 90% probability date.  And there are other variables. All those temperatures were recorded 5 feet above ground…meaning it might have been colder on the ground where your tender little basil was. And you know how many little micro-climates there are in your yard….the south-facing bed next to the house, the bed on the north side that doesn’t warm up till June. So pick your date…but have your frost blanket ready just in case! Here in Boulder, Colorado the 90% probability date we use is May 14th, but the actual last frost back in 1951 was June 3rd!

Get your big calendar out and circle your last frost date in red. Trackback each week and write in how many weeks left until the last frost….and you’ll easily know if it’s time to plant that packet of seed yet.  If you’re really an organized person, you can clip your seed packets to the appropriate week to plant. Or write the date for sowing on the front of your seed packet.

Count the days.  Here in Boulder, it’s 11 weeks until the last frost. Too soon to start tomatoes but about right for starting perennials, cold hardy herbs and onions.