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All the little bits we didn't know where else to put, or that got left out of a book.
When you've tried gardening more than once, and you always have a great crop of lettuce and green beans, but the broccoli and tomatoes always get eaten up by bugs, it is ok to give up! But don't give up on everything! You're growing lettuce and green beans just wonderfully!
There are any number of problems that can make you feel like a failure in the garden, in spite of lovely crops in other areas. Sometimes certain crops just don't like your soil, they don't thrive in your climate, or they are prone to pests that are especially aggressive where you are located.
It is ok to decide NOT to grow things that are especially troublesome. One of the rules of success is to do more of what works, less of what does not. That doesn't mean you grow only lettuce and green beans, it may mean figuring out why those two things do well, and then expanding with other things that thrive under similar conditions.
Taking a break from growing things that don't do well not only helps you focus on success for a while, it gives the garden a rest, and gives you time to address potential underlying problems without the pressure of this year's crop looming over you. You can use the time to build the soil, give it a rest from infestation of certain pests, or work on balancing things out in other ways, or even put in structures that may help you be more successful in the long term.
If what you are doing isn't working in one area, it is ok to take time off and enjoy the things that do well. Eventually an idea will occur to you, or an opportunity will come to help you try again in a new way with the things that didn't do well.
As long as you are growing things that you enjoy having on your table, you're a success as a gardener! You don't have to be able to grow everything. There is wisdom in knowing when to let go and either take time off or just let it go altogether. Either one is ok.
Summer is here, and in many places that makes pot gardening a real challenge. Pots may dry out very quickly, and they overheat more easily as well, stressing the plants both above ground, and at the roots. Setting the pots in taller grass or in around other plants can help to conserve moisture and insulate the pots. It is wise to keep the grass around them cut enough so it does not go to seed all over them, but don't cut it really short - keep it tall enough to provide protection for the pots.
Microgreens are really just overgrown sprouts, and can be grown from any clean seed for any kind of green that you'd normally eat mature, and a few that you would not! They can be grown like sprouts, with just water, or in soil. Either way, they are allowed to get a little larger than sprouts, but usually not fully into the secondary leaf stage. Unlike sprouts, Microgreens are typically clipped rather than tossed in roots and all. They'll grow in a sunny window just fine. You can find Microgreen mixes and seeds in most major seed supplier catalogs and websites now.
Microgreens can be expensive to grow, because they not only take a lot of seed, they also take fresh soil for every batch. The combination of those two things makes them more expensive to produce than sprouts.
You can grow Microgreens the same way you grow sprouts, without the dirt. Grow them in a sprouter, or on wet papertowels. Either one will work fine. Rinse or mist them to wet them once or twice a day (depending on your climate).
Let them grow until the second set of leaves appear. Cut them with scissors, and enjoy!
A food forest is something like a multi-layered orchard, but interplanted in a way that makes use of unused spaces, and layers the plants in the same way that a forest layers them. The advantage in it is that it can be planted with trees, bushes, vines, ground covers, clumped plants, and all in a space that is shared by working around spaces that are unused by large plants. It can be planted with perennials, and with self-seeding plants, so that it only needs thinning periodically. This kind of planting saves water - while more plants and more roots would seem to take MORE water, it is actually the opposite, because the ground cover holds moisture IN at a higher rate than the closer plantings increase usage. A food forest can be very low maintenance, and can provide harvestable food for people, as well as forage for select wildlife. Don't forget mushrooms and herbs when developing your food forest!
Keeping deer, rabbits, dogs, cats, and other four legged critters out of the garden can be a challenge. This simple method can keep many out:
Use wire fencing, at least 14 gauge (12 may be better), either twisted or welded wire, with a 2" X 4" grid. Lay it on the ground. You can cut it to fit around trees in an orchard. It can be laid on the ground right after you plant, or laid down before you set in transplants in your garden. Fold any sharp ends down so they don't create a hazard.
Animals don't like to walk on wire, and they'll avoid it if they can. They'll only walk on this if there are no other food sources around that are easier to get at. Worth a try if you are having animal issues in the garden.
Yes, you can grow a container garden in the winter. Containers are more prone to soil freezing than gardens in the ground though. Your primary goal then, is keeping the containers warm. You have the same options you have for any garden:
1. Greenhouse. Pots work well in greenhouses, and if they are clustered together, they'll retain heat better. We like wide and deep trays instead of round pots for greenhouse gardening.
2. Cold frame. A cold frame can be set over containers, or it can be built onto square or rectangular planters. It helps to paint the inside walls white, to reflect light.
3. Row cover. This will keep plants warm in containers - it makes a difference of roughly 5 degrees.
4. Cloches. A Cloche is a cap, made of row cover, plastic, or glass. Row cover or plastic is fastened over a wire mesh frame to support it. Old French Bell Jars were made entirely of glass, and were set over individual lettuce plants, but this kind of cover can be used on a pot as well. You can make one from any kind of rounded frame, and heat shrink window film. If the cloche is large enough to cover the entire plant and pot, it will keep the soil warmer.
Some people recommend burying pots in the ground for the winter. This allows them to stay slightly warmer. I'm not a fan of this - for one, it is a lot of work for relatively minor benefit (especially in very cold climates), and the pot may be damaged due to frost heave. If you leave the pot in the ground year-round, the roots of the plant will grow out of the pot and into the soil, causing damage (and difficulty) if you then choose to move the pot. Roots can also damage the pot. I figure if you are going to bury the pot in the ground, you might as well just plant IN the ground.
Late fall is not too late to plant, just make sure the soil stays above freezing, and the air temps are at least 50 degrees average during the daytime for plants to germinate. They'll grow slowly, but if you choose cold tolerant plants, they'll still give you a respectable harvest. Cover them with some kind of protection as soon as nighttime temps get below freezing - while cold tolerant veggies and herbs can usually tolerate temps down to 15 degrees F or so, new seedlings cannot, and they don't grow much when subjected to those temps. They'll grow better with some protection.
Microgreens are a great winter crop, as are sprouts. Crops which do better in cooler weather will work best, especially if your home is cooler than average or has variable temperatures.
The easiest microgreens for growing without having to use heat mats or other special compensations in the winter, are:
- Broccoli Raab
- Sunflower (grows very fast)
- Turnip Greens
Those plants enjoy cooler temps, and indeed, grow with a sweeter flavor in the cold weather than they do in the heat. They all grow easily, and fairly quickly, and except for turnips and beets, can be grown with or without dirt (root crops really need dirt).
Keep the fresh veggies coming through the winter!
When you try to recycle onion bottoms, carrot root tops, potato peels with eyes on them, shriveled sweet potatoes, overaged garlic, or if you decide to try planting some harder to find items like shallots from items you purchased at the grocery store, it really helps to use organic vegetables!
Many root crops are sprayed with a sprout inhibitor (Google "budnip"). It can prevent sprouting, delay sprouting, or allow sprouting but prohibit reproduction, depending on the plant in question, amount sprayed, and general age and conditions of the plant. Some may never grow at all. Some may. Some may grow badly.
Organic crops are generally not treated with substances to prevent sprouting, so they will work much better to start new plants.
So why haven't you heard anything from me about raised beds yet?
Because I don't really like them! For every advantage, there is a corresponding disadvantage. I find that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and the disadvantages are NEVER mentioned in the rave articles about them.
Many people still love them - but I've noticed that more people like the IDEA of raised beds, than actually want to take the trouble to MAKE raised beds. That tells us something right there. They don't feel the cost and trouble are worth it. Considering that they've only been popular in the last decade or two (except where they were a status symbol for ornamental plantings), in all the thousands of years of humanity growing gardens, they seem to me to be more of a fad than a truly beneficial thing.
For those who do like them, and think that is the way to go, you may have found a benefit that I do not appreciate. But for people who are exploring whether it IS worth it, you should know that there ARE two sides to it. And you should know what the disadvantages are before you dive in, because some of the disadvantages may be particularly irksome in your climate.
- You don't get any advantage unless the beds are raised up about a foot or more. Seriously! Putting in a 4" edging and digging your pathways down to heap up inside that edging isn't going to make a measurable difference to either moisture or temperature. So if you aren't going to really raise it, don't bother. You may have a trendy looking garden, but it won't make a bit of difference to your garden other than costing you extra time and materials. The only advantage it will give you is being able to say you have a raised bed garden to impress the kind of people who care about that.
- Proponents say that they heat up earlier in the spring. They may, if high enough. But they also cool off sooner in the fall to the same extent. They'll heat up too much in hot climates - the raised bed has a higher temperature in the midsummer heat than planting lower in the soil. They also are colder in the winter, since they are more exposed. I don't feel that I gain any advantage from them in any of the climates I've gardened in, from Washington, to Wyoming, to Texas, to Oklahoma. Planting in the ground gives me more temperature compensation advantages. If I need the ground to warm up earlier in the spring, I can lay a row cover over it, or even black plastic. It will warm faster than a raised bed. I can use the row cover again in the fall, to keep the heat longer. And that only costs me $25. The use of heavy mulch keeps it warmer in the winter, and cooler in the summer as well. And I can get/make mulch for nothing.
- Raised bed advocates also say that they dry out sooner in the spring, making the soil more workable instead of being muddy. This has also NOT been an advantage anywhere I've lived, and as water scarcity becomes more of an issue, this is less and less of an advantage even in areas where you'd think it might be. Most places we've lived have tended toward desert, with recent droughts. Raised beds DO dry out sooner. All year. They do not hold water as well as the soil holds it, and if you use a weed barrier, the roots of your plants won't be able to go down into the ground beneath to the lower water reserves. Deep mulch around in-ground plantings do a much better job of both avoiding spring mud problems, and keeping moisture in the soil during hot and dry spells.
- The third "advantage" that I've heard is that they are easier to work. I have not found this to be the case. Whether in a raised bed, or on the ground, I have to bend over and stretch, which hurts my back either way. I cannot sit on the edge of a high raised bed to work it, because sitting with legs pointing OUT, and body pointing IN, is just WAY too painful! I actually find it to be just as comfortable to work at ground level. Deep mulch and a no-till garden method keeps the workload minimal, so most of the work is actually thinning (for usable greens), and harvesting, with some weeding which involves harvesting weeds for our animals. There are fewer of those in a no-till garden too.
- Raised beds are time consuming to make. Sure, you can knock a fancy one together in a day or two. But a whole garden full? I have better uses for my time. I just find that the time it takes to build framing for garden beds can be better used on caring for a larger garden, caring for animals, or writing all this stuff down! I do love SOME containers around my house, and find it IS worthwhile to build a few of those, but I prefer movable containers for perennials that may have to move from location to location.
- Materials to make raised beds are either costly, or they do not last very long. In general, recycled or repurposed materials do not last more than a few seasons. Treated lumber lasts longer, but may leach chemicals into the soil. Not exactly what you want in your veggie beds. Redwood and Cedar are costly. This is another area where I feel that the resources are simply best used in other ways.
- The best dirt to grow things in is... dirt. Mother nature does a better job of making soil than people do. If you have poor soil, it can almost universally be corrected using deep mulch, and compost, with regular applications of manure (real manure, from animals - "green" manure isn't manure). It doesn't take long to do either. It can be done in 1 growing season, or less. (Put down mulch and scatter manure on it in the fall. By spring your garden will be ready.) Potting mix is nasty stuff, besides being WAY too expensive to fill garden beds. So is that artificial "garden soil" that many places now sell. It isn't soil at all. It is a mixture of various coarse organic stuff IF you get the organic kind. Otherwise it has manmade materials in there, which are NEVER the best stuff to produce thriving plants. The "topsoil" sold in garden centers is also poor stuff. Artificial soils are VERY poor at holding water (making the water retention issues with raised beds even more severe). They tend to dry out, shrink, and when you water them, they shed the water around the edges and it does not absorb in where the roots of the plant are located. Dirt, in the ground, is always better. Even where it seems there IS no dirt. Layer on the mulch, and plant anyway. You'll be amazed at what that mulch will do.
Like I said, I don't like raised beds. I do like a raised planter around the edges of the house, or around the edges of walkways or decks. But not for a vegetable garden.
To me, there are just better ways to get the job done with less work, less expense, and fewer drawbacks.
When I was a kid, in school, we were told about Native Americans who were nomadic, who planted in the spring, foraged across their range in the summer, and came back to gather the harvest in the fall.
Having it drilled into us that nothing will produce if we are not there to snatch every opportunistic weed from the soil around our vulnerable plants, we simply cannot imagine such a careless attitude about growing food!
How DID they do it?
There are four basic requirements if you want to practice No Tend gardening as they did. And meeting these requirements will also help you to reduce the amount of tending in your garden.
- Choose plants which naturally do well in the climate and conditions which you have available. We are schooled into an idea of a vegetable garden that must contain certain items, regardless of whether they grow well in our area or not. We must have our tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuces, whether they grow easily or not! The plants must be able to grow well without additional watering, and to repel the pests common to the area. Wild plants do this well - and our vegetables were originally wild plants, and most still have those same capabilities, IF they are paired with the right growing conditions. You have to research YOUR growing conditions, and the requirements of vegetables you like, and see which ones fit best.
- Choose plants which are aggressive growers, which can compete well with the weeds. Plants like beans, corn, amaranth, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and many others are very strong growers, and can hold their own against weeds. Give them the right conditions, and they can become weeds themselves.
- Choose a location which is suitable for growing plants all year. Low ground that gathers water is good in many places, but in others, it will flood. High traffic areas for wild foragers are not good ones either - and certainly you won't want an area where the buffalo are likely to stampede... Ok, so maybe our concerns are a bit different! But the point is, consider what is going to happen on that spot through the entire season. Whether you are there or not, if you want low maintenance, this is essential.
- This last item is optional for US, but was not for them. Native Americans had to plant crops that matured in the fall, at a fairly predictable time. This means they chose shelled beans, dried corn, pumpkins, root crops, winter squash, and other crops which are ready in the fall for harvest, and can stay in the field for a while. Now, in our circumstances, we could harvest early peas, lettuces (which do grow like weeds in some places), green beans, broccoli, and other early and mid-season crops.
Planting was done using a No Till method. Use a sharp stick to make a hole to plant the seed, right in the sod. No more competition in the sod than when left to the opportunistic weeds that grow in tilled soil - and sod possessed more qualities and structure to encourage better growth in the veggies.
While most of us have no real need to do complete No Tend gardening, it might provide a useful method for untended fields where we had the time to plant, but not to tend. If you choose the right crops, and the right location, there is every chance you could bring in an extra crop in the fall - one that didn't mind waiting until you had the time to haul it in.
Especially on a farm where you need more storable crops for animal feed in the winter, such crops could be invaluable. Most of the No Tend crops favored historically were crops which were stored for winter use. This makes them eminently suitable for use for both people, and animals, as additional easy care crops to add to the more intensively cared for fields or gardens.
Whether you choose to give the whole concept a try, or simply use the principles to lessen the work required to produce your own food, it is worth exploring to see what your land and climate might be capable of producing without having to hover and provide every need for the growing plants.
Mushrooms are a great addition to a no-till garden, and to your landscaping and compost areas. They are also great in your woodlots and under your trees, and can even be grown in your lawn. That's right, tasty edible mushrooms can be grown anywhere in your yard or gardens where you do NOT use herbicides or pesticides (but you weren't going to anyway, were you?).
Mushrooms concentrate contaminants in the fruiting bodies - in other words, the mushroom "plant" is a great mass of mycellium (the technical word for mushroom fungus) that grows underground or in wood, or in your compost. They are great for cleaning up toxic messes, because they filter the gunk, and send it up into the fruiting bodies - those are the mushrooms you see above ground or on the logs, and which we eat - and in this way, they remove chemicals and other contaminants from the soil. This is why I am starting with this little bit- because they can be used that way to clean up an area that has been herbicided or pesticided previously. Just make sure you DO NOT EAT the mushrooms for 1-2 years. After that, they should be just fine for consumption, as long as you do not apply any more chemicals.
Mushrooms can grow symbiotically with your plants, either in your landscaping, or in your vegetable gardens, or fruit orchards. They make nutritients more available for the plants, and the plants in turn make moisture available to the mushrooms and provide shade. There are several types that work well in gardens and on the edges of compost piles, or in deep mulch under landscaping.
Elm Oyster - There is some confusion about this variety, as the majority of mushrooms with this label are NOT hypsyzigus tessalatus, but in fact a variety of Pleurotus (skip this if you don't understand it). The one you want is the one that looks like a fan shaped mushroom, white, with a short stem on the side, and gills that run across the mushroom cap and down onto the stem. It will grow on straw, in garden mulch, or on compost piles, and even on toilet paper or paper towels, or cardboard. It likes warm weather and will bear during rainy spells in late spring and early summer. It grows well with plants and can help your vegetables produce better.
Wine Cap - Can be grown in deep mulch that is partially composted, and loves the edges of compost piles. Do not consume with alcohol, and cook well before eating.
Freckled Dapperling - LOVES potting mix and deep mulch in a garden, and grows wonderfully anywhere there is a little woody debris in a sandy soil. A heavy bearer, helps the plants grow better. Do NOT consume with alcohol, and cook well before eating.
Shaggy Parasol - Grows well under landscaping, loves woody compost with some light ground cover. Cook well before eating.
Shaggy Mane - This is an Inky Cap mushroom, which MUST BE EATEN within a few hours of picking. If the bottom of the cap is already turning black it is already breaking down - it turns into inky goo as it ages. Pick when firm and white, and use immediately. Works well in compost areas, in lawns with clippings left on them, and in gardens with mulch.
Portobello, Criminis, and White Buttons - Agaricus Bisporus, Agaricus Brunnescens, Agaricus Bitorquis, Agaricus Arvensis, Agaricus Campestris, and other Agaricus species which produce white or brown buttons. These grow in lawns, under trees and landscaping, in the garden in mulch (in shady areas or under large plants), in compost piles, and other areas. They are all easy to grow outdoors - simply sow them in, and then maintain an area with a lot of organic matter, and regular watering. They will pop up and bear after rainy periods. All may be used the same way as white buttons or Portobellos.
MANY other gourmet mushrooms can be sown into your yard and garden, to produce tasty mushrooms throughout the year. Some bear in the spring, some summer, some fall, and a few in the winter.
Be sure you know what the mushroom looks like, and how to identify it (this is generally not difficult for the species listed), and don't pick any other odd looking ones. Your mushrooms will grow where you sowed them in - look for them there, and don't pick anything that does not look right. Growing mushrooms out of doors is perfectly safe, and the chance that a look-alike that was not healthy would grow where you planted your mushrooms is not something that is likely to occur for a number of reasons. If you know your mushroom, you can ensure that you get only the mushrooms you intended.
The wonderful thing about mushrooms in the garden is that you can add them into your garden, to grow amongst your current crops, without any additional space, and your garden will produce more in the same space! And they are an important part of permaculture and polyculture farming.
Look for gro-kits, or go to our Mushroom Store to find spawn that can be sown out of doors.
If you use wood mulch in your plant containers - at least an inch on top - it not only saves water (up to 80% LESS water), but it provides a nice environment in which you can grow mushrooms!
Mushrooms will grow best in mulch 2" deep or more, in large containers that are 12" wide or more, but some specialty varieties can be grown in smaller containers.
Some mushrooms that grow well in containers are:
- Elm Oyster
- Wine Cap
- Mini Almond Agaricus
- Meadow Mushrooms
- Freckled Dapperling
Generally, smaller mushrooms can grow in smaller containers. The above mushrooms can grow in smaller amounts of mulch than most.
For smaller indoor containers you need specialty strains of mini-mushrooms. There are a number of Agaricus strains, and a few other edible mushroom strains that will produce in very small containers. You can find a few on this website http://raremushrooms.com