Monday, June 28, 2010

Paging and/or Mythbusters; Wanna Do A Gardening Episode?

Actually, Mythbusters already did a gardening episode. It was awesome! And not just because it was also the episode where they used bug spray to blow up a house.

This question started off (via Facebook) with a girl I went to high school with, who asked about deer- and mole-proof plants. From there, we acquired a few more participants in the conversation, and branched off into repellent options. Everybody who's been gardening for more than five minutes has heard at least a few of these. Feel free to contribute yours in the comments! I'd love to collect and maybe test the as-complete-as-possible list.

Q. Is it rabbits that don't like marigolds? My grandfather always took hair clippings and scattered them around the perimeter of the garden . . . he swore the scent kept the deer away.

A. A lot of critters don't like marigolds and won't eat them, but as far as repellent goes they're mostly effective with certain bugs, so I think people tend to generalize that principle to everything. There really needs to be a lot more research on this stuff, but everybody's busy testing pesticides (not an entirely fair/accurate statement; more on that later).

I've been working (well, volunteering) with a lady who sells plants, and she says a lot of people swear by celosia for deer repellent, which I'd never heard. The hair clippings MIGHT (?) work for deer, but I doubt it, and I know from experience they don't work for woodchucks. Another thing I've heard is to put pee around your garden. Yes, human pee. Only works if you're a carnivore/omnivore, though. Critters aren't scared of vegetarians. Again, more research is needed. Can you imagine writing THAT grant?

General rule of thumb: deer and other wild critters will leave your plants alone as long as a) it's difficult for them to find them (hence my policy of interplanting things rather than having separate beds of a single crop, when possible), and b) there are plenty of other things for them to eat. When you're the only greenery around, though, or at least the tastiest greenery, some snacking is inevitable. About the only thing that works reliably for deer is very tall, properly placed fencing. About the only thing that works for rabbits/woodchucks is the same fencing, only set so it extends quite far underground. Moles? Container gardening might be the only sure-fire solution.

Also effective (not so much for moles, but for larger pests) is what one of my former employers calls the "hot lead method." Not generally practical for urban agriculture . . . .

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Basil is having a rough week . . . .

First Dr. McGrath, a plant pathologist from Cornell (and the reigning goddess of integrated pest management for fungal diseases), is quoted as saying if you see the new strain of downy mildew on your basil, it's best to just go ahead and make pesto NOW . . . and then Becky gets Japanese beetles! Poor basil.

Q. Hey, how do I keep Japanese beetles out of my basil?

A. You have two realistic options. 1). Don't plant basil, 2). Hand-pick and drown the little fuckers (um, the Japanese beetles, not the basil).

Two other possibilities. From a long-ago forum conversation over at, I think: smoosh up a bunch of dead Japanese beetles. Add water. Strain and spray on plants. The jury is out on whether this works, and whether (if it does) it's due to the redistribution of pathogens specific to Japanese beetles, or if, as one forum poster put it "They come up and go OH NO it smells like Uncle Ed and then leave." And, from my own brain: find something that Japanese beetles like MORE than basil, and space it around your basil in pots so that they all go there. Then, either remove the pots (bugs with 'em) or hand-pick and keep using them. Actually, the basic concept isn't mine--it's called trap cropping, and works great with some bugs (e.g., supposedly, crucifer flea beetles). Problem is, I've never tried it (or heard of it being tried) with Japanese beetles, and also Japanese beetles like almost EVERYTHING. It's hard to tell what they'll go to and what they'll avoid. I've had them eat my marigolds but leave my rose bush alone (I know; WTH??), and I've had them do the opposite. :/ I'll do some research and get back to you on that one . . . . .

If you don't have a whole lot of basil plants (or feel like putting in a ton of effort), you could do tall row-covers-on-sticks. Make certain you've removed all beetles first, or they'll just happily munch away under the row covers. Bear in mind that this would not be a good first line of defense in the spring, though, since they hatch from grubs underground and come up wherever they please.

Okay, did a little research on trap crops. The internet says: African marigolds (they're the tall, skinny ones), borage (although, the poor borage!), evening primrose, and knotweed (I don't know if they mean the little pink-and-white flower that most gardeners refer to as knotweed, or the big-ass fuzzy plant that farmers tend to call by the same name. I would not advise intentionally introducing either . . . .).

The internet also informs me that interplanting with four o'clocks can a) attract and b) poison the beetles. I'm beginning to suspect that the internet is full of shit.

So, yeah. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! A few last bits of info that may prove useful:
1. For long-term control, DO NOT use those yellow pheromone traps. They just attract extra bugs.
2. For long-term control, DO use milky spore. It kills the grubs. May take several years. If you have close neighbors with tasty plants and un-milky-spored lawns, the adults will probably wander in, though not in as great numbers as otherwise.
3. When hand-picking, go in early morning or late evening, when they're less active. Hold your container full of soapy water below the leaf or branch you're picking from, as a few bugs will almost always try the "drop off the leaf and you can't find me, ha ha" escape tactic.

Hope any of that helps!! The next time I have access to a) Japanese beetles and b) four o'clocks, I will monitor that and confirm/deny, and will also test out some trap crops. Until then, happy hand-picking!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Rose Is A Rose Is A . . . Yeah, Sorry. Couldn't Help Myself!

Via Facebook messenger, late in the evening on May 4, 2010.

[Side note: I went to high school with the person asking the question--hence all the geography that means nothing to the rest of you. Also, this didn't fit the standard Q. and A. format, so I switched to Q. and Garden Ninja]

Q. Okay since you are a gardening whiz...what zone is Romney in? Not that I even know what a zone is.
GN. Romney is roughly in zone 6. But . . . !
Q. Oh, here comes the bad news...
GN. A zone is basically a measure of how harsh the weather is, how short the growing season is, etc. Smaller numbers = more arctic, larger numbers = more tropical.
GN. But . . . ! You have to account for microclimates.
Q. WHAT!?!?!??!?! That is just way too brainy... what is a microclimate!? Lol, I'm hopeless.
GN. Sometimes a particular valley will be a little warmer, or it will be colder near a river, or it'll be affected by surrounding buildings, pavement, etc. You're not hopeless! You just have to try things out. Use the zone as a guideline, and experiment.
Q. Ahhhh, like Hampshire High is ALWAYS colder than Romney town.
G.N. Exactly. Elevation is a factor.
Q. Well see here's my thing. There's a rose tree that I LOVE, only rose I like for that matter.
G.N. Cool . . . what kind?
Q. Fire and Ice.
GN. Ooh! One of the two-toned ones! I love those.
Q. Yup, pure white and bright red. Gorgeous. Yeah, it's got to be in zone 6 or warmer.
GN. You should be fine. You might have to baby it a little over winter--trim it back and mulch over it a little. Here's a pretty good link about rose care in winter.
"For maximum winter protection, cover the rose bush with a protective cylinder. Use straw, leaves, or similar material to insulate the bush inside the cone. Puncture several one inch holes around the top of the cone for air circulation."
GN. I usually do the thing they talk about with a cone and straw, except I used upturned tomato cages and leaves, lol! It's what I had around.
Q. I will definitely refer to that. Thanks for the info!
GN. If you have any problems with the rose, let me know. Have you gotten it yet, or are you just ordering it now?
Q. Just looking into it. If I order it bare root, I may want to wait. I am still reading up on all that stuff.
GN. Good plan! The next thing I was going to say was to make sure to read up on proper planting technique BEFORE you shove the poor thing into the ground.
Q. I like picking out flowers and weeding, but not all the landscaping stuff my hubby is supposed to know. Unfortunately, he's from Rhode Island and was never in an area to even see a Fire and Ice.
GN. If he's ever planted fruit trees or any large shrub, the principles are the same. Huge hole, good backfill, water faithfully until it settles in. Good placement, too--plenty of sun.
Q. Yeah he's done TONS of that. Cool, so he'll know the basics. Thanks again for the info.
GN. No problem.

Ah, Flea Beetles, My Old Nemesis! We Meet Again.

May 4th, Via Facebook.

Q. Will you tell me how to rid my lettuce of flea beetles? They are going to eat it all before we get any!!!


We have flea beetles like crazy at the farm right now. There's not much you can do about them. Any spray that kills them also kills a ton of beneficial insects and throws your whole ecosystem out of whack. Rotating crops doesn't help because they're quite mobile, unlike a lot of pests who stick to the same area year to year and won't eat what's there if they don't like it. There are some things you can do to prevent them next year (or at least confuse them enough that they don't snack on your lettuce), but for this year you're 99% screwed (and that last 1% is just the margin of error).

The tactics you can employ for next year include: 1. planting a trap crop around the perimeter of the area so that it matures a week or two before you put out your susceptible crops, 2. starting a low-growing cover crop and then planting the lettuce through it (flea beetles arise from ground level, and if they can't find their target crop they shrug their evil little shoulders and wander off), and 3. making sure that the area you'll be growing stuff in next year is COMPLETELY devoid of vegetation over the winter (this is about a 50/50 proposition, as the jury is out on whether the little bastards winter over in the soil itself or in clumps of weeds). You can also delay planting your lettuce out until the first batch of overwintering adult beetles has emerged and figured out where they're going to do most of their feeding, but this a) only helps for a while, and b) puts you kind of late in the season for lettuce.

As for the trap cropping . . . it will help to know whether you have crucifer flea beetles or pale-striped flea beetles. If they're on your lettuce, they're probably the pale-striped. Capture a few, check them out, and let me know. See pictures above for comparison; the first is the pale-striped, the second is the crucifer. The third is just a neat graphic of their life cycle. I already know that the ideal trap crops for crucifer flea beetles are a) mustard and b) nappa cabbage. For striped, I'm not sure, but I'm working on finding out.

At the farm, we seem to have exclusively crucifer flea beetles. Unfortunately, we also have mustard and nappa cabbage . . . .

One last thing. If it makes you feel any better, the unusually warm weather we had very early this year seems to have prompted a bumper crop of the nasty little things. Here's hoping next spring is long and cold! (I can't believe I just said that)

More Info/Follow-Up:
Q. (May 5) I steeped some dried habanero pepper and diluted it. Rob sprayed it on the lettuce. We'll see. . . might have some pretty feisty salads!!!!!
GN. Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

I will not be stumped. Updates as events merit (including a report next spring on weather, trap cropping, cover cropping, etc.)!

(images courtesy of

Monday, May 3, 2010

Amending Soil and Maybe Working Out Some Aggression?

Via Facebook wall post, afternoon of May 1st. I was back at the farm, recovering from an early morning, a long day, and hideously hot weather at the Purcellville farmers' market. This provided a nice distraction.

Q. Do tomatoes do OK in soil that has a lot of clay in it? I mixed in some good, rich potting soil and chopped it up with a pickaxe.

A. Love the image of you amending soil with a pickaxe! Short answer, IF you added enough non-clay ingredients in a deep/wide enough area, you should be okay. Long answer, I'll ramble at you in great detail when I'm not stuck with text messaging! [side note: Facebook Mobile, while slightly better than nothing, is a huge pain in my ass]

Q. How deep?

A. About a foot deep, to be on the safe side. The long answer part of all this, that I couldn't fit into a text message, was that if you have clay soil surrounding it on all sides and you only dig a big enough area for the size of the root system on the mature plant, you're basically just creating a nice little flowerpot within the ground--drainage is still going to suck, and your roots will likely become waterlogged. If you're amending, amend a very large area around the plant. It'll come in handy anyway, and your tomatoes will thank you. The same applies, even more so, if you're planting perennial stuff like rose bushes or fruit trees.

Q: [Not really a Q, but otherwise it doesn't line up all nice and neat!] Thanks!!! Pickaxe = all I could find after Mike cleaned the basement.

Sun, Shade, and Everything In Between.

A few weeks ago, via text.

Q. Can you grow tomatoes in part shade, or do they need a lot of sun? [paraphrased, as I've accidentally deleted the message]

A. Sorry, dude, tomatoes absolutely require a minimum of six hours of sun per day. No wiggle room. [Also paraphrased, and I seem to recall having used the words "boned," "screwed," or similar colorful euphemisms to describe his chances of getting a productive tomato harvest from the shady part of the yard]

More Info/Follow-Up: I have no idea why he was asking this; he grew great tomatoes in large containers on his (sunny) back porch last year, and has decided to do so again this year.

This question, whatever the inscrutable reasoning behind it, is a great example of some people's approach to gardening, especially in the early learning stages. They see that there's a little leeway between, say, full shade and part shade, or between "well drained soil" and not so well drained soil. They note that some plants survive through a light frost, and some even through a moderate freeze. They see experienced gardeners walk these fine lines with fair or even good results.

They assume, therefore, that the guidelines are arbitrary and mostly put there to annoy them. That's when the trouble starts.

"I put all eleven of my basil plants out early and they were doing great, but we had a few cool nights and now they're all dying of black spot fungus. The plants must have been defective!" (been there, done that)

"Can't understand why the marigolds and argeratum aren't doing well out back. Trees? Well, yeah, I guess I do have a few trees. And a bridge. And a some tall buildings. Why do you ask?" (guilty)

"Well, I dug down far enough to plant the rose bush, and maybe a little wider than the root ball, but I didn't feel like hacking through all that clay so I sort of stuffed it in and threw some dirt back around it. Is that why it looks like that?" (Only once! And it was a crappy rose bush to begin with. Really it was.)

Yes, experience and experimentation are absolutely the best way to learn! The question is: how many plants do you want to kill for each lesson? You can (briefly, partially) cheat Mother Nature. You can phone it in, you can half-ass it, you can make it up as you go along . . . but trust me when I tell you that you will have infinitely better results if you educate yourself about what conditions are best for which plants, and then make good use of that information.

In the interim, I should warn you that the rest of us are taking it in shifts to walk past your sad, straggly tomato plants, your drooping basil, and your dead flowers and mutter a few words of sympathy. We assure them you'll learn. We're not sure they believe us.

Preserving Herbs, Part One Of What I'm Sure Will Be A Series

At 8:15 a.m. last Thursday, via text message . . . I must have already had a lot of coffee. Either that, or I answer herb preservation questions in my sleep. Neither possibility would surprise me.

Q. Morning. How do I dry/save some of these herbs? Is freezing them after I pick them good or what?

A. I'm trying to remember which herbs you have [the bad thing is, I'd taken him the plants myself a few weeks before]. Dill will dry pretty well on a clean screen or rack in a sunny room. Basil dries okay but the best thing is to chop it up and freeze it with a little water in ice cube trays. You can store the basil cubes in a baggie. Cilantro doesn't dry well, but freezes okay.

More Info/Follow-Up: Obviously, this was the nutshell version. I know this will be a recurring topic, so I won't get into all the many, many, many uses for homegrown herbs. Or, at any rate, not yet! There are a few important edits and add-ons to my answer, though:

Drying herbs (or any garden produce) is a delicate process, fraught with potential for both success and disaster. If you don't have good air circulation, you risk mold both now and later. Few things are more disappointing than storing a season's harvest only to pull it off the shelf a month later and see fuzzy gray growth. Ew.

If you don't dry things fairly quickly, you start to lose quality (and, in the case of some medicinal herbs, effectiveness). If you dry them TOO quickly, or at too high a temperature, you lose a lot of flavor and end up with something that resembles the original plant to the same extent that the produce section at Wal-Mart resembles your local farmers' market. Double ew. For this and for several other reasons, most dehydrators will not work well for herbs. If you're lucky enough have one that will, read your owner's manual carefully and go for it!

Another unavoidable caveat: some herbs are simply easier to preserve than others. I may have advised freezing cilantro, but that's only because it's the lesser of several evils (the worst, of course, being a cilantro-less existence). Nothing is ever going to compare to fresh herbs except . . . well, fresh herbs. Some, such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme, are nearly as good dried as they are fresh. Some, like basil, will stay tasty after freezing. Others not so much.

All the above, though, as well as many others, are fantastic when enjoyed fresh and in season. All the more reason to grow your own!

First, grow yourself some soil . . . .

Q. I am starting a garden! At least I've bought some seeds and some starter plants: broccoli, tomato & cabbage. I've been learning little things along the way: you can plant a whole potato & the number of eyes it has is the number of potatoes you can potentially get.

But here's the thing. A friend of mine asked me if I had toilable land or something like that? I think she meant if it was good ground to plant in...and then I realized. I have no idea! Holy crap! I've bought plants and seeds & I don't even know if my ground is fertile! I mean, there's grass, does that mean it will support my veggies? If you have any resources you'd like to refer me to, so you don't have to answer all of my amateur questions, feel free.

Oh and btw, do you think I should get a Farmer's Almanac?

Stuck between a hoe and a hard place.

((ha ha ha)):: Wouldn't that be awesome if you started a blog where you could answer questions like mine? You could totally call yourself the Gardening Ninja. Folks would love that shit!

A. Excellent questions . . . by the way, the number of eyes on a potato is the number of potato PLANTS you'll get from it--you should cut the potato into chunks, each chunk containing at least one eye, before you plant it.

If you're tearing up your lawn, chances are you have so/so soil. It may be compacted and depleted, and chances are that when your building was constructed the workers just threw whatever clay, rock, etc. they had left over out front and called it a yard. That's standard practice. The good news: you've got to start somewhere, and that's as good a place as any! Dig deep, break up major clumps, and add as much organic material as possible. Ideally, compost and lots of it (raided from gardening friends--if I was around, I'd give you a bunch--or purchased in a bag from Lowe's; it's not cheating, I swear), but really ANYTHING you can add to loosen the dirt up a little will get microbes, enzymes, earthworms, etc., started on what they do best, which is create kick-ass soil for you. Grass clippings (sans herbicides, of course), finely shredded newspaper or other materials, layers of cardboard, hay, coffee grounds . . . etc, etc. If you have potted stuff that's done, you can dig in a bunch of leftover potting soil. Chop stuff up as fine as possible, mix it well, and water it to keep it moist if there's not rain.

I just caught myself getting ready to head off into a giant tangent about sheet composting and lasagna gardening, but stopped myself at the last minute. ;) Getting better about that!

You should not get a Farmer's Almanac. I have extras, and will bring you one! Um. Text me during that first week or so of May and remind me.

What you SHOULD get is a subscription to Mother Earth News, $10 at their website. And/or continue to pick my brain, as it's full of the same info, but without the pretty pictures. ;)

Hmmmm. I may have to do that blog thing . . . :ponders:. Sounds fun, actually!

Let me know if any of the above helps, or if you have other questions!
The Garden Ninja

More Info/Follow-Up: I know everybody's first question is "Why didn't you suggest raised beds?" . . . and my answer, once I get done with the rude hand gestures at the peanut gallery, is this: I know the questioner in this case to be an extremely overscheduled young woman; if she has time to stuff a few plants into the ground, I'm impressed. Figuring out good spots for raised beds and constructing something to contain them (yes, you can do them without containment; I strongly prefer them with it as it delays their inevitable return to a level state and provides a nice visual barrier), filling them to the brim with good soil, etc., is simply not going to happen.

It's better to start small than to never start at all.