Category Archives: Farming

Tips for Getting Your Beets Started Early

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Transplant beets started indoors outdoors as soon as you can work the soil.

Want to get a jump start on your garden? Get your beet babies started, indoors!

Beets are known as cool season crops.  They really like cool temperatures and can be seeded as soon as you can work the soil.  They can also be started indoors and February is the month to get going.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden, not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets.

Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice. I fell in love with beets, again.

Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 1 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6a.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range of conditions but won’t grow as big or as beautiful.

So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

How To Plant
You can (and I do) start beets indoors but beet seeds are also outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.  Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

Transplanting
TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.
Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant.  Wrong! Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.

I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting.  The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE! Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, using a tablespoon or serving spoon, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a spoon full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, basic growing information is colleges like Cornell, which posted a nice guide to growing beets.

Buy butter from grass-fed, organic cows and dig in to one of my favorite dishes. Happy Valentine’s Day, every body!

If you want fast access to all my gardening tips and tricks, you will find them in my Kindle book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us.

Advertisements

Starting Seeds Indoors – IT’S TIME!

My palms are itching. My toes are tapping. My heart is beating faster! It’s time to

Starting seeds indoors is easy

Starting indoors seeds is easy!

start my seedlings!

Not all of them, you understand but it’s  enough for me to start the cool weather babies — lettuce, kale, beets and maybe even a Brassica or two.

Seed starting is really easy as long as you pay attention to a few basics:

Buy the right seed. Now what in the world does that mean? Seed is seed, right? Not in today’s world. Unless it’s certified organic, you could be buying seeds infused with herbicides and pesticides. And guess what? The herbicide and pesticide actually grow right into your plants and right into your produce.

So, only buy 100% certified organic seeds. Where? My favorite outlets for healthy and happy seeds are:

  1. Seeds of Change
  2. Seed Savers Exchange
  3. High Mowing Seeds
  4. Hudson Valley Seeds
  5. Territorial Seeds

These folks have healthy seeds that ensure you grow healthy plants and healthy produce. And they have ideas, tips and equipment for getting started. NOTE: you do NOT have to buy a whole lot of “stuff” to start gardening.

Start your seeds in the right dirt. I know, dirt is dirt. But is it? And what

Seedlings get a good start in healthy dirt.

Healthy dirt means healthy seedlings.

difference does dirt make to growing healthy, happy plants and healthful food? Dirt is everything.

This is one thing I buy every year. Why? Because dirt for starting seeds has to be organic. I get mine from Gardener’s Supply – employee owned and US-based, their seed starting mix has stood the test of time for more than 25 years!

Have the right equipment and tools. Most of my gardening stuff was used when I started. It still is. My favorite seed starting tool are my seed starting kits.

Grow trays are best seed starting tools.

Grow trays are perfect for starting seeds.

I bought these 25 years ago and they are still working great!  The small cell of dirt heats up fast. The base and mat ensure the seedlings never dry out but they also never get too wet or damp off.

If you’re just starting out, don’t invest too much before you start growing. Look around and use stuff you already have or someone else can loan you. Or check Craigslist and pick up gardening equipment for a song!

I found most of my tools and you can too so don’t let the cost of tools scare you off. (The post on finding tools was written 5 years ago but it still stands as does its companion post on garden tools that are nice to have.)

Getting started is so easy. I hope you take a chance. Grow your favorite vegetable on your patio, in a pot on the back porch or in a plot in the back yard.

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

Give it a shot and just 5 months from now, you could be looking at gorgeous, healthy veggies growing on your very own plants!

Looking for more tips on seed starting? Margaret Roach, one of my most favorite gardening gurus, offers her own seed starting wisdom, too.

Join in. Get your hands dirty. And start growing your own food. It’s fun and it really is easy!!

Tips for Getting Ready to Garden

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

I’m a hardcore organic gardener so, gardening never really stops for me.

My first tip: if you are really into organic gardening and enjoying fresh and truly healthy produce, ONLY buy organic and heirloom seeds from sources you trust.  Tip 1A: if you invest in organic seed, heirloom seed, consider saving seeds from your garden and using them next spring.

There are a dozen reasons to try seed saving but I can think of two that drive me. When you save seed, you:

  1. Save money and you save the planet, just a bit (and that’s all anyone can ask for).
  2. Create seeds that are uniquely adapted to your soil, your growing environment.

Here’s my second tip for anyone who wants to garden, is gardening or thinks

Bag garden waste

Bag your garden waste.

gardening prep is done in the spring. I do it all my garden clean up AND prep in the fall!

In fact, all of my garden beds get prepped in September and early October. Newly composted soil is spread on each raised bed. Fences and trellises are taken down, cleaned and stowed.

Tomato cages are pulled up off the sweet red peppers they supported all summer long and put away. My blackberries are thinned, blueberry bushes are trimmed. Elderberries, goji berries and figs are cleaned, dead wood and branches removed

Straw protects my garden.

Straw protects my garden in the winter.

and then, all of my beds, bushes and berries get covered with straw, bale after bale of bright golden yellow straw…and every bed, bush and berry goes to sleep, dreaming of spring and another growing season.

Doing this work in the fall means that, usually, I am doing what all gardeners do in the winter  — thumbing through seed catalogs, cleaning my seed starting gear, ordering organic seed starting mix (detect a theme?) and just generally getting ready to…start seeds!

Tip number three – start planning your spring garden in November and December and start ordering any seeds or supplies you need as early as you can. If you don’t, you may be in for a rude surprise. Vendors sell out!

This year, I didn’t follow my own advice. I sort of lost all my steam and stopped. I can’t blame a “hard” winter; it’s been screwy but not a lot of snow or ice, so far. I haven’t been sick, nor has my husband. I’m not working so I can’t use that as an excuse. True confession: I’ve been hibernating this winter.

I didn’t even know I was hibernating until this morning, until one of my online buddies, Chrystal wrote about her kale and the big freeze of 2017.  After reading her post about kale and herbs and garlic and forsythia…my sap started to rise and I started thinking about March and getting growing.

I’ve missed out on some seeds I really wanted to try this year but, after inventorying what I saved and what I had left, I think 2017 is going to be a great gardening year!

To the basement! It’s time to plug in the lights, clean off the seed starting trays and get ready to grow!

Tips for Fall Garden Clean Up

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

T.S. Eliot got it wrong. April isn’t the cruelest month; it’s September. It’s the time of year when your garden goes from lush, green, verdant…

Tips for cleaning up your garden

Garden clean up in progress

To brown and gold broken up only by beets, Swiss chard, kale and lettuce.

Not only is the growing season drawing to a close for many of us…but it’s time to clean up!

I used to hate cleaning up my garden in the fall. When I  looked out my kitchen window and  saw more brown than green, I would grimace and think, “…next weekend.”  Inevitably, clean up kept getting pushed back by other, more pleasing events like the Brewfest in Kennett Square or the Hagley Car Show .
But not anymore.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn worm in my garden.

I’ve discovered that cleaning up is the perfect time to find unwanted visitors like the varmint that was eating my tomatoes. This fat and happy tomato horn worm is enjoying his last meal.

While tearing down my tomato trellises, I found a dozen of these beautiful but sinister worms as I cleaned up the tomato bed. But I also learned that all but 2 were covered with trichogramma wasp eggs, like the little fellow below.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

Fall cleaning, removing leaves, vines and stems, raking up fallen bits and pieces of this year’s green bean and tomato plants, all these activities help me get a jump-start on my garden next spring.

Garden Clean Up Tips
Anyone who has gardened for a few years has come up with their own tips and tricks for making garden clean up a bit easier.  Having 30 years of experience behind the hoe, I have discovered a few things that might make life easier for any organic gardener.

My first bit of advice? Be prepared.  When I go out to clean up, I always bring the tools I’ll need to make it easier.  So my tool bag (actually my wheel barrow) contains:

  1. Scissors – the knots you used to tie up tomatoes will be real tight after a summer of rain and heat.  Trying to pull them off just frustrates the gardener.
  2. Secateurs – if you try to cut back blackberries or blueberries without them, the chances are you’ll do more damage than good.  These small, sharp sheers can cut through up to an inch of stalk or wood and are always in my bag of tricks.
  3. Baling Twine – picked up at the stable and used to bundle all the leggy tomato, pepper and eggplant carcasses.
  4. A shovel – I sometimes need to coax some of the plants from the ground.  Eggplant and tomatoes get stems more than an inch in diameter and their roots can extend up to 10 feet from the base of the plant.  So, a bit of shovel power comes in handy.
  5. A rake – I prefer the good, old-fashioned garden rake because it’s heavier than a leaf rake and the tines won’t work against me as I rake up fallen tomatoes and peppers.
  6. A bucket – I use an empty kitty litter container and I use it to pick up all the green or rotten produce that hits the ground at the end of the season.
  7. Garden gloves – I consider these optional.  I always start out wearing them but, inevitably, rip them off about 30 minutes into clean up.  I like the way the dirt feels on my hands.  But the manicure does suffer so it’s up to you whether you wear them or not.
  8. Large trash bags – I didn’t use to bag any of my garden waste but I learned that trying to compost vines from tomatoes, zukes, cukes and even green beans meant giving diseases like wilt a head start next spring. It also meant providing warm, cozy homes for Mexican Bean beetles and cucumber and squash beetles among others.

Clearing The Ground
This is always the worst step for me.  I really hate pulling off tomato cages, cutting vines out of my fence sections and tearing up the roots of the dying plants.  But once I get started, I actually enjoy it!

Bag garden waste

My dogs helping me to bag .

I pull all plants (except perennials), shove the waste into bags and stack them on the edge of the garden. I know some people put their plant bodies in the compost but I don’t. Why not?

If you’re a slow composter like me, letting nature and God do the work for you, you probably shouldn’t put your garden detritus in the bins, either.  Seeds will germinate.  Diseases will survive.  When you spread your compost next year to welcome your new seedlings, you may be welcoming some very unwanted visitors.

One last task remains before you can move from clearing to covering.  If you grew tomatoes, grab a bucket and pick up all of the fallen tomatoes off the ground.  If you don’t you will have a whole lot of baby tomatoes to pull up next year.  This is a gooey task but well worth the effort.

Once the ground is cleared, it’s time to cover it. I use straw and a lot of it. It mulches the ground, protects perennials and annuals like garlic and beets and sets me up for weed free gardening in the spring.

I use about 40 bales of straw  to cover everything including the blueberry and blackberry patches, the vegetable garden, raised beds and asparagus.  That may sound like a lot but by next spring, the 18 inches of straw I lay down now will have settled and started to break down.

Bug Control – A Pre-emptive Strike
I offer one last bit of advice for wrapping up the growing season and getting ready for your garden next spring.

During the growing and harvesting season, I don’t use any bug control except what I detailed in Getting Bugged.  However, if it’s been a very bad year for Mexican bean beetles, Asian Beetles, Japanese Beetles and Stink Bugs, just before I cover my garden, I do spray the straw remaining from last year and the ground in my raised beds.

Before you gasp, click unsubscribe and cry, “…traitor,”  know that I use only one product — Pyola.    The active ingredient is pyrethrin which comes from chrysanthemums and is mixed with canola oil.  I use Pyola to control next year’s bugs by killing the larva that are now safely snuggled into my garden ground.

NOTE:  Pyrethrin is a contact poison which quickly penetrates the nervous system of the insect.  It will affect bees and some  beneficials so I wait until I have had two hard frosts to use it. I want to make sure there is no insect activity in the garden.   Also, pyrethrin is harmful to fish so if you have a pond or your garden borders on a stream, don’t use it at all.

Cornell University’s post on its ExToxNet provides a very thorough idea of what pyrethrin is, how it works and what it might do in the environment.  Read it before you use it so you’ll know if it will work in your garden.  And don’t use it if you don’t have to.

So that’s my version of garden clean up.  Clean up really isn’t that hard but I avoid it because it signals the end of the growing season and the approach of cold winds and falling leaves.    It also means time for dreaming and planning next year’s garden…

 

The Summer of 2016 Is Ending

Am I crazy? Is summer really ending??

August heat baking my garden

Garden baking in the August sun

Today’s heat index in Southeast Pennsylvania says it will be 114 degrees out. It’s only August 13th. Summer isn’t over. It can’t be!

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

I am still harvesting like mad. My Bianca Rosa eggplant have given me 15 beautiful globes and there are more than that still on the plants. The Fox Cherry tomatoes are coming in so fast it’s hard to pick them (especially when you were silly enough to plant 10 of them!).

Growing giant Zucchini

Sicilian zucchini gone rogue.

The Sicilian Zucchetta are downright frightening in their productivity and sheer size.

I’ve been giving them away, cooking with them, jousting in the back yard and leaving them on neighbor’s doorsteps in the dark of night (too big for their mailboxes).

Green beans are producing about a pint a day and my Frigatello Sweet Italian peppers are just warming up, throwing off 5 or 6 peppers a day.

And I’m still getting beets, inter-planted among the tomatoes, keeping cool and waiting for me to harvest them.

Fox Cherries protect beets

Fox Cherry tomatoes shade my beets.

IMG_2568

So how can it possibly be summer’s end?

It happens every year, I wake up and step outside before the dawn light and something has changed.

The feel of the breeze on my skin. The smell of the air. A tiny change in the song of the insects. Every year, there is a single moment when I know that summer is ending.

2016 Perseid meteor showers

Perseid meteor cuts across the night sky (courtesy AMS, Ltd)

This morning, sitting on my patio watching the Perseid meteor shower (image courtesy of the American Meteor Society, Ltd.), I knew as any long time gardener whose blood runs to soil and whose bare feet crave time connecting to the earth knows.

Summer into Autumn is always bittersweet for me. My garden, this garden, will never come again. Next year, the war with Japanese Beetles and the ongoing struggle with Mexican Bean Beetles will begin again. Triumphs and defeats will eddy and swirl across my back yard.

Sunflowers grace my garden

Sunflowers tower over my garden…and me!

But then there will be all that glorious, organic food flowing from my garden to my kitchen table and the tables of friends, relatives and neighbors, again.

And sunflowers, bachelor buttons, chamomile, marigolds and lemon verbena will open for the bees. Lemon balm, milkweed and borage will offer food and nectar to butterflies, wasps and beneficials.

Blueberries and blackberries will be joined by elderberries and goji berries, adding to the delicious, healthy treasures growing just steps from my back door.

And I will once again know why I garden.

Note: the image of the meteor, above, was taken by Eddie Popovits and used with the express permission of the American Meteor Society, a non-profit, scientific organization founded in 1911 and established to inform, encourage, and support the research activities of both amateur and professional astronomers

How To Kill Mexican Bean Beetles

I used to ask myself, “What’s a Mexican Bean Beetle?” Now, every summer, I ask myself, “Of all the bugs in all the world, why does the Mexican Bean Beetle have to find my garden?”

Mexican bean beetle life cycle

Photo reproduced w/permission of Purdue University

As with any pest, it pays to know your enemy. I call this picture, “The Circle of Life” and am grateful to Purdue University Entomology Department and Dr. Christian Krupke, Principal Investigator, for letting me use it.

If you have been invaded, these are all the forms the enemy takes while ravaging your crops. Since it’s mid-July in Pennsylvania, I know the invasion of my back yard, all organic garden has begun.

Of all the pests I do battle with, the Mexican Bean Beetle is the worst of the worst when it comes to green beans.  One day there is nothing there.  The next day there are some holes in a few leaves on a couple of plants.

Flip up the leaves and if you see pudgy yellow larvae with lots of legs and one big old mouth chewing away, you’ve been invaded. Grab a bucket, sit down, methodically flip up every single leaf on every single plant and crush the yellow menace. Then get up and do it again, tomorrow and the next day or you will lose your bean crop.

Mexican Bean Beetles are members of the lady beetle family.  But they aren’t the Lady Beetle relatives you want in your garden.  Small, copper or khaki colored, these beetles are about 6 mm (1/4 inch) long and 5 mm (1/5 inch) wide.

Pesky bean beetle

Tiny & destructive (Photo credit: Michael Bok)

Some have 8 small black spots on each wing, resembling large lady beetles. Some are brown with barely discernible stripes. No matter what they look like, they’re really wholesale destruction machines.  And they come in force.

How do they find your garden and your bean plants so quickly?

Chances are they never left when the winter came; they simply tucked in to the ground in leaf litter and other sheltered areas in fence rows of your garden plot and waited out the freezing temperatures and the snow.

Adults begin emerging from these protected areas when beans begin sprouting and continue to emerge for up to two months. The adults feed for approximately two weeks before depositing their eggs on the underside of leaves.  And when I say feed, I mean ravage.

Nasty beetles eating everything.

Mexican Bean Beetles will literally eat the life out of my bean plants, if I let them.

Yellow eggs 1 mm (1/20 inch) in length are laid in groups of 40-60 on the lower leaf surfaces.  Females may deposit an egg-mass every two to three days. Eggs hatch in 5-24 days.  Immature larvae are yellow and are covered with large spines.  Larvae feed for two to five weeks before pupation.

You have 3 chances to kill these beetles off – crush the eggs, crush the larvae and crush the mature beetles.  The first two are the easiest but you can catch and kill the beetles too.  You just have to be persistent.  I like to think of it as my summer time exercise program, bend, search, crush, start again.

If you can make it through July and early August, when the greatest amount of injury occurs and the adults begin to disappear, you might save some of your bean harvest.

So, every spring I take a chance and plant some beans.  They grow fast.  They set tons of beans.  If I plant them properly, train them right (if they’re pole beans) and aggressively crush all variations of the Mexican Bean Beetle, I can harvest and enjoy green beans all summer long.

 

Controlling Japanese Beetles Naturally

I am at war with Japanese beetles, the offspring of last year’s huge and devastating population. This year, I think I’m going to win!

Surround stops Japanese Beetles.

Japanese Beetles hate Surround!

Why? My secret weapon? I am using Surround.

Surround is 95% kaolin clay (5% inert) which is mixed with water and sprayed on plants.

This year, all the blackberries and the blueberries in my yard are wearing coats made

Blueberries covered by Surround.

Beetle free blueberries coated by Surround.

of Surround which I sprayed at the first sign of Japanese Beetles in my back yard.

When I say “first sign” I mean it. Apparently, the beetles release a pheromone when they find good food. Any beetles in the vicinity fly in and start feasting.

Surround doesn’t harm any other insects. But Surround does make berries and leaves taste really bad to the beetles! The proof is on the plants and in the bucket.  This year I have only gotten about 45 beetles, total.

Very few Japanese Beetles in 2016 thanks to Surround

Surround meant fewer than 45 Japanese Beetles in a week!

Last year, I plucked morning and evening, got thousands of Japanese beetles in my bucket and I still lost all the blackberries, beans and apples. The only difference this year is Surround!

Surround also keeps my 10 most hated bugs, including Colorado Potato Beetles, Cucumber and Squash beetles, off of plants so, yes, every squash and cucumber plant in my garden is also sporting a beautiful coat of kaolin clay.

FYI the beetles I have found were on the only 2 plants I didn’t spray with Surround — a Pussy Willow and Borage, which I planted for the bees.

Borage without Surround equals Japanese Beetles.

Borage is one plant I didn’t spray!

Based on my current state, which is only one week into beetle season, I may win the war this year.

If I do, I give all the credit to Surround. If you’re being “bugged,” consider giving it a try.