Tag Archives: learning about organic gardening

2018 Garden is In – But Oy The Weather…

2018 Garden enjoying sun

2018 garden enjoying sun

So, my garden is now, totally in the ground.

This year I planted garlic, onions, lettuce, beets, spinach, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers (still considering zucchini), green beans, asparagus, of course and herbs like basil and Italian parsley.

I finished putting the last Bianca Rosa in the ground Saturday morning.

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Baby Bianca Rosa eggplant

Saturday evening, we got 70 MPH winds, driving hail and torrential rain with a side order of thunder and lightning and the threat of a tornado!

The baby eggplant survived…and seem to be settling in to their truck bed.

But I live outside of Philadelphia…in Pennsylvania! We don’t get tornadoes. Oh, wait, we do now courtesy of the non-existent global warming and the ever increasing turbulence of our weather and of the very earth itself.

It has rained every day since last Tuesday. It is going to rain again tonight. In fact, we are under a flood watch from 4PM today to 2AM tomorrow morning. We might get a day or two of clearing, then all that rain that is currently drowning Floridians will be…here.

Tomato plants hanging on to their trellis

Tomato plants hanging on, literally

Even my tomatoes have toughed it out…although they are looking just a bit “wan.”

As with every year, there are, of course challenges – bugs…rabbits, deer. But this year, it seems that Mother Earth is setting about re-balancing her planet – with or without us.

But there will be vegetables and fruit in my backyard this summer. Most of these plants will survive. And so will I.  I will keep on gardening, keep growing.

My garden will grow

My garden will grow

And I will keep praying that we, the humans who inhabit this planet, slow down a bit, become more aware of the risk and start backpedaling from taking, using, devouring and otherwise destroying this magnificent home on which live and orbit the universe.

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Free Organic Gardening Book: Tomato Stakes

Tomatoes too big for pots

Office full of tomatoes in April!

I share a ton of tips for tools, growing and planting in my book and on this blog.

In fact, I share ways that can help you drop the cost of gardening down to pennies and, if you save your own seed, down to zero.

Today, I want to share 2 new discoveries I have recently made.  You might say I discovered these tools and wrote these tips out of desperation.

You see, I am surrounded by  rapidly growing seedlings like these tomatoes and I needed to think fast about keeping them healthy!

So today, instead of a chapter in my organic gardening book, I’d like to introduce you to marshmallow sticks and dress socks! (No, I have not been drinking my homemade brandy this morning…yes, these are real tips that are very helpful.)

Socks and marshmallow sticks on the job

Marshmallow sticks & socks!

As you know, every year I try a few new seeds in my garden. This year, I went for Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomatoes from Baker Seeds.

They were described on Baker Seeds as, “… elongated, large cherries in clusters.

The color (and flavor!) is a full-blown assault on the senses—lavender and purple stripes, turning to technicolor olive-green, red, and brown/blue stripes when fully ripe.”

These seeds are vigorous – all of them sprouted…along with the 30 other tomato seeds I planted, a bit too early. Most of them are what is known in tomato land as “indeterminate” i.e. they grow to be 9 to 12 feet high!

Tomatoes in needs of stakes

Last year’s knitting needles don’t cut it.

So, today, I am surrounded by 22 tomato plants (and I have 17 more in the basement) that have simply outgrown their 5″ peat pots and my amazing plant stand!

And I won’t be able to re-home some of them and transplant the rest for another 4 to 5 weeks.

Panic set in…and after a sleepless night or two, I started searching for solutions. Luckily, I found a place to get black plastic nursery pots at a reasonable price. So I picked up some organic potting soil from my local feed store and set about transplanting the biggest tomatoes first.

Then I realized I needed to stake these babies, even in their new, 8″ high pots. However, the only stakes I could come up with – aka “splits” as they are known in the biz, were bamboo, dyed green and the only quantity for purchase? 1000. That’s not a typo; I could only find them in packs of 1000.

I’m 70 years old. The odds of me using 1000 bamboo splits before I…split, are slim to none. So I started to think laterally and guess what?

Marshmallow sticks for tomato stakes

Marshmallow sticks in a bundle.

That’s how I found marshmallow sticks. I got one package of 100 sticks, 3/8″ in diameter and 30 inches long on Amazon for chump change.

They work beautifully which leads me to my second discovery. I retired 3 times…(bear with me, it is relevant). I was an executive for most of my career and introduced the pants suit to my 20th century corporation 30 years ago. (It was an unwritten rule that women had to wear dresses or skirts — yep…amazing considering that this was the 1990’s.)

Anyway, pants suits meant dress socks. When I finally retired, for the 3rd time, I donated almost all of my “executive” wardrobe to an agency working with battered women — so-called displaced homemakers.

Socks and marshmallow sticks

The dynamic duo for tomato staking.

But I forgot about the socks….until I staked my tomatoes. What better way to tie the tomato plants to the marshmallow sticks? Soft, easy to cut and even easier to tie, my heap of socks began earning their keep again!

 

 

Socks as tomato ties

Tender ties for tomatoes.

The short ties are soft and easy to put in place, tenderly holding these baby tomatoes against their marshmallow sticks.

I also cut long ties that will be used for these babies once they are trellised in my yard.

And I kept some of the socks whole so I can slip them over cucumbers and zucchini that are being attacked by stripey, aggressive and tiny beetles (on my top 10 list of bugs I hate!)

So, I may not outlive the marshmallow sticks and, considering what the socks are made of, I know I won’t outlive the plant ties but I am truly, deeply grateful for both. Now I know my beautiful, too tall tomato plants will not just make it to the great outdoors but will thrive there.

Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Eggplant

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

Another week and another free chapter of my organic gardening book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us!

This week I will share some tips and secrets for growing great eggplants! When you think of the most popular vegetables to grow in the back yard, you probably don’t come up with eggplant.  In fact, when Mother Earth News did a survey of who was planting what, the most popular homegrown vegetable was the tomato., which was followed by peppers, green beans, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, summer squash, carrots, radishes, and sweet corn.  Eggplant didn’t even make the list!

Okay, so eggplant is not a favorite with a lot of gardeners but the reason just may be that most gardeners have never had young, sweet flavorful eggplants plucked off their own plants.   Instead they’ve tried those large, purple cylinders they buy in the grocery store.  I was the same way until I grew a few plants and discovered there is no comparison.

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

There are three tricks to getting full-flavored fruit from an eggplant; buy the right seeds, start the plants early and harvest the eggplant when they’re small.

My favorite eggplant is the round, striated one called Bianca Rosa from High Mowing Organic Seeds.   This is a Sicilian eggplant with light pink fruits that are streaked with white and violet. The flavor is mild and creamy with no bitterness and a low number of seeds.

How To Grow Eggplant
Growing eggplant is a bit like growing peppers – both like warm summer days.  In fact, I think eggplant is even more cold-sensitive.  To get eggplant to flower and set fruit, you need warm soil and a long, warm growing season – from 100 to 140 days with temperatures consistently between 70° and 90°.

Bianca Rosa love sun and heat

Italian eggplant love sun and heat.

If you want to get healthy eggplant plants you need to start them from seed and very early. By early, I mean at least 10 weeks before my last frost date.

Like all my seeds, I start them in cells.  I don’t soak them overnight before putting them in the cell but you can to shorten the time to sprouting.

Once the eggplant seedlings get their second set of leaves, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots, raise the tray up off the heating mat (I use two bricks – not high-tech but cheap and easy) and keep them warm.

Bianca Rosa and any eggplant for that matter need heat to thrive.  When they get to between 4 and 5 inches high, I transplant them again, this time into 4 inch peat pots.

Why not go directly from cell to the 4 inch peat pot?

Eggplant, peppers, cukes, and zukes hardening off on the patio.

Veggie transplants hardening off

Remember, eggplant like warm soil.  Take them from warm, moist soil and stick them in cold dirt and they get shocky – I know, I tried.  All my eggplant were stunted and fruit came late in the season.

So unless I plan far enough ahead to prepare the 4 inch pots and put them over the heat map to warm the soil (that’s unlikely), I just go from cell to 2 inch then 4 inch peat pot.

Once they have settled into the new pots and are thriving, I move the trays off the heat mats and onto my lighted plant stand (which I bought used almost 20 years ago and am still using).

When To Transplant Eggplant
Eggplant have the same needs as those of bell peppers.  Transplants should only be set in the garden after all danger of frost is past.  Remember, warm soil, warm air and warm days, lots and lots of all three are what eggplant need to thrive.

Eggplant like support from tomato cages

Eggplant growing in tomato cages

If your eggplant are happy, they will need more space than you might anticipate.  Eggplant should be spaced about 2 feet apart.  I don’t plant them in rows, I zigzag them.  Like pepper plants, eggplant can be pulled over by the size and weight of their own fruit so I use tomato cages for support.

Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row and stagger them so you can get 6 to 8 plants in less space.   Make sure you leave about 2 to 2/12 feet between rows, especially if you are planting in raised beds like this old truck bed. This way, you can get to the plants and the fruit, easily.

Care
Once in the ground, give the transplants a good watering to settle them into the ground.  I always mulch eggplant but before I do, I put a ring of composted soil around each plant to feed it.  Then I mulch with straw or grass clippings or both to keep the weeds down.

You can also use a nitrogen fertilizer if you don’t have any composted soil, feeding the plants when they are half-grown and right after you harvest the first fruits. But being a lazy gardener, I prefer using composted soil.

Once the plants are established, eggplant love the heat of the summer.  You only have to water if you are in a persistent dry period then wait for those lovely, sweet eggplant to start emerging from each lavender flower.

Fresh eggplant parmigiana

Freshly made eggplant parmigiana

Harvest 3 or 4 of your eggplant, marry them to your own tomatoes and basil and make yourself the most delicious eggplant parmigiana you have ever tasted!

 

Practical Organic Gardening – Growing Tomatoes!

fox cherry tomatoes

Fox Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my garden.

As promised, it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. Most gardeners, me included, rely on one summertime favorite, the tomato, to grace their gardens every year!

Why tomatoes?

Tomatoes are pretty hardy plants.  And they’re happy growing in containers.  They’ll even grow hanging from a hook, upside down.    So, even if you don’t have any space for a garden plot, even if you can’t grow anything else, you can grow tomatoes.

If you’re new to gardening, you might want to start with a few tomato plants instead of starting seed. Why?

Tomatoes from seeds

Tomato seedlings growing indoors.

Most warm weather crops  like tomatoes, should be started 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost.

In my zone, Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the second week of February.

From the moment the seeds go into the pots until I get them ready for transplant, I have to pay attention – keep them warm, water them, feed them and ensure they are healthy and happy.

So, if you’re just starting out, buying plants may be a lot easier and a lot less risky.

Tomato Basics
Before we talk about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available today, let’s talk about a couple of categories that you should know about when you pick seeds or buy plants, namely determinate and indeterminate.

Tomatoes come in both these varieties.  What’s the difference? Determinate varieties bear their crop all at once and tend to be more compact.  Don’t have much space?  Try these.

Indeterminate tomatoes bear fruit all season and grow longer vines.

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

These vines require support (staking or caging) over the growing season.   Got room and a couple of fence sections?  Try these.

I usually plant both so I can make tomato sauce, paste and barbecue sauce with the determinate varieties and eat the indeterminate tomatoes all summer long.

Now let’s talk about types of tomatoes?  From this organic gardener’s chair, I think of tomatoes as coming in three types – plum tomatoes, slicers and cherry or grape tomatoes.

 

  1. Plums – these are the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
  2. Slicers – these are great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
  3. Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – these are tiny bundles of tomato flavor that taste great right off the vine.

Again, I plant a few of all three types because I love them.  You can pick and choose the ones you like the best and plant those.

Tips on Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are warm weather plants; they really don’t like cold soil or cold air.  You can plant them out on the ragged fringe of your last frost date but putting them in the ground too early may just stunt their growth.  So tomatoes should not go into your ground until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees.

Tomatoes should be given some room to breathe.  Plants should be 2 to 3 feet apart and rows should be 3 feet apart.  This gives the tomato plants room to spread out, especially the indeterminate ones that can grow vines that are more than 9 feet long.

NOTE:  Overcrowding is a mistake I make over and over again and by August, I can’t reach my plants and bugs are having a field day dining on ripe tomatoes. Space them better and get better crops and fewer pests.  (Now to get me to follow my own advice….)

When planting tomatoes in the ground:

  1. Pick a nice sunny spot that drains well.  The slight slope in my garden ensures that the roots of the tomato plants are wet but don’t drown.
  2. Remove all containers (plastic or clay) from the plants except peat pots.  If using peat pots, just grasp the bottom and start to close your fist.  That pincer movement punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
  3. Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
  4. Make sure you dig a hole that is deep enough to bury the stem up to the very last set of leaves at the top.  Yes, I really do mean bury them deep.  The stem that you put underground will send out roots and very quickly anchor the plant and give it a lot of opportunities to take up nutrients and water.
  5. Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
  6. Water the transplants in by pouring 1 or 2 cups of water on the ground at the base of the stem of each plant immediately after transplanting.  NOTE:  You can use a very weak liquid fertilizer (2 tablespoons to a gallon of water) if you want but I don’t fertilize until about 2 weeks after I have transplanted.
  7. Mulch with straw around each transplant.  Mulching also makes for a weed free garden – the only state I want to be in when it comes to gardening.  It also ensures that moisture is retained and to make sure rain water doesn’t splash up on the leaves of the tomato plants.  Water that splashes up off the soil can cause verticulum wilt or mosaic tobacco virus, the two most common diseases in the tomato family.  By the way, never smoke in your garden – you can make your plants sick, literally.

Stake your tomato babies when you plant them.  Tomatoes grow fast so if you wait, it may be too late to get a tomato cage or a stake in place.  Staking prevents some diseases and improves your yield.  It also makes it much easier to pick once the plants start producing fruit.

staking tomatoes

Staking with found items

What should you use for stakes?  Visit any gardening or hardware store and pick up wooden stakes or, my favorite, metal stakes.  I also use old fence section and have been known to use an old box spring on occasion.

If it doesn’t rain and/or if it is very hot during the first week after transplanting, make sure to check the plants to see if they are drooping or wilting and pour another cup or two of water on them if they are.

Once your tomato babies are in the ground and have weathered the first week, there are only a couple of things you need to do to ensure a good crop:

Always pinch off the first flowers on all your tomato plants.  The plants are still trying to get established in the ground.  They don’t need babies to distract them from growing into strong, healthy plants.

When the second set of flowers appear on the plants, mix 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts into one gallon of water and use one cup for every foot of height the plant has – 2 feet = 2 cups.  Epsom salts provide magnesium and sulfur – both needed to produce chlorophyll and allow for proper absorption of phosphorous and nitrogen.  NOTE:  Don’t use too much Epsom salts.  If you do, you will get lots of beautiful, green leaves and bushy plants but not many tomatoes.

Tomatoes should get 1 to 2 inches of rain a week.  If it doesn’t rain, make sure you water them.  I use soaker hoses.  Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants.  If you see one munching through your garden and you don’t have trichogamma wasps, use pliers if you have to but pull it off and kill it.

If you have trichogamma wasps, sit back and watch the show.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

The wasp lays eggs on the hornworm. When the larvae hatch, they dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these destructive pests.

If you planted indeterminate tomatoes, take a few minutes a week to check for and remove the axillary or side shoots that come off the plant.  But don’t go crazy and strip off a whole lot of leaves.  Tomatoes can get sunburned – really – and burned fruit just doesn’t taste all that good.

So trim lightly. Keep the plants from getting too bushy. Use their energy for  production.

Fertilize your tomato plants when the fruit are an inch or more long. I use fish emulsion mixed with water and poured around the roots of every plant.  This is sometimes called “side-dressing” a plant.  Another free fertilizer is crushed eggshells. Just put about 1/2 cup of crushed shells around the base of each plant.

You can side dress the second time right after picking the first ripe fruit and make a 3rd and final application a month later.

When it comes to harvesting your tomatoes, you can do it by look and feel or you can do it by temperature.  If the average daily temperature is around 75 degrees and the fruits are red, they are ready to be picked.  And don’t refrigerate tomatoes.  The flavor and quality of the tomato will be much better if it is kept at room temperature.

One of my favorite resources for learning about tomatoes is online.  Although it is a Missouri extension office, the basic information works for any gardener, almost anywhere.

And that is how to grow tomatoes.

 

Practical Organic Gardening – Free Book – Chapters 4 & 5

Today we look at weeding and feeding!  Again, this is so simple I wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t do it. And, if you have some initiative, feeding your soil won’t cost you a dime!

Zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant being baked in the sun.

Raising your own food is easy.

FYI – this is the groundwork. Next week, we get started with  starting and growing your own food!

Weeding
Weeding is one thing that any gardener swiftly grows to hate.  And the older you get, the less fun it is to land on your knees, bend over and dig the little blighters out.  But not weeding can lead to a whole lot more pain than a sore back or a knee with twinges.

Weeds grow fast and set seeds even faster.  If you see one weed, you can bet that it’s invited about 500 of its closest relatives to join it in the ultimate comfort of your garden.  A lot of people reach for the handy spray bottle of herbicide conveniently sold at their local, big box, home improvement store.

Herbicides are fast and deadly.  But they don’t just kill weeds.

Research is beginning to unravel the reasons behind the death of millions of

bees, beekeeping, organic gardening benefits

My bees in my backyard.

honey bees, worldwide and it looks like the root of the problem is products containing neo-nicotinoids – weed-killing products readily available in this country and in Europe.

The debate over cause and effect is in full swing right now but I’m old enough to remember a similar debate about two weed-killing agents – 2-4-D and 2-4-5T.  Supposedly so safe that as little children, we were give the job of filling weed wands with this chemical adding water and running through our very big yard, barefoot, killing weeds.

So far, both my brothers have succumbed to brain cancer and my older sister is battling kidney cancer.  So that’s one reason why I don’t recommend using any herbicides in any form.

I also live in the country.  Everyone has wells.  Do you really want to poison your neighbors, downstream?  There are days when I consider it (joking) but polluting the water supply just doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do.

What to do to get rid of weeds?
I confess that in the early days of my organic gardening life, when I was still gainfully employed, I bought a flame thrower.  No, really, I bought a flame thrower and used it to burn weeds out.  But it was expensive, the propane tank was heavy, bulky and an added cost.  And frankly, I never really killed the weeds, just singed them enough to make them angry and hardy!  And I lit my house on fire…but that’s a story for another day.

Straw is an easy weed cover.

Straw virtually stops weeds.

When I found the method developed by Ruth Stout, a pioneer in organic gardening and, even more importantly, a pioneer in making it so easy, I jumped on board with both feet.  Here’s how she described her system in an interview done by Mother Earth News.

“My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.”  (You can read the full article on Mother Earth News.)

Stout’s method may sound ridiculously simple but it works so well that that most years I only spend a total of 10 hours weeding.

Every fall I cover my entire garden with wet newspaper and straw – about 8 inches of it piled up on top of the paper.  Weeds (and all their seeds) are buried alive and prepping the garden for the next spring and summer is done.  And guess what?  While you are killing weeds and saving your back and knees, you are also feeding your soil.  All that mulch breaks down and enriches the dirt beneath it. 

Sure, some weeds might poke their beady little heads up from time to time but they are so few and far between that I actually welcome the chance to break out my other secret weapon – Fiskar’s Big Grip Garden Knife – the single, best tool I have ever bought and used in my garden.  No weed gets away and because of its design, it’s easy on my hands.  Made of aluminium, this knife comes with a lifetime guarantee and does that job efficiently and effectively.

What an amazing system – no weeds, enriched soil and a back that doesn’t ache!

Feeding
Successful composting always sounded like it required a lot of work and a pretty good dose of luck.  In fact, I was so scared to try composting, I didn’t!

Then I read a small ad in our local paper.  Our county was offering Master Composting classes, for free.  What did I have to lose except this nagging fear that I really was not cut out to compost.  So I signed up.

For 4 nights, I got the chance to spend a couple of hours in the company of other, like-minded gardeners.  And I learned just how easy composting can be.

Free materials and free compsot

Composting is easy and free.

In fact, the first thing I learned was the formula for making compost.  As a Master Composter, I was told not to share it but this was probably the most significant bit of information I picked up. This formula removed all barriers and fears and let me loose in my backyard to compost.  Here it is.

Green Yard Waste + Brown Yard Waste + Water = Compost

Now you know the secret to composting and here’s one more.  I don’t even water the pile.

Composting is not a mystical process that requires an advanced degree.  It is the most natural thing in the world.  Everything becomes compost over time.  Think about that for a minute.  Where do all the leaves and twigs, pine needles and grass that fall to the forest floor go?  Does someone rush out, rake them up in a pile and watch the pile start to smolder?  Not in my neighborhood.

Want to compost?  Here are the steps:

  1. Start collecting garbage (veggie and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves but no dairy or meat of any kind) in a bucket.
  2. Troll your neighborhood in the fall and take some of the leaves your neighbors nicely bagged up for you.
  3. Rake up grass clippings and weeds you’ve pulled up (knock the dirt off the roots or they may keep growing in the pile).
  4. Dump all three in a pile.
  5. Wait…about a year.

That’s all you need to know to make compost – black gold – as most organic gardener’s (and marketing mavens) call it.  Here are a few other gems I took home from this class:

There is no rigid method that will open up the pearly gates to composting heaven.  Sure, you want to try to balance brown stuff with green stuff but even if you don’t, you will still get composted soil.

Composting is free!  You do not have to race out and buy accelerators, fancy, rotating tubs, or a compost thermometer.   You don’t even need a bin!

Magic tools and additives are not required to make compost.  You only need them if you are in a real hurry and can’t wait for nature to take its course.

Depending on how fast or slow you want to turn out compost, you don’t even have to rotate your compost – flip it over and bring the oldest stuff to the top — unless you want to speed up the process.

I like to let God do all the work so I have three bins made out of old dog kennel fencing.  I just toss all the brown and green in one of them and leave it alone for a year or two.  When I need some composted soil to beef up my garden or feed my new transplants, I just lift the stuff that didn’t break down over the wall into the next bin.

At the bottom of the pile, I always find 6 to 8 inches of beautiful dark brown, loamy soil.  I dig it out, use what I need and plant something in the bin that I just emptied.

Like everything else in the organic gardening world, composting is always treated as a mystical process; it isn’t.  It’s really just the natural process of decay.  And you can just let it sit and do its thing while you work around the yard.  When you need it, the compost will be there, waiting for you.

NOTE: if you want to start gardening right away, you can buy composted soil in bags just make sure it’s organic. Read the label. Talk to the seller. Do some research and don’t just buy from big box stores or big manufacturers like Scott’s or Miracle Gro. There is way too much latitude in what’s “allowed” in these soils.

Be cautious. Find a reputable, usually family-owned and small, nursery or garden center and ask for help.

 

Practical Organic Gardening – Free Book – Chapter 3

Only one chapter today because it’s a long one. It you want to garden, DO NOT invest a lot of money in tools…just read on to find you how you can get started for next to nothing…

So, what makes organic gardening practical?  Just this. You can grow a whole lot of healthy, tasty food, literally, for pennies. What’s the trick?

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden laden with organic veggies.

Unlike traditional gardening, if you go organic, there are a lot of things you will NEVER have to buy.

For instance, you don’t have to buy chemicals or herbicides.  You don’t have to have fancy sprayers or a rototiller – not even one of those small ones named after the bug that prays.

In fact, if you pay a bit of attention, you already own just about everything you might need to get started.

What you don’t own, you can usually get, free. How does this work? A little planning and a bit of forethought are all it takes!

Here’s my list of what you need to be an organic gardener:

Dirt – free.

Seeds – cheap to buy and even cheaper if you save some for next year’s garden.

A big spoon or small shovel – something to dig holes with when transplanting.

Newspaper – free if you ask your neighbors and co-workers for them.  You can use it for mulch and make transplant pots with it, too.

Straw – free if you find a farmer who has old or moldy straw which works just as well as the golden yellow stuff.

Cucumber trellis from a head board.

Headboards make great trellises.

Trellises – made from some found items, your cukes, tomatoes and peppers will love climbing up or grow on these.

When I say found, I mean things like this old headboard from a day bed that I found on the side of the road. I use for climbing vegetables like cucumbers.

Or how about chain link fence sections and hay bale ties for growing tomatoes or training peppers or eggplant? I got these fence sections for free, too. And I have been using them for over 20 years!

Free fence sections grow great veggies

Fence sections supporting tomatoes

By the way, the dog isn’t free and he doesn’t do too much supporting! He can, however, pick his own tomatoes and blueberries.

And the decorative fence – my attempt to slow him down just a bit, was free, too.

Epsom salts – dirt cheap in half gallon milk shaped containers.

A bucket – free if you can get a hold of a kitty litter container or a dog food bucket.

A mug – free if you liberate it from your kitchen and use it to deliver water or fertilizer right to the roots of your plants.

Twine – free if you buy straw by the bale, save the baling twine and use it to tie up plants.  You can also get tons of baling twine in any horse barn.  NOTE:  Do NOT use green baling twine.  It has been treated with strychnine to kill mice and rats.

free curtains and free frames

Free curtains, free frames, free from frost

Old, sheer curtains, old bed sheets and even old mattress covers – free if you save yours or ask relatives and friends to give their old ones to you.

They don’t look as pretty as commercial row covers but they will keep frost off your baby plants. and, they’re free.

Access to a public library – free and there are always books and magazines about organic gardening ready for you to browse through, borrow and take notes from.  Oh, and libraries have computers and internet connections. Using them is free. And online is just FULL of ideas, tips and advice on organic gardening.  All you have to do is put in your search terms and hit Go.

An old 3-ring binder and some paper – can be free if you ask co-workers to save used copy paper and write on the back.  NOTE:  I consider this a requirement for my gardening.  If I don’t write down a tip or a “lesson learned”, I can easily forget what I learned and end up repeating my mistakes again and again and again.

A bit of inventiveness, a dollop of gumption and enough courage to try, fail and try again.

Here’s what would be nice to have if you move beyond dabbling in organic and decide to grow most of your produce every spring, summer and fall.  Bit of advice?  Before you buy any of these items, look on http://freecycle.org  or http://craigslist.org  to see if you can get them for free or cheap!

Peat pots – I use 2” and 4” peat pots and hate paying the price for them.  But they make transplanting easier for me and less stressful for the baby plants so I pay but I try to get them online rather than in a big box store where the price is always higher.

Raised beds – I make mine with 2 X 12s (NOT pressure treated) and plastic anchor joints from Home Depot.  They are so easy to do and won’t cost you $200, just a bit of sweat equity.

Raised beds are easy to make..

Raised beds are easy to make.

A kneeling pad – you can make one of these or buy one.  I’ve had my small green one for more than 15 years and it really, really saves your knees!

Gloves – I consider these nice to have because you really can dig in the dirt with your hands and suffer no ill effects.

But, in fact, I don’t use gloves because I love the feel of soil in my hands.

Two hand tools – both of mine are Fiskars because of the grip, the design and the lifetime guarantee — the big grip knife and the hand trowel.

A pitch fork – used to move the straw back from the fence sections a couple of weeks before planting so the soil can warm a bit.

A watering can – very nice to have if you want to hand water fresh transplants.

Fish fertilizer – I use Neptune’s Harvest hydrolyzed fish but am currently “brewing” my own using fish heads and bones that a friend of a friend got me for free, a 55 gallon drum and water!

Beneficial insects – there are quite a few beneficials and you can buy them.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on cutworm

Wasp eggs on cutworm

They may seem pricey, at first, but you don’t have to buy them often and you will truly be glad you did the first time you see a tomato cut worm trussed up like Gulliver and covered with small, white egg casings of the trichogamma wasp.

I bought nematodes and wasps 2 or 3 times when first establishing my garden but no longer need to buy them.  They live and work in my backyard.

A good pair of secateurs – hand held clippers that can cut through a 1” branch like it was butter.  These let you trim inside the bush not hack off the outer branches.

A garden club in your neighborhood.  Membership dues are usually low, ours is just $25 a year but you might enjoy some ideas and tips from your gardening neighbors. WARNING:  not everyone is organic so pick and choose who you listen to and what you are going to do.

If you decide you like gardening and want to get into it, here’s are a few more items I’ve learned to keep on hand to help make my gardening go a little easier:

A good bug book – this could be one of your larger expenses but, believe me, you will be grateful for putting out the cash.  Why?  There are a whole lot of good bugs in the garden that will do battle with the bad ones without you lifting a finger.  If you don’t know the good from the bad, you could be killing your soldiers and giving the enemy a chance to overrun the battlefield, i.e. your garden.

White vinegar and a big box of salt – it does not have to be iodized.  You’re just going to mix them together and use them to kill ants or a persistent weed like poison ivy or both.

A small propane torch – the handheld kind – I use this to burn tent caterpillars off my cherry trees.  It’s a bit brutal but it burns the nest and the caterpillars before they can strip my trees.

An old knife or pair of scissors nicked from the kitchen – nice to have on hand to cut baling twine and cut off produce rather than try to pull it off.  Having lost several battles with eggplant and peppers, I tend to keep a knife in my garden basket and use it with malice aforethought.

As I mentioned before, there are a couple of online resources that might also make it cheap and easy to get basic gardening equipment so before you buy, you might want to visit these sites:

www.craigslist.org – people are always selling fence sections, hand tools and possible trellis material at incredibly low prices.  Check the ads out before you lay down good money for a tool someone else bought but no longer wants or needs.

www.freecycle.org – I find this site painful but you will find free stuff on it so it’s almost worth it.  You have to be a member to see the posts.  And navigation is not just basic; it’s irritating.  But you will be able to pick up a lot of the “nice to haves” on Freecycle for…free.

 

Free Organic Gardening Book

If you ever wanted to learn all about organic gardening, the good, the bad and the ugly…just sign up for this blog and sit back.

Every week or so, I am going to upload a chapter of my organic gardening book which you can read for free!

Today, I am starting at the beginning…that would be Chapters 1 & 2 (the chapters are short) of Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us. Enjoy!

Chapter I – Why This Book

Organic gardening is easy, practical and cheap!

My all organic, backyard garden.

Remember when you decided you wanted to start a garden?  You told a friend, spouse, garden center guy and then got bombarded with miscellaneous stories of gardening disaster.  All that support really made you want to go out and start tilling the soil, right?

I hate it when I hear someone telling another would be gardener how hard it is to get things to grow or how easy it is to kill this vegetable or that one.  Why?  Because, instead of gardening, you probably wanted to run home, mix up your favorite drink and sit down with the remote control.

Too many people in the gardening business write or talk about how hard organic gardening is or how complicated it is.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to make people who read their articles or buy their books put down the shovel or rake and walk back into the house.

They’re lying!  Organic gardening is easy!  It’s cheaper than going the chemical route and it’s fun!

Organic gardening is so easy the lettuce practically grows itself.

Organic lettuce is easy to grow.

The truth is gardening can be as easy as you want to make it.  It’s all about what you want to grow.  Figure out what you want to plant, how many plants you want to put in, how large a garden space you want and what works in your planting zone.

One tip from someone whose motto is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

Start small and only plant those crops you want.  Lettuce is so easy to grow that it practically raises itself! It’s a cool weather crop that loves early spring and late fall. And it helps save you $5.00 for organic greens in the store!

Think about it. Stores sell spring greens mix for $5.00 for 12 ounces.  Fifty two weeks of buying greens comes to just under $300.  You can raise enough for you and your significant other for less than $3.00 a year.

Some seeds, some dirt and some water, a little kindness and a lot of sunlight and you are on your way to creating your own organic garden.  So, dig in!

Reading This Book

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

This book is designed so you can pick it up, look up a specific plant or bush and read about the good, the bad and the ugly for just that one selection.  Or you can read it cover to cover – starting at the back if you want to and working forward.

Why?

Because a lot of us gardeners aren’t very linear.  And many of us would rather “give it a go” than sit down and read about gardening.  So I tried to give you what you need, when you need it.

Want to raise blueberries?  Interested in saving your own seeds?  Want to get a handle

Organic gardening is easy.

Organic gardening is all about getting your hands dirty!

on techniques like composting, using organic fertilizers or even doing battle with Japanese beetles?  Check the Table of Contents and flip to the right page.

Want the back stories?  The pain of losing a loved one to Verticillium Wilt?

Make a cup of herbal tea, start here and just drift through the book, laughing, learning and, I hope, getting a powerful yen to get out there and get dirty.

 

PS – if you can’t find it in my book, I didn’t kill it.