Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Signs of Spring

I love spring!  After such a long and cold winter here, I am certainly welcoming some above freezing temperatures, as well as a little more sunshine.  This week and last week, we have received an abundance of rain, however.  So much so that we have gotten quite a lot of water in the basement of our older home.  No standing water or anything, but we have had to move a number of things off of the floor to keep them from getting wet, and we are now running our dehumidifier on full blast all of the time to keep up with all of the moisture. 

I’ll certainly take some rain over frigid winter temperatures, though.  I am also not taking the rain for granted, either, since I’m well aware of many areas around the world that are now experiencing record-breaking drought conditions, and my prayers go out to all of you going through that. 

I like spring because everything seems to awaken from its long winter slumber and comes back to life and grows.  Along with the increase in plant growth, there is plenty of wildlife that appears, and songbirds arrive, returning from their winter migration routes.  I’m enjoying the bird songs in the morning, which is something that we can easily overlook.  To me, the bird singing is quite beautiful, and it’s well worth the time to notice it.

Over the past few weeks, we have had quite a lot of wildlife activity around here.  In addition to the multiple squirrels that have been digging in my garden area (I am trying to make peace with them even though they can be a nuisance sometimes), I have seen rabbits and many birds.  Here are a few pictures of the furry and feathered friends hanging around my house right now.  I apologize for the poor quality of some of the pictures.  They were shot from inside my house through our windows, and this affected the clarity.

Mr. Bun, and Ms. Bunnette, two “twitterpated” rabbits (a Bambi movie reference, for those of you unfamiliar with the term “twitterpated”) hanging around my herb spiral two weeks ago.

Mr. Bun, sitting alone…

This little guy was fascinated with his own reflection and continued to try to fly at it, up and down my neighbor's windshield, and peck at it.  My suspicion is that it was a male who thought that his own reflection was another male trying to get in on his territory...  He was there for a couple of hours, and came back several days in a row.  Early on, what was likely the female nearby, got tired of waiting for him, and flew off.  I could picture her saying, "Come on already, Joe!  I'm tired of this, let's go home!"

Squiggy the Squirrel (or one of his friends), digging in my mulched garden area.

I am learning to appreciate every season for what it brings.  Winter has been one of the last ones for me to gain appreciation for, since it is so cold and dark.  However, it does bring a time of rest and reflection, a time that we can sit back and contemplate what has been and what can be.  It also makes spring all the more beautiful to those of us living in a temperate climate, and allows us to appreciate the awakening, growth, and cleansing that comes with it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

10 Sustainable Gardening Ideas for Earth Week

Tomorrow is Earth Day, and as gardeners, many of us are striving to become more self-sufficient, save money, and be more sustainable.  Therefore, in honor of Earth Week, here is a list of ten tips that we can all use to make our gardens and yards more environmentally friendly.

1.  Eliminate toxic chemicals and embrace organic growing.  There is a growing body of evidence to support the fact that toxic garden and landscaping chemicals are not only bad for the environment (e.g., killing our pollinators and generating pollution in our rivers, streams, and lakes), but they are also bad for us.  For example, recent research has just come out that glyphosate, a common yard chemical that seems to be everywhere, negatively affects male fertility, in addition to probably a whole host of other negative health effects.  And, if you read the label on the back of a container of glyphosate, it says that it is produced by a company that many of us are currently boycotting for other reasons (ahem, GMOs).   

Here is a great article that discusses the toxicity of many garden chemicals.

2.  Reduce the water use in your garden.  There are many ways to do this, but a few ideas to get you thinking include: capturing rainwater in rain barrels and using that as a water source for your garden, using drip hoses/drip irrigation in your garden to water your plants, putting mulch over your garden to help retain the moisture in your soil, and planting edible perennial plants, such as perennial herbs that will come back year after year, and put down deep roots into the ground, which make them much less dependent on frequent watering than typical annual crops are.

3.   Compost your kitchen scraps and add them to your garden as a source of soil nutrients.  Many gardeners are probably doing this already, but composting really is a great way to reduce the overall waste of your household and reuse your “trash” by using it as nutrient-rich and organic compost for your garden and landscape.  For more information on how to compost, this article from Mother Earth News is a great resource.

4.  Recycle It!  You can reuse many items that would otherwise go into your recycling bin by giving them a second life in your garden.  For instance, this past weekend, I learned how to make paper pots out of newspaper and pots out of toilet paper rolls.  The great thing about these types of “pots” is that you can start seeds right in them and then when it is time to plant your seedlings outdoors, you just plant the entire thing into the ground.  The “pots” that the seedlings are in will just compost into the soil around your plants.

See below for the video that I found with instructions for making the paper pots.  It takes a little bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, you may never want to buy those plastic seed starting cells again!

Below is a picture of some of the “pots” that I made out of recyclable materials.  Make sure that whatever materials you choose to use as pots will allow for adequate drainage.  Notice the pot that I made out of a former paper coffee cup.  I made sure to make a couple of drainage holes at the bottom of the cup.  I have also heard of people using paper egg cartons to start their seeds in, but I have personally not tried that yet.

5.  Plant perennials for pollinators.  This is very important, since our garden plants rely heavily on pollinators such as honeybees.  Pollinator populations have also been sharply declining over the last few years due to the widespread use of many types of agricultural chemicals and habitat loss.  To learn more, check out this post that I wrote last week.  

6.  Buy Quality.  When buying tools, try to invest in the best tools that you can afford.  This is definitely one area that you don’t want to go cheap.  Cheap tools often break and then you will just need to replace them later.   I had this point reinforced in my own gardening experience last year, when an inexpensive trowel that I had purchased from a big box store broke when I was doing a little bit of digging.  Ultimately, this cheaply made, inexpensive tool was not worth the little bit of money that I spent on it.

7.  Go on a treasure hunt.  I suggest going to garage sales, thrift stores, and asking your friends and family if they have gardening supplies that they don’t need anymore.  This is one great area of reuse, and it’s likely much less expensive than buying these things new.  You never know what you’ll find when you look around.  Craigslist and “free market” online lists are also great sources to find inexpensive or free used things for your garden.

8.  Invite the “good guys” over.  In addition to attracting beneficial insects and pollinators to their yards, some gardeners also purchase and release beneficial insects into their garden that will help to control unwanted insect pests that attack garden plants.  If you do choose to go this route, be sure that the beneficial insects that you release have been well studied and will not themselves become invasive pests in the local area where you live.

9.  Explore companion planting.  Companion planting is something that I am seriously considering experimenting with this year, as it should help to increase yield in some cases and also to reduce insect pests.  By using herbs and other plants to decrease insect pests, I won’t have to worry as much about finding organic ways to combat pests.  This takes some forethought and planning, but I believe that it will be well worth any effort that you put forth.  Here is a great reference article from Mother Earth News about which garden plants play nicely together and which ones don’t.

10.  Think polyculture over monoculture.  When we plant all of the same type of plant in nice straight rows, we are advertising a big all-you-can-eat salad bar to insect pests.  If you mix things up and put a variety of plants amongst other varieties of plants, this will create some confusion to pests, and reduce the opportunity for them to find all of their favorite plants in the same area.  Again, this polyculture technique takes more in-depth planning than does planting all of the same thing in straight rows, but it will be well worth the effort in the reduction of insect pest attacks that you’ll have to deal with. 

Companion planting is one great way to approach polycultures for annuals in your edible garden, and “guilds” and food forests are a great way to explore this for perennial edibles such as fruit trees.

These are just a few ideas for how to make your garden more sustainable.  There are many other techniques currently being used all around the world, so look around and you might find some cool ideas out there.  I personally love permaculture as a source of sustainable gardening solutions, but there are many others out there too.  The important thing here is to just start somewhere and move away from using unsustainable techniques toward ones that are more nourishing to the environment and to you. 

It doesn’t hurt when we can save some money along the way too, as many sustainable gardening techniques focus on reducing our inputs and using materials and resources that we have locally available around us.

How about you?  How have you implemented environmentally sustainable practices in your garden?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Planting Perennials for Pollinators

Photo source: Dennis Jarvis, flickr.com

Like many of you, I’ve got the planting bug right now.  It’s still too early in my area to begin planting any annual fruits or vegetables in my garden, and my seedlings are still hanging out under the grow light in my basement doing their thing.  This past Saturday, however, I decided that as it is several weeks prior to our last frost, it is an optimal time to plant some wildflower seeds and to provide plants that will attract those very important creatures to my yard and garden: birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

As many of you may already be aware, many of our pollinators are in major trouble right now.  Due to a number of issues, such as the loss of prairie habitat and the widespread use of certain types of agricultural chemicals, populations of beneficial insects have been plummeting in recent years.  This is a huge problem for many reasons, but it is especially a problem for our food system.  Most of the crops that we enjoy, including apples, onions, strawberries, beets, broccoli, tomatoes, and cabbages are pollinated by helpful creatures such as the honeybee. 

Home gardeners can play a very important role in helping pollinators.  Using organic and ecological gardening and landscaping methods is a huge step in the right direction.  By implementing such methods in your yard and garden, you will be avoiding the harmful chemicals that are negatively affecting pollinators, and you will also be attracting them to your garden, which ultimately leads to a more productive harvest for you. 

When you plant native plants and wildflowers in your garden, you are also providing a refuge for pollinators and other creatures amongst development, as much of our native prairie habitat in the United States has been either plowed under for monocrop agricultural purposes or paved over for development.  In some cases, these native plantings in our gardens are the only refuges that remain for certain birds and pollinators.

Wildflowers provide insects and wildlife with important food sources of seeds, nectar, pollen and fruits, as well as nesting sites, larval food, forage and shelter.  Native wildflowers also attract many different types of insects that birds love to eat.  

Many native wild flowers are very beautiful, and like the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), many are also useful to us as medicine.

Planting Guidelines
Admittedly, I am still in the process of learning about how to plant wildflower and other native plant seeds.  Based upon my research, many of the species of wildflowers need to go through a cycle of freezing and thawing several times (the temperature conditions that naturally occur during Spring) to break the seed’s dormancy.  This is to prevent their germination during times that do not allow for optimal plant growth.   To learn more about this process called stratification, I wrote a little bit about that during my post about starting seeds (check out Item #7), or you can check out this page from Hamilton Native Outpost or this document from the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

Prior to doing some wildflower and other native plantings, I encourage you to do some research about which plants are native to your area.  By focusing your planting efforts on those plants that are native, they will be the most adapted to your area and climate, and your local pollinators will also most recognize those particular plant species.  Whichever species you choose to plant, be sure to do your research and follow the directions on your seed packets.  Tolerance of frost among species varies, so to be sure of particular species requirements, do a little bit of research.

Native wildflowers and most other native prairie plants need to be planted in soil without weeds and grass present.  This is one of the few circumstances where I advocate implementing disturbance to your soil.  In this case, it is appropriate to provide open ground so that your native plants can thrive and won’t have to compete with weeds and grass.  The difference between planting perennial native plants in this manner and our annual vegetable gardens is that once your perennial native plants are established, they will come back year after year, they will help to build your soil and help to hold it in place by way of the very deep roots that many of these plants have.  You provide the disturbance once, and then you are generally leaving the soil alone and letting the plants do the work of soil building and maintenance.    

When I planted my wildflower seeds last Saturday, I used a rake and raked up the majority of the grass and weeds that were present in the area of my future wildflower garden to expose as much of the bare ground as possible.  I then scattered and lightly raked in the seeds (the seed packets say to about a ¼” depth) to cover the seeds and to prevent birds from snacking on them. 

I planted a variety of seed mixes into my wildflower garden area: a general perennial wildflower mix, a “Songbird Delight” mix, and quite a few Purple Coneflower seeds.  In the front of my house where there is mostly shade, I planted a “Shady Mix” of wildflower seeds.

In the songbird seed mix, there were also some sunflower seeds.  Sunflowers are annuals that don’t do well with frost, so I’ll probably need to scatter additional seeds from the mix once there is no more chance of frost for the season.  I did reserve a patch in my wildflower garden to plant an additional mix of shorter varieties of sunflowers as well (the seed packet says they will get to be 16”-24” tall vs. the more typical 5’-8’ tall that most sunflowers will grow to be).  I plan to leave most of the sunflower seed heads standing in the winter for the overwintering birds in my area (although our neighborhood squirrels will probably destroy them first…).

I wasn’t able to get rid of all of the grass, but I think that I got rid of enough of it to allow an opportunity for the wildflowers to grow.  I guess that time will tell.   I also have a hill at the back of my yard that I would like to do some perennial plantings on so that my husband no longer needs to mow it and cause erosion, so I cleared away a portion of ground on the hill and planted some seeds there as well.  I’m hoping to plant some fruit-bearing shrubs eventually that will cover the rest of the hill, but that will be a later phase.  For now, I worked with what I knew that I could immediately implement.

 I’ll give updates in later posts about how everything is growing as the Spring progresses.

For additional information about planting native plants and wildflowers, this article from Botanical Interests is a good reference.

The future wildflower garden in our backyard.  Yes, the bricks will be straightened!  Note that our hill, 
prone to erosion, will receive additional perennial plantings as time goes by to help hold in the soil more 
proficiently.  The section in the wildflower garden covered with leaves is where the sunflower seeds will be 
planted once all chance of frost is gone for the season.

The wildflower seeds that I planted in my yard (the sunflowers will be planted after 
the last chance of frost).  The “Shady Mix” was planted in the front of my house 
where it is very shady.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why I am a Fan of the No-Till Approach to Gardening

Our strawbale garden last year, just one style of no-till gardening.  It was extremely productive!

Despite the fact that humanity has been growing food throughout most of its history by using tillage agricultural techniques, tilling the soil is not necessarily the most productive way to produce food.  When one looks at a natural ecosystem such as a forest, or even a prairie, there is plenty of natural abundance.  In such a natural ecosystem, no tilling occurs.  Plants can and do grow well without having the soil tilled.  To understand why, let’s look at the structure of the soil itself.

Soil is more than bare “dirt.”  In its natural state, it is a complex web of life, and contains many different organisms, including insects, fungi, bacteria, and many other organisms, many of which are too small to be seen by the human eye.  These organisms do many things, including recycle nutrients, maintain the fertility of the soil, and make soil nutrients available to plants.  Since most of these tiny organisms live within the top 5 cm of the soil, when we till or plough, many of these microorganisms are killed.  Many of them are also sensitive to light and can’t survive when the tilled soil is exposed.

Untilled natural soil has structure, a physical network through which water, air, and plant roots can pass through.  When we till the soil, this natural soil structure is destroyed, and we must create an artificial soil structure every single year, called tilth.  When the natural structure and fertility of the soil is destroyed, we then are committed to an endless yearly cycle of adding nutrients and fertility back, and we have to endure more work to maintain the soil.  Bare earth opens up many opportunities for weeds to grow, and it does not retain moisture very well.  When we till the soil, we are also increasing the opportunity for soil erosion to occur.  The majority of these issues can be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, if we switch our gardening methods from one of tillage to one of mulching and the use of organic matter and compost.

Ideally, the soil should be covered all of the time, and have no bare soil exposure.  By leaving a permanent organic mulch layer over your garden bed, you will be increasing the fertility of your soil, dramatically reducing erosion, preventing weeds from growing, and retaining soil moisture. 

Mulching does not necessarily require a lot of extra resources.  First, you will need to add a weed barrier, such as a layer of cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper.   Make sure that your weed barrier does not contain any gaps for weeds to grow through.  Next, you would add a layer of organic mulch measuring a depth of about one foot thick.  The more diverse the types of materials that you use in your organic mulch layer, and the closer that you can get to achieving a ratio of 30:1 of carbon-rich material to nitrogen-rich material, the more that the ecology of your soil will flourish. 

Examples of carbon-rich organic materials include: straw (should not contain any seeds), wood chips, sawdust, bark, paper, and dried leaves.  Examples of nitrogen-rich organic materials include: grass clippings, composted manure, coffee grounds, compost, and worm castings.  Make sure that each layer of mulch has an ample amount of moisture as it is added.  This is very important to the composting process and will help everything to break down and make the awesome compost that is so great for the growth of your plants. 

Although the best time to mulch is in the fall to allow it to break down over the winter, you can still put mulch over your soil in the spring and produce a lovely garden throughout the current growing season.  For planting seeds, simply dig a 3” deep hole in the mulch, fill it with compost or soil, and then plant your seeds in that material.  If you are planting transplants, open up a hole in the mulch that is about three times the size of the root mass of the plant, fill the hole with compost or soil, and plant the plant.  If the plant that you are planting has deep roots, make holes in the root barrier layer below where you are planting to allow the plant’s roots to have room to grow, and plant as you would any other transplant.

One of the advantages of using a no-till gardening approach?  Lots of these guys hanging out in your garden to help aerate the soil!

Below is a great video of Charles Dowding explaining how he created an amazingly abundant garden from scratch within a single growing season by using a no-dig, no-till approach.  Enjoy!

Here is a link to more information and another video about Charles' awesome garden!

Have you ever tried a no-till approach in your garden?  How did it go?

Thought I’d share this:  This might be an interesting year for some of the kale plants that I started in seed trays about a week and a half ago.  They have Lot # OMG 18/20.  Should I be worried?  Cheesy gardening humor, I know…

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why Permaculture is Truly Awesome

A bumblebee, visiting the flowers produced by one of my broccoli plants during last year’s growing season.  A great example of how we can “share the surplus” of our gardens with our pollinator friends.

Ah, permaculture  One of my most favorite topics!  For many of you who are reading this, permaculture may be a familiar topic.  For many others, it will be a completely new topic.  The idea of using permaculture to create sustainable human settlements is simple, but at the same time, the applications are quite broad. 

Because permaculture involves so many things, if you were to ask 10 different permaculturists (of which I am also one, since I took a Permaculture Design Course two years ago), you will get 10 different definitions of what permaculture actually is.  Today, I will try to define for you what permaculture is from my viewpoint, and I will share why I believe that it is critical for many of the issues that we are currently facing in our world today.  By the end of this article, I also hope to spark a love of permaculture in your heart.  Okay, I can’t make you love permaculture, but hopefully you will at least gain an appreciation for its importance.

What is Permaculture?
At its core, permaculture is a way to live sustainably with the world around us.  It first began as a design system intended to create permanent agricultural systems, but has since evolved into a designed permanent culture, including building sustainable communities and social structures, sustainable agriculture and growing systems, sustainable economic systems, sustainable buildings and shelter, and much more.  It is a system where we can design the ways that we live to be more in harmony with the environment and with each other.  It takes principles found in nature and applies them to our lives and how we live.  It provides a blueprint of practical solutions to many of our problems of natural resource depletion and brings us to a place of a more abundant and hopeful future. 

Permaculture Offers Many Solutions
I realize that these descriptions sound quite Utopian.  However, with permaculture, many practical techniques can be found to solve many of the issues that we are facing in our world today.  Natural resource depletion everywhere?  Permaculture can help.  Loss of soil fertility?  Permaculture has answers.  Erosion problems?  Permaculture has answers.  Flooding problems?  Permaculture has answers.  Got pollution problems and need some remediation?  Permaculture can help.  Can’t grow food anymore on severely degraded land?   Permaculture has answers.  Too much waste?  Permaculture has answers.  Water resource limitations?  Permaculture has answers.  An unsustainable economy?  Permaculture has a few principles that can help out with that.  Unsustainable agriculture running rampant everywhere?  Permaculture was created for times such as this!

While I’m not saying that permaculture will solve every single problem that exists out there, I am saying that it can provide many tools to help us to transition to a much more sustainable future.  For much of humanity’s history, we have focused on dominating and controlling the landscape, and fighting against nature.  Our tendency to do this as a species was not much of an issue when there weren’t so many of us living on our planet, and we also didn’t have the technologies that we have now to make such negative impacts on the land at such large scales.  As we became more and more dominant on the landscape of the Earth and became more efficient in the ways that we did things, we began to isolate ourselves from the land and we forgot how dependent on nature that we really are.  The truth is, no matter how many “awesome” things that we invent for ourselves, the realities of natural resource limitations still exist, and we’ll never be able to invent our way out of every problem. 

We Are Standing at a Global Crossroad
Today, we find ourselves at an important crossroad, where humanity must start making some critical decisions about how we are going to live on this planet, and we must begin to work with nature instead of against it.  We are currently experiencing the realities of hitting many critical limits of nature.  In Ecology, this is known as the carrying capacity, where the existing resources can only supply so much to a growing population of organisms.  I certainly don’t need to discuss at length how we are experiencing an unprecedented loss of global biodiversity, increased levels of flooding, pollution, extreme weather, drought and famine, and things don’t seem to be getting a whole lot better.  At the same time, we are experiencing a lot of economic and social problems in the world today.  We are isolated from one another, and our families are suffering.  And, we keep getting sicker…   It is clear that a lot of changes are needed.

Diagram of a forest garden.  One of the great aspects of permaculture design.  Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_gardening

A Resilient and Sustainable Future is Possible!
It is true that there are many complicated problems today, and they cannot be solved overnight.  However, I do believe that we can start to turn a corner and implement some sustainable solutions that could give everyone a much more abundant and resilient future.  It will take a fundamental paradigm shift to see that things can be different than they are now, and that we are actually more personally empowered than we have been led to believe.  Permaculture can be a part of that future. 

Permaculture is based upon the following three ethics:  Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.    These ethics inform everything done in permaculture, and are all considered to be of equal importance.  Earth Care is caring for the natural world.  People Care incorporates taking care of human needs but in a sustainable manner.  Fair Share means that the natural world has its limits, and that available surplus should be shared according to need.  Nature is efficient, and everything gets used and recycled.  You don’t find many “hoarders” in nature, and when you do (squirrels, for instance), the resources do still eventually get recycled back into the system, not thrown away and buried under the ground, never to decompose or cause pollution problems.  

So what does permaculture actually look like?   It’s as varied as the ecosystems on the Earth, and looks different in each place that it is applied, so this makes permaculture applicable pretty much anywhere.  Permaculture looks like aquaponics, herb spirals, capturing and storing rainwater, swales, hugelkultur, lasagna gardening, vertical growing systems, lots of organic matter to restore the soil, forest gardens, and an emphasis on perennial plants and growing systems.  It looks like local economic systems, community time banks, local currencies, and homeopathic, herbal, and other alternative and holistic forms of medicine.  It looks like CSAs and investing in your local economy.  It looks like sharing the surplus from your garden or from your fruit trees with those in need.   It looks like energy and water efficiency, composting, and reducing and recycling our waste.  It looks like reducing our carbon footprint and reducing or eliminating our commute distances, using public transit, and using a bicycle to get from place to place.  All of these things are just a start.  As you can see, permaculture is very holistic, and can incorporate many things into our lives to make ourselves more sustainable.  It gives us a framework to go from just talking about being sustainable to actually doing these things in our lives.    

Permaculture projects that work for some places will not work for others, simply because climate and environmental conditions, skills, knowledge of people, and available materials vary from place to place. Permaculture is being used worldwide for a variety of projects to restore landscapes.  It has even been used in the desert to grow food!  Check out the following video produced by one of the world’s leading permaculture instructors, Geoff Lawton, about his Greening the Desert Project to see the power of permaculture in action:

To learn about an update to the Greening the Desert project, check out this link:

If you are interested in learning more about permaculture, I recommend to you the following books and resources.

Books about permaculture:
Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow.  A guide to using and applying permaculture in a variety of settings.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway.  A great guide to applying and using permaculture in urban and suburban settings.
Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield.  A short and easy to read book that gives you the basics on permaculture and its applications.
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane.  A practical and comprehensive guide to permaculture design.

Just a few of the awesome permaculture websites that exist:
The Permaculture Research Institute            
Worldwide Permaculture Network