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Maybe it is just me, but the other day when some new friends came by and started talking about gardening, I was reluctant to bring them back around the house to show them my vegetable garden. This picture says it all:

Not exactly a veggie gardener's pride and joy -- the transitional ugly garden

We are harvesting and cleaning up summer veggies that were done and transitioning to our fall garden. In other words, I had a very unimpressive, pathetic-looking, veg garden. If you pick the right angle in the height of the summer, I am sure parts of my garden could make Horticulture Magazine or maybe even Gardening How-To Magazine from the National Home Gardening Club. But as plants die back and we taper off watering the melons to get them to sweeten, there is nothing pretty about our garden.

Melon patch in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Our melon patch in mid-July on the left vs. late Aug. on the right

It is an Ugly Veg Garden … that only a gardener could love ūüôā

Bush Beans in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Bush Beans in mid-July to the left vs. late Aug. to the right

Once I realized my new friends were true gardeners, we all went back and visited my ugly garden. He confessed that his garden was ugly, too! And think about it. Is an ugly vegetable garden all that bad? Not when you’re harvesting the fruits of your summer labors!

Share your pics and a story about your ugly veg garden and we will add them to our Wall of Ugly Gardens!

P.S.

Just ran across this topical children’s book called The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. We haven’t read it yet, but it’s got several 5-star reviews on Amazon.

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Unknown chick breed

Meet "Jeanette", a UFO, garden fertilizer & breakfast provider

It is Day 4 and our twelve chicks (all about 3 wks old) are still kicking – literally. I am slowly becoming more efficient in the cleaning and care, esp. making sure that their water is changed several times a day. Every day of survival is another day of health and another egg factory in the making ūüôā¬† Cleaning their boxes isn’t too big of a chore, and the newspapers go straight in the compost bin!

We all look in on the chicks several times a day, letting them get used to being handled. The 12 are currently split up in 2 groups of 6.

Buff Orpington chicks

Happy Blondes

Mixed chicks, hybrids, buff orpingtons

Big Bertha & Psychos

In one box are the “blondies” (Buff Orpingtons), and these gals (presumably all gals, but unlikely) seem to be the most sedate and poo-lific. The second box has a mix of Black Sx-links, Rhode Island Reds, and Buff Orpingtons. Unfortunately, this seems to be the psycho group, segregating according to color (what’s up with that?), taunting each other, and seeing who can screech the loudest. The largest are the Black Sx-links, one of which I have called “Big Bertha” of turkey-esque size. Every time you handle her, you’d think she was Marie Antoinette at the guillotine.

We are currently studying various chicken coop plans, including those we found in this book, Chicken Coops, by Judy Pangman. Many people criticized it for lacking real building plans, and perhaps the title is misleading because there are no detailed plans for any of the coops – just pictorial representations and occasionally, dimensions. For us, however, these “concept” plans should be sufficient.

I’m especially excited over the opportunity to use a lot of scrap building materials and “junk” that we’ve accumulated over the years. Rather than haul these to the dump, constructing and interior decorating a chicken house brings me back to my childhood when I’d build houses for my dolls ūüôā

We’d love to see a link to your own chicken coop or ones you’ve seen that you really like!

Tweet tweet for now,

Gigi

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Maybe it was the temp of 160F or the ammonia gas, but somehow I got the notion that I could cook in the compost bin and had to figure out IF and HOW I could pull it off.

How to get compost pile hot:

A hot compost pile is a delicate balance, and sometimes a freak accident, which is how I got this foolish notion of using it to cook food. It is the combination of ingredients, moisture, mass and air.

  • Ingredients: Entire books are written about the ingredients and ratios for compost. For hot composting, it takes lots of finely-chopped greens. I get a garbage can of grass clippings each week when Odilon, our friendly neighborhood gardener, happily disposes of our neighbors’ grass clippings into our compost bin. Grass is a nitrogen-rich “green” ingredient has to be mixed well with compost “browns” like dried leaves, wood chips, straw (preferably chopped). I have gotten very hot compost with materials like straw bedding from sheep, and mushroom compost (which is woodchip mixture used for growing mushrooms). I keep browns on the side and mix in.
  • Moisture: A balancing act between too wet and too dry. It should be damp. If you grab a handful, you should be able to squeeze a little water out. Others describe it as a damp wash cloth.
  • Mass: A small pile will never be able to get hot. I have gotten hot compost with as little as 2/3 of a cubic yard (3ft x 3ft x 2ft) This is enclosed in a bin which also helps retain the heat.
  • Air: Straw and wood chips also help form air pockets and keep the grass from matting up. Then I turn my pile from either twice a week or every other day to get more air mixed back in. To get hot, your compost pile needs a few days to sit and build up heat.

Why to NOT make compost that hot!

While having a compost pile at 160F/71C is good if you want to cook a meal, it is not as good if you want to use it for your garden. Somewhere above 130F you will start to smell ammonia. This is your compost pile releasing nitrogen into the air. But you want nitrogen in your garden, not in your disgusted SO’s nostrils! When I am not cooking dinner, I add dirt to my compost pile which helps absorb the ammonia and regulates the temp down to 120F. In his book “Gardening When It Counts” Steve Solomon has an excellent discussion on composting, and how dirt acts like the cooling rods in a nuclear reactor to control the process. He recommends compost piles to be about 5% dirt, and I probably end up at this amount when I keep adding dirt to cool it down.

What else could you do with compost at 160 degrees?

Beleive it or not, there are REAL trials being run on how to use compost heat being used on a farm. It’s a large PDF file to download, but really worth reading and very educational.

There were many other questions about this video that were asked on Twitter. If you want me to go into more details on other parts of the process, please add a comment and I’ll be happy to answer your questions, including (heaven forbid) post the recipe.

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This last section on companion planting (CP) sums up practical ways to cultivate a healthy garden with some “built-in” natural protection.

Intercropping vs. monoculture

By this time, you should be convinced that¬†intercropping to create a diverse vegetable garden “habitat”¬†is most effective to naturally protect your garden from pests, and can potentially enhance the yield of your favorite crops. Monoculture not only makes your valuable veggies more susceptible to pests in one season; sometimes, despite your efforts to work in rich, organic fertilizers,¬†the same family of plants grown in the same area will fail in later seasons.

We learned this the hard way as we were initially concerned about having too many different veggies with too little yields. ¬†As it turned out, yields started falling in later years as our broccoli became more susceptible to pests (BTW – brassica family, unlike tomato plants, generally like to be moved around). ¬†So be daring, be bold, and experiment with different veggies – even those you think you’d never like!

Exploiting garden warfare

Your lovely spring garden or the woods near your home may look “serene”, but in truth, there’s constant warfare going on at a physical and chemical level. ¬†So why not take advantage of it?

For instance, sunflowers may be great weed deterrents as they were found to be strongly allelopathic to weeds like wild mustard, jimsonweed and ragweed (Ref 1, p. 310). ¬†Or what about selecting¬†a “sacrificial plant or soldier” to protect the more valuable crops? ¬†For instance, kale can be planted at borders of other more valuable cabbage family plants to draw pests away. ¬†Or black nightshade can be used as a decoy plant to attract Colorado potato beetles away from your potato plants. ¬†This may not be the best option for those of you with tiny gardens, but try to think of creative ways – even using containers which can easily be moved around – in deploying “soldiers” to protect your cash crops.

And while we’re on the subject of war, keep in mind that CP is not necessarily a mutually beneficial combination. ¬†Some gardening experts believe that it is almost one-directional, though this can be difficult to ascertain. ¬†For instance, you might consider that if carrots were planted next to peas or tomatoes (as our comparison of CP guides suggest), would yields from peas or tomatoes be greater at the expense of the carrots?

Using ornamentals to attract beneficials and help control pests

Many gardeners certainly deploy ornamentals like nasturtiums and marigolds to protect plants from pests like aphids, detrimental nematodes, white flies, and other pests.  But having herbs and flowering plants (esp. daisy and parsley families) also benefits the vegetable garden by attracting beneficial insects and birds that eat nasty bugs or pollinate plants.

We have had success growing tomatoes and beans with marigolds in containers, but have yet to attribute the yields/health of the plants to the marigolds. Some CP guides will suggest different varieties of marigolds for different pests (African, French and golden marigolds appear to be the best varieties).

Nasturtiums (whose flowers are a mildly peppery but delicious and attractive addition to your salad!) do have to be kept in check as they can take over an entire area, and are an incredible snail magnet on the West Coast.

Recording your own companion planting results

If you’re really intrigued by companion planting and want to put it to work for your garden, then¬†record your observations. ¬†Your best CP guide is your own gardening experience, though keeping in mind that results may not always be reproducible (see Part I). ¬†A simple notebook or spreadsheet works perfectly well (of course, there’s Plangarden, too ūüôā ) ¬†Some variables to keep in mind are the yield and planting distance in the control vs. experiment plots. ¬†For the die-hard garden geeks, we refer to Anna Carr’s excellent book (Ref. 1, pp. 332-355) that offers experimental techniques.

Good luck and may the companion forces be with you!

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Avid gardeners like ourselves have sometimes been stumped by the conflicting information you’ll get from different gardening pros and horticulturists.¬† Sometimes they’ll even contradict themselves.¬† Or worse, you’ll set up a companion planting scheme and discover that the insect repellent properties of, e.g. garlic to repel red spider mites from tomatoes, was completely ineffective in your particular garden habitat.

So we created a survey of plant companions from four sources to ascertain which combinations they generally agree/disagree on, with the understanding that observing and documenting our own results is really what matters in the end … though may not always apply every season!

Click here for PDF version of summary tables - copyright © 2009 Plangarden

Click here for PDF version of summary tables. © 2009 Plangarden

A PDF of the tables appears on the right.  More details are in the slideshow below this post. 

Here are some useful terms often used in the context of CP: allelopathy and phytotoxins. Allelopathy (allelo– ‚Äúone another‚ÄĚ, and –pathy ‚Äúdisease or suffering‚ÄĚ from Greek) refers to how plants find ways to stake out their territory, often by harming nearby neighbors. ¬†They may release phytotoxins (phyto– meaning ‚Äúpertaining to plants‚ÄĚ) which essentially attempt to knock out nearby competitors. ¬† Phytotoxins can sometimes also repel insects and other animals. ¬†

Some notoriously¬†allelopathic plants harmful to the vegetable garden (though may be great at deterring pests which we’ll discuss in Part IV) are the eucalyptus, black walnut, and absinthe wormwood. ¬†Make sure you know what lies just outside your property line if you decide to grow vegetables in that area.

Limited research has gone into subsoil fungal activity and its respective role in companion plants.¬† Some speculate that both beneficial and harmful compounds may be transmitted through the mycelial network – though it’s impossible for everyday gardeners to ascertain “fungal contributions” to the companion plant ecosystem.

In the end, what we suggest is to “not get overwhelmed” on which combination of plants will produce the ideal garden.¬† Our “strategies” post offers a starting point in figuring out what to grow.¬† Perhaps the initial approach in using these tables would be to scan those combinations least likely to yield beneficial results (the red circles), and then move on to the good companion pairings.

Is owning a book on companion planting an absolute must for the gardener?  Personally, we feel that you can get sufficient information to jot down notes from library books or from the Web.  However, if you love to experiment and collect gardening books, then look through the book reviews on Amazon.

In our next post, we’ll cover companion planting as it relates to the contribution of flowers, herbs, and insects to your overall vegetable garden.

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Now that you’ve had a chance to become acquainted with the brassica and allium families from Part I, let’s move on to often-overlooked areas in companion planting.

Other than light, watering, and feeding requirements, also take note of:

  • Potential crowding issues
  • Root depth requirements of companions
  • Planting poisonous companions
  • Companion planting as an art, not science

The term “companion planting” can sometimes lead one to thinking it’s OK to create a layout where companions must be in “close quarters” to each other.¬† Remember that, like you and I, even plants need their “space”, so always consult your seed package or a good gardening book to ensure that you give lots of growing room to your plants.¬† Spinach is often taken for granted with respect to its need for space (yes, we have bungled growing spinach in an area where it thrives – due to our ignorance!).¬† Ideally, 6 in. spacing is desireable to grow large, healthy leaves.

Newer gardeners will often plant indeterminate tomatoes like Early Girls too closely together.  Crowding not only affects yield, but also ease of harvesting as you maneuver around neighboring plants.   Ideally, it’s good to know the approximate root depth of your plant species (Ref. 1, p.79) and provide plenty of nutrients at different levels in the soil.  If you don’t give plants space that allows their roots to flourish, then yield may be impacted regardless of the companion effect.

Foxglove is not an ideal companion plant if young children frequent your veggie garden!

Foxglove is not an ideal companion plant if young children are frequent visitors (and grazers) in your veggie garden!

We recently came across a companion planting book recommending foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) as a companion plant to potatoes, tomatoes, and apple trees for its growth-stimulating and antifungal properties. But it failed to mention that this gorgeous plant, containing digitalis glycosides commonly used to treat congestive heart failure, can be lethally poisonous from ingesting any part of it Рroots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, and sap.  The same author suggests larkspur (Delphinium sp.) whose leaves are poisonous to aphids, thrips (and incidentally, humans, as well).  So while many plants may be useful companions to your edible garden, be aware of their potentially toxic characteristics (Ref. 2, p. 172) !

Lastly, credible sources like Cornell University’s Dept. of Horticulture, enjoin gardeners not to hang on to every word found in a CP guide as providing foolproof solutions. Experts encourage us to frequently check our plants (go ahead, look under the leaves!) and document observations from our own plant combinations.

References:
Selecting a companion gardening book can be a daunting.¬† There’s just so much out there!¬† However, Anna Carr, author of Good Neighbors: Companion Planting for Gardeners, appears to have done the most thorough review of both the ‚Äútraditional/folklore‚ÄĚ vs. ‚Äúresearch‚ÄĚ basis of companion planting for the most common and even obscure garden plants.¬† She also offers experimental garden layout and plant combination techniques for gardening geeks to try out in our gardens.¬† Her book should be available at your public library or used at online book sites.¬† It is unfortunate that this book is not being updated with more recent scientific research, but the principles of CP still apply to this day.

  1. Carr, Anna 1985. Good Neighbors: Companion Planting for Gardeners, Emmaus, PA:  Rodale Press.
  2. Riotte, Louise1975. Carrots Love Tomatoes, Pownal, VT: Storey Publishing.
  3. Little, Brenda 2008.  Secrets of Companion Planting, Sandy, UT: Silverleaf Press
  4. Smith, Edward C. 2000.  The Vegetable Gardener’s BIBLE, North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing

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We use a combo of Frugal, Tiny Garden, Fridge and Native Methods

We use a combo of Frugal, Tiny Garden, Fridge and Native Methods

People often ask us,

So what vegetables should I grow in my garden?”

Invariably, the response will be a long list of questions like climate, soil, what they like to eat/cook, etc. that borders on interrogation –¬† mouths agape, eyes glazed, head bobbing up and down, trying to take it all in.¬† Yes, it can be tedious to think about these things!

So to make it a little bit easier, here are several preliminary approaches you can take in deciding what to plant.  You can certainly follow more than one strategy, keeping in mind your climate, soil, acreage, and personal tastes.

  1. Refrigerator Method. Open your fridge and think what has been in it over the last 12 months.¬† What are things you will always find and what are “one-offs”?¬† If you have a good climate for growing vegetables, this is the best method because you know you will use what you grow.
  2. Native Method. If you already know what grows in your area, then focus on what grows well.¬† Don‚Äôt grow artichokes if you have hot summers.¬† Don‚Äôt grow carrots if you’ve got heavy, clay soil.
  3. Frugal Method.  Grow vegetables that are expensive at the supermarket.  Think of short shelf life, high consumption veggies like lettuce, or lower production volume but delicious cherry tomatoes that can cost $3 for just a half quart!
  4. Anti-Pesticide Method.  You may want to grow certain vegetables that have the highest pesticide load, such as sweet bell peppers, celery, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, carrots and green beans.
  5. Tiny Garden Method. If you have limited space to grow, then you may find herbs and vegetables that don’t take up much space to be your favorites.  You may also like the Square Foot Gardening techniques by Mel Bartholomew.
  6. Squirrel Garden Method. The opposite of the Tiny Garden Method and may require a large area.  If like a squirrel with its acorns, you want to stow away vegetables for the winter, then think about setting aside garden space for storage vegetables like potatoes, onions and garlic.  Think of what can be dried (beans, herbs) or canned/frozen (tomato sauce).  We highly recommend Yin-Yang beans!
  7. Impress The Neighbors Method.¬† Ok, so I am guilty of doing this with our purple artichokes that grow next to the sidewalk (purple anything is a great conversation piece). Go through your seed catalogs until you say “What the heck is that?” and then if it grows in your area, grow it in your garden.¬† Grow it in your front yard to befuddle neighbors walking by with their dogs.

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