These pages will cover the basics, helpful tips and any shortcuts that we have discovered over the years.
Put a mailbox out at your garden. Keep a pair of gloves and small hand tools in it. I also tried something new this past summer. I kept a curved linoleum knife out in the garden. Sometimes when you are out for a stroll and not intending to pick anything you end up finding something in need of harvesting. It was always there, ready and waiting. It is good for picking broccoli, squash, cucumbers and anything else that needs to be cut. I also started leaving buckets out there for impromptu pickings.
The cages sold in stores are not large enough for indeterminate tomatoes. (Indeterminate means they keep on growing until frost and fruit ripen over a longer period of time. Determinate types grow to a predetermined smaller size and the tomatoes usually ripen quicker and over a shorter period of time.) To make cages for indeterminate tomatoes, use concrete reinforcing wire. Cut a section of wire, form a cage and bend wire back over itself to lock in place. Cut off bottom horizontal wire so you have long ‘legs’ to stick in the ground.
These cages are also good for cucumber trellises. Grow 4 to 8 cucumber plants around 1 cage. This makes finding the cukes so much easier. Your cages should last for the rest of your gardening years.
Make individual ‘rabbit’ cages that you can use all year around. (These are to keep the rabbits out not keep them in!) Cut a section of rabbit fencing and form a circle about 18” to 2 feet in diameter. Fold back edge to secure. In the spring and summer use these to protect your plants in the garden. In the winter move them around your yard to save your shrubs and young trees from the rabbits eating the tender bark.
Broccoli produces one large head and if you keep cutting off the shoots you can have broccoli all season long, past your first frosts, from those same plants. When you cut off your flower heads, cut a nice long stem along with the flower head. This will encourage larger side shoots. If all you cut is the heads without long stems then your side shoots will be small. Side shoots are called florets.
Check on your gardens almost daily. Do your plants need water? Are there any pests bothering your plants? Does anything need harvesting? Does anything need your attention? Sometimes a pest can do great damage in a day’s time or something needs water. If another day were to go by it is possible that a plant might be lost. Zucchini and Summer Squash are vegetables that need a watchful eye. Before you know it, they become baseball bats!
Early Spring Color – Pansies are great fun in the spring because they can take cold temperatures. We never could figure out where the term “pansy” came from in terms of a weakling because these plants are not weak. They don’t care much for the hot summer temps but sure are enjoyable in the spring and fall and can tolerate frosts.
Hardy Mums need a small amount of attention early in the season. For approximately the first 6 to 8 weeks of new growth you need to pinch off 1/3 of the height 3 times. For example in Zone 5 that computes to having done the last pinching by July 4th. ("Three times before the 4th of July") This will cause your plants to be full, compact and have a good shape. (Sometimes if I have a slow growing mum, I won’t pinch as much off but I will pinch to encourage bushiness.)
Hardy Mums need to be thinned out every 3 to 4 years. Dig up the plant and make new clumps with at least 3 stems to each clump. The inside of the plant (mother plant) can be thrown into the compost pile if worn out. You are making a compost pile aren’t you?
If you grow annual poppies, amaranth, lemon balm and other plants that reseed heavily, make sure you either deadhead or collect the ripe seeds before they all fall to the ground. There will be plenty of seeds you miss for next years crop. If too many seeds are allowed to reseed, they will be overcrowded. Overcrowded plants are small, skinny and the blossoms are inferior; more is not better.
Landscape fabric can be wonderful for beds where you are mostly using foundation plantings and not planting a lot of new flowers. The fabric holds in moisture and keeps out weeds. Black plastic is not desirable because worms don't grow under the plastic; no worms and you have unhealthy soil.
Poppies, cosmos and tulips can be touchy about being cut for indoors. Sear the freshly cut stems with a lighter or match to help preserve them longer as cut flowers.
Bulbs We all enjoy the tulips and daffodils when they finally make their appearance. But those crocuses are amazing. They push their heads up and say to the world, “Ready or not, here comes spring!”
Spring blooming bulbs need their green leaves during the early summer to feed the bulb for next years blooms. Cut off seed heads after petals have fallen but not the leaves. To hide them, plant some annuals or perennials with shallow roots over top or around them, e.g. sweet alyssum, lady’s mantel, perennial geranium, hostas and or annuals.
Most of the spring flowering bulbs need full sun. But you can cheat a little with this because during the spring most shade trees haven’t produced a full set of leaves yet. You can usually get enough sun to have successful bulbs. Don’t count on this in deep shade.
Compost has been given the name of “Gardner’s Gold” because it is one of the most important items you can add to an organic garden. Not only is it one of the best fertilizers you can put on your plants but also conditions the soil and fights off diseases. I have read reports from people who say that after years of using compost on their beds that their pest and disease problems are gone. I never have enough compost for all my beds so I can't make this claim. I always have at least two compost piles "going" but they still aren't enough.
Compost doesn’t have to be a science project with all the correct formulas and construction of the pile to be great stuff for your gardens. Just throw anything that used to be alive (plants not animals) into your pile. When you weed, throw those into it also. Don’t throw in weeds that have mature seeds on them. Don’t put in noxious weeds that spread by runners or rhizomes, they will root in your pile and make your life miserable.
Your pile needs to heat up to 140 0 to 160 0 F to destroy weed seeds. To do this your compost pile needs a good mix of different items. Throw in leaves, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. (NO meat or fatty products.) Try to get a good mix of green (grass clippings, vegetable waste, weeds) and brown (leaves, straw, dead plants) and some soil. If you are putting your grass clippings on your vegetable garden as mulch you might not have a lot of these to add. They are great for a compost pile but also very important in your garden as mulch. Manure is good for your pile but don’t add dog or cat feces. Beware of horse manure as mature weed seeds survive the trip through their digestive tract, still be viable and will sprout new weeds everywhere you add compost. We used 20 year old horse manure one year and the following year we had weeds I had never even seen in my gardens before.
The easiest way to collect kitchen scraps is to have a container with a lid in your kitchen to collect things in. Just empty it on your pile when it is full. In the winter we use 5-gallon buckets in the garage for when it is too cold or the snow too deep to walk out to the pile; just dump your kitchen container in the buckets.
Giving your pile sufficient oxygen and water are vital to keeping your pile heating up and decomposing the raw materials. A pile that is healthy will not smell. Turn your pile with a garden fork often if you want to speed things up. Shredding, chopping or grinding your raw material will also help make finished compost faster. Also keep the pile moist but not soggy.
Don’t use your compost too soon. One year I was too anxious and thought I would just let it finish decomposing on the flowerbed. WRONG! I had vegetable volunteers (from kitchen scraps) all over my flowerbed, which in this case became weeds to me. I just created more work for myself. Finished compost will be all crumbly and fine textured. It won’t have chunks of things except maybe some sticks that can be easily removed. Personally, I don't like sticks in my compost pile but somehow they seem to sneak in. They do have a benefit; they create air pockets. Oxygen is very important to speed along decomposing of the materials.
We don't have a formal compost structures; ours just sits on the ground in a big pile. But you can either make structures or buy compost bins or tumblers. Whatever you do, make sure you COMPOST!
Mulch - Mulching should also be on the list of must dos. Mulching your gardens has many benefits.
Organic mulches for the vegetable garden could be grass clippings, leaves, straw or a cover crop cut down just before planting. Some people use carpeting turned upside down to put down pathways. Plastic mulch can be used around melons to heat up the soil, control weeds and protect the melons from rotting on the ground. We use newspapers with leaves on top with excellent results. We didn’t need to weed in areas that had the newspaper and leaves. The papers rotted and what was left was tilled under at the end of the season. Don’t use the colored glossy advertising for this. We put all our grass clippings on our vegetable gardens. 6 to 8 sheets of newspaper should be enough, less will rot too quickly and you will have weeds before the end of the season. More layers are OK, don't bother to count.
For flower gardens you can use wood chips, bark chips, cocoa hulls, and various materials that nurseries sell. For flower gardens, a mulch that remains through-out the year is good but in a vegetable garden you want a material that decomposes readily so that at the end of the season your bed can be turned under.
There is a no till method, first used by a woman named Ruth Stout, where you use a lot of straw and never turned the beds under. There are also living mulches that are grown for the purpose of protecting and replenishing the soil. But we have experimented and found newspaper with leaves on top to be superior. If you don't put the paper down first, weeds will quickly pop through. Also, brown leaves steal nitrogen away from plants as they decompose so a barrier is needed. Grass clippings are full of nitrogen so don't create this problem.
Don’t let the first warm spring days fool you into removing the protective mulch you have on plants. If you are really itching to do something outside, pick up sticks blown down from trees, take a walk around your yard and check things out, wash your windows, etc. But be patient and don’t remove that mulch yet, I can almost guarantee there will be more freezing and thawing. Freezing and thawing is what will hurt your perennials, not the cold; unless you are trying to grow a tender perennial and then that is another topic.
When you see a tree trimming truck in your area, stop and talk to the tree trimmers. Ask if they would drop the shredded wood chips at your house. They are great for mulching perennial beds and other areas where you have plants but won’t be tilling the ground. You might want to offer the trimmers a little something (a cold drink, cookies, etc) as a thank-you.
Get to know your USDA Zone. This will tell you when it is safe to plant tender plants outside.
If you hear of a “Frost Advisory” you need to cover your tender plants up. Use buckets, pots turned upside down, boxes, sheets, etc. We have even used garden carts turned upside down. If it feels really cold outside and you have planted tender plants, try to catch the early evening weather report to find out if there is frost expected. It is a bummer when you don’t find out until 11:15p.m. and you are out at midnight covering up plants. Or go to www.weather.com and find out the weather forecast for your area. Remember to take the coverings off the plants in the morning.
The same methods can be used as season extenders in the fall. Sheets are the most helpful in the fall because plants are much larger by the end of summer. Finding old sheets in garage sales is a real plus for this purpose. Usually there is frost for 1 to 3 nights in the fall then you get a warm spell again. So if you can keep your plants alive for those few nights you can usually keep picking veggies another month.
For areas with mild winter temperatures, the American Horticultural Society created a Zone map in 1997 that accounts for a plant’s adaptability to heat. Called the AHS Plant Heat-Zone Map (or the Heat Map), this 12-zone map of the U.S. indicates the average number of days each year when given regions experience temperatures of 86 degrees (30 degrees C) or higher. The average plant will start to suffer when the temperature rises above 86 degrees so if you live in a warmer climate this would be an important map to check out.
Weeds are anything you don’t want where they are now growing. If you have volunteers (something that has reseeded itself from the previous year) and you don’t want them, they are just like weeds. Some volunteers have crossbred with similar plants from last year and the new plant will produce an inferior fruit, vegetable or flowers. Experimenting can be interesting or disappointing. One year we let a volunteer squash grow and we got a cross between a spaghetti squash and a zucchini squash. They weren't useful for much except zucchini bread. We never save any seeds in the cucurbit family for this reason, they cross pollinate too easily. Cucurbits are melons, squash, cucumbers.
The best time to weed is after a rain or you have watered. You can’t beat pulling those little buggers out by their roots! When the soil is moist they come out with just a little assistance. Pulling them out is better than cutting them off with a hoe or scuffle. Whenever you cultivate your ground you are bringing more weed seeds to the surface to germinate.
Some unusual ways to kill weeds; pour table salt into center of weeds. Salted water from boiling food is good also. Go easy on the salt. You don’t want your beds to become too salty. Torching is a good method for killing weeds. Many organic vegetable farms use flamers for weed control.
Make sure you read about mulching, which is my favorite way to combat weeds.
We don't recommend Round Up or other glyphosphates for weed control because they are harmful to the soils, worms and microbial life; they add toxins to your soil.
Pruning – Sometimes in our desire for a tree or bush to grow larger, we are hesitant to prune. Experience has shown us that pruning actually encourages growth. So don’t be timid, jump in there and start pruning.
Nut trees, fruit bushes and brambles will benefit from an early application of compost or manure. Spread in a ring around trunk out to drip line either in late winter or early spring.
Tree Protection – Grass trimmers can be very hard on your trees, especially if they are young and you hired someone else to do the lawn maintenance. You could make a ring of mulch around your trees. Keep mulch away from the tree trunk to prevent critters from damaging the bark or to prevent a constant source of moisture against the bark. Or you can make tree protectors out of plastic bottles, ranging from small, (hair care products) to medium size, (soda bottles). Cut top and bottom off, slit up one side and slip around tree. You can also purchase tree protectors in a garden store.
If you need to add fill around existing trees, don’t add more than 3” of soil around the tree out to the drip line. Trees need oxygen to breathe as much as they need water and if you add too much soil on top you could smother the roots. If you have recently covered the area with more than 3” of soil you can possibly save your trees. You will need an air compressor and some device to shoot air into the ground. Every two feet stick your tool into the ground from 2 to 3 feet and give the ground a blast of air. Water thoroughly. We successfully saved some trees this way that had been covered from 1 to 2 feet of new soil.
Most spring blooming shrubs bloom on “old wood” and are best pruned right after blooming. Some of these would be lilacs, quinces, forsythia, mock oranges and beautybush. If you prune at the wrong time you could be cutting off the buds for next year’s blooms.
To rejuvenate an old spindly and woody shrub, remove all dead, weak or broken branches. If you want to take a bush down in height, you can cut healthy stems back to a foot or two. If you didn’t get enough blooms last year your bush needs revitalizing. Thin the bush out by removing up to 1/3 of the branches and fertilize well. Do this after the blooming period. Follow this method for 3 years after which you will have removed all old branches.
For Red-twigged Dogwood, remove the woody and faded stems. They will start to loose color after about 5 years.
Butterfly bushes will die back to the ground during winter.
Seed Starting – Get your seeds started. If this is new to you check out “Seed Starting” on this web site.
Raspberries –The easiest way to know what to prune off is to wait a little bit and watch for new growth. Anything that doesn’t show tiny little leaves gets pruned off and you will be able to tell which canes are dead. This is so much easier than trying to figure out what is new and old growth too early in the spring.
Rose bushes – Take the same approach as with raspberries. Make your cuts on a slant for water run off. Prune just above a live node that will grow in the direction you want the rose to grow.
Asparagus – To fight off asparagus beetles it is important to clean up dead stalks and surrounding debris. Either burn this stuff or send it off with your garbage, don’t compost it. This will dispose of adults over wintering in the debris.
Asparagus, rhubarb and other early producers will benefit from an early application of compost.
Peas - Get ready to plant your peas. Peas will produce a better and bigger crop if planted early. Plant 6 to 4 weeks before your last frost date. Whenever we have tried to put in peas for a fall crop it has not worked well. Peas really like cool spring temperatures. Plant once soil has warmed to 45 degrees F and is dry enough to work. If you haven’t tried snap peas or snow peas, be sure to try them this year. They are wonderful for stir-fries. Check out our Recipe page for "Almond Chicken" using snow peas, yummy!
Cool weather vegetables – lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, onions, spinach, turnips, Swiss chard, potatoes, radishes, kale and other brassicas. These vegetables can be planted 4 to 6 weeks before last frost date. If you get a freeze or deep frost you should protect broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce and kale with upside-down buckets or other suitable protection.
Hardening Off – As your last frost date approaches, you need to harden off your seedlings. We call this, “taking them out for a walk,” as a little joke. At first they can’t take too much sun or wind. Expose them to the sun and wind in limited amounts, increasing the amounts a little every few days. Don’t forget to bring them in at night; the temps will probably drop too much. My husband built new seedling tables this year so we can just wheel them outside on nice days instead of carrying them all out individually.
Lawns – Feed lawns with compost or organic fertilizer. A strong healthy lawn is the best defense against weeds.
Lawn Mower and Leaf Blowers - Get your lawn mower ready. Sharpen the blade, change the oil, clean the air filter and lubricate wheels, cables or any other moving parts. Clean underneath of any grass build up. Clean air passages and cooling fins for proper engine cooling. Do this also for leaf blowers, very important! We lost a leaf blower due to clogging.
Wall-O-Waters – Consider using Wall-o-Waters to get your tomatoes in the ground 4 to 6 weeks early. We have planted tomatoes this early without loosing a single plant. We get ripe tomatoes that much earlier. WOWs are plastic teepees that have tubes that you fill with water. As the night cools off the water surrounding the plants protect them and keep the temperature inside the teepee warmer. You could make your own by filling plastic jugs with water and surrounding your plants with them. Fashion some sort of top for the nighttime; take this top off in the morning.
We tried peppers with this method but they didn’t do well. Peppers don’t like the cold at all, neither do cucurbits, cucumbers, melons and squash.
As you are planning your gardens and adding new things to your yard this year, it is worth your efforts as an organic gardener to plant trees, shrubs and plants that attract birds. Birds will help fight many of the insects you want to rid your garden of by eating them. You can turn your yard into an area that “puts out the welcome mat” for birds by providing a wide variety food sources and water.
Trees: Dogwood, Crab Apple, Serviceberry, Red Cedar, Spruce, Rocky Mountain Cedar, Cherry, Chokecherry, Hackberry, American Holly, Mountain Ash, Mulberry, Hawthorn.
Shrubs: Northern Bayberry, Staghorn Sumac, Viburnums, Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper
Plants: Aster, compass plant, goldenrod, sunflowers, tickseed, wild geranium, partridgeberry, purple coneflower, rudbeckia, spikenard
A good source for all your birding needs is Audubon Workshop. We have used them for several years; their products are high quality and with their guidance we have attracted far more birds than before. We even have a pair of bluebirds and their 5 babies nesting in our yard this year!
Hummingbirds - You don’t need special food for hummingbirds and it doesn’t need to be colored with food coloring. The red on the feeder is enough to attract them. Boil ¼ -cup of sugar in 1-cup of water. Cool and put in feeder. If the weather has been hot be careful not to put too much food in the feeder, as it will spoil. They should be able to empty the feeder in 2 or 3 days, less if it is real hot outside. It is better to put your extra solution in a marked bottle in the refrigerator and fill feeder more frequently. You can make more than 1-cup at a time as long as you keep it refrigerated. Wash feeder out before you refill.
Algae Control – To fight the algae in your birdbath or pond I have two suggestions. Snails can be used to eat the algae, they are available in pet stores for aquariums. You can also put barley straw into a little bag or sock and hang in the water. This will release a chemical that inhibits the growth of string algae, a common pest in ponds. There are no harmful side effects to fish or plants. It only requires a small amount, too much and the straw will start to smell.
Rain Gauge – Very helpful to know if your gardens have enough water for the week.
Planting new plants – Before you put that a new plant into the ground, water the plant and the hole you have dug for the plant and then water again after it is planted. This will help your new plant because the surrounding ground won’t wick water away from the root ball and it can be hard to get water to soak into dry ground.
Terra Cotta vs. Glazed or Plastic Pots – Terra Cotta pots are very porous causing the soil and plant to dry out quickly. Terra Cotta is good for use with plants, such as herbs, that grow better in drier soils. You wouldn’t want to grow plants, such as Impatiens, in a terra cotta pot because they require consistent moisture unless you didn’t mind watering 1 to 2 times a day, depending on the temperatures. Glazed or plastic pots would be a better choice for plants that need consistent moisture but not a good choice for those that need drier conditions.
Spiders – It is common for people to not like spiders but they are considered to be beneficial to many gardeners. They eat many of the insects that eat your plants. The U.S. has two poisonous spiders; the recluse and black widow. Otherwise try to live harmoniously with them. I personally don’t appreciate them when they are in my house but I don’t kill them. I catch them in a jar and release them outside. Put the jar over top of the spider; slide a piece of paper along the wall to make it move into the jar. Put the top on, and then out it goes. I keep a jar with a piece of paper inside just for this purpose. I have caught many things this way to release outside; flies, wasps, bees etc.
Tip of the Week – Be sure to review “Tip of the Week” for more gardening tips.
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