Category Archives: gardening

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

As an update to this post: spread mulch where you would have put rock. Read along about how taking permanent action against a short term problem, creates even more problems and stops permanent solutions.

While we were in Colorado there was a trend to rip out anything that was growing and replace it with a gravel landscape. Every time I saw someone ripping out their grass to do this: I wanted to throttle them. Here is why: rock is not low maintenance. I understand those who don’t garden are looking for a low maintenance option for their yard. Please. I beg you. Do not put gravel across your property!

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

An example of what a rocked yard looks like after a few years.

Now it might seem counterintuitive to hear that rock is not low maintenance but rocks do not stop weeds. Sure: you might like the way it looks the first season you have it down, but gravel and rock are permanent. The problems associated with gravel and rock are permanent too.

Here are six very good reasons NOT to replace grass with gravel:

#1 You can’t rake up the leaves or other plant debris that drift into your gravel landscape.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock and in the end the rock layer and soil layer will be indistinguishable.

Nature makes soil out of leaf litter. If you put rock down, the leaf litter will still come. It will create a layer of soil on top of your rock. At some point the rock layer and soil layers will become a single unit.

Your gravel will look just like you want it to for about a season. However, as soon as you put it down: you will have things blow into your yard that you will need to pick up by hand. This will be an almost insurmountable task and delaying picking up organic matter will only create pockets of composted material (aka dirt) that weeds will take root in.

#2 Rock is expensive, it takes an enormous amount of effort to put it down. It is even harder (and way more expensive) to remove it.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to consider the delivery fee. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Pea gravel runs a little over $4 a bag. If you are considering having a truck deliver a load from a local rock yard: you will also need to factor in the delivery fee into your quoted price. You will need an enormous amount of rock to be successful.

Digging out rock is a lot more labor than spreading it. It is backbreaking work to try and remove gravel because you have to do it shovel by shovel full. Gravel that has been down a while will settle into the soil below it. To get it up: it will need to be dug out. I was stuck with a strip of rock in our last yard. I had several contractors come out and bid to remove the strip. I couldn’t afford to remove the rock. We are talking $500 to remove it! It was way too heavy and too much work to do it ourselves…and if you know my blog: I am willing to do a lot. Once gravel is down: you are pretty much stuck with it. Even if you manage to get it all up, you will need to find a place that will take it, and there will be a disposal fee for it.

#3 Sooner or later you will end up with weeds.

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The weeds will find a small patch of soil between stones. All it takes is a few leaves drifting in and sticking in your gravel to give weeds something to grow in. The first plants to move into an area after it has been cleared are called pioneer plants. These plants will grow where nothing else will grow. They usually have deep tap roots and are a pain to remove (Dandelions are a common pioneer plant. Nobody enjoys removing dandelions. In my experience though, the worst pioneer plants to pull from gravel are tree seedlings.) Pioneer plants are natures answer to events like fires, mudslides, overgrazing and volcanic activity. They also move in after man-made activities like clear cutting, grading land for development and in our farms and gardens. They will show up all over your gravel yard and they will require constant removal.

#4 Weeding through gravel is really hard work.

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I love to garden, but I absolutely hate trying to weed through gravel and rock. Anyone who has done it will agree with me. You usually have to move gravel away from deep rooted plants to remove them (in the case of large rocks you will need to roll each one away from the weed to pull it.) The larger the size gravel or rock you are using the harder it will be to weed. Pea gravel is the easiest to weed through (outside of garden soil.)

If you have ever had to weed through gravel that has been down a few years: you know that weeding gets harder the more settled the rock gets. I lived in a home that had lava rock and crushed rock that had been down for decades. I absolutely hated it. It was down so long that it was like someone had just mixed the surrounding soil with a ton of rock. I couldn’t remove it, I couldn’t weed through it and I couldn’t get enough out with my shovel to plant through it. This experience showed me how permanent the choice to rock a yard becomes.

Rubbing your hands repeatedly on rocks while weeding will tear them up (and frequently bruise them) even with gloves. You will need to dig to remove most tree seedlings. The gravel will be in the way of the spade making for a frustrating experience.

Rock is way too much work!!!!

Herbicides aren’t the answer either. You can spray roundup all over your rock landscape but you are still going to have to pull the plant out after you kill it. Round up (or vinegar, boiling water, etc) doesn’t make the plant go away, it just makes it stop growing, turn brown and look ugly. You will still need to dispose of the plant. I don’t use spray in my beds, I prefer to hand pull weeds. Normally, in decent dirt, it’s quick work. In gravel or between rock: it is a long and laborious process.

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Removing things like grass around rocks takes a while. It frequently means you need to move the rock to remove all of the weed.

My advice for weeds is: put on some gloves, grab a large screwdriver to dig out taproot plants (like dandelions) or get a hoe and remove the plant directly. Outside of use in maintaining a large grass lawn: I think herbicide is a waste of money. Spraying gravel with herbicide leaves the plant. You will still need to remove the plant, so why bother with the spray? You can use a pre-emergent herbicide across gravel if you already have some rock down. This will stop seeds from sprouting, but it is still a chemical and you’d be better off without the gravel in the first place. Weeding torches will remove the weed but they scorch rock. You also have to know what you are doing if you are going to use a torch. In a dry area you could easily start a fire that you can’t control.

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My beloved stirrup hoe! (Like the one in this link. Some stores call it an action hoe.) I love it because it is super fast and I don’t have to bend over to get most weeds. You could use this in deep pea gravel but it would eventually ruin the blade on the hoe. Here is a good comparison of different weeding hoes: link They recommend a different kind of hoe. When my stirrup hoe dies I may try a different kind. Right now a stirrup hoe is my favorite way to weed.

As far as pushing for the idea of getting dirty in the first place: There are microbes in the soil that alleviate depression. This is an excellent reason to get dirty pulling weeds! That and natural vitamin D from the sun…what’s not to like about a little weeding? If you don’t enjoy weeding: don’t put something down like gravel and rock that will just make it harder. (It’s also been my personal experience that being inverted while weeding and planting seems to cause more blood flow to my brain and helps chase away the blues! Try it!)

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#5 Most people don’t read up on how to lay rock mulch correctly.

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Most recommendations I have seen say to use a minimum of 3 1/2 inches but 5-6 inches is ideal. At over 4 bucks a bag…pea gravel is an expensive option.

For a rock mulch to work it needs to be deep. To keep weeds out of the soil below you need to use a heavy duty landscape fabric underneath the rock. No matter what you do though: eventually you will end up with leaves and other organic matter over the top. These will eventually break down, fill in the spaces between rocks and support weeds.

#6 Rock does nothing to alleviate the heat island effect.

heat-island

Rock reflects and absorbs heat. Plants create shade. There is a phenomenon called a “heat island”: the more pavement, the more asphalt and the less natural shade: the higher the ambient temperature. Cities are especially affected by this because flat (often man-made) surfaces are much better at heat retention and absorption than natural surfaces that have variations in depth.

If you think your summer is too hot: look around and see if there is a way to create some shade. City temperatures are up to 10 ̊ F (5.6 ̊ C) higher than rural areas. Here’s a government site that explains this: http://www.epa.gov/heatisld/resources/pdf/HIRIbrochure.pdf People in cities frequently equate their personal experience in a heat island with global warming. These are two different things, but if you don’t understand the two you aren’t going to be able to create solutions. Cities wouldn’t be so damned hot if they were designed with heat in mind.

Examining satellite images is a simple way to visualize what causes the heat island effect. When we were looking for a home I searched areas by looking them up on Google maps using the satellite image setting. I was completely awestruck with the amount of asphalt and concrete housing developments create. Even within the same developed area you will easily see what causes the huge discrepancies in the ambient temperatures caused by heat reflective/absorbing surfaces.

parkinglot

Here is a great example of an area that will contribute to a heat island effect. In this photo there is a huge parking lot with stores surrounding it. Everyone down here is aware of how concrete and asphalt absorb heat and then radiate it out until late in the evening. We can stay over 100 degrees after midnight in the summer. During those awfully hot times of the year: the concrete and asphalt stay hot to the touch until well after dark. A treed area does not absorb and radiate heat in the same way. (If you are interested in the technical side to this look up thermal radiation to see this effect in more detail.)

grasshomes

This housing area has unshaded: grass lawns, streets and sidewalks. There are a few immature trees. There is almost no shade to relieve summer heat in this area.

worstoffender

Here’s an example of what high density living does to the heat island effect. There is almost nothing but asphalt road, asphalt shingles and concrete. People who live in apartments and town homes don’t have yards to take care of, but they are completely surrounded by the worst of the heat offenders. I would imagine it is pretty miserable outside in the summer in this area.

maturetree

Here is a good shade example: These houses are benefiting from the shade of mature trees. This area has intense shade. The trees are so large that you can’t see the homes. You can tell the streets and sidewalks are shaded. These people probably can’t have a vegetable garden, but their homes are going to cost less to cool and their yards will be much more enjoyable.

All of these examples are choices. If the problem stems from having the original trees removed to develop land: the solution could involve homeowners who later choose to plant large shade trees. The choice of a resident in a high density home like an apartment could be: to show the managers and owners examples like what I have put in this article. See if there is room for more trees. If not: a balcony with a few plants can be a personal choice to add a little shade. Planters (of any size) around high heat areas can be an inexpensive way to start. Those who don’t want lawns can choose not to rock their yards and instead search for low maintenance perennials. There’s always room to apply solutions, no matter the size of the impact.

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My neighbor’s tree graciously offers shade as I wait for the school bus. Trees need water, but unlike rock: they offer a solution, not more problems.

If you see a problem and you know the answer: find a way to implement the solution. Solutions don’t need to be huge overhauls. Solutions start with one person who has the will to make a difference in what they have the authority to change. Make your personal changes while you share what you know with others.

Nature makes shade. Man makes reflective surfaces. Unfortunately, down here (and in most of the world) the habit is to tear down trees, clear brush, cover everything in man made surfacing that is heat absorbing or reflective and maybe add some grass. In comparison to the natural state of things, we create some ugly (and not especially intelligent, in regard to heat) structures and surfaces.

I’d never really noticed how different the satellite images are between the subdivisions and the country until we moved down here and I started looking at areas to buy a home. Miles of concrete and asphalt make heat islands possible. Trees can be a part of a larger solution. Rocking yards just contributes to the heat island affect.

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If you don’t want to take care of lawn grass: consider planting some trees, wildflowers and perennial ornamental grasses. Think about what the builders in your area had to remove to build your home. See if it makes sense to replace some of that original plant material.

If you live in the United States and are at a loss as to where to start with plants:

In your computer’s search bar: put the name of your county and “county extension”. This will pull up the county sponsored horticultural experts in your area. Hopefully you have access to local people who are Master Gardeners. Master Gardeners earn (and keep) that designation by volunteering hours educating the public. Don’t have anyone local? Find a university in your state. Most universities have an agriculture or botany expert. Use their expertise!!!! They should be able to point you towards people and groups that can help you. Extension advice is usually free. Most plant people are excited to share with new gardeners and want to encourage you to learn.

You will also find pages of information on your local extension office website directly relating to whatever planting questions you have. Most importantly: you won’t feel so overwhelmed that you want to give up and rock your yard.

To be successful: start slow and do your research. The tab at the top of this page called “Gardening Basics” will walk you through the process. If you choose to use the information provided: you will be able to make informed decisions and be happy with your property for years to come.

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If you are in a dry or hot climate you definitely need to create shade, so plant some shrubs and trees. Native plants are usually xeric (low water) and fairly low maintenance. It is a combination of the terms xeros ξήρος (Greek for “dry”) and landscaping.

Look up xeriscaping online. High Country Gardens is a great place to start: Xeric Zones. They have a ton of great information. Their site is a great place to see xeric plant variety examples. You can get an idea of what you are going to get with xeric plants.

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xeric plant choices under a tree.

Even if the native shrubs and trees for your area are some scraggly, funky looking varieties: it is so much better to add green and shade than go without! Native flowers are also better nectar sources than plants that have been bred for showy flowers. You will make the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds happy with native plants.

Nature will not allow you to keep her out. She will eventually win, and those who fight her, will end up with a yard full of tall weeds that have lots of seed and insignificant flowers. Something will grow. You get to decide what that will be.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Tickseed (coreopsis) A beautiful spreading perennial that is long blooming.

Go out and plant something: It’s important!

If you enjoyed this article please make sure to share it with others (especially if you are involved with a Home Owner Association or other property governing system.)

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Biscamp Pear

I’m going to share my pear journey with the hard to find, but ridiculously tasty Biscamp pear. There’s not much information out there and even 6 years, post purchase, the company I bought it from still has very little information and nothing new added to their website.

Spring at 6 years old.

I bought my Biscamp pear from justfruitsandexotics.com I did a lot of research. I will add links at the bottom of this article, so you can see what information is out there, and you can make a more informed decision on whether to invest in this pear.

You can see the burned, light yellow, chlorotic leaves here. I discuss this further down.

I have a few fruit trees from just fruits and exotics and I’ve been really impressed with the quality and health of their plants. If you are in the South and need fruit trees, with specific chill hours, these are the guys to buy from.

First thing to research about fruit, in the South of the United States, is knowing your specific chill hours! Google your county extension office. You can can frequently add “average chill hours” to your query and find it that way. If you are having difficulty finding your chill hours: look for your local master gardeners. These are people who keep their master gardening designation by volunteering hours helping the public with horticultural questions. If they don’t know, they’ll find someone who does.

They are part of your local county extension office and should have an email address to send your questions to (if you are in the Northern US, with hard freezes, you don’t have to worry about this, but since this is a low chill tree: you won’t be able to grow it north of zone 8a.)

The pear I bought was found on an old homestead and thought to be: self fertile (a big deal with pears as the full sized trees take up a lot of room), full sized (30+ feet tall and about 15 feet wide), has about 400 chill hours, is an antique, Oriental/European pear hybrid variety resistant to fire blight and is a low/no fungal/insecticide spray variety.

The pear was loaded with fruit this year!

Pears are in the rose family (as are other pome fruits, like apples and quince, and suffer the same diseases.) This variety, however, is a champ when it comes to diseases and insects. Not much work to do to keep it very healthy!

I can confirm the chill hours. San Antonio Texas has about 550 chill hours, in a cool year. My Biscamp breaks dormancy in late February (our last frost date is February 24th). It sometimes requires protection so that the flowers don’t freeze back. The fruit is ready to harvest, in our 100 degree heat, by the beginning of July. About 4 1/2-5 months after flowering. I am zone 8b/9a in Southern Texas.

I don’t mind only saving half of the tree’s flowers if I get a freeze, by draping the tree with a long piece of burlap, as I use my pear for both privacy and fruit. This year, I didn’t get a late freeze. So I got a lot of pears throughout the tree. I have let the pear grow to its full height. I have an extension fruit harvesting basket, and what I can’t reach from the ground I send my husband out on a ladder (with the harvest basket) to get the pears at the very top.

Picking pears requires knowing when to do it, as all European pears (and Oriental/European hybrids) need to be removed from the tree prior to ripening and be fully ripened indoors. If your Biscamp pears are about the size and weight of a Bartlett, that you would buy at the grocers, you are in the right time frame. Also, when your backyard wildlife begins getting a taste for the fruit, you know you are close to harvest. One of the best ways to gauge ripeness is observing how the fruit hang. If the stem is arched and the fruit hangs out and to the side: the pear isn’t ripe. If the pear has stretched the stem straight down, from its own weight, it’s close to ready to pick.

Immature pear hangs sideways.

A heavy mature pear will hang down.

Squirrel or rat damage. I know: when they like them, we’re close to when I’ll like them!

To harvest: lift the pear up at a 180 degree angle from its hanging position. If it easily releases from the branch when you do this: it’s harvest time. Make sure you always lift a pear up and away from the tree and do not pull it downwards. This will protect the stem on the fruit. If the stem pulls away from the fruit, the fruit will rot before it is ripe. It’s very important to leave the stem on your fruit, as it ripens indoors, especially if you don’t want to waste the whole harvest!

If you noticed the indentations on the pear in the picture here, this is a sign of calcium deficiency. It isn’t a problem with deficiency in the soil, but availability to the plant’s roots (same reasons you get blossom end rot in tomatoes: irregular and heavy irrigation and in this case, also high pH soil.) You can’t fix this in the soil but you can spray the developing fruit with calcium. High soil pH is a real pain here, but not all of the fruit had problems. Here’s a better explanation:  http://xtremehorticulture.blogspot.com/2013/11/brown-spots-in-pear-and-apple-flesh_25.html?m=1

At the pears 4th and 5th years of age, I got maybe 5 pears each year from the tree. These are so similar in texture and flavor to a Bartlett pear! They are delicious and juicy! Unfortunately, Bartlett pears are very fire blight susceptible and cannot be used in the South. Biscamp is an excellent substitute!

This is 50 pears, on their way to ripeness! There’s approximately 6 to a bag.

If you ripen them in paper bags, 1-2 pears deep, and with a piece of banana peel or an apple (for the ethelyne gas, which helps with ripening), they are fantastic! I use paper lunch bags, and I can check them easily. They are ripe when they start to soften. Biscamp pears have been soft and melting for me, but I know how to ripen them. Not many casual gardeners know that you have to have special conditions to ripen European and hybrid pears successfully.

This year, year 6, I got a decent crop of pears (50, with a few more still out there.) Training the brittle, narrow pear limb crotches, at 10 and 2 o’clock from the central leader (starting at year 1), tricks the pear into thinking it’s older. Naturally, the weight of the fruit pulls branches out and down, when it is of bearing age.

I spray this tree once in the fall, after leaf drop: with dormant oil, and once in the winter: with dormant oil and copper. This has worked well. I spray all of my fruit trees at once with the same solution and, other than my persimmons (that get sooty mold and black spot without a separate spray. For the black spot treatment, I use a natural fungicide and insecticide: neem oil. I use Tangle trap on a fabric tree wrap, for the: ants/aphids, that cause the sooty mold. Those are effective if you end up with either on your pear.) I currently do not have issues with fungal disease or pests on the Biscamp pear.

The main problem I AM having with the pear is: I have super alkaline soil. It pegs the meter when tested. Our soil is so alkaline that: even our ground water will kill acid loving plants just by watering with it. This year has been exceptionally dry. I hand water my fruit trees as well as run our sprinklers (that were originally installed by previous owners, for a grass only yard.)

Some years I need to water more than others. Unfortunately, this year the pear is suffering from iron chlorosis. It has been touchy for a couple of years. I have been throwing my coffee grounds out on it for years, but this year that isn’t enough and it’s sick. I attempted to help it along by drilling down into the soil around the drip line and adding Sulphur and Iron. It hasn’t shown much improvement, although that treatment takes time.

The chlorotic leaves are white with no veining and have burned back from the sun, heat and dry wind. It is not fireblight, but it looks pretty similar. Still, it’s filled with fruit, and only the new growth has been affected, so I’m very happy!

Having an arborist come out and do a trunk injection of iron is not in my budget. So, after searching online, I found these implants: I will update this post next year and tell you what I think of them.

So what have I come away thinking of a Biscamp pear? It’s a fantastic: low chill, self fertile, low maintenance, incredibly tasty, pear.

My only caution is for high pH soil. You can do your own soil test by adding your soil to a glass of vinegar. If your soil bubbles like crazy and doesn’t stop, then the free calcium carbonate is probably too high to correct. If you take care, and create the correct planting conditions, lower your soil pH with amendments from the beginning, and watch for and treat chlorosis during dry hot summers, I believe that the tree will perform well for you. But Ph issues will be a life long problem. If you do not want to have to worry about your soil, then you may want to grow a different fruit than a pear.

I highly recommend this variety if you are in the zones 8a-9a in the South and have more neutral soil. I researched for about a year before I installed the tree, and I’m really glad I did: as it has exceeded my expectations!

Interested in finding out more about pears in general, and specifically, about the Biscamp variety? There’s not a whole lot out there, but this is what I’ve found:

Information about the Biscamp variety, and the other pears this company carries: (You can also find on the page below, in a .pdf file directly below the name of the pear, instructions on caring for pears):

https://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/product/biscamp-pear/

A little more on Southern pears and the Biscamp:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://jefferson.agrilife.org/files/2011/05/Recommended-Fruit-Guide-for-Jefferson-County.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiYpMecv4bcAhUQ0FkKHSk9D6YQFjABegQIARAB&usg=AOvVaw373XdlNktjAlQZvucJqSYl

Some information about Biscamp and pear quality. (I don’t agree that this pear is gritty but it may have something to do with our heat, when the pear is harvested and how it is ripened.)

https://www.google.com/amp/s/articles.nola.com/river/2013/09/pears_are_a_desirable_fruit_in.amp

General pear information with a .Pdf file describing taste of a list of pears, including the Biscamp. http://www.mcmga.com/51/45/mcmga-fruit-nut-tree-sale-happening-soon-january-27/

In depth information for garden nerds that want to know more about pears. Great info about how how a pear tree creates fruit from its flowers and how to perfectly ripen your fruit indoors. (I love this article BTW! She’s a biology teacher and really covers a lot in a concise, fun way! If you have a pear tree: this is necessary reading.)

https://www.google.com/amp/s/botanistinthekitchen.blog/2013/08/11/pear-grit-and-the-art-of-aging/amp/

High pH: what am I getting myself into? Find out what the experts say about changing soil pH.

https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/1994/4-6-1994/ph.html

Best Damn Rainbow Fruit Skewers And Dip Out There!

This Easter we went to our family’s low country shrimp boil in San Antonio. I love the food every year! This year though, was a bit different. I discovered last year that I can’t eat wheat. I’ve developed an allergy to it, and it’s pretty serious.

I’m not gluten intolerant, either. I can eat other grains with gluten, but wheat is BAD news for me. It causes my esophagus to narrow and then I just can’t swallow.

It’s pretty scary and I aspirated the first time it happened, trying to wash the stuck food down with water. This crazy thing is inherited, but I’m the first one who figured out it’s caused by wheat (thanks to a specialist and an elimination diet he put me on.) It’s in my mom’s side of the family and I’ve apparently got the worst case of it of all the women on her side. Lucky me.

I’m sure that part of the sensitivity, is from climbing up into the grain trucks at my grandparent’s house, when I was a kid. I had the worst hay fever when it was time to bring in the wheat! I remember I could hardly breathe. All you got back then: was a cool cloth and maybe some benadryl. I guess that allergy never went away, it just transformed a bit. Again: lucky me.

So I needed something wheat free and I didn’t want to mess with weird ingredients to make some sort of baked goody. I wanted to bring a pretty party plate, so I decided that rainbow fruit skewers sounded really fun, and were the way to go. But, still, that’s just fruit on a stick, and I didn’t want to be lame, so I decided I should make a dip.

I looked online. I didn’t really see anything I wanted to use. I saw some interesting ingredients but nothing that really made me think: “Wow! I need to make that!”

So I looked at what I did like and came up with my own version… And it is damned good! This had everyone (including me, my husband and my kids!) loading up on the dip (and cleaning their plates of whatever didn’t end up on the fruit.) It is crazy good and I will probably never make any other fruit dip. It’s just: Oh. My. Gosh. GOOD!

Here’s the recipe for both the skewers and the dip:

Rainbow Fruit Skewers:

1 medium container of fresh strawberries (my container made about 20 skewers, so how many you need can be approximated through that number per box.)

2-3 oranges or cuties peeled and segmented. You need to count out what you want with a couple extra “just in case”. (We always have cuties, or other seasonal, small, oranges, so I had a large bag to work from.)

Container of cored fresh pineapple (or whole, if you want to cut it yourself. Either save the juice from the pineapple, or: you can buy prepackaged pineapple juice for the dip.)

Green grapes

Container of fresh blueberries

Red grapes

Long wooden skewers

Half an icebox (ie. small) watermelon

A plate (to bring it to your gathering)

Add the strawberries (from the top down) to the end of your skewer and then slide the rest of the fruit from the bottom up, from the pointed end. Do this in the order of the ingredients mentioned above. The most fragile fruit is the pineapple and if you aren’t careful it will split. If it does: try to use larger sections or just rotate it a quarter turn and try again. Blueberries are pretty fragile too, so be careful with those, as well. The rest is easy peasy.

Place your skewers in a baking dish, if you are making it ahead. Put some plastic wrap over the dish and put them back in your refrigerator. (I made mine 2 days ahead.)

For the day of the party take your skewers and punch them, pointy side down, into the watermelon half. Try and keep them upright for ease in portability. Tent them in a big piece of saran wrap and you are done with that part!

Best Damned Fruit Dip Ever:

1 container cool whip (I used cool whip “lite”)

1 lemon, zested (I zested about half of mine and it was plenty.)

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup pineapple juice

I made this ahead and mixed all of the above ingredients with a whisk, put it back in the cool whip container and returned it to the refrigerator.

The next day I put the cool whip mix in the bowl that I was bringing to the party and whisked half a large container of honey strawberry “Greek Gods” Greek yogurt into the mix. In my opinion: this is the best tasting Greek yogurt out there.

I’ve always referred to it as “ice cream” with my kids and they love it. I always put some in their lunches. Every day I have to drain off a little of the whey that separates in the container. This is why I waited to add it to the cool whip mix. The yogurt is thick and loves to separate.

I also don’t like any other Greek yogurt (or regular yogurt, for that matter), but if you have a favorite you can sub that. If you’ve never tasted “Greek Gods” and you can find it: use it!

After I whisked in the yogurt I tasted the end product. I added a teaspoon more lemon juice and a couple more Tablespoons of pineapple juice. That’s the great part of this: it’s super flexible. If you want more flavor: add a little more pineapple and lemon juice, until you are happy. Be aware that the dip will eventually separate (once its been out of the refrigerator for a while) and get soupy, if you add a whole lot of liquid.

You can end here or do what I did: add a teaspoon of orange blossom water. It makes it very French and upscale. (I loved the cool crazy, foot long marshmallows I bought in France with flavors like: rose, violet, lavender and orange blossom. Ah. I wish I could just drop everything and travel like I did when I was young. Maybe after my kids are grown? We’ll see.)

You can’t take the orange blossom water back out, if you don’t like it, so add a drop to a spoonful and see if you want to commit to it. I LOVE orange blossom water and have enjoyed it in all sorts of dishes. Just make sure you you don’t overload your dip. A little goes a long way! It is in our international aisle at the grocer and is frequently used in Turkish dishes.

I provided small plates and forks to eat the fruit (I don’t recommend trying to eat it on the skewer. We slid them off and onto the plate. The skewers are all for presentation!) and a big spoon for the dip. It went fast and everyone wanted to know what was in it!

It was so good people were adding it to the baked goods (like the brownies.) It’s really a stunning way to present a healthy snack. I also love that the dip was light and fluffy and not some thick, heavy calorie bomb.

If you have leftovers: mix the dip with the fruit for an old fashioned fruit salad. It won’t be around for long! You will eat it right up!

There you have: my freakishly good dip and cute rainbow fruit skewers. I’d love to hear your comments about it if you make it. Let me know what you think of the orange blossom water addition if you try it, too!

Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense.

We had a nice long winter, down here in Texas, that had enough chill hours for my fruit trees. Unfortunately, our bee population this early in the spring is pretty sparse. I had some hardships that made it impossible to get out and pollinate my pear tree. After I watched all of the small fruit abort I was faced with the next set of flowers in my fruit trees: my peach tree. To bee, or not to bee? I chose to help my tree out. I used the following guide on my peach today.

It took maybe twenty minutes to do all of the lower branches. I had a lone bumblebee helping me with the upper branches. I’m sure he (or she) did a much better job than I did! Hopefully, I see some results on the peach. Plant as many bee friendly plants as possible! They certainly need our help. Read on about plant sex, and how you can help, by hand pollinating.

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Flowers are beautiful examples of sexual reproduction. We gather them, we create bouquets, we stick our noses into a plant’s sex organs and take a deep breath of intoxicating fragrance.

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The idea of sex (at least when we look at our own species) seems to be incredibly more complex and inherently immature.

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I will point to plants for transferable lessons in the beauty and enjoyment of sexual reproduction. Because: with flower sex, there are no immature experiences. Enjoying a flower is simple and healthy.

Plant sex: On display

Plants are never shy about reproduction. Those beautiful blossoms on your rose bush? Reproduction. The fruit you enjoy from the market? Reproduction. The nuts that provide fiber and protein in your diet? Reproduction.

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Plants can’t walk around and find their ideal mate. Instead they are more like billboards attempting to get pollinators to look so they might entice them to stop by and enjoy some nectar (and to spread some pollen around while they are at it.) With a plant’s sexual reproduction: it is in the plant’s best interest to get noticed (although some trees like pears offer low quality nectar and are often passed over in favor of more nutritious fare. Other trees, like pawpaws, use flies who aren’t very interested or talented pollinators.) Pollinators create new offspring for plants, fruit and nuts attract animals to help with dispersal.

Humans select strains for the best fruit as far as taste and visual appeal. However, we create imbalance in the system when we don’t remember to select to attract and feed pollinators. I believe helping create healthy pollinators is going to become a necessary interest that must be included in the future of breeding and research in horticulture. It will be in recognition of the importance of the balance that nature strives to create.

What is the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seed?

These are legal definitions for plants. If you would like to know how and why these are separated in seed catalogs this is a great explanation: http://www.garden.org/subchannels/care/seeds?q=show&id=293&page=1 You need to know the difference before you start on the pollination journey.

Purposeful hand application of pollen:

As a home gardener, you can effectively focus on two different things in hand pollination. The first is to (1) purposely pollinate plants to create (A) a new hybrid or to (B) isolate and maintain pure strains:

(A) Hybridization (taking pollen from one desirable plant and placing the pollen on a second variety. With this method you are trying to create a better strain than either of the parents) will produce a new type of fruit but the seeds will not be stable. Reliably hybridizing takes more expertise than the average home gardener has. If you allow one of nature’s pollinators to do this you will get something unique next year if you sow the crossed seed (although you may not enjoy eating it.) Letting nature engage in hybridization is like the slot machine gambling of the plant world. You may hit the jackpot growing hybridized seed but more often you may just lose your money (with lesser quality plants than the parents, wasted garden space, water etc). I will admit to enjoying random crosses that grow out of discarded winter squash seed in my compost heap. Even if it’s merely to marvel at the possibilities that plant genetics can offer us!

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In my home garden I occasionally play the game of: “Squash, squash, what is that squash?” I have had some crazy crosses come up when I haven’t rotated crops from year to year or have found them growing from discarded seed in my compost heap. This game can easily be played with all cucurbits (squash/melon/cucumber/gourd family. But FYI you cannot cross a cuke with a gourd or a watermelon with a canteloupe. There are limits to this process. But two kinds of squash (this includes pumpkins) will cross… Two kinds of cucumber, two kinds of watermelon or two kinds of canteloupe. It gets pretty complicated when you are involving several plant families and their offspring. My best advice is to Google what you are growing and look up if they will cross pollinate). To play: encourage the help of bees. Just save seed after two varieties of the same species have been growing at the same time.

(B) Keeping plant strains pure: The other part of this type of pollinating is isolating varieties to prevent hybridization. You will need isolation space (which varies per plant type), grow only one variety or use barriers like bags to keep what you have pollinated fertilized by only what you have chosen to place on it. You can try this if you have had a few successful seasons in your home garden and feel ready to expand your skills. You can learn more about keeping open pollinated seed strains pure or creating new hybrids here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/

and here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Instructions/

If you are a seasoned gardener, I suggest this site: http://seedalliance.org/index.php?mact=DocumentStore,cntnt01,download_form,0&cntnt01pid=12&cntnt01returnid=139

(I always encourage people to support seedsavers.org. They are a genetic bank for open pollinated and heirloom strains of vegetables. They are maintaining diversity which is in complete opposition to GMO and hybrid seed companies like Monsanto.)

The second part is 2) Lack of pollination: The second focus in hand pollination is to make up for a lack of pollinators. No bees is a big deal! When sexual reproduction in a vegetable or fruit garden is bee reliant, you can intervene if there is a lack of them. Just make sure you add bee attracting flowers next season. You aren’t going to want to have to totally replace the bee’s handiwork. They work hard!

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Where we fit in:

Just like humans can sometimes use help with fertility: plants that use sexual reproduction can use our help as well. Male and female organs on a plant use pollination to reproduce. Here is a list of common vegetable plants and how they reproduce: http://www.harvesttotable.com/2009/05/how_vegetables_are_pollinated/

There are three main categories of pollination and gardeners can easily affect them:

A: Pollination by wind. This happens between separate male and female flower parts found on plants like corn (how to hand pollinate corn: link) You can help these plants along by physically rubbing the male pollen onto the female flower to increase your chances of fertilization. You can specifically help corn by cutting off one of the tassels (located at the top of the plant)

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Corn tassles.

and knocking pollen onto the silks as they emerge (found closer to the middle of the plant).

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Corn silk from this years plants.

B: Self-pollination: This happens within the same flower like tomatoes (how to hand pollinate tomatoes: link ) The key for these plants is agitation: grab a stem and give the plant a good shake. It is a little like what a good wind or rain storm would do. Self pollinating plants have their male and female parts close together. The pollen needs to drop a very small distance onto the stigma. Grabbing the plant and giving it a good shake will help knock loose pollen from the anthers onto the stigma.

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You can grab a tomato plant and give it a shake to knock the pollen off of the male part of the flower onto the female part. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. Each flower contains both male and female parts.

C. Animal pollination. Where a plant relies on something in the animal kingdom to spread pollen from plant to plant. Examples are bees, butterflies, moths and other insects pollinating your home vegetables and fruit trees. Here is a list of plants and their pollinators: link

Ideally you have a ton of bees in your yard from avoiding insecticides and other chemicals while ensuring you plant nectar and pollen rich flowers. This should create conditions to assure that you have pollinators already on your property eager to pollinate your fruits and vegetables. Even so, early in our season we are short on pollinators. Unfortunately, most suburbs are surrounded by miles and miles of a monoculture of lawn grass. Homeowners struggle to keep weeds out of their lawns just so neighbors (or an HOA) don’t judge them for noncompliance. While homeowners are planning their herbicide attack they don’t notice the hum of bees enjoying those same weeds.

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Lawn weeds in Bermuda grass. These are tiny, but the bees love them!

I hope within the next decade we start looking at the ground around our homes as the potential to support nature rather than trying to enforce an arbitrary idea of beauty. Humans seem to enjoy battling the way things work in nature by forcing the unnatural concept of perfectly manicured lawns. Try removing as much grass as possible and replacing it with pollinator friendly, native plants.

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A butterfly magnet: lantana.

When does it make sense to hand pollinate?

Cucurbits are number one on this list of home fruiting plants that have issues with pollination. Cucurbits include: winter squash (which includes pumpkins), summer squash, melons, cucumbers and gourds. They produce large fruits on a bush or a long sturdy vine. If you have struggled getting these plants to produce for you, it may be time to start looking at pollinating the flowers yourself.

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My melon patch this year. I recommend trellising cucurbits unless they are a kind that will “slip” from the vine when ripe. Here’s how I do it: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I don’t support melons or squash that I grow like this. I don’t need to. Big vines like these climb naturally and retain their fruit as they do it. I cut the melons off when they are ready.

Identifying male and female flowers on cucurbits:

In the cucurbitae family there are separate male and female flowers. Once you can tell the difference between the sex of a flower, you can try your hand at pollinating.

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Male flower on a melon plant. Notice there is nothing but a thin stem attaching the flower to the vine.

These are the male flowers. They are easy to identify because they will be on the end of a long straight stem and covered in pollen. The male part of the flower is called the stamen. There will be a long filament that has a pollen covered anther at the end.

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I sliced a male blossom in half here. Notice the shape of the interior of the flower. There is pollen at the end of the stamen and no immature fruit below the petals.

At the end of the stamen is the anther. This is where you start. The anther is where the pollen (which is male) is found that is required for the female flower to produce fruit.

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Female flower on the same melon plant. Notice the immature fruit between the stem and the flower. There will be many more male flowers and if you eat squash blossoms you should plan on frying or stuffing the male blossoms. This would not affect the amount of fruit you get.

This is the female counterpart. You can spot female flowers by looking for the swollen ovary.

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Here is the interior of a female blossom. You can see that the stigma (on the inside of the petals) is pollen free and that there is a swollen ovary (the future fruit) that contains unfertilized seed.

These will abort and fall from the plant if they are not fertilized properly.

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If you have a whole lot of this…

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…and not a lot of this: You probably have a pollination problem.

Like most living things: the female reproductive organs are more complicated than the male organs. The entire length of the female part of a flower is called a pistil. Starting from where the pistil is attached to the base of the flower you will see a swollen area which is the ovary. It is full of potential seeds called ovules. Continuing up the pistil there will be a narrower tube called the style connected to the sticky tip of the pistil: the stigma. This sticky tip is what needs to be fertilized with the male pollen.

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Male and female parts within the same flower.

Here is a simple description that will give you a working foundation in hand pollination:

You don’t need to work with hundreds of flowers, just a few per vine. If they fail, go out and do it again, until you have the amount of fruit you are after. You will get better quality, larger fruit if you allow your plant to concentrate on only producing a few fruit per vine.

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Thai Golden Round melons. I have these on my melon trellis. Learn to build a cheap trellis here: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I’ve probably got 10 or more that are close to being ripe. These are not my favorite melon but they are prolific and the vines do well here.

If you have to stand in for bees frequently, you will realize how much work these little garden friends do for us. I recommend making plans to plant nectar and pollen rich plants so you can attract these busy bees to your yard and save yourself the trouble of trying to do it all yourself.

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Successfully pollinated by our neighborhood bees. The blossom is shriveled at the bottom of this melon.

The following is how I like to hand pollinate in small areas with large fruited plants:

I use a q-tip to gather and spread pollen. They are cheap and simple. I twirl it over several of the same species/variety of squash or melons. This is Thai Golden Round. Then I hunt for open female flowers and twirl the pollen onto the stigma. If you’ve done it correctly: the fruit will begin to grow and mature. If your attempt fails: the immature fruit will fall from the vine. You will have more chances and this is why I save and label my q-tips: I want to load as much pollen on them as I can. You can also use a small paintbrush or remove the male flower completely and rub it’s anther directly onto the female’s stigma.

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You don’t need to be careful if you aren’t saving seed, but you won’t create a squash with watermelon pollen. You still need to focus on one species of plant, even if you choose to mix varieties of pollen from the same species of plants. Here is a good explanation of cross-pollination in cucurbits: http://www.walterreeves.com/food-gardening/squashpumpkincucumberwatermelon-pollination-explanation/

You can label your q-tip by putting a piece of tape on it and writing the variety you used it on. If you aren’t saving seed you can use the same q-tip for all of your pollinating (I am not currently saving seed because I am trialing too many, in too close of proximity, to keep the strains pure. Although I usually keep at least one q-tip for each: winter squash/summer squash, melon, watermelon etc. In this way I make sure the q-tip only contains pollen that will fertilize the species I am trying to grow.)

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You can be as detailed or as simplistic as you want. My labeling depends on what I am trying to do for the season.

For more information including recipes, pictures and growing information: Here are some great links.

Learn all about melons: (This is a fantastic site out of Australia that includes growing information, recipes and reviews of melon varieties.) http://melonmaster.yolasite.com/

Learn all about squash: This site can take a while to load but it has reviews and recommended ways to prepare and consume pretty much any variety of squash, gourd and cucumber that you are growing. The site is listed alphabetically.) http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/vegetables/squash-glossary.asp

There you go! A simplistic guide to an incredibly complex field of study. Botanists can write the text books full of the complex how’s and why’s, but anyone with this simple guide can go out and enjoy becoming the bee!

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Spring Is The Time To Begin Backyard Foraging!

I love researching things that strike me as interesting. I’m creating a food forest in my backyard, so I want to know what parts of plants I can incorporate into my meals. Spring is a great time for edibles in the garden. I’m not talking fruit but instead: leaves, flowers and even pollen!

I bought an incredible book years ago that’s basically the Bible of medicinal plants. It’s here: best medicinal plant book

I trust that book and it is written by one of the foremost authorities in holistic healing through plants. It’s also handy to look up foraging websites like this one: learn about foraging!

Dill flowers

Of course many herbs are the leaves of plants so dill, basil and cilantro may be familiar to you, but did you know their flowers (some flowers are over poweringly strong, so try them before you include them in a salad.) are delicious too? Take a glance out your window and make a list of what you already have growing (even some weeds, like dandelion, are edible) and start your search. If you can’t completely identify a plant take a piece in a sealed zip lock to a nursery and ask for help. Don’t eat something if you aren’t absolutely sure what it is!

After identifying your plants and once you know what kinds of foods, teas and tinctures you want to try you can go out into your yard and browse! My leaves from trees are at their best in the spring. By midsummer the wind has them torn up and they are experiencing bug and disease pressures. So now is the time to use them.

If you are new to foraging: slowly dip your toes into this idea. Overconsumption or a rapid change in your diet can cause intestinal distress. Our modern diet is full of predigested simple carbohydrates and chemically laden empty calories. It takes a little while to get your body used to doing the work of breaking down whole foods.

Here are a few of the ways I use edible leaves, flowers and tubers:

Fig leaves. Popular from ancient times the fig tree has a lot to offer. Wrapping a meat like chicken or fish, and steaming it in a grill, imparts a coconut flavor. It’s very mild but a good addition to a lot of recipes. Click here for: Fig leaf cooking ideas

Here I have fish in fig leaves and a homemade tartar sauce. You can grill these but I prefer to oil the leaves and then place them on a cookie sheet with a piece of fish with sauce between two fig leaves. Then I cover them in foil and bake them. You can use any baked fish or chicken recipe. The coconut flavor is not sweet, so it goes well with many dishes.

Persimmon leaves. These make fantastic tea. You can roll the leaf from the tip back towards the bottom and stick the stem through the roll for a tidy treat. Click here for: Persimmon leaf uses that’s one in the cup below!

Pomegranate leaves. I love my pomegranate. It has soft seeds and is incredibly good. But the leaves make a great tea for insomnia. They have the most beautiful flowers, too! You can also use leaves and petals in your next smoothie: Uses for pomegranate leaves.

Goji (or wolf berry). These are great in salads. In fact, you could make an entire salad of all of leaves above! goji berry leaves

Red raspberry leaves and blackberry leaves have historically been used as teas to treat a variety of medical issues: WebMD uses for red raspberry leaves

NCBI uses for blackberry leaves

The white Mulberry (morus alba) are the best Mulberry variety to eat leaves from, as they are tender and have good flavor. Use as a salad, tea, or instead of grape leaves in recipes.

I grow olive trees and yes, olive leaf tea is also something you can make at home. My trees are young so utilizing the leaves creates a use for an immature tree. Here’s a link for the benefits of olive leaves: olive leaf

Lavender makes a beautiful tea and I also eat the flowers in salads and even sandwiches.

Nasturtium is a peppery tasting plant and the flowers and leaves are good as an addition to salads. Here’s more on nasturtium: nasturtium

Begonias are edible too! begonia and other edible flowers

The caladiums at the base of this tree are not edible, while the begonias surrounding them are. Always check before you try something new.

Canna is a substitute for asparagus in the southern garden. The plant is related to banana and ginger and the leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking: as banana leaves are used. The tubers taste like potatoes and are a great addition to a food forest (or a supplemental garden for those who want to try and outwit the end of the world. While people may steal your tomatoes, they will overlook your patch of canna!) canna uses

Daylilies? Why yes! They’re also edible the edible daylilily

Cattails, which I walked past for years and not had a thought to eat, are great in spring with their new shoots peeled and you can also use their profuse pollen as flour. cattail pollen

Fiddlehead fern fronds are a great spring treat and incredibly delicious! Edible fern frond

For those of you in cooler climes: pine needle tea is yummy. pine needle tea for vitamin C! Down here you can get your fill of vitamin C in cactus pads (or nopales) which I can get at our local grocer. lots of prickly pear cactus recipes!

One of my very favorite flowers for tea is hibiscus and turk’s cap (same family as okra and other mallows) which make a beautiful, tasty dark red tea. They sell dried hibiscus flowers this far south at our grocery store. Hibiscus tea is popular in Mexico as well as Central and South America. But I grow the plants every year for their gorgeous showy flowers. All hibiscus flowers are edible, the color does not matter.

An okra flower. These are great as fritters. You can find a recipe for those up on the daylily link.

Add a little honey and mulling spices, it makes for a lovely tea.

And last I’ll leave you with another plant I would have never thought to eat, and that is: fushia berries! Not only gorgeous blooms but edible! Who would have thought to pop a few of those in your mouth? fushia berries

I’m going to stop there, but I’m definitely not done going through what you can eat in your own yard. The list is incredibly long, so I advise looking up anything you have (or want, in the future) in your garden. So many things with so many flavors! Here’s a link to a few vegetables that do double duty as you are waiting for their main crop.

I will also leave you with a tale of caution. I grew up in the south. My mother used to put Lantana leaves in our sun tea every summer. They had a wonderful citrusy taste. They are also: poisonous. It had a great taste, and we never got sick, but I would never use Lantana for any purpose outside of pollinator gardens and for it’s beautiful flowers. SO, with that said: even if you taste something, and it tastes great, it doesn’t mean it’s edible. For heaven’s sake: look it up online first! We didn’t have Google when I was a kid, but there’s no excuse for ignorance now!

Happy foraging! And let me know your favorite garden plant to enjoy in early spring!

Creating A Bog For Water Loving Plants

I recently bought a gunnera manicata also known as: giant rhubarb (it’s not actually related to rhubarb but the leaf shape is similar) or dinosaur food. As with all things I purchase for my garden: I did a lot of research. It started years ago when I saw photos of this plant. I have always had it in the back of my mind, but I was too busy converting my backyard into a perennial food forest to make time for this.

The plant requires a ton of water. If you look at the surface area of its giant 4-10 foot leaves you can see how it would need a steady flow of water to keep the transpiration rate up. These wilt in high heat. I’m just hoping to create enough of a boggy home to keep it alive.

I ended up ordering from Joy Nurseries (I was extremely happy with the plant and the shipping: which was within a couple of days. I will definitely use them again!) and this is their description:

I lifted the two photos above from Wikipedia because I don’t have a mature picture of this plant… Yet!

At approximately 150 million years old, I can imagine an herbivore from the beginning of the Jurassic period munching on these leaves! And now,  with these impressive photos, you can see why I have made space for a small “defiance garden”: Where I defy mother nature and dare her to stop me!

I don’t usually create this type of garden because they are super difficult to maintain. But. I’m in love with the idea of this plant, so here it is.  I occasionally will add something that I am totally OK with nursing along and creating special conditions that are not natural for my zone or microclimate. I am stubborn. I’ve grown cantaloupe in the colorado foothills by planting water bottles next to the plants (to absorb and radiate heat when the temperature drops at night.)  

Sometimes, my defiance gardens succeed! But they are never a plant and forget situation! I’m expecting to have to water this plant daily in our summer heat. 

If you want to try to create your own defiance garden it will probably only be able to sustain one kind of broken rule for your area. I don’t plant things like peonies down here because that breaks two rules: 1. to bloom a peony needs full sun and 2. it’s too hot down here and they don’t get enough chill hours to properly break dormancy. 

As far as I can tell, the Gunnera just doesn’t like heat (even though it requires zone 8-10). I can provide every other requirement that this bad boy needs, so I am only pushing one growing rule with it. They do really well in England and probably would do well on the American northern west coast. Neither of those places are anything like South Texas. So, we’ll see if I can provide enough things that it needs that I don’t kill it straight off!

In all honesty my gunnera is probably going to fail here because it doesn’t like our temperatures. So, San Antonio is a poor place to choose to plant it. But, I saw a review on DavesGarden.com (a truly stellar site for all sorts of plant information and sellers) that someone had successfully  grown it down here in full shade.

I have a giant empty side yard. The fence is set way back and we just don’t do anything outside in that area. It’s on the north side of the house and it doesn’t drain well. I am attempting to grow the G. Manicata there.

I figure I have the perfect spot, to at least attempt, to grow this monster plant. I’ll show you how I chose to plant this thing and we’ll see how it does. The first thing to do (if you do not have a natural bog or ability to plant on the side of a water feature) to create a bog for any water loving plant, is find a low spot in a shaded area. 

I would not try this if you don’t already have an area that holds a good deal of moisture on its own. This is also not going to do well under a tree because then there will be water competition and trees always win those. I have a low spot, that I had intended to put a French drain in, but hadn’t gotten around to doing it yet. It does drain…  eventually, but every rain storm makes a big soggy mess out there. 

I have seen some videos of people planting Gunnera Manicata but nothing that matches my exact conditions. So this is what I did to make the most of my soggy, shaded,  side yard.

I’m big into soil prepping, especially if I have a feature plant and I want it to preform well for me. I dig huge holes for pretty much anything that comes in a pot.

Our native soil is really hard to work with. It’s like potters clay and full of limestone rocks. It’s also so basic that even our water from our aquifer will kill acid loving plants. Everything that needs acidic to neutral soil needs to be in a pot and my daily watering usually also includes dumping some of my morning’s coffee grounds on the soil in the pot.

I also put coffee grounds on anything with chlorosis (dark veining on yellowing leaves. It’s an iron deficiency and is very common in basic soil.) It works well, but needs constant reapplication. Soil ammendment down here is always necessary.

I would love my grandmother’s deep black Kansas soil, but this is what I have to work with. My soil is a very rich soil that usually only needs compost, iron and some regular applications of nitrogen. But it’s Hell to dig through!

I’ve also learned over the years that you can’t replace all of the soil in a hole because it will act like a pot. The roots grow fantastically until they hit the native dirt and then they turn around and grow back through the softer, amended soil until you end up with a circular mass of roots (this is called: being “root bound”). It will eventually restrict the plant’s growth and a root bound plant is going to be less vigorous and preform more poorly than a plant that creates a healthy root structure without restriction. To amend, and still encourage healthy roots, your amended soil needs to be at most a 50/50 mixture of the native soil and the soil/compost that you are adding. 

On the other hand, some plants have the kind of root system that you will want to control because otherwise they become invasive (and if you fail at restricting things like running bamboo you will have nothing but bamboo, as will ALL of your extremely unhappy neighbors!)

Gunnera Manicata is a monster. It has the kind of root system that can support its 4-10 FOOT leaves. It is invasive in some areas, and planting is extremely discouraged in places like Ireland. I’m not really sure where I’m going to fall in the realm of invasive or complete failure with this plant, so, I built in some options that I can easily change in my planting hole. I also did NOT plant it up against any structure. I’ve seen what this looks like above ground and I assume I’m going to deal with something similar below ground.

First thing of business is digging a suitable hole. I could have gone bigger but I really didn’t feel like putting more work into this. Here’s my hole I dug out in my swampy side yard.

My trusty old spade. This is a little deeper than the length of the spade blade.

As you can see from this side shot I dug a pretty big hole. 

The next part of this is trying to slow, but not stop, the water drainage even further. I have seen 1 year landscape fabric last years under soil so I didn’t try too hard with this. I shucked a Sunday newspaper of its plastic bag ripped it open and placed it in the bottom of the hole.

I drove the spade through it a couple of times and decided that was good enough to keep it draining. Doing this also achieves my goal of slowing water down.

Next I built a micro hugelkultur underneath the plant. I happened to have some well composted mulch that had sat unopened for a while in our backyard. I also opened my compost trash cans (having special ratios or even oxygen is not needed to break down plant materials. I keep rodents and other things out of my compost while keeping constant moisture levels by using my metal trash bins.) These were started a couple of years ago with rabbit bedding and kitchen scraps. I lined them with plastic trash bags because I use this on my vegetable garden and I have no idea what metals they used in the cans. It’s beautiful dirt now!

For a mini hugelkultur you need a source of rotted wood at the base of the hole to absorb and hold water. It will act like a sponge, keeping your planting supplied with moisture. I use a modified hugelkultur in my raised beds. You can learn about them here: Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 1

Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 2

In this bucket is the rotting mulch on the top with the composted rabbit bedding and garden scraps on bottom. This way, when I dump the bucket into the hole it will have everything where I want it from top to bottom.

Since this is a monster plant, I am purposefully creating a “pot like” environment. This is to keep the roots under control, for a while. I line my pots with newspapers.

This keeps the sides of the pot wettable and your soil doesn’t shrink and let your watering run straight down the sides and out of the pot.

In the ground, these newspapers absorb water, like wood mulch does, but stop the roots from spreading so quickly that I have no control. I have left myself an option to open the area around the hole by shoving my spade perpendicular to the newspaper lining, cutting through the future soggy newspaper and giving the roots free access to the surrounding soil. Until then, it will keep the water I add to the planting hole draining down, and then out, keeping as much moisture in the hole’s soil as possible.

And since I am trying to create a bog: it is a plus that I am draining soil slowly. This very set up would kill most plants. If I had full sun here it might bake the native soil’s moisture out enough to have plants survive, but this already floods so much and has so little sun that everything I’ve put out here has struggled.

Gardening usually means working with what you are given. I’ve already got a wet area: I’m just creating a small section of constantly wet bog, instead of the rain garden that I have been given.

The hole so far is lined with newspaper and a perforated plastic bag, has rotting bark mulch at the base and compost on top of that. It’s very hard to show depth in a photo but this is just the bottom 1/3 of the hole.

Next I fill the hole back in with a mixture of 50% native soil and 50% compost.

The reason I am taking so much care with this hole is because I am changing the native conditions. If I wanted to plant regular garden plants in here I would have put in the French drain (which would have been even more work!) If I had a normal slope and drainage on this side nothing I could do would be enough to qualify this as a bog garden. Gardening is always full of goals, this was the simplest answer to my mushy wet area. I used the lack of drainage to my benefit.

I filled the hole in and created a small area to place the plant. Then I ran the hose until I filled the hole full of water and then lowered the pressure to a dribble. I let that run for about a half hour. It was definitely soggy at the end of all that!

I let the hole drain for a day and then brought out my Gunnera.

The last things to think about are: maintaining moisture, creating a weed barrier and how you are going to deal with hardening off the transplant.

I accomplished these things with cardboard and a gallon milk jug. I was very aware of the problem of dehydration with this plant while I had it indoors. I was having to mist the leaves and base of the plant several times a day as the leaves would shrivel up and die without constant moisture. Because I hate the process of hardening off plants (getting them used to the sun and wind of the outdoors) I always protect mine with milk jugs. Just cut an x across the base of the milk jug and fold the corners out.

Cut a puncture hole into the flaps.

Plant your plant, cover the surrounding soil with cardboard and water in. Carefully place the milk jug over your plant and anchor with landscaping pins or whatever you want to use to keep the jug from blowing away. Add some rocks to anchor the cardboard and water in again.

This was a lot of work, so make sure you check on your plant at least once a day.

Mine is super happy in these conditions and is sending up new leaves!

Here it is a couple of weeks later:

I’m very happy with the results! I hope you enjoyed my bog tutorial! If you would like to know more about beginner gardening, I have a 4 part series that I repost at least once a year. It’s everything you need to know to grow!

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 1

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 2

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 3

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 4

Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

This is a great time of year to plan and build raised beds. This is how I built my raised beds and I have given them no supplemental watering in the last two years of San Antonio heat and I’ve had bumper crops with almost no input outside of planting and occasional weeding! This has been a super fantastic bed for me and I will only build duplicates of these from now on!

2014 mother’s day raised beds:

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day!

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My boys and my husband made me a cake!

The best part of the weekend? I got another hugelkultur inspired raised bed! Don’t know Hugelkultur? Learn more here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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This is the second year I’ve gotten a raised bed on Mother’s Day and I am super excited! The first one we built is here on my post: “Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas”. We did this one a bit differently, but kept the main ideas we used on the original  Hugelkultur inspired bed.

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This is a cinder block bed. The inner dimensions are 6 by 10 feet. We lined it with cardboard.

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You need to wet this as you go. Cardboard and paper take a ton of water. It works well to step on it as you water. That will squeeze the air out and help your dry materials absorb the liquid.

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There’s a layer of packing paper. This is a great use of all the stuff you end up with after a move! We chose to add the wood chips again. These wood chips will eventually absorb water and act like a giant sponge. Through each new addition to the bed make sure you wet it well. It will be impossible to wet it thouroughly later on.

Expect to have the giant grubs if you are in Texas. You can see my solution on my post “When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!” I’ve seen a lot of queries about giant grubs on search engines from people down here so I know I’m not the only one!

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We used about 5 bags of mulch in this bed. I just bought the cheapest mulch I could find which ended up being pine bark mulch. The larger the chips: the longer the chips will last. Remember to wet as you go!

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The next layer is compost. I don’t buy anything I haven’t touched. I won’t buy anything that feels like there’s a ton of sand in it. We went to a local rock yard and were disappointed as usual. I’ve always done price comparisons between hardware stores and rock yards and have chosen hardware store bagged soil every time, but this rock yard had really poor quality soil as well. Bagged soil at Lowe’s was about a dollar less a yard and much, much better quality. I haven’t found good soil at Walmart or Home Depot locally, but you can certainly check whatever is near you and see if you have better luck. I skipped the hay in this bed. Since we’re in a severe drought: hay is not a cost effective option right now.

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Your access to brands of bagged soil will depend on your location. If you see this stuff at Lowe’s, it is what I choose for amending. It’s a good price and a great quality soil. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need something that has a certain “type” of soil listed on the bag. Touch it and judge the soil by what you feel. This bag says

“compost”, I call it: great soil. The only thing you need to stay away from (as far as it being too rich) would be manure (composted or not). Watch your added Nitrogen levels with manure. It will burn your plants if you add too much and will be full of the salts they add as supplements to animals in feed lots.

Please refer to my post “Making Sense Of Old Sayings” to help you learn the importance of building great soil and how to recognize good bagged soil.

Don’t know if you are dealing with hot or cold manure? Read up on adding valuable natural fertilizers to your soil here: http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201104-animal-manures and here: http://www.moongrow.com/organic_gardening_guide/fertilizers/manure.html

Here’s a site that explains why our rabbit is my favorite source of fertilizer: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8156/rabbit-manure-in-the-garden

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We added a bale of peat humus to lower the pH and help hold water. Everything down here (including the water from the tap) is basic. The water has such a high pH it will kill acid loving plants even if they are potted in low pH soil. I make my coffee in a coffee press. When I’m done I pour more water in, let it sit in the old grounds and then go water my gardenias with the water. Be careful with the grounds themselves. You can easily kill a plant with coffee grounds…even acid loving ones. This is the voice of experience.

In the last bed I used another concept called Keyhole Gardening. There is a beautiful how to video from Africa on this concept and it makes the idea really easy to understand: http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco . I tried this with the last bed I built. Over the year that it’s been installed: the feeder areas that I made with chicken wire have collapsed. This year I am going to use different, more permanent materials (three large pvc pipes with holes drilled in it for drainage instead of chicken wire) and add another aspect to it: worms! I got the idea from this blog: http://milkwood.net/2010/10/12/how-to-make-a-worm-tower/

So, I’m creating 1-3 permanent worm bins inside the bed. I may put one in and see how I like it and add others later. The site above calls it a “worm tower”. This is the basic idea of the keyhole garden which is set up to feed and water the beds, but with updated materials…and some red wigglers, which will do fine as a permanent outdoor worm bin in our climate. I love the new addition to the theme because: I have no interest in keeping up with feeding and emptying independent worm bins. I also was wondering how I was going to keep critters out of an outdoor bin full of wonderful kitchen scraps and yummy worms. We’ve already got armadillos in the yard tearing up areas looking for grubs. So far, they have stayed out of the raised bed.

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Last year’s melons. I had a bumper crop but had problems with a family of opossums helping themselves to the ripe ones!

On the to do list: My husband is going to enclose the garden with fencing. I had trouble with opossums in my melons last year so I will probably end up using electric fence in conjunction with the fence my husband wants to put in.

This bed is cheap to construct, permanent, easy to maintain and I don’t have to deal with our crummy natural soil. I will be planting it this weekend.

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Instead of lining this with plastic tarp like we used on the last one I have discovered that filling the holes in the blocks with soil does about the same thing. We will then cap them with concrete block pavers. I am soo ready to get out and plant this!!!!

Watch for next weeks post! I will teach you a great way to water your raised beds and keep it from losing water to evaporation. Down here in the summer we have days over 100 degrees for weeks at a time on top of water restrictions. They have promised an El Nino year which will hopefully end our drought but will bring torrential rains. Either way, this bed is going to provide us with a great area to grow veggies this year, and for years to come!

Want more information?  The “Gardening Basics” tab at the top of this page will walk you through everything you need to know to start you on the path towards a successful gardening experience. The information is free and I’m genuinely interested in helping you succeed. Let me know if you would like more information on specific topics for future posts. I’m here to help. Good luck and go out and get your hands dirty!

Get updates on this blog via Facebook here: www.facebook.com/CrazyGreenThumbs

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

We love Halloween at our house and so do most of our neighbors! We see all kinds of great decorations, but most of them are purchased. I’m from a generation that made their costumes every year because there weren’t other options. I like to decorate for Halloween but I am not interested in spending a bunch of money. I mean really: How hard is it to make a ghost decoration?

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I also have young children. I wanted to do something that they could help with, so it had to be simple. I decided on a garland of ghosts. We bought a package of coffee filters and folded them into triangles. I drew faces on some of them with magic markers and my four year old colored on those. My seven year old drew his own ghost faces on his. After my kids were finished I used some cellophane tape and taped the ghosts into a cone shape.

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This is such a simple project and you can even finish this on Halloween night in those high energy hours between when school lets out and before it’s time to trick or treat!

Here’s how to do it:

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Fold standard coffee filters into a triangular shape.

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Draw your ghost/monster face. When finished tape the coffee filter into a cone shape.

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Poke a hole in the top of the coffee filter and run string or yarn through the hole.

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Tie the string or yarn to a screw, nut or bolt underneath the ghost/monster. (This is a great use for all of the accumulated odds and ends in your junk drawers!) This will weight the filter and prevent the yarn or string from pulling out of the hole in the filter.

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Tie a loop at the top of your ghost to hang directly from a branch or take a long length of yarn or string and tie the ghosts about 4-6″ between each ghost down the length of the string/yarn to make a garland. Tie the ends in your trees, bushes or along a patio railing. Y ou can also hang these inside.

There you go! Super fast, super simple and you can see these from a good distance.

Here are some other things I made for Halloween this year: A thirty foot, two story spider web I made from yarn.

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I also decorate marshmallows for my kids as a reward for finishing their lunches at school. If they have eaten all of the lunch I send with them, then I will decorate a marshmallow for them for the next school day. This week I did a lot of Halloween themed marshmallows.

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It has been very effective at our house and it’s fun to send something to let my kids know I was thinking about them.

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You don’t have to use these nightly like I do, you can randomly add them to lunches on nights when you have a little extra time. Your children will remember these, and more importantly: they will remember you.

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I like them better than notes. I was able to start making these before either of my children could read. I would have had to wait to add notes.

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I wanted my kids to look forward to remembering me at school instead of noticing a note and then hiding it because it isn’t cool to have your mommy write you love letters!

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I’ve been doing these for three years now. It takes very few supplies to do these although it takes a while to learn how to write on such a soft surface.

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All I have to make these are some food markers and aerosol cake frosting dye colors (these are in cake decorating isles at hobby stores), clean scissors, toothpicks (currently just for my seven year old because he is old enough not to just bite into them) and food coloring added to bags of powdered sugar. I will create a post on my techniques in the future.

Of course we carved pumpkins:

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but look at what we found on a walk in our neighborhood! We aren’t the only Doctor Who nerds here!

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This Dalek jack-o-lantern is awesome.

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The clear balls look like the containers you get from the 25 cent toy machines in grocery stores. I will definitely be making one of these next year!

Have fun tonight and Happy Halloween!!!!

Beginning Gardener: Class 4-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

This is the fourth and final installment of my beginner gardening tutorial. For this class I decided to list some of my favorite books and growing aides. The book list is by no means exhaustive but I have some that have truly helped me form the backbone of my gardening approach. I am not affiliated with any of these products, but they have definitely helped me understand some key gardening concepts that I have incorporated into my understanding of soil, compost, growing, harvesting and disease/pest control.

Find the first three classes here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

One of the first things I suggest is learning about what is on the cutting edge of gardening ideas. Thoroughly investigating several new concepts helped me merge and arrange them into what would work the best for me and my local growing conditions. The first idea is something I saw emerge a few years ago to help with dry/poor soil growing conditions. This was developed in Africa and is called keyhole gardening. This is a really good video about how to create one of these beds and I recommend this video for anyone creating raised beds. We are all aware of water usage and creating a low water bed is not only smart for those of us in high heat/dry areas but for anyone who wants to cut down on supplemental water usage. The center of these beds have a compost area and this compost feeds the bed and offers an easy way to keep the bed hydrated. Keyhole Garden

Another great idea is hugelkultur. This is my favorite article explaining this idea. It is super popular among organic gardeners and it is one of three ideas I combined to create my own version in my raised beds. Hugelkultur

The third idea I used for my beds includes a worm tower. This is an “in place” compost area similar to keyhole gardens as far as feeding beds but also incorporates worm castings as fertilizer.  In Bed Worm Tower

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

You can see my two beds I created with the Hugelkultur/Keyhole/worm Tower ideas (I’ll call them the HKT beds from here on.) If I were to make a third bed I would make it like the first one I made but with thicker ply plastic or seal the inside surface of the cinderblocks. HKT beds:

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LINK: HKT1

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LINK: HKT2

Now I will move on to my three favorite books for growing edibles. These each contain key concepts that I rely on and that are explained in an engaging and interesting way.

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The first is by John Jeavons. It details his method of soil building. This was the first book that I bought that turned my ideas about gardening on end. He teaches how to build soil over years with products you grow rather than purchase. He advocates double digging which originated in Europe. If you have ever seen formal European gardens, with their lush beautiful plantings you can duplicate that with his methods. Further into his book you will find the dietary breakdown of the crops you are growing and how to plan for a self sustaining vegan diet. A lot of what is in his book relies on you agreeing to his lifestyle choices but I found the detailed breakdown of information extremely helpful in understanding the relationship with soil, the ways he maintains his soil and how that effects his crops. On top of that, understanding what nutrients each vegetable I grow has and how to balance them to create a healthy diet, created a deeper understanding of my crops and what I needed to focus on to create a balanced diet (not only in my garden, but in my purchases at the grocery store as well.)

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This is his site: http://www.johnjeavons.info/  His book is called How To Grow More Vegetables (Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine) It’s a pretty bold title, but he delivers on it. I think this is a wonderful primer to anyone who wants to soak up information from decades of research and trials that this amazing gardener has accumulated.

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The second book that I recommend is By Rosalind Creasy. Her book Edible Landscaping is a thick bundle of incredible information, again, by a gardener who knows her stuff. She explains her ideas in a beautifully illustrated book. To Rosalind there is no such thing as a separation between flowerbeds and vegetable beds. All plants are used for their form as well as their food potential. She breaks down the nice-neat barriers that formal gardens traditionally employ and she blends them into a seamless combination that will inspire you. The photographs she uses to tell her story will make your jaw drop. I frequently found myself thinking: “Wow, why hadn’t I considered this before?”

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The third book was another one that introduced ideas that I would not have come up with on my own (regardless of the length of my personal experiences.) It is called Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway. Wow. Stood my gardening knowledge on end and flooded my stored knowledge with tons of brand new avenues to explore. This is possibly the finest gardening book I own. The subject matter is home-scale permaculture and if you want to have an interdependent, completely self reliant gardening experience: this is the book for you. He teaches you how to create planting groupings (that he calls guilds) that feed and nourish each other, how to capture natural rainwater and to build your own micro-climate using a variety of techniques. With these among other fascinating concepts, this book stands out as a revolutionary text.

I have many other books, but these three stand out among the others as having information that is interesting, complete and unique.

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Some things that I physically use in my garden: I love my stirrup hoe for weeding. I use miracle grow hose end sprayer while watering and osmocote granules under new transplants. I use a lot of “Superthrive”. It claims it is a plant vitamin rather than a fertilizer. Whatever it is: it definitely helps my plants and transplants. I originally bought a bottle at Walmart because the label’s advertising was so crazy that I thought: this has to work because no one would buy it for the crazy ramblings! (it looked like whoever made the old label may have been drinking some of the Superthrive!)

I make use of the copious amounts of rabbit poo that our pet rabbit supplies (you can’t beat a pile of rabbit poo under your squash plants!) I also occasionally use bloodmeal and if I need nitrogen for grass I purchase chicken manure (look at the bags of fertilizer. Lowe’s carries these types of fertilizer.)

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I love soaker hoses, newspaper mulch and landscape fabric. Milk jugs with peat pots for seedlings or tenting seedlings with milk jugs to shortcut hardening off are some of my favorite hacks. Short cut through hardening off

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Personally: I love gypsum. I tend to use a lot of gypsum in my super heavy clay soils. I usually turn a bag into the soil with some peat hummus and compost and then cover it for a year. I come back to the area and the soil is completely different. What we have here is more like potters clay mixed in to gravel. It’s some nasty stuff, but if I can get it to drain it becomes a great base.

The Specter Of Drought

As you can see, I use a variety of things that I have learned that work over the decades that I have gardened. I don’t have a high and mighty attitude towards fertilizers (although I try not to use any of the chemical ‘cides’ in my garden: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides.) I have found that adding cinder blocks around my garden areas provides shelter for spiders and other predatory insects. I almost never have pest problems. The only pest that is hard to deal with for me is spider mites. This is where Neem oil and insecticidal soaps come in handy.

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As far as fungal problems I use my own mixes. Baking soda and water will get rid of powdery mildew, as will cows milk and water. Look for recipes online. Baking soda is residual though, so I try not to mess with it. I have a secret ingredient I add to my fungal sprays: oil of oregano. I use the aromatherapy grade. A few drops in the spray I have mixed up almost always relieves whatever fungal disease pressure I end up with.

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Regular cooking oil in water with a little bit of dish soap makes a fast and effective insecticidal soap. Neem oil will slow disease and bug reproduction but it takes time and repeated applications. If my garden goes south fast: Neem oil is not something that can correct a heavy infestation before my plants collapse. I prefer encouraging spiders, praying mantis, ladybugs and wasps instead.

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I will stand outside and strip infected leaves of plants with fungal disease before spraying. If I see a leaf that is sick, I have found it is more helpful to remove it than let it limp along while it infects the rest of the plant. I clean up the disease and then I spray. Down here (as it is in most moist, humid and hot areas) fungal pressure is a big deal. It helps immensely to plant varieties that are disease resistant.

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This is the end of my fourth class. I hope it has been helpful and enjoyable. The first three classes are available here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

Easy Packing Tape Ghost

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All great and wonderful things should have another go! Here’s my packing tape ghost from last year. I will definitely be making another this year (along with the spider egg sacks.) Happy Halloween!

Oh, I had fun making this!

I saw this “packing tape ghost” idea in a pin, but the instructions given seemed nearly impossible. The instructions I saw wrapped the ghost with packing tape sticky side out and then went back and re-wrapped it sticky side in. I knew from the get-go I was NOT going to attempt this with these directions! I have to thank Pintrest for the idea, if not the instructions.

This is the sort of thing I see a photo of, and then skip whatever instructions there are and wing it myself. I made a 30 foot spiderweb this way…but I won’t give you instructions for that. My spiderweb was purely a project to do by sight and it took me several hours to complete. My instructions for my spiderweb would basically be: look at this and then recreate it out of string. Lame instructions indeed! This ghost however, I can easily help you recreate!

I have moved enough to intimately know the limitations of packing tape and I could not see a way to follow the pin’s instructions without pulling all of my hair out in frustration…so I came up with my own way! Here are super simple instructions for a packing tape ghost:

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First you are going to need a form. I contemplated having my husband tape me, but figured I might not enjoy the process. I was right: DO NOT USE A LIVE PERSON FOR THIS! It takes hours to finish this and plastic wrap and tape do not breathe. If you tried to use a person 1. they would forever hate you for making them stand still this long and 2. they would pass out from the accumulated body heat. You do not want to be calling 911 when you have made your live “dummy” sick with this project!

I didn’t have a form. I thought I might stuff a dress with newspaper and tape that. I am glad I didn’t. You could try that but it would come out lumpy and dorky and not especially cool. I decided to go down to my local craft store and see if there was anything cheap I could use. If you have a dress form- use it! If you are like me and don’t want to shell out a couple hundred dollars for a real adjustable dress form there are alternatives.

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My extra large spider (on my homemade web) caught the ghost!

There are plastic dress forms on hangers (they are cheap!) used for store displays sold online. The limiting factor to this is super high shipping and for me: I came up with this idea too close to Halloween to wait for something to come in the mail (I got the idea for this two days before Halloween.) If you live in a large city you may be able to find a local supplier that sells forms to clothing stores. Look up mannequins. I couldn’t find anything close by, so, that was out too. I decided in a last attempt (I was completely ready for this to be a “next year” project) to go down to our local Hobby Lobby…Success! Hobby Lobby had decorative dress forms for sale and I had a 50% off coupon. Hobby Lobby has an app and you can just show them the online coupon and they will take it…so don’t buy anything you don’t have a good coupon for!

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Like a lot of things in Hobby Lobby: most of the dress forms were broken. We had to find some up on shelves. So if you are going to try this and want to buy the dress form: make sure what you are getting is solid, if it isn’t make sure you talk to the manager and get a discount. (Hobby Lobby will give you incredible deals on things that are slightly damaged. Our local Micheal’s craft store does not have these. I did not try JoAnn’s fabric.) I would guess that this type of mannequin is sold in many different hobby/craft/fabric stores, you are just going to have to look around.

Second you need a Styrofoam head or a large detached doll head. I had to pass on a baby doll I borrowed from our neighbor. The hair was in the way and would have made cutting the form off the doll difficult (did I mention I made a ghost baby, too? I used a bald baby doll. This has a lot of applications!) I got my Styrofoam head at Hobby Lobby, as well. There is a section just for Styrofoam in the back of the store (not with the floral foam.) I cut part of the neck off so the head sat correctly on the body.

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So, now that you have the two basic pieces for the ghost, (the head and body) you can get the rest of your supplies:

Clear plastic packing tape (I used two jumbo rolls and used 2/3 of it)

Plastic wrap (You don’t need premium plastic wrap but make sure it will actually stick to itself.)

Support for your ghost (read below)

A bright black light to light the ghost (make sure the bulb and housing are made for outdoor use.)

Optional:

A tape gun (I wouldn’t do this project without one, but you can try.)

Scissors for any excess you decide to remove as you are going.

A queen sized sheet (If you want to make a dress shape for the ghost.)

Something large to support the skirt of the dress shape (I used a large bag of paper we had to shred and balled up newspaper. I also used newspaper to make a bustle for the back of the skirt.)

Pins to hold the skirt of the dress to the form.

Now it’s time to make the ghost!

Tape the head to the form. Wrap the entire thing in plastic wrap, including the skirt. The more wrinkles in the plastic wrap: the better this ghost turns out. The wrinkles will catch the light. Feel free to be messy! You don’t want more than one pass with the plastic wrap because the tape needs to be in contact with the plastic wrap to keep it in place. So, try to keep your plastic wrap layer thin. (Although you will end up with a few extra layers as you go. You can use the scissors to cut back any layers you feel might be too much, although this is completely optional.)

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Once you have the plastic wrap done start taping the ghost. Hold down any plastic wrap sections on the face and neck as you tape to create detail. You can also cut small sections of tape to fit areas that need more detail than a long strip will give you…and yes, the details show in the end product. You need two layers of tape. This part of the project took a couple of hours (even though this is a simple project it takes a good chunk of time.)

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Now that you have completely covered your form (twice) with tape it is time to cut the layers off of the form. This is why plastic wrap is superior: you don’t want the tape to be stuck to your form and it makes this a semi-easy, doable project!

Once you have cut the tape off of the form and removed it from the mannequin you created (with the dress form and head) you need to tape it back together. When you cut this off I suggest looking for the fastest route across the taped area that does not cut the face of the ghost. Sit down, align the areas that need taping and slowly (and carefully) tape your ghost back together. The two layers of tape will give the form enough strength to keep its shape.

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You need something inside the ghost to keep it upright. I suggest buying a piece of rebar, drive it into the ground and slide a taller piece of pvc pipe on it (I think plain rebar would poke through the tape.) Put your ghost over it (making sure the pvc has been cut to rest in the top of the ghost’s head.) To secure it: I suggest getting some landscape pins from a home and garden store. Keep your packing tape handy. I will tape over the landscape pins this year (once they’re through the ghost and in the ground.) The pins tore through her dress because it was pretty windy last year. Extra tape should prevent that. Plus: You don’t want this to fall over or blow away. We had no time to work on her support this year so my husband just took the ghost and put her on a large floor lamp with the shade removed. It wasn’t quite tall enough so the skirt buckled (not permanently, but it would look much more impressive set up at the right height.) but more importantly: ours blew over! We got home to find the tape had touched the light we had aimed at her…and it was smoking. We were very lucky the ghost didn’t catch fire in the front yard!

Another idea (that would cost more but be fun) is to create a wooden hangman’s support to hang her from. You would still need to tie her down though, because she doesn’t show up with out a lighting source and would need some stability to keep her from flying all over…this is on my “to do list” for next year!

(We live in South Texas. Everyone does Halloween in a big way down here! You should see some of the cool stuff around our town! Some people spend thousands on their front lawn. My display is probably the best for the money. I make all of the “big” stuff that we have. I guess I grew up too long ago to believe in spending much money on Halloween!)

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To light your ghost you need a black light flood light. You can try other kinds but we have found the incandescent ones work much better than newer types of bulbs. The drawback to incandescent bulbs is that they get hot and the tape cannot be: on, over or very near, the light bulb. Just try and be aware of this when you light the ghost. This ghost is almost a neon sign in your yard. People can see this from down the block and will come to your house just to see the packing tape ghost. It turned out to be just as impressive as our 30′ spiderweb that I made from string, a year earlier.

Also, expect that some teenage no-goods may find your ghost very attractive and try and bring her home with them. I would not leave the ghost in the yard unattended, as we had a few older kids lurking about on our dark street, late at night, that magically decided to go home after I brought the ghost in.

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The lighted ghost baby that we took around in a stroller.

I also made a ghost baby and intend to make spider egg sacks (with balloons as a base form.) We put the ghost baby in an old stroller and lit it with a flashlight. A stroller, by the way, is a brilliant addition to trick or treating! We had the storage below the stroller for: a garage door opener/keys, water bottles, snacks for the kids, an area for extra candy (bring shopping bags to keep the candy separated), and a place for the costume parts that my kids always shed as we walk around. Go big or go home, right? Anyway, the baby was a fun way to bring a part of our display with us.

Interested in more awesome, cheap Halloween ideas? Try these!

Cousin It… Oh Yeah! 

Witch Circle/Ghost Ring

Milk Jug Spider

Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Craft Ideas

This is my most liked and visited narticle. If you liked this I bet you would like my second most trafficked article about why you should never use rock as an alternative to plant material. I talk about the heat island effects and how rock (and lawns) contribute to an out of control heat building and (your) physical energy wasting problem of modern life in: please don’t rock your yard!

If I’ve taken you too far in the logical direction, get to know my heart here in: a love letter to my boys. If you have children (or are wondering if you want to…I never thought I would have kids when I was younger!) this is an uplifting exercise in complete and unconditional love, that I certainly hope I share with all the other potential and current mommies out there. This is truly what we are made for!!! A Love Letter To My Boys. (PS we have relied totally on the book: On Becoming Babywise and it’s sequels! I can’t recommend them enough!!!)

And if all else fails, follow my idiotic gardening experience to resolve some crazy itchy arms from the field! An Extra Itchy Case of The Gardening Stupids!

Extra fruit and you don’t know what to do with it? Make a shrub! 

Keep exploring. I have plenty of articles on here! Thanks so much for visiting!