Category Archives: Nature

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.

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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

Beginning Gardener: Class 3-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the third part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first and second parts of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) and Beginning Gardener (part 2) The links in this post and part 1 and part 2 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

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I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part three for the beginner gardener:

What are you growing? Will the answers to the questions from part 1 and part 2 support it? Your county extension office will have suggestions for varieties of plants as will the agriculture departments of local Universities. In the planning phase, web searches can be your best friend!    

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What should you NOT grow? Invasive plants can be beautiful in one zone and a nightmare in another. Before you plant a perennial make sure you know what you’re getting into. An example is heavenly bamboo (nandina domestica, pictured above.) This is in most people’s yards down here and it shouldn’t be. It’s considered invasive in South Texas and I am already having problems with it spreading. I will be removing our pair (that came with our home) soon. Other common examples of garden bullies are: mint, burdock and Bermuda grass. These can be very aggressive and so hard to remove/keep out of beds once they have outgrown their space. There are a lot of plants that are commonly planted here that are invasive. If you live in Texas check this site out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=CYDA Plants that send out runners need barriers, others reseed heavily and still others have roots that can come back from very, very small pieces left in the soil. Understand the kind of work involved in keeping your choice of plants contained (or removing it) if it does breach your barriers or outpace your attempts to slow it down. Look up your state’s invasive plant list and make sure you keep those species out of your life. Here is the National Invasive Species Information Center: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml

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What size will your mature plants be? In five, ten or twenty years you don’t want to live in a jungle of poorly spaced overgrown plants. Also, what are your plant’s mature fruiting expectations? If you are planting a fruit tree (or multiples) how many hundreds of pears, apples (or whatever) can you really expect to eat or process? (This huge surplus from trees will be a yearly conundrum. The bigger the fruiting plant size the more you will have. Often, a berry bush or two is a better idea than trees.) If you are growing fruits or vegetables what kind of yearly effort will these plants need from you? Planting, water, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, pruning. What exactly are you getting into? Fruits can be rewarding but they take a lot of work. What kind of work are you willing to invest to get a good return? Again, your county extension will have good advice on this. Your local Master Gardeners are volunteers that go through a course and must put in hours helping educate the community to keep their M.G. designation. These people are usually old hands at gardening in your area. They are there to help you! If you have some at your county extension, use their expertise!!! My extension answers emails. I often get responses within a day and it’s free! (Do not rely solely on information from people who are trying to sell you something. They have a conflict of interest.)

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Sit down. Draw out your plan (or use a computer program. Look for something simple). Make a master plan and keep it in a place that you can access and update. (If you own your home, an easy way to do this is to get a blueprint of your property from the county assessor’s office and make copies so you can mark things to scale.) Things to keep in mind with perennials: Start small (don’t put in a lot of plants at once) but start big (the largest additions and your non-plant structures). You need to make your plan then put your large trees in first. Fruit, syrup and nut trees take years (sometimes decades) to bear. Don’t put trees in that you aren’t sure you will like! If you’ve never eaten the kind of fruit you are buying: try and find a source online where you can try some. You can start at your local grocer. In the international isle you may find canned examples of fruit you are interested in growing. Also, Amazon might carry what you are looking for. Look for dried fruit, jams and jellies online. You can then decide if you want to pursue the plant. Sometimes there are only examples at the nurseries that sell the plants. Raintree nursery often carries jellies and jams of their products.

Also, if you have 500 pears from a mature tree (even if you loooove pears, what are you really going to do with that many?), or if you only like certain kinds of apples and you have no idea what the variety you are ordering is going to taste like (and even if you like them you will still end up with hundreds of them) then these are probably not good choices for you or your yard. If you don’t get out and harvest fruit before it drops you will have animals (large and small), wasps (and a million other kinds of bugs) and angry neighbors (from the smell of rotting fruit in your yard.) If you want to grow fruits: go to your local farmer’s markets, find out what varieties of food you are eating, then plant what you love. If it’s growing well enough to be at the farmer’s market: it will probably be a good bet for you, too. You don’t want to wait 5-15 years to get something that you hate. Don’t put 5, 10, 20 or 50 full sized fruit trees in!!!! Unless you are starting your own farmers market (or super market chain), you CAN’T use this many! Before you purchase a fruit tree, find out how many fruit you will be dealing with at it’s mature age. If you are interested in selling your surplus call your local CSA and ask what they are interested in purchasing, then plant those types of plants. You can also find specialty markets online, but you are dealing with food distribution laws at that point and you will need to have sound advice before you begin. Find your market before you plant your trees. It would be a huge issue for you if you are planting things that you expect to sell that don’t (and won’t) have a market. Orchards are a huge responsibility and expensive to maintain and create. Make sure you are aiming at something that you can actually accomplish.

If you are looking for shade or privacy: fast is not better. Fast growing trees have weak wood. You will be picking up limbs after every wind and ice storm and/or your plant will aggressively spread across your property. Look for a medium growth tree, get ideas from your county extension and realize: structures (fences, arbors, gazebos etc), not plants, are the fastest, easiest ways to accomplish immediate privacy and shade issues.

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Keep a spiral notebook just for your garden information/notes and don’t put anything else in it. You will thank me later. For your spiral notebook: make a list of what you are growing from seed, what you have problems/success with during the season, what helps your plants, what doesn’t…this is a science experiment: heavy documentation truly helps. Otherwise, you WILL forget details between seasons. It’s okay, you will learn each year what you need to add and keep track of.

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Interested in saving seed? Just because it’s a seed and you liked what it came from: doesn’t mean you can use it. Hybrid or GMO seeds will not grow into what you ate. Same with peach pits and other fruits. In large orchards, they use trees that produce the fruit you love and other varieties that are excellent, reliable pollinators. You need two varieties for good pollination but only one produces what they are selling. This means the seed you get is crossed. You are not going to grow the fruit you get at the grocery store from fruit you buy there. There is a fantastic organization for heirloom plants http://www.seedsavers.org that saves heirloom varieties for genetic diversity in the future. Without this sort of program we will loose our ability to grow our own foods with the diversity of current heirloom strains. Please think of joining or ordering your seeds from this company! Learn how to save your own heirloom seed here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Saving-Heirlooms/ Seed saving is not for beginners. If you are starting out, try numerous types of the same vegetable and figure out what you like, what does well for you and then work with those. You also need large isolation spaces or specialized techniques to keep seed strains pure. 

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Dig a $20 hole for a $10 tree. How you plant will directly impact your success. Your plants will not do well if they are poorly planted or in poor soil. Raised squared beds can solve dense planting sites.  I make a cinder block square, one block deep then fill the raised bed with compost and good soil. The next thing I do is turn the new dirt into the raised bed and finally dig the hole. This will keep a lot of your roots far enough from the constant clay yuck that they will flourish rather than become diseased. You can definitely amend just your planting hole, but it needs to filled back in with mostly native soil. If you have heavy clay (like I do) and you dig your hole: if you fill it back up only with garden soil you have basically created and in-ground pot. The roots will readily spread out until they hit the dense soil around the hole. The roots will then spend the rest of their time filling in the looser soil instead of spreading out. You can amend soil for a tree, but keep the soil 50% native soil and 50% amended soil (like compost and garden soil.) Also, the size and type of plant dictates what you can add to the hole. For trees and shrubs you should not add fertilizer to the planting hole. For annuals and small perennials (and this is still only if you are planting in your growing season and not fall or winter): I always add some Osmocote (a kind of granular fertilizer) to the hole.

****SUPER DUPER SITES: Are you like me and absent minded? If you don’t want to have to think too hard about your vegetable start dates, here’s a fantastic site that will walk you through what to plant each week in your growing season. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/what-to-plant-now-zl0z0903zalt.aspx I totally rely on this site! It updates every two weeks and sends you personalized reminders to your inbox.

Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? Go here: http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Page-KGPJS

Burpee’s has a free garden app that is worth looking at. I tend to forget to use it because I prefer the planting reminders from Mother Earth News. But Burpees has plant specific information and growing tips. Want to keep track of when to harvest? Burpee’s app can handle that. Beginners will be able to take the guesswork out of the gardening experience.

I also enter fruit harvest dates in my phone’s calendar (I even keep track of when to expect bluebonnets and native fruit this way.)

One of the most inclusive and user friendly sites I’ve seen is here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/agrarian-garden-plant-a-gram/ They have a variety of tools listed under “Agrarian: Learn More”. Look towards the bottom of the menu on the left to access them. Of course they should have a great site with the prices they charge for their products! It’s really well done and free, so I do have to recommend the site. It covers pretty much anything you’d like to know on a variety of subjects including: raising poultry, beekeeping, composting, canning and creating fermented food. I would never spend the kind of money they are asking for their products, though.

You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? You may not know everything this season, but do your best to get familiar with the concepts. The rest, you will learn to use as you advance in skill. Get out and play with your seed/plants/bulbs and trees!

The fourth and final installment of this class will cover my favorite publications and growing aides.

Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

The Specter Of Drought

Winter is on the way! It’s time to brush up on your gardening skills and learn new gardening gifts! I am ready to share everything with you! This year I thought I’d get back to basics and start publishing pieces of my gardening advice from my page: Gardening Basics. For the novice gardener: read on and stay tuned! This is pretty much everything you need to know to grow a successful garden.

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So, take a walk with me through what every gardener can use in their tool belt: a great source for general gardening information! Good luck this season and go get your hands dirty!!!

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Gardening Basics:

Have you ever wondered what sets seasoned gardeners (the ones that have the photo perfect gardens and never seem to lose a plant) and new gardeners (people who seem to kill everything they touch) apart? Three main things: For one, what you think is going on in those perfect gardens is usually an illusion. It is a gardener’s photographic slight of hand. Not many people who garden will post photos of their failures, mid-season ratty plants and weak or neglected rows of corn. They certainly can’t sell books about it. They probably don’t live where you do, they have decades of amended soil, and are not running after kids in diapers (they also probably don’t have a full time outside job), grow only what does well for them and have a lot of years photographing (at just the right time) to look like they are gardening Gods. In the real gardening world we all experience failure, seasoned gardeners included. Part of what you learn as you accumulate experience is that there is no perfect garden, no perfect year, no one person who knows it all. Seven years ago I traded living in a dry short season with zero insects, for a nearly year round season with more insects than I can identify without a degree in Entomology. Success is relative and so was my gardening knowledge. One of the things I truly love about gardening is: that I never get to “the end”. I’m always learning and my experience puts my failures into perspective. It is true, that with experience, you will learn to garden more effectively and your successes will begin to outpace your disasters. It takes a lifetime to learn to garden. That puts all of us on the same level at some point in our gardening careers and makes gardeners and plant people an incredibly inclusive group.

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The second part of this is real world experience. When I first started out: I pushed my growing zone; I planted things people said I couldn’t grow; and I defiantly told mother nature she couldn’t put limits on me. I actually encourage trying this (at least, if only, once!). You will learn what the difference is fairly quickly. Your choices are: having a large scale garden that you tend or, a small scale defiance garden that you have to put a million times more effort into. It helped me learn to respect what I was given. I learned to work closely with what nature would encourage rather than trying to impose my limited human thinking with it’s arbitrary rules and goals. I began to see why America’s farmland works so differently than a backyard garden. Organic growing conditions are achievable (if it’s your goal) but it is incredibly labor intensive and impossible on the scale my grandfather farmed: with multiple acres of wheat or corn. You will learn to really enjoy the grocery store as the back up to your crop failures (rather than the old standard of starving). At least, that’s how I see it. So, you can look up reams of information on the internet, read a library full of books and talk ‘one on one’ with a thousand Master Gardeners but you will still learn the most getting out into your own garden and getting dirty.

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Having said that, those of us that have been doing this for a while also know some pretty important basic pieces of information. The following list is essential to learn BEFORE you go out into your garden, BEFORE you buy your plants or order your seed. Learn what you need to know to successfully grow:

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Know your zone. Your USDA zone can be found using your zip code at: http://www.garden.org/zipzone/ This wonderful site not only offers zone information but will also list links under your zone like: View your regional report, Find public gardens in your zip code, Find plants in your zone and Find events in your zip code.

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Know your chill hours (If you are in warm winter areas, pay heed to your chill hour range!) Planting a fruit with a chill hour need that is too high for your region will mean your plant will not come out of dormancy at the right time and fruit for you, even if the tree itself is healthy. Too low of a chill requirement and your tree will break dormancy, flower and freeze back before your winter is over and you will not get fruit. Growing fruit in the South depends on working with your chill hours. If you are in the South: do not order a fruit tree if you cannot find its chill hour information. A lot of people use a map by raintreenursery.com (I like this nursery a lot and they sell nice plants) but it is incorrect for Texas. The best chill hour map I have seen for the South is here:  http://plant-shed.com/planting-fruit-trees-in-north-texas/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen. My favorite southern nursery is: http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/ Absolutely fantastic plants but again: they cater to the very southern US regions. I have purchased fruiting trees and plants from http://www.raintreenursery.com/ for several years. I recommend them as well, and they sell fruits for the rest of the country.

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Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetables without turning it into a defiance garden, and you still may be unsuccessful. Also, if your average last frost is a month away but you’ve got great temperatures now, you will want to wait to avoid losing your plants to a frost that is just around the corner. Find your frost dates and growing days here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/

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My season length down here is unbelievable! My growing season (usually) starts around Feb 28 and ends Nov 25! That averages between 271 and 280 days in my growing season (actually, I can grow spring/fall veggies all through winter and summer is usually my down time.) My long season seems like it would be perfect, but we get really hot really fast. My season for tomatoes is super short. It’s either too cold or too hot (tomatoes won’t set fruit in high heat). I really struggle with tomatoes and most people can’t imagine a vegetable garden without them. Being aware of your natural limits will help you work around the edges. For instance: I can grow short season and small fruited tomatoes. I have pretty much given up on the larger varieties…but with a little effort, I still get my fill of tomatoes! Learn what limits your garden and keep most of your efforts inside of that natural structure.

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The season length also brings unimaginable amounts of bugs. I get multiple rounds of problem insects so I have to build spider and other predatory bug friendly beds. You can see them here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!  and here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas I totally recommend cinder block beds because spiders love the damp deep holes they provide. More spiders equal: low to no insecticides. I also use nematodes for insects below the soil. They don’t affect ground worms and they are my only answer to the twice a season squash vine borers we have. They kill pupating insects before they have a chance to come up from the soil and attack my plants. You can find my post about those here: When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea! With these two approaches my garden is pretty much covered. If you add in some nectar producing flowers that feed the larval stages of predatory insects: you basically have my completely insecticide free approach to gardening.

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Know your soil. This is something your county extension office can help with. Use a search engine to find one in your county. Put your county’s name in the search bar with “extension office”. This should guide you to your specific regional growing information including what soil tests your county extension office offers. You can also buy very basic test kits at home improvement stores. It’s is vital to know your soil pH as well as it’s nutrients. (For instance: my clay soils have only needed regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers with iron. That cuts down on my garden expenses and makes fertilizing effective.) Do it yourself: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm and from the Colorado State University: You can figure out what you have with this simple test using a mason jar or just your hands. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html Scroll down to the part that says: Identifying Soil Texture By Measurement. Right below that is Identifying Soil Texture By Feel. These are both excellent and easy ways to tell what kind of soil you already have.

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Cinder blocks equal tons of predatory insects. LEAVE the holes OPEN! Spiders = a SCORE for team organic!

I know this is a hard one for beginners: but get your soil ready the Fall before the Spring you plant. That means don’t order plants and seed with the thought that you will be able to fix everything before they come. Get out and get it done (and put the breaks on the credit card.) Never buy a tree before you have dug the hole, or at the very least: have an exact spot you want to place it. (You should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you buy a bunch of plants before you have a place for them, you may have to watch your plants waste away while you are breaking your back trying to quickly dig twenty holes (“quickly” is a goal you will not be able to achieve in gardening.) Even after amending, my soil always does better after being allowed to settle (or planted with low expectations) the first year. If this sounds too daunting: begin working on a larger area, do it in small bits and in the mean time focus on a few large pots (like 22 inch pots) to start your garden with. You can grow almost anything in a big enough pot and I always have a use for mine! (Pots will dry out fast, so they need more: water, shade and attention. For the beginner: this is not a bad thing. I usually keep my pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. This will help keep the heat out of the soil in mid-afternoon and your pots will retain water better.)

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Now you can be completely prepared while looking for spring additions at your local nursery or when you are purchasing seed. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your quest for knowledge: look at the top of the page and you will see the “Gardening Basics” tab. It includes all of the main information I will be posting in the next few weeks (minus any new material I add in these posts.) I’m currently working backwards updating links. These posts include my newest favorite links for information. (Some links on the “Gardening Basics” page are no longer functional or I’ve found better examples. The links in this post are all working as of today, please let me know if you ever find some broken ones!)

There’s more to come! Tune in next time for my latest and greatest: links and advice!

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Australian Shepherd undercoat! Oh my gosh, he had a lot of hair!

On a much sadder note: my family has been dealing with an enormous amount of stressful and challenging happenings. My dog passing away was one of the worst. I’m dedicating this year’s blog to my awesome companion of 13 years: my dog Christmas. Christmas passed away this year because of his advanced age (for his breed) and that he developed exercise induced collie collapse disorder within the last two weeks of his life. If you have a collie related dog: you need to know about this disease. It was certainly a surprise for my family. These active dogs will actually run themselves to death when they develop these symptoms. (This is not my dog in this video. The disease can be fatal, as it was for my elderly dog. I am grateful for the owner that posted this video. I would not have known what to look for without it) Exercise induced collie collapse disorder youtube video.

Christmas was born on the 1 year anniversary of 9-11 and he was the perfect antidote to the anger and hurt that that 9-11 had caused. He was full of love, life and compassion. My heart is completely broken without my dog. I don’t regret a single moment I spent with my loving, loyal, deep, sensitive, and wonderful Australian Shepherd. Here’s to you sweetie. You will always be my “pooh bear”! I miss you every moment of my day.

I have had many dogs in my life. He was the absolute best.

You can read more about my awesome pets here: A How To: On Animals and Life My family owes a lot of their greatest experiences to these wonderful, loyal and incredibly special animals.

Curing An Extra Itchy Case Of The Gardening Stupids

I would bet that most gardeners have a list of a few things that they do, out of habit, that are counterproductive. For me it’s gardening without gloves or long sleeves. I almost never wear gloves or long sleeves. I love to work the soil with my hands, I weed bare handed and I harvest bare handed. Most of the time I end up in the garden working without having planned on it (which is why I’m usually dressed for Texas summer weather and not gardening!) Most of the time I can get away with this habit with minimal issues. Yesterday was not one of them!

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My wonderful but itchy okra! If you wondered about your okra plant’s smell: Yes. The entire plant, including the pods, have a distinct cat pee like smell. It’s part of the plant’s defense and easily rinses off the pods using just water.

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All of the okra goodness is under those big spiny leaves!

In high summer heat everything in my garden seems to have some sort of defense. Tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and okra (especially okra!) have spines or hairs that can break off in your skin (like the irritating glochid fuzzy hairs you can find on cacti) and cause a rash on your arms and hands (or whatever part of your body that brushes up against the plant.)

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The hairy underside of a poona kheera cucumber leaf.

I also grow some things with sap that can irritate. I have figs whose milky sap can cause itching and then there is the parsnips that can cause a chemical burn if you rub up against the leaves and stems. Yesterday I got into all of the above with no gloves or long sleeves to protect myself. My “duhhh” factor was in full swing and I was miserable by the time I came inside!

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The breba crop of a fig tree that I got a start from in my neighborhood.

It was like an instant poison ivy rash. I was itching so enthusiastically I was sure I was going to break the skin on my arms! I believe the main culprit was the okra spines I got into while reaching across the plants to harvest some pods but, I also carried in an arm full of figs. It’s entirely possible this was a cumulative rash from the many bad decisions I made that day to handle things without gloves or sleeves.

Regardless of the cause: I needed a cure, and fast! I first grabbed a tube of anti-itch cream from my husband’s dopp kit and applied enough to cover a large farm animal, with no results. The itching was completely uncontrolled with the cream so my mind started racing looking for an alternative to what I had already tried. I washed my arms repeatedly with castille soap because I was afraid it was sap from the arm load of figs I’d gathered (since my arms were sort of sticky.) That didn’t help much either. That’s when I remembered we have a can of instant oatmeal in the bathroom to mix in my kid’s baths when they get viral or allergic rashes. I was desperate at this point and I was ready to try anything.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d gotten into fire ants. This was sooooo bad! The itching was insane!

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The fuzz on tomatoes and beans make the plant leaves a little bit like Velcro!

I have used oatmeal in baths before for my kids, but what I was dealing with was not going to be relieved by my soaking in a tub with just a little bit of oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in a small cup and added enough water to make a paste. I rubbed it all over my poor bright red, itchy arms and hands. It was a messy process but:

I had instant relief!

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My son said this was zombie skin. To me: I see relief. This was after I’d let it dry and knocked off the big chunks of oatmeal. You would think I might have tried this at one point over the last forty some years! But this was the first time I’ve used it as a paste, and an oatmeal paste will be what I turn to first…next time!

I left it on long enough for it to start drying and then rubbed off the big chunks of oatmeal over the kitchen sink. What I was left with was a thin powdery coating of the oatmeal paste (my older boy noted that my skin looked like a zombie.) I left this coating on my arms for about an hour and then rinsed it off. I’ve never reacted to okra like this before, but in gardening: there are always first times for everything. I had complete and total itch relief. Now I have a new (old fashioned) cure for when I walk into another plant that my skin decides to violently dislike!DSCN0025

Lastly, over the years: this has become a bigger problem for me. If you are getting crazy itching on your forearms every time you get dry skin or after you are out in the sun for a while: you may have something called Brachioradial pruritus. You would need a doctor to diagnose that, but it’s getting diagnosed more frequently. Ice helps. I keep a dish sponge cut in half soaked with water in zip lock bags in my freezer or use a gel freezer pack. 

Or just a baggy of ice. The cold REALLY helps! 

I keep several frozen to help because the itching was becoming a problem several times a week. I also only moisturize with either an oatmeal baby lotion 

or something equivalent to Cetaphil lotion and I make sure to do it after every shower or bath: before the itching has an opportunity to start! I cover my arms too, when I’m outside,  so the sunlight doesn’t have a chance to start the intense itching. 

Cetaphil brand is expensive. This is the pump Walmart version.

This is a Cetaphil knock-off tub from a random grocery store.

Since the disorder above is also light sensitive it finally makes sense why my bare arms were crazy itchy after being out in the sun gardening. I no longer use any soaps or detergents on my lower arms and I have gotten a little bit of control over what I have (which actually IS what I linked to above.) Since pinched nerves can cause this: I also believe my chiropractor helps when he adjusts my neck. 

This itching is worse (or equal to)  poison ivy but there’s currently no treatment or cure. Try the above suggestions, and if this is becoming frequent for you: see a doctor. It might be something else, it might be serious or you might have what I have and these suggestions will save you hours of misery. Good luck! Let me know how this works for you! 

Winter: Garden Planning

Winter is a wonderful time to read up on gardening literature. When your garden is fast asleep, it is the perfect time to make preparations for next year. Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand: this is the yearly time for reflection. What has worked for you? What have you struggled with? What are you sure of? What would you like to learn about?

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Follow along and learn how to create a long lasting, low maintenance gardening experience. There’s a lot of practical knowledge in here that I would love to share with you! Below is a list of articles by category. You can quickly find solutions to past problems or plan your garden design to avoid those problems altogether.

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My instructions are heavy on preparation, but they create gardening solutions that will last for decades.

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Does it seem like you are spending $20 for each tomato you grow? If you are struggling to get anything from your garden the problem could be your soil. Raised beds are a great way to create the perfect conditions for vegetables. Unfortunately, a lot of instructions out there look nice: but they are ideas from novice gardeners. Frequently the beds are too shallow, too expensive or built from materials that will quickly rot. Building raised beds is a lot of work and I don’t want to have to redo everything in a couple of years. I doubt you want to start over every couple of years, either. Here is my solution involving a sheet mulch, hugelkulter and keyhole bed combination with cinder block walls. This is the cheapest, most fertile, longest lasting solution I could come up with and it works beautifully: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed and a second article here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas

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If you need help choosing products to either amend soil or to build raised beds: these are my picks for choosing bagged soil and soil additives and also my choices and suggestions for building your own soil with cheap sheet mulching supply ideas. Making sense of old sayings

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Once you’ve created good planting conditions your next step is efficient watering. This will help you whether you are in an arid area or just need to save on your watering bill: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Are you struggling with pollinators? If you aren’t getting abundant squash, melons, cucumbers and other veggies in the cucurbit family you may just need more bees. While you are waiting for your newly planted flowers to attract pollinators this year, here is what you can do: Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense This also explains how to help plants that are wind and self-pollinators.

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If you are brand new to gardening or if you are really struggling overall: this is my “all in one stop” to learn your way around common mistakes. You must know the subjects in orange and you can add the rest as you get more success under your belt: All You Need To Know To Grow The same information is also at the top of this page under Gardening Basics

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If you are struggling with clearing Bermuda grass and are impatient to have finished beds I suggest this approach: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich

Inexpensive Vine Support

Inexpensive Vine Support

If you would like to try to train your vining plants on a cheap support next season: this is a fast, inexpensive and strong solution- Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

My tips for starting seeds in milk jugs and my recommendations for mail order seed and live plant companies: The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds)

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If you dislike the hardening off process (getting your seedlings ready to plant out in the garden) like I do, here is a short cut: Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

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If you would like to see what other people have been interested in on here, this is Crazy Green Thumb’s most read article. I don’t advocate using gravel in the landscape and this is why: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

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If you are longing for a fun craft project for this winter, here are a few ideas. These are the projects I have enjoyed creating this year:

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Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

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Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

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Come On, You Know You Want To! Recycled Glass Flowers In The Garden

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Solution For Sore Shoulders: Microwavable Rice Sock

Want some new ideas for using plants that you may already enjoy growing? Here are some of my favorite recipes from this year. These are my own recipes. They may make you interested in adding a few of these plants to your plans:

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Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

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Cooking With Lettuce?!?! Yes! And It’s Delicious!!!

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Garden Huckleberry: A Completely Nutty Science Experiment!!!

I love my short winter down time! I get to look at my successes and challenges, plan my garden for next year and organize and choose the seeds I want to grow. I hope you have a productive winter planning your garden! Here in the Northern Hemisphere our season is at an end. If you’re on the Southern part of the globe: Happy Spring/Summer!!!

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See you all in the garden next year!!!!

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Come On, You Know You Want To! Recycled Glass Flowers In The Garden

It’s hot out right now. Like: “melt into a puddle with whatever remaining liquid is left in your poor dehydrated body” hot out. San Antonio has a long growing season: 280 days. Our summers are included in the 280 days but I’m not sure that’s very fair. I can get peppers, okra and eggplants through our summer but but I need to water each plant every other day. Although I enjoy having these veggies I don’t want to be out in the yard in 100+ degree days sweating myself into a puddle if I don’t have to. So to celebrate and beautify my garden (without actually being out in the heat gardening) I have a great project: glass garden flowers!!!!

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Okay, I know glass and the great outdoors don’t seem like a good match but they can be. I’m going to teach you how to add a little recycled glass glamor to your yard. These are the stand-ins in my garden before my flowers take off in the spring and they are pretty enough to command attention even though they are located within one of my big patches of beautiful zinnias.

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I have seen drilled glass flowers. I am too lazy to deal with that. Mine are glued. I like mine glued. Very fast, very simple, plus: I used very heavy glass serving dishes, not thin porcelain plates like most people do. Glue is the way to go!

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There were a few things I learned from reading online and the rest I did from a few attempts on my own. I’ve seen bell hangers used for glass flowers. Since that seemed to be what the majority of online posts have used I figured I’d go ahead and rely on their experience. The only bell hangers I have found are at Lowe’s in the plumbing department. (Don’t bother with Home Depot. They don’t carry them. However, you can certainly try other hardware stores in your area.) If you don’t have a Lowe’s near you can find them online. They aren’t cheap but they work.

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These are bell hangers. They come in different sizes for different diameter pipes. Make sure you have all of your supplies matched up before you check out. Go ahead and remove the screws. You won’t need them if you are gluing.

I thought about using something other than bell hangers, but I was already at the store and wasn’t interested in wandering the isles coming up with my own idea. The main issue I have with the bell hangers is that they only have a thin circular rim to attach to the plate. Something flat would probably work better, giving the glue more area to adhere to between the plate and the attachment piece. In the absence of my own brilliant answer to this shortcoming: I will admit from my own experience the bell hangers do work. I bought a contractor pack because I plan to make a bunch of these.

Here’s a link for the pricing: http://www.lowes.com/Search=bell+hangers?storeId=10151&langId=-1&catalogId=10051&N=0&newSearch=true&Ntt=bell+hangers#!

While you’re at the hardware store in the plumbing department (near where you pick up the bell hangers) will be the area for pvc pipe. Match up the pvc so that it will fit inside the ring that is attached to the bell hanger (The bell hangers come in different sizes to accommodate different sized pipe.)

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Looking for rebar? You are in the right section of the hardware store if it looks like this. Those boxes on the shelves are full of rebar. Pick something thick and long. Get the same number of rebar as you have plans to make finished glass flowers.

You will use the rebar to run into the ground as the base/support and you will place the pvc pipe over it.

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You will also need some epoxy gorilla glue. I have no idea if anything else will work. This is the only glue I have used for this project.

The other thing you can use to decorate your flowers are glass beads or stones from a craft store.

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These are in the floral section of hobby/craft stores. Hold them up to the lights in the store. If they are too dark: pass them up. If they shimmer beautifully in the light, head to the checkout! I was sure the dark red would look nice in the sunlight. They were too dark and not evenly colored. I went with a bag of blue and a bag of green.

I have used high heat clear “window, door, trim and siding” silicone glue (the high heat designation will be listed on the side in the fine print) to put them on and also gorilla glue.

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They both work for this application. The silicone glue is much messier and will require gloves. You will also need mineral spirits to clean up the silicone glue. I recommend sticking to epoxy for the whole project.

We got a box of medical gloves from our pediatrician and I’m hooked! I use them to protect my hands during any messy chore/craft and this project was no different. They’re really handy to have around and you can bet I’ll be ordering another box when this one runs out!

Find some pretty plates you’d like to use to make your flowers. My antique plates are not things I would choose to ruin for this crafting project, so I hit the local Goodwill to find some cheap alternatives. This is what I picked out:

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Two very decorative pressed glass plates that created a really cool effect when put together.

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This is a great use for all of those pretty stamped glass plates your great grandmother would have collected. Fortunately, if you can’t bring yourself to mess up your own antique plates there are always a bunch of them at thrift shops! Look for lighter weight plates if you want to do several layers. (I did have a failure. Don’t use frosted glass on a side you will glue. It looked horrible. The lopsided glued area was clear and the rest was frosted. I’m still trying to find a solution for that one.) If you just want one plate with glass stones glued to them like the ones above and below, know that those glass stones will add quite a bit of weight on their own. I think the stones look better on the back of the plate rather than the front. You also should thoroughly wash your plates before starting to remove any film or dirt that will affect the adhesive. I ran mine though our dishwasher which uses a separate spotting/rinse agent in it.

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This was very heavy with the thickness of the plate and the glue, glass beads and the bell ring. It is not the one that dropped. I think if you use a textured plate: try and use the flat side for the bell ring attachment point. I believe the ridges in the other set of plates is why that flower dropped. I just went back and doubled the glue to fix it. All three flowers are still holding.

If you really like the look of something heavy, you may still be able to use it. Just make sure you use a couple of layers of glue. I didn’t think what I used would hold, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the strength of gorilla glue epoxy. Look for the highest psi rated, clear epoxy glue you can find.

Squeeze the two sides of the epoxy glue into the plastic mixing plate that comes in the package. Thoroughly mix it together with the enclosed stick and immediately place it on the bell hanger rim, both inside and out. Do not wait long or it will begin to set and you’ll have to start over with new glue. Use the stick that comes with the glue to smear it around the bell hanger and up the sides. Wait the recommended time for it to cure. Once it is completely cured add a second layer around the plate and up the sides of the bell hanger. Again: wait the recommended time for each layer to cure.

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Look around your yard and find the spot you want to add a glass flower. Don’t place your glass flower over something hard like stone or concrete. I had one of my assembled flowers drop (the gray set above). It bounced off of the soil below it and wasn’t damaged. I just popped some of the old glue off and used a few more layers of glue to repair it. I put it right back up once the glue dried. If you use thicker glass and it falls onto the surrounding soil, it may not break as easily as a very thin piece would.

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As you can see the real flowers in this photo are from this spring (2014). I waited until the fall to recommend my methods. These instructions worked for me. The completed glass flowers I made this spring still look great and are still holding strong!

Once you find your spot: drive your rebar into the ground with a hammer or mallet like you see in the above photo. It needs to be fairly deep to support the weight of the flower and whatever wind hits it, but needs to come up close to the top of the pvc pipe so the pvc doesn’t bend and break from the weight. Put the long piece of pvc pipe on the ground next to the rebar and mark how tall you want the pipe to be. Cut your pipe to the length you measured. You don’t have to be exact since the bell clamp is adjustable. I recommend placing the cut side down although, it probably won’t really matter since the glass plate will cover that end.

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Take the assembled glass flower and place it and the attached pvc pipe over the rebar. Slide the flower up or down to make sure the glass and pvc is supported by the rebar. (The pvc does not need to fit tightly over the rebar. The rebar just serves as additional support for the pipe.) The pvc will probably be stamped. I just turned the printed area towards the back of the flowerbed.

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The outside part of the clamp opens up and can be adjusted without removing the entire back of the bell clamp. It has a u shaped area to support the screw. Hang the plate with the open area of the u shaped area up. This will allow the screw to be supported underneath by the outside of the clamp. Tighten the screw down with a screwdriver.

Using pvc pipe over rebar makes the flower quickly removable by sliding the whole assembly off of the rebar. Just grab the plate and pvc pipe together and lift it up and off of the rebar. When you have storms with high winds or hail and for when your winter dips below freezing (we don’t see much of that down here!) pull the whole assembly off the rebar and store it in a protected area. When it’s time to put it back outside just slide it back over the rebar. It also makes it easy to work on your flower if you need to do repairs. I don’t notice the pipe and I don’t recommend painting it because it would eventually peel.

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My flowers have made it from February to September. One needed repair but hasn’t had an issue since I used two layers of epoxy on it.

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Now you have the basic instructions for whatever removable glass art flowers you decide you’d like to see in your flower beds. I have totally enjoyed mine. I think the next few I make I’ll try some pretty china from the local thrift shop, just for variety.

If you use my instructions and decide to post your work, please link back to the instructions on my site. Thanks!

 

 

 

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

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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. 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). 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 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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Reaping The Rewards Of Spring Planning

This month is heavy on the picking and light on the work. Why? Because I worked hard in the spring to create this exact scenario. Water-wise, deep beds have yielded incredible amounts of produce. See how we built them here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas  and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

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Hugelkultur/keyhole garden inspired bed. These will have worm bins in the middle in a few weeks.

Instructions for creating a carefree, water-wise layer for a raised bed can be found here: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Newspaper, landscape fabric, wood mulch, soaker hoses and a water-wise raised bed are a few of the things I use in my garden.

Sealed beds have created areas for flowers with no invading Bermuda grass and little to pull as far as seed born weeds. This is how I beat the Bermuda: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich.

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Attracting pollinators is easy with annual seeds. Bachelor buttons and zinnia are a few of the flowers I have growing right now.

All I have to do at the moment is to sit back and enjoy my garden. Down here in the South Texas summer, as the mercury rises and the afternoons become unbearably hot: that’s all I want to be doing outside.

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Organic gardening conditions are doable if you have planned ahead and removed the labor from the summer garden. After considerable planning and spring work: all I have to do mid-summer is watch for disease and insects and hook up the watering hose. Planning ahead will make the extra effort required to use more organic practices possible.

Right now I just add water and watch for the summer bug invasion. Armed with Neem oil and a watering hose I have much to enjoy and not much to worry about. I do my heavy work in the spring when the weather is nice and I am motivated.

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With our long season I am planting corn in February/March and harvesting in June. We have two corn seasons down here. Smaller gardens have the ability to produce large quantities because of the extended growing season.

We have a short winter downtime. Our growing season is close to 280 days. But it wouldn’t be this much fun if I hadn’t thought ahead and prepared. Two years after buying our home I have slowly eked out a great garden space, despite our: heavy clay soil, invading Bermuda grass and my annoying health issues. Here’s what I am currently enjoying in a near maintenance-free garden:

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Figs are ripening.

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The corn hit 7 feet and started tassling last month. I have already harvested the majority of the corn. Because I live so far South, my growing season is ahead of most of the rest of the country. If you watch my blog you can plan ahead and have the techniques that I use ready as your spring, summer and fall approaches.

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2014 has been a great year for corn for me. I grow only heirloom vegetables (outside of tomatoes) and corn is one of the most genetically modified and hybridized vegetables you can grow. Avoiding gmo contamination is huge problem with seed corn because it is wind pollinated and pure strains of older varieties are becoming harder to find. Check out heirloom seed sites like seedsavers.org and help ensure genetic variety for our future.

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The kitty who makes his own rules. I can’t keep him out! As you can see the netting I used to keep him out in the spring has totally failed at this point. He’s an antique (20+ years old!) and a good friend, so sometimes I let him win in the battle of the right to rule the garden!

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Tickseed (Coreopsis) is a favorite of mine. Virtually carefree and in constant bloom. It just takes some deadheading to keep it beautiful all summer.

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Love in a mist (Nigella damascena) is fun annual to grow. Look for seeds, you won’t find these annuals in pots in a garden center! The great thing about older garden staples is they are extremely easy to save seed from and grow year after year: just like your (great+) grandma used to!

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Keep pollinators happy with old time favorites. They offer great diversity in pollen and nectar for our garden friends like: hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Find flower lists online or just order an annual flower seed mix. Seed mixes of heirloom varieties are the most appealing to the bugs you want to attract.

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I grew canna lilies from seed this year. (They are perennials down here and a fun addition to an edible garden.) I belong to a seed train (a group that shares seed between it’s members for the price of postage.) I found mine on yahoo groups. If you can’t find one: start one! You will soon find takers. Getting a box in the mail is like Christmas for seed train members. You will receive favorites from random gardens across the nation!

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Culinary oregano in bloom. A great addition to salads, sandwiches and cooked dishes. I recommend growing lots of herbs. They are easy to care for and are usually pretty mild when they are picked fresh. Because of this: you can enjoy fresh herbs in all kinds of meals and they attract all kinds of good bugs.

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Persimmons.

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Tomatoes from one of my monster cherry tomato plants. If you live in the deep south and wonder why you have trouble with tomatoes: it’s because the temperatures in the summers stay too hot. Tomatoes will abort fruit and flowers once it hits our summertime temps. I know it seems counter-intuitive but tomatoes are pretty picky about their growing temperatures, even hot ones. Since we don’t cool off at night, the summer won’t give you many tomatoes. Our viable season for tomatoes, down here by San Antonio, is very short in both the spring and fall. Try smaller varieties and determinate types that will set all of their fruit at once. Because the season is so short for them I don’t bother with seed. I go with transplants from a garden center and I am usually pleased with the result.

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Basil in bloom. Letting my herbs flower and go to seed has been one of the best ways to attractant bees and other beneficial insects to my yard.

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Bouquet of zinnia, echinacea, day lily and cosmos. I have bouquets like this all season long.

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Kumquats.

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You can never have enough fresh figs!!!!

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Would you like to know what I know about successful gardening? Check out the tab at the top of the page titled: Gardening Basics There’s a lot to digest on that page, so book mark it and come back as you need more information. It covers all you need to know to grow, and the information is free. You can do this and I can show you how!

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Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

One of the draws of raised beds (especially if you have heavy native clay soil) is the the great drainage it provides. However, the drainage in a raised bed can also become an issue in high summer heat. This is a great example of how some things are extremely helpful in one season (like drainage during wet springs) but can become a problem in others (low water retention in dry, hot summers). Down here in South Texas our summers are both hot and dry, with weeks above 100 degrees and little to no rainfall. Preparing for drought is part of running a cost effective garden. I don’t want to have to add any extra money into growing home produce.

If you grow your own veggies you are probably very aware of the cheap seasonal produce at the grocer that requires no work on your part. Sometimes it makes your struggles and efforts seem larger than life…but there is nothing like home ripened vegetables and you are in total control of what chemicals have been added to your food. Despite the labor and costs: there are more reasons to grow your own food than there are reasons to skip doing it!

Since drought is a big issue down here: this is my solution to our dry, hot summers.

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Here is our Hugelkultur inspired raised bed. In case you missed out on how we built it you can find my posts on the two beds we have built here: Hugelkutur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed.

I’m starting out with a drought resistant bed. This bed is a permanent addition to the garden. It will take very little work to maintain, requires no tilling and has a sponge-like water retentive layer within it. We have water restrictions right now and have started out the year at the lowest our aquifer has ever been in the spring. Saving water is vital to raising cost effective vegetables and remaining responsible users of our city’s water supply. My corn is already silking here in the last weeks of May. Our main growing season is nearing it’s end. It will soon be followed by intense heat and a dry summer. Summer is our down time. It is hard to get anything to survive the heat. I will be planting and maintaining heat tolerant and drought resistant vegetables in this bed like: okra, peppers, beans and melons.

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I’m a huge fan of soaker hoses. This is how I chose to water my summer beds. As you can see I put painter’s tape to mark where the lines run. Water follows the path of least resistance, which in this case is straight down. You will want to plant your seedlings along the lines to ensure that they receive enough water while they are small and vulnerable.

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Turn your water on, and time how long it takes to wet the bed with full water pressure. This is an important step so that you can run your hose underneath the mulch layer. Time it before you cover it and you will not have to guess how long to run the water.

Marking where your lines run is also a good idea. Painters tape is fast and easy to use…plus I already had some! The next phase in creating a water wise bed is to create a layer that will stop evaporation. Remember to wet as you go. Covering a dry bed will only make watering it more difficult.

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I’m getting the bed wet before I add a weed/evaporation barrier. Adding water now will mean you add less later. To make a hugelkutur bed work, it needs to be wet at it’s core. Keeping the bed hydrated now will ensure that you will need less water when high heat and dry summers roll around.

Most places in the US have less heat and wetter summers that we do down here. This bed would still ensure that you will need to use much less water. Down here, I wouldn’t be able to effectively grow in the summer without using something like this. No matter your weather: this is an extremely low maintenance option that any gardener can use. Putting the original effort in the beginning (by building a hugelkultur type bed) will make the years you use the bed almost maintenance free and offer your plants a deep, near ideal growing medium.

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This is why I take the local paper! Open your news papers and take out all of the shiny sheets and throw them in the recycling. Take the rest of your paper and open them up across your bed. Thick is better than thin in this case and you should aim for 5 to 10 layers of paper to go over the bed. WET AS YOU GO! The paper will blow away if you don’t! You can also use straw or cardboard in this layer. Use whatever you have or can get cheaply.

You need to be prepared with what you will be putting over the newspaper. You need a thick layer of mulch and/or landscape fabric. I always live in high wind, dry areas. I can’t use mulch that will easily blow around like straw would. I need something heavy so I choose wood mulch.

Before you decide to create a water barrier like this: you need to realize that water retention works both ways. It will keep water within the bed that you add with the soaker hose but it will also keep water out if you try and water from above the newspaper. You will need to be committed to using the soaker hose, but you will use much less water than if you are watering from above with no newspaper mulch layer. I also have a hose splitter and a water timer that I use.  There are quick release nozzles for use with soaker hoses as well. This would make the process quick if you have multiple hoses you are attaching to. The combination of all of my choices: water timers, mulch layers, hugelkulture raised bed and soaker hoses; makes for near maintenance-free gardening. I ensure my success by using these features. I can even go out of town and not worry about the garden!

I choose to use cheap landscape fabric as a layer in between the mulch and the newspaper for a couple of reasons:

1. If the mulch shifts, the bed is still completely sealed.

2. I can rake off the wood mulch I put over the top every year and reuse or compost it. The landscape fabric makes this process easy. I don’t mix wood mulch into the upper layers of soil. Decomposing wood draws nitrogen away from plants and large wood chips (the kind that make it through our high winds) would dehydrate the bed if used in the upper layers of soil.

I am all about putting effort in early (when I have the motivation and nice weather) so I can reap the rewards later (when it’s too hot to do much outside!)

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Now you can see why I marked where the lines were!

The next thing you do is use a knife or scissors to carefully cut holes in the fabric and plant through it. You will need to make large enough holes to accommodate your mature plants. I make an “X” in the fabric and tuck the loose pieces back under the rest of the fabric.

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Make sure you plant along the hose.

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You can see the pepper I planted is lined up with the soaker hose beneath the fabric.

Carefully mound a thick layer of mulch around the areas that are not planted. Plug your garden hose into the soaker hose and water when the beds gets dry (stick your finger into the exposed soil near the hose where you planted your seeds or seedlings and you should feel moisture. If you don’t: it’s time to water.)

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If you’d like to see what I’m doing with the milk jugs: this post “Shortcut Through The Hardening-Off Process” explains why I love them so much!!! Another use for milk jugs is in this post: “The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds

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You will need to water often until your plants are established. After that, you can enjoy the water retention this type of bed offers!

You now have a water-wise planting bed that should survive any weather mother nature sends your way!

Get out there and plant something and enjoy your summer gardening!

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