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Use Containers

Use ContainersIf you lack a backyard, stick to containers. With the exception of some root crops and asparagus, most vegetables grow just fine in them. Tomatoes, green onions, peppers, beans, lettuce, and squash all fare particularly well.

Look for varieties bred to grow in confined spaces, such as Patio tomatoes, Topcrop green beans, and Bibb lettuce. As for what size container you need, use large ones (think whiskey barrel), which allow for companion planting and greater reserves of food and water. Small pots dry out quickly and don’t allow space for roots to grow. Whatever size you choose, make sure the container has holes at its base to allow for drainage.

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Test Your Soil

Test Your SoilKnowing the basics behind organic gardening can put you on the right path to creating your own Eden. All you need is patience, a willingness to get muddy, and this quick tip.

Before planting anything, first determine the measure of acidity or alkalinity (known as pH) of your soil with a home testing kit.

For most vegetables, the magic number is 6.5. Too acidic (on the low end of the 0-to-14 scale) or too alkaline (on the high end) and your plants won’t be able to access the soil’s nutrients. Boost your pH with a line spread, found at garden stores, or lower it with powdered sulfur. Seedlings can then be planted straight in the ground.

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How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps:

You’ve been trying to eat more organic foods, both to decrease the amount of pesticides you and your family consume, and to help protect the environment from overloading with toxic chemicals. But organics can get a bit expensive, we know. Luckily, there’s a way to grow your own fresh produce while having fun and learning at the same time: organic gardening!

Don’t know where to start? It is possible to hire someone to install and maintain a beautiful organic garden for you. But most of us can roll up our sleeves with a surprisingly small amount of effort. Remember, you can start small, even with just a single plant or two. Don’t worry if things aren’t perfect right away.

Organic gardening means you won’t be using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but that doesn’t mean your plants are left to fend for themselves. There are an array of tools you can use to bolster plant health and ward off pests. Organic gardening also isn’t just about what you don’t do, it’s about trying to foster a more holistic, natural ecosystem. Read on for specific tips, taken from The Daily Green’s expert garden blogger, Leslie Land, her New York Times book 1000 Gardening Questions & Answers and other sources.

Preparing the Soil

In order to get the best results with your new organic garden, you’ll want to make sure the soil is properly conditioned. You have to eat, and so do plants, so make sure your veggies get lots of fresh nutrients. Good healthy soil helps build up strong, productive plants. Chemical soil treatments can not only seep into your food, but they can also harm the beneficial bacteria, worms and other microbes in the soil.

The best way to gauge the quality of your soil is to get it tested. You can get a home testing kit, or better, send a sample to your local agricultural extension office. For a modest fee you’ll get a complete breakdown of pH and nutrient levels, as well as treatment recommendations (be sure to tell them you’re going organic). That way you can tailor your gardening program. Typically, it’s best to test in the Fall, and apply any organic nutrients before Winter.

Even if you don’t have time for testing, you’ll want to make sure your soil has plenty of humus — the organic matter, not the similarly named Mediterranean spread. According to 1000 Gardening Questions & Answers, you’ll want to mix in compost, leaf and grass clippings and manure. Manure should be composted, unless you aren’t going to harvest or plant anything for two months after application. Preferably, get your manure from local livestock that have been organically and humanely raised — and never use manure from animals that eat meat.

How to Make Good Compost

All gardens benefit from compost — and preferably you can make your own on site. Hey, it’s free! Compost feeds plants, helps conserve water, cuts down on weeds, and keeps food and yard waste out of landfills (where it produces methane), instead turning garbage into “black gold.” Spread compost around plants, mix with potting soil, use to bolster struggling plants…it’s hard to use too much!

According to Country Living, the best compost forms from the right ratio of nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic waste, mixed with soil, water and air. It might sound like complicated chemistry, but don’t worry too much if you don’t have time to make perfect compost. Even a minimally tended pile will still yield decent results.

  1. To get started, measure out a space at least three feet square. Your compost heap can be a simple pile or contained within a custom pen or bin (some can be rotated, to improve results).
  2. Add alternating layers of carbon (or brown) material — leaves and garden trimmings — and nitrogen (or green) material — such as kitchen scraps and manure, with a thin layer of soil in between.
  3. Top off the pile with four to six inches of soil. Turn the pile as new layers are added and water to keep (barely) moist, in order to foster microbe action. You should get good compost in as little as two months (longer if it’s cold).
  4. A properly maintained compost pile shouldn’t smell. But if it does add more dry carbon material (leaves, straw, or sawdust) and turn it more frequently.
  5. Even if you live in a city, you can do some composting under your counter with a tidy worm kit, or partner with a community garden.

Choose the Right Plants

It really pays to select plants that will thrive in your specific micro-conditions. As a general guide don’t forget to check the USDA’s Hardiness Zones (which have recently been updated by the National Arbor Day Foundation due to climate change). Choose plants that will be well adjusted to each spot, in terms of light, moisture, drainage and soil quality. Most gardens have gradations in these variables. The happier your plants are, the more resistant they’ll be to attackers.

If you’re buying seedlings, look for plants raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A great place to look is at your local farmers’ market, which may also have native plants and varieties well suited to your area. It’s better to buy stocky seedlings with few, if any blooms yet, and with roots that don’t look overcrowded.

Many things are best grown from seed, including sunflowers, annual poppies, evening-scented stock (Matthiola bicornis), coriander, dill, annual phlox (Phlox drummondii), larkspur, annual lupine, morning glories, sweet peas, squash and cucumbers.

Plant Crops in Wide Beds

Plants that you will be harvesting, such as vegetables or cutting flowers, should be grouped tightly in beds that you don’t walk on (raised beds work great). Grouping reduces weeding and water waste, and helps you target compost and nutrients. Easier path maintenance helps lead to healthy soil. Ample space between rows helps promote air circulation, which repels fungal attacks.

Remember that seedlings won’t always stay diminutive, and you do want to try to limit over shadowing. It’s a good idea to thin crops based on nursery suggestions.

According to Leslie Land, if you have limited space and time, and want the highest returns of fresh organic produce, these plants are typically winners:

  1. Indeterminate Tomatoes. So named because the vines keep getting bigger and producing new fruit until they are felled by frost.
  2. Non-Hybrid (Old-Fashioned) Pole Beans. They keep growing and producing ’til frost — assuming you keep them picked.
  3. Zucchini. Everything they say about avalanches of zucchini is true, especially of hybrid varieties.
  4. Swiss Chard. You can keep breaking off outer leaves for months, and every picking will be tender as long as plants get enough water.
  5. Tall Snow Peas and Sugarsnaps. They grow readily and produce delicious rewards.

Proper Watering

The best time to water plants is usually in the morning. Why? Mornings tend to be cool and without strong winds, so the amount of water lost to evaporation is reduced. If you water in the evening plants stay damp over night, making them more likely to be damaged by fungal and bacterial diseases.

Ideally, you want to water the roots, not the greenery, which is easily damaged. A drip or soak system can work great, or just carefully water the bases of plants by hand.

Most experts recommend substantial, infrequent watering for established plants, typically a total of about one inch of water per week (including rain). One or two applications a week encourages deeper rooting, which promotes stronger plants. To avoid shocking tender greenery, try to use water at or near air temperature (collected rainwater is best).

With population growth and climate change putting increasing pressure on our precious freshwater supplies, it is becoming more important than ever to save water.

Weeding

Ah weeding. Even if you live in the Biosphere, you’ll still get weeds, since their tiny seeds are pervasive. Pulling weeds by hand may sound like hard work — and it can be — but it also can be good exercise, and gets you outside in the fresh air. You don’t want to pour toxic chemicals on your food, or where your children and pets play, right?

Reduce the number of weeds you have to contend with by applying mulch (which also helps protect the soil). According to Leslie Land, organic mulch that will rot down into the soil is almost always preferable to landscape fabric, although burlap and other materials can work in a pinch. Straw is cheap but doesn’t last long. Wood chips are nice, but can get pricey. Many people opt to use lawn clippings, although it should be noted that because they are high in nitrogen, clippings should only be used on plants that need a lot of the nutrient, such as squash and lettuce.

If you get tired of weeding or aren’t able to bend over, consider hiring some neighborhood kids. It’s a good way to get to know others in your community. Remember too that raised beds can be made wheelchair accessible, and others can take advantage of wheeled stools, arthritis-friendly gardening tools and other equipment.

Protect Plants Without Toxic Pesticides

If your plants are being assaulted by pests, it may be a sign of other problems, so the first thing you should do is make sure they are getting enough light, nutrients and moisture. Also remember that a diverse garden helps prevent pests, by limiting the amount of one type of plant offered up to enemies, and boosting biodiversity.

It’s a good thing to foster natural predators in your garden, such as frogs, toads, lizards, birds, and even bats. Beneficial insects can be your best friends, especially lady bugs (many nurseries even sell cans of them, though it’s true there’s a high probability they won’t stick around). Leave a small source of water out to attract friendly predators. It’s also a good idea to grow plants with small blossoms, such as sweet alyssum and dill, which attract predatory insects. Nets and row covers can also work.

It may sound surprising, but homeowners use more pesticides on their lawns and gardens than farmers do, acre for acre, according to EPA data. But there are organic alternatives that are much safer for you and our environment. Find out what problem you have (an agricultural extension service can help), then look for alternatives.

Organic weapons include Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacteria that disrupts the digestion of caterpillars and other leaf-eaters. You can also use horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps and garlic and/or hot pepper sprays.

Harvesting

Don’t forget to harvest the fruits of your labor! Fresh organic produce also makes great gifts, educating your friends, neighbors and coworkers. Generally, the more you harvest, the more your plants will produce for you.

During peak harvest season, you’ll likely find that it’s best to check your garden every day. Got herbs? If you use them fresh pick them right before you need them. But if you’ll be drying and storing them, it’s best to wait until just before they flower, since they’ll have the most flavor. Gather all herbs except basil in mid morning, shortly after dew has dried. Harvest basil in the late afternoon, since it will last longer after some time in the sun. It’s best not to wash herbs before you dry or use them, since that can leach flaor (extra incentive for growing organic!).

When harvesting leafy greens pick sporadically from the entire crop, a little from each plant. For broccoli, wait until the central head is as large as it will get, before sending off buds for flowering. Cut it off right above the leaf node, and you’ll likely get better production from the rest of the plant. In general, it’s best to cut produce off with a sharp knife or scissors, versus ripping with your fingers, which can cause more damage to plant tissue.

If you get too much bounty, remember you can also freeze, store some types of produce in a root cellar, or take up canning. Enjoy!

Cleanup

If you have sick plants to remove, either during the season or at the end of the year, make sure you pull up the entire organism. Don’t forget to rake up underneath, since diseased leaves can harbor problems for a long time. Put all infected material deep in the woods, in the ground at least a foot deep, or on the bonfire.

Most healthy or expired plants can actually be left in place over winter. You’ll provide some food and habitat for birds and other wildlife, and plant cover can help protect your soil from eroding. It’s better to chop off annuals then yank them out, because that way you’ll leave soil intact, and help prevent weeds from gaining a foothold.

(original post)

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5 Frugal Fall Gardening Tips

Spring fever is for spendthrifts. For cheapskates, Fall’s the time to garden.

Sure, everybody’s green thumb seems to blossom with the first warmish day of Spring, just about the same day the green blades of the daffodils pop up in the flowerbed. But by Autumn, most fair weather gardeners have long ago hung up their hoes for the season and planted their butts firmly in front of the TV to watch football.

That’s a shame, because in most parts of the country the Fall is the best time of year for all kinds of garden activities, including planting and transplanting my types of plants. It’s also the time of year when you can save a bushel of cash on gardening equipment and nursery stock, and save even more by properly tucking in your garden and equipment for its long winter’s nap. Here’s how:

Great deals on end of season nursery stock:

In most climate zones, Fall is actually a better time of year than even spring to plant or transplant trees, shrubs, and many other perennial plants. The soil tends to be warmer which promotes root growth, and — unlike with Spring planting — there’s not the potential of a long, hot, dry summer facing the young upstarts. And, if you’re going to put down sod, Fall is also generally the best – and cheapest – time to do it. Many nurseries dramatically discount their remaining container-grown plants and other nursery stock, both to avoid over-wintering them and to make room for the soon-to-arrive Halloween pumpkins and Christmas trees. I’ve found it’s a great time to negotiate an even better deal by simply asking for an additional reduction on already discounted nursery stock.

Best prices on garden tools and equipment:

By shopping around, in the Fall you’ll likely find the best deals of the year on all types of gardening tools, equipment and other supplies – with the possible exception of snow blowers, chain saws, and snow shovels. It’s also a great time to go hunting for used lawn mowers, weed trimmers, and other lawn and garden equipment, since many people dump their used equipment at thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales at the end of the season. And if you’re in the market for something major – like a lawn or garden tractor – it’s worth calling some area landscaping companies to see if they plan on selling off any of their used equipment now that their busy season is over; a few years ago, I bought a heavy-duty (and lightly used) weed trimmer from a local landscaper at the end of the season for about ten cents on the dollar compared to what he’d paid for it new six months earlier.

Time to put away and tune-up equipment and tools:

Lawn and garden tools can cost a bundle, even when they’re on sale at the end of the season. It pays to take care of the equipment you own, and Fall is the perfect time to give then a little TLC. One of many great uses for aluminum foil: it makes a great scrub pad to remove dirt and rust from shovels, hoes, and other metal gardening tools. And when you’re done scrubbing them, sharpen your pruners and other gardening sheers by simply cutting through the aluminum foil scouring pad a few times. Oil all metal surfaces on your tools – used motor oil works fine for that – and put the business ends of your gardening tools in a plastic bag along with a couple of pieces of leftover summer charcoal to keep tools from rusting. Lawnmowers and other gas powered garden equipment should be thoroughly cleaned. Air and fuel filters should be changed (along with the oil). And, most experts agree, the gas tank should be kept filled with gasoline that has been treated with a stabilizer; this keeps the gas fresh and prevents condensation and deposits from developing in the engine (run the engine for about 10 minutes after adding the stabilized gasoline).

Build a compost pile and mulch:

If you don’t already have one, you definitely want to start a compost pile in the Fall to provide a receptacle for all the leaves, pumpkins and other yard debris you should rake up before winter sets in. Building a compost pile can be as simple as staking up a hoop of three-foot-high “chicken wire” or other mesh fencing; just so long as it allows for air circulation from the sides and is deep enough for leaves and other organic matter to compress itself thanks to the law of gravity. Also, keep your eyes open after Halloween and Thanksgiving for leftover bales of straw that might be discounted – or even put out for the garbage man – now that they’ve served their decorating purposes; straw makes great mulch or can be added to the compost pile. Mulching garden beds in the Fall with wood chips, compost, or other suitable organic matter helps to retain ground moisture and protect plants sleeping underneath. Check with local landscaping and tree removal services in the Fall for some of the best prices of the year on mulch.

Divide and multiply:

In addition to being the best time to plant most Springtime flowering bulbs (e.g. tulips, daffodils, crocuses, irises, etc.) as well as trees and shrubs, many perennial plants and vegetables can be divided in the Fall. Dividing most perennials – once they’re sufficiently mature – will both make them healthier and create multiple plants out of a single one, all for the cost of nothing more than a little light labor. Do your research in advance to determine which types of perennials should be divided in the Fall and the best methods for doing so. In general, perennials should first be thoroughly watered and the entire plant dug out of the ground, with its root ball intact. The root ball should then be separated into smaller plants by pulling it apart with a pitch fork or, in some cases, even cutting it apart with a shovel or other sharp tool. The smaller plants should then be immediately replanted in the ground and watered again.

Once I’ve buttoned down my garden and yard for the season, I’m reminded of a quote from author Stanley Crawford:

Winter is the time of promise because there is so little to do – or because you can now and then permit yourself the luxury of thinking so.”

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‘Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook’ Author Shares Vision


“Love is the best ingredient, after all,” said author Leeann Lavin, whose book celebrates stories and recipes celebrating the bounty of the East End and Long Island and the intrinsic ties between chef and grower.

A new cookbook, “Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown” celebrates the flavors and bounty of the East End of Long Island.

Q: What inspired you to write a cookbook about the East End?

A: When I first started work on this book concept in 2002, I had the idea that gardens are peerless; that because gardens are so utterly beautiful – so inspiring — it could be said that Mother Nature is responsible for no less than giving birth to the magic of artistic endeavor. It was more than the notion that gardens are just pretty to look at or sit in, but indeed, I believe their very essence captivates us and elevates us to create.

Especially artists. I knew that gardens had been igniting passions and fueling artists from painters to sculpturers to writers and musicians throughout the ages.

And none more so than the culinary artist, because they utilize the garden’s bounty in making their transporting, artisanal signature recipes. I wanted to further explore the nexus where garden art meets and fuels other art, beginning with the culinary artist because they use the bounty of the garden directly in their creations.

I wanted to discover how locavore chefs discover inspiration from their growers, farmers, fisherman, dairymen, vintners and artisanal food producers to create seasonal, sustainable, and delicious menus.

Long Island and particularly the East End have a long and proud agricultural history – and today it is still the most productive farming and food production region in New York. The book demonstrates the special relationship and respect between the chef and their inspired grower and their relationship to the land and the waters. I wanted to tell those challenging and triumphant stories.

I live in New York and the Garden State, and have spent so much time on the East End in producing the book: bicycling to interviews across the two Forks, photo shoots, tastings – it is safe to say it is my home, too. Everyone welcomed me – opening up their gardens, their duck farm, oyster beds, wineries, and kitchens. It’s an intimate experience and I am proud and honored to share the food history and stories that are Long Island. As I note in the book, the original Paumanok name for Long Island is “Land of Tribute,” and the “Homegrown” book is my tribute to Long Island.

Q: What does your book focus on?

A: Told in a rare collection of loving profiles and beautiful color photographs, “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” captures the authentic and delicious homegrown ingredients produced by the artisanal food growers and the majestic land and seascapes that are the romantic hallmarks of the Island’s food culture. Inspired by the terroir and the growers, the book celebrates that distinctive, inspired cuisine and lifestyle — bursting with flavorful recipes from the area’s best locavore chefs.

Q: How do you define Hamptons and Long Island “homegrown?”

In the book, I define Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown as a chef who creates their menu based on the seasons and what is available locally. It can be argued this is more difficult to manage or to do. However, that’s what helps make them great chefs, not just good cooks. They will get up extra early to visit with the fishermen to pick out the just-caught seafood, or get to the farm or greenmarket as it opens. The menus are market-driven. They learn horticulture and agriculture; they can butcher. They seek out the best, local ingredients. They can practice the “Rule of Claudia,” and seasonal, sustainable is what inspires them. They have respect for their growers and nature.

Q) How does this focus on homegrown produce reflect a shift in the American consciousness?

A) People want to know where their food comes from. People have also developed a curiosity to learn to grow native edibles. And to make much of what they eat – to become empowered to explore and prepare good food, not tainted or adulterated ingredients. The focus on homegrown has ignited a passion to create: whether it’s to make a homegrown crafted beer or cupcakes, or pickles, people love making and sharing their food. Love is the best ingredient, after all.

Q) What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?

Like children, I truly love them all. I make different recipes for different seasons or occasions – for a bridal shower for example, we made many of the recipes – pre-publication – and labeled the trays and dishes so guests could reference the food memory when they got their book.

Q) Why is your book a must have for anyone who lives on the East End or loves the area?

Readers will relish the food stories and part of the joy in a regional book is to identify with the chefs and restaurants and growers. Though the book is being marketed nationally, because you may not realize it but many people aspire to a “Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown” lifestyle. People display the book with pride. They use the book to create memorable meals. And they can gift a truly unique and special tribute to Long Island.

Q) What other factors inspired you to write the book?

A) I also wanted to celebrate local and regional food. In the not-too-distant past, people would travel to different places or far-away regions to not only enjoy the beauty of the landscape, but also to taste and experience the local cuisine. Today, more people eat the same shopping mall-one-size-fits-all-menu. That’s bland and uninteresting. I want to recapture a food tourism. Local terroir and salinity of waters and the seasons, for example, make fruits and vegetables and dairy taste different and unique. Food tourism will again suggest people will visit Long Island to dine and drink. Long Island is blessed with a climate and landscape and waterways that afford it fresh, delicious food sources in just about every season.

Q) Where can it be purchased?

A) To order my book “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” at Barnes & Noble, Amazon & local independent book stores, go to: http://tiny.cc/4zjhbw, http://tiny.cc/pijhbw, http://www.indiebound.org/indie-bookstore-finder.

Q) What is the message you hope to convey in your book?

A) There are several messages that I hope readers will take away from the book, including a sense of pride in the region’s longstanding agricultural history and contribution to an American cuisine (duck, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, fish, wine, to name a few landmark ingredients). Also, that they celebrate and embrace the locavore chefs and their growers who work really, really hard to produce and serve this food.

And that readers will see that the best food starts with the best ingredients. The best chefs advocate starting with the best ingredients and then to do as little as possible to them.

In turn, I hope readers will support their local farmers, CSA, and growers – and perhaps grow some things themselves. It is very empowering and healthy. Sustainable food is good for the economy, too. And, finally, I am overjoyed when fans tell me the book is so special for a few reasons: they love the food stories – learning about what drives the chefs and growers – and I hope that inspires the readers in whatever life endeavor they have.

Further, the recipes are simple to make and simply delicious – recipes that you can return to over and over. As a guideline, I asked each chef to offer recipes within these guidelines: a family heritage recipe, a signature recipe, a seasonal recipe, and a brand-new recipe. The collection of recipes in the book is bursting with culinary creativity.

What distinguishes the book is that it is both food stories and recipes. Readers can learn about the locavore chefs and what makes them go the extra mile to the farmer’s markets or to the honey growers or the duck farmers or the dairies – when it would be so much easier to just pick up the phone and call a purveyor. See, it wasn’t good enough for “my” chefs to be good cooks – that had to be a gimme – no, my chefs had to be a cut above – a master chef – a culinary artist who reveres their craft in such a way that no less than the very best homegrown ingredients compel them to create simple, delicious recipes. I hope the reader can follow the food adventure and see the respect for the chefs, their growers, and the food and their relationship to the land and waters of Long Island.

Q: What singular moment on the East End prompted you to embark on this journey?

A) Long Island is a place of extremes, extending nearly 120 miles east of New York City. But it is also a place that exists in the dreams and imaginations of our collective consciousness. As I wrote in the book: F. Scott Fitzgerald captured its aura-as-character in the ‘Great Gatsby’ while living on the Island’s famed Gold Coast, where he wrote of “that slender riotous island.” In fact, Long Island is the longest and largest island in the contiguous United States. From the New York Harbor to Montauk Point, the Island’s contrasts and diversity are an anthology of American culture.This place has told us many stories and has many yet to tell. I wanted to tell those stories.As I look back at how I started my journey with the map of Long Island, the restaurants where I planned the follow up chef and grower interviews looked like a necklace. I think it was exploring a history, a dream and today’s good news food story that fueled this journey.

Food is a lens by which we can view so much of the world. Food can also create and trigger a remembrance – a recalled moment of joy: a first date, Grandmother’s house, holiday traditions, or dinners with Dad. I hope The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook prompts readers to embark on their own homegrown journey.

(original post)

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Perfectly Imperfect: What Makes A Garden Beautiful

Every second Thursday of the month I have my mother-in-law over for an evening of cocktails and chatter in my garden. It’s an effort I started shortly before marrying my husband in hopes of establishing a better “mother-daughter” relationship between the two of us. Needless to say, the affair took a while to settle into a tolerable experience, because my mother-in-law’s idea of a garden differed profoundly from my own. For her, gardening involved cute outfits, perfectly manicured flowers, absolutely no over-growth, and the only bugs that existed were cute, ceramic lady bugs that filled the gap around her potted plants. While this is often fine and dandy, sometimes it is nice to let nature be nature, and I made it my mission to teach my mother-in-law a little about why a garden au naturel can be a beautiful thing.

Let me start off by saying that I do appreciate the appearance of a traditional garden—having spent much of my life in or around them, and consulting people on ideal plant growth. However, after having spent so much time in focusing on perfection, I found myself reaching a point where I just wanted to let my hair down at home, so to speak. I decided to let my garden take a season to do what it wanted. This is not to say I neglected it by any means; I still watered my plants regularly, made sure no invasive plants find their way in, and turned the soil when needed—but essentially I truly did let it go, and I found the results to be very pleasing.

For one thing, the amount of bug life—something that once would have bothered me greatly—became a fascination for me. Snails were once a problem, one that I remember my grandma paying me a dollar an hour to help her take care of as a little girl, as we both roamed her yard with milk cartons half full of captured snails. Now I enjoy their presence, and find their pace of life a source of relaxation as I sit in my garden each evening. The spiders create custom tapestries for me to appreciate, and their intricacy and finesse allow me to realize just how creative nature can be. Allowing the insects to flourish gave a life to my garden that I could have never expected or experienced other wise, and it gave me a true look at the tenacity of the natural world.

The plants themselves took on their own lives as well. I was shocked at how beautiful I found this—not specifically in the aesthetics, though I certainly do appreciate this, too, but the idea of them taking their own path. I realize this sounds very free spirited, and it is. The idea of living entities finally breaking the boundaries and going their own way is a wonderful way to perceive the phenomenon of a natural garden. This is as organic as it gets; you can appreciate manicured plants, and their sole purpose of looking pretty, but this is an artificial beauty only made possible by external manipulation. Here we have life, existing and growing in a way all its own. This idea relaxes me, because when I am in my garden I like to feel that I am also breaking away from the external confines of life, and be how ever I want to be.

Perhaps the best part is that a natural growing garden is that it reduces some hassle in your life. I love gardening, and I love the joys of helping others reach their gardening goals; however, there are times that this can begin to feel like work, and when you allow it to consume you—like I have been known to do—it becomes hard to just sit and enjoy your space when you know there are a million things to do, and resist the urge to work when you should be enjoying the moment. Obviously with the natural garden this issue never arises, and every time I step in with my cup of Chai I am able to linger for hours, soaking in the pleasures of the outdoors, and not once feel tempted to go to work.

I am not sure if I have been able to sway my mother-in-law much about her position concerning my garden, or if she will ever see the beauty in it the way I do; but I know it is not important, because my garden is there for me to enjoy, and that is what matters most. I have also found that my experiences with the natural garden has enhanced the way I manage other, more typical gardens. I feel much more attune to what is happening amongst the plants, what they are doing and how they respond to their varying environments. If you have not taken the time to go and enjoy the wonders of nature in your own back yard, I recommend you at least give it a try; it may change the way you garden forever.

(original post)

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Gardening in the Fall: Preparing for a Frost

Once autumn begins, it’s a good time to start thinking about frosts and freezes and the effect they can have on your plants. Most garden plants, assuming they’re hardy in your area, will weather the winter without any problem. An abrupt, early freeze may cause them to drop their leaves prematurely or cause some tissue damage, but most will rebound next spring.

However, there are exceptions. Use the following tips to ensure that your garden is ready when the frost bites.

Bring tender plants indoors. Depending on where you live, some plants may behave as either annuals or perennials that simply can’t handle even a light frost. Many people don’t bother trying to extend the life of plants generally not meant to last more than a year and let them die back after a freeze hits.

However, if you grow tender annuals and perennials in pots and want to save them, move the pots into the garage or house when frost threatens and take them back out when the weather warms a bit, at least for a week or two. This process allows the plant acclimate better to a drastic change in growing conditions.

Tropicals can go in the house or garage before temperatures drop below 45 degrees F. Before bringing them inside, spray any plants that appear to have pests, such as spider mites, aphids and mealy bugs. A solution containing neem oil works well for treating these pests. Once the plants are inside, cut back on watering and withhold applying any fertilizer until next spring.

Don’t forget to prepare your house for the new arrivals. There’s nothing worse than watching the evening weather, only to discover that a freeze is on the way, and realize that you don’t have any room for your plants.

Protect evergreens. Evergreens in pots can be especially vulnerable. If their roots freeze, they may not make it through the winter. Those in large pots may be fine during mild winters, but evergreens in small pots should be protected. Place them against a wall and cover the pots with mulch or shredded leaves. Keep them watered throughout the winter. Don’t allow the root balls of evergreens in the garden dry out completely, even if it means dragging the hose out in the middle of winter and giving them a thorough soaking.

Cover tender seedlings in the vegetable garden. Fall veggies, especially tender seedlings, may need protection, although most can survive temperatures of around 28 degrees F with little or no tissue damage. Nevertheless, when the forecast calls for temperatures in that range, keep a few blankets handy to cover crops overnight.

During the day, if temperatures rise above freezing, remove the blankets so that excessive heat doesn’t accumulate beneath the coverings. Some people use clear plastic to protect their plants. Plastic causes more accumulation of heat, which is good, but if you don’t take the plastic off before direct sun hits it the next day, your plants will cook.

Grow hardy selections of culinary herbs during the winter months. Most culinary herbs are fairly tender but can survive temperatures in the upper 20s. However, some herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, can overwinter in their pots outdoors.

Watch out for new plant growth. Interestingly, some plants may actually start to put on new growth in response to cooler temperatures, especially if summer temps were really hot. But that new growth is tender, especially in the case of broadleaf and needled evergreens, and unless it has a chance to harden off before a freeze, it may die back.

Resist cutting back ornamental grasses. If you grow ornamental grasses, resist the temptation to cut the foliage back until late winter or early spring because all that top growth helps insulate the root ball. That’s especially true if the grass is only marginally hardy in your area.

Keep in mind that freezes don’t just affect plants. They can wreak havoc on other features in your garden as well.

Clean out and store pots in a protected area. Even the best pots can crack if the soil is left in them over the winter, so remember to remove the soil. If you have time and are so inclined, scrub the pots clean with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.

Store watering cans in a protected area. Watering cans, especially galvanized cans, may expand and crack if water left in them freezes. Empty watering cans and place them where they can’t collect rainwater.

Winterize water features. Water features are of particular concern during the winter. Small features will freeze, despite the running water produced by the fountain, and that can ruin the pump and the pot. So make sure you drain them and store the pot and pump in the garage or garden shed. Depending on where you live, larger water features and ponds may freeze over somewhat, but if they are deep enough or have a waterfall rapid and large enough, they shouldn’t freeze solid. Consult a pond installation expert on how to properly winterize your water feature.

Prepare fish for the winter. Koi enter a state of suspended animation during the winter and survive the cold water with no problem. Cut back on feeding the koi because the more they eat, the more waste they produce. In cold water the bacteria that breaks down that waste doesn’t work well. So to maintain water quality, limit feeding to those occasional warm spells that may occur in the winter.

Generally speaking, winter frosts and freezes don’t cause nearly as many problems in the garden as late-spring freezes, when plants are busting out all over with tender new growth. So don’t panic this winter when the mercury takes a dive. Just do what you’ve got to do, then go inside and warm up by the fire.

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10 Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips

Taking care of your lawn and garden is just as important as taking care of your roof. An attractive landscape can increase the value of your home and add curb appeal. Maintaining your lawn and garden properly can save money and time. Eco-friendly or “green,” landscaping habits can help the environment and decrease the amount of hazardous chemicals around your home. Did you know that the average suburban lawn uses six times the hazardous chemicals per acre as conventional farming does? Learn how to avoid chemical use below.

Tip 1: Water Efficiently: Water during strategically planned times only. The best time to water is between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. Watering in the afternoon is inefficient since water is lost due to evaporation and wind. The second-best time to water is between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Running an irrigation system excessively can waste a lot of water. Just one hour can use up to 250 gallons of water.

Tip 2: Install an Irrigation System: Consider the installation of a sprinkler or irrigation system for your lawn. Irrigation systems work well at targeting only the specific areas of your lawn that need to be watered, thus cutting back on unnecessary watering of uplanted areas. Irrigation systems are available with a timer option, which helps homeowners avoid overwatering by turning off the system at predetermined times. Make sure to check the weather forecast and turn off the timer when rain is predicted.

Tip 3: Go Organic: Say goodbye to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. There are many top-quality organic and natural weed killers. Additionally, organic compost can be used.

Tip 4: Make Your Own Compost: Make your own compost to use in your garden. Compost can be used as a fertilizer, serving as an excellent alternative to chemical-based fertilizers. Making your own compost involves mixing browns (such as dead leaves, branches or twigs, greens (such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds) and water in a compost bin.

Tip 5: Mulch: Garden mulch can enhance the look of your garden and help keep it healthy. Spreading mulch in your garden can also save time by decreasing the need for watering, applying herbicides and pulling weeds.

Tip 6: Drought-Tolerant Plants: The technique of using drought-tolerant plants, known as xeriscaping will significantly help reduce water usage in your garden.

Tip 7: Native Plants: Planting native plants will cut down on the need for water and fertilizer. For example, if you live in Arizona, don’t plant high water plants such as bluegrass or clover.

Tip 8: Make Your Own Planters: Making your own planters is a great way to reuse empty containers. Rinse out plastic containers (cottage cheese, yogurt and dessert whip containers are just the right size), fill them with dirt, add a plant and you have a great new planter. Not only is this eco-friendly, it’s also inexpensive.

Tip 9: Harvest Rainwater: Harvesting rainwater means collecting and storing rainwater to be used for your lawn or garden. This is a simple way to conserve water and help your garden bloom.

Tip 10: Hang Birdfeeders and Nesting Boxes: Birdfeeders and nesting boxes attract birds to your garden. Birds are a great benefit to gardens as they eat unwanted pests, such as snails and slugs. Instead of using pesticide against these little bugs, simply invite the birds in and they’ll take care of the pests naturally.

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Water-Saving Ideas For Your Garden

Simple xeriscaping techniques have a big impact.

Nature usually knows best. When it comes to designing our backyards, we can all emulate nature by using xeriscape techniques, a term coined to describe creative landscaping practices that minimize the use of water. Many assume that xeriscaping means growing only cacti and yuccas, or covering the soil with gravel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lauren Springer, in her book, The Undaunted Garden, refers to her xeriscape as a “lush, dry garden.” Plants classified as xerophytic require less water, or have better methods of obtaining water (for example, a long taproot system) or retaining it (for example, waxy leaves that slow transpiration). Xeriscaping doesn’t mean avoiding water-guzzlers, such as astilbes or ligularias, altogether. It is simply a matter of organization – grouping plants together according to their water requirements.

Xeriscaping has become a way of life in areas where water is scarce. Since the 1995 drought and severe water restrictions in England, signage saying “drought tolerant” has been seen at all British nurseries. In Colorado, many homeowners leave a buffer zone between their lawns and the street, so that runoff water from lawn sprinklers doesn’t run down the gutters. In some cases, this is simply a mulched area planted with low-growing junipers and large rocks, or it may be a flower garden that needs only the lawn’s excess water. In Europe, the formerly pristine lawns at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Tuileries Gardens are now low-growing, flowery meadows. City parks in Germany also feature low-maintenance perennial and annual plantings that never need watering.

Xeriscaping is also becoming popular in Canada. To educate consumers about water-wise gardening practices, Ontario’s Durham Region decided to develop a demonstration Water Efficient Garden in the town of Whitby. The beauty of this garden, watered only by Mother Nature, has educated and amazed many of its visitors.

Besides the desire to conserve water, there are several other reasons to consider xeriscaping. Your property may have sandy soil, steep slopes or a garden that you can only tend to on weekends. You might find the cost of irrigation equipment and water prohibitive, or simply hate hauling hoses around. Whatever your reasons may be, follow some basic steps to create a beautiful xeriscape:

1. Planning and design

Limit your manicured lawn to a flat, easily irrigated shape (no long, narrow strips of grass), and convert large grass areas to natural meadows with mown pathways. Plant slopes with xerophytic plants, or terrace them for better water retention. Group plants according to their moisture requirements – place the ones needing the most moisture near the water source.

2. Soil structure

Add organic matter to the soil to improve water retention and increase fertility.

3. Plant selection

Select drought-tolerant plants. Good choices are native plants or naturalized species from dry habitats; plants that have fuzzy, waxy or finely divided foliage; or plants that are dormant during summer’s heat.

4. Planting techniques

Planting techniques are important – dig a hole, fill it with water, and wait for the soil to absorb the moisture. Then open the plant’s soil ball, spreading the roots so they will quickly grow into the earth. Place the plant in the hole and fill with soil, then water again. Water regularly until established, then gradually reduce the frequency. The ideal time for installing a xeriscape is late summer to early autumn, which allows for maximum root development before the drought of the following summer.

5. Irrigate efficiently

Water turf and garden areas no more than once a week, but apply at least two inches of water at a time. This forces the plants to develop extensive root systems between waterings. Drip irrigation (with soaker hoses) cuts down on the amount of water lost to evaporation by sprinkler systems. Harvest the water from your roof using rain barrels – a quarter of an inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof provides up to 150 gallons of water. Learn to measure weekly rainfall, and irrigate only when necessary.

6. Mulch

Mulching bare soil to a depth of two to four inches prevents water evaporation, maintains an even, cool soil temperature, and prevents the germination of weeds. Choose a mulch that is as natural in appearance as possible. The best time to apply mulch is in late spring, after the soil has warmed and before summer’s heat begins.

Xeriscaping is a fun and sustainable way to garden!

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14 Simple Gardening Tips and Tricks

From using leftover coffee beans to preventing dirt from getting underneath fingernails, master gardener Paul James shares his top 14 tips and shortcuts to make spring gardening a breeze.

1. To remove the salt deposits that form on clay pots, combine equal parts white vinegar, rubbing alcohol and water in a spray bottle. Apply the mixture to the pot and scrub with a plastic brush. Let the pot dry before you plant anything in it.

2. To prevent accumulating dirt under your fingernails while you work in the garden, draw your fingernails across a bar of soap and you’ll effectively seal the undersides of your nails so dirt can’t collect beneath them. Then, after you’ve finished in the garden, use a nailbrush to remove the soap and your nails will be sparkling clean.

3. To prevent the line on your string trimmer from jamming or breaking, treat with a spray vegetable oil before installing it in the trimmer.

4. Turn a long-handled tool into a measuring stick! Lay a long-handled garden tool on the ground, and next to it place a tape measure. Using a permanent marker, write inch and foot marks on the handle. When you need to space plants a certain distance apart (from just an inch to several feet) you’ll already have a measuring device in your hand.

5. To have garden twine handy when you need it, just stick a ball of twine in a small clay pot, pull the end of the twine through the drainage hole, and set the pot upside down in the garden. Do that, and you’ll never go looking for twine again.

6. Little clay pots make great cloches for protecting young plants from sudden, overnight frosts and freezes.

7. To turn a clay pot into a hose guide, just stab a roughly one-foot length of steel reinforcing bar into the ground at the corner of a bed and slip two clay pots over it: one facing down, the other facing up. The guides will prevent damage to your plants as you drag the hose along the bed.

8. To create perfectly natural markers, write the names of plants (using a permanent marker) on the flat faces of stones of various sizes and place them at or near the base of your plants.

9. Got aphids? You can control them with a strong blast of water from the hose or with insecticidal soap. But here’s another suggestion, one that’s a lot more fun; get some tape! Wrap a wide strip of tape around your hand, sticky side out, and pat the leaves of plants infested with aphids. Concentrate on the undersides of leaves, because that’s where the little buggers like to hide.

10. The next time you boil or steam vegetables, don’t pour the water down the drain, use it to water potted patio plants, and you’ll be amazed at how the plants respond to the “vegetable soup.”

11. Use leftover tea and coffee grounds to acidify the soil of acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, gardenias and even blueberries. A light sprinkling of about one-quarter of an inch applied once a month will keep the pH of the soil on the acidic side.

12. Use chamomile tea to control damping-off fungus, which often attacks young seedlings quite suddenly. Just add a spot of tea to the soil around the base of seedlings once a week or use it as a foliar spray.

13. If you need an instant table for tea service, look no farther than your collection of clay pots and saucers. Just flip a good-sized pot over, and top it off with a large saucer. And when you’ve had your share of tea, fill the saucer with water, and your “table” is now a birdbath.

14. The quickest way in the world to dry herbs: just lay a sheet of newspaper on the seat of your car, arrange the herbs in a single layer, then roll up the windows and close the doors. Your herbs will be quickly dried to perfection. What’s more, your car will smell great.

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