Monday, March 21, 2016

Growing a Garden: Organic Pest Management

Spring has sprung! We're on Day 2 of this year's spring season and boy does it feel like March here in Northern Illinois. Frost last night, high of 45 degrees today, high of 60 tomorrow, and then on Thursday, snow! Ahhh peaceful prairie living, I tell you. Spring weather is spontaneous, moody, and barely predictable. So basically it's me, any given day of the week.

But weather also induces inspiration. Gardens and fields across the globe equally feel the pain of a dry summer, a bug-breeding surplus, or a cold snap mid-season. And we, as garden-making humans, try to lessen the heartache by developing our own way of doing things...of trying to control the environments around our little plants....of trying to mitigate the shock and abuse of something we cannot control.

And for every gardener on this planet, you'll find a different set of gardening habits and procedures. Mention gardening in public and you will hear, without fail, a number of tips or tidbits picked up from books, magazines, grandmas, and the long lost online articles of our yesteryear. You'll hear about an experience with eggshells, a devotion to soaker hoses, or the coveted practice of leaving little cups of beer around to capture slugs. Everyone has an opinion.

Especially when it comes to bugs.

Now as I mentioned in the very beginning of this series, I am not a pesticide girl. I do not like soil mixed with chemicals and I do not like bug-reducing sprays and seeds. That doesn't mean, however, I am not utterly obsessed with finding new ways to win my personal vendetta against the squash bugs that destroyed my punkins the first year I tried to plant anything. Or that I'm not dedicated to backyard guerrilla warfare on a miniature level. I even wrap a multi-colored bandanna around my head when I go out there. Just call me Jembo.

You can fight back organically, passively, and cooperatively, I promise. It is possible and effective. Oh let us count the ways.

Companion Planting
This is my #1 favorite way to keep pests at bay. You see, nature kinda has this whole "growing" thing figured out. Nature created plants that help other plants and then nature stuck those two plants together and the two plants thrived....and then humans came along with our monocropping (acres of a single plant) and uncooperative agricultural practices (till, plant, till plant, don't let anything else grow!) and nature got sick of us and sentenced our fields and food to a million years of superbugs with no opportunity for parole. Hence, the chemical industry thrived.

But I found one incredibly tough tough, I was personally able to break out of the monocropping, chemical-sprayed food prison and become one with nature again. Jenshank Redemption. I'm on a roll today!

Companion planting, people. Take the inherently natural principles present in every plant and allow them to symbiotically function with the inherent natural principles of another. Do you feel me?

Let's practice with a little game of Veggie Date Match-Up, shall we?

I love my sweet peppers, but so do bugs. Onions, however, are smelly and known to repel worms, aphids, and slugs. Peppers and onions? Ding! A good match!

And onion flies (yuck!) love my onions, but hate carrots! So let's stick some carrots on the other side of my onions. Ooo! Double whammy - onions repel carrot flies! Wouldja look at that! Carrots and onions...ding! A perfect match!

Do you see what I'm getting at? Some of these plants work so perfectly well together it would be silly to plant them any other way.

My favorite example? Those who read my posts often (I love you three!!) will likely be sick of it....I've mentioned it in my Maintenance-Free Food Garden post and my I Love Summer Break post....but for the sake of awesomeness, I absolutely must mention it here even though it has less to do with pests and more to do with just growing something that actually grows strong and healthy....

The 3 Sisters Method

Corn naturally grows tall, long stalks right? Like a pole? And guess what corn needs to grow strong and tall? Nitrogen in the soil.

And which plants help retain nitrogen in the soil? Well beans, of course. And guess what pole beans need to grow? That's right....poles! Or trellises. Or corn stalks.

And what keeps weeds at bay? Huge leaves, right? They shade out the sun and make the soil inhospitable to leaves and growth in general. Well and guess what food grows on plants with huge've got it! Squash!

And now for my magic trick.....corn feeds us sugar, beans - protein, and squash - veggie vitamins. It's a complete meal, grown together in perfect cooperation, developed back in the day by nature-approved Native American tribes.

Isn't that incredible? It never ceases to get me amped up. I am over the moon about companion planting.

No-Pest Flowers and Herbs
Now if companion planting is too overwhelming, consider selecting a few plants specifically known for their anti-insect features.

Nasturtiums and marigolds are my two favorite pest-free flowers. If I had to pick one I would choose Nasturtiums because they are edible and tangy. Make your salads pretty while keeping bugs at bay? Yes please!

Both flowers work by popping up in bold, bright colors and producing an insect-repelling scent that washes over your garden like a beautiful blanket of love. Fortunately, these flowers do not repel pollinators - in fact, their bright colors draw pollinators nearer to your garden. Score!

Herbs also work really well. They are stinky to bugs but delicious to us. I like to use dill, but you can also inter-plant basil or other strong herbs - just keep an eye on them! Mint, especially, tends to take over.

Dichotomous Earth
Some people love it, some people hate it. This stuff kills bugs - all bugs. Every bug. Even precious little ladybugs. BUT...if I had an infestation I couldn't control, I would absolutely try using this stuff because it doesn't involve any chemicals and I have some lying around for my wintertime chicken feather baths. Yep. I have those now....who would've thought the words "wintertime chicken feather baths" would ever cross my lips, let along become something I write about. But I digress.

Dichotomous earth is actually pretty dang neat when you think about it. It is, and I quote from Mother Earth News, made from "fossilized prehistoric crustaceans called diatoms." Apparently these little dead fossilized diatoms are super sharp and they quite literally cut into the bodies of insects and kill them by leaking out all their water until they die from dehydration. So metal.

Remove Death!
Next in our unintentionally death-themed post is a very easy but sometimes overlooked answer to pest problems - remove your dead stuff! I have a huge earwig problem - they love to make babies in the dead leaves left under all of my huge veggie plants. This is especially important as summer wanes and your plants start to ripen/dry out for the season. Some of those insects can overwinter so compost the dead and let them live again!! Dr. Frankenjen!

Chickens :) or Birds! Birds are good enough, too!
I love my chickens so much I had to give them a little shoutout here. Chickens are fantastic bug eaters. They love bugs - especially live bugs. I dug a few holes to plant some trees last week and I kept finding little rolled up (alive) cicada babies and boy can I tell you, my chickens were in heaven. They eat anything that crawls, flutters, buzzes, slithers, or wiggles. They scratch the soil up to find the bugs and then poop on the soil, providing instant fertilizer. They also give eggs. And they have fluffy butts that are just cuter than anything on the planet.

Wild birds do the same, minus the scratching. And yummy eggs. Well...and the fluffy butts. BUT wild birds love bugs and they sing pretty songs. Attracting some bug-eating birds to your yard can sometimes be as simple as installing a few birdhouses and winter feeders.

I built one of my raised beds from cedar fence planks. They smell like everything that is right with the world....but bugs do not like them. Basically I've learned bugs don't like strong smells, period. Or maybe it's that the strong smells mask the smell of their favorite foods? Either way, cedar in your garden is beautiful and good-smelling and rot-resistant all by nature's design.

Water Bucket
Yep. When the going gets tough and everything else has failed you, it's time to grab your gloves and a bucket and get out there. You can flip over leaves in the early dawn to find most pesky insects but some will require some stealthy maneuvers involving sticky tape and/or bowls filled with beer. Regardless, when you find your bugs, hand-pick them off your plants and toss them in a bucket filled with water. If you have chickens, just toss your water-logged bugs to the girls when you're done and watch them praise the heavens with joy. If you do not have chickens, well, you're SOL. Just kidding! If you do not have chickens, add some castile soap to your water and it will kill those suckers a little quicker.

So what do you think? Feel like you have a few more weapons in your arsenal to manage pests in your garden? We can't control the weather...or the imbalance of insects in our hood....but we can certainly create our own little backyard ecosystems that allow plants and nature to work cooperatively to adjust to life's little problems.

Do you have any organic pest-control methods? I'd love to hear about them in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the link below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?
Starting with Seeds

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, March 14, 2016

Growing a Garden: Starting with Seeds

Hello my lovely readers. We've moved into the 10th circle of hell over here on Dancing Feathers Farm. That's right. Daylight Savings Time.

Now one may think with my vast appreciation of all things agriculture, I would appreciate Daylight Savings Time. Its purpose, after all, is to allow farmers more time in the day to work in sunlight.

But not me. Not this Jen. Daylight Savings will get no love from me because this mini-farmer likes light in the morning. That's right. Light at 7PM isn't as important to me as light at 5AM. I like to wake to sunshine, you see. And it'll all balance out in a few more weeks when the sun "catches up." Until then, I am trying to focus on the good and not on the sleepy children with whacked-out schedules and my shock and surprise when I realize I've actually been up until 11PM, not 10PM, scrolling my Pinterest.

So let's talk positive, my friends. Let's talk gardening because gardening, unlike time, is glorious.

Last week we dove into planting zones, where to put your garden bed, and gathering your supplies. Now we are actually going to get our hands dirty....a little. Mini-dirt. Mini-pots. Mini-plants, really. And the most precious of all mini-items.....seeds.

Seeds are inspiration, potential, life, and nutrition all wrapped up into a little, inanimate morsel of goodness. Seeds are you hear me? If you are buying heirloom seeds (which I highly recommend you do) you are quite literally saving a plant variety that may already be endangered or well on its way to being endangered. Imagine holding the last Purple Indian Stripe tomato in your hands. Imagine showing your children how to harvest its seeds and replant them next year - the only Purple Indian Stripe tomato plant in your entire state, our country, or continent. What a powerful way to make a huge impact by doing something small.

Direct Sow vs Start Indoors
So before we dig into actual planting (see what I did there), let's talk for one sec about the difference between "direct sow" plants and "start indoor" plants. Any good seed company will tell you on the back of the packet whether your seed can be planted outside when the frost ends or started indoors to get a jump on the growing season. For a long time I thought all plants could be started indoors but turns out they cannot - corn in particular does not transplant well, so it should always be sown directly into the ground after the threat of frost has passed. Follow what your seed packet tells you and if you're unsure, Google is your planting buddy. Or me. You can always email me and I'll figure it out for you :)

I personally love direct sow plants. May comes along and my frost is gone and I head out there and *thunk* drop some seeds into the dirt and then whammo, food. Easy-peasy.

But I like peppers, my stomach whines, and strawberries, and onions, and all those other delicious foods that won't mature quickly enough to eat in your cold-ass climate if you just thunk them in the ground in May.

And thus, the need for starting seeds indoors arose. What my stomach wants, my stomach gets, people. We'll talk about direct sow seeds in a few weeks...but right now? Time for a little indoor action!

Seed Pot
You need a receptacle to hold your dirt and seeds. And can I please tell you, there are a ton of options for seed starting receptacles.

Peat pots - These are common, but controversial. I know. A peat pot - very dramatic little thing! But it's true and it's important so here we go. The material used to make peat pots (peat moss) is typically shipped in from Canada (that's a lotta fuel!) and taken from sphagnum moss growing in bogs. The peat is all the dead stuff - moss that has died, kinda like our leaves in the fall - and it forms under the moss. When we harvest peat, we remove the moss and the entire living ecosystem above it...we disrupt the natural system of the bog, something that is not at all easy to recreate or replace. And although peat is "renewable" (we can plant more moss, they say) the peat takes hundreds of years to form. That's like buying environmental stability on a credit card. Of course, the peat industry says they are aware and careful to never remove more than can quickly regenerate, but we should know by now that this Jen never believes anything a profit-driven corporation says about the environment.

Toilet paper rolls - Anyone who uses toilet paper already has these lyin around to be recycled. They are typically brown (unbleached) and decompose real well, so when you start your seeds in these you can simply pop them in the ground when it comes time to move your plants outdoors. In my experience, however, these little suckas fell apart too early. I used them for only a couple weeks before the water my plants needed soaked through and caused them to unravel. But still a fun and eco-friendly idea if you can figure out a way to hold them together!

Recycled yogurt containers - I know someone who saves each of her yogurt containers throughout the year and then uses them every spring to start her seedlings. Of course, when using plastic you cannot simply pop 'em into the earth when it's time to move them outside....but I love the idea of getting more use out of something slated for the trash!

Dirt pods - there is a do-it-yourself tool out there that allows you to create little, square pods or "soil blocks" to plant your seeds in. No material needed - these are nice and compacted and go right into the dirt when it's nice outside! My *new* favorite option - I used peat pots last year before really understanding what I was doing to the environment. Flaws, forgiven, people!

Newspaper pots - Another resource most of us have lying around! You don't need any adhesive or fancy finger-work to make these.....just some newspaper and a good tutorial. Again, these can go right in the ground when you're done with them.

Seed Starting Soil
Your seeds will probably start in any soil! I repeat - you do not need special seed-starting soil to get your seeds to grow. It will help to have light, loose, well-drained (meaning the water will flow through) soil that doesn't have anything else growing in it that could cause your seedlings to get sick. Seed-starting-specific-soils (holy crap) are all of these things - sterile, light soils allow little roots to grow and keep the plant from gettin' all stunted and sick. But you don't need to buy special soil if you don't want to. You can do whatever you want. Gardening is 25% book knowledge and 75% learning from experience.

If you do use a seed-starting soil, be sure to wet it prior to filling your containers. Not soaking, but enough to make it more like the dirt you'd get out of the ground. I made the mistake of not doing this once and I couldn't understand why my plants weren't growing. Special seed-starting soils almost repel water, man! You gotta moisten them beforehand. .....heh heh giggity

Pop 'em In!
Grab yo kids, grab yo wife, and have a seed-starting party. I let one kid put the dirt in the receptacle and another hand me the seeds. You want to plant them at the time and depths indicated on your packet. If there is no time indicated (6-8 weeks before last frost, for example), I start them 3-4 weeks before frost. If there is no depth indicated on your seed packet, I typically push them down about as far as my pinki-finger nail bed. Very scientific modes of measurement around here.

I contain all of my seedlings and seedling receptacles in cheap plastic trays. You'll want to do this to catch the water drainage and any dirt that might escape. Plus it's easier to carry the seeds outside when the time comes.

Let There Be Light!
If you don't have a south-facing window (like sad Jen), you'll likely need some helper light. My helper light is a huge shop-light with two regular fluorescent bulbs. It works fantastic, I had no issues last year, and the handy chain on the back of the lights allowed me to move it up and down as the seedlings grew.

They have special grow lights out there and I am sure they work fantastically. I myself bought one, mostly because it was purple, and decided I never would again as the light it radiated reached out maybe 2-3 inches....or enough to reach one seedling. For a $12 bulb. No thanks :) But if grow lights are your thing, grow on!

And although it seems like common sense, remember...your seeds do not need light until they sprout. If you're anything like me you'll be checking every single day so you'll know when they sprout and then, when that happens, light 'em up!

Water, Water, Everywhere
I found out the hard way - spraying water on your precious seeds with a huge spray bottle just blows the dirt and seeds right out of your container. True story. Until my seedlings started actually sprouting, I poured water into the bottom of the trays to allow it to be absorbed up into the dirt and then very, very carefully dribbled the water on top in tiny drops. This took me quite some time, obviously. There is likely a better way to do this, but I haven't found it yet.

Now to avoid watering and to create some heat, I also covered my seedlings until they sprouted. I used plastic wrap (cringe) but you can use old plastic containers, or anything way better than my lame, lazy plastic wrap. Make yourself a little greenhouse. Once the sprouts pop, though, I take the plastic off and let them breath. Don't want it too sauna-like or mold will grow.

The Hand Wave
Once your seeds are sprouted and you have a good idea of their light and water needs (they will stretch if they are not getting enough light), it's time to execute my favorite part of the seed-starting game....the Hand Wave.

I read once, I can't remember where, that running your hand over your seedlings (lightly) mimics the breeze and strengthens their stems. I don't know how true this is but boy do I love doing it. It tickles and it makes me feel like a good garden mama and it supposedly makes them why not?

There you have it. Not too bad, right? I'm tellin you, this gardening thing is not as intimidating as it seems. And it all starts with seeds. Seeds can be so much more than a flimsy packet of potential. They are a direct link to our history and a premonition of our future....all while feeding us. Respect your seeds and they will give you life beyond measure. And don't forget to tune in next week when we discuss pest control!

Anyone planting seeds this week? What are you planting? If you're not, what is holding you back? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Did you miss a Growing a Garden series post? Don't worry! Click the link below to catch up!
Where Do I Start?

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, March 7, 2016

Growing a Garden: Where Do I Start?

You. Guys. I opened my windows today and I heard birds singing. I let the chickens out and they pecked at actual, real-life grass. I walked to the mailbox in my socks. It's happening. Spring is upon us.

I could not be more excited to start this next blog series. I've spouted sonnets about creating maintenance-free food gardens and growing what you eat for quite some time. While writing my self-sufficiency post about food, I realized most people, myself included, simply don't know where to begin.

I'm finally taking the opportunity to break down the creation, maintenance, and harvest of your very own food garden.

But before we begin, a few little tidbits for your reference pleasure:
  • I live in a suburban area on a 0.5 acre plot of land
  • I am zoned residential
  • I am in growing Zone 5A - Northern Illinois. Our summers are hot and humid and our winters are cold and windy.
  • I have two kids, both picky little eaters
  • Dancing Feathers Farm, as I like to call my backyard, very recently became a female-only operation - so single ladies, this series is most definitely for you!
  • I am dedicated to organic practices
So with those things in mind, let's jump in, shall we?!?

Choose your own adventure
I've said it before and I'll say it again ... no point to growing tomatoes if you can't stand eating them. Gardening is work. It can be fun work, but it's work nonetheless. Don't bother wasting time with plants that look pretty but don't serve you and your family. I once bought a whole crapton of flowers because I was swayed by their gorgeousness in a magazine. Guess what? They cost me an arm and a leg, died within a year, and didn't do anything to "pay me back" for my money and trouble.

Grow plants that pay you back. They don't necessarily need to reimburse you by providing a food can plant perennials for pollinators, for example, or herbs for tinctures and salves, ground cover for nitrogen-fixation...beneficial plants come in many shapes, functions, and forms. 

Are you looking for food? List your favorite veggies. Don't even worry about feasibility at this point, we're just exploring your preferences. 

Are you trying to attract butterflies? Google some butterfly-loving plants, choose the five that look prettiest to you, and put them on your list. 

Bees? Do the same. 

Need to spruce up your front yard? Consider planting some bushes and flowers for the birds. These bird-beneficial plants will provide habitat, food, pest control, and best of all, a distraction from your fruit and veggies. 

Think about what you need - it's the easiest place to start!

Choose your zone
You want to grow plants that will...well...grow. You may love blueberries, but if the particular bush you're looking at is only suited for southern climates and you live in the north, you are going to be out of luck. 

The best way to narrow down which plant varieties you should try and grow is to purchase varieties that are proven/known/hypothesized to grow well in your climate or hardiness zone. 

I don't like the USDA, namely because they are owned by corporate chemical companies and do not function as an independent operating body intent on providing safety for our nation's citizens and farmers, so I will not link to their hardiness zone map in this post. I will, however, link to the Arbor Day Foundation's super simple zip code zone finder. These zone indicators are based on averages and estimations, mind you, so they are not perfect. Not all plant varieties are sold with suggested zone regions, either. So here's another little trick:

Choose varieties you see in the nature preserves around you, the gardens around you, at the farmer's market in your hood, or varieties named after/originating from regions similar to yours. If you live in a hot climate, for example, a tomato variety grown in the south of Italy would likely work very well in your region. I love Russian veggies, Slavic flowers, and anything that is both cold and heat tolerant. My location and weather is similar to that in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan, so I grab any varieties originating from those states. 

Until you get some trial-end-error germination (growth) under your belt, planting varieties suited for your climate is the best way to get a leg-up against mother nature's complexities!

Choose heirloom
Once you pick your varieties, it's time to get the seeds! That's right, I said seeds. Growing from seed is absolutely possible, doesn't take that much work, and is more cost-effective than buying grown plants. 

Heirloom seeds are the best. They are old, time-proven varieties of plants that are passed from generation to generation and kept safe from chemical manipulation. Heirloom seeds are almost always sold by organizations that function independently, free of any Monsanto ties or support. Speaking of Monsanto, if you don't know who they are and why they are the devil incarnate of the gardening/environmental/food safety/healthcare/agriculture world, check out this article. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one

My two favorite heirloom seed organizations are Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. They send you deliciously beautiful, free seed catalogues each year. Be prepared to be blown away. You will want everything. Everything. 

Choose a location
Do you have a yard? A balcony? A window? A rooftop? Where's the easiest location for you to access? The hardest location to access? 

Do you have pets and kids that could potentially get into your garden? How about nosy neighbors? Natural wildlife like deer, rabbits, and chipmunks? 

Take the sun into consideration, too. South-facing areas are always optimal because the sun shines in that direction the longest. Be conscious of big trees and shadows, awnings and porch umbrellas, or fences and neighboring homes. 

How about water needs? Do you have a hose hookup nearby? Will you be hauling water? Are there steps to fall down take into consideration? 

And lastly, if you're considering planting in the ground, think about getting a soil test done to determine your soil quality. It might not mean much right now, but once you start planting and needing to diagnose problems, knowing what your soil's pH level is could mean the difference between quitting in frustration or simply adding some eggshells and coffee grounds to your dirt.

Choose your supplies
If you're planting in pots, grab some pots from Craigslist or the resale shop. If you're building raised beds, consider recycled materials or materials that do not break down easy. I have a keyhole raised bed made of untreated cedar fence planks, raised beds made of cinderblocks I purchased new from a hardware store, and an herb spiral made of bricks I found in my backyard. Get creative! People plant in old boots, for cryin out loud, and it looks awesome. Go nuts.

Don't forget to stock up on your planting medium. Dirt can be expensive! If you're building raised beds, think about filling the bottom half with something cheap, like compost, rocks, leaves, or wood ash/shavings. Then you can fill the bed up with half as much dirt, but still have a great planting surface. I typically start buying my dirt in March, long before I can plant outside. Pre-buying like this helps me divide the cost up real nice and manageable-like. 

We'll talk about starting seedlings indoors next week, but if you're hoping to start seedlings, keep an eye out for sales on wire shelving units, shop lights, and little containers to start your plants in. Some people are recycling pros and use things as simple and innovative as toilet paper rolls or emptied yogurt containers, others splurge on peat pots and special trays. 

Get some great gardening gloves and a weed knife. Find an old bucket and make it your gardening bucket to help haul tools around and store them in one convenient place. I purchased a large wheelbarrow to help me with my weeding, but you may only need a recycled grocery bag, Try not to shop for your supplies by simply browsing the garden aisles....make a list ahead of time and stick to it. Way too easy to go broke looking at all the cool gardening inventions out there!

So whaddaya think? Five simple little steps to get you started in the right direction. They don't sound too daunting, do they? And that's the goal for this entire series - gardening broken down into easy, accessible, and affordable steps that even the craziest Jens can understand :)

Stay tuned for next week - Seed Starting 101!

What is your biggest gardening insecurity? Do you struggle with a particular part of the planning or growing, or do you have a nemesis plant variety? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading :)

Did you enjoy this post? Check out the rest of the Growing a Garden series by clicking the links below!

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)