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Triumph and defeat in the garden

I’ve never had much luck with starting seeds indoors. Every year I look at the cost of a packet of seeds in comparison to started plants at the nursery and decide to try again. And every year I think that in future I should save the money and frustration and just plan to buy the started plants at the nursery in future.

That whole damping off thing is a killer. Of plants, of gardening enthusiasm, of all my vague dreams of harvesting my own seeds in the fall to start the following spring.

This year was going to be different. This year I started with heirloom varieties, partially because of that vague dream of saving my own seeds, and partially just because I like the stories behind them. It’s like planting a little piece of agricultural history as you read that the corn you are planting was the first yellow corn found acceptable for human consumption.

This year I planted them with much more soil and did away with the flimsy plastic greenhouse cover in favor of monitoring the moisture daily with my finger.

This year I had nowhere to go during those most critical days of a newly sprouted seedling. In years past, it was often a weekend away that resulted in too much or too little moisture for wee little sprouts who barely poked their heads out of the soil before returning to it.

This year my seedlings grew. Thrived, even.

If it weren’t for Abby, the herbicidal cat, and Pepper, the pepper killer, I’d likely have had more tomatoes and peppers than I knew what to do with. As it was, I had seven tomato plants and twelve pepper plants sitting in their containers. Outgrowing their containers. Begging me to move them to the garden.

My husband and I sat down with some old fencing we found in the barn and made cages for the tomatoes. I wanted them to get just a little bigger, just a little more resistant to goose nibbles and rabbit munches. I wanted them to live.

I found a strange pleasure in buying tomatoes and peppers at the store. Every time I looked over the pinkish tomatoes, not quite finished with their ripening after being picked green in California or Chile or somewhere else warmer than Nebraska, I thought of vine ripened sweetness from my own garden. Every time I winced at the price of green peppers and thought of breaking down and buying them frozen, I thought of fresh abundance in my harvest basket.

Then planting day came.

Then a storm came.

I carefully plucked the tomato leaves out of the muck and propped them against the bottom wire of their cage so they could dry out. The peppers seemed to savor the rain. I thought all was well.

Then a real storm came.

A storm with wind that shook the house. A storm that forced rain under a section of the roof which proceeded to pour down the bathroom wall and into the basement. A storm with hail. Quarter sized hail that flattened the corn, drove the tomatoes back into the muck and broke the spirit of the pepper plants that seemed so joyful the day before. By afternoon, it was clear the tomatoes and peppers were dead. The corn I’m still not sure about, but it persists in looking healthy, even if it is growing at a 45 degree angle.

Today, I took no pleasure in buying two tomatoes and a green pepper.

Buying started plants was like an admission of defeat.

Who knew a simple vegetable garden could be such an emotional roller coaster?

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The importance of site selection in organic gardening

I feel like I’m sort of stating the obvious here, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said.

You know those plant tags that come stuck in the soil of potted plants? They’re there for a reason. They tell you really neat things like how often your plant wishes to be fertilized, whether it likes sunny locations or prefers shade, and whether it likes acidic soil or something more neutral.

You can even find out things like that on a seed packet. It is amazing all the information that comes packed in such a small space.

I know people pretty much want to do what they want to do. We want to stay up late, so we invent light bulbs and caffeine and then complain of insomnia. We have a spot in the yard that needs a bit of color so we plant a rose bush, never mind the giant oak tree shading out even the most tolerant of grasses. Then we spend the life of the plant researching pests and disease and figure we just aren’t cut out for roses when it finally succumbs.

Now, when you begin to plant, you have a choice: Follow the instructions and have a pretty good chance at a healthy plant, or stick it wherever you want and guarantee seasons of fighting pest and disease because the plant isn’t getting what it needs from the day you put it in the ground.

The people who owned our last house before us were obviously gardeners. The property was full of irises, peonies, tiger lillies, roses, tulips and many other lovely plants. Some of them I still can’t identify, but they were beautiful.

Still, they stuck the tiger lillies under the water spout where they only got a few hours of sun each day. They limped along, with crinkled foliage, and crinkled flowers that bloomed weeks after our neighbor’s show was over. I moved them over to my butterfly garden to provide a bit of a windbreak and they did better there the year they were transplanted than they ever had before.

This property, on the other hand, was left vacant for at least two years. Weeds had taken over all the flower beds, and waist high grasses hid the flower beds from view. Even with years of neglect, an abundance of flowers have fought their way through the tangled mess of weeds to give us quite a show and the encouragement to help them a little in their struggle.

Because they started out healthy and were given every chance to succeed, they’re coping with a little hardship. Whether that is weeds, a dry spell or an insect attack doesn’t matter. A healthy plant has its own natural defenses.

Seriously. After selecting the right cultivars for your area, planting it according to the directions is the most important factor in a healthy plant and a healthy plant is the key to not needing an abundance of chemicals to help the plant along.

For more on beginning organic gardening, well, it’s a whole series! Just click the link or the button at the beginning of the entry!

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Free chicken treats, or Organic June bug control

I left the children’s water table under a porch light the other night and woke to find this.

June bugs

I thought what any chicken owner would think.

chickens eating june bugs

My chickens were delighted. So the next night I made sure the water table was parked there and placed a bucket under our other porch light. Suddenly I’m motivated to fix the other two outdoor lights we have.

What’s more, June bugs are a bit of a pest, defoliating shrubs and trees in early spring. By mid summer, their grubs are ready to start damaging your lawn and even your vegetable patch.

A healthy lawn is usually able to handle a mild attack of June bug larva, but they can become a problem when conditions are dry (as they usually are here in Nebraska come August) or if the larva population is just too large. My chickens are doing their part to keep the numbers under control!

I may even go sweep up all the beetles that crash land on my sidewalk and patio. I think they’ll store nicely in a bucket until morning.

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Preparing the garden

First, we planned a beautiful garden on paper. A garden that would provide a significant source of food for our family. A garden big enough that we’re going to have to buy another freezer to store the harvest in, if we ever get the harvest planted.

Then we plowed. It was April. A little late to get started since I had snow peas, lettuce and spinach that were all good to go in the ground. But to plow, you need a tractor and a plow and that all takes time.

Then it rained. It rained so much that Nebraska’s wheat harvest is struggling with mold and fungus issues.

As the last frost date quickly approached, I wondered if we would be able to get the garden tilled in time to even get in the carrots.

Then we had a late freeze. A late freeze that took out between 40 and 60% of Nebraska’s sugar beet crop. I learned that having a garden, even if it is just sitting there waiting for you to do something with it, makes you pay attention to the news and the weather report in a different way.

Finally, we gave up on the idea of purchasing a disc harrow for the tractor and decided to rent a tiller. But we still had to wait for it to stop raining.

It finally did. For three days in a row. On the third day, the ground was dry enough to till.

Then we waited for the rain so we could plant.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally bought a hose.

I planted 100 square feet of corn as the sun went down, approximately 1/4 of what is planned for this garden. Today, the goal is to finish the corn and the beans.

As much work as planting is . . . well, I’m trying not to think about what the harvest will be like.

At least I’ll have help with the weeding.

Check out more Saturday on the Farm posts at Linda’s Lunacy!

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Selecting the right plants for a successful organic garden

Our garden is finally plowed and tilled. I’m working on making tomato cages out of strips of old fencing and figuring when I can go ahead and plant. This young lady weighs heavily on my mind.

See how she’s looking so longingly at my garden? She sees it the same way I do, as if it were already green and lush and heavy with produce. And she isn’t the only one. Cabbage moths, grasshoppers, hornworms, aphids and countless other pests, some of which are too small to even see, are all hanging out in the soil, the surrounding plants, the air and possibly on my transplants themselves waiting for their take of my harvest.

Winning the battle against these unwelcome intruders begins long before they are actually a problem, however. In fact, it begins before you even plant your first seeds. It begins by choosing the cultivars most appropriate for your area. That advice may be a little late for most of you, but it is never too early to start planning for next year.

How to choose the best plants for your area:

Decide what plants you want to grow.

Get to know your county extension’s website. All those glowing descriptions in the catalogs don’t mean half as much as a recommendation from someone whose job it is to compare the success of various cultivars in your area.

Know your USDA Hardiness Zone. Remember that this is only a general guide. Just because I’m in Zone 5 doesn’t mean everything labeled Zone 5 will survive a Nebraska summer. Or a Nebraska winter. Or the Nebraska wind.

Know your first and last frost dates. This is important for timely planting, but also for ensuring that your growing season is long enough for the plants you favor.

Know the microclimate of your area and where your garden will be located. Is it on a south facing slope or near a warming structure such as a retaining wall or the house? You may be looking at plants normally grown a little further to the south.

Know your soil. Is it clay? Sandy loam? Full of rocks? Is it acidic, neutral or a little alkaline?

Watch your garden and see how many hours of sun it gets. Is it enough for the sun loving tomatoes you crave? Do you have a little shade to help keep your lettuce going longer into early summer?

Know how many freeze hours are typical for your area. This is really only relevant if you are interested in fruit trees.

Choose disease resistant varieties.

Be willing to change your garden plans. We had our hearts set on blueberries, but according to our research, there just aren’t any good cultivars for our area. They require too much soil amendment and about the only way to grow them is in a container buried in the ground. That sounds like a plan for years of fighting against nature to maintain an ill-suited plant.

If you look beyond national chain stores, you will find a wealth of cultivars allowing you to grow your favorite garden vegetables in a wide variety of climates and soil conditions. As you learn more about your area, you may even find plants you had never considered before.

The most important thing to remember in organic gardening is to work with the local environment as much as possible rather than against it.

For more in this series on beginning organic gardening, just click on the button. And please share your gardening experiences! How did you select your plants? Where are your favorite places to purchase seeds and young plants?