GardenDishes

dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

The Need For SPEED(y) Organic Weed Control

“How do I get rid of weeds in my garden?”

This is probably the most common question I get on my blog, website, and Facebook page, usually coming from someone wanting to garden organically and frustrated there’s not a fast, easy recipe for weed elimination. It’s sort of like my inability to lose a few pounds. It’s not truly an inability. I want an easy way without having to change anything. A shortcut. My problem is not the weight. I need to change my entire approach. A healthier lifestyle. Organic gardening only works when the approach is a healthier garden; not just organic plants but an organic environment, one where nature is in balance. There’s no short -or HORTcut. It’s simple, but not easy. And there will be weeds.

What are weeds anyway? One person’s weed is often another person’s flower.

Or even food.

Since I’m a wildflower fanatic and native plant lover who also tries to grow as much food as possible for us and wildlife, I look at it a bit askew.  For me, a weed’s a plant I’ve not found a use for yet that’s trying to crowd out one that I have found useful. George Washington Carver said, “A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place.” Many of our weeds have BECOME WEEDS because they are non-native, invasive species. But how do you make sure you have the plants you want in the right places? Here are 3 tips I’ve found to low-maintenance organic gardening that might help.

  • CHECK IT OUT. What and where are the weeds plaguing your garden? Use the weeds as your clue. Dogged by dollarweed ? It LOVES wet spots. Nutty from nutgrass/sedge? It’s kissing cousins to papyrus and other sedges that – like dollarweed – prefer to have wet feet.  By identifying your weed first, you should be on the right track to taming the beast.
  • CHANGE IT UP. If your weeds are moisture hogs, adding a bit of sand to improve drainage might do the trick, raising the soil level just enough to make the weeds less comfortable. If your particular genre of weed loves shade, open the canopy of the area by removing lower tree limbs. If it’s a sun lover, pile on the mulch or mow the grass higher, making it difficult to find its way to the sunshine.
  • CHOKE IT OUT. Some weeds are prolific because they can. If weeds are in your lawn, make sure your grass is fat and happy by adding composted materials and sufficient water. If they’re taking root in a flowerbed, heavy mulch (I use pine straw since I live in a pine forest) should do the trick. Having shrubs and perennials spaced at proper intervals leaves no open range for weeds. Having raised beds often alleviates weed issues, too.  I use several methods to remove weeds in beds, including old-fashioned weeding (I have a special tool for this), hot water, or vinegar – depending on where it is and the time of year. I’ll save these for another post.

Nature truly abhors a vacuum.  So the key to successful organic gardening is filling the space with what you choose, not what chooses to grow there. The other key? Tolerance for nature. It’s pretty natural, after all. And certainly organic.

TransPLANTed…AGAIN!

Yes, I’m a gypsy. No sooner than I’ve completed the last project on my to-do list (and hubby’s done with his honey-do list),  and I develop an acute itch only cured by priming the ZILLOW app on my iPhone. Hubby recognizes that dazed look on my face. He’s come to hate that look.

Last spring, hubby retired. We decided we’d live at our farm during the week (a 2 1/2-hour drive away) heading back to an apartment on The Waterway for weekends so we don’t miss grandkids or church. Sounds like a perfect retirement plan, right: no-maintenance living on one end, never-ending on the other. After all, I can write from anywhere with an internet connection. Lots of people do that. It’s called tele-pathetic work, I think.

But, God…He not only has a big BUT, He’s got an impeccable sense of comedic timing. The second day out on our retirement road trip to Yosemite, we got a call that could not have come from anywhere except above. So my hubby took the job and I took to ZILLOW. Again. The farm will continue as a weekend hobby for now.

Apparently, my plants have a touch of gypsy, too. Neighbors (of numerous houses) swear they’ve witnessed shrubs and perennials in my yard lift their skirts…uh…er…ROOTS when they see me coming with a shovel. The home we bought THIS time was a rental property for several years. It had good bones; however, a few were brittle, the rest broken. So here I come with my shovel.

shrubface

Want a happy face on your shrubs? Transplant at the right time!

We straddle the Texas Gulf Coast and the Pineywoods here. Our weather is somewhat temperate. Also somewhat temperamental, but that’s for another post. The best time to re-do a landscape is our version of winter, which actually translates as less-hot-than-other-seasons. People who hate cold come live here in the winter, probably in this house till we rescued it. Heat’s the nemesis rather than cold when it comes to gardening here. And snowbirding, too, come to think of it. I guess plants and people are a lot alike when it comes to weather – we both hate both ends of the spectrum.

 

So if you’re like me, always itching to move, my hubby recommends a shovel rather than a U-Haul. He also recommends keeping an auxiliary honey-do list in emergencies. Got your shovel and ready to move? Here are some to-dos for the gypsy plants on your list. Also, check out my friend Skip Richter’s YouTube on digging up the root ball.

transplant.jpg

Root prune plants before moving. I love my sharp shooter shovel because of the no-slip spot for my foot. It’s made by Fiskars. (I received no $ for saying this, or even a discount, by golly!)

 

 

 

 

 

Ants-in-the-Pants Not a Fun Game

Yesterday while removing spring/summer blooming plants in a raised bed, I found a little more than dying plants. Recent rains encouraged fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) to look for higher ground. Raised bed = water-free home. Think of a beach house on stilts. Part of the mound fell from the root ball of a plant onto the leg of my jeans. Passersbyers witnessed moves that haven’t come from my body in quite some time when  I was
stung several times. I still can’t figure out how those demons got skin contact. Soon after the fiery sensation (thus, the common name),  itchy red bumps emerged, morphing overnight into nasty looking bumps that made my right leg look more like a 14-year-old boy’s face.

These boogers have been a southern gardener – and nature lover – problem for several decades now, hitching a ride into the U.S. on ships or even plants imported from their native South America. This invasion does have its upside, though. “Fire ants voraciously consume populations of fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, scorpions, etc.” says Galveston County Master Gardener Trish McDaniel in a publication called “Beneficials In the Landscape” from Texas A&M University. “(The) culinary creed for fire ants could be: if it will stay still for a bit, then it’s dinner!”

As far as full-grown humans and livestock, this appetite fire ants have for the things we hate most is good news. Not so much for little ones, though. A fawn born near a fire ant mound can spell disaster if momma doe doesn’t get her baby away quickly enough. So too with a calf or kitten.

a-on-playground

Organic pest control is always best to use near children or pets.

There are a number of organic methods for ridding yourself, albeit temporarily, of fire ants. (A great website for this information is from Urban Harvest.) One free way is to pour boiling water on the mound’s freeway. Do this several times over a two-hour period for the best results, as some of the ants could be too far down in the earth to be killed with the 1st pour. As they BRING OUT THEIR DEAD (you Monte Python fans know the line), hit the mound again.

When I found the mound – or they found me – yesterday, I took a little different approach. With a school nearby and me nearby (I’m a clutz and can’t blame McDonald’s if I get scalded), I sprinkled a bit of instant grits around the area.

kiss-my-grits

For a cheap & easy fire ant bait, you can KISS MY GRITS!

The ants will take it down deep into the mound where it will absorb liquid and they’ll blow up like they’re on steroids and eventually implode. Or explode. The point is, they’ll no longer bite.

So sorry to disappoint, but I’ll not be doing the ants-in-the-pants dance for a bit. Unless DANCING WITH THE STARS calls. Then could I borrow a mound from you? That’s basically the only way to get my groove on these days, I’m afraid.

FRUIT FLIES FLOWN: a great organic remedy for fruit fly problems

This week my sister was visiting from Denver. Besides apologizing for the heat and humidity of our Gulf Coast summer, I found myself begging forgiveness for a hazy cloud in my kitchen.

Has anyone else noticed the fruitfulness of fruit flies this year?*

They’re awful! I realize it could be worse — it could be RAINING — but I’m fed up with the little boogers. They’ve even moved into my bathroom, and I promise there is NO fruit for them there. I’ve tried sticky traps, putting my compost jar in the fridge, and everything else I could think of to rid my kitchen of the fruit flies. (I don’t do chemicals, and diatomaceous earth doesn’t help with flying insects.)

close trap

TIP: Be sure you leave an opening at the bottom of the funnel for the fruit flies to get out into the glass.

My nephew and his wife came over for dinner and the brilliant girl had the perfect fruit fly RX: an easy homemade trap. She doesn’t remember how she 1st heard about it, and honestly, who cares as long as it works. And IT DOES! In 2 days the cloud parted and I haven’t seen a fruit fly since.

The proof's NOT in the pudding and neither are those pesky fruit flies!

The proof’s NOT in the pudding and neither are those pesky fruit flies!

  • a glass or jar
  • apple cider vinegar
  • rotting fruit
  • funnel that fits snuggly into glass/jar
  1. Put the rotting fruit into the bottom of the glass/jar.
  2. Add a tablespoon or so of vinegar.
  3. Top with the funnel.
  4. Periodically take it outside to free your captives.

*NOTE: Fruit flies can also be an issue on indoor container plants.

Produce Chart with Pesticide Levels

Several folks asked for a LABELED produce chart showing pesticide levels, so here it is! RED means it is likely to have a higher level and GREEN means a lower level usually.

If you cannot buy all organic produce, here's a lesser of evils approach chart.

If you cannot buy all organic produce, here’s a lesser of evils approach chart.

Always Best to Buy (or GROW) Organic Produce?

Lately, I’m getting more requests from my landscaping clients who’ve never considered themselves gardeners to grow their own food.

And they want to do it organically.

Horror stories of tainted greens drive many to question what else they might be buying in that bag of lettuce or spinach. Restaurants, bars, and even airlines blame skyrocketing prices for dropping lime and avocado from their menus. It might tempt some folks to just grow their own food. While citrus and other heat loving plants thrive in my part of the world, what about you who don’t have the weather – or space – to grow your own? Should you move? Well, maybe.

At my house, produce may be found throughout the landscape. If I cannot grow enough, the rest is bought from local farmers whenever possible. I believe in permaculture, which is simply good stewardship of the land. But, as I said before, my options for growing food are vast because of where I live.  And I enjoy gardening.

Should you buy or try? Check this chart to see what produce you should ALWAYS buy organic.

Check this chart to see what produce you should ALWAYS buy organic. Green means little pesticides, red shows what has the most pesticides in traditionally grown produce.

If you’re confused about buying organic produce, check out this chart I made for a lecture I gave. It shows which traditionally grown produce items have the highest pesticide levels. Scary? That’s not the purpose of my talk or why I’m sharing this information. I simply want to give you guidelines on which items deserve the extra bucks to buy organic, or extra time and space to grow in your yard, if your climate allows. Although this won’t necessarily make you a better organic gardener, it could make you a better shopper when it comes to organic produce.

NOTE: if you want an easy-to-reproduce copy of this chart, just let me know. I’m happy to send you a larger JPEG or PDF of it.

The Strike of The Poison Sisters (ivy, sumac, & oak)

Next time, I'm hoping to get an earful of the Pointer Sisters instead of the poison sisters.

Next time, I’m hoping to get an earful of the Pointer Sisters instead of The Poison Sisters. (This is AFTER 3 days of steroids & with a load of cream on it to stop the itching.) 

My friend Kylee announced last week she had contracted a common gardening disease. My exposure coincided with hers, although we live nowhere close to one another. And we aren’t unique this time of year. As seedlings emerge in the warm spring sun, so do we gardeners. For the 85% of Americans who react to some degree to a plant oil called urushiol (yoo-ROO-shee-all), spring springs with more than we’d hoped.

My allergic reaction to urushiol – found in The Poison Sisters (oak, sumac, & ivy) – seems to be increasing annually. Or even semi-annually as I’ve gotten it spring AND fall in the last year. WebMD says it can either become more severe with additional exposures, or go away altogether as you’re desensitized. Mine is not going away. To be honest, the fact I’m more often around it since we bought our farm probably explains the increase in frequency, if not the increase in reaction.

Here’s info on what your skin‘s reaction might look like, and here are photos so you can spot The Poison Sisters before they spot you.  My friend Kylee Baumlee – co-author with Jenny Peterson of INDOOR PLANT DECOR from St. Lynn’s Press – shares her suggestions on how to get rid of the plant once you find it on her blog.

Zanfel 4 pois ivy

If you don’t catch the poison ivy exposure in time to wash it away, this scratches the itch.

Unfortunately, once again I had to go the steroids route to get it under control. Next time I’ll do it differently.

My friend Edgar Graham discovered if he immediately washes the area with DAWN dish detergent to cut the oil, he rarely has a reaction to the poison ivy. If he misses a spot washing and the dermatitis appears, he dabs a product called Zanfel to any bumps and within a few minutes the itch is gone and in a few days the rash disappears. Why Dawn? Maybe the Poison Sisters and Tony Orlando’s girls are like oil and water.

This photo, from Mother Nature Network, proves that DAWN dish detergent is for the birds. Or the ducks, anyway.

This photo, from Mother Nature Network, proves that DAWN dish detergent is for the birds. Or the ducks, anyway. My friend Edgar proves it’s effective on fighting The Poison Sisters, too.

 

Best fertilizer? Holy crap, BATMAN!

We’ve put in some new plants this spring and wondered what type of fertilizer you’d recommend.

Depends. What type of plants? What type of soil?  The best fertilizer for all plants and all soil types is rich soil. Don’t have that yet? Here’s my favorite fertility Rxs for the plantings here in my Texas garden. Here goes:

Crap happens. And when it does, let it rot and put it on your garden!

Crap happens. And when it does, let it rot and put it on your garden. Great soil is the best fertilizer for ANY plant!

ALL: Add 1-2″ composted manure over the whole landscape at least once per year. I try to do this Valentine’s Day. Why Valentine’s Day? It’s important this process occurs in cool months so plants or lawn won’t burn. The other reason for that date is I can remember it…fertility & Valentine’s go hand-in-hand…. or, well, you get the idea. For how long? I plan to stop with my annual cupid compost ceremony when I die, move, or my soil morphs into a rich loam yielding not only great produce, but also a shovel full of earthworms every time I effortlessly dig a hole. By the way, this is NOT mulch; it’s besides and underneath a spring application of mulch.

Osmaco&MedinaVEGGIES, FLOWERS, ETC. – Used as a foliar spray or poured-on soil activator, I keep a jug of Medina’s MEDINA PLUS  handy for monthly after-planting-pep-ups. This is also what I put into my compost to heat it up.

My double compost tumbler also boasts a spigot and container on bottom for an easy compost tea treat.

My double compost tumbler also boasts a spigot and container on bottom for an easy compost tea treat.

Speaking of which,  COMPOST TEA is a cheap – as in FREE – fertilizer. At my house, making compost tea is easy because of the composter I use: a double barrel tumbler with tea spout in the bottom. Never heard of compost tea? Here’s how to make it happen.

A local company (in Houston) called MICROLIFE has come up with great all-around organic fertilizers in several formulations for the different applications in the garden. They also have specialty formulations for specific plants, like azaleas and citrus, as well as for problems in the lawn, like brown patch. Their nifty online chart tells you what to use and when. I buy MicroLife by the 40 lb. bag, I’m such a fan.

When I tuck in just about any flowering/fruiting plant, I often add a dash of Osmocote for Flowers & Vegetables. This slow release, balanced (14-14-14) formula feeds the babies without burning or giving too much nitrogen (the 1st number in the 3 part formulation numbers, N-P-K), which makes it develop gorgeous green but few flowers. NEVER use lawn fertilizer in flowerbeds with blooming plants or they’ll spend all of their energy on the leaves and none on the blooms.

Another commonly used fertilizer that has no place in my garden is a “weed and feed” product. I absolutely hate these for many reasons, only one of which is how destructive it can be to plants other than lawn grasses. So if you have a grudge against me, you now know the chink in my armor!

NOTE: I am not paid, nor do I receive these products to endorse. I buy them at my local garden center just like you will.

Poinsettia Pointers & Other Plants to Ring in the New Year

The only care-free poinsettia is a fake one.

The only care-free poinsettia is a fake one, remaining perky even in snow. Or in the attic.

If you’re like me, it’s tough passing up after-Christmas bargains. And since my drug of choice is plants, a trip to the nursery the 1st week of January means I’ll extend the season with HUGE, beautiful poinsettias for less than $5 each. I look at this as a quick high, a temporary fix, though. You CAN get a return bloom next year, if you are willing to put in the effort. For 5 bucks, I’m not. In case you’re on JEOPARDY, by the way, what we call the blooms  are actually brightly colored leaves – or “bracts” – with the actual flower the tiny middle part. Feel free to share the prize money. It should get me a few more poinsettias for next year.

Kolanchoes have a long bloom period, come in several colors, and thrive indoors if given lots of light.

Kolanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)

have a long bloom period, come in several colors, and thrive indoors if given lots of light.

Want an alternate, repeat-blooming Christmas-y flower without the hassle? Try kolanchoe. No. It doesn’t double as a breakfast food. You’re thinking ko-LA-che. Don’t eat these. Like poinsettias and many other houseplants, kolanchoes are POISONOUS to people and pets if ingested. (Here’s a list with more poisonous houseplants for you.) Kolanchoes not only make great houseplants, they can be planted in the ground for almost year-round color in warmer climates.

Christmas cactus – Schlumbergera bridesii – may be an old-fashioned, hand-me-down plant, but it continues to be one of my favorites for its dependability in low light conditions. My original plant came from Dad 15+ years ago and I’m pretty sure his was a cutting from someone else. It always amazes me when the buds start to pop out of nowhere around the 2nd week of December. I’ve divided mine now and am sharing pieces with friends, too, which is one of my favorite parts of gardening. And yes, having indoor plants is still gardening!

This year I surprised several special people in my life with red amaryllis bulbs for Christmas. My friend (and my co-author on HEIRLOOM BULBS FOR TODAY) Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company offers them in a ready-to-give package. You can find a number of incredible bulbs to force for the holidays from Chris and Rebecca, in fact. Then after the blooms are done, plant them in your garden, if you live in a temperate locale like I do.

Do you have a favorite Christmas plant that’s easy to take care for? Not counting the silk poinsettias in your attic, of course.

Weeds or Woes? Choosing an Organic Method COULD Save Your Life!

Recently I heard you speak and you mentioned using RoundUp could hurt more than the weeds in my yard.

Can you explain?

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup....

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup….

Happy to expound on this one. A few weeks ago a neighborhood association asked me to look over their contract with a local lawn maintenance company. Immediately I redlined a problem: it specifically asked that RoundUp ®, a widely advertised glyphosate used in home and commercial gardening, be sprayed for weed control. I freaked, mainly because this is my HOA spraying next to my garden! I’d discovered genocide was going on in the neighborhood shortly after I moved in last fall when I drove up to a masked man, spray wand in hand in my front yard. I jerked open the car door, jumping up and down, screaming at the poor guy to get him to stop. I told him I’m an organic gardener and NEVER wanted to see his sorry spraying self in my garden again. He shrugged and moved the 4 feet over to my neighbor’s and began misting his poison again. 

So what’s the big deal? If you aren’t growing edibles – which I do throughout my entire landscape – you might not see any harm in using glyphosate as a short cut to weed eradication. Let’s face it: easy helps. Weeding is the toilet cleaning of gardening, in my opinion. And like toilets, it very seldom gets noticed… unless it does NOT get done. More and more research on what glyphosate does to our environmental systems AND our body systems should give us the heebie jeebies, even more than a nasty toilet. Just as it does with plants, glyphosate messes with our hormonal balance and cellular production. And since it’s designed to kill ALL plants, new findings show it does so IN us as well as around us, decimating the good bacteria needed for our intestinal health. And in September, the National Institutes of Health linked glyphosate to breast cancer. Here’s the article on their website. photo 1The stuff is especially dangerous to small children and pets. That means your little one playing in the lush lawn, or your pooch taking a poop where glyphosate has been applied exposes them to incredible danger, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, who offers some of the symptoms you can expect to see.

So what’s a healthy alternative? I’ll offer a few of my favorites – including cinnamon and white vinegar – in an upcoming article.

Many of the health issues we experience link unbreakably to our determination to travel easy street. The use of glyphosate is just one of the many toxic trails we find ourselves following when searching for a magic pill to perfection. I’m praying that as the public becomes more informed, getting rid of weeds the easy way won’t be as enticing to home gardeners and consumers as will good health for our loved ones and the planet we love. If we’ll insist commercial growers and maintenance companies ditch the poison completely, we might see a turn around in our generation. One neighborhood at a time.

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