GardenDishes

dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the category “organic”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Oh, deer, not tonight, please

Help! We bought a house in the suburbs that needed new landscaping, but every time I put out plants, the deer come during the night and eat them. What can I do?

Deer nibble much of the green in their paths unless your plants don't rate high on the menu.

Deer nibble much of the green in their paths unless your plants don’t rate high on the menu.

Ask folks planning a move into the countryside how they feel about nature and they’ll express devotion. A year and hundreds of landscaping dollars later, the attitude often has drastically changed. Pest control companies make their living off this fact: we like the natural world as long as it stays in our control… nature within prescribed boundaries. Termites tunneling in downed timber? Mosquitoes munched by mockingbirds? Snakes snacking on mice and rats? Wonderful! Deer munching in a serene landscape on the horizon? Lovely. When it’s OUR serene landscape where they’re munching, however, that’s a different story.

So how can we protect nature while keeping our gardens from becoming the Luann platter tonight? Deer-free zones don’t exist where deer do, but you can follow some simple steps to encourage nibbling elsewhere with PLANTS, PARAPHERNALIA, and PARABLES. This post goes over the plants. Looks for the next two deer-deterents later, same bat-time, same bat-channel. (Only those of us over a certain age will know what the heck I’m talking about, and only YOUR hairdresser knows for sure…. Yes, another oldie but goodie from ads of Christmas past!)

• PLANTS – Love fresh greens in your salad? So do deer! New growth lures deer in for the locavore smorgasbord. But there are specific plants they don’t find quite as appealing. Look to the surrounding area for ideas. What plants do deer ignore in others’ gardens or in the indigenous plantings nearby? If your yard is an undistinguishable humdrum café, deer will look around for culinary excitement.

Not only can you discourage browsing ON certain plants, but WITH certain plants. Strong herbs such as rosemary or society garlic to throw off the scent and repel deer. Native plants are also naturally more deer resistant as edging can signal b-o-r-i-n-g, and keep deer in the dark about the rest of your yard. For a list of plants to use, contact your local native plant society or Master Gardener group.

Living with Low Spots

After it rains, our back yard takes forever to drain. It’s so discouraging to plant things and they drown. How can we get rid of the water without flooding our neighbors?

Drainage dilemmas plague many folks, either with seasonal sinkholes where water collects after a rain or a spot that’s always spongy and nothing grows well but weeds. Now we are talking shallow depression in the yard here, not hole-big-enough-to-eat-the-house-Florida-style.

raindropsLike a leaky roof, you probably don’t even think about drainage until it rains.

Landscaping professionals may disagree on HOW to solve drainage issues, but most agree the best solution financially and physically is to work with what you’ve got. Obviously if muddy waters rage through your yard like the Mississippi at flood stage – and you’re not interested in water-front property – you might need to a more comprehensive remedy. However, if your problem is periodic or simply a nuisance, here are a few inexpensive or even FREE ideas to try.

GRADE: Lawn grass responds best to a minimum 1/4″ drop vertically for every foot horizontal distance. That grade should point AWAY from your house, meaning soil at your home’s foundation should be the highest point. (Unless you live on a mountain, but that’s another post for another day.) Why? Constantly soggy soil means constantly soggy grass which means a lawn in constant distress. Expect diseases, especially fungal infection, and the pests that follow to become the dominant feature of your landscape if the slope’s too slight.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

DRAINS: A “dry river” can be installed to quickly wick water away from your low spot.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A bit of river rock, making sure it’s headed DOWNHILL, is an easy fix. But if the stones block instead of remove water, might as well invite the neighborhood over for a  pool party next time a black cloud hovers. Water gushing  down your river?  A large boulder or clump of ornamental grass strategically located slows the flow. If the runoff is more than a dry river can handle alone, or if the area is not conducive to such a feature, consider a French drain instead of or besides. There are plenty of how-to’s online for French drains. If you hire drainage done, you might take the advice of a landscaper friend of mine when interviewing installers: “If you call in somebody to help with drainage and they don’t have a level in their truck, run ’em off!”

PLANTS: If the area is wet for a short time and not a nuisance, consider planting natives that thrive with wet feet, soaking up the extra moisture. Or how about creating a wildlife or bog garden, or even a water feature to take advantage of your problem? Check your local native plant society for a list of appropriate ones for your area.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

Duel purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

Dual purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

RAIN BARREL: At my house, rain barrels are going in at the gutter downspouts. When I build my new porch, I’m planning the roof based on collection of rainwater so my garden is self-sustaining when irrigation limitations come back, as they surely will.

Before you head for the big guns, be sure your plumbing or irrigation isn’t leaking and you’re watering properly.  Then next time it rains, look for your low spots. Choose a remedy that will turn your problem on its head, making the area the HIGHlight of your landscape. Not so discouraging after all, is it? cc:

IF YOU HAVE A LANDSCAPING CHALLENGE, SNAP A SHOT AND LET ME KNOW. WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT TOGETHER!

3 RULES FOR CHOOSING PLANTS

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’ve been working with my friend Cindy Huey on the area in my front yard near the entrance. When we moved to this house a few months ago, there were two huge sago palms (which are highly toxic, by the way) and 20 shrubs in an area barely large enough to support one of the sagos. The planting was original to the house and, as usual, the builders weren’t thinking past selling the house. That’s reasonable for them, but awful for the buyers. Or for the NEXT buyers, 12 years later. Although the previous owners did a great job on maintenance, everything was planted only inches from the sidewalk. Keeping the dwarf bottlebrush and boxwoods from attacking visitors must have been a constant chore and certainly a battle I chose NOT to fight. I transplanted the bottlebrush to the side yard and gave away the boxwoods, which are not a good plant choice for our area anyway.

Since I’m a professional landscape designer, you might wonder why I might need another landscape professional to help me at my house. It’s more fun and more productive to have an outsider’s view: more fun because Cindy’s enthusiasm over plants makes working with her a blast; more productive because it’s hard to make decisions when it’s YOUR STUFF. As a plant freak myself, I know how many options I have, so how can I possibly choose just a few? Thought some of you might have this dilemma, too, so I’ll share criteria for picking just the right plants for my entry garden.

1) Does it fit? Choose plants that will not overwhelm and overtake the space when full-grown. Yes, a one-gallon shrub looks Lilliputian next to a house, but it will grow. It’s pretty important that visitors can physically enter the entry.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

2) Does it fit? No, I’m not repeating myself. Well, I am, but I’m talking about a different kind of fit here. While the sago palms went well with the stucco of my home if I wanted a Gulf Coast vibe, my style is more California Spanish. I’ve also replaced water guzzlers for water savers, planting native and well-adapted succulents, perennials, and soft grasses and installing a Mexican beach pebble mulch. This allowed me to cap some of the irrigation. If we experience a repeat of the last 3 years’ water rationing, we’ll be ready with plants that love the heat and humidity, but don’t mind drying out periodically.

3) Does it look good? All the TIME? I enjoy putting out annuals for seasonal color. Since we don’t have a lot of big seasonal changes in South-east Texas, annual color lets me fake-it-till-it-makes-it. While we have tons of great warm season perennials and some plants that will bloom year-round in years we have no freezing weather, I enjoy my mums in fall, johnny-jump-ups in winter, daffodils for spring. Yes, all of these will probably make it all year, but I don’t want to let them go into the off-season on my time, making brown yuk the highlight of my landscape. Color pots are the answer for my front entry. By putting evergreens as the base planting, I can pop a pot into the scene and WHOLLA! seasonal interest! It also allows me to shift the pot of gross looking but still living plants to a side area and bring out the new seasonal container. (See how I do it HERE.)

Follow these 3 rules for the entry and your plant pallet dwindles down to a manageable decision. Now the backyard is a different subject all together, ’cause RULES? We don’t need no stinkin’ RULES! We’ll head to the backyard soon, so stay tuned.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

YOU CAN GROW THAT: squash isn’t just a child’s game!

When you follow the rules in gardening, it works.  When you don’t, it doesn’t.

A harvest in summer requires following the recipe in spring.

But the rules we must follow are not OURS.  They are nature’s rules.  That’s why gardening seems difficult.  We Americans tend to be proud of our rule-breaking ways! Actually, rules make things much easier and as Andy Rooney loved to ask, “EVER WONDER WHY…. ?”.  Well, in gardening, you don’t have to wonder.  The law of sowing and reaping cannot be bargained with or altered.  It offers a comforting predictability. Plant a squash seed, get a squash, unless yet another of nature’s rules intervenes, such as survival of the fittest squirrel or cutworm or squash bug. When it comes to planting any seed, it will have its own set of rules.  Too deep for one is just right or too shallow for another.  Think Goldilocks.  As trying as it may be, knowing thy seeds is much like knowing thy child (or spouse): they are all different and have specific needs that, like it or not, require meeting if they are to thrive.  Okay, back to seeds….  squash seeds, in particular. I grow primarily two types of summer squash. (I’ve put out seeds for winter squash, too, but those disappeared in a downpour the next day. Probably could look in my neighbor’s yard for them, but didn’t have a decent LOW-FODMAP recipe for them anyway, so just waved good-bye.)

4-6 seeds per mound for zucchini squash is a good start.

RULES FOR SUMMER SQUASH

1) Both my summer types – zucchini style and the yellow straight-neck – have the same basic needs list: SUN, WATER, and TIME.

2) Seeds sown in hills – with 5 or so seeds to a mound and a 1/2 inch soil and a sprinkling of pine straw mulch – is my success recipe. My daddy taught me how and his Uncle Jim taught him.

3) Germination to ripened harvest is a couple of months, but the time from production to harvest seems only a few minutes.  It’s a booger keeping up once they start popping. I find it easiest to have a couple of sowing dates (mid-March and mid-April here in Texas) so they don’t all ripen simultaneously. Squash fatigue sets in pretty quickly at my house.  If I miss early seeding because of a late-cool snap, I purchase plants from my local nursery instead of using open-pollinated seeds stored from last year’s crop, a reputable seed company or CSA.

4) Keep squash plants picked to keep them producing.  The flowers are also tasty, which alleviates some squash over-load.  Top a salad with a yellow squash bloom for a lovely edible garnish.  Folks here along the Gulf Coast eat them fried, too.  (I might try that this summer since my daughter found a gluten-free breadcrumb mix for me.  Thinking about using corn flakes as batter…anyone experimented with that?)

Slice squash thin for freezing or dehydrating.

5) Squashes are impatient. Pick while young so they aren’t tough. And since they rot quickly after harvesting, what I don’t eat or share, I slice thin, put on a cookie sheet in the freezer then into containers and back into the freezer.  Since slices freeze individually on the cookie sheet, they easily pour out individually.

Introducing children to gardening is one of my passions. Passing on to them that there are natural rules and consequences we cannot change makes for a more fruitful – and less frustrating – life, for both parent AND child.  So get a packet of squash seeds and grab a kid (your own, preferably).  A bit of spring sweat will turn sweet come summer.  In fact, it will be a summer neither of you will soon forget. c:

HIT:Gardening with kids teaches EVERYONE patience!

Easy to grow from seed: LET US have LETTUCE!

Some of the new kids on the block...or at least in MY block!

Some of my lettuce is beginning to bolt.  Just when it starts getting too hot in the kitchen and I prefer a cool salad over a warm meal, my salad fixins’ peter out on me.  While I LIKE flowers, when a stalk shoots up on lettuce to produce flowers – thus producing seeds – I know my fresh-from-the-garden lettuce days are numbered.

'Vulcan' lettuce from seed, new to my garden this year.

A few things about growing lettuce…..

1) Most salad greens – like lettuce and spinach – prefer cool weather.  That means the Gulf Coast version of winter makes perfect growing conditions, while summer (and spring and fall) are too hot for them.  They bolt, another word for “going to seed” as my grandmother called it.  When they start this route in order to propagate (make babies), the leaves soon turn bitter. I do have a couple of varieties that last a little longer: ‘Red Sails’ and an oakleaf type whose seeds came to me from a neighbor.  She calls it “Israel lettuce” and says seeds traveled to Texas in an unnamed pocket after a visit to the Holy Land. Jury’s still out on several new ones – a tennis ball heirloom I bought from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, ‘Vulcan’ that Sakata Seeds sent me and an organic blend given to me by Territorial Seed Company – to see how they do in the heat.*
2) They key is to NOT dig a hole for the tiny seeds; instead, dot them around on moist, scratched dirt and top with a sprinkling of potting soil.  Keep them damp, but don’t pour water. The deluge will dislodge the seeds and they’ll end up sprouting somewhere else, like at your neighbor’s house.
3) I start putting out seeds around Labor Day and plant a few more in a couple of weeks.  By Halloween, I’ve got enough salad to feed my subdivision.  I have enough to feed my family long before that.
4) Some folks swear they’ve found a good summer greens substitute with Malabar spinach.  I’ve grown this vine and while it is pretty, its taste is a bit strong to me.
5) Lettuce makes a great bed edging if you are more into aesthetics than edibles.
6) Salad greens work GREAT in pots if you are yardless, or if you have trouble bending to garden.
7) Different types of greens have different nutrient levels. Texas A&M put together a chart to show you what’s what.

HIT:lettuce is easy to grow from seed!

So…..would you like some seeds?  Leave a comment to tell me and I’ll mail some out when mine go to seed.  We’ll have a salad together.  Wanna try the Vulcan? Don’t know if it will last the summer, but put enough of my Asian dressing on it and I think even my garden clogs might taste pretty good!

Live long and prosper.

(*While I do not receive compensation, I was paid in SEED MONEY…..got free seeds from Territorial and Sakata companies.)

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