Native Leaf Mulch for Tomatoes

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in South Texas gardens, but tomatoes are also one of the most difficult vegetables to grow.   The intense heat of our summers, and the relentless Gulf winds, are great challenges to the gardener.

Tomatoes can withstand a lot of heat during the day, 100 degree temperatures or higher.  But it is the nighttime soil temperature that matters.  Tomatoes can only set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  When the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees, the plant may live, but it will not make tomatoes.  That’s why tomato plants often stop producing by July or August.

But you can cool your soil and produce tomatoes through the heat of summer with good mulching.

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Mulch serves as a blanket of insulation over the garden:  mulch prevents weeds, stabilizes soil temperature, and helps retain moisture in the soil.  Good mulching can dramatically reduce the amount of water required for the garden.

Mulch also prevents the soil from drying out in our relentless Gulf winds:  90% of the microbial activity of the soil is found in the top four inches, the layer that dries out the fastest.  Mulching protects this delicate layer of topsoil.

The best mulch material is always the most native, and the very best mulch of all is raked-up leaves from the trees on your own property.  Native leaves have a special relationship with your soil.  The leaves and soil have lived together in biological harmony for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Their chemistry is highly adapted and they are perfectly matched for growing vegetables.

Native leaf mulch is available in vast quantities, usually right in your own yard, and even better, native leaf mulch doesn’t cost anything.  Every year, millions of bags of freshly raked-up leaves are sent to landfills and transfer stations; leaves that would have made perfect mulch in backyard gardens.

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

On our farm, we have been using live oak leaf mulch for years.  There is a myth that live oak leaves contain an acid that hurts plants, but that is not the case.  Our gardens absolutely love their thick live oak leaf mulching.  And as the leaves slowly decompose, they add structure to our garden soil and actually improve the soil Ph.  We even use oak leaves in our compost piles, and as bedding for our laying hens.

The leaves of any native tree will work as mulch:  oak tree leaves, pecan tree leaves, and even the duff, or detritus, of mesquite trees make wonderful mulch for gardens.

The thickness of mulch applied to the garden depends on the heat; the hotter the weather, the thicker the mulch should be.  By the month of August, the mulch around our tomatoes is 6 to 8 inches deep.  This thick layer of mulch keeps the soil cool at night, and our vines are full of ripe red tomatoes into the hottest part of summer.

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

Gardening Class Next Tuesday!

Havest 6-27-12

Friends, please join Kayla and I next Tuesday, May 7, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm, for a summer gardening class.  The class will be held at the Central Baptist Church in Ingleside, at 2555 Tiner Lane, Ingleside, TX 78362.

This event is free and open to the public.  This gardening class is sponsored by the Ingleside CQ organization.  The CQ is committed to sharing knowledge and increasing self-reliance.  Bring a lawn chair and a passion for wholesome food!

At this class, we will focus on the following topics:

1)      Preparing the garden from scratch

2)      How to plant The Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash in the Indian method)

3)      How to companion plant tomatoes

4)      What to plant now for the hottest weather

Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome. Even if you have never planted a seed, you will go home with the knowledge to start your own successful garden.

We will begin the class with bare dirt, prepare garden beds of different sizes and shapes, plant the seeds, and answer all your questions about gardening in the process.

 “A Summer Gardening Class” with Justin and Kayla Butts

Where: Central Baptist Church of Ingleside, 2555 Tiner Lane, Ingleside, TX 78362 (361) 688-3802

When:  Tuesday, May 7, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm

What:  A Summer Gardening Class

Who: All gardeners of all ages!

Notes on Three Sisters Gardening

Moore than Feed Sign 3-23-13Following are the notes  from our class on Three Sisters Companion Gardening.  These notes are a detailed guide to the basic planting system we used to pioneer our farm. 

This gardening method was invented by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago.  It was innovated and improved in American soil over many centuries.  Indians and rugged pioneer farmers used this method to sustain their families as they settled a great wilderness.  We hope these notes help you pioneer your own space and grow your own beautiful garden.

Thank you so much to everyone who joined us on Saturday.  Mr. Moore counted 89 folks in attendance!  Thank you, friends, for your engagement, your enthusiasm, and the many great questions.  Kayla and I had a lot fun sharing a wonderful morning of gardening with you!

Take Before/After Pictures of your Garden

Moore than Feed Outdoor Classroom

Moore than Feed Outdoor Classroom

We encourage you to take a picture of your space before you begin planting, and another picture when your garden is full and lush.  I will gladly post your pictures this summer to celebrate our gardens.  I believe that seeing your successful harvest will inspire many other folks to begin their own gardens.

Please Submit Your Questions on this Post

I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback.   Please submit questions or thoughts on the “comments” section of this post.  That way, we can all track questions and answers in a common place.

Happy gardening to you!     

Three Sisters Class Notes, February 23, 2013 

Goal: To grow prolific, delicious, healthy summer vegetables and herbs with the least amount of work, money, and time.

  • Prolific: measurable, quantifiable; metrics to be determined by space, health of soil, and skill level of gardener (see “Harvesting” below for standards)
  • Variety:  a wide range of vegetables and herbs with many flavors and nutrients
  • Delicious: sweet, intense flavor that is unique to the garden; the “taste” of the garden
  • Healthy: peak of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and protein; no synthetic chemicals; grown in as closed a system as possible (closed system means few or no inputs from outside of the farm)
Beans on Corn Stalk Trellis

Three Sisters: Harvesting beans from a corn stalk trellis.

Principles of our System

  • We employ a system of growing food, based on:  soil health, successive intensive companion planting, natural pest control, mulching, smart irrigation, composting, and fertilizing
  • If you remove one element from the system, the entire program breaks down; likewise, employing only one element of this system into a different program may not show the same results
  • The system is based on inter-connected relationships:  seed to soil, plants to animals, pest to predator, gardener to the garden
  • When the gardener achieves balance in the system, she grows the greatest amount of healthiest produce with the very least work; when harmony of the system is disturbed, the gardener’s job is simply to bring it back to balance (ex, infestation of pests)
  • No synthetic chemicals: Round-Up (glyphosate), Ortho, Sevin, or Scotts Miracle-Gro products.   We have nothing against these chemicals, and I fully understand the role of chemicals in large-scale agriculture.  However, these chemicals were designed for big industrial farms, NOT backyard gardens.  These chemicals are extremely inefficient and expensive in a backyard garden, and generally do more harm than good.  There are more effective heritage methods that require less time, money, labor, and also produce healthier and better-tasting food.

(Covered a Brief History of Three Sisters Companion Planting)

Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash

Growing Three Sisters

  • Once you understand the principles of the Three Sisters, you will be able to adapt this method to your own garden space.  The beauty of this system is how easy it is to plant, and how effectively it grows all on its own.
  • Corn serves as a trellis.  The pole beans grow up the corn stalk trellis.  The beans fertilize the soil through nitrogen fixation, taking nitrogen molecules from the air and attaching them to microbes in the soil.  The squash covers the soil all around the planting as a living mulch, to shade the soil, preserve moisture, and prevent weeds.  This dense garden is a sanctuary for beneficial predators.
  • Corn pollination:  To make this garden work, the corn must be densely planted.  Corn is self-pollinated (also called wind-pollinated).  The corn plant possesses both the male and female parts.  The corn tassel is the male part, and the pollen falls down to the corn silk growing from the cob.  As soon as the pollen touches the silk, a tube develops down the silk to the kernel, pollinating and setting the kernel.  There are between 700 and 1,000 potential kernels on each cob, and you want as many kernels pollinated as possible.  Densely planted corn assures maximum pollination.  If the corn plants are spaced too far apart, they may not achieve good pollination.  Drought, heat stress, bug damage, and uneven watering can inhibit pollination.
  • Also, you should only plant one variety of corn in each mound, or section of garden.  You want the same variety of corn, to make sure the pollen matches the silk.   
  • Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

    Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

    Beans:  Pole beans, or vining beans, grow up the corn stalk.  You do not need to help this, it happens all on its own.  We use pole beans to expose more of the bean vines to the sun, rather than bush beans, that could be shaded out by the corn and squash.  The bean vines help anchor the squash into the soil.

  • Summer and Winter Squash:  There are several differences between summer and winter squash.  All are grown in the summer, and all squash will freeze or die in a hard frost.   
    • Summer squash matures more quickly, usually in 50 to 80 days.  Winter squash matures more slowly, usually 80 to 100 days.
    • Summer squash have thin, edible skins, and are eaten when they are less mature, even with the flower still on them.  The seeds are found throughout the flesh.  Summer squash do not store well, and should be eaten at the peak of ripeness.  Zucchini, yellow crook-neck and straight-neck, and scallopini, are examples.
    • Winter squash have thicker skins, which are sometimes tough or inedible (butternut is a good exception).  The seeds are stored in hollow cavities in the center of the vegetable.  The tough skins allow winter squash to be stored for a long time.  In olden days, they were kept in root cellars, and eaten late into the winter, which is why they are called “winter” squash.  Butternut, acorn squash, and spaghetti squash, are examples.
    • Summer squash grow as a “bush” variety, while winter squash is typically “vining”.  Both varieties can be grown interchangeably in Three Sisters plantings.
    • Cucurbit Family:  All types of squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons.  All can be used in the Three Sisters garden. 
    • Pumpkins:  Pumpkins are the traditional vining gourd planted in Three Sisters gardens.  However, Indian pumpkins hardly resemble what we call a pumpkin today; they were much smaller and all parts were eaten, and they stored extremely well.  Also, they could get many more pumpkins per plant than our modern huge “jack-o-lantern” type pumpkins.
      • We don’t particularly recommend pumpkins for Three Sisters gardens, only because they produce a huge vine presence for only a few, or even one, full-sized modern pumpkins. 
      • Also, pumpkins can take 16 weeks to mature, long after the corn and beans have finished.  New gardeners should be prepared for this long time to harvest, and the relatively lighter harvest, compared to a zucchini or butternut squash.
      Canteloupe

      Canteloupe

      • Cucumbers:  Cucumbers are vining plants that work very well in this garden.  More seeds should be planted, as each seed will turn out about 8 to 10 medium sized cucumbers, and you will need more plants to create the vine density required to provide good living mulch.  You can always thin plants if they are too crowded, more easily than you can plant new ones half-way through the growing season.    
      • Cantaloupes and Watermelons:  Like pumpkins, watermelons take the longest time to mature in the garden, and you will only achieve a few mature melons per plant.  Also, vine growth of watermelons is extremely thick and dense.  Canteloupes are easier to grow and are not as “wild” and thick as melons can become. 
      • Aromatic Herbs:  Dill and basil are particularly effective companions with Three Sisters.  Let them flower and go to seed.  They will grow spindly and bushy, but you can still harvest from the leaves, flowers, and even the seeds.  These herbs help repel and confuse pests, and help attract beneficial predators to the garden, and are delicious. 
      • Wildflowers:  Nasturtiums are excellent in this garden.  Plant them as thickly as you like.  Nasturtiums help repel squash beetles and attract beneficial predators.  Feel free to inter-plant any type of native wildflowers into this garden.  The more flowers in the garden, the more bees and beneficial predators.   
Three Sisters 30 Days After Planting

Three Sisters 30 Days After Planting

Healthy Soil

  • The Three Sisters garden MUST HAVE 8 hours of full sun.
  • The first and continuous focus of the gardener should be on creating healthy soil. With good soil, gardening is easy and a lot of fun; with poor soil, it is extremely hard, or impossible to grow food. The gardener must grow her own soil: this takes time, and is worth it. (Show samples, native sand, and Four String garden soil)
  • Healthy soil has the optimum amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrition for the plant, in the ideal availability for the plant to absorb it; efficient feeding.
  • Healthy soil requires less water; watering can be cut by up to 80%. Healthy soil “holds” the water better in a form easiest for the plants to uptake the water.
  • The best pesticide is healthy soil. Why? Because healthy plants are very resistant to disease and bug damage. Weak soil -> weak plants-> most bugs. Healthy soil is also the best fertilizer. 90% of the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms, the “life” of the soil, is found in the top 4 inches. This top layer MUST be protected at all times through mulch and intensive plantings; it dries out the fastest and receives the most abuse. Plant roots take nutrients from deep in the soil to the top.
  • When Thomas Jefferson’s daughter wrote him a letter complaining that bugs were eating their crops, he said the problem was the weakened state of their soil, and they needed to get cover crops and manure on the gardens, and the bugs would go away.
Turkeys Eating Blue Hopi Indian Corn

Turkeys Eating Blue Hopi Indian Corn

Preparing the Soil to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

  • We use animals cycling on mature gardens to prepare soil.
  • Our goal is to translate our program to a backyard garden. Animals = manure, urea, micronutrients, pest control. Urea (or urine) is extremely high in nitrogen; 2/3rds of the nitrogen and 4/5ths of the phosphorus expelled from an animal is in the urine. Also, urine is highly soluble, the form easiest for soil and plants to utilize. (For this reason, we recommend only pastured poultry manure for backyard garden, where the urine is in the manure, rather than cow or horse manure–also commercial cow manure usually comes from feed lots, and you DO NOT want that in your garden.) Further, when animals are on our gardens, they are feeding on mature crops, the green material and left-over produce; so, they are recycling extremely healthy and chemical-free feed into extremely high-quality fertilizer.
  • Chickens till top 2” to 4″ of soil, the pigs 10″ to 12” deep. This thorough tilling is extremely important to aerate the soil. You cannot get same effect with a commercial tiller in your backyard garden–you have to dig up the soil, as explained in “Bio-Intensive Dig” in the next section. Pigs also eat out the root system and turn the roots into pure fertilizer. Even when placing pigs on a bare garden, they begin to feed on roots and it smells like a freshly mown lawn for about a week. As much green material as was growing on top of the garden, there is that much in roots beneath the soil. Chickens eat the green material on the surface and clean up a lot of pest insects. We spray molasses tea on garden after removing animals to breakdown manure, then let it sit 2 wks, then plant next garden.
  • 90% of nutrition and beneficial bacteria are in the top 4″. This top living layer of soil must be protected.
  • Our garden soil is entirely made up of our native soil improved with: 1) oak leaves broken down into the soil, 2) animal manure, and 3) the trampled green material from plants. You can make your own soil in the same way; however, instead of putting animals on your garden, pull up all your green material and compost it with oak leaves, and when the compost is ready put it back on the garden. It will take you a little longer, but you will eventually build extremely rich soil that is completely unique to your garden.

The Bio-Intensive Dig Method

Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on

Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on

  • If you can’t have animals prepare your soil, we recommend the BIO-Intensive Dig Method. This method breaks up all weeds from the surface and small roots and clumps from the soil. It allows compost to be mixed deeply into soil. It tills the soil. It aerates the soil. Any new garden bed that can’t be prepared with animals, should be prepared with this method:
    • 1) clear the row as much as possible of brush, grass and debris. No herbicide is necessary, as the weeds will be dug up.
    • 2) apply ½” layer of compost (Ladybug Revitalizer); apply a thin ¼ inch layer of “Texas Greensand” by Gardenville
    • 3) Dig first trench and fill buckets. The folks at Bio-Intensive highly recommend you stand on a board or plywood sheet while working to keep from stepping on soil–that shows how sensitive the soil is. (Note: the dirt in the buckets will be left over at the end. Put this dirt in a pile of oak leaves to start your compost pile. Then put all your organic household waste in the compost, along with all left-over green material in your garden at the end of the season.)
    • 4) Dig next trench and throw dirt into first trench, then third trench fills second, and so on, to end of garden row
    • 5) DO NOT walk on row after digging. The soil will be “fluffy” and highly aerated; stepping on it will hurt the structure.
    • 6) Add another ½” layer, or more, Ladybug compost, and another thin layer of Texas Greensand.
    • You can’t add too much compost, but a half-inch or inch over the finished row is plenty. The next time you need compost after this planting, you will have made your own!
    • The row is ready for planting.
    • The BIO-Intensive Dig Method only needs to be done on the first new garden, and then maybe every 3 or so years after the first planting. The second dig will be very easy and fascinating, as you see the difference in the soil you created.

Planting the Three Sisters Seeds

Handful of Tres Hermanas seeds

Basic Three Sisters Garden (9 square feet)

  1. Prepare the soil for a 3X3 foot garden (compost and greensand on top, Bio-Intensive dig, more compost and greensand, crushed oyster shells, live oak tree wood ash).
  2. Plant 1 corn seed at each corner of a 12” square.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost).
  3. Plant 1 pole bean seed next to each corn seed.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost).
  4. Plant squash of your choice 6” outside the straight line of the square.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.).
  5. Plant aromatic herbs and wildflowers 12” outside each corner of the square.  They will be close to the far corners of your 3’X3′ space.  This is to give the herbs and flowers time to start growing before the squash vines begin to cover them.
  6. Place irrigation line down center of square.
  7. As soon as shoots of plants come up, add oak leaf mulch around the plants.  Continue to add mulch as plants grow, up to 10 inches deep.
  8. Harvest as vegetables ripen.
  9. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

100 square feet Three Sisters Garden (the Ideal Planting)

  1. Stake out three 10’ long rows, each 5’ apart on center of row.  Each row should be prepared 3’ wide, as described above with the Bio-Intensive dig.  (Note, you can space the rows 4’ apart on center, but it will be a little harder to get into the garden to harvest, due to the density of plants on the ground.)
  2. Make a 1” trench down the center of each row.
  3. Drop corn seed 12” apart down the trench in the center of each row.
  4. In the same row, drop one bean seed about 1” from each corn seed.
  5. In the same row, drop 3 squash seeds 24” apart, in between every other corn/bean seed. 
  6. In the same row, plant aromatic herbs and wildflower seeds 6” off the center of each row, intermittently down the row.  (For best results, try using transplants for herbs and wildflowers, for your first Three Sisters garden.)  
  7. Now, cover the row with 1” compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.
  8. Repeat this process with the other two rows.
  9. Place drip line irrigation over center of each row.
  10. Cover all the garden with oak leaf mulch, leaving the centers of the rows uncovered until the seeds sprout, then mulch around the plants as they grow. 
  11. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

Single Row of Three Sisters (in a flower bed against a fence or house)

  1. Make sure the space receives AT LEAST 8 hours full direct sun.  An east/west line with fence or house on north side, for example, may get enough sun.
  2. Prepare the soil for a 3’ wide garden bed.
  3. Make 2 parallel trenches, 12” apart, down the length of the row.
  4. Drop corn and bean seeds down each row, 12” apart. 
  5. Plant 3 squash seeds 24” apart ONLY in the row of corn/beans away from the fence or house.  This will allow the squash to fill out the garden bed as living mulch, and then grow out away from the fence.
  6. Thickly plant aromatic herbs and wildflowers in spaces between where squash was planted.
  7. Now, cover the garden bed with 1” compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.
  8. Place drip line irrigation over center of row.
  9. Cover the bed with oak leaf mulch after plants fully sprout, then mulch around the plants as they grow. 
  10. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

Harvesting Three Sisters

Havest 6-27-12

  • Corn:  Harvest when kernels are full, round, and plump, all the way to end of the cob.  When you pinch a kernel, the juice should be half-way between milky and clear.  You can pull the green sheath carefully back to check the cob, but make sure to fully replace it, to protect the kernels.
  • Beans:  Harvest when the pods are around finger length.  When the beans get too long, they become tough very quickly.  Also, pulling beans when they are around finger length stimulates growth and helps produce more beans.  Don’t leave the beans on the plant, as that may stop production.
  • Squash:  Harvest zucchini when they are 8” to 10” long, even with the flowers on them.  Keep an eye on zucchini, as they grow extremely quickly, and you will quickly have a 10lb zucchini.  Yellow squash when small and tender.  Butternut when fully formed.  You can let butternut get very large, but letting too many get too big will slow production.
  • Harvest metrics:  From a good garden with healthy soil and moderate skill level of gardener, you can expect the following harvest from a 100 square feet Three Sisters garden:
    • Corn, 60 ears, or about 35 to 50 pounds shelled wet corn (assuming 2 well pollinated ears per plant)
    • Beans, 30 pounds or more (assuming half-pound production per plant)
    • Squash, about 150+ pounds mixed squash if summer and winter squash equally planted.  If you plant only zucchini, this excellent producer can generate 300 pounds of squash in this garden.
    • Note:  a 9 square feet garden will not produce 10% of the 100 square feet garden.    The 100 square feet garden is the optimum size, maximizing pollination, beneficial predators, living mulch, and all other factors, much better than a smaller garden.

 Troubleshooting a Three Sisters Garden

Potential Problems with Corn, Beans, and Squash

  • Corn is wind-pollinated.  The ears are pollinated by the tops of the corn plants, which is blown down from the wind.  That is why corn must be densely planted, to increase the opportunity for the pollen to reach the ears.
    • If a cob forms with a lot of missing corn kernels, it was not sufficiently pollinated.
    • You do not need to shake plants or do anything to help them pollinate, except make sure they are closely spaced, as described in this method.
    Corn Stalks 30 Days after Harvest, Ready for Compost or Animals

    Corn Stalks 30 Days after Harvest, Ready for Compost or Animals

    • Corn Ear Worm:  this is the biggest problem with corn in our area.  It is a caterpillar that borrows into the ear and eats the corn, and turns the kernels to mush.
      • The commonly recommended solution is to apply a drop of mineral oil to the tip of the corn ear, to “smother” the corn worms.  This has never worked for me, because 1) we have too much corn for this time-consuming method to be feasible, and 2) the mineral oil application only seems to work on about half the ears of corn.
      • Our solution:  as soon as you see the ear worms develop, spray Bt that very night on all the ears.  Spray Bt again in three nights.  You might need one more spray for a bad infestation.  You have to spray as soon as you see the ear worms start working, before they bore into the ear. 
      • The other solution is to use the “pinch method” with a headlamp at night, as soon as you see the worms become active.  This method is more time-consuming than Bt, but is nearly 100% effective.
      • Bean vines that grow and flower, but do not produce beans:
        • Beans are a nitrogen-fixer, which means they take nitrogen from the air and attach or “fix” the nitrogen molecules to bacteria in the soil.  Sometimes the first planting of beans in a new area will not bear fruit, because the “inoculant” is not present in the soil (especially our poor soil in Rockport).  However, simply by growing the beans, you are adding the inoculant, along with wonderful nitrogen, to your soil.  After the first season, you will enjoy many beans and other vegetables from this space.
        • Squash
          • Squash bugs and squash beetles.  Beneficial predators will get most of them.  Pinching under a headlamp at night is effective; they are nearly impossible to pinch in the day, and they hide well.  Plant a dill, Queen Anne’s lace, and a lot of nasturtiums throughout the squash or Three Sisters garden.  These plants repel squash bugs and beetles very well.
          • Caterpillars.  Beneficial predators and pinching under a headlamp at night will take care of these.  If caterpillars are very bad, in addition to pinching, spray Bt at night on the plants.  Drench the leaves, and spray underneath the leaves very well.  The caterpillar must eat the active Bt for it to kill the caterpillars.
          • Powdery mildew and other fungal diseases.  Powdery mildew can in some cases seriously impact yield.  A simple solution once the mildew is present is to mix 4 tablespoon of baking soda with 8 teaspoons of vegetable oil into a gallon of water.  Spray the leaves until they are drenched with this solution every week or so.  A good prevention to fungal diseases is a bi-weekly spray of Garrett Juice, which strengthens the plants and helps them fight off diseases. 

            Melon Vines Grow Dense and Thick

            Melon Vines Grow Dense and Thick

          • Melons, Pumpkins, Cantaloupes
            • Sometimes these vigorous growers can overwhelm the corn, and pull the corn stalks down.  Try to remember to plant the vigorous vining plants on the end rows, or at least to train the vines to grow out away from the corn stalks.  We plant all our melons on the outside rows of the gardens to prevent deer and raccoons from getting into the garden—this works really well.  However, overdoing the melons can cause the some of the corn to come down.

              Kayla with Irrigation Lines

              Kayla with Irrigation Lines

Watering the Garden

Drip irrigation beneath a mulch bed is the ideal watering method. (show sample)

  • You can order the product from 1-800-SAY-RAIN. This is commercial drip line, NOT soaker hoses. The drip irrigation line goes under the mulch exactly where you want the water, down the center of the Three Sisters row.
  • Water plants infrequently and deep (lower than the lowest level of root). Wait until the soil is almost dry, but not completely dried out, to water again. This allows the roots to “reach” down into the soil to find water, which causes the plant to grow.
  • The soil will dry from the top down, especially in the relentless wind of Rockport. With correct mulching and intensive planting, you will typically water 1 time per week in April/May, 2 times per week in June/July, August may require 3 times per week. NOTE: after first planting the seeds, you may have to water more frequently, until the plants are established, because the roots are in the shallow soil that dries out faster.

    Three Sisters Garden

    Three Sisters Garden

  • A “sunflower hedge row” or some other type of wind break may be helpful for the garden, to keep it from drying out so quickly, but only if it does not shade the garden.
  • Water in the evening, or at night. Plants dedicate more energy into growing in the morning, and up-taking water in the evening. Watering in the evening allows for maximum water absorption, minimizes loss of water through evaporation, and helps cool the soil for the important night-time soil temperature. You should only have to water with the drip irrigation for a few hours to achieve maximum effectiveness, then you are probably wasting water.
  • How to water without drip irrigation:  After drip irrigation, the next most effective method to water is with the “rain” function on a garden hose.  Water the plants about 2 to 3 times per week, as needed, in the evening or at night.  Water more deeply than the roots.  As a general rule, you can water sufficiently by holding the hose over planting for about 8 to 10 minutes.  It is very hard to say how much water your plants need in terms of gallons, as it depends on health of soil, daytime tempurature, amount of mulch, and several factors.  The garden will not always need the same amount of water.  Make sure to water deeply, and as infrequently as possible.
  • As your soil health improves, you will see a corresponding decrease in water needs in the garden. In year five of your garden, you will be stunned at how little water you need.
  • To know when to water, find a place in the row, and dig your finger down about 6″ to 8″ into the soil, and check soil moisture. If soil is wet or soggy, let it dry out more. If the soil is dry, water the garden.
  • Also, you can let the plants tell you when to water. Watch the leaves–when they begin to sag, water the garden. Don’t let the plants wilt, just notice the leaves. You will be able to tell pretty quickly what sagging leaves look like. Within 20 minutes of watering, the leaves will begin to perk up and turn a darker shade of green. Check the soil with your finger when the leaves sag, and you will quickly be able to figure out the relationship between soil moisture and the plants in your garden. Letting the garden tell you when to water is a wonderful part of your relationship to the garden, and your role in maintaining balance.

 

Looking for Squash Blossoms

Looking for Squash Blossoms

Fertilizer

  • Garrett Juice:  A homemade fertilizer = liquid seaweed + fish emulsion + molasses.  We use one teaspoon of each per gallon of water.  Spray the plants just until the leaves are drenched and dripping.  Spray every couple weeks for best results to plants.
  • Howard Garrett has numerous excellent recipes for homemade plant treatments on his web site The Dirt Doctor
    • We used “pepper and garlic tea” along with citrus oil extensively early in our farming, with somewhat limited success.  The bugs in Rockport eat habanero peppers for dessert.   
  • “Compost tea” is very good preventative treatment.  To make, simply fill a 5-gallon bucket a quarter full with good compost.  Fill the bucket up with water, put on the lid, and leave in sun for a couple weeks.  This is your concentrate.  Strain this mixture into another bucket at one part concentrate plus four parts water.  Spray this compost tea every couple weeks during the summer season to keep plants robust and help them fight insect and disease problems.      
  • You can also use commercial Lady Bug fertilizer, spray leaves until dripping, every two weeks.  Or you can buy commercial Garrett Juice, and spray until leaves are dripping, every two weeks or as needed.
  • Pastured poultry manure is the best bagged manure.  Lightly side dress each plant with about 2 handfuls of pastured poultry manure, around 30 days after planting. 
  • We do not recommend horse or cow manure, because usually this manure lacks sufficient urea, which chickens produce in their manure.  Also, consider the diet and living conditions of the animals that produce commercial cow manure—you do not want this in your garden.  
picture from class--Eggplant Companions in 3' Wide Row

picture from class–Eggplant Companions in 3′ Wide Row

Companion Planting Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs

  • Prepare the soil as in “Notes on Growing Tomatoes”
  • In three to four feet wide row, follow 2-1-2 pattern with eggplant.  In each gap on the sides of the “1”, and in between the “2”, densely plant basil and dill, with marigolds all around the eggplant.  Alternate the herbs and flowers down the row, so there is a diverse and changing dynamic of flowering plants down the row.  The poly-culture of flowers will confuse and misdirect pests, and often will repel them altogether.  (see illustration)
  • For peppers, try a 4-2-4 planting with dill and Queen Anne’s Lace flowers all around the peppers. 
  • Fertilize two weeks after trans-planting with a side dressing of pastured poultry manure, about two handfuls per plant.  As necessary, every couple weeks or so, or if the plant looks bug damaged or stressed, spray the leaves until they are dripping with Garrett Juice or Lady Bug fertilizer.
Leaffooted Bugs Mating--NOT a Pleasant Sight

Leaffooted Bugs Mating–NOT a Pleasant Sight

Natural Pest Control

  • Most of our pest control comes from beneficial predators.
  • They are: birds, wasps, dragonflies, lacewings, ladybugs, lizards, frogs, toads, giant wheel bugs, assassin bugs, etc. If you attract these predators to your garden, you’ll have to treat minimally for pests.
  • To attract them, start a “beneficial predator garden” close to your vegetable garden. This could just be a corner of the lawn you don’t mow, or a beautiful hummingbird garden.  The key is to have a dense “jungle” for the predators to hide in, when your garden is bare. When the garden becomes lush, and the pests arrive, simply stop watering the predator garden. The beneficial predators will go to the food source, and solve all your pest problems.
  • If you spend a little time and energy making a sanctuary for beneficial predators, you will find they do an enormous amount of work for you, and save you a lot of time, money, and vegetables. An investment into beneficial predators yields an enormous pay-off. And if you are trying to get your children interested in gardening, this is the best way to do it. Kids love watching the natural interaction at work in the garden, especially when a wasp comes down, stings a caterpillar, then flies the caterpillar back to the wasp nest. This fascination with nature builds the child’s relationship to the garden, and gets them more interested in science and nature.
  • Birds:  Place a bird feeder in the closest tree to your garden to attract birds year-round to this area.  In our area, nearly all of our smaller native birds eat both seeds and bugs.  Cardinals are wonderful predators, and like most other birds prefer insects over forage, due to the higher protein content.  Once the birds discover your garden pests, they will make quick work of them.
    • A great way to get birds into your garden is to place bird fountain close to the garden.  In our desert climate, especially in our prolonged drought, birds and other beneficial predators continually look for water.  A bird bath or, even better, a fountain, works as well or better than a feeder to continually attract birds to the garden. 
    • A trick we use to get birds into our large Three Sisters gardens is a common aerial water sprayer mounted on an 8-foot t-post in the middle of the garden.  We tie the water sprayer to the top of the post, and turn it on for about an hour early in the mornings, when the pests (caterpillars, grasshoppers, leaf-footed bugs) are still active.  The garden fills with birds who are attracted to the water.  When the pests become wet, they have trouble moving.  Caterpillars and grasshoppers become immobile for a short time, on the tops of leaves and vegetables.  The birds can nearly wipe out a population of pests in a short time as they hop around the garden enjoying these easy meals.
    • Example:  One morning, I noticed my spaghetti squash were being devastated by little green caterpillars, a terrible infestation.  I turned on the aerial water sprayer, and went to the house to get a drink; I expected a long morning of pinching caterpillars.  By the time I got back to the garden, the birds were already active in the dense foliage of vegetables.  While I watched, a flock of cardinals flitted all around the squash eating the caterpillars.  I could hardly find a caterpillar after about an hour, when I turned off the water sprayer.  At that point, there were wasps buzzing all around the squash, picking off the last remaining little green caterpillars.  I did not have to pinch bugs that day, and went on with my chores. 
Four String Wasp: Paralyzing Caterpillar before Taking to Nest

Four String Wasp: Paralyzing Caterpillar before Taking to Nest

  • Wasps:  Wasps are extremely beneficial in the garden.  The only way to encourage wasps is to not destroy their nests.  Unfortunately, so many people are so uninformed about wasps, and have an irrational fear of being stung, that wasps nests are usually destroyed as fast as they are built.
    • Wasps do not kill caterpillars, but go into the garden and sting them to paralyze them.  Then, the wasp flies the caterpillar back to their nest and stuffs the caterpillar into one of the holes in the nest.  The wasp then lays her eggs in the caterpillar, and the babies eat their way out.  The babies go across the network of the nest eating caterpillars.  I have seen this phenomenon many times in the garden, and have followed wasps back their nests and watched them work.   Wasps cleanse the garden of more pests than you realize; a single wasp nest can hold a lot of caterpillars. 
    • Wasps prefer to make their nests in the lower branches of trees, or in the eaves of houses and barns (mostly because their habitat has been destroyed).  I recently had a great learning about wasps:  a field of live oak trees was “manicured” by cutting the lower branches and making the trees look nice.  Removing the lower branches of oak trees is very popular in our area, as it makes for a neat yard.  As we picked up the branches to remove them from the field, I counted 4 wasp’s nests on the branches in one pile.  I went through the cuttings and counted wasps nests, and could not believe how many I found, always on the largest branches.  Then I went back and looked up in the trees, and only saw a couple of nests in the upper branches.   Wasps like the lower branches for their nests, probably because they are more wind protected.  By trimming the lower branches of our trees, we have removed a lot of good habitat for wasps, and then, when they make nests on the eaves of houses, we spray them.  Reversing this trend would do wonders to keep down garden pests.  On our farm, we say that we love the “wild” look, which saves me the work of trimming branches, and saves Kayla and me endless hours of pinching caterpillars, thanks to the wasps.
    • Caterpillars reproduce much faster, and in greater numbers, than wasps.  Destroying one wasp’s nest allows thousands of caterpillars to breed out of control.  The destruction of wasp’s nests is the single greatest reason we have such a terrible infestation of web worms every year in Rockport.  You can protect wasps in your yard simply by not destroying their nests.  Over time, your garden will become a wasp friendly zone, and your garden pests should beware.  I have worked for years with hundreds of wasps surrounding me all day, and have only been stung one time, and that was on the hand, when I grabbed a radish flower with a wasp on it.  It stung for about 5 minutes, then completely went away.  Wasp stings are highly over-rated.  Please do not ever kill a wasp, or destroy a wasp’s nest.
  • Mud Daubers:   Mud daubers mainly eat spiders; some mud dauber species eat only a specific spider, like the brown recluse or black widow. 
    • The mud duaber stings and paralyzes the spider, then flies (or drags!) the spider back to the nest.  The mud dauber’s nest looks like “organ pipes” on the inside.  The dauber fills each organ pipe with living spiders.  When the mud dauber eggs hatch, the babies eat the legs off of each spider in the nest, to keep the spiders alive longer, then go back and eat the spider heads and bodies. 
    • Please NEVER destroy a mud duaber nest, because you can’t possibly spray enough poison to control spiders in your yard as well as mud daubers can.  Rather, wait till the holes open on the mud duaber nest, which means all the babies have left the nest.  You can now safely remove the nest, because mud daubers do not re-use old nests. 
Ladybugs Go Where They are Needed

Ladybugs Go Where They are Needed

  • Ladybugs:  Ladybugs are among the sweetest, most beautiful, and most deadly (if you are an aphid) beneficial predators in the garden. 
    • You may need to order ladybugs from the nursury, and “seed” them continually into your garden, until a population establishes itself.  If there is not cover, or sanctuary, for your ladybugs, and if there is no food source, they will fly away.  It took us a couple of years to create a really good native population of ladybugs.
    • Ladybugs are like homing pigeons:  if the ladybug grower shipped your ladybugs from California, and you don’t have a good sanctuary and food source in your garden, the ladybugs will fly en masse due West, until they find a welcome home.
    • However, once your ladybugs become native, and as long as you have a good beneficial predator garden, you will have an abundance of these wonderful predators in your garden.
Lacewing hunting

Lacewing hunting

  • Lacewings:  It takes several “seedings” of lacewings to establish a native population.  However, once you get these ravenous predators established, they will cleanse the gardens of pests many times over for you.  You can order lacewings from Kunafin.
    • Put out the lacewings at dusk.  Prior to putting out the lacewings, spray your garden with molasses tea.  Molasses tea is great to spray for ladybug seeding as well. 
Dragonfly Hunting in Garden, a Voracious Beneficial Predator

Dragonfly Hunting in Garden, a Voracious Beneficial Predator

  • Dragonflies:  Dragonflies are one of the most ferocious and ravenous beneficial predators in the garden.  Dragonflies consume incredible amounts of mosquitos.  During the summer, dragonflies hunt in waves through our gardens.  I have seen them pick up caterpillars, fly them into a tree, eat then, and drop into the garden for more.  A bird bath close to the garden will also help attract dragonflies.
  • Giant Wheel Bugs:  When you find giant wheel bugs in your garden, you know you are on the right track with beneficial predators.  These excellent predators look scary, but like the vast majority of the bugs in your garden, they are good guys, and they only hurt the pests. 
  • Assassin Bugs:  Like giant wheel bugs, these friends of the garden let you know your predator gardens are working.      
  • Lizards:  Lizards simply need sanctuary in your garden, and they will make themselves at home.  A pan of water beneath the plants will help attract lizards.  Lizards are the easiest beneficial predator to keep in our gardens, and they consume an enormous amount of insects.  They kill pests from the ground up to the top of the plant, and they work steadily day and night, even on the hottest days of the year, in the shade of the garden, eliminating pests.   
Frog Nest in Garden under a Squash Leaf

Frog Nest in Garden under a Squash Leaf

  • Toads and frogs:  A toad can eat over 10,000 insects in three months.  If you can draw a good population of toads into your garden, can you imagine how many pests they are cleansing from your plants, while you sleep?  Frogs eat even more than toads!
    • Toads stay mostly on the ground.  They will climb a plant for food up to a foot or so, but they don’t like to get too high.  However, toads love to hang out at the base of vegetable plants and eat the bugs that crawl from the mulch up to the plant, and then back down in the morning.  I have seen up to three or four toads on one spinach or lettuce, eating caterpillars as fast as they could.  Toads and frogs need good cover in the garden, which you achieve with intensive successive companions.  Frogs, especially smaller green frogs, tend to climb all over the plant, and like lizards, can work high up the plants at night. 
    • Also, toads love water.  Leave pans full of water generously spaced throughout the garden, beneath the thick green canopy of squash leaves.  The water will draw the toads into the garden, and they will appreciate the drink and cooling liquid during their hunts.  Pans of water can vastly increase the number of toads, frogs, lizards, and birds in the garden. 
  • BT is an organic caterpillar spray that should be sprayed only at night, and on the underside of leaves, to kill caterpillars.
  • The most effective pesticide, after healthy soil, is a headlamp [show example]. The headlamp is a vital tool in understanding what is happening in your garden, in building your relationship with the garden. All garden pests are active in your garden at night. Some pests feed only at night. If you have never tried this, exploring your garden at night with a headlamp will be like seeing the garden for the first time. Most caterpillars, grasshoppers, and many other pests hide in the dirt during the day, and the underside of leaves. But they are all out at night, and they are attracted to the light of your headlamp. As you walk through the garden, the pests will come to the tops of plants, and struggle to get into the light for you to see them. In the past, you may have had trouble knowing what is destroying the garden. However, you will immediately know everything going on in your garden with a headlamp at night.
  • With a headlamp, you can use the “pinch method” (which means pinching the bugs with your thumb and index finger) to eliminate a lot of pests, quickly and easily. Doing this at night saves a great deal of time, energy, labor, and gives you insights into what is attacking the garden. During the day, it is nearly impossible to pinch grasshoppers, caterpillars and leaf-footed bugs. At night, however, you can pinch more pests in 20 minutes than you could during 8 hours of daylight. The pests will literally come to you. (Give example of leaf-footed bugs.) They sting the tomato and it gets a sun-burned, dry appearance. Leaf-footed bugs have a bacteria on their proboscis that causes the tomato to have spots. Many predators don’t like them and others can’t catch them because they can fly. To my knowledge, its only enemy is the banana spider. So, the only safe, effective way to remove them is to pinch them. We began to notice that leaf-footed bugs were evading us to avoid being squashed during the day. They will crawl to the other side of the plant, or fly to an entirely different row. However, with a head lamp, you can kill nearly all the leaf-footed bugs in 30 minutes a night for one or two nights.
  • When your program is in balance (healthy soil, intensive successive companion plants, mulch, beneficial predators), you will not spend very much time pinching bugs. (I have only pinched bugs on 2 nights, 20 minutes each, in the last 4 months; in summer, maybe 20/30 minutes every two weeks) You will still have pests in the garden; however, the beneficial predators will take care of most of them, so your vegetables don’t suffer. Your job as a gardener will be to bring balance during the first part of the infestation, until the predators catch up.
  • In nature, there is always a steep increase in the population of pests, then a steep increase in predators, then pest population declines. In the garden: fast population rise in pests>garden damage>rise in population of predators>balance. Your role is to be present in the garden during the short time between the rise in pests and the rise in predators. In our garden, this is usually about 15-30 mins per night for 2 nights, for each infestation. Check on the 3rd night and you should see plenty of frogs, toads, and lizards, and during the day there will be wasps, birds, dragonflies, lacewings, and etc., and you won’t have to pinch (I leave the pests for the predators to enjoy). You only need to protect your garden from the pest infestation for two nights as the predator population catches up to the pests to restore balance. If you get a really bad infestation, you may have to do more pinching; however, in a healthy garden, predators will be standing in line to eat pests.
Bando:  Highly Effective Gopher Control

Bando: Highly Effective Gopher Control

  • Gophers = a good dog, a good cat, traps, or gopher snakes. Squirrels=squirrel stew, pellet gun. Cut ants=molasses tea or turpentine in a funnel down the hole; NO chemicals eliminate cut ants, you can only move their mound, so do not leave poison in the ground for years.

Please leave questions of comments on the “comments” section of this post.  Happy Gardening to you!

New Gardening Class: “Your Summer Garden”

Edible Squash Blossom

Edible Squash Blossom

Friends, please mark your calendar for Saturday, March 23, from 10:00am to noon, for a new gardening class at Moore than Feed.  This class will focus on “Your Summer Garden”.

This event is free and open to the public.  Seating is available, and refreshments will be served.

If you enjoyed our tomato class, you will love this complete demonstration of how to plant a heritage garden with summer produce. 

Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome.  Even if you have never planted a seed, you will go home with the knowledge and materials to start your own successful garden.  

We will share the best kept (and most interesting) secret in gardening, the Three Sisters Companion Method.  We have updated this ancient Indian technique to grow the modern varieties of our favorite vegetables:  sweet corn, summer and winter squash, various beans, watermelons, cucumbers, pumpkins, sweet and savory herbs, and gorgeous wildflowers.  

I used this method to transform our desert wilderness into a highly productive farm.  We invite you to pioneer your own garden space with this technique, and grow more vegetables than you can believe on a very small space, with minimal expense or labor.

We will begin the class with bare dirt, prepare garden beds of different sizes and shapes, plant the seeds, and answer all your questions about growing summer produce in the process.

We will also cover my favorite subject:  natural pest control.  We will show you how to use the good bugs to keep away the bad bugs, and to harness the power of nature to continually cleanse your garden of pests.

“Your Summer Garden” with Justin Butts

Where: Moore than Feed, 902 W. Market Street, Rockport, TX (361) 729-4909

When: Saturday, March 23, from 10:00am to noon

What: Your Summer Garden

Who: All gardeners of all ages!

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

A Sunflower Hedgerow

A Sunflower Hedgerow

A Sunflower Hedgerow

Wind can be very hard on a garden.  Relentless wind combined with the intense heat of summer can dry out the soil of our gardens and burn the plants to dust.  This combination of wind and heat is one of the greatest challenges to gardeners in Rockport. 

On our farm, we protect our gardens with sunflower hedgerows.  This hedgerow is easy to grow and the plants are native, readily available, and free.  A sunflower hedgerow is a valuable companion to your garden.   

The sunflowers rise in the spring and summer, when gardens most need their protection, to form a dense wind-screen up to twenty feet tall.  The wall is covered with tremendous yellow flowers.  At the end of the season, when the hedgerow is no longer beautiful, it goes away for the winter, and comes back all on its own, thick, lush, and beautiful, the next spring.    

Bee Polinating Sunflower

Bee pollinating Sunflower

The Value of a Hedgerow

  1. A sunflower hedgerow cuts down the wind erosion that can badly dry out a Rockport garden, especially in the heat of summer. 
  2. Hedgerows are a wonderful sanctuary for beneficial predators.  Birds, wasps, frogs, toads, lizards, bees, lacewings, ladybugs, dragonflies, and many other friends of the garden love the flowers and protection of a sunflower hedgerow.  In Rockport, a sunflower hedgerow tends to flower when not much else is in flower, and that keeps beneficial predators close to the garden in the high heat of summer when pests are at their worst.
  3. A hedgerow is a bio-diverse habitat edge created by the gardener.  The hedgerow provides many of the benefits of natural edge effects and focuses them into the garden. 
  4. A hedgerow can significantly reduce the amount of irrigation needed in the garden.  Because the hedgerow protects the garden from wind erosion, the rate of evaporation in garden soil is slowed considerably.  As a consequence, the important top four inches of living soil stays moist and productive, more efficiently feeding and watering plants.
  5. While hedgerows prevent the soil from drying out too quickly, they also protect the soil during periods of flood.  In a long-term drought, the soil becomes very thin and weak.  When a big rain finally comes, it tends to wash away what little good topsoil remains.  However, the deep roots of the hedgerow absorb a lot of water and help prevent the soil in the garden from washing away with the water.
  6. If the sunflowers are thick enough, the hedgerow can become a living fence.  I have found that deer do not try to break through our sunflower hedgerows, but go around them, which makes it much easier to keep them out of the garden.   
  7. A sunflower hedgerow is very easy to establish and maintain.  After first planting our hedgerows by simply throwing wild seeds on the ground, I have never needed to replant or even to water them.  The flowers come back on their own, thicker and healthier every year.  Now, I simply mow the edges to shape the row.
  8. Hedgerows are beautiful.  In our harsh and barren landscape, ravaged by drought, we can always count on our sunflower hedgerows to frame our gardens with their green and golden beauty.

Sunflower

Hedgerows in Europe

The hedgerows of Europe are famous for their beauty and their role in the development of agriculture.  The hedgerow networks were originally established to prevent soil erosion from the pressing Atlantic wind.  The hedgerows proved to be excellent fencing for livestock and facilitated rotational grazing on garden space.  They sheltered hard-working farmers during inclement weather.   

Ultimately, the hedgerows became property boundaries and part of the living history of Europe.  In France, during WWII, the hedgerow fighting was notoriously difficult.  The Germans set up their machine guns in the protection of the dense hedgerows, with clear fields of fire across the gardens, and Allied soldiers could not cut through the hedgerows, or burn them down, and even tanks could not break through them.  In modern times, hedgerows are a major political issue:  500-year-old hedgerows are being torn down to build strip malls and parking lots for fast food chains.

Sunflower3

A Native American Hedgerow

As I built our farm, I knew we needed to find a way to protect our soil from the relentless Gulf wind that wreaks havoc on our gardens.  I had seen how well hedgerows work in European gardens, and wanted to duplicate the effect with a native plant that would be easy to maintain.  Sunflowers are the perfect option.

New Sunflower about to Bloom

New Sunflower about to Bloom

Native American Indians planted sunflowers as a hedgerow for their Three Sisters gardens.  The sunflower is a cousin to the Three Sisters companion planting system.   

I can’t help but stand amazed at the genius of Native American farmers as I harvest the fruit of my summer gardens of corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, and melons.  The driving wind whips the tops of the sunflowers along the hedgerow, and down in the garden there is only a gentle breeze to rustle the corn stalks.  Heritage farming methods work. 

Sunflower Offering Pollen

Sunflower Offering Pollen

Where to Plant a Sunflower Hedgerow

First, determine the direction of prevailing winds between March and October.  In Rockport, standing in your garden, this is pretty easy to do.  Plant the sunflowers in full sun directly in the path of the wind, as wide as the garden, and about ten to twenty feet away from the garden.  The sunflowers will grow very tall.  You should plant the hedgerow close enough to be an effective wind break, but leave enough space to get in and work your garden. 

Hopi Indian Corn on Left, Melons and Squash, Sunflower Hedgerow in Back

Hopi Indian Corn on Left, Melons and Squash, Sunflower Hedgerow in Back

How to Plant a Sunflower Hedge Row

You can plant a sunflower hedgerow by seed in the Fall or Spring. 

In the Fall:  Wild sunflowers go to seed in Rockport around October.  Simply cut the heads from a few established wild sunflowers when the yellow petals fall off, and throw the seed heads on the ground where you want your sunflower hedgerow next spring.  It is best if the seeds make contact with the soil.  You do not need to bury the seeds, or even to water them, just push them into the ground with your heel.  Throw down as many seeds as you like, but it doesn’t take that many seed heads to start your hedgerow.

Kayla Taking Flowers at end of Season to Seed New Sunflower Hedgerow

Kayla Taking Flowers at end of Season to Seed New Sunflower Hedgerow

In the spring, try to find native sunflower seeds, as they will grow much better and faster.  If you use a store-bought seed, find a variety designed for flowers, not “edible sunflower seeds”.  Make sure the seeds have good seed-to-soil contact.  Water this area every few days early in the season to help the sunflowers get established.  Design your sunflower screen to be at least three feet wide for the length of your garden for optimal wind protection. 

Seed Head from Wild Sunflowers

Seed Head from Wild Sunflowers

The following October, knock down all the flowers onto the hedgerow space.  If you used store-bought seeds to start your hedgerow, try to find native sunflower seeds to re-seed the space.  If you don’t want to see the large dead sunflower stems (or trunks), cut all the heads off the flowers and throw them in the space before removing the stems.  Place the stems in your compost pile.  Each year, the sunflowers will come back thicker and healthier as natural selection continually improves your hedgerow. 

Sunflower Turning to Face the Sun

Sunflower Turning to Face the Sun

Notes on Growing Tomatoes

Gardening Class SignFollowing are notes from our class on growing tomatoes.  Hopefully, these notes provide enough detail to help you turn your own space into a beautiful garden.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended.  We started out with 20 chairs, but then had a total of 91 folks in attendance!  Thanks for making the hay bales and creative seating work, and for the great engagement and questions.  I believe this enthusiasm only further indicates how many of us want to know more about heritage methods for growing our own food.

Take Before/After Pictures of your Garden!

Gardening Class Pic2I highly encourage you to take pictures of your space before you plant.  Then, take another picture when your garden is full and lush.  For everyone who attended the class, I will post before and after pictures of their garden this summer.  I think it will be a great inspiration for new gardeners to see your success, and it will be so rewarding for you to remember how far your garden has come.

Ask Questions in the “Comments” Section

At the end of this post, there is space for comments.  Please ask all tomato questions there, so we can all see the answers in one space.  Please feel free to share all questions and comments, as many others will benefit from the discussion as well.  You can also subscribe to this blog, and new posts will be e-mailed to you.  We will regularly update the gardening posts this spring with new information.

If you live in Rockport, now is the time to get those tomatoes in the ground.  Happy planting!    

Tomato Gardening Class Notes, February 23

Goal: To grow prolific, delicious, healthy tomatoes with the least amount of work, money, and time.  

  • Prolific:  measurable, quantifiable; 5lbs to 20lbs of tomatoes per plant is normal; our goal is to achieve 50lbs per plant or more
  • Delicious:  sweet, intense flavor that is unique to the garden; color, shape, texture
  • Healthy:  peak of vitamins, minerals, alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene (the redness of the tomato), antioxidants; no synthetic chemicals; grown in as closed a system as possible (closed system means few or no inputs from outside of the farm)

Principles of our System

  • We employ a system of growing food, based on:  soil health, successive intensive companion planting, natural pest control, mulching, smart irrigation, composting, and fertilizing
  • If you remove one element from the system, the entire program breaks down; likewise, employing only one element of this system into a different program may not show the same results
  • The system is based on inter-connected relationships:  seed to soil, plants to animals, pest to predator, gardener to the garden
  • When the gardener achieves balance in the system, she grows the greatest amount of healthiest produce with the very least work; when harmony of the system is disturbed, the gardener’s job is simply to bring it back to balance (ex, infestation of pests)
  • No synthetic chemicals:  Round-Up (glyphosate), Ortho, Sevin, or any type of Scotts Miracle-Gro products.  These chemicals are extremely inefficient and expensive in a backyard garden, and do much more harm than good.  There are more effective methods that require less time, money, labor, and also produce healthier and better-tasting food.
  • We will share proven and tested methods that were developed in the real-world laboratory of building a farm business; however, I am not an expert.  Thomas Jefferson had been farming 70 years when said he was a “new gardener”, only learning how much he doesn’t know–and he was the greatest farmer in American history.  We try to stay curious, open-minded, constantly looking for new ideas and methods to improve our gardening. 

 Healthy Soil

  • The tomato garden MUST HAVE 8 hours of full sun.
  • The first and continuous focus of the gardener should be on creating healthy soil.  With good soil, gardening is easy and a lot of fun; with poor soil, it is extremely hard, or impossible to grow food.  The gardener must grow her own soil:  this takes time, and is worth it.  (Show samples, native sand, and Four String garden soil)
  • Healthy soil has the optimum amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrition for the plant, in the ideal availability for the plant to absorb it; efficient feeding.
  • Healthy soil requires less water; watering can be cut by up to 80%.  Healthy soil “holds” the water better in a form easiest for the plants to uptake the water. 
  • The best pesticide is healthy soil. Why? Because healthy plants are very resistant to disease and bug damage. Weak soil -> weak plants-> most bugs. Healthy soil is also the best fertilizer. Ex:  In a 2,000 sq ft  garden we planted in Dec, we have not fertilized it since planting, are now in second season of crops.
  • 90% of the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms, the “life” of the soil, is found in the top 4 inches.  This top layer MUST be protected at all times through mulch and intensive plantings; it dries out the fastest and receives the most abuse.  Plant roots take nutrients from deep in the soil to the top.
  • When Thomas Jefferson’s daughter wrote him a letter complaining that bugs were eating their crops, he said the problem was the weakened state of their soil, and they needed to get cover crops and manure on the gardens, and the bugs would go away.

Preparing the Soil to Plant Tomatoes

  • We use animals cycling on mature gardens to prepare soil. 
  • Our goal is to translate our program to a backyard garden. Animals = manure, urea, micronutrients, pest control.  Urea (or urine) is extremely high in nitrogen; 2/3rds of the nitrogen and 4/5ths of the phosphorus expelled from an animal is in the urine.  Also, urine is highly soluble, the form easiest for soil and plants to utilize.  (For this reason, we recommend only pastured poultry manure for backyard garden, where the urine is in the manure, rather than cow or horse manure–also commercial cow manure usually comes from feed lots, and you DO NOT want that in your garden.)  Further, when animals are on our gardens, they are feeding on mature crops, the green material and left-over produce; so, they are recycling extremely healthy and chemical-free feed into extremely high-quality fertilizer.
  • Chickens till top 2” to 4″ of soil, the pigs 10″ to 12” deep. This thorough tilling is extremely important to aerate the soil.  You cannot get same effect with a commercial tiller in your backyard garden–you have to dig up the soil, as explained in “Bio-Intensive Dig” in the next section.  Pigs also eat out the root system and turn the roots into pure fertilizer.  Even when placing pigs on a bare garden, they begin to feed on roots and it smells like a freshly mown lawn for about a week.  As much green material as was growing on top of the garden, there is that much in roots beneath the soil.  Chickens eat the green material on the surface and clean up a lot of pest insects. We spray molasses tea on garden after removing animals to breakdown manure, then let it sit 2 wks, then plant next garden. 
  • 90% of nutrition and beneficial bacteria are in the top 4″.  This top living layer of soil must be protected.
  • Our garden soil is entirely made up of:  1) oak leaves broken down into the soil, 2) animal manure, and 3) the trampled green material from plants.  You can make your own soil in the same way; however, instead of putting animals on your garden, pull up all your green material and compost it with oak leaves, and when the compost is ready put it back on the garden.  It will take you a little longer, but you will eventually build extremely rich soil that is completely unique to your garden.

    Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

    Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

 

Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on
Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on
  • We recommend the BIO-Intensive Dig Method.  This method breaks up all weeds from the surface and small roots and clumps from the soil.  It allows compost to be mixed deeply into soil.  It tills the soil.  It aerates the soil.  Any new garden bed that can’t be prepared with animals, should be prepared with this method:
    • 1) clear the row as much as possible of brush, grass and debris.  No herbicide is necessary, as the weeds will be dug up.   
    • 2) apply ½” layer of compost (Ladybug Revitalizer); apply a thin ¼ inch layer of “Texas Greensand” by Gardenville
    • 3) Dig first trench and fill buckets.  The folks at Bio-Intensive highly recommend you stand on a board or plywood sheet while working to keep from stepping on soil–that shows how sensitive the soil is.  (Note:  the dirt in the buckets will be left over at the end.  Put this dirt in a pile of oak leaves to start your compost pile.  Then put all your organic household waste in the compost, along with all left-over green material in your garden at the end of the season.)
    • 4) Dig next trench and throw dirt into first trench, then third trench fills second, and so on, to end of garden row
    • 5) DO NOT walk on row after digging.  The soil will be “fluffy” and highly aerated; stepping on it will hurt the structure.
    • 6) Add another ½” layer, or more, Ladybug compost, and another thin layer of Texas Greensand. 
    • You can’t add too much compost, but a half-inch or inch over the finished row is plenty.  The next time you need compost after this planting, you will have made your own!
    • The row is ready for planting.
    • The BIO-Intensive Dig Method only needs to be done on the first new garden, and then maybe every 3 or so years after the first planting.  The second dig will be very easy and fascinating, as you see the difference in the soil you created.

 Companion for Tomatoes

  • Intensive successive companions:  Try to always think “intensive companions” every time you plant anything, so you always plant 2 or 3 mutually beneficial plants at a time.  Every plant in nature grows better if it is grown with the right companion–plus, you will better utilize every square inch of your garden and increase bio-diversity.  The more diversity in the garden, the stronger it is. 
  • The BEST companion for tomatoes is collard greens.  Ideally, you will intensively plant collard transplants with your tomato transplants–or, plant collard seeds 4 weeks prior to tomato transplants.  Plant collards 6 inches off center of the row, 12 inches apart down the row.  The leaves will grow together to form a canopy over the soil, shading and protecting tomatoes.  Tomatoes will vine over the collards.  Collards are a “bug trap”, and will protect tomatoes from many enemies; additionally, the scent of collards confuses or repels many tomato pests.  Plus, you can harvest and eat the collards all through the season.   

    Collards Growing at the Feet of Tomatoes

    Collards Growing at the Feet of Tomatoes

  • Marigolds are an excellent companion; use as many different varieties as you can find, to increase bio-diversity.  The flowers attract beneficial predators and bees.  The roots prevent nematodes; the entire plant emits an odor that repels or confuses predators.  Plant them very thick as a living mulch 6 inches away from base of tomato and all around plant, and they are really beautiful.
  • Hairy vetch is a good companion, but must be planted 90 days before tomato transplants, then cut over row to form mulch.
  • Plant dill and sweet basil on the “sun side” of the tomatoes, frequently through the tomato bed.  Both herbs will grow spindly and tall; let them go to seed.  You can take from the leaves, and the flowers repel and confuse pests, and are beautiful and edible.
  • The “heat curve” in Rockport is extremely steep; we go from frost to burning heat in a very short time.  We must plant some varieties that are very fast to mature (Early Girl, Juliette) and other varieties that produce fruit with high night-time soil temperature (Solar Fire, Juliette) to get the most fruit for the longest time.
  • Tomatoes require moderate heat to produce fruit (daytime temps from 60’s to 100’s).  However, tomatoes DO NOT like hot weather at night.  Night time soil temperature is a major problem for tomatoes in our area.  When the nighttime soil temp rises above 70 degrees, the tomato stops producing fruit.  The vines may live, but they will not make tomatoes.  Thick mulching in June-Sept is critical to producing tomatoes through the summer.

 Tomato Varieties:

  • Use only indeterminate (vining) varieties.  Heirloom varieties are extremely difficult to grow in Rockport, and at very best, produce small yields that are very susceptible to heat and pests.  (After good soil is established, you may try Roma, San Marino, Purple Cherokee, and Homestead, mixed in with recommended varieties.)
  • Early Girl:  50 days to maturity, great producers of good med sized tomatoes
  • Juliette:   best of all; roma grape; produce in 50 days or less and through very high heat; prolific and very delicious tomatoes
  • Solar Fire and Heatmaster:  Produce in very high heat, when night-time soil temp is up to 75 or higher
  • Cherry, Sweet and 100:   These cherry tomatoes produce early, late, prolific, and are best tasting
  • Celebrity and Better Boy:  Most popular, good varieties, Better Boy are larger slicing tomatoes
  • If you plant five plants, try one of each; you will have plenty of tomatoes of all sizes, and will have tomatoes from April (or sooner) through July (or later)
  • With 24″ spacing on a hog panel trellis, as we recommend, you can fit five tomato plants in a 12 to 14 feet row.  That row will also include a lot of collards or marigolds, with a basil or dill for each tomato plant.  Further, you can plant a cucumber at the base of each t-post, and let them vine up with the tomatoes.  Each plant will grow better in this companion group, than if they were all planted on their own or in a mono-culture.

 Planting the Tomatoes

  • To plant the tomato, dig a hole according to size in the center of the row.  Bury about 2/3rds of the tomato plant (trim branches on lower part of stem if necessary).  The deeper the root system, the more prolific the tomato plant will be.
  • Add a handful of crushed oyster shells (calcium) and a handful of wood ash (potassium); use ONLY live oak wood ash that you make—nothing else
    • NOTE:  potassium is essential for the sweetness and flavor of tomatoes; the sugars of the tomato need potassium to activate, and wood ash from live oak trees is the best possible source to create extremely flavorful tomatoes; you WILL taste the difference! 
      Crushed Oyster Shells and Wood Ash (from live oak trees only!) should touch roots

      Crushed Oyster Shells and Wood Ash (from live oak trees only!) should touch roots

       

    • You can as also add a handful of Gardenville Rocket Fuel on this first garden, which may help native Rockport soil to develop
    • Plant tomatoes with the roots touching soil amendments
    • Fill hole with dirt without packing down too tightly.  Packing the dirt too tightly makes root growth more difficult.
    • Add another handful of crushed oyster shells and wood ash on the soil around the base of the plant
    • Lightly sprinkle stone-ground corn meal on and around plant, to prevent “black spot” and “early blight”
    • Move 24 inches down the row, and plant next tomato (24” spacing with hog fence trellis; 36” with inferior round trellises)

 Tomato Trellises

  • Commercial tomato cages with concentric rings are the most commonly used, but least effective, trellis.  If your plants grow very healthy, as they should, the cages will collapse, or lean, and the wire rings will break.  You will definitely need a stake in the ground to hold up the trellis, and will need to tie strings to some of the vines to hold them up.

    Early Girl Tomatoes Growing on Trellis of Hog Panel Fencing

    Early Girl Tomatoes Growing on Trellis of Hog Panel Fencing

  • The ideal trellis is hog panels or 4”X4” square fencing tied up to metal t-posts.  Weave the vines in and out of the squares in a fan shape up to the top.  When the vines reach the top, left them grow back down on the shade side (opposite sun side) of the trellis.  Your trellis will give plenty of space for the tomatoes to grow. 
  • As a backyard gardener, I highly recommend you figure out how to make this trellis, or have someone help you.  Once you cut the right length of fence and have the posts, you can use this over and over for 20 years.  It hides easily when you don’t want it.  You can grow tens of thousands of tomatoes on this before it wears out, and they are the easiest to install, take down, and, especially, to harvest from.  
     

Mulching the Garden

  • Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

    Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

    Mulch is essential to protect the soil; to regulate soil temperature and moisture through insulation; to prevent weeds; to provide a sanctuary and hiding place for beneficial predators; and to provide organic material to eventually mix into the soil.

  • Live oak leaves are the BEST possible mulch for our gardens, and the ONLY type of mulch that I recommend.  Live oak leaves are the secret weapon for a Rockport gardener. 
  1. The rumor about there being an acid or chemical in our oak leaves is false. 
  2. We have HEAVILY mulched our gardens with live oak leaves for years with magnificent results.
  3. In fact, our compost it 60% oak leaves; leaves are the bedding for our chickens; and much of our wonderful garden soil is oak leaves that have broken down into the soil.
  • The best mulch is always the most native.  There are tremendous piles available everywhere, for free.  Red cedar mulch, pine mulch, anything not from a native tree is undesirable, as it “shocks” the garden with a foreign presence that is alien to the natural cycle.  At best, this foreign mulch simply doesn’t hurt the soil.  But once breaking down in the soil, it is a foreign agent that our natural ecology does not like.   
  • Never leave the soil uncovered; mulch as soon as tomatoes are planted.
  • How much mulch, and when to add mulch? Thickness depends on the heat; the hotter it gets, the thicker the mulch needs to be. Too thick? Never. If your transplant is one inch tall, put 1” mulch and let a couple of green leaves stick out for photosynthesis. Keep adding mulch as the plant grows until you have 10 to 12 inches of mulch at the base of the plants. The only problem the mulch may cause is difficulty walking in between rows, but this is not too difficult and you will not mind while you are picking incredible tomatoes from your plants in the hottest weather.

 Watering the Garden

  • Drip Tape with Connection

    Drip Tape with Connection

    Drip irrigation beneath a mulch bed is the ideal watering method.  (show sample)

  • You can order the product from 1-800-SAY-RAIN. This is commercial drip line, NOT soaker hoses.  The drip irrigation line goes under the mulch exactly where you want the water, down the center of collards/tomatoes row.
  • Water plants infrequently and deep (lower than the lowest level of root). Wait until the soil is almost dry, but not completely dried out, to water again.  This allows the roots to “reach” down into the soil to find water, which causes the plant to grow.  The stronger the tomato root system, the more tomatoes will be produced.  
  • The soil will dry from the top down, especially in the relentless wind of Rockport.  With correct mulching and intensive planting, you will typically water 1 time per week in April/May, 2 times per week in June/July, August may require 3 times per week.  NOTE:  after first planting the tomato transplant, you may have to water more frequently, until the plant is established, because the roots are in the shallow soil that dries out faster.
  • Running Drip Tape Irrigation is Fast and Easy

    Running Drip Tape Irrigation is Fast and Easy

    A “sunflower hedge row” or some other type of wind break may be helpful for the garden, to keep it from drying out so quickly, but only if it does not shade the garden. 

  • Water in the evening, or at night.  Plants dedicate more energy into growing in the morning, and up-taking water in the evening.  Watering in the evening allows for maximum water absorption, minimizes loss of water through evaporation, and helps cool the soil for the important night-time soil temperature, which must stay below 70 degrees.  You should only have to water for a couple hours to achieve maximum effectiveness, then you are probably wasting water.
  • As your soil health improves, you will see a corresponding decrease in water needs in the garden.  In year five of your garden, you will be stunned at how little water you need. 
  • To know when to water, find a place in the row, and dig your finger down about 6″ to 8″ into the soil, and check soil moisture.  If soil is wet or soggy, let it dry out more.  If the soil is dry, water the garden.
  • Also, you can let the plants tell you when to water.  Watch the leaves–when they begin to sag, water the garden.  Don’t let the plant wilt, just notice the leaves.  You will be able to tell pretty quickly what sagging leaves look like.  Within 20 minutes of watering, the leaves will begin to perk up and turn a darker shade of green.  Check the soil with your finger when the leaves sag, and you will quickly be able to figure out the relationship between soil moisture and the plants in your garden. Letting the garden tell you when to water is a wonderful part of your relationship to the garden, and your role in maintaining balance. 

 Fertilizer

  • Notes: nematodes = poor soil. Crushed oyster shells = calcium, which prevents blossom end rot. Wood ash, from live oak trees ONLY = potassium, which creates sweetness in flavor.   Fertilizer = liquid seaweed + fish emulsion + molasses, and a good recipe is Garrett Juice.
  • 30 days after planting, lightly side dress with pastured poultry manure (2 handfuls/plant). 
  • Lady Bug fertilizer, spray leaves until dripping, every two weeks
  • Garrett Juice, sprayed until leaves are dripping, every two weeks

Tomatoes in Containers

  • Tomatoes can be difficult to grow in containers in Rockport.  Tomatoes require a night-time soil temperature between 55 to 70 degrees to set fruit.  Containers, even ceramic pots, heat up and cool down very quickly, compared to soil.  By the month of May, heat fluctuations are hard on the root system, and the night temperature is usually 70 degrees or more, prohibiting the plant from setting fruit.
  • Also, the relentless wind of Rockport tends to dry out the soil in pots very quickly.  The wind and heat, beginning in April, can dry out pots continually, no matter how many times per day they are watered.  Pots can’t be mulched the way a garden bed can, so it is very hard to stop this drying out effect.
  • One way to get the most out of tomatoes in containers is to bury them in the soil, up to the lip of the pot, when temperatures heat up in April.  The soil of the ground will insulate the pot.  Then, heavily mulch the plant with live oak leaves, up to 10-12 inches.  By doing this, your container tomato will have the advantage of heating up and growing very quickly early in the season, and then stay cool at night later in the season.
  • Companion plant marigolds around the tomato in the container, just as in our class.  Thickly planted oregano is also a good companion for tomatoes in pots.
  • If you live in apartment, or for some other reason, are not able to bury your plants in the soil, you may have luck with the “Patio” variety of tomato.  In containers, some of the determinate, or “bush”, varieties, will produce good results.  Determinate tomatoes produce only a fixed amount of tomatoes, then stop producing.  The Patio variety will produce all of its tomatoes in about 60 to 80 days, so you can get all your tomatoes in before it gets too hot for them to set fruit.  When the night tempurate hits 70 degrees, you can remove the tomato from the pot, and replace it with peppers or okra.

Natural Pest Control

  • Most of our pest control comes from beneficial predators.
  • They are:  birds, wasps, dragonflies, lacewings, ladybugs, lizards, frogs, toads, giant wheel bugs, assassin bugs, etc.  If you attract these predators to your garden, you’ll have to treat minimally for pests.
  • Giant Wheel Bug in Four String Garden, Excellent Beneficial Predator

    Giant Wheel Bug in Four String Garden, Excellent Beneficial Predator

    To attract them, start a “beneficial predator garden” close to your vegetable garden.  This could just be a corner of the lawn you don’t mow, or a beautiful hummingbird garden.  The key is to have a dense “jungle” for the predators to hide in, when your garden is bare.  When the garden becomes lush, and the pests arrive, simply stop watering the predator garden.  The beneficial predators will go to the food source, and solve all your pest problems.

  • BT is an organic caterpillar spray that should be sprayed only at night, and on the underside of leaves, to kill caterpillars.
  • Lizards are Extremelly Beneficial in Garden

    Lizards are Extremelly Beneficial in Garden

    The most effective pesticide, after healthy soil, is a headlamp [show example].   The headlamp is a vital tool in understanding what is happening in your garden, in building your relationship with the garden.  All garden pests are active in your garden at night.  Some pests feed only at night.  If you have never tried this, exploring your garden at night with a headlamp will be like seeing the garden for the first time.  Most caterpillars, grasshoppers, and many other pests hide in the dirt during the day, and the underside of leaves.   But they are all out at night, and they are attracted to the light of your headlamp.  As you walk through the garden, the pests will come to the tops of plants, and struggle to get into the light for you to see them.  In the past, you may have had trouble knowing what is destroying the garden.  However, you will immediately know everything going on in your garden with a headlamp at night. 

    Leaffooted Bug, a nasty pest, easily cured with a headlamp and a pinch

    Leaffooted Bug, a nasty pest, easily cured with a headlamp and a pinch

  • With a headlamp, you can use the “pinch method” (which means pinching the bugs with your thumb and index finger) to eliminate a lot of pests, quickly and easily.  Doing this at night saves a great deal of time, energy, labor, and gives you insights into what is attacking the garden.  During the day, it is nearly impossible to pinch grasshoppers, caterpillars and leaf-footed bugs.  At night, however, you can pinch more pests in 20 minutes than you could during 8 hours of daylight.  The pests will literally come to you.  (Give example of leaf-footed bugs.) They sting the tomato and it gets a sun-burned, dry appearance.  Leaf-footed bugs have a bacteria on their proboscis that causes the tomato to have spots. To my knowledge, its only enemy is the banana spider.  So, the only safe, effective way to remove them is to pinch them. Many predators don’t like them and others can’t catch them because they can fly. We began to notice that leaf-footed bugs were evading us to avoid being squashed during the day. They will crawl to the other side of the plant, or fly to an entirely different row.  However, with a head lamp, you can kill nearly all the leaf-footed bugs in 30 minutes a night for one or two nights.
  • When your program is in balance (healthy soil, intensive successive companion plants, mulch, beneficial predators), you will not spend very much time pinching bugs. (I have only pinched bugs on 2 nights, 20 minutes each, in the last 4 months; in summer, maybe 20/30 minutes every two weeks)  You will still have pests in the garden; however, the beneficial predators will take care of most of them, so your vegetables don’t suffer.  Your job as a gardener will be to bring balance during the first part of the infestation, until the predators catch up 
  • In nature, there is always a steep increase in the population of pests, then a steep increase in predators, then pest population declines.  In the garden:   fast population rise in pests>garden damage>rise in population of predators>balance.  Your role is to be present in the garden during the short time between the rise in pests and the rise in predators.  In our garden, this is usually  about 15-30 mins per night for 2 nights, for each infestation.  Check on the 3rd night and you should see plenty of frogs, toads, and lizards, and during the day there will be wasps, birds, dragonflies, lacewings, and etc., and you won’t have to pinch (I leave the pests for the predators to enjoy).  You only need to protect your garden from the pest infestation for two nights as the predator population catches up to the pests to restore balance.  If you get a really bad infestation, you may have to do more pinching; however, in a healthy garden, predators will be standing in line to eat pests. 
  • If you spend a little time and energy making a sanctuary for beneficial predators, you will find they do an enormous amount of work for you, and save you a lot of time, money, and vegetables.  An investment into beneficial predators yields an enormous pay-off.  And if you are trying to get your children interested in gardening, this is the best way to do it.  Kids love watching the natural interaction at work in the garden, especially when a wasp comes down, stings a caterpillar, then flies the caterpillar back to the wasp nest.  This fascination with nature builds the child’s relationship to the garden, and gets them more interested in science and nature.
  • Gophers = a good dog, a good cat, traps, or gopher snakes.  Squirrels=squirrel stew, pellet gun.  Cut ants=molasses tea or turpentine in a funnel down the hole; NO chemicals eliminate cut ants, you can only move their mound, so do not leave poison in the ground for years.

In our next class, we will cover “How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden”, and focus more on pests and beneficial predators.

 

Gardening Class this Saturday

Kayla Harvesting Tomatoes

Kayla Harvesting Tomatoes

Friends, join us this Saturday, February 23, from 10:00am to noon, for a gardening class at Moore than Feed.  The class will focus on “How to Grow Tomatoes in Rockport”.

This event is free and open to the public.  Seating is available, and refreshments will be offered by Melvin Moore and his team. 

Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome.  Even if you have never planted a seed, you will leave this class with the knowledge and materials required to go home and start your own garden.

There are reasons why some tomatoes taste so much better than others, why it can be difficult to grow tomatoes in pots, and why pests tend to destroy some gardens, and leave others alone.  We will cover these topics, and more, to help you grow delicious, healthy, and prolific tomatoes.

We will begin the class with bare Rockport dirt, and end the class with tomatoes successfully planted, and answer all your questions about growing tomatoes in the process. 

We will cover the following topics:  preparing the soil; companion planting with tomatoes; choosing varieties; stakes and trellises; fertilizing; soil amendments; mulching; fighting pests; and managing heat stress.

Spring Gardening Class with Justin Butts

Where: Moore than Feed, 902 W. Market Street, Rockport, TX (361) 729-4909

When: Saturday, February 23, from 10:00am to noon

What: How to Grow Amazing Tomatoes

Who: All gardeners of all ages!

Roma Grape Tomatoes, Four String Farm

Roma Grape Tomatoes, Four String Farm

The Path of the Sun

When selecting the site for your garden, it is essential to choose a space that receives at least eight hours or more of direct sunlight every day.  However, finding enough sun is not always so easy.

Trees, the house, garage, and other structures can shade out a vegetable garden and cause it to become weak, or possibly to fail.

It is best to be flexible when choosing a sunny location for the garden, and it helps to know the path of the sun.

The Changing Lanes of the Sun

The path of the sun changes throughout the year.  At any given point in the northern hemisphere, at the spring equinox, the sun rises exactly in the east, and sets exactly in the west.  Then, through the summer, the path of the sun moves a full 23.5 degrees north of its position at equinox.  There are more hours of sunlight in the summer, and the sun is also in a different place in the sky, relative to the garden.

From the peak of summer through the fall, the path of the sun moves back to the line of the fall equinox.  Then, the sun moves south for another 23.5 degrees for winter.  Finally, the sun returns to its line at the spring equinox.

The Path of the Sun, Photo Courtesy Cornell University

The Path of the Sun, Photo Courtesy Cornell University

There is a full 47 degrees of change in the path of the sun each year.  This change in the sun’s path can create shade at certain times of the year, where at other times the area is in full sun.

Insufficient Sunlight Makes Weak Gardens

A common problem among struggling backyard gardens is availability of sunlight.  Five hours of direct sun in the middle of the day, and dappled shade for rest of the day, is probably not enough for a really good vegetable garden.  Sufficient direct sunlight is especially important in a hot-weather climate.  Heat is not the same as light.  The intensifying heat of summer can badly stress a garden that does not receive enough direct sunlight.

If a garden does not get enough direct sunlight:  1) the plants tend to be weak, slow to mature, and prone to disease and insect damage; and 2) the plants may grow to full size, but produce very little fruit.  The gardener in this situation may treat the pest problem and add fertilizer to the weak plants, without realizing these are only symptoms of a sunlight problem.  A sunny space in one season may be shaded in another.

Get the Full Eight Hours

Make sure your garden stays in the path of the sun for at least eight hours per day.

If your only choice is to garden in shade, use shade tolerant plants; many herbs grow well in shade.  If your garden enjoys full sun during the summer, but is shaded during the cooler months,  try planting a cover crop at the end of your summer harvest and let the garden regenerate itself during its off-season.

The Edge Effect

The most productive land is always found where two habitats meet.  This is called the edge effect. 

The three basic habitats are field, forest, and water.  The border where the field and forest intersect is the most bio-diverse and active part of the whole forest, or the whole field.  The intersection where a lake meets the land is the most active and species-rich area of both habitats.   

Developing the Edge of Forest and Field for Gardens

Developing the Edge of Forest and Field for Gardens

Light penetrates the edge of a forest and stimulates growth of an increasing variety of plants, which leads to greater insect concentration and diversity, which increases bird activity.  Many forms of insect and animal life travel back and forth across the edge for food and shelter; some species live only at the edge.  In a lake, the vast majority of the fish live close to the shore.  The land touching the water is equally dense with diverse life.  This friction along the edge continually stimulates greater bio-diversity and soil health. 

Natural Diversity of Edge Areas, Henhouse in Background

Natural Diversity of Edge Areas, Henhouse in Background

Understanding edge effects is critical to sustainable farming.  Our farm is located in a harsh and barren land; poor soil, brutal climate, salty groundwater, highly destructive pests, and permanent drought conditions.  I had to select our garden space very carefully to give the farm the best chance to survive.  Clear-cutting with a dozer and chemically treating the land was simply not going to work, financially or ecologically.    

Our gardens are tucked into the habitat edges of our property.  Our farm is not a grid of rectangular plots planted in segregated monocultures.  Our gardens flow with the natural contours of the land where they benefit from, and contribute to, the richest soil and greatest bio-diversity.  The greater the diversity of a garden, or farm, the stronger and more productive it becomes.

Native American Indians planted gardens this way.  They did not have the industrial equipment to clear-cut forests, or the chemicals to treat the inevitable problems of clear-cutting.  (When they needed to remove trees, Indians used a method called girdling, which I will tell more about later.)  Indians focused their labor and resources on the highly productive edges, where their gardens received the greatest returns.  Instead of constantly fighting nature, they harnessed the raw power of nature and channeled it into the garden. 

Edge Habitat with Chickens Preparing the Soil

Edge Habitat with Chickens Preparing the Soil

Our gardens do not hurt the natural environment of our farm; they help it immensely.  Our plantings and rotational grazing closely mimic the natural cycle that occurs at the edges, with slightly modified flora and fauna.  The space around our gardens has exploded with life since I first began to develop them, despite the severe drought of the last five years.  All parties have benefitted from our partnership. 

Someday, when we stop farming this land, our gardens will continue to flourish with wildlife as they revert to the true natural condition.  Our farming will have actually improved the environment.  In the meantime, our methods make us more financially successful as farmers, as opposed to using the conventional chemical methods, which, I am convinced, would have caused our fast failure.  Leaving the land better than we found it is an emotional dividend that I can’t quantify.   

Our Gardens are Framed by Trees to Protect Birds and Beneficial Predators

Our Gardens are Framed by Trees to Protect Birds and Beneficial Predators

Soil in a State of Nature

In a state of nature, out on the grasslands, ruminants, such as bison, graze in tight and continually roaming herds.  They eat down the grass and return it to the soil as fertilizer.  They do not eat all the grass, but leave a generous stubble primed to regenerate.  The action of their hooves aerates the soil.  Flocks of birds follow the ruminants and pick the bugs and seeds from their manure.  The birds return the seeds to the soil soaked in powerful fertilizer.

The herds graze with the greening of the grass, north in summer, southward in winter, and the birds follow on their hairy backs.  This continual action–the snipping and fertilizing and aeration of soil–causes the grass to grow dense and thick and lush.  This density of grass creates a living mulch over the soil to regulate moisture and soil temperature, and to protect the soil.

Every so often, lightning sparks the prairie, and all the grassland that needs a replenishment of minerals receives it through fire.  When the grass is at optimum health, it does not catch fire.  The lightning then serves to enrich the rain with nitrogen to further stimulate growth.

The prairie itself is not a monoculture of a single grass.  It is a poly-culture of many types of grasses, weeds, and flowers that share the space in a companion partnership.  The soil beneath the poly-culture is teeming with thousands of beneficial microbes and bacteria.  These microbes are the very life of the soil.

This progression of ruminants and birds and grass and fire, over thousands of years, creates extremely healthy soil.  This soil turned the Great Plains of America into the richest farmland in the world.

The Floor of the Jungle

In a state of nature, in the jungle, trees and brush grow thick and lush.  Monkeys feed in the canopy of trees and drop their manure to the jungle floor.  Down in the shadows, every manner of herbivore and carnivore cycle themselves through the intestines of one another, and are deposited as fertilizer among the detritus.  The jungle floor is crawling with a decomposing compost of the refuse of animals, leaf litter, fallen trees, hot blood, and digested teeth and bones.

The moist soil beneath this composting mulch holds enormous energy.  Every cubic inch of soil is filled with millions of microbes that transform the compost into food for the plants.  The wet weight of green bears continually down and is swallowed by the living microbes and given back to the trees to be carried up to the monkeys to be dropped again.

This progression of plants and animals and compost and microbes, over thousands of years, creates soil so healthy, it nearly vibrates in your hands.

The Delicate Soil

It takes nature thousands of years to develop this soil, but man can destroy it in a very short time—a generation, even in a few years.

The ecosystem of the Great Plains formed over millennia.  However, the southern edge of the Plains was devastated during the great cattle drives of the 1880’s.  In less than 20 years, the overgrazing of the cattle herds stripped the grass from the soil, and it never recovered.  The soil grew thin, dry, and weak, and the healthy bacteria and microbes in the soil vanished.  The cattle coming up from Mexico brought their mesquite beans with them in their bellies, and this opportunistic invader, the mesquite tree, spread north along the cattle trails like an infection through an open wound.

Illustration Courtesy University of Austin

Illustration Courtesy University of Austin

Within a generation, a giant swath of Texas became a desert of thorns that once had been thick grass and endless herds of bison.  The old-time settlers of the day wrote about this with piercing sadness:  how when they discovered the virgin country, they could ride for hundreds of miles through grass that grew to the withers of their horses, and now the whole landscape was covered in mesquite and cactus.  In less than a generation, an ecosystem was transformed, not by machinery, but by an over-concentration of cows.

Photo Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Photo Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Industrial farming equipment created another surge of soil destruction on the Great Plains in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  This disaster is known as the Dust Bowl.  The dust was actually soil, the unprotected soil of a thousand farms, that was picked up by the wind and carried away.  The farmers had taken everything they could from the soil, and did not protect it, mulch it, cover crop it, or give anything back, and the soil quit them.  Nearly 100 years later, the farmers are still trying to get this soil back.

I saw a forest in Africa that had been strip-mined.  A thousand years of building that forest into an extraordinary ecosystem had been wiped away in a few short years by mining companies.  In its place was a bare stony desert that held the heat of Africa like a white-hot fire, and everything that walked across it was burned.

The local African government, with help from the mining companies, had begun to restore the forest in 1970.  Forty-one years later, with the heroic work of thousands of people, and millions of dollars, the jungle had only barely begun to return.  At the tops of the trees, monkeys howled, and threw their fertilizer down to a thin forest floor covered with pine needles, but the forest floor was cool and dark.  The soil was slowly regenerating.

From their view at the top of this tiny forest, the monkeys looked across a vast field of white-hot rock, active quarries, and industrial mining equipment.  There was still much work to be done to return this forest to a state of nature.

Monkey in Haller Park, Kenya, being reclaimed to forest from mining quarry

Monkey in Haller Park, Kenya, being reclaimed to forest from mining quarry

Building the Soil in a Backyard Garden

I never thought very much about soil health, until I started a farm.  I didn’t realize how hard it is to create soil, or the value of good soil, and how easy it is to destroy.  Now, the focus of my daily work, one way or another, is building healthy soil.

My goal in the next several posts is to discover the ideal method of preparing the soil for a backyard garden.  I will show how we build soil health on our farm and the principles of nature that dictate our process.  My hope is to demonstrate to a new gardener not only the best method to build healthy soil, but also the reasons why.

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