Covered Topics

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Planting Your Own Garden

With the arrival of Springtime, one's attention often turns to gardening. Indeed, there are few pleasures more sublime than the taste of home-grown vegetables. My thought is that many folks who "don't like vegetables" simply have only tasted the anemic stuff at the grocery store. I have grown vegetables and kitchen herbs in containers for the past decade. Here are a few quick thoughts, based upon my experience:

1) Containers - use buckets, pots, or other containers that are lightly colored, or else paint them. Light colors such as white, beige, tan, or even the "terra cotta" clay flower pot color are OK. The reason to use these is that dark colored containers will absorb more of the sun's heat and could cook the roots of your plants! I learned this one the hard way when I tried to save money and use the cheap, dark gray pots they dispose of at the nursery!

I've used 18-gallon plastic storage bins with excellent results - but try to go for light colored ones! The lid doubles as a "coaster" to set the bin on; during the winter the lid can be put back on the bin. Drill several 1/8" to 3/16" holes in the bottom for drainage.

2) Tomatoes will need, at bare minimum, 5-gallon containers to grow big enough to produce well. Herbs may be grown in shallower, pan-shaped containers. Other crops such as lettuce, onions, carrots, ... need at least a foot of soil depth to grown in.

3) I like to use a spreadsheet - such as EXCEL or the one that comes with the free Open Office suite to keep track of my activities. Data such as which plants you started on what dates, where you bought the seeds or seedlings, how many seeds you planted, how much yield you got, ... are all useful to remember and learn from for next year's planting. Many of my plants are started indoors - that is also recorded, along with dates they were transplanted outside.

4) Recording how many seeds planted will help you to track germination rates. If you planted 10 of a certain seed and 2 actually come up, you know you are either doing something wrong or else have a poor quality seed supplier. Many of the seeds bought at big box retail outlets are of poor quality - if you can obtain the "heirloom varieties" they often germinate better and produce a tastier product, too.

5) Heirloom v.s. hybrid seeds - will often store longer than the commonly available hybrids under similar conditions. 2,000 year-old grains taken from Native-American burial sites have actually germinated and grown into mature plants! Seeds harvested from the traditional heirloom plants may be saved and used for next year's planting. This is what folks did for thousands of years prior to modern scientists playing with the genetics of plants and domestic animals.

Hybrid plants often produce seeds that cannot be saved and used for next year's planting. The reason for this is the genetic manipulation used to produce the hybrids - often the offspring are sterile or else loose some of the characteristics they were bred for. This is a great boon for the seed companies - you are basically forced to re-buy seeds EVERY year. Burpee, American Seed Company, and Monsanto are laughing all the way to the bank!

Hybrid plants are often more vulnerable to being TOTALLY wiped out by a disease or pest because of their lack of genetic diversity. With NORMAL plants, a plague may wipe out MOST of them, but there will usually be some individuals that, due to their genetic differences, will survive and reproduce. With hybrids, you have an ENTIRE field of plants that are genetically IDENTICAL to each other. ALL of them will have the SAME WEAKNESSES, as well as the strengths they were bred for. So, if they happen to be susceptible to a particular disease that strikes in a given year, it's likely the crop will be utterly wiped out. While hybrids weren't around back then, the Irish Potato Famine was in large part due to the extremely limited genetic diversity of the crops being grown at the time. Same with many other devastating crop failures around the world.

6) I start seeds indoors when possible. This allows me to more tightly control lighting, water, and temperature to help assure proper germination of the seeds. Some I plant in dirt; some such as beans I sprout in wet paper towel placed in sweater boxes, then plant in dirt later. This sprouting technique is a sure-fire way of seeing early on what is germinating, since they are not covered up with dirt.

Last year I planted some hybrid beans, spinach and lavender seeds (these were all I could get on short notice) outdoors - NONE of them germinated. We had a lot of rain and unseasonably cold weather which could have messed things up. This year I just planted some in dirt indoors. I also have some in wet paper towel to see if they sprout there. I'll see if either set of these germinate. I bought these last year from either the local home improvement store or Wal-Mart (I can't remember now - a good reason for record keeping as described above). If they don't germinate within a reasonable time indoors I'll scrap them and get some others.

7) Introduce natural predators such as lady bugs and praying mantises. These are available at better garden supply stores. When deploying these, do so at dusk AFTER spraying the plants with a mist of water. They'll then be more likely to hang around and feed on the aphids, spider mites, ... These GOOD predatory bugs also like being around aromatic herbs - yet another reason for having these mixed among your vegetables.

Tomatoes and Red Spider Mites
In the interest of protecting the environment, the makers of "Seven Dust" have made their product ineffective against the red spider mites that ravage tomato plants. For several years I have used an "all natural" orange oil based liquid household detergent (bought at Wal-Mart) mixed 1:4 with water and applied to the affected plants with a pump spray bottle. A few minutes after application I use a garden hose with a spray nozzle to CAREFULLY blast the bugs off the plants. With practice one develops the right "feel" to use enough force to remove the bugs but not damage the leaves and blooms on the plants. This process removes most of them. I do this during the hot, dry part of day when there are fewer of the natural predators, such as lady bugs, present.

This technique is also useful for other types of pests as well. There are commercially made insect removal soaps made for this purpose, but I get by with the "poor boy's" remedy described here. I have read that a dilute dish soap solution works for this, too.

Recommended Reading: Look for the book "Square Foot Gardening" - the techniques work for either container gardening or more traditional gardens and will vastly increase the yield in a given area.

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