Saturday, April 25, 2015

Understanding the Basics of Fertilizer for the Garden

So you want to grow organically, which means chemical fertilizer isn’t an option. Well, that eliminates about 90% of fertilizers on the garden center shelf, doesn’t it? By understanding the basics of fertilizer for the garden, you can read labels to make the best decision for your garden and the environment.

What do the Numbers Mean?

Today we will just cover what the numbers on fertilizer bags mean. They are formatted in numbers that look like 10-10-10. In order, these numbers represent (to memorize it, keep in mind that it’s in alphabetical order):


This is where that handy, dandy soil test comes in. You’ll want to know your current levels in these nutrients before buying or adding fertilizer because adding too much of a certain nutrient when you already have an abundance of that nutrient can cause a problem. So, if your soil test shows that your nitrogen levels are too high, and you add more nitrogen, you will end up with large, bushy, green plants, but little fruit. This is how we remember what nutrient serves which part of the plant (it’s in reverse alphabetical order, if you want to memorize it):

Nitrogen (SHOOTS)- Phosphorus (ROOTS)- Potassium (FRUITS)

Reading Labels

Organic fertilizers use the same number system as chemical fertilizers to determine nutrient levels, they just don't have perfectly equal amounts of each nutrient. For example, the standard chemical fertilizer is 10-10-10. Feather meal, a natural fertilizer made from ground chicken feathers, is 14-0-0. These are numbers I would look or if I needed nitrogen but my phosphorus and potassium levels were already too high or if I wanted to use a different fertilization product to increase phosphorus and potassium.

How Soil Tests Help

What we are looking for here is balance. Don’t think that you can pour potassium rich fertilizer on the soil and get copious amounts of fruits while ignoring the other elements. You still won’t get fruits from a plant without a good, healthy root system. The most confusing part of reading that soil test is knowing what your numbers should be, so the UofA Department of Agriculture put together this pamphlet to help you understand your numbers.  To learn how to get a soil test in Arkansas, read my post about how to get yours for FREE (for residents).

There are over 60 nutrients necessary for healthy plants and it takes some time to understand what the garden requires. Knowing the basics of the "Big Three" is key to understanding the basics of fertilizer for the garden. Sufficient levels of many of the other nutrients are maintained in soil by simply making and applying compost to your garden yearly, so we don't have to worry about getting all of them perfectly balanced!
What is your biggest question about fertilizing the garden?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Self-Fertilizing Tomatoes with this Tomato Cocktail Recipe

At the height of the summer growing season, when I'm harvesting produce every day, it is difficult to remember to fertilize my tomatoes every month. This is why I grow self-fertilizing tomatoes with this tomato cocktail recipe, which I bury under my tomato plants when I plant them.

Now, let me be clear: This cocktail is for your tomatoes, not for you. Although I do like a good cocktail, myself.

Songbirdtiff's Tomato Plant Cocktail Recipe

Coffee grounds
Epsom salts
Ground egg shells

  1.  Dig a hole at least 4 inches deeper than you need for your tomato plant. 
  2. To the bottom of the hole, add one handful each of compost and coffee grounds. Add 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts and about 1/4 cup of ground egg shells. 
  3. Cover the cocktail with a 1 inch layer of soil. 
  4. Plant your tomato plant on top of the soil as usual.
  5. Water well. 
Over the growing season, these items will slowly decompose, feeding your tomato plants continuously. If desired, add up to 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts to each plant per month. I usually run out and toss my Epsom salts out right before it rains. That is the only fertilization I do after planting, and I often forget to do that. If you are wondering if this really works, here were my tomato plants in November 2013:

At 5'3", I'm not exactly a giant, but some of those tomato plants were over my head. Growing self-fertilizing tomatoes with this tomato cocktail recipe is a simple way to keep your tomato plants growing all season long. Remember to use sturdy tomato cages to support those giant plants!

What is your favorite tomato growing tip?

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Beautiful Ways to Save the Bees

You might have seen a graphic going around that has a photo with a list of fruits, veggies and
nuts stating, “If you like these foods, save the bees!” While I don’t believe that the end of squash as we know it is ending immediately, I do know that there are some very real effects from the drop in numbers of our best pollinator, the bee. Thankfully, there are plenty of beautiful ways to save the bees.

The Benefit of Bees

I have personally experienced the effects of insufficient pollination. Pollinators, including butterflies, bees, flies, even wasps, move pollen as they go from bloom to bloom feeding on nectar. They pick up pollen from male blooms, and drop it off on sticky female blooms. Bees move a tremendous amount of pollen, obvious to anyone simply by looking at the yellow rings of pollen on their back legs. When a female bloom does not get pollinated, the fruit will not develop.

How to Help

Plant a wildflower bed in the corner of your yard

Most of us have an unused portion of yard we are tired of mowing. Why not turn it into a perennial flower garden? There are many beautiful wildflowers that are great for attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Consider planting bee balm, dill, coneflower, zinnias, perennial sunflowers and dahlias for fresh blooms all season. Many of these varieties also make beautiful cut flowers, but be sure to leave plenty of blooms for the bees. To make things simple, I love these sets from Renee's Garden. My bees loved the flowers from the Butterfly and Hummingbird set. 

Make seed bombs

Turn feeding the bees into a family event by making seed bombs. Soak newspaper in water until it is mushy fiber. Remove the fiber, take a pinch of wildflower seeds, mix it up, and squeeze out the water. Allow it to dry thoroughly. Enjoy a cool afternoon drive with the family, tossing out your seed bombs. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss the science behind flowers and pollinators.

Consider clover

Do you have any areas in your lawn where grass won’t grow? Try planting clover for a no-mow alternative. Dutch white clover grows to about 8” tall and produces tiny white blooms great for feeding all pollinators! Clover doesn’t tolerate much traffic, so plant it in those areas that are infrequently traveled. If you have patches of clover in your yard already, consider mowing around the clover, allowing it to bloom in the early spring when our bee friends need food the most.

Provide a habitat

Everything needs a place to live and bees are no exception. Make your own bee habitats, or purchase an attractive and functional bee habitat.

Bees get a bad name because they do occasionally sting, but keep in mind that bees are not aggressive. They only sting when they are threated so move slowly and carefully when working with them in the garden. Add some of these beautiful ways to save the bees to your garden to benefit from increase pollination.

What is your favorite bee-friendly flower?

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Starting a Garden Without a Big Investment

So you're ready start a garden -- but where do you begin? Gardening seems expensive, but it is possible to start a garden without a big investment by gardening in the ground and purchasing only what is necessary.

Considerations for your Garden Plot

  • How is your soil? Do you have red clay? Rocks galore? If so, don’t let that stop you! Container gardens are easy, pretty and low maintenance. Anything from plant pots to coffee cans can be used for a garden. Drill ¼” holes four inches apart in the bottom of water-tight containers for drainage.
  • How much space do you have? The most frugal option for starting a garden is planting in your own backyard soil. If you have decent soil, just remove the grass and add some compost. If your lawn consists of invasive Bermuda Grass, check out my eBook "How to Get Rid of Bermuda Grass...Permanently!" to learn how to remove this "devil grass" and keep it out.
  • Plant what you eat. Focus primarily on growing what you really like to eat and give these crops priority in your garden. 
  • How much time do you have? While you might want to avoid orchids and citrus, there are plenty of plants that thrive with little maintenance. Believe it or not, lettuce is my favorite low maintenance plant. In your container or prepared soil, sprinkle loose-leaf lettuce seeds and water thoroughly. In a few days you will see sprouts!
  • What is your budget? Sure, raised beds are pretty, but if you are waiting to be able to afford the frames, soil and compost, in order to plant then you are cheating yourself out of free food. If you can afford it, by all means, get exactly what you want! If you can't, start a garden without a big investment by digging up the backyard with a spade.

Don't Worry about Perfection

Many garden professionals would try to convince you there is a “right” way to garden, but don’t believe it! If we look at nature herself, she doesn’t form neat rows or perfectly manicured bushes. I believe in reckless gardening, the act of gardening as a learning process and an opportunity to enjoy the journey. We don’t garden for the harvest, we garden for the adventure. The harvest is simply a benefit.

While we are on the subject of benefits, there are endless benefits of growing outdoors. We all need a daily dose of vitamin D, some fresh air, and room to breathe. Not only is it good for us, it’s good for our babies. Children should know where food comes from. Is someone having a bad day? Well, just try to stay grumpy under a grape trellis or surrounded by the aroma of roses.

Knowing your limitations is the first step of gardening. Identify what you have and work with it.

What would you like to grow in your garden?

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

FREE eBook "How to Get Rid of Bermuda Grass...Permanently!"

If you have ever tried to install a garden in a yard with Bermuda grass, then you know how difficult it is to eradicate. I get so many questions about getting rid of Bermuda grass that I actually wrote an instructional eBook. My book is free today (4/16) through Sunday, April 19 because I love my readers AND because I despise Bermuda grass.

Click here to go to the Amazon page

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Best Tomato Varieties for the Arkansas Garden

With 25,000 known varieties of tomatoes, it is difficult to determine the best tomato varieties for the Arkansas Garden. I have tried many varieties with mixed success.

What Kind of Gardener are You?

Every gardener has a different method. Some gardeners gently nurture their plants from the first time seed meets soil. They diligently weed, carefully prune and generally pay attention to their crops.

I’m not one of those gardeners. To put it bluntly, fussy plants won’t survive in my garden. I like tough varieties that give me a lot of food without a lot of effort. Because I start and maintain a no-till garden, I don’t have a lot of weeding to do. This means I can grow a lot of food with a small time commitment, but it also means I have to weed out the needy crops.

When it comes to tomatoes, which produce in the heat of summer, I have one major requirement -- they must be crack-resistant. Cracking is caused by inconsistent watering and rain during the summer is very hit and miss. My home/garden layout isn’t ideal for rainbarrels, so when I water, I have to use city water. Not only does the garden not care for sterile water, I don’t care for enormous water bills. Therefore, I have to find tomatoes that are appropriate for my style of maintenance.

Good Varieties for Arkansas and the Surrounding Areas

  • Ozark Pink- This variety my favorite. While they are a bit slow to produce, once they start they never stop. I have grown this variety for years with no cracking, even during years that I lost the entire harvest of certain varieties to cracking. This variety does so well in my climate because it was produced next door at the University of Arkansas. Not only does it produce consistently, without cracking, it also happens to be one of the best tasting pink tomatoes I have ever had.
  • Peacevine- You just can’t beat this variety for flavor and production. Each plant grows vines up to 10 feet long and produces pints -- yes, PINTS! -- of fruits every day. I use these for fresh eating as well as dehydrating. This is the perfect snacking tomato. 
  • Cherokee Purple- This is one of the best tomato varieties for the Arkansas garden. While not a heavy producer, it is consistent and offers one of the best tomato flavors you can find anywhere. Sadly, it also happens to be the favorite of the neighborhood squirrels, so I have to fight them to get tomatoes.

Tips for Selecting the Best Tomato for Your Garden

After many years of growing tomatoes, here are my tips for shopping for seeds or plants:
  • Look for varieties that originated in your geographical region or a region with similar climate. I look for keywords like "Arkansas" and "Ozark."
  • Look for varieties that state that they "resist cracking."
  • Grow several varieties. If one variety fails to produce, you will still have some fresh tomatoes.

What is your favorite tomato variety?

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Friday, April 10, 2015

BEST Salad (Bacon, Egg, Spinach, Tomato)

In her most recent segment of The Dish on 40/29 News, Heather Artripe shared her BEST Salad Recipe. This is perfect for all that spinach showing up in our gardens and Farmer's Markets!

What is your favorite spring salad?

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