Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Types of Mulch for the Home Garden

Mulching helps with weed prevention, prevents soil erosion, and absorbs water while slowing the process of evaporation. Mulching can and should be done in flower beds, raised beds, containers, and in-ground gardens. There are several types of mulch for the home garden, so experiment to see what you like best and what is most available in your area.

Mulch Options

Newspaper, cardboard, paper bags

Instead of sending out the paper for recycling, upcycle it in the garden. Shredded paper is nice around plants, while full sheets a few layers deep are great as a weed barrier for walkways. Be sure to top with a light layer of one of the other mulches on this list to prevent fly away.


I love straw for mulching right around plant stems. It’s loose enough that plenty of water seeps in but dense enough to hold water in the soil. Straw should be at least 4” thick to be effective.

Composted sawdust

Pallet companies sell this for $5+ per truckload. (make sure to ask if this is sawdust from untreated wood!) Fresh sawdust can be used in walkways, but it’s highly acidic so it shouldn’t be used right around plants. When picking up sawdust, ask for the old stuff. It should be dark brown. This mulch holds water well, and makes a very pleasant walking surface in the garden.

Sweetgum fruits a.k.a. “Gumballs”

People hate these things, don’t they? Here’s the bright side: they make great, water absorbing mulch. I particularly like this option for flower beds, their prickly outsides keep cats from using your space as a litter box and squirrels from digging up new plants. Use 2+ inches of gumballs as mulch in your beds and you shouldn’t have any problems with weeds, and the dense covering will help prevent evaporation.

Fallen leaves and grass clippings

Leaves and grass clippings are perhaps my favorite mulch. As they decompose, they return restorative nitrogen into the soil and they’re free! It’s time to stop bagging up our leaves and sending them to landfills, they are far too valuable for that. Grass clippings added directly to the soil tie up nitrogen while they decompose so only add thin layers or add grass clippings to an area where nothing is growing yet.

Mulching is a must for no-till gardens as well as for those who want to avoid watering too frequently and weeding. Enjoy exploring the different types of mulch for your home garden and find what works best for you.

Do you keep your garden mulched?

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Grow Cucumbers in the Backyard Garden Easily

Fresh garden cucumbers are tasty just sliced and sprinkled with salt, but they are also great for fermenting, canning and infusing. Perhaps the best thing about cucumbers is that, because they come in bush or pole varieties, you can grow cucumbers in the backyard garden easily.

Growing Method

Container growing: With oodles of large green leaves and small yellow blooms, cucumbers make a beautiful container plant. Bush varieties (read the label, it must specifically say “bush” otherwise its a climbing pole plant) can be grown in a container without support, whereas pole cucumbers must climb. Bamboo poles, tomato cages, or wooden stakes will all work for cucumber support. There are a number of pretty commercial trellises available. One of my favorite ways to grow cucumbers is to turn a tomato cage upside down, tying the pointy ends, making an upside-down cone. Anchor or bury the bottom of the cage so it won’t blow over, then plant a few pole cucumber seeds or plants around the base. They will climb around the cage making a beautiful, edible topiary.

In the ground: How do you get along with your neighbor? If you get along well and share a chain link fence, you might ask if you could plant a few cucumbers and let them grow up the fence. You should, of course, offer to share your harvest. Grow bush cucumbers in garden beds where space isn't a concern, or where trellising isn't possible. Provide a trellis, fence or tomato cage for pole varieties. Be creative!

Planting Cucumbers 

Prepare the area you plan to plant cucumbers by working about 1 inch of compost into the soil before planting. Cucumbers like warm soil, so wait to plant until the soil temperature is above 60°F to grow cucumbers in the backyard garden easily.

Transplants: Place transplants in the ground after the last chance of frost has passed. Plant pole varieties 36 inches apart at the base of a trellis. Bush varieties can be spaced closer, at about 18 inches apart. Check label spacing requirements, if it's available.

Seed: Plant 3 seeds about 1/2 inch deep. Use the same spacing as above, 36 inches apart for pole variates, 18 inches for bush.

Always water well after planting. Plant new seeds every two weeks for continuous harvests all season long.

What is your favorite way to eat cucumbers?

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Friday, May 15, 2015

How to Plant Tomatoes Video

Grow self-fertilizing tomatoes with this simple tomato cocktail.
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

FREE eBook: Organic Answers to Squash Problems

Click here to get the book free!

It won't be long before we start seeing squash problems like squash bugs, squash vine borer and powdery mildew. If you have experienced these problems, then you know how frustrating they are. Before those problems arrive, get my eBook, Organic Answers to Squash Problems, for FREE from 5/14/15 through 5/19/15. Be sure to download it and share this post with your friends so they can have a great squash year, too! (sharing links below this post or share it on social media from my facebook or twitter pages.)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

May Gardening

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Control Flea Beetles Without Chemicals

Every year I plant eggplants and every year flea beetles show up all of the sudden and eat a million holes in my eggplant leaves. Sound familiar? While flea beetles tend to favor eggplant, they also attack tomatoes, corn and tomatillos. There are a few ways to control flea beetles without chemicals, including delayed planting. By simply waiting a few weeks to plant susceptible crops, there is less of a chance for major flea beetle damage. For those of us who want earlier harvests, or in my case, I need earlier harvests because I sell produce, waiting just isn't an option. The solution, I have found, is pretty simple. We must make a barrier to keep flea beetles out while allowing sun and rain in. 

Creating a Barrier

Fabric separates pest from plant.
The solution for flea beetle control can be found in the dollar bin at the local fabric store. Tulle is about $1 a yard (3 feet long) for 72" wide fabric, which is wide enough to cover a 3- to 4-foot wide garden bed over hoops. If going to the fabric store isn't your thing, Gardener's Supply has economically-priced summer-weight garden fabric that serves the exact same purpose. 

Installing Hoops

Don't allow fabric to sit on the top of plants because this can cause water to sit on the leaves, which can lead to rot and fungal issues. Install hoops over your plants to give the fabric something to "float" on. Use 1-inch PVC from the hardware store to make hoops or purchase hoops made specifically for this purpose. I tied my PVC to wooden stakes, but they also slide easily over rebar to make a long-lasting hoop. Cover them with plastic in the winter to make a low-row for winter growing. 

I also really like this netting and hoops set. It looks nice in the garden and it's easy to install. 

How it Works

The beauty in this system is in its simplicity: separate the pest from the plant. This kind of pest management is called a cultural control. We are adjusting the environment around the plant, rather than killing pests with chemicals. We are preserving the health of our garden environment as well as protecting our future harvests. 

I am always looking for new ways to control pests without chemicals. Even organic pesticides kill beneficials along with pests, so I avoid those in all but the most extreme cases. Using a simple barrier to control flea beetles without chemicals helps ensure that my bees and butterflies stay healthy, without having to feed the bad guys!

How do you manage flea beetles?

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beginner's Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

I like to think of tomatoes as the gateway veggie -- you know, the one that really gets you hooked on gardening. It is certainly one of the first crops I suggest for new gardeners, so I am offering this beginner's guide to growing great tomatoes.

For the little time and effort it takes to grow one tomato plant, you really get a lot of food in return. They are low-maintenance plants with few major pest and disease issues. Perhaps my favorite part of growing tomatoes is that they grow quickly in our Arkansas summers, they love the heat and humidity, so it’s fun to watch the progress daily with the kiddos while learning more about how our food grows.

There are literally thousands of tomato varieties, so how could you possibly know what to get? Thankfully, you won’t find thousands of different varieties at our local garden centers, but you will find an assortment of plants with different features. You’ll need to have an idea of what you want before you go shopping.


  • How much space do you have?  All tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants only grow to a certain height and produce a certain number of fruits, regardless of the weather, while indeterminate plants continue to produce food as long as the conditions are favorable. If you have limited space, a determinate variety might be best for you, as they require smaller supports. But if you have plenty of garden space, I would recommend an indeterminate variety so you have fresh food throughout summer and fall. Read all plant labels for spacing instructions.
  • What does your family eat? When you’re at the grocery store or farmers market, do you tend to purchase slicing or cherry tomatoes? Naturally, I would encourage you to grow both, but your priority should be to grow what your family likes best.

How to Plant Tomatoes

When selecting your location for tomatoes, the first thing to consider is sun exposure. Tomatoes will only grow well in full sun -- an area that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun every day. This is non-negotiable if you want healthy plants that produce fruit.

Ground vs. Containers:
Full sun might not be optional, but your method of planting is. Tomatoes grow well in the ground, raised beds or containers. Pretty much any variety can be grown in the ground or raised beds, but there are a few things to consider when planning a container garden. First, you’ll want to grow a determinate variety -- those that only grow to a certain height and produce a certain amount of fruit. This ensures you don’t end up with a sickly jungle of vines too big for your container. You can even purchase varieties that are specifically for containers, look for plants with “patio” in the name.

If you’re growing in raised beds or in the ground, I suggest indeterminate varieties. This is really where you get the most bang for your buck because they produce fruit as long as conditions are warm enough, which in in NWA tends to be well into October.

For small, determinate varieties, those little three ring tomato cages are fine; however, they will not work for indeterminate varieties. For a sturdy tomato cage, I like these concrete mesh cages that I made myself. They never tip and always keep my plants upright and healthy. If you aren't able to make your own, or if you want something more attractive, these tomato cages will be good enough for small tomato varieties.

Now that you know what type of tomato is right for you, and you have your location decided, it’s time to plant! Here are a few tips for my beginner's guide to growing great tomatoes:
  • I like to make a cocktail of nutrients to go in the hole with my tomato plants to make sure these heavy feeders have enough to live on throughout the summer: 1 handful of used coffee grounds (or other nitrogen source), 1 handful of compost, 1/2 cup of crushed eggshells, 1 TBSP of epsom salts. Put all that in the hole and  top it with an inch of soil before placing your tomato.
  • Plant your tomato all the way up to about an inch below the top leaves. The buried section of stem will grow roots, building a very healthy root system.
  • Always water well after planting!

What is your favorite type of tomato to eat?

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