Slugging It Out

Leopard-slugs

My annual battle with the slugs has been underway for a while now. It began when I planted my seeds and seedlings, surrounding them with commercial slug bait so they had a chance to at least come into the world. It continued with repeated applications of the same commercial substance. That was not not a step I took lightly. There were other things that I tried, hoping to solve the problem, or help a bit, or at least feel like I was trying.

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In my first adult gardening days in Western Washington, slugs were three-inch long garden predators, in shades of tan—or occasionally black. Some had spots or stripes, and some were solid colored. All of them had enormous appetites. When I moved, first to Utah and then to North Dakota, and a friend pointed out the local slugs, I laughed. I didn’t think those pale, inch-long creatures could do much damage. I was wrong. They may have been small, but there were a LOT of them. Petunias disappeared overnight, and begonias never had a chance.

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In my early married years, I tried to garden as organically as possible, for both financial and environmental reasons. All those chemicals were risky, smelly, and expensive! Slugs, though, were always private garden enemy number one. Even then, too many slugs made it past whatever barriers I devised, grazing happily on my baby cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, and squash plants. They ate the carrots as soon as the first leaves appeared, leaving orphaned roots to wither and die. They even ate marigolds down to bare-tree shapes, which meant they clearly didn’t have any taste buds. As the gardening season progressed, I often found cavities chewed out of tomatoes, and eaten into the tops of the few carrots that survived, both with slugs often still happily munching inside the holes. I knew, even all those years ago, that drastic measures were called for.

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I tried. I really did. I went to the library and carried home arm loads of books on garden pests. There were a lot of suggestions for dealing with slugs, and I tried them all. First, I planted onions, garlic, and marigolds throughout my garden, because they supposedly repelled slugs and other pests by their smell. The slugs ate them.

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Mint was supposed to repel slugs, too. Most aromatic plants did repel pests, and that included slugs. Wormwood was often recommended, and since it grew widely in North Dakota, it was easy to try when I gardened there. Since both mint and wormwood spread uncontrollably, keeping them in pots or making a tea of them by soaking leaves in boiling water and spraying that on the garden was actually safer than planting them in the garden.

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I laid down a wide border of sawdust, all the way around the garden, and in paths between the beds. Supposedly, the gritty sawdust discouraged the slugs from coming into the garden. I saw the sun shining on their gleaming slime trails every day, and figured slug tummies must have been tougher than the people who said sawdust would deter them realized.

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I tried laying rings and lines of crushed egg shells around plants and seed beds, for the same reasons. The slugs crawled over those too. In fact, I sometimes thought they were eating the egg shells. At least I was adding calcium to the soil, which was a good thing.

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Coffee grounds were supposed to work in the same way as sawdust, but we were never coffee drinkers, and I was never brave enough to ask restaurants for their leftover grounds. Coarse sand was another alternative.

I tried spreading thin lines of salt around the garden, but the size of the slug population meant I needed quite a lot of salt, and I didn’t really think adding salt to the soil was a good idea. I tried to reduce the damage by carrying a salt shaker out to the garden with me, shaking the contents liberally over ant slugs that dared to show their faces. The writhing and squirming were too much for me, though. I was sure there were tiny screams of agony involved, and I could not bear to torture even a slug.

A border of seaweed was also supposed to help, partly because of the salt content—so I had qualms about it for the same reasons. I considered trying seaweed from fresh water lakes, carrying it home in buckets from nearby bodies of water. I worried, though, about the smell as it decomposed.

I set out some cups of beer. The slugs crawled in, and lay soggy and motionless in the morning. A few hours later, though, they crawled away, leaving telltale slime trails behind. I actually read that soda pop was equally effective. At least with soda pop, the slugs would not be hung over, making me wish for tiny aspirin tablets to hand out. Milk was also recommended, but the slugs drank it. A mixture of honey, yeast, and water, boiled down enough to be really sticky, acted like a trap, keeping slugs in place. I considered laying out fly paper, or the glue traps sold for catching mice, Boiling down honey or molasses was cheaper.

I laid out boards, sometimes with food scraps like lettuce, cabbage, or moistened citrus rinds underneath. When I turned the boards over early in the morning, I found slugs. Then I just had to decide what to do with them.

I learned that slugs hated copper, but I had a very large garden, and the copper tape available in the stores was too expensive for me to manage. I did consider laying down a border of pennies, but my children would have found other uses for any pennies they found lying on the ground. In those days, our small neighborhood store still had penny candy. The temptation would have been too great.

The most effective home remedy I found was to go out to the garden early in the morning with an old pair of kitchen shears. I figured, since I couldn’t seem to keep the slugs out of the garden, I had to find a way to kill them. A quick decapitation was more merciful than a slow death by salt poisoning. I knew the slugs were dead, instead of just dead drunk, and I saw a decline in population. It still wasn’t enough. Plenty of slugs still found their way to my cabbage and squash plants—and everything else I tried to grow.

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While each of those efforts probably helped to reduce the slug population in my garden, eventually I decided that commercial baits were also required. I laid out rings and circles of granules intended to kill slugs and snails. Too many slugs still got through. I discovered a paste form of slug bait, and drew circles around each of my bedding plants. I boxed in smaller-seed crops like carrots, with lines of paste. It helped. It just wasn’t enough.

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Back in the Pacific Northwest once more as a retired person (what my Australian son-in-law calls an “oldie) I have continued to battle slugs. However, I resented spending paying so much time, energy, and money to fight slugs, when my retirement income was so low. By then, with the internet available, I didn’t have to carry home arm loads of books. I researched online. I read everything I could find, and I tried most of it. I was astonished at the number of things people claimed would work. If even half of them did, I suspected the world would be slug free.

Some of the suggestions were still the same—sawdust, salt, eggshells, and copper. Beer was still advised. I already knew those things did not eliminate the problem, but I was willing to try some things again, even if they only reduced the population. I began to build a border of crushed egg shells around the garden. It couldn’t hurt, after all. I built sawdust and wood chip paths. I didn’t use salt, because living as close to the ocean as I did, I figured the sandy soil had enough salt in it already. I still couldn’t afford copper.

I learned that foxglove plants repelled slugs, so my daughter and her husband dug afew up alongside the road and brought them home. They bloomed nicely, and we waited for them to multiply, so we could plant a foxglove border around the garden.

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I heard that sedum plants had the same effect. I had discovered sedums in North Dakota, where they grew when many things could not survive the winter. They did equally well in the temperate climate where I retired. I picked up a small flat of mixed sedum plants, and planted one every foot or so along the garden fence. They thrived. So did the slugs. At least the sedum was pretty. I hoped it would be more effective when it was bigger, and filled in as a border. I kept trying everything I could. Gradually, I began to see less and less slug damage. While no one technique cleared my garden of slugs, the combined effect of so many suggested solutions did seem to help.

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I still carry my kitchen shears out to the garden with me, and I still cut in half every slug I find. Somehow, though, they keep coming. I’m not sure if they hide from me more effectively than they did all those years ago, or if I don’t find them because now, as a retired “oldie,” I refuse to get up at 6:30 to hunt slugs. I know I should, but for the first time in many years, I don’t have to get up that early to go to work. I’ll keep watching. I’ll keep reading, and planting anything that might help. Even if each thing I try only helps a little, the combination might be increasingly effective. I can only hope.

Garden Soil: For Better or For Worse!

When I planted my first garden at my new retirement home, I was full of hope. There had been no garden on the property, which had been used as a holiday rental home for twenty years. I marked out a garden area, and laid out beds, edging them with logs and branches, with plans for improvement over time. I planted carrots, potatoes, squash, peas, and tomatoes. I waited. A few carrots came up, and quickly died. The same was true of squash. Some were clearly eaten by slugs in the opening salvo of a battle I knew I would be fighting for the entire gardening season. Tomato plants I brought home from garden departments sat in their beds, making no effort to grow or set fruit. Peas came up in straggly, gap-toothed lines. I picked a couple of cherry tomatoes, a handful of peas, and that was all. I was disappointed, but I am a stubborn—let’s say determined—person.

I remembered other brand-new gardens in my life. The garden of my early married years had been a pasture for longer than anyone could remember. The grass was stubborn, and the soil heavy and sticky with clay. A later garden had been a lawn on which people had parked their cars. There, the soil was hard packed and filled with fist-sized rocks. The first years were difficult both times. In time, though, with the addition of manure and organic material like leaves and rotted hay, the soil became dark and soft, and the seeds I planted grew and flourished. This time, I didn’t want to wait that long.  At my age, I may not have that long.

Early this spring, I scraped together enough money to buy a huge truck load of what some people at my local landscape company called compost. Other people called it mulch. It was halfway in between, so the confusion was understandable. Made of shredded wood and wood-related materials, it was well rotted, dark and rich. However, there were still a lot of chunks of wood in the mix, indicating that further decomposition was needed before it could really be called compost. Still, it had to be an improvement over the yellowish, sandy soil that was native to the area, and which filled my garden beds. I spread six to eight inches of the mulch/compost on every bed in the garden, and put more in planters, flower beds, and the herb garden. It did seem to help.

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Compost/mulch

The peas I planted came up and flourished. We began picking them right on schedule. I still wasn’t satisfied with the germination rates of my carrots, but they did come up, and they continued to grow, rather than dying or being eaten immediately. So did the radishes, kohlrabi, beets, lettuce, and chard. I was optimistic.

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I set out the squash and tomato plants I had nurtured indoors, and I waited. They lived! They even grew. I did notice, though, that both the squash and tomato plants took on a yellowish tinge that did not seem healthy. It made me worry that a lack of nitrogen in the soil would affect their crops. I stepped up my efforts.

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The first resource for gardeners trying to improve nitrogen levels—and productivity—in their garden has always been manure. Unlike my early married days, when I had chickens, rabbits, and goats, I did not have access to manure—especially not aged manure, which I needed in order to avoid burning garden plants. Explanations of how long manure has to age have always been confusing to me. I have heard people insist it had to be three years old, and others that said it only had to be three weeks old, and pretty much every opinion in between. I could never find absolute, scientifically researched guidelines, so I usually save manure for a few months before I used it. Since I didn’t have any, I couldn’t do that.

A local horse boarding facility offered free compost, but when I checked, it was just the bedding from the stalls, which meant it was not actually composted. Since the bedding was straw, there would have been a lot of seeds in it. On top of that, because horses only have one stomach, the seeds from grasses and weeds would not have been fully digested—which meant they would grow! I used horse manure once, years ago, and spent five years fighting giant, burr producing weeds that flat out refused to die. I don’t use horse manure any more.

Given the deer, raccoon, and bear population in the area, I thought I should be able to wander down the road and through the trees and gather as much manure as I could possibly need. It would almost make up for the damage done by nibbling deer, raccoons, and bears. I did, in fact, find a pile of bear scat in my driveway during the winter, and I immediately took that to my garden. I have not been so successful with other animals, though. I was getting desperate to find a good source of manure, or some other nitrogen source.

 

I didn’t have a lot of options. Reluctantly, I went to the home improvement store, and bought bags of steer manure. The contents were really only 30% steer manure, mixed with compost, but it would help. I brought it home to feed my garden.

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Steer Manure and Compost Blend

Fish fertilizer was inexpensive and available in any store with a garden department. It was actually a thick, smelly sludge, intended to be diluted for hand watering. I was too lazy to spend that much time hand watering everything I wanted to fertilize, and I had too many other things to do. I adapted the process by putting a tablespoon of the goop near the base of each plant, and a narrow strip between rows of carrots, etc. Then I turned on the sprinkler, letting the water dilute the paste and soak it into the ground.

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Within a week, the plants were showing new leaves with a better shade of green than before. Still, I was determined to have a really productive garden. I returned to the garden department, where I found two additional things to try.

I knew worms were good for the garden, because they ate the soil, and left what was politely called “worm castings” behind. I scoured all the places I had found fishing worms, gathering them and transporting them to the garden, where I gently scattered them, covering them with a thin layer of soil and compost.

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Then, in a large store’s garden department, I made a discovery that startled me. I had never realized you could actually buy worm castings. A five-pound bag cost only a few dollars, and I thought perhaps the castings would provide a head start and encourage a good worm population. I scattered the store-bought worm castings in my garden and planters. Maybe it would work a bit like dogs marking their territory, only in reverse. Maybe, just maybe, the worms would detect the worm castings, think there were worms in my garden so it must be a good place to live, and move right in. I decided to try it, and spread worm castings much as I had spread the manure: everywhere!

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Worm Castings

I knew that blood meal really was dried blood, and it was also reasonably priced. I had some concerns, though. My daughter’s dogs had followed me around, doing their very best to lap up the fish fertilizer before I got it watered in. I suspected they would be even more interested in blood meal. Still, people who have butchered animals and saved the blood to apply to the garden have consistently reported dramatic results, so I had to try it. Asking my daughter to keep her dogs confined, I used the blood meal just as I had used the manure and the worm castings—a ring here, a pile there, a line in another place. As soon as I applied the meal in one area, I turned on the sprinkler and moved to the next area. By the time I told my daughter she could release the dogs, water had dissolved the blood meal and soaked it into the dirt. I kept the garden gate closed, though, and watched closely for canine interest in my planters. No fertilizer would be effective if the dogs ate it before the plants had a chance.

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Blood Meal

My garden has been in for about a month. I lost one squash plant, when something ate it. I can tell my annual battle with slugs is about to become serious. I checked my squash plants the other day, because they tend to show the most impact of environmental issues. It has always been the squash plants that warned me, by wilting, that I had forgotten to water, or that yellowed because they lacked adequate nutrition. They were my first clue that something was missing this year, too. A week after applying the manure, and worm casting, and fish fertilizer, and blood meal, I checked those little squash plants. They had put out new leaves, and the leaves were three shades greener than the earlier, yellow leaves. I will continue to add to my soil, but for now, it looks like I might be on the right track.

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Coming Up With Corn

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For most of my adult life, I have lived in areas where growing corn was attempted by only the most optimistic. My childhood’s gardens had tall, fruitful stalks of corn every year, thanks to my father, the climate, and truckloads of manure.

As an adult, though, I lived closer to the Washington coast. The summers were cooler, which made corn a marginal crop, at best. A few people succeeded, but many gave up after years of short stalks and stubby ears. I was determined, though. If I couldn’t duplicate the tall corn forests of my childhood, I wanted to at least harvest enough corn to freeze for the winter. Those were the days before the super-sweet varieties of corn had been developed, and if you wanted good, sweet corn, you had to grow it yourself–or make friends with someone who did.

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I tried a lot of little things to get my corn crop started. First, I sprouted the seed indoors. My father had always soaked corn seed overnight, to give it a head start. I took it a bit further, soaking the seed for several days. When the corn sprouts were about ½ inch long, I set them out—very carefully so as not to break off the growing tip.

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My father planted long rows of corn—but he planted a lot of them. I planted corn in a grid—six inches apart, in rows six inches apart. Corn did best planted in a block, because it was wind pollinated, with the pollen from the tassels on top drifting on summer breezes to reach the silk on the corn’s ears. Each strand of silk was actually a long tube, leading to a kernel of corn. For a full ear of corn, each tube needed to trap pollen, pollinating the attached kernel and allowing it to develop. A long, single row of corn allowed too much pollen to escape.

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Once my seeds were planted, I had two things to be concerned about. The first was crows, which loved to pull up the baby corn plants and eat whatever kernel still remained. Bird netting helped, but not if I laid it directly on the ground. I learned from sad experience that the crows would eat the baby corn right through the net. If I suspended the bird netting four to six inches above the ground, though, the crows were foiled in their murderous intent.

The longer term problem I had to deal with, though, was soil temperature and overall warmth. Corn needed more warmth than most plants, to successfully bear a crop. Varieties advertised as being ready in 65 days took longer if the days were not ideal in terms of temperature.  I experimented a lot. First, I stretched clear plastic over the beds, suspended enough to allow baby corn plants to stretch their little leaves. The mini-greenhouse effect got the corn off to a good start.

I wanted better crops, though. I experimented with greenhouse structures over the corn beds, and one year I built a greenhouse over my entire corn patch, using a frame of 1 x 2 furring strips. I stretched clear plastic over the roof and the sides, stapling it to the framework. I quickly learned that staples and plastic did not mix. A little wind, a little sun, a little someone leaning on the plastic, and the staples pulled through the plastic, leaving it flapping in the breeze. To prevent that, I cut narrow strips of cardboard from rejected cardboard boxes, and stapled those on top of the plastic. Building a greenhouse over my corn patch did lead to better crops, though they never to rivaled my father’s tall stalks, or the long, full ears he produced.

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Time passed. I got older, to my great surprise. My children grew up and moved away. My garden got smaller, because I had less space, less time and energy, and less need. New super sweet varieties of corn made buying it in the supermarket more acceptable. Still, growing my own corn had a nostalgic appeal. No one in the small town where I retired seemed to grow corn—or if they did, they hid it on roads less traveled. I decided to give it one more try.

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I had built 24-inch-tall planters out of pallets I got from a local lumber store. The soil in those planters, because it was higher and exposed to more sunlight, was several degrees warmer than the soil in my garden, so I used one pallet planter for corn. I soaked the seeds, and planted them in a six-inch grid. Then I built my corn a greenhouse.

Trying to keep things simple—and free—I just pushed the ends of salvaged lengths of PVC pipe into the gap between the inner and outer layers of the pallets, at the four corners of the box. The pipes were curved from previous use, so it was fairly easy to bring the tops together in the middle. I used duct tape to connect the four pieces where they met, about three feet above the top of the planter.

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I stapled clear plastic, along with cardboard strips, to the top of the planter, pulled it up to the top of the frame, and trimmed all four sides into triangular shapes, overlapping at the corners. Initially, I had planned to leave the top of the greenhouse open to serve as a heat vent. It was simpler, though, to leave the overlapping edges loose and fasten the corners at the top. I wanted to use a big pink bow, but I didn’t have any ribbon I was willing to sacrifice, and buying some would have defeated my goal of keeping cost to a minimum. I made do with a rubber band.

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I set a small thermometer inside the greenhouse, so I could monitor the temperature. On the warmest days, I was able to open up one side of the greenhouse, to prevent the baby corn plants from baking in the heat.

The next task was arranging for adequate water, especially because above-ground planters dry out very quickly. I knew I would never have the patience to stand and water them long enough. Very few people did, which was why hand watering was so rarely successful.

A sprinkler system was the one thing I had to spend money on for my corn bed. I bought one inexpensive hose, which I cut into lengths to reach from one pallet planter to the next. Over the years, I have used, and saved, dozens of hose repair ends. I used them to put new ends on the hose wherever I had cut it. Doing that was much less expensive than buying several shorter sections of hose. Running the sections from a main hose into a bed, and then out of that bed, and over and into the next, only took me a few minutes.

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I had planned to buy a few of the simple, basic sprinklers I had used in the past. When I looked for them though, I found some brightly colored, flower-shaped sprinklers on spikes that cost the same amount. I could not resist that touch of color and whimsy, so each of my pallet planters—including my corn box—got a flower-shaped sprinkler to provide water. Because I had set the sprinklers up in a series, all I had to do was turn on one hose, and all of my pallet planters got watered. Corn needed quite a lot of water, so making it easy was important.

I planted some corn seeds in a regular garden bed, just for comparison. The seeds in the pallet planter were up long before their ground-level cousins. They grew and grew, and when they got tall enough, I opened the greenhouse and folded back the panels. The frame was still useful though, because the late-season risk to corn was raccoons. Despite fences and gates, raccoons have found their way into my corn patches in the past, leaving me with ragged plants and empty cobs. I cut the tape holding the pipe ends together in the middle, and stood the pipes upright before covering them with chicken wire on all four sides and on top. After all I had done to get a corn crop, I was not going to let raccoons steal it.

It hasn’t always been easy to grow corn in my garden. It wasn’t as essential the last few years as it used to be, but it’s an achievement that brings me pleasure. Picking corn from my own garden, and bringing it in the house to cook, makes me feel like—well, like I can do anything I put my mind to. There are plenty of things I can’t do, to tell the truth. Age, energy, health, and finances interfere with a lot of the things I would like to do. I can grow corn, though, and that somehow makes up for some of the other things.

Planting for Protection

One of the things I have re-learned, in my on-going work of proofreading and editing my gardening book for publication, has been the idea of planting some things to actually protect other things. I retained some of it, over the years, but forgot the rest. I often planted garlic throughout my garden, just because it deterred so many pests. When some bulbs got left behind, sending up new shoots in the spring, I left them where they were. Garlic didn’t take up much space, and it helped with all the little creepy crawly pests that can be such a fight. After a few years, I had garlic scattered everywhere, and I was okay with that.

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I planted onions in my garden for many of the same reasons. there were advantages. Aside from the joy of being able to go out and get onion greens for a salad or casserole topping, I felt better knowing that the little onions, happily growing in my garden, were telling bugs to stay away. When I used plantings like these, I also knew that while pests were deterred, beneficial insects were not. I still had plenty of ladybugs in my garden, and other insects that helped with pollination and production. In fact, all of the plants in the allium family, from ornamental types to chives, leeks, and shallots.

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I never felt a need to kill all the nibbling insects. I just wanted them to stay away from my garden. Since the allium family chased off aphids, carrot flies, and cabbage worms, I was willing to give them space in my garden. I did hear somewhere once, long ago, that allium plants also repelled slugs, but I was never sure I believed it. I had a lot of onions and garlic in my garden—and an equal number of slugs.

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Lavender was another scent I never learned to love, as some people did. When I wanted to unwind, I wanted to smell roses. Still, I wanted an herb garden full of traditional plants, and lavender was one of them. Even though it did not seem to help my own difficulty sleeping, it discouraged flies, moths, and mosquitoes from hanging around—which made it easier for me to sleep, so I guess in a way it was working.

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I tried for years to grow rosemary. I fell in love, time and again, with the tiny Christmas tree-like rosemary plants in the grocery stores, only to have my heart broken when they died. I could never keep them alive inside the house. When I moved back to the Pacific Northwest, though, I stuck one in the ground, and let the rain come. The little rosemary grew and grew and grew. It was supposed to help chase away mosquitoes, and some people claimed it affected other insects as well.

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Over time, I realized that the strongest-smelling plants, like onions, garlic, and marigolds, were the ones that helped the most with insects. I also realized that those plants did not necessarily have to smell bad to us to be effective.  Mint was one plant that smelled nice to us, and terrible to bugs.

There were a few things to be careful about when planting any of the mint family plants. Mint tended to spread quickly.  Some people didn’t mind pulling it up everywhere in their yard as it spread. After spending several years removing mint that grew where I didn’t want it, because the initial plant spread, I decided I would only grow mint in pots. Pulling the escapees may not be much work, but I had a large garden and yard to maintain, and any task that could be avoided—like chasing stray mint plants—was avoided, at my house. There were enough weeds to pull without letting the mint escape. Once I started growing it in pots, I quite liked having it.

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Catnip is a member of the mint family, but aside from the issue of unwanted spreading, catnip had another special problem. My cats could not stay away from it. The first four times I tried to grow it—partly for catnip tea—the cats ate the plants down to nubs before they even had a chance to grow. Finally, I put a hardware cloth cage over the plant so the cats couldn’t get at it. Once it was big enough to be established, it was fine, as long as I kept it in a pot.

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As a teenager, my daughter discovered pesto. Ever since, she has wanted me to grow basil so she could have it for dinner as often as possible. I never cared for the taste in spaghetti sauce or other cooking, and I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about pesto. When I learned, though, that an oil in basil kills (kills!) mosquito eggs, I decided to plant it in pots on my deck and in my yard.

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After I noticed insects, ranging from mosquitoes and flies to what my childhood friends and I called spit bugs standing happily on my herb plants, I started to wonder about their effectiveness. It was supposed to be the oils that helped deter the bugs, but there was no research to speak of that addressed things like how many plants you needed, how close they had to be, and how much the insect population was actually affected. I wondered if the stories were really true. Finally, I started doing more than just growing the plants. I picked herbs, mixing them together. Sometimes, I just chopped up mint, lavender, and rosemary leaves—and anything else I had around—and scattered the crumbled leaves on top of the mulch in my garden. Other times, I put handfuls of leaves in the blender with a bunch of water, and made a liquefied version. If I let it sit for a day, I could strain out the leaf fragments, and spray the liquid on my garden. The essential oils, which did all of the work, stayed with the water. That seemed to have a little more impact. Just growing the plants here and there wasn’t enough.

Flowers brought spots of color to the my garden. When those flowers also kept my plants healthier, and happier, I smiled more.   When I smiled more, my husband and children did too.  Because of that, I planted petunias by all of my green bean plants, because petunias acted as a strong deterrent for nematodes that lived in the soil, and nibbled on my bean plants. Petunias smelled terrible to insects, so squash bugs, beetles, and even aphids made a point of staying away from them—and my beans grew better. The petunias also seemed to be disgusting to aphids, tomato hornworms, asparagus beetles, and leafhoppers. Because of that, I planted more petunias near the tomatoes and peppers, as well as by the beans. I’d never seen a squash bug, and didn’t see a tomato hornworm until I lived in Utah in my 40s, but I was happy to chase them away with my purple petunias.

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I planted marigolds, too, often at the ends of the rows. Their bright yellows and oranges made me smile, and the knowledge that their very distinctive smell deterred ravenous insects made me even happier. I had to be careful, though, because oftentimes when homestead gardeners spoke of planting marigold, they were actually referring to calendula, which used to be called “pot marigold.” I even heard it called “English Marigold,” as opposed to the bright flower we call a “French Marigold.” Whatever I called the flowers, I had to learn not to confuse them.

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Actual marigolds had a smell I didn’t really like, and it disgusted aphids and mosquitoes. It even seemed to scare off rabbits in some places. Here in the Pacific Northwest, mosquitoes can be a plague, so even without absolute proof, I decided to plant marigolds everywhere I could. Unlike herbs, many of the flowers that deter insects do so without needing to be crushed, dried, or liquefied.

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As a child, nasturtiums were my favorite flower. We used to nip the end off the little nectar tube on the back, and sip the sweet juice. As an adult, I learned that the blossoms were good in salad—a little spicy addition that brought color as well as flavor to the plate. Then I learned how much nasturtiums helped my garden, and I was thrilled. They grew quickly, from large, easy-to-handle seeds, and were lush and dramatic. The fact that whiteflies, squash bugs, aphids, cabbage loopers, and a variety of beetles ran the other way when they saw nasturtiums was a wonderful side effect. I bought seeds and stuck them wherever I had a spot in my yard.

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I have always tended to be a fairly practical person. I was happy to plant basil, if my daughter wanted pesto. I didn’t mind growing mint, or lavender, or rosemary, because I could use them in cooking and for other things. Onions and garlic made their way into my kitchen often enough to be worth planting. Most herbs even bloomed, producing clusters of pink or lavender-colored flowers late in the season. Planting petunias and marigolds in my vegetable garden, though it helped with insects, was really for my heart. As soothing and peaceful as it was to gaze at my green garden and tree-surrounded yard, those bright spots of color, pest-deterrent as they were, lifted my heart.  Like white hyacinths, they fed my soul.

Planning the Planting

I recently began revising a gardening book I wrote many years ago, in order to prepare it for publication as an e-book for Kindle. It has been enlightening to read suggestions and ideas I had included, but had since forgotten.

One of my favorite ideas was about hardening off plants before setting them out. I had tried to follow the official guidelines, in order to harden off plants so they didn’t suffer too much transplant shock. I really did try. I knew I was supposed to take my baby plants outside, and set them in a sheltered spot, leaving them there for just a few minutes longer each day.

At the time I was starting dozens and dozens of plants inside. I had broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts; tomatoes, zucchini, crookneck, and patty pan; peppers of several varieties, both sweet and hot; flowers of more types than I could even begin to list. Taking them outside meant trip after trip after trip, with cake pans, egg cartons, and boxes full of seedlings in a variety of low-cost pots.

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I usually did a decent job of it for the first couple of days. If we had a week of bad weather, which might damage delicate seedlings, it messed up the schedule. If I had a bad week, with unusually high levels of pain or fatigue, that caused problems too. I learned from experience, though, that seedlings planted outside without at least a little time to harden off would yellow and wither in the sunlight, wind, and fluctuating temperatures that tended to be ten to twenty degrees lower than the seedlings were used to in my house. I struggled with guilt and failure in equal measure.

We lived, at that time, in a double-wide mobile home. There were two sliding glass doors: one off the master bedroom, leading to a small deck, and another off the family room, leading to a larger deck. It took me a few years, but I found a solution that met the plants’ needs as well as my own. Because I started so many plants indoors, I got an inexpensive metal shelving unit, like people used in workshops and garages. I set my plants up on that. In the earliest stages, I attached growing lights to the bottom of two of the five shelves, and rotated the seedlings so all of them got a little time under the lights, during their early growing days. Then, as the weather improved in the spring, I began to harden them off the easiest way I could find.

I moved the shelving unit in front of the sliding glass doors, and opened the door. Because I kept the screen closed, my house was safe from cats, dogs, and flying things. When the door itself was open, though, the plants were exposed to sunlight, wind, and cooler temperatures in a way that was gentle and convenient. I could slide the door open, and an hour or two later, close it again. By planting time, I was leaving the door open most of the day, and occasionally even in the night—which gave the plants exposure to the darkness and cooler temperatures they would experience in night time gardens. If there was an unexpected frost, they were safe inside.

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By the time all the danger of frost was past, my plants were ready to set out. Exposure to real sunlight, without the glass that filters out some kinds of light, meant they were not as fragile and leggy as they would have been. Not only did I have sturdy plants, but by planting time they had been toughened up, and had grown to decent, but manageable, size.

In later years, when I wasn’t trying to grow enough to feed my family without help from the grocery stores, I cut back on the number of plants I started. By then, I had no sliding glass doors, and I didn’t need them for the few plants I wanted to harden off. A windowsill or two was enough, and rust-proof bread pans, made of glass or aluminum, lined my window sills, filled with plants enjoying the sun and air the windows provided.

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I had a few more tricks, though, many of which I re-learned as I edited my gardening book for upcoming publication. I knew that tomato plants needed a lot of warmth in the garden, and that wind was damaging for them, especially in the early days and weeks. There were plenty of things available in garden catalogs to protect them, but I learned that I could cut the bottom off my empty milk jugs and place them over tiny tomato plants to act as greenhouses. I took the lids off and threw them away, leaving the open top as a vent so the little greenhouses wouldn’t get too hot. By the time the tomatoes were too big for the milk jugs, the weather was warm enough to keep them happy.

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More milk jugs came into play after the little greenhouses came off. I saved the milk containers all year, and in the spring, when I set out tomato, pepper, and squash plants, I filled the milk jugs with water. Four water-filled milk jugs were set around each plant. I used the gallon size, rather than half gallons, because they were more stable, and less likely to fall over and crush the baby plant—a very real risk with less stable versions. The milk jugs protected the still-small plants from wind, and absorbed heat during the sunny days. That heat kept the baby plants warm on cooler days, or at night.

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I left them in place the whole season, figuring that even if the difference was only a degree or two, the more warmth I could provide the plants, the better my crop would be. It seemed to work, and I often had tomatoes and squash before any of my neighbors. Milk jugs in the garden were never very attractive, but once the plants were large enough to begin blooming, the jugs were almost hidden.

I also re-learned a number of ways of marking rows. I had stopped using string, although it had at least reminded my children not to walk on the rows.  As my children grew, that aspect of gardening became less important. On the contrary, with my MS-inspired clumsiness, I found strings in the garden hazardous, and either tripped and fell, or tangled my feet and pulled the strings out. It was frustrating, and unhelpful.

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However, as I experimented with ways to space carrot seeds out enough to avoid thinning, I noticed a side benefit of mixing the seeds with sand. When I laid out the rows of sand-carrot mixture, I could see exactly where the carrot rows would be. In North Dakota, sudden thunder storms occasionally washed the sand away, and I knew not to look for carrots where I had planted them. Most of the time, though, the sand stayed in place, showing me clearly where to watch for seedlings—because I was one of those people who inspected the garden almost daily, anxious for the first view of growing things.

Once I had discovered how convenient it was to have rows so nicely marked, I began to experiment with other options,as well as using the technique on any crop with smallish seeds. Sand was fine—and especially fun when I found pink play sand on clearance. I had little pink stripes for carrots to grow in, which made me smile every time I looked at them. Once I retired, though, and moved back home to Western Washington, I had a garden that was mostly sand. Everyone did. With land so close to the ocean, high sand content was understandable, but I didn’t want to add sand under those circumstances. I actually wanted to add organic matter.

I considered the benefits of marking rows by planting small seeds in snow-white vermiculite. It seemed too artificial, somehow. I tried inexpensive potting soils, experimenting with one and then another, until I found one that was a lighter color than the soil in my garden. One type also had small white beads of water-retaining material. When I used those, either by mixing seeds into them and laying lines of potting mix in the garden, or by making small furrows for seeds, and filling the furrows with potting mix, I could easily see where my short, cross-bed rows were planted. I also felt better about adding that material to my garden than I did when I added sand. It wasn’t enough to make much difference, and I was already adding vast quantities of compost and manure, but a little potting mix made me feel better than a little sand had done.

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I took one final step when I planted things in my garden. Although for many years I tried to garden as organically as possible, slugs became such a problem that I began to use commercial slug poisons. I tried organic methods first, and continued to use some of those. They helped, but they just were not enough. Now, each growing plant gets a circle of slug killer, and each bed is outlined with it. I was not willing to let all of the work starting seeds, growing them in the house and on windowsills, and putting them in little greenhouses all their own be lost because our four-inch slugs wanted a snack. This was the one place I used commercial pesticides. I never regretted it. A garden left uneaten had a better chance of providing produce for my family.

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Potting Plants for Pennies

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For as long as I can remember, spring has been potting time: a time to plant seeds in tiny containers, and then larger ones, before taking them outside to the garden. Every year, I gazed with yearning at compressed peat pellets, peat pots, planting flats, and adorable tiny greenhouses. Every year, I counted my pennies and decided I really couldn’t afford the fun stuff.

Eventually, though, I gave up on yearning, and began to devise my own solutions. I’ve always been good at finding ways to use what I had, so looking for ways to start my seeds indoors without spending a lot of money was natural for me.

When I was raising my children, I grew cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Because the seeds were small, I didn’t want to start out with individual pots—but I did need to end up with individual seedlings, preferably in individual pots. I saved (and sanitized) the plastic trays meat came in at the grocery store. I filled the trays with sand or vermiculite—because germinating seeds don’t require nutrition, only moisture. I sprinkled the seeds over the tray, sprayed them with water, and covered the whole tray with plastic wrap to create my own mini-greenhouse. Once the seedlings were up and growing, I transplanted them into individual containers—but those varied as I experimented.

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Egg cartons were the first solution I found. The individual cups in the cartons were small, which was good for tiny seedlings. Once the plants were ready to go outside, the individual cups could be separated and set directly into the ground, where they deteriorated just like peat. The fact that they came in a convenient twelve pack made moving them around easier, when it did come time to plant.  I also used the purple trays larger quantities of eggs came in, and they worked just as well.img_0822.jpg

I also used egg shells as tiny pots. A half shell worked for a small seedling, although I liked them better when I managed to keep two-thirds of the shell intact, breaking off only the top third. If I started seeds in a meat tray, I could save egg shells to use as the first pots for small plants. Duck eggs were even better, because they were larger and had stronger shells than chicken eggs. The only problem was that the shells kept rolling onto their sides. I solved that by putting an inch of sand or dirt into a pan and setting the shells on that.

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The shells were easy to break away from the roots, and I scattered the crushed shells on the soil to add a little calcium to the soil (eventually). I had read that crushed egg shells would keep slugs away, but judging from the population, that was more hopeful than accurate.

Some seedlings got fairly large before they were ready to go out to the garden. Although my cabbage family babies were small to begin with, they tolerated cool spring weather. However, squash plants started out larger, and along with tomatoes, needed warmer weather before they could safely go outside. That meant they could not stay in the egg carton or egg shell pots very long. I could have bought peat pots in almost any size I needed, but by that point I had gotten a little stubborn. I’m awful that way. If I feel like I’m being coerced or manipulated into doing something in a way that profits someone else, I will do anything I can to do it my own way.

Paper cups were not terribly expensive, and they worked. Over time, though, I found that disposable plastic cups, though more expensive initially, were a better investment. I bought the red cups that are often used for party games, used a paring knife to poke drainage holes in the bottoms, and wrote the plant variety on the sides with felt pens before moving larger seedlings into the cups. After I planted things in the garden, I washed the cups carefully and put them away for the next year. Some of the red plastic cups I started with were pretty faded by the time I had used them for ten years worth of garden–and they never once saw a party beverage or drinking game.img_0829.jpg

I read somewhere, once upon a time, that citrus peels could be good pots. That made sense, but my orange peels always seemed to end up in small pieces. I almost never bought lemons, so that wasn’t an option either. I did occasionally buy grapefruit, though, so after I ate the fruit, and squeezed every last drop of juice out of the empty skins, I tried filling the halves with potting soil and planting seeds in them. It did work, but it was kind of sticky, and didn’t seem worth the trouble. I have never eaten all that many grapefruit anyway.

As time passed, I became curious. How many ways, I wondered, could I find to pot up seedlings without buying those adorable miniature greenhouses? How cheaply could I do it? I kept experimenting.

The next thing that caught my eye was the stack of empty cardboard tubes from toilet paper. With five people in the house, we accumulated them quickly, and I had always hated just throwing them away. Still, I had not been able to find a use for them aside from as fire starters. It occurred to me, finally, that they might work for potting up seeds. I cut each tube in half, so I had two shorter tubes. Setting them into a glass baking pan, I filled them with potting soil. Sometimes I planted seeds directly in them, and other times I moved seedlings from the meat trays into the toilet paper tubes. They worked quite well, and peeled away from the roots when I was ready to plant.

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I subscribed, when my children were young, to a weekly newspaper. I wrote a column for the paper, so I kind of felt like I had to. But even a small weekly paper added up, and I had a stack of newspaper in the corner that I couldn’t seem to get rid of. Then one day I separated the stack, making piles of six or eight layers of paper. I cut those into four-inch strips, and used a stapler to put a couple of staples every 4 inches. When I didn’t have staples, I used pins, or small nails. I even used clothespins a few times, when it was too rainy to hang clothes outside to dry. In Western Washington, it’s too rainy a fair amount of the time.

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When I had staples (or alternative fasteners) in each strip, I stood it on edge, in a glass baking pan or sometimes in a plastic- or foil-lined cardboard box (who has that many baking pans?) and filled each section with potting soil. The sections were large enough for squash plants, or for tomato plants that had outgrown the smaller pots—and I could make them any size I wanted. Although I paid a few dollars for the newspaper subscription, I also used newsletters and ads that came in the mail, and those were free. I even used brown paper grocery bags, which were also free. Free has always been my favorite price.

Not all of the things I used were disposable. I planted seeds in anything that worked. After a few seasons when I spent time scrubbing (and sanding, and scraping) rust out of metal baking pans I had used to hold pots, I learned that my new-fangled silicone muffin pans were wonderful for starting larger seeds like squash. Silicone cake pans made excellent holders for egg shells, toilet paper tubes, or news print pots. Plastic dishpans were useful too, and since my husband’s grandmother had been in and out of the hospital quite a lot, we had a number of those that she had brought home. Not only did they hold smaller pots, but when tomato plants got bigger than I expected, I planted four or six in each dishpan. Milk jugs were another thing I hated to throw away, and I found that if I cut to top part off, I had a nice 6-inch pot for plants that needed a little more growing room before going out into the garden.

I have known people who used tin cans, and I thought about it. When I had that giant garden, though, I canned all the fruits, vegetables, jams, jellies, meats and soups we could eat. I almost never had tin cans to use.

In those long ago days, I raised a garden partly to save money. As time passed, though, I noticed that buying potting soil, peat pots, and other potting paraphernalia raised the cost of gardening. Adding the cost of seeds, fertilizer, bug killers, slug bait, and sometimes bird netting made a garden much less profitable than it could have been, and than I needed it to be. When I took up the challenge to find inexpensive ways to pot up early seeds, I not only saved money on pots, I also reduced the need to buy bedding plants.

There is more to having a garden than just cost saving. I love the taste of garden fresh vegetables (those tomatoes!!) and the knowledge that my produce is safe and clean. I savor the trips to the garden, basket in hand, to choose produce for dinner. Returning to my house with a basket of carrots, zucchini, cucumber, and peas just makes me happy. If spending a little time and energy making my own seed-starting pots increases those feelings of success, I figure it’s worth it.

Sneaky Schemes to Spare the Seedlings

Sneaky Schemes To Spare the Seedlings

I have had a garden for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my parents had a garden, and we were their forced labor. Summers meant weeding at least two endless rows of corn, beans, or carrots before we could go for the bike rides, bottle hunts, and fishing expeditions we cherished. In those days, we planted hills of corn and beans, and long, long rows of carrots and other smaller crops. My mother was in charge of thinning the carrot seedlings. That was a good thing, because I never did manage to do well at thinning seedlings. Because of that, my carrots were too crowded, and did not have room to grow the way they could have.

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Don’t get me wrong. It was not a difficult task. I knew how to do it. I could pull out baby carrots perfectly well. I just—well, I couldn’t. I could never bring myself to uproot the tiny plants and discard them. It seemed like too much of a waste—not to mention my personal weakness for babies of any kind. My first thought was to try and transplant them, but I was never sure if they would survive the trauma. A better solution, since I knew I would never have the heart to compost those tiny baby carrots, with their miniature orange roots, was to find a way to avoid the the thinning issue entirely.

My first effort was very basic. I just tried to plant the seeds far enough apart to leave room for their growth. If I could do that, I reasoned, there would be no need to thin them. In principle, that was true. In practice, it wasn’t quite so easy. Planting carrots involves a lot of bending, stooping, or kneeling. Those activities were uncomfortable even when I was younger. Not only that, but the seeds were very small. I tried rubbing them between my fingers, allowing them to trickle, one by one, onto the soil. I tried using tweezers, so I could place the seeds one at a time. It would have worked, too, if I had possessed the patience of all the saints combined. I just couldn’t manage it.

The next thing I considered was buying something called “seed tape.” Many seed companies sold seed tape, which was basically tape with carrot seeds stuck to it at set intervals. It was a great idea, but with a limited income, and three growing children, I didn’t have the money to buy enough seed tape to produce all of the carrots I needed. Seed tape might have worked, but it just would have cost too much.

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Since seed tape was not affordable, I looked for a do-it-yourself solution. I did a lot of experimenting in my garden back then. It occurred to me that if I could buy seed tape, maybe I could make my own. I tried using masking tape to make my own seed tape, but it didn’t quite deteriorate enough to allow the seeds unfettered access to soil, air, and water.

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Next, I experimented with strips of paper towel. I had long since switched to planting my garden in raised beds, and planting carrots in short, crosswise rows. To make my paper-towel seed tape, I tore two- or three-foot sections off the roll. Then I cut those into two-inch strips. I laid the strips out on a waterproof table, wet them down, and set carrot seeds carefully on each strip, about one inch apart. This was every bit as painstaking as planting carefully in the garden, but I could do it sitting in a comfortable chair, which made all the difference in the world.

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When the seeds were in place, I folded each strip in half lengthwise. When I had all the strips ready, I carried a tray of them to the garden and laid them out on a garden bed that had been weeded and raked smooth. I found that if I watered the bed immediately, the paper towels settled in onto the soil. Frequent (even daily) watering helped with germination, and I soon had a tidy crop of well-spaced carrots.

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Our family’s finances took a turn for the worse about then, and paper towels came off the shopping list. I had never used many anyway, so that didn’t bother me too much. I looked around, and decided to try using newspaper in the same way. I got enough newsletters in the mail to provide the paper I needed. It worked just as well as paper towels.

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There came a time, years later, when arthritis and its cousins bursitis and tendinitis made setting seeds onto paper difficult for me. I looked for a new solution. I had seen commercial devices that looked like hypodermics, but without the needles. They were quite large, and I would not have wanted to see one approaching any part of my body. However, according to some garden suppliers now lost in the mists of time, they were good for planting tiny seeds. Plain gelatin, dissolved in water, provided a thickened solution that suspended the seeds so they didn’t all rush out at one time.

Rather than spending money on that device, I thought about how I could dilute carrot seeds to plant them sparingly. For a number of years, I used milk jugs. I found that if I filled a milk jug with water, I could add one packet of carrot seeds, and that would be about right. I made sure my garden bed was prepared, and made small trenches across the bed for seeds. Then, shaking constantly, I poured the jugs of water into the trenches. Although there was a little bunching of carrots, for the most part, they were spaced out pretty well.

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Next, I tried diluting the seeds with sand. It sounded strange, because I always thought of diluting as something you did with a liquid, but I decided the term was valid enough. I mixed all of my carrot seeds into a large bowl of sand. At the time, I lived in North Dakota, and I kept buckets of sand to spread on icy sidewalks. I borrowed some of that sand for my carrots.

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It was easy to trickle sand into the small furrows I had made in the garden beds. An added benefit was that, because the sand was a different color than the soil, I knew exactly where to look for my baby carrots. I did the same thing later with potting soil, but it cost more than sand, so I returned to my first effort. After moving to my retirement home less than a mile from the ocean, it seemed silly to buy sand. There was plenty around. However, salt was not good for plants, and ocean sand was very salty. A few times, I found colored play sand on clearance, so I had little pink rows of sand marking my baby carrot rows.

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My most recent effort involved clay. I had heard a rumor that seeds embedded in balls of clay could be scattered about the yard for random blooms. That wasn’t what I wanted, but since I found some children’s clay powder at a thrift store, I thought I could adapt the idea to suit my purposes. First I mixed my carrot seeds into the powder. Then, I mixed the clay with water, adding significantly more than called for. Rather than a stiff modeling consistency, I wanted a thinner, drippy mixture. When I had it, I put in a plastic food storage bag, and cut the corner off the bag. Twisting the top closed gave me an inexpensive (and not particularly professional) pastry bag I used it just like I would with frosting or whipped cream, except that I piped plain, boring lines of clay about ¾ inch wide (well, more or less) onto the soil in a well-prepared garden bed. The rain came, and the clay kept the well-spaced seeds moist. They came up beautifully.

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The biggest problem that remained was that, in the garden at my new home, slugs were a huge problem—and they were huge themselves, as well. The baby carrots were eaten as soon as they came up. I saw the seedlings one day, and the next day they were gone. I suppose my next gardening project will have to be finding a way to keep the slugs away from all those seedlings I have so carefully spared from the ravages of thinning. Either that, or I could plant carrots the regular way, and train the slugs to leave one seedling alone in each inch. I don’t think they will cooperate, though.