Thursday, February 9, 2012

One Easy Way to Start Composting

Photograph courtesy of the US Department
of Agriculture.
In Nature, composting isn't such a big deal.

By that I mean, in the natural world, composting is something that happens naturally. Plant and animal matter dies in the forest, falls to the ground, and decomposes. The decomposed matter nourishes the next generation of vegetable life. And life in the forest goes on.

Of course, we've made it complicated by cleaning up the process. We grow our vegetable matter in neat little gardens, and removing anything extraneous. I'm not recommending that we change that. I'm just saying that this way of thinking of Nature has led to a tendency to sterilize our soil, and now we have to do something about it.

If you've never composted before, you may feel overwhelmed at the complexity of it all. There are all kinds of ways to compost -- from just keeping a huge pile of dead matter in your back yard to the most up-to-date composting machines. For many of these processes, you'd need to keep abreast of your communities laws and regulations.

But composting doesn't have to be that hard. You can start composting, today, in your kitchen. And all you'll need to get started is a bowl.

Find a nice big kitchen bowl and a space to keep it in your refrigerator. (You'll probably want something to cover it with, too.) From now on, you'll throw all your waste vegetable matter into the bowl, and keep it stored in the refrigerator. That means potato peelings, left over broccoli, the tops off your carrots. Remember, though, just vegetable matter. Leftover animal products -- even butter -- will attract the wrong kind of wildlife to your garden.

When the bowl is full, throw the contents into your blender with a little water and puree it. Then, weather permitting, take it out to your garden and dig a little hole. Pour the blended matter in and cover the hole. Next time, you'll pick a new spot to feed your garden.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It should take you less than 15 minutes every time you feed your garden, and only a few extra seconds a day to throw those leftovers into the bowl. And on top of everything else, you'll probably produce less garbage for the landfill.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden

Zebra Butterfly. Photograph by David Pape, released into the
Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons.
It's no surprise that butterfly gardening has become extremely popular in recent years. After all, what could bring more joy and beauty to your garden than a few of these lovely creatures?

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden this summer, there are a few things you'll need to keep in mind:

First of all consider your location. You'll need a spot that gets direct sunlight for at least 5 to 6 hours a day. You'll need a spot that's sheltered from strong winds. The addition of a few flat rocks to the area will make your garden particularly attractive to butterflies.

The Monarch Butterfly. Photograph by Richiebits, released
into the Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons.
The next thing you'll need to consider is food and water for your butterflies. Water is easily taken care of. If your garden doesn't already come equipped with a few mud puddles, they can easily be created. Just make sure to keep them damp, regardless of the weather. If you don't want to create a mud puddle, you can always fill a container with sand, and keep it moistened.

Food is another matter. You'll need to provide food for both the butterflies and their offspring. Plants that provide food for the adult butterflies are called nectar plants, and those that feed their babies are called host plants. You'll need both, if you want to have butterflies in your garden year after year.

The Black Swallowtail. Photograph by Ltshears, released into
the Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons.
To decide which plants to grow to please your butterflies, it's best to first find out which species are common to your area. There's a handy-dandy little chart available on the butterfly website (, or you can just consult a book or the internet. In Michigan, where I live, for example, I've discovered that among the most common butterfly species are the Monarch, the Black Swallowtail, and the Zebra Butterflies -- all of which I've pictured on this page.

Good nectar plants for Michiganders would be Asters, Dogbane, Buddelia, Joe Pye Weed, Privet, and Blueberry. Good host plants would include Pawpaw, Milkweed, Parsley, Dill, and Fennel. Remember not to get upset when you see caterpillars eating your parsley! That's what it's there for.

Of course, t should go without saying that you won't be using pesticides on your butterfly garden.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Is a Hoop House Right for You?

While reading the Sunday paper yesterday, I ran across an article where a local woman was raving about the fresh-picked spinach she had just gotten from her garden. If you know anything at all about Michigan agriculture, you'll realize that picking spinach in February is not something that all of us get a chance to do.

As it turns out, the woman had been growing spinach -- and other greens, presumably -- in her hoop house. Hoop houses -- sometimes also called hoop greenhouses -- are a reasonably cost-effective way to extend your growing season. They've caught on big-time since 2009, when the White House set a few up on the South Lawn, and was further popularized when the USDA set up a program to help farmers in 38 states get their own hoop houses up and running.

You can buy a kit for a few hundred dollars, or build your own with PVC pipes and plastic sheeting. It's an affordable alternative to a greenhouse, and can extend your growing season considerably.

It's something to think about. On a day like today, the idea of fresh-picked greens sure sounds tempting, doesn't it?

Pictured: Interior of hoop house. It's actually two 8 x 12 Foot Weatherguard 63012 's put together.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Your Child's First Garden

Photograph by John Sullivan
Gardening can be a wonderful experience for small children. The trick is to not make it too challenging. In general, anything planted in a child's garden should be:
  • Easy to grow
  • Interesting or attractive
  • Useful
  • Safe for children
In terms of flowers, I think the easiest to grow are zinnias and marigolds. No contest. I don't even know if it's possible to kill a marigold. Both of these flowers are also very sturdy and easy to pick for arrangements and bouquets -- something nearly every child loves doing.

Nasturiums and four o'clocks are pretty easy, too, and morning glories aren't too bad if you're willing to help out with the whole climbing-the-the-trellis thing. Nasturiums have the added benefit of being edible -- both flowers and leaves -- although if your children are very young, this may not be a practice you want to encourage. 

Among the vegetables, beans and peas are probably the easiest to plant and care for. Your child will enjoy planting them, tending them, and picking the results. Peas are an early plant, too, so you'll be able to reuse the territory after they're harvested.

Corn is another vegetable that's easy to grow. Just be sure to think about where you're planting it, as it tends to provide a lot of shade for the garden once it really gets going. The same thing goes for sunflowers, a cheerful flower that also provides a product: delicious seeds both for snack time and to feed the birds this winter. (Or the pet hamster, if your child has one.)

If you decide to grow tomatoes, I'd recommend just picking up a couple of plants at the corner store. You can grow them from seeds, but it's a lot of work, and not worth the effort, in my book. The same goes for peppers.

Your child might enjoy planting onions from sets, because it's a little different from the normal type of seed planting. Potatoes, too, might make an interesting change.

Many people think it's a good idea to have your child to plant broccoli and cauliflower, in an effort to encourage them to eat more of them. These people have obviously never tried to grow broccoli or cauliflower. Personally, I love both of those vegetables but I don't love to grow them. (And, if your child ever gets a look at a bug-infested broccoli plant, he'll likely never touch the vegetable again.)

Whatever you chose to plant, make sure that both you and your child have fun doing it. And don't get too ambitious. Your child may be excited to plant a lot of vegetables, but the excitement will pale once she realized she's got to weed it, too.

Photo credit: Photograph by John Sullivan, who released it into the public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Your First Vegetable Garden

Well, how about it? Is this going to be the year you start a vegetable garden? You know you've been meaning to for the past few years, but somehow the season always seems to get away from you before you get started. You really mean to, but the summer's underway and you're never quite sure -- is it too late to plant anything for this year?

That's why February is the perfect time to start planning. So let's sit back, relax, and think about what you might want to plant this year. No pressure, okay?

The first thing you need to do is to think about where you're going to locate your garden. Ideally, you'd like a spot that gets full sun for the greater part of the day. (If you don't have a spot like that, it's okay, you'll still be able to plant some things. You'll just need to be more selective about choosing what to plant.)

Good soil and good drainage are the next considerations. Soil you can fix; drainage you're going to be stuck with. So think back to last summer and try to remember what your yard looked like. If there was a big spot on the lawn that always seemed soggy, you're not going to want to plant your garden there.

Next, be honest about how much work you really want to do in your garden. If you've never grown vegetables before, you may be amazed at how easy they really are to grow. On the other hand, you may be amazed at how easy weeds are to grow as well. If you don't really, really enjoy working in the dirt, don't plant a big garden. Maybe all you want is a few tomato plants or a modest herb garden. That's fine. There's no shame in knowing your limitations.

If there's one mistake that first-time gardeners consistently make, it's in buying too much stuff. Too many seeds, to many seedlings, too much equipment. Study your seed catalogs to learn how much space those cucumber plants are going to take up. Stick to one or two varieties of beans. Ask yourself how many zucchini your family will actually eat. And for heaven's sakes, if nobody likes beets, don't plant them at all. That garden space will fill up much more rapidly than you think.

Don't go overboard on the equipment either. You'll need a hoe and a rake, and probably something like a hand trowel. Gardening gloves are a good idea, and I couldn't live without something soft to kneel on. Unless you have an enormous garden -- and I really don't recommend it on your first year -- you shouldn't need anything motorized. If you're planting a garden where no garden has ever existed before, you might need a roto-tiller to turn the earth over the first time, but you can rent one of those for the day and be done with it.

Planning a garden can be the first of the many enjoyable hours you're going to spend growing your own food, so settle back and have a wonderful time. Grab your garden catalogs, a sketch pad, and go to town. Doesn't it make spring feel a little closer?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is Container Gardening for You?

Container Gardening has been around for quite some time, but in the past few years, it's become really popular. It's easy to understand why. There are a lot of benefits to container gardening, for starters:

  • Nearly anyone can grow plants successfully in a container garden. If you're having a bit of a problem bending over to weed, or if you're just not as agile as you used to be, container gardening may be the perfect solution.

  • Set out your delicate seedlings too early? No problem! With a container garden you can just bring them inside until the danger of frost is past. You can extend your growing season a little in the fall, too, by bringing them inside over those first freezing nights.

  • If you're like me, you don't always place your plants in the ideal spot the first time. If your prize plants are located in a spot that is a little too shady (or even a little too sunny), you can just pick them up and move them to a better location.

  • No space? You can easily grow both flowers and vegetables on your patio or balcony. Just be sure to pick the more compact varieties for optimum results.

  • Container gardening is ideal for children. There's less weeding, which, let's face it, is the most boring part of the whole job. They're also likely to need less assistance from adults in prepping the soil.

  • You may have fewer problems with disease. If you start out with clean potting soil, your plants are less likely to contract diseases from the soil.
If you think you'd like to try container gardening, there are lots of good books on the subject. (The ones listed below all have excellent reviews from Amazon customers.)

Picture credit: Photograph by Peter Stevens, published on Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dreaming of Spring

White Flowers, Seattle, Washington, USA

White Flowers,...
William Sutton
Buy This at

We've had a wave of balmy weather recently here in Michigan, and days like today make me start dreaming of the spring.

Naturally, I headed for my seed catalogs.

Up until now, I'd just been piling them up as they arrived, so I really had no idea what I had. Some companies keep you on their mailing list year after year; other make you ask for one every time. My stash seems a mite thin today, so I guess I'm going to have to start ordering some free catalogs. Here are a few of my favorite site -- if you don't have any of them yet, you can order yours by following the links:

Burpee's, of course, is the standard for gardening catalogs. I just love the Burpee catalog, and even if I don't end up ordering anything from them in a particular year, I love to browse their catalog just to see what's new.

Thompson and Morgan is an old company that's been producing catalogs since 1855.

Seed Saver's Exchange is actually a non-profit organization, and they're the largest non-governmental seed bank in the country. They sell heirloom and certified organic products only, and are a very good source if that's what you're looking for.

I love the Gurney's catalog. I notice that my copy has coupons on it that expire 2/15/12, and they seem to be considerable values, so I'd suggest that you order this one right away.

Michigan Bulb Company is one of my favorite firms. If you're not from Michigan, don't be put off by the name of the company -- they'll send you a catalog based on your own hardiness zone, regardless of where you live. I've been a fan of theirs for many years. They used to advertise a few particularly spectacular deals in the Sunday paper -- 100 spring flower bulbs for $1.99, or something like that -- to draw in business, and it worked with me. Their deals these days aren't quite that good, but they're still not bad. (I notice that I don't have mine yet, so I guess that's one you need to order every year. Last year it had coupons that expired in February, too.)

How about you? Do you have a favorite source for seeds and bulbs?