Category Archives: organic vegetable gardening

Bale Beds

In the past few years we’ve been experimenting with growing food crops in a variety of ways to determine how to squeeze as much organic food out of our small farm with a minimal of cost and effort. By a huge margin, our biggest successes have been using raised beds filled with our own farm compost.

Thanks to our 2 horses and a small flock of chickens, two materials that we have in abundance here on our small farm is locally-grown hay and compost:

horses-compost-montage

mini farm bale beds IMG_1407We try to farm with a minimum of outside inputs that consume resources in their production and distribution, so building raised beds using old bales of hay that are too dusty to feed our horses makes a perfect solution to building “temporary” planting beds that last one season.

Bales + Compost = instant Mini-Farm with no digging in our horrible rocky soil required!

 

bale beds filling IMG_1404

A couple of tractor buckets full of our most aged, best quality compost and beds are ready to plant…plus, my hubby gets some quality time with his beloved tractor.

We used to scramble each year to get rid of old bales of hay to make room in our barn for the season’s new hay…now, the more we have left over, the more food we can grow that year.

Cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, kale, swiss chard, all of these love the deep rich soil of the raised beds:

bale bed july IMG_0549

Using companion “square foot planting“, you can get two or three crops out of a single raised bed this size — for example, cucumbers and summer squash planted along with later maturing crops such as broccoli or kale.

Probably the best crop of all for bale beds are potatoes, which are traditionally planted by digging a 3” trench for the potato spuds, then adding soil over the plants as they grow through the season.

bale bed potatoes

To grow potatoes in a raised bale bed, lay potato eyes about 12″ apart at the bottom of the bed, and cover with 3″ or so of soil/compost. When the plant foliage is about 12″ high, add another layer of soil or compost around the potato stems. The new potatoes form along the stem above where your eyes were planted.

Compostable beds!

At the end of the season, the bale beds are easy to dismantle with the tractor, and the whole thing gets mixed back into the compost pile to make next year’s garden fertilizer:

bale bed dismantling

Here is this year’s mini-farm all ready to plant! We harvested bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, celery root, swiss chard, plus a variety of culinary herbs in this one area.

raised bale beds mini farmBecause I like my gardens to be beautiful as well as functional, I “disguise” our raised beds with lots of flowering plants — they not only add color but the flowers attract pollinating bees and beneficial insects that control vegetable pests:

pond raised bed gardens

As the season progresses, you can hardly tell that our pondside gardens are an intensive agricultural operation that feeds us well into winter….

Hints and Tips for Bale Beds:

Try not to saturate the bales when you irrigate the beds – the moisture will cause the hay or straw to begin decomposing, and you don’t want them to collapse during the season. During seasons with lots of rain (such as 2013!), the bales do start to break down and sag a little, but they should stay intact until harvest.

If you build a raised bed over existing grass or weeds, cover the ground at the base of the bed with a thick layer of cardboard or sheets of newspaper before adding your soil/compost. The cardboard layer kills the grass and prevents it from growing up into your compost layer and competing with your plants.

You can use straw or hay bales, whatever you can source locally. Straw is better — hay generally contains plant seeds that may sprout from compost it is made from, but both hay and bale beds saggingstraw make excellent compost additions.

In the spring and early summer, look for free ads such as Craigslist for local farms looking to sell or give away old hay bales.

Also check with local farms for compost to fill beds — many farmers offer bulk compost for free or very little cost compared to buying by the bag.

Left: These bale beds contain tomato plants underplanted with parsley and cilantro, mulched with dried ferns sourced on-site. This bed cost us only a few dollars total to build, plant and grow…

 

Reasons Not To Spray

LadybugIf you’re an organic gardener, you probably know that lady beetles (aka ladybugs) play an important role in controlling aphid pests. Adult lady beetles, and more especially their young larval form, vacuum up hundreds to thousands of aphids during their life span. But did you know lady beetles also prey upon small pest caterpillars?

Check out this larval lady beetle working on a Cabbage White Moth caterpillar who (along with several dozen of his brothers and sisters) was devouring our Brussels Sprout foliage:

ladybug lady beetle eating caterpillar medium size IMG_2035

So if you see one of these alligator-like red and black larvae crawling around on the leaves of your plants, don’t panic! They are baby lady beetles. Leave them alone and let them do their work.

Just one of the many reasons we never spray insecticides here! Spray the bad guys, and you’ll nail the good guys too…and once the good guys are gone, the bad ones tend to come back with a vengeance…

YAsiatischer Marienkäferou can buy Lady Beetles to release into your gardens, but I wouldn’t bother.  Here’s why. If you buy packaged lady beetles, they are more than likely going to be Asian lady beetles–imported for crop pest control–which have become something in a nuisance in New England for invading houses in the fall looking for a winter home (and causing an allergic sting to some people). And as it often happens, importing a foreign insect introduces unwanted consequences — not only do they introduce foreign diseases and parasites that impact the indigenous species, Asian lady beetles are highly cannabalistic and feed upon the native species with gusto. Will the native lady beetle species disappear completely over time as a result?

(Asian Lady beetles tend to be larger than our native lady beetles, and often have more spots. Click here to learn more about the difference between Asian and native lady beetles)

garlic chives herb garden medium size IMG_1962So, to attract and support beneficial lady beetles, your property should supply food for both the adults and the larval form. Flowering nectar plants supply the adult beetle with the energy it needs to fly, so include a variety of plants that bloom through the season such as coreopsis, phlox, nepeta, asters and other daisy-like composite plants. Grow culinary herbs such as oregano, thyme, cilantro, dill, parsley, basil, common chives and garlic chives (pictured),  allow some of them to flower to attract the adult beetles.

lady beetle larvae eating aphids medium size IMG_6288As for the larvae, adult lady beetles lay their eggs on plants known to attract aphids and other soft-bodied pests, knowing that there will be plenty of food for their offspring once they hatch and begin to feed. If you’re a gardener, and you don’t spray insecticides, you’re most likely already there…

Pictured at right: A juvenile lady beetle, gobbling up aphids on the back of a milkweed leaf. You can see this one has almost reached its adult form. Milkweeds are prone to aphid attack, but try to think of them in your garden as effective lady beetle habitat!

 

 

 

Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

Do you grow vegetables at home? If so, I’m sure you don’t welcome wildlife into your veggie patches. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, slugs, you name it, there’s some animal just waiting to devour your plantings and destroy all your hard work. Fencing (or a resident dog on duty 24/7) is usually the only way to keep the four-footed animals out, but what about the tomato hornworms, the slugs and the beetles that can’t be kept out with fencing?

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The kitchen gardens at circa 1730 Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, MA. Colonial farmers knew that food gardens interplanted with lots flowering plants helped keep pests under control.

Walk into any hardware or big-box store and you can take home a variety of cheap but toxic concoctions that will kill upon contact. Although this might stop some of the pests for the moment, spraying ultimately does more harm than good. Crop pests are well-adapted to the various poisons farmers have used for decades, and they’ll usually stage a quick comeback. Not to mention, do you really want to use increasingly complicated chemical compounds — mostly untested for long-term health impacts and their interactions with other common chemicals — on the food that you eat?

syrphid fly aster IMG_0986

If you spray for pests, you’re also killing the natural predators of the pest, such as this hoverfly (aka syrphid fly), a common non-biting fly that visits flowers for nectar – their larvae eat large numbers of our garden pests.

So how can you grow food without resorting to harmful chemicals? It requires a bit more thought than just just spraying something from a bottle, but it’s not complicated.

Basically, you enlist the help of the natural world…and tap into its natural checks and balances.

DCF 1.0

Vegetable gardens at Tower Hill Botanic Garden – colorful, whimsical, functional, and “friendly” to the “good bugs” that eat garden pests.

When dealing with pests, think prevention, not cure. Here are a few Golden Rules:
  • Provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds who are natural predators of your garden pests. Give them what they need, and they’ll help keep pest populations under control.
  • Confound pests by companion planting your vegetables with plants with strong scent or other characteristics that confuse or repel pests, and rotate crop plants from year to year to stay one step ahead of pests.
  • Grow your plants in healthy, living soil that is rich in beneficial soil organisms – healthy soil means healthy plants that can withstand a bit of pest damage. Avoid synthetic chemical “power” fertilizers that kill soil life – these actually encourage the sappy, weak leaf growth that attracts pests.

In and around your veggie gardens, plant a variety of flowering annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines and trees to attract nectar-and-pollen seeking pollinators and predatorial insects such as hover/syrphid flies, soldier beetles, lady beetles, parasitic wasps and flies, and many, many more. Your aim is to keep the area buzzing with a variety of beneficial insect activity right through the seasons.

marigolds peppers IMG_0972_2

Ring your beds with single-flowering marigolds (Tagetes spp). The bright, nectar-rich blooms attract beneficial insects right until first frost. Plus, the strongly-scented foliage seems to repel (or confuse) many pests, and they are less likely to find your plants.

The nectar found in flowering plants is what keeps those insects flying – it’s the fuel that keeps them patrolling your garden for pests, so make sure there’s something blooming all through the seasons to keep them fed. Yes, some flies are pests and certain wasps do sting, but most of the bugs flying out there are beneficial – preying on other insects, pollinating plants, and as a food source for other wildlife.

Check out this braconid wasp, which is in the process of laying its eggs inside a gypsy moth caterpillar – which means this caterpillar is doomed:

04-09-braconid wasp

Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Resource Service (Courtesy of bugwood.org)

You don’t have to worry about these wasps hurting you – they don’t have a hive to defend and they don’t sting! If you grow tomatoes, you’ll want to attract another type of braconid wasp that uses tomato hornworm caterpillars as its host:

tomato hornworm IMG_0864_2


Above
: The rice-like cocoons on this tomato hornworm caterpillar are from a braconid wasp that will eventually consume the caterpillar. If you see a caterpillar like this, don’t kill it! You want the wasp to complete its life cycle and continue controlling hornworms every year.

If you are reading this because you have problems with hornworms skeletonizing your tomatoes, resolve to start adding plants for parasitic wasps for next year’s tomato crop. They’ll do a fine job keeping the hornworms under control for you.

Above: Rudbeckia and great blue lobelia bloom their heads off in the rich soil next to our veggie beds - at the same time attracting lots of parasitic wasps and flies who prey on garden pests.

Above: Rudbeckia and great blue lobelia bloom their heads off in the rich soil next to our veggie beds – at the same time attracting lots of parasitic wasps and flies who prey on garden pests.

Other common predatorial bugs that you want to attract to your habitat include assassin bugsambush bugs and certain types of stink bug, who feed on insect eggs, caterpillars and other creatures that can harm plants. You’ll find all of these in and among flowering nectar plants, weeds and wherever bugs hang out.

A garden buzzing with insect life also brings in the “big guns” of bug control, including birds, dragonflies, bats, amphibians (toads & frogs) and other wildlife whose diet consists largely of flying insects and/or insect eggs, caterpillars and grubs. Healthy local populations of these predators will cut WAY down on your pests:

Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings hundreds of caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.

Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings hundreds of caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.

Include some locally native plants in your landscaping- these are best for attracting nesting birds because they tend to support the most diversity in herbivorous insects — in other words, plenty of caterpillars to feed hungry baby birds!

Even if you don’t like the taste of cilantroparsley, fennel or dill, always try grow lots of these culinary herb plants – they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and make good companions for tomatoes. Allow some plants to flower – their clusters of numerous tiny flowers (called umbels) contain individual portions of sweet nectar for small beneficial insects. These fellow members of the carrot family of plants are also a host for the caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly:

Don't kill these caterpillars! They turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of dill or parsley to eat, or relocate them to queen anne's lace or wild carrot plants.

Don’t kill these caterpillars! They turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of dill or parsley to eat, or relocate them to queen anne’s lace or wild carrot plants.

The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials

The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials

Leave some areas of bare ground in the vicinity of your vegetable beds to provide nesting opportunities for squash bees (important pollinators of squash and cucumbers) and other native bees that excavate tiny tunnels in the ground to build their nests:

Not ant hills, but nesting sites under construction by a metallic-green digger bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.

Not ant hills, but nesting sites under construction by a metallic-green digger bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.

 

Hang wooden blocks for wood-nesting bees and beneficial insects near your gardens. Many native bees and insect predators use tunnels in old wood or tubular plant stems as a snug winter home for their offspring:

newfs beneficial insect nest box IMG_6759

Nesting block for bees and other insects – showing telltale signs of use by mason bees, grass-carrying wasps and other beneficial insects.

bumble-bee-box-newfs

Bumble bees are crucial pollinators for many food plants such as tomatoes and blueberries. Although they do raise a communal hive, they are very gentle and won’t sting unless physically threatened. Give them lots of nectar plants (right through the season) and a place to nest near your gardens.

Problems with slugs? Slugs LOVE the moist conditions of well-mulched, well-watered vegetable gardens and can decimate plants in just a few nights of feeding. Bring in the toads – who hunt the soil at night for slugs, grubs and worms – by giving them a cool, damp place to spend their days:

Give slug-gobbling toads a "toad abode".

Give slug-gobbling toads a “toad abode”.

Feed the soil, not the plants! In other words, provide habitat for the soil food web, or the (mostly micro-biotic) wildlife that lives in the soil. Each year, amend your vegetable beds with compost, farm-animal manure, leaf mold, seaweed or fish-based fertilizer – whatever you can get your hands on locally:

Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost (above) and mulch well with organic materials to help retain soil moisture and build soil tilth.

Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost (above) and mulch well with organic materials to help retain soil moisture and build soil tilth.

Try to rotate your crops each year to stay ahead of pests. Many pests lay their eggs in and around their host plants – in the spring, when pests emerge, they won’t have such an easy time finding their favorite plants if they are growing elsewhere, and are more likely to be eaten by a predator if they have to travel in search of food. Another way of doing this (assuming you have the room) is to scatter a crop around your property instead of a single location or bed. If a pest infests one area, they may not reach them all.

These raised veggie beds on our small Massachusetts farm may look a tad weedy, but the surrounding plants attract so many beneficial insects and bird predators that pest damage is minimal. 

These raised veggie beds on our small Massachusetts farm may look a tad weedy, but the surrounding plants attract so many beneficial insects and bird predators that pest damage is minimal.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to keep your vegetable gardens healthier for you, your children and pets, and the planet! Gardening with and for wildlife may mean your gardens might look a little messier than the “not a petal out of place, not a weed to be found” landscaping tradition, but free, natural pest control and the amazing array of predators and prey that will take up residence in your backyard? I hope you will agree, those are worth taking up a new beautiful wildlife gardening aesthetic

 NOTE: This is a reprint of my 24/Sep/2012 article “Can Vegetable Gardens be Wildlife-friendly” from Beautiful Wildlife Garden.