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Backyard Gardens: Seeds and Starters to Companion Plants and Wonder Bugs

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Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm 

 

Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm

With the effort you will put into creating the perfect environment for growing food, you will want to make sure you get quality seeds in order to grow the healthiest plants. The most coveted of seed varieties are heirloom or heritage seeds. These seeds are sourced from plants whose lineages have consistently produced fruits or vegetables with the fullest flavor and color, without being genetically engineered or modified. When buying seeds, don’t be afraid to ask questions about them and their source. Honest people won’t hesitate to share this information with you.

If you prefer starter plants to seeds, Mulberry Creek Organic Herb Farm on Bogart Road in Sandusky is the place to go. Not only do they have an enormous selection of organically certified herbs and miniature perennials but they have some of the most reasonable prices in the country for quality culinary, ornamental, medicinal and crafting plants. You can view their full catalog online to plan ahead or go and be pleasantly surprised at their seemingly endless selection. They offer profiles on each of their plants with information on growing and usage, including recipes.

Also consider saving the seed from year to year in order to pinch pennies from your annual garden budget. Here is an explanation about seed saving from the Rodale Institute.


 

Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Garden Planning: Companion Planting

Did you know that if you plant basil with your tomatoes, then you will end up with a bigger, juicier harvest? Or that if you border your garden with a variety of marigolds then you’ll avoid the blight of many garden pests? There are methods to the madness of gardening, and companion planting is your ticket to successful crops without the use of chemicals. The Native American Indians understood companion planting even thousands of years ago. They grew the Three Sisters together, consisting of corn, beans and squash with great success. Even the Mayans passed down the socio-agronomic tradition of Milpa farming, which is the practice of a community-based planting of crops that are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. It is said that the “[building] of a milpa culture is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe…[it] formed the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its traditional religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.” A deep lesson can be learned from naturally-occuring symbiotic relationships.

 

 

One of the best explanation resources we found is The Rodale Institute’s Companion Planting Made Easy guide. Here is an excerpt from the experts to explain the concept:

In the simplest terms, companion planting is the technique of combining two plants for a particular purpose.  If your crops are regularly attacked by insects, you can use companions to hide, repel, or trap pests. Other companions provide food and shelter to attract and protect beneficial insects. And some plants grow well together just because they don’t compete for light or rooting space. Expanding the diversity of your garden plantings and incorporating plants with particularly useful characteristics are both part of successful companion planting.

Creating Diversity

In contrast to the wide diversity of natural systems—like forests and prairies—our gardens and farms tend to contain neat, identical plantings of just a few different plant species. These large groups of similar plants, called monocultures, are prime targets for insect and disease attack. Increasing the diversity of your garden plantings is a natural and effective way to avoid a monoculture and minimize pest and disease problems. Technically, adding diversity could be as simple as increasing the number of different plants in your garden. Sounds simple—until you realize that you have a limited amount of room in your garden, which is taken up by your favorite crops. But, if you create a planned diversity, you can still have good (or even better) yields from the same amount of space. For instance, instead of growing the same vegetable cultivars in thesame beds every year, try changing their positions each year, or at least try different cultivars. To get even more diversity, try open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids. The plants from open-pollinated seed are all just a little different genetically, so even if pests or diseases attack some of the plants, the rest of the crop may be spared. An easy and pleasant way to add diversity to the vegetable garden is to add flowering plants. Mix annual flowers and herbs in the beds or rows of vegetables, or create permanent beds nearby for perennials and bulbs. Besides looking good, flowers provide a source of food and shelter for spiders and beneficial insects that eat or parasitize plant pests.

Enriching the Soil

All plants withdraw some nutrients from the soil as they grow, but some actually return more nutrients than they consume. Legumes—plants like peas, beans, and clover—have a mutually beneficial relationship with nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria. These bacteria colonize legume roots, absorbing up to 20 percent of the sugars the plants produce. The bacteria use this energy to capture atmospheric nitrogen (nitrogen gas) and convert it into nitrogen compounds that plants can use. Some of this nitrogen goes directly back to the host plant. Another part of the nitrogen trapped by the rhizobium bacteria is released into the soil as the nodule-bearing roots die off and decompose. This nitrogen is available during the season to boost the growth of any companion plants growing nearby. The big bonus comes when you turn the foliage and roots of the legumes into the soil. When they decay, they can release enough nitrogen to feed the next crop you grow.

Repelling Pest Insects

A key part of creating effective crop combinations is using the natural abilities of the plant to attract, confuse, or deter insects. Some plants produce repellent or toxic compounds that chase pests away or stop them from feeding. In other cases, the aromatic compounds released by plants can mask the scent of companion crops. Summer savory, for example, may help hide your bush beans from pests, while tansy is said to repel Colorado potato beetles from a potato planting. Garlic releases deterrent aromas into the air that may chase away insects such as bean beetles and potato bugs. Mint may keep cabbage loopers off cabbage plants, while basil can discourage tomato hornworms on tomatoes. Try pungent plants as an edging around garden beds, or mix them in among your crops. Or, if you can’t grow the repellents close enough to your crops, try spreading clippings of the scented plants over garden beds for the same effect.

Luring Pests from Crops

Some plants have an almost irresistible appeal for certain pests. Nasturtiums, for instance, are an excellent attractant plant because they’re a favorite of aphids. Colorado potato beetles find black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) more alluring than even your best potato plants. Attractant plants can protect your crops in two ways. First, they act as decoys to lure pests away from your desirable crops. Second, they make it easier to control the pests since the insects are concentrated on a few plants. Once pests are “trapped,” you can pull out the attractant plants (cover them with paper or plastic bags first, if the pests are small or fast-moving) and destroy them along with the pests, or apply some other type of control measure to the infested plants.

Sheltering Beneficial Insects

Not all insects are garden enemies. Many actually help your garden grow by eating or parasitizing plant pests. You can encourage these beneficial creatures to make a home in your garden by planting their favorite flowering plants. Growing dill, for example, can attract pesteating spiders, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, which will help control caterpillars on cabbage, beetles on cucumbers, and aphids on lettuce. Plants that produce large quantities of easily accessible pollen and nectar— like yarrow, fennel, and goldenrod— provide shelter and supplemental food for hungry beneficials.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Here are several other websites that give great companion plant lists. When selecting what must-haves that will be in your garden or food plot, look to see what else grows well with them as you plan your garden layout. Be sure to also look at what won’t  work well with what you’ve chosen.

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Companion Planting

Garden Toad Companion Plant Guide

The Green Garden Blog

 

Praying mantis in defense pose.

Praying mantis in defense pose.

Within your garden, there should be many beneficial life forms working instinctively together to create a diverse ecosystem. However, if you do have a problem with a blight of any kind, we recommend some organically approved, perfectly legal integrated pest management tactics. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service offers advice on insect pests, weeds and plants diseases. Because the majority of plant problems thrive in degraded environments, an article at Thrifty Fun on organic pest control reiterates the point that a healthy garden begins with healthy soil.

Be wary of using petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and weed killers when getting space ready for your garden. Chemical applications can kill off the soil biology; altering the energy cycle with the chemicals being absorbed into your bloodstream, keeping you from benefiting from the essential vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in your fresh food.We encourage you to read Local Food Sandusky’s article on Composting for more on soil health.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Flower Power and Wonder Bugs

Managing your garden for pest control not only cuts down on your workload, but it also reduces the amount of insecticides that you use in your garden. And fewer insecticides means more good bugs, which in turn means help in controlling bad bugs. By planting certain herbs and flowers near your food plants, you can keep insect and rodent pests from invading your garden while attracting native pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and garden guardians, such as ladybugs and praying mantis. We recommend some of these old reliable garden tricks:

 

  • Marigolds – French marigolds repel whiteflies and kill bad nematodes. Mexican marigolds are said to offend a host of destructive insects and wild rabbits as well. If you choose marigolds for your garden they must be scented to work as a repellant. While this plant drives away many bad bugs, it also attracts spider mites and snails.
  • Chrysanthemums – Also known as mums are beautiful flowers that can help control things like roaches, ticks, silverfish, lice, fleas, bedbugs, and ants in certain parts of your garden. White flowering chrysanthemums are said to drive away Japanese beetles.
  • Nasturtiums – Plant with tomatoes and cucumbers as a way to fight off wooly aphids, whiteflies, squash bugs, and cucumber beetles. The flowers, especially the yellow blooming varieties, act as a trap for aphids.
  • Petunias – These repel asparagus beetles, leafhoppers, a range of aphids, tomato worms, and a good many other pests.
  • Sunflowers – These will draw aphids away from other plants and ants move their colonies onto sunflowers. The sunflowers are tough enough that they suffer no damage. Their big, beautiful blooms will attract plenty of pollinators to your garden.
  • Hyssop – great for attracting honeybees to the garden
  • Lavender - a favorite among many beneficial insects and also repels fleas and moths.
  • Basil – Repels thrips, flies and mosquitoes. Plant basil along side tomatoes for larger, tastier tomatoes.
  • Borage – Repels tomato hornworms and cabbage worms and attract beneficial bees and wasps. Borage also adds trace elements to the soil. This is an annual, but readily comes back each year from seed.
  • Catnip – Repels just about everything, except for cats. Use it to keep away flea beetles, aphids, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, ants, and weevils. The cats it may attract will control the rodents that may eat your food plants. Use sachets of dried catnip to deter ants indoors.
  • Dill – Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps, and its foliage is used as food by swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Tomato hornworms are also attracted to dill, so if you plant it at a distance, you can help draw these destructive insects away from your tomatoes. Dill also repels aphids and spider mites. Sprinkle dill leaves on squash plants to repel squash bugs. Dill is best planted with cucumbers and onions. During the cool season, try planting along with lettuce.
  • Chives – Repel Japanese beetles and carrot rust flies. It has also been said that chives will help prevent apple scab when planted among apple trees.
  • Garlic – Great taste and health benefits and when planted near roses, it repels aphids. It also deters codling moths, Japanese beetles, root maggots, snails, and carrot root fly.

Remember, lady bugs and praying mantis are signs of a healthy garden! Lady bugs, both adults and larvae, feed on aphids (plant lice/green bugs), but are also known to scavenge on wide variety of other pesky soft-bodied insects, mites & eggs. Each ladybug can consume as many as 5,000 aphids during their one year life span. For more information on how to attract lady bugs to your garden, visit here. Praying mantis will eat any bug of a size they can catch and are considered to be very beneficial to the organic gardener.  Each year, tens of thousands of mantis egg cases are sold in some garden stores for this purpose.

 

 

Backyard Orchards

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

If your garden space can afford it, fruit trees may offer a better return on effort than anything in your garden. There are many different varieties of fruit trees that grow well in the climate of Northern Ohio. For example, one semi-dwarf apple tree, can produce up to 500 apples in a season, producing up to 15 to 20 years. If you plant several trees with different harvest times, you can eat freshly picked fruit for eight months out of the year.

Although in Ohio, we attribute our apple trees to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, the only native fruit to Ohio is that of the pawpaw tree. The fruit tastes like a combination of bananas and mangoes and grows well in most midwestern and northern states. Other fruit trees that grow well in our area (depending on variety and season) include apples, pears, tart cherries and European plums. Although they can be grown successfully, late spring frost tends to damage peaches, nectarines and apricots making them more challenging to grow.

The following fruit tree varieties are said to grow well together:

  • peaches and nectarines
  • apricots and pluots
  • apricots and plums

For more general information on Backyard Orchards and other Ohio Fruits, check out the following links:

Ohio Master Gardeners: Ohio Fruit

Growing Fruit Trees is Earth Easy!

National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: Backyard Orchards

Backyard Orchard Tips

Fruit Trees in Small Spaces

For more information about Urban Agriculture and food options that will save you money, keep you healthy and build community, visit The Erie Wire and the websites of our partners. We would also recommend listening to Deconstructing Dinner, one of our most celebrated resources for local food security.

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