Beneficial Insects

As growers, so much of our time is spent scouting for harmful bugs in the garden that sometimes we neglect the good guys. The truth is, there are lots of insects that can provide valuable services to you, from pollination to pest control. With just a little bit of research to learn what good bugs are out there, and a little bit of patience to wait for them to get to work, you can save yourself time, energy, and money. There are lots of beneficial insects out there, but I'm just going to go over a few of the more common ones today. 

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetle eating an aphid.

Lady beetles are well-known garden friends, because they have a voracious appetite for aphids. As I've written about in a previous post, releasing ladybugs in greenhouses or other enclosed areas is a good way to fight aphids. While their larvae also like to snack on aphids, adult lady beetles can eat up to 50 aphids a day, so you want to make sure you release them in an area with a heavy infestation. It's not a method to use if you have a mild aphid outbreak. Lady beetles also eat pollen and nectar, so inter-planting your vegetable garden with flowers is a good way to attract them naturally. Planting several different kinds of flowers helps ensure a nectar and pollen source over a longer period of time. This may encourage lady beetles to stick around. 

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

A wasp eating a cabbage worm

There's a great beneficial insect that has a particularly bad reputation due to its mean sting, but wasps also provide a great pest control service. Wasps feed on the bugs that feed on your plants, so think about that next time you want to spray one of their nests! (Side note: if anyone in your household is allergic to stinging insects, or if there is a wasp's nest in an a high-traffic area of your household, I always recommend getting rid of them. Safety first!) 

There's another species of wasps called parasitoid wasps, or parasitic wasps, that are probably the creepiest of all beneficial insects. Parasitic wasps feed off of nectar from the plants in your garden, but when it's time for them to make babies, they temporarily paralyze unwitting caterpillars with their venom and lay eggs in or on them. The host caterpillars remain alive while the wasp eggs develop, but when the wasps pupate, they eat their way out of the caterpillar to emerge into the world. The caterpillars are eaten alive. It sounds horrifying, but once you have a few too many Tomato Hornworms destroy your beautiful Brandywines, you'll start to feel less sympathetic! If you've got the stomach for it, you can check out these cool photos of parasitic wasps emerging from caterpillars over at this NC State Extension page.  (Side note: you should follow that page anyway, because it's run by Extension Agent Debbie Roos, and she's a genius.) 

There are some bugs that are both good and bad. Praying mantises are some of the coolest insects you can find in your garden, but they don't discriminate when it comes to their meals: they'll eat good bugs and bad bugs alike! They'll even eat other mantises if they get hungry enough. Generally, though, they're good for a garden, so I like to keep them around. They're especially great to have around for the hard-to-kill hard-shelled bug infestations like Colorado potato beetles or harlequin beetles. You can even order egg cases online and hatch them into your garden.

Last but not least, pollinators! If you're growing any kind of vegetable, you should definitely be planting flowers to attract pollinators. At my school's farm, we have an entire bed dedicated to perennial flowering plants for pollinators, including milkweed, coneflower, Joe Pye Weed, elderberry, salvia, and more. 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

Hutchison pollinator garden 

It's a pollinator party!

It's a pollinator party!

Pollinators are essential for ensuring a stable food supply. One third of our agricultural products depends on them! We have over 4,000 species of bees in the United States. Most people know about the plight of our honeybees, but there are dozens of native pollinators with vulnerable populations in rapid decline, too. Planting diverse flowering crops that bloom throughout the growing season is critical for supporting pollinator populations. A diversity of flowers also supports a diverse pollinator population. I love sitting out in the garden and seeing the honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees, beetles, and even flies visiting bloom after bloom.

I also love watching the butterflies in the garden. Many people know that milkweed is essential for monarch butterflies. Attracting other kinds of butterflies is easy. They like nectar sources from flat-topped broad-petaled flowers that they can land on, like zinnias, coneflowers, and dahlias. Planting just a few of those flowers will attract beautiful butterflies throughout the warm seasons. Many butterflies and moths need to warm up before they take flight, so if you head out to your zinnia patch early in the morning, you can often see them soaking up the morning rays on top of the flowers. 

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Your garden is an ecosystem of all kinds of six-legged critters, and if you plan ahead and have a little bit of patience, you can put the good ones to work for you.

If you're not sure if a bug you're looking at is good or bad, take a look at NC State's great visual guide to beneficial insects here

Do you have a favorite garden bug? Let me know about it in the comments, or by hopping over to one of my social media pages

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Photobombing the bees! 

Photobombing the bees! 

The Dirt on Dirt

Let's talk about your garden soil. You can't grow healthy plants unless you've got healthy soil, and there's more to it than haphazardly adding a bag of fertilizer or some half-baked compost. I'm going to walk you through the basics of garden soil management from soil testing to fertilizers to crop rotation to cover crops to composting. It's a lot to talk about, so I'm going to break it down into a few parts.

So let's dive in! First up, soil tests. 

If you're serious about growing anything, you need to get a soil test. If you don't know what's in your soil, you're flying blind. Your local agricultural extension office should be able to provide you with a small box for gathering your soil sample along with written instructions. (If you don't know what an extension office is, Google your county name and "agricultural extension." A wealth of knowledge is available to you there!) You'll probably have to mail your sample box into a lab specified in the test directions, along with a check for the test fee. They usually cost in the ballpark of $10. You'll want to gather your test sample when the soil is dry and before you add any fertilizers to your soil. Fall is the best time to get a test, but any time is better than no time. 

There are definitely soil tests that are better than others, but your basic soil test should show you your pH and nutrient levels. If you can get one that shows you your level of organic matter, that's even better! The soil tests will come with recommendations about what kinds of amendments to apply and at which rates in order to achieve optimum nutrient levels. 

So, let's say you've gotten your soil test back, and it has the recommendations for how much of each nutrient you need to add to your soil. How do you know how much fertilizer to apply? Well, you could get out your pencil and paper and practice your basic arithmetic, but I love a shortcut. This calculator from Texas A&M is great. You can enter the numbers from your soil test that show how many parts per million of each nutrient is present in your soil. You'll also enter the numbers from the fertilizer grade of your preferred fertilizer. (The grade is the numbers that you find on the front of your fertilizer bag. It might say "4-3-4" or "20-20-20." Those numbers indicate how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is in the mix.) The calculator tells you how much of your specific fertilizer to apply per 1000 square feet.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

So which fertilizer should you use? Lucky for you, I have a strong preference to share. For generic garden fertilizers, I highly recommend Mighty Grow. It's organic, processed poultry litter that slowly releases over a 90 day period. I've used it for a couple of years now, and it's my favorite. I particularly like it, because it's considered pet safe, and I have a dog that will gladly roll around in and lick the soil when it's extra-fragrant from fertilizing. In my raised beds, I add 13 lbs of Mighty Grow per 1000 square feet. My beds are about 72 square feet, so I need just under one pound of Mighty Grow per bed. (Three cups of Mighty Grow fertilizer equals one pound.) I top dress with the Mighty Grow, meaning that I just use a scoop to scatter the pellets right on top of the soil, then water it in thoroughly. I fertilize with Mighty Grow every three months. 

Alright, you've made it through the tedious part of garden soil management! Stay tuned; we've got cover crops, crop rotations, and composting ahead of us. Do you have a favorite fertilizer that you like to use? Any questions about soil tests? You can drop it in the comments below!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Blini Two Ways

A few weeks ago, an upper school teacher happened to ask me in passing, "Do you know anything about Russia or Russian food?" She was wrapping up a unit in her Comparative Governments class about Russian agriculture, and she wanted to celebrate by making some kind of Russian dish with her students. 

A buttery, fluffy, airy, delectable blin. 

A buttery, fluffy, airy, delectable blin. 

She came to the right person! I studied Russian in a past life, and one of my favorite high school memories is the time our Russian class made blini for Maslenitsa. Maslenitsa is kind of like Russian Orthodox Mardi Gras. It's the time just before Lent when Russians eat all of the butter, eggs, and milk in their homes, because (theoretically) they won't be eating animal products until Easter. Blini are the perfect way to use up those ingredients. They're thin, buttery crepes that are delicious vehicles for equally delicious fillings. I could eat my weight in blini. They're divine. (Note: "blini" is plural. Just one is a "blin.")

The timing of her request was perfect. We spent Thursday afternoon during Maslenitsa week making delicious blini and talking about various Russian Orthodox traditions. 

Well, this teacher's Human Geography class got wind of her Comparative Government's blini celebration, and they were jealous. They wanted to make blini, too. The Human Geography girls weren't studying Russia, but they just so happened to be in their modern agriculture unit and were learning about farm subsidies. Making blini provided a great opportunity to talk about that.

Blini has five ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and milk), and they're all heavily subsidized commodities. We worked out the price of the blini batter we made, and it came out to about $7. If you took away farm subsidies, though, the cost of the same bowl of batter jumped to about $22. That's a huge increase!

We made a platter full of blini and sat down to a table of different fillings, both savory and sweet: smoked salmon, sour cream, jams, and honey from our school apiary. Over our meal, we discussed the pros and cons of farm subsidies. Some of the girls came from families that owned farms, and they provided personal perspectives. They noted how subsidies help keep farm families stable and therefore helps regulate our national food supply.

Other perspectives were offered, too. Some girls didn't agree with how farm subsidies were distributed and didn't like that their tax dollars supported that. We also talked about how in a global food marketplace, our system of subsidies makes our food cheaper than food from farms in other countries. That can lead to food insecurity and systemic poverty in already unstable regions of the globe. I love how food can be a catalyst for a variety of conversations and learning experiences.

If you want to make blini with your family, the original recipe from my high school blini making days is below.

Ingredients

2.5 cups flour

4-5 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

14 Tbsp. butter, melted

3-4 cups milk

Directions

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Stir sugar into the egg yolks, then add milk slowly while stirring. Add a dash of salt and melted hot butter. Add flour very slowly while stirring the mixture and smoothing the batter. Whisk egg whites until they're airy and fluffy, but not stiff. Fold them into the batter. Add about 1/3 cup of the batter to a hot frying pan and circle the pan around to spread the batter evenly over the surface. When the edges appear golden and small bubbles appear in the middle, flip it over and cook another minute or so. No need to add oil to the pan. There is plenty of butter in the batter. 

Serve with smoked salmon, sour cream, and dill for a savory dish, or jam and sour cream for a sweet option. 

Whipping egg whites by hand for true Russian street cred.

Whipping egg whites by hand for true Russian street cred.

International Women's Day with the Hutchison Honeybees

I spent International Women's Day with 50,000 of my favorite ladies. 

Well, lady bees anyway. 

I love working at an all-girls' school. I get to celebrate the work of bright girls and strong women every day. This International Women's Day was especially fun, because three classes of Hutchison Honeybees (our school mascot!) joined me for an early spring inspection of our school apiary. This time of year, there are only female bees in the colonies, and we cracked open the hives to see what they were up to.

The first thing that we noticed were the small hive beetles. According to Master Beekeeper Richard Underhill, the honeybees don't actually kill the small hive beetles that invade their hives. Instead, they build little jail cells out of beeswax to keep them isolated. They even feed their prisoner beetles. Isn't that incredible?

Girls with a frame of capped honey

Girls with a frame of capped honey

This is the time of year that many bee colonies die from starvation, because not much is in bloom yet. To keep their population levels strong, I brought along a couple of frames of capped honey that I saved from the fall to put in their hives for the bees to eat. The girls passed around a frame of capped honey, and we took out a partially-emptied honey frame from one of the beehives to examine the differences. One thing is for sure, honey is heavy. 

I showed the girls how the bees communicate danger to their fellow bees. They raise their backsides up in the air and release an alarm pheromone. The girls were amazed at the different ways that animals can communicate. Honeybees don't have mouths and tongues to form words, they observed, but they can communicate through scent. 

The bees seemed a little agitated, so we closed the hives up early and didn't inspect their brood. (I'll do that some soon time when there aren't a bunch of kids around!) We're going to be adding new colonies to the apiary soon, and the girls will get to help with that process. Seeing the girls' excitement as they learn about honeybees is one of the sweetest parts about life at Hutchison.  

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Bees cleaning up an old honey frame.

Mary Riddle Memphis apiary

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 2)

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

We left off yesterday talking about planting tomatoes from seeds. Let's pick right back up with what you do after you've got your seedlings! Fast forward four or five weeks from your planting date. You've kept consistent moisture levels on your seedlings. You've fertilized once with fish emulsion. Now what?

Memphis is in agricultural Zone 7b. That means our last frost date usually falls in the second week of April. Tomatoes are cold sensitive, so you don't want to plant them out if there is a risk of temperatures falling below freezing. You can plant them out a little earlier if you've got low tunnels built, or some other form of frost protection. (I have rudimentary instructions on building low tunnels here.)

If the risk of frost has passed in your area, you've prepped your soil, and your seedlings are looking healthy and strong, then you just have one more step before you plant them out. You've got to decide how you want to stake your plants. Tomatoes need a little bit of help to stand up and be productive. Keep in mind, you don't absolutely have to stake your plants. You could just let them flop over. However, the more they're in contact with moist soil, the more susceptible they are to disease, and the closer your tomatoes are to the ground, the more likely they are to be eaten by rodents. So I highly recommend staking! 

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

If you've got a long row of tomatoes, the best way to stake them is to construct a wall out of T-posts and cattle panels. You can use a handy little device called a duratool to affix your tomato plants to the panel. The duratool is one of my favorite farm tools ever. If you've got a lot of tomatoes, this drastically reduces the time it takes to stake. The down side of cattle panel staking is that it's pricey, so I would only recommend this option if you've got more than 30 or so row feet of tomatoes planted. Otherwise, metal tomato cages or wooden stakes work well. Whichever way you plan to stake your tomatoes, make sure your stakes are in the ground before you put your plants in.

How far apart should you place your stakes? Many northern farmers swear by close tomato spacing for maximum production. I've seen recommendations as close as 18" spacing for tomato plants. If you grow below the Mason-Dixon, I find that this recommendation is a recipe for disaster. Southern climates are humid, and if you're in the Delta like I am, the soils are dense and full of clay. This is perfect breeding ground for blight and other fungal diseases. The best way to prevent the spread of those diseases is by spacing your tomato plants at least three feet apart, and make sure you have plenty of room for air flow between your tomato rows. 

Okay, so we've got our stakes in to our beautifully double-dug soil. Now what? I know some growers swear by this, but I recommend against ripping stems off to plant tomatoes deeper in the soil. First of all, open wounds on the plants are entry points for disease. Secondly, those leaves are little solar panels, making energy for your plants to grow. I dig a hole 2-3 times the size of the tomato root ball, fill it with compost, then plant the tomato starts about an inch higher than the root ball's soil line. 

Here in Memphis, my favorite tomato grower is Steve Fulwood of Cold Comfort Farm. He can grow beautiful, tender heirlooms long past the time my hybrids have succumbed to blight. His Brandywine tomatoes are my favorite. They're sweet, smooth, and the perfect slicing texture. My husband asked him last year what his secret was, and he shared his fertilizing plan. He saturates the soil under his tomato plants with Grow Big fertilizer from Fox Farm once a week until the plants start to bud, then he switches to Tiger Bloom. That plan has worked well for us, thought I have to admit... even with his fertilizer secret, I've still never been able to grow an heirloom tomato as perfect as his!

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

As your tomato plants become established, scout your plants twice a week for pest pressure. Look for holes or chunks taken out of leaves or fruit, as that may be a sign of tomato hornworm or fruitworm. Look for signs of wilt, as you may have aphids or stink bugs. Colorado potato beetles like to chew on tomato leaves until they turn to lace. The good news is that many of the pests that plague tomatoes are big enough for you to easily see and squish on-site. (Or brush it into a bucket of soapy water if that makes you squeamish.)

I also scout the soil line two to three times a week for signs of blight. If you see a fuzzy, dotted fungus along the soil line and base stem of your tomato plant, there's a good chance you've got Southern blight. Southern blight is horrible. It is a soil-borne disease, and once it's in the soil, there's a good chance it's going to plague you year after year. If I see southern blight in my tomatoes, I dig up the infected plant, including all of the soil around the root area, and I put it all in a plastic bag and put it in a dumpster. I even cover my boots with plastic bags and wash my shovel with a 10% bleach solution after using it so I am sure that I'm not transmitting it. If I have handled a plant that I've suspected of blight, I don't handle any other plants until I've washed up and changed clothes. I take out the stake and soak it in a 10% bleach solution. 

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

To reduce your susceptibility to blight, or to any other disease or infection, it's important to water at the beginning of the day and close to the root zone. Using soaker hoses or drip tape is ideal, because it reduces the amount of water that splashes from plant to plant, potentially carrying disease with it. Also, keep your tomatoes as weed-free as possible. Weeds can carry pathogens and provide good hiding places for pests. I like to keep my tomatoes covered with a leaf mulch in order to keep weed pressure down. 

Mary Riddle tomato eyes

If you've fended off pest and disease, you've made it to the best part of growing tomatoes: harvesting! I recommend that you harvest your tomatoes in the morning, before the sun is high in the sky. For the best flavor, keep your tomatoes at room temperature until they are used. I harvest into wide crates or buckets, in just one or two layers, to avoid bruising. I also make sure that I wash my buckets in between harvests, so I'm not accidentally spreading diseases. (Have I mentioned that I'm a little neurotic about pests and disease?)

That's it! You've made it through Tomatoes 101. Do you have any tomato questions or grower advice that you'd like to share? Drop it in the comments, or on one of my social media pages. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 1)

It's the time of year when I start really craving tomatoes. It's been months since I had a flavorful, juicy tomato, and the mealy pink things in the grocery stores right now just won't cut it. The good news is that we can start prepping now for a season of plenty.

Like all good growing, the most important thing to focus on is soil. You won't have good crops unless you have good soil. Wherever you're growing, it's a good idea to add fresh compost to your tomato beds each year. My favorite kind of compost to use is cotton burr compost. We have it in abundance here in Memphis, and I get the best results from it.

I also highly recommend double-digging your beds. (You can find my instructions for double-digging here.) Tomatoes need ample space for root growth, at least 12-18 inches. Don't think you have that kind of top soil? Double-digging helps create it! The photo below shows one of my raised beds. The foreground has been left alone, but the background has been double-dug. You can see from where my hand is that I've added four or five inches of soil space just by double-digging. Mixing in your compost amendments and loosening the lower layers of soil help the plant's root zone access essential nutrients that don't move around through the soil, like phosphorus. Aerating your soil helps water flow through your soil instead of puddling on top, which helps prevents the spread of disease.

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

After you've got your soil plan in place, it's important to figure out what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. If you aren't interested in starting tomatoes from seeds, please consider shopping for your tomato starts at your local farmers market. Plants that you purchase at big box stores are often chemical-laden and stressed. I've seen plants at those stores with hiding aphids and early signs of disease. Buy your tomato starts from the farmer whose tomatoes you like the best. That way, your starts will probably also come with some good, region-appropriate advice. 

Here's what you should know about before selecting your tomato plants:

  • Do you want an heirloom or hybrid? Heirloom tomatoes are often beautiful, but they are much more susceptible to disease. Hybrids are often grown to be resistant to certain diseases. If your tomato patch has suffered from disease pressure in the past, I recommend going the hybrid route. 
  • You should also decide if you want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes flower all at once and are more compact than indeterminates. They usually bear fruit over two or three weeks, then begin to die. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing vines and flowering and thus require more staking, pruning, and support. 
  • Most importantly, what kind of tomatoes do you want to eat? There are cherry, beefsteak, sauce, plum, and grape tomatoes, and each one of them has their own culinary personality.

I start all of my tomatoes from seed. Personally, my three favorite varieties to grow are from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and they are Celebrity, Tiren, and Red Pearl. They're all hybrids. I like to grow hybrids, because we have heavy pressure from fungal infections in our muggy climate. I plant my seeds in 50 cell 1020 trays filled with Pro-Mix and put them under grow lights. I plant my seeds four to five weeks before I plan on planting them outdoors. I water them lightly every single day. They can germinate beautifully in trays without the use of fertilizer, but they need feeding about three weeks after germination. At that point, I soak each cell with a diluted fish emulsion mixture.

You should only start your tomatoes from seed if you can commit to lightly watering them every day. Consistent moisture is crucial while they are in trays.

 

This should be enough to get you started! I'll follow up tomorrow with information about how to transplant, fertilize, stake, and harvest. 

Tell me about your favorite tomato varieties! You can leave a comment here, or tell me all about them on one of my social media pages

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Public Enemy Number One: Aphids

Aphids are the only garden pest that regularly give me recurring nightmares. They're not the most destructive of garden plagues, but nevertheless, I hate them. I hate how they move, I hate how they reproduce, and I especially hate how their population levels can sneak up on you out of nowhere. 

Aphid and ant symbiosis

Aphid and ant symbiosis

I have to admit, aphids are remarkable from an evolutionary perspective. They have a highly successful and complicated reproductive system. To boil it down to what we need to know as gardeners, aphids reproduce asexually and give birth to live young, so their population can go from negligible to crisis seemingly overnight. One female aphid that emerges in the spring will give birth to thousands of descendants over dozens of generations.

Did you know they also live symbiotically with ants? Ants actually raise them like little tiny cattle in order to extract a sticky substance that aphids secrete. Aphids are bizarre, resilient creatures. 

Because we didn't get an extended cold period here in Memphis this winter, they're back early and with a vengeance. They've already colonized all of my kale plants and some of the radishes, too. Aphids feed on garden plants by puncturing holes in the leaf surfaces with their mouths and sucking all of the fluid out. As a double whammy, like any piercing-sucking insect, they're vectors for disease. I've watched a small aphid infestation take out an entire greenhouse operation by transmitting Tobacco Mosaic Virus from one suspected plant. 

Winged and non-winged aphids on a collard leaf

Winged and non-winged aphids on a collard leaf

Aphids like to hide on the underside of leaves, especially pushed up next to leaf veins. Most aphids are slow-moving six-legged wingless creatures. However, their confoundingly frustrating adaptive genius lets them know when their population levels are getting too high for a plant, and when that happens, they have babies with wings, so they can fly off in search of new crops to destroy.

So what do you do about them? Well in low numbers, nothing. (Except to squish them out of cold-hearted fun.) Low numbers of aphids don't cause much harm. But the trick with the sustainable management of any garden pest is to not allow for population explosion. 

I'm slightly neurotic when it comes to garden pests. I scout for insects at minimum twice per week. That means that in every single one of my raised beds, I turn over four or five leaves in different locations looking for signs of harmful insects or insect damage. With aphids in particular, I look for ants running up and down the stems of my plants, because there's a good chance that they're harboring aphids. 

Aphids congregating near the stem

Aphids congregating near the stem

If I see aphids, I squish them immediately. If I see lots of aphids, I'll rip the whole leaf off and stomp on it while cussing colorfully. (It helps, promise.) Sometimes, though, there are too many to pick or stomp. If that's the case, I spray the plants with neem oil. Neem oil is botanical; it's pressed from the neem tree. It works basically by making the aphids forget to eat and mate. I purchase a concentrate and dilute it to label specifications in my two gallon sprayer. With bad infestations, I wait a week and follow up with a concentrated pyrethrum spray, again buying in concentrate and diluting. 

While both pyrethrum and neem are derived from plants and generally considered safe, I take as many precautions as I can. I did not use either of those products when I was pregnant. We had one bad aphid and flea beetle outbreak during my pregnancy, and my husband sprayed pyrethrum and neem twice each. I also waited a couple of days before handling the plants after that. I wear chemical-grade neoprene gloves and a rubber jacket that I only use when spraying for insects. This might seem like overkill, but I am of the mind that I'd rather be safe than sorry. Putting on gloves and a jacket takes me an extra thirty seconds, and I'd like to have that peace of mind. I also never spray if it's windy. 

As I said, aphids are adaptive geniuses, and they can quickly build up tolerances for pesticides, so whatever your pest management plan is, it's important to keep it as varied as possible.

There are ways to manage infestations that don't use any chemicals at all. If you have an aphid outbreak in a greenhouse or under a low tunnel, I have found that purchasing ladybugs and releasing them is a great solution. It's trickier to use this technique in open areas, because ladybugs will often just fly away. If you decide to go this route, I recommend watering in the late afternoon so that there are little pools of water available to the ladybugs to drink, then releasing them in the evening. If they have food and water sources, they're more likely to stick around if they wake up in your desired location. Also, I know this is obvious, but you don't want to release ladybugs if you are also using pyrethrum or neem. 

You can also make soap sprays. Now, I don't care what you saw on Pinterest, but please do not make soap sprays out of Dawn dish soap! Detergent-based soaps will strip the protective coating from the leaves of your plants. I have used a diluted Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Oil Soap spray before. It can suffocate the aphids when the soapy water is sprayed directly onto their skin. It is really only effective for smaller infestations in smaller areas, but it can be a helpful method to use in combination with other techniques. 

I hope your aphids stay away from your garden as long as possible this year. Do you have other aphid management techniques that you like to use? Drop your advice in the comments. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Farm to Blanket

Every spring, the second graders at my school work on a quilting project with their mothers. It's a part of their unit in which they study Faith Ringgold, an African American artist well known for her narrative quilts. They study chemical reactions in science at the same time, so to tie it all together, the girls make natural dyes using vegetables from our farm and dye fabric squares to create their own narrative quilts. Cross-curricular learning is so cool, isn't it?

First, I bought a couple of yards of muslin and cut it into individual squares. I boiled the squares in salt water for an hour in order to make it more receptive to the dye.

While the squares were boiling, I chopped up the vegetables and put them in individual pots. I had one pot of red cabbage, one of spinach, and one of beets. I added about twice as much water as vegetable matter to each pot, then turned the heat up to medium high. I let the vegetables simmer for about an hour. I watched the color slowly leech from the vegetables and into the water.

As an aside, the red cabbage dye was fun, because it reacts to a change in its pH. I added just a little bit of lemon juice and the purple water turned to a bright magenta.  

I took the muslin squares out of the boiling water and let them cool. Each second grade girl got to help ring out their fabric squares. Then, they dropped their squares into whichever pot of dye they liked. I didn't remove the veggies before adding the muslin.

I let the muslin and veggies simmer for several more hours, then drained the pots and rinsed the fabric squares. It was a little tedious washing veggie specks off of the fabric, but I liked the visual effect of letting my students see that the vegetables were causing the colors to change.

The spinach dye didn't do much for me. The squares are just marginally darker than the original shade of the muslin. The beets turned the muslin a pretty light rose color, and the lemon juice-cabbage concoction turned the fabric a kind of muted fuschia. 

If you have any leftover garden scraps and a plain shirt or tablecloth to dye, I highly recommend this process! It was fun, educational, and let us use some of the plants that we might normally compost. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

Getting Ready for Garlic

Garlic is one of my favorite crops to grow. It's a crop that doesn't take a lot of time or maintenance, but the payoff is huge. Who doesn't love fresh garlic? No one. I wouldn't trust someone who doesn't love garlic.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

I order my garlic every year from Peaceful Valley. I typically grow both hardneck and softneck garlic. I like the scapes that the hardneck garlic provides, but I like to be able to braid my garlic for storage, like you do with softneck. Back in early October, I planted two beds of Music, a hardneck variety, and three beds of California Early White, a softneck variety. I planted an extra bed of California Early White, because I plan on harvesting one of the beds early before its bulb fills out to use as "green garlic." (I'm serious about my garlic, okay?)

Like I said, garlic doesn't require a lot of maintenance. I weed the beds fairly regularly. It likes to be mulched over the winter. It does require a little bit of fertilization, though, and that's what I spent this balmy, 78 degree President's Day doing. 

My rule of thumb is to fertilize garlic three times: once in planting, once on Valentine's Day, and once on St. Patrick's Day. (I'm a little bit late this year, but that's alright.) Garlic likes a lot of nitrogen when it's still in its leafing stage, before it starts growing its bulb, so I use a 50-50 blend of worm castings and blood meal. Once I combine my fertilizers, I side dress each garlic plant with a small scoop of the mix and try to work it down into the soil an inch or two. I'll do this exact same thing again in a month, but then after that, I stop fertilizing and let nature do its thing. If you fertilize too late, it would encourage the plant to continue a vigorous leaf growth when you want it working on growing a bigger bulb. 

As I keep saying, it's been a bizarrely warm winter, so I'm guessing that my garlic is going to be ready earlier than usual this year. I can typically harvest green garlic in April, scapes in May, and bulbs in June. If the weather keeps this current pattern going, I'll be about a month ahead of that schedule. If the bulbs start filling out early, I'll adjust my fertilization schedule. Good growing is all about watching what nature brings you and adapting.

 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Agrostemma Githago... say what?

I first saw agrostemma at the Memphis Farmers Market about eight or nine years ago. I was a recent college graduate, and the full weight of my student loans had just come crashing down on my head. I definitely didn't have a lot of discretionary income. Budgetary concerns no longer mattered once I saw those agrostemmas. It was love at first sight. I bought the biggest bunch of those delicate, wispy stems as I could carry and made my way home with them, good intentions for vegetables be damned. I proudly displayed them on my kitchen table, and to my surprise and delight, those gorgeous blooms lasted for close to two weeks. I was hooked. 

I tried a couple of different times to grow agrostemma over the years, but it never went well for me. I started my seeds in late winter or early spring, but both times it got too hot for the plant before I ever saw a blossom. Last year, I read Lisa Mason Zeigler's book Cool Flowers, and I started wondering if I could apply those same principles to my elusive agrostemma dreams. 

This photo was taken about a month ago. Pretty good for January!

This photo was taken about a month ago. Pretty good for January!

I ordered both the Ocean Pearls and Purple Queen varieties from Johnny's back in the fall and started the seeds indoors under grow lights in October. We had a warm fall here in Memphis, so I planted them outdoors about six weeks later. 

This bed of agrostemma has grown all winter long under row covers. The darker days and cool weather helps to elongate the stems. I've had to pull a couple of the plants due to stem rot, but once I took the row covers off and allowed for more airflow, the problem cleared up. 

These stems are over two feet tall now, and they've even started to send up little buds. In FEBRUARY. Have I mentioned that it's been ridiculously mild? I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we don't get another killing freeze before I get to enjoy these blossoms. I've waited a long time to have these grace my kitchen table again. 

Learn How to Grow Your Own

I wanted to let y'all know about some upcoming horticulture classes that I'll be teaching in Memphis, Tennessee. The classes are for children and adults, and they're brought to you by the Hutchison Center for Excellence. The class descriptions are below.  

  • Creating a Family Garden, for families

Learn the basics of planning a garden for the whole family to plant, nurture, and watch grow! The Starter Session will cover the basics of planning your garden, soil preparation, what to plant when, and basic composting. The Intermediate Session will cover more advanced topics, including ongoing plant care for better harvests, organic pest control, and composting. 

Date/Time: Starter Session: Tuesday, June 6; 8:30-11:30 am, Intermediate Session: Thursday, June 11; 8:30-11:30 am

Cost: $30 per person per class

  • Beekeeping, for girls and boys entering grades 1-8 and their families

Discover the basic components of a hive and how to maintain your own bee colony. 

Date/Time: Wednesday, June 7; 8:30-11:30 am

Cost: $30 per person

  • Homegrown Start-Up: Garden Product Projects, for girls entering grades 4-8

Learn business basics by creating spa products and craft food items from the Hutchison Garden, designing a stand, and marketing them through an original marketing plan. 

Date/Time: Monday-Friday, July 10-14; 1:00-3:30 pm

Cost: $135

I hope to see you and your families at one of these classes! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

A Southern Horticulturist's Valentine's Day

This is my husband, Wes. Before he met me, he never guessed that his future would include things like building hoop houses, digging trenches for irrigation, or diagnosing tomato fungal infections, but here he is, and I love him for it. 

We've never made a big deal about Valentine's Day. (My strong cynical streak may have something to do with that.) Wes has always used the day as a good excuse to get me flowers or a card. Usually, we'd try to make a nicer-than-usual dinner at home. But that pattern changed this year!

Our friends Caitlin and Stephen love beautiful flowers and good food as much as we do. We love spending time with them and their family. This year, the fellas put their minds together to plan something extraordinary, and I have to say, they outdid themselves.

On Saturday evening, our children's daycare stayed open late for a parents' night out, so our Valentine's Day came early. Caitlin and I sipped champagne while the gentlemen dropped off our boys at their school. 

They came back and presented us with these stunning seasonal corsages from Garden District. I love the succulents and the pussy willow branches. It's a perfect late winter posy. The gentlemen had matching boutonnieres, and they looked positively dapper. 

Then, they took us to Catherine & Mary's, a new restaurant by the Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen team in the old Chisca building in downtown Memphis. If you haven't been, stop what you're doing right now and make a reservation. Our meal was nothing short of life-changing. It affirmed everything that was good and right with the world. 

The gents chose our menu in advance, so Caitlin and I just sat down, and course after course just appeared in front of us, along with perfectly paired wines chosen by our waiter. We started with chickpea crepes with whipped ricotta and hazelnuts and a cheese board with pickled apricots. I didn't know whipped ricotta was a thing, but I want it on everything now. Our pasta dish came next. It was a radiatore with a green pistachio mint pesto, and I'm pretty sure I died and went to heaven right then and there. Then, the waiter brought out a fabulous Cabernet Franc, and it got even better. Our entree was a seared halibut on a bed of shaved Brussels sprouts with celery root puree, and we all shared cannoli and house-made gelatos for dessert. 

We clean up real nice, don't we?

We clean up real nice, don't we?

To top it all off, we picked up our little baby from daycare, took him home, and he slept through the night. A Valentine's Day miracle! I couldn't have asked for a better date or for better people to have spent it with. 

It's a rainy day here in Memphis, so I'm spending Valentine's Day proper starting the first of my solanaceous seeds indoors. I can't believe it's that time of year again! Spring is in the air and love is all around. 

The Girl-Powered, Math-Powered, Poetry-Powered, Chinese Vegetable School Farm Project

It was sixth grade when I first learned that I was bad at math. It was our pre-algebra unit, and it was the first time I'd ever felt challenged by a math problem. I was trying to quickly wipe away my frustrated tears when I was told, "That's okay. You're more of a reader than a mathematician."

I did as little math as I could get away with in high school and college. I remember feeling confused: I noticed that I could add and multiply sums more quickly than many of my peers. I even tested into one of the more advanced math classes at my school, but I thought it was all a fluke. "I'm a reader, not a mathematician," I thought. 

I became interested in agriculture, because I was interested in the spiritual, poetic, Wendell Berry aspect of farming. Little did I know at the time that my chosen career path was inherently mathematical. My job a a horticulturist is just a series of mathematical word problems, all day long: fertilizer ratios, days to plant maturity, row spacing, building with the Pythagorean theorem, estimating yields. 

MathPoetryChineseGarden2.jpg

At the girls' school where I work, I collaborated with the fifth grade math, English, and Chinese teachers to create a cross-curricular project that shows the girls that math, poetry, world languages, and farming are all complementary, and they can be good at all of it. 

The girls were in the midst of their poetry unit called "Bloom Where You're Planted" in their English class. They read Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," then came to my farm lab to learn how to plant. 

We divided the girls up into three small groups and had them create mathematical arrays out of these Jiffy peat pellets. (As an aside, I prefer to plant in these peat pellets for school projects, because they're much easier for young ones to handle while planting.) The pellets come dried and compacted, and they need to soak in water to expand into plantable little nuggets.

Once they created an array, they filled their trays with water. While we waited for the pellets to puff up, the girls were given an assignment to start writing a poem, using some of the themes and imagery of planting, growing, and blooming, as well as some of the poetic structures they learned about in a previous English class.

Once the pellets were ready, pencils were put away and the girls were given their Chinese vegetable seeds to plant. They had to work with one another to ensure that each peat pellet got only one seed. The trays of veggies went into my grow light station. 

A few days later, the same group of girls came out to the farm with their math class. They were given measuring tools and a bundle of little flags. They had to figure out the dimensions of the bed. Then, I told them that each plant needed to be at least 8 inches apart from one another in rows that were at least 12 inches apart, and the plants couldn't be closer than four inches from the edge of the bed. Using those parameters, they had to figure out the maximum number of plants we could plant in each bed. They flagged out where each plant should go. They also figured out the volume of empty space in the raised bed and calculated how much compost I should add to the raised bed to reach the very top. 

The weather turned cold, so I transplanted their Chinese vegetables on the farm for them. Now, I'm collaborating with their Chinese teacher to plan the next aspect of the lesson. We'll harvest the bok choy and green garlic from the farm in a couple of weeks. The girls will learn how to cook and eat bok choy, while simultaneously learning Chinese culinary vocabulary words. 

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

The girls are learning that nothing is in a silo. What they learn in one class connects to their other studies and connects to the outside world. They're learning that math shows up in places that they may not expect. Their mathematical computations helped me solve a real-life problem, and they'll soon be able to harvest and taste the fruits of their labor. I hope they're learning that they can become poets, mathematicians, linguists, farmers... or even all of those things at once.

Happy growing, 

Mary

Growing with Children

I love teaching. I've taught children, and I've taught adults. Showing people how to grow is my passion. I'm lucky to be teaching horticulture on a school farm at a fantastic girls' school here in Memphis. It is a joy to come to work every day.

I wanted to share a fun project that I'm working on with my pre-K girls. This class of girls worked with me in the beginning of the school year planting carrots. We grew two beds of carrots, one purple and one orange. They got to plant, harvest, and cook with the carrots. They counted how many they picked and performed a taste test to see if they could taste the difference between purple and orange carrots. They also made carrot cake.

The carrot project got them interested in other root vegetables. The school where I work uses the Reggio approach, meaning that the girls get to guide much of their own learning. This particular Pre-K class decided they wanted to learn about other kinds of vegetables that grow under the soil, so I visited their classroom and showed them photos of lots of different root crops: different colors of beets, radishes, leeks, and turnips. They decided they wanted to grow D'Avignon radishes, Easter Egg radishes, and Chioggia beets.

We divided this bed into three equal sections. I planted most of the rows before the class came out to the farm to ensure production quantity, but let the girls help me plant the last row of each section. I showed them pictures of their chosen vegetables to refresh their memories, and they made predictions about what the seeds would look like. They poked a hole in the soil with their finger, placed their seed in the hole, and lightly covered it with soil. 

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

Easter Egg radish seeds

Easter Egg radish seeds

The D'Avignon radishes take about 3 weeks to mature, the Easter Egg radishes take about 30 days, and the Chioggia beets take around 55 days to mature. The girls come out to the farm every few days to look for changes to the bed that they planted. They're going to observe and discover which of the root crops take the longest to grow, and they'll get to taste new vegetables in the process. 

We also got to smell the cilantro emerging from its winter hibernation, taste the lemony sorrel, and smell the apple blossoms. It wasn't a bad way to spend a sunny, 75 degree February day!

Happy growing!

Mary Riddle

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting. 

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting. 

Growing on the Edges

Last year was the hottest year on record. As was the year before that. As was the year before that. It's safe to say that climate change is wreaking havoc on agricultural industries all over the world. As a sustainable grower, I have to closely observe my surroundings in order to cleverly adapt to more extreme weather patterns. 

With summers are getting hotter and winters are getting more extreme, the edges of the growing season (early-early spring and late fall) are becoming increasingly conducive to growing produce and flowers. If you're in Zone 7 or lower (like I am here in Memphis) you can go ahead and plant your leafy greens now, as long as you have row covers in place to protect your plants in case the weather turns frigid again.

Don't these Brussels sprouts look nice and cozy underneath their row covers?

Don't these Brussels sprouts look nice and cozy underneath their row covers?

Snap Clamp

Snap Clamp

I use low tunnels to cover my plants. Here's how I make them: my raised beds are four feet wide. Starting at the very end of the bed and then every three feet following, I screw on a 1/2 inch by ten foot long PVC pipe to the sides of the bed using a 1/2 inch pipe strap, two inch decking screws, and my trusty drill. You can modify your spacing to create an even spacing for your bed length, but I like to keep the low tunnel hoops between two and three feet apart. (If you have a lot of snow, err on the side of having the hoops closer together!) I bend the PVC pipes over the beds into a half-hoop formation and then attach it to the other side, also using a pipe strap and deck screws. Then, I cover my beds with frost cloth. I like Agribon 19. It keeps everything under the frost cloth four to five degrees warmer; however, it's permeable, so it allows through light and moisture. To attach the frost cloth to my PVC pipes, I use two inch Snap Clamps, available at any online greenhouse supplier. I place snap clamps on the tops and sides of each of the hoops. 

The hoops are nice to have around in the summer, too. You can increase the yield from your tomatoes, peppers, squash, and even delicate flowers like dahlias by covering your beds with a 30% shade cloth. For my beds that are in full sun for 11 or 12 hours a day, I'll even cover them with a 50% shade cloth during the hottest months of the year. It will keep your soil cooler and your plants healthier.

If this all seems like it's too much fuss, but you still have the urge to get in the dirt, go out and plant something like sorrel or spinach. I planted my sorrel in late November, and never covered it once. It survived ice, snow, and a week below freezing. The lemony flavor is unbeatable and brightens up dark winter days.

What are your favorite cold-tolerant garden plants?

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

I've already got my indoor seeds cranking! It's time to get growing! 

I've already got my indoor seeds cranking! It's time to get growing! 

Bring in Your Branches!

On Wednesday, I posted a photo to my Facebook page of an apple tree starting to bud out. Tonight, the temperatures in my area are supposed to drop into the upper 20s, meaning that most of the beautiful blossoms are probably going to die. If it stays around 28 or 29, then I expect that I'll only see a nominal decrease in the amount of apples produced. If it ends up dropping any lower than that, well... I'll just keep my fingers crossed for apples in 2018. 

Some of the blossoms were just too beautiful to give over to the freeze tonight, so I cut a few branches and brought them inside. Aren't they lovely? Have you seen anything blossoming in your neck of the woods yet? If it's going to freeze where you live tonight, bring a few branches inside to enjoy!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

The Great Pumpkin Challenge, Part One: Double Digging

One of the best things about growing for a school is the freedom to explore and learn about new crops right alongside my students. This winter, I got a bee in my bonnet to try out a crazy crop I've never grown before: Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, the granddaddy of all giant pumpkins. 

I love the whimsy of a giant pumpkin. It brings to mind images of Hagrid's garden or Cinderella's carriage. There's a problem, though. I have horrible luck with all plants in the squash family. Growing without the aid of synthetic chemicals, I can only get one or two early rounds of squash from a plant before I'm beaten my two greatest nemeses: squash bugs and squash vine borers. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about growing a pumpkin at all, much less the world record-holding species for size and weight. Go big or go home, right? 

If everything goes well and I actually produce a pumpkin, it won't be ready until fall, but it's time to start the growing process now.

Healthy plants come from healthy soil. Last summer, I added about ten cubic yards of pure cotton burr compost to this raised bed. Over the fall, I grew radishes, beets, mustard, chard, lettuce, spinach, and turnips in it. I got too busy and ran out of time to plant a good winter cover crop, so I just mulched unused areas of the bed with straw. (Healthy soils want to be covered at all times!)

Here's what the bed looks like now.

I've started to rake away the straw mulch that I used over the winter in order to double-dig this behemoth of a bed

Double-digging is a soil preparation technique associated with the Biointensive growing method. According to Ecology Action, double-dug beds "aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve water retention." Soil fertility is maintained through the heavy use of compost.

To get started, you measure off the area that you want to dig. I'm starting with a 2 x 20 foot section. I set out flags to show divide the area in 2 x 2 foot squares. 

Before you dig, please make sure that the area is free from water or gas lines. 

mary riddle double digging

Start with your first square and shovel the top 12 inches of soil into a wheelbarrow. Then, take a pitchfork and loosen up all of the newly-exposed soil underneath. I don't move on until I can sink my pitchfork in 12 inches without effort.

Move on to your next square. Shovel the top 12 inches of that square into the empty hole you just created. Again, take your pitchfork and loosen the exposed soil. Repeat that process with square after square. When you reach the end, fill the final hole with the soil waiting in your wheelbarrow. 

To ensure that I'm not compacting the soil when I'm working in the beds, I stand on a plank in order to more evenly distribute my weight through a larger area. 

I've got a lot more of this bed to finish. This is an intense workout, so my back demands that I take my time. I'm getting started now so that I can be ready to transplant pumpkins into the bed by Zone 7's April 15th final frost date. 

Stay tuned. You can follow along with #TheGreatPumpkinChallenge on my social media pages

Keep your fingers crossed for me! 

Mary Riddle

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?

Southern SAWG

I spent last week in Lexington, Kentucky at Southern SAWG's annual conference, where I learned about innovations in farm education, pest identification and management, and small-scale flower farming. This was my seventh consecutive year attending SSAWG, and I enjoy touching base and hearing updates from farm friends that I only get to see once a year. 

I picked up a couple of cool tools from the trade show, my favorite of which are these small ring knives from Handy Safety Knife. I first heard about them from Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm. These knives are designed for cutting twine, but Cathy suggested using them for flower harvests. She reports that they significantly improve the speed and ergonomics of cutting flowers. (As an added bonus, I think they make me look like I have T-Rex claws, but I digress.) My agrostemmas that I planted back in August are getting ready to pop, so I'll be able to report back in a couple of weeks! 

New Growing Season, New Blog

I've been growing things for as long as I can remember. I've taught home gardening, small to mid-scale farming, and homesteading to clients from as young as three to as old as 82. I love teaching. I love growing. 

I hope you'll follow along here as I walk us through a southern growing season. I'll show you pictures of my flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and bee hives, and give step-by-step instructions for horticultural projects. 

Right now, I've got my spring greens popping up in seed trays, and my over-wintered flowers are starting to leaf out. I can't wait to show you more. 

Let's grow together. 

Mary