Flowers are Pest Control - Nature's Aphid Repellent

I found the following information to be incredibly useful, and have since used this tactic in my gardens. They talk more about orchard management, but it works for any garden plant prone to aphids - this year I've had trouble with hops and brassica already. Bugger! The article, “Flowers Promote Aphid Suppression in Apple Orchards,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Biological Control, and is available online at WSU entomologist William Snyder was also a co-author.

Washington State University researchers have found they can control one of fruit growers’ more severe pests -- aphids -- with a remarkably benign tool: flowers.

The researchers recently published their study in the journal Biological Control. They found that plantings of sweet alyssum, a popular annual with small, white, sweet-smelling flowers, attracted a host of spiders and predator bugs that, in turn, preyed on woolly apple aphids, a pest that growers often control with chemical sprays.

“The results were striking,” said lead researcher Lessando Gontijo, a doctoral student in the WSU Department of Entomology. “After one week aphid densities were significantly lower on trees adjacent to flowers than on control plots, and these differences were maintained for several weeks.”

To select an appropriate flower for the study, the researchers screened six candidates, including marigolds and zinnias. They chose sweet alyssum because it attracted the greatest number of hoverflies, or syrphids, which have larvae that often feed on aphids. Hoverflies and other insects are attracted to flowers because they can find food in the form of both pollen and nectar.

Alyssum attracts beneficial insects that eat and help control wooly aphids.

Researchers compared plots of apple trees with interplantings of sweet alyssum to tree plots without flowers. While the sweet alyssum attracted hoverflies as desired, Gontijo and colleagues found few hoverfly larvae, indicating that the hoverflies were not the primary biological agent of control for aphids in the test orchard.

The mystery of the disappearing aphids seemed solved when the researchers found a diverse community of spiders and predatory bugs in the plots with sweet alyssum. But was it really the flowers that attracted these aphid predators? The scientists sprayed protein markers on the sweet alyssum and later captured bugs at a distance from the flower plots. Many of the creepy-crawlies tested positive for the proteins, proving that they had visited the flowers.

Betsy Beers, WSU Research/Extension Entomologist, mentor of Gontijo and co-author on the paper, notes that “the woolly apple aphid is surprisingly damaging for an aphid, attacking tree shoots and roots. The aphids also secrete a sticky liquid called honeydew, which can coat the apples, causing much annoyance during harvest.”

The aphids were previously kept at bay when orchardists sprayed pesticides to control codling moths. Since the phase-out of organophosphate insecticides used for codling moth, the woolly apple aphid has been making a comeback in central Washington and elsewhere.

The researchers say that the use of sweet alyssum for biological control can be easily integrated with standard orchard-management practices, but should be even more appealing to organic growers who have fewer insecticide options.


Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP + Apartment Gardening

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 8.50.03 AM  

Two years ago this week, gPal included Apartment Gardening on her spring garden round up. At the time, I was over the moon and then of course, promptly forgot about it. In digging through her site today for clean-eating recipes, I came across this post and was reminded of the endorsement. Bragging rights? You betcha. I'm happy to say, this IS a great book full of basic gardening principles. If you really want to know why you're not successful with your container garden, it's here, along with some of my favorite garden-inspired recipes.

What to do in the Garden Now - April

Spring has truly sprung in the Pacific NW and after several weeks of travel it is clear that spring is springing all over the northern hemisphere. Gardens in New Orleans have 1/2 grown artichokes, while those in Seattle are just under a foot tall. In the UK brassicas are beginning to flower, whereas in NY they are really starting to put on growth after a frosty over-winter. It is time to get some garden work done if you haven't started already. Some things to do right now: 1. WEED - weed, weed, weed. Prolific chickweed is cropping up all over Seattle and it's flowering. Soon, it will go to seed and if you do NOT want that to happen. When chickweed seed is mature, one brief brush of the plant will send the seeds flying and you'll easily find 10 times the amount of weeds later in summer. Instead, weed them now and save yourself hours of labor in the coming weeks.

2. SOW - This from by hero, Steve Solomon - "By early April the sun has become forceful. Species that store sugar can now grow, so I sow beets, onions, and carrots. Even though these can often germinate under plastic five or six weeks sooner, they’ll barely grow before April because there’s not enough solar energy." So, yes! Sow your beets, carrots & onion sets.

3. SHARE - Divide your rhubarb OR get your friends to share a piece of theirs...stat, before it gets too too warm. This is a now or not-till-late-fall thing. Dig up the entire plant. Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhizoneroot systems are large and deep, so it’s inevitable that you’ll break through a lot of the root structure. Don’t worry--focus on getting the crown out in one piece, along with a good portion of the rhizome - the big fat roots. These are necessary for the success of any future growth. When the crown and rhizome are dug up, cut between the buds so that each new planting has a bud or two, in addition to a piece of rhizome. Once you have the divisions separated, plant the rhubarb in well-composted soil. (This is the short version of directions. For awesomely detailed & foolproof directions, be sure to check out April's eBook, Fresh Pantry: Rhubarb)

4. PLANT - Sow your Peas. Peas & Scarlet Runner Beans can be sown in the first or second week of March, but there is still loads of time. Make a note to get started a bit earlier next year, and sow some now for a late-May/early-June harvest. Peas can also be sown in pots if you're relying on a container garden for food this year. Most legumes have root systems that spread laterally but don’t grow down too deep and are therefore great for containers. They also put up pretty sweet pea flowers (that then turn into peas) and grow tall, adding some height to the garden. In addition to pea pods, you can also harvest pea vines from the plant without hurting production too much. Clip new vine growth and use in sautés or soups.



Garden Planning 101 - Get Started Growing Your Own Food

Gardening and growing food are two of the most intuitive things I have ever done. This is not to say that I've always had a green thumb. In fact, I've killed every houseplant I've ever owned (including a cactus) and have officially given up on keeping them. All of this is to say that anyone can garden. The only skill you need is the ability to observe. You have this, I promise. IMG_4611Here is my disclaimer - it is helpful to recognize that information often varies from source to source. It is also worth noting that gardening "experts" often use a combination of education and experience to offer advice and instruction on how to grow a bountiful garden. That doesn't necessary mean it will always work for you. I have opinions about what works and what doesn't, but there are many options for home gardeners. I also garden organically, 100%. This means no chemicals for killing slugs, adhering to a strict crop rotation schedule, and in general making decisions based on what is best for the soil, not what is best for me personally.

Additionally, gardening requires one to work with nature, and this is not an exact science. There are many variables in gardening — sun exposure, latitude, time of year, watering schedule, and more will affect the success of any planting you do. So although certain factual information having to do with nutrient requirements and plant science will not change among the information you read, strategies will. It's up to you to decide what works best for you and your garden. With City Dirt, I aim to give you enough information and tools to make informed choices. Happily, there is often more than one answer.

Garden Musts 
When starting a garden at home there are three things to consider that will immediately contribute to your success.

1. You must have sun! At least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day for leafy greens and 10 to 12 for fruiting plants (hello tomatoes, cukes, and beans). I know you hear stories about how arugula is a weed and can grow in any condition, or perhaps about a tomato that doesn't need full sun, but trust me on these numbers. In order to have a successful (i.e. fully mature) plant, you need sun. Track your sun pattern starting NOW. At what point does it hit your property? At what time? Keep a sun log that tracks the sun across your yard at various times throughout the day, so you can watch how the sun changes with each season. Remember, it is winter, so in northern states the sun is sitting low on the horizon. If it tracks across the backyard now, it may arch over the house come summer.

2. Access to water is also a must. If you have to lug gallon jugs up some stairs and across your property, the odds of you watering often are slim. Make sure you have a hose and spigot handy. Anyone installing over 60 square feet of beds may also want to consider an automated watering system (drip irrigation, soaker hose or sprinkler system) so a nearby spigot will make your life way easier.

3. And finally, your soil should be considered. Many soils can be remediated or conditioned, but if your house sits on a cement block, is deeply water logged, or is built on sand, you may need to consider container planting as your only option.

With these three key components in mind, you must choose a space for your garden. Choose the space that best encompasses all three considerations and know that this may not be where you want to put your garden. Far too often, I see clients forcing gardens to work in their linear and square back yards. Let go of landscaping "rules" and put the garden in a spot where you can expect it to be successful. If you're not starting out with your best foot forward, you're inviting frustration and problem solving into your future.

As for how much space to allow, assuming you have the option, consider both your time commitment and your eating habits. There have been a handful of surveys and studies done to estimate yield per square foot in a garden, but these are widely disparate and I find them to be only remotely useful. Instead of trying to figure out how much space you'll need, determine how often you eat at home and just what food your family consumes. Every garden I grow in has waste each season, though that is never the goal. Do yourself a favor and be honest. Are you a stay-at-home parent or green-dedicated cook who makes three meals a day with vegetables as a major component? Then you'll need a big ol' garden. If you're hoping only to start small, if you're one person, or if you have an active lifestyle that keeps you out some nights, a smaller garden will suffice. 

I suggest starting with no more than 100 square feet your first year. Beds should be no more than 4 ½ feet wide, so you can reach in to the center with ease. I like a bed length to be 6 feet long, as well. (I explain why here.)

Sketch out the space to approximate scale and leave some surrounding space for future beds and/or a bed dedicated to perennials like sage, mint, or artichokes. Hang the sketch, think about it, and contemplate the space for a few weeks. This gives you an opportunity to change things around as you watch your sun pattern.

6753665955_2b60b15c4fGarden Wish List 
To help determine the amount of space you will need, I encourage gardeners to sketch out a garden "wish list" of vegetables they'd like to grow. This should be your big garden brainstorm of the year. Get creative! Be bold! Think about vegetables, herbs or fruits that are not widely available — think like a cook. Basil can be found in grocery stores all year long, so why dedicate precious space to grow basil? Try something new like cinnamon basil for summer teas or salads, or lime basil for Asian-inspired dishes. Instead of the perfect red tomato, which a farmer will likely grow faster than you, why not try some odd shaped little tomatoes? I love White Currant tomatoes for their clear skin, pale yellow hue, and sweet acidic taste. Using this list, you will map out each of your garden beds over the course of the year, making certain to maximize your space by timing out the plantings appropriately.

Name That Allium (& tote bag giveaway!)

We’re in the thick of winter, but it’s been damn near balmy here in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve barely had to don sleeves. Out in the gardens, spring plants are sprouting (spotted today: White Satin carrots, garlic, shallots & even scented geranium) and vegetables are starting to put on a decent amount of growth. Today, I cleaned up rows, weeded, thinned fall-sown carrots and killed a few slugs. I thought it would be fun to share some of the alliums I came across 'in the field', as they are all visually distinguishable, but only slightly. Can you recognize them simply by seeing the greens?

Before I give the answer away, I thought I’d turn this into a game. My friend, Jane Bills of Let There Be Bite  (a site dedicated to highlighting good food including guides to the best products and tips on when they’re worth the splurge) sent me a few extra canvas tote bags this winter after I thanked her for mine. Let There Be Bite totes are deep and wide, durable and functional and good-looking too. No big ugly logos and no flimsy straps – these are the real deal.

The first person to name ALL FOUR alliums correctly in the comments, gets a free tote mailed to them! (just like you’re reading, please answer L to R, Top to Bottom)

What To Do In The Gardens Now

Fall is most definitely here, even if the days are still warm where you live. (Lucky you!) So, while I know you want to hang on to those tomatoes and you're just praying for them to ripen, it's time to let go of the dream and pull those plants out.....Stat! As our days shorten, there is less time for fruits to ripen, so do yourself a favor this week (that's right - THIS one, the first week of October) and pull out and compost ALL tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, peppers and anything that has gone to flower. Clear your soil of all root hairs and debris and plant garlic & mulch or sow thickly with cover crop so that your soil has protection this winter.

How to Grow Leeks

January 2013

Whether you're growing leeks from seed (too late this fall, so wait till spring) or start (better get them in now!), you'll have to grow them in a trench if you want a nice bit of white. Why? Because covering the base of the leek with dirt blocks it from the sun and leaves the column of the leek soft and white. The same practice is done with frisee or endive in the field. If you do NOT plant in trenches, you'll still grow leeks, but the white bit will be super short and you'll be disappointed. Watch this video to see how leeks are planted and then covered as they grow & let me know what you think! It's my first ever how-to garden video and I hope to make more as time allows. How to Grow Leeks.


Mid-summer is a beautiful time of year in the garden - most plants are producing flowers and fruit adding to the visual texture of a working productive garden. Harvesting and drying flower heads (or herbs) is a satisfying project and the perfect way to extend your harvest. Plus, taking flower heads from plants will prevent prolific re-seeding, which is often the goal. If you've ever let your bronze fennel go to seed before removing the yellow fennel blossoms, you know what I'm talking about. (Note to self: dig out bronze fennel this summer.)

In all of my gardens, I plant flowers in order to attract pollinators and add to the list of plants. Many of these blossoms may be harvested and stored for winter indulgence. Lavender, chamomile, thyme flowers, chives and more may all be harvested and dried for future use. To dry out flower heads, choose a warm, dry place. Molds, bacteria, and yeast all thrive in moisture and can ruin herb-saving projects, so keep drying herbs free from excess moisture. Run you hand along the length of the plants stem, and pop off the flower head, leaving the stem behind. To dry, I lay my flower heads out on a fine mesh drying rack that my friend Patric made for me. You can also lay them out on a clean sheet pan, just make sure to turn them often, so air circulates around the buds and they dry completely.

Use dried chamomile in granola, dessert crisps & even cocktails. All recipes are linked here!

Just Eat It - Harvesting the Whole Plant

Urban farming implies that you’re growing in a small space, so maximizing that space with an eye toward production is the most practical way to grow and harvest food. Fortunately, many plants are a virtual buffet, with edible, harvestable parts from root to stem. You need only know what bits you can harvest and how to introduce them into meals for a progressive harvesting schedule that lasts for months. Today: a round-up of goodies to harvest and cook with -- a timely, seasonal guide for what to harvest now. Read More over at my bi-weekly column, City Dirt on FOOD52.

Transplanting Squash, Cukes or Melons

Just received this email today and thought it worthy of a detailed post. Read on if you've ever considered or worried about moving plants mid-season. Hi Amy, How are you? I have a quick garden question for you. I have one of those gutter gardens and there is a zucchini plant that is growing pretty fast, seems like I should take it out and replant where it has more room. Is this a bad idea to move it at this time?

So, firstly, a gutter garden is a shallow-rooted container. Zucchini don't have deep roots, so this may work well, but I'd be concerned about supporting the weight of the fruit as they came in - seems like it would topple the plant over and out of the gutter. If this were my garden, I'd do an experiment and leave one in the gutter and transplant another to a garden bed.

As for whether the plant takes well to transplanting, zucchini, squash, melons and cucumbers are cucurbits and have similar growth patterns and demands as plants. As a rule of thumb, these squash plants do not like to be transplanted and may falter. For the most part, I suggest only transplanting once when the plant is a small start. Mid-growth cycle may be too challenging for the plant. That said, if you NEED to move a plant, it's not the worst thing to just give it a try. Be sure to transplant with a bit of fertilizer (a gentle combo of nitrogen & phosphorous) when you replant. Annnnd....keep me posted about your successes and failures!

Good Garden Bugs

I know plenty of home gardeners that will kill any bug they see in the garden  upon first sight. I was in Long Island recently, and my sister dug up an ant village for fear they would harm her newly planted starts. I can understand the inclination, as bugs are pretty creepy and even the good ones are hard to discern, but it is not a good habit to get into and most bugs you find are beneficial in some way. King County has put together a Good Bug Guide that I highly recommend as weeknight reading. Complete with close up pictures, it is an easy way to introduce bugs to the home gardener. I'm particularly fond of the centipede - I really hate these bugs and they gross me out, so it's a lesson of garden faith to leave them behind to work their magic. Centipede's attack slugs, and I absolutely hate slugs, so it's a winning relationship.

What insects are bugging you lately?? (Pun intended!) Leave a comment below and I'll happily offer an organic solution.


Propagating Herbs

Repotting Geranium CuttingLast week I met up with my friend Sarah, a farmer. Sarah has been farming for years and she's an absolute pro, so I asked her to meet me out at a new space to help me devise the perfect garden plan. (She's a genius that way - indispensible knowledge.) We met up and walked to the garden. On the way, she spotted a old, prolific fig tree and stopped in her tracks. "Oh - I need that," she exclaimed, and simultaneously reached into her back pocket as she crossed the street. With at quick snip, she cut a couple inches length from the fig plant, looked at me, and whispered, "You want one?"

And of course... I took one! Continue reading Sharing is Caring-Propagating Herbs-my bi-weekly article via my City Dirt column over at one of my favorite sites, Food52.

Growing Potatoes in a Bag

Potatoes, diggin upHere is some awesome garden geek information on the science behind how potatoes grow. You should really know this if you're planning on growing potatoes - whether in a bag, a pot or a garden bed. Read on!

Potatoes grow underground and are considered a "tuber" -- a plant that is enlarged to store nutrients and has the ability to make a new plant. Potatoes, yams and even dahlias are considered tubers. So why do you need to know what at tuber is?

Here is some great info for all your science nerds to help shed light on the growth pattern of potatoes. Ultimately, this information is meant to help you -- if you’re going to build a potato-loving system that is highly productive, you've got to think like the plant!

You care about what a tuber is because tubers produce plants from a stolon (a sub-soil, sprout-like, horizontal root). The stolon is formed from the axils of the plant -- the place where the stem and leaves connect. I bet you thought potatoes form and grow off of a piece of cut potato? Well instead, potatoes actually grow between the original seed piece you plant, and the above-ground leaves. They're the stem of the plant, not the root.

Potatoes are a member of the Nightshade family (alongside tomatoes, eggplant, and of course, the deadly nightshade), some of which are toxic plants. Nightshades are prone to soil disease and must be rotated around the garden year after year in order to minimize problems with the soil. For a home gardener working in beds, this means diligent planning or designating an area outside your beds for potatoes. (Good news! If you grow in bags on your patio, you don't have to worry about this!)

Lastly, here's an alternative to using soil to mound your potato plant: you can also layer the stem in straw. That's right — just straw. It acts as a growing medium for the potatoes — a clean, unmessy growing medium. No cleaning off soil when you harvest, as potatoes will grow directly into the straw. Even better, in warm climates (down south, for instance), the straw layers help moderate temperatures and insulate the bag, which is perfect for potatoes that don't do well in the heat.

Too Cold, Too Soon - for Tomatoes, Basil & Peppers

Spring plant sales got the best of everyone this weekend and I saw loads of tomatoes hanging out of sunroofs and read boastful posts of what people planted. To be fair, professional gardening companies seduced you with those sexy plants, promising of red tomatoes and garden abundance, I know. But here's the thing....IT IS TOO COLD. One more time - it's too cold just now in the Pacific NW to plant out tomatoes, peppers, basil, squash and cukes. The ONLY exception to this rule is if you've planted under a well made cloche that will insulate the plants, keeping them warm. Basil, for instance, will germinate optimally at about 70 degrees, give or take 5 degrees. It is barely cresting above 70 outside in Seattle, let alone in the soil. Further, that warm temp seldom holds and nights are still very cool. By planting too early, plants are prone to disease, and are easily stressed. Not the best way to start off a summer-long of growing.

So, do yourself a favor. Hold off on planting your favorite summer crops. Four weeks is not going to make or break the quantity of your harvest or the timing of the harvest. It's hot when it's hot and only heat will ripen a tomato, so getting a jump by planting now isn't going to help out much in the long run. I know 90% of you will ignore me (happens all the time!), but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Homemade Compost & Fertilizer

This is an excellent excerpt from an article on the role of nitrogen in the garden AND how it is important for every garden to plant mindfully. Many cover crops will replenish nitrogen in the soil (aka 'fix' the soil) particularly legumes like favas and peas. It is always a great idea to allow some of your garden beds to rest and remain fallow every few rotations. Plant a crop rotation of peas for both a green manure (like animal manure you add to gardens for fertilizer, but green because it is a plant, see?!) and for the added benefit of nitrogen fixing. Once peas flower, cut the vines into small pieces and turn them completely under the soil to decay. This is like homemade compost + fertilizer!You can plant directly on top or leave it sit for a few weeks - up to you. (I typically cover the beds with burlap and let them sit. Spring (read: NOW) is actually a great time to do this, as you have enough time before tomatoes are planted in June to get a good pea rotation in. TRY IT!

Riding the Nitrogen Cycle by Managing Soil Fertility...from WSU Green Times Newsletter

Got nitrogen? If plants asked questions, that might be one farmers would hear frequently. For plants, nitrogen is food. By talking to the region’s small farmers about the challenges they face, Washington State University researchers learned that understanding soil fertility--the availability of food for plants-–is a top priority. Based on that need, soil scientist Doug Collins is leading a team to develop practical soil fertility management strategies.

Plants require nitrogen to grow and reproduce--but not just any nitrogen. The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, but nitrogen in the air is in a form that plants cannot use directly. The nitrogen plants want must be available in the soil so that their roots can absorb it.

Moving nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil is part of a complex process called the nitrogen cycle. That process starts when atmospheric nitrogen is “fixed” by soil bacteria that have the ability to convert gaseous nitrogen into compounds, such as ammonium, that are useful to plants. The plants convert those nitrogen compounds into amino acids, chlorophyll and other organic compounds essential to life. All nitrogen in animals can be traced back to the organic nitrogen in plants.

When plants die, the organic nitrogen they contain is converted by bacteria back into ammonium in a process called mineralization. Mineralization once again makes nitrogen available for absorption by plant roots.

Most farmers add nitrogen in the form of fertilizers so that their crops have plenty of nitrogen without having to rely so heavily on the nitrogen cycle. Organic farmers, though, are interested in reducing the input of artificial fertilizers and in relying more on increased organic matter in their soils, so that their plants can be fertilized by the nitrogen cycle more directly.

Defining Garden Terms - Loam

heavy clayLoam refers to the texture of soil and further, an even mix of sand, silt and clay. A soil with a nice loam will retain moisture and nutrients whilst also draining properly. Soils with heavy clay, for instance like the one pictured here, tend to be a heavier loam that hold on to water. If a soil is predominantly sandy, water will drain too quickly, as the particles are larger. A soil with a perfect loam can be achieved over several years with the addition of compost and the consistent working and tilling of the soil. You should also work to steer clear of a compacted loam by refraining from walking on any garden beds.

Garden Don't

too closely planted chardWhen you purchase starts from the nursery, there are often more than one plant in each cell. Before planting, seperate all individual plants by gently loosening the soil around the starts, and ripping the roots apart if need be. (A little man handling will NOT hurt the plants!) From there, plant individual plants with proper spacing. Lettuces/Bok Choy/Spinach need about 8" between, Broccoli/Chard/Kale/Cabbage/Tomatoes - any of the bigger plants need 16-18". Here is a pic of how NOT to plant - the plants are too close and both are unable to come to full maturity.

How-To Harden Off Starts

Hardening off means gradually acclimating them to outside conditions. If you moved tender young plants from a warm environment immediately to a cool environment, they would go into shock and falter. Instead, you must adjust them to outside weather conditions slowly. For the first three days of hardening off your seed tray, place it outside, sheltered from wind and rain, during the warmest part of the day for two hours. From the fourth to the sixth day, place your seed tray outside for four hours during the warmest part of the day. On the seventh and eighth days, place them outside for a total of six hours a day. You may have to adapt this depending on weather changes; use common sense. This practice should condition the starts enough to harden them off and prepare them for being planted out in containers. Newspaper PotsIf the current weather conditions are not conducive to planting out in the garden (i.e., too cold, too wet, etc.), instead of hardening
off plants straight away, you can transplant (or pot up) the seedlings. Transplant the seedlings into small pots (four-inch pots from the nurseries work great) filled with regular potting soil and keep indoors under a grow light until the weather allows you to harden off the starts and plant them out.