Archive for the ‘companion planting’ Category

taking a soil testOver the years, whenever anyone asked me for advice on organic gardening, my response has always been Feed the Soil and Build the Ecosystem. Often they were expecting recommendations on what amendment or pest control product to use. However, you need to look at the whole system, rather than addressing symptoms of imbalance as they pop up. Now that permaculture is becoming more widely publicized, whole system management is more well known

Feed the Soil—Now is a good time to take a soil sample. I send my soil samples to Waypoint Analytical, formerly A & L Eastern Labs. If you are not good at interpreting the results that they send you, you could contact John Beeby at www.growyoursoil.org for organic fertilizer recommendations. Check with his website for which test to request and where to have it done. You will need to sample the soil from many places in your garden, then mix everything together for your sample to send in. The soil you see in the photo looks really good, but remember that I have been working on my soil for many years.

Correcting imbalances in your soil is the first thing to do if you are not receiving the results you want in your garden. Sometimes, well meaning actions can lead to imbalances, including adding a lot of manure to your garden every year without testing first. Sometimes people lime every year because they assume it is a good thing. It is only good if your garden needs more lime. Even if you do not do a soil test each year, you should have one to use as a baseline, then do one a couple years later to see how things are going. Make cover crops a part of your soil building efforts. The organic matter they add with their roots, and with the plant matter you harvest and use as mulch or compost material, is a tremendous benefit.

Build the Ecosystem—Well-nourished soil cannot go it alone in producing good crops. Malnourished plants will attract insects that will take them out, for sure. However, even well- nourished plants need pollinators. Also, if there are any insects munching your plants, you want to have beneficial insects taking up residence in your garden to eat them. In order for the beneficials to stay, there needs to be some other insects around as food. Buying insects to add to your garden is not as effective as attracting and naturally growing your own,

Chemicals, even those approved for organic production, can harm beneficial insects, as well as the not-so-desired ones. Furthermore, you have to acquire and apply the chemicals. If you include plants that attract the good insects into your crop mix, all you have to do is to stand back and watch the show. That’s what happened when I planted mountain mint, as well as other plants in the margins of my garden. I had visitors to my garden this summer who stopped in their tracks and asked the name of the plant when they saw all the buzzing around the mountain mint. It was an insect frenzy! Tansy is also well-documented as attracting beneficial insects.

goldenrod with honeybees and butterflies

Goldenrod with honeybees and butterflies.

The best time to witness beneficial insects on your plants is between 10am and 2pm in your garden. Goldenrod grows up in the wild areas of my garden if I don’t cut it down through the season. Since I am getting interested in natural dyes, I cut some for a dyepot recently. When I went out with my clippers, there were so many insects buzzing around it that I backed off. I did take some where there was little action going on, but left the rest to the beneficials.

leatherwing on spearmint

Leatherwing on spearmint.

You can also experience all this by letting some of your regular garden plants, such as basil, flower and go to seed. Spearmint, which can take over if you are not careful, attracts many beneficials if you let it flower. I like to have celery come back each year and go to seed. On the way to making seed that I save for culinary use and replanting, the flowers attract an array of good bugs–and all I have to do is watch it happen. Besides the insects you see in these photos, you will see bumblebees, wasps, beetles, spiders, and more in your garden if you allow it to happen.

Assasssin bug babies

Assassin bug babies.

Learn to identify insects you find in your garden so you don’t freak out and destroy the good ones you see that might surprise you, such as the assassin bugs in this photo. I found this young family on my cowpea plants. Although I’ve found ladybugs on other plants, my favorite ladybug photo is one I took on a cowpea plant of a ladybug eating an aphid.

ladybug eating an aphid

Ladybug eating an aphid.

To attract many of these good insects, you need to have permanent plantings. Weedy fencerows can provide  habitat. Not tilling all your garden at once will help, as well as having permanent paths. A border with permanent plantings will provide overwintering habitat. These things will enhance the year-round beauty of your garden and will be less work for you in the long run. The book Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham is a good reference to consult if you want help deciding what to plant to attract specific insects to help with certain pests.

Now is a great time to make your 2018 garden plan to ensure that you plant the desired cover crop, considering what your following crop will be, in each bed for next year. I locate my compost piles on my garden beds and rotate them, along with my other crops to contribute to soil fertility. The advantage of that is evident in the crops that follow. Managing your plantings to attract and maintain beneficial insects in your ecosystem will create a garden that is a joy to be in.homeplace earth logo

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Ladybug eating an aphid.

Ladybug eating an aphid.

Having a garden where everything is in harmony is what I aspire to and what I would hope my readers are looking for, also. Can you imagine having beneficial insects just show up on their own and take out the annoying insects without you having to even think about it? That’s what happens in my garden. In the photo you can see a ladybug eating an aphid. I happened to be in the garden with the camera at the right time to catch that. I found that action on a cowpea plant. I have also found ladybugs on my rye plants when they were flowering. You can tell they are in flower by the pollen bits that are hanging off the potential seed head.

I plant those crops both as food for our table and as cover crops for food for the soil. The most basic thing to remember about having a healthy garden is to Feed the Soil and Build the Ecosystem. When you do that, all sorts of wonderful happens in your garden. Make sure you don’t use any chemicals, even a little bit. That would set your efforts back tremendously. Be alert to the fact that even chemicals that may be allowed under organic certification under certain circumstances could be harmful to the beneficials you hope to attract. Feeding the soil to produce healthy plants is your first protection against insect and disease damage. Healthy plants are less attractive to the harmful insects.

Assassin Bug nymphs.

Assassin Bug nymphs.

Cowpeas must be good for attracting the right kind of insects because I’ve also seen Assassin Bugs, also known as Wheel Bugs, on my cowpea plants. Here is a photo of the Assassin bug nymphs that I found in my garden on a cowpea plant. There was an adult with them, which was a help with the identification. To identify insects I usually turn to Insects, Disease, and Weed I.D. Guide, edited by Jill Jesiolowski Cebenko and Deborah L. Martin for Rodale Press. According to that book “adults and nymphs are voracious predators that feed on both larvae and adult insects, including aphids, beetles, caterpillars, flies, and leafhoppers.” When you find an unfamiliar insect in your garden, identify it before you decide to harm it.

If you are looking for a perennial to plant to attract beneficials without having to replant each year, put in tansy. Tansy is in the aster family, which is known for attracting good insects. Other Aster family members are cosmos, sunflowers, zinnias, and chamomile. In her book Great Garden Companions, Sally Jean Cunningham refers to tansy as “probably the single best attractor for beneficial insects.” When I took a two week permaculture design course in 2006 at Three Sisters Farm in Pennsylvania, Darrell Frye was proud of his Tansy Tangle, as he called it. Once it flowers, tansy can look quite wild when it leans over from the weight of the flowers. Darrell had corralled it with a few fence posts and string to hold it up. At home we have tansy growing across the back of the porch. I have a tendency to let things be more on the wild side than my husband, who has the urge to get the clippers when things look too messy. My remedy to that is to cut some early at the base and it will grow back and bloom again as shorter plants. By the time it is growing back, the rest needs a good trimming, but that’s okay, because I have that early cutting growing back. What I don’t like is if it is cut all at one time. That leaves nothing for the insects. Plants in the carrot family, such as dill, angelica, caraway, lovage, fennel, and coriander, and in the mint family (spearmint, bee balm, and catnip) all contribute to attracting insects beneficial to your garden. You need to let them flower in order to attract those beneficials. Attracting beneficial insects can be as easy as letting some of your basil flower.

Honeybees at the birdbath.

Honeybees at the birdbath.

Pollinators are good to attract to your garden. Although honeybees get most of the attention, there are many other insects that act as pollinators. I was surprised by the amount of water honeybees need in the summer. When I saw my honeybees at my neighbor’s garden fountain I realized I should give them some water closer to home, so I put up a birdbath. Sometimes in June I find it necessary to fill it three times a day! You can see in the photo that my birdbath has a shallow bowl where the bees can wade in on the edge. If they tried to get water from a deep dish, they would drown.

I bought the birdbath with the bees in mind and put it in a flower bed. Of course, it also attracts birds and they are a joy to watch. Birds can be beneficial helpers in your garden by eating pest insects and slugs. Posts or other objects in your garden will give them a place to land and watch for their prey. Have a sit spot for yourself so you can watch them in action. Trellises you may have for your vegetables can serve as resting spots for the birds. Birdhouses on the perimeter add interest to your garden and a place for permanent or seasonal residence for your feathered friends.

Insects need more than plants to keep them around. They need places to live. You can provide habitat for them by providing cover in your paths. Planting white clover there or having mulch, such as leaves, will do for that. If you till your garden all at once, it is like cutting all the tansy at once—there is no place for the insects to go. Having permanent beds and permanent paths contributes to building your ecosystem. Having shady places among your plants and spots left wild, such as weedy fencerows sometimes are, also help the ecosystem. You can attract toads this way. Water spots close to ground level will please them.

There is so much more to learn about attracting beneficials to your garden and you will find some great ideas by searching for information on companion planting. Keep in mind that if you relax, plant a variety of plants, and provide the right habitat, Mother Nature will step in to help you out.Homeplace Earth

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