A few new tricks from my organic veggie garden

I sure haven't been blogging lately.

Instead, I've been up to my elbows in hundreds of pounds of mushroom compost, topsoil, sandy loam and mulch.

Why? Trying to balance out our thick, heavy (albeit mineral-rich, notes Master Gardener Ryan Nevius) clay soil.

(Adding a little high-potassium/calcium/potash organic plant food here and there, just to make sure the veggies bear fruit in such a nitrogen-rich, foliage-boosting environment.)

Of course, I should have been on top of soil cultivation back in February and March, BEFORE I put seeds and plants in the ground. 

Total novice misstep.

Just about 2 months ago, I posted the beginnings of my organic backyard Spring Garden 2010, you may recall. Um, "Done and Done" was more than a tad presumptious of a pronouncement. 

Sure, groundwork was laid, seedlings were started, seeds were direct-sown into the garden for cilantro, lacinato kale, scallions, red beets, etc; some chard, red russian kale,  and a couple of tomato plants were put in.

Remember how this seedling tray was all dirt, no green? Now the brandywine and supersweet 100 cherry tomatoes are all growed up!

(I have extras if anyone wants a couple. Let me know!)

And I got to go to the Midlands Plant + Flower show to pick up lots of great plants, like this mosquito-repellent scented geranium, a.k.a. citronella. It's tripled in size since I bought it for $2!

My container garden has exploded in size -- gonna have to keep on top of watering it this summer so the containers don't dry out, as they're prone to do.

But I didn't start reading Jay's editions of Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and Organic Plant Protection, as well as the highly intelligent foodie gardening books The Cook's Garden by Shepherd and Ellen Ogden and Backyard Farming by Lee Foster, until AFTER the garden was planted. Whoops. Had to recultivate most of the soil. Meaning, mix in a LOT of organic matter (topsoil, mulch, compost) to lighten it up and aerate it. Mixing in sandy loam alone had not done the trick. Also had to transplant my heirloom tomatoes to the front of the garden, as the back was too shady, I realized.

Oh, which heirlooms? I'd be delighted to brag about this year's selection, thank you!

Green Tomatoes: Green Zebra
Purple/Black Tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Cherokee *Chocolate* (has a yellow, instead of clear, skin apparently, giving the tomato a more brownish cast), Black Prince, Paul Robeson
Orange Tomatoes: Moonglow, Amana Orange, Jubilee, Sungold Cherry
Pink Tomatoes: Brandywine
Yellow Tomatoes: Yellow Pear
Red Tomatoes: Mortgage Lifter, Supersweet 100 Cherry

I learned mountains of useful info about organic gardening from the above-mentioned volumes. Amazing.

Like companion planting, my new favorite thing!

See, pests like root-destroying nematodes really hate French marigolds. A lot of pests hate them, actually. So you plant them liberally throughout your garden to protect your tomatoes, et. al.!

When flower heads die, I pinch them off and spread the petals (and seeds!) all over, adding to the offending marigold odor.

Petunias, too, are supposed to discourage pests, so I planted some of those, as well. See that collar around my Italian Rosa Bianca Eggplant (lavender/white stripe, supposed to be quite delicious)? Jay had some copper sheeting lying around. Thanks, Jay! (Copper is otherwise very 'spenzive!)

(I also planted a Thai Yellow Egg and a Japanese White Egg, which supposedly will make little egg-shaped ball eggplants if you pick them young enough. Woo hoo! Nerding out so hard this year.)

Nasturtiums, too, are great pest deterrents. I've planted nastutium seeds willy-nilly (after first soaking and cracking their seed hulls) and now their pretty little green lily pad leaves are sprouting up everywhere!

Can't wait til the brilliant orange (edible) flowers start busting out.

I've also planted borage, chive, and garlic chive seeds in circles around my tomatoes. Word is that borage and chives are also natural pest deterrents.

Catnip, too, is said to ward off bugs. And my cat goes ape for it, so why not?

Remember the little catnip plant that Raymond destroyed with her fervent love?

It's coming back from the dead! I've hidden it in the back of the garden so she won't maul it before it regains its strength.

Anyone know what this holey little weed is? It's sprouting up all over the garden and is working marvellously as a "trap plant," distracting pests from my chard and cilantro (see how they are unharmed?). Thank you, holey little weed! I heart you.

THIS little gem is not necessarily a pest deterrent, but it *is* a major people-pleaser. It's a green shiso leaf herb plant (green perilla) that I am growing from seed purchased through LocalHarvest.com.

Sushi spots in SF use it in spicy tuna rolls and I can't wait to mess around with it in the kitchen! It's got a flavor halfway between basil and mint, with an extra vegetal, green kick that really sets off seafood.

I have lots of these little guys if anyone wants one!

Roxanne, my awesome fancypants Asheville vegan nutritionist, told me to get some Lemon Verbena for making vegan ice cream later this summer, so I complied. Dang, this herb smells GREAT!

On the right, there, between the lemon verbena and that orange zinnia flower, is a little bit of stevia, a.k.a. sugar bush.

It's naturally super-sweet, a great replacement for sugar in iced tea, for example. It's also really freakin expensive to buy it powdered at the health food store, so I figured I'd try growing my own!

Also growing epazote and lemongrass from seed (and lemongrass from a plant show seedling), as well the usual suspects: basil, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, and parsley.

And some less usual herbs: savory, Thai basil, and yummy cinnamon basil. 

I'm also growing some Texas tarragon (supposedly adapted to the southern heat, but with a better, more French tarragon flavor than the bastard stepchild Russian tarragon can provide). 

I'm also excited to report that my weird squash varieties are taking off! I have White Pattypan and Black Zucchini that I got as seedlings from Rodger's Heirlooms (my FAVORITE South Carolina source for heirlooms of all types), as well as Golden Bush Scallop Squash that I am growing from seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Also got some rad peppers from Rodger's: Purple Jalapeno, Early Jalapeno, regular old Serrano, and Alma Paprika, which apparently makes -- you got it -- paprika if you dry and grind the peppers. Neato.

Indispensable garden tools: some $2 gloves from Big Lots (after shrinking my nice Target ones in the dryer -- dang!), and my water-loving red leather Saltwater Sandals, which I've had since Summer 2008.

I can wear them in the ocean, the river, the lake, the garden, wherever! And the leather stays pretty.

Some red toenail polish is a fun thing if you're hanging out barefoot half the day.

I'm finding other indispensable garden tools all over our yard -- in our myriad junk piles.

A "con" of living with a 20-year veteran of the professional stonework trade (who also makes giant sculptures in the yard) is that there are many, many huge piles of junk.

All over the yard.

(Oh, what is that orange thing peeking out of the corner of the photo? Is that the awesome 2-man kayak that Jay got at a garage sale recently? Oh, the one he took me out in on a nice calm ocean day at Harbor Island last weekend? Whoop whoop!)

An enormous "pro" of living with a pro stoneworker?

Those piles of junk are filled with primo, high-grade stone remnants like Carolina Silver slate, Tennessee Crab Orchard sandstone, and other beautiful building materials.

Perfect for making a back path and stepping stones in the garden, so I can weed, prune, and harvest without compacting the soil with my big old human hooves.

This would be the front yard junk pile, which Jay graciously consolidated into an enormous berm last year, covered in leaf litter and pinestraw mulch from the yard, and bordered with cylindrical cement blocks (border shown below).

Jay is very green in his yard management practices, which I think is super cool.

He uses a non-motorized push mower on the lawn, and his grass clippings, pruned branches and raked leaves + pine needles don't go into a rubbish heap on the street where they could clog the sewer system -- instead they go into mulch piles in our yard, where they harbor tons of garden-friendly earthworms and rot into excellent composted mulch over the years.

Pretty great! Thanks for being green, hot stuff!

When I realized that we'd run out of sunny spots for veggies, herbs, and flowers in the back yard, I noticed that a redtip die-off out front had left the berm sunny and exposed southward all morning long.

I had it topped with a mix of our mineral-rich clay soil, topsoil, mushroom compost, and sandy loam, and...

Boom! A huge raised bed planted with beautiful, pest-deterring, edible nasturtiums, as well as cukes, golden bush scallop squash, tomatoes, okra, chives, yellow wax beans, luffa gourds, purple bell peppers, insect-repellent rosemary, and more.

Nice little stone border, right? Thanks, Jay's junk piles!

Those nasturtiums are going to vine outward and overflow with orange and yellow blossoms this summer. So excited.

Finding sunny spots is fun. I dug a little 1' x 1' bed in our sideyard to try out an okra plant and some yellow wax bush beans, with chives planted as a natural pest deterrent.

We'll see how it goes! I know, I'm planting everything too close together.

But I will thin out whatever looks like it's not kicking out the jams. (Maybe.)

Look! My Early Girl tomato plant is already making babies.

(Early Girl is a great variety to plant, as it will give you early maters before your other plants take off!)

Um, is there anything cuter than a baby cucumber? Seriously.

Now that my soil is rich with organic matter, balanced nicely (more alkaline than acid), and planted with insect- and pest-repellent herbs and flowers, I'm finding much less insect damage than expected.

Beneficial insects like ladybugs are obviously doing their job, as an aphid breakout I'd noticed a few weeks ago is no longer a problem.

And the earthworms I've been finding in Jay's mulch piles and junk piles? Those lil guys get placed gently into my garden, so they can help cultivate the soil from below.

I love my garden. Tell me about yours!


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