Thursday, June 13, 2013

Guilt-free gardening: Letting herbs to to flower

There's benefit in letting some of your herbs go to flower. Not if you plan to use them in cooking, which requires keeping the flowers pinched off to retain their flavor. So my basil doesn't get far in blossoming--if I can help it.

But dill, fennel, cilantro, parsley--you don't have to feel guilty about getting behind in harvesting these herbs because the flowers are food for beneficial insects.

If you don't already have some, trying adding dill to a spot close to your veggie garden. Preferably a designated Beneficial Garden.

Dill is easy to grow and the flowers attract lacewings, ladybugs and Ichneumon wasps, hoverflies, and tachnid flies--all good bugs.

Buying herbs this time of year (mid-June) is a little problematic, but I often find the only time herbs look all fresh and perky at the nurseries is when I'm not ready to plant.

I wanted to buy another dill for my garden, but considering the bedraggled state the herbs were in at the nursery, they should be free. I consoled myself that those herbs left too long in their 2" pots needed me to save them. I wanted to take them all home. Maybe not in the same warm, fuzzy way I want to adopt all the kittens at Pet Smart. But if they were free, I would have.

I was a little embarrassed by my plant choices at the check out counter. But I had my reasons. The dill was already flowering. I could already imagine ladybugs and hover flies waiting in anticipation for a tasty snack.  

Garden note: Good bugs love umbel type (Umbelliferae) flowers, a family which includes nice feathery green foliage of anise, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, coriander, cilantro, cumin, dill, fennel, Queen Anne's lace, parsley.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Plant list for attracting beneficial insects

It's easy to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Just plant flowers they like and can feed from when they've run out of aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers and mites.

You can integrate these flowers in an established bed, or grow a 'Beneficial Garden' -- one you design and create. Plant both perennials and annuals. See Plant List below.

Here's the basics: 
Food: Resist the urge to destroy those aphids. If you've ever bought ladybugs and wondered why they didn't stick around, it's because they ate all the aphids and didn't have flower nectar to supplement their diet.  
Water: good bugs thrive in a moist environment. Provide water in any form: bird bath, sprinklers, misting.
Shelter: Give the good bugs some cool shelter during the day in the form of mulch, low growing ground cover, or established plants where they can be undisturbed.  
  • Don't use chemical insecticides because they will kill the good bugs too. Give them time to find your pests. If you must, use the least harmful botanical and natural controls possible (like garlic and hot pepper sprays, water hosing) to slow the bad bugs down.
  • Let some of the weeds grow. Yes, you read that right. Hopefully you have an area where you can let some plants mature and flower. What are good weeds? Umbelliferous weeds, those with umbrella-like flower heads, such as Queen Anne's lace, host beneficial insects like lacewings. Other weeds like motherwort and dandelion attract bees which are essential for pollination. Some weeds attract aphids. If you can keep yourself from pulling them out, the beneficials will love you and stick around. 
  • Bolting Brassicas! Let some of your garden plants 'bolt'. Brassicas are members of the mustard family, including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and turnip, rutabaga, kohlrabi and brussel sprouts. Their flowers provide critical sources of nectar for pollinators and parasitic wasps. If you let some of those brassicas flower right in your garden, they will release chemical signals that draw parasitoid wasps, syrphid flies and ladybugs right into the foliage of your other plants where they'll scour the leaves for insect pests.
  • Have a wide variety of flowers; plant early, middle and late blooming flowers. Diversity is important-three species of flower blooming at the same time is ideal.
  • Size: Create a grouping of flowers that is large enough to attract insects, around 25 square feet.
  • Create your border in a sunny spot. Most beneficial plants are sun lovers.
  • Good bugs hate dry dusty habitats. Keep your soil covered with mulch or ground cover type plants, which also conserves moisture, moderates temperatures, and eliminates dust.
Creating a habitat for good bugs is an inexact science. It takes observation, experimentation and time. Organic pest control is not a quick fix, but there's nothing more thrilling than spotting a lacewing, ladybug or hover fly buzzing around. You know your risk taking was worth it the first time you discover what an aphid mummy is. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Keeping a garden journal

I've been reading through garden notes I've kept in a large white binder for the last twenty years. Its ring-bound pages are interspersed with loose sheets, some now dog-eared and yellowing -- a journal of sorts in various levels of order. It must weigh 5 pounds. Martha Stewart would be horrified. I'd love it if my journal was all scrappy-booky cute, but it's not going to happen.

It's the content I love, which takes me back to the days when I was struggling to turn our 2 acres of rocks and weeds into something a little more visually appealing.

An early entry during my initial foray into gardening (it's always been organic) was written as I sat on the bare earth among my burgeoning tomato plants. June 28, 1995: "Maybe the excitement will wear off  when the garden is in its late summer decline but as I sit here in the middle of the rows, tomato plants towering over me, it's just too beautiful for words."

Over the years I've experimented with companion planting, homemade concoctions (lots of garlic), manure tea (yumm), and learned a little about the balance of nature.

Even in all their glorious mess, I'm so glad I kept notes. As insignificant as they might have seemed at the time, they remind me of experiments I made, plants I planted, and gardens that have long since been tilled back into the earth.

The Beneficial Garden is how I came to define what I was doing and help me focus on the garden environment as a whole. I scratched out my very first plot in a section of what used to be an old railroad easement. Every shovelful contained more rocks than dirt. I planted and watered, but the barren, dry earth surrounding it was a haven for 'bad bugs'. They knew a good thing when they saw those precious green sprouts emerging in my carefully tended plot. "Enough of this dry star thistle," I could almost hear their glee. "I'm going for the fresh stuff."

Research revealed what seems obvious now. The environment around the garden was just as important as within. I learned there were zillions of 'good bugs' that would feast on the 'bad bugs', but I needed to create the right environment. It wasn't all that difficult, but it's not a quick fix. Organic requires patience.
Ladybugs and other beneficial insects need the nectar and pollen of flowering plants to supplement their diet of 'bad bugs'. 

A few members of the Daisy family
An simple rule of thumb for picking plants is choosing from the daisy family. Plants in this family are easy to recognize with pollen centers surrounded by a ring of petals. With almost 20,000 species, the second largest plant family in the world, you can create a beautiful flower bed with lasting benefits.

This year I'm revitalizing my beneficial garden, sometimes known as The Insectary. It borders the south side of our veggie garden, just outside a wire fence which used to contain the chickens.

Currently there are some well-established perennials: a butterfly bush, lemon scented geraniums, pineapple sage, and an old comfrey plant. The established plants offer undisturbed areas that make the insects feel at home.

Plants still in their plastic containers waiting for me to finish weeding and preparing the ground are:

 two yarrows (Achillea millefolium 'summerwine'),

a Fernleaf dill (which doubles as culinary)

      and a coreopsis, (Coloropsis Salsa), which sounds good enough to eat. 

Let me know if you keep a garden journal. Or have a garden blog. I'd love to share notes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ugly weeds and bug spottings

Bristly Oxtongue
There's a really ugly weed I may have mentioned before that aphids go crazy over. Anyone in their right mind would get rid of these horrid looking aphid infested weeds.  Not me. Since becoming a 'beneficial gardener' I love to have them around. They have to behave themselves though. I only leave a few, preferably in a hidden corner so anyone might think I just hadn't gotten around to pulling them.

Now when I see them I think 'what a feast for my beneficial insects'. The buggy weeds are close to the insectary and today I spotted more ladybugs, a syrphid fly and some parasitic wasps.

I never knew what to call it except the 'horrid weed'. But I discovered this wonderful resource from UC Davis Integrated Pest Management site with a weed identification section that is amazing. It has excellent photos of plants at all stages, from seeds and seedlings, to mature plants, and closeups of leaves and flowers. I found my weed right away from the easy to navigate site. I now know it's a Bristly Oxtongue.

Syrphid fly
The Oxtongue in the photo looks a lot nicer than mine, because mine are covered in sticky aphids. I put up with a few of them though because of the bug spotting today of this syrphid fly, a lovely beneficial isn't it? 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trucking in beneficial flowers

I tend to think that time stands still while I'm gardening. When I go out to 'check on things', it will only be a few moments and I'll go back inside to work on my writing projects.

Funny how time keeps moving for the rest of the world while the universe pauses in the garden.

Anyway, here's what I bought yesterday for the Insectary.

Those little six-packs are deceptive. I had 32 plants to get into the ground! I worked until almost sundown and finished up this morning.

The plants are all from the beneficial list: Coreopsis and Osteospermum (African Daisy) in the gallon pots, small varieties of zinnias and asters in six-packs, plus Sweet Alyssum, which I included because of its long blooming season, providing food all summer long for my adult beneficials!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Organic weed control using beautiful groundcovers

Who needs herbicides when you can use beautiful ground covers to crowd them out. Here's an excellent fact sheet from Cornell University regarding the use of ground cover for organic weed control.

A groundcover is a perennial plant used en masse for its visual wallop—and to crowd out weeds. Many are gorgeous perennials that gardeners have used in flower borders for years. Now we’re finding that some are top performers in the "tough sites" department too.

Butterfly Milkweed

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Naming your garden | from my beneficial plant journal

The beginnings of my Insectary Garden
With over two acres to maintain, I don't have a garden. I have garden areas. The 'area' I'm working on now is a spot I managed to salvage from the rocks and fox tail and Bermuda grass, but never fully developed. I used it to plant things I didn't know where else to put.

The comfrey is maturing now as is the fennel, lemon geranium and pineapple sage. It's the perennial 'bones' my Insectary Garden, kind of like a salad bar for the otherwise carnivorous beneficial insects. I plan to fill the rest of it with annuals--members of the daisy family and wildflowers.

It's managed to survive my neglect, like it was waiting patiently to become something more when I had the time. Now that it has a name, it has a whole new new identity. The name invites me to take care of it better.

Yesterday I was able to spread out some nice organic garden soil around the fennel, comfrey and lemon geranium and I had my first beneficial inspect spotting--a tiny lacewing on the downy green fennel and a lady bug on the comfrey.

Hey, I'm not even done yet and they're already here!