Category Archives: gardening

What is a Keyhole Garden?


Global Service Corps photo of Tanzanian keyhole garden.

A keyhole garden is a type of raised bed that contains compost and it is higher in the middle so that water flows into the growing bed area. These gardens are being taught to African farmers and they are becoming more popular in drier regions such as parts of Texas. They are popular among permaculturists, too. The following video explains how to make one.

20 Organic Recipes and Products to Control Bugs, Pests and Weeds


Photo by Andy Potter.

It is that season when those of us who garden or farm try to protect our produce and crops from a very long list of pests. Below, I’ve compiled a list of 20 products, hints, and household recipes which may be useful to you in combatting the pests and weeds in your garden.

1. Orchard/Apple tree pest recipe: You need an old cleaned plastic gallon milk jug. Cut a 3 inch diameter hole on the side-top, leaving the jug’s handle intact. Add to the jug a banana peel, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar. Add a few cups of hot water and mix until the sugar dissolves. Hang 1-3 of these prepared jugs near the trunk of your apple tree. Replace the solution as needed throughout the summer, starting early. (My sister-in-law swears by this and has used this recipe for 20 years in our farm’s wonderful old McIntosh Apple tree.) Try on any other fruit tree, too, especially pear and cherry.

2. To kill weeds use a 10% vinegar spray (is about twice as strong as household vinegar). You may add a little soap, too.

3. Clove oil works to kill weeds and bugs. It is best for wide-leafed weeds. To make clove oil weed spray, pour 10-20 drops of clove essential oil into an empty spray bottle. Fill the remainder of the spray bottle with tap water, close tightly and shake well. Use as needed. Clove oil has fungicidal, herbicidal and insecticidal properties in addition to being a weed killer.

4. Herbicidal and/or insecticidal soap based products such as “Safer” are available commercially. Non-toxic herbicide sprays are more effective if you spray the weeds when they are young and during full sun. Get the tops and the undersides of the leaves.

5. Dried or liquid molasses can be used to kill weeds and insect pests including fire ants. It also enriches the soil. Apple cider vinegar and molasses have been used together to fight fungal diseases.

6. Fill a milk jug half-full with water and add 1/2 cup of milk. Use in a spray bottle to control powdery mildew.

7. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #1: 1 teaspoon vegetable oil + 1 teaspoon dish soap + 1 teaspoon baking soda. Add to a quart of water in spray bottle and shake before using for aphids and other bugs.

8. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #2: Mix several cloves of crushed garlic, ¼ cup canola oil, 3 tablespoons hot pepper sauce and ½ teaspoon liquid soap in 1 gallon of water, mix well. Put into spray bottle, shake well before using.

9. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #3: Blenderize or finely chop one garlic bulb and one small onion. Add 1 teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper and mix with 1 quart of water. Steep 1 hour, strain through cheesecloth, then add 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap to the strained liquid. Mix well. Spray plants, including leaf undersides. Store the mixture for up to 1 week in a labeled, covered container in the refrigerator.

10. Use boiling water to kill weeds in sidewalk cracks.

11. 4-Legged Pests: 1) Keep out deer, rabbits, raccoons, and cats by placing rags soaked in white vinegar on stakes around your vegetables. Re-soak the rags every 7-10 days. 2) For deer, blend 2 eggs and a cup or two of cold water at high speed. Add this mixture to a gallon of water and let it stand for 24 hours. After 24 hours, spray on foliage. The egg mixture does not wash off easily, but re-application 2-3 times a season may be needed. 3) For deer, mix together 1 tablespoon of baking powder + 1 egg yolk + 1 litre of water. Spray plants every 2-3 weeks. 4) Use the ScareCrow motion sensor water sprinkler. 5) Use Nite Guard Solar lights which are motion sensored to scare away your night time visitors.

12. Tobacco as pest repellent for caterpillars, aphids, other insects, rabbits, and slugs: Soak 1/2 cup chewing tobacco in 1 cup Listerine mouth wash plus 2 cups water for 1-3 days. Strain, and spray affected plants.

13. Marigolds and nasturtiums help control bugs by attracting them, so intersperse these flowers through out the vegetable and squash garden. For the squash bug, try to plant resistant varieties such as the butternut, acorn, zucchini, and cheese squashes, or set traps, such as cardboard or flat rocks under the plants. They will hide under the cardboard or rock, and then you can destroy them.

14. Use salt or salt water to kill slugs.

15. BT spray works well for worm prevention for the cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. If you see those little white butterflies in your garden, get the BT spray out. (See top photo) Bioinsecticide BTSD spray works for very young potato beetles, too.

16. Mulches: To kill or prevent weeds, use corn meal, or, corn gluten meal mulch which also provides nitrogen fertilizer while smothering out the weed seeds. Chipped wood mulch 2-6 inches thick helps control weeds. Gravel mulch works well for xeriscape plantings. Hay or straw mulch is good in the garden, but remember it may contain seeds. Shredded leaf mulch (cold mulch) in the fall improves soil microbiota and fungi. Or, organic farmers commonly use black plastic (mulch) around row crops to prevent weeds.

17. Flame weed propane torches can be used to kill weeds.

18. For mechanical weed removal, experiment to find your favorite hoe or tool. There are many kinds on the market, with both long and short handles. I love the short handled Japanese Nejiri Weeder hoe. A great gardener friend prefers the winged weeder; another, the stirrup, or scuffle hoe.

19. Row crop cover fabric helps control insect pests. It may be used on potatoes or squash or any crop being plagued by insects.

20. For a bug repellent for yourself as you work in the garden, try mixing lavender with vinegar. Put dried lavender into a bottle and add 2 cups of vinegar. Let set for a week to infuse. Strain to remove lavender. Dab on skin when working outdoors. For a natural fly repellent for cattle, try pyrethrin (an extract of chrysanthemums) sprays. Or, make your own natural fly sprays by combining one cup vegetable oil, two cups vinegar, one cup water and one tablespoon essential oil (clove, eucalyptus, mint, citrus or citronella).

YOUR TURN… If you have any favorite weed and pest remedies, please leave in the comments below to share with other organic growers. Let us know what does or doesn’t work best for you.

Alegría Fresh: A Prototype Urban Farm in Irvine, California Uses GardenSoxx

A commercial venture is on the move, and its timing is great, as it proposes to save water, fertilizer, and space, while providing fresh, nutrient-dense produce in urban areas.

This Southern California company is setting up an urban micro-farm -which claims to save large amounts of water- in Irvine, California during this time period when the extreme-drought of California is grabbing so many headlines.

The company is called Alegría Fresh, and they have various products on the market which are intended to grow fresh produce by using hydroponic techniques.

They have devised a mini-vertical garden system for urban dwellers for use in small spaces. Their vertical farm set-ups use coconut fiber (coir) instead of soil.

Their latest venture, Alegría Soxx Farm, uses 7500 linear feet of GardenSoxx on one-fifth of an acre in Irvine, California to grow 15 different vegetables, for a total of 13,000 plants.

They expect a 70 percent reduction in the amount of water needed to grow this produce, and a 50 percent reduction in fertilizer required because of the rich growing medium used. They also expect high yields, greater pest resistance, and faster growth rates, calling this a “paradigm shift in urban ag”.

Furthermore, they suggest that this prototype farm, and other future urban micro-farms like it have a juice bar, salad bar, and small farm stand alongside it to sell produce direct and employ local workers, creating a revenue stream that can support the farms.

All Sounds Great, But a Few Comments . . .
One question that I have, should any of the fine folks from Alegría drop by and read this, is how does this farm save water, when the GardenSoxx Q&A states, “as the mesh breathes, it will dry out sooner than normal soil.” I’d love to see an answer in the comments below, please, as many people are looking for solutions such as this to help grow food in our urban areas.

My other question is how adaptable would this system be to other regions of this nation, besides our prized Mediterranean climate growing region of Southern California?

Finally, I love innovation in food growing, but how I wish it didn’t (so often) involve greater use of plastic.

UPDATE: I’ve noticed the video isn’t working, which really is necessary to understand this set-up. See this page for another video. And here is a video of their vertical hydroponic gardening system.

Hardy Perennial Plant Suggestions for your Acreage or Small Farm

There is a very remarkable nursery in Northeastern Nebraska, near the farm where I grew up, called HH Wild Plums Inc. It was founded by the famous (but not as famous as he should be) horticulturalist plant finder, Harlan Hamernik. He passed away tragically in 2012, and I wrote up a brief tribute to him here.

Though Hamernik introduced many new plants to the gardeners across the U.S. over his lifetime, he focused in his later years on neutraceuticals, or, healthy edibles and medicinals, some of which were used by Native Plains Indians. Especially, this interest was from those sources which were in the form of perennials, shrubs, and trees – something the Midwest is not known for in our current day and age, but were key to the health of the nomadic tribes which preceded us.

Today, I interviewed Tammy Melcher of “HH Wild Plums” to get an update on this nursery which was founded by Harlan Hamernik for the purpose of promoting sales and the popularity of these hardy edible plants which he studied and discovered. She and plant propagator-grower, Lori Pfeifer, are instrumental in their small operation.

My impression of Harlan from personal experience, was that he was an incredibly intuitive plantsman, so readers, pay attention.

First, I asked Tammy to list five plants and a couple of trees that she would recommend to farmers/landowners who would like to incorporate edible or medicinal perennials into their farm, either as a hobby, or as a value-added crop or food product. Note that this list works in Nebraska, but most of these plants are extremely hardy and would grow well in much of the U.S., especially the Midwest and Upper Midwest.

Here is her list:
1. Aronia (8-10′ shrub)
2. Crandall’s Clove Currant (6×6′ shrub)
3. Redleaf Rose (7×7′ shrub)
4. Elderberry (7×7′ shrub)
5. Serviceberry (10×10′ shrub)
6. Tree: American Hazelnut (18′ tall)
7. Tree: Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (10-15′ tall)

There was no doubt that Tammy was most enthused about the Aronia plant which produces the common named “chokeberry”. She’d just returned from an Aronia conference in Omaha, and the awareness of this plant is catching on a bit, but, she said, “ninety percent of the public doesn’t know about it.” In general, the dark blue, purple and black berries contain high levels of antioxidants, making them superberries, or superfoods. We all know that blueberries are a superfood, but, according to Tammy, the Aronia berry contains three times the amount of antioxidants that blueberries do. (Note there is a current question about the benefits of antioxidants in this past year’s news and studies.) Indians used these berries as an ingredient in Pemmican. High tannin levels make these berries tart, thus the name “chokeberry”. The bright side of this is that birds tend to leave them alone, as opposed to other berries which you need to cover with netting, or pick before the birds do.

Incidentally, Tammy was not aware of sending Aronia plants to Colorado, and thought they would do very well here on the front range, so Colorado readers take note.

Three varieties of Aronia which Tammy recommends are Black Aronias: Aronia melanocarpa ‘Galicjanka’; Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’; and, Aronia melanocarpa ‘McKenzie’. ‘Galicjanka’ is a cultivar from Poland which tolerates drier soil conditions; ‘Viking’ is from Scandinavia and produces very large fruits; and, ‘McKenzie’ was produced at North Dakota State which has extra-large berries, and is drought and cold tolerant. These shrubs need chill hours so don’t grow in the South. They are drought tolerant once established, and they produce beautiful fall color.

Aronia berries are used in smoothies, salsas, jellies, breads and muffins, and for wine. A supplement form is available which uses a powder to create an extract. A company in Omaha, named “Superberries” owned by Kenny Sailors, uses Aronia berries to make products such as gummy chews, frozen berries, and concentrate. Also, according to Tammy, the Black Squirrel Winery in Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes a great wine using Aronia berries.

The next shrub on Tammy’s list is Crandall’s Clove Currant, or Ribes odoratum ‘Crandall’. This shrub also produces a black medicinal berry which is high in antioxidants and polyphenols. This grows in rich well-drained clay soil to plant hardiness zone 4.

The Redleaf rose is a beautiful hardy shrub rose producing a hip rich in Vitamin C. I have personally grown this in my yard and love the iridescent blue-green sheen to its leaves. If you grow it, as an added bonus you will occasionally have a volunteer pop up in your yard. Also, Rosa Pomifera, or the apple rose, is a good hardy choice which produces good fruit. One can make tea from the rose hips of either plant.

Elderberries, or Sambucus species, are another hardy shrub which produces a black berry that is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. These grew wild when I was a child and I used to help my grandmother pick them to make jelly. I’ve personally picked them from road ditches to make a pretty darn good pie, if you don’t mind the seeds. Even better, you can make a combination berry pie such as elderberry-cherry. Elderberries grow across the U.S., but are less drought-tolerant.

The Serviceberry, or Amelanchier canadensis, produces large black berries that are loved by both humans and birds. They make delicious jams and pies. A good variety is alnifolia ‘Parkhill’ which is a dwarf.

Next, the two trees on Tammy’s list.

The American Hazlenut is formally named Corylus Americana. It is a small tree which produces an edible nut. It likes afternoon shade and requires two trees for nut production.

The Dwarf Chinkapin Oak is a great native shrub oak. By 3-4 years of age, it produces a nut which is valued by wildlife. These nut producers are about 15-18 feet tall, but can be trained shorter. Hamernik would collect this tree’s seeds from the wild, as is true of many of the plants which Wild Plums sells.

HH Wild Plums Inc. has a great catalogue online plus, they will be happy to send you a nice spiral bound hardcopy, such as the one I have lying next to my computer as I type this. There are many, many more varieties of trees and shrubs, along with unusual varieties of perennials, annuals, and vines available from their nursery.

If you have a favorite hardy native edible, please let us know about it in the comments.

Photo credit: Purple Aronia berries, by Konjica.

Hops in My Garden


Hop bines along our backyard fence.

2013: A Garden of Sins
This is what the fence surrounding our vegetable garden looks like, two years after our son slipped four young hop varieties into its perimeter. He never asked permission, of course, because he knew what the answer would be, given that hops require 18 foot trellises.

This son loves both gardening and brewing, and he had successfully foraged wild hops growing along a bike path here in Boulder the year he started these hops.

This summer was the second year for the hop bines, and they are producing nicely. So far, the twine angled horizontally and upward along the fence has mostly supported them. But you know the saying about vines, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap!” So I’m more concerned about next year.

Our son will use these hops to make some home brew, and he’s done some bartering with them on Craig’s List, too, where he said they were quite the hot item. In fact, he makes more than home brew. He’s been a professional brewer at our wonderful local craft brewery, Avery, and he makes beer for special occasions like friend’s weddings and football games.


Hops drying.

Hoppy beers like the IPAs, or India Pale Ales are unique in taste. There are many hundreds of varieties of hops and they vary in flavor. Their bitterness counteracts the sweetness from the malt in the beer. They also have anti-microbial properties that are desirable for the brewing process.


Hops closer up.

The state of Washington produces nearly 80 percent of the hops in the U.S., which is 25 percent of world production. Oregon and Idaho are the next largest hop producing states. In general, the U.S. uses more hops in beers produced here than does the rest of the world.

Now, back to the subject of sins in the garden. My son has provided much of the information about hops that I’ve written above. As we were just visiting out back while he was plucking more hops off of his bines (hop vines are referred to as bines, this is not a misspelling) for the next round of drying, he handed me a part of the hop plant which he said is the reason that it (Humulus) is classified with Cannabis plants. They, in fact, share a number of characteristics, like they both contain terpenoids. Now, I’m not saying that we have both of these sins in our garden, but neither am I saying that we don’t.

Stay tuned, because in the next of our home garden series, I’ll talk about what his friend planted in the back of our garden next to the rhubarb, without our permission.