Keeping a garden journal is a beautiful blend of art and science. It is a testament to your garden and a notebook of learning accomplished throughout your growing year. What you put into a journal makes it incredibly useful for years to come—creating a kind of almanac specific to your location. Tracking changes in your garden—bloom times and harvest, seeding times, and so on also contributes to the study of local phenology. Phenology is “Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year – such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds – especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate.” (read more). Below are some of the things that can be most helpful for your journal, an explanation of why, as well as an example of how to create a journal custom-tailored to your needs.
Planting Plan: In the beginning of your journal creating a diagram or map of what you intend to plant where is helpful. As you plant perennials, you might mark them on a base map and copy it each year – creating new plans for annuals. Pasting this into the front of your garden journal will help to keep you straight. It might even help a spouse not remove the wrong thing (I speak from experience) or point a temporary caretaker in the right direction while you are gone. I like to use a map and numbers to keep things straight, but you can also use a narrative description in your records to keep things clear.
Notes on major projects for the year: Do you want to put in a new compost system or fencing or chickens this year? Arbors, trellis, pathways, water collection, irrigation systems, greenhouses…. Using a Future Log on a couple of pages can help you figure out how to stage improvement efforts between planting and harvesting—or when you typically have good weather.
Plant information: Seed catalogs, gardening books from the library, apps and websites can all help you fill in the missing information over time. Knowing the varieties you have; how they perform in your garden; and whether you like them or not are all important things to keep track of. I like to put in how the kids respond to something (“We love cheese squash!” or “Alpine strawberries are the best!”
Variety: This you might research before you order your seeds—or keep track of as you save seeds from your own garden. Paying attention to varieties is crucial because they help you know which niche in the garden to put them in, how long it will take (on average) for them to fruit, color, resistance to disease and many other characteristics.
Source: This can be a brief notation, but it helps to know which seed companies you like—or whether the seeds came from your own garden or a friend’s garden.
Date Seeds Started: Again, this is important because it helps you track performance—and have a sense of when to begin your garden and how things are changing from year to year.
Germination Date: The date you see the seeds emerge from the soil surface is notable because it will help you understand more about your garden and will help you to track the growth of the plants over time.
Transplant source: If you don’t plant your own seeds, germination won’t matter, but tracking where the plants came from and how they are doing will help you make decisions about plants in the future.
Flowering: This isn’t critical (except for fruit trees and shrubs), but it is nice to have a written record of what flowers when and how that changes from year to year. You might use it to help plan to have flowers throughout the year—whether for beauty or to feed and support pollinators in your garden.
Fruiting or Harvest: This is what you’ve been waiting for! The date you harvested, the quantity by number or weight, and the quality of the harvest are all items to consider recording. Does it look good, taste good, produce well, and resist pests? Does one variety tolerate the humidity or drought better? You might find you want to repeat some things and not others. Or you may find you want to save some seeds for next year. And a record is evidence when bragging to the neighbors!
Weather information: This might be kept on one sheet in your journal or noted amongst your daily observations. Having it in one place to compare months and years is often helpful. You’ll want to make notes on the high and low temperatures for the day, precipitation, cloud cover, and prevailing or significant winds. Some gardeners like to track and plant by moon phases.
Daily observations: It’s the little things that bring us joy. The most beautiful purple in a flower or seeing the swelling bud that will bring us the first berry in spring. Making a note or including a drawing let’s us track and relive these phenomena in our lives. The coming of insects in the spring to pollinate or the first pests can be valuable to know as our garden grows and adapts from year to year. Whether you can draw or not, this is a great way to record information.
How to do it: How to keep track and organize all of this? Spreadsheets and apps might work on your computer. I like to physically write down my observations—either right in the garden or at a station set up near my door.
This year I’m adapting something I like. The Bullet Journal method of setting up a journal might be a great option for you, too. The ideas from a regular journal organization can be modified to include the above categories. An index at the beginning helps you to organize and find information for the whole journal. A future log allows you to plan each month ahead. The month pages can be places to record weather information and tasks in the garden. Other pages can be dedicated to seed source information, seed starting pages, and pest management plans. With the index in front of the journal, you can cross-reference related items and easily find things from year to year—making your journal truly a reference item.
Whether you go all in and like to record every little detail or keep a notebook with a few jotted notes; whether you like to draw out your journal or keep a spreadsheet, journaling can deepen your connection to your garden and ensure more success from year to year. Here’s to a great year ahead!
Water in our gardens—how it works & why it’s importan
Water is critical in our gardens. Of course! We know it is the source of all life on this planet. Nothing grows without water. Nothing thrives without adequate water. Adequate means both quantity of water and quality of water. As we move into the future, we recognize that careful use—and re-use—of our water resources is critical.
Why fresh water is disappearing in our world:
When we were in grade school, we all learned about the water cycle. It moves evaporated water from our oceans to the mountains and returns to the bodies of water through the streams and rivers. Rinse and repeat. If the water cycle is working, we have unlimited fresh water. Right?
It turns out that the fresh water resources of our planet also have limits. Glaciers supply water from our highest mountains to areas with high population density (think India). These are disappearing at increasing speed.[1,2] Snowpack in our own Rocky Mountains is also varying from winter to winter. California’s snowpack this year is drastically reduced.
What about wells? Aquifers are long-term water storages underground. These are often connected to sub-surface water flows (water table). We draw down the water resources faster than they replenish. See what’s happening to the Ogallala Aquifer.
Indiana, like many states, draws much of the municipal water supply from surface water storages built around the 1950’s. These lakes have been silting in since their creation. Griffy Lake, a previous water supply for the city of Bloomington covers about 109 acres, but the majority of the lake is only a few feet deep. Without dredging, the storage would fill in quickly. These surface storage lakes are also poor water quality as gas powered boats swarm over the lakes throughout the year.
– Develop a relationship with your water—where it comes from, catch it if you can (ponds, rain barrels, tanks, natural swimming pools…)
From where does your water come? Develop a relationship with your water. Because water is so important to thriving homes, aim to have three sources of water available in an emergency. Simple water storages are in the soil (by having a higher percentage of organic matter in your soil). Store water in rain gardens and ponds. Stash it away in rain barrels and in cisterns. Wells and municipal water may be your primary source, but a cistern full of water may mean peace of mind.
Many dry towns and states of the west forbid rain barrels or larger tanks. Water falling on your roof is already promised to others down-stream from you. States, such as Colorado, are beginning to realize that rain barrels and tanks positively impact the flow of water downstream. In fact–increased vegetative cover may improve the tight cycling of water in an area. It can create even more precipitation for yourself and your neighbors as plants transpire water into the atmosphere. Learn the rules in your area. Work with your local and state officials. Educate them about your careful use of water; the power of creating storages; and the transformation of landscapes by the re-use of water.
– Use it carefully (point out the GT conservation number); and re-use it. (GT design does this, too)
Know how much your household uses and what you can do to conserve water in your home and garden. Do an audit of how much water your household uses. Some households use as much as 140 gallons of water per day for showers, dishes, laundry and more. The average household of four uses 400 gallons per day. When you use low-flow showerheads, water-saving laundry machines, and low-flush toilets, you reduce the amount of water. You are saving the earth and your pocket book. Reduce landscaping that needs irrigation in favor of plants that adapted to drier conditions. With the Garden Tower design, early user, Kathryn Sharp, reported a 90% reduction in water usage. All the while, she grew veggies and composted with worms. There are lots of ways to creatively reduce your water use.
Also, not all used water is the same. Any water used in the household that has been through the shower, laundry, dishwashing, or sink is considered gray water. (Water used in conjunction with toilets is black water; please take proper precautions!).
Your garden plants do not need potable water to be happy. Minerals, fats, and bits of vegetable material enhance gray water. Plants and other organisms in a gray water system use them well. (Please do be careful. Track gray water use in your Garden Tower so as not to overwhelm the soil organisms and plants with compounds such as oils and soaps.) Match the quality of your water supply to the need.
Re-use your water where you can—send it throughout different parts of your home and garden. Water houseplants with your dishwater. The garden tower also uses this kind of efficiency by re-using the water draining through the tower. This increases productivity and preserves nutrient density. Compost—including wonderful worm castings–enhance the water!
– Clean it before it leaves your home (gray water in your garden) Imagine a vibrant garden
Taking responsibility for the quality of the water that leaves your garden is a great way to make a positive difference in the world. Start with conservation. Include reuse. Work to clean water through systems which mimic nature. These actions will help ensure our world is greener and brighter. Thank you.
If you grow it, they will come. Pests.
Problems of all kinds crop up in the garden. Beginning gardeners sometimes get discouraged by the loss of a crop. It happens to everyone somtime—and often more than once. Don get discouraged! There are some things you can do to ensure your success and lessen the likelihood of unwelcome guests in the garden. You should also prepare for losses. In this blog, we’ll cover:
How much can you take?
Knowledge and experience will help you avoid losses, but some losses are inevitable. Having organic, fresh, nutrient-dense foods means produce doesn’t look perfect. That’s okay! The flavor and health in that food makes it superior!
Expect 10% losses—sometimes 30%! You can lose a small part of your harvest before it affects you. By using permaculture principle 1 (Observe and Interact) every day, you will know when something changes. Sometimes a seeming pest benefits the plants.
A short story: when I began my permaculture system, I was growing a lot of dill (more on that below). We had a caterpillar begin to seriously munch on the dill leaves. It turns out that it was a tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. My young daughter and I enjoyed watching the caterpillars grow fat on the dill. We thought of the butterflies they would become. After the caterpillars wandered off to their cocoons I realizes that they’d pruned back the dill plants. They did this right before the strongest heat and light of the summer. All the dill plants made it through the heat waves—and there was plenty of dill for everyone!
Why integrated pest management?
Your food will be healthier for you and your family. You will have healthier food and environment by using integrated methods and avoiding toxins. What is better for you is also better for everything else in the environment. Beneficial insects, bacteria and fungi can find their balance in your garden. You also help reduce the build-up of pesticide resistance. So if you really do have to resort to using something, it will be more effective.
When you do have to intervene, experiment with what will work on that pest. What worked for a friend may not work for you: be willing to try different things! Also recognize that what might work for you one year, might not be appropriate the next year.
Setting up for Success
1. Plant a polyculture. This strategy has a lot of benefits. Companion planting is one step in the right direction. It puts plants that feed on different soil nutrients or that deter pests of the neighboring plants together. Go a step further and plant a true polyculture—mixing many types of plants together. Continuously rearranging plants in the garden avoids predictable patterns and keeps pests confused. This strategy can be an effective means of keeping populations distributed and creating opportunities for pest predators and beneficial organisms to find their niches, too.
Polycultures are more like natural ecosystems. They create lots of variety—in contrast to monoculture cropping. For a potato beetle, a few rows of potato monoculture looks like a buffet. When potatoes are mixed in with perennials, flowers, veggies and especially fragrant herbs, insects are more confused. A few may find your plants, but it is not likely to be hordes.
Another thing is to use plants that attract pest predators. By encouraging a rich ecosystem, it can correct itself. Plants in the carrot family (dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc…) attract predatory wasps. Don’t worry, these guys aren’t interested in you! Praying mantis and ladybugs showed up in our polyculture in the second season and have been increasing in numbers ever since. Spiders are helpful, too—though you may never see them.
Use strong smelling herbs and flowers (like marigold) to confuse insects that rely on smell to locate your favorite veggies!
If you grow in containers—like the Garden Tower—your ecosystem is small, but still active. Choosing your plants and arranging them with these tips in mind will help you achieve better plant health.
2. Space plants for good air flow and light penetration. Besides insect pests, bacterial and fungal problems can affect your garden yields. Soil fertility and management allow us to pack plants in, we want to make sure there is adequate air flow to discourage fungal growth. Breezes also discourage insects from settling on your plants. Good air-flow spacing also means plants get adequate light saturation to be productive. Remove dead or dying or infected leaves from plants.
3. Plant and harvest at the right time: By planting late or early and harvesting at the right time, you can avoid a wave of pests and their lifecycles. Last year, I planted winter squash around the fourth of July. By doing this I avoided the squash vine borer that can devastate a crop, but I also didn’t get much of a crop from the vines (which grew vigorously). This year, I’ll plant more plants and hope to get a better yield. It also turns out last year wasn’t a big year for vine borers.
4. Know what you’re dealing with: Identify the pests first. If you need help, take in a photo to your local nursery, their knowledge and experience can be very helpful.
5. Support pest predators: Predatory wasps do love the carrot family (mentioned above). If you have an abundance of these foods in your garden, the wasps will come to live with you—and lay their eggs on the caterpillars of pests. Setting up homes for frogs, lizards, and birds and making water and spaces available to them will help to create a natural balance.
6. Use sacrifice crops: Plant extras of things that pests love and be willing to sacrifice some of them to the pests in exchange for more of what you want.
These are some passive ways to organize your garden to deal with pests. Pest management techniques also range into using traps (like a shallow pan of beer for slugs) and repellants of all kinds. Many of these are sold commercially and work well. Recipes for sprays also abound and most of the ingredients (like cayenne pepper) are common to your household.
Welcome February and the bounty of the summer garden! This is a wonderful time of year to share some of your prize veggies with your friends and brag a bit about your growing skills in the garden (pun intended). We know how to enjoy our harvest, but we often miss a secondary harvest that will reap many rewards for you—saving seeds! Even if you didn’t garden this year, you can save seeds from the foods you eat.
The world of seed saving can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be to get started. Starting out is simple and only requires a few household items, time and experimentation. Here are some of the benefits:
1. Saving the cost of seed for the next growing cycle
2. Knowing the source of your seed and its production conditions
3. Self-reliance and increased confidence
4. Fascination with the history of seeds! (Warning, it can become an obsession.)
5. Breeding your own, localized varieties—and naming them
6. Refining varieties that are adapted to your local environment
So how do you get started?
1. Gather seeds from foods you’ve grown and foods you like to eat (especially organic foods). ★
Here are some suggestions for getting started: peppers, squash, tomatoes (note these need to be fermented), beans, peas
2. Treat the seeds: Tomatoes need to be submerged in water for about three days until the gelatinous coating ferments off and the seeds are able to be dried on a paper towel. This is one of the more “science lab” types of seeds to be saved. Most seeds just need to be left to dry out for a few days. Remove any seeds that seem damaged or affected by mold or bacteria.
3. Label and store. Once the seeds are dry, you can store them away for use in the future. Seeds should be labelled (type, specific variety, date saved, source). They should be stored in cool, dry storage. Some seed savers stick their silica packets from consumer goods in the oven to reactivate them and then put them in the envelopes or tins or jars with the seeds. I re-use envelopes from mailings and store my seeds in tins organized by the next season I’ll start sowing them.
Your seeds are now waiting for their chance to shine in your garden!
Resource for further reading and research:
Ashworth, Suzanne. Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange, 2002.
★ Organic foods may have a better possibility of being more true between the vegetable or fruit you eat and the next generation. But not always. Buying from local farmers that use open-pollinated (and even heirloom) vegetable seed is the best option. However, even if you have a hybrid in your seed collection, by continuing to select for the best qualities, you can arrive at something unique and valuable.
Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants = Healthy People!
It’s true! The soil is a matrix of living organisms regulating the cycle and flow of nutrients. Its organisms interconnect and share both information and immune responses to pests and disease. When the soil is full of life, full of minerals, and packed with nutrients, the benefits translate all the way up the food chain!1, 2, 3
What is healthy soil?
Gardeners and farmers know good soil by their senses. In a well-tended garden, the topsoil is deep, porous, and dark. The soil crumbles in your hands and feels moist. It has texture—you can see bits of woody material and larger soil organisms. It smells like “good dirt.” Studies have even shown this occurs because healthy soil gives off beneficial chemical compounds that boost your immune system.4, 5 Because the soil is “light and fluffy,” air and water infiltrate it easily. Roots can move through good soil easily.
Healthy soil is full of life—a balance of micro and macro-organisms. It’s a microcosm in each tablespoon of soil. If you want to know how much life thrives around your garden plants, try a soil test from SOIL FOOD WEB, Inc. [http://www.soilfoodweb.com ].
Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants
Healthy soil leads to healthy plants. Healthy plants have strong cell walls and vibrant color. They are free of blemishes—or contain few. They almost glow because of how they reflect the light. Having the right balance of soil nutrients—bioavailable minerals, moisture, etc…. allow plants to grow healthy cells full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (chemical compounds made by plants) that build a stronger you.
One not-so-secret secret to get the best nutrition from your plants is to grow your own and pick your produce fresh. We can go beyond organic food—which makes sure our foods are not treated with biocides (pesticides and herbicides). We can look for organic, local, in season, and fresh whole foods. These are more likely to have their nutrients in tact. In addition, we can grow our own food or buy food from farmers that know how to grow nutrient-dense foods that have a high quality and standards of nutrition. Farmers employing permaculture and biodynamic techniques are exploring how to grow nutrient dense foods.
You can do the same by following these practices:
1. Get to know your soil. Every soil is different. Most of our soils have been damaged by deforestation, ill-informed farming practices, or construction. So, it’s pretty normal for our native soils to be lacking in something. There are two things you can do right away to get to know your soil better.
First, you can do a simple soil test by digging just below the surface (no grass roots), and putting 2 cups of soil in a clear mason jar or other jar. Fill the jar with water and shake it up. Over the next 23-36 hours—or until the water is clear, the soil particles will settle out. The larger sand particles settle first. Then the loamy particles will settle. Clay particles are very small and may stay suspended for some time. Finally, the organic matter (bits of twigs and flakes of leaves, for example) will float on the top. You can see the ratio of sand:clay:silt/loam:organic matter that you have in your soil. This can help you determine how best to work with your native soil. For example, if you have a lot of sand, your soils will drain quickly and you will need to give extra consideration to watering.
The second important thing to do to get to know your soil is to do a soil test. If you suspect lead is present in your soils, there are often programs through the county health department to test for heavy metals. County extension agents or soil and water conservation districts also do general soil tests. These can help you to know if your soil is lacking in a key mineral or substance that will lead to success. For more on soil tests, follow this link.
2.Add some key minerals Once you know you don’t have toxins to avoid, the next step is putting the right things into the soil. Adding the right soil amendments depends upon the mineral content of your native soil. In my Midwestern, limestone-based soil, I usually add rock phosphate and Jersey greensand. These are mined minerals that pack a punch in our garden soils.
Broccoli, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables feed heavily on calcium. You would think that by living on a limestone-based soil these veggies would be happy in my garden—but, no. They need a form of calcium that they can take up easily. So, I add crushed, or powdered, egg shells from our breakfast to help them out. To do this, I wait until the shells are dry. Then crush them up a bit in our mortar and pestle. I take the powdered shells out to the garden, pull back the mulch, apply, and move the mulch back in place. Green Sand, Rock Dust, Bone Meal and Kelp are also valuable sources of these necessary minerals.
Every area has a different soil composition. You’ll need to adjust which minerals you import into your garden accordingly. A visit to a local nursery or garden center can provide valuable insights into the soil common in your area. A soil test from the county agricultural extension office may come in handy for a more complete picture. Here is a map of the dominant soil orders in the United States.
3.Bring on the mushrooms! Unless you are growing grains or other grasses, you will want to top your soils toward a fungally-dominated soil. Fungi are an important part of soil life. We’ve known for decades that fungi connect trees in a forest and allow them to share information through an exchange of sugars and chemicals. This allows the trees interconnected to pick up on pests or diseases in one part of the forest and begin to produce an immune response before the disease or pests get to them. The original internet! Now, this study has been replicated and shows the same relationship between fungi and plants smaller than trees.6, 7
4.Incorporate organic matter Whether your soil is too sandy, too full of clay, or likely to salt when irrigation water evaporates and leaves salts, adding organic matter is almost always part of the way to bring your soil into a healthy balance. By incorporating compost into your garden and by mulching your plants appropriately, you are building up the organic matter (read carbon) in your soil. Most soils in North America have 2-3% organic matter. Healthy soil can have 19-25% organic matter (carbon). This is exciting for those of us worried about carbon and climate change. It means that with appropriate farming and gardening, we can pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Also, if you are eating a healthy diet, the compost created from the kitchen will bring a balance of minerals and nutrients to your soil—and pass that onto your plants.
5.Worms are your friends! Red wigglers or other earthworms can build excellent soil quickly. Though earthworms are not native to North America (and red wigglers won’t survive a freeze), these little critters are very useful.
Vermicomposting (composting with worms) is one of the best means of creating healthy, fertile soils. When other dirt bugs show up, welcome them. They are a sign your soil is becoming a healthy ecosystem. *
*Not all bugs are good news. Some soil organisms harm your plants and other insects can do the same, but if you allow your soil to become a balanced, healthy ecosystem, it will repel real threats.
These practices will build up healthy soil—and think of how many of them are also practiced in the Garden Tower!