Weeding Through Social Media: Part 2

Earlier this week, I wrote a post on how to be discerning when using social media for gardening tips. A great example just occurred today before I got this post up and running. The National Wildlife Federation, which can have some great advice about attracting wildlife to your garden, for example, posted a story about not raking up leaves. It went viral, and why not?  I mean, who wouldn’t love advice that says you can do less work and help improve the butterfly population?

fallen leaves
Leaves are everywhere, and so is gardening advice.

I had some doubts when I saw the NWF Tweet, because although I know a layer of leaves can help butterflies overwinter, it seemed logical that a leaf layer also helps bad insects overwinter. It’s not like I can go out there and have a conversation with the leaves or pick through the pupae! But a fellow garden writer really had her doubts, especially since when quoted by media, the original post had been taken out of context. Better advice, in addition to that mentioned by Susan Harris, is to repurpose fallen leaves as appropriate. Here’s an article from Bren Haas I retweeted that proposes some good ideas.

And below are some Do’s and Don’ts that I follow, or suggest for gardeners, when using the web and social media for gardening tips, along with some resources.

Do’s:

Understand search results. If you’re not web savvy, learn to recognize the difference between ads and content ranking when searching. Sometimes, maybe you want the ad (such as when you’re looking for your favorite nursery or catalog). Most of the time, however, it’s best to scroll down to the official website or information, not ads. Look beyond the description to the web address below and learn more about the source before clicking. Bookmark (or save to Favorites) sites you might need again.

Verify before following back. Although etiquette “dictates” that you follow back when someone follows you on social media, it’s OK to use some discrimination. When choosing to follow a Pinner or Twitter user, make a quick review of the person or company. Some users are actually empty, having never really pinned, for instance. Some follow indiscriminately to push products and services. And once, I got into a discussion with a Twitter user who is well known in his field, but who follows no one on Twitter but himself/his publication. I’m not going to follow someone who doesn’t take the time to share and learn from others.

red chile ristras
For growing and cooking with red chile, I’ll stick to mostly experts from the Southwest. Image from the National Park Service.

Always check “About” pages on blogs and other websites. A sure sign of a “fake” site to me is one that has no About page or simply restates the home page’s purpose. Any blogger or commercial site should give you some background and reveal a little information about the individual, the company or organization and why they’re qualified to talk about gardening. I look at experience and training, but the details or credentials are less important to me than the fact that the site’s authors are willing to reveal the information. For example, anyone who has been farming organically for 10 years can certainly give me advice for improving my organic vegetable garden. Typically, when researching blog posts, I turn to people with equal or more training and experience than me. But a site with no information signals the unknown, and most likely a content farm or mill or repurposed, even possibly poorly researched or plagiarized, information. Content farms hire lots of freelancers, often inexperienced ones, and pay them poorly to crank out content that ranks well in search engines.

Look for local experts for plant information in particular. If I want deer-resistant plants, for example, I also want to know which ones do best in my zone and with little to no water. Local and regional sources are particularly important when it comes to saving water and xeric planting. Water is not an issue in every part of the country; many xeric plants couldn’t survive in climates with 35 inches of rain a year, and most xeric gardening and landscaping experts live in more arid zones. The same goes for many advice articles, and especially infographics. Most gardening publications and social media posts have an Eastern or Southeastern focus; more people live, garden and publish there. If you run across a planting schedule, be sure to check those dates against your zone or look for one from a local source.

I often verify online information against a combination of garden books from favorite local authors, master gardeners and our state extension office.

gardening books
And though social media and websites are convenient and full of information, you can’t beat some of your go-to local experts in print for gardening insight.

Don’ts:

Don’t believe everything you read. That’s especially true now on Pinterest and some blogs. The more sponsored content takes over social media, the more likely it proliferates in pins and posts. There is plenty of accurate information out there. Use the same tips above to check out sources or double-check information before running with it. Having said that, there are some really clever people out there, so give them a chance once you’ve vetted their validity and relevance. And the leaf example I cited today shows how a credible site such as NWF or sources citing it, should be verified when it comes to gardening advice. If you want to know what kind of food to put in your winter bird feeder, then by all means, count NWF at the top of your list.

Don’t fall for cheesy graphics. This is the latest trend to get social media users to click through. Well-designed graphics can be a sign of a quality site, but many of the new graphic trends remind me of the early days of desktop publishing. Sadly, anyone who could run the software would design flyers, newsletters and other visual materials filled with screaming colors and multiple fonts. I know I am losing this battle as Pinterest and even Twitter look more like scrolling billboards every day. Content is what matters, not screaming headlines. Give a pin or post a chance because of the author and potential relevance.

Don’t fall for sponsored content. When you evaluate sources, check to see whether authorship is assigned and attributed to a particular page or article you find online. I try to only retweet articles from trusted publications and bloggers. There is no reason for an “anonymous” post to appear on a gardening topic; only rely on attributed material. A blogger who reviews a product should reveal that it was provided for free in exchange for the review and should provide a balanced review.

Helpful Resources

I’m sure some will disagree with me on a few of my tips, and social media is a moving target. But for quality information, simply be a discerning user. It’s really quite simple. Here are a few ideas for quality sites; my Resources page has several listed by topic.

Local cooperative extension offices Each state has an extension office, which not only helps farmers and ranchers, but home gardeners as well. Most states also have county extension offices.

Master gardeners. Master gardener programs typically are run by extension programs as well and can be your source for local programs. And master gardeners usually volunteer to answer questions via hotlines, libraries or their websites.

National gardening societies and organizations. If I’m having problems with an orchid or writing for a client about roses, I tend to look for help from national societies whose members are experts on these plants. Most have helpful pages or publications for home gardeners.

Garden bloggers. The National Garden Bureau is a helpful resource, and maintains a list of garden bloggers and other links. Look for garden writers who specialize in your area of interest or concern, or your region. And check out Garden Rant, the source that called out the bad leaf advice I mentioned at the top of this post.

And, in case you want to see who I follow on social media, link to me on Twitter from my feed to the right of this post, or to my Instagram and Pinterest accounts from my Fun Stuff page.

Weeding Through Social Media for Gardening Tips: Part 1

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. As a long-time writer and editor, I was slow to accept the value of social media as a content or marketing tool. I have come to embrace social media to the point that I probably spend too much time on it. But I’m making some valuable connections and gathering new ideas and information regularly.

I’ve been writing and researching online for longer than I care to admit because it would reveal way too much about my age. It’s amazing what we can find online today. Like any consumer trend, however, websites and social media have evolved with good and bad features. And like most trends, many social media platforms started out being more helpful than they’ve evolved to be at this stage. The reasons typically are commercialization and oversaturation, and a viral story about a young Instagram star that circulated this past week is a classic example of how fake social media can become in some instances.

healthy tomatoes good practices
We grew plenty of healthy tomatoes with no Epsom salt or other tricks, just good cultural practices and a little help from fair weather.

 

Pinterest myths

I’m going to pick on Pinterest for my example, mostly because it’s a favored consumer platform for home and gardening information. When my sister-in-law first introduced me to pinning, I loved it! Finally, I found content that was curated by regular people, especially my friends, and not by commercial interests. I could follow her and other friends or family who had great taste and similar pastimes. And I could search for and pin relevant, trustworthy gardening information.

Then, Pinterest took off and the company has now decided that its bots know what I like better than I do. The feed is almost creepy, based on our Internet searches and recent pins. Some of it’s helpful, but I liked it better before. Further, as a blogger, I would rather build up my followers by providing them helpful and relevant pins and blog content. I’m also tired of seeing gardening myths spread on Pinterest; here’s a a past post on some gardening myths.

Embracing your inner skeptic

I don’t consider myself the foremost expert on gardening, but I know how to research to supplement my knowledge and experience to provide the most accurate and helpful information possible. That’s because I’ve spent nearly 20 years writing and editing professionally, about medical, science, gardening and sustainability topics. I’ve gotten pretty good at discerning quality information from junk. Maybe it’s just because I am a born skeptic.

The researcher and skeptic in me wants to scream out loud sometimes because I feel like it’s too easy for gardeners to get misinformation online. I want to transfer some of my writing and research skills to help those new to social media, online research or gardening improve their ability to distinguish good information from — maybe not so good.

The quality of a web page or blog post often has less to do with how it ranks in search engines and more to do with its authorship, purpose, and certainly with its content. Google has gotten much better at ranking according to content instead of key word stuffing and other tricks. But it’s up to users to quickly scan and verify how useful and truthful information is and how valid its source. In gardening, that’s especially important because growing in the mountains of New Mexico is nothing like gardening on the coast of North Carolina, for example.

hailstorm approaching from New Mexico mountains
Some gardening tips apply to the masses, and some are specific to zones and regions. Even our state extension divides up plant lists based on mountain communities vs. desert or other distinctions.

Later this week, I’ll list a few “Do’s and “Don’ts” for online research, along with some favorite gardening blogs or sources. For now, check out my Resources page for some I rely on or recommend for topics I typically cover in my posts. Happy searching!

 

Gardening in a Hostile Environment: Never Give Up

In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.

cactus
Even succulents can be hard to grow if they lack sun or receive too much water. But my husband Tim has a knack for growing them. This is only a small sample, with a few of my ornamentals mixed in.

The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!

view of rock garden and clouds
You can’t have it all. Crazy weather seems to accompany gorgeous views, right?

We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.

Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.

Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater.  Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.

gravel mulch to warm lavender
The gravel mulch near our lavender is meant to reflect heat to warm the plants and to control weeds. We’re trying to keep it away from the base of the plants, though, so it doesn’t restrict their growth or cause wet, soggy roots.

Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.

Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.

Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.

Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.

gopher damage in rock garden
We’ve had gophers come through several spots in our rock walls. The walls hold up to deer jumping on them and are nearly four feet high, but gophers…

Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.

Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.

deer in ornamental xeric garden
In winter and early spring, deer come right up near the patio, within feet of the house. They’ll eat and step on plenty of plants when food is scarce.

Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.

Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.

io moth caterpillar
This might look similar to a monarch caterpillar, but it’s not. For one, it stings and releases a toxin. Second, it never travels alone. We have had invasions now on three different types of trees, where they party until they strip entire branches unless Tim handpicks them. That’s where he learned firsthand about the sting. We think they are io moth caterpillars.

Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.

Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.

wild gaura growing in gopher mound
Man, I didn’t even get into rocks. Gophers love to dig up rocks and weed seeds. Here, a wild gaura grows from a gopher mound, surrounded by several other weeds and some grass. Survival of the native!

Waste Not: When Your Harvest Overwhelms You

The best part of growing your own edibles is harvesting fresh, healthy food and eating it right away. But what happens if you have a green thumb, great weather or go on vacation? I can’t stand to throw out a single tomato, and I think friends are running for fear I will hand them another zucchini.

zucchini harvest
Look! Even my dog is running from zucchini. I managed to give away or use all of this. I am not responsible for the actions of the receivers. And I learned my lesson about keeping up or cutting back.

But I know there are people who could use the fresh vegetables that I grow, especially in our area. Apparently, food waste is a bigger problem than a few overripe tomatoes from my garden. Tons and tons of produce are left unharvested in fields each year because of mechanical harvesting techniques, how hand harvesters are paid, or because the public demands perfect looking produce.

The last one is part of the reason why so many fruits and vegetables are genetically modified. Consumers are more likely to choose the shiniest apples and the brightest orange carrots, regardless of whether those choices offer the highest nutrition or flavor. I’m here to tell you that anything I’ve grown tastes better than anything I’ve ever purchased. And unless it has evidence of disease or infestation, I’ll eat it because I know where it came from!

green bean inspection
None of these green beans would pass muster in a store. The ones on the left were missed and likely are tough. But they can be frozen separately with other large beans for soups or stews. The middle beans just got caught on a fence or stalk. I can eat those. Something else has eaten on that last one, so I won’t.

Having said that, I’m guilty of choosing the nicest looking specimens when I give any of my harvest to friends or neighbors. End Food Waste Now has started a fun campaign on Twitter encouraging people to support ugly fruits and vegetables and to cut the 20 to 40 percent of global produce waste.

I’ve got a few entries below…

funny looking tomatoes
Kiss my…tomato! These are both edible, although they would never make it to a produce bin.
carrots
Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, likely because I didn’t thin enough.

On a more serious note, I wanted to find out what to do with some of my extra vegetables, knowing there must be people in my rural community who might appreciate them. End Food Waste points visitors to AmpleHarvest.org, which links gardeners and food pantries around the country. I was surprised to find several nearby in my fairly obscure ZIP code.

Gardeners who want to take it a step further and help the nearly 36 million American households where folks have substandard diets and often seek emergency food from pantries and other organizations can join Plant a Row for the Hungry. The program from the Garden Writers Association Foundation encourages community and individual gardeners to plant one extra row each season to donate to local soup kitchens or food pantries.

So, if you have plenty of space, but especially, more harvest from your garden than you can eat, consider donating to those less fortunate. And although home-grown produce lasts longer than store-bought produce, storing fruits and vegetables properly leads to less waste.

A Better Use for Pantyhose and a Few Other Items — in the Garden

As summer winds down, I count my lucky stars for many reasons. Among these is that I work at home and no longer have to wear pantyhose on a regular basis.

That means I have plenty of discarded pairs of hosiery (and who doesn’t, because they run if you look at them cross-eyed). I didn’t think of this brilliant idea, but I’m so glad that someone did. Pantyhose is a lot more flexible on a tomato plant than it is on my thighs. And I don’t think that’s from eating too many fresh tomatoes. Maybe from too many BLTs, but back to gardening.

use pantyhose and other household items in garden
Pantyhose can support melons or tomatoes. Notice the clamps on the trough in the background.

We’ve used hose this year to support some tomato branches and to help train melon plants up the fence. I’m saving the toes from the hose we cut up, because I have seen people use them as halters or hammocks for melons to help support them on a trellis or fence. You can just slip the fruit into the hose and then tie the open end to your support structure; the hose flexes while the melon finishes growing. And heck, you don’t eat the rind anyway, so who cares that it was in the old, run foot section of my work hose?

Speaking of hose, we hang on to some old sections of soaker or garden hoses for a few purposes. One is to help support trees. I am not in favor of tying trees, but if a young or damaged tree needs support for a year or so, we would rather have the rubber hose against a branch or trunk than a piece of rough rope. The hose also flexes some with the wind and has a smoother surface.

rubber hose to support tree
I don’t like to tie anything to a tree, but at least the rubber hose rubs less than a rope. This one needed help after gopher damage around the roots.

Here are a few other household or repurposed items you can use in your garden:

  • Old PVC or other pipe. Along with hose, you might be able to use it to build small hoops for covering plants.
  • Clamps and clips. They help secure cloth to fencing or pipe. We got a bag of assorted plastic ones (no rusting) at a discount store.
rock clamp and cloth on lettuce
The trifecta of household items: PVC pipe, a clamp holding the cloth to the fence, and a rock to keep it from blowing. It’s not pretty, but it is inexpensive, helps shade lettuce to keep it moist and cool, and keeps some of the bugs off.
  • Cable ties and barbed wire. I like clamps better, because a garden grows and I want items to be flexible. But sometimes a plastic cable tie or a piece of barbed wire hold things in place more securely.
  • Discarded fencing. I’ve made temporary trellises or cages out of fencing we’ve removed from small trees, just to give a cucumber some extra support or a place to climb.
  • Lawn chairs. Seriously, Tim has used folding, webbed lawn chairs plenty of times to set gently over a new plant for temporary shade, while maintaining warmth and air circulation. Just be sure the wind is calm on the day you do it. And if you get tired and hot, you have a place to sit!
  • Old 5-gallon plastic buckets. Sure, it’s good to have pretty garden tools and bags, but you can’t beat 5-gallon buckets for discarding weeds, carrying items for projects and cutting out the bottom to keep seedlings warm as you start your garden.
  • Rocks. You just can’t have enough rocks handy to hold down covers, balance items, even bury as a stepping stone. Lucky for us.
pantyhose on stakes to keep deer away from tomatoes
I just work with what I’ve got. I know this looks weird, but after deer chomped on my tomatoes near the house, I tried some Irish Spring soap in pantyhose. The “stakes” are from an unused cold frame. I don’t know if the soap works, but there’s been no more munching. Maybe the deer are just turned off by the appearance of it.

Another Take on Weeds and Wildflowers

This morning’s news had a feature with a great perspective on the weeds vs. wildflower debate that rages in my mind and in the mind of anyone with acreage. Or with a garden, for that matter.

mullein-flowers-weed
This mullein looks so pretty near the trunk of this old tree, but don’t let it fool you. It can be an invasive weed, and don’t get me started on the horehound to the lower right.

CBS news correspondent Steve Hartman is turning several acres of land into a prairie wildflower meadow and taking it one day at a time. It’s a great story and one that makes you appreciate nature, wildflowers and persistence.

I’m not sure if I have the patience to do what Hartman is attempting. What’s more, annual rainfall in the Catskills is closer to 40 inches, at least double what we get here. Of course, as long as a landowner chooses native wildflower seeds, it shouldn’t matter too much. There are plenty of widlflowers that reseed in the Southwest easily, even growing along dry, graveled roadways or out of rocky mountainsides. If you purchase a native grass or wildflower mix, it should give a weed percentage. Make sure it’s as low as possible.

We have started throwing seed heads into an area we call “the pit,” a dug-out portion of our property that we believe once served as a vegetable garden. It’s our place for weed piles and wheel barrow storage now. But we thought instead of throwing out deadheaded flowers, we’d scatter them there. If that experiment works, who knows?  But I don’t think I can try what Hartman is doing until we control the weeds already growing among the wildflowers and get a better handle on deciding which are too invasive to keep and which could populate a mini-meadow.

weeds and wildflowers in sunken pit of yard
The pit, where we planted sunflowers that either didn’t make it or got eaten, but some volunteers came up. This might someday make a great sunken wildflower meadow.

For now, good for him, his purpose and his meditative state. I hope to achieve it while weeding this week.

Some People Learn the Hard Way: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gardening is fun. Planting is fun, and looking at flowers is really fun. Harvesting what you and the rain worked so hard together to grow – priceless. Trimming, thinning and getting rid of plants is far from fun.

I have learned the hard way this year, however, that I have to curb my enthusiasm. Too much of a good thing can go bad – quickly. And it’s not just because I’m busy working and trying to keep the garden up. I’m talking about some imbalances that occur in the garden when you plan and plant, and then nature takes over.

Mexican hats reseed
The Mexican hat is a prolific reseeder here in New Mexico. It’s a fun annual, but we have more than we need.

Below are a few lessons learned about having too much of a good thing that I hope will help beginners or other overenthusiasts. First, my disclaimers, caveats, poor excuses:

  1. Our place is big.
  2. This is only our third summer here, and we are still trying to get the weeds and gophers under control.
  3. Climates here are extreme, usually dry, with temperature ranges of more than 40 degrees in one day and a strange pattern this year in early summer.
  4. Did I already say that gardening is fun?

Planting too many of the same species hosts pests

First of all, I have written in previous posts about how filling in with annuals can add inexpensive color to your garden. Seeds cost little, and in our garden, they’re free! That brings me to another problem I have pondered several times – the line between weed and wildflower. We’ve got gaillardia, (blanket flowers), Ratibidia columnifera (Mexican hats) and cosmos growing as volunteers all over our garden. There are a few other annuals, but these three amigos would take over if we’d let them. And I almost did. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy a “free” plant. After all, it added color to the garden with no water. Tim drew the line on any growing in the walkway. I could accept that. But I should have done a better job of thinning the plants. The Mexican hats were hosts to hundreds of cucumber beetles. And I would go to deadhead the gaillardia (which could take valuable time away from my favorite activity – weeding) and find an entire stalk covered with flea beetles. These tiny black insects have been damaging my tomato plants.

flea beetle damage to tomato plant
I’m pretty sure this is a flea beetle and damage from it. This tomato is in a container about 15 feet from all those flowers. So far, the damage is tolerable.

Lesson learned: I can keep and love each of these annuals, but I need to thin them early on. Having a few host plants for the bugs might keep them off of young tomatoes, since the annuals come out earlier. But having 20 gaillardia plants is like putting up a billboard on the freeway advertising free flea beetle lodging. Variety is healthier and prettier.

Too much of a good thing robs resources

It’s important to thin seedlings in a vegetable garden, and equally important to space plantings in a xeric garden. When you plant too closely together or let annuals (or perennials that have not been trimmed enough) grow too closely together, a few things happen.  First and foremost, the plants get too little air circulation. I imagine this is more of an issue in some climates than others, or plants native to humid climates can take wet leaves and roots better than plants native to places like New Mexico. But I know most of our xeric plants can’t take it. If we get rains late in the day combined with clouds and cool evening temperatures, which is typical of the high desert, the leaves don’t dry off.

If there is little air circulation, this can increase risk of bacterial and fungal diseases in plants. Powdery mildew, which is characterized by the white or gray patches on leaves that resemble talcum powder, can occur even without rain. High humidity in typically warm, dry climates can cause the disease if plants have little to no air circulation. A plant might grow so large that it shades another plant, Even worse, if plants are too close together. one plant might sneak drinks from the other, or require more water, causing your truly xeric plant near it to have poor health or die from too much water!

Lesson learned: Thin, thin, thin! And no matter how small a seedling or new plant from the nursery appears, take time to learn its mature size. Then consider that in its new surroundings, including the mature size of the plants around it. I think I am going to strap a measuring tape to my jeans next spring.

vegetables mature
Can you spot where the melon ends, the tomato begins, the cucumber ends, the pepper begins… The good news is that there is no row on one side and plenty of space on the other, so at least these plants get air from two directions. Better planning next year.

Hedging your bets can be a lot of work

I planted 11 tomato plants. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Now, I want some credit for hedging my bets, because I had to pull up a few of the tomatoes. Some were not very strong seedlings, but I gave them a try. In retrospect, I probably should have thrown out those seedlings. Weak plants attract predators, and that’s a big lesson from all of this. I feel really badly about wasting the water to try to get them going. Our spring weather likely didn’t help (see “disclaimers” above), but I also might have lost some to poor thinning of suckers or trimming of bottom branches, which provided an on-ramp for snails and bugs. Maybe it’s the nurturer in me, but it’s fun to care for the tomatoes that have made it and to give away the fruit we can’t eat. Other plants are easier to put away for winter, including basil, beans and cucumbers.

Still, I need to plan more carefully next year. Nearly all of the water has come from the sky, including what we’ve harvested. And I’ve used a drip system for much of the well water used. But I’ll approach the vegetable garden plan more carefully next year, unless I find a way to make money growing tomatoes. If I decide to do that, I’ll have to pull up most of those blanket flowers…

too many blanket flowers
Aren’t these blanket flowers pretty? Notice two different color combinations. But having this much together (and more in other areas) is a little too inviting for bad bugs, and I have lots of plant variety for bees.

Lesson learned: Take the next six months to plan, or at least to forget how much time you spent trying to get it right.

And, as always, I want to reiterate this point: There are no dumb gardeners, and I hate to see lists and posts with titles such as “Dumb Gardening Mistakes”. I have seen careless moves or gardeners, but that’s different. If you try something and fail with your best effort, at least you tried. Research, learn from your mistake and try again!

Integrated Pest Management: Preventing Bugs From Destroying Plants

Bugs on plants are more than a nuisance. They damage plants by sucking out sap, destroying leaves and transmitting diseases. I’m all for a balanced ecosystem, and I realize bugs gotta eat too, but there’s a point at which I have to choose between the bug and being able to eat the cucumbers I have spent time and precious water nurturing from seed. I might not be smarter, but I’m bigger and I have tools and creativity.

For many years in the past, home gardeners like us relied on chemicals to kill a bug at the first sign of trouble, and I’m so glad that the concept of integrated pest management, or IPM, has replaced that approach for so many people who care about the food they eat, the environment and preserving beneficial insects.

cucumber beetle
Cucumber beetles like any yellow flower, including the ones on this honeydew melon. This is the last known photo of this particular beetle…

Let’s break down a rather fancy term into the basics: start with the least harmful control. It’s really the same as prevention in medicine. Ward off a disease as your first choice instead of having to go through treatment. Here are the basic steps:

1. Start with healthy plants and good cultural management. This is the most important step to try to prevent insects in any yard or garden. First and foremost, plant native plants. I’ll never stop repeating this mantra. When you include plants adapted to your environment, they’re less likely to get stressed. There’s lots of research on the plant stress hypothesis because I guess some people disagree with it. But prevailing thought seems to be that plants stressed by drought or other conditions are more vulnerable to bug infestations and damage. It makes sense, and it’s still better to keep plants healthy anyway for flower or fruit production. Be sure to rotate crops, plant a variety of plants, and place plants in the right conditions based on shade or sun requirements, for example.

healthy tomato in container
This grape tomato plant is healthy and happy. It’s in a container with rich soil. I think it’s a little easier to control pests with containers.

2. Keep bugs away by weeding as much as possible and cleaning up debris to prevent hiding places. And cover seedlings with tunnels and row covers (with no holes) to keep bugs off while the plants are young and more vulnerable. Make sure plants are not too close together so they have airflow and can dry out as needed. Use mulch to cool roots and hold in water and compost to enrich soil. If one plant gets a disease, remove it from your garden and throw it out. Don’t lay it near the garden or compost it.

Covered seedlings
These lettuce seedlings have green beans for shade and cloth to keep bugs out until they get a little larger.

3. Hand pick bugs that appear if you can. This is not always easy, but if I can touch bugs, anyone can. Home gardeners who visit their garden regularly to water, deadhead flowers and check or harvest vegetables should inspect for bugs, especially in the morning. A major advantage of handpicking is that you can pick just the bad insects, causing no harm to beneficial bugs on your plants, who are there helping in your cause. See my Resources page for a few links to articles or photos that help identify beneficial insects. And here’s what I do when I pick off the little bug – throw it in a container of dish soap and water. I like to reuse a plastic container with a flip lid each year for easy, one-handed entry. Last year, it was an empty sanitary wipe jar. This year, I had used nearly all of my taco spice mix from Costco. I put the rest in a plastic zipped bag and had an instant bug bath. A blister bug infestation at our community garden one year had Tim and I doing a “swipe and boot stomp” method because those monsters bite and because of pure numbers. Our neighbor finally had to vacuum the potato plants.

dish soap and water for handpicking bugs in the garden
The little beetle featured in the photo above got a spicy ending courtesy of my handmade holding cell. All that’s inside is environmentally friendly dish soap (because that’s what I had), some water, and taco seasoning residue. The top snaps open.

4. When all else fails and you must use a pesticide, there are several organic choices. It’s also important to know that although an insecticide is organic, it still can be harmful, especially to bees and other beneficial insects. The three we keep on hand are insecticidal soap, Neem oil and Diatomaceous earth. Still, it’s recommended only to use these products once you have identified the pest or really have to do so. For example, I can spray a plant with water first to stop aphids before resorting to soap. I encourage reading labels carefully for time from use to harvest for any edibles, for specific pests they destroy and for any cautions about other insects, pets or warnings.

diatomaceous earth on ant hill in garden
This poor pepper has been attacked already by a gopher (and poor watering because it all floods down the hole the critter left behind). Now the stressed plant has an ant hill below. I am trying diatomaceous earth to stop them from doing more damage.
natural pesticide choices
Diatomaceous earth stops crawlers, and soap and oil can stop flying insects.

Further, you can’t be perfect at IPM cultural practices, as hard as you try. For example, I’m pretty sure tomatoes are not native to my region. But I want a vegetable garden. I have to work harder to keep tomatoes healthy than I do the ornamentals (and weeds!) native to New Mexico. I also can’t control the weather. I’m certain many of our bug (and snail!) trouble occurred during frequent night rains and cool, cloudy days. Our plants aren’t adapted to that. Finally, we spend most of our time on weeds – mowing, pulling and preventing. But we can’t control all of the weeds, nor can we control what our neighbors do with weeds or chemicals.

Update on Learning the Hard Way With a Smart Pot

zucchini-smart-pot-recovering
It was 91 degrees and sunny when I took this photo. Look at that healthy blossom!

Lots of people read and responded to my post about lessons learned with breaking the roots off my zucchini plant in the Smart Pot. Just wanted to let you know that the plant is recovering. I took a photo yesterday morning in the heat. We left the shade cloth up most of the past week, lifting it when cloudy, and watered the plant well. I removed a few of the battered leaves or branches, figuring they would just zap energy from the plant as it continues to recover from the beating it took. But it seems fine; I’ve harvested a few nice fruits from the plant.

So I dodged that bullet!

Some People Learn the Hard Way, Even With a “Smart Pot”

The best gardeners learn by trial and error. If you think about it, medical and scientific discoveries occur because of experimentation. So a gardener who gets it right every time is either extremely experienced, experienced and the holder of a horticultural degree, or a liar.

And that’s why you should never give up on gardening because of a mistake or two, or several. You just learn from them and move on. Sure, some mistakes are more costly or frustrating. And some are avoidable in hindsight. Especially if you are impatient. Even more so if you are impatient and stubborn.

Here’s my latest: I have a couple of Smart Pots, which are soft, fabric containers that are lighter than pots and can be folded up for storage. I decided to grow a zucchini in my larger one, even though I knew I might be pushing the limits of the flexible pot’s size, and more importantly, the plant. Experimentation is good. Stubbornness can have negative consequences.

zucchini in Smart Pot
I’ve since thinned these three seedlings to one plant. See, who would have thought such a tiny seed would eventually grow into such large a large plant? Oh, I know! Any fool who has ever grown squash before.

One of the other excellent qualities of Smart Pots is that they provide aeration for plants. In a typical hard, clay container, the roots might grow out to the side or bottom and then begin circling, looking for a place to go. This can harm the growth and health of the plant. When the roots come up against the Smart Pot edge, they can penetrate it or the pot “air prunes” the roots, helping them to form lateral branches.

One reason I placed the zucchini in the pot was so the plant would be lifted off the ground and I could reach the fruit better. I always itch reaching in to harvest or look for weeds and bugs. I’ve had no weeds with it in a container, and it’s easier to harvest the fruit. The other reason was that I could easily shift the plant’s position in my garden should I alter the plan.

I decided the zucchini was too crowded between two tomato plants and needed moving. Feeling quite brilliant for using a lightweight, mobile container, I decided I could move it myself! But I failed to take into account or simply forgot that the plant had grown large enough that the roots might have penetrated the bottom of the Smart Pot. And being impatient, mostly because it was stinking hot, I drug the pot to a new spot in the garden. I felt pretty smart myself.

wilting zucchini plant from disturbed roots
In this case, the pot outsmarted the gardener. That’s because the gardener disturbed the plant’s nice, healthy roots by moving the pot without thinking.

Later than day, I made my noon visit to the garden. Immediately, I noticed that the zucchini plant’s leaves looked like they’d been beaten. It was wilting miserably. It didn’t take us long (OK, I have to give Tim credit for thinking of it first) to figure out that when I moved the pot, I broke off a few roots. Not very many had grown through, or I would have felt resistance when I moved the pot. I’m not blaming the Smart Pot; I’m blaming the impatient, absent-minded gardener who should have left well enough alone. All of those plants were doing fine until I messed with one of them, although the zucchini is way large at the top of the pot. We carried the plant into the shade of the shed (at least that was easy) and gave it a good drink of water.

bringing zucchini plant back to health
The shed in the background provided overnight shelter. We have a makeshift shade cloth over the south side of the plant until further notice.

We left the plant in the shed overnight – it got airflow, but was protected from the elements and hungry critters. Then, we returned it to the garden the next day and rigged a shade cloth of sorts to help protect it from the heat until it can (hopefully) recover from my interference. So far, it’s looking better.

Lessons learned: Don’t overgarden; be patient. The plants may have grown too close together eventually, but they hadn’t yet. And read product directions, then remember them!