Saturday, December 16

Cinderblock Gardens and Organic Bug Issues

Someone asked me about the creation of the garden I showed pics of a few posts down. Here's a few pics from its construction.

If you can carry bricks and shovel and bend over, or can pay someone who can, it's easy to make. Just use cinderblocks to create a square a few bricks high. Fill it with soil and compost (google 'lasagna gardening' for good ideas on the content). Most landscaping companies will bring a whole truckload of compost and dump it where you want, if you live in an area where it's sold like that.

We have a local mushroom-growing factory, and they have to have totally new compost every growing cycle which is brief, and the stuff they used last cycle they sell off -- sometimes including edible mushroom spawn of course... we had a cluster of 8" white mushrooms we dug up that grew under our garden once! They're only 1-2 inches big in the store but I guess they just keep growing!

I do organic gardening, so I don't use any kind of pest killer. Generally I have a few approaches to this:

1. Plants send out signals when they are unhealthy that essentially marks them as food for the insect world. (Seriously. There's research on this.) So a plant that doesn't have a good soil, that has insufficient water, is going to be a bugfest, that is just a given. Treat your plants very well and that may minimize some of it.

2. Plant more than you need. I figure, the bugs can have some, as long as I get some too. Bugs have to live just like anything else, and if it weren't for bugs we would not be able to live on planet earth, because earth wouldn't grow anything for long. My stepmother has the same philosophy in her ground-garden when the wild rabbits, esp. with babies in spring, eat half of it. She figures that really, they needed it more than she did, there isn't much non-concrete world and food for them anymore, and she tries to plant enough there'll be some left over.

3. Plant decoys. If it turns out that kale is the favorite food of a certain bug that is bugging you, plant kale at the edges of your garden, a row of onions, garlic or something inside that, and then your cabbage or whatever inside that. They will happily feast on the kale I would not voluntarily eat anyway, they aren't fond of the onions, and far fewer of them will make it to the plants important to you.

4. Feed the birds. Go out in the early morning with gloves and hat on, with a big shallow basket. Often dollar stores will have wicker baskets like that for cheap. Pick bugs off the plants and toss 'em in the basket, then when you're done, set the basket somewhere the birds are unafraid to reach it and can SEE it, and I guarantee in awhile, the birds will show up waiting for 'em. You might still be killing them but hey, it's not like dumping poison on them. And birds need to eat too! You would be surprised how consistently doing this make a big cumulative difference.

It's a little gross at first -- I'm a bug pansy, having come from a coastal southern California climate that had few bugs -- but you get over it, you're wearing thick gloves (thick will help with the squeamish factor) and to be honest, it's beautiful in the garden in the real early morning, and some of the bugs are pretty cool looking, if you remove the fear factor. I know it's 'trouble' but part of the point of gardens is working in them--it might be easier to spray poison all over everything instead, but if you want to eat poison and nutritionally depleted produce, you could just buy it at your local store instead. ;-)

If mosquitos are a problem in your area, well, I found this vietnam-era Army mosquito hat on eBay. It's just a hat with a wide brim that has mosquito netting that comes down on your shirt. Sometimes we have to be totally covered body-wise even to venture out there! I was a whiner about this at first, like I was entitled to not live in a reality where bugs chewed on me if I didn't cover every inch of my body, until I realized there are people who live in climates with almost no sunlight and freezing temps and THEY garden; there are people whose sole garden is a tiny container on a roof in New York; here in NE Oklahoma with a decent backyard, my gardening life is a dream come true! I've got NO place to complain. ;-)

5. Avoid seedlings that have disease. I know this seems like a "doh!" but many times I've gotten seedlings from walmart or a garden shop, only to have the entire batch sprout some disease, which instantly brings squash bugs to the garden in a major way or something, and then all my OTHER plants anywhere near them are in trouble too. Grow your OWN seedlings. If you don't want to hassle with the seedling process, take up winter sowing! You'll get some hardy seedlings with minimal effort.

If you want cheap seedlings likely free of disease, find a local garden or organic club or college gardening club or dept. and visit them -- usually the gardeners have way too many seedlings to plant as everyone deliberately overplants for loss, and will be delighted to give you a bunch of everything in little newspaper seedling cups or something, often free just to be nice.

6. Compost. The healthier your soil, the stronger your plants will be, to resist bugs, to 'heal' from holes bugs have chewed in them, to suffer less from overhot sun or underwatering or whatever.

7. One year I did do something that was very bug-killing, I admit. I had dumped seriously 'hot' compost on my beds, and in case you don't know, hot compost still has a lot of degrading to do, and so it is FOOD still and bugs are insanely drawn to it. Compost bins are bugfests bigtime, but they're supposed to be. I had one bed that had so many sal-bugs (pill bugs? roly-polies? whatever they are called) that literally, it was like there wasn't even soil, just so many bugs it looked like soil. I don't mind those little bugs individually, but the quantity of them nearly made me nauseous to look at it, it was like some nightmare visual in a movie.

I mixed diatomaceous earth into the soil. It's all natural, not a chemical. But it will kill anything with a soft exoskeleton, meaning everything born from that point in that kind of bug family. It is used in food storage. Of course, that means I'd have ZERO worms in that bed since it would kill them too! But I felt that for that one season, I would do it, and then get rid of most the soil the next season and start over.

My husband took over the garden when he arrived and never got rid of it, so... well he is leaving end of January for good, so that won't be an issue this season. We are getting divorced.

But don't be sad for me, be happy. We haven't had a relationship besides roommate since 1997. I split from him in late '99 and the only reason he's here now, is I was going to get him legal to live in this country, so he could be near his daughter [but elsewhere!]. But after 20 months of not only not pursuing making that happen, but actually resisting anything I asked, messing up my finances (his doing this the first 6 years we were married, then saying he lived in Canada and made zero money, has resulted in me owing the IRS more than a house mortgage!), not contributing a dime, being just how he was the first six years he lived with me like a helpless dependent child, I've revoked my invitation, so he is leaving. It was traumatic for a year while I agonized over the decision, not wanting to hurt him, not wanting my kid to lose her dad nearby, but I recently made the decision and so, that is that.

I am so much more cheerful about my future as a result! The garden is mine again!!!!!! I will have my aunt's landscaping crew take the top foot of the soil in that bed and dump it in a ground-level new bed I'd like to make for some pretty bushes, and some scattered salad-veggie seed so the little critters will have something to eat in spring... I'll use new soil to re-fill the bed.

The beds can't keep worms long-term because the beds are not open to the ground. Each year I have to add about a foot of soil to all of it around March. You can add worms yourself each season, but be sure you get the kind that eat soil and not some of the fishing kind that eat plants. ;-)

OK here's the few pics, sorry there's not more but it was a miracle even to find these.

First we put down black landscape mat. This lets water through, but nothing else. It is not biodegradeable.

Then we put down hardware metal 'cloth', to keep the rodents from burrowing up under it.

Then we put down rock. In the bed shown here, we had a ton of old/broken planter pots around from the landscaping, cheap plastic, and we decided to use those as some spacers, to save on a little soil. The other beds don't have that.

Then when the first beds were done, and the arches were in place against the fence, and the whole area between them had landscape mat and mulch for a nice walkable area in the middle, it was ready to plant.

Since then of course, I added a big round arbor in the middle, which I think I may put my lovely white birdbath in the middle of this spring, and a couple more beds as well.

Notice the white tubes sticking out of the pots. I originally made all the pots rather like the "earthbox" (google it) but we have SUCH a mosquito problem in this region, that was a nightmare. All the mosquitos went down the tube, nested VERY happily in the water container at the bottom, and literally... well it was just horrible. It was literally walking into a heavy, thick swarm you couldn't even breathe in and that just attacked you 500 at a time. We cleaned out the rain gutters of the house which were breeding them (the leaves from fall make a sort of cover for water that often sits for quite awhile), we removed the water-layer of the earthbox-type planters and just made them all soil instead. Now, if you do not have a mosquito problem, I recommend the earth box approach, especially for summer. If you do, then ANY standing water is a disaster. The "water bottle" approach I mentioned in my last post isn't an issue because the water will not stay in there long enough for them to breed.

Funny enough, I have no conscience about killing mosquitos. I figure anything that eats ME is fair game. Bugs that do my species no harm, I have no reason to punish any more than necessary.

If you have a kid,

They will really take to the garden if you plant stuff they love and can eat right out of it. (Another reason not to use poison!) Cherry tomatoes, mini-corns, baby carrots, watermelon, and anything else they like, including flowers, will make it much more interactive for them. So far I have never asked my kid to work with me there or made her; the last two years her dad had the garden and I asked him to blend her into it as she seemed more than old enough, but he didn't, so she is going to learn this season, whether she wants to or not. Which she won't, as she's a video game lazy modern kid, but little does she know ...... :-)

This year I also hope to get some 'toppers' -- flat brick tops that you put on top of cinderblock to make a nice neat flat edge -- not for everywhere, because we plant in the holes too!, but maybe on the main beds.

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