Category Archives: 30 Days to a Better Garden

Garden Cocktail Recipes ~ Let’s Relax (Day 13 of 30 DTABG)

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It’s Saturday and I’m hosting a virtual cocktail party so feel free to kick up your heels and relax, okay? I have a stocked bar and I’ve cleaned the low balls and cocktail shaker. What’s your poison? I’m making a mojito with our fresh mint (before it gets it’s annual fry from the summer sun) for myself, but I also have the ingredients to make these cocktails. Just let me know what you are in the mood for and I’ll make it for you.

In case you can’t make it to my cocktail party, here’s how I mix my mojito:

A Sonoma Garden Mojito
Sprig of 6 mint leaves
1 t. powdered sugar
Juice of 1.5 limes
2 oz. white rum
Sparkling Water
Ice

Muddle together the mint leaves and powdered sugar in the bottom of a low ball glass. Stir in lime juice. Fill glass with ice cubes. Add rum, fill to just below the rim with sparkling water. Add an extra mint spring for good looks. Kick back and enjoy.
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Go ahead, make yourself a garden inspired cocktail. You’ve worked hard all week and you deserve it.

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Companion Planting Simplified (Day 12 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

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Over the past three years we’ve gotten really into companion planting. We first discovered it by accident when we noticed that the peas that we were growing next to the fennel just weren’t growing well at all yet the peas at the other end of the row were doing just fine. We later learned that nothing grows well next to fennel. Soon after we bought the book Carrots Love Tomatoes from Amazon and now we carry that book outside each spring and fall when we are doing our plantings to find out who likes to grow next to whom. The idea behind companion planting is that some plants benefit other plants in all sorts of different ways and yet others inhibit growth so you want to group together the plants that do get along and keep the bad companions away. Since then we’ve been pairing our tomatoes, basil and carrots together and had fantastic results with all:

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Carrots Love Tomatoes is an essential book if you are going to delve into the world of companion planting. Not only does it go through every vegetable and herb’s best and worst companions, but it also adds in tons of folk lore, natural insect repellant, herbal health tips, just all sorts of great wisdom. We highly recommend you read it.

Even though that book thoroughly explains companion planting, it still can be a little difficult to figure out what goes well with what. I’ve tried to simplify it the best that I can using the information in Carrots Love Tomatoes. When I created this chart I chose 10 of the most commonly grown vegetables and kept their ‘loves’ and ‘hates’ simplified to other commonly grown vegetables. In creating this very simplified chart I hope it will help you with your garden planning. I’m working on getting that chart so that you can download it and print it out yourselves…I’ll have it up in a few days!

If you haven’t tried companion planting yet, give it a shot. Go get some carrot and basil seed and plant them around your tomato plants.

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How to Prune Tomatoes (Day 11 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

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Before you start reading about tomato pruning you need to decide if you are a quantity over quality person. And while you are at it, think about if you are a hands off gardener or a nurturing gardener. I ask you to think about those things because tomato pruning is an optional thing and honestly we’ve never made a strong practice of it. However I thought we should talk about it today because if you live in an area where tomato diseases are common, pruning your tomatoes might be the one thing that could save them.

Why Should You Prune Tomatoes?
As you probably know there are two types of tomatoes, determinate (growing only to a ‘determinted’ height) and indeterminate (which will grow as high as they possibly can in a growing season-our friend’s grew up and over his roof one year!). Determinate tomatoes don’t need pruning at all, but you might choose to take control of those indeterminate variety. Tomatoes are prolific growers when they are young and they shoot off branches and leaves in all directions, which is great. This strong early growth often provides for a nice sturdy base for this tall growing type. As the tomato grows, suckers start to grow between the main stem and the branches (I’m about to pinch one off in the photo above). By the end of the growing season you could have a real jungle on your hands. The danger of having such a dense mat of tomato branches is that it reduces the amount of sunlight and air that can get through the plant which increases your chances of disease. And while having so many branches increases your tomato yield, it could cost you in quality.

How Do You Prune Tomatoes?

The easiest way to keep tomatoes under control is to snip off the suckers with your fingers while they are small. You’ll want to use clippers for a nice clean cut if your suckers are too big to pinch off. In doing this, you will provide the tomato plant with one main stem and many stronger side branches. The reduced foliage will compete less with the fruit that is growing and provide you with larger more flavorful tomatoes. And because the fewer leaves are receiving more air and sunlight they will dry faster after a mid summer rainshower and will reduce their chance of being attached by a bacterial or fungal disease. If you are training your tomatoes to grow up a pole, this type of pruning is essential.

Some people claim that by pruning off the entire sucker that you don’t leave enough leaves for photo synthesis, so you could prune the sucker down to having only two or so leaves. This type of pruning is called Missouri pruning.

Why Don’t We Prune?
While our favorite must-read tomato growing book called, “How to Grow World Record Tomatoes” recommends sucker pruning, we don’t prune for quite a few reasons. First is that between a full time job, a business, two small boys, two cats and three chickens we just don’t have much extra time to do optional pruning. Also we like the look of our jungle tomato plants. Seeing all that lush greenery is beautiful. Plus we (knock on wood) haven’t had hardly any problems with tomato diseases over the years. We might be compromising our tomato quality, but there will be many years ahead of us when life itself doesn’t get in the way that we can prune our tomatoes. In the meantime, welcome to our tomato jungle!

Do you prune your tomato suckers? Has it made a difference?

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Check in With Your Notes (Day 10 of 30 DTABG)

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Now that we are 10 days into the month, I thought it might be a good day to check in with the garden planner and write down some notes. When you go out for your morning garden walk, bring your garden notes and write down little comments about how things are doing, what you’ve harvested so far, what has been a total flop etc. While taking notes can seem like a chore at times, I can’t tell you how much you’ll appreciate them next year. So go ahead and collect your favorite pen and notes and head out.

Today I’m writing down:

  • The Bloomdales Spinach and lettuce that we planted on 4/10 was torched before it matured in a late May heat wave
  • Between the Pea Progress #9 seeds and the Early Frosty Bush Peas, the early frosty were our favorite to eat. Much sweeter
  • The Cherrybell radishes we planted on 4/10 never really bulbed up
  • We harvested all the onions on 6/5 and in the name of succession gardening replanted one bed with bell peppers
  • Our Sweet 100 (we are going with a couple of big name hybrids this year for fun – we usually plant mostly heirlooms, but wanted a bigger quantity this year) tomato is growing the best of all and it already over 4 feet tall.
  • The tomato called ‘Italian Heirloom’ is looking a little limp and is the smallest tomato, but otherwise looks fine.

What are you putting in your garden notes today?

Today’s simple post is due to that fact that I was distracted from researching all of yesterday by my little nephew being born! Yippee!

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Succession Planting 101 (Day 8 of 30 DTABG)

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Many of you asked at the book giveaway to learn more about succession planting and planning in the garden. Whew, that’s a tricky subject. I’d give succession planting an ‘advanced’ label if gardening tasks came with labels. To tell you the truth, we still stumble around with keeping the garden active at all times with a continuous harvest. While we always have at least a handful of edibles in the ground all year long, being in the spot we are in, we really could do much better at it. But it is a learning process and so each year we get a little bit better.

What is Succession Planting?

It seems easy, you just keep planting lettuce, radish, spinach, zucchini and whatever else you want to keep growing all season every few weeks or so, then you have a continual supply of vegetables. Replanting crops of one vegetable and replacing one vegetable with another all count as succession planting. This concept is especially relevant in long growing zones like ours. Our zucchinis are just coming into production but after a few weeks or so they’ll reach zucchini retirement, yet we’ll have plenty more zucchini growing weather left. So the thought is that you start a second crop of zucchini that will reach full production by the time our existing ones peter out. This year, we’ve got summer squash covered, because after our Portofino zucchinis are done, we have yellow crookneck squash starts waiting in the wings to take over. The tricky part? Where to put those crookneck squash.

We have three crops of carrots in the ground now each planted about a month apart. Carrots are relatively easy to plant successively because they are so skinny that they fit neatly between plants. This year we planted the first round between the peas, the second round alongside the tomatoes and the most recent round along the melons.
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How to do Succession Planting in your own Yard?

I’d love to provide you with a neat and tidy chart of what to plant and when along with a garden layout of where you can plant your successive crops, but the truth is that you have to cater your succession planting to your specific yard. Our troubles with succession planting usually lie in where to put the second and third crops when our garden is already full. This year with the squash we’ll be able to pull out the russet potatoes in time to plant the crookneck squash. We somehow got lucky and as soon as the onions were ready to come out the peppers were ready to go in the ground in their spot. Once the garlic is ready to come out then we’ll have another empty bed to fill with maybe a fall crop of kale or chard. This sort of timing comes with practice and a healthy dose of intuition, which you will most certainly gain as you garden season after season.

Be prepared for trial and error when you try successive planting because you never know when you’ll get a freak heatwave that will torch your tender lettuce and spinach when you plant it too far out into the summer season. (as you can see, our lettuce and spinach days look to be over already:)

I have, however found some really great resources about succession planting to share with you.

Are you able to successfully succession garden? Do you have any tricks to share?

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How to Find Your Gardening Zone (Day 8 of 30 DTABG)

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Do you know what zone you are in? I’ll admit, we tend to forget exactly what zone we’re in. Mainly because not only is there the United States hardy zones to consider, but if you are in the West and follow the Sunset Western Garden book (which you should), they have a whole other set of zones.

In case you are unfamiliar of what a zone is, it is bascially a defined region that shares a similar climate. There are 10 zones in the United States, 1 being the coolest and 11 being the hottest. Each zone is approximately 10 degrees warmer that the next, on average. Dividing up regions into zones help define what plants can survive in what areas. So for instance those in zones 7-9 will be able to grow different things and those in zones 4-6. These guidelines help when you are researching new plants that you want to grow. While we would really like to grow blueberries, but there are specific kinds that grow in our zone but many that don’t. And while it’s hot enough for us to grow peppers, many spots in the United States just don’t get warm enough to grow peppers. In the end, knowing your zone will help you better plan your garden and help eliminate plants that just won’t work for your area. (which saves much frustration from feeling like you are the one who can’t get the plant to grow!)

Here in Sonoma, it seems like we are in a tricky spot to define. We have a large coastal influence, but we’re also in a valley which gets bakin’ hot! I usually get slightly different results from online zone finders but usually come out in zone 9. What zone are you in? When you get your result write it down on your garden plan that we did last week so you don’t forget!

How to find your zone:

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Harvest a Salad (Day 7 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

The beginings of a garden salad
Since this is a Sunday, let’s take it easy today and make a salad with what we’ve grown. I think at this point in the growing season everyone in the northern hemisphere should have something ready for a salad, if not lettuce, than maybe a radish or a pea or some sort of terrific green thing to add. Filling your table with things you’ve grown is so satisfying, even if it is a snippet of rosemary for the salad dressing. An early season garden fresh salad gives us motivation to keep going with this crazy garden thing we’ve undertaken.

This weekend, we have pea shoots, amaranth sprouts, lettuce, radishes, a few young carrots, onions and various other edible weeds to add to our salad.

What do you have to add to your salad?

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Let’s Spend 15 Minutes Weeding Today (Day 6 of 30 DTABG)

Weeding, I know, I know, it’s not the most glamorous garden job, but it must be done. Let’s all motivate by spending just 15 minutes weeding this weekend. You’ll be amazed at how much weeding you can get done if you power it out. Like we talked about earlier this week, ridding your veggie garden of weeds also gets rid of snails and slug habitats. Make it fun to see if you have any edible weeds growing in your yard – it’s so much fun to find things to eat that you don’t have to work at growing at all.

After you weed, you could try out a new mulch. Or just sit back with a cup of tea or glass of wine and enjoy the beauty of your hard work.

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How to Mulch (Day 5 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

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Mulch is a gardeners best friend. When we mulch we notice a difference in our garden almost the very next day, it’s miraculous. The plants seem to perk up a bit due to all the extra moisture retention in the soil. The mulch keeps the weeds at bay and over all gives the garden a finished look. If you aren’t familiar with it, mulch is basically a material either organic or inorganic that you put over the ground around plants to insulate the ground. If you are a garden newbie, mulching can seem a little overwhelming, there are so many choices, it seems like a lot of work and the idea of covering up the soil that you’ve worked so hard to soften and get ready for your new plants is counter intuitive. But I’ll help explain what to use, how to do it and what the benefits are so that you can mulch your garden it with confidence and ease. You won’t regret it, I promise!

First let’s talk about why you should mulch. There are so many reason to mulch:

  1. Helps the moisture from watering in the soil instead of evaporating into the air so fast
  2. Smothers weeds by preventing light from reaching weed seeds
  3. Shades the soil that it keeps the soil cooler therefore preventing heat stress on plants
  4. Likewise it also works to keep the soil warmer on cooler nights
  5. Keeps your vegetables cleaner
  6. Adds organic matter into your soil as it breaks down, increasing your soil’s nutrient content

There are so many things you can use to mulch your garden with. This year we are using straw because it’s fairly inexpensive, very effective and we already have it on hand to use for the chicken coop (and we had extra bales that we used as seating at our Harvest Party). Our favorite soil book is called Secrets to Great Soil and I highly recommend that you get a copy (it’s inexpensive) if you are interested in improving your soil. This book has a chapter on mulches which includes a great chart of all the different things you can mulch with. It rates it’s appearance, insulation value, relative cost, how thick you should lay it down, it also rates it’s weed control along with a number of other factors. It’s a great book. For the sake of simplicity, I am only going to share with you inexpensive yet effective choices from that long list. While you may want to use expensive, good looking and fragrant cocoa hulls for your front yard flowerbed, it might break the bank to use it for a large vegetable garden.

Here is a list of lower cost, effective mulch materials:

  1. Chopped or Shredded Leaves – Adding a 2-3 inch layer of leaves over your garden beds can be free if you have many trees on your property. It is listed as a good insulator and a good method of weed control.
  2. Coffee Grounds – I use coffee grounds (always less than 1 inch deep) in my potted plants. We are big coffee drinkers here so we always have plenty of grounds. This might be a good option if you are in an urban area and getting bales of hay isn’t a convenient option. Coffee grounds as a mulch is a fair insulator and good at weed control, and it looks nice too. Plus as Daphne mentioned yesterday in the comments, coffee grounds make for excellent slug and snail control.
  3. Compost – We typically don’t mulch with compost. While we do add compost to the soil and sometime spread a layer of compost around the plant during the growing season, we usually spread something over the compost layer as a mulch. However if you have plenty of compost it makes a good insulator and is fair at weed control. Spread a 1-3 inch layer over the soil around your plants.
  4. Hay & Straw – Being that we live in an agricultural area, getting bales of hay and straw is easy and convenient. We also like the look of it as a mulch and it is easy to get the boys involved in gardening – they love to carry big armfuls of it. To be effective, you’ll want to spread a 6-8 inch layer of straw or hay on the ground to have it be both a good insulator and weed barrier.
  5. Grass Clippings – We use grass clippings in some places too, where big stalks of straw seem too bulky. Grass clippings are free for us and it only takes an inch of fresh clippings to provide a good layer of insulation. Make sure however that your grass is not going to seed when you cut it or you’ll get grass seed all in your garden, which is not good. Grass clippings are an excellent fertilizer too, which you can read more about here.
  6. Newspaper – While layers of newspaper around the garden might not be the most attractive thing, it can be a low cost way to provide good weed control. Spread several layers around plants, but make sure to avoid the colored glossy inserts. If you have the time, shred or rip up the sections for even better coverage.
  7. Seaweed – If you like to take trips to the coast like we do, bring a big garbage bag with you and collect seaweed on your beach walk. Seaweed makes an excellent weed barrier and a good insulator. You’ll need to add a good 4-6 inch layer to the soil which will slowly break down and add nitrogen, potash and micronutrients to your soil.

We typically add mulch right after our plants have been placed in the ground in spring. We start by keeping the mulch away from the base of the plant at first when they are little and tender and gradually add a thicker layer as the plant grows. In fall we rake all the straw and grass off and add it to the compost pile.

Do you use mulch? What do you use? What has worked and what hasn’t?

Check here to see who won the book giveaway! Thank you for all of your great suggestions and questions!

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Keeping Slugs & Snails Away from Seedlings (Day 4 of 30 DTABG)

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It rained here the night before last and as I type this the weather looks threatening. Rain in these parts in June is rare, but with our drought it is always welcome. What is not welcome are all the slugs and snails that come out from where ever they hide to feast on our new garden additions. Snails and slugs can be detrimental to new spring gardens when everything is so tender and fresh. We’ve  tried pretty much everything that has been considered organic and pet/child safe in the garden and I’ll list it all below, but what works the best for us is using copper piping around our garden rows.

Copper piping surely is not the cheapest way to deter snails and slugs, but it is the most effective (they get a slight electrical charge when they crawl over it with makes them quickly retreat) and can be used year after year. Copper pipes can be found at your hardware store and cutting them to the length of your garden beds is easy with the right tool. We lay them out in early spring when we’ve set our beds up, we make sure to weed well around the pipes (so that no weeds overlap the pipe and make a bridge into the garden) and we’re pretty much golden for the growing season. In fall when we’re ready to retire the majority of our garden, we pick up the pipes and set them in a safe place. We’ve been doing this for three years now and can’t report any snail/slug problems (that I can remember). We also like this because the cats nor the kids can be harmed from the copper pipes and it looks nice and tidy.

Here are some other organic ways to prevent snails and slugs from eating your garden:

  1. Clean up around your garden. Snails and slugs love to hid in weeds, rocks and all sorts of other dark shady areas. By eliminating these areas around yoru garden you’ll get rid of the majority of your snail and slug problems.
  2. Beer traps. Now, this hasn’t worked for us, but enough people have told us about it that it must work for someone! Set out little dishes (empty tuna cans work well) of beer nestled in your garden. The snails and slugs will be attracted to the beer but will drown once they slid into the dish.
  3. Diatomaceaous Earth. This is the crushed up skeletons of a marine algea that appears like a powder. You lay out a 3-4 inch wide strip of diatomaceaous earth all around your entire garden bed and the sharp edges of the skeletal remains lacerate the skins of the slugs and snails. Those small cuts cause the slimy guys to dehydrate and die. (Nice huh?) We’ve tried this and it does work well, but you need to keep reapplying after it gets wet (it is ineffective once wet). You can buy Diatomaceous Earth DE Crawling Insect Killer – 1.5 lbs online.
  4. Give them a collar. If you are specifically worried about new seedlings being descimated by snails and slugs, make a collar from a paper cup to put around your seedling. Push this slightly into the ground to make sure it doesn’t get knocked over and this collar will keep creatures from crawling over and making lunch out of your new garden growth.

Tell me what keeps slugs and snails from eating your garden? Have you tried any of these tricks? Do you have one of your own that you want to share?

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