Monday, May 30, 2011

Jumping on the Right Gardening Bandwagon

Garden themes are a dime a dozen these days, though not quite as bad as the Diet and Exercise industry. Some of these are gimmicky, while others are classic categories handed down for generations. Really I want gardeners everywhere to just take two steps back and ask where the industry is going.

Compost Tea -

Okay I've never tired this personally but it seems to me hosing down the food with compost isn't as much of a good idea as you might think. What isn't mentioned here is you can occasionally grow Escherichia coli in the tea, also known as E. coli. Also 8 cups of compost sounds like a lot. 1 quart is what other folks online seem to be saying.

Hydroculture - Basically this is the stupid thing to the below. Actually it's wrong to call it stupid because it actually works. It's just you can't grow anything with a grow light alone. You need to have it next to a window to really grow anything out of it. Basically you're growing plants without soil, they survive because there's an air bubbler constantly feeding the roots air and ever two weeks or so you dump in a pill capsule of nutrients. This works but it feels anything but natural.

Aquaculture - This is the biggest waste of money unless you have a garage or green house devoted to it. The idea is the same as Hydroculture but instead of adding nutrients you have fish (usually Tilapia, Koi or Goldfish) living in a tank and the water is filtered through the growing beds. On a large scale I can see this working but as something to be put in your home or apartment it just doesn't work. I tried one product that cost $200+ which grew more mold gnats than anything edible. It must be placed next to a window to get the right amount of light and even then you will need a grow light over it. There isn't enough light coming in through your house windows to grow any edible plant. But if to much light hits the fish tank you'll get green algae which will suck up all the nutrients. In the home these really need to be in the right spot or it's all going to fail.

A few places do this on large scale and are more impressive. The issue though is because they're supplying food to the public and or allowing people to walk around and view their setup, they have to have the water tested daily to make sure E. coli isn't a concern. 

Topsy Turvy Tomato and Herb Planter
This sounds as stupid as it looks. Plants want to grow up, not down. They don't hole enough soil either. You're better off just growing a plant inside a bucket. Moving on. 

Permaculture - I love the idea here. Basically you garden as a forest. Tall trees are nitrogen fixing with their leaves every year, or otherwise a food crop in some right, vines are allowed to grow up and around them for more food production, shrubs are all food producing, The understory is a mix of shade tolerant plants that all serve some purpose in producing food. As we go farther out into more sun lit areas we find the traditional fruits and vegetables growing. And there's a cycle happening here as the trees drop their branches for firewood, or other material, so that everything is recycled and interconnected in the same system. Basically every plant here should be useful, there's no need for a lawnmower or anything like that other than to add to the compost pile.

What I hate about is when Permaculture nuts recommend stupid plants. YOU ARE NOT going to make your own paper or re-shingle your own house using bamboo. Anyone growing Trilliums as a source of toilet paper is an idiot. Perennial Sunflowers aren't all they're cracked up to be and frankly fall over on everything.

Crop Rotation - Okay this makes sense. It's actually grounded in reality. The idea is certain crops promote or use different nutrients in the soil. So one year you grow tomatoes, and the next year you move those to another spot, etc... Farmers used to do this a lot but used livestock and whatever crop they happen to be growing.

Square Foot Gardening -

With this we're still rotating the crops but they're being grown inter mingled as communities with different root types as opposed to a small mono-culture. This makes sense to me and is very similar to how I have my garden arranged. Along with working, it makes the garden look more like a landscape or flower arrangement almost. There's some design and ascetic qualities to take into account, or even if that's not your thing then it really doesn't matter because it all needs to grow together somehow.

Hummingbird Garden - These don't produce anything other than that is to say they attract hummingbirds. There are a lot of plants at nurseries that say they attract hummingbirds, so many in fact it leads one to believe that there are hummingbirds everywhere just around every corner you don't happen to be looking at right now. Where a lot of gardeners go wrong is actually believing these labels instead of doing research. If you're in the natural range of Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, then you should have several of these planted in your garden! This is one of the plants these birds migrate with the bloom of and it does a hell of a lot better than Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica which gets nothing but carpenter bees.

You'll hear other tips like, "include plants that get lots of insects," and, "always have a few evergreens nearby for them to nest in."

Now, I understand the second one, though I'll point out I've seen them nesting more openly at times. As for the first one... "include plants that get lots of insects,"... Where the hell did this come from? Considering the years and years of gardening mentality that is bugs are bad how the hell did these words come out of a gardener's mouth? What plant at the nursery has ever been labeled that? The only one that comes to mind is New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, which is really hard to find in most garden centers, and from my understanding has been on serious decline over the past 50 years! I think what they mean by lots of bugs really is that it gets lots of aphids and things like hover flies for them to eat. Caterpillars are also high on the menu.

Butterfly Garden - Here's another theme that a lot of gardeners go wrong with thanks to garden labels. There are a lot of videos online that stress the use of both nectar plants and host plants, and frankly a lot of them talk down to their audience in the process. It's okay to have a butterfly bush, in states where it's not considered a noxious weed, but I would rather have Ironweed, assorted Liatris, assorted Milkweed, some Joe Pye Weeds, Wild Senna, Buttonbush, Asters and Goldenrod all growing in the same 10 by 10 area one butterfly bush can take up.

One problem often talked about with butterfly gardeners is they never seem to have enough insects! Found in the what many call the bible of our age, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded Doug Tallamy has created a list of host plants, also available online! Woody Plants, Herbaceous Plants. So generally if you have a forest and prairie themed garden full of mostly natives you're doing great. Unfortunately most Lepidoptera are moths. Butterflies are actually a rather small group as a whole and considered to just be day time flying moths. To really get those host plants for each should be researched individually.

Vegetable Garden - Consequently, one problem often talked about with vegetable gardeners is they always have to many insects! I've caught my neighbor throwing Tomato Horn Worms over the fence cause she knows how much I love caterpillars. I'm often parted with how I should react in that situation.

Pollinator Garden - These are big with bee keepers mostly but include elements of butterfly and hummingbird gardens usually. As I've already talked about the other two I'll focus on the honeybee aspect. Going to beekeeping meetings and reading the newsletter often has me cringing at some of the recommendation people have. Often they're promoting down right invasive weeds as nectar sources. I refuse to promote what they are and I'll be posting a list of Native Plants for Honey Bees later in the year.

Xeriscaping - This is when plants are selected for their drought tolerant ability, often with a desert or rock garden theme. I like it but I don't feel that's it's meant for all areas. We have cacti all over, even here in New Jersey, but an entire garden devoted to it doesn't sounds right.

Rain Garden - Quite possibly the best choice of the lot. Water is collected, usually as run off from the gutters, and directed into a little pond or vernal pool, where plants often native and used in other categories above to filter the water. There's no fuss and no muss with this. It's just a water conscious garden.

Conclusions - So regardless of what you're doing and how your growing things, the underlying theme needs to be as follows. It is better to be pretty useful as opposed to just looking pretty. All exceptions must be native to within at least your region of the country. And it's that simple.