As your raspberry and blackberry seasons wind down and you begin your winter preparations, watch for signs of raspberry crown borers, also known as blackberry crown borers (Pennisetia marginata).
The first signs of infestation include withering and wilting. Close inspection of the crown at soil level may yield a small hole surrounded by frass that looks like sawdust. There are no biological or organic treatments against this pest. Commercial growers often use Diazinon to combat these pests, but that chemical is highly toxic to bees (and it probably isn’t good for us, either).
The more you know about raspberry crown borers, the better equipped you will be to prevent infestation.
Is it a moth or a wasp?
It all starts with what looks like a wasp. This type of clearwing moth has a one-inch wingspan. It is black with four or more stripes around the abdomen. The antennae are feathery and curled at the tips, the wings have longitudinal bars, and the legs are yellow. First-year larvae are one-half to one-inch long, while second-year larvae may reach an inch-and-a-half long.
Raspberry crown borer lifecycle
These fascinating (and destructive) parasites go through a two-year cycle that starts with females laying up to 140 rust-colored eggs on the underside of leaflets in late summer. Take a peek and extermigate any eggs you see. Larvae create tiny blistered hibernaculum (“winter tents”) in the base of the crown, where they are safe from winter weather and predators.
As temperatures rise, larvae burrow galleries throughout the crown, feeding as they go. In some cases, these larvae emerge as adults at the end of the summer. They often remain in these protected galleries through a second winter, causing even more damage.
Keeping plants healthy and monitoring for eggs and entry holes are the best preventative tools. Any plants infested with raspberry crown borers should be removed and destroyed.
No, we’re not talking about the sudden appearance of wax fruit in your backyard orchard. But if your peach trees are languishing, this may be the information you need.
Phony peach is a bacterial disease. Many trees with bacterial infections look scorched. Bacteria block the vascular tissue, so water and nutrients cannot move around, often killing a tree within two or three years. Phony peach disease does not behave this way. This disease gets its name because it makes you think the tree is healthy, maybe just a little slow. But it is dying.
Cause and carriers of phony peach disease
Xylella fastidiosa bacteria cause phony peach disease. This bacteria is also responsible for alfalfa dwarf, bacterial leaf scorch, citrus variegated chlorosis, coffee leaf scorch, oleander leaf scorch, olive quick decline, and Pierce’s disease.
Sharpshooters, especially glassy-winged sharpshooters, carry the bacteria responsible for phony peach disease.
Symptoms of phony peach disease
Symptoms of phony peach disease initially look insignificant, giving it time to spread before you can start protecting neighboring trees. Remove infected trees right away.If you are aware of and look for these symptoms, you may be able to save the rest of your peach trees:
As the disease progresses, you may also see shoot dieback and a significant reduction in normal shoot development.
Phony peach disease management
In this case, prevention is the only way to go. Use the following good habits to prevent phony peach disease from occurring in your landscape:
Viruses are nearly always bad news, but sometimes they can surprise you. The tobacco mild green mosaic virus is one of those.
This viral disease can infect your peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. It can also help out.
Symptoms of tobacco mild green mosaic
Stunting, leaf mottling and puckering, and deformed fruits are all symptoms of tobacco mild green mosaic. These symptoms look similar to cucumber green mottle mosaic, tobacco mosaic, and tomato brown rugose, and with good reason. The viruses that cause these diseases are close cousins.
There are no chemical treatments for tobacco mild green mosaic. Good cultural practices like hand washing, sanitizing your tools, and avoiding infected areas, can slow the spread of this disease. And keep weeds in the nightshade family at a distance.
Tobacco mild green mosaic trivia
This virus is an approved herbicide in the US. Scientists discovered that the virus responsible for tobacco mild green mosaic is lethal to tropical soda apple. Tropical soda apple (Solanum viarum Dunal) is a spiny, invasive weed that makes farmland, orchards, and pastures less productive. Florida estimated, in 2022, that tropical soda apple infested 1 million acres of their agricultural land.
According to the American Chemical Society, this virus can kill parasitic nematodes. In 2017, parasitic nematodes cost the global agricultural industry $157 billion. That’s a lot of zucchini!
So maybe the tobacco mild green mosaic virus isn’t all bad.
Do your tomatoes have brown or yellow spots? Do they look lumpy? Are the leaves mottled and narrow? It may be a relatively new viral disease called brown rugose. Rugose means lumpy or wrinkled.
Easily mistaken for chemical overspray, brown rugose is a close cousin to tobacco mild green mosaic and often occurs in tandem with pepino mosaic virus (PepMV). First seen in 2015 in Jordan, the tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV) infects eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. By 2018, it had reached Europe and North America.
Symptoms of brown rugose
In addition to lumpy, spotted, wrinkled fruit, the brown rugose virus also causes fruits to be deformed, ripen unevenly, or develop a brown inner wall. Leaves may become narrow and discolored. Shoestringing may occur in severe cases.
Mosaic patterns and stunting are common. Brown streaking and dead areas may also develop on leaf stems (petioles), flower stems (pedicles), and calyxes (sepals).
Brown rugose management
This persistent virus spreads through contaminated garden tools, hands, seeds, weeds, global grocery store and seedling markets, and local pollinators. With all of those avenues of transmission, quarantining new plants and good sanitation are your best control measures. Also, only install seeds certified to be ToBRFV-free and do not use grocery store tomato seeds. These viruses can survive in the soil for more than ten years, so it is better to err on the side of caution.
If you suspect brown rugose in your garden, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and contact your local County Extension Office.
There’s always a certain measure of chaos in a garden, but chaos gardening has a purpose.
Seeds don’t last forever. And few of us get around to using them all. While you can host a fun seed swap, you can also use those seeds to create a chaos garden. Like books sitting on a shelf, seeds left in a packet do no one any good.
Monoculture v. mixed plantings
In Nature, monoculture rarely exists and never lasts. Pests and disease can quickly take hold, potentially wiping out everything. [Can you say Potato Famine?] Plants grow best when surrounded by other plant species. Meadows are healthier than lawns. Companion planting (in its true sense) is more productive than monoculture. Research has demonstrated that mixed plantings reduce the need for crop rotation, fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, and added pollinators. And that means a lot less work for you.
Chaos garden design takes advantage of this research by throwing every leftover seed you have into the mix. Instead of every plant grabbing for the same nutrients, a mixture of plant species grows at differing rates, using different nutrients at different times, reducing the strain of competition for all of them. This tight mix of plants chokes out weeds. It also attracts a variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects. This increasing biodiversity boosts pollination rates and creates bigger harvests.
You can use a bare patch of ground, raised bed, a sidewalk strip, an old kiddie pool, or a window box for your chaos garden. Keyhole garden spaces work well, too.
How to plant a chaos garden
Unlike most vegetable gardens, which require planning, rows, and lots of preparation, a chaos garden lets Nature take its course and do most of the work for you. The process is simple:
At this point, you can decide whether to water your chaos garden or not. You can fertilize it or not. It is up to you.
The downside of chaos gardening
Plants growing close together in a riot of leaves and stems can set the stage for fungal diseases such as blights, rots, and spots, so avoid overhead watering. It can also hide pest infestations. Simply throwing a bunch of seeds into a space does not mean your chaos garden is completely maintenance-free. You should still monitor your chaos garden for signs of pests and diseases.
Chaos gardening is a great way to eliminate the waste of unused seeds. And you might be pleasantly surprised when you see how well they grow.
Popular in Indonesian, Malaysian, and Philippine recipes, pandan leaves are floral, grassy, and sweet, much like vanilla beans. They create green food coloring and give basmati rice, jasmine rice, and white bread their characteristic aromas.
Unknown in the wild, the only way to create a pandan plant is through cuttings and suckers. Pandan is a wholly human-created plant that has been around since ancient times. When I say human-created, I do not mean someone was splicing genes 5,000 years ago. Instead, people cultivated pandan vegetatively for specific traits. Plants generated in this way are called cultigens.
Pandan plants are available for purchase, or you may be able to get a cutting from a friend. As always, place new plants in quarantine when you bring them home. Just in case.
Being tropical plants, pandan plants prefer moist, loose soil. They grow best with plenty of bright sunlight but can also grow in partial shade (or in your living room). When watering your pandan, keep the leaves and crown free of water. If your pandan is in a container, it is best to water from the base, filling the saucer instead of from above. The addition of a small amount of vermiculite can lighten the soil, as well as improve its moisture-holding ability. In winter, pandan plants need significantly less water. In summer, they need more to prevent sunburn.
Pandan pests and diseases
If the leaves start yellowing, it is probably due to overwatering. Allow the top 2 or 3 inches of soil to dry before adding water. Too much moisture often leads to root rot. Yellowing leaves may also indicate aphid, mealybug, or mite infestations.
Profoundly cheaper than vanilla, a pandan plant might be just what you’ve been looking for!
If you bite into a sunflower seed and find a worm, it’s probably a sunflower moth.
Sunflower moths lay their eggs in sunflower heads. When those eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars begin feeding on developing seedheads and burrow into the seeds to feed. In doing so, they create wounds that allow diseases, such as Rhizopus head rot, to get in. And who wants to bite into a worm, even if it is tiny?
Each moth only lives for 7-10 days, but females quickly begin laying eggs on the underside of sunflower heads and the inner bracts. Larvae go through five instars as they feed on developing sunflower seeds. Then they fall to the ground, burrow into the soil, and overwinter in a cocoon. There are several sunflower moth species, but they are all prolific and destructive.
American sunflower moths
American sunflower moths (Homoeosoma electellum) are also found in South America. They have a ¾” wingspan and off-white, feathered wings with dark spots scattered along the forward and outer edges. American sunflower moth caterpillars feed extensively on canola and sunflowers. They also feed on cotton, orange blossoms, and yacón.
Banded sunflower moths
Banded sunflower moths (Cochylis hospes) are tiny, pale moths with a ½” wingspan. Those wings are tan with a dark triangular band on the forewings. Larva are off-white when they hatch but turn red or green as they grow. Their heads are dark. These moths are found in the eastern United States.
Cuban sunflower moths
Less is known about Cuban sunflower moths (Heterocampa cubana), which are also found in Florida. These stocky moths have dark forewings decorated with lines and patterns and lighter underwings. Cuban sunflower moth caterpillars are solid green with a yellow, red, or purple stripe along the top and pinhole dots on the sides. These caterpillars feed on sunflowers, mangrove flowers, and probably other plants.
Eurasian sunflower moths
Currently found in Anatolia, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and West Africa, Eurasian sunflower moths (Homoeosoma nebulella) are darker and slightly larger than their American counterparts. They have wingspans of up to one inch. Eurasian moth caterpillars are gray with three stripes on top. Their heads are yellow. They feed heavily on sunflowers, ox-eye daisies, tansy, and thistle.
Larval feeding interferes with pollination as well as destroys your crop. You may see webbing on affected sunflower seedheads.
You can use pheromone traps to determine if these pests are present, but the traps will not eliminate the problem. One way to reduce the risk of sunflower moth damage is to delay planting sunflowers until slightly later in the season. This makes life more difficult for the moths, who will look elsewhere for egg-laying sites. Beneficial insects should also be encouraged with a variety of flowering plants. These predators and parasites will reduce the damage done by sunflower moths. Research is currently underway for resistant varieties of sunflowers, so be on the lookout.
If the caterpillars on your sunflowers are dark and have spines, it’s probably checkerspots.
Minerals are in that category of things you feel pretty sure you know what they are until you start digging.
What are minerals?
In my mind’s eye, I always thought of minerals as tiny rocks, but I was only partly correct. Rocks are relatively homogenous, solid geologic materials. Rocks may consist of one mineral or be an aggregate of several minerals. According to the dictionary, minerals are “solid inorganic substances of natural occurrence” which coincides nicely with my rock theory. More accurate definitions describe minerals as well-defined chemical compositions with specific, naturally occurring crystal structures. My tiny rock theory is okay up to this point, but this is where it starts getting tricky.
Did you know that there are different mineral species and varieties? I didn’t, either. One tiny difference in the composition of a mineral changes it completely. Common quartz becomes amethyst when impurities turn it purple.
Other minerals are biogenic. Biogenic refers to materials made from or by living things. Calcite of chalk and limestone fame is a biogenic mineral consisting of the bodies of tiny algae, fairy shrimp, oyster shells, and other marine organisms.
The rules about mineral classification are not set in stone, however. Opals and obsidian seem to meet the mineral criteria but don’t quite make the cut. They are mineraloids. I have no idea why.
Other minerals are classified chemically as organic compounds. These minerals are organic in the sense of being related to living material. For example, mellite is a mineral made from plant material. And the carbon that makes up all life on Earth is also in this category. The carbon cycle transforms inorganic compounds into organic ones. Of course, scientists are still debating about where the line between organic and inorganic lies, but we’ll leave that line in the sand to them.
Garden variety minerals
Plants use minerals as food. When they use relatively large amounts, we call them macronutrients. Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are the Big Three macronutrients but plants also use large amounts of calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). Plants also consume tiny amounts of micronutrients such as boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and zinc (ZN). These minerals naturally occur in the soil. And there’s only one way to find out what’s in yours. That’s with a lab-based soil test. These tests are inexpensive. They provide the information you need to feed your plants correctly. Unfortunately, those cute plastic test kits from your local garden store are not yet accurate enough to be useful.
Too much fertilizer can cause some minerals to reach toxic levels, creating more harm than good, especially with boron, chlorine, iron, and manganese. Soil can also contain high levels of aluminum (Al) and sodium (Na) which interferes with plant growth.
As of November 2020, the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) recognized 5,863 unique minerals on Earth. Of those, nearly 500 minerals came from somewhere else.
Now you know.
Imagine your landscape in tune with natural cycles and rhythms, filled with a balance of plants, animals, and other organisms that allow it to thrive with little help on your part.
Regenerative gardening can make that dream come true.
Regenerative gardening and biodiversity
You can plant rows of hybrids and install invasive box store specials. Or, you can create an environment that supports biodiversity, reduces pests and diseases, increases pollination rates, sequesters carbon, and creates a nurturing space in your backyard.
You can make regenerative gardening a part of your landscape with these simple tasks:
While some birds, such as jays, will damage your tomato and fruit crops, many others, including chickadees, phoebes, and wrens, will take a big bite out of your insect population.
Composting your kitchen and garden waste adds plant nutrients, improves soil structure, and feeds helpful soil microorganisms, and composting is free.
Cut the chemicals
Natural cycles keep pests and diseases in check. Chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides interrupt those natural cycles, while most organic gardening products do not. Integrated pest management (IPM) can help you win those battles without nuking your yard.
During the dormant season, plant cover crops and green manures to feed beneficial soil bacteria, reduce erosion, and minimize weeds. Clovers, blackeyed peas, and other legumes make excellent cover crops as they add nitrogen to the surrounding soil. And sturdy fava bean roots make short work of compacted soil.
Herbs and flowers
Diversify your landscape by adding herbs and flowers. Intersperse your ornamental plants and edible crops with flowers of various colors, sizes, and shapes. Dill, marigolds, rosemary, sweet alyssum, thyme, and other herbs and flowers attract beneficial insects, such as honey bees and hoverflies. These garden helpers reduce the number of pests in your garden while increasing your harvest. And fresh herbs are always good to have on hand!
A thick layer of clean mulch stabilizes soil temperatures, retains moisture, reduces weeds, and improves soil structure. You can often get mulch for free from local tree trimmers. Just be sure to keep it away from tree trunks.
Nab those natives
Native plants already know how to live successfully in your region. Adding them to your landscape provides food for beneficial insects and reduces your workload.
Paths for peds
Walking on the soil compacts it, making life more difficult for delicate plant roots. A simple path can protect plants, microorganisms, earthworms, and other aspects of your regenerated garden.
Digging the soil damages the fungal networks that feed our plants. After harvesting, let an area go fallow for a season to rest and recover. And replace that lawn with a self-sustaining meadow.
Take the test
You need to know what is in your soil before adding anything. Over-fertilizing is expensive, destructive, and hard to correct. An inexpensive soil test tells you exactly what is in your soil, what is needed, and what has reached toxic levels. Just Google “soil test” to find a lab near you, or use the University of Massachusetts soil test lab. Sadly, those pretty plastic tubes you see in garden centers are not (yet) accurate enough to be helpful.
We cannot fix everything overnight, but we can all take small steps that move us in the right direction. Regenerative gardening is one of those steps.
As a young child, I visited my grandmother in Oregon. We had hunkered down, picking luscious, red strawberries in her garden, when a snake suddenly slid over my hand and disappeared under the straw. Needless to say, I was startled. But it didn’t bite me, nobody killed it, and we resumed our strawberry picking.
We know then when we see them: skinny, legless, earless, some would say slimy reptiles. They frequently trigger a visceral response, but most snakes are more helpful than harmful. Case in point, you are nearly ten times more likely to die in the US from a lightning strike than a snake bite.
However, even nonvenomous snake bites can cause an allergic reaction, so we should know how to respond.
Treat all snake bites as though the snake was venomous, using these tips from Johns Hopkins Medical:
Contrary to movie drama, do not suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet. If the swelling worsens, or your breathing becomes labored, go to an emergency room.
Preventing snake bites
The easiest way to prevent a snakebite is to leave them alone. If you are like me and created a meadow in your landscape, you can prevent snake bites and other foot injuries by wearing boots instead of flip-flops. And make sure you can see into dark spaces before reaching in with an unprotected hand. Snakes aren’t the only things that may be hiding there. Rat bites are far worse than snake bites, in my opinion. Snakes are solitary creatures and will avoid you when they can.
As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes will often sun themselves to collect warmth. You can encourage snakes in your garden with rock piles that provide a place to hide, as well as a place to safely catch some rays. Before panicking at the first sight of a snake, let’s learn a little about these amazing creatures.
The snake clan
There are approximately 3,900 species of snakes (Serpentes) in the world. Of those, 725 are considered venomous. The US is home to two types of venomous snakes: coral snakes and pit vipers. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads (water moccasins) are all pit vipers. To see which venomous snakes are native to your state, the antivenom company, CroFab created a handy interactive tool you can try here.
While each region has its favorites, the most common garden-variety snakes include garter snakes, kingsnakes, milk snakes, racers, rat snakes, and water snakes.
It is easy to confuse snake species, especially when the adrenaline is flowing. This rhyme may help:
“Red on black, a friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Or, simply, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Also, snakes of the same species can look very different depending on the region, locale climate, and other factors.
Snakes smell using their tongues, and many species have heat sensors on their snouts. Their bellies are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Unlike bears, which sleep during hibernating, snakes remain awake but unmoving in a behavior called brumation when temperatures drop. And snakes do not dislocate their jaws. Instead, their lower jaws are flexible enough to allow them to swallow prey larger in diameter than they are.
Snakes as an indicator species
As predators, snakes only live where there is food. If your garden hosts a snake, you can pat yourself on the back for creating a healthy and diverse ecosystem in your yard. Snakes commonly eat insects, mice, moles, rats, slugs, tarantulas, and voles that damage your crops. On the other hand, snakes are food for birds and other mammals. A garden with a snake is generally a healthy place
Sharpshooters are cousins of cicadas and a type of leafhopper (Cicadellidae). And they can bring several diseases to your garden plants.
Almonds, blackberries, citrus, cowpeas, elderberries, grapes, and stone fruits are are just a few plants vulnerable to sharpshooter feeding. And their tastes appear to be expanding to include other crops.
Diseases spread by sharpshooters
Once an adult sharpshooter becomes infected with a disease, it will act as a vector for that disease for the rest of its life. Those diseases include the following:
Scientists are still learning about sharpshooters. They believe further research will demonstrate that even more diseases will be associated with sharpshooter feeding. So how do you know if sharpshooters are in your landscape?
Symptoms of a sharpshooter infestation
Sharpshooters are hard to see. They are very good at hiding. When disturbed, they often leap into the air or shuttle sideways. The first sign of a sharpshooter infestation is leaf stippling. Leaves may also turn brown. New shoots curl and die before they ever get a chance to produce a crop.
These pests feed on the sap found in the xylem. This sap is 95% water, so they must eat a lot to get the nutrients needed. They may be small, but sharpshooters can consume hundreds, or even thousands, of times their body weight in sap in their short lives. [That would be like you or me drinking 400 gallons of water each day!]
In doing so, they produce large quantities of sticky honeydew. Honeydew is a type of bug poop that contains sugar and ammonia. Honeydew creates the perfect growing medium for sooty mold. You may also see pale exoskeletons scattered about as sharpshooters go through five instars before reaching adulthood.
Sharpshooter adults are small, usually one-quarter to one-half an inch long, wedge-shaped, and slender. Depending on the variety, they are brightly colored or may blend with their favorite food plants. Immature sharpshooters are called nymphs. Nymphs look like miniature adults but without wings. They may also be a different color.
If you look very closely, you will see that the back of their legs are serrated. The most common sharpshooters found in North America include the following:
There are some nasty chemical pesticides used against sharpshooters in commercial environments. You can control them with ultra-light horticultural or neem oils. You can also protect your plants with reflective mulches, row covers, and yellow sticky sheets. And always quarantine new plants. You never know what's lurking.
The easiest way to protect your crops against sharpshooter damage and the diseases they carry is to encourage their natural enemies. These include green anoles, dragonflies, fairyflies, praying mantises, snare-building spiders, and twisted-wing parasites. There are even a couple of fungi known to attack and mummify sharpshooters — but I can’t imagine how you might organize that attack!
You can attract and protect beneficial insects by not using broad-spectrum insecticides, installing insectary plants, and providing a variety of flower shapes, sizes, and colors. Those flowers provide the nectar and pollen that attract and feed your garden helpers.
What looks like a sweet potato, contains no starch, and tastes like an apple crossed with watermelon?
It’s called yacón. Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a cousin of sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes, grown in Central and South America for its crisp, fruity tubers. It goes by several other names, including Bolivian sunroot, Peruvian ground apple, and strawberry jicama.
Yacón is a large perennial herb that grows from rhizomes. It can reach eight feet tall under ideal conditions. The leaves are large and furry on top, and the stems are angular and hollow. The bisexual flowers are relatively small and yellow. Dark brown seeds are achenes.
There are two types of underground tubers. The large brown tubers are preferred for eating, while the reddish rhizomes growing at the base of the plant are generally left to propagate. Those brown tubers can weigh more than four pounds!
How to grow yacón
While you can grow yacón from seeds, the plants will mature faster when started from rhizomes or stem cuttings. Unlike potatoes, you cannot start new yacon plants from the tubers.
Yacón grows best in temperatures between 65F and 78°F. Light freezing will kill the aboveground portion of the plant, but the rhizomes will generate new sprouts when things warm up. Heavy freezes will kill the plant, so you may want to grow yours in a large container. Raised beds with frost protection can also be used.
Plant your yacón around the last frost date. Each rhizome should have several sprouts and be free of any rot. Place them two feet apart and cover them with an inch or so of soil. Mulch the area thoroughly. The yacón plant will grow through the mulch.
They are heavy feeders, so top dressing with aged compost will help your plants get established. These plants grow fast, which makes them lovely patio plants. In six or seven months, after the flowers have appeared and died back, your yacón crop should be ready for harvesting. The soil around the base of the yacón plant may also begin to ‘heave’ when the crop is ready.
As the upper portion of the plants dies back, the tubers in the ground get sweeter, so you may want to harvest over an extended period. When you dig up your yacon, do not damage the skin. Brush off any dirt and let them dry in the sun before storing. Yacón is often grown alongside agricultural fields to provide quick refreshing snacks to the workers. You can enjoy yours that way, as well!
Yacón pests and diseases
Root-knot nematodes can create galls on the root system, and sunflower caterpillars may feed heavily on the leaves. You can plant sunflowers among your yacón to draw the caterpillars away.
Several Badnaviruses [Isn’t that a great name for a virus group?], such as the yacón necrotic mottle and yucca bacilliform viruses, can infect these plants. Rhizoctonia blight can also become a problem. You can prevent both diseases by installing certified disease-free cuttings or rhizomes.
According to WebMD, yacón root syrup may help manage diabetes, inflammation, and weight control. You could be the first person in your neighborhood with fresh yacon on demand!
Time is a precious resource. And it’s why many people think they can’t grow food at home. But they can. It’s a matter of putting nature to work for you in ways that reduce your workload while allowing you to produce the freshest food possible
Start with the soil
Soil is the bedrock of your garden. Get it tested by a lab. These tests are simple and inexpensive. Search online for a local lab (preferable) or use the University of Massachusetts soil lab. Lab-based soil tests will tell you precisely what is in your soil, what is needed, and what may be present in excessive levels. Adding more fertilizer is not always the right choice.
Is your soil sandy, loamy, or clay? Plants have preferences. The more you know about your soil, the better equipped you will be to select the right plants for your low-maintenance garden.
Consider your climate
There’s no sense in creating extra work by installing plants unsuitable to your climate. A successful low-maintenance garden contains plants suited to your landscape’s temperatures, average annual rainfall, and frost dates. Identify your yard’s USDA Hardiness Zone and use that information to guide your plant choices.
Shop for strength
Learn about the pests and diseases most likely to cause problems in your neighborhood. You can get that information for free from your local County Extension Office. Once you know what your plants will be up against, invest in naturally resistant plants.
Put the sun to work
Plants need sunlight to produce food. And the type of sun exposure matters. Some plants prefer direct morning sunlight but need protection in the afternoon. Others thrive in all-day exposure. Seed packets and plant labels tell you about each plant’s sunlight needs. Use this information to make your life easier:
Some plants, such as artichokes and asparagus, can do well in partial shade or partial sun. But very few edible plants can thrive in full shade. And before you put any seeds in the ground, consider mature plant sizes. Sun-loving herbs will get too much shade hidden behind a wall of corn or sunflowers.
What about water?
Water is heavy. Hoses filled with water are heavy. You can reduce your workload by putting plants with similar water needs closer together. Hydrozoning prevents over- and under-watering while saving your back.
Provide for pollinators and other beneficial insects
We all know that bees pollinate the flowers that turn into fruits we love to eat. But other insects can lighten your workload by killing insect pests as you relax. All you need to do is provide pollen, nectar, and water. There is no need to buy these tiny workers. They will come.
Install insectary plants that flower sequentially and provide a variety of shapes, colors, and heights. Butterfly and pollinator gardens look pretty, and they provide for an army of tiny helpers. And sprinkle those old coffee grounds around the garden. Earthworms love their java as much as we do!
Make space for trees
Fruit and nut trees can produce a surprising amount of food with little effort on your part. The older they get, the more food they produce. Trees provide shade, increase property values, and improve biodiversity for many years. Imagine plucking a sun-warmed peach from your backyard tree or an abundance of avocados, free for the taking.
Good cultural practices
Good cultural practice in the garden can reduce or eliminate the need for many tasks, treatments, and tribulations. You do not need to fumigate, rototill, or become a slave to your landscape. If you do nothing else for yourself and your garden, do these:
Evolve your plan as plants grow
As your perennial plants grow, they will change shape and size. While they are small, surround them with sun-loving annuals. As they mature, change your plan to match the changing sun availability.
Herbs, edible perennials, and trees can fill your larder without eating into your leisure time. Sit back and relax while your private victory garden takes care of itself.
Starting fresh herbs, tomatoes, and melons from seed can be rewarding and delicious. But how many times have you found that you have leftover seeds? And what can you do with them while they are still viable? Host a seed swap!
Seed swaps are a great way to share with family, friends, and neighbors. Rather than allowing all that potential deliciousness to lie fallow in your seed box or junk drawer, a seed swap allows everyone to grow a wider variety of plants without spending more money. And it’s a great excuse to get together and talk plants!
Seeds grown and produced in your neighborhood have the added benefit of being better suited to your microclimate than commercial seeds.
How many seeds are in a packet?
Seeds are sold by weight. Larger seeds, such as squash or beans, are heavier and take up more space, so you may only get 20 in a packet. But packets of the same size may contain 400 carrot or 500 lettuce seeds! I’m sure that none of us has the space or desire to grow 500 lettuce plants, and that’s where seed swaps come in.
What is a seed swap?
Seed swaps are casual get-togethers where everyone brings their excess seeds and a dish or beverage to share. These events can be large or small, a handful of friends, or a community event. Community events need more tables and supplies, but the basic steps are the same.
Seeds brought to share can stay in their original packets, making it easy for guests to copy planting instructions onto their envelopes. Or, to make things look more festive, place seeds in jars or other containers and lay the original packet alongside.
If your seed swap is a big event, you may want to create stations where guests can sort through various plant families or categories. Otherwise, relax and enjoy finding and learning about some new plant varieties with your guests!
When creating your guest list, you can add non-gardening friends, too. Who knows, you may spark their interest! And you may want your experienced gardening friends to bring seedlings and succulents to share.
Seed swap activities
If your event would benefit from activities, you can add stations for these seed swap extras:
Most seeds are only viable for a couple of years. Beyond that, results can be iffy. Put all your seeds to good use with a seed swap.
It seems so harmless.
A bag of dried beans from the store costs much less than a packet of seeds. Those sprouting potatoes are simply begging for a soil blanket. You can start new celery and carrot plants from their ends, so why not?
You see countless suggestions about how to start a garden for free using grocery store produce. It sounds like a great idea. But it isn’t.
As appealing and economical as it may seem, using dried beans, sprouting potatoes, or rootbound basil from the grocery store to start your garden can create a mountain of headaches and spread diseases into new regions where plants cannot protect themselves.
In a word: don’t do it. If you must, put grocery store plants in containers and quarantine them as you would for any other new plant.
Defensive plants are not simpering wallflowers.
People have used defensive plants to protect their crops, livestock, and homes for thousands of years. Wicked thorns and dense thickets have deterred a variety of predators and thieves. And some defensive plants offer the bonus of an edible crop!
What looks like an easy back fence to hop becomes much more of a challenge when it supports thorny blackberries or a row of prickly pear cacti. Most thieves and troublemakers will look elsewhere for easier pickings. And if they decide to hop anyway, their howls of pain will give you plenty of time to call the police
The best places for defensive plants are along fences, under windows, and around sheds and other outbuildings. Keep mature plant sizes in mind when placing defensive plants, and ensure they will not block your escape should the need arise.
Before adding defensive plants to your landscape, use the information below to ensure they are suited to your Hardiness Zone and local microclimate. Most of these plants prefer full sun and well-draining soil unless noted otherwise. [Note: the abbreviation "spp." indicates several species.]
Add an extra layer of protection to your property with any of these plants.
What do artichokes, barley, beets, patience dock, rhubarb, and strawberries have in common?
Besides being delicious, they are all susceptible to a fungal disease called Ramularia leaf spot (RLS). Cotton, daffodils, jonquils, and narcissus are also vulnerable, along with several other wild plants, such as cowslip.
Ramularia leaf spot symptoms
Like most other leaf spot diseases, this one is characterized by, you guessed it, leaf spots. Reddish-brown spots occur on both upper and lower leaf surfaces. Those lesions often have a yellow halo but can be angular, circular, or rectangular, making this disease difficult to identify. Some even call Ramularia the master of disguise. To get a clear identification, growers refer to the five R's of Ramularia infection:
Brown ulcers may also occur on flower bracts. Eventually, those bracts will curl up and dry out. Growers believe this disease is spreading because it is difficult to identify with certainty. But you can always assume that spots warrant a closer look.
In the case of Ramularia leaf spot, entire leaves will eventually shrivel up and die, taking millions of white fungal spores with them. Then those spores are splashed onto neighboring plants through rain and overhead watering.
Ramularia leaf spot lifecycle
Ramularia fungi have a rather complicated life cycle. There are several varieties with slightly different symptoms, but let's keep it simple, shall we? Most importantly, this disease spreads through infected seeds and plant debris and on the wind. Once spores come into contact with a plant, lesions form on lower leaves, spreading to upper leaves, then flowers. Those flowers produce infected seeds that continue the cycle.
Ramularia leaf spot management
Infected commercial crops are sprayed with fungicides up to eight times a year with limited success. Of course, you must wear protective clothing and limit the time spent around these chemicals to stay safe, so you might want to think twice before applying them to your groceries.
Since stressed plants are more likely to become infected, keeping your plants healthy with these tips can prevent many problems.
Figuring out what leaf spots are telling you can be tricky, but it's worth the effort to find out.
Do you see spots of bleached or straw-colored areas on the leaves of your strawberries, summer squashes, or corn? Or flecks and bands of red, orange, yellow, or brown on conifer needles? Those discolorations are ozone damage, and it is called weather fleck.
Technically, it is weather fleck only when it affects tobacco plants, but we’ll use the term more broadly. So what does ozone do?
Ozone (O3) creates a barrier around the Earth, up in our stratosphere, protecting us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation but threatening us with several health problems. It is a reactive form of oxygen that forms as sunlight reacts with car and factory fumes, so it’s abundant.
Ozone triggers plants to protect themselves, reducing fruit yield and quality. As a type of air pollution, excessive ozone can reduce chlorophyll, carotenoid, and carbohydrate levels in plants while increasing ethylene gas levels. Ethylene is responsible for ripening, but excessive levels are considered air pollution.
Nearly all plants in urban areas are affected to one degree or another. It is considered the most destructive air pollutant for plants in the United States. In 2022, a study found that East Asia lost $63 billion in crops due to ozone pollution in only one year.
Symptoms of weather fleck
Bleaching, bronzing, chlorosis, mottling, stippling, tissue death, and weather fleck are common symptoms of ozone damage. Weather fleck starts as small, dark green water-soaked areas. Within hours, those lesions turn brown, then tan or white. At higher ozone concentrations, this process can occur in just two or three hours.
You might mistake weather fleck for spider mite feeding, except weather fleck symptoms are usually seen on the upper surface of mature leaves first, followed by younger and older leaves. Spider mites almost always start on the underside of leaves, trying to stay hidden.
As ozone exposure continues, damage spreads to both sides of the leaves. Mature plants are more resistant to ozone than younger plants, but those damaged areas are dead tissue. Weather fleck doesn’t look very impressive, but those tiny damaged areas can merge and form bigger problems.
Any time tissue is damaged, it becomes less able to protect itself. Plants exhibiting weather fleck are especially susceptible to Botrytis fungi. Botrytis is responsible for gray mold. These plants are also experiencing internal stresses that cause cell seepage, chemical imbalances, and other problems.
Many garden ornamentals, such as dahlia, fuchsia, lilac, marigold, and salvia are very sensitive to ozone levels. The list of edible plants highly susceptible to ozone damage is rather long.
If you live in an area with lots of ozone, you may want to focus your gardening efforts on somewhat resistant cucumbers and peppers. What else can you do?
Aside from working from home and walking to the store instead of driving, you can protect your plants by not giving them more fertilizer than necessary. Plants are most susceptible to ozone damage during periods of rapid growth.
Did you know that ozone smells a little like chlorine? I didn’t, either.
A well-lit garden path can be a pleasant experience on a summer evening, but what do those lights do to your plants? Let’s find out.
Light at night is not natural. Nothing, us included, evolved to deal with artificial light at night. And we are all light-sensitive to one degree or another. Chickens produce more eggs in summer when their chicks have the best odds of survival. So chicken farmers put their hens under lights to get as many eggs as possible, as quickly as they can. This arrangement works well for the farmers. But it is hard on the hens. Left to live a natural life, the average hen can live 10 to 20 years. Commercial hens generally live only 3 to 4 years. All of those lights and productive demands are hard on people and plants, as well.
Sources of night light
There are many sources of artificial light at night. Street lights, porch lights, decorative path lighting, and security lighting are the most common sources of light at night. Depending on where you live, headlights, factory lights, and strip mall lighting may also be sources of artificial light for your plants. And indoor plants are subject to our overhead lights, reading lamps, and computer and television screens. It’s a wonder anything gets any sleep these days!
The natural cycle of light and dark triggers circadian rhythms within us that allow us to sleep, repair ourselves, and recover from the demands of our days. Plants have similar needs. While plants use sunlight to perform photosynthesis during the day, they need darkness to produce an important compound called phytochrome.
What is phytochrome?
Phytochrome regulates several functions within plants, including abscission, dormancy, photoperiodism, and seed germination. Without healthy seed germination, our gardens might be rather dismal places. And photoperiodism allows plants to anticipate the seasons, triggering them to bloom, grow, and rest at the proper time of year. That is where ‘short day’ and ‘long day’ varieties come in. They use photoperiodism to tell them if the correct balance of daylight and darkness hours is right for them to bloom and grow safely.
Plants are much more sensitive to the number of daylight hours than you might expect. For some plants, as little as one-minute exposure to a 25-watt bulb is enough to halt blooming. Strawberries are very light-sensitive. If they don’t receive enough darkness, you might not receive any berries.
The number of hours of daylight can also cause bolting, which can shorten the useful life of your lettuces and spinach. If bolting is a problem in your garden, you may want to turn off some of those lights.
Abscission and dormancy
As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, plants produce hormones used to protect themselves through the colder winter months. Those phytohormones tell plants to pull nutrients out of leaves and let them fall. If any part of that natural cycle is interrupted or interfered with, plants can be unprepared for winter weather, making them more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Night lights and insects
We all know that moths are often attracted to porch lights, but nighttime lighting attracts several other insects to our landscapes. Research from the University of Exeter has shown that night lights “trigger complex effects on natural food webs [and that they] may have more permanent, widespread impacts on wildlife and ecosystems.”
Managing light pollution
Now we know: too much light at night can adversely affect our plants. So it’s up to us to reduce light pollution (and air pollution) to improve the health of our plants and the food they produce for us. Try some of these tips to help reduce light pollution in your home and landscape:
With a good night’s rest, you and your plants will both feel better.
When someone starts talking about xeriscapes most of us picture gravel and succulents. There might be a yucca plant and some big rocks, but none of that sounds very appetizing to me. So I decided to see which edible plants could be part of a xeriscape. Here’s what I found out.
What are xeriscapes?
Xeriscapes are low-maintenance landscape designs that use little or no water. Designed to reduce evaporation and runoff, they cut pollution. Xeriscapes incorporate plants best suited to the local climate. These plants have evolved to thrive without the addition of water, fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides, hence the reduced pollution. The goal of a xeriscape is to conserve water, but they save time, too. How much extra time would you have if you didn’t need to water your garden? The only help an established xeriscape needs is occasional weeding and mulching.
These gardens also tend to promote biodiversity, but water is the key. In arid regions, such as Arizona and Nevada, as much as 75% of household water is used to water lawns. You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that xeriscapes containing trees reduced the heat island effect by nearly 5°F. Imagine how that temperature change could help save on your electric bill! But what about edible plants?
Planning your edible xeriscape
Most edible plants need far more water than would be used in a xeriscape, but not all. To start your xeriscape design, create a drawing to scale of your property. You can find a trick to doing this in my post on sun maps. Once you know where everything is, you can start your xeriscape plan:
Once plants are in place, add 2 to 4 inches of mulch around, but not touching, your plants. If you opt for stone or gravel mulch, know that it will reflect sunlight into the underside of the plants, creating more heat.
Edible plants for your xeriscape
While these plants will all need some irrigation, especially as they are getting established, they should be able to provide you with edible crops using far less water than other traditional garden crops. Also known as dryland farming, this method uses plants that have evolved to use water stored in the soil from the previous winter’s rainfall. Some of these offer the convenience and ease of being perennial, too!
Many of these plants will produce smaller-than-normal fruits when grown in a xeriscape, but the reduced water content translates into intense flavor and more sugar. You can see my post on deficit irrigation to learn more about that. Some people also grow corn, pumpkins, and even tomatoes in their xeriscape, though I’m not sure how well that would work.
Herbs are your blue-ribbon xeriscape plants. Most of them evolved in poor, rocky soil. The aromas and flavors we love them for are defense mechanisms against insect and herbivore feeding.
Caring for your xeriscape
The trick to watering a xeriscape is to do it deeply and infrequently. As plants become established, they will need little or no irrigation. Water in the pre-dawn hours or evening by laying a hose on the ground near plants that need watering to reduce evaporation. As always, groups plants by their light and water needs. And be sure to add a fallow period to your crop rotation so that you don’t deplete the groundwater or nutrients.
It may surprise you, but rain gardens are a type of xeriscape.
Do you know any other edible plants that would grow in a xeriscape?
Let us know in the comments!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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