Saturday, April 25, 2009

PLEASE, people . . . it's 2009, part 3

Problems need solutions.

So now that Earth Day is over, Arbor Day has passed, what can you do to keep the momentum going? 

To illustrate, a sidenote: this past Earth Day I listened to Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx speak with, among others, Robert Redford in an interview on WNYC.  Of all the things they spoke about, Redford said something that totally resonated with me.  To paraphrase, 'green' is a word that has lost its meaning. We are bombarded by it and now it has lost its power.  What 'green' now means for Redford, and for me, is the future. 'Green' is a state of being, of living, of responsibility that will guide our actions from now on.  Living responsibly is the tao, the new way, that we are beginning to live, and will continue to live.

A simple, yet powerful message.

What is the tao of the garden? The new way is one that is thoughtful, responsible, harmless, and harmonious.  It means taking into consideration that all life forms that a gardener deals with has a purpose (cue The Byrds' "Turn, turn, turn").  

When taking a deeper look into our environment, we see that it is a beautiful choreography of life and function.  To destroy that complexity with force and chemical is to deeply disrespect what exists around us.  Rather, we should join the dance, and lead what occurs in in our gardens like a strong partner. Many ways abound to kindly and gently achieve the gardens and landscapes of our dreams without bitch-slapping Mother Nature.  

To carry the theme of the other posts in this PLEASE, people . . . series, we'll look at the three main topics that gardeners preoccupy themselves with: unwanted plants, troublesome pests, and encouraging growth.

PLANTS
The cutesy "weeds are plants with bad press" is not enough to make you love them. Here's how to get rid of them:
  • Get out there and pull them out.  So many observations and quiet moments are had when engaged in the seemingly mindless task of weeding.  With the right tools, it doesn't take much effort, and being regular about the task reduces weeds, and keeps you up-to-the-minute of the many moments in your garden.
  • Mulch. There is great benefit to using good quality mulch.  First, it keeps weed seeds in the soil from germinating, and it prevents surface weed seeds from penetrating the soil. Secondly, it will break down and add loads of nutrients and  beneficial microbial life to your soil. Third, mulch retains soil moisture, thus reducing your watering needs.
  • Cover the ground. If wisely chosen, plants will help you! Covering the ground with either traditional ground covering plants, or by a densely planted garden means no exposed soil. No exposed soil leaves very little space for a weed seed to germinate, let alone survive.
  • Reduce compaction, apply compost, and overseed; mow high. This is for the lawn-lovers. Some weeds thrive in compacted soil (um, isn't the lawn for running, playing, and all kinds of compacting activities?), so the natural alternative is to reduce that compaction. Aerating the soil allows for air, and water to penetrate, thus creating favorable conditions for the turf grass species to thrive in.  Spreading compost over the aerated lawn puts those nutrients directly in contact with the soil and roots, virtually injecting that turf with nutrients and microlife. Overseeding is the same concept as covering the ground: leave no space for weed seeds to get light and moisture.  Follow that with a high mowing height (3-4") and now you're shading out any possible chance for weed seeds to thrive.
PESTS*
With over 1 million insect species in the world, it is a losing battle for you. What you should realize is that 99% of the insects you see in your garden are BENEFICIAL.  They are your friends.  Kinda like the people at the bank: you don't really care to know them, but they help you out, you know they work for you, and generally, you are glad that they are there. I happen to love my bankers. And I love insects.  Get to know them, encourage their existence, and they will silently reward you, I promise. Pests can also mean disease, and there is a better way around that too.
  • Identify your "pest". Chances are, what you are seeing is a beneficial insect that is eating the things that you didn't even know were causing you grief. Why mindlessly destroy a benevolent creature? You may not kill an insect unless you know if it is doing you and your crop harm. A great book to get your hands on: Photographic Atlas of Entomology, James L. Castner, and Garden Insects of North America, Whitney Cranshaw. If it IS a pest like aphids, whitefly, imported cabbage looper, or leaf hoppers, there are beneficial insects that prefer to dine on these nuisances. Introduce these insects, and watch the problem go away. Anecdote: last spring I was monitoring my crop of fava beans. The previous year's crop was bunk as the plants were COVERED in black nasty aphids. But this year, I noticed the aphids were back, but there was something else . . . lady beetle larvae were deee-vouring the aphids.  I even saw some adults in on the sm√∂rgosbord! Sweet!  So, I did NOTHING!  I simply monitored the populations of aphids:lady beetles and satisfactorily allowed them to do their work.  Not an extra ounce of work from me for a problem that resolved itself.  Nice.
  • Attract beneficial insects. I've written of this topic before. Being sure to plants flowers that are full of nectar will ensure that a bevy of beneficials will be stopping by your watering hole.  Umbel flowers are known to be some of the best: fennel, dill, angelica, Ammi majus, etc. Providing a shallow source of water is also helpful to keep your bennies happy. 
  • When they just have to die, use non-toxic remedies. My favorite? 1:1 rubbing alcohol and water! Mix in a spray bottle, and you have a serious dehydrating solution for soft-bodied insects. You can see the aphids shrivel before your eyes. Very satisfying. I'm obviously no Buddhist.
FOLIAR PESTS*
These are definitely a problem for many, but most issues can be solved by the culture you provide. Same as with insects, properly i.d. your plant diseases.  Bring samples to a trustworthy garden center, or call up your local county cooperative extension office and have them help. Here are a few common phyto-ailments:
  • Powdery mildew is the result of poor culture, and one of the most common foliar diseases.  PM will only infect plants susceptible to it. The spores of this fungi overwinter on infected leaves left from the previous season -- a good reason for fall clean-up! If you have it, it probably infected your plants during a time of high humidity, excess shade, and poor air circulation. Either way, mix baking soda and water in a spray bottle and treat infected leaves out of midday sun. You may also selectively prune shrubs, roses, even perennials to create a more open network of branches, canes, or stem. This will encourage air to move freely around theses plants. Better yet, research which plants are most susceptible, and avoid them.  If you already have some of these plants in your landscape, consider their location and move them as necessary. And, if you can't move your ancient heirloom lilac, then be vigilant about cleanup, foliar spray with compost tea to prevent an infection, and monitor and treat any signs if you see them.
  • For other common diseases, check this out.
NUTRIENTS
Every gardener wants to ensure that their plant investments will make floriferous and fruitful returns. For far too long, that insurance was blue and made of salt.  The tao of fertilizing uses only compost, compost tea, minerals, sea nutrients, and deep consideration.  Seriously, the combination of these nutrient sources will greatly, naturally, and vigorously affect the growth of your plants. 
  • Compost. The rocksteady way for you to build better soil.  Build better soil, release more nutrients for your plants. Apply 1/4"-1/2" of compost in early spring as soil microbes are warming up to the idea of eating again. It has been said that you can never add to much compost to your soil. Because the nutrients are not yet fully available from the microbes that live in the compost, this organic material acts as a slow release fertilizer. Its bulk aids in moisture retention in the soil, and acts as a soil conditioner. Too much is just enough.
  • Compost tea works in perfect conjunction with compost. A highly concentrated, biologically-active soil amendment, compost tea puts an exponential amount of beneficial soil microbes right where they need to be: in the soil. These microbes get to work immediately releasing nutrients essential for accelerated growth and disease resistance (not to be confused with treatment) in a form that is immediately available to plant roots. Bi-weekly to monthly applications of well-brewed compost tea will give you vigorous results that will sincerely, and happily, shock you. Think Red Bull for your soil.
  • Minerals make up almost 50% of soil composition. Pretty essential part of soil fertility, no? By adding natural sources of minerals to your soil, you are ensuring a constant stream of slow-release nutrients that will last for years. Rock phosphates, and many other alternative soil amendments will give your soil a deep and powerful fertility.
  • Sea plants and kelp are not naturally available in all climates and environments, but sea plants offer a powerhouse of micronutrients that are pretty hard to beat.
So this 2009, you now know there are so many ways to make amends with our previous sins. Please, people, let's choose the new way.  Even if you don't jump on this train now, check out the schedule and know that whenever you are ready, it will be waiting for you in the station with a reserved seat of good conscience.

* A note on insect and disease pests: a stressed plant is a weakened plant. A plant in this predicament actually gives off plant-pheromones equivalent to distress signals.  These signals are picked up on by hungry insects who descend and attack. Diseases will only take hold on a plant whose defenses are inadequate to ward off their objectionable overtures. Take care to keep your plants well-placed, well-hydrated, and well-nourished to keep them free of preventable problems!

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