Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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The Edible Garden

EdibleGardenI recently created a board for my Pinterest account titled “The Edible Garden.” On it, I intend to post articles and tips related to growing all things edible in your landscape, from garden veggies and herbs to fruit trees, bushes and nuts.

We’ve lived in our current house for almost 12 years now, but up until this past year I had never put in any sort of vegetable garden. I grew a couple tomato plants one year, that’s been it. I thought gardens were a pain in the butt. I expected constant maintenance; watering, picking, hoeing and pulling of weeds, fighting insects, the list of “why nots” in my head went on and on. I wanted landscape plants that came up year after year, were drought tolerant, deer and disease resistant and the only bugs they really attracted were bees or butterflies. I wanted flower beds that I didn’t have to maintain much, just run the edger along the landscaping every couple of weeks and call it good.

I changed my mind about planting edibles the year before last, when my daughter became a preschooler and took a keen interest in watching our 4 0r 5 strawberry plants each day for red berries. It wasn’t just a random walk by, “Oh! There’s a strawberry on that, I’ll pick it.” She made an EVENT out of going into the yard, just to check them each day. She even pulled the weeds growing around them and made sure the bugs didn’t get on them while she was watching. She’d yell in excitement and run inside to show me every. single. red berry found, before popping it into her mouth and raving over how wonderful that tiny, single berry was. Then our dog dug up all the strawberry plants. Every last one. My daughter was devastated. I managed to salvage two of them by putting them in pots (outside the fence where they were safe from doggie paws this time), but they didn’t grow but a couple strawberries the rest of the season after the shock of being dug up.

Later, we were picking out salad stuff and tomatoes in the produce section at our store when she mentioned that the entire area looked like a big garden. I told her that most of that stuff could be grown in a garden- Ok, all of it. But I have no idea how to plant Jicama or even what it tastes like- she asked me if we could start our own garden and grow our own vegetables, especially strawberries. That year, we put in two kinds of pepper plants, roma and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. She was as diligent and enthusiastic about checking all those plants each day as she had been checking our few yard strawberries. The garden was an endless teaching tool, about how plants need a certain combination of soil, light and air to grow. I taught her responsibility, it taught her to take care of living things and we had fresh produce to snack on when out in the yard the entire summer until frost.

Garden2012

Last Year’s Garden 2012

This fall, I cleared out the ENTIRE flower bed along the side of our house; we’re reserving all of that space for edible garden. My plan is to fill that one huge bed with enough veggies and herbs that we’ll slash our produce bill in half this summer. Next year, I plan to add some more fruits (besides strawberries) and maybe even some nut trees. We are going to be busy all spring, planting, supporting and reporting- to those few of you that read this blog. I’ve ordered $100 worth of seed and plan to build a couple more raised beds; we may have enough produce to feed several families!

My daughter’s enthusiasm was my primary motivator for building and expanding our garden, yet I found that last year it was wonderful to walk out to our little garden, pick a few peppers and use them for our dinner. The flavor of anything we grew was unmatched by produce I’ve bought in any grocery store. They don’t keep as long, but if we were careful to leave things on the vine until we needed them, that seemed to resolve some of the waste. I don’t take a lot of stock in the organic versus non-organic produce argument. That being said, there’s no doubt that avoiding some of those pesticides (which I don’t use unless it’s an emergency- as in blister beetle invasion) and wax will be a good thing. My parenting magazines all rave that avoiding pesticides on produce is the best thing for little developing brains. They praise organic produce for minimizing this pesticide exposure. There was even a list, which one titled, the “Dirty Dozen: 12 foods with the most pesticide residue of special concern” in this February’s issue. The offenders on this list were: strawberries, apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries, potatoes, green beans and kale. Most of the above, my family eats on a regular basis. Several of the above listed, we’ll be growing in our own garden this year, so I know exactly how they will be handled and exactly what will be used to care for them before my little one puts them on her plate. We’re even trying some of the new corn this year, that’s supposedly bred just for containers. Corn prices last year were outrageous with the Midwest drought and most of what I saw in the store didn’t look fit to eat anyway. Canned corn is loaded with salt, frozen is loaded with sugar. Avoid all that and grow your own.

So that’s how I went from planting butterfly bush and the occasional marigolds to an entire produce section in my front yard. If this year proves as successful as last, I’ll continue to expand with new plants and more space each year. Do you have a home garden? What are you planting this year?


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Blister Beetle Battle

My daughter and I have been SO proud of our cherry tomato plants that we grew from seed this spring; we nursed them in sunny windows until they were fledgling plants big enough for the garden. All through the past couple months we have mulched, fed and watered them, excited and accomplished when the first blossoms emerged, turned to green fruits and then to red. We look forward each day to going out in the yard and picking our little cherries.

Blister beetle noshing a leaf

I first spotted a couple of beetles yesterday morning while watering. Since there were only two, I hand-picked them off the plants and squashed them under a boot, then went about my business. Where the beetles had been eating, there were some black flaky looking bits of stuff, but they sprayed off easily with the garden hose.

Next afternoon, we were out working on building our new deck and I checked our plants for ready tomatoes as usual. I was horrified to discover that our plants were now COVERED in striped beetles, noshing away on the leaves until they looked like lace. They’d started from the bottom and made rapid work towards the top, leaving little but green fruits and stems.
I panicked.

In spite of years growing ornamentals, countless trees, shrubs and flowers, this is my first year with a vegetable garden. In the past, I liberally used chemical fertilizers, weed controls and pesticides in my yard to control whatever ailment my plants suffered, whether fungus, insect damage or other. One season I lost over half the plants I’d worked so diligently to grow for two years from a Weed and Feed fertilizer that I either applied too liberally or the chemical was simply too harsh for what I was trying to grow.

Until this week, when faced with a blister beetle battle, my chemical use had been almost non-existent for several years. Compost and lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, manure and leaves were my fertilizers. The pond next to the garden attracted frogs and birds to help prevent pests on the ornamentals. Recycled milk and cat litter jugs served as slow-watering systems, rather than buying many feet of soaker hose or sprinklers.
There was a bag of Sevin dust sitting in the back of the cabinet; had been there for at least 5 years or so, unopened. Faced with all that cherry tomato destruction (I swear I could HEAR them chomping away), I ran in, grabbed the Sevin dust and threw liberal handfuls all over the plants. I watched with great satisfaction as those chewing little buggers began dropping off, writhing and squirming. I hoped in vengeance of my plants that they were suffering greatly.

It occurred to me following this rash dumping of handfuls of poisonous dust all over my garden that I had done just that; next to the frog pond and all over the food we intended to eat. I decided I’d try to minimize the spread of the poison to the pond water and hosed everything down liberally the next morning until the water ran clear into the yard. I’m hoping it didn’t leach much into the pond water and won’t hurt my frogs in the long run. We’ll be carefully washing anything we eat off of those plants for a while. L

Beetle Blisters

The articles on the internet about these beetles did little, if anything to make me feel better about their being in my garden, after seeing pictures of the damage they could cause to both plant and human skin. The Striped Blister Beetle produces a substance called cantharadin that causes horrible blisters on skin; it is also toxic to animals. An article from Texas A & M Entomology claimed that a horse could be killed by ingesting only 2 or more of the beetles, even if the beetles were dead.  Farmers have had trouble with attacks on their alfalfa crops and the beetles in turn, winding up in livestock feed.

The beetles look very similar to a lightning bug; they are about the same size and shape, but with very distinctive stripe patterns on their backs. They lay their eggs in cells just beneath the soil surface. Adult beetles eat foliage and fruit, while the larvae are said to feed on grasshopper eggs. (This was the ONLY beneficial fact I could find about them)

Several blogs and forums I read stated that people had minimal success with hand picking (be sure to wear gloves!) and dropping them into a container of soapy water. Most complained that there were SO MANY by the time they noticed them that this was impossible without using a vacuum cleaner to do the job.
A couple people mentioned a homemade spray made up of organic dish soap, canola oil, 2 cloves of garlic and red pepper flakes strained into a tea as an was effective method of getting rid of them. They did mention that this spray, while safe on vegetables (wash before eating of course) for human consumption, seemed to kill beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies as well. Some suggested protecting plants with mosquito netting. This of course only works if you get to the plants before they are infested with the little monsters.

I can say from my own experience that the Sevin dust worked to kill them beautifully, but there’s no telling what else it killed before I washed it off. There were quite a few dead daddy long legs hanging off the plants when I rinsed them the next morning. If I happen to get unlucky with another visiting swarm, I’ll head to the grocery store and try some of the organic spray I mentioned above instead.

Any of you had to fight the blister beetle battle? What did you use to get the little buggers to move on?


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I’m SO gonna feel that tomorrow

My 3 year old daughter has been my little garden helper the past couple days. She’s at that age now where she’s able to learn that there is an actual purpose to playing in dirt, besides the obvious perk of getting dirty or eating it.
We decided that this year we were going to grow some veggies. I didn’t want to spend a lot of $, I’ve had good success with tomatoes in the past and a cucumbers, but I’m fairly sure it’s a near impossibility to screw up either of those. This year we are getting a bit more ambitious.
We browsed the seed catalogs and ordered 8 packets of veggies and a couple of flowers we liked. The seeds we chose were 1) Roma tomato 2) cherry tomato 3) sweet red pepper 4) sweet heirloom yellow onion 5) sweet yellow pepper 6) sweet orange bell pepper and 7) mini cucumber. We also got packets of echinacea (purple coneflower), sunflowers and a marigold mix. I picked the marigolds in particular, because they are a natural insect deterrent and I’m hoping they’ll keep my need to spray or dust to a minimum (if at all). I’m a big fan of natural insect control and fertilizer, I hate dumping poisons around or on the stuff we plan to eat. We’re also putting a pond right in the middle of the garden bed. This will encourage the many frogs we have nearby to hang out and munch on the insects invading our veggie patch.
I’m building trellis straight up the side of the house out of just simple wire to support the vines. Nothing fancy and very inexpensive. I’m hoping the vines will pull double duty and absorb some of the heat that would otherwise be beating down on that southern exposure of the house. Due to our satellite TV and wireless internet, I can’t plant a tree there to block the afternoon sun. The veggies are going right into an old flower bed that was formerly full of nothing but tiger lily and butterfly bush. I had put off for years doing a vegetable garden, thinking I needed a formal space. They’re plants. They can grow in any garden bed and they don’t mind if they’re next to flowers. Silly me.
Some seeds need to be started indoors several weeks before the last frost and then transplanted outside. We’ve been saving gallon milk and water jugs for the past couple months to use as mini-greenhouses. I’m hoping they work well. They should help keep the seedlings warm, give them filtered light and help trap moisture in the jugs so the soil doesn’t completely dry out. I cut the tops nearly all the way around, leaving the two halves attached at the handle. My daughter helped me fill the bottoms with soil, then we sprinkled on our seeds, added another light layer of dirt and misted this really well with water. We’ll be checking them each day and misting with more water as needed. The jugs are also easy to write on, so you can identify what’s what when you’re ready to transplant the seedlings. I’ve saved egg cartons for when we get to that stage.
The bed outside is just a raised bed, filled partially with native soil, outlined with rocks I’ve picked up around the yard and in the woods. I’ve added some potting soil and quite a lot of compost as well, our native soil here is mostly rocks and clay. Clay has decent nutrient content, but not great drainage and isn’t always the best medium for young, tender roots.
We’ll post more pictures and updates of our trials or success as the project moves along.  I haven’t done this kind of digging or planting for a couple years now, going to be feeling this tomorrow! 🙂