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I made a little support teepee for my gherkin cucumber plants with sticks from the yard. I’ve never grown them before so I don’t know how big they’ll get. But I may need some stronger sticks…

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It was beautiful out today. The weather report predicts rain for the next five days straight, so I spent some time in the garden. My bush basil and italian parsley are aphid-free and flourishing.

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Hey lady

Ladybugs and ladybug larvae feed on aphids. The larvae look nothing like the glossy winged adults. I’ve always thought they have a prehistoric look with their spiky bodies. I found this little guy (or girl?) crawling around on my kumquat tree, which as far as I can tell is quite free of aphids. I moved him over to my infested tarragon plant where he immediately began feasting. You can see the carnage pretty well in full screen mode. After a couple weeks of eating he will attach his backside to a leaf and begin the transformation into an adult ladybug.

This biological pest control has worked well for me in the past. Luckily, there is a bush near my office that is usually filled with ladybug larvae at this time of year and I’ve transferred many in a jar to my plants that have fallen under aphid attack. Ladybugs are often for sale at garden centers and even through mail order sites, but I’ve read many accounts from people who’ve attempted to introduce the adults to their gardens and then watched them all fly away. When it comes to this kind of interference with nature for the sake of growing my own food, I feel better about transferring them locally (I collect them within a couple miles of my home) than I do about the idea of bringing in a bunch of bugs from far away—except for the red wigglers of course which are contained and cannot survive without a supplied food source.

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Aphid season

As the warm, humid weather rolls in and the plants and trees fill out, bugs are hatching in masses. They descend on our gardens and our homes looking for food and water. In large numbers the “intruders” can threaten the structural stability of buildings, contaminate food supplies, and pose health risks. Reports in the national news suggest that the mild winter we had will likely lead to higher than average insect populations this summer, and extra precautions may be required to fortify our homes and protect our bodies— particularly from mosquitos and ticks, which are known to carry disease. Those of us who grow food fight these tiny enemies on yet another frontier. These next several posts will be about my attempts at chemical-free, trash-free pest control.

Above is a calendula plant from my garden. If you look closely you can see that the bud and the new leaves are covered with aphids. If I leave the parasites untouched, they will most likely devour the plant, so I am forced to take action. I want to choose a method of extermination or deterrence that is natural and effective.

My golden fennel is also covered in aphid larvae. I did some research and I found a ton of useful information. One fact that really caught my attention is that ants “farm” aphids for the honeydew they produce. The ants will actually keep the aphids in their nests during the winter and then bring them out to host plants in the spring. The ants will carry the aphids around from plant to plant to continue feeding. I have always noticed little sugar ants near and around aphids, but I never knew what they were up to! I have seen a ton of ants around the property I live on—in fact I’m also working finding ways of keeping them out of the apartment (more on this soon). So it turns out, one line of defense against the aphids is to figure out how to keep ants away.

Other natural aphid repellent tricks include:

Squashing a few aphids around the infested plants to release a chemical signal that makes the other aphids drop from the plants and leave.

Sprinkling a barrier of charcoal powder, calcium dust, or bonemeal around the base of the plant.

A mild soap spray can be used to strip them of their protective wax coating, dehydrating them. Mix 1 tablespoon of Castile soap to 1 gallon of warm water. Adding a teaspoon of neem oil to that mix can make it more potent. To the aphids, the neem oil has a bitter taste, so they will not eat the leaves treated with it. And the oil will prevent the larvae from growing into adults. I’ve used this mixture in the past on my tomato plants and have found it to be effective, but I’m not too keen on using the neem oil directly on the edible parts of plants because it’s difficult to wash off. For this reason I avoid using it on herbs.

A forceful spray of water is often enough to knock the aphids off the plant and may discourage the ants as well, but this is only a temporary fix.

Burying shredded banana peels at the base of infested plant seems to be method that many gardeners swear by. I try to limit my consumption of bananas because of the great distance they have to travel to get to my local grocery store, though I haven’t cut them out of my diet completely yet. They are a great source of potassium, which I know I need as a runner. I decided to try burying a shredded peel around my calendula to see if it’s at all effective in discouraging aphids from feeding on the plant’s life-giving sap. The peels give the plants a shot of potassium too. However, I do wonder if this trick is not recommended if you have an ant problem!




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Babes in terracotta

Sweet, lime, and dark opal basil catching the last bit of sunlight in the evening. They’re starting to come along.

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City Farm

Today I visited the Southside Community Land Trust City Farm (at the corner of West Clifford and Dudley Street) for their anual plant sale. I had never been there before and I was absolutely amazed to see how much is growing on the city block plot. The sale was from 10:00am to 2:00pm today and for those of you who live near by but weren’t able to drop in, you’ll have another chance tomorrow (Sunday) when the sale happens again at the same time.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect and the farm was buzzing with people of all ages. Volunteers were always nearby to answer questions about the plants for sale and how to care for them.  Annuals, perennials, medicinal and culinary herbs, fruits and vegetables were spread out all over the grounds.

Something is growing out of every nook and cranny of the farm. These starter greenhouse boxes are pretty great.

Live music played while shoppers picked and mingled.

The farm welcomes returned pots and they will happily reuse them. Everything was well labeled with popsicle stick tags and color-coded plastic tags that indicate the price of each plant. When customers check out, the plastic tags are collected in separate bins to be reused again and again. When I payed for my plants I ended up becoming a member to support the cause and enjoy growers benefits like free compost! This event is very special. It’s exciting to see so many people supporting urban agriculture in this town. Check out a complete list of the SCLT 2012 events here.

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Started some jalapeño peppers in a pot in the garden below my kitchen. My landlady left a few containers for me to grow things in. I noticed that she doesn’t use organic potting soil so I tried to top my designated pots off with as much organic soil and compost as possible.

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This weekend my brother visited from New York. We took advantage of the beautiful weather on Sunday and headed over to Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts. I’ve always heard great things about it, but had never been before yesterday. They have a wide selection of herbs and vegetables right now. My landlady has agreed to let me plant a small section in the tenant garden below my kitchen. I’m really excited to have a piece of ground to grow things in because since I’ve been renting in Providence, I’ve only been able to have a container garden. For the past week I have been daydreaming about what to grow in my little bed.

While walking around Four Town, I was thinking about how buying plants this season is going to be tricky because of all the plastic that is often involved. I asked a woman who worked there if it was possible to return the containers for reuse. She told me that unfortunately they could not accept them back because they would need to be sterilized before planting anything else in them. I’ve been told the same thing by employees at other greenhouses before, but a few venders at the farmers market have told me they welcome returned containers.

The plastic packs and pots that I most often see young plants in are either number 5 or number 6 plastic. As far as I know, the plastic identification/care tags are not recyclable. I could bring the containers to the Whole Foods recycling bins, but I’d rather find a way around the plastic completely. I did see a lot of plants in coir pots at Four Town, which are compostable. I’ve also seen plants sold in recycled paper pots.

Of course one way around the containers would be to grow things from seed. When I moved last summer, my container garden was disassembled and much of it abandoned and I didn’t save the seeds from my tomatoes and herbs the way I have in the past, so I would have to purchase them. Though I am seeing more and more seeds packaged in thick plastic pouches, seeds in paper envelopes are still widely available. It’s still early enough in the season that I could start some things.

Meanwhile I’m keeping my eyes peeled for compostable/biodegradable containers. I love every aspect of growing my own food and hope to take full advantage of the season.

After wandering through the greenhouses, we walked around the fields a bit, which are filled with young peas!

…and rhubarb!

We also passed a field of strawberries. The Four Town Farm website indicates that the Pick Your Own (PYO) season for strawberries starts around June 20th. I will certainly be there!

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Happy Earth Day!

This week marks one year since starting my No Trash Project. I feel proud of the progress I’ve made toward reducing my personal waste and excited by my potential to become more efficient still. This project has greatly improved the quality of my life. I feel more focused and motivated in general and I’ve noticed an increase in my productivity. At the same time I also feel more relaxed as my anxiety about participating in flawed systems that generate great amounts of waste has lessened.

Today I spent some time potting up baby herbs for my container garden. Sweet and purple basil, stevia, tarragon, and golden variegated sage. I worked in the rain, digging in the soil. I also located a used plastic restaurant tupperware container to start my worm compost in. I’m looking forward to the growing season.

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Early bloom

The lilacs are several weeks early this year.

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Cherry blossoms

The cherry tree blossoms outside my bedroom window have finally opened. The fragrance is incredible. I can’t think of a better trash-free air freshener. I’m very sensitive to perfumes—especially products with floral scents, but I welcome any floral scent straight from the source.

The fragrance of the tree has led me to ponder the strangeness of products that are designed to mask and “eliminate” pesky odors. Commercials, print ads, and package labels urge us to use these products near the garbage can or on a stinky carpet to cover up mold and bacteria that may be hazardous to our health with sprays and plugins that often contain chemicals that are hazardous to our health.

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Chicago hardy

March is here and my Chicago Hardy fig tree that has been wintering over in my studio is starting to wake up. Largely because they are not a local fruit, I cannot find figs without packaging. Because they are my favorite fruit, I have been growing my own in my container garden for the past several years. The fruit grows and ripens throughout the summer months. In the fall the tree drops all it’s leaves and I take it inside where it can go dormant for the winter. I always love seeing the tiny fig leaves shoot out in the spring.

Welcome back, old friend!

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Yerba Maté

This morning I harvested the leaves of my yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) plant. Actually the truth is I shocked the little shrub by bringing it indoors for the winter and it let go of all its leaves. So I collected the fallen and the falling, and put them into a glass jar to dry. Once they’re dehydrated I will grind them up to make tea. I think the plant will bounce back and start pushing out new leaves soon.

It’s difficult to express how much I enjoy growing my own food. I don’t have any ground to plant in, so my garden is potted. In the summer I grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. In the winter I bring everything indoors. Some plants go dormant in the basement (my fig trees for instance), others tough it out on the windowsills in my apartment. Having the green inside my home helps me through the grey winters in Providence.

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