Attracting beneficial insects

In order to see more butterflies in your garden and to ensure good (bee) pollination for your vegetables, plant natives and use integrated pest management. This printable PDF provides tips for attracting beneficial insects.

Swallowtail caterpillar on Echinacea purpurea

I love composting

I love composting.  I mean I really love composting.  Every part of the composting process makes me so deeply happy, it’s probably strange to most people.  I find composting satisfying on so many levels.  I don’t put out all sorts of yard waste, I don’t toss my food scraps in the trash, and I don’t dump all kinds of crap in the garbage disposal.  And then, I get this amazing, sweet smelling happy soil amendment for my plants.

One of my earliest low-low-tech composting systems

But I understand that it isn’t easy or obvious for everybody, so…I’ll dive into some tips.

One of my facebook friends told me she has trouble with her tumbler.  Tumblers work best when there’s a good moist (like a wrung-out sponge) mix of “greens” and “browns” that is left alone (nothing new added) for a while, and tumbled from time to time.  If you keep adding ingredients to your tumbler, you won’t get good compost, because you’d have to sift out the newer ingredients.  A tumbler with only one compartment isn’t enough for an effective year-round compost operation.  Some tumblers have two compartments, so one is for adding and the other is for compost-cooking.

The mix of greens and browns isn’t an exact science, though a number of books and web pages suggest a certain mix of each.  In my personal garden I ignore that, because composting as waste disposal is only useful to me if I can add whatever I have when I have it.  “Greens” are mostly green, but this also includes your food waste.  If you only put food waste (and no yard waste) into your tumbler, it’s too green. It won’t decompose well, and will probably smell funny.  Add browns, like dried leaves, dried grass clippings, or shredded soy-ink newspaper scraps to the mix.  And make sure it isn’t too dry, it should be just damp (not soggy) for best cooking.

As with most horticulture, the best way to maintain compost bins is by looking at them from time to time.  Does the compost stink?  Add browns.  Is it too dry?  Add water.  It is moist, not stinky, but still not decomposing?  Well, it’s either winter or you need more greens.

I heartily welcome any and all questions about composting. How’s your compost bin cooking?

Starting garden seeds indoors

It can be a challenge to find good information about what plants need and when it’s safe to plant them outside. This printable table provides sunlight and soil depth requirements, along with the earliest dates to start or transplant these vegetables and berries outside. This information applies to gardens in the Philadelphia metro area, which is USDA hardiness zone 7. The soil depth requirements also assume you are growing varieties that are suitable to container growing.

You can start plants anytime after the dates shown. If you choose to start early, make sure you watch the weather, and gently cover your plants if it gets “cold” again. For annual vegetable plants, “cold” generally means mid-thirties or lower. You could also watch weather forecasts for frost or freeze warnings. It’s also important to remember that the conditions that damage tender plants are determined not only by air temperature, but also by soil temperature, moisture, wind, and precipitation.

Determining the “last frost date” is not an exact science. Current estimates of the last frost date for Philadelphia range from April 6 through April 30. At EFTE, we have scheduled seed starting according to a last frost between April 15 and April 22.

If you are a relatively new gardener, it’s safer to err on the side of caution, and plant your garden later rather than sooner. If your plants are in the ground too soon, they might survive the conditions, but they won’t be as productive as they would otherwise.

Growing Chart thumbnail

What is a conscious consumer?

I’m guessing you’ve heard the phrase “vote with your dollars.” Every time you spend money on a product or service, you support the employees and the owners of the company. Every time you buy a box of crackers at the local supermarket, you support the jobs of the cashier, the managers, the stockers, the truck drivers, the cracker plant workers, the grain farmers, and the company that produced the seed. And some of your dollars pay for herbicides, fertilizers, gasoline, coal-powered electricity, and product packaging. All for two dollars and fifty-six cents. Seems like quite a bargain, doesn’t it?

Do you believe that $2.56 is distributed fairly among everyone responsible for bringing that cracker box to you? Do you think the truck driver earns overtime pay? How much does the packaging cost? Do you think the factory workers have good health insurance? Do the grain farmers use synthetic chemicals on their fields? Who receives the bulk of that $2.56?

Our industrialized food system is complex, and it’s nearly impossible to trace the complete production path of the food we buy in bodegas and grocery stores. How do you feel about that fact? Are you curious about labor conditions and environmental impact? Do you care about where your food comes from?

Conscious consumers seek information about the companies they patronize. Conscious consumers know what their own values are, and they try to support causes and companies that match their values.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be (your own idea of) perfect in order to be a conscious consumer. But it does mean that you care about all of the costs associated with your purchases. That sort of information isn’t easy to gather, but you do not turn a blind eye. Instead, you take off your blinders and notice what’s in the periphery.

Here’s an example from my own life. I really like monarch butterflies and I am saddened by their decline. So I did some research and discovered that their host plant (i.e., where they lay their eggs) is milkweed. I bought some red milkweed seeds, and have been growing milkweed ever since. Every time I see a monarch caterpillar or butterfly on my plants, I smile (and pat myself on the back once or twice). It feels good to do good.

But if I really care about monarchs, I won’t stop there. I’ll do more research and learn about why they are declining. I’ll learn about habitat loss and the effect of synthetic chemicals used in the production of some of my favorite processed foods. And I’ll ask myself the tough question: is my eating pleasure worth supporting the institutions that are killing the monarchs?

I want to remember that I vote with my dollars and I always want my voting to match my values.

It’s a journey and I’m no paragon of perfect purchasing. But I care and I want to keep moving toward better alignment.

Want to join me? I really enjoy research (and dare I say I am quite good at it). If there’s a plant, animal, habitat, or food you’d like me to look into, please let me know. Who’s in?

Resources:

Food Prices and Spending
Farm Bill
Food Packaging Forum