Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Newest Pest-Control Ally: Guineas!

Despite my efforts at feeding my chickens all the Japanese beetle grubs I could find, the invasive pests still cover my plants.  They prefer roses, asparagus fronds, cannas, and beans in my garden.  Oh, and they like only one of my apple tree’s leaves.  I don’t know why they like it over the others, but the chickens know this too and lurk underneath it waiting for some treats to fall. 

A recent introduction to our area, the kudzu beetle, is about 1/8 inch long and colored army green.  They cover my bean plants, concentrating themselves along the stems and, I heard on the PBS show “Making It Grow,” only eat legumes.  They don’t visibly damage the plants, but suck juices out of the stem of the plants, weakening them.  According to “Making It Grow,” and my own observation, they don’t noticeably decrease yield in the home garden.  If a plant is young or otherwise weak, the bugs might kill it. 

Kudzu bugs are a relative of stinkbugs, and they do smell bad when squashed.  According to an article in “The State” newspaper on 4/4/2012,, the bugs first appeared in the US in Atlanta in 2009, and they have spread across the southeast.  Gardeners can handpick them or put diatomaceous earth on them, which should kill them as it does other crawling insects. 

A few weeks ago, I got guineas.  They are known for their voracious insect-eating appetites.   I took it as a sign from God that I should get guineas, if He cares about such things, that on the way to get my guinea keets I came upon a flock of them in the road.  I have never seen them around here before.

The keets are tiny; six of them could fit in an infant’s shoebox.  They are loud, and they are wild.  I am used to baby chickens who wander around the yard and approach humans.  When we set a keet down in the yard, (fortunately we only took out one at the time) it ran amazingly fast on its tiny legs under the bushes, and my husband and I spent about ten minutes shooing it out until it ran back toward the house and I could corner and put it back into the box.
My daughters examine the guineas, as all six of them hide behind the mason jar feeder

Because even professionals cannot sex guinea keets, I assume I have both males and females.  The males are not usually aggressive, unlike roosters, and so I hope my guineas will be able to hatch more guineas, assuming they bother to stay around my house when I do let them free-range.

Unlike my chickens, who would destroy my garden by scratching up and eating plants,  guineas do not usually eat plants, and they do not scratch, so they can, I hope, be trusted in the garden for pest control. I envision them walking down the rows of beans, deftly picking off kudzu bugs and Japanese beetles, and then wandering over to the squash to eat a few squash bugs.  After that, I expect them to wander the yard and eat the ticks that plague us.  We’ll see.  They may be eating the bugs in your garden instead. 

The rest of the time, they’ll give my dogs competition as watchdogs.  I understand that they let you know if someone or something enters the yard that does not belong.  They’ll have to get a little more appreciative of dangers, though, because the other night my husband held my two sleeping dachshunds, Sterling and Mr. Schultz, on his lap while a guinea keet snuggled between the back of his head and the chair.  The keet decided to walk down his arm, and then jumped on Sterling’s head on the way off the chair.  Sterling awoke with a start, but fortunately for the keet, his sight and reflexes are not as swift as they once were (he’ll be 15 in August), and I was able to grab the keet without incident.  Sterling looked around in surprise and went back to sleep, surely thinking the keet must have been part of a dream.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Cows Make Good Milk

Happy Cow Creamery, in Pelzer, SC, also known as Twelve Aprils Dairy, was an ordinary dairy until the April morning more than twenty years ago when the cows broke down a gate to pursue the greener grass on the other side of the fence.  Farmer Tom Trantham was initially so angry at his cows that he left them alone in the pasture and went inside to watch TV, something a farmer never has time to do in the middle of the day.
A "happy cow" chewing her cud.
His farm was nearly bankrupt because of declining milk prices and rising feed prices.  He operated a conventional dairy where the cows ate silage and grain and remained inside on a concrete floor.  He was nearly ready to give the bank the farm and look for other ways to earn a living that day the cows escaped, although he desperately wanted to farm.

That evening, the cows came to the barn for their milking, and they gave an extra 200 pounds of milk.  All the fresh air, green grass, and sunshine allowed their bodies to do what nature intended:  produce milk.  Excited by the increased amount of milk, Farmer Trantham researched rotational grazing, where cows graze fresh paddocks of grass every day so they get the most nutrients from each plant.  He learned which grasses grow best during which times of the year, and how long to let the cows graze the grass before moving them on.  The name Twelve Aprils Dairy came from his observation that, with careful pasture management and judicious use of his own hay and silage, he could produce the bounty of milk he got on April pasture twelve months out of the year.
He allows the cows to eat the grass they were designed to eat, and lets the sunshine, fresh air, and opportunity for exercise help his cows remain healthy and happy.  Twice a day, the cows line up by the barn, each carrying an udder full of about 60 pounds of milk.  They jostle each other and compete for the first place in line, although they usually get in line at about the same place every day.  They knock at the door with their noses while they wait, saying “Hey, don’t forget me!”  After the cows are milked, which takes about three hours twice a day, the cows go back into a pasture where they can graze the grass.
"Let me in!" she says as she knocks on the door .

I visited the farm with my girls to see where their milk comes from.  The farm offers tours and has a retail shop where they sell milk and other dairy, meat, and vegetable products.  They sell whole, pasteurized, non-homogenized milk, which means that potentially harmful bacteria are killed by pasteurization but the cream still rises to the top of the milk.

Farmer Trantham has turned a farm on the brink of bankruptcy into a thriving business by using fewer purchased, off-farm inputs and by selling his milk directly to the public.  Most dairies sell their milk to a company, which mingles it with the milk of other dairies, bottles it, and sells it to grocery stores.  Farmer Trantham sells his milk off the farm and to small stores, like Rosewood Market and 14 Carrots in the Columbia, South Carolina, area. Wil-Moore Farms , in the Lugoff area, at 803-438-3097, also carries the milk.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Consider the Colors When Planting

Have you ever driven by a house and seen orange flowers, next to bright pink flowers, up against a clashing shade of brick?  Consider the color of your house and the color of neighboring vegetation when you add trees, shrubs, or flowers to your garden.

In my flowerbeds, I have set color schemes to make purchasing annuals for color and perennials and shrubs easy.  In the back border, I use pastel pink, blue, and yellow for all plants, except for a few that have white flowers.  In the border around the vegetable garden, I use red, orange, purple, and yellow—“hot” colors. The bright colors complement each other when planted together.

Chartreuse and burgundy by the front door
In the garden by the front door, I plant shrubs, perennials, and annuals in shades of burgundy and chartreuse, with white flowers.  The muted burgundies and purple do not clash with my brick house, as a garish orange or pink might, and the unified color scheme gives some of the order expected along the front of the house, while also adding some creative features to an otherwise boring foundation planting.

If you remember the color wheel from art class, you will know that the primary colors are yellow, blue, and red.  Orange, purple, and green are between those colors.  Planting flowers that are across from each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and blue, or orange and purple, make each color stand out.  Think of sports teams: many of them use opposite colors for their team logos. 

Orange, red, and yellow are warm colors; throw in some purple flowers for contrast and you have a flamboyant and pleasing garden.  For a more peaceful garden, plant pastel shades.  Near my patio, I have a garden with white flowers and plants with silver and variegated green and white foliage.  At night, white is more visible than other colors.  As I gained experience in gardening, I began to figure out how to plant flowers that bloom in different seasons the same color.  For example, dianthus blooms pink in spring, phlox blooms pink in the fall, and asters bloom pink in fall.  Planted together, they provide a nearly continuous swath of pink. 
Pink and yellow at Seed Saver's Exchange, Decorah, Iowa

When you plan your garden, steal another lesson from artists: plant in odd numbers.  Artists know that three or five objects are more pleasing to the eye than two or four.  Try it yourself with some framed pictures or other movable objects on a blank tabletop: try to make a pleasing  arrangement with four objects, and then try with three or five and see what your eye prefers. 

Remember that if you do not like the arrangement of the objects when you put them in the ground you can dig up the plants and move them around without much damage to the plants, as long as you keep them watered.  I have some perennials and shrubs in my yard that have had several homes before I found the correct one.

A garden will always be a work in progress.  Plants die, or grow bigger or smaller than the gardener wants or needs.  Ironically, the garden area at my house that’s the most visible, by the back door everyone uses, currently looks the worst.  I planted a tea olive there when we moved in 7 years ago, knowing I would have to prune it heavily to keep its size under control, because deer do not eat it.  The perennials died, and the bed is partially empty.  The tea olive looks like a 5-year-old gave it a haircut.   Now that I have an electric fence to keep the deer out, I’m thinking about pulling out the tea olive and putting in some other shrubs that are more appropriate for the space, along with some more perennials.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Plant an Herb Garden This Summer

If you want to begin a garden this year, but have only room for a few pots or a tiny plot tucked beside the patio, try an herb garden.  No matter how small your garden is, you have room to grow some herbs for fresh consumption, and you probably have enough room to grow enough to dry for use during the winter.

Some of my favorite herbs are rosemary, sage, oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, and cilantro.  Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it is happy you will not have to worry about it.  Plant it somewhere the soil is not soggy, but water it regularly, allowing the soil to dry some between waterings, until it’s established.  When rosemary wilts too much, it will die; it doesn’t seem to recover from the shock like some plants.  I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants.  If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot.  They like sandy soil. 

Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences.  My mother was kind enough to give me starts from her plant until some survived.  I put dried sage in dressing, and I like using the fresh sage in other dishes. 

Basil is very easy to grow as a crop among your other vegetables.  Sow the seed directly in the ground and cover it, and you will have a crop in about 2 months.  Basil likes evenly moist soil, although it can wilt and recover from the strain.  Three plants are enough for me to use fresh, to dry, and to make pesto.  Turning mounds of fresh basil into pesto is the most efficient way to preserve basil.  I make bulk batches of it and freeze it in small plastic bags.  When I need a quick meal during the winter, I can boil some pasta, thaw the pesto, and have a nutritious meal in the time it takes the pasta to cook.

Cilantro is more of a winter crop in SC than a summer crop; naughty cilantro didn’t realize we needed it to use to make fresh salsa.  One year I made salsa completely out of ingredients from my garden except for the cilantro I had to buy because mine had bolted to seed in the heat.   By vigilantly planting bolt-resistant varieties and by cutting off flower stalks as they appear, last year I managed to make the cilantro last until some tomatoes came in.

Thyme is useful as an attractive ground cover, and it will meander happily among the other plants in your garden.  It blooms during the late spring and early summer, and it attracts beneficial insects to the garden.  Oregano also acts as a ground cover, although it’s taller than thyme.  Like rosemary, thyme and oregano need well-drained soil.

Thyme, oregano, rosemary, and sage are perennial plants, which means they come back year after year; if you put them in the ground, try to put them somewhere they won’t have to move.  Ask gardening friends for starts of any of them, because if they are happy in the garden, they lay down their stems, produce roots, and make more plants.  Cilantro and basil are annuals, which mean they produce seeds and die every year. 

It’s best to pick herbs for drying when they are actively growing.  Pick them on a dry morning, and shake off any bugs.  I do not wash mine because I do not use pesticides on them.  I spread them on a wire rack or on paper towels on a cookie sheet, and I make sure there is ample room among the leaves for air circulation.  When the leaves are crunchy, and completely dry, I store them in zip-top plastic bags in the cabinet.