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7/5/2013
Small Fire Ant

How the #@!*% do I get rid of fire ants in my vegetable garden without using heavy-duty chemical pesticides? Are there any home remedies that work?

Shelve the grits, baking soda, club soda, vinegar, molasses, plaster of Paris, aspartame, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and coffee grounds! In scientific testing, none of these home remedies worked worth a lick against the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) — a nasty, non-native species that’s invaded the South, from Florida to Texas, and is expected to spread westward into California.

Although most ant species are neutral or even beneficial, this one can ruin a garden in no time by devouring germinating seeds, tunneling into potatoes and tomatoes, and girdling young fruit trees — and they’ll bite and sting you, too. Drought makes these ants even more voracious, as it prompts them to turn to garden crops for moisture.

If you have just one or two fire ant mounds in your garden or landscape and not a widespread problem, you can do a couple of things. The simplest is to pour 3 gallons of very hot water directly onto the ant mound. This method achieves only about 60 percent control, so you’ll likely have to repeat applications often. Be careful not to splash the surrounding plants or yourself.

For an even more effective way to get rid of fire ants, drench the mounds with a citrus oil and soap solution, a combination that’s repeatedly proved effective. In controlled studies conducted by Texas A&M University entomologists, fire ant mounds still showed no activity nearly a month after the researchers had drenched the mounds with a mixture of 1 1⁄2 ounces of Medina Orange Oil, 3 ounces of Dawn liquid soap and 1 gallon of water. A compound in citrus oil, d-limonene, breaks down the ants’ exoskeletons and causes them to suffocate. The commercial product Orange Guard Fire Ant Killer — approved for use in organic agriculture by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) — also contains orange oil. (For other approved products, check the OMRI website.)

If your fire ant problem is more extensive than a mound or two, step up your response with the “Texas Two-Step” method recommended by Texas A&M University extension specialists for fire ant control in home vegetable gardens and landscapes.

Fire Ant MoundControlling Fire Ants

Step 1: Once or twice a year, broadcast a fire ant bait product that contains spinosad — a natural metabolite produced by a soil microorganism — as its active ingredient. Foraging ants will carry the spinosad granules back to their nest, and the granules will kill the colony within a few days to a few weeks. For best results, apply fresh granules when ants are active (when the soil temperature is between 70 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit) and rain is not in the forecast. Conserve Fire Ant Bait is a spinosad product approved for organic use by OMRI.

Step 2: If you spot new fire ant activity in your garden or a surrounding area between applications of Step 1, treat individual mounds with either more of the spinosad granules, the Medina Orange Oil/soap solution, Orange Guard, or very hot water.

Top Right: When ferocious fire ants invade your yard, skip the toxic insecticides and eliminate them with citrus oil and soap.

Bottom Left: This fire ant mound shows the intricate system of galleries within the nest. If your fire ant problem is more extensive than a fire ant mound or two, the “Texas Two-Step” method will help you get rid of fire ant activity on your property.

Photo By Alex Wild/Visuals Unlimited, Inc


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



7/5/2013

In fall, I often have an abundance of green tomatoes on my vines, and don't want them to go to waste. What are some uses for green tomatoes?

Fried Green Tomatoes

You can ripen your green tomatoes by wrapping them in newspaper (read more at Ripen Green Tomatoes Using Newspaper Wrap), or savor green tomatoes in all their glory with these flavorful green tomato recipes collected from the online MOTHER EARTH NEWS Archive.

Green Tomato Pickles Recipe. When you’ve run out of uses for green tomatoes, try pickling them! By preserving them, you’ll be able to enjoy their goodness in every season. Go to Preserving Garden Tomatoes and Tomato Recipes.

Green Tomato Relish Recipe. This green tomato relish is tasty and simple, and requires only a few ingredients. Go to Green Tomato Relish Recipe.

Green Tomato Mincemeat Recipe. This mixture is a great base for baking projects, including pies, pastries and cookies. Go to Green Tomato Mincemeat.

Fried Green Tomatoes Recipe With a Cheesy Crust. Boost fried green tomatoes by adding hard grated cheese to the breadcrumb mixture. The cheese will meld with the crumbs and add a delicious twist to this classic recipe. Go to Fried Green Tomatoes With a Cheesy Crust.

Roasted Green Tomatoes. Roasted green tomatoes can be eaten alone or used to amplify the flavor of other foods — the tomatoes' bright, zesty flavor makes a great addition to salsas, soups, pizza, pasta or bread. Go to Roasted Green Tomatoes.

Curried Green Tomatoes. This unique alternative to fried green tomatoes is easy to make. Go to Best Tomato Recipes.

Thai Green Tomatoes With a Coconut Crust. Try this Eastern twist on a Southern favorite. The zing from limes and chiles complements the natural tang of the green tomatoes, and the crunchy coconut balances the heat. Go to Thai Green Tomatoes with a Coconut Crust.

Above: Don't toss your green tomatoes! Fry them up for a tasty treat.

Photo By Dreamstime/Ewa Rejmer


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



5/13/2013

deck woodI need to tear down an old deck and I think it may be made of treated wood. How should I dispose of it?

For many years, most outdoor structures were built with pressure-treated wood that had been soaked in chromated copper arsenate (CCA). This pressure-treated wood contains arsenic, chromium and copper, minerals that do not biodegrade and are toxic to soil life.

You should never burn this wood outdoors or in a stove or fireplace; the ashes can be deadly to livestock and humans. Knowing for certain whether wood is treated with CCA is difficult, but CCA was common in decks, fences and other outdoor structures, so you should assume that wood installed outdoors before 2004 contains CCA. In 2004, manufacturers were finally forced to stop selling CCA-treated wood for residential uses, and less-toxic treatments have since replaced much CCA.

You should take any unwanted treated wood to your local landfill or transfer station and place it in the designated location.

Above: Knowing for certain whether wood is treated with CCA is difficult, but CCA was common in decks, fences and other outdoor structures, so you should assume that wood installed outdoors before 2004 contains CCA.

Photo By Fotolia/alexvav



5/13/2013

grass clippingsOrganic fertilizers can be wildly expensive. Can you suggest some lower-cost options?

Many good, inexpensive organic fertilizer alternatives are available. In fact, your fertilizer can be free! Grass clippings are 2 to 5 percent nitrogen and make an excellent fertilizer. Just be sure you collect them from lawns that have not been treated with herbicides.

If you aren’t able to get grass clippings, then your best buy will probably be large bags of alfalfa meal from a farm store. See a chart that compares the prices of various organic fertilizer types and brands online at Build Better Soil With Free Organic Fertilizer!.

If you’d like to make your own blended organic fertilizer, we recommend a recipe developed by Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When It Counts — find the recipe at A Better Way to Fertilize Your Garden: Homemade Organic Fertilizer. You can also make homemade liquid fertilizer by following our instructions at Free, Homemade Liquid Fertilizers.

Above: Why buy expensive fertilizers when you can get grass clippings free?

Photo Courtesy Dreamstime/Mikhail Olykainen



5/13/2013

beekeeperWhat are some good beekeeping resources for new beekeepers?

Two books we like are Keeping Bees and Making Honey by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, and The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. (Flottum also blogs about his beekeeping; search for his name on our website to find his posts.)

Both books are good, basic how-to references — they each provide information on raising bees sustainably anywhere, and explain how to use honey and wax to make candles, beauty products and tasty treats.

Nebraska beekeeper Michael Bush has a terrific, in-depth website that includes expert advice for beginners on raising bees, as well as information on sustainable beekeeping practices, at Bush Bees Home.

Another helpful website is www.BeeSource.com, where you can find links to other beekeeping resources and organizations.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: After you have the background knowledge, beekeeping offers sweet rewards.

Photo By Janet Horton


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



5/13/2013

organic applesMy neighbor says growing organic apples without using chemical sprays for disease and pest damage is impossible. Is it really that difficult? What are some methods for growing apples organically?

We beg to differ with your neighbor. Beautiful, organically grown apples are now widely available at farmers markets and supermarkets, and you can grow them, too! The organic approach always starts with the soil and selecting the right apple varieties.

First, be sure your intended planting site receives full sun, has good air circulation and is not located in a frost pocket. Work on improving the soil now so that it will be ready for planting next spring. Amend the planting area with plenty of compost, and plant a fall cover crop to add organic matter to the site. Also, test your soil to see whether you need to correct any major nutrient deficiencies.

Over the past 20 years, many excellent disease-resistant apple varieties have become available, but you need to know the best ones for your climate. Getting the right rootstock is important, too, because this influences the tree’s size, winter hardiness, disease susceptibility and drought tolerance. To find the most disease-resistant varieties and best rootstocks for growing organic apples in your region, check with your state cooperative extension office — many offer online publications specifically dedicated to this topic. Also note which varieties organic growers sell at your local farmers market — and which taste best.

To provide broad-spectrum protection against pest damage, many commercial operations growing organic apples rely on a spray regimen that includes timely applications of Surround crop protectant, which is a nontoxic, clay-based product that forms a thin film on foliage and fruit. The chalky barrier helps protect apples from plum curculio, codling moth, apple maggot, apple sawfly and other pests, as well as from sunburn and heat stress. Some studies show that it also suppresses powdery mildew and fire blight disease. Surround is the only product of this kind currently registered for horticultural use.

Sulfur fungicide sprays can also be used to control powdery mildew and scab disease. Other effective organic control methods include bagging individual apples soon after petal-fall to prevent pest damage (see Better Than Apple Tree Spray for more information), hanging sticky traps and lures to control apple maggots, growing certain flowers and herbs nearby to attract beneficial insects, and letting chickens hunt and peck soil-dwelling orchard pests.

For more information on growing apples organically, we highly recommend Michael Phillips’ book The Holistic Orchard. Another good resource is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service publication Apples: Organic Production Guide.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: Choosing disease-resistant apple varieties that are suited to your area is one of the steps that will help you grow bushels of organic apples.

Photo By Jerry Pavia


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



5/13/2013

flowering onionI noticed onion flowers and garlic flowers in my garden last summer. What caused this, and, in the future, should I remove the flowering stems or let them bloom?

Onions are biennial, which means they ordinarily produce bulbs in their first year of growth, then, if left in the garden, they flower and bear seed in their second year. George Boyhan, a vegetable specialist at the University of Georgia extension office, says springtime temperature swings — such as a warm spell followed by a cold snap — can sometimes cause onions to bloom. That’s especially true if cold weather strikes an onion that is approaching maturity, a state usually indicated by seven true leaves. Younger plants with fewer leaves are less likely to bloom early.

What to do? Harvest any flowering onions and use the bulbs immediately, because they won’t keep well. (You can put the pretty flowering stems in a vase with water.) Do not break off the flower stems or leave the bulbs in the ground for later harvest — the bulbs won’t grow any larger, and the broken, hollow flower stems will channel rainwater directly to the bulbs, encouraging rot.

According to Boyhan, onions are regionally developed. To reduce the chance of onion flowers blooming (or “bolting”) too soon, check with your extension service for recommended varieties. Bulb formation is triggered by the amount of daylight, so be sure you are planting the right “day length” type for your area — “long day” onion varieties in northerly latitudes, and “short day” onion varieties in southerly latitudes. Smaller onion sets (less than the size of a dime in diameter) are less likely to bolt than larger sets. (MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ comprehensive, step-by-step guide to growing onions is available at All About Growing Onions.)

Hardneck garlic produces long, curled stems, called “scapes,” in early to midsummer, following a fall planting. Snip off the scapes as soon as they appear, but don’t harvest the garlic bulbs yet. Unlike onions, the flowering garlic bulbs will continue to grow after the scapes have been removed, putting all of their energy into making the bulb. A tasty bonus: You can use scapes from flowering garlic — which have a pleasantly mild garlicky flavor — in soups, salads, stir-fries or pestos. Harvest garlic bulbs when the lower five leaves of the plant have turned brown.

Above: Springtime temperature swings can cause onions to bloom early. Harvest the flowering onions, as they won’t keep well.

Photo By Dreamstime/Jupaule


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .









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