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9/18/2013

What’s the best way to use leaves in the garden?

Leaves are one of the main ingredients of the dark, rich humus that covers the forest floor — nature’s compost. A gardener can replicate that humus by mixing carbon-rich leaves with nitrogen-rich manure or grass clippings to make compost.Garden Leaves

Maintaining an active compost pile in winter can be a challenge, however. An easier alternative is to use leaves in the garden in fall, says Abigail Maynard, associate agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who has studied the use of leaves as a garden soil amendment for more than 10 years. 

If possible, shred your leaves first with a chipper-shredder or mower; the smaller pieces will break down faster. Spread the chopped leaf mulch over your garden soil, then incorporate it with a tiller or spade. “By spring, almost all of the chopped leaves will be completely decomposed,” Maynard says.

Maynard’s research has shown that amending soil with maple or oak leaves alone probably won’t boost yields the way adding finished compost does, but she says using leaves in the garden does add organic matter to the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure, holds nutrients and moisture that are released slowly to plants, and provides food for beneficial soil organisms.

Maynard suggests adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as aged manure, in spring. (Nitrogen added in fall could leach away by spring.)

Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Boost your soil’s organic matter by using leaves in the garden.


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

I’d like to buy a live Christmas tree this year to plant after the holidays. Any tips?Christmas Tree

Visit your local garden center in fall while the selection is still good, and choose a potted or balled-and-burlapped (B&B) tree suited to your growing conditions. Many retailers will let you buy a live Christmas tree in fall and pick it up later, closer to the holiday season. When choosing a potted tree, lift the root ball out of the pot to examine the roots — they should be developed enough to hold the soil together without being pot-bound.

Choose a planting site that has good drainage and is far enough away from buildings and other trees to allow for future growth. Dig the planting hole before the soil is expected to freeze. In some areas, that will be before the holidays. Make the hole about the same depth but twice the width of the root ball. Until planting time, store the soil from the hole in a location where it won’t freeze, and fill the hole with straw.

Keep the tree in a protected transitional location, such as on a porch or in an unheated garage, until you’re ready to bring the tree indoors. Keep the root ball moist but not soggy. Plan to keep your potted tree indoors for no more than five to seven days. Warm, dry household conditions will stress it, and could even cause premature bud break, so choose a cool location away from heat vents. Decorate it with natural ornaments that won’t weigh down the branches — garlands of popcorn and cranberries, dried red pepper pods, or small bunches of dried flowers and herbs are ideal. Use small LED lights, which produce less heat and won’t burn the tree’s boughs.

After the holidays, move your potted tree back to its transitional location on the porch or in the garage for a few days before planting. When you’re ready to plant, remove the tree from its pot or loosen (but don’t remove) the burlap bag. Remove any plastic wraps or liners. Gently set the tree in its pre-dug hole. If it’s a B&B tree, fold back the top of the burlap to the bottom of the root ball. Fill the hole with a portion of the dirt that you removed, and use the remaining soil to shape a small mound around the edge of the hole. Cover the soil around the tree with up to 4 inches of mulch, but leave about 3 inches of space between the mulch and the trunk. Finish by thoroughly watering the tree inside the “moat.” Read more about caring for a live Christmas tree at Have a Green Christmas: Live Christmas Trees.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: If you want a live Christmas tree, plan ahead and take steps to help it prosper.

Photo By Fotolia/Maria Kutrakova


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

What’s the best tactic for catching and moving chickens from one place to another?Feeding Chickens

The easiest time to catch a chicken is usually at night, when it is sleeping. Approach it slowly, grab it firmly over its wings (expect loud squawking) and then carry the bird to wherever you want it.

During the day in a coop or run, a poultry hook — a long metal rod with a hooked end that you can slip over a bird’s leg — can also come in handy for snagging stray chickens. You can buy one for less than $10 at an agricultural supply store or from an online supplier.

Another good option is to train chickens to come to you for treats. If you feed them grain or bread treats every now and then and call them as you do so, they will quickly learn to come when you call. Then, you can simply stand inside a new pen or toss some treats inside a smaller cage and the chickens will usually go right in to get the treats.

If you want your birds to return to roost in a new location, you need to move them there and keep them locked in for a week or so. After they become accustomed to their new location, you can let them out to range and they will typically return without any effort on your part, other than checking to be sure none of them tried to return to their previous location. Do a head count for a couple of evenings to be sure they all understand where “home” is.

Occasionally, a wayward chicken will roost in a tree outside the coop, says Glenn Drowns, co-owner of Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, which sells heritage poultry breeds. “To catch a renegade, wait until it roosts, then sneak up and catch it after dark,” Drowns says. “If the branch is too high, go to that area the next night, just before dark, and catch the bird on its way up the tree.”

Remember, chickens will get away with whatever their owner allows. “If you train chickens as youngsters to ‘shed up’ at night, they will. If you let them wander and sleep wherever they may, you will fight with them their whole lives,” Drowns says.

Above: Moving your chickens will be a cinch if you train them to follow you as you offer them food.

Photo By Dreamstime/Catalin Petolea


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
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









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