Grow Your Own: Organic Garden Guide for Mulching, Feeding and Pest Control

This second installment of Darlington's organic gardening guide advises on the use of organic mulch, feeding plants, and pest control in the garden.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
July/August 1970
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Snail and bird protection for young seedlings newly planted.
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PLEASE NOTE: During the makeup of our last issue, proper credit to the publisher of GROW YOUR OWN was inadvertently omitted. Here it is, both for now and as it should have appeared then:

Copyright © 1970, Jeanie Darlington.
All rights reserved.
Published by the BOOKWORKS,
1611 San Pablo Avenue,
Berkeley, California.
Reprinted by permission.

Here's another installment of Jeanie Darlington's warm little introduction to organic gardening. If you liked what you read in the last issue and you like what you see in this one, we advise you to hurry and get your own personal copy of GROW YOUR OWN organic gardening guide. They're going fast! 

Organic Garden Mulch

If you've been working very hard on your garden, planting, cultivating, weeding, watering, etc., you can relax now because your work is done. If your seedlings are up to at least two inches or so, apply a mulch and then forget about garden work except for picking harvest.

A mulch is a layer of usually but not always organic material laid on top of all the exposed soil in your garden. Hay or straw, grass clippings, leaves or leaf mold; shells and hulls of rice, buckwheat, cottonseed, cocoa beans, oats and peanuts; seaweed or kelp, pine needles, sawdust, newspaper, old carpets and even black plastic. Any of these will do. The purposes of a mulch are to conserve moisture, regulate the soil temperature so it stays cool in summer and warm in winter, discourage weeds, prevent a hard top crust from forming, prevent erosion, and eventually to decay and add a rich layer of humus to your soil.

Since we don't get rain in this part of California between May and October, mulches are a must in my opinion. Last summer, I applied a mulch and then watered my garden deeply once a week. (Frequent and light waterings cause shallow feeder roots and this in turn causes plants to wilt easily if these roots do not receive moisture.) I never cultivated or pulled a single weed. For my mulch, I used hay that I gathered from the vacant lot next door. The hay kept the vegetables from getting muddy when I watered, and it kept things like squash and tomatoes from rotting since they were not touching the wet soil.

This year I tried out cocoa bean hulls which I bought from the Guittard Chocolate Factory for $1.00 per 75 pound sack. Not only did they smell and look beautiful, but when they broke down, they added 1% nitrogen, 1.5% phosphorus and 2.5% potash to the soil.

However, within a month and a half they had already decomposed, so then we laid down a nice, thick six-inch layer of hay from the vacant lot like we did last year. I used the cocoa bean hulls more successfully as a mulch on the flower and herb gardens. There was a smaller area to cover, so I applied them more thickly and therefore they lasted longer.

Ruth Stout, an 84 year old gardener, has been mulching year round with nothing but hay for 25 years. (See page 81 and 82 in the bibliography of Grow Your Own book.) She never uses any fertilizer except what the rotted hay contributes, doesn't maintain a compost pile, and never tills or cultivates. Her soil has been analyzed several times and has always been found to be very high in every necessary element and of course very rich in humus.

With oak leaves and pine needles, it is perhaps a good idea to lime them a bit in the fall as they tend to acidify the soil. With sawdust, some people like to add a nitrogen fertilizer such as blood meal when applying it, because sawdust robs nitrogen from the soil when it decays. (See chapter on fertilizer, page 25 of Grow Your Own book.) Some say this is unnecessary. The other mulch materials I've mentioned should be all right on their own. But don't expect black plastic to decay and add nutrients. Plastic is plastic. Stone mulches are effective, especially around flowers, and as the earthworms rub against them, they slowly add valuable mineral content. (See Bibliography, page 81.) River rocks, smooth round pebbles, or bright red orange bricks from one of San Francisco's freshly demolished buildings are all useful and beautiful too.

The only drawback with mulch is that snails and slugs (our most persistent and abundant problem) love to live under it. They come out at night and feast. This isn't too disastrous for a full grown garden, but it is an instant wipeout to a tender new row of succulent one inch seedlings. (See chapter on snails for ideas about snail control.) However, I feel that the advantages of mulching far outweigh this one disadvantage and I am certainly a confirmed mulcher.

So go out and use what you can find in your area. Mulching may be the biggest discovery of your life.

Planting the Organic Garden

Between July 15 and August 15, you can plant seed for later summer crops in any available space you have. Try cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, winter and summer squash, bush beans, carrots, beets, turnips, etc. Anything that will mature in 60 days or so and doesn't need too much heat. Before planting, remember to enrich the soil with compost and manure and a good sprinkling of blood meal or other nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer.

Here's a way to get a bumper crop off your pole beans. When the leaves begin to fall off and look tired, take off all the leaves and add a lot of compost around the base of the plant after loosening the soil around the thick stalks. Fill a few buckets with manure, add water, stir well and allow this tea to brew a few days. Then pour it around the beans. Allow this to soak in and then give a good deep watering. After a few days, there should be a whole new show of blossoms and soon more beans, giving about a 60% second crop. It's worth a try.

If your onion tops have toppled over, it means the neck is dry and they should be harvested. Pull them out and let them dry a few days in the sun and wind. Then make them into a braid and let them finish curing in a cool place such as a shed or back porch.

Sunflower seeds are ready to harvest when the seeds start to fall out around the outer rim. Cut off the flower head now before the birds get to it. They'll get their share later, but they pass the word around fast. Hang the head up in an airy place to dry. When the seeds are dry, sort them according to size and keep the small ones to feed to the birds in wintertime. Roast the large ones on top of the stove in a small pan for 10-15 minutes. Stir to keep from burning. When they smell like roasted nuts, they're done. Then shell and eat. Save the sunflower stalk for supporting next year's beans, peas, etc.

Planting Vegetables

In the Bay Area, the first killing frost comes around November 30. This means that you can plant fall vegetables between September 1 and October 1. Many good sized seedlings are available at the nurseries; broccoli, cauliflower, collards, red and green cabbage and kale. It is too late to start these from seed. Get them in by September 30. The nursery will also have Swiss chard and lettuce seedlings for your convenience, though you can still start these from seeds.

You'll have to sow root crops and greens from seed, but there's still time. Radishes are ready to eat in 21-30 days. Plant beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi and peas. For greens, try spinach, mustard, Chinese cabbage, endive, escarole, lettuce, parsley and Swiss chard.

You can sow leek and onion seed now too. Or if you wait till October, use onion sets or seedlings. I prefer sets. Plant the sets two inches below the ground level and two inches apart. Or put them one every inch and a half and pull every other one for use as green onions when they are the right size. Chives may be planted now from seed or clumps of bulbs. And if you have large clumps of chives growing, it's time to divide them.

When planting onions and root crops, mix some ashes in the planting row to discourage root maggots. Before planting anything, be sure to renew your soil with plenty of well rotted manure and compost. If it has been a year since you last prepared your soil, it's also wise to replenish the nitrogen with blood meal or hoof and horn meal, the phosphorus with bone meal or phosphate rock, and the potash with wood ashes, granite dust or green sand. Otherwise, be generous with the fish emulsion. And plan to do a good soil renewal program in November or December, such as I described in the soil preparation chapter.

Always apply the phosphate rock, granite dust and green sand along with manure and compost, because organic matter increases their effectiveness.

These natural mineral fertilizers should be applied at a rate of 10-15 pounds per 100 square foot. There is no need to worry about applying too much as the plants can only use what they need. This application is good for a year or more, depending on how much you grow in how large a space. If you tend toward close planting for maximum production in minimum space, use the larger recommended amount of fertilizer and use plenty of compost all year round.

Plant flowers for winter bouquets. From seed, sow calendula, sweet peas, and alyssum. At the nurseries, buy stock, such as lobelia, pansies and violas, nemesia, petunias, snapdragons and primroses. If you sow seeds for money plant (lunaria) now, you will be able to harvest the pretty, silvery dried seed pods next fall. And strawflowers are best sown now for next summer's flowers.

Feeding Hungry Gardens

During the middle of July, I noticed that one of my squash plants had a nitrogen deficiency - the blossom end of the fruit was pointed. I gave it a good dose of compost, manure, and some blood meal, and I watered it - with diluted fish emulsion. Now the fruits are filling out nicely.

Once you learn to recognize the basic signs of malnutrition in plants, it's easy to correct them. Even if you can't diagnose, it's wise to add compost and manure liberally.

Nitrogen deficiency; slender fibrous stems, slow growth, foliage and stems that fade to yellow. In cucumbers and squash, the blossom end is pointed. Corn plants will be yellowish-green instead of deep green. In tomatoes, the tip of the leaves at the top of the plant are lighter green than they should be. The leaves do not get larger and the veins turn purple. The flower buds turn yellow and drop off.

However, if you are using overhead watering, this may be knocking the blossoms off and curling the leaves. (Sun on a wet leaf will cause it to curl and burn.) Always water vegetables at ground level. The blossoms will also drop off if a large part of the root area dries out. Water deeply once a week.

To correct nitrogen deficiency, add manure and compost and some blood meal (15% Nitrogen), or hoof and horn meal (12.5%). As these are slow acting, add a good dose of diluted fish emulsion. That goes to work immediately. Do not use ammonium sulphate.

Phosphorus deficiency: the under side of the leaves take on a reddish purple color, plants are slow to mature and set fruit. In cucumbers and squash, the stem end is narrow and blossom end bulging. In corn, the tip of the corn ear will not be filled out with kernels in each row. In tomatoes, the plants look all purply and are very slow to set fruit.

To correct add some bone meal, or phosphate rock (not superphosphate or ammonium phosphate!) plus manure and compost.

Potassium deficiency: the leaves turn ashen grey and develop curled brown edges and later a bronze effect. In cucumbers and squash, the leaf margin becomes brown and dies. The blossom end has an enlarged tip. In tomatoes, the young leaves crinkle, the older leaves turn ashen grey-green and then yellow on the edges. Bronze colored spots develop between the longer veins. Fruit ripens unevenly.

To correct, add wood ashes or granite dust and compost and manure. Heavy mulching maintains potassium supply.

Calcium deficiency: The plants are slow to grow and have woody stems. In corn, the tip ends of the leaves are stuck together as if glued. In tomatoes, the upper leaves are light yellow in color. The plants are weak and flabby. The terminal buds die and the nearby stem becomes spotted with dead areas.

To correct, add some natural ground limestone.

Magnesium deficiency: The areas between the leaf veins turn yellow and then brown, while the veins remain green. In corn, the older leaves develop a yellow or white striping effect and in cucumbers the leaves have a yellow and brown mottled effect. In tomatoes, the older leaves develop a yellow color. It is a deeper yellow further from the vein.

To correct, add a quart of sea water to each 100 pounds of compost and apply, or add dolomite limestone.

As for other trace element deficiencies, such as boron, iron, copper, zinc and manganese, all of these are most easily corrected by adding plenty of manure.

In general, whenever a plant looks unwell, always give it compost and manure first. Then if you can diagnose further, give it whatever else it needs. The best protections against malnutrition in the garden are good soil preparation at the start or end of each growing season, and thick mulching.

Messages from Earth Gods

APRIL
It's not so easy to figure out sometimes. One afternoon around five, when I was at the library, a bird ate a whole baby lettuce plant that was growing on our front porch. At least I assume it was a bird. Sandy saw a bird come hopping pleasantly along the walk up to our front steps, digging the plants and taking little nibbles like it was a smorgasbord.

What to do about aphids? I tried washing them off the plants with a strong jet of water from the hose. But it didn't help much. In early April, I ordered a half pint of lady bugs from the Bio-Control Co. for $2.00 postpaid. They ship the lady bugs the day they receive your order and money, and they arrive within two days in a little box with a screen on one side so they can breathe. That freaked our mail lady when she reached in her mail bag at 6:00 a.m. to start sorting her parcels and came up with a whole box of creepy crawleys. They smell beautiful, like messages from earth gods.

We released them that night after sundown according to instructions, sprinkling them around the plants, so they would have a better chance to forget their fright at being handled and could settle down a bit. They don't fly at night. These were old lady bugs as young ones will not be available till after May 15. Nevertheless, they started gobbling aphids and mating first thing next day, so we will soon have some hardy young ones too.

I also ordered four Chinese Praying Mantis egg cases. Their virtue is that they love to eat insects, from flies to aphids to caterpillars . . . but not ladybugs, unless they are starving. They are the only known insect that can turn its head and look over its shoulder. Paranoia? They're supposed to make good pets and can be trained to eat out of your hand. We'll see.

The purpose of all this is to arrive at an ecological balance in your garden, yard, or nature area by introducing more life rather than by killing it with poison. There are now over a billion pounds of DDT or its toxic derivative in our environment. DDT doesn't break down, so it's all there in our bodies, and in animals and fish. That thought is disgusting in itself, but when I think of the smell, the delight and the wonder of putting ladybugs and praying mantis into your environment, it's impossible for me to understand why people so often choose such sick solutions to their problems, ones that harm the planet we live on. 

JUNE
By early June, I was able to see how effective the half pint of ladybugs had been that we released in early April. Most of them died soon after we released them because it was the end of their life cycle. But before they did, they mated and laid lots of eggs. Imagine Volkswagens humping. That's what ladybugs look like when they mate.

The larvae have been growing from microscopic size to a half inch in length and have now hatched. The larva is black with some orange spots and looks like a tiny alligator. When it attains full growth, it goes into a moulting condition, clinging to weeds and grass stems. Then the back splits open and an adult ladybug is born. Its life span is about a year.

Now they're eating like they've got the munchies, grazing up and down the sides of the plants. They seem to like it here. I had heard of people who brought a lot of them down from Tilden Park, only to have them all fly away home the next day. But if they're born in your garden, they're more apt to stay.

The Praying Mantis egg cases hatched at the very end of May. It was far out. Looking like mutants from a former atomic age, they came tumbling out of the little round 1 and 1/2 inch egg cases, about 200 from each, 3/4 of an inch long, and went streaming across the landscape. Invasion from outer space!

The egg cases were hanging from bushes about one foot from the ground. The babies look exactly like the adults except that they're transparent. As soon as they hit the ground, they went hopping and running in all directions and were almost immediately hidden in the foliage. Their legs, thin as silk threads, must be incredibly strong to withstand the falls and leaps. 

AUGUST
By the middle of August we began to see quite a few mantis. They are now 2 and 1/2 inches long and their color ranges from pea-green to brown. They camouflage so well its hard to find them.

They're a lot of fun to play with. They love to run up our arms and hop about. Every once in a while, they sit back and wave their front feet about in the air like a begging dog. When I put one back where I'd found it, it immediately licked the bottom of its ridgy front and back feet just like our cat would do. I suppose our skin oil made its feet slippery.

The Chinese make pets of them. But how? We tried to feed them. They turned down chicken and cat food and most bugs, but once one took an earthworm.

SEPTEMBER
One mantis has made his home in a basil plant on our front porch. He's been there three weeks now and seems quite happy, having shed his skin twice. We say hello as we go by. "Hello Manty, how's it going?" He turns his head and peers up at us with iridescent froggy eyes. His inscrutable look and exotic shape, usually hanging upside down, is like a silent haiku. We hope he sticks around for the winter, although Harry Mantyla from the Bio-Control Co. says they usually die in the winter unless it is very mild.

Organic Pest Control

I hope you won't have much trouble with bugs in your garden. But if they come, it's good to know what you can do about them without resorting to chemicals and poison sprays.

Step One: The first step in pest control is to have healthy plants growing in fertile soil that is rich in organic matter. Then they are more resistant to virus and to insect invasion. Insects tend to attack the weaker plants which have diseased tissues and an imbalance of nutrients. So if your soil is poor, add compost throughout the summer and be sure to put down a mulch.

Step Two: Restore the balance of nature. The reason there are so many aphids in relation to other bugs, is that DDT has wiped out all their predators. So encourage and import predators into your garden. Ladybugs, praying mantis, ichneumon flies, lacewing flies, toads, lizards and birds all like to eat a wide variety of insects. (See Grow Your Own book page 84.) The summer diet of most birds consists of 2/3 insects, plus salad.

Step Three: Outwit the insects. Here's where your ingenuity comes into action. Companionate planting is the first thing to consider. The idea is that certain smelly flowers and herbs repel insects when planted next to susceptible plants. The flowers: marigold, calendula, nasturtium, geranium and chrysanthemum. The herbs: tansy, wormwood, chives, onions, garlic, sage, savory, coriander and hemp. Yes that's right: cannabis. Any of the above plants are also useful for concocting sprays such as the onion-garlic-pepper spray I've mentioned before. Grind the leaves and add water. Strain it and you have a spray to dribble on the plants or to spray through a sprayer.

Although I have a lot of aphids in the yard, there's not one on the Chinese pea pod plants which are supposed to be susceptible to aphids, nor in the whole vegetable garden for that matter. The peas are right next to a row of onions and next to that are four marigold plants. I suppose that helps.

More outwitting: Hand pick and remove first generation bugs from your plants. Do this in the early morning when the insects are slow and not very alert. If the pretty white cabbage butterfly has laid her dusty grey eggs on the leaves of any of your cabbage related plants such as broccoli, cauliflower or collards, get to work fast as there are about five generations to a summer. Wipe the eggs off the leaves with a wet Kleenex, wet the leaves, and sprinkle them with ashes. If the worms have hatched and are eating, try sprinkling them with flour to dry them up. When the leaves are covered with a fine dust such as ashes or flour, the worm doesn't like the taste and the butterfly doesn't like to land there. When the cabbages have headed, a good cabbage worm repellant is sour milk. Add a little vinegar or lemon juice to fresh milk. Spoon a bit of this into the center of each cabbage. Lasts about a week. Also, birds and baby birds love cabbage worms, so help is on the way.

The Mexican bean beetle looks like a brownish-yellow ladybug with black spots. It eats the bean leaves till there's nothing left but the veins. Handpick and destroy yellow egg clusters on the underside of leaves. I had these last summer but still ended up with plenty of beans.

You might get leaf miner on your beet and spinach leaves. Pick off bad leaves and make sure there is free circulation of air around the plants. If you have lamb's quarter (a weed) growing in the immediate area, pull it up and cook it for dinner. It's a host to leaf miner and more delicious than spinach.

Curcurbits (melons, squash and cucumbers) have related problems. The cucumber beetle is yellow with three black stripes, and is 1/5 inch long. The squash bug is brownish black, 5/8 inch long, and smells bad. Hand pick, look for eggs, wet the leaves well, and dust with a mixture of ashes and lime. The squash borer gets inside the vine and sometimes kills the plant. As the vine lengthens, root it in several places so that if the center dies, the branches will take over.

If you get a corn borer in the base of the ear, run a wire in the hole to kill it. For corn earworms in the tip of the ear, drop some mineral oil in under the silks.

Flea beetles are little round black beetles that eat pinholes in leaves, especially seedlings. Put out containers of old soot and lime to repel them if you have them.

Hand pick tomato horn worms. They look like dragons. Don't smoke tobacco in the tomato patch and don't handle tomato plants with nicotine fingers. It could spread mosaic (something to do with nicotine).

Centipedes look scarey but it turns out they're on our side. They eat slugs, and other harmful insects, plus a few earthworms, unfortunately. Sow bugs or pill bugs, those little grey things that curl into a ball when you touch them are a favorite food of toads and lizards. I can't see that they do much harm. I have them mostly in the compost where they are helpful because they live on decaying organic matter.

Ants are beneficial in the compost pile and soil because they help aerate. They do however transport aphids from one plant to another. Bone meal is supposed to be an ant deterrent, and you can pour boiling water down ant hills, but I still haven't found an effective way to control ants where I don't want them.

Birds are good friends to the organic gardener. If you feed them seed this winter, they'll stick around and eat their share of bug kingdom baddies next summer. We made a nice bird feeder which hangs 3 feet outside our kitchen window in a big rose tree. We nailed 2 and 1/2 inch edges around a 2 ft. by 1 ft. redwood board. It was all free scrap lumber from a lumber yard. If the feeder should attract cats, you can cat-proof your tree by nailing along piece of thin sheet metal around the trunk, or by making a wide funnel of metal around the trunk that the cat can't jump over.

Finally, there is a very good organic spray available called Tri-Excel DS. It is made of the ground flowers of chrysanthemum, the ground roots of rotenone, and the ground stems of ryania, three natural insecticides. It can be used as a dust or a spray and costs $1.98 for a one pound can. See the resources section of this book for information on how to find it. It controls a wide variety of pests and is very effective and it is non-toxic to humans.

I hope this list isn't too scarey, but it's better to know what you might be faced with ahead of time.

Organic Snail and Slug Control

We seem to be waging a never ending battle with snails and slugs. A frenchman originally brought a few to the United States in the 19th century so that he could continue to eat his beloved escargots. Merci bien pour ca, hein!  

The first step in controlling these little gluttons is to go on snail hunts at night in your garden area, armed with a flashlight and a coffee can. You will be amazed at the amount that live in your yard. The next best time for hunting is early morning. Some people take along a salt shaker. It works, but it's too gross for me.

If you worry about the human population explosion, watch snails for a few weeks. If only they could develop a birth control pill for snails.

In the spring, when you plant your garden, rake off or turn under all the winter mulch if you are plagued by snails and slugs. Clear away all brush and other snail hideaways around the edges of the garden. A ring of ashes or lime around the edges of the garden provides a helpful but not fool proof barrier. Their soft bodies are sensitive to sharp materials like sand, and to dry alkaline substances like ashes, lime and cinders.

The next thing to do is to protect rows of young seedlings with a chicken wire frame covered with cheesecloth or nylon net. (See Grow Your Own book page 62.) Make a frame the length of the row, bending down the edges so that the frame sits about 4 to 6 inches high. Cover it with the cheesecloth and secure it well on all sides. We anchor ours with dirt all around. The sun and rain can come through, but nobody else can, and the seedlings can grow 2 or 3 inches without a care, by which time they are more able to fend for themselves. When you remove the frame, you can still throw a length of cheesecloth over the row at night if there's still trouble. A frame can also be fashioned from wire coat hangers bent into U-shaped arches.

Slugs love beer. Even the cheapest kind. Put down jar tops full of beer at night and there will be many slugs there in the morning. Snails also congregate under boards and shingles. Check each day.

Buy a pair of geese. Or find a few toads and lizards. They love snails and slugs.

You can also surround individual plants with sand or ashes. I wouldn't use lime in the garden as a device because it would upset the pH balance. Or cover individual seedlings with a tin can at night until they are large enough to have more woody and less tender juicy stems and leaves. This is how I finally got my sunflowers going after the first few were demolished.

If you think that letting snails gorge themselves to the point of indigestion will make them change restaurants, you're wrong. Green Thumb tried it. Snails can travel a mile in 15 days, slugs in 8. Don't underestimate the intelligence of a snail.

Snail and Birdproof Protection for Young Seedlings

  • Cut chicken wire to length of row.
  • Bend sides 4-6 inches in length.
  • Place frame over 2 rows, 1 ft. apart of seedlings. (Wider chicken wire should be used for rows that are further apart, or the frame can be used for just one row.)
  • Cut the cheese cloth 15 inches longer than the length of row and cover the frame with it.
  • Anchor the cheesecloth well on all sides with dirt to complete the frame.

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