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basic garden care

This time of year is when I realize I need to organize my fertilizers and all the garden care products that little my garden shed. Some of my sweet peas and native phlox have powdery mildew, and this year I want to be more organized and simplified about this stuff.

From the very beginning of my gardening adventures, I wanted to learn about how to care for my garden organically. Not because I necessarily have issue with synthetics or chemicals but it was so much easier to learn from organic solutions. I wanted to learn about why plants and soil need certain things, and how much. I don’t like just doing something out of habit, or having one solution for many things. I want to know details.

And so, like any crazy new gardener, the first year I started I was attracted to all kinds of organic products. I’d go to my favorite nursery (which is an all-organic nursery) whose shelves were lined with all sorts of things I’d never heard of: Diatomaceous earth! Bone meal! Fish Emulsion! Neem oil! Fertilizers for roses, for perennials, for tomatoes… sprays for this, sprays for that.

I made the silly mistake one spring of sprinkling bone meal all over my backyard, because I learned that new growing plants or lawn need phosphate, and bone meal is a lot of phosphate. This was all before I did a soil test, and learned that my soil is extremely high in phosphate to the point where it ties up other nutrients. I learned later from reading a few local gardening articles that our soil here is naturally very alkaline and high in phosphates and it is not necessary and can even be troublesome to add more phosphate.

All this is stuff that you learn as you go, but now that I’ve been doing this for a couple years, I’ve refined how I fertilize my garden and take care of its pests. I have a few things that I could not do without, and I suppose that a lot of experienced gardeners would have the same basics.

Now I think, honestly, if you really wanted to, you could live with just a hose and a shovel. But there’s nothing like tending a garden with such nuance and detail. I’m sure I join a crowd of people who walk out into their gardens daily to check for the most nuanced updates.

I’ve tried a lot of different fertilizers but the main thing that I keep in my garden regularly is seaweed. I’m hoping I can keep up with spraying this all summer long, but most gardening advice around here says it is the number one thing to use in your garden to keep plants healthy as well as keep many pests away. (I’d want to stay away from it, too… but the stink doesn’t last long.)

I fill up one of those gallon sprayers with water and a tablespoon or two of seaweed, and just walk around the garden once a week spraying all the leaves of everything that’s growing–shrubs, flowers, herbs, veggies. Of course in the meantime I’m checking everything out and admiring that state of my garden or its problems.

The second main product I’ve used consistently is Hasta-gro, which also has seaweed, but other ingredients like fish emulsion, humic acid, and urea (which is not a strictly organic thing but a lot of organic growers use it for nitrogen). I add it to the gallon sprayer and usually alternate this every other week with the seaweed–just spray it on the leaves. There are all kinds of products that are similar to its recipe, but it is basically an all-purpose organic fertilizer. It’s also what I use in all my containers. (Containers need a lot more fertilizing, since nutrients wash out faster, and especially here, when sometimes you have to water them twice daily in the summer.)

As far as pests, at the moment I’m trying to concoct my own pest-control spray, which combines milk and potassium bicarbonate, that I can pull out whenever I need it. This would mostly be for fungal stuff like blackspot and powdery mildew, which does happen in my garden regularly.

As far as bad bugs, I’m still not so sure how to control them outside of letting them duke it out with the good bugs. I used this expensive product called “Flower Pharm” last year, which like all the other Pharm products is a mix of an ingredients like baking soda, food oil, and herbal oils that help control both fungal diseases and pests. It worked on the aphids and sometimes the powdery mildew, but last year I had an out-of-control problem with spider mites. And which I read can be controlled by regular seaweed spray… but I was not so regular last year. I was out of town for all of July and August and only had a friend to help water, not do pest-control.

I was thinking about making my own less expensive “flower pharm” out of the same ingredients, but I’m still not so sure about using oil as a control. Oils smother bugs, and while there are a few organic solutions to grasshoppers (which did chew up a few plants this year) that include oils of one kind or another (neem oil being popular), they are still capable of smothering good bugs.  I took aim at a colony of aphids with the oil-based “Flower Pharm” until I saw a Ladybug busily consuming them for lunch. I had to decide between the oil or the ladybug and I chose ladybug.

I’ve got a few other things I want to try this year, like an alfalfa tea for my roses, now that I have a lot more roses in my garden and want them to be their best. And I think I’ll spend this week sprinkling greensand in a few of my beds. Last year noticed that one of my beds plants really responded to a new mulch that had Texas greensand mixed in. Greensand is supposed to help plants take up iron, which is one of those nutrients that gets bound by our highly alkaline soils.

Anyhow, my brain is on fertilizers. April is the month to start–the lawn, the roses… the regularity of it. The last two days we have been blessed with rain, rain and more rain, the best product my garden can hope for.

Here are good organic recipes for both fertilizing and pest-control with ingredients you either have around your house or can find easily:

Howard Garrett’s recipes

Natural Gardener recipes: Baking Soda Fungicide, Soap and Pepper Spray (for insects), John’s Recipe (which is very similar to Hasta Gro, except the urea). And a generally good article on fertilizing from my favorite nursery.