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Multipurpose Companion Plants for Edible Gardens

11 years ago

In response to a request from Charlie for info on companion plants that can be useful in edible gardens, here's some that I use.

Compost Crops: In order to garden as sustainably as possible, I try to gather compost materials here from our property and I grow some compost crops. The fewer compost-type materials you bring in from an outside source, the more control you have over the quality of your compost. This is a bigger deal than it seems because ever since about 2000 or 2001, there have been persistent problems with contaminated hay, compost, manure, grass clippings in municipal compost, etc. that contain herbicide residue that kills many of the plants in a person's garden and stunts many of the ones that survive.

So, if you have space to grow your own compost crops (also referred to as green manure), here's a few that are useful:
Clovers of many different kinds (short Dutch White, taller New Zealand White, Crimson, Red, Sweet White)
Fava Beans (cool season)
Vetch (hairy or wooly)
Cereal Rye (especially important to grow this in sandy soils that are infested with root knot nematodes)
Winter Rye
Austrian Field Peas/Winter Field Peas
Amaranths (the tall grain types make oodles of material for your compost pile)
Phacelia tanacetifolia
Agricultural mustard
Lupines (in our climate I use Texas Bluebonnets)

I plant all of these in different ways. You have to experiment and see what works for you. Many serve a cual purpose. For example, the tall grain types of amaranths produce large flower heads that are highly ornamental. You can cut the seedheads and use them dried as fall decorations. You can thresh the seeds and use them as an edible grain crop. You can eat young tender leaves of amaranth. You can put any and all of the plants in your compost pile. The big stalks get huge in summer, so I like to chop them up (a machete makes quick work of them) into smaller pieces before composting. I usually plant amaranth on the northern edge of the veggie garden right along the fence line...just outside the fence line so I can use the ground inside for beans, peas, cukes, melons, etc. that will climb the 8' tall garden fence which doubles as a trellis. Once the amaranth is tall enough, it also serves as a windbreak.

The low growing dutch white clover can be planted in garden pathways. It doesn't mind being walked on, it can attract beneficials, and you can clip it and use it as mulch or put it on the compost pile. You also can plant it in orchards where it is more useful than grass. Grassroots compete with your orchard trees. Clovers fix nitrogen in the soil.

I'm not going to go through every use for every plant or I'd end up writing a book, but every plant listed above produces lots of organic matter for your compost pile, attracts insects when blooming, and, if legumes, improve the soil. I plant some on the edge of the garden during the main garden season, use others as off-season cover crops, and grow some inside the garden mixed with veggies, herbs and flowers.

PLANTS THAT ATTRACT BENEFICIAL INSECTS: Most of the following plants attract many, many different kinds of beneficial insects. In some cases, they are mainly attracting butterflies, which makes the garden a more enjoyable place to spend time. In other cases, they attract bees which are essential for good pollination of some crops, and other pollinators of all kinds. They attract many kinds of good insects that are carnivores who will prey upon the herbivore insects that eat your plants. Some of them release enzymes that deter pests. Some have fragrances that repel bad insects but not good ones. They are many reasons to grow these. In my garden, most of these are generally scattered around here and there. Sometimes I put a specific plant next to a specific vegetable or fruit for a specific reason. A few of these can be invasive in some situations. When I find one to be excessively invasive I tend to move it outside the garden and plant it where its rampant growth doesn't threaten the veggies, herbs and flowers inside the fenced garden. These companion plants can be annuals, biennials, perennials and include flowers and herbs. Some are considered common weeds, but remember that a weed is in the eye of the beholder. To many people, a dandelion is a weed, but it is helpful as a dynamic accumulator, which I'll get into in a minute.

Here are some great companion plants:

Sweet Alyssum--I grow this as an edging in some raised beds, or underneath taller plants as a form of living mulch.

Bishop Weed (Ammi visnaga)--Interplant these with leaf crop plants to protect them from leaf-eating insects. They'll attract beneficial insects that prey upon the leaf-eating insects.

Nasturtium--in addition to attracting beneficial insects, these produce edible flowers. I especially like to plant these around squash plants.

Calendula, aka Pot Marigold -- attract beneficial insects, flowers are edible.

Cosmos--attract butterflies and beneficial insects

Nicotiana--The various nicotianas are both beautiful and beneficial. Their flowers attract beneficial insects and, as a bonus, the undersides of their leaves are sort of icky-sticky and will catch/trap whiteflies and some other pest insects. Then, as a bonus, you can brew some nicotiana tea and spray it on your plants as a natural pesticide. DON'T drink it! The flowering nicotine family is huge. I grow the white flowered ones like N. sylvestris and N. alata in my moon garden near the chicken coop, and grow a few in my veggie garden. They self-sow there, so when they pop up, I leave them where I want them and pull the rest. I grow some of the newer, shorter ones with flowers in different colors in my flower border.

Sunflowers--I mentioned these in another thread. They are a great trap crop for some pest insects. Just plant them some distance away from your garden so they attract pests away from your garden, not to it.

Yarrow--attracts many beneficial insects. I transplanted some native yarrow from my pasture to my veggie garden years ago. Its foliage emerges in Nov. or Dec. and it grows fast when the weather warms up. Attracts beneficials very early in the season before some of the other companion plants are up and growing much.

These are herbs that are multipurpose. Most of them attract beneficial insects, but there's several whose aroma repels herbivore insects.

Sage(Salvia officinalis)--Repels insects, especially cabbage worm butterflies. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Wormwood (Artemesia absintheum)--Repels cabbage worms if planted near your cabbage plants. It has some compounds that serve as growth retardents, which helps it keep competing weeds away from it, so I plant it about 3' away from my cabbage plants, usually just outside the garden fence. It will discourage some burrowing pests, and deer normally won't eat it.

Thyme--attracts beneficial insects when blooming. Grows low so can be used as a living mulch. Needs well-drained soil. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Sweet Annie (Artimesia annua). Attracts beneficials and deer generally won't eat it. I put it on the north side of the garden because it can get tall and shade other plants. Can be used a bouquet filler or as a background plants in wreaths.

Mint-generally repel insects, but can be invasive. Attracts beneficials when flowering, repels ants. Useful in herbal tea or tea blends, or a single leaf can be used to flavor regular iced tea. Can be used to make mint jelly.

Hopi tobacco -- N. rustica---not as attractive as the flowering nicotines mentioned above, but does attract beneficial insects, and repels some of the herbivore insects. Better as a background plant as it has large coarse leaves.

Basil - Improves the growth and flavor or tomatoes when grown nearby. Attracts beneficial insects when flowering. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Parsley--useful as an herb, but I mainly plant it specifically to attract swallowtail butterflies. Their larvae eat the parsley, so if growing it, understand at times they may eat it down to the ground. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Winter Savory--attracts beneficials. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Skullcap-- attracts beneficials

Oregano--attracts beneficials. Useful as a kitchen herb.

Licorice mint (A. foeniculum)--attracts beneficials

Catnip--attracts beneficials and cats (felines). Useful as catnip tea. Readily reseeds.

Catmint--attracts beneficials and cats (felines)

With both of the above, if you have pet cats or neighborhood cats that like to hang out in your garden, you can plant then some catnip and catmint adjacent to the edible garden, along with some catgrass or variegated cat grass, and they'll be more attracted to the little spot of cat garden plants than to your nice edible plants. Sometimes in the past, we've had bobcats pop up in the garden. We joke that they were attracted to the cat garden plants, but I think they are sitting in there waiting for sometime to come into the garden that they can prey upon. Since we raised the garden fence to a much taller height, the bobcats are less common as long as I remember to keep the gates closed.

Stinging nettle--multipurpose

Lemon balm--attracts beneficials, useful as a kitchen herb.

Lavender--repels pests, useful as a kitchen herb.

Hyssop officinalis--attracts beneficials

Chamomile--attracts beneficials readily and esp. early in the season when few companion plants are blooming. Flowers can be harvested and used to make chamomile tea, which is a great preventive treatment for damping off in seedlings. Useful as herbal tea.

Dill--attracts beneficials, useful as a kitchen herb as both dill weed and dill seed

Cilantro--attracts beneficials if you let it go to seed.( The seeds can be collected, and in this form is known as coriander. The leaves are harvested and used as a kitchen herb.

Fennel--attracts butterflies and beneficials, useful as a kitchen herb

Calendula--attracts beneficial insects, edible flowers

Feverfew--attracts beneficials, can be used for migraine headache relief

Chives--repels pests, especially aphids, but also attracts beneficial insects when in bloom, useful as a kitchen herb. Sometimes I use the lilac-colored flowers (from regular chives) or the white flowers (from garlic chives) as a garnish along with parsley on platters of deviled eggs.

Tansy--attracts beneficials, but can be tall and rangy in good soil I usually plant it outside the garden fence, and often plant it near the chicken runs because it repels flies.

Almost any flowers that produce either pollen, nectar or both will attract beneficials. I like to use old-fashioned varieties that date back decades. Some of the newer flowers are bred more for appearance and may lack nectar and pollen that the insects need, or their nectar/pollen is not attractive to the beneficial insects.

Here are some of the 'antique', heirloom or open-pollinated flowers I like to plant around the garden. These are different from the ones mentioned above in that they aren't as multipurpose--I just like them because they look good and the beneficial insects like them:

Fire Chief petunia

Laura Bush petunia

Four O'Clocks (also seem to deter tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms)

Texas Hummingbird Sage (a salvia)

Salvia farinacea (blue flowers)

Pincushion Flowers, aka Sweet Scabious

Verbena bonariensis--also known as tall verbena. One of the best butterfly-attracting plants in my garden

Henbit--in bloom very late in winter or early in spring when few other plants are and when beneficials desperately need to find flowers

Poppies--for early spring blooms for beneficials

Larkspur--for early spring blooms for beneficials

Sunflowers--to attract beneficials, to serve as a trap crop for stink bugs, to provide sunflower seeds for the birds (I cut and dry the heads and save them for winter)

Zinnias and other daisy-like flowers--for the butterflies.

Butterfly weed - for the monarchs

Cleome -- for the butterflies

I'm sure I've forgotten plenty.

I deliberately didn't mention marigolds before now for a reason. Marigolds are a two-edged sword. In some cases, I don't think they perform as well in real life as garden writers would have you believe, at least not in my garden. Some of them actually attract spider mites, so I plant those outside of and away from the garden. I tuck a few into the flower border hear and there, but don't put them right in the beds with the veggies much any more.

It isn't necessarily about which flowers or herbs, or shrubs or trees, you plant in proximity to your garden. It is just more about having as wide of a variety of plants as possible. You never know which plants will attract which insects. I have found that even carrots and onions if left in the garden and allowed to flower both produce flowers that beneficial insects like.

Sometimes you learn the functions of the various companion plants merely by planting them. I've always loved lemon balm and like to plant it where it hangs over the edge of a raised bed and I brush it as I walk by, thereby releasing its lovely fragrance. I also like to use it in cooking. One of these days I will plant a little lemon bed with nothing but lemon-related plants in it. Anyhow, through observation I learned that very often if I am paying attention I will find the very first, tiny, newly-hatched grasshoppers sitting on the lemon balm leaves eating them. So, I watch them when it is grasshopper egg-hatching time, and when they show up, I immediately sprinkle Semaspore on the leaves to control them. It is most useful when they are in the younger instars from about 1/4 to 1/2" in length, so watching the lemon balm for young grasshoppers allows me to spot them easily at that size.

I didn't mention garlic, onions or chives in much detail, though I discussed them in an earlier thread. Garlic is a great repellent and often organic gardeners plant it under and around their fruit trees. Ditto with the chives. Garlic, chive or onion tea can be sprayed on plants to repel pest insects.

For years and years I tried to apply traditional companion planting bush beans with potatoes or tomatoes with basil and borage....but I don't know if it really is effective. I think it is just as effective, in general, to scatter those companion plants all over the garden, though there's still a few I like to place close to the plant that they are said to help. I'll mention some of those in the post on planting schemes.

Charlie, I hope this is the kind of info you were looking for.


Comments (23)

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    I just finished hunkering down and reading every word. This is exactly what I needed to kick off my first year of using attractors. Much more than I hoped for.

    Of course it has spawned a few more questions:

    1) Are all of these to be started from seeds, or are there some I should try to plant from transplants?

    2) I'm thinking you surely have some preferred vendors from which to buy your seeds and/or transplants that will do well here.

    3) Do you prefer the wild comfrey or one of the Russian (Bocking) strains? I bought from Richter's last year, but the worms/caterpillars ate all them before I cd devise a better strategy than going out at night with a flashlight and ambushing them. I recently found out about Coe's in North Carolina I think. I read that the Bocking 4 produces the best foliage for making compost.

    4) Can anything be planted before the garden veggies start going in? With all these compost crops and beneficial attractors to plant, in addition to the garden itself, I'd better start planting what I can. Not asking you for planting times for everything, but just wondering which should be ordered here pretty soon. I don't have a lot of free time and this absolutely requires that I be as organized as possible.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    I think it is appropriate to post this here since you've so strongly suggested growing non-vegetable crops to improve the soil. I'm on a kind of journey to understand how to establish a sustainable program of soil improvement. It must both produce as much organic matter on-site as possible and simultaneously build humus as rapidly as possible. Some crops are apparently capable of leaving much more humus in the soil than others, and since I have to make choices I hope to focus on them.

    From "Organic Matter Additions" of the 3rd edition of "Managing Cover Crops":

    "Plant materials that are succulent and rich in proteins and sugars will release nutrients rapidly but leave behind little long-term organic matter. Plant materials that are woodier or more fibrous will release nutrients much more slowly, perhaps even tie up nutrients temporarily (see Tillage, No Tillage and N Cycling, p. 21), but will promote more stable organic matter, or humus, leading to better soil physical conditions, increased nutrient-holding capacity and higher cation exchange capacity.
    In general, annual legumes are succulent. They release nitrogen and other nutrients quickly through the active fraction, but are not very effective at building up humus. Long-term use of annual legumes can increase soil humus, however, some research suggests (429).
    Grains and other grasses and nonlegumes will contribute to humus production, but won�t release nutrients very rapidly or in large quantities if incorporated as they approach maturity. Perennial legumes such as white and red clover may fall in both categories�their leaves will break down quickly, but their stems and root systems may become tough and fibrous and can contribute to humus accumulation."

    I must not only get more organic matter into my soil but also build humus. My CEC is abysmal. % Organic matter is abysmal too, which makes sense.


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  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    SEEDS VS. PLANTS: I start almost everything from seed, except comfrey which normally is planted from purchased plants. I am not sure if you even can grow comfrey from seed. A lot depends on your set-up. I have a large light shelf indoors and can squeeze 20 flats onto it, although it more comfortably holds 16.

    When it is time to move seedlings off the light shelf (to make room for more, of course), I have several options--a wraparound porch that gets only morning sun from the east, or dappled shade from the south, a sunporch on the west side of the house, a covered patio, a potting shed with windows, and a hoophouse style unheated greenhouse. You have to have room to raise a lot from seed. I also direct sow when appropriate. In our early years here, before the soil was as well-enriched as it is now, it was hard to successfully direct sow much because the seeds tended to rot in the wet clay in spring before they would sprout. Now that the soil is better, I can direct sow and get better results. Many of the plants listed above self-sow for me, so all I have to do is thin them out or transplant them if needed. Admittedly, a lot of them have not self-sown well after the last couple of drought years so I don't know what sort of volunteers I'll have this year.

    PREFERRED VENDORS: There are many.

    For compost crops/green manure crops, I tend to favor Bountiful Gardens, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Some cover crops are available locally in farm/feed and seed type stores, though often in a larger quantity than I want.

    For companion plants, I use the three previously mentioned companies plus oodles of others including Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, Willhite Seed, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and Pinetree Garden Seed. Specifically for flowers I focus on old heirloom types that haven't had their nectar or pollen tampered with by modern breeding. I love Select Seeds Heirloom Plants and Seeds, and get my wildflower seeds mostly from Wild Seed Farms.

    COMFREY: For comfrey, I kept it simple and bought whatever comfrey Wal-Mart had on the Bonnie Plants' display. I do love Nichols Garden Seed for both seeds and herb plants too, and I occasionally visit nurseries in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (I am closer to it than I am to OKC) where I have shopped for decades.

    COOL SEASON COMPANION PLANTS: There are a few companion plants that tolerate varying degrees of cold, although some of them don't tolerate it well their first year when very small but will tolerate the cold better once they are well-established. These types tend to reseed for me.

    If I were to walk out into my now soggy, and this winter frequently frozen in garden right now, I'd see henbit blooming (it sprouts in fall here, stays small, blooms in Feb most years...this year it began blooming in December or maybe even late November), winter rye grass, turnips, cabbage, collards, kale, dusty miller, likely some small Laura Bush petunias--they were here before the freezes and usually regrow from the roots after freezing--- and chamomile. Poppy and larkspur foliage sprouts in December though January or February in most normal years. Bluebonnets are up though still very low to the ground, but those are from self-sown seed from last year. The freezing temps have stunted them but they are still there. Yarrow and catnip are up already.

    I don't know what your soil temps are, so seeds might or might not sprout now at your location. You could make a list of what you want to sow now, then check the temperature/seed germination database at the below link. There's separate charts for different types of plants. A lot of my reseeding companion plants actually sprout sometime between about October and February every year, sprouting whenever the soil temps and moisture are in alignment. It is highly variable as is our weather.

    Some of my companion plants, like the yarrow, came from native plants I found in my pasture and transplanted while very small. Henbit is a common weed that pops up in the yard and in the garden. Dandelions pop up in my yard more than they do in my garden. Just look around your property and see what you find. Tansy can be an invasive thug, so I finally moved it to where it sits right outside the fenced garden.

    Out in the pastures, many, many tiny rosettes of native forbs are appearing, so clearly some things can sprout now. We've had alternating cycles of hot winter weather interspersed with cool and some native seeds need exactly that sort of alternating wet-dry, hot-cold stratification to induce them to sprout. In order to get some native seeds and perennial seeds to sprout, you have to mimic the stratification conditions, and winter-sowing (go to or the GW Winter Sowing forum to read about winter sowing) is one way to do that easily.

    We overseed our lawn with rye grass between Sept and Nov, depending on when the rain returns. It sprouts and grows, and we move it about twice a week in winter, catching the clippings in the mower's grass catcher so I can layer the green clippings onto the compost pile to mix in with all the leaves. Our current main compost pile is about 6-8' wide, 3' tall and about 30' long. Even at that size, it does not even begin to provide all the compost we need. The best one I ever built was about half as long but 6' tall and had fully decomposed by late April. That was a hot pile, and I mostly cold compost nowadays because I think it is better for the microbes that live in the compost.

    Regarding the growing of compost crops, if you do not have John Jeavons' latest edition of his "How To Grow More Vegetables...." book, I strongly recommend it. As part of his overall Biointensive Gardening program, he strongly emphasizes growing your own compost crops and green manure plants with very specific recommendations on when and how much to grow. My garden is quite large and I never, ever, ever could create enough compost to meet its needs without growing compost crops. I likely still do not grow as much of my own compost crops as John Jeavons would say I should, but I try. I also having the advantage of having rural acreage, so can gather a certain amount of native grasses, etc. when we mow down the tall pastures, which normally happens about twice a year but more often in a very bad wildfire year.

    To improve your soil in all areas, you do need all kinds of organic matter. The more improvement you seek and the more quickly you want to see it, the more you have to do. Our first few years here, as we built raised beds and improved the soil, I added everything I could find: composted cow manure from a nearby ranch, old rotting hay bales, rabbit manure from our rabbits, straw and chicken poop from the chicken coops, grass clippings, any chunky or half-decomposed wood I could drag out of the woodland (I did that for years and still do it, but to a lesser extent), etc. I composted paper, used newspaper and cardboard on top of the soil to suppress weeds and piled mulch on top (nothing brings worms to your garden more quickly than cardboard--they'll munch it and digest it in no time). I used dynamic accumulators, whether I planted them myself or just searched the property and found them), to mine the subsoil for nutrients. I had massive compost piles, planted tomatoes around Japanese tomato rings for years, used sheet composting in one area for about 7 years to improve the soil before I planted permanent shrubs there. That sheet composting area had clay so dense you couldn't penetrate it with a shovel, fork, pickaxe, etc. so I just started sheet composting. After a couple of years, I could pile up sheet composting materials on top and plant annuals right into the sheet composting area. Because it was in a pretty high visability area, I piled on tons of bark mulch or chopped and shredded leaves to hide all the stuff sheet composting below. I grew annual flowers there for so long that I think my friends had decided I'd never plant shrubs and perennials there. Once the soil was ready, though, I did finally put in permanent plantings. That sheet-composted bed has given me less trouble in drought years than the beds that were rototilled, amended and then immediately had shrubs, vines, and ground covers planted into them.

    When we first broke ground for the veggie garden, every new area had numerous organic amendments added to it every year including sulphur (to lower pH enough that I could grow veggies in it), soft rock phosphate, Texas greensand, lava rock, bloodmeal, bone meal, dry molasses, alfalfa meal...I could go on forever and ever. Within a couple of years of the ground being broken, it clearly had good nutrition but I still have to work continually on adding more organic matter because heat eats compost (and humus).

    I encountered some initial problems here because of what had been grown here before. Although I knew this was fallow farm land that had mostly returned to forest land, I didn't know cotton had been grown here several decades ago. I learned that when I talked to one of the locals just after diagnosing cotton root rot (I saw it all around me in Texas, so was pretty familiar with how it begins and progresses) in an area where I kept losing plants susceptible to cotton root rot (thousands of plants are). One way I knew the soil was improving was when I quit losing plants to CRR. Had I not grown up in a part of Texas where CRR was common, I don't know that I ever would have figured out it was the problem here.

    When I was arriving at a place where I finally felt pretty happy about the quality of the soil, both in terms of tilth, levels of humus and organic matter, and fertility, we had a little rain storm that flooded by sloping garden. Not only did the garden stay seriously waterlogged for about 2.5 to 3 months, but the lower part of the sloping garden, which was planted and heavily mulched, suddenly had about 4" of native sand from the higher ground to our south that apparently had washed down into the garden. That sandy soil, of course, had every weed seed in southern OK in it. That was in 2009 when we got 12.89" of rain in one 24-hour period in late April, followed by another 6 or 8" in the next 6 weeks. It was very discouraging. That lower end of the garden was ruined, and it still is not back to being as good as it was before, but every year I feel like I am closer and closer to fixing it. I am hoping that this spring I'll find it back to the quality it possessed prior to the great rain storm of 2009.

    I grow an insane amount of annual legumes, but mostly for their ability to fix nitrogen. Alone by themselves, they don't do much for the soil in terms of its friability.

    When I first started trying to fix my soil, all I had to do was look at the woodland soil to see what I wanted. It was brown, earthy, humusy, rich and moist. Mostly I just started working to build garden soil that resembles the woodland soil. It took me a few more years of watching my native pasture land to understand I needed to be using grasses, hay and straw as well as legumes to also improve the soil because the soil gets different forms of improvement from all of them.

    Even though I call the fenced vegetable garden a vegetable garden, to me it is a whole lot more than "just" a veggie garden and more grows in it than just veggies. It is, indeed, its own ecosystem complete with a tiny shallow pond for the wild things, grasses, legumes, a few fruit, and lots of flowers, herbs and veggies. A lot of people who garden in a less-sustainable or less-ecologically balanced way freak out when they see my garden because it is full of insects....and not just insects, but also birds, frogs, toads, lizards, newts, snakes, turtles, earthworms, ants, lots of ground beetles, and other insects and arachnids of all kinds. On any given day in spring through fall, we have hummingbirds, songbirds, dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, hornets, butterflies, wasps, and beneficial insects of all kinds. I wouldn't have it any other way, but those old farmer non-organic types who visit all want to advise me on how I can use highly-toxic broad-spectrum pesticides to "kill those bugs". It has taken some of them a long time to accept that the insects they hate mostly don't hurt my production, and some of them never have accepted it.

    I am not saying that biointensive gardening is for everyone, but I just know that what I do works for me....but you have to use the entire program, and it all starts with the soil. Every ounce of time and energy you put into improving your soil will pay off but that doesn't mean it is easy. I've been working on my soil for 14 years now and am just beginning to be really pleased with it. You can't just stop either....cause that danged heat burns up the organic matter at a high rate. I have a hard time getting some people I know to understand they have to continually improve the soil and give back to it in order to keep their gardens highly productive without the use of lots of synthetic fertilizers.

    Even though my soil is only just now beginning to look good enough to make me happy, realistically speaking, we've had pretty heavy yields since about 2002 (we moved here in 1999) so it didn't take as long to make the soil into highly productive soil as you'd think it would have, considering we were starting out with red clay that could be used to make flower pots.

    I don't worry about my CEC any more. As the soil got better, I could tell from the plant growth that it was fine. Although I always recommend soil tests to people gardening in soil that is new to them, I haven't had a soil test in many years. I had one in the very beginning, and then another one 3 or 4 years later, and since then, I know what is going on by how stuff grows or doesn't. When your soil is good, your garden is happy and it shows. The one good thing about red clay is that it is high in minerals and is very fertile. Starting out with sand or sandy-silty soil is, I think, a lot harder than starting out with most types of clay.

    Finally, I think one of the harder parts of creating an ecologically-balanced garden is the realization that "if you built it, they will come" and some of the critters that come are varmints you don't want around. I love wildlife in general, but I don't want venomous snakes, predator birds, skunks, raccoons, armadilloes, foxes, bobcats, deer, coyotes, ringtail cats, moles, voles, gophers, field mice and the occasional cougar (long story) in my garden, which explains why it is tightly fenced with a very tall fence. The fence doesn't keep everything out, and I had to learn to close the gate behind me so I wouldn't find a bobcat or fox inside the garden with me, but the fact that all these wild animals are drawn to the veggie garden tells me that it is a healthy, balanced and attractive ecosystem, which is what I was aiming for all along. The garden I have now far surpasses any expectations I had for it when we moved here.


    Here is a link that might be useful: Tom Clothier's Seed Germination Data Base

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Yes, part of me is now wishing I had that black clay from last year, instead of this sandy stuff.

    Thanks, once again. I'll admit you've finally silenced me. No more questions for now.

    I'm going to get the Jeavons book. The details you gave on companion plants were just what I needed to get going, though I didn't realize I'd be buying so much seed (to which I admit, I look forward.). You said you grow an "insane amount" of annual legumes. I'm getting the idea that you seed a good bit of your land each year. I wonder if you've tried sorghum-sudan. Supposed to be peerless at penetrating subsoil with roots and then contributing biomass to the topsoil. Super-tough in our heat also.

    Ah! That didn't last long. I just had a question pop into my head: Do you employ chickens anywhere in this vast growing program of yours?

    I sure wish I could get paid to improve my soil and garden. Back to my job.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Anyone else out there want to chime in? I'm located almost in Dawn's backyard, geographically, but I'm sure there are others out there that have something to say on this issue. Hope I haven't turned it into a 2-way conversation.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    You said, "A lot depends on your set-up. I have a large light shelf indoors. . ."

    I have no set-up at all. Can I still plant plenty of things from seeds? If it's essential that I buy a light shelf and start things indoors I'll do so. But I'm hoping there will be a decent selection from the plants you mentioned that I grow outdoors from seeds.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I direct seed beans, cucumbers, melons, usually edible pod peas, chard, beets, squash, dill, parsley, etc.

    On my light shelf I start tomato, pepper, eggplant, and also broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, etc. All of this group with the possible exception of Chinese cabbage can be bought as transplants locally.

    The above list can vary from year to year. If I think the ground is too wet for peas, I may start them inside. If the weather is still too cool for melons when I need to plant, I may start them inside.

    You can buy seed potatoes locally as well as onion plants. Some people start potatoes and onions from seed, but I wouldn't recommend that to a new gardener. Two years, I bought onions on the group order that seedmama puts together, but I am so far away from everyone, I decided to order direct this year.

    A light shelf is never essential, but most of us have one because we order special seed that is not available as plants, and because we can't endure the cost for as many as we plant. At $3-$4 dollars a piece tomato seedlings add up fast. If I only needed a few plants, I probably would not use a seed shelf. I start hundreds of seedlings and last year I still bought a few small pepper plants, but that is unusual for me.

    Some transplants need be grown inside for two months before they can be moved outside. It isn't worth all of that work if you are only planting a few.

    If you are starting as a square foot gardener with a limited number of beds, then probably a light shelf would be over-kill.

    Things like horseradish, cutting celery, and asparagus are only planted once so pick a permanent place for them. My cutting celery re-seeds, and I never seem to get all of the horseradish roots out although I grow it in pots. This year I dumped the soil from the pot into an old wheelbarrow that had a hole in it until I could decide where to dump the dirt. Soon I had horseradish growing in the wheelbarrow. One year it went through the hole in the bottom of the pot and now it is growing there.

    Start small so you don't get over-whelmed.

    My friends think that I am crazy because I plant such a big garden. I would plant more if I had room, but I could never handle what Dawn plants. Not only is she an experienced gardener, she is the 'energizer bunny'. She loves to be outdoors, and loves to grow everything. Try to do what she tells you to do, but don't try to do what she does. LOL

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    You know, you don't have to start with all the companion plants at once. I started with maybe 5 or 6 and added new ones along the way. In February we will be starting our 15th year here (so hard to believe!) and the garden I have now bears little resemble to the one I had in the beginning.

    I tried to pick and choose techniques from John Jeavons' book, but learned over time that you really have to use all the biointensive techniques together in unison to get the best results. It took me a long time to come around to that way of thinking because I was stubborn and didn't want to change the way I do things. I am still guilty of using a mini-tiller/culivator to mix in organic matter. I keep saying that I'll switch to a broadfork and give up the rototiller, but it is really hard to do that. I am sure I'd have better soil tilth if I wouldn't use the tiller at all.

    The words sorghum and sudan sort of send a chill up my spine. Maybe it is because I have clay.....

    Do you have Johnson Grass on your property? It is Sorghum halpense and every inch of our property that isn't shaded and that does not have bermuda grass has Johnson grass. It is not hard to control in pastures. You can keep it down by mowing it regularly, but I like to leave our native grasses and forbs to grow freely as they should, just mowing paths through the pastures, so that means we are stuck with the Johnson Grass. In a garden? Johnson Grass is the equivalent of bermuda grass on heavy-duty steroids. I have to hand-dig it out ever year....and it comes back a week or two later, and it comes back repeatedly. I have been fighting it here since 1999 and likely will be fighting it until the day that I die. I often have to dig down 12-15 inches to reach what I think is the last of its rhizomes, and then by the time I put all the digging equipment up in the garage and go back to the garden, the Johnson Grass is popping up out of the ground again. (OK, slight exaggeration there, but not much of one.) I hate,hate, hate Johnson Grass. So, would I plant sorghum grass or sudan grass on our property, given that its relative, Johnson grass, is so highly invasive? Not likely. I have grown broomcorn (also a sorghum) a few times but I don't grow it any more. It also produces tons of biomass and as a bonus you have the beautiful seed heads for autumn decorations. I prefer the grain type amaranths for biomass but they will reseed vigorously. Your soil is different from mine, and since it is sandy, maybe the sorghum or sudan would be easier to control than it is for me in compacted red clay.

    I do employ poultry in gardening. We have had chickens ever since we moved here. At various times we've also had turkeys, guineas and ducks. Our area is really too wild for ducks unless they are enclosed in a safe, fully-fenced (including a fence-type roof), predator-proof area that wildlife cannot penetrate. There's just too many things here that like to kill them. The same is true with chickens and turkeys. Guineas are the best gardening assistant in the world, and I have had them about 10 of our 15 years here, but haven't had any since we lost them all in the year of the cougar. I'd like to get some keets and start over again with guineas, but it was so disheartening to lose so many of them that one summer (as many as four a day) that I just cannot go through that again. Maybe one day I'll be ready to get guineas again. I almost did it last year.

    Chickens, if allowed to free range, will control bugs and eat weed seeds like crazy. Our chickens especially like to follow right along with us as we mow. Sometimes they go ahead of the mower and grab bugs like grasshoppers that are fleeing in advance of the lawnmower. Other times, they follow behind, searching for bugs in the newly cut grass. I let them into the garden to dig and scratch at times that suit me, but not always because they can be very destructive and can dig up and eat seedlings in the blink of an eye. We use a deep layer of bedding on the floor of the two chicken coops, removing it periodically and adding it to the compost pile. Even their egg shells are recycled in the pile.

    Because your property is an ecosystem, if you have poultry of any type, you'll have predators that will prey upon them. All chicken coops and chicken runs must be predator-proof, and this is especially true in rural areas where lots of wildlife roams.

    You don't have to have a light-shelf for seed-starting, but it helps. Most of the companion plants I listed work fine if direct sown, although I prefer to raise lavender always in containers. Lavender is very slow to grow, so I am afraid tiny sprouts would be shaded out by nearby plants that were more fast-growing. With veggies, almost everything can be directly seeded into the ground. There are a few things that do better from transplants. For me, the ones I feel I must raise from seed indoors are all the cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) because it is a mad race here to get them to produce before the heat makes them bolt. I like to start peas inside for the same reason. If I wait until the outdoor air temps and soil temps allow them to sprout, the odds are lower that they'll have a chance to produce well before it gets too hot for them. I have direct-sown them some years. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants do better if raised from seedlings. Once again, in our climate, this is because the hot temperatures that impede pollination, fertilization and fruit set can arrive shockingly early some years. For the last couple of years, they've arrived even earlier than usual, so the plants that have gone into the ground very early have been the ones that have produced best.

    A light shelf doesn't have to be fancy or expensive or take up a lot of space. My first one was a three shelf plastic unit that cost less than $10.00. It was one of those you buy in a flat box and put together. We used chains to suspend shop lights from the underneath portion of each shelf to light up the shelf below. For the top shelf, we put two hooks in the ceiling over the shelf and suspended the light fixture on longer chains. On that shelf, each shelf held one flat, so I could have three flats total at one time together. Later, I moved on to a 4-shelf system. It was slightly larger and each shelf had one regular flat and one half flat for a total of six flags. Wow! I thought I was raising a nuge number of plants indoors then. Eventually, we moved up to a five shelf system. Each shelf will hold four flats comfortably, though I can cram 5 onto a shelf sometimes if I let them hang off the edges a lot, which I don't like to do. Most of the time it only has 16 flats on it during a peak seedling period, but I can make it hold 20 if the weather turns cold and I have to move hardened-off seedlings back indoors.

    Each time we moved up to a bigger shelf, we just moved the lights from the smaller shelving unit to the larger one, and then bought more shop light fixtures as needed. The old seed starting shelves went out to the garage or potting shed to be used for storing supplies.

    On the first two shelving units, each shelf had one shop light fixture with two fluorescent tubes. On the current unit, each shelf has two fixtures, for a total of four fluorescent tubes per shelf. All the fixtures are plugged into two power strips so it is easily to turn the lights on in the morning and off at night.

    When I look at the pricey seed-starting shelves in catalogs, I shake my hand because they are so expensive, and mine have been so much less expensive and only required a minimal amount of time to put together....the hardest part is attaching hooks or screws to hold the chains for the shop lights, and that doesn't take very long to do.

    I gardenened happily and successfully for my whole life, ever since I was a wee little child, without a light shelf. I was about 40 years old when I got my first light shelf. For about a decade before that, I raised seedlings in Fort Worth in a sunny window, carrying them outside during warm weathr so they could get more light. Even in a sunny southern window they tended to get leggy though. I was so much happier after I stared using a light shelf.

    I second what Carol said about starting small. My first garden here was two raised beds that I think were 4' wide by 8' long. I crammed a ton of stuff into those beds, actually building them, fencing them and planting them the year before we broke ground to build the house. We didn't even have running water on the property back then, so when we came up from Fort Worth on the weekends to work on clearing away the cedar, greenbrier and other unwanted brush, I hauled water in runnermaid storage totes and cat litter buckets with lids so I could water my herbs, flowers and veggies. I did that for about a year. We had both the electricity and the water put in a week or two before the contractor started building the house, and having running water to water the tiny garden was such a luxury compared to hauling water. My friends in Fort Worth thought I was half-crazy (or maybe totally crazy) to plant a garden even before we built the house, but I had mostly shady land in Texas, and couldn't wait to have the chance to grow stuff in full sun.

    After we moved here, I kept the little garden out back, but started working on the bigger garden in the area that had the best soil. It actually sits between the roadway and the house, which sits back about 300' from the road, because that was where the best soil was...not that it was great soil but it wasn't as dense as the clay around the house and in the back yard. Even then, the bigger garden started pretty small....maybe 24' x 32' or so, and then I enlarged it more and more over time. Starting too big in the beginning can be discouraging. You have a limited number of hours per day and a garden that starts too big can quickly get out of hand.

    A couple of years ago, a person a few miles south of us plowed up a big garden area....I am guessing it was about two acres. Then he planted it. Then the rain fell in vast quantities (so it must have been 2010) and he soon had a garden buried under weeds....and by soon, I mean without about 4-6 weeks after it was planted. It looked like he pretty much abandoned the garden that year, and scaled back quite a bit in subsequent years. Don't plant more than you can manage under the worst possible case scenario...too much rain, too little rain, too little time available, etc.

    To add to what Carol said about horseradish, I have found it to be highly invasive. I prefer to grow it in a container set at each corner of the potato bed. You can sink the container into the ground if you wish so it retains moisture better and stays cooler.

    I finally got around to planting asparagus here last year. It took me forever because I was determined to have the bermuda grass and Johnson grass totally eradicated from the area before I planted it. Did I succeed at that? Heck no. I had Johnson grass pop up in the path next to the asparagus bed and then try to come up in that bed. I hand dug it and got it out of there, but it was a battle. Still, I am glad I waited a while before putting asparagus in my clay because my clay needed a lot of work to be good enough to put in a perennial crop. I hope to double the size of the asparagus bed this year. I didn't plant as much of it last year as I wanted to because of the drought conditions. Even with asparagus, and even after waiting 14 years to plant it, I still started small.

    Carol is right. Dawn is insane and plants far too much, and finds it hard to rein herself in. This winter she is working on 5 new planting areas. Some are for flowers, some are for more veggies, some are for more fruit. This is a sure sign she has lost whatever sense she had left after fighting the OK weather for the previous 14 years. It also means that what she really needs is a second light shelf that she can devote purely to flowers.....and Tim has no idea that thought is rolling around in her brain! Some of the new areas are necessary because the trees that were to the west and north of the big veggie garden when we broke ground in 1999 have grown a lot since then and the shade is encroaching on those sides of the garden. The new areas are mostly tree-free. So, even as I am expanding with new garden plots in some areas, I am giving back some of the shady edges of the big garden and no long will grow veggies there. I'll plant flowers and herbs there that are shade-tolerant. Eventually it will be too shady for most of them and then I'll just give that area back to Mother Nature completely.

    For the record, I am only an energizer bunny outdoors from January through late May or early June. Then I hide indoors and can, dehydrate and freeze the produce in June, July and August, mostly emerging only to harvest and make a half-hearted attempt at weeding. In September once the weather cools off, I put in a fresh set of batteries and become an Energizer bunny again...until it gets too cold.

    I was normal when we moved here and always had a garden of a normal size, and helped by dad and brother with their big gardens. After we moved here and I had endless space, with the caveat being that I had to first improve the soil and then fence it to make it worth using, I kind of went crazy and started growing everything. There's nothing wrong with that, but it takes a lot of time. I don't work at a paying job.....maintaining the house and garden is my full-time job. I don't know how anybody could work full time and rasie as much food as I do, and my garden didn't start getting really, really big until our son got his driver's license and could take himself wherever he needed to go. When he was small, my garden was also small and easy to maintain. Keep that in mind when you read about what I am planting. In the springtime I usually am in the garden for most of each day, starting at sunset and usually not stopping until it is pitch black dark. Well, once it is snake season and the snakes are out, I have to be out of the garden before it is so dark that I cannot see the snakes. Here where we live, you may start seeing occasional snakes in March, but they usually aren't out in full force until late April.

    Usually the long days in the garden last until almost July, but by late May they are not so much about planting as they are about harvesting. I over-planted tomatoes last year and sometimes it took me two whole days, back to back, working all day long in the hot sun, just to harvest all the tomatoes. Then I canned like a crazy woman for a few days, and then I spent another day or two harvesting and then another day or two canning. That went on for all of June and part of July....and it wasn't like I only had tomatoes to deal with....just that the tomatoes consumed the most time. Don't plant more than you can handl! I know my limits and know when to stop, but last year was a bit much even for me. Growing everything under the sun is fun, but only if you can deal with whatever it produces.

    I like to keep my garden in full production at all times. I despise empty unused space because I worked so hard to improve that soil and I want to be using it at all times. Thus, I use John Jeavons' recommended method of planting, which involves sowing all my succession crop seeds into flats. I often use tiny bathroom-sized paper cups that I can plant directly into the ground to minimize transplant shock. It works wonderfully. For example, when the broccoli is almost through producing, I saw seeds of southern peas, usually some variety of purple hull pink eye peas, into paper cups in flats about 2 weeks before I expect the broccoli will be done. Then, on the day that the broccoli plants are coming out, I finish the harvest in the morning and remove all the plants, putting them on the compost pile. I go inside and eat lunch. I return to the garden (in late afternoon if the weather is hot) and transplant all the southern peas into the area just vacated by the broccoli harvest that morning, watering them in well. So, if a friend of mine has been at the house in the morning when I am harvesting broccoli, and returns late that day or the next day, they'll see southern peas growing where the broccoli had been. (If freaks out the people who are observant enough to notice the quick change.) I could just direct-sow the seed into the soil and it would sprout within days, but when I start out with seedlings that already have sprouted and which are a few days old, I get a harvest a week or two earlier. It's all about getting the maximum harvest possible in the shortest amount of time. Also, young seedlings that are just a few days old take off and grow mad right away, which helps shade the soil and keep it cool. When I sow succession crops from seed, while the soil is bare and I am waiting for them to sprout, weeds are sprouting, the bare soil is getting hot and the moisture is evaporating out. That's why I like to succession sow in flats when possible.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Carol and Dawn,

    I'm chewing on all this now. I'm tempted to get a light shelf just so I can get in some practice with it this year and not lose a year. I planted seeds for the kale, chard, peas, beans and okra. Used transplants for cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and melons. So it wasn't too costly.

    I guess any light shelf is as good as another. (?)

    Don't worry. I'm not going to try to be either of you too. I'll probably try about the same things this year, but will try to do a lot more potatoes.

    No Johnson grass on property! And not much bermuda as far as I can tell.

    If you're canning, freezing etc for 3 months (all day?) you must have food coming out of your ears. How many are you feeding? Do you guys end up eating it all?

    Ok, I'm hooked. I've gotta try growing some peas in little cups. Surely I can rig up a light shelf on my own. The ones I've seen for sale were appallingly expensive anyhow. This Farmtek catalog that came in ought to sell what I need.

    By the way, has anyone ever had trouble with the mosaic virus? Mosaic virus annihilated all my peas (told you it was a brutal first year) and only later I figured out it's a seed borne thing.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    This is a picture of my light shelf. It isn't a great picture because the room was dark and you can't see the top very well. The shelving is a stainless steel shelf from Sam's Club, I think. I have some from Lowe's and some from Sam's. Some have five shelves, some have four shelves, some have rollers and some don't.

    Each shelf has two sets of shop lights (no special bulbs), making four four-foot bulbs on each shelf that is lighted. I was using small chains in the picture, but I need to adjust them frequently and I plan to change to strong cord this year with just a hook on the end. I can then pull the light as high as I want it and hook the hook somewhere on the shelf to hold the light in place. It is too hard to pull the chains.

    The lights are hooked into a surge protector so I just flip a switch to turn them on and off.

    The top shelf is mounted down about 9 or 10 inches from the top of the poles, and I use that area for germination before the trays need light, and when they require extra warmth.

    I cover down to the next set of lights, and also cover three sides of the shelves below with a reflective material. On the top it conserves the heat that is given off by the lights on the shelf below so more heat is available to the germinating trays. I plant in flats with covers, but the covers are removed and trays moved to light as soon as I see the first green plant.

    The reflective material is 2 mylar camping blankets available in the sporting goods department at Walmart for about $3 each. It is held in place with clothespins. One drapes over the top and down the sides, and the second just covers 3 sides of the bottom portion.

    Once the seeds germinate they are moved to the light with the bulbs as close to the plant as possible without touching the plant. My shelves are in a well insulated building and no other heat is on unless the temps outside are below freezing. The lights do give off some heat, but I want the plants to develop good root systems, not become large plants while indoors. While new seedlings take very little room, they need more space fairly soon.

    I don't have a greenhouse, but as soon as possible I start moving the plants outdoors during the day and increasing the sunlight a little more each day. Plants grown inside need to be hardened off gradually to both sun and wind. Most years I move a lot of plants in and out.

    Hope this gives you some ideas.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Light Shelf

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    Some years I can endlessly, and others I can barely anything at all. 2011 was too hot and dry for me to get much excess produce, and I just froze everything because I was too busy with the VFD to have time to can anything. I hardly had time to eat or sleep. In 2012, I canned what should be enough tomato products and plum jelly for 3 years for our family and for gifts but I have to can salsa every year because we give away at least 100 jars of Annie's Salsa as gifts, mostly at Christmas but also at other times throughout the year.

    My goal is to produce as much of our food as possible because I want us eating healthy, wholesome, organically-grown food and I want us eating food that wasn't flown halfway around the world or trucked halfway (or all the way) across the country. The average produce in our grocery stores travels 1500 miles to get there. To me, that seems like an incredible waste of fuel, so I try to raise all I can so we don't have to buy much of that stuff.

    I didn't can every day last year, because I spent 2 or 3 days a week doing nothing but harvesting and then hauling the produce to the house, washing it, sorting it, grouping it by its intended use, etc. Once I had bowls, buckets, baskets and boxes of produce everywhere, I stopped harvesting and started preserving. Of course, I also was cooking it fresh for eating, and I still had to clean house, do laundry, care for the animals etc. On a food preservation day I would try to start at 6 a.m. by putting a full load of produce in the oven to dehydrate, and then I'd blanch and freeze whatever was going into the freezer, and then I'd start canning. Every now and then I'd spend a day or at least a significant portion of it at a fire, so then I wouldn't start canning after I got home because I was afraid we'd have another fire. I cannot leave to go to a fire, obviously, if I had batches of food in the canner so for me, starting early in the day works better because most summer wildfires start during peak heating and when the relative humidity has bottomed out, which usually is in the afternoon. On days that our county's fire danger rated is "Extreme" or "Critical", I will blanch and freeze, or dehydrate, but I won't start canning for fear I won't be able to finish it.

    I don't try to can a year's worth of anything in every year Instead I can in rotation, trying to can a 2 or 3 year supply of that year's high-producers. Then, the next year, I'll try to can a 2 or 3 year supply of whatever produces well. I plan my plantings accordingly. Since last year was an incredibly good tomato year, and a fairly good pickle year, this year I plant to can tons of jalapeno peppers, both as plain jalapeno rings and as candied jalpenos. I still will have to make salsa too, though, but shouldn't have to make any of the other canned tomato products.

    I give away a good bit of what I can. We put together around 100-125 gift bags of canned goods every Christmas. Depending on how well the garden produces, they'll have between 2 and 4 jars per bag. They go to friends, family (they usually get 6 or 8 jars), Tim's coworkers, the members of our VFD, etc. Friends of ours here to whom we are especially close get canned goods every now and then "just because". I love being able to share the goodies we raise.

    I am in a pretty rural county where lots of folks can and also freeze a lot, so a lot of us have gardens that are huge for that reason. Often, once someone has canned everything they want, they call around asking "do you want to come get some of these excess tomatoes (or beans, okra, southern peas, corn, etc.) because we're done canning". When I take up someone on an offer like that, I always try to return some of their produce to them canned...or I'll give them something we grow that they don't have like plum jelly or candied jalapenos or whatever. Last year was such a great tomato year here in our county that you couldn't give a tomato to anyone, whether they had a garden or not, because all the other local gardeners (especially those who don't preserve their tomatoes) were giving everyone bags and bags of tomatoes.

    So, we eat a lot but give away a lot too. I plan each year's garden based on what is 'missing' in our pantry, root cellar or freezers. So, based on that, I need to grow lots of jalapenos for canning, a moderate number of cucumbers for pickles because I only made a 1-year supply last year, and I need lots of sweet corn, sugar snap peas, onions and carrots for freezing, and onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash for root cellar storage.

    For the purpose of raising veggies, flower and herb seedlings, I think one light shelf is as good as another. Of course, the companies that sell them want to make you think you have to buy a very fancy and expensive set-up with very expensive bulbs, but everything grows well for me under common shop lights.

    My light shelf is a lot like Carol's, but my shelves are white plastic and not as pretty as her metal ones. I bought the shelving unit at Lowe's for about $40 or $50 a few years ago. I had started with a smaller one, then upsized to a medium one, then to a large one. I'd love to have two and devote one to veggies and the other to herbs and flowers. If you leave you light shelf set-up year round, you can raise lettuce, baby spinach and salad greens indoors in winter, and can grow lettuce, microgreens and other short things, like radishes or round carrots indoors even in the worst summer heat, as long as the light shelf is in an air-conditioned building.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Wow, Carol! If a person is handy, just wow! I'm not, which is why I went for the Gardener's Supply 3-tier SunLite fluorescent light shelf. I am glad I got it before Xmas (actually in late November) because the price has gone up by $150 from when I bought mine, with T-5 lamps that are supposed to be great for starting seeds and growing houseplants. The cool thing is that GS has made it more affordable for folks like me with their EasyPay plan, pay off in 8 months at no interest. Of course, it costs more than a DIY shelf, but fits in well with home furnishings in appearance, unless you're a finishing carpenter as well as a handyman. I've used the shop lights, etc., and they worked very well, but lots of online reviews of not only this particular unit, but others, suggests that these light gardens with the T-5 bulbs are beyond great for seed starting. I will have to purchase seed tapes, timer, and maybe some capillary matting, among possibly other things. It's going to be a "learn as I grow" project. But, I look at this as a long-term investment because I can take it with me to grow plants indoors when I eventually move to an apartment or other domain.

    After Dawn's review of companion plants, there is little else for me to add. I have a Butterfly and insect garden. I grow larval host plants and nectar plants to attract butterfly species which populate my garden each year. Also some sphinx moths as well - great pollinators. I also focus on bee plants in particular and with the advent of Colony Collapse Disorder in bees, am trying to do what I can in my small garden to help the bees, too.

    As Dawn mentions, I too rely on spring "weeds" for nectar and pollen sources - Dandelions, Henbit, and Dutch White Clover (blooms a bit later) are the most common. Other weeds that attract beneficials include Soeedwell, Sorrel, Oxalis, Plaintain, Vetch, Violets, Wild Onion/Garlic, and Black Medic aka Yellow Trefoil.

    It's difficult, but I have to remind myself to tread carefully, if at all, in the patches of Dutch White Clover. Clouded Sulphurs and others use them as larval host plants, but try finding one when you're actually looking! They use other leguminous plants like the Vetches, as well.

    Other good bee and butterfly plants include Mountain Mint (all species), Globe Amaranth, Nigella aka Love-in-a-Mist, Golden Crownbeard, Lantana, Ironweed, Cosmos, Asters, Cleomes and relative, Polanisia dodecandra (Clammyweed), Mullein, Bee Balm (various Monarda species and hybrids), Sennas, Coneflowers, Zinnias. I planted lots of Zinnias, Basil, and a huge Dallas Red Lantana around my tomatos and peppers last year, and just had tons of bees and other benes. I also planted white blooming Four o'clocks to encourage pollination by the night flying sphinx moths, too.

    I planted a Chocolate Morning Glory (not invasive like most)to climb with the Cucumbers and had tons of bumblebees and honeybees all over both.

    My patch of Sunflowers attracted a lot of beneficials, but also served as a trap crop for Cucumber Beetles. I had none on my squash plants or Cukes, but ravenous numbers on the Sunflowers. They also attract Wheel Bugs, which most of you guys love because they are predators of caterpillars in particular, but I love my butterfly caterpillars and the Wheel Bugs aren't selective at all.

    I try to grow a lot of native plants, which are often great companion plants, too. Some natives include various species of Senna, Clammyweed, Golden Crownbeard, Texas Star Hibiscus (great bee plant), Milkweed (Asclepias species and aliens), Helianthus species, Liatris species (bees and butterflies love it), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium species), Zizia aurea (Golden Alexanders), Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), Aster oblongofolius, Echinacea purpurea (coneflower), Asclepias speciosa, A. purpurescens, Blue Sand Vine (Cynanchum leave), Vernonia fasiculata (Ironweed), Monarda fistulosa (Bee Balm), Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and I'm sure others I can't recall right now. All of these plants are attractive to beneficials, some in multiple ways.

    A Seeds of Change newsletter article describes companion planting as:

    --Hiding or masking a crop from pests,
    --Producing odors that deter or confuse pests,
    --Providing trap crops which draw pest insects away from other plants,
    --Acting as nurse plants that provide breeding grounds for beneficial insects,
    --Providing food to sustain beneficial insects as they search out their prey,
    --Creating a habitat for favorable creatures.

    I guess I do a little bit of all of those things in creating a biodiverse garden. I don't use herbicides, chemicals, or even organic pesticide treatment of plants.... unless forced to do so. I used BT Kurastaki last year for the first time, on a container plant of Baptisia australis var. minor - Blue False Indigo. It had been under attack by Genista moth caterpillars for two successive years, and I wasn't sure how much more the plant could tolerate of being completely defoliated, and possible infected by these tiny little hair caterpillars. It was a difficult decision for me because I am pretty stoic and firm about not using anything in my garden that could potentially affect other plants, insects, ecosystem, or the environment as a whole. When I decided to go for it, I waited for a wind-free day and applied it to the plant. I should maybe have done another application, but it reduced the population significantly and I was able to hand pick the remaining survivors.

    All I can tell you is that I love my garden, full of the sights and sounds of nature, and I grow so that I can watch this drama in the middle of a city where there is a lot of traffic, concrete, people, and very little to offer the wildlife. There are some butterflies that I do not see - not for lack of trying - but because they tend to follow prairies and waterways in their quest for habitat. The really unfortunate thing is that the habitat they seek is diminishing rapidly.

    Hope I have helped give you some vision of plants and insects that isn't already addressed by Dawn and others. If I have been repetitive, I apologize, but I kinda get wrapped up in my passion for critters, lol!


    Here is a link that might be useful: SunLite Flourescent Light Stand

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Susan, your light stand is fabulous and mine is utilitarian only. I started out with a different one that was easier to assemble. When it bit the dust, I put this one together and decided to just leave it up. It is in my bunkhouse which is only used occasionally for guest. My friends and family all know that I garden, so they just have to tolerate my equipment. Our son and DIL kind of 'home-ported' here for a month each year while they lived in Africa but now that they are only 2 hours away, they don't stay overnight much. Actually we probably go to their house more than they come to ours anyway. Most of the others are either in school, or have kids that play sports, or something. We don't have as much company now as we did in years past.

    Our son in Texas is finally out of school, and with two Masters and a Doctorate, I hope he is finished. Our daughter in Tuttle is half-way through nursing school. Although they are not average student age any longer, they have seen the economy change enough to feel they needed more education, so with kids almost college age, the parents have been going back themselves.

    Our part of the State is under a winter weather advisory and the temperature is dropping. We have light rain and are now at 37 degrees. Al and 3 other guys just left for Arkansas and I think they will be driving in rain all the way to Bentonville, then on ice by the time they return in a few hours. Most of the road is good, but about 7 miles of it twists and turns through the Ozarks.

    I really need to work on my yard and flower beds but I like to work in the veggie garden best. I will probably start as many plants as I normally do, but will plant some of them at my son's place. His wife has had a small square foot type garden for a couple of years, but I am hoping to start a larger garden and put in some additional fruit trees over there. They have lots of space, and I don't.

    I have more shelving units that I could add by just buying more shop lights, but I think Al might think that was a little much. LOL I don't know how I will handle life when I am too old to garden. I went to the co-op this morning and bought a bag of cracked corn (which is at the loading dock) and a 25 pound bag of bird seed which they keep inside the store, and a pint of molasses. The guy said, I will take the birdseed from here, and you can pick up the corn in the back. I laughed and said, "I can get the birdseed". He said, "Are you sure?" I threw my purse over my shoulder, sat the molasses down until I got the bag picked up, and went out the door. I unlocked the car and loaded everything, and felt like I was on Candid Camera the entire time. From the look on their faces, I think they thought I couldn't do that. LOL Little do they know.

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    " I'll mention some of those in the post on planting schemes."

    Dawn- has the post on planting schemes already been posted or is it somewhere else on GW? I have tried doing some searching but am unable to locate one that I think pertains directly to OK. (just skimmed over them)

    If not, and I'm jumping the gun, I don't mean to rush you in anyway....Just trying to feed my gardening cravings this cold gloomy January day :)

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Susan, I love your light stand and always will love it. I realize it was the best solution for you, but if I told Tim I wanted to buy one of those, he'd hand me a hammer and tell me to build my own....which is why I have the one that I have. : ) Mine is hidden away out of sight in a room where guests rarely venture, although anyone who knows me and who knows I raise my own seedlings always asks to go upstairs and see it in the spring. So much for putting it out of sight....I just should have set it up in the dining room or breakfast room or something....

    I am sure you'll be deliriously happy with it and will have many wonder seed-starting adventures and I look forward to hearing all about them. I think you got a great deal considering it was Gardener's Supply. I never buy anything of theirs for full price. They have sales often enough (and especially in November when, I think, some of us gardeners are shopping for ourselves) that a person can be patient and get a good price during their periodic sales. I've noticed that prices often are not as good in December when gardeners' spouses or family members are doing what I call "panic Christmas buying" and cannot afford, time-wise, to wait for a sale.

    I don't think you were repetitive at all. The more we all share about what we do, how we do it and why we do it (as well as pointing out what didn't work for us!), the better for all of us to learn from one another's experiences!

    Carol, Our weather is just like yours. Our high was 70 degrees yesterday and it was so gorgeous outside I could hardly stand it. I wanted to jump up and down and scream "Spring Is Here!". That was exacerbated by the smell of the orange blossoms on my little orange tree. However, I controlled myself because I knew it was a false spring and that winter was returning today. It was 56 degrees around 7 a.m. here at our house and now it is 36 degrees and we have had very, very light rain but lots of thunder. Phooey on winter!

    I think you showed those folks at the co-op that one benefit of being a gardener is that it keeps your muscles and joints strong, healthy and fit. I'd rather "work out" in the garden any day, than walk on the treadmill or work out on the weight machine. Who wouldn't?

    Trees, Nope, sorry, I just haven't gotten to it. I am trying.

    Watch for it in a couple of hours or in the morning. I'm about to start typing mow after I close up the chicken coops, put out the deer corn for my favorite deer, refill the bird feeders (those little birdies are eating nonstop today trying to stay warm), etc. I'm kind of dreading going out into the cold wind but I need to do it now before it gets dark.

    I have to warn you that I don't use the same planting schemes every year because I don't want to get stuck in a rut, but I'll try to mention some of the planting schemes in my usual rotation.


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Wow you have your hands full! And bundle up because it is very cold out there!

    No need to apologize AT ALL, I was really afraid I just had over looked it.

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    OMG - it was sooooo nice Friday! A winter teaser, tickling our fancies with thoughts of seed sowing, and even clean up. I don't mind clean up much because it's always an adventure to see what is popping up already under the cover of all that dead material. For a small garden, it's always a big surprise to see something I'd completely forgotten I had growing. Contrary to Friday's spring temps, yesterday and today (and next week) will be a sad reminder that spring is still far off.

    Carol, what a funny story about the bird seed! Men are from Mars, you know.

    Guess I'll start getting my room ready where I plan to put the light stand, and then I can begin unpacking the parts to it and getting it ready to put together. I have read thru the reviewer comments on Gardener's Supply, and there are some tips that are good to know. I've put together a lot of stuff, so am hoping it won't be too difficult. Being a single lady, one does what one has to do.

    Carol (and anyone else), do you use the T5s or T12s in your light set-up?


  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Susan, Seedmama and Larry are the electrical folks. I just buy what fits. I have the regular size old fashion bulbs in the fixtures on my light shelf, but have to also buy those thin type for our storm shelter. I can never remember the numbers.

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    T5, T8, and T12 each refer to the diameter of the bulb, referenced in eighths of an inch. Hence, a T5 is 5/8 inch, a T8 is 8/8" or 1 inch and a T 12 is 12/8" or 1 1/2 inch. The ballast in the fixture dictates which size bulb to buy. A person can't put a T12 in a T8 fixture. With my first light set ups, I used the fixtures and bulbs I already had. When I expanded, I targeted the 6500K bulbs because their color spectrum most closely resembles daylight. 6500K bulbs can be found in T5, T8 and T12 sizes. Again, the bulb purchase is driven by the fixture. The smaller the diameter (T) the more energy efficient a bulb is. I use T8s because that setup had the lowest acquisition cost. The four foot two bulb fixtures were available at Walmart for about $10 each and a 10 pack of 6500K 4 foot T8s was $25 at Home Depot. I noticed last week HD is now selling the same bulbs in a twelve pack for $40. They also had two packs but the price each was substantially more so I didn't note it.

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    My lights are T-8s.

  • 10 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    This is a post worth keeping. Good luck everyone for 2014!

  • 3 years ago


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