SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Use rain barrels to capture rainwater

by Melinda Myers

Put rainwater to use in your landscape with the help of rain barrels. This centuries old technique allows you to capture rainfall to use for watering ornamental gardens and containers.

Always start with a call to your local municipality. Some have restrictions on water harvesting, but most encourage this practice and some even offer rebates or rain barrels at a discounted rate.

Purchase a rain barrel or make your own from a large, recycled food grade container. In either case, there are some features to consider when purchasing, creating, and adding a rain barrel to your landscape.

Make sure the top is covered to keep out bugs and debris. Some come equipped with a solid lid with an opening just big enough to accommodate the downspout. Others use a screen to keep out debris, while letting in the rain.

Don’t worry about mosquitoes breeding inside your rain barrel. Just use an organic mosquito control like Mosquito Dunks and Mosquito Bits (Summit­ResponsibleSolutions.com) in rain barrels and other water features. Mosquito Bits quickly knock down the mosquito larval population, while Mosquito Dunks provide 30 days of control. They are both safe for people, pets, fish, wildlife and beneficial insects.

Look for one with the spigot near the base of the barrel so water does not stagnate in the bottom. Use the spigot to fill watering cans or attach a hose for watering.

Include an overflow outlet near the top of the barrel to direct excess water away from the house or for connecting adjacent barrels. A downspout diverter is another way to manage rain barrel overflows. When the rain barrels are full, this device diverts the water back to the downspout where it is carried away from your home’s foundation.

Elevate your rain barrel on cement blocks, decorative stands, or similar supports. This provides easier access to the spigot for filling containers and speeds water flow with the help of gravity. A water pump will boost water pressure for a nice steady flow of water.

Dress up your container with a bit of paint suited for outdoor use on plastic surfaces. And don’t worry if you are not an artist, you can hide your rain barrels with some decorative screens or plantings or upright shrubs, perennials or ornamental grasses. Just make sure you have easy access to the spout for retrieving water.

Start your conversion to rain barrels one downspout at a time. You can capture as much as 623 gallons of water from 1,000 square feet of roof in a one-inch rainfall. This can be a lot to manage when first adjusting to this change of habit. Disconnecting one downspout at a time allows you to successfully match the use of rain barrels and other rain harvesting techniques to your gardening style and schedule.

The choices are many, making it easy for you to conserve water and grow a beautiful landscape.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Summit for her expertise to write this article. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.

SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Enlist nature’s help for managing garden pests

by Melinda Myers

Put away the harsh chemicals and work in concert with nature to manage pests in the garden. Create an inviting habitat for nature’s pest controllers to enlist their help with your gardening efforts.

Lady beetles, praying mantis and other beneficial insects feed on damaging pests like aphids. Just tolerate a bit of damage and wait for the good guys to move in and clean up the problem.

Grow a few plants to attract these and other beneficial insects to your landscape. Dill and its relatives attract parasitic wasps, coreopsis brings in the aphid-eating lacewings, and milkweed attracts lady beetles as well as monarch and other butterflies. Add some hyssop to attract the pirate bugs that eat thrips, spider mites and leafhoppers. Then plant members of the aster family to attract spiders that eat a variety of insects.

Invite songbirds into your gardens. They add motion and color to the landscape and help manage garden pests. Most songbirds eat a combination of fruits, berries, seeds, and insects. Their diet varies with the season. During spring and summer, they eat lots of insects and spiders when they are plentiful, easy to catch and an important part of their hatchlings’ diet.

A birdbath will help attract them and beneficial insects to the garden. Select one with sloping sides for easy access to the water. Add a few seed producing flowers like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvia, coreopsis and more. If space allows, include a few berry producing shrubs like dogwoods and evergreens for shelter.

Leave some leaf litter under trees and shrubs and in the garden for toads that dine on slugs and other insects. Include a shallow pond or water feature. Even a shallow saucer filled with chlorine-free water is effective. Place rocks in and around the water for added toad appeal. Purchase or make your own toad abode from a ceramic or clay pot. Place it in a shady location near a garden filled with protein-rich insects. Set it directly on the soil and elevate one side with stones or use a cracked or broken pot that provides an entryway for the toad.

If you can’t wait for nature’s help, look for more eco-friendly options. Knock aphids and mites off plants with a strong blast of water. Trap slugs with shallow cans filled with beer. Trap and kill aphids in yellow bowls filled with soapy water.

Use barriers of floating row covers to keep pests like cabbage worms, Japanese beetles and bean beetles off plants that don’t need bees for pollination. These fabrics let air, light and water through so just loosely cover the plants at planting, anchor the edges and allow the plants to support the fabric.

Use these fabrics to help manage squash vine borer and squash bugs. Cover squash plants at planting. Remove the fabric as soon as the plants begin flowering for bees to pollinate the flowers. Only use this method if these pests were not a problem in this area of the garden the previous growing season.

Remove and destroy, smash, or prune out pest-infested stems as they are found. Enlist the help of young gardeners. Teach them the difference between the good and bad bugs in the garden. Then show them how to pluck, drop and stomp the plant-damaging pests. They’ll burn off some excess energy while helping maintain your garden.

If you decide to intervene with a chemical control, look for the most eco-friendly option on the market. Always read and follow label directions as these chemicals are designed to kill insects and if misapplied can harm beneficial insects as well.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Summit for her expertise to write this article. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.

SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Start this year’s garden with a soil test

by Melinda Myers

Growing a beautiful landscape starts with the soil under your feet. The best place to start building a healthy soil foundation is with a soil test. The results will tell you what type and how much, if any, fertilizer is needed for the plants you are growing. Using the right type and amount of fertilizer is also good for your budget and the environment.

Test the soil when starting a new garden or one that is struggling. Since soil and fertilization practices vary greatly, collect and submit separate samples for each garden bed or landscape area to be tested. Repeat every four or five years to check on your garden maintenance.

You can take a soil test anytime the ground is not frozen and you have not recently fertilized. Early spring and fall are good times since you can make needed changes when preparing your garden.

Contact your local Extension service for details on submitting a sample. If they don’t have a soil testing lab, they will likely recommend a state certified lab that tests home lawn and garden soils, or you can search the internet for a certified lab near you.

Taking a soil test sample is simple. Use a clean trowel and bucket to gather a soil sample.

Slide away any mulch or debris on the soil surface. Use a trowel and remove a slice of soil that is four to six inches deep and right where the plant roots grow.

Take several samples throughout the garden you want to test. Collect samples from each edge and several throughout the middle of the bed. Mix them together and place about a cup of the soil in a plastic bag or the one provided by the lab. Be sure to complete and include the submission form. This includes a place to list the types of plants that will be grown in the area being sampled. The lab uses this and test results to make the fertilization recommendations. Send the sample and form together to the soil testing lab.

Allow several weeks for the test to be completed and the results to be returned. Most basic soil tests report the amount of phosphorus and potassium in the soil. Phosphorus promotes flowering, fruiting, and root development. Potassium promotes drought tolerance, disease resistance and hardiness. Many soils are high to excessive in these plant nutrients. You cannot remove the excess but should avoid adding to the problem. Soil test reports can help you do just that.

Most labs do not measure the amount of nitrogen in the soil since the levels change quickly and are not easy to test accurately. Instead, they make nitrogen recommendations based on the plants you are or will grow in the area being tested.

Soil pH is also measured in most soil tests. Acidic soils with pH below neutral (7.0) are often referred to as sour, while alkaline soils with a pH above 7.0 are called sweet.  Soil pH influences which nutrients in the soil are available for the plants to absorb and utilize for growth. Blueberries, azaleas, and red maples are examples of acid-loving plants. Clematis, crabapples and spireas are a few of the alkaline tolerant plants.

Always use soil test results when trying to change the pH. Lime is used to sweeten soils while sulfur is often used to lower pH. Using too much or the wrong amendment can negatively impact the health and productivity of your garden. Undoing misapplications can take years to correct. Growing plants suited to the soil pH may be the best solution for those with acceptable, although not ideal, soil pH.

Include soil testing when planning new gardens or helping those that are struggling. Understanding your soil can help you create a strong foundation important to the health, longevity and beauty of your gardens and landscapes.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Summit for her expertise to write this article. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.

SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Always room for strawberries

Delizz® is a day-neutral strawberry that was the first ever strawberry to be selected as an All-America Selections winner. (photo courtesy of MelindaMyers.com)

by Melinda Myers

As you plan this year’s garden, be sure to include some strawberries. They are low in calories, high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and provide seasonal interest in gardens and containers.

Best of all, you don’t need much space to grow this delicious fruit. There are three types of strawberries: June or spring bearing, everbearing, and day neutral. Select the best type of strawberry for your space and harvest needs.

June-bearing strawberries produce one crop of berries in late spring to early summer, depending on where you garden. They produce the largest harvest but in the shortest span of time. Plant now and enjoy an abundant harvest next year.

Everbearing strawberries usually produce two crops of berries each year. You’ll enjoy fresh strawberries early and late in the season, while day-neutral plants produce berries throughout the growing season.

Delizz®, a day-neutral strawberry, was the first ever strawberry to be selected as an All-America Selections Winner. Just like the flower and vegetable winners, it was tested nationally and selected for its performance for the home garden. This 2016 winner is a compact plant perfect for hanging baskets, containers or garden beds. It can be started from seed or transplants and will produce sweet fruit the first year and all season long, even during hot weather.

Up the ornamental appeal of traditional in-ground plantings with a star shaped or tiered bed. The elevated beds make for easier planting, weeding, and harvesting. You’ll find a variety of tiered shaped beds to purchase or plans to make your own.

Use strawberries as a groundcover in sunny well-drained locations for an abundant harvest. Their attractive leaves, white flowers, red fruit and brilliant red fall color add sparkle to the landscape and provide fresh fruit for your meals.

Or grow them in a container, window box or hanging basket on your porch, balcony, or deck. They’ll be close at hand and easy to harvest.

Mix a few everbearing or day-neutral strawberries in with flowers to create an edible and ornamental planter. The harvest will be smaller when grown in a mixed container, but the flowers, fruit and fall color add ornamental appeal and the fruit will be a welcome treat.

Boost the harvest by growing strawberries in their own container. Fill a hanging basket and watch as the runners cascade over the edge for added ornamental appeal.

Try filling a traditional strawberry pot – container with planting hole openings on the top and sides – with plants that produce several harvests and remove the runners as needed. Keep all the plants from top to bottom looking their best with this DIY watering device. Place soil on the bottom of the container. Set a couple of perforated PVC down through the planter. Slide the plants through the hole from the inside of the pot. Fill the remaining space with soil. Gently tamp and water thoroughly to eliminate air pockets. As you water, the water travels through the pipe and out the holes, providing moisture to all plants from top to bottom.

Check containers daily and water thoroughly and often enough to keep the soil slightly moist. Reduce maintenance and increase success by incorporating a low nitrogen slow-release fertilizer into the soil at planting or sprinkle over the soil surface as needed. This type of fertilizer promotes growth without interfering with flowering and fruit production.

Start now identifying spaces to add strawberries to your landscape, deck and balcony. Then order seeds or plants early for the greatest selection. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying garden fresh strawberries in your morning cereal, salads or as a snack at the end of the day.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her website is www.melindamyers.com.