In the midst of this new gardening experience I've been learning about good bugs and not so good bugs. To take care of aphids and other pests in the first raised planter, I bought ladybugs, in bulk, from my local hardware and feed store. The ladybugs, about 1500 of them, came in a small plastic container filled with a little straw in the bottom. Strangely enough, you can store ladybugs in the refrigerator, and when you do, they become dormant. They literally just stop moving until you take them out of the cold again, and a couple of minutes later you can see them begin to crawl around in the container. Surprisingly this doesn't harm them in any way. I've released a good two-thirds of them in the first raised bed garden and potted tomato plants and fig trees. Though not all of them hang around, some do, and they provide a natural pesticide-free solution.
This black fuzzy caterpillar, shown above, is something you definitely don't want to see crawling around your garden. It appeared one day as I was watering the herbs, crawling very fast over the side of the planter. I was smart (and scared) enough not to pick it up with my hand, which is good thinking when handling caterpillars. Certain types of caterpillars are poisonous and can cause irritation to your skin and worse. I took off my garden shoe and let the caterpillar crawl up on it and quickly found a small glass mason jar to put it in. Being a (subjectively) compassionate bug catcher, I put a few small pieces of red leaf lettuce in the jar, and it ate everything without stopping. But since I also wanted to protect our garden, making sure the devourer would not find its way back, I took the jar and drove to a field far away and released the caterpillar there. Of course, the next week I found another furry black caterpillar, this one crawling on the window screen. I captured it in the same mason jar, but this time, when I put a little lettuce in the jar, the caterpillar began spinning super fine threads and eventually wove itself into a fuzzy-looking cocoon, shown below, affixed to the side of the jar and the lettuce leaf. In a few weeks, when it emerges, it should become some type of moth.
Since I've been working in the garden all week, the recipe I'm sharing isn't exactly a food recipe. But it is a recipe that you can use to grow your own food. It has a typical garden soil ratio: 1 part peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part compost. The compost part is made up of 7 different types of compost, so in all, you've got about 9 ingredients. To mix the soil before adding it to the planter, I dumped the peat moss on our cement porch, spreading it out and using my hands to sift through it and break up the compressed pieces. It was kind of like working with a huge batch of flour at first, but once I added everything, it required a shovel and rake to evenly mix the huge mound together. It fills a 12' x 4' planter with a 6" depth.
I know that pictures of bugs or descriptions of compost aren't exactly appetizing for a food blog. But they are a part of garden life, and a part of a system that gives us the things we love to eat. So, for a little culinary pleasure, the last photo I've included is a lovely, edible zucchini flower from our garden. Hopefully, the blooming flowers are a sign we'll be eating our home-grown zucchini soon.
Raised Bed Planter Soil Mix
1 bag Fer-ti-lome pure Canadian sphagnum peat moss, 3.8 cubic feet (107 L)
2 bags Sunshine premium grade coarse vermiculite, 4 cubic feet (113 L)
1 bag Back to Earth composted cotton burrs, 2 cubic feet (56 L)
1 bag Nature's Guide natural earthworm castings, 20 lb. (9.7 kg)
1 bag John Dromgoole's Ladybug Revitalizer compost, 1.5 cubic feet (42.5 L)
1 bag Back to Nature Nature's Blend with alfalfa and humate, 1 cubic foot (28 L)
1 bag Nature's Guide mushroom compost, 40 lbs. (18.14 kg)
1 bag Back to Nature composted chicken manure, 1 cubic foot (28 L)
1 bag Living Earth cow manure, 40 lbs. (18.14 kg)
Mix everything together evenly, and shovel into a 12' x 4' x 6" planter lined with a porous landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing up through the soil and allowing for drainage. Water until moist, then plant herbs and vegetables and fruits, keeping in mind spacing requirements for each plant.
Makes enough soil mix to fill one 12-foot long x 4 foot wide x 6-inch deep raised bed planter