Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification

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In the course of preparing for our Texas Master Gardener Worm Bin Workshop, I came across a lot of inconsistent information. Among the most confusing issues was that many sources both online and in print seem to confuse the terms referring to leachate and worm tea. The same sources also seem to blow it again when talking about worm tea versus aerobic compost tea. It’s easy to find yourself hopelessly confused!

In this article, I hope to demystify the subject a bit and provide clarity on a confusing topic.


Myh Worm bin


Let’s start with leachate, the liquid that comes off the worm bin.

What is Leachate?

One of the most contentious issues in worm composting is what to do with the leachate. The most common definition of leachate is any liquid that, in the course of passing through matter, extracts soluble or suspended solids, or any other component of the material through which it has passed.

Leachate is a widely used term in the environmental sciences industries, where it has the specific negative meaning of a liquid that has dissolved environmentally harmful substances that may come to enter the environment. But for the purposes of this article, we are defining leachate as the raw liquid runoff (or seepage) that settles in or below the vermicompost or worm castings in a worm bin.

The controversy stems, in large part, from the debate over aerated compost tea versus non-aerated compost tea. Fans of aerated compost tea do not like the fact that worm bin leachate is anaerobic, which they believe encourages the growth of microorganisms unfavorable to plants. They like to point out that worm bin leachate is not aerated compost tea.

This is completely true, but I am not so convinced that this is a big problem. Those critical of using this “worm juice” do make valid points, and I, too, recommend using leachate with care, but I did find two peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of unaerated worm compost leachate: “Vermicomposting Leachate (Worm Tea) as Liquid Fertilizer for Maize” and “Vermicompost Leachate Alleviates Deficiency of Phosphorus and Potassium in Tomato Seedlings.” I also found several Extension Service publications that tout the use of worm bin leachate.

It is not at all unusual for folks to be a little hazy on what to do with their “worm juice.” One lady I spoke with the other day said, “We just changed our bins to add a drainage system. I just pulled the cork out and got nearly two cups of worm juice. My husband is trying to convince me that I should go ahead and feed it to my house plants, but I’m worried that adding this cocktail to my basically inert potting soil might stir up problems. Is it safe to use this stuff as a fertilizer?”

Another person said, “I get this dark liquid from my worm bins. I’m thinking most of the juice came from the castings and might have some great stuff in it, and not a lot of rotten stuff, and that’s why I kind of want to give it to the plants. Is that a bad idea? I just want to know what the heck to do with it. It’s winter here, so I can’t put it on my garden beds outside. I really don’t want to waste it, though! What do people do with it? Do you put it on your house plants, and have you gotten a good reaction from it?”

These are excellent questions. I’ve talked and written about this topic a number of times, but it’s definitely one that continues to confuse people and deserves to be revisited from time to time.

Unfortunately, there seems to be misleading information provided by some worm bin manufacturers (and website owners). The terms “worm tea,” “worm compost tea,” “castings tea,” or “vermicompost tea” should actually refer to the liquid fertilizer created by steeping (soaking) quality castings/compost in water (often aerated) for a period of time.

The problem is that many people refer to the liquid that drains out from a worm bin as “worm tea.” This is incorrect. The proper term for this is actually “leachate.”

Obviously, we’re only talking about semantics here, so it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but keeping the distinction between these terms is actually quite important.

While leachate can certainly have value as a liquid fertilizer (especially when drained from a mature worm bin and diluted), it should be treated with a lot more caution than good-quality worm tea.

As water passes down through a worm bin, it can pick up all sorts of unstable metabolites (various products/intermediates of the decomposition process). If, for example, you have some fairly anaerobic zones in your worm bin, you can end up with various phytotoxins (toxins that can harm plants and humans). Some of these toxins are created by bacteria.

Every worm bin has good and bad microbes. This is perfectly fine and is even expected—provided, of course, that the good ones outnumber the bad ones.

Some leachate can contain harmful pathogens because it has not been processed through the worms’ intestinal tracts. It is often recommended that it should not be used on garden plants you plan to serve to your friends and family.

During decomposition, waste releases liquid from its cell structures as it breaks down. This leachate seeps down through the worm composter into the collection area. The leachate should be drained regularly, and if you are getting more than 2-4 ounces of liquid in a week, the worm composter is probably too wet!

If your composter has a spigot attached, I would recommend leaving the spigot open with a container underneath to catch the leachate. This will prevent it from building up in your system. Just keep an eye on it to make sure your container doesn’t overflow!

If, like me, you have a homemade worm bin, you can keep a drip pan underneath to catch the leachate.


worm castings


Finished composts are much better to use for brewing worm tea because they are much more uniform in composition, and the vast majority (if not all) the potentially harmful compounds have been converted into something more stabilized.

The microbial community present in these materials tends to be more beneficial, as well.

I’m not trying to scare you here, and I am not implying that leachate is “poison” and should never be used. I’m simply saying that while leachate can have value as a liquid fertilizer, it should be treated with caution. For every story extolling the benefits of using leachate, there is one lamenting problems from having used it.

If you decide you want to use leachate, I recommend taking some extra steps:

1. Do not use it if it smells bad! It should smell like earth (and not gross) when it comes out of the worm composter. If it smells bad, pour it out on an area like a roadway or driveway where it cannot harm living plants or animals.
2. Dilute it at a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate (10:1).
3. Aerate it with an air pump if available.
4. Use it outdoors on shrubs, ornamentals, or flowering plants only. Do not use on plants you intend to eat.

What Is Worm Tea?

Now let’s move on to the next confusing liquid: worm tea. Worm tea is about what it sounds like—worm castings steeped in water for a certain amount of time.

“Fresh earthworm castings contain more organic material—nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium—than soil itself,” according to Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Worm castings and the tea you make from them also ward off root-knot nematodes—a parasitic creature that causes deformed roots and drains nutrients out of plants. Plants like strawberries that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew.


Worm tea


Making simple worm tea is really nothing more than steeping—much like making any other tea you would drink yourself. It is very easy, and it is good for your plants, too.

In the process of steeping, water is added to the earthworm castings to simply extract the microbes from the castings into the water. The resulting liquid solution is then applied to plants or soil in various ways.

Many bottled teas you see on the shelf use this method.

To make your own, just take a bunch of worm castings and put them in the bottom third of a bucket. Fill the rest of the bucket with rainwater or non-chlorinated water (or tap water left out in the sunlight for 24 hours if you must). Let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Strain out the solids, dilute with water at a 1:1 ratio, and apply directly to your plants or soil.

What is Aerobic Compost Tea?


aerobic worm tea


Aerobic compost tea is also known as aerobic worm tea, and it is known mostly for its ability to boost microbiological activity in soil by adding beneficial bacteria, fungi, acinomycetes, and protozoa to the soil. It is brewed either by soaking a porous bag full of worm castings in water or by simply dumping the castings into a container of clean, chemical-free water. Molasses, corn syrup, or another microbial food source is then added to the water as a catalyst to stimulate growth of the microbes. And finally, an air-pumping system is installed to create an aerobic (or oxygenated) environment for the multiplying microorganisms.

Aerobic compost tea is beneficial in many ways. The microbes delivered in aerobic compost tea help plants by out-competing anaerobic and other pathogenic organisms within the soil. These beneficial microorganisms can also move in to occupy infected sites on plants’ root and leaf surfaces. Brewing aerobic compost tea speeds up the growth rate of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, and multiplies their numbers exponentially. As a result, this method populates your garden with beneficial microbes more rapidly than applying worm castings alone.

When you spray or pour the tea on the soil, you are not only feeding the plant, but also increasing the number of beneficial microbes in the soil, thus crowding out the bad ones. It has been proven that the tea, along with the castings, can significantly increase plant growth, as well as crop yields, in the short term (a season) and especially in the long term over a period of several seasons.

Along with these great benefits come a boost in the plant’s own immune system, enabling it to resist parasites like the infamous aphid, tomato cyst eelworms, and root-knot nematodes. Plants produce certain hormones that insects find distasteful, so they are repelled. Aerobic compost tea also helps a plant to resist diseases such as Pythium and Rhizoctonia.

When either worm tea or the more effective aerobic compost tea is sprayed on leaves and foliage, detrimental and disease-causing microbes are again outnumbered and cannot grow their numbers to dominate any single plant. The teas also aid the plant in creating the “cuticle,” a waxy layer on top of the epidermis, or plant skin. This waxy surface protects the leaves from severe elements and reduces attacks by certain harmful microorganisms and insects.

Making Your Own Compost Tea

Making any type of organic compost tea involves a few key steps:

  1. Choosing the right compost
  2. Choosing the right nutrients
  3. Brewing and applying the tea correctly

Please note that the instructions below are only meant to give you some background about tea making, not a step-by-step guide on how to make the teas. We provide information on that elsewhere on the site, such as in this article by David the Good:

Read More: “Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Compost”

The compost used in making tea is like the starter you use in making yogurt. The compost inoculates the tea with organisms. Thus, you want the compost you begin with to have a good diversity of beneficial organisms. Worm castings are super for this purpose!

Keep in mind that different plants differ in their soil preferences. Some need a bacteria-dominated soil, others want a fungi-dominated soil, and still others like a soil that’s somewhere in between.

When making an organic compost with more fungi, mix in larger amounts of cardboard, paper, sawdust, wood shavings, and heavy stalk plant material as you prepare the compost. For bacterial dominance, use food waste and green plant waste. Whatever compost you use, be sure it is finished, well-stabilized compost, and that it’s fairly fresh. Again, worm castings are ideal for this.

As I mentioned above, I really like to use rainwater whenever I can, but you can always use dechlorinated water. One old-timer I talked to said he only ever uses pond water to make his compost teas. I have seen his garden, and I can tell you it looks to me like using pond water is a good way to go!

The nutrients you introduce while brewing also influence the finished tea.

To encourage the development of fungi in the tea, you can mix two parts humic acid; two parts yucca, saponin, or aloe vera; and one part fish hydrolyzate or other proteins into the water.

For bacterial dominance, you can feed one liquid ounce blackstrap molasses per gallon of tea and and an equal amount of cold-water kelp. For the molasses, you can also substitute brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup if you like.


Raised bed results


Go to the library or search online for information on leachate, worm tea, and aerobic compost tea and you will find many sources of conflicting information, mainly over the terminology involved in determining what is actually leachate and what is a worm tea (be it aerobic or simple tea). The main thing to remember is that while any form of worm tea may not sound too appetizing to you and me, our plants will really love it.

Worm tea lets you fertilize without adding bulk to your soil, and water your garden with something really healthy for your plants. Trust me here, your garden will practically jump up and shout “Hallelujah!” when fertilized with either worm tea or aerobic compost tea, and you will be amazed at the growth, flowering, and fruiting that results.

Spray your plants liberally on the leaves, stems, and surrounding soil. Use teas on clay soil to begin its transformation to humus. Use them on your flowers indoors and out, and on your other house plants to feed and nourish both the plants and the soil.

Read More: “Fertilizing Container Gardens: A Beginner’s Guide”

Use teas on your compost pile to introduce the microbial activity and hasten the compost pile’s beneficial breaking-down process. Inoculate the ground surrounding your fruit trees. Use them on manure piles that stink and marvel at how fast the stink and flies go away! A properly brewed worm tea is child, pet, and wildlife friendly.

A few things to keep in mind:

Foliar Spray/Wash: It’s best to spray all surfaces of your plants in the early morning or late afternoon when the suns angle is low and less intense. When possible, do your foliar spraying on clear days, since rain may wash away some of the microbial activity.
Soil Inoculant/Drenching: Always apply teas out of direct, intense sunlight. Use them pure or dilute them (10:1 is a suggested maximum dilution rate). Dilution ratios vary for different application techniques and equipment. An ideal time to apply is during periods of mist or fog, but not heavy rain. Alternately, irrigate a little before your application to ensure the microbes will survive and can travel more quickly and safely to their new job locations. Always use nonchlorinated water.
Smell: If a tea stinks, do not use it on your vegetables, as it is demonstrating anaerobic properties and may contain pathogens. Some suggest you use this stinky mix on an undesirable weed bed!

In Summary

Leachate–The correct word for the dark liquid that comes out of the bottom of your worm bin. If your bin is maintained correctly, you should have very little leachate and what you do have can be used safely (in 1:10 diluted form) on your ornamental plants. Sometimes leachate is incorrectly referred to as “worm tea.” Some sites refer to it as “worm wee,” but even that is technically incorrect.

Simple Worm Tea–A mix of worm castings and water. Useful if you don’t have an air pump but still want some liquid fertilizer from your worm bin.

Aerobic Compost Tea–An aerated mixture of worm castings, nonchlorinated water, and molasses or another microbial food source. It contains an active culture of microorganisms and should be used immediately, otherwise the benefit of aeration is all but lost.

I really hope that this article helps clear things up. I know that many of you may not agree with the terminology I have used in this article, but I think that using the above will help to demystify an area of gardening that can be of great benefit to all of us!

(This article was originally published October 2, 2015.)


The post Aerobic Compost Tea, Worm Tea, and Leachate—A Clarification appeared first on The Grow Network.

Homemade Fertilizers – 15 Simple and Inexpensive Options

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Grow Your Own Groceries with Homemade Fertilizers

There was a time when people gardened because backyard produce was far better and cheaper than anything from the store.  To tell the truth, it still is, or at least it still can be.  The trick is knowing that back in the day, people used their own compost and homemade fertilizers.

Yet some are convinced that you have to spend a bundle of money to have a really nice, healthy garden.  I think that this misconception grew out of the fact that most people have backyards that are filled with really poor/weak soil.

The reasons for this are complicated – a subject for another day.  Suffice it to say that if the soil is weak, your plants will also be weak.  And so it follows that weak plants have poor production, leading to more time and money spent on a low quantity of low quality vegetables.

Healthy Soil Equals Healthy Plants

This means that you need to enrich your soil.  Because most people are not making their own compost at home, they need to buy fertilizer.  Plant fertilizers purchased from the local garden center often contain chemicals that may harm your plants, and are not environmentally friendly.

In addition, fertilizer can be a bit pricey, and this is most likely why the myth that home gardens are expensive continues.  This is not necessarily true.  You needn’t spend a bundle of money because, believe it or not, you are full of fertilizer!

Make Your Own Homemade Fertilizers

Making your own organic plant food is easy and fun.  It should be noted that most people understand that the best way to get good garden soil is to use compost to amend the soil.  Of course, that is true.  Compost can be made at home out of leftover food scraps and lawn clippings, and so it is virtually cost-free.

Composting may be all one needs for a successful home vegetable crop.  If, however, the soil is still lacking in nutrients or if you are planting a more demanding vegetable garden, augmenting with another type of fertilizer may be advisable.  So why spend good money on store bought fertilizer when you can make it yourself with just a little information?

Fertilize with Beer and Milk: A Simple Fertilizer From The Greek Gods

Nourishing Nutrients for Prolific Plants

The key to a good garden is good soil.  Of the essential nutrients plants need to thrive, most of them are found in soil.  Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and to a lesser extent calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are called macronutrients, and these are the nutrients that plants need most.

The remaining micronutrients can be supplied in smaller amounts even by some of the poorest soils out there.

While it may not be the most exciting of gardening topics, nothing is more important than having a basic understanding of fertilizer.  Just like you and I need nourishment – so do plants.  Understanding just a small bit of information about fertilizer can go a long way toward helping your garden to grow big, strong, healthy plants on a light budget.  Before we look at some inexpensive homemade fertilizers, let’s look briefly at the subject in general.  All fertilizers fall into one of two basic categories: chemical/synthetic or natural/organic.

Organic Fertilizers Versus Synthetic Fertilizers

Chemical/synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using synthetic substances that usually contain highly concentrated forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (these are the N-P-K values listed on the fertilizer packaging).

These fertilizers work quickly because they feed the plants directly.  But they do come with a downside – they do not improve the soil itself and they can, over time, even destroy the beneficial organisms needed for healthy soil.  When you use large quantities of this inorganic stuff over and over again, its byproducts will actually build up in the soil and in time they can hinder plant growth.

Organic/natural fertilizers often use alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, or fish emulsion to provide nitrogen; bone meal or rock phosphate to provide phosphorus; and kelp meal or granite meal to provide potassium.

The downside here is that they work much more slowly, first breaking down in the soil into forms that the plant roots can more easily absorb, then making their way up the plant roots to your hungry plants.

Organic/natural fertilizers, on the other hand, don’t feed the plants directly but rather add essential nutrients to the soil where they become available to the plants, more slowly, over time.

Homemade fertilizers include fresh bananas

Understanding the Basics about N-P-K

While there are also many important micronutrients in good fertilizer, it is understanding the “big 3,” the N-P-K, that is the key to making your own effective fertilizer at home.  The N is for nitrogen, the P for phosphorus, and the K for Potassium.  Each has an important role to play in the health of your garden.

Nitrogen is the nutrient plants use most to grow large and lush – tall stems with lots of good leafy growth.  If you examine the N-P-K content of commercial products that advertise “miracle growth” you will find there is no real miracle at all – the amazing growth is due to a balanced but high N-P-K ratio with a hefty amount of nitrogen in the mix.

Phosphorus is needed to grow strong healthy root systems, and to promote vigorous flowering.  Commercial “blooming” mixes are usually high in phosphorus.

Potassium helps with plant growth, protein production, plant hardiness, disease resistance, insect resistance and efficient water use.  Plants without enough potassium grow slowly and can have yellow leaves.

Read more: How to Measure Your Favorite Organic Fertilizers

Less is More

Always remember the one basic rule that applies to the use of all fertilizers – “less is more.”  If you use too much fertilizer or too strong a concentration, you could do much more harm than good.  Plant roots can be harmed and you will soon see the tell-tale symptoms of fertilizer burn – brown, curled leaf edges and leaves that wither and fall from the stem.  Always err on the side of caution – “less is more!”

Now, with a simple understanding of the information above, you are ready to get out and make your own fertilizer.  For my purposes I needed a good, effective, general use fertilizer.  Here are a few of the solutions that have brought me success:

Easy Household Fertilizers

There are quite a few common items found in your kitchen, and elsewhere around the house, that can be used as plant fertilizer.

Aquarium Water

Water your plants with the aquarium water taken right out of the tank when cleaning it.  Fresh water only please, do not use water from a salt water tank.  The fish waste makes a great plant fertilizer.


Bananas are not only tasty and healthy for humans, but they also benefit many different plants.  When planting roses, bury a banana (or just the peel) in the hole alongside the rose.  As the rose grows, bury bananas or banana peels into the top layer of the soil.  Both of these approaches will provide the much needed potassium that plants need for proper growth.

Blackstrap Molasses

Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of many different nutrients that plants use.  This includes carbon, iron, sulfur, potash, calcium, manganese, potassium, copper, and magnesium.  What makes this an excellent type of fertilizer is that it feeds beneficial bacteria, which keep the soil and plants healthy.  To use blackstrap molasses as a fertilizer, mix it with another all-purpose fertilizer.  A good combination to use is one cup each of epsom salts and alfalfa meal.  Dissolve this combination in four gallons of water and top it off with one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses.  Or simply mix blackstrap molasses in with compost tea.  Do this only after the compost tea has steeped.

Coffee Grounds

Used coffee grounds contain about two percent nitrogen, about a third of a percent of phosphoric acid, and varying amounts of potash (generally less than one percent).  Coffee grounds are particularly useful on those plants that like things a bit more acidic such as blueberries, evergreens, azaleas, roses, camellias, avocados, and many fruit trees.  I recommend that you allow the coffee grounds to dry and then scatter them lightly, as a mulch, around your plants.  Avoid scattering them thickly when they are wet, because clumps of coffee grounds have a tendency to get moldy.

Cooking Water

Many different nutrients are released into the water that food is cooked in.  Water that is used to boil potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and even pasta can be used as a fertilizer.  Just remember to let the water cool before applying it to your soil.

Corn Gluten Meal

Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the wet-milling process for corn.  It is used not only as an organic pre-emergent herbicide, but also as a fertilizer that is 10 percent nitrogen.  To use as a fertilizer, simply spread a thin layer of corn gluten meal and scratch it into the top inch of soil. Plant veggie starts inside the treated area for optimum nitrogen benefit, and do not worry about accidentally harming your plants.  Corn gluten meal only works as an herbicide before seeds germinate, not after, so it won’t hurt plants that have already sprouted.

Egg Shells

Egg shells contain about 1% nitrogen, about a half-percent phosphoric acid, and other trace elements that make them a practical fertilizer.  Calcium is an essential plant nutrient which plays a fundamental part in cell manufacture and growth.  Most roots must have some calcium at the growing tips to grow effectively.  Plant growth removes large quantities of calcium from the soil, and calcium must be replenished, so this is an ideal way to “recycle” your egg shells.  Simply crush them, powder them in an old coffee grinder, and sprinkle them around your garden soil.

Epsom Salts

1 tablespoon of epsom salts can be combined with 1 gallon of water and put into a sprayer.  Apply once a month, directly to the foliage for a quick dose of magnesium and sulfur.

Wood Ash (From Your Fireplace or Fire Pit)

Ashes can be sprinkled onto your soil to supply potassium and calcium carbonate.  Hard wood is best, and no charcoal or lighter fluid, please, as this can harm your plants.  Don’t use ash in areas where you are trying to maintain acid-loving plants – the ashes are alkaline and can increase alkalinity in the soil.


Gelatin can be a great nitrogen source.  Dissolve one package of gelatin in 1 cup of hot water and then add 3 cups of cold water.  Pour directly on the soil around your plants once a month.  This is great for houseplants!

Green Tea

A weak solution of green tea can be used to water plants every four weeks.  Use one teabag to 2 gallons of water.


Hair is a good source of nitrogen and it does double duty as a deer repellent.  A good source for this hair is not only your hairbrush but also the local barbershop or beauty salon.  Many of these establishments will save hair for your garden, if you ask them for it.  But do not limit yourself to only human hair.  Dog hair, horse hair, and cat hair work just as well.

Horse Feed

What makes horse feed irresistible to horses is also what makes it an excellent fertilizer.  The magic ingredient is molasses.  To use horse feed as a fertilizer is simple and easy.  It can be used as a soil amendment just by sprinkling it on top of the soil.  Alternatively, it can be dissolved in water alone or combined with another organic fertilizer, and applied as a soil drench.


The old fashioned easy strike matches are a great source of magnesium.  To use this as a fertilizer, simply place the whole match in the hole with the plant, or soak the matches in water.  The magnesium will dissolve into the water and make application easier.

Powdered Milk

Powdered milk is not only good for human consumption but also for plants.  This source of calcium needs to be mixed in to the soil prior to planting.  Since the milk is in powder form, it is ready for use by your plants.

Read more: How to Fertilize Your Container Gardens

Four Easy Homemade Fertilizer Recipes

These are some slightly more complex fertilizer recipes that I like to use.  My favorites are the Simple Tea and the Quick Fix, but each of these make regular appearances in our garden fertilizing schedule:

Recipe #1 – Simple Tea Fertilizer

This simple recipe has been used for 1000s of years. Give it a try in your garden for a quick and inexpensive dose of nutrients for your plants.


• In a five gallon bucket, mix 1/4 cup of epsom salts, 2 cups of urine (yes, good old pee pee), and 2 cups of wood ash (again, no lighter fluid or charcoal, please)
• Fill the rest of the bucket about half way with grass clippings, pruned green leaves, or even green weeds pulled right out of the ground
• Fill the bucket to the top with water and allow the mix to steep for three days
• After steeping, strain the tea or decant into empty milk jugs or old 2 liter bottles
• Before use, dilute by 50% by mixing half water and half tea into your favorite watering can
• Apply this wonderful mix by pouring it directly onto the soil around your plants

If your results are anything like mine you will see a noticeable difference in just a few days.

Note: Only steep for three days. By the third day, most of the soluble nutrients will have seeped out into the water solution. Stopping now prevents fermentation, which you want to avoid. Fermented materials will smell bad, and their pH can change rapidly, so it’s important to stick with a three day steeping, and then use the concentrate within a day or two.

Recipe #2 – Homemade Fish Emulsion Fertilizer

Fish emulsion is a homemade fertilizer made using fish waste – such as fish parts and guts – and water. This organic all-purpose fertilizer has also been around for 1000s of years and it works great, but it takes weeks to make, and the mixture must have time to rot before you can use it. Yes, there is some bad smell here – it is made from rotting fish after all!


• To begin the process, fill a 55-gallon drum about one-third full with a ratio of 2 parts water and 1 part fish waste
• Allow this mixture to steep for 24 hours
• After steeping, add more water to the drum until it is completely full
• Cover loosely and let the drum ferment for several weeks – we usually allow about 3 weeks for fermentation
• To use, apply the fish emulsion fertilizer to the soil around your plants at a rate of 3 gallons of liquid for every 100 square feet of yard or garden

Homemade fish emulsion fertilizers

Recipe #3 – Seaweed Fertilizer

Another fertilizer with a 1000 year pedigree. Not only is seaweed an all-purpose organic fertilizer, but it also contains mannitol. Mannitol is a compound that increases a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients in the soil. Either fresh or dried seaweed can be used to create the all-purpose fertilizer. However, if you use fresh seaweed or dry salted seaweed, ensure it is thoroughly washed before using.


• Add 8 cups of chopped seaweed to a five gallon bucket and fill halfway with water (rain water is always best if it’s available)
• Loosely cover the container, and let the seaweed steep for about three weeks
• After steeping, strain the seaweed and transfer the liquid to a container to store it for up to 3 weeks
• To use, mix half water and half seaweed tea into your favorite watering can and apply it to the soil around your plants. Your plants will thank you for it within just a few days.

Recipe #4 – The Quick Fix Fertilizer

If you haven’t got time to wait 3 days to make the Simple Tea, you might want to try this idea. Most of the ingredients can be found around your home.


• In an empty 1 gallon milk jug, mix 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of ammonia (a very strong source of quick nitrogen), 3 teaspoons of instant iced tea (the tannic acid in this helps the plants to more quickly and easily absorb nutrients), 3 teaspoons blackstrap molasses (this helps feed soil bacteria), 3 Tablespoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide (hydrogen peroxide is a powerful oxidizer, as it combines with the air and water it decomposes, freeing the oxygen elements and thus providing a supplement of oxygen to the plants and aerating the soil), 1/4 cup crushed bone scraps (this adds phosphorus – any bones will do but I like to use fish bones myself as they also provide potassium), 1 crushed egg shell or 1/2 a dried banana peel for potassium (you can omit if using fish bones, but I would still add the egg shell for the calcium – especially for my tomatoes as it helps prevent blossom end rot)
• Fill the jug the rest of the way with water (again rain water is best). Replace cap and allow the jug to sit in the sun for about 1 hour to warm, then water your plants with this mixture at full strength.

Homemade manure tea fertilizer

Using What Your Animals Give You

There are many other ways to make your own fertilizer, and some are easier to make than others. It doesn’t get much easier than using manure from your animals. For eons, man used “free” fertilizer from manure to fertilize his crops. Manure can be used as is after drying, or in the form of manure tea.

Before manure is used in the garden, it should be aged and dried, and/or composted first. Age fresh manure for at least 6 months. Well-aged manure on its own makes a great fertilizer for garden plants. You can spread aged manure directly on top of your garden soil at a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Another option is to till it, or mix it by hand, into the top layer of soil in the fall or winter, prior to spring planting.

Generally, fall is the best time to use manure in the garden. This allows plenty of time for the manure to break down, eliminating the threat of burning plants in the garden come springtime. As the soil absorbs manure, nutrients are released. This enriches the soil, which in turn helps the plants. One of the most important benefits of using manure in the garden is its ability to condition the soil.

Composting manure is one of the best and safest ways to use this free fertilizer, as it eliminates the possibility of burning your plants and controls potentially harmful bacteria.

Nearly any kind of manure can be used. Generally horse, cow, and chicken manures are the most commonly used for manure fertilizer. Some people also use sheep, rabbit, turkey, and more. It is not recommended that you use manure from your cats, dogs, other household pets – or any other meat-eating animals. These manures are unsuitable for the garden or the compost pile, as they are likely to carry parasites.

Making Manure Tea Fertilizer

I will leave you with one last recipe. I use this tea regularly and it works great – just make sure that your manure is well-aged.

Bonus Recipe: Manure Tea Fertilizer

Manure tea enriches the soil and adds much needed nutrients for healthy plant growth. The nutrients found in manure tea make it an ideal fertilizer for garden plants. The nutrients from manure dissolve easily in water so that they can then be added to a sprayer or simply used in a watering can. The leftover manure can be thrown in the garden or reused in the compost pile.

Manure tea can be used each time you water plants, or periodically. It can also be used to water lawns. However, it is important to dilute the tea prior to use so as to avoid burning the roots or foliage of plants. I fill my watering can 1/2 way with the tea and then fill it to the top with rain water. I use this every 3 weeks or so during the growing season.


• Place a shovel full of well-aged manure in a large burlap sack or pillowcase
• Make certain that the manure has been well aged or “cured” beforehand. Fresh manure is much too strong for plants, and it can contain harmful bacteria.
• Suspend the manure-filled “tea bag” in a 5 gallon bucket, and add water to create a mix of 5 parts water to 1 part manure
• Allow this mixture to steep for up to two weeks
• After steeping, remove the bag, allowing it to hang above the container until the dripping has stopped
• Skipping the tea bag and adding the manure directly to the water usually speeds up the brewing process. Without a bag, the tea is usually ready within only a few days if you stir it thoroughly during this period. Once it has fully brewed, you will have to strain it to separate the solids from the liquid. The remaining manure can then be added to the compost pile.
• To use, dilute the tea by half, as mentioned above, prior to use

Helpful resource: How Much Nutrient is in Your Homemade Fertilizer?

Add to This List of Homemade Fertilizers

This list of homemade fertilizers is by no means exhaustive. If I’ve missed any of your favorites, be sure to let me know in the comments below! Keep in mind that the most important thing you really need to understand about making your own fertilizer is that you control what goes into the fertilizer, so you know exactly what goes into your garden and therefore what goes into your body. Making your fertilizer is also a great way to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Lately, before I toss anything into my trash, I stop and ask myself, “How else can I use this?” As often as not, the things I would have otherwise thrown away can help out in my garden. And, best of all, I’ve come to realize that my home, my animals, and even my own body are all full of fertilizer!

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Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions – Part 2

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prickly-pear-cactus-opuntiaDrought. A chilling term for a period of less than average rainfall, usually accompanied by times of hot, dry, and often windy conditions. It is enough to drive any gardener stark raving mad. That is, of course, unless you have knowledge of some simple drought gardening techniques.

In the first installment of this series, I covered what steps you can take in your current garden to help make your normal plants more able to tolerate a drought. We also looked at a few simple tips and suggestions for your garden, and a selection of good varieties of common garden favorites for the drought-tolerant garden. In this installment, we will look at some rather unusual edibles for your drought-resistant garden.

Edible Cacti

The first group of genuinely drought-tolerant plants we will focus on are very good desert plants that grow and thrive in the 115 degree temperatures of the great American southwest. Many plant species, such as those in the family Cactaceae (better known as the cactus or cacti family), have developed adaptations like reduced leaf area and waxy cuticles to enhance their ability to tolerate drought. An interesting note about cacti is that the needles of the cactus are actually specialized leaves, and the green is the stem. In cacti the green stem, and not the leaves, is where photosynthesis takes place.

Almost all cacti are edible or have edible bits and pieces, though some taste good while others are downright nasty! I spent my teenage years in Phoenix, Arizona, and my early twenties in the far southern parts of Arizona near the town of Nogales, on the Mexican border. I learned to really love the beauty, hardiness, and ease of the cacti I found growing all around me. One thing I learned was that cactus, like many other plants, go by a ton of different names depending on where you are in the world. This is often confusing when trying to find the exact species you wish to plant. One cactus of which I am very fond is called the ‘Arizona Queen of the Night,’ but is also known by at least 14 other names such as Deer-Horn Cactus, Night-Blooming Cereus, Sweet Potato Cactus, and so forth. This is the case with many plants, but when you are looking at cacti with the thought of eating it, you better use the scientific name or you might get one that looks like the right thing but has a taste that makes you ill! ‘Arizona Queen of the Night,’ if you have the correct variety, has the tastiest fruit around, almost strawberry-like in its flavor and texture. But if you end up with the wrong variety of ‘Arizona Queen of the Night,’ the fruit you get will taste like…

… Well the only way I can describe the horrid taste of other varieties is to say that it would taste much like what you would think a child’s dirty diaper would taste. That is a vast difference in taste! So, in what follows I will use the scientific names so that when you go to find these you will get the exact cactus you have read about! Fair Warning: Lots of Latin scientific names below!

prickly-pear-fruit-at-marketThe most well know edible cactus is the Opuntia, or the prickly pear. Many Opuntia species of varying sizes produce edible fruits, many more than just the popular Opuntia stenocereus. In fact, the truth is that all cactus fruit is edible, but not all are as palatable as the stenocereus. Some are truly delicious, while others are tasteless, dry, or otherwise not very pleasing to eat. Even the tasty ones require some careful work before you can eat them – they have to be de-spined!

One of the more commonly planted large cacti in Florida and California is Cereus repandus, which produces large red edible fruit. Several species of Hylocereus are also very popular – these likely originated in southeast Asia and China, where they have become extremely popular with the indigenous populations. These cacti, though, are very cold-sensitive and can only be grown well in USDA zone 10, in USDA zone 9 with some extra effort, and in USDA zone 8 if you really, really work at it or during severe drought with hotter- and dryer-than-normal conditions. Some very large cacti that produce edible fruit include the Saguaro, or Carnegia gigantea, as well as the Cardon, or Pachycereus pringlei. Two other species of Pachycereus also produce tasty edible fruit – P. schottii (commonly known as Senita), and P. weberi (commonly known as Candelabro).

Getting a headache from all of this Latin yet? Me too, but let’s go on!

I know from personal experience that the fruits of Pachycereus schottii are very tasty; this species is very large. Most literature does not say how large the Pachycereus species must be before flowering, but the Saguaros usually have to be quite large and rather old as well, about 10-12 feet tall and some 30 years old before they will flower, and remember until they flower they will not fruit!

The Arizona queen of the night, Peniocereus greggii (mentioned above), and some other species of such as Peniocereus johnstonii and Pachycereus serpentinus, are also producers of truly tasty edible fruit. Smaller related cacti of the genus Echinocereus are famous for their fruit too, a number of species being known as “strawberry cactus” because of their strawberry (and sometimes almost raspberry) flavored red or green fruit. The most notable of these are Echinocereus engelmannii, E. bonkerae, E. boyce-thompsonii, E. enneacanthus, E. cincerascens, E. stramineus, E. dasyacanthus, E. fendleri, and E. fasciculatus; as well as some lesser-known species like Echinocereus brandegeei, E. ledingii, and E. nicholii. Echinocereus engelmannii’s flavor has been described as “strawberry and vanilla.”

Wow! That’s a load of Latin! Ready for just a little bit more? Here we go…

Among the smaller cacti, a number of species of Mammillaria produce edible fruits known as “chilitos” (they look like tiny red chili peppers) and the species include Mammillaria applanata, M. meiacantha, M. macdougalii, M. lasiacantha, M. grahamii, M. oliviae, M. mainiae, M. microcarpa, M. thornberi, and many others. Also recommended is a related genus, Epithelantha, of which the fruit of all species are said to be edible, tasty, and quite like those of the Mammillaria. Two more cacti with similar fruit are the Coryphantha robbinsorum and Coryphantha recurvata.

A commonly found cactus in many garden centers is Myrtillocactus geometrizans, which grows quite large; it produces edible berries known as “garambulos” which are said to be quite tasty, rather like less-acidic cranberries. Another genus of large cacti is Stenocereus, almost all species of which produce fruits good enough to eat. They include Stenocereus fricii (“Pitayo de aguas”), S. griseus (“Pitayo de Mayo”), S. gummosus (“Pitahaya agria”, said to be quite sweet but prone to fermentation, hence the “agria,” or “sour”), S. pruinosus (“Pitayo de Octubre”), S. montanus (“Pitaya colorada”), S. queretaroensis (“Pitaya de Queretaro”), S. standleyi (“Pita Marismena”), S. stellatus (“Xoconostle”), S. thurberi “Organ Pipe Cactus” or “Pitayo Dulce”), and S. treleasi (“Tunillo”). The genus Harrisia of Florida and the Caribbean also produces edible fruits known as “Prickly Apples”, the endangered endemic Florida species Harrisia aboriginum, H. simpsonii, H. adscendens, H. fragrans, and H. eriophora standing out, although the fruits of all the Harrisia species are edible, including the Argentinian Harrisia balsanae.

What happened there? Now I’m overloaded with both Latin and Spanish!

Some of the barrel cacti such as Ferocactus hamatacanthus, Ferocactus histrix (“borrachitos”), and Ferocactus latispinus (“pochas”) also produce edible fruits and edible flower buds. Many species of South American Corryocactus (also known as Erdisia) produce tasty berry-like fruits, including Corryocactus brevistylis, Corryocactus pulquiensis, and Corryocactus erectus. The large South American complex of Echiopsis/Trichocereus includes a few species with edible fruit also, such as Echinocereus atacamensis (or Trichocereus atacamensis), Echinocereus/Trichocereus coquimbana and Echinocereus/Trichocereus schickendanzii. Epiphyllum, known as the “orchid cactus,” has one such species, Echinocereus anguliger (also called Phyllocactus darrahii), the fruits said to be much like gooseberries. Also like gooseberries are the fruits of the fairly well-known Pereskia aculeata – hence its common name “Barbados gooseberry.” Another Pereskia (which are primitive cacti, and in fact are leaf-bearing trees or shrubs), Pereskia guamacho, also produces edible fruits.

There are no doubt many, many others as well, and if I have missed one of your favorite cacti be sure to mention it in the comments below. For now though, that is about all of the Latin I can stand!

For more information on your favorite cactus, two of the best books on the subject include Cacti of the Southwest by W. Hubert Earle, and perhaps the finest available book on cacti, The Cactus Family by Edward F. Anderson.

Now then, if your brain is not totally fried by now, how about we take a look at a few other drought-tolerant plants you might want to consider for your garden.

Drought-Resistant Herbs

First let’s look at herbs. Since most of us know these herbs and their uses, I will not go into great detail on each specific herb on this list. There are many culinary herbs, but not all of them tolerate drought or low water conditions very well. However, many of the most popular herbs used in food preparation are true drought survivors. All of the herbs on the list that follows grow well from east to west and north to south so if you don’t have an herb garden yet, now is the time to plant one! If you want to learn more about herbs, you will find more information here: Herbs.

Garlic Chives – Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are an excellent choice for the low water garden. They have a slight garlicky flavor and are delicious in just about everything. They also have lovely pompom lilac-colored blooms. If you allow them to bloom, however, keep in mind that they self-sow like nobody’s business, which can be both a good and a bad thing!

Onion Chives – Onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are also a great choice for a culinary herb that resists drought. These chives are more onion-like in flavor and are much more common in the United States. The blossoms from this chive (and the garlic chive) can be eaten or used for garnish.

Lavender – Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is another excellent choice, with a number of varieties to choose from and lovely purple to light purple blossoms great for sachets or potpourris.

LovageLevisticum officinale, or lovage, has a strong sweet to salty celery-like flavor. Use this herbaceous perennial in soups and stews or add the young stems to salads. While not popularly used here in the United States and Canada, lovage is very frequently found in European gardens.

Borage – With its beautiful (and edible) flowers, borage is a great pick for a dry location – it will grow well and is stunningly beautiful when in bloom. When the leaves are small, they can also be eaten and some say the taste is like that of cucumbers. Borage does very well with little water. In extremely dry locations, you may find it is also easier to keep control of this hardy herb. Borage loves to re-seed and become a part of your landscape.

Echinacea – Grow it as a backdrop to the rest of your herb garden – don’t worry, it will require very little water. Don’t just settle for pink! Echinacea comes in a rainbow of colors, with orange, white, gold, pink, and reds to choose from. Echinacea should be divided every three years, but if you have a smaller area to garden, feel free to wait longer than that and keep the spread in check.

Fennel – Fennel is composed of a white or pale green bulb from which grow closely arranged stalks. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves and flowers that produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are all edible. Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It has a mild licorice taste.

Oregano – Greek oregano, as its name suggests, is native to the Greek Isles and a perfect match for the low water herb garden. Its name means “joy of the mountain” from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). It is wonderful when used fresh and can be dried as well. Oregano has medicinal qualities and can be used as an antiseptic, an anti-bacterial, and an anti-fungal too.

Parsley – Parsley is another option for a low water garden. Technically it’s a biennial, but is commonly used as an annual. If you let the plant bolt and set seed in the second year, the leaves turn bitter but you get lots of new little babies.

Rosemary – Rosemary is nearly indestructible and is perfect in a drought-tolerant garden. Over time, rosemary can grow quite large if not restrained by pruning. It can also make an aromatic hedge and does very well in rocky soils.

Sage – Sage is another contender. Salvia officinalis is a hardy perennial sub-shrub. There are several varieties, all of which can be used fresh or dried. Many of the sage varieties have lovely blossoms as well.

Thyme – Thyme is another good choice with some varieties making excellent ground covers. Dry soil actually concentrates the aromatic oils in thyme, making it taste much more intense – and it thrives in rocky conditions.

Drought-Tolerant Wild Edibles

There are several good wild edibles to add to your drought-tolerant garden. What are wild edibles? Just what they sound like – plants that normally grow wild that we can eat and enjoy. We will look at three of my favorites: dandelion, purslane, and Jerusalem artichoke.

Dandelion – While many people think of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as a pesky weed, it is chock full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as many phytonutrients, and minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. Dandelion leaves are used to add flavor to salads, sandwiches, and teas. The roots are used in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make wines. The dandelion is a perennial, herbaceous plant with long, lance-shaped leaves. They’re so deeply toothed, they gave the plant its name: Dent-de-lion means lion’s tooth in Old French. The leaves are 3″ to 12″ long, and 1/2″ to 2-1/2″ wide, always growing in a basal rosette.


Have no worries when eating dandelions, there are no poisonous look-alikes. Other very similar Taraxacum species, as well as chicory and wild lettuce, only resemble dandelions in the early spring, and those are also edible. All these edibles exude a white milky sap when injured, but chicory and wild lettuce leaves have some hair, at least on the underside of the midrib, while dandelion leaves are bald.

Dandelions are especially well-adapted to a modern world of “disturbed habitats,” such as lawns and sunny, open places. They were even introduced into the Midwest from Europe to provide food for the imported honeybees in early spring. They now grow virtually worldwide. Dandelions spread further, are more difficult to exterminate, and grow better under adverse circumstances than almost anything else on Earth.

Many gardeners detest them, but the more you try to weed them up, the faster they grow. The taproot is deep, twisted, and brittle. Unless you remove it completely, it will likely regenerate. If you break off more pieces than you unearth, the dandelion wins.

“What’s a dandelion digger for?” a dandelion asked.
“It is a human invention, to help us reproduce,” another dandelion replied.

Collect dandelion leaves in early spring, when they’re the tastiest, before the flowers appear. Harvest again in late fall. After a frost, their protective bitterness disappears. Dandelions growing in rich, moist soil, with the broadest leaves and largest roots, are the best. But they are still strong growers and good to eat during a drought.

Purslane – Purslane peeks its way out from sidewalk and black top cracks. It invades gardens and it even gained a bit of bad press from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has classified it as a “most noxious weed.”


A weed it may be, but “most noxious?” Please! Give this poor superfood a break! Yes, I said superfood. It truly happens to be a “super food,” for not only is it high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, but it also has high marks in beta carotene content.

This is one of the few plant kingdom sources of Omega-3 fatty acids and really is as healthy as eating fish! And you don’t have to check the latest health and environmental bulletins before you eat it!

Known formally as Portulaca oleracea, but also called pursley and little hogweed, purslane is a succulent that looks, as one chef put it, like a “miniature jade plant.” A more colorful description can be found in seed catalogs, which note that in Malawi, the name for the fleshy, round-leafed plant translates to “the buttocks of the wife of a chief.” The moisture-rich leaves are cucumber-crisp, and have a tart, almost lemony pepper tang. It grows well anywhere in the world and is a wonderful grower during a drought! Though not as popular now-a-days as it once was, it is gaining in popularity. Martha Washington had a recipe for pickled “pursland” in the Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, the collection of hand-written family recipes she received as a wedding gift, according to sources at


Jerusalem Artichoke – Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is familiar to many as a weed, but has some real potential as a crop plant. Native to the central regions of North America, the plant can be grown successfully throughout the U.S. under a variety of temperature and rainfall conditions. Several Native American tribes used Jerusalem artichoke as food prior to the arrival of European settlers. The Jerusalem artichoke became a staple food for North American pilgrims and was thought of as a new food in a “new Jerusalem.” In recent years, the fresh tubers have been widely marketed in the U.S., but in quite limited quantities. The plant can be grown for human consumption, alcohol production, fructose production, and livestock feed.


Similar to water chestnuts in taste, the traditional use of the tuber is as a gourmet vegetable. Jerusalem artichoke tubers resemble potatoes except the carbohydrates composing 75% to 80% of the tubers are in the form of inulin rather than starch. Once the tubers are stored in the ground or refrigerated, the inulin is converted to fructose and the tubers develop a much sweeter taste. Dehydrated and ground tubers can be stored for long periods without protein and sugar deterioration. Tubers can be prepared in ways similar to potatoes. In addition, they can be eaten raw, made into flour, or pickled. They are available commercially under several names, including sunchokes and lambchokes. But as with most things you just cannot beat the home grown taste of this drought-tolerant vegetable.

Growing edibles for your family is always important but during drought conditions it is even more so. Following the tips, strategies and techniques laid out in the first article in this series, as well as planting some of the varieties mentioned here, will help to ensure your family is well fed no matter the rainfall.

This article is part of a 2 part series by Joe Urbach. You can see the entire series here:

Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions – Part 1
Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions – Part 2


Would a Vegetarian Eat a Carnivorous Plant?

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“Digested fly” by Stefano Zucchinali (Ste3986) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Meat-eating plants have captured the imagination of many writers and filmmakers. One of the more well-known carnivorous plant stories is Little Shop of Horrors, which was originally filmed in 1960, then made into a Broadway musical, with a second Hollywood release in 1986. This comedy/musical/horror film tells the story of a florist clerk who discovers an unusual plant with a unique appetite… for human blood.

This got me to thinking about my vegetarian friends. I wonder, would they feel differently about eating a plant if they knew that the plant had eaten meat before it was harvested? Would a vegetarian eat a carnivorous plant?

Out of all of the strange plants in all the world, who would have thought that you would ever find flesh eating plants? Okay, maybe ‘flesh eating’ is a bit over the top, but there are insect eating plants out there, not man-eating – but carnivorous none the less.

All carnivorous plants are to be found in areas where the soil has very little nutrient content. These fascinating plants are categorized as carnivorous because they trap insects and arthropods, produce digestive juices, dissolve the prey, and derive some or most of their nutrients from this process. The first book on these plants was written by Charles Darwin, in 1875, titled Insectivorous Plants. After further discoveries and research, it is now believed that these marvels of the plant kingdom evolved independently six different times in five different orders of flowering plants, and nowadays these are represented by more than a dozen genera. They can be found throughout the world (except on Antarctica).

Many people are surprised to learn that the greatest variety of carnivorous plants can be found in North America. These plants inhabit bogs, rocky areas and other types of soils that are poor in nutrients. Carnivorous plants can survive at different altitudes and in various climates, but they do not tolerate dry habitats very well at all, so don’t expect to find them in the American Southwest.

A diet based on the flesh of animals provides carnivorous plants with the nutrients that other plants normally absorb from the ground. Carnivorous plants come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes but do use similar mechanisms to attract their prey. These plants are very popular and often cultivated because of their interesting morphology and unusual eating habits. Most species of carnivorous plants are small herbaceous plants that can reach up to about 12 inches in height. Some species look like bushy vines while others might seem more like an iris on steroids! They can grow to the height of 3 feet.

Most carnivorous plants eat flying, foraging, or crawling insects. Those that live in or around water capture very small aquatic prey like mosquito larvae and tiny fish. On rare occasions, some tropical carnivorous plants have even been reported to capture frogs, or even rats and birds (although these creatures were probably sick or already near death). But don’t worry, these plants pose no danger to humans, even if you fell asleep in a whole bed of them.

Just like other plants, carnivorous plants obtain energy through the process of photosynthesis, not from the meat they devour. They absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create food (which is a simple sugar). An animal-based diet provides nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium and phosphate. These elements are used in various biological processes: protein synthesis, nucleic acid synthesis, improvement of the structure of the cell walls, etc.

Just like other plants that need to attract other creatures to help with things like pollination, carnivorous plants use different strategies to attract their prey. Carnivorous plants are often very colorful, some are sweetly scented and produce large quantities of nectar, still others have parts that are sticky or slippery or designed in a way that makes it hard for prey to escape. Once they have attracted their dinner, carnivorous plants use five basic trapping strategies or mechanisms. These five basic trapping mechanisms are: pitfall traps, fly Paper traps, snap traps, bladder traps and lobster pot traps.

Leaves of plants with pitfall traps are shaped like a funnel, and digestive enzymes are found in a pool at the bottom. After landing on the slippery edge of the leaves, the unsuspecting insect will fall into the funnel, land in the digestive juices and become trapped.

Flypaper traps use a super-glue-like substance which sticks the insects to the spot they land on and prevents them flying away. They become supper!

Snap traps are designed for the active catching of insects. After landing on the plant, the surprised insect triggers the fast closing leaves of the plant when it touches sensitive hairs which fire off the trap and the leaves, such as in the familiar Venus fly trap, quickly close and trap the prey.

Plants with bladder traps live in the water. They use a vacuum and bladder-like structure to “swallow” their prey along with the surrounding water.

Plants with lobster-pot traps use inwardly oriented hairs to force hapless insects to walk toward a pool of enzymatic juices.

The diet of almost all carnivorous plants consists of small insects and their larvae. Larger species of carnivorous plants can digest small mammals and frogs. So once they catch their prey, how do these plants digest the meal? Most carnivorous plants make their own digestive enzymes. Still others depend on bacteria to produce these enzymes; the bacteria cause the captured prey to rot, and the plant absorbs the nutrients. Still other plants rely on both their own enzymes and additional enzymes generated by bacteria. Yet another method is even more unappetizing. Some carnivorous plants use bugs and insects as helpers. For example, on carnivorous sundews, assassin bugs crawl around and eat the insects that have been captured. Then the assassin bugs poop, and the feces is used by the plant for dinner. Yuck!

Carnivorous plants can live on the ground or in the water. Most carnivorous plants are pollinated by insects attracted by beautiful and colorful flowers. The lifespan of any carnivorous plant depends of course on the species, but some such as sundews, can survive up to 50 years in the wild.

One of the most fascinating things about the group of plants is watching them move, seeing them spring their traps so incredibly quickly. The Venus fly trap has long been a favorite among kids and adults alike, we all love to see it close its leaves, trapping its dinner inside. But just how does the plant move, how is it able to snap shut? Does it have muscles? Venus fly traps aren’t the only type of carnivorous plants that move, but they are the most commonly known. What happens is this: when something touches the trigger hairs on the edges of the leaves, the cells on the inside wall of the trap transfer water to the outside walls as quick as lightning. This in turn causes the inside walls to essentially go limp. This makes the leaf snap tightly closed. Another way carnivorous plants move to entrap their food can be observed in the sundew plants I mentioned above, which have a long flypaper trap. Once the prey gets stuck on the gluey tentacles, the tentacles embrace and surround the captured creature. It does this by growing much faster on the outside than it does on the inside. The really amazing thing about this is that they can do this really, really fast. In fact one common species of sundew can bend 180 degrees in just a minute or so – wow!

Let’s take a closer look at seven of the most interesting carnivorous plants:

#7 – Utricularia
Starting the list at number seven are the Utricularia, or as they are commonly known, the bladderworts. These are a genus of carnivorous plants consisting of about 220 species. They occur in fresh water and wet soil as terrestrial or aquatic species. You find these on every continent accept Antarctica. They are the only carnivorous plants that make use of bladder traps. Most species have very small traps, in which they can catch only tiny prey, like protozoa. The traps can range from 0.2mm – 1.2cm, with the larger traps targeting larger prey like water fleas and even small tadpoles. The traps have small trigger hairs attached to a trapdoor. The bladder, when set, is under negative pressure in relationship to its surrounding area. When the trigger hairs are tripped, the trap door opens up, sucks in the insect and surrounding water, and closes the door again, all in a matter of 10 thousandths of a second! Once they prey is inside, the trapdoor closes and digestion begins.

#6 – Sarracenia
Coming in at number six are the Sarracenia, also called the North American pitcher plant. These carnivorous plants are indigenous to the eastern seaboard, Texas, the Great Lakes, and southeastern Canada, with most species being found only in the southeast United States. These are a pitfall trap plant whose leaves have evolved into a funnel, with a hood-like structure growing over the opening to prevent rain water from diluting the digestive juices. Insects are attracted by color, aroma, and a nectar-like secretion on the lip of the pitcher. Slippery footing, aided in at least one species by a narcotic drug lacing the nectar, causes insects to fall inside where they die and are digested by enzymes.

#5 – Sundews
At number five we have the sundew. Sundew is this plant’s common name, but you will also see it called by its genus name, Drosera. These plants are characterized by movable glandular tentacles, topped with sweet sticky secretions. Species from the Drosera genus are often called sundews since they, as you might imagine, appear to be covered in dew. Attracting unsuspecting insects with this “dew,” Drosera plants are able to ensnare and even digest their prey. These plants are common in nutrient-deficient places like bogs and sandy beaches. Drosera actually comprises one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants, with at least 194 species. These can be found widely spread on every continent except for Antarctica. Sundews, depending on species, can form either prostrate or upright rosettes, ranging from a half inch to a full meter in height, these beauties live for a very long time under the right conditions.

#4 – Pinguiculas
Number four would have to be the Pinguiculas. Commonly called butterworts, these plants are strikingly beautiful. They are carnivorous plants that look almost like succulents, but similar to Drosera they produce dewy, sticky leaves to capture their dinner. The leaves of the butterworts are usually bright, almost ‘electric’ green or pinkish in color. There are two special types of cells found on the top side of the butterwort leaves. One is known as a penduncular gland, and consists of secretory cells on top of a single stalk cell. These cells produce a mucilaginous secretion which forms visible droplets across the leaf’s surface, and acts like flypaper. The other cells are called sessile glands. They lie flat on the leaves surface and produce enzymes like amylase, esterase, and protease, which aid in the digestion process. There are roughly 80 species of butterwort that can be found throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia.

#3 – Nepenthes
Number three on the list are the Nepenthes. Also known as tropical pitchers or monkey cups, these somewhat larger plants are native to the more tropical regions of Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Madagascar, Seychelles, Australia, India, Borneo and Sumatra. There are about 130 species in all. The nickname “monkey cups” comes from the fact that monkeys have often been observed drinking rain water caught by the plants’ pitchers. These pitchers start as small buds and are filled with a self-produced liquid nectar. Lured by the nectar’s scent, insects and even small animals like mice fall into the pitcher where they find themselves trapped. When the plant senses motion in this pitcher, its digestive processes begin. Nepenthes secrete powerful digestive juices that can break down their prey, allowing the plants to gain the nutrients they need for survival. Most species of Nepenthes are tall creepers (10-15m), with a shallow root system. From the stem you will often see sword-like leaves growing, with a tendril (often used for climbing) protruding from the tip of the leaf. At the end of the tendril, the pitcher forms first as a small bulb, which then expands and forms a cup.

#2 – Byblis
Number two on our list of carnivorous lovelies is the Byblis, or rainbow plant. This is a small genus of carnivorous plants native to Australia. The name rainbow plant comes from the attractive appearance of their mucilage-covered leaves in the sun. Even though these plants look similar to the Drosera and Drosophyllum, they are not related in any way and can be distinguished by zygomorphic flowers with five curved stamens. The leaves have a round cross section, and they tend to be very elongated and tapered at the end. The surface of the leaves are completely covered in glandular hairs that release a sticky mucilaginous substance, which in turn traps small insects on the leaves or tentacles as a passive fly paper trap.

#1 – Venus Fly Trap
Number one, of course, is the very famous Venus fly trap, Dionaea muscipula. Let’s face it, when most people think of carnivorous plants, Venus fly traps are the plant that comes to mind first. The Venus fly trap is known for its hinged, leafy “jaw” that snaps together to trap and consume unsuspecting insects. This famous fellow is a rather small plant that has four to seven leaves growing from a short subterranean stem. The leaf blade is divided into two regions: a flat, long, heart-shaped, photosynthesis-capable petiole, and a pair of terminal lobes, hinged at the midrib, forming the trap which is actually the true leaf. The inner surfaces of these lobes contain a red pigment and the edges secrete mucilage. When an insect, beetle, or frog touches two or more of the plant’s “hairs,” the flytrap quickly hinges shut, trapping and then slowly digesting the prey. Venus fly traps are one of the few plants that can perform rapid movements. When the fly trap has fully digested an insect, it opens up its jaw once more, ready for its next meal. To prevent wasting energy on trapping inanimate objects like raindrops, the jaw will only close after two or more hairs are touched within about 20 seconds of the first movement. The hinged lobes snap shut in about 0.1 seconds. Man – that is fast! They are fringed by stiff, thorn-like protrusions called cilia, which mesh together and prevent the prey from escaping. When the dinner guest is unable to escape and the inner surfaces of the lobes are continuously being stimulated, the edges of the lobes grow or fuse together, sealing the trap and creating an enclosed “stomach” in which digestion and absorption can take place.

I first fell in love with carnivorous plants back in the fourth or fifth grade, when a teacher named Mrs. Kuttla brought in a Venus fly trap as a class pet. For some unknown reason, we called the plant Luke. I would spend any time I could watching Luke, and I loved it when I would see him snap shut on an ant or a spider. The most fun of all was when I got to feed him raw hamburger! As a kid, I just loved that plant. And believe me, with a class of 30 kids to feed him, Luke never went hungry!

Luke was lucky that all of us kids had plenty of food to eat from the school cafeteria, so eating him never crossed our minds. But as we grew up and left school, we all started to make our own decisions about our diets. Some of us continued to eat meat regularly, but a few of us became vegetarians. Now I wonder, if we could go back in time, would a vegetarian eat that carnivorous plant? I guess I’ll never know. If you’re a vegetarian – tell me what you think in the comments section below. Would you eat Luke?


Chipmunks – Cute Critters or Rotten Pests?

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a-pair-of-chipmunksI always thought of chipmunks as nothing more than cute little furry forest friends. I would see them running around all the time and since they had never touched my plants or tunneled into my garden I never really gave them too much thought. So I suppose you could say I liked them and had nothing at all against any of them, but that all changed the summer I spent with my maternal grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. That was when I truly learned to detest and despise Alvin, Simon, and Theodore!

My first experience with them as a pest had to do with a container planting of annuals located on the front steps of my Nana’s porch. Every morning I would walk outside only to find this large container in disarray. Two or three of the plants would be uprooted, lying on the ground withering. I’d plant them again, and every night something would dig them up again for me to find the next day. This went on for some time and really drove me bonkers! I had no idea what was happening, was it the neighborhood feral cats? Perhaps a mini-Sasquatch or a hungry bear? Maybe it was the chupacabra, the legendary ‘goat sucker’, mutated into some kind of monster – into some horrible herbivore!

Nope, nothing as cool as space aliens or earth bound monsters either. It was due to chipmunks. I was only able to solve the mystery when I caught one red-pawed, nibbling away at some of the tomato plants my grandparents’ neighbors were growing in their garden. At first glance I thought that I was looking at a young squirrel, but it did not have a bushy tail, and I clearly saw four or five dark stripes down its back. Then, after double-checking some extension service bulletins, I was able to confirm my conclusion – it was not a squirrel, but a chipmunk!

In fact, the extension agent I spoke with, a nice old-timer with an easy smile named Barney Roache, warned me that chipmunks can be around for decades just being darned cute and no trouble at all. And then one day, for no apparent reason, they can “all of sudden go bad and become the absolute worst of garden pests.” He went on to tell me that unlike squirrels, which are blatantly plotting to undo everything you’ve accomplished as a homeowner, chipmunks tend to fly under the radar. Because they are less likely to sneak off into your house, and tend to wreak less havoc on your bird feeders, their destructive behaviors are often blamed on their larger cousins. But according to Barney, “When your yard is suddenly filled with a thousand little potholes, don’t blame the moles. It’s probably a chipmunk.”

Now then, for all you out there who are avid gardeners like I am, you probably don’t need this little story to tell you how frustrating it can be to have your bulbs stolen by fuzzy little rodents with chubby cheeks! Heck, even Donald Duck got totally frustrated trying to keep Chip and Dale out of his back yard vegetable garden!

At this point in my summer vacation, I had had enough! I wanted to do something right away. I began to study chipmunks in more depth. After all, I figured, knowledge is power, right? Knowing a few facts about chipmunks might just help me to prevent them from eating Nana’s bulbs, damaging other young plants, or causing damage to any of the structures.

I found a wildlife publication from Penn State University that provided a concise summary of chipmunk biology, as well as control methods. From this publication I learned that chipmunk burrows can extend 20 to 30 feet. There is no soil piled around the openings, because chipmunks carry it away from the burrows in their cheek pouches and scatter it away from the openings. The burrows are complex, with chambers for nesting, food storage, side pockets and escape tunnels. They may range over about half an acre, but the chipmunks only defend about 50 feet around their main burrow opening.

There usually are two generations of chipmunks born per year, with two to five offspring in early spring and then another two to five little ones again in late summer. So if you seem to have a whole army of them around you, this may be why – they tend to breed like rabbits!

Chipmunks gather and store food, often seeds, throughout the year. If you have seen clumps of sunflowers coming up in flower pots, or small bulbs blooming far away from where you planted them, you can likely thank a chipmunk for that! Actually, this work of sowing seeds is one of their main purposes in natural woodlands, where they help with forest regeneration. Although chipmunks eat mostly seeds, they round out their diets with berries, nuts, insects, and mushrooms on the ground. Chipmunks can also climb trees to gather food up high, and to prey on young birds and bird eggs.

Chipmunks do not hibernate during fall and winter as woodchucks do, but remain rather inactive, subsisting on their stored food. You may see them active on warm, sunny days. In addition to damaging gardens, chipmunks can also cause damage to structures by burrowing under stairways, retention walls, or foundations.

As you can imagine, totally keeping chipmunks out of a yard or garden is going to be pretty much impossible. Chipmunks are almost as acrobatic as that most evil of garden foes, the squirrel – and they are much smaller to boot. You would really have to fence off the entire area in sturdy hardware cloth, sink it down about two feet in the ground, and then build a roof of hardware cloth to keep the chipmunks out from above. This really just isn’t a good option for most of us. So, fencing is out.

As I learned more, I realized that there are several things we can do to coexist with chipmunks on more friendly terms. While these little furry neighbors can be quite exasperating, we should consider why they do what they do. These critters eat nuts, leaves, berries, roots, and seeds. Generally, there is enough food for them in our backyard habitats, and they don’t become pests. Squirrels bury little stashes of food in multiple places, especially in your cultivated soil. But chipmunks commonly store their food in one place in their underground burrows. They stay busy foraging, and they’re delighted to come across a squirrel stash, or your bulbs. As you can imagine, when one of these animals finds your bulb plantings, they think they have just arrived at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

a-chipmunk-eating-a-tomatoIn hot, dry summers, chipmunks are often looking for water, too. And this is when they start to appear around birdbaths and vegetable gardens. I learned about this firsthand that same summer in Pennsylvania. One summer evening our family was picnicking in the shade of a tree. The little devils harvested my nice, ripe tomatoes while I wasn’t looking. They climbed the tree above our table to dine on my tomatoes in peace, and to drink the juice. Then, just to mock me, the little pests dropped a half-eaten red tomato bomb right on my head!

Now, you can deter chipmunks with some natural methods, or you can get rid of them using a variety of traps. Or you can get all medieval on their asses! Over the years I have learned of several ways, some more humane than others, to deal with chipmunk problems. Below you will find some tried and true remedies for your chipmunk blues…

1. Purchase a Live Animal Trap
Scatter sunflower seeds or peanuts around the trap to entice the chipmunks. Then remove the chipmunks from the trap according to your municipality’s animal control ordinances.

2. Place a Bucket Half-Filled with Water Where the Chipmunks are Active
bucket-trap-for-chipmunks• Lean a wooden plank against the side of the bucket.
• Scatter sunflower seeds on the plank, in the water and on the grass around the bucket. The chipmunks will walk on the plank to eat the seeds, fall into the bucket and drown.
• If you only want to get rid of chipmunks and keep squirrels alive, be sure to squirrel-proof your homemade trap or put it in a place that squirrels don’t normally go. Curious squirrels might end up finding the traps, eating the bait, and drown.
• Check with your city or county animal control agency to find out how to dispose of the dead chipmunks. Always wear gloves when handling dead animals, and always wash your hands afterward. Many times, they are infested with fleas, mites and other unpleasant parasites.

3. Put out Mousetraps to Get Rid of Chipmunks
Slather a mix of peanut butter and oatmeal on the trap. While this will kill the chipmunks, the method is quick and spares them pain. Again, dispose of the animals according to the rules of your city or country. Keep checking on the mousetraps throughout the day; squirrels might try to eat the bait and/or carry the traps away.

4. Set out Mothballs
Place mothballs around the foundation of your house, near your plantings and around chipmunk holes. Mothballs won’t eliminate chipmunks, but they will push the critters back to the perimeter of your yard and away from your landscaping.

5. Use Beach Balls and CDs
giant-beach-ball-in-yardChipmunks frighten easily, use this to your advantage. Inflate beach balls and let the wind blow them around your yard. You can also hang old CDs or DVDs to from your trees with string so that the wind blows them around. Use anything that might cause a bit of motion to frighten the little creatures away.

6. Put out Items that Chipmunks Hate to Smell
Try sprinkling blood meal around the roots of your plants. You can also place un-chewed sticks of fragrant gum near chipmunk holes.

7. Use a Commercial Deer Repellent
Chippies don’t like the taste of rotten eggs any more than Bambi does.

8. Let Your Pets Roam Outdoors
Having your dog or cat in the yard will often frighten chipmunks away.

9. Spray Hot Sauce or Pepper Spray on and around Your Plants
Alternatively, you can sprinkle cayenne pepper on your plants. Doing this will keep the chipmunks from chomping on your landscaping. Note that the capsaicin in cayenne is toxic to bees and other beneficial pollinators, so you might use this as a last resort.

10. If You Find a Chipmunk in Your Home…
• Open your doors and windows to the outside to give the chipmunk an opportunity to run out. At the same time, close any doors or entrances to your interior rooms so that the chipmunk has nowhere to go but out.
• Prop a board or other flat item against the sills of your open windows. A board will give the chipmunks something to climb so that they can run out of the window.
• Grab a blanket and use it to herd the chipmunk toward the door. If the chipmunk climbs the blanket, don’t panic. Just gently roll up the blanket, take it outside and dump the chipmunk out.
• Call a professional to get rid of dead chipmunks in the house. If a chipmunk has gotten into your attic or in the walls of your house and has died there, let a professional deal with that problem.

Before you look to get rid of your chipmunk problem with the more violent solutions listed above you might find it wise to keep a few other thoughts in mind. Consider that young children may be bothered by seeing dead chipmunks floating in a bucket of water or stuck in a mousetrap. Be sensitive to their feelings and dispose of the dead animals out of their sight. Also consider that you may just need to call an exterminator or your local animal control department. If none of these methods work, then talk to an expert about eliminating your chipmunk problem.

If chipmunks are just digging up your bulbs, then before you go on a killing spree, try planting the bulbs in a cage made of 1″ x 1″ (2.5 cm x 2.5 cm) wire mesh to keep the critters out.

Finally, be smart! First, you should never place a bucket of water where small children will be able to access it. Small children can fall into the bucket and drown, even in very shallow water. Secondly, be sure you follow the law! Your city/county/state may or may not have a law prohibiting you from killing these animals.

Back during my rural Pennsylvania vacation there were no restrictions, but in the nearby state of New Jersey there were. That state and many others have laws that protect rodents from inhumane capture, treatment, and death. If you are unsure of the local laws, you should check with your state’s ASPCA before attempting the bucket or mousetrap methods. Otherwise, you could be fined or even jailed for doing so. And if you think the chipmunks are a problem, wait until you are stuck in a cold jail cell!


Vegetable Gardening in Drought Conditions – Part 1

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urban-garden-with-drip-irrigationDrought. The very mention of the dreaded “D” word can make the blood of even the stoutest gardener run as cold as ice. Drought has always been an issue for human beings. Farmers and gardeners, even 10,000 years ago when our ancient ancestors traded in their hunter gatherer lifestyles and chose instead to settle in to small family communities based on agriculture, have always considered drought to be among the most serious of concerns.

Of course we all know what a drought is, but how is it defined?

“A drought is when a region receives below-average precipitation, resulting in prolonged shortages in its water supply, whether atmospheric, surface or ground water. A drought can last for months or years, or may be declared after as few as just 15 days. It can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected region.”

Although droughts can persist for years and years causing no telling how much death and devastation, even a short, intense drought can cause significant damage and harm to the local economy. Annual dry seasons in the tropics significantly increase the chances of a drought developing and along with it the chances of frequent drought-related bush fires. Periods of heat can significantly worsen drought conditions by hastening evaporation of water vapor.

Drought happens. Global climate change is real. Whether you believe it is just a normal cycle that the Earth goes through from time to time, or if you believe it is solely the fault of mankind, or even if what you personally believe falls somewhere in between these two extremes, you must admit that global climate change is a reality. To deny the obvious truth that our climate is changing is just as insane as continuing to believe that the world is flat. The question all gardeners, farmers, and preppers need to ask themselves is not whether drought due to global climate change is a reality, but rather how can we continue to grow food for ourselves and our families during drought conditions.

We cannot know when a drought will occur, and by the time drought is upon us it is too late to plant drought-resistant edible plants. But we can consider several things that we can do in our gardens to help our current plants better tolerate adverse conditions when they do occur. The first thing to keep in mind is that the garden is that our gardens are not made up of just the plants that we grow, but also of the soil we grow in. The soil is the foundation of everything we grow. So get it in your head that you start building a garden from the ground up, and you will help make your garden more drought-tolerant the same way – from the ground up. So here are three quick improvements that will greatly help your garden soil during a drought:

No Bare Soil – Use Cover Crops
Cover crops help improve soil health by reducing erosion, increasing organic matter content, improving air and water movement through the soil, reducing soil compaction, capturing and recycling nutrients in the soil profile, and managing soil moisture to promote biological nitrogen fixation. Many farmers and ranchers have recorded increases in yields during extreme drought when using cover crops. One local farmer I spoke with in San Marcos, Texas, used radishes as a cover crop to successfully increase water infiltration in areas where water had previously flowed across his field without soaking in. The radish roots aerated the area enough to allow water further down into the soil profile instead of letting it simply run off the surface and get wasted.

Do Not Till – That’s Right, No Tilling!
When soil is tilled, it temporarily gains a lot of pore space in the top layer. But tilling involves running over the soil with heavy equipment, and that leads to the structural breakdown of the soil and compaction. The end result is a layer with high bulk density and bad pores, topped by loose soil with no structure. When soil has poor structure, it can’t hold water within its pore spaces, and when the water hits the densely compacted layer below, it can’t infiltrate. This leads to runoff, and therefore, erosion, flooding, pollution, and less water held in the soil for dry times. New research has shown that tilling your fields and garden area will also lead to an often significant loss of soil nitrogen. Tilling disturbs the microorganisms that are working to convert organic matter into composted fertilizer, and tilling releases nitrogen into the air where it evaporates away without being of any benefit to our plants and crops.

Add Organic Matter – Compost to the Rescue (Again!)
Composted organic matter is absolutely magic. Poor soil can benefit greatly from even a small increase in organic matter. Even healthy soils benefit from composting – just a small increase in organic matter can improve the soil’s structure. Soils with a lower bulk density (lighter more fluffy soils) and with greater porosity (more air pockets in between the soil particles) route water more efficiently during floods and retain more moisture for plants, and so perform significantly better during droughts. Research has also proven that organic matter often holds 10 times its own weight in moisture, trapping the water in the soil for the plants to use at a later time. Organic matter particles have a charged surface that attracts water so that it adheres to the surface, like static cling, but they can also have pores and charges that repel water. A 1994 study by Hudson University showed that a silt loam soil with as little as 4% organic matter can hold more than twice the water of a silt loam with just 1% organic matter. And silt loam soil with 10% organic matter held three times the amount of water as the same loam with just 4% organic matter.

Okay, that should take care of your soil. But what’s next? Let’s look at how it is possible to grow a vegetable garden during a drought when water resources are scarce, or when water rationing has been imposed. The key thing here is to water smart. Water responsibly, plant carefully, and select fruit and vegetable varieties that are drought-tolerant. All of these sustainable gardening practices require less water at any time, and can help ensure that your family has access to a variety of nutrient-rich foods, even during drought.

Always keep these simple techniques in mind when planning your garden and you will find it doing much better during hot, dry and windy conditions. Whether you want to call them drought tips, water responsibility practices, or just plain old good garden management, these next 16 simple suggestions will help reduce water use in your backyard garden during any weather conditions including the dreaded “D” word.

#1 – Mulch, mulch, mulch!
I know that we have all heard it before but you need to mulch your garden! A 3 inch to 4 inch layer of mulch can reduce watering needs by as much as 50 percent. Mulch reduces water evaporation and keeps soil temperatures down during hot summer months and drought conditions. Grass clippings, dried leaves, pine needles, straw, and shredded bark are all examples of natural mulches which can be used to cover the soil. Hay is sometimes not recommended because it contains seeds, which yields weeds and can become problematic. But regardless of what you choose to use as a mulching medium, just mulch, mulch, mulch!

#2 – Planting Time – Timing is Everything!
Plant earlier in spring and later in fall. Planting earlier in the spring season takes advantage of the warm weather that a drought brings and it reduces exposure to the high mid-summer temperatures that often wither a garden even when not dealing with a drought. Planting later in the fall minimizes the use of supplemental water and takes advantage of seasonal rains to establish plants. For example, tomatoes and other nightshade crops such as peppers and eggplants should not be planted until soil temperatures reach 55 degrees. With a warm spring this could be as early as late March or early April for some of us. If you aren’t using a soil thermometer for accurate soil temperature readings, you really should consider getting one.

#3 – Enclosed Spaces – Smaller and Easier to Manage
Gardens planted in enclosed spaces retain water better than gardens planted in open soil. This is most often due to two key factors, the first being that in an enclosed space you usually find a raised bed garden and in a raised bed we can better control the soil our garden begins with, and secondly that gardens in a raised bed are usually planted in ways that maximize production instead of garden size.

#4 – Avoid the Traditional “Row” Garden
It does not matter if you are planting in a raised bed or in the ground, a hexagonal arrangement of plants beats traditional rows for smarter gardening hands down. A “hex” garden groups plants closer together, which provides shade from leaves, keeping soil cool and preventing water from evaporating.

#5 – Companion Planting – Everyone Needs a Friend
Companion planting is the practice of grouping crops together for mutual benefit. The Native American “three sisters” approach of planting corn, beans and squash together are a great example of companion planting. Tall cornstalks provided a structural support for the climbing beans, the beans returned nitrogen back into the soil, and the squash would spread across the soil acting as a mulch and keeping the soil cool.

#6 – Watering Times – Again, Timing is Everything!
The best time to water your garden is in the late evening and in the early morning hours, typically between 10pm and 6am. The cooler temperature and limited wind reduce water evaporation rates.

#7 – Water Efficiently – Water Wise Tips are Available from Local Extension Offices and Online
Overhead watering with a sprinkler system is not as efficient as drip irrigation. Compared to overhead sprinklers, drip systems can reduce water usage by up to half or even more. One Texas A&M study showed that in a raised bed garden, a drip system used more than a staggering 70% less water! Install a drip irrigation system, grouping plants with similar water needs together on one drip irrigation line. Drip irrigation systems are relatively easy to install for most do-it-yourself homeowners and have become very affordable in recent years.

#8 – Control Weeds – Water the Plants You Want
This one seems like a no-brainer! Pesky weeds compete for valuable water, sunshine and soil nutrients in your garden. Remove weeds before they have an opportunity to flower or spread. Pulling them when they are young is easy on you and I, and stops them from stealing as much water and nutrients from our crops. You might also spend some time learning about the “weeds” in your garden. Some of them are likely edible, medicinal, or useful in some other way.

#9 – Be Selective – Grow Only What You Need
Consider the water available to support crops through harvest, and grow only the amount and types of vegetables your family will consume. For example, plant two beds of vegetables instead of six; plant four tomatoes instead of ten. To get the most out of the water you apply, grow high yielding vegetables like beans, chard, mustard, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, squash, quinoa, and amaranth.

#10 – Drought Resistant Crops – More and More are Available All the Time!
Purchase varieties of fruits and vegetables that do well in hot and dry climates. Many heirloom varieties from Mediterranean regions are prized for being drought tolerant. And smaller varieties bred for containers often produce a more bountiful yield per plant than standard varieties.

#11 – Peak Water Times – Help Conserve by Watering Smart
Fruit and vegetables have critical periods for increased water demands. For most plants, once they become established, watering frequency and volume can be reduced until the flowering or fruit setting process begins. An increased amount of water should be reintroduced during this time. After this initial period of fruit set, water can slowly be reduced again. In some cases, reducing water can improve the flavors of your harvest!

#12 – Garden Size – In this Case, Size Does Matter!
Determine the amount of fruits and vegetables needed to feed your family. Does your family have two, four, or eight members? If you overproduced and wasted crops last year – decrease the amount of plants this year. Set up a garden exchange in your neighborhood so everyone grows less but still has a great variety!

#13 – Consider Days to Maturity – Quicker is Usually Better
A crop needing fewer days to mature requires less watering before harvest (62-day ‘Stupice’ tomatoes vs. 85-day ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes). Look for early-maturing or short-season varieties. Days to maturity will vary from one part of the country to another as well as from one microclimate to another.

#14 – Use Light-Weight Row Covers – Tuck Your Garden in at Night
Cover plants as a means to collect dew. Dew collects in the soil and helps to keep it moist. While using row covers can help prevent insect damage in some cases, be sure to look under the cover from time to time to monitor plant growth and check for unwanted insects trapped inside.

#15 – Use Shade and Wind Breaks – Give Your Garden a Break
Heat-sensitive vegetables can benefit from being planted where they receive some afternoon shade. Plant them underneath or behind taller plants or consider using a shade cloth. The moisture on leaf surfaces is dried by moving air, causing the plant to need more water – so a wind break really helps. In coastal and other windy areas, windbreaks will help roots keep up with leaf demands.

#16 – Plant Something New – Keep Looking for Your Next Superstar
There are many “Garden Greats” that you may not have tried. Have you ever grown Jerusalem artichokes, Malabar spinach, okra or loquats? There are many great garden plants out there that naturally require less water and tolerate higher temperatures. Find some of them and try them in your area. Who knows, you might discover a new favorite!

Obviously the topic of what is drought-tolerant is regionally specific to a great extent. After all, a drought in Maine will be very different from a drought in Arizona, and the plants that are considered to be drought-tolerant in America’s Pacific northwest may not be in my neck of the woods, Central Texas. So it is very important to keep that in mind when planning just what to add to the garden you plant on your little piece of planet Earth.

When thinking of common garden veggies for drought-tolerance think about the varieties that perform well in hot, dry, desert conditions. Desert-like areas present special challenges for the gardener. Living in Arizona for many years I found that I could still get wonderful vegetables to grow in my desert garden if I chose the correct varieties and kept in mind those special techniques listed above.

Some crops and varieties just naturally require less water than others once they are established. Those on the following list were selected from seed catalogs and seed catalog websites that specifically mention the terms “drought-resistant” or “drought-tolerant” in the variety description. The list is not exhaustive, but represents an opportunity for the home food gardener to consider new (or new to you) and unusual crops or varieties that allow you to be water-wise. For additional possibilities, consult seed companies or nurseries that specialize in plants suitable for desert or dry climate areas. If I have forgotten one of your favorite drought-tolerant crops or varieties, be sure to tell me about it in the comments section below.

A List of Drought-Tolerant Vegetable Varieties

Bush Beans – White Half Runner, Snap
Butter Beans – Jackson Wonder
Lima Beans – Alabama Black-Eyed Butter, Carolina Sieva, Christmas, and Fordhook 242 Bush
Pole Beans – Asparagus, Blue Coco, Garden of Eden, Romano, Louisiana Purple Pod
Broccoli – Waltham 29 (when fall planted)
Corn – Anasazi Sweet, Hopi Blue Flour, Hopi Pink, Painted Mountain Flour, Pinky Popcorn
Cucumber – Armenian, Lemon
Eggplant – Listada de Gandia
Melons – Iroquois, Navajo Yellow
Mustard – Southern Giant Curled
Okra – Gold Coast, Hill Country Heirloom Red , Jing Orange
Pepper – Jupiter Red Bell, just about any chili pepper, Ordoño
Quinoa – all varieties
Squash – Cocozelle Zucchini, Costata Romanesco, Cushaw Green-Striped Dark Star, Iran Jumbo Pink Banana, Lebanese Light Green, Tatsume
Sunflower – Skyscraper
Tomato – Caro Rich, Pearson, Red Currant, Phoenix, Solar Fire, Pineapple Stone, Yellow Pear Cherry, Juliet Hybrid
Watermelon – Black Diamond

In the next installment of this article on vegetable gardening during drought conditions, we will look at some rather atypical edibles you can grow in your own drought-resistant garden, including things like cactus, herbs, wild items, and more.