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10 Tricks and Gadgets to Freshen Up Your Garden This Spring

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By Brian Barth

Early spring is the time to dream big about your garden. This year, I'm going to grow 10 varieties of tomato — and I will not let a weed be among them! But any grand vision, if it is to be executed, must be matched with the right implementation plan and tools. Here are a few ideas to help you brainstorm.


1. Sheet Mulching

This low-tech method has garnered a cult-like following among those who have discovered it. Sheet mulching is a way to turn a patch of weeds or a grassy area into a garden. Simply lay down overlapping sheets of cardboard or newspaper and cover them with mulch (such as straw and wood chips). The vegetation underneath will become starved for light and die before it has a chance to push its way through this biodegradable barrier. After a few weeks, poke small holes through the mulch and plant into the soil below. The technique may also be used to smother weeds around existing plants.

2. Copper Slug and Snail Tape

Weirdly, copper interacts with slug and snail slime to produce an electrical charge that encourages the critters to slither elsewhere. Garden centers often sell copper tape that you can attach to the rims of pots and wooden raised beds as a barrier to keep these nighttime pests from attacking your precious plants.

3. Rapitest 4-Way Analyzer

There are plenty of soil testers, moisture meters and other such devices for monitoring garden conditions. These days, many of them involve an app. But this entirely unwired gadget might just beat them all. Simply stick it into the soil and it will immediately tell you the pH levels, moisture levels, light intensity and nutrient levels (including nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) and whether your garden falls within the optimum range of each one. This device is so simple, you don't even need batteries. Available at Amazon.com and elsewhere for about $30.

4. Flower Power Plant Sensor

For all the tech heads out there, here is the high-tech version of the garden monitor above. It does almost the exact same thing but allows you to monitor conditions from the comfort of your favorite armchair or a beach in Bali, all through an app on your phone. The other benefit is that it doesn't just tell you whether or not conditions are optimal for the average plant; it includes a database of more than 7,000 species, with optimal growing parameters for each. You can stick it in the ground and find out whether that spot is best suited for asparagus, zinnias or anything in between.

5. Hydroponic Tower

Hydroponic systems, which dispense with soil and instead circulate a nutrient-rich solution around the roots of plants, drastically reduce irrigation use and produce higher yields in smaller spaces. Hydroponic towers — a vertical configuration of the concept — do the same thing but with an even smaller footprint. The Internet abounds with plug-and-play variations on the theme. Hydroponic towers are especially useful if your only gardening area is a rooftop or patio. For the mechanically inclined, here are instructions for building your own.

6. Brinno GardenWatchCam

This gadget will have no bearing whatsoever on the health or productivity of your garden; it's more about geeking out and impressing your friends. The idea is to record the growth of a single plant or an entire garden with time-lapse photography so that later you can watch the leaves unfurl and the flowers blossom, condensing weeks or months of growth into minutes and seconds. Both still photography and video versions of the camera are available.

Compost Tumbler

Turning a compost pile is essential for providing oxygen to all the microbes that do the dirty work. But it's a pain, which is why compost tumblers were invented. There are several designs, but all of them involve a large plastic compost bin mounted on a rack with a crank or some other means to rotate it. The increased aeration accelerates the process of decomposition tremendously. Plus, the tumbling process ensures that the myriad ingredients in your compost are evenly mixed, further aiding decomposition.

8. Flame Weeder

Rambo would love gardening if he got to use one of these. It's like a flamethrower for weeds. Instead of tediously pulling weeds by hand or, God forbid, spraying herbicide, simply singe the botanical invaders with this propane-powered tool. The catch is that you can't use it around plants you want to keep, as it will singe those, too, but you can use it to prepare planting areas that have become covered with weeds. It's also useful for eliminating weeds on paths and paved areas. It's environmentally friendly — as long as you don't start a forest fire, that is. It goes without saying that this is an extremely dangerous tool if used in the wrong circumstances.

9. Straw-Bale Gardening

This quick, no-dig method takes all the backbreaking labor out of gardening. Straw bales are an ideal rooting medium, but you have to prepare them by sprinkling them with water and fertilizer every two or three days for a couple of weeks. They will soon become a moist, fertile mess. Spread a thin layer of soil on top of the bales to sow seeds, or poke holes in the straw and add a little soil to plant seedlings. When done right, your crops will grow like a jungle. Besides saving your back, the beauty of straw-bale gardening is the ability to instantly create a fertile vegetable patch in almost any sunny location, whether on top of rock-hard soil, a lawn or a concrete surface.

10. GrowVeg Garden Planner

Planning the garden of your dreams can feel like detangling an endless web of variables, not just between the physical space you have available and its constraints (such as soil type, shade, slope, gophers, deer and digging dogs) but with time (such as blooming sequences, staggering the harvest and other seasonal considerations). You could hire an expensive garden consultant to figure it all out for you and come up with a plan that integrates your wants and needs in an elegant design. Or you could install this much cheaper software that guides you through the process step-by-step, with built-in databases on everything from vegetable varieties and irrigation systems to seed suppliers and crop rotations.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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