10 Resources for Beginning Gardeners…and a Bonus!

10 Resources for Beginning Gardeners...and a Bonus!Spring is in the air at last! Are you ready to start gardening?

If you have never planted a garden before, you may still be doing your research, hunting for resources that will get you off to a good start. We’ve pulled together a short list of posts, links, and books to help you out from start to finish:

  1. Starting a Garden or Orchard
    Our own series on how to start your very first garden. Covers water, workload, location, logistics, and plant selection.
  2. All New Square Foot Gardening
    Gardening in a small space? Just looking for a simple alternative to the traditional row garden? Give this unique method a try. Read our full review.
  3. How to Plan a Garden
    Step by step suggestions for getting the growing season off to a good start.
  4. Zone and Frost Maps
    Information that every gardener needs to know.
  5. Vegetable Garden Planting Guide
    Planting basics from K-State. Available as a free PDF download.
  6. Home Vegetable Gardening
    A public domain work rich in gardening wisdom. Contains advice on every step of the gardening journey. Read our full review.
  7. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
    This classic covers relevant gardening topics from A to Z. Here is the current edition. Read our full review.
  8. Vegetables
    Our own guide to growing vegetables from planting to storage. Also includes kitchen tips and instructions for saving seeds.
  9. 5 Tips for Deterring Garden Bugs
    Bugs are inevitable in gardening, but they don’t have to confiscate the harvest. Here are our suggestions for keeping insects at bay—naturally!
  10. All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook
    Once you start bringing in the harvest, you may be interested in looking for new ways to cook it. This cookbook is organized by vegetable for easy reference. Read our full review.
  11. Bonus: The Family Garden Journal
    Want to keep a record of those gardening memories and learning experiences? Try out our own 366-day journal, complete with additional planning and reference pages. Learn more.

Squash (Summer)

Squash (Summer)Fortunately for gardeners, summer squash is almost as versatile as it is prolific. Slices can be cooked in soup or sautéed and added to pasta. Raw squashes can be peeled and cut into sticks to serve with dip. Both zucchini and yellow squash can be shredded for cooking and baking purposes, as well.

Preferred Conditions

  • Full sun.
  • Hot temperatures.
  • Soil pH between 6.0 and 6.8.

Squash (Summer)Planting

  1. Start summer squash outdoors when the danger of frost has passed and the soil has thoroughly warmed up. In Kansas, May is the best time.
  2. Consider soaking your seeds in water for a few hours before planting. This is not essential, but will promote better germination.
  3. Make small hills of dirt, one for each plant, about three feet apart.
  4. Do not plant too many summer squash! One hill is quite sufficient for most families.
  5. Plant three seeds, one inch deep, in each hill.
  6. Keep the hills well watered until germination.
  7. When the seedlings start to grow, thin them back to one or two of the healthiest plants per hill.


Summer squash is not terribly demanding. A thick mulch and generous watering will keep it producing well—maybe a little too well!

If your squash plant is stressed by drought and you need to revive it, give it a little additional TLC. Be extra liberal with the water, check it carefully for pests, and trim off all of the diseased, dying, and dead leaves that you find. Before long it will be thriving again.

Pests and Diseases

Squash (Summer)Harvesting

Summer squash grows rapidly, so check it every day. Err on the side of picking the squashes a little young. They will be about an inch in diameter and probably six to nine inches long, and the blossom on the end will have wilted when they are ready.

Although summer squash can be broken away from the vine, a much better method of harvesting is to cut through the stem. Be careful not to damage the squash’s tender skin.


Summer squash is best eaten fresh, but will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.

For long-term storage, try peeling and shredding the squash. Store it in airtight plastic bags in the freezer. Let it thaw overnight before you need it, and it will work well for cooking or baking.

Saving Seeds

Squash (Summer)

  1. Isolate summer squash from other members of the squash family by half a mile, if possible.
  2. If this is not feasible, you will have to hand pollinate the flowers. Check on them every day as soon as they appear.
  3. When the flowers are ready for pollination, they will look orange along the seams, and the tips may be just starting to open. Immediately tape them shut with masking tape.
  4. When the dew dries the next morning, identify the male and female flowers among the ones that you have taped. Female flowers have a tiny squash attached to the base of the flower. Male flowers attach directly to the stem of the plant.
  5. Pick one of the male flowers and pull off its petals to make it easier to work with.
  6. Tear just the tip off of one of the female flowers.
  7. Rub pollen from the male flower onto the protruding stigma in the center of the female flower.
  8. Pick another male flower and pollinate the female flower again.
  9. Carefully tape the female flower shut again so that insects cannot bore into it.
  10. Loosely tie a plastic ribbon around the stem of the plant so that you can identify the squash that you hand pollinated.
  11. Repeat with several more flowers. Squash plants tend to reject flowers that have been damaged, so you will have to be gentle and pollinate many flowers to ensure success.
  12. Let the squash grow until their skins become leathery and so hard that they cannot be dented with a fingernail.
  13. Cut the squash from the plant and let them sit in a sheltered place for about three weeks.
  14. Break the squash open with an ax or shovel.
  15. Pick out the seeds.
  16. Rub seeds in a wire strainer under running water to separate them from any remaining pulp.
  17. Drain the seeds and let them air-dry.
  18. Store seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. They should last for up to six years.
Helpful Resources

The Attack of the Squash Bugs
Winning the war on squash bugs is not easy—here are a few tips to help.

Cucurbit Diseases
Summer squash diseases are described along with those of melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, and winter squash.

Complete Series



Introducing New Chickens to Your Flock

Introducing New Chickens to Your FlockSpring is here at last!

For some of us, one of the best parts of spring is the anticipation of chicks.  Soft chirps, downy fuzz, tiny wings, bright eyes….

But those little chicks grow so fast.  Before you know it, it will be time to take them out of the brooder and send them outside.

If you have an existing flock of chickens, unceremoniously adding the newcomers is a recipe for disaster.  Pecking order takes time to establish.  The mature birds will probably resent the intruders, and may even injure or kill them.

Take the time to introduce the two groups.  They will need separate housing for a while to prevent fights.  Besides that, the chicks cannot process the high levels of calcium in layer ration until about four or five months of age, depending on the breed.  You probably don’t want your hungry hens eating expensive chick feed that whole time!

So give the chicks their own home for safety, but don’t isolate them from the rest of the flock, either.  Allowing the two groups to see each other will save trouble later on.  Ideally, the older hens should be able to walk around the house for the chicks to inspect them as desired.

By the time that the chicks are old enough to start eating layer ration, the established flock should be ready to accept them.  There will still be some pecking and chasing, but outright bullying should not be a problem.

Roosters, however, can be more difficult.  There may not be any fights between old and young roosters at first, but the situation can grow ugly when the younger rooster starts coming into his own.  Frankly, it is best to avoid mixing roosters of different ages altogether.

And one final word on expanding your flock.  If you have any doubts about the health of either group of chickens, do not mix them.  Keep them apart until the situation is resolved.  Buying chickens from a reputable source and moving them to fresh pasture regularly will help avoid disease outbreaks.

The Power of Humus

The Power of HumusAs we peruse our gardening books every spring, we frequently contemplate ways to improve our soil.  One of the words that we often stumble across in the soil context is humus.

Somewhere in the back of our minds, we typically associate humus with good, rich garden soil.  However, there is more to it than that.


A Gardening Vocabulary Lesson

Part of the reason that humus is difficult to define is that scientists do not entirely understand what it is.  It is distinct from organic matter because it has no shape or structure—not even cells.  However, it is also derived from organic matter, consisting of decomposed plant and/or animal residues.

There are a number of related gardening terms that humus can be confused with:

  • Organic matter.  Organic matter is still in a state of decomposition.  Some of the ingredients that went into it can still be identified and separated from the rest.
  • Compost.  Compost is closely related to organic matter.  It still contains particles of residue that can be decomposed.  Finished compost may present to the naked eye no signs of the organic matter that went into it, but there are still microscopic structures present that are not found in humus.
  • Peat.  Peat is a constant source of confusion for gardeners.  Peat moss is not peat humus, and peat humus is not humus at all.  Peat moss is partially decayed sphagnum moss, a species of moss that grows in bogs.  Peat humus is a combination of sediments and more thoroughly decayed peat moss that collects at the bottoms of bogs.

And as for the bagged humus that you picked up off of the shelf, that was probably nothing more than compost.  A looser definition of the word humus is typically used for commercial purposes.

Humus, to put it as simply as possible, is the part of the soil that is without structure and is made up of the entirely decomposed remains of plants and animals.

Gardeners should also note that no soil is entirely humus.  Humus is just one of the many ingredients that go into a healthy garden soil.


Benefits of Humus

Contrary to popular belief, humus has no nutrients, since it is fully decomposed.  Instead, structureless humus paradoxically plays more of a structural role in garden soil.

The following are a few of the functions that humus serves:

  • Adding to soil density.
  • Giving the soil a loamy texture.
  • Absorbing heat from sunlight.
  • Retaining moisture.
  • Retaining the nutrients found in other parts of the soil.

In short, humus takes the things that plants need to live and places them within easy reach of the roots.  Scientists also believe that humus may have a hormone effect on plants, regulating their growth and reproduction.


How to Make Humus

Real humus cannot be purchased.  Nor can it be created overnight.  Adding humus to your soil is a long-term project.

Although neither organic matter nor compost are humus, they are the first steps toward creating humus.  In fact, mature compost typically has humus in it.  By continuing to add organic matter and finished compost to your garden soil, you are slowly increasing the amount of humus, as well.

The good news is that humus is extremely stable.  Even though it takes a long time to add humus to the soil, it will be there for many, many years to come, helping your plants find the nutrients and moisture that they need to thrive.

The First Trans-Continental Railroad

The First Trans-Continental RailroadThe construction of the the Transcontinental Railroad was an event that had a profound effect on America.  It was symbolic of a young nation’s desire to stretch from sea to shining sea.  The result was the settlement of the West.

Although the main line passed north of Kansas, the Transcontinental Railroad still left its mark on our state:

  • The Kansas–Nebraska Act was passed with a view to making railroad construction possible.
  • Hopes that Leavenworth would become the eastern terminus fueled speculation.
  • The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 provided for a branch line that later became the Kansas Pacific.

And there are more, subtler connections that we could draw.

For those of you who want a fascinating introduction to the subject of the Transcontinental Railroad, consider this free book: The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad: Its Projectors, Construction, and History by W. F. Bailey.  Although written for children, there is ample meat here to interest readers of all ages.

The narrative starts as early as Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, tracing the dreams and ideas of the railroad’s earliest proponents through disappointment to success.  Then follows accounts of the financial and practical matters of construction from start to finish.

The focus is on the Union Pacific part of the railroad, but chapters on the Central Pacific, Kansas Pacific, and Denver Pacific are also included.

A free but very well-rounded introduction.  Highly recommended!



If you have never enjoyed the fresh taste of a well-grown radish, you really ought to give it a try.  Radishes are delicious to eat raw, either by themselves or with vegetable dip.  But they can also be sliced to increase their versatility.  Use them to top a lettuce salad, or make radish salad.

Even those tiny sprouts that you had to pinch off while thinning the row can be useful.  Some people enjoy them in salads.

Preferred Conditions

  • Full sun in cool weather, partial shade in warm weather.
  • Loose, warm (not hot) soil full of organic matter.
  • Soil pH between 6.0 and 6.8.


  1. Plant radishes outdoors any time that the soil is warm and dry enough to be thoroughly tilled.  In Kansas, this will usually occur between mid-March and mid-April.
  2. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and two or three inches apart.
  3. Keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout, but be careful not to wash them away.  A light mulch helps.
  4. For a continuous harvest, plant more radishes every other week until the weather becomes very warm.
  5. For a fall crop, plant more radishes a month or two before the first fall frost, depending on the variety and on the temperatures.  In Kansas, try mid-August through mid-September.  With winter storage varieties, err on the side of planting a little early.


Radishes are very easy to grow if treated with reasonable consideration.  The key to top-notch flavor and texture is to keep them growing fast.  Any time that radishes start to slow down, they begin to toughen and become unpleasantly spicy.  Attempts to revive them later on will probably just cause them to split.

As long as your soil is fertile, the radishes need only two things to keep them growing quickly and well.  The first is proper thinning.  Do not let them crowd each other at any stage of growth.  The second thing is a steady supply of moisture.  The ground should always be damp, but not muddy.  It is better to water radishes a little at a time every day than to water them deeply every few days.  As the weather warms up, mulch can help regulate the moisture in the soil.

Pests and Diseases

  • Flea beetle.
  • Root maggot.
  • Mouse.


Radishes are ready to pull when they are anywhere from the size of a marble to that of a Ping-Pong ball.  Grasp the stems near the root and work the plant up and out of the ground.


Radishes are best eaten fresh.  If you must keep them for a short time, leave the tops on and store them in a plastic shopping bag in the refrigerator.

Winter storage radishes were made to keep in the root cellar.  Twist or cut off their tops and store in damp sand or peat moss.

Saving Seeds

  1. Separate radish varieties by half a mile or protect them from cross-pollination in a screened cage.
  2. Let the stalks and seed pods dry naturally.
  3. When the pods are completely dry, pick them by hand.
  4. Rub the pods to open them.  If you have trouble, you might try carefully breaking them open with a hammer.
  5. Screen the seeds or pour them from bucket to bucket in a gentle breeze until all debris is removed.
  6. Store seeds in a cool, dry, dark place.  Radish seeds should last four or five years.

Complete Series



H5N2 Bird Flu Confirmed in Leavenworth County

H5N2 Bird Flu Confirmed in Leavenworth CountyOn Friday, March 13, laboratory samples from a backyard poultry flock in Leavenworth County, Kansas, tested positive for the H5N2 form of avian influenza.

The backyard flock, which consisted of ducks and chickens, showed increased mortality rates prior to testing. Samples were sent to a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) was notified late on Friday afternoon of the test results. In response, Kansas Animal Health Commissioner William L. Brown has issued an official movement restriction order to prevent susceptible livestock from moving into or out of the area. The control zone covers parts of Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties. No livestock susceptible to avian influenza, including poultry or poultry products such as eggs, may be transported into or out of the control zone.

The KDA is also working to survey backyard poultry flocks in the area to monitor the spread of the disease. Poultry owners in Leavenworth Country are requested to report their flocks to the KDA (see Helpful Resource below).

These measures are in addition to a control zone that was established in Cherokee and Crawford counties on Thursday, March 12, in response to a confirmed case of H5N2 in Jasper County, Missouri.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently considers the H5N2 threat to humans to be low. So far there are no reports of people being infected with this virus.

H5N2 reports across the country are prompting dozens of foreign nations to ban American poultry products. However, the USDA states that meat and eggs from affect poultry are safe to eat if cooked properly


Where Did H5N2 Come From?

H5N2 avian influenza is considered a mixed-origin virus related to H5N8. H5N8 originated in Asia and is believed to have traveled with migratory birds to the Pacific Coast in 2014. The H5N8 form of the virus mixed with North American forms of avian influenza to produce a new virus, called H5N2.  This disease appeared in British Columbia in November and December 2014. Later it spread to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

On March 5, H5N2 was confirmed at a commercial turkey farm in Minnesota. On March 8 and 9, two turkey farms in Missouri were affected. The first outbreak was the Jasper County incident that prompted the establishment of a control zone in southeastern Kansas. The other case was reported in central Missouri. On March 11, a turkey farm in northwestern Arkansas was affected.

Avian influenza is typically blamed on migratory birds, but the unusual facts concerning the spread of H5N2 are leading some authorities to question this theory. The disease originated in the Pacific Flyway, then jumped to the Mississippi Flyway, working its way from north to south before appearing in the Central Flyway, Kansas being the first state in the flyway to report H5N2. Neither the large jumps from flyway to flyway nor the late-winter/early-spring southward movement of the virus appears to match the behavior of migrating birds.

According to Michelle Carstensen, wildlife health supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

I am saying that it is extremely unlikely that wild, migratory birds moved from the Pacific West coast into Minnesota in February and exposed the flock in Pope County to HPAI H5N2; it is further unlikely that infected wild waterfowl moved from Minnesota to Missouri or Arkansas in recent weeks given the time of year.

Furthermore, wild birds in Minnesota in the vicinity of the March 5 outbreak have so far tested negative for H5N2. The Missouri Department of Agriculture reports that the 18 other poultry farms within a 6.2-mile radius of the March 9 outbreak also test negative.

The USDA, however, still points to wild birds as the cause of H5N2 spread, observing that a partial genetic sequence of the proteins in the Minnesota virus showed over 99% similar to those of an affected northern pintail duck found in Washington.


How to Prevent Bird Flu In Your Flock

Vaccines are available for avian influenza, but so far they are ineffective simply because of the many variations of the virus. Instead, the KDA recommends the following measures:

  • Isolate new poultry from existing flocks.
  • Practice good sanitation.
  • Stay informed on the health of poultry in your area.
  • Protect your poultry from wild birds and potentially contaminated people, vehicles, and equipment.

The disease is typically spread by direct contact with infected animals or by contact with contaminated feed or water. The virus is found in feces, saliva, and respiratory secretions.

Find links to more information below.


What to Do If You Suspect Bird Flu

Common symptoms of avian influenza in poultry include:

  • Depression.
  • Huddling.
  • Swollen combs and wattles.
  • Reduced feed intake.
  • Excessive thirst.
  • Coughing and/or sneezing.
  • Watery greenish diarrhea.
  • Reduced egg production.
  • Sudden death.

There is no cure for avian influenza. All affected animals must be humanely destroyed. The KDA also recommends notifying a veterinarian.


Helpful Resource

Avian Influenza
Updates, factsheets, and more information from the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

What is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)?

What is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)?Although an understanding of biology is not essential to raising plants or animals, it can make the process even more enjoyable than it already is.  Biology can help us interpret the phenomena that we see and experience every day.  It can also help us think up creative solutions for the challenges that we face.

So for you science addicts out there….

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is critical to life, as we shall see in a moment.  It is part of the process of photosynthesis, and it keeps animals alive.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of ATP and its functions, however, a description is in order.

ATP is made up of two parts.  The first is adenosine, which is a nitrogen base linked to a sugar molecule.  Adenosine is often found in combination with phosphate groups.  This brings us to the second part of ATP: three molecules of phosphoric acid.

The bonds between the three phosphates are unique.  They are frequently called “high-energy” bonds, which is something of a misnomer.  It is true that a useful amount of energy is released when the bonds are broken, but ATP represents a type of compromise.  Some level of energy is sacrificed in favor of an easily renewable energy source.


Where ATP Comes From

In plants, ATP is formed by the chloroplasts, the parts of the cell which contain chlorophyll and carry out photosynthesis.  As chlorophyll is exposed to light, a chemical reaction begins which provides energy for the production of ATP.

In animals, ATP is produced primarily in two ways:

  1. Glycolysis: Digestible nutrients, such as fats and carbohydrates, are broken down into simpler products that the body can use.  These products include glucose and glycerol.  The cells then break these substances down still further.  One of the results is ATP.
  2. Oxidative phosphorylation: Oxidative phosphorylation is a complex chemical reaction that occurs in the mitochondria, tiny cylindrical objects in the cells sometimes referred to as “power plants.”  Mitochondria contain enzymes that combine adenosine diphosphate (ADP) with one more phosphoric acid molecule to form ATP.  As you might have guessed, ADP is very similar to ATP; the missing phosphoric acid molecule is the only difference between the two.  But this slight difference is exactly what gives ATP its power.


What is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)?How ATP Works

Suppose that a cell needs to use ATP for energy.  What happens?

There are a few things that we need to know about the properties of ATP.  For one thing, it is water-soluble.  For another thing, it is rather unstable.  The phosphate groups are bonded together with negatively charged oxygen, and thus tend to repel each other.  In a water solution, ATP will tend to deteriorate into ADP and phosphate because the latter substances are far more stable.  It is when this change occurs that energy is released.  Because ATP is unstable, it is not used for energy storage, but rather for energy transport.

Here is the process of using ATP in a nutshell:

  1. A water molecule comes between the unstable bonds of ATP.
  2. One of the phosphoric acid molecules breaks off.
  3. Energy is released.
  4. The result is the two stable products ADP and phosphate.

As we have seen, ADP and phosphate can later be recombined by the mitochondria, making ATP a useful renewable energy source.

The power of ATP is used in many critical functions in plants and animals:

  • Assembling DNA.
  • Regulating cellular osmosis.
  • Constructing proteins.
  • Fueling the immune system.
  • Maintaining the metabolism.
  • Regulating body temperature.
  • Controlling muscle contraction.
  • Sending nerve impulses, such as pain and taste.
  • Even glowing in the dark (think fungus and fireflies).

In short, just about anything that requires energy requires ATP.


Practical Applications

The subject of ATP is very complex.  The explanation above just touched on the most critical points.

Still, ATP is worth investigating, since it is so essential to both plant and animal health.  By understanding ATP, we can begin to understand the importance of a number of other factors, such as the need for water and the various sources of energy in feedstuffs.  ATP is a key part of the field of nutrition.