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Organic Gardening Success

Smart Advice from an Earth-Friendly Gardener

Mary Lou Pagella
Last year, Mary Lou Pagella collected more than 300 gallons of water in her rain barrel.

Mary Lou Pagella has been an organic gardener, a conservationist and a dedicated recycler her whole life. She's read Organic Gardening magazine for 35 years, collects rainwater to limit her water use, and recycles leaves, yard debris, and grass clippings. Her 2-acre yard in Worton, Md., is a testament to these commitments—it's loaded with healthy trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables.

"I think gardeners look at their environment differently than non-gardeners," says Mary Lou. "They are more mindful of the weather, soil, animals and plants, and tend to be more conservative in the amount of resources they use," she adds. Wherever Mary Lou has gardened, from Washington State to Maryland, she has practiced her philosophy of working with the environment.

When she moved into her present home, the first thing she did was gather all the organic matter she could find in her own yard and those of her neighbors. She then covered portions of the lawn with hay, straw, leaves, and grass clippings. The next spring, Mary Lou used scrap wood from an old porch to build 15 one-foot-deep raised beds. She mixed the composted organic matter from the previous year with some compost and then started planting. Mary Lou was inspired by Ruth Stout's classic book, No-Work Gardening, and loves this way of gardening. "I'm selling my tiller," she says. "Tilling compacts the soil and it's too much work. I like this mulching method much better," she says.

The raised beds contain lots of vegetables as well as flowers, including all her favorites: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, garlic, and sweet corn. "They all grow well, especially the eggplant and tomatoes," she says. Mary Lou has perfected a system to get the earliest and best tomatoes. She starts by placing Tomato Teepees around young seedlings in spring. "I like the Teepees because I can fill the whole cylinder through one spout," she says. After a few weeks she removes the Teepees and puts up Tomato Cages. "I like the metal tomato cages because they are collapsible and easy to store. Plus, they stand up well in the wind," she says. Mary Lou places the cages around the young plants and wraps clear plastic around the cages. The plastic protects the plants from cold winds and gets them off to a fast start. "Using this technique means I don't have to harden off my seedlings. Insects such as flea beetles, are also blocked out by the plastic," she says.

Mary Lou's raised-bed, tomato-growing system has one more feature she thinks is important. "I put one Aqua Cone inside each tomato cage. "I position them all facing outward in the same direction so I don't lose them in the tomato foliage. It also makes it easy to fill them from my wate buckets," she says.

Speaking of watering, Mary Lou is very conscious of conserving water. "I have four large Rain Barrels under the gutters of my house. Last year I collected more than 300 gallons of water," she exclaims. Instead of dragging hoses around to water the garden, Mary Lou uses plastic kitty litter containers. She cleans them out and fills them with water from the rain barrels. She then places the containers in a garden cart and drives it around to various parts of the garden so she can hand water her raised beds and fill her Aqua Cones. "Each kitty litter container holds 2 gallons of water so I know exactly how much water I'm putting on my plants," she says. When it comes to watering her trees, shrubs, and flowers, Mary Lou uses Soaker Hose instead of kitty litter containers.

While the vegetable- and flower-filled raised beds are her pride and joy, Mary Lou's yard is also filled with lots of interesting shrubs and trees. She has planted Kentucky coffee trees, crape myrtles, rose of Sharon, and many butterfly- and hummingbird-attracting plants. "I love watching the hummingbirds and butterflies fly from plant to plant in summer. Instead of having a separate garden to attract these beautiful creatures, my whole yard is filled with a variety of plants to keep them happy," says Mary Lou.

Unfortunately, birds and butterflies aren't the only wildlife visitors. Deer are a big problem in her neck of the woods. "My neighbors have an 8-foot-tall fence to keep deer out of their yard. I vowed never to do that. I'd feel like I was in prison," she says. Instead Mary Lou uses a variety of deer repellent products to keep them away. "While the liquid repellent sprays, such as Liquid Fence are effective, the most effective control has proven to be Garlic Clips. "The pungent garlic smell lasts the whole season, says Mary Lou. "I position the clips at deer nose level and move them as new foliage grows in summer. This keeps the scent close to the deer's nose," she says. Floating Row Covers fastened down with Earth Staples also help keep deer out. Mary Lou plants lettuce under the floating row cover in spring and fall. "What the deer can't see, they won't eat," she says.

Even with all her success, Mary Lou is still humbled by the magic of the garden. "It amazes me that you can plant a small tomato, zinnia, or eggplant seed and the result is all this beauty and bounty," she says. From the looks of her yard, the beauty and bounty will continue in Mary Lou's garden for years to come.

Last updated: 10/24/15