Allelopathy and the Science of Companion Planting

Allelopathy PhilosopherHow rye grass and other allelopathic plants can cut weeds and boost fertility.

Companion planting has long been part of the organic gardeners tool kit. We’re all aware that some crops aide in the growth of other crops. The “three sisters” — corn, squash and beans — are probably the best known example of different plants that do well when planted close by. Other plants are known to repel pests. Geraniums are often planted in the garden to repel leafhoppers, corn earworms, even mosquitoes. And planting legumes — beans, field peas, hairy vetch – where heavy feeding vegetables will later grow helps increase soil nitrogen.

One problem with these principles is that there’s little scientific study to back up what we know from experience. And, in the case of companion planting, some of the scientific “proof’ can be questionable (scroll down). But science is beginning to take a serious look at one form of companion planting known as allelopathy. Scientists have discovered that certain plants have the ability to produce toxic substances that inhibit the growth of other plants. And when those “other plants” are common weeds, well, the ears of organic gardeners begin to perk up. (more…)

Beauty Bark or Living Ground Cover?

Living Ground CoverWe love mulch, but why not fill empty space with something green and living?

Don’t get us wrong. We love mulches of all sorts. But one kind of mulch we’ve seen too much of is beauty bark. You know what we’re talking about. That chipped or shredded bark often bought in bags, sometimes sold in bulk, that’s used to cover bare ground around trees, in various landscape beds, and other open space. It’s become a suburban American cliche.

The stuff can often be attractive, sure; and give off a delicate scent, especially if it contains cedar. It does what mulch is supposed to do: keep down weeds, slow moisture evaporation, prevent run-off from heavy rain. And it does break down and add organic matter to your soil. But it doesn’t necessarily do these things as effectively as other mulches. Weeds can often find a way through chunks of bark and the acidic nature of most barks means you’ll have to monitor and adjust soil pH for the plants around it. And beauty bark is expensive, unless you live near a sawmill and can get it for free. And it needs replacing from time to time. The biggest argument we have against beauty bark? It doesn’t flower. (more…)

Small Business = Local Business

Main Street MontanaThe value of locally owned businesses to our communities, to ourselves.

With the time for giving thanks upon us and Small Business Saturday coming soon — tomorrow! – we can’t help but take time to consider the blessing of our small, locally owned businesses. Yes, we’re one of them, but we’re part of a great American tradition: small employers who hire local employees to deliver the best in goods and services. Yes, we’re all behind the Small Business Saturday movement, even though its major sponsor is a giant credit card company that profits from businesses big and small. But small business to us means local business, the businesses that make our communities unique and productive. (more…)

Growing, Enjoying Ornamental Gourds

Ornamental GourdsDried, carved or used in centerpieces, gourds from the garden bring color, cheer to the Thanksgiving season.

With apologies to turkeys everywhere… what says Thanksgiving more than a beautiful centerpiece of ornamental gourds? Gourds have become such a symbol of the late fall season that one of our favorite literary magazines has done a tongue-in-cheek essay about such displays (sorry, no link; too much profanity and, well, this is a family blog). Growing gourds is easy, especially where there’s a longer growing season and, with the rise of interest in collecting and supplying heirloom seeds, their types and availability have mushroomed over the last few years.

Ornamental gourds are of two types. The soft shell gourds (Curcubita pepo) are the type most commonly used for fall centerpieces and other decorations. The hard-shell type, those that we dry and make bowls, birdhouses, even musical instruments from (Lagenaria siceraria) are usually larger and need a longer growing time. (more…)

Natural Insect Control With Bats

Brown BatBats feed on pests from cucumber beetles to termites. Put them to work for you.

Bats get a bum deal. Thought of as blood suckers and destroyers of fruit, bats are seen as frightening pests when in fact almost all are beneficial. Those blood sucking bats? Out of some 1,000 species only three actually take blood from mammals. And those live only in the Central American tropics. Most of the fruit bats live in the tropics as well. The bats, like the tiny Indiana bat that populates most of the midwest and east? They’re not blood suckers. They’re bug suckers. Over 70% of all bats — and more in the U.S. — are insectivores.

A single brown bat can eat between 600 and 1,000 flying insects in an hour, some 5,000 in a single night. And not all insects that bats eat fly. They’ll also pluck tomato hornworms, cucumber beetles, codling moths, earworms (like the kind you find in corn) and stink bugs. If there are insects that plague your garden (like grasshoppers) or you (mosquitoes), well, suddenly bats don’t seem so terrible. (more…)

GMOs, Hyperobjects & Great Grandma’s Diet

Grandmas KitchenHow to think about food, both wholesome and genetically modified.

False Assumptions and GMOs: The spread and use of genetically modified crops in the production of food is a highly controversial topic… no need to tell you that. The arguments for their use are often based on false assumptions. This wonderful article from Ensia, a magazine that comes from the University of Minnesota’s environmental department, highlights some of the wrong thinking in terms of increasing food production that is often sold to us as an important reason for the growing of GMO crops.

The writer, Jonathan Foley, reminds us that most of the GMO crops grown aren’t grown as food and are only involved indirectly in the production of other, processed foods. Here’s how it opens:

You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started. (more…)

Starting An Orchard: Plan Ahead

Backyard OrchardFall’s the time to consider planting fruit trees in the spring.

The onset of winter weather signals the beginning of one of gardening’s most enjoyable past times: dreaming! If you dream of providing your family with healthy, organic fruits as well as vegetables, if you’re craving to grow your own apples, pears, or peaches, if your desire for sustainability means buying less and less conventionally-grown produce from grocery stores, then now’s the time to start planning your own orchard.

Most fruit tree growers, especially in northern climes, prefer spring planting (though fall can be a possibility where conditions and the availability of nursery stock make it practical… some actually prefer it). Whenever you plan to plant your orchard, the time to start planning is today. (more…)

GMO Labeling On the Ropes?

GMO LabelingGrocery Manufacturers Association declares victory, plans action on national level.

Yes, there’s some finger pointing going on after the defeat of Washington State’s GMO labeling initiative earlier this month. But, surprisingly, not really all that much. Most of it is directed at the huge amount of money spent by seed companies Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer and the Grocery Manufactures Association that fought against labeling. But there are other issues here.

Maybe the central question here is how something like labeling, an idea with consistent high support among the public, can be so easily defeated. And this requires a look at the opposition tactics. One aspect that’s been pointed out is that the opposition often says it too supports the consumer’s right to know. But it argues that the Initiative as proposed, was poorly written with too much confusion and too many exceptions written in to it. This of course was the same tactic used to defeat the California labeling initiative, and many of its claims were based on exaggeration and out-and-out falsehood. (more…)

Garden Tasks for November

November GardeningGardening isn’t over until the ground freezes.

For a lot of us, November marks the end of our outdoor gardening season. There’s still puttering to do: cleaning and oiling tools to be put away for the winter, bringing indoors any potted plants we may still have outside, trimming back and protecting roses; that kind of thing. Often we’ll wait for a sunny (relatively) warm day to do these things. But as all of us have heard said — thank-you, Coach Kruger! — it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And in gardening, that means it ain’t over until the ground freezes, no matter what the calendar says.

How so? As long as you can get a spade in the ground, the ground can still be worked. That means you can still plant bulbs for spring blooming. Lots of experts will tell you that bulbs need to be planted around the time of the first frost and several weeks ahead of the ground freezing. We’ve found that this isn’t necessarily true. Bulbs planted well after the first frost will do quite well as long as the freeze is gradual and not the result of a sudden and prolonged cold snap. The main thing here is to avoid over watering. Everyone knows bulbs don’t like wet feet. When the solid freeze comes you don’t want your bulbs to be too damp which may cause them to be damaged. (more…)

Beekeeping, Small Farming, and the Environment

Bee HiveLessons from the hive about pesticides, organic practice, and sustainability.

We’ve been reading environmental activist and author Bill McKibben’s new book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (here’s an excerpt) and finding it entirely fascinating. It’s the story of McKibben’s life in 2011, the year he and his organization 350.0rg spent time protesting the XL Pipeline that would carry tar sands from Canada to the refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

You don’t have to be a strong opponent of the pipeline or even actively engaged in fighting global warming (or even worried) to enjoy this book. True to its subtitle, it tells how McKibben, an environmentally supportive author from Vermont, became educated in the ways of politics and activism during a year that preceded a national election even as the country experienced a crippling, almost nation-wide drought and record shattering heat. (more…)

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