Just Say NO to Bug-B-Gone

Spraying PesticidesTips for spraying insect pests with safe, organic bug killers.

No matter how carefully you control growing conditions with healthy soil and proper watering, no matter how well-thought out your integrated pest management system, no matter how lucky you’ve been in the past, sometimes a pest problem arises in your garden that requires spraying the little buggers. What you spray and how you spray can make all the difference.

Most organic gardeners prefer sprays that break down quickly in the environment or opt for home made remedies that make the plant unpalatable or difficult for the insects to populate. These sprays are often made of garlic, cayenne and other peppers, as well as strong scented herbs. The idea is to confuse the insect’s sense of smell (which is often located in their feet) and make them think they are where they don’t want to be. They’re often the organic gardeners first line of defense when pests are spotted.

The second line? Citrus oils, diatomaceous earth, even compost tea are known to work on some insects. Then there are the manufactured products you can make at home that suffocate the pest or make their environment inhospitable. These include soap solutions, often made at home and horticultural oils. Then there are other solutions including those with baking soda, alcohol, and ammonia. Boric acid is a well-known deterrent for migrating insects, one that acts as a stomach poison. Bleach is used especially in greenhouses to disinfect and control diseases. These ingredients are toxic unless diluted and dangerous if not handled correctly. (more…)

Composting GMOs

GMO Kitchen WasteYour friendly and equally inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger gets questions. Sometimes they’re real stumpers. Here’s one:

If you are composting GMOs without knowing it does it mean you are growing them by using the compost?

We had to think about this awhile. We know that the composting process is capable of great things. We know that it can help “repair” contaminated soils and prevent toxic runoff into our watercourses; that it can reduce to some degree the toxicity of soils contaminated with chemicial substances such as creosote; that it can even reduce the toxicity of explosive residues of the sort found in dumps on military reservations (but that it leaves behind another problem: mutigenicity).

But what happens when genetic plants are composted? Will the genetically-mutated materials break down? And will any of the components that the mutation generates — say the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that acts as a pesticide in GMO corn — will those be broken down as well? (more…)

Weeds vs Herbicides: Weeds Win!

Applying HerbicidesAn article in The New York Times seems to celebrate weeds: their hardiness, their adaptability, their ability to quickly evolve. It’s overall theme? In the battle between weeds and chemical herbicides, weeds eventually and always win. And while it takes some reading between the lines, the article also draws conclusions that organic gardeners have known all along. One… herbicides can be dangerous. Two… a variety of techniques, many of them organic, are needed to actually reduce crop losses caused by weeds.

So why use herbicides? Their development (PDF) was thought to be a tremendous breakthrough. As far back as Roman times farmers spread salt on their fields to destroy their enemies’ crops. Modern weed killers were introduced during World War II and their use skyrocketed after that. Chemical companies soon learned that herbicides meant big money. But almost as quickly, weeds began to develop resistance to the chemicals. Today, it’s estimated that at least 217 varieties of weeds have developed resistance (follow the link to see a frightening photo of giant ragweed taking over a field of Roundup resistant corn). (more…)

Summer Flowers For Color

Summer Garden ColorThis is the time of year that your flower beds can start to look a little weary. You had beautiful blooms from late spring through the first weeks of July but now, in the heat, summer flowers are starting to fade. You can dead head all you want — this will keep some plants blooming into fall (one of the reasons we love marigolds) — but most flowers don’t want to make the effort once things turn hot and dry.

Still, there are ways — and plants, both annuals and perennials — that will keep color in your flower gardens well into fall. Like most things in the garden, they require some advance planning. If you’ve started seeds well into the season indoors, and chosen those seeds wisely, then you may have late-blooming annuals that will keep your landscape alive with color. Late blooming is just one of the traits we’re looking for. Drought tolerance, the ability to adapt to xeric conditions, is another. You may think that starting annuals to put out later in summer is a lot of work for little return. You might change your mind when you’re enjoying blossoms on labor day. Perennials, well, your return on investment will accrue season after season.

Of course your local conditions will determine which plants are best for late season color. This is where a good local garden reference, either online, through a university extension division or, most likely, at your friendly neighborhood nursery, comes in handy. The nursery is also the place to get late blooming plants in case you didn’t have the luxury (or go to the work) of starting flower seed for late planting. (more…)

Xeric Landscapes, Works of Art

Santa Fe Botanical GardenOur correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico writes in about the city’s new botanical garden, a combination of artful design and water-wise planting:

(drawing by Lisa Flynn, courtesy of Santa Fe Botanical Garden) …

After several years of work and planning (and fundraising), Santa Fe’s new botanical garden, located on Museum Hill in the city’s high-and-dry southeast section, is about to open its first phase. Designed by renowned landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith, this orchard garden phase incorporates artistic design of the sort Smith is known for even as it employs an emphasis on water conservation. (more…)

Hybrid Broccoli Controversy

BroccoliThat so-good-for-you vegetable — broccoli — is in the news. A “dream team” of botanists, agrarians, and marketers has come together at Cornell University to create a broccoli that will grow in areas where the heat-sensitive cruciferous won’t normally grow. And therein lies the problem. Since nearly all commercial broccoli is grown in California, the plant suffers days of transportation before its delivered to midwestern, southern and eastern markets, a time that saps the broccoli of its fresh taste and snap. The new hybridized broccoli can withstand the relative evening warmth and humidity that has made successful commercial farming of broccoli east of the Rocky Mountains difficult. The New York Times  has the story.

The piece is actually a double profile of both broccoli and the plant physiologist who fronts the broccoli effort, Dr. Thomas Bjorkman. Bjorkman, himself a vegetarian, has envisioned making broccoli more readily available in American markets. He’s also sought to make it more palatable and nutritious. Apparently he’s succeeded. The new hybrid broccoli contains more glucoraphanin, a compound that’s been found to prevent cancer. (more…)

Garden Watering Tips, Vegetable Edition

Watering the GardenWe’ve talked a lot about xeric landscapes, water-wise gardening, drought-tolerant plants, and the like, all good things. Conserving water is always a good thing, especially when you’re paying for it. But there’s one place where skimping on garden watering can have bad consequences, where thirty plants will drink up water more quickly than anywhere else and that’s your vegetable garden. Let’s face it. Vegetables are water intensive. It takes 16 gallons to grow a single head of lettuce. It’s estimated that 40% of all water use in the United Stages goes to growing food.

So while vegetable gardens will drink up more water than your thyme and lavender-planted rock garden or you native grass lawn, it’s water well spent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t conserve water while growing vegetables. Here’s some tips, gathered from a variety of sources to help you save water when you’re giving your vegetables what they need. Most of these techniques are second nature for experienced gardeners. But they bare repeating. (more…)

Garden Tasks for July

Garden BlossomsIt’s July and, as the song goes, the living is easy. Sure there are little chores to be done — watering, of course; and weeding — but mostly this is an expectant time with bountiful harvest of greens, peas (if you live where it’s not too hot), and fast growing root vegetables. Summer squash are in blossom and maybe setting fruit, corn is knee-high and higher, and winter squash, cucumbers and other vine crops are showing some muscle and starting to take over. There’s the first tomato blossom and is that the first tiny bean forming among all those blossoms?

It’s a good week to spend time with your garden doing nothing but taking stock. How is your garden plan looking now that things are well on their way? What pest problems are you having? How does the weather look for the rest of the month? Mostly, we just like to sit back and look at the fruits of our work. Things are still neat and orderly, everything is robust and green. And then we start thinking deeper (gardens will do that to you). Where did the craft of doing this come into our lives? How is it that with each passing year we learn more and more about raising vegetables? How well are we doing passing our knowledge to children and friends? And how important are those friends and children to what we do and learn? (more…)

Melon Growing Problems

Garden MelonsAfter our last column, a friend pointed out that she didn’t have trouble getting melons to pollinate. Her problem was with blights and mildew. It’s true that melons are a bit difficult to grow because of their susceptibility to molds and certain insects, especially when you’re trying to grow them in cooler, damp climates. Any trouble growing melons is well worth it once they reach the table. The cantaloupes, watermelons and other melons now coming into our stores from warmer climates just don’t hold a candle to a juicy, sweet, homegrown melon.

Finding the proper natural or organic cures for these melon problems can be difficult. Mulching is great for issues caused by uneven watering. But mulch can provide places for pests including squash bugs and cucumber beetles to lay eggs. These pesky critters not only consume melon plants but spread disease and wilt. Melon leaves can be burned by insecticidal soap and liquid copper sprays, two common, organic-approved solutions for bugs and mildew. They should only be used in the most diluted form possible. Other problem solvers — like using row covers to shield plants from insects — are great ideas until you need the help of pollinators. Any successful melon growing regimen begins even before you start them in your garden. (more…)

Doin’ the Pollinate Shake!

Hand PollinateHow to hand pollinate plants in the vegetable garden.

No, it’s not the latest dance craze. It’s what certain plants in your vegetable garden need to set fruit: a good shaking. Yes, it has to do with sex, er, pollination and plants can sometimes use a little help. But what it really has to do with is better yields come harvest time. So let’s get ready to pollinate!

Not a year goes by when we don’t hear someone complain that their tomatoes, cucumbers, or squash didn’t set fruit. Oh, the plants grew like crazy and blossomed to beat the band but when it came time to produce? Little or no fruiting occurred. We’ve even had this happen ourselves, usually after relocating to a different part of the country. When we’re asked what went wrong, we realize (doh!) that we didn’t do what needed to be done, that’s when we remember hand pollination. Now that July has arrived and gardens around the country are beginning to flower, it’s time to pollinate. (For those of you in cooler climates or whose gardens might be a bit behind schedule this year, here’s hoping that your blossoms are soon to show.) (more…)

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