Fertilizer Runoff Killing Gulf

Dead ZoneThis year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, usually around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, might well be the largest in history. The culprit? Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest. All that runoff from the breadbasket will make its way downstream carrying copious amounts of agricultural fertilizer runoff into the Gulf. Time magazine has the story.

The Gulf dead zone, second largest in the world, is composed of oxygen-depleted water that does not support life. The process by which it forms is known as “hypoxia.” Basically, the process starts with nitrogen and phosphorous- based fertilizers being swept in quantity through the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf at the Louisiana Delta. The fertilizer fuels the growth of algae which eventually dies or is eaten by zooplankton. Bacteria feed on the mass of dead algae and the zooplankton’s feces, exhausting the water’s oxygen as they do. (more…)

Tomatoes & Basil: How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

Tomato GardenCompanion plants for tomatoes — not always a perfect pair!

Last evening, your friendly and inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger visited a couple of distinguished food writers — they are a couple and have a couple James Beard Awards to their credit — to get their opinions on some local barbecue for a story I’m writing. We ate outdoors in their beautiful patio garden, their chickens serenading us from the nearby coop that was just out of sight.

Their garden is incorporated into the modest outdoor living space. A pair of cherry trees, their growing space circled in rock, is at the center of the stone patio (no cherries this year; a late frost took all the blossoms). Around the first cherry tree were various flowering plants. Only the bleeding hearts were in bloom. The earth around the second tree hosted a variety of herbs, partly shaded, that were just reaching picking size. One of those herbs was basil.

Elsewhere, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes were growing on terraced steps in full sun near the walls of their white-washed adobe house. By the house’s entrance, among several other plants and close to some lettuce that was already past its prime, was a yellow pear tomato plant already holding some blossoms. The space, with its various pots, growing areas, and walking spaces, not to mention the table where we sat enjoying ribs and brisket, seemed well designed. But I was puzzled by one thing. Knowing that tomatoes and basil, both full-sun lovers, did so well together, I wondered why they weren’t growing side-by-side. “We tried that,” one of my friends said, “and it just didn’t work.” (more…)

Permaculture and Compost

Compost PileWe’ve been intrigued lately how the practices of sustainable, organic gardening and permaculture integrate composting into their philosophies. Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger has been known to say that organic gardening and specifically composting will save the world and both those endeavors seem to prove it. Yet, both have their differences.

We won’t go into all 12 principles of permaculture here. But consider how many of them are addressed by composting (as listed in Christopher Shein’s excellent new book The Vegetable Gardner’s Guide To Permaculture): work with nature, produce no waste, use and value resources, catch and store energy. To organic gardeners, all that come together to mean one thing: improve soil conditions without harmful chemicals.

This is the time of year we’re adding grass clippings, if we have them, to our compost piles as well as vegetable scraps from our kitchens, thinnings from our garden (if we’re not eating them), and year-round items like cardboard and newspaper. The permaculturist, in an effort to diminish waste, advocates using shredded office paper and the like as a brown (carbon-heavy) material. The organic gardening purist may not want to add newspaper because of what might be in the inks, office paper because of the bleaching agents that make it white, and carboard because of the glues used to hold its corrugated surfaces together. (more…)

U.S. Bill Seeks GMO Labeling

Labeling BillNot quite under the radar, but not visible enough to gain attention from national media, was a bill introduced in Congress that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

Introduced in April, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was brought to the Senate by California Democrat Barbara Boxer and to the House by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. Here’s Senator Boxer’s announcement of the national gmo labeling bill complete with cosponsors and approving organizations, a group that includes the Consumer’s Union, the Center For Food Safety, and the Center for Environmental Health as well as several food marketers, a group that ranges from Lundberg Family Farms to Ben & Jerry’s. (more…)

Lovin’ Daisies

Meadow Daisies“She loves me… she loves me not.” Whichever way the petals fall, one thing is certain. We all love daisies. When other flowers are fading away in late summer, daisies stand long and tall, gracing our landscapes with abundant blossoms. Even those of us who’ve seen them invade our lawn and realized how hard the hardy plants were to get rid of love some kind of daisy, even if we hate those particular (usually hybrid) daisies.

The kinds of flowers commonly called daisies are actually a smaller group than what’s in the daisy or asteracae (aster) family. That large group that counts some 600 species includes sunflowers as well as daisies, cone flowers, and asters. Our personal favorites are the tiny alpine daisies that grow above timber in the highest mountain passes. Here in the southwest, annual African daisies are popular for their varied colors and drought resistance. What’s known as the New England daisy or aster — and this is one of the great things about daisies — actually grows all across the country. (more…)

Xeriscaping Principles

Xeriscape GardeningAs many parts of the country move into the dry season (some parts are already there; others have the opposite problem), it’s a good time to consider xeriscaping principles in our gardens and landscapes.

What is xeriscaping? Simply stated, it’s water-wise gardening. It’s not just about the water we use (or don’t) during times of drought. It also addresses our use of diminishing water supplies as demand — from population and housing growth, agriculture, industry (especially the natural gas industry) and, yes, drought — continue to tax finite water supplies. Xeriscaping is a way of continuing to have enjoyable landscapes in the face of less and more expensive water use.

The details of xeriscaping are encyclopedic. They’re linked to local soil, native plant, and climactic factors. But the basic principles are simple, common-sense measures and are easy to apply almost anywhere. Here are the eight principles, with our comments, listed in David Salman and Cindy Bellinger’s aptly titled and useful reference Waterwise Garden Care: Your Practical Guide published by High Country Gardens Publications. (more…)

Connecticut To Label GMOs…Maybe

GMO LabelingOn Monday, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling bill. But before breaking out in cheers, listen to this: the bill comes with a few, at least temporarily knotty strings attached.

Due to heavy lobbying, several conditions were attached to the bill. One would require at least four other states to join Connecticut in passing GMO labeling laws. Those states must have a total population of 20 million. And one of them must border Connecticut.

Many labeling supporters see the conditions as a way to permanently cripple the bill. Others have saluted the bill as progress. One report called the compromises a “condition of virtual impotence. ” This report also identified the largest and most active opponents to the measure, a group that includes lobbying organizations supporting the Connecticut bio-tech industry, giant grocery retailers and — you guessed it — Monsanto. (more…)

Garden Tasks for June

Gardening TipsJune is often our favorite time in the garden. Sure, the rewards of harvest can’t be beat — and June does offer some harvest, especially in warmer zones — but the orderliness of our straight planted rows and the germinating perfection gives us a thrill that’s at once reward for the hard work that’s gone before and the promise of bountiful and beautiful things to come.

There’s nothing better than pulling up a lawn chair and surveying our garden kingdom no matter its size: the neat lines of bright green seedlings planted just days before, the transplanted seedling started weeks ago indoors now flourishing in their new outdoor homes. Yes, there’s a break in the action once the garden’s in — or maybe you’re still furiously trying to get everything in the ground — but that doesn’t mean you can step back and let things go off on their own. (more…)

News: Organics, Heirlooms, GMOs

Dust BowlHere’s a study that reaffirms what organic farmers and gardeners already know: the use of inorganic fertilizer may help plants one season but does nothing to improve soil conditions. How important is soil to the survival of our planet? Read this article about soil depletion. Estimates say we’ve already lost 40% of the world’s topsoil, much of it because of non-organic farming practice.

In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, here’s a British study that claims organic farming isn’t really all that better than conventional farming. Notice that the focus is on production. Also notice that it doesn’t say anything about improving soils. Careful readers will see all kinds of omissions in the comparisons the study makes.

Here’s a great chart that shows how heirloom and wild fruits and vegetables are higher (much higher) in phytonutrients than conventionally cultivated cousins. If you find this interesting, follow the link to the accompanying article. (more…)

Garden Transplanting

Garden SeedlingsTips and techniques for planting vegetable seedlings outside.

We’ve just returned home to find a notice from our local community garden announcing a seedling planting party this weekend. Now the Farm is a big operation and it will take a party-sized crowd a couple days to get all the tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and melons out of its green house and into the ground. You may not need much help getting your seedlings outdoors and into the garden… or maybe you do. Either way there’s some principles to keep in mind.

One is hardening off. The plants that you’ve germinated in the warm indoors on heating mats and raised under lights aren’t used to the cool, windy conditions they’ll experience outdoors. Give them time to adapt by placing them in a cold frame or taking them out for a few hours each day letting them enjoy their first taste of the great outdoors in sheltered conditions. (more…)

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