Grow a Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bale GardenIt’s this year’s hottest way (heh) to garden! And it’s also a social media phenomenon! It’s straw bale gardening. Ever since the publication of his book, Straw Bale Gardens (Cool Springs Press), Joel Karsten has become something of a gardening celebrity, making television and YouTube appearances, being interviewed by major papers, and gathering a Facebook following that counts over 27,000 likes.

We’ve written about using straw as mulch and bale gardening whether straw or hay, before. Karsten has really refined the technique which basically revolves around one thing: the bales are composting as the plants grow. The heat generated by the composting straw gives the vegetables planted in them a distinct advantage. Warmer “ground” temperatures stimulate root growth. Karsten capitalizes on this by pulling plastic tents hung from wires strung over his bale rows to trap that generated heat, thus giving him an early start and warm early conditions there in his Roseville, MN home.

Once you line up rows of bales for your garden, how do you get them to start composting as they stand there above ground exposed to the elements? Karsten “conditions” the bale for up to two weeks ahead of planting by sprinkling traditional chemical fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen over his bales and watering it to draw it into the bale. Now we organic gardeners wouldn’t want to do that. But we could get the same effect by using organic fertilizers high in nitrogen, say blood meal, fish meal, or cotton seed meal; or an organic fertilizer mix with good nitrogen content. Not much fertilizer is needed, but thorough watering is important. But don’t over water to the point where your nitrogen source is washed from the bale. (more…)

GMOs and European Trade Talks

GMO Trade TalksThe growing and use of genetically engineered crops are a big issue. Yet little has been done, despite consumer efforts, to label those products in the USA or ban their growth and use all together.

Europe has long been a beacon of sanity when it comes to banning the use of GMOs in processed food as well as the raising of GMO crops. The European Union prohibits or restricts the import of food products from the U.S. that contain ingredients from genetically modified crops. While GMO crops make up over 80% of the corn and over 90% of the soy raised in the U.S., those figures are closer to 1% in Europe. In the U.S. some 80% of the processed foods contain GMOs.

Now the corporate powers who profit from GMOs have found an opening into European markets. The TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks that opened in June will consider the GMO restrictions among dozens if not hundreds of other disputes involving the U.S. and its European Trading Partners. Those talks are secret. (more…)

Micronutrients Essential for Plant Health

Fertilizing with MicronutrientsWe all know the nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur — that are important to plant health. We call them macronutrients. But there’s a whole list of micronutrients that are also key, in much smaller quantities, to the health of your plants. These plant micronutrients — boron, iron, zinc and others — not only assure healthy growth, they help your gardens fight off pests and diseases.

The best long term way to keep your garden soil rich with the micronutrients it needs is by adding compost. The living things that go into compost — grass clippings, leaves, plants trimmings — already contain various amounts of micronutrients. Their presence in your compost guarantees that you’re returning those micronutrients to the soil.

But what if you can tell (PDF), because of yellow leaves or other signs of weakness (or from you extension services soil test), that your soil is deficient in micronutrients? Your plants are well on their way and it’s too late to effectively amend the soil. What can be done to give them a quick boost full of the micronutrients they need? (more…)

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…)

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