The Dirty Truth About Soil Health

Soil HealthIt’s a point we’ve made often: healthy soil is the key to organic gardening. Whether you’re growing vegetables, ornamentals, or a lush, durable lawn, the health of your soil is what makes it all possible.

Healthy soil is living soil, filled with billions of microbes and beneficial, microscopic fungi; nematodes, earthworms and other beneficial organisms. It’s alive. Frank Tozer, in The Organic Gardeners Handbook says that growing plants is the secondary activity of the organic grower. The first? Growing soil. Grow soil full of organic material from compost, full of living organisms, and the other necessary ingredients plants require, and growing gardens, without chemical fertilizers and the use of pesticides and herbicides to control problems,  becomes vastly easier.

Healthy soil, it turns out, may not be important to just the gardener but to the planet as well. It seems that soil health is the basis of the earth’s store of biodiversity. When we lose healthy soil, we lose everything. (more…)

Sweet Corn: Hybrid and Heritage

Sweet CornYour friendly Planet Natural Blogger was standing in line yesterday at the grocery store — one with a focus on healthy eating and a claim that it never uses GMO products in its store-label items — when an equally friendly checker commented on the fact that we were buying ears of sweet corn. “I have relatives in the Midwest,” she said, “and they say that they put the water on to boil before they go out and pick sweet corn for dinner.”

Well, your talkative PN Blogger, raised in the Midwest, had heard this before and, indeed, had told the story himself a number of times. And having just read up on the history of corn, we felt we had to put our two cents in (though what we said was probably worth half that).

“That’s good, old fashioned, home-grown corn,” I explained. “This commercial stuff has been bred to keep it sugars longer, so it can be shipped and held before sale. But it’s not as good, it’s not as sweet as good, home-grown sweet corn. The sugars in homegrown sweet corn aren’t as stable. But the corn is tastier.” (more…)

Plant Growth Regulators: Safe?

Plant Growth RegulatorIt may be too late in this season for us to start our own vegetables and flowers rather than buy nursery stock. But there’s a good reason we should at least be aware that the starts we purchase at the nursery or big-box home supply store may have been treated with plant growth regulators (PGRs). It’s also a good reason, short of growing our own, to make sure the nursery stock we buy is from a reliable organic dealer.

The term PGR has come to include many things, not all of them potentially harmful. But technically, a PGR is a spray or chemical used to treat seed or growing plants that, through cellular mutation, makes the plant in some way more desirable, often more to the seller than the buyer.

PGRs are used for a host of reasons and function in a number of ways. They are commonly categorized and regulated as pesticides but mostly deal with growth, flowering and fruiting issues. Some, especially those used to encourage rooting, are organic compounds. But most of those used in commercial agriculture — and that includes the sale of nursery stock — are synthetically derived. (more…)

Dandelion Control

Dandelion ControlYes, it is possible to get rid of dandelions without using toxic sprays. Here’s how:

Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger has been taken to task for saying organic gardening is no harder and maybe even easier than conventional gardening. This came while addressing vegetable gardening and the context was that eventually you may have less weeding, less watering, and less problems with insects after you’ve been using organic practice for a while. The criticism came using one work-intensive example: getting rid of dandelions without using chemical sprays.

Our critical friend has a point. It’s so much easier getting rid of dandelions with Roundup or other herbicides that are designed to penetrate the length of the dandelion’s long tap root. But then you have a frightful chemical, one that’s been shown to put embryonic and kidney cells at risk, lingering in your soil. The other problem with these kinds of herbicides: they don’t stop new seed, which may have blown in from far away, from germinating. Once a new dandelion plant starts growing in your yard, it’s time to spray again. And Again. And… well, you get the picture. (more…)

Honey Bee Population in Decline

Honey BeeTwo-breaking stories on bee decline, pesticides and politics. The European Union has imposed a two-year ban on the use of certain pesticides linked to bee deaths. This comes after a report citing three specific pesticides from a group known as neonicotinoids as a major cause in the decline. Chemical manufacturers — specifically Germany’s Bayer and the Swiss Syngenta — fought fiercely to stop the ban. Some 300,000 people in the U.K. signed a petition supporting the ban. Even with that, the British Parliament  voted to side against the EU plan.

Second story: Here in the U.S., the federal government released a study citing a variety of reasons for bee decline. In addition to pesticides, mite infestations, lack of nutrition, and genetic variation all contribute according to the study. The study was seen as a response to the EU’s banning of certain pesticides linked to bees deaths. “At E.P.A. we let science drive the outcome of decision making,” said Jim Jones, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. “There are non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong.”  Translation: Risking our entire population of honey bees is trivial in the face of losing a few dollars for big chemical and agricultural companies. (more…)

Converting to Organic

Organic GardeningMaking the switch to organic gardening is as much an act of will power as it is work. But the rewards — feeding your family vegetables, herbs and fruits untainted by pesticides, herbicides and the residues of chemical fertilizers — are priceless. Where do you begin?

First by making a commitment. You must promise to learn as much about organic practice as you can. This is really a life-long process. But when you consider that a little organic knowledge (the basics) goes a long way and that the details bring you closer to perfection, you begin to understand how easy it is.

The second commitment is the promise never to go back. No matter how many problems you encounter — and it’s important to remember that even conventional gardeners encounter failure, and lots of it — you will not go back to your old, chemical ways. When the neighbor points out that he doesn’t have any bugs in his garden and you do, it’s time to be strong. (It may also be helpful to point out that he doesn’t have any beneficial bugs in his garden, as you do.) When he says you spend a lot more time in your garden than he does, smile. In a year or two of organic gardening, that probably won’t be true. When he says that turning that compost pile must be a lot of work, put your hand on your abs and then look directly at his belly. Or maybe stretch out your muscled arms. (more…)

Foraging Wild, Organic Foods

Foraging FoodSpring is a wonderful time of year for foraging food. Greens — dandelions, nettles, wild asparagus, miners lettuce, ramp — are especially fine this time of year and spring mushrooms notably morels, rival the mushrooms picked in the fall. Some wild plants, including fiddleheads, are edible only when they first emerge (and one should be cautious eating even these). Even though nature is doing the gardening for you, it’s important to remember that you want even your foraged plants grown the way you grow in your garden. Organically.

We’ve been amazed at the interest in wild foods that’s grown over the last few years. There’s been a plethora of books released on the subject and classes on identifying, picking and cooking with foraged foods are offered in both rural and urban locations. Even restaurants and gourmet chefs, long-time users of wild mushrooms, have gotten in on the fad, flavoring their dishes with wild greens. Ramp, that favorite east coast spring green that was once harvested by eager Italian immigrants and seen as a measure of class distinction, is now so popular now that it rates a kitchen story and recipes in a major American newspaper. (more…)

Starting A Garden

Starting A GardenWe’ve written a lot about planning your garden, which plants go where, crop rotation, companion planting, and the like. But what to do when you’re starting a garden or want to create a second (or a third) garden space?  Where is the best place for your new garden to go? What factors should you consider when starting it?

Often we don’t have a choice. Our yards are small. Everything is heavily shaded except for that one spot over there. If we put the new garden right in that sunny spot in the middle of the yard, where will we play badminton on the fourth of July? Choosing where to put a garden space is a problem a lot of us don’t have.

But if we’re lucky enough to have the space where a choice is in order then it’s important we choose wisely. It’s safe to say that we already know the principles. What’s best for the plants you want to grow? Here’s a brief and most likely incomplete list of principles to consider when starting a garden. Feel free to add things we may have overlooked and other suggestions that will assure you convenience and make your plants a growing success. (more…)

Growing Organic Fruit

Organic ApplesReading through Danny L. Barney’s new book Storey’s Guide To Growing Organic Orchard Fruits (Storey Publishing) not only got us to thinking about what it takes to grow apples, pears, cherries and other fruits without chemical sprays, but also, like a lot of things, made us nostalgic.

Your sentimental, fruit-crazy Planet Natural Blogger grew up on a small orchard back in Nebraska that was sprayed heavily every year. My father was in the pest control business and had access to the compounds and equipment. I remember him fogging the whole place in an effort to keep the mosquitoes and other insects down. Insects weren’t the problem, and needless to say the sprays did nothing to alleviate our real problem, blight and blemishes (and we still ended up with mosquitoes anyway). He didn’t wear a mask or respirator when doing this and neither did we. But we loved to run through the fog much to his chagrin (Note: Dad’s long gone but we’re still healthy).

Maybe it was in reaction to this that — like a lot of former hippies — when we took to the land, we adopted an organic lifestyle. Those of us old enough to remember the Alar apple scare of 1989 probably aren’t surprised to know that the conventionally-grown fruits we buy are still tainted with harmful substances. Some of these chemicals are especially bad for children. (more…)

Eat Organic, Live Longer

Eating Organic ProduceA recent study clearly demonstrates the health and longevity benefits of eating organic produce over conventional produce… if you’re a fruit fly. The study designed by a then 16-year-old Texas student not only won her top honors in the national science fair competition, it added to a growing body of evidence that eating organic — despite stiff food industry-sponsored denial — is indeed healthier.

The study also illustrates the value of engaging your children in family nutrition, gardening, and life-style choice discussions. The fruit fly study winner was inspired to put the organic question to the test after hearing her parents discuss the issue.

The award winning study not only won Ria Chhabra the national science fair competition but also publication in a respected scientific journal and access to nearby university labs usually available only to graduate students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The study, as a few news sources pointed out, stood in stark contrast to an infamous Stanford study that suggested organically raised produce was no more nutritious than conventionally raised produce. (more…)

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