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…)

Plant a Thyme Lawn

Grass AlternativeThyme makes a good, natural lawn replacement. Here’s how to grow this attractive, drought-resistant herb instead of grass.

In an effort to reduce water use and time spent caring for lawns, some gardeners are replacing their turf with thyme. Thyme is an ideal grass alternative. It requires less water, is generally tough (see “walking on thyme” below), drought resistant, hardy all the way north to zone 4 if it’s healthy, and will spread easily to fill in most of the space that you want it to. Best thing: it becomes a carpet of attractive, lavender-colored flowers that lasts long into the season. If you’re looking to replace your thirsty grass with something more xeric, consider thyme.

There are down-sides to putting in a thyme lawn. It can be expensive. When you’re planting plugs of thyme 6 to 12 inches apart, you can burn up a lot of cash fast. Most sources recommend planting smaller areas. If you have a croquet court-sized yard (in other words, large) you might want to consider planting only part of it in thyme to start. You can always go back and expand your thyme planting another season. The other down-side is the labor it takes to get your thyme in the ground. You’ll need to kill off all the grass where you intend to plant first. This can be a slow and difficult process. (more…)

Genetically Modified Tomatoes… Really?

Flavr Savr TomatoDisguised in the cover of a favorite summer time topic — why don’t store-bought tomatoes taste good? — The New York Times has printed a story, “You Call That A Tomato?”, with an accompanying video that frames the movement to label genetically modified food sources in the GMO development’s first failure: the Flavr Savr tomato. Brought to market in 1994, the Flavr Savr created a small sensation. Here was a tomato designed to withstand the rigors of shipping, one that would last in your kitchen for weeks while regular tomatoes shriveled and went bad. It was clearly labeled and marketed by its manufacturer Calgene as a product of “trans genetic plants.” Everyone knew what it was and why. At the time, it was seen as the leading edge of a Brave New World technology. (more…)

Ladybugs To the Rescue

LadybugAmerica’s largest shopping mall, The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, is as well known for its attractions — an indoor amusement park! an eco-park! — as it is for its collection of retail stores. It also has some 30,000 plants and 400 live trees, some as tall as 35 feet, growing inside its spacious confines. So how do they prevent an infestation of harmful insects? You don’t want to spray and endanger the 40 million visitors the Mall sees each year.

What do they do at the mall? Take a hint from greenhouses around the country and release ladybugs (also known as lady beetles). The mall recently unleashed 72,000 of the hungry critters to help control aphids and other pests. Fears that they might go after the treats shoppers carry around or enjoy in the food courts are unfounded. The bugs stick almost exclusively to plants and are only interested in getting their meals on the hoof (so to speak). Even in a space as large as the mall — it’s claimed that seven Yankee Stadiums would fit inside — the ladybugs are confined. If they finish the pests in one area and move on looking for more prey, they’ll still be inside the mall. (more…)

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…)

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