Garden Planning: Form and Function

Vegetable GardenSurprisingly — or not — garden planning has become more important the smaller my garden gets. When I started out with the first plot of my very own back some (garbled) years ago, I had plenty of room. It was easy to plot crop rotations year to year and find space for vegetables I’d never tried before. Sure, I’d pour over the seed catalogs, then order too much. I’d draw up a plan that I often deviated from when I actually put my garden in. Because the entire, quarter-acre space was in full sunlight when the sun indeed shone there in the rainy Pacific Northwest, I didn’t have to worry about plants to grow in shaded parts of the garden (except for that spot just north of the Jerusaleum artichoke patch). But I did have to worry about selecting vegetables that grew well in cool, cloudy locations, pretty much the same thing. (more…)

Is Your Compost Made of Sewage Sludge?

Biosolids in CompostThe Dirty Truth About Biosolids

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Compost is rightly celebrated as the perfect soil amendment and a great way to recycle green waste. But not all compost is created equal. In fact, commercial compost based on “biosolids” or sewage sludge can be downright dangerous.

You know what biosolids are, right? Solids made from bio materials, just what the term suggests. One can’t help but think of Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except biosolids don’t smell so sweet. And what’s in this name is otherwise known as shit. (more…)

Worm Castings Wiggle Into the Spotlight

Red Wiggler WormThe mainstream press is catching up with what we organic gardeners already know. This article in The New York Times details new research showing that worm castings help plants “grow with more vigor, [making] them more resistant to disease and insects, than those grown with other types of composts and fertilizers.”  One of the big reason for this is one we’ve long championed: microbes.

The story quotes Norman Q. Arancon, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who says that “the earthworm’s digestive process, it turns out, is a really nice incubator for microorganisms.” Here’s the take-away from this part of the story:

. . . these microbes, which multiply rapidly when they are excreted, alter the ecosystem of the soil. Some make nitrogen more available to plant roots, accounting for the increased growth. The high diversity and numbers of microbes outperform those in the soil that cause disease.

Arancon also points out a fact that’s Bible and verse to organic growers: soil that’s seen heavy use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides is deficient in these microbes. This is why compost, which is technically not a fertilizer, is such a valuable amendment. It infuses the soil with microbes which make it easier for plants to use the nitrogen and other nutrients that are already there. And it fights plant disease. (more…)

Grow Herbs Indoors

Growing Herbs IndoorsBy Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

There are plentiful reasons to grow herbs indoors: basil pesto, rosemary chicken, maple and marjoram-roasted turkey, fresh oregano pizza sauce, tarragon salmon, cilantro-flavored salsas and spicy chive dip. The rise of gourmet home cooking as well as the popularity of fresh, home-raised and locally-grown foods has increased demands for fresh herbs. Why not grow your own, year `round? With modern advances in grow lights, growing mediums and self-contained hydroponic systems, raising herbs inside a small corner of your home can add year-round flavors, scents, even profits to your life.

Kitchen gardeners have long grown herbs on windowsills, under kitchen fluorescent bulbs and next to indoor orchid lights (see How to grow herbs indoors during winter). The success of these practices, touted in articles, videos and a few misinformed books, varies greatly. There’s seldom enough light in even the sunniest windowsill to yield more than an infrequent harvest, say a pinch of rosemary in February or a few basil leaves at Christmas. Standard fluorescent lamps could help plants over winter and even produce some harvests depending on how close and intense the lights were. Having herbs under lamps two or more feet away might do little more than keep perennials like oregano, rosemary and sage alive, sometimes barely, until they could be transplanted back in the outdoor garden. (more…)

Front Yard Vegetable Gardening

Front Yard GardenThe press is fascinated with stories about communities that go after front yard gardeners. Some areas have covenants or (worse) laws making gardening in one’s front yard a no-no. These often are affluent enclaves where investment-minded owners are nervous about protecting their property values. But not all. Sometimes regular communities, in a freedom-quashing pursuit of conformity, will take up the cause; as if front yard gardens might hurt the price of real estate.

The most recent article is this long look from The New York Times. Time magazine got in on the action last year. According to them, it’s all about “meddling local officials gone off the deep end” and the relative value of all that, care-intensive grass (vs. something you can eat) grown for the questionable purpose of keeping up appearances.

Of course, this isn’t an issue in every community. While living long ago in anything-goes Venice, California, we grew tomatoes, peppers, basil and squash in hardly-raised beds as well as lettuce and other greens along the path that led to our front door. This was on a walk street, a lane where the houses didn’t face a street but only a sidewalk, and we weren’t the only ones growing vegetables out our front door. (more…)

Hybrid Seeds Past & Present

Seed PacketsAs your friendly, memory-challenged Planet Natural Blogger goes through the newly arrived seed catalogs, he marvels at the latest crop (heh) of F1 hybrid seeds to hit garden store racks. Then we start to wonder: what happened to that supposedly high-yielding, easy-to-grow, delicious hybrid tomato or lettuce or squash that was such a sensation back in whatever year it was?

In the catalogs this year, we find a new hybrid tomato with the word “super” in its name, a sweet corn designed to grow in pots, and a spaghetti squash glorified with the name of an ancient Roman city. Will any of them still be around in 10 years? Some, like Burpee’s Early Girl Hybrid have survived the test of time. Others, like the Moreton tomato, celebrated in the mid-Atlantic states for its “Jersey” taste, disappeared when the Harris Seed Company which owned its patent stopped producing it. Luckily, Rutgers University has helped bring it back.

And that’s the problem — at least one of the problems — with F1 hybrids. Like GMO crops, they are owned by the business that holds their patent. No one else can offer the seed unless they buy the patent or it expires. It’s a great way to corner the market. No wonder new hybrids are advertised with such superlatives. (more…)

Study: Herbicide Use Up, GMOs To Blame

Organic Farm (No Spray)A study published in September calculates that the use of herbicide has increased some 527 million pounds in the period between 1996 and 2011. The study from Charles M. Benbrook of Washington State University’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources, blames the increase on the rise of GMO crops in the U.S.

The irony here, of course, is that the corporate manufacturers of GMO crops and their complementary herbicides have vehemently declared that GMO crops lead to a reduction in herbicide use. That argument, along with other spurious claims was used to defeat California’s Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative, in November. Read the abstract of the study here.

The study also concludes that after years of decline, pesticide use is also on the increase. Again, the reason is GMO use. Farmers who plant those herbicide and pesticide resistant crops have continually applied more of the substances to their fields as both weeds and insects adapt to the chemicals. (more…)

New Year’s Resolutions

Gardening ResolutionsThe world is resolution happy this time of year. And why not? The start of a new year, though just a day on the calendar, gives us a chance to show resolve (a quality sorely needed, especially among our political class), to reconsider, to calculate, to make decisions, to be resolute; all the thing a resolution implies. Your humble and determined Planet Natural Blogger thinks a resolution is a commitment to just try harder. In that spirit, here is his list of New Year’s gardening and organic lifestyle resolutions when it comes to the realm of gardening and organics. Please feel free to add other gardening and natural lifestyle resolutions that I may have overlooked or which apply to your particular situation.

1) To use no harmful chemical spray, herbicide or pesticide on our lawn, garden or trees; in other words, to use organic solutions whenever possible.

2) To institute a program of integrated pest management to control harmful insects.

3) To buy and plant more heirloom seed. With this, goes the commitment to improve and expand methods of saving heirloom seed from plants grown in our own garden; in short, to establish our own line of heirlooms to grow year after year. (more…)

Seasons Gleanings

Happy HolidaysDid you notice? The sun came up seconds earlier this morning. The winter solstice has passed. Though there’s plenty of cold weather left — the year’s coldest weather comes after the solstice — our hemisphere’s tilt back towards the sun means warmth and light are on the horizon. And more warmth and more light means… gardening!

Okay, those days are still months off. These are the days we go back through our gardening journals, we study seed catalogs, we make sure the living things in our homes — green and not — are well-taken care of. Still dealing with last minute holiday tasks? For your last minute shoppers, here’s a list of gift ideas that just might save your reputation as a thoughtful and generous person. It’s an oldie but a goodie… we especially like the last idea; a “promise” gift that involves an activity or helping out a friend or family member. Still looking for blooms on your Christmas cactus? Here’s helpful suggestions for all your Christmas-themed houseplants including poinsettias and Norfolk pines. (more…)

Last Minute Local Shopping

Bozeman, MontanaOnce again your friendly but prone-to-procrastination Planet Natural Blogger has left his holiday shopping until the last weekend. This is not the overwhelming problem for us last-minute shoppers that it appears to be. There’s an easy solution. Shop local! Your locally-based retailers probably have just the thing to delight those on you gift list. In fact, when you’re looking for unique, thoughtful gifts that show you had the recipient in mind — as well as in your heart — local business often have that one-of-a-kind item that stand apart from the same ol’, same thing that everyone is buying at the big box store. Better yet! It may have been produced locally, too!

Now, we’ve written on the advantages of shopping locally before. But all the pluses — supporting the local economy and your neighbors who work at locally-owned business (ie, profits stay in town rather than being shipped to Arkansas or some place) — are magnified this time of year. Especially this time of year, it’s great to shop in a cozy place with helpful, present-and-available clerks who have the time to help and make suggestions. Considering the size of your town, you might even know these people. In our humble estimation, that’s what makes a great shopping experience. (more…)

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