The Effect of Pesticides on Beneficial Insects

Pesticide EffectYour industrious Planet Natural Blogger has been reading up on beneficial insects lately for a project he’s doing and has been reminded of several things. First of all, how important the role of beneficial insects is; yes to the organic gardener with pest problems but also to the environment at large. Secondly — and sadly — the effect of pesticides on predatory and parasitic insects. Now it’s not as if we need reminding of that last fact. But it underscores the extent of the consequences pesticide applications carry. And it calls to mind the balance, both the one naturally occurring in the environment and the one organic gardeners try to establish in their garden by introducing beneficial insects when called for.

Many beneficial insects — lady beetles, spined soldier bugs, minute pirate bugs; even praying mantis in some areas — exist naturally and are frequently spotted by gardeners. Others — predatory mites, trichogramma wasps — are present but harder to spot, their number increasing only in response to pest infestations. It’s important that all gardeners learn to identify them, so as not to confuse them with insects that harm your plants. (more…)

Starting Seeds Indoors

Starter PotsBy Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Starting plants from seed just might be the second most enjoyable act of procreation you’ll ever experience. In addition to the fun — starting seed is the perfect cure for those late-season winter blahs — raising your own plants offers practical and aesthetic benefits. You’ll get an earlier start to your garden and you’ll be able to raise vegetable and flower varieties not offered as starts by your local garden store or nursery. You’ll have plants that are healthier, vigorous, more disease resistant and ideally chosen for your personal growing conditions. And you’ll be able to choose vegetables that taste better, produce earlier and store longer. You might even save some money. Often a single start from your local garden supplier costs as much as a whole packet of seed. Plus, the satisfaction you’ll receive watching plants that you started yourself go into the garden is priceless. Your kids will love watching the miracle of growth from seeds they started themselves… and they’ll learn something as well. (more…)

Why Heirloom Seed?

Heirloom SeedsImagine growing the same fruits and vegetables as Thomas Jefferson or Luther Burbank. Imagine your garden filled with bright colors, odd shapes and a variety of foods that could inspire even the most jaded vegetable-hater to take a bite. Heirloom seed produces fruits, vegetables and flowers that have been passed down for generations for their good taste, vibrant colors, pest resistance and other beneficial traits.

Today there is a trend toward locally grown and organic foods. At the same time as mega-corporations are producing genetically altered, dyed, bland foods that are often covered in pesticides, many people are starting to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Not only is home grown food likely to be safer and healthier than commercially produced fruits and vegetables, it tastes better, too! (more…)

Hazardous Harvest (GMOs)

GMO TomatoWhat GMOs mean to organic growers.

By Bill Kohlhaase for Planet Natural

When U.S. District Judge for New York Naomi Buchwald threw out a lawsuit in February filed by The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiffs against the Monsanto Corporation, she struck a blow against organic growers, small farmers and concerned citizens across the country. The suit, filed in March of 2011 on behalf of organic farmers and seed growers by the Public Patent Foundation (PUBAT), was a preemptive measure designed to prohibit Monsanto from filing future lawsuit against growers whose fields may have inadvertently been contaminated by genetically-modified crops — known as GMOs — patented by Monsanto. This contamination can be caused by wind-carried seed, bird droppings, neighboring farmers losing seed in transport near a non-GMO field, or other unintended methods. Once Monsanto discovers its patented GMOs in a field where the plants volunteered even without the farmer’s knowledge, its legal team goes to work. (more…)

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. (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…)

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