Poinsettias Past Christmas

Christmas PoinsettiaWho hasn’t received a velvety, red-leafed poinsettia as a gift or purchased one or more for their home during the holiday season? And how many of those poinsettias survive the year to flower again next holiday season? Hmmm…

Long ago and far away when I was a school teacher, I was given a beautiful poinsettia by one of my darling, young students. It had obvious problems, planted in a small plastic pot filled with a dry concoction dominated by Styrofoam chips. Obviously, its grower didn’t intend for it to last into the new year. Ignorant of growing poinsettias but generally knowledgeable about what plants needed, we repotted it on the solstice, thereby saving the plant but loosing its blossoms.

With its rootball in a big new home filled with nourishing, compost-laden soil mix, our poinsettia thrived, though it never again blossomed. It seemed to grow best during fall and winter and over the years became something of a twisted bonsai with its circling branches decorated with spare green leaves. (more…)

The Many Benefits of Kale

KaleOkay, beets may have won the “Vegetable of the Year” honor in 2012 — at least, in Duluth — but in our book, er, garden journal, the benefits of kale make it the repeat winner. Why? It’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow and it’s packed with nutrition. We stir-fry it with pancetta to make a fancy pasta, with bacon when we’re not being so fancy, and with grated cheese (and sometimes an egg) when we’re cooking vegetarian. But we like it best simple, lightly steamed and drizzled with a little olive oil or lemon juice.

We’ve grown kale in various seasons and places: near the cold Pacific on the wet and cloudy Olympic Peninsula where harvests came year-round with the help of a cold frame, in the middle of winter near the beach in Southern California (no cold frame required), and summers in Montana where we were able to pick it early in spring from well-mulched plants held over from the previous season as well as late (late!) into December with the help of a little plastic and — sometimes — a snow shovel. With kale, it seems the more difficult the growing conditions, the better it tastes. (more…)

Phosphorus Apocalypse

Phosphorus MineWorried that we’re facing the end of the world on December 21st as supposedly predicted by the Mayan Calendar and supported by mass marketers of survival gear? Your timid and easily-frightened Planet Natural Blogger says don’t bother. We have bigger, more reality-based problems to face. Of course, I’m talking about the exhaustion of the world’s supply of phosphorous fertilizer.

Every gardener worth her or his compost knows what phosphorus is. It’s the “P” in the N-P-K ratio. Plants need phosphorus for photosynthesis. It helps plants develop strong root systems, increases resistance and helps plants utilize CO2. It stimulates growth in the first part of a plants life and helps increase yields in their last stage. Its use over the last century is credited with fueling the so-called “green” revolution, the ability of commercial farming to feed the world’s exploding population. It’s also important to humans, necessary for respiration, metabolism and building strong bones. We get phosphorus from the fruits and vegetables we eat. (more…)

Container Gardening 101

Container GardeningTips and techniques for gardening in containers, hanging baskets and window boxes.

Container-grown plants can be an addition to an already flourishing landscape or a garden all by themselves. By planting in nursery pots, buckets, whiskey barrels, grow bags, or whatever else you find around the house, you’ll be adding aesthetic interest and practicality to your yard and home.

Container gardening is useful when…

  • you want to move warmth-loving plants into the house for the winter.
  • controlling the soil quality is desired.
  • there isn’t much space available.
  • you want to grow fresh, yummy herbs and veggies (or pretty flowers) year-round.
  • adding height, texture and variety to the yard is important.

(more…)

Live Christmas Trees

Christmas TreeWhat’s not to like about a live Christmas tree? After serving as the center of holiday celebrations, they come to anchor family memories in an honored place in your yard. They’re less a fire hazard when inside the home and once out they provide all the beauty and CO2 reducing benefits, no matter how tiny, to the environment. Planting a living tree, the one your kids were around when they opened their gifts, is a great family activity.

But how many times have you heard this? “We bought a living tree for the holidays but it died after we planted it.” Otherwise successful arborists find getting a living Christmas tree to take a risky proposition. Why? The planting of living Christmas trees happen under two special circumstances. The trees spend a period of time indoors under warm conditions that replicate spring thaw. This signals the tree — prematurely — that it’s time to start the growing season. The second circumstance is winter planting. The middle of winter isn’t the ideal time for putting trees in the ground.

Having a living tree in your home surrounded by presents on Christmas morning and then having it transferred to an honored place in your landscape — for years! — is not an impossibility. But it does take extra special care. Basically, after buying the tree, you store it cold, recreate the conditions of a short winter thaw when you bring it inside, then recondition it to cold and outdoor planting. The other problem is digging the hole. If the ground is solidly frozen, well, even your ice fishing auger won’t be much help. (more…)

Soil Amendments for Your Garden

Healthy SoilBefore you grow your organic garden, grow your soil. This often-repeated wisdom is simple to say but requires some work to make happen. Growing soil — making it ideal for growing vegetables, flowers, lawns, and other plants — means bringing it to life. How?

  • by making sure its acid/alkaline or pH balance is perfect for what you’re growing,
  • by providing all the nutrients that your soil may lack and your plants require,
  • by improving its structure so that it holds oxygen your plants need as well as retaining necessary moisture and providing critical drainage,
  • by supplying and encouraging strong populations of beneficial microbes that will stimulate the health and growth of your plants

Most soil amendments are added to improve the structure of the soil, to increase the organic content so that the soil is more capable of holding nutrients and moisture. When these organic materials are added to the soil, they also act in varying degrees as fertilizers, providing a mix of nutrients to plant roots. By first determining the needs of your soil, you can best determine what you should add. Need nitrogen? Want to sweeten the pH of your soil? Want to increase moisture-holding ability or break up heavy clay soils? (more…)

Preparing Garden Soil

Organic Garden SoilHealthy soil is the basis of healthy plants and a healthy environment. When garden soil is in good shape there is less need for fertilizers or pesticides. As author and respected gardener Frank Tozer writes, “When building soil you not only improve your plants health, but you can also improve your own.”

Organic soil is rich in humus, the end result of decaying materials such as leaves, grass clippings and compost. It holds moisture, but drains well. Good organic garden soil is loose and fluffy — filled with air that plant roots need — and it has plenty of minerals essential for vigorous plant growth. It is alive with living organisms — from earthworms to fungi and bacteria — that help maintain the quality of the soil. Proper pH is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil.

So, how do you know if your soil is healthy? And what do you do if it isn’t? (more…)

What’s in a Number?

Fertilizer NumbersConfused about fertilizer numbers? What value do they have in organic gardening? A plant needs nutrients to survive. Most of these are provided by the soil, but soil varies tremendously in nutrient amounts, soil type, pH, and nutrient availability.

The three main nutrients that have been identified as absolutely necessary for plants are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). These three are also known as macronutrients, and are the source of the three numbers commonly found on organic fertilizer labels. The numbers found on our All-Purpose Fertilizer, for example, are 5-5-5. This is the percentage by weight of the N, P, and K found in the fertilizer. (more…)

A Gardener’s Guide to Fertilizers

Organic FertilizersIn a perfect world, your garden’s soil would provide all the nutrients plants need. But in the real world, garden and lawn soil — and thus the plants that live in them — often needs a little boost. Improving the soil is the number one thing you can do to improve your garden, yard or landscape and organic fertilizers can help.

All plants need:

  • Macronutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium
  • Secondary nutrients – sulfur, calcium and magnesium
  • Micronutrients – iron, manganese, zinc, chlorine, boron, copper and nickel (in very small quantities)

Organic fertilizing can be as easy or as technical as you want it to be. For gardeners who don’t wish to spend a lot of time figuring out what individual plants want, there are commercial blends that can be used on all plants. (more…)

Organic Fertilizer Benefits

Healthy PlantsWhy not use chemical fertilizers? It’s a reasonable question. After all, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium ARE chemicals, so where is the advantage in these bags of heavy, grainy stuff, that need to be measured and mixed and then dug in, when you can just pick up a small plastic bottle of the blue stuff?

There are several organic fertilizer benefits, some purely altruistic, others much more self-interested. First of all, most chemical fertilizers provide only that well-known trio, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These three, known as the macro-nutrients, are indeed required in greater quantity than any others, but they are only three of the thirteen nutrients plants need. The three chemicals that qualify as secondary nutrients, calcium, sulfur, and magnesium are generally ignored, as are the trace nutrients, boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum. While these are needed in far smaller quantities than the macro-nutrients, they are still essential.

This might not matter if plants could just get these other nutrients from the soil, and this is indeed what usually happens. But over time, and in several ways, chemical fertilizers can interfere with plants’ ability to take up nutrients. (more…)

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