Mighty Mycorrhiza

Mycorrhizal FungiOne of the great things about gardening — in addition to creating beautiful landscapes and delicious, healthy food — is its educational opportunities. Your friendly Planet Natural blogger has gardened on and off since my childhood some (garbled) years ago and I learn something new almost every time I pick up a how-to book, talk to a companion gardener, or get my hands in the dirt. Best are the things that I once knew nothing about and, as I explore them further, result in deepening levels of understanding and wonder. Current example? Mycorrhiza.

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial soil organisms that attach themselves to the roots of plants — almost 95% of the world’s growing things have a symbiotic reationship with mycorrhiza  –  and help them facilitate the uptake of water and nutrients. I first came aware of mycorrhizal fungi when pursuing hydroponic gardening a few years back. Hydroponic gardeners add mycorrhizal fungi innoculants to their growing solutions to encourage quick and vibrant growth. Some soil boosters also contain them. That’s good as far as it goes. (more…)

Tool Time: Caring for Garden Tools

Heirloom Garden ToolsWe’re a little lost this time of year when it comes to gardening. Sure there’s plenty else to do and our indoor plants provide just enough green contact to keep us in touch with growing things. But looking out over a mulch or snow-covered garden gets us a bit anxious to get outside and start gardening again. What to do in the meantime?

Take care of our garden tools. Grandma’s maxim — “It’s not what you have but how you take care of what you have” — applies to garden tools, especially the ones we inherited from her. How did they last that long? See Grandma’s maxim.

By now, of course, you’ve drained the hoses and brought them inside for winter storage, unless your climate is such that you are able to water all year ’round. But have you taken a wire brush to your shovel, turning fork, and hoe to clean away all traces of dirt and rust? Have you taken special care to clean debris away from where the head of the tool meets the handle to avoid hidden rot and decay? Did you treat those wooden handles with linseed oil to assure that they won’t turn brittle and crack… or worse? (more…)

Rosemary In Winter

Rosemary GardenIt’s been over a year since I moved from Montana to the sunny and somewhat warmer (or considerably, depending on the day) climes of Northern New Mexico. Despite the passing of those 13 months, I still mourn the loss of my rosemary. After all, we’d grown close considering all the time I’d spent moving them around, indoors and out, to avoid the coldest weather but to guarantee they had enough sun. They provided many a sprig or just a flat leaf or three (rosemary, as all cooks know, is strongly flavored) to slide in under the skin of chicken or to flavor a pork roast stew.

I carefully packed my two deeply-potted plants when we left and tucked them into the back of the hatchback with the dog for the long trip. They survived it just fine (the dog, too). I had the perfect new home for them, a sun porch with southwest exposure. They seemed happy enough for a while but then started to wilt. I figured the sun was drying them out and gave them more water. Big mistake. (more…)

Bokashi for Christmas

Bokashi CompostingYesterday after the big feast, your friendly and conservation-minded Planet Natural Blogger noticed something he notices every year at Thanksgiving: how much food is being discarded. The abundance made me think of all the foodstuff that becomes waste and how much methane it generates once in the landfill. And just like that, I had something to put at the top of my Christmas list: a Bokashi bucket!

Bokashi is a self-contained, anaerobic method of composting that accepts things that, for reasons of pests, varmints and sanitation, shouldn’t go into your regular compost heap. Bokashi is actually the bran or other grain meal that is innoculated with beneficial, highly active microbes that will turn food scraps into a useable compost tea. This tea is so potent you wouldn’t want to use it directly on plants right away. Instead it’s allowed to mellow over a period of a couple weeks, then diluted; or buried in your garden soil in increments that temper its life-boosting power. (more…)

Turkey Time

Turkey DinnerDid you know that turkey manure is one hot fertilizer with slightly more nitrogen than chicken manure? Though the difference is slight — and actually disputed by the University of Minnesota — one thing’s clear. Turkey manure, like other poultry manure, is a valuable source of phosphorous, potassium, and, yes, nitrogen. It also contains other valuable nutrients and microbes that your plants will appreciate.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own little homestead with a turkey or three trotting about — we’re told they make acceptable country pets and a single male strutting around can be as decorative as a peacock — or live near (but not too near) a source of good organic turkey manure, take advantage. Most likely, it will be available as “litter,” mixed in with sawdust, straw, feed and other components to be swept or shoveled off the coop floor (wear a mask). No matter how your turkey droppings come, you’ll want to compost this material before using it. (more…)

Inside House Plants

The Unexpected HouseplantIt’s never to early to start thinking about those holiday gifts you’ll be buying even if, like your friendly Planet Natural Blogger, you’re a last minute shopper. (Remember… we said we’re only thinking about holiday gifts… the buying still comes last minute.) Because we ascribe to the idea that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to gardening, we often choose books to give to our nearest and dearest. Here’s a new book that we think is especially suited for, well, just about anyone. Tovah Martin’s The Unexpected Houseplant is a fascinating and refreshing way to look at the growing things we raise indoors. It’s perfect for those who already decorate their homes with green things as well as those who don’t but might like to.

Martin is a Connecticut-based, organic gardener who write extensively on the craft of growing things. Her previous book is The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Display for Plants and Nature. She’s also a busy blogger — check out plantwise.com — and she’s published in magazines ranging from Horticulture to Country Gardens. More than just a gardener, Martin is a crusader for growing and the gardening life-style. Her books aren’t simple how-to’s but seek to convert readers to gardening with their not-so-subtle emphasis on aesthetics and gardening as lifestyle. “I’m doing my best to demonstrate how plants can changer your psyche when you welcome them into your life,” she writes in the introduction to The Unexpected Houseplant. And that includes welcoming them inside your home as well as outdoors. (more…)

Things We’ve Learned: Leaves

Autumn LeavesWe think of gardening as a never-ending learning process. Just when something makes sense, we learn something new — or remember some detail we’d forgotten — and suddenly, Doh!… we feel like Homer Simpson. Such is the case with composting leaves. We used to have so many. We’d heap up our compost piles and spread them over our garden. One not-so-bright day in November we decided that if we turned them into the soil they wouldn’t blow around as much. And, come spring, they’d decompose faster into the soil, enriching it with mineral-rich humus. Win-win!

No, lose. Even though we knew that carbon-rich materials use up nitrogen as they break down, we didn’t put it together with our garden soil, which of course we wanted to be nitrogen-rich. By turning those leaves into the soil, we were guaranteeing that we’d be losing some nitrogen for next growing season. Same thing happens with other carbon-rich materials: wood chips, sawdust, pine needles; even shredded paper and cardboard if you’re using it. Turning them directly into the soil will deplete nitrogen.

Of course, there’s a simple solution. Put those leaves into your compost heap with enough “green” (nitrogen-rich) materials to finish the resulting product. You don’t need much. Experts tell us that 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen will do the trick If you don’t have enough nitrogen, the composting process comes to a halt. (more…)

Groundwater and Organics

Field SprayingNot so many years ago, my brother-in-law, a Nebraska farmer, made a discovery. The well from which his family pulled their water, a source that had served his family for generations, was polluted from nitrates. The pump house was located near their home on the side of a hill. Near the top of the hill and for hundreds of acres beyond, were the contoured, non-irrigated fields where he grew corn one year, soy beans the next. To maintain productivity and following fertilizer company directions, he had spread nitrogen supplements in a huge, single dose, year after year.

The practice didn’t cost him his water supply. But it did cost him a hefty chunk of change to put in an expensive water purification system. Luckily, his young children were none the worse for it. But it’s common knowledge that nitrates in water cause blue baby syndrome or methemoglobinemia a disease that interferes with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen where it’s needed. Methemoglobinemia can also affect adults who have digestive problems that don’t allow them to break down nitrates in the gastric system. Nitrates are also linked to some cancers. (more…)

Let It Snow

Early SnowfallWe had the first snowfall of the year here in Northern New Mexico this weekend. The mountains are blanketed and long patches of the white stuff remain in the shadows of the pines and junipers here at the relatively modest elevation of 7,200 feet. Of course, further north in the Rockies, they’ve already had plenty — thanks, Brutus — as well as in the plains. New England has been covered in white just a week after hurricane Sandy brushed the area. The upper midwest? They saw their first snow a month ago.

While first snow accumulations signaling the end of another season can trigger a sense of melancholy in outdoor gardeners, others take solace in the beauty of their snow-draped landscapes. It’s important to remember that snow has valuable benefits for your lawn and garden. It’s insulating factors help protect tender roots from hard freezes. Some bulb plants love a blanket of snow for their winter sleeping. An early snow makes it easier to harvest those remaining root vegetables than it would be if the ground froze solidly. (more…)

Dealing With GMOs – The Defeat of Proposition 37

Grocery ShoppingWhat to make of the defeat in California of Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative? When all across America, voters seemed to ignore the hundreds-of–millions of dollars thrown at important races by Super PACs and other unrestrained donations, the voters of California — or at least a significant percentage of them — took the onslaught of negative ads to heart.

One theory about this discrepancy says that the ads from Monsanto, Coca-Cola, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and others were just more effective due to the fact that, unlike groups of disgruntled billionaires, these overweight corporations were well experienced in advertising and public relations campaigns. Their ads were just plain more effective. Why? Maybe they weren’t all that honest. Then again, it’s not as if American voters aren’t familiar with misleading and deceptive political advertising. (more…)

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