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 using leaves in the garden. 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 Contamination from Nitrates

Field SprayingNot so many years ago, my brother-in-law, a Nebraska farmer, made a discovery. The well from which his family pulled their drinking 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

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…)

Saving Flower Seeds

Saving SeedOne of the last — and most meaningful — end-of-season tasks is saving flower seeds for planting next year. We’re not talking about those hybrid seeds you got from the catalog. We’re talking about open-pollinated heirlooms, flowers that have been around longer than grandma. Their names are familiar and come together like words in a poem: Calendula, Four O’Clocks, Morning Glories, Petunias and Poppies.

If you’re lucky, you’ve been saving seed since you were a child, going out with grandma and gathering pods, seed heads or the seeds themselves for careful drying and preserving. Back when, we would put the seeds in grandma’s old pill bottles. Today we put them in tightly-sealed baggies. (more…)

Planting Cover Crops

Cover CropsI’ve been called out for not recommending planting cover crops earlier in this blog. Okay, guilty! Cover crops, especially legumes, are best planted a couple weeks ahead of the first killing frost — as if our changing weather patterns give us any clue as to when that’s going to happen — to give them time to germinate. Legumes usually take longer to germinate. But if you haven’t planted? Experience tells us it’s not too late, depending on your climate and the precautions you take.

Grasses — ryegrass, winter rye, winter wheat and wheat grass, oats — germinate more quickly and there fore are more suitable for late planting. But some legumes — hairy vetch for example — are more adaptable to cold climates and will germinate if planted late, especially if you get a string of warm days in the late season. Buckwheat is a good grass choice for colder climates. Not only does it germinate more quickly than legumes, it’s a quick grower. (more…)

Why GMO Labeling?

GMO Labeling IssuesCalifornia voters — and everyone else across the country — go to the polls Tuesday. Californians will cast a historic vote on whether or not to label the use of Genetically Modified Organisms in our foods. The question at hand is simple: should consumers have the right to know if the foods they buy contain GMOs? But the issue itself is not simple and has been clouded by a flood of anti-labeling ads broadcast across the state. As we and many others have stated before, it’s about more than just whether or not GMOs are harmful to humans (some decidedly are, the jury is still out on others). It’s about unbounded pesticide and herbicide use and the health of our environment, it’s about our willingness to accept monoculture and corporate control over the production of our food, it’s about the survival of heirloom, organic, sustainable and non-engineered crops and farming; it’s about our children; it’s about who owns and controls the very seeds we put in the ground.

The assault from chemical companies and big agri-food producers has been overwhelming. Monsanto alone has spent more than all the Proposition supporters combined. And the latest news isn’t good. A poll conducted by the California Business Roundtable and the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy finds the measure going down — it once led by a wide margin — with 39% in favor and 50% opposed. (more…)

Light Right (Indoor Garden Lighting)

Plant LightingHere’s a trick question: What’s the single most important factor when gardening indoors? The answer is, of course, that there’s no single factor that determines success. Plant lighting, temperature, water, potting conditions and nutrients all play an inter-related role. All are crucial. You can’t separate one from the other. You may have perfect light in religiously timed and measured lumens. But if your plants don’t have enough moisture, or they’re exposed to extreme temperature variations, well, all that money you spent on lights is wasted. Likewise, if you put plants out on your sun porch — plenty of light! — but the dead-of-winter sun shines in only six hours each day, your plants will do little but maintain (if that). Worse, if that six hours of sunlight heats the room beyond what the plant can bear — or if it loses a lot of heat through all that glass at night — your plants will be lucky to survive the variations let alone flourish. (more…)

Plan On Planting Apple Trees Now

Apple TreeThere’s no more rewarding investment than planting trees. Apple trees that you plant early next spring may start yielding fruit in three to four years. But they’ll be giving joy almost immediately. Planting apple trees with your children can be especially rewarding. They’ll grow right along with your kids. A picture journal that begins at the first day of planting and continues through the years, with your kids standing right alongside their tree in each picture, will give you family memories that will last a lifetime, as will the tree itself.

Now you might be thinking that I’m jumping the gun here in late October. Nearly everyone recommends planting fruit trees in the spring, although you can get away with it in the fall if you have mild winters and protect the newly transplanted roots with plenty of mulch. But good organic tree-planting practice starts in the fall even if your trees won’t go in the ground until spring. We went to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to find out more. Here (with some additions) is what they recommend. (more…)

Sugar Is Sweet; Let’s Make A Pumpkin Pie!

Heirloom PumpkinsWe finally had our first hard freeze here in Northern New Mexico, two weeks late of the average. Now, I’m sure most of you, including those in my beloved former-hometown of Bozeman, MT, are well beyond that point. Anyway it got me to thinking about how closely we’d be listening to weather forecasts in the fall, watching the patterns, and waiting until just the last moment to get in the winter squash and sugar pumpkins. Usually a light frost would first do some damage to the vines, warning enough that it was time to go out with a short, sharp knife and get them in. But sometimes a hard frost would just descend from the sky — like it did here last night — and, well, if caught napping it might mean the loss of one’s valuable crop. (more…)

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