Heartened In the Heartland

Farm TownYour friendly and oh-so-curious Planet Natural Blogger has just returned from a tour of the heartland, a family trip that gave perspective to the state of midwest farming — both big and small — in an area that’s popularly known as “the bread basket.” While the trip had goals other than surveying the local agriculture scene — Mom hadn’t seen Aunt Betty up in White Bear Lake in years and, well, they’re both getting on — it did provide a (mostly) back roads look at how much of the rural landscape, despite years of housing development around the major cities, is still devoted to farming. We’ll let sociologists discuss the decline of rural small towns and their surrounding poverty. Let’s just say we saw examples of both: small towns that had found an economic niche, sometimes based on local agriculture, and others that were dying a slow death.

We traveled from eastern Nebraska through northwest Iowa and through the Minnesota River Valley of — where else? — west and central Minnesota (the Minnesota River Valley, home to the town of LeSeur and its namesake peas, is also known as the Valley of the Green Giant). (more…)

Sweet Season: After a Garden Frost

Frosted GardenMost of us don’t dread the coming of fall even though for several parts of the country it means the end of vegetable gardening season. (Of course, there’s always growing indoors). That first frost will yellow the cucumber vines and turn the basil leaves black. We’d better have all the corn picked — if there’s any left — and bring in the winter squash if we want it to keep, ahead of that first glistening, frozen veil. And the lettuce? Kiss it goodby, unless you’ve covered your delicate plants or the first frost is light. On the other hand, spinach may not be hurt if the frost is light enough.

But there are reasons to look froward to the first garden frost. Some vegetables not only survive it, they come out of the garden tasting even better than before. Kale and broccoli especially gain a sweetness from a light frost that can’t be matched by anything picked earlier. Other members of the brassica family — cabbage, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi — also do well with frost. (more…)

GMO Labeling Resistance: Bad Business

GMO LabelingMark Bittman, The New York Times columnist recently wrote a blog post supporting California’s GMO labeling Prop 37. Nothing surprising there (you can read his column here). Of more interest is the response it brought from Gary Hirshberg of Stoneyfield Organic; you know, the yogurt people. Of course Hirshberg supports the measure. But he makes three outstanding points about the initiative and its (corporate) detractors.

First is that what Prop 37 proposes is already law in 50 other countries around the world. Again, no surprise there; we’ve heard all the European Union countries, as well as Russia and China (!) require GMO labeling or ban GMOs outright. His third point is also one we’re all aware of, a point especially important to organic gardeners and those who wish to keep their families safe: the use of GMOs has led to an explosion in the commercial application of pesticides. If you know someone who belittles your position against GMOs (“they won’t hurt you!”) be sure they understand this consequence of planting them. (more…)

Prepare Garden Mulch Now

Garden MulchYou’ve been mulching all during gardening season, both to preserve moisture and inhibit weeds. But fall is the time to start collecting as much garden mulch as you can. Winter is just around the corner and your trees and shrubs will appreciate a good mulching to protect them from freezing. This is especially important where winter temperatures can be especially harsh (I’m thinking of you, Bozeman, Montana). It’s also important not to pile mulch too high — a practice known as over mulching — around your trees and shrubs.

Mulch is also useful in getting an early start on spring vegetables. Seeds sown under a heavy layer of mulch will, even if sprouted, survive the winter with a little luck. When the mulch is pulled away in the spring — even if there is still the threat of frost — frost-tolerant plants will jump at the chance to get a little sunshine. Garlic and onions are traditionally planted in the fall and over-winter under a warm blanket of mulch. (more…)

Winter Squash For the Keeping

Winter SquashWe’ve had gardens big and small but all of them this time of year were mostly consumed with winter squash vines. Even our smallest gardens hosted a squash plant or two — or maybe pumpkins — and just ahead of the first frost the wandering vines set and their maturing fruit took over. Big garden… no problem. We’d plant a couple types of keepers (as opposed to summer squash, zucchini, patty pan and the like) and hope for a bountiful harvest that would keep us in the fruit’s sweet meat at least until Valentine’s Day. Storing winter squash that long requires some know-how. Here’s what we learned and have garnered from others, books and websites included, over the years.

When are squash ready for the picking? When it’s rind has turned a deep color and is dull, (often) gray and can’t be punctured easily by you fingernail. Be sure to leave an inch or two of stem to prevent rot from creeping in from the top. Do this before the first frost arrives. Hardier brands of winter squash can take a light frost but should be picked at the first sign of vine die-off. Eat these squash first as well as any that are bruised. Those that haven’t completely ripened on the vine can still be eaten. We’ve found them to be not quite as sweet but still delicious. Eat them before the well-ripened ones you’ll want to save for holiday (and beyond!) dinners. Same rules apply to pumpkins. (more…)

Fall In the Xeriscape

Fall GardenWatering in the fall can be particularly problematic. Conditions continue to be dry and trees, shrubs, and lawns need water to avoid stress. Too little water during the fall and winter months can cause root die-off, something that may not be noticeable until well into the next growing season. Water stress during fall and winter can also mean that weakened plants will be more susceptible to insects and disease come summer. Too much water during these seasons can be a bad thing. In areas where there are water restrictions, autumn may require you to do more with even less.

Here’s an excellent article on watering trees and shrubs in the fall from the Colorado State University Extension Service. Some takeaways: shrubs and perennials with shallow root systems are most in need of water during these seasons to avoid root die-off. Mulch is important, not just in keeping moisture in the soil but to prevent soil from cracking (cracks allow cold to invade to greater depths, risking tender roots). Don’t water when temperatures are below 40 degrees; there’s a good chance soil moisture will freeze and damage roots. Water at mid-day so moisture will have a chance to soak into the ground before night-time freezes. (more…)

Pesticides in Bird Food?

Bird FeederAccording to Reuters, Scotts Miracle-Gro company will be fined $12.5 million for illegally including pesticides in bird food products. The company pleaded guilty in February to the charge that it violated the federal law governing the use of pesticides. The fine includes $2 million that will be spent on “environmental projects.” The penalties, according to the Justice Department, are the largest in the history of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. A company spokesman says Scotts has taken full responsibility.

Truth-Out.org reports that the company voluntarily recalled products that it treated with pesticides. Why Scotts treated the bird seed with the knowledge that those pesticides were toxic to birds, fish and other wildlife is the central question. Scotts says that the pesticides were added to the bird seed to prevent insect infestations. The Audubon Society reports that Scotts falsified pesticide registration documents and distributed pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels. Scotts reportedly sold more than 70 million units of the bird food, branded as Morning Song and Country Pride, between 2005 and 2008. (more…)

Fall Planting, Spring Color

Garden BulbsFall is the time for making sure you’ll have plenty of color in your landscape come spring. Now’s the time to divide perennials, if you haven’t done so in the last few years. If your perennials are showing smaller blossoms or dying off in the center, then dig them up, clip the crowns, and spread them around after cutting out dead and crowded roots. They like room for their roots to grow. Keep the cutting moist until you’ve put them back in the soil. Do this early; don’t wait until there’s a chance that your soil will start to freeze. If there’s a question, wait until early spring, just as the ground thaws and the plants begin to show signs of life. Either way, be sure to add some compost to the soil where they’re planted.

September is also the time to plant bulbs for spring crocus, daffodils, and tulips. Wait until the nights have become cool. The ideal soil temperature for planting bulbs is around 60 degrees. For tight, impressive displays, plant bulbs in a circle. Or just place them where ever you have room and they’ll have enough sunlight to thrive. (more…)

Homegrown Tomato Time

Heirloom TomatoesThere’s something different in the air, something that precludes the end of summer and the coming of cooler days and chillier nights. Your area may have reached that point already, a time when frost is anticipated maybe even tomorrow. But for most of us, there’s still an abundance to be had in our gardens and that means homegrown tomatoes.

The history of tomatoes, their trip from the Andes and the gardens of the Aztecs to Europe and back to America is fascinating. In his entertaining book The Heirloom Life Gardener, Jere Gettle recounts the origins of the belief that tomatoes were poisonous (they’re members of the nightshade family, as are belladonna and henbane) and how they were first grown in the Old World as an ornamental. He recounts that famous moment in tomato history where a crowd of two-thousand gathered in Salem County, New Jersey to watch Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson commit suicide by eating a basket of tomatoes. They were disappointed. Today they’re consumed by the tons. (more…)

The Stanford Study: Storm Over Organics

Organic ControversyThe controversy generated by the Stanford organic food study continues to grow. It didn’t take long for people to recognize that the study assembled data from tests for the wrong thing. But that hasn’t stopped supporters of agri-business, corporate food retailers and, yes, GMO-supporters from “we-knew-it-all-along” responses. The responses criticizing the study have served to underscore the genuine reasons we choose organics in the first place.

Worst of the anti-organics responses (“Organic, shmorganic,” it whimpers) comes from columnist Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s an obvious appeal for GMOs based on the logic that GMOs are better capable of feeding a starving world (not true, as studies have shown). And it also derides those who seek to protect their families from pesticides which the Stanford study suggests contaminate 37% of commercially-grown fruits and vegetables. And it bemoans the cost — “Organic is a fable for the pampered of the planet,” Cohen writes — while ignoring the fact that subsistence and small-farms make modest livings raising competitively-priced, pesticide-free produce while preserving — nay, improving! — soils, unlike large commercial food operations that deplete soils as they over-use pesticides and fertilizers that are harmful to our waters. Scroll down to the comments section of Cohen’s article and note what people have to say: there’s the “ha-ha” of organic detractors and then there’s the thoughtful arguments of organic supporters who mostly say that Cohen, by focusing his attack on nutrition and price, misses the whole point of organics. Also view The Times letters section addressing the Stanford study. Good stuff! (more…)

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