Drought, Corn and Genetic Engineering

GMO CornDrought has been big news this summer, no more so than regarding its effect on America’s corn crop. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it has put renewed emphasis on corn raised for energy production (ethanol) and the amount that goes into making high-fructose corn syrup with all its connections to obesity. The down side? What about genetically engineered corn that resists drought?

This article in The Washington Post and a related blog post on its “Wonk Blog” tells us something we might have guessed: Monsanto has developed a so-called drought resistant corn. We’re reminded of the dictum that’s been bandied about the last several years: Never let a good crisis go to waste. Monsanto, apparently, has taken that to heart. It goes without saying that the claim to drought resistance is something of a stretch.

Is there a silver lining to these articles? Scroll down through the Wonk Blog and find some doubters (enter the Union of Concerned Scientists – PDF format). (more…)

Living Walls

Living WallYou already know about green roofs. But green walls? Yes! A friend interested in interior design introduced me to the notion of living walls and it didn’t take much to discover how fast the idea is catching on. Also called “vertical gardening,” the idea is being championed by a number of eco-minded builders of both large buildings and small. Businesses devoted specifically to living walls are popping up, self-contained living-wall units are available and some cities are encouraging their use.

Vertical gardens can be designed for both inside and outside walls. The benefits are many. Most obvious are aesthetic. “When I walk by, it’s calming, just a little more serene, maybe a little bohemian,” says one living wall owner in this Wall Street Journal story. “I call it Prozac on a wall,” says another. A living wall adds color, texture and interest. But that’s not all. Having a wall of plants will naturally filter the air, removing pollutants that make indoor air often more dangerous than out. Indoor living walls provide insulating value, reducing heating and cooling costs. On outside walls, a vertical garden will help protect the structure from strong sunlight as well as keep it cool. Outside living walls also shield the inside from noise. Inside living walls improve acoustics. (more…)

Plan Your Indoor Gardens Now

Indoor GardensIt’s August and there’s plenty of late summer chores to be done in the garden. But it’s also the time to plan for your indoor, winter garden. The bounty you’re enjoying now from you outdoor garden will be sorely missed once the frost forms and the snow flies. But if you plan now, you can enjoy fresh greens, herbs — even tomatoes! — from a carefully planned indoor garden. Or maybe you just want to brighten your indoor environment during the cold dark months with beautiful indoor plants or flowers. And, planning your indoor gardens now, allows you to take advantage of off-season special deals when buying the containers, lights, and hydroponic equipment you’ll need. Starting now means you can surprise your holiday guests with fresh salads and herbs despite the winter wonderland.

Here’s where planning begins:

• Pick a spot: You’ll want your indoor gardening location to be convenient to water and, if needed, electricity ( a dangerous mix… be sure to follow all safety precautions when using electricity around water, the first one being KEEP THEM SEPARATE!). But the most important aspect is light. You”ll need at least six hours of strong sunlight for your plants to be productive. If that’s not possible — and most places, it isn’t — start investigating light systems. Choose a place where temperatures will remain fairly consistent. And don’t forget circulation. Plants need a fresh supply of oxygen for healthy growth and to resist molds and fungus. (more…)

Compost In the Xeriscape

Steaming Compost PilesIt seems that no matter the problem we face in our gardens, the answer — or at least a part of the answer — frequently includes compost. This is certainly true in xeriscape gardening, the process of using minimal moisture effectively. Soil conditioning is one of the seven principles of xeriscaping. Soil that retains moisture while still allowing moisture to move through it is the goal. While there are many amendments that can be added to particular kinds of soil — clay or coarse — to help them conduct and retain moisture properly, the first and best step (because it also adds valuable microorganisms to the soil) is composting.

Gayle Weinstein’s excellent text Xericscape Handbook: A How-To Guide to Natural, Resource-Wise Gardening does a good job of explaining how water moves (and stays) in soil. Water, filtering from top to bottom, fills the spaces around each soil particle. Gravity pulls the water through the soil, but capillary action holds some of the water near the surface. When gravity draws some of the water away from plant roots through the soil and the capillary water is lost, either through evaporation or plant uptake, what’s left is called hygroscopic water, the water absorbed by the soil particles and slowly given up as capillary water between the soil particle spaces vanishes. (more…)

Abundant Recipes: Summer Squash

Summer SquashThere’s only one thing more abundant this time of year than zucchini and crookneck: summer squash recipes! Of course, squash isn’t the only thing coming in abundance from our gardens in August. And there-in lies a clue as to how we should use this bounty. What grows together, goes together.

That’s exactly the principle Dani over at Clean and Delicious operates under when putting together her Raw Summer Squash Salad with Feta and Tomato. She combines squash, cherry tomatoes (who doesn’t have a lot of those in the garden now?), basil, olive oil, lemon juice, feta cheese, and salt and pepper into a refreshing first course. Our variation? Add a pinch (or three) of chile flakes to bring out the flavors.

As much as we love grilling and sautéing zucchini and yellow squash, using it raw has its attractions. As Dani… or almost anyone… will tell you: when using raw summer squash, slice it thinly. A mandolin is a handy implement for this. Some people use their Cusinart, but we find this too much trouble (and a bit wasteful). A good sharp paring knife and close attention to what you’re slicing is our preferred method. (more…)

Avoiding GMOs

GMO CornA friend asks, “What’s the big deal? You’re an organic gardener.” (“As best I can,” I reply, knowing there are few absolutes in gardening). “Why don’t you grow what you need? You want to eat non-GMO corn? Eat the corn you grow. Don’t buy it in the store.”

If only it were that simple.

Yes, my friend, by being something of a know-it-all, shows how little he knows. The problems associated with GMOs are far more complicated than just avoiding their purchase. There are problems of cross-pollination of GMO crops with crops in our organic garden. There’s the loss of biodiversity. And, avoiding GMO products in our grocery stores is not as easy as he thinks it is. (more…)

Talkin’ Potato Blight

Harvesting PotatoesAugust is often the make or break month for potatoes. No doubt, if you’ve planted a few rows (or a lot) of potatoes, you’ve already dug a few plants for new potatoes which are usually ready two weeks or so after the plants blossom. But if you’re waiting until the first frost so you’ll have big tasty tubers for winter storage, now’s the time to be on alert. Warms days with high consistent humidity encourage blight, as does wet weather. The problem with potato blight is that once it starts, it’s nearly impossible to make it disappear completely. Still there are things you can do to prevent and impede potato disease. The ultimate goal is to keep them from the tubers.

If you notice dark blemishes on mature leaves, often with target-like rings, your potatoes are probably suffering from one of the most common diseases, early blight. If left untreated, this fungus will result in collar rot, essentially strangling the plant at the soil line. Luckily, there is a treatment that will slow or even stop the fungus that causes potato blight, if applied early enough. A good copper-based fungicide applied every week or so should give your spuds time to develop. (more…)

Drying Herbs

Drying HerbsIn many parts of the country, the beginning of August is the time to harvest and dry herbs. Many leafy herbs have budded and are ready to flower… the perfect time to harvest for drying. Herbs at this stage — just ahead of flowering — have the most flavorful, aromatic oils. Some herbs — basil, rosemary, lemon balm, parsley and rosemary — can be harvested multiple times over the course of the summer. It’s best to harvest in the morning after the dew has dried. Inspect your pickings carefully for dead or diseased leaves or signs of mold. Most herbalists recommend rinsing herbs and gently shaking them dry. We’ve always felt that rinsing removes valuable oils and try to keep it at a minimum, especially after a previous day’s rain.

Herbs with a lower moisture content — oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, savory, dill, sage — do well with hanging and air drying. They may be simply inverted, the stems bound together by string, and hung from a rafter or any overhang that allows circulation around the entire bunch. Keep your herbs from exposure to sunlight. Check frequently for signs of mold or mildew. (more…)

Composting Paper

Shredded PaperIn a previous post, we recommended adding paper or cardboard to a compost heap that’s too moist. Paper will absorb water as well as provide short-term air space to aide in circulation if it’s crumpled. That suggestion, as pointed out by one of our more careful readers, brought up an entirely different subject: is composting paper safe? The answer is yes. And no.

Paper — made from wood pulp — seems a likely addition to compost because of its source: nature. Newspapers have long been held as a good source of “brown” component in the brown-green, carbon-nitrogen balance that compost piles need (so much so that adding too much paper will tip the balance). But paper might also contain some harmful ingredients in the form of inks, dyes and other treatments. These days, most newspaper inks are soy-based, a good thing for the environment (though the soy used in inks is likely from GMO sources). But some inks may still contain petro-chemicals or pigments if they include color as most papers do. Also newsprint may hold some chlorine from the bleaching process. Newspaper is bleached less than most commercial office papers but may still contain some chlorine. (more…)

Xeriscape Landscaping

XeriscapingLandscaping with minimal water or only the moisture nature provides was dubbed “xeriscaping” a few decades back and the term has caught on. The word comes from combining the Greek word for “dry” and “landscaping.” Thought to have originated with the water-conscious experts at Denver Water, the city’s municipal water provider, the term has seen growing use over the last few drought-burdened seasons. The principles of xeriscape landscaping are principles dear to organic gardeners’ hearts. Soil improvement, mulching and wise planning are all part of the successful xeriscape. Proper watering is key. And the rewards include savings on water bills (or protecting your well’s ground water supply) as well as healthy, rewarding, easy-to-maintain lawns and gardens.

The practice of xeriscaping, a child of the mountain West, is spreading across the suburbs of the Midwest and South as this season’s severe drought challenges gardeners and landscapers across the country. In doing so, it’s also spreading organic gardening practices to those who never saw fit to use them before. Of course, this can only be a good thing for our environment, for our families, and the future of gardening. (more…)

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