Monster Pumpkins

Giant PumpkinTips for growing the biggest, prize winning pumpkin.

We’ve never quite gotten into the notion of competitive gardening. For us, gardening has always been a community effort, a share-the-knowledge and help-your-neighbor kind of thing. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from bragging about snap pea yields or tomato harvests (or the excellent things we do with our harvests once brought to the kitchen). But contests for monster pumpkins? We haven’t had the garden space — the University of Illinois Extension division recommends that even for regular pumpkin vines you need 100 square feet per hill — or the necessary growing season and conditions to try it. But there’s a lot of gardeners that do. There’s even communities of gardeners dedicated to the giant beasts. (more…)

Tomatillo Time

Garden TomatillosWith few pest and disease problems, these tart, citrus-flavored fruits are easy to grow organically.

There’s a simple reason I spent all those years avoiding growing tomatillos: ignorance. Once I learned more about their culinary uses, once I learned how easy they were to grow, well, things changed. With all those peppers being harvested and home growers steaming up their kitchens while making salsa verde, now is a good time to talk about those husk-covered garden fruits that look like little Chinese lanterns as they mature on the vine.

Lover of Mexican food that I am, I’d been eating tomatillos for years without paying much attention. Sure, they’re an integral part of green salsas, both cooked and not. But they’re also great in chile stews where they can smooth out the flavor and tamp down the heat. (more…)

Hybridization, GMOs and Honeycrisp Apples

Honeycrisp ApplesWe don’t mind admitting that honeycrisp apples, a fairly recent newcomer to the world of apples, are our favorite apple for just plain eating. Their tartness balanced with a suggestive sweetness and the snap that comes with biting into one make for one of fall’s great gastronomic experiences. The apple, developed at the University of Minnesota in 1960 and released to growers and consumers in 1994, also helps illustrate a common misconception regarding genetically-modified organisms and those developed through hybridization.

The honeycrisp was developed by cross-pollination of two previously known apples: the honeygold, itself a cross between the golden delicious and the honeygold, and the Macoun. While this process can happen naturally by the wind or various pollinators (like bees), the honeycrisp was given help. The trees that produced the honeycrisp were hybridized, much like some of the tomato seed you might have used in your garden (though these are nearly always “sterile” hybrids which do not produce “true” seed or seed that will result in the same hybrid… but they will self-pollinate to produce fruit). (more…)

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. (more…)

Sweet Season: After a Garden Frost

Frosted GardenWhich vegetables not only survive frost,but taste better after a freeze? Here’s what to grow.

Most 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. (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  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 SquashTips for harvesting and storing squash grown in your garden.

We’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. (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…)

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