Dig Deeper

Want the scoop on the latest gardening tips – both indoors and out — as well as in-depth news and information on issues important to natural growers and everyone else interested in a healthy, earth-conscious life style? Here’s where to dig up the details on everything from soil amendments and organic pest control to heirlooms and safe, natural lawn care.

Overwintering Plants Indoors

Overwintering PlantsTo keep potted plants alive through the winter, know your plants, know your conditions.

Friends that read this blog are always anxious to offer criticism, point out mistakes, and otherwise find things I’ve said that just might not be true in every case. Rather than get all defensive, we’ve learned to engage our fact-checkers, address the questions and, more often than not, learn something in the process.

So when a couple of longtime gardeners began taking exception to some of the things I said in “Overwintering Potted Plants,” I paid attention. Much of what they commented on wasn’t about out-and-out mistakes. Most of the corrections and considerations my friends made were of the “not true in every case,” and “you failed to make the distinction,” and, best (or worst, depending on your point of view) “you promised the moon” sort. So let’s start with the moon.

Overwintering plants is an imperfect art. Success is relevant to the conditions and, let’s face it, most seasons present a day or three of special conditions. In general, conditions are changing. It’s not unusual to lose plants that you bring indoors; in fact, it should be expected. Success, measured when those plants are taken back outside and then thrive, is an achievement and should be celebrated. Failure is the way you learn to be successful. (more…)

How to Make a Succulent Frame

Succulent FrameAn attractive, hardy succulent garden to hang on your wall like fine art.

The more we learn about and grow succulents, the more we love them. They’re compact and beautiful, with fleshy “fat leaves.” Those thick, engorged leaves come in beautiful paddles, tight rosettes, and a variety of other attractive, snaking swollen fronds. Succulents do well in arid areas and are tolerant of heat swings of the sort you might find in a desert (as long as it doesn’t freeze hard). It doesn’t take much to grow them as long as you remember a few succulent principles. Never over water; succulents carry their own. What do you think makes those fat leaves?

Give them the right growing medium. Soil can be too compact and will smother their roots. Cactus soil, with plenty of organic material works better. A combination of gravel, vermiculite, or perlite with some organic matter is ideal. Why? Succulent roots need plenty of space. That’s because the roots don’t drink water, they take it from the air. Gravel, like crushed granite, makes a good base ingredient because it doesn’t absorb water. If your planting medium provides lots of space between granules and a bit of organic matter to absorb and slowly release moisture, you’ll make your succulents happy. (more…)

Quick Efficient Composting

Compost TumblerGetting the most from your compost tumbler.

Our correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico writes in to tell us of an encouraging sight he sees. One of the city’s schools is flanked by a number of raised garden beds where the students grow vegetables in the spring and summer. Nearby are a half-dozen compost tumblers into which he’s seen students loading the remains of those gardens as well as leaves and kitchen scraps. This extends the students’ lessons that start with simple seeds. Not only are they learning about plants and other aspects of biology, they’re learning about recycling waste, building healthy soil, and the science behind decomposition. Imagine the possibilities.

The main thing this sight brings to our New Mexican friend (he admits) is jealousy. He only has one compost tumbler and he wishes, like the students, he had more.

The benefits of compost tumblers make them perfect for most home gardeners. They keep their contents neat and contained. Not all of us think that a compost heap is a beautiful thing (right, dear?) but even those who see a pile of decomposing leaves and grass clippings as an eyesore can’t slight the sight of an efficient compost tumbler. The best thing about them? They make accomplishing the act of composting much easier. Why spend time with a garden fork turning over a heavy and unruly heap every few months when a few cranks and turns mixes your compost and provides the aeration it needs to work effectively? (more…)

Contaminated Chicken: Thoughts For Organic Gardeners

Chicken ProductionSalmonella outbreak emphasizes importance of small producers and homegrown vegetables.

No doubt you, like us, have been following the recent news about contaminated chicken. No need to go into the details. But for those who need to catch up, Portland’s The Oregonian has done a good job covering the story and food-issue columnist Mark Bittman over at The New York Times has provided not only background but insight into the story behind the story.

The closing during the recent government shutdown of the Centers For Disease Control’s PulseNet system, which monitors food poisoning outbreaks and pinpoints causes, certainly hindered the tracking and tracing of the problem but wasn’t the reason for the problem. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) of the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), shut down or not, doesn’t seem to be acting in consumers’ best interest. As Bittman puts it, “This is not a shutdown issue, but a ‘We care more about industry than we do about consumers’ issue.” (more…)

Manure, Antibiotics, Compost

Composting ManureIt’s common knowledge that the commercial livestock industry stuffs its cattle, hogs and chickens with antibiotics. A new study shows just how dangerous the practice is. A review of 440,000 patient records in Pennsylvania found that those who lived near farms and areas where manure was dumped were 38 percent more likely to develop a MRSA infection. MRSA is one of the most insidious and deadly antibiotic-resistant infections confounding the medical world today. The bacteria attacks skin and other soft tissue.

The study has important implications for growers and family gardeners who purchase and use steer and other types of manures — or commercial compost containing manure–for garden use. Working with or near such manure could unnecessarily expose you to MRSA and other antibiotic resistant infections. (more…)

Plant Bulbs In Containers for Spring Flowers

Planting BulbsAmong spring’s greatest visual joys is a fat container sporting thick green spears of emerging tulips, daffodils, and other flowers. And when the flowers emerge tightly circled, like beautiful eyes following wherever you go, there’s little that can compare. The time to make sure your spring will be full of beautiful flowers from bulbs is now, in the fall, to give them a chance to establish roots and to chill-out over the winter, just like most gardeners do.

Don’t get us wrong. We love spring blossoms from bulbs as they poke out from the thawing ground, sometimes even through the snow, in our borders and gardens. And there’s little that’s as impressive as a huge plot of daffodils, their bright petals announcing sunny days, turning through the day as they follow the light. But growing bulbs in containers is a great way to add spot-specific color and interest. They’re especially useful to the small gardener, even apartment dwellers with verandas, in that they provide a space for growing color where none may have existed. Best of all? Growing them is easy.

Almost any spring-flowering bulb will do for container planting. And as you plan your bulb containers, consider planting major flowering bulbs like tulips, gladiola, and daffodils with smaller flowers like crocus, snowdrops, windflower, or grape hyacinth (though the latter tends to spread and take over pots). Combinations of bulbs will give you both staggered blooms and a layered, understory appearance. (more…)

Sustainable Farming, Soil, and Big Agriculture

Sustainable AgricultureCorporate farming has disrupted an independent economic model and a way of life that was common just a few generations ago. Things were different when America’s farming economy was based on countless small, independent producers who then sold their products at rural cooperatives or directly to markets. Today, a few large food producers including Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Tyson, and a few large (mostly) chemical companies, including Dow Agro Sciences, Cargill and, yes, Monsanto, have a corner not only on our food supplies but the products used to raise them. This consolidation of our farm and food supplies creates huge problems, not just in this country, but world wide.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a reversal of this trend with independent, often organic farmers not only raising healthy food but being good stewards of the land. Yet the acreage involved is still miniscule compared to the vast miles of commercial farmland in the midwest, the south, and in California, where big corporate agriculture has a grip. But here, too, there are signs of change. We were reminded of this recently with the passing of Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, who early on saw that the chemical laden ways of big agriculture weren’t all they were cracked up to be and set about trying to find ways to grow his crops more efficiently and more successfully. (more…)

Pesticides and Unintended Consequences

Pesticide DriftWe’ve already mentioned the fine documentary released early this summer More Than Honey, a film that looks at the behavior of bees as well as issues and consequences behind colony collapse disorder that’s sweeping the world. As the movie states, bee activity is responsible for a third of the food we eat. Losing them would have impacts well beyond the loss of some fruit. It could mean a complete change in the way we live. The movie shows us an example of a place where bees have already vanished and the consequences that followed.

The place is China. Seems that Mao Tzedog before his death in 1976 decided that a plague of sparrows was putting a large dent in grain production. So in the kind of short-sighted, ill-conceived wisdom that’s apparently shared by Chinese dictators and American corporate agricultural CEOs, Mao called for the elimination of sparrows. The killing of the sparrows released a swarm of insects, a problem that affected agriculture much more than the damage done by the birds. So massive spraying programs were instituted. The spraying not only killed harmful insects, it killed beneficial ones as well, including pollinators. Without bees, Chinese crops blossomed but didn’t produce. The solution? Hand pollination. (more…)

Dangerous Roadside Spraying

Spraying HerbicideA friend responded to my roadside herbicide rant from our Facebook page last week, a post that (thank-you!) was greeted with scores of comments. Seems he was a hippie back in the day, politically active and, as was common there about the time of the first Earth Day, slowly gaining awareness of the complex web of environmental problems the world was facing. He took his bike out of the midwestern college town where he lived and was enjoying a pedal in the country when he came upon his county’s roadside spray team hitting the ditches hard with herbicide.

What they were spraying was wild hemp. Like much of farm country in the years ahead of World War II, farmers in his home state had been encouraged to plant the hardy crop when the Navy started to rapidly expand and the previous source of hemp for rope making, the Philippines, was threatened by the Japanese. This hemp wasn’t the sort that hippies normally liked. It’s uses were limited to what could be made of its skeins and pulp. Only a fool would smoke it. Once it was discovered during the first months of the War that the brand new compound nylon could be used to make rope, the hemp was left to go to seed. It spread everywhere including along water courses and unplowed draws, but grew best (and often undisturbed) in road side ditches. (more…)

Bees Swarm Media

Honeybee ColonyIs it still possible to take bees for granted? Since the general population learned about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious effect that has destroyed a large percentage of the world’s pollinators in a 2007 broadcast of CBS’s 60 Minutes and the publicity in its wake, people have come to appreciate bees for the critical work they do. Before, when someone was asked to think of the first word that comes to mind when they hear “bee,” they might have said “sting” or “honey.” Now they just might say “food” or “survival.”

That’s our survival, not just theirs.

Honeybees are critical to the food supply. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, squash, almonds, and melons of all types? Thank the bees. It’s estimated that of the 100 food crops grown around the world, crops that supply 90% of the world’s food, bees pollinate 70 of them. Without bees, there would be no watermelons, no blueberry cobbler, no marinara. It’s estimated that bees, acting as pollinators, add $15 billion a year to food production. (more…)

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