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.

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Plant Bulbs In Containers for Spring Flowers

Planting Fall 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. (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. (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. (more…)

Weeds vs Herbicides: Weeds Win!

Applying HerbicidesAn article in The New York Times seems to celebrate weeds: their hardiness, their adaptability, their ability to quickly evolve. It’s overall theme? In the battle between weeds and chemical herbicides, weeds eventually and always win. And while it takes some reading between the lines, the article also draws conclusions that organic gardeners have known all along. One… herbicides can be dangerous. Two… a variety of techniques, many of them organic, are needed to actually reduce crop losses caused by weeds.

So why use herbicides? Their development (PDF) was thought to be a tremendous breakthrough. As far back as Roman times farmers spread salt on their fields to destroy their enemies’ crops. Modern weed killers were introduced during World War II and their use skyrocketed after that. Chemical companies soon learned that herbicides meant big money. But almost as quickly, weeds began to develop resistance to the chemicals. Today, it’s estimated that at least 217 varieties of weeds have developed resistance (follow the link to see a frightening photo of giant ragweed taking over a field of Roundup resistant corn). (more…)

Fertilizer Runoff Killing Gulf

Dead ZoneThis year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, usually around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, might well be the largest in history. The culprit? Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest. All that runoff from the breadbasket will make its way downstream carrying copious amounts of agricultural fertilizer runoff into the Gulf. Time magazine has the story.

The Gulf dead zone, second largest in the world, is composed of oxygen-depleted water that does not support life. The process by which it forms is known as “hypoxia.” Basically, the process starts with nitrogen and phosphorous- based fertilizers being swept in quantity through the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf at the Louisiana Delta. The fertilizer fuels the growth of algae which eventually dies or is eaten by zooplankton. Bacteria feed on the mass of dead algae and the zooplankton’s feces, exhausting the water’s oxygen as they do. (more…)

Honey Bee Population in Decline

Honey BeeTwo-breaking stories on bee decline, pesticides and politics. The European Union has imposed a two-year ban on the use of certain pesticides linked to bee deaths. This comes after a report citing three specific pesticides from a group known as neonicotinoids as a major cause in the decline. Chemical manufacturers — specifically Germany’s Bayer and the Swiss Syngenta — fought fiercely to stop the ban. Some 300,000 people in the U.K. signed a petition supporting the ban. Even with that, the British Parliament  voted to side against the EU plan.

Second story: Here in the U.S., the federal government released a study citing a variety of reasons for bee decline. In addition to pesticides, mite infestations, lack of nutrition, and genetic variation all contribute according to the study. The study was seen as a response to the EU’s banning of certain pesticides linked to bees deaths. “At E.P.A. we let science drive the outcome of decision making,” said Jim Jones, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. “There are non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong.”  Translation: Risking our entire population of honey bees is trivial in the face of losing a few dollars for big chemical and agricultural companies. (more…)

Foraging Wild, Organic Foods

Foraging FoodSpring is a wonderful time of year for foraging food. Greens — dandelions, nettles, wild asparagus, miners lettuce, ramp — are especially fine this time of year and spring mushrooms notably morels, rival the mushrooms picked in the fall. Some wild plants, including fiddleheads, are edible only when they first emerge (and one should be cautious eating even these). Even though nature is doing the gardening for you, it’s important to remember that you want even your foraged plants grown the way you grow in your garden. Organically.

We’ve been amazed at the interest in wild foods that’s grown over the last few years. There’s been a plethora of books released on the subject and classes on identifying, picking and cooking with foraged foods are offered in both rural and urban locations. Even restaurants and gourmet chefs, long-time users of wild mushrooms, have gotten in on the fad, flavoring their dishes with wild greens. Ramp, that favorite east coast spring green that was once harvested by eager Italian immigrants and seen as a measure of class distinction, is now so popular now that it rates a kitchen story and recipes in a major American newspaper. (more…)

Seed Control and GMO Companies

Seed ControlWill Monsanto take control of your vegetable patch?

By Bill Kohlhaase for Planet Natural

It’s all about seed control for Monsanto and the other corporate manufacturers of genetically engineered, GMO crops. So it’s no surprise that Monsanto has made moves to control garden seed as well. In the last several years, a number of international agri-conglomerates have consolidated their hold over the very seed and nursery starts we plant in our gardens. This brings some of the same problems — loss of seed diversity, spiraling seed costs, and general deficiencies in seed quality — that crop growers around the world face from the owners of genetically-modified seeds. And it’s happening under our noses right in our own backyards. (more…)

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