Organic Gardens

Few pursuits are as rewarding as growing your own organic garden. Not only do you get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that the produce you are eating was grown free of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. Growing organically produces healthy, more diverse ecosystems which are better able to resist significant pest damage… naturally!

We continually add articles to this section, so please check back often. Also, you can share tips and ask questions over at our Organic Gardening Forum page.

Garden Transplanting

Garden SeedlingsTips and techniques for planting vegetable seedlings outside.

We’ve just returned home to find a notice from our local community garden announcing a seedling planting party this weekend. Now the Farm is a big operation and it will take a party-sized crowd a couple days to get all the tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and melons out of its green house and into the ground. You may not need much help getting your seedlings outdoors and into the garden… or maybe you do. Either way there’s some principles to keep in mind.

One is hardening off. The plants that you’ve germinated in the warm indoors on heating mats and raised under lights aren’t used to the cool, windy conditions they’ll experience outdoors. Give them time to adapt by placing them in a cold frame or taking them out for a few hours each day letting them enjoy their first taste of the great outdoors in sheltered conditions. (more…)

Plant Thinning

Thinning SeedlingsTips and techniques for thinning vegetable seedlings.

What’s the hardest thing — at least for us — to do when gardening? Thinning. We’ve worked so hard to prepare our soil and get seeds in the ground. Now here they come, all crowded together and struggling against their too-close neighbor. We know that if we want our plants, be they lettuce, radishes, or green beans, to grow quickly and be healthy, we’ve got to get in there and cull the herd. But, but… they’re our little plants! They represent our hopes and dreams! Can’t we just let them go and see what happens?

No. Now is not the time for sentimentality. Crowded plants not only discourage growth, they encourage pests and disease. Crowded seedlings shade each other from the sun. As they get larger, it only gets worse. Crowded root vegetables, including turnips, beets, and radishes, won’t develop useable roots if they’re crowded.

The earlier you thin your freshly germinated garden plants, the faster they’ll grow. We’ve recommended gradual thinning in the past, as well as using thinning as a means of collecting greens for the first spring salad. But really, you don’t want to wait that long. (more…)

Old-Fashioned Peonies

Growing PeoniesPlanting, growing and caring for peony flowers.

Your old and wizened Planet Natural Blogger was fortunate to grow up in a Midwestern city where the peonies always blossomed just in time for Memorial Day. Grandma and grandpa were growing peonies in abundance on the sunny side of the house and all around their vegetable garden. We’d collect big bundles of the beautiful flowers, softball size and larger orbs of pink and white, wrap them in damp newspaper, lay them in the trunk of a car, and take them to the cemetery.

Even as a kid I saw them as the perfect graveside decoration, their big flowers causing the stems to bend towards the ground, their large, colorful petals shedding like tears on to the ground. And it was always a joy to visit cousins up north later in the season and find peonies in bloom all over again. (more…)

Sowing the Seeds of Change

Organic SeedsAfter decades of limited availability and dismissal as a counter-culture industry, heirloom and organic seeds are the center of interest as never before. This phenomenon has been going on for a few years, but its continued growth and the promise of an even bigger future can make even the most cynical of us more optimistic.

Look around. Organic seeds are available in an ever-widening array of outlets. Nurseries, even hardware stores now stock organic seeds. Even my local grocery store stocks them as do our local food co-ops. Not only are they more widely available, they’re available in wider selection. Seed companies that weren’t even on the radar a few years ago now put out big glossy catalogs offering heirloom and “pure seeds.” Large activist organizations, like the Seed Savers Exchange, have dedicated themselves to preserving our garden seed heritage. Smaller, local organizations and exchanges are also popping up. (more…)

Early Garden Harvest

Heirloom RadishOur Farmers Market here in 7,000 foot high Santa Fe, New Mexico is now in full swing. Drawing from farms in the lower, warmer and dryer areas south of town as well as the cooler, mostly higher, and slightly damper north, the market is filled with greens and other early season vegetables despite the fact that frost can occur into June depending on the variable elevation and micro-climates. Here are some take aways from this early harvest and what they might mean for your garden and even your lifestyle.

Yes, greens, as you might expect are to be found in abundance. Lettuce, both mixed mesclun and small heads of leaf lettuce were everywhere as well as arugula, baby chard leaves and some spinach (we weren’t sure why there wasn’t more spinach around and nobody seemed able to tell us… is it because small farmer avoid the crop since it’s so voluminously represented these days in our grocery stores and organic markets?). (more…)

Soak Seeds Before Planting

Soak Garden SeedsIn most parts of the country, the process of sowing seed directly into the garden is in full swing. Either the first seeds of the season are going into the ground or, for those in milder climates, the second planting is commencing. In some northern regions, gardeners are still waiting for the end of over-night frosts and/or the soil to dry sufficiently. No matter. Everybody’s thinking of getting in their garden. And everybody wants to get a jump on things.

While we frequently urge patience on those who might plant too soon, there is a way to get quicker germination once your seeds are in the ground, a technique known to almost every gardener and practiced universally: Soak your seeds before planting. Soaking garden seeds, both vegetable and flower seeds, will swell and soften them and get their little embryonic selves thinking about coming out into the light of day. Here’s some things to consider when soaking seeds.

— First, which seeds are most appropriate for soaking? Big seeds. Wrinkled seeds. Seeds (as best you can tell) with hard coats. In the vegetable garden, this means peas, beans, corn, pumpkins and squash; even chard and beets. Smaller seeds — lettuce, radishes, carrots, and the like — are hard to handle once their soaked and don’t really need it anyway. Flower seed to soak? Sunflower, lupine, sweet pea, nasturtium take well to soaking. (more…)

Sweet Corn: Hybrid and Heritage

Sweet CornYour friendly Planet Natural Blogger was standing in line yesterday at the grocery store — one with a focus on healthy eating and a claim that it never uses GMO products in its store-label items — when an equally friendly checker commented on the fact that we were buying ears of sweet corn. “I have relatives in the Midwest,” she said, “and they say that they put the water on to boil before they go out and pick sweet corn for dinner.”

Well, your talkative PN Blogger, raised in the Midwest, had heard this before and, indeed, had told the story himself a number of times. And having just read up on the history of corn, we felt we had to put our two cents in (though what we said was probably worth half that).

“That’s good, old fashioned, home-grown corn,” I explained. “This commercial stuff has been bred to keep it sugars longer, so it can be shipped and held before sale. But it’s not as good, it’s not as sweet as good, home-grown sweet corn. The sugars in homegrown sweet corn aren’t as stable. But the corn is tastier.” (more…)

Plant Growth Regulators: Safe?

Plant Growth RegulatorIt may be too late in this season for us to start our own vegetables and flowers rather than buy nursery stock. But there’s a good reason we should at least be aware that the starts we purchase at the nursery or big-box home supply store may have been treated with plant growth regulators (PGRs). It’s also a good reason, short of growing our own, to make sure the nursery stock we buy is from a reliable organic dealer.

The term PGR has come to include many things, not all of them potentially harmful. But technically, a PGR is a spray or chemical used to treat seed or growing plants that, through cellular mutation, makes the plant in some way more desirable, often more to the seller than the buyer.

PGRs are used for a host of reasons and function in a number of ways. They are commonly categorized and regulated as pesticides but mostly deal with growth, flowering and fruiting issues. Some, especially those used to encourage rooting, are organic compounds. But most of those used in commercial agriculture — and that includes the sale of nursery stock — are synthetically derived. (more…)

Converting to Organic

Organic GardeningMaking the switch to organic gardening is as much an act of will power as it is work. But the rewards — feeding your family vegetables, herbs and fruits untainted by pesticides, herbicides and the residues of chemical fertilizers — are priceless. Where do you begin?

First by making a commitment. You must promise to learn as much about organic practice as you can. This is really a life-long process. But when you consider that a little organic knowledge (the basics) goes a long way and that the details bring you closer to perfection, you begin to understand how easy it is.

The second commitment is the promise never to go back. No matter how many problems you encounter — and it’s important to remember that even conventional gardeners encounter failure, and lots of it — you will not go back to your old, chemical ways. When the neighbor points out that he doesn’t have any bugs in his garden and you do, it’s time to be strong. (It may also be helpful to point out that he doesn’t have any beneficial bugs in his garden, as you do.) When he says you spend a lot more time in your garden than he does, smile. In a year or two of organic gardening, that probably won’t be true. When he says that turning that compost pile must be a lot of work, put your hand on your abs and then look directly at his belly. Or maybe stretch out your muscled arms. (more…)

Starting A Garden

Starting A GardenWe’ve written a lot about planning your garden, which plants go where, crop rotation, companion planting, and the like. But what to do when you’re starting a garden or want to create a second (or a third) garden space?  Where is the best place for your new garden to go? What factors should you consider when starting it?

Often we don’t have a choice. Our yards are small. Everything is heavily shaded except for that one spot over there. If we put the new garden right in that sunny spot in the middle of the yard, where will we play badminton on the fourth of July? Choosing where to put a garden space is a problem a lot of us don’t have.

But if we’re lucky enough to have the space where a choice is in order then it’s important we choose wisely. It’s safe to say that we already know the principles. What’s best for the plants you want to grow? Here’s a brief and most likely incomplete list of principles to consider when starting a garden. Feel free to add things we may have overlooked and other suggestions that will assure you convenience and make your plants a growing success. (more…)

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