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!

Groundwater Contamination from Nitrates

Field SprayingNot so many years ago, my brother-in-law, a Nebraska farmer, made a discovery. The well from which his family pulled their drinking water, a source that had served his family for generations, was polluted from nitrates. The pump house was located near their home on the side of a hill. Near the top of the hill and for hundreds of acres beyond, were the contoured, non-irrigated fields where he grew corn one year, soy beans the next. To maintain productivity and following fertilizer company directions, he had spread nitrogen supplements in a huge, single dose, year after year.

The practice didn’t cost him his water supply. But it did cost him a hefty chunk of change to put in an expensive water purification system. Luckily, his young children were none the worse for it. But it’s common knowledge that nitrates in water cause blue baby syndrome or methemoglobinemia a disease that interferes with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen where it’s needed. Methemoglobinemia can also affect adults who have digestive problems that don’t allow them to break down nitrates in the gastric system. Nitrates are also linked to some cancers. (more…)

Saving Flower Seeds

Saving SeedOne of the last — and most meaningful — end-of-season tasks is saving flower seeds for planting next year. We’re not talking about those hybrid seeds you got from the catalog. We’re talking about open-pollinated heirlooms, flowers that have been around longer than grandma. Their names are familiar and come together like words in a poem: Calendula, Four O’Clocks, Morning Glories, Petunias and Poppies.

If you’re lucky, you’ve been saving seed since you were a child, going out with grandma and gathering pods, seed heads or the seeds themselves for careful drying and preserving. Back when, we would put the seeds in grandma’s old pill bottles. Today we put them in tightly-sealed baggies. (more…)

Sugar Is Sweet; Let’s Make A Pumpkin Pie!

Heirloom PumpkinsWe finally had our first hard freeze here in Northern New Mexico, two weeks late of the average. Now, I’m sure most of you, including those in my beloved former-hometown of Bozeman, MT, are well beyond that point. Anyway it got me to thinking about how closely we’d be listening to weather forecasts in the fall, watching the patterns, and waiting until just the last moment to get in the winter squash and sugar pumpkins. Usually a light frost would first do some damage to the vines, warning enough that it was time to go out with a short, sharp knife and get them in. But sometimes a hard frost would just descend from the sky — like it did here last night — and, well, if caught napping it might mean the loss of one’s valuable crop. (more…)

Turnip, Parsnip and Rutabaga

Root VegetablesOr maybe that should be Rutabaga, Turnip, Parsnip as rutabaga and turnips are closely related in many ways (in post Revolution America rutabagas were called “turnip-rooted cabbage”, according to Jere Gettle) and parsnips — bless their sweetness — are quite different. But all three are root vegetables and we love them this time of the year because 1) they’re easy to grow, especially in the late season (well, maybe not parsnips that usually need a long season to mature); 2) they’re well adapted to cool and short growing season (even parsnips); 3) they taste even better after cold weather and frosts have set in; and 4) they keep well, sometimes for months in a cool basement, root cellar or refrigerator.

Then why do I see you out there holding your nose? Is it because they have that cabbagey twang (well, not parsnips) that gets your mouth vibrating like a guitar string when you take a bite? Get over it! My sense is that if you like cabbage, you’ll like turnips and rutabagas. It’s the texture, I believe, combined with that taste, that puts most people off. (more…)

Gardening with Straw

Hay Bale GardenThis is a great time of year — when farmers are looking to get rid of old ones (something that happens in the spring as well) — to pick up one or two staw or hay bales. You might also be able to buy straw bales at your local nursery or gardening store but they’ll probably cost more. They make great seasonal decorations … put a trio of various shaped pumpkins on one (or a stack of two or three) in a strategic place visible to passersby, balance a sheaf of cornstalks against it if you have them and voila: Autumn’s great visual symbol of harvest. Then, when the season is over, you can break them up and use them in your garden and compost pile. Or can you?

The problem with straw is that it often contains seeds. Hay, in our experience, is even worse; it contains more seed than a nursery in March (not everyone makes the distinction between “hay” and “straw” … see this article for the difference). The best straw for gardening comes from wheat or oats, if you can get it. Most of the seed has been removed depending on how effective the farmer’s thresher is and how much weed has grown in his field. But I still wouldn’t put it in your compost heap unless it’s hot enough to destroy the seed. (more…)

Precautions When Canning Tomatoes

Canning TomatoesFor years, we canned tomatoes and homemade tomato sauce the way grandma taught us: using the water bath method. This involved packing sterilized jars with hot (cooked) fruit or tomatoes and boiling for a designated amount of time, usually an hour or more for tomatoes. That’s not true anymore. In this age of increasing food contamination, you don’t want anything bad to come out of your kitchen. What could happen? Listen to what Renee R. Boyer, Assistant Professor, Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech; Julie McKinney, Project Associate, Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech…

… high-acid foods prevent the growth of spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can’t be killed by boiling. Foods with a pH more than 4.6 allow the spores to grow. If spores of C. botulinum are allowed to grow, toxin will form, and consumption of C. botulinum toxin is deadly. Symptoms from the consumption of this toxin develop within six hours to 10 days and include double and blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and muscle weakness. Paralysis of breathing muscles can cause a person to stop breathing and die unless mechanical ventilation is provided.

Didn’t mean to scare you. But this is serious business. Take precautions. (more…)

Monster Pumpkins

Giant PumpkinWe’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.

Currently, the record giant pumpkin weighed in at over a ton, a quarter ton increase from just six years ago. (more…)

Tomatillo Time

Garden TomatillosThere’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. They’re also good used in other types of food, such as chutneys. And tomatillos are a good source of nutrition. They have 7 mg of Vitamin C per fruit (nearly 20% of your daily requirement in 100 grams) and more minerals per equal weight than tomatoes. They’re also a good source of anti-oxidants and contain small amounts of vitamin A, zeaxanthin and lutein, things important to your visual health. (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.

We traveled from eastern Nebraska through northwest Iowa and through the Minnesota River Valley of — where else? — west and central Minnesota (the Minnesota River Valley, home to the town of LeSeur and its namesake peas, is also known as the Valley of the Green Giant). (more…)

Sweet Season: After a Garden Frost

Frosted GardenMost 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.

But there are reasons to look froward to the first garden frost. Some vegetables not only survive it, they come out of the garden tasting even better than before. Kale and broccoli especially gain a sweetness from a light frost that can’t be matched by anything picked earlier. Other members of the brassica family — cabbage, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi — also do well with frost. (more…)

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