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!

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…)

Midwest Farming: Touring 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…)

Winter Squash For the Keeping

Winter SquashWe’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. Saving squash that long requires some know-how. Here’s what we learned and have garnered from others, books and website included, over the years.

When are squash ready for the picking? When it’s rind has turned a deep color and is dull, (often) gray and can’t be punctured easily by you fingernail. Be sure to leave an inch or two of stem to prevent rot from creeping in from the top. Do this before the first frost arrives. Hardier brands of winter squash can take a light frost but should be picked at the first sign of vine die-off. Eat these squash first as well as any that are bruised. Those that haven’t completely ripened on the vine can still be eaten. We’ve found them to be not quite as sweet but still delicious. Eat them before the well-ripened ones you’ll want to save for holiday (and beyond!) dinners. Same rules apply to pumpkins. (more…)

Fall Planting, Spring Color

Garden BulbsFall is the time for making sure you’ll have plenty of color in your landscape come spring. Now’s the time to divide perennials, if you haven’t done so in the last few years. If your perennials are showing smaller blossoms or dying off in the center, then dig them up, clip the crowns, and spread them around after cutting out dead and crowded roots. They like room for their roots to grow. Keep the cutting moist until you’ve put them back in the soil. Do this early; don’t wait until there’s a chance that your soil will start to freeze. If there’s a question, wait until early spring, just as the ground thaws and the plants begin to show signs of life. Either way, be sure to add some compost to the soil where they’re planted.

September is also the time to plant bulbs for spring crocus, daffodils, and tulips. Wait until the nights have become cool. The ideal soil temperature for planting bulbs is around 60 degrees. For tight, impressive displays, plant bulbs in a circle. Or just place them where ever you have room and they’ll have enough sunlight to thrive. (more…)

Homegrown Tomato Time

Heirloom TomatoesThere’s something different in the air, something that precludes the end of summer and the coming of cooler days and chillier nights. Your area may have reached that point already, a time when frost is anticipated maybe even tomorrow. But for most of us, there’s still an abundance to be had in our gardens and that means homegrown tomatoes.

The history of tomatoes, their trip from the Andes and the gardens of the Aztecs to Europe and back to America is fascinating. In his entertaining book The Heirloom Life Gardener, Jere Gettle recounts the origins of the belief that tomatoes were poisonous (they’re members of the nightshade family, as are belladonna and henbane) and how they were first grown in the Old World as an ornamental. He recounts that famous moment in tomato history where a crowd of two-thousand gathered in Salem County, New Jersey to watch Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson commit suicide by eating a basket of tomatoes. They were disappointed. Today they’re consumed by the tons. (more…)

The Stanford Study: Storm Over Organics

Organic ControversyThe controversy generated by the Stanford organic food study continues to grow. It didn’t take long for people to recognize that the study assembled data from tests for the wrong thing. But that hasn’t stopped supporters of agri-business, corporate food retailers and, yes, GMO-supporters from “we-knew-it-all-along” responses. The responses criticizing the study have served to underscore the genuine reasons we choose organics in the first place.

Worst of the anti-organics responses (“Organic, shmorganic,” it whimpers) comes from columnist Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s an obvious appeal for GMOs based on the logic that GMOs are better capable of feeding a starving world (not true, as studies have shown). And it also derides those who seek to protect their families from pesticides which the Stanford study suggests contaminate 37% of commercially-grown fruits and vegetables. And it bemoans the cost — “Organic is a fable for the pampered of the planet,” Cohen writes — while ignoring the fact that subsistence and small-farms make modest livings raising competitively-priced, pesticide-free produce while preserving — nay, improving! — soils, unlike large commercial food operations that deplete soils as they over-use pesticides and fertilizers that are harmful to our waters. Scroll down to the comments section of Cohen’s article and note what people have to say: there’s the “ha-ha” of organic detractors and then there’s the thoughtful arguments of organic supporters who mostly say that Cohen, by focusing his attack on nutrition and price, misses the whole point of organics. Also view The Times letters section addressing the Stanford study. Good stuff! (more…)

Organic Food: New Study, Bad Reporting

Organic VegetablesIt’s all over the news. The New York Times headline blared “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt On Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” “Organics Not A Healthier Food Choice, Study Finds” trumpeted The Chicago Sun-Times. Even the page at the Stanford University School of Medicine website, where the organic food study was conducted, starts out misleadingly: “Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds.” That’s unless, of course, you feel that avoiding high levels of pesticides on your fruit and vegetables isn’t a benefit.

Some headlines seemed confused: “Organic not necessarily better for you: A large review found very few studies that systematically compared the health outcomes of eating organics or conventional foods,” says the Discovery Channel’s Discovery News website. And some sources seemed to run contradictory stories. While The New York Times piece reported that the researchers found no obvious benefits to organic meat, they did report that organic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another article run the same day in The Times detailed that the overuse of antibiotics in meat and dairy has resulted in hyper-resistant super germs. (more…)

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