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!
It’s no secret that most commercially grown tomatoes taste lousy. Now scientists have discovered the reason: a gene mutation, the one bred into tomatoes to yield consistent color. It seems that tomato breeders discovered the gene about 70 years ago and began to cross-breed it into nearly all commercial tomatoes so that they would have an attractive red color. There was just one problem. Adding the redness gene “turned-off” flavor genes, the ones that created more sugars and carotenoids, various compounds in the tomato that contribute to flavor. The result? Tomatoes that look good but taste like paper. Here’s the abstract of the studies that determined the effects of the “redness” gene. Now we’d like to see the marketing studies that motivated commercial growers to think consumers prefer perfect red fruits without regard to taste. (more…)
One of the most beautiful sights in the summer garden is the deep, rich green color of bok choi leaves, bunched like a bouquet, standing above the creamy white stalks that support them. The form and intense shades of the plant almost — almost — keep us from reaching down and cutting it off at ground level. There’s only one thing we like better than growing bok choy in the garden: the sight of this cabbage family member chopped, stir-fried (maybe with some garlic) and heaped next to a dollop of brown rice.
Bok choi or pak choi, or pak choy is a cool weather crop that does best planted in early spring or late summer. It can be successfully sown mid-season if it’s harvested very young before it has a chance to go to seed (strangely, very cool weather will also cause it to go to seed). Cabbage moths and other pests are more active in late summer so you’ll want to protect your plants with row covers. The secret to growing attractive, loosely bunched, erect choi is to plant sparingly and thin judiciously, allowing as much as eight inches between the larger varieties. The good news is that the thinnings can be added to stir-fry no matter their size. (more…)
When the abundant moisture of spring has given way to drier summer conditions, it’s time to plant oregano. Both culinary and decorative — it’s delicate blossoms will attract pollinators to your garden as well as make for attractive additions to salads — oregano is one of the most rewarding herbs to grow. It can be started from seed, but buying plants is the easiest way to get them started (they can also be propagated from cuttings or from root divisions). Oregano is hardy to zone 5 and can be overwintered in zone 4 with a thick covering of straw or mulch. It’s a perennial and will provide tasty leaves and flowers for years before it becomes too woody and sharply flavored. To encourage longevity, cut plants back almost to the ground at the end of the growing season. Often grown in containers, oregano also grows well in terraces and rock gardens. A Mediterranean plant, it likes full sun but will tolerate some shade, as I found out growing it in an old tub under a pear tree in the Pacific Northwest. Oregano isn’t fussy about soil conditions but does require good drainage. It needs little water and is perfect for moisture-sensitive xeriscapes. (more…)
No matter what part of the country you live in or how far along your garden is, Father’s Day is a great time of the year to step back and enjoy your work. In many areas, greens are already being harvested, peas are beginning to pod, bush beans are in blossom, and tender baby carrots and turnips come easily from the ground. At higher altitudes and in northern climates, germination is in its early stages and young transplants — tomatoes, peppers and squashes — are taking root and standing tall. Spring flowers have faded or are long gone, summer blossoms are making their bright appearance. Everything is green, healthy and striving to grow strong.
In my former home of Bozeman, Montana — elevation 4200 feet or so — mid-June was a promising, orderly time in the garden. Parade-straight rows of beans recently broken from the ground were shedding cotyledons and hoisting first leaves. Squares of mixed greens were yielding the first baby lettuces and radishes were almost ready to pull. Pea tendrils were hooking into string trellises and the spinach made you feel healthy just looking at it. The few weeds that dared show themselves in the open rows and planted spaces, were easily seen and pulled. (more…)
Not so long ago, the word mesclun was unknown to everyone but hippies hard of hearing. Now the mix of garden greens is a favorite among gourmet restaurants and gardeners who love the crisp, occasionally spicy taste of loose leaf lettuces. As grown in its place of origin — Provencal, France — mesclun is a specific mix of chervil, arugula, lettuces and endive. In American gardens, anything goes: red and green loose leafs, Asian greens, kale, even radicchio.
One of our favorite gardening practices — inspired by Mel Bartholomew’s now-classic Square-Foot Gardening — is to stake out a two-by-two foot square in the garden and freely sow a mesculun mix, either one purchased ready-to-go or one we’ve mixed ourselves from favorite greens (deer tongue, rosso, black-seeded Simpson, mizuna , kale, Asian mustard, arugula and garden cress). We sow them into the corners and across the middle. A quick raking and tamping, followed by a thorough watering, is enough to get them started. (more…)
There’s no doubt that farmers’ markets are more popular than ever. While no part of the country has a corner on the markets, some of the best can be found — in season — in the American midwest.
Janine MacLachlan’s brand new book Farmers Markets’ of the Heartland (University of Illinois Press, $24.95) is an engaging journey through America’s small farm and business, direct-to-the-consumer revolution. More than a guide to some of the largest and most unique markets in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and states between (with a special chapter on Chicago), MacLachlan’s book is a celebration of market culture, the place where farmers and their customers meet. It profiles the small growers and artisans — pumpkin growers, turkey raisers and cheese makers — who dedicate their lives to quality product rather than profit.
Consider Bill Weston of Wisconsin’s Weston Antique Apple Orchard who sees stewardship of his land to be as important as the selling of his crop. Weston donated eleven acres of his land to the nearby city of New Berlin as a “passive park” with the stipulation that it remain an orchard. (more…)
This Memorial Day weekend, along side the greens, turnips, carrots, young rutabaga, green onions and radishes at our corpulent, late-spring Saturday Farmers Market here in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a much better tourist attraction than the area’s fabled art gallery scene) was something we didn’t see much of not so many years ago: garlic scapes. When we first noticed them at our then-local farmers market in Bozeman, MT a couple years back, we thought the vendor was exercising some creative marketing by offering a product that otherwise might go to waste. Turns out the garlic scape is a wonderful spring bounty whose harvest not only encourages the growth of the garlic it sprouts from but, when harvested early enough, tastes great, too. And, it’s good for you!
Garlic scapes are the curling, non-flowering “flower” stalks of garlic plants that appear a few weeks after the first leaves. Growers usually pinch them off to encourage larger bulb growth. But in some Mediterranean gardening cultures where little is traditionally wasted, the garlic scape has been used to flavor early-season dishes ahead of the garlic harvest. American growers have slowly caught on and in the last few years, every gourmand worth her designer sea salt has gotten into the act. Don’t believe me? Here are articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post to prove it. (more…)
Lest we forget — and it’s easy when we’re all wrist deep in soil — gardening is healthy! But you already knew that. Want to burn calories? The estimates suggest that gardeners burn 300 calories an hour, 600 calories an hour if they’re doing heavy yard work. Spading the garden burns 150 to 200 calories per half hour (the rates vary between women and men). Women burn 138 calories per half hour weeding, men 181. As Sherry Rindels of the Iowa State University Extension Horticultural Division points out in the article linked above, using herbicides doesn’t come anywhere close to burning the calories of hand weeding. And you’re not exposing yourself — and your children, pets, and neighbors to chemicals that may cause harm.
The strength, endurance, and flexibility that gardening requires is especially beneficial to the aging (and who isn’t aging?). And its been found that the kind of activities associated with gardening can reduce the risk of cancer. Not only that — as this article points out — “gardeners eat a wider variety of vegetables (rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals), and have a higher overall intake of vegetables than non-gardeners.” If your garden is organic, the benefits are better still. (more…)
My grandparents always called it “setting out plants.” We know the process of introducing our indoor raised or recently purchased seedlings to the outdoors as “hardening off.” Whatever you call it, the gradual introduction of your tender young plants to the cold, cruel world of the outdoors needs to be done with attention and patience. You wouldn’t just push your children out the door without some experience of what they were about to face, would you? Your plants are like your children. They need to adapt to conditions outside the home.
Hardening off is the process of acclimating plants to outdoor conditions. In some parts of the country, this process is well under way. In northern settings or places of higher altitude where the possibilities of frosts will continue for another two or three weeks, we’re still waiting. Timing is important. Many garden books will tell you that plants started indoors are ready to go out when its roots have filled the container. But if outdoor conditions are still too cold or wet, your tender plants may be set back. On the other hand, if they’re left in pots and their roots continue to grow, it may set back their growth. Transplanting into a larger pot is called for when outdoor conditions aren’t yet right. (more…)
Welcome to the Planet Natural Blog, a clearinghouse for all things green and growing. What are we about? Organic gardening, sustainability, and the natural lifestyle, of course. That means you’ll find how-tos on raising healthy, great-tasting, heirloom vegetables, growing beautiful landscapes and flowers, composting, and improving soil health. We’re all about controlling weeds without harmful herbicides and pests without toxic pesticides. We’re engaged in conserving water and xeriscape gardening, growing herbs, and raising cover crops, and all the wise-use practices that make for sustainable, healthy gardens and landscapes. (more…)