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.

Saving Flower Seeds

Saving SeedSave your own garden seed for planting next year. Here’s how.

One 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 PumpkinsHow to grow and when to harvest heirloom pumpkins for tasty baking.

We 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 VegetablesHow to grow these cool-weather root vegetables organically.

Or 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. (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 TomatoesWater-bath canning techniques may no longer be safe.

For 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 PumpkinTips for growing the biggest, prize winning pumpkin.

We’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. (more…)

Tomatillo Time

Garden TomatillosWith few pest and disease problems, these tart, citrus-flavored fruits are easy to grow organically.

There’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. (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. (more…)

Sweet Season: After a Garden Frost

Frosted GardenWhich vegetables not only survive frost,but taste better after a freeze? Here’s what to grow.

Most 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. (more…)

Winter Squash For the Keeping

Winter SquashTips for harvesting and storing squash grown in your garden.

We’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. Storing winter squash that long requires some know-how. Here’s what we learned and have garnered from others, books and websites included, over the years. (more…)

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