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!

Planting Onions In the Home Garden

Garden HarvestThe type of onion you plant depends on your latitude.

Almost every gardener I know buys onion starts in the spring and gets them in the ground as much as a month before the first frost. It’s true that some of our friends living in more moderate climes will stick onions starts, if they can find (or grow them) in the ground in the fall, mulch heavily, and keep their fingers crossed. My experience tells me that onions don’t do well with hard freezes and that making it through the winter depends on luck and how well insulated you can keep the young plants.

I’ve also known a gardener or two who go to the trouble to start their own onion seed, both indoors and out. The reason they do this is selection. While most nurseries carry only a few (if more than one) types of onions ready as sets, buying seed allows you to choose your favorite tasting varieties, often not available as set. And it gives you a chance to make sure you have the right onion for your location on the planet. (more…)

Wide Row and Intensive Gardening

Intensive GardensGetting the most from your vegetable garden while saving space, water and work.

I give my grandfather a lot of credit when it comes to teaching me the craft of gardening. But he wasn’t right about everything. Or, at least, not all of his techniques were the most productive. Like grandfather demonstrated year in and year out, I started off planting vegetables in neat-lined rows, one plant following the other. I did this for everything: carrots, beets, lettuce, corn, even squash and pumpkins. It was just the way he did it and always had.

Circumstance eventually changed my thinking. Given a tiny front yard, I began spacing plants together in enclosed, raised beds. As long as I could reach the center of the beds, everything was fine. (more…)

Indoor Winter Gardening Revolution

Winter Garden IndoorsMore and more gardeners are growing inside their homes.

One of the highlights of our Superbowl Sunday — we won’t let on who we were rooting for — had to do with gardening. Our friend, the gourmet gardener, had invited us over for the game. The feast, as it often is at his home, was the best part of the day. But before kickoff, he showed us something he was extremely proud of: a crop of baby greens growing under fluorescent lights hung from the cupboards above a kitchen counter. I started thinking freshly picked salad.

Well, that wasn’t to be. The lettuce in his two grow trays probably wouldn’t have been enough for the seven of us that had gathered to watch the game. And our friend, not the selfish sort at all, probably wanted to enjoy the labors of his work with his wife… who can blame him? But just the sight of those fresh greens bathed in that soft light was somehow satisfying. Forget the snow cover and the brutally cold temperatures outside. Our friend was (nearly) ready to harvest! (more…)

Eggplant Requires Heat, Patience

Garden EggplantTime eggplant starts to go out when soil temperatures warm.

Funny how almost everything that comes up this time of year can get you thinking about gardening. A friend who writes about food was recently extolling a dish he had at one of those Asian fusion restaurants: pot stickers stuffed with a savory blend of walnuts and mushrooms set on a bed of cubed, roasted eggplant. Now those pot stickers — Chinese stuffed pockets that resemble ravioli that were, in this case, pan-fried — sounded great. But what our friend raved about was that roasted eggplant. It’s mild taste showed off the high-grade oil it had been roasted with as well as the earthy flavors of the pot stickers’ stuffing. Its texture, at once firm and springy, contrasted with the melt-in-your-mouth filling inside those pockets. (more…)

Facing Drought

Drought in the GardenWhat should gardeners do in the face of water shortages?

We don’t have to tell you. The news from many parts of the west is all about drought. You can find accounts of what’s being faced, including the potential for cutbacks and rationing, here, here, and here. And the forecast for the coming months doesn’t look good.

No matter if you believe that drought is just a part of the natural cycle (it is) or is a product of global warming (we don’t see this as an easy either-or question but think both factors could be in play), dealing with a lack of or more expensive water is something that gardeners frequently face. Even as a back-to-the-land, ex-hippie in the 19(garbled) living on the edge of the rain forest in Washington State we had summer months without rain some years that meant the buried reservoir that collected water from our spring filled more slowly and even ran dry when we watered our rather large garden. That’s the problem with water: you run out just when you need it most. (more…)

Old Seed? Or New?

Seed ViabilityHow long seeds last depends on the type of seed and the conditions in which it’s stored.

Your thrifty Planet Natural blogger has had good luck storing leftover seed (PDF) he’s purchased from year to year … except when he didn’t. Not too many years ago, we stocked up on spinach seed for all the repeated planting we’d planned. There was plenty left over — that summer was cool and damp, so our first crop took longer than we expected and our second crop barely leafed out before the first frost arrived. We stored our leftover seed as we usually do: inside its packet in a tightly sealed glass jar down in our cool basement.

When spring came around, we planted the seed we bought the year before, just as we’ve often done with the previous season’s extras. And even under near ideal growing conditions — we know because we kept track in our journal — we were rewarded with poor germination. The seed that did germinate didn’t do well, its leaves small and stunted. We wondered if we had too much nitrogen in the soil. Too much nitrogen often inhibits early germination of greens. But the lettuce we planted nearby, some of it from saved seed, did just fine. Could it be that spinach seed doesn’t keep as long as lettuce? (more…)

Hybrid Sweet Corn – Sweeter Than Ever

Market Sweet CornBut there’s no sugar-coating restrictions on its use.

Sugar-enhanced (“se”) sweet corns have been all the rage over the last few seasons. Seed companies have touted some of their products with phrases like “sweetest ever” and “candy sweet.” These naturally bred hybrids — no, they’re not genetically modified — seem to answer the All-American craving for sugary satisfaction. Now there’s an even more sugary designation for sweet corns — “supersweet” or “sh2″ — for those table corns that are all about the sugar.

With names like ‘Sweet Riser,” “Kandy Korn,” and “Sugar Ace,” these se and sh2 corns, most of them commercially grown, offer marketing potential in a way that plain-old sweet corn can’t. You don’t need to rush them home from the market and plunge them in boiling water to enjoy their sugary flavor. They’ve been bred to hold their sugars longer. One of the ironies in the advertising of these corns is the tie in to “old-fashioned” flavor. Of course, old fashioned flavor is available to anyone who’ll grow their own. You don’t need a new hybrid variety to enjoy delicious sweet corn. (more…)

First Steps in Growing Peppers

Pepper PlantsStarting your own hot and sweet peppers from seed gives you selection, growing options, and enjoyment.

Does it seem too early here in the middle of January to be thinking about starting pepper plants indoors? Not at all. Choosing which peppers to grow, and which seed to buy is an important part of the process. You not only want peppers that will do well under the conditions found in your summertime garden — especially the length of the season — you also want peppers suited to your taste. Finding just the right peppers for your growing conditions and palate takes some study and experience.

Lots of gardeners I know don’t bother growing their own pepper starts. Buying established nursery starts makes it easy to control the timing of putting the plants in your garden as well as eliminating the work of potting seeds yourself. But the problem is selection. Even though nurseries have begun offering more varieties of pepper starts — hot and sweet – they’re still just a trifle compared to the many varieties available to those willing to grow their own starts. The bigger the selection the more chance you’ll have matching seeds to your growing conditions and taste. And growing a variety of peppers, maybe one or two plants of each you’ve chosen, allows you to address the various tolerances to pepper heat that will exist among your friends and family members. (more…)

Cover Crops? Smother Crops!

Alfalfa CropPlanting green manures to manage weeds eliminates the need for risky herbicides.

Organic gardeners know the value of sowing cover crops. Often referred to as “green manure,” cover crops are thought most valuable for what they return to the soil. Protecting the soil from hard rains, wind erosion, and other effects is seen as a side benefit. And, too, a cover crop discourages weeds, by crowding them out or inhibiting their growth.

Sometimes, cover crops are planted primarily to control weeds. Planted with this purpose in mind, cover crops become smother crops. They work best when dealing with perennial weeds but can also help starve out annuals when used over consecutive seasons. And they can be as effective (or more) on some of the worst perennial weeds. Let me tell you a story. (more…)

Water Purity and Organic Gardening

Watering the GardenThe small things we do to keep pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals out of our water supply.

The recent events in West Virginia have us thinking about water. In the meantime, we keep up on the situation, with help from Ken Ward Jr.’s excellent reporting at the West Virginia Gazette.

We do our bit in protecting water resources, foregoing chemical fertilizers and pesticides in our home space, keeping them out of the soil, keeping them from running off to streets and storm drains. Most of the benefit comes right on the ground where we live — the knowledge that the fruits and vegetables we grow, the yard where our children play, both are free of potentially harmful chemicals. But we also like to think of ourselves as making a contribution to overall water purity. An event like the one in West Virginia — the drinking water for some 300,00 people poisoned — makes us realize how small our backyard contribution is against massive spills on the commercial level.

We want clean, safe water coming into our homes and going into our gardens. The West Virginia incident shows us just how vulnerable and fragile our water resources are. Safe supplies of water have long been a global issue. Adequate supplies and water rights have long been a fixture in the U.S. Always an issue in the West, water rights and distribution are sparking battles between states and various interests. (more…)

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