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!

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 pepper seeds indoors 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 out-compete 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…)

Crop Rotation In the Home Garden

Rotating Garden CropsPlan your spring planting to control disease, weeds, and pests while boosting soil quality.

We’ve all heard of the benefits of crop rotation in large scale agriculture. And we all know that those benefits can transfer to our home gardens. Even the smallest of gardens can benefit from crop rotation, even if crops are only moved a few feet each year. Crop rotation is especially important to the organic grower because it precludes many of the problems that lead to the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Exactly what are the benefits? Rotating crops is especially critical to preventing disease from getting a foot hold on certain vegetables you might plant. The bacteria and spores that attack specific plants can survive winters and infect those plants again the following year. The good news is, once in the soil they can’t travel far. You’ll do more to move them around with your spring cultivation than anything they might do on their own. If you plant the same hosts that those diseases are looking for, you’ll provide them with the ability to re-establish and become even more severe. Plant something from another group of vegetables that don’t normally host the problems, and they’ll eventually disappear. (more…)

Arctic Vortex Gardening

Winter Soil ProtectionProtecting garden soil and starting seed outdoors in the dead of winter.

The harsh weather much of the country is experiencing means something to our gardens. Ground will freeze where it seldom freezes. Snow will visit places it seldom sees. Those familiar with snow and cold are seeing more of it.

What does this mean for our gardens? Bare soil frozen at extremely cold temperatures is subject to frost heave. Microorganisms, worms, and other living components of our earth are lost as they retreat as deeply as they can.

Mulching before the the cold weather sets in will moderate ground temperatures and protect soil. A good snow cover also helps. When the forecast is set for extreme cold, it might be a good idea to add more mulch – you’re mulching your garden, right? Those places already with snow cover, forget it. I was going to recommend that you go out and shovel fall leaves, if you can find them, and snow on top of what’s already blanketing your garden. But I’d forgotten how cold your toes and your cheeks get when you’re outside and it’s 15 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees above zero or colder. And I forgot how fast the wind will scatter any leaves you turn over. No doubt you mulched well ahead of winter weather. That will have to do. (more…)

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