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!

Ornamental Berries for the Holidays

Holly BerriesRed holly and ornamental berries of all hues bring color to winter gardens.

Almost any holiday display with trees or pine boughs or bunting is enlivened by a show of bright red berries. They’re like a splash of color on the cold gray winter. We equally, probably more so, like to see berries outdoors, naturally, in our yard and neighborhood. If those berries are in your yard, you’ll probably recall the spring blossoms that preceded them. We love to see ornamental berries in our hedges and against fences, especially when a light touch of snow gives them sharp contrast.

Of course, this time of year we’re seeing holly berries. Holly played an important holiday role when we lived on the rainy Pacific coast. We’d cut holly early and let it dry in our attic, making sure to keep an eye out for mold. When it came time to ship presents back east, we’d pack the boxes with holly. The holly served as both protective padding but also as decoration once it made it back to the high plains. (more…)

Integrated Pest Management: Common Sense Compendium

Gardener's GuideThe Gardener’s Guide to Common Sense Pest Control cuts out the harmful chemicals.

For years, The Gardener’s Guide To Common Sense Pest Control was the go-to book on how to control harmful insects in our trees, yards, and gardens without the use of dangerous chemicals. Inspired, as the authors tell us, by the publication of Rachel Carson’s now-classic Silent Spring in 1962, it sought ways to control harmful weeds and insects naturally as well as effectively.

The Gardener’s Guide operated from two perspectives: that chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides were dangerous to humans and the environment, and that they encouraged “the rapid growth of insect resistance.” In other words, not only were pesticides harmful, they were over a short time, ineffective. (more…)

Natural Organic Holiday Shopping … for Kids!

Gardening GiftsGardening gifts for children; fun, educational, and great for the entire family.

I don’t know about you, but this weekend I intend to get some holiday shopping done. Most gardeners are plan-ahead, industrious sorts and I’m sure a lot of you have finished your shopping or are well on your way to wrapping it up (ho ho!). That’s not usually how I roll. But allow me to make the same declaration I make all year long — shop locally — and let’s look at that column on the shopping list that can often be most difficult: kids.

It’s often said that gifts should reflect the giver as well as those receiving the gift. My — and I hope your — interest in organic growing and all things natural is often mirrored in the gifts I give. That can be easy when you’re giving to adults. Kids? Everything seems plastic, disposable, and often designed to numb the mind rather than stimulate it. But what if, just what if… (more…)

Forcing Bulbs for Winter Color — Indoors

Forcing BulbsPlanning and proper planting can put beautiful blossoms in your home for the holidays.

Not a year goes by, not a holiday season approaches, that we wish that we had started some flower bulbs in containers for indoor growing so that we might give the gift of color to our nearby friends and relatives. And not a year goes by that we realize we didn’t plan far enough ahead. Think of delivering bright red amaryllis to the hosts of the neighborhood Christmas party or bringing a cluster of paperwhite blossoms on sharp green leaves to Aunt Susan when she hosts a holiday dinner. Having plants ready to go for the last weeks of December means preparing in September and even August to make sure bulbs will be willing to grow just when you want them to.

Forcing bulbs for the holidays is a matter of persuasion. You must fool them into thinking (thinking is a relative term here) that they’ve gone through winter and are approaching spring. We do this buy digging or buying bulbs late in the summer and then keeping them in the refrigerator for two or three months. Then we pot them up, whether in organic compost or potting soil for bulbs including amaryllis, or in pebble pots or glass containers for paperwhites. (more…)

Allelopathy and the Science of Companion Planting

Allelopathy PhilosopherHow rye grass and other allelopathic plants can cut weeds and boost fertility.

Companion planting has long been part of the organic gardeners tool kit. We’re all aware that some crops aide in the growth of other crops. The “three sisters” — corn, squash and beans — are probably the best known example of different plants that do well when planted close by. Other plants are known to repel pests. Geraniums are often planted in the garden to repel leafhoppers, corn earworms, even mosquitoes. And planting legumes — beans, field peas, hairy vetch – where heavy feeding vegetables will later grow helps increase soil nitrogen.

One problem with these principles is that there’s little scientific study to back up what we know from experience. And, in the case of companion planting, some of the scientific “proof’ can be questionable (scroll down). But science is beginning to take a serious look at one form of companion planting known as allelopathy. Scientists have discovered that certain plants have the ability to produce toxic substances that inhibit the growth of other plants. And when those “other plants” are common weeds, well, the ears of organic gardeners begin to perk up. (more…)

Growing, Enjoying Ornamental Gourds

Ornamental GourdsDried, carved or used in centerpieces, gourds from the garden bring color, cheer to the Thanksgiving season.

With apologies to turkeys everywhere… what says Thanksgiving more than a beautiful centerpiece of ornamental gourds? Gourds have become such a symbol of the late fall season that one of our favorite literary magazines has done a tongue-in-cheek essay about such displays (sorry, no link; too much profanity and, well, this is a family blog). Growing gourds is easy, especially where there’s a longer growing season and, with the rise of interest in collecting and supplying heirloom seeds, their types and availability have mushroomed over the last few years.

Ornamental gourds are of two types. The soft shell gourds (Curcubita pepo) are the type most commonly used for fall centerpieces and other decorations. The hard-shell type, those that we dry and make bowls, birdhouses, even musical instruments from (Lagenaria siceraria) are usually larger and need a longer growing time. (more…)

Garden Tasks for November

November GardeningGardening isn’t over until the ground freezes.

For a lot of us, November marks the end of our outdoor gardening season. There’s still puttering to do: cleaning and oiling tools to be put away for the winter, bringing indoors any potted plants we may still have outside, trimming back and protecting roses; that kind of thing. Often we’ll wait for a sunny (relatively) warm day to do these things. But as all of us have heard said — thank-you, Coach Kruger! — it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And in gardening, that means it ain’t over until the ground freezes, no matter what the calendar says.

How so? As long as you can get a spade in the ground, the ground can still be worked. That means you can still plant bulbs for spring blooming. Lots of experts will tell you that bulbs need to be planted around the time of the first frost and several weeks ahead of the ground freezing. We’ve found that this isn’t necessarily true. Bulbs planted well after the first frost will do quite well as long as the freeze is gradual and not the result of a sudden and prolonged cold snap. The main thing here is to avoid over watering. Everyone knows bulbs don’t like wet feet. When the solid freeze comes you don’t want your bulbs to be too damp which may cause them to be damaged. (more…)

Cooking With Kids: Nutrition, Health, Gardening

Sylvia's TableA new cookbook, SYLVIA’S TABLE, talks about growing and preparing food with children.

Sylvia’s Table: Fresh, Seasonal Recipes From Our Farm to Your Family isn’t your ordinary cookbook. Sure, it’s filled with great recipes, all of them using fresh, often home-grown ingredients. But its designed with kids in mind. In addition to the recipes, it features essays on the various foods that author Liz Neumark harvests and prepares. It also gives glimpses into the practice of sustainable farming and organic gardening, including growing tips. And it has useful suggestions on cooking with kids, including such things as how to safely teach children to use kitchen knives for slicing.

The book’s emphasis is on healthy, natural foods. But that doesn’t limit what you’ll find here. How does Kale Crisps, Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Hearty Winter Beef Stew, Butternut Squash Bread Pudding, and Caramelized Peach and Ginger Crisp sound? If you know someone who has children and loves to cook as well as garden, this book would make a wonderful present. (more…)

The Great (Heirloom) Pumpkin

Pumpkin PatchVarieties of pumpkins for carving, eating, or both!

Who isn’t familiar with Linus from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip and his belief in the Great Pumpkin? Linus believes that on Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys for all the children. This wasn’t just wishful thinking on Linus’ part. He truly believed in The Great Pumpkin, and did so year after year.

We also believe in great pumpkins; in fact, we don’t know of any pumpkin that isn’t great. Sure, we love pie pumpkins, field pumpkins, and giant pumpkins, just like everybody else. But we’re especially attracted to the unusual varieties. And many of those are heirloom pumpkins. (more…)

Overwintering Potted Plants

Overwintering Potted PlantsTechniques to prevent plants in pots from cold and freezing weather.

Those of us who use potted plants in our gardens, on our patios, and around our landscapes face a problem each winter: how to protect them during the long cold winter. It’s hard enough in areas where extreme cold is frequent to keep perennials in the ground alive. It’s much harder overwintering potted plants. The bulk of soil that is in the ground tends to moderate the temperatures. The small amount in pots tend to give up heat more readily. What to do?

The general rule of keeping plants in pots two zones different than the zone you live in helps. In other words, if you live in zone 6, make sure the plants you have in containers are rated to zone 4. This of course makes it difficult if you live in zone 4. There are other things you can do to carry over plants in winter. Here are some suggestions. The basic rules are, of course, to keep the soil in the pots from freezing solid and becoming totally dry; not an easy proposition. (more…)

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