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!

Micronutrients Essential for Plant Health

Fertilizing with MicronutrientsWe all know the nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur — that are important to plant health. We call them macronutrients. But there’s a whole list of micronutrients that are also key, in much smaller quantities, to the health of your plants. These plant micronutrients — boron, iron, zinc and others — not only assure healthy growth, they help your gardens fight off pests and diseases.

The best long term way to keep your garden soil rich with the micronutrients it needs is by adding compost. The living things that go into compost — grass clippings, leaves, plants trimmings — already contain various amounts of micronutrients. Their presence in your compost guarantees that you’re returning those micronutrients to the soil.

But what if you can tell (PDF), because of yellow leaves or other signs of weakness (or from you extension services soil test), that your soil is deficient in micronutrients? Your plants are well on their way and it’s too late to effectively amend the soil. What can be done to give them a quick boost full of the micronutrients they need? (more…)

Just Say NO to Bug-B-Gone

Spraying PesticidesTips for spraying insect pests with safe, organic bug killers.

No matter how carefully you control growing conditions with healthy soil and proper watering, no matter how well-thought out your integrated pest management system, no matter how lucky you’ve been in the past, sometimes a pest problem arises in your garden that requires spraying the little buggers. What you spray and how you spray can make all the difference.

Most organic gardeners prefer sprays that break down quickly in the environment or opt for home made remedies that make the plant unpalatable or difficult for the insects to populate. These sprays are often made of garlic, cayenne and other peppers, as well as strong scented herbs. The idea is to confuse the insect’s sense of smell (which is often located in their feet) and make them think they are where they don’t want to be. They’re often the organic gardeners first line of defense when pests are spotted.

The second line? Citrus oils, diatomaceous earth, even compost tea are known to work on some insects. Then there are the manufactured products you can make at home that suffocate the pest or make their environment inhospitable. These include soap solutions, often made at home and horticultural oils. Then there are other solutions including those with baking soda, alcohol, and ammonia. Boric acid is a well-known deterrent for migrating insects, one that acts as a stomach poison. Bleach is used especially in greenhouses to disinfect and control diseases. These ingredients are toxic unless diluted and dangerous if not handled correctly. (more…)

Summer Flowers For Color

Summer Garden ColorThis is the time of year that your flower beds can start to look a little weary. You had beautiful blooms from late spring through the first weeks of July but now, in the heat, summer flowers are starting to fade. You can dead head all you want – this will keep some plants blooming into fall (one of the reasons we love marigolds) — but most flowers don’t want to make the effort once things turn hot and dry.

Still, there are ways — and plants, both annuals and perennials — that will keep color in your flower gardens well into fall. Like most things in the garden, they require some advance planning. If you’ve started seeds well into the season indoors, and chosen those seeds wisely, then you may have late-blooming annuals that will keep your landscape alive with color. Late blooming is just one of the traits we’re looking for. Drought tolerance, the ability to adapt to xeric conditions, is another. You may think that starting annuals to put out later in summer is a lot of work for little return. You might change your mind when you’re enjoying blossoms on labor day. Perennials, well, your return on investment will accrue season after season.

Of course your local conditions will determine which plants are best for late season color. This is where a good local garden reference, either online, through a university extension division or, most likely, at your friendly neighborhood nursery, comes in handy. The nursery is also the place to get late blooming plants in case you didn’t have the luxury (or go to the work) of starting flower seed for late planting. (more…)

Hybrid Broccoli Controversy

BroccoliThat so-good-for-you vegetable — broccoli — is in the news. A “dream team” of botanists, agrarians, and marketers has come together at Cornell University to create a broccoli that will grow in areas where the heat-sensitive cruciferous won’t normally grow. And therein lies the problem. Since nearly all commercial broccoli is grown in California, the plant suffers days of transportation before its delivered to midwestern, southern and eastern markets, a time that saps the broccoli of its fresh taste and snap. The new hybridized broccoli can withstand the relative evening warmth and humidity that has made successful commercial farming of broccoli east of the Rocky Mountains difficult. The New York Times  has the story.

The piece is actually a double profile of both broccoli and the plant physiologist who fronts the broccoli effort, Dr. Thomas Bjorkman. Bjorkman, himself a vegetarian, has envisioned making broccoli more readily available in American markets. He’s also sought to make it more palatable and nutritious. Apparently he’s succeeded. The new hybrid broccoli contains more glucoraphanin, a compound that’s been found to prevent cancer. (more…)

Garden Watering Tips, Vegetable Edition

Watering the GardenWe’ve talked a lot about xeric landscapes, water-wise gardening, drought-tolerant plants, and the like, all good things. Conserving water is always a good thing, especially when you’re paying for it. But there’s one place where skimping on garden watering can have bad consequences, where thirty plants will drink up water more quickly than anywhere else and that’s your vegetable garden. Let’s face it. Vegetables are water intensive. It takes 16 gallons to grow a single head of lettuce. It’s estimated that 40% of all water use in the United Stages goes to growing food.

So while vegetable gardens will drink up more water than your thyme and lavender-planted rock garden or you native grass lawn, it’s water well spent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t conserve water while growing vegetables. Here’s some tips, gathered from a variety of sources to help you save water when you’re giving your vegetables what they need. Most of these techniques are second nature for experienced gardeners. But they bare repeating. (more…)

Garden Tasks for July

Garden BlossomsIt’s July and, as the song goes, the living is easy. Sure there are little chores to be done — watering, of course; and weeding — but mostly this is an expectant time with bountiful harvest of greens, peas (if you live where it’s not too hot), and fast growing root vegetables. Summer squash are in blossom and maybe setting fruit, corn is knee-high and higher, and winter squash, cucumbers and other vine crops are showing some muscle and starting to take over. There’s the first tomato blossom and is that the first tiny bean forming among all those blossoms?

It’s a good week to spend time with your garden doing nothing but taking stock. How is your garden plan looking now that things are well on their way? What pest problems are you having? How does the weather look for the rest of the month? Mostly, we just like to sit back and look at the fruits of our work. Things are still neat and orderly, everything is robust and green. And then we start thinking deeper (gardens will do that to you). Where did the craft of doing this come into our lives? How is it that with each passing year we learn more and more about raising vegetables? How well are we doing passing our knowledge to children and friends? And how important are those friends and children to what we do and learn? (more…)

Melon Growing Problems

Garden MelonsAfter our last column, a friend pointed out that she didn’t have trouble getting melons to pollinate. Her problem was with blights and mildew. It’s true that melons are a bit difficult to grow because of their susceptibility to molds and certain insects, especially when you’re trying to grow them in cooler, damp climates. Any trouble growing melons is well worth it once they reach the table. The cantaloupes, watermelons and other melons now coming into our stores from warmer climates just don’t hold a candle to a juicy, sweet, homegrown melon.

Finding the proper natural or organic cures for these melon problems can be difficult. Mulching is great for issues caused by uneven watering. But mulch can provide places for pests including squash bugs and cucumber beetles to lay eggs. These pesky critters not only consume melon plants but spread disease and wilt. Melon leaves can be burned by insecticidal soap and liquid copper sprays, two common, organic-approved solutions for bugs and mildew. They should only be used in the most diluted form possible. Other problem solvers — like using row covers to shield plants from insects — are great ideas until you need the help of pollinators. Any successful melon growing regimen begins even before you start them in your garden. (more…)

Doin’ the Pollinate Shake!

Hand PollinateHow to hand pollinate plants in the vegetable garden.

No, it’s not the latest dance craze. It’s what certain plants in your vegetable garden need to set fruit: a good shaking. Yes, it has to do with sex, er, pollination and plants can sometimes use a little help. But what it really has to do with is better yields come harvest time. So let’s get ready to pollinate!

Not a year goes by when we don’t hear someone complain that their tomatoes, cucumbers, or squash didn’t set fruit. Oh, the plants grew like crazy and blossomed to beat the band but when it came time to produce? Little or no fruiting occurred. We’ve even had this happen ourselves, usually after relocating to a different part of the country. When we’re asked what went wrong, we realize (doh!) that we didn’t do what needed to be done, that’s when we remember hand pollination. Now that July has arrived and gardens around the country are beginning to flower, it’s time to pollinate. (For those of you in cooler climates or whose gardens might be a bit behind schedule this year, here’s hoping that your blossoms are soon to show.) (more…)

Plant a Thyme Lawn

Grass AlternativeIn an effort to reduce water use and time spent caring for lawns, some gardeners are replacing their turf with thyme. Thyme is an ideal grass alternative. It requires less water, is generally tough (see “walking on thyme” below), drought resistant, hardy all the way north to zone 4 if it’s healthy, and will spread easily to fill in most of the space that you want it to. Best thing: it becomes a carpet of attractive, lavender-colored flowers that lasts long into the season. If you’re looking to replace your thirsty grass with something more xeric, consider thyme.

There are down-sides to putting in a thyme lawn. It can be expensive. When you’re planting plugs of thyme 6 to 12 inches apart, you can burn up a lot of cash fast. Most sources recommend planting smaller areas. If you have a croquet court-sized yard (in other words, large) you might want to consider planting only part of it in thyme to start. You can always go back and expand your thyme planting another season. The other down-side is the labor it takes to get your thyme in the ground. You’ll need to kill off all the grass where you intend to plant first. This can be a slow and difficult process. (more…)

Tomatoes & Basil: How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

Tomato GardenCompanion plants for tomatoes — not always a perfect pair!

Last evening, your friendly and inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger visited a couple of distinguished food writers — they are a couple and have a couple James Beard Awards to their credit — to get their opinions on some local barbecue for a story I’m writing. We ate outdoors in their beautiful patio garden, their chickens serenading us from the nearby coop that was just out of sight.

Their garden is incorporated into the modest outdoor living space. A pair of cherry trees, their growing space circled in rock, is at the center of the stone patio (no cherries this year; a late frost took all the blossoms). Around the first cherry tree were various flowering plants. Only the bleeding hearts were in bloom. The earth around the second tree hosted a variety of herbs, partly shaded, that were just reaching picking size. One of those herbs was basil.

Elsewhere, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes were growing on terraced steps in full sun near the walls of their white-washed adobe house. By the house’s entrance, among several other plants and close to some lettuce that was already past its prime, was a yellow pear tomato plant already holding some blossoms. The space, with its various pots, growing areas, and walking spaces, not to mention the table where we sat enjoying ribs and brisket, seemed well designed. But I was puzzled by one thing. Knowing that tomatoes and basil, both full-sun lovers, did so well together, I wondered why they weren’t growing side-by-side. “We tried that,” one of my friends said, “and it just didn’t work.” (more…)

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