Soil Health

Experienced growers know that a beautiful garden starts with living, healthy soil. Most plants thrive in well-drained, slightly acidic, soils that are rich in organic matter. The challenge, however, is that most of the world’s soils do not exist this way and they must be balanced, or amended, to provide the conditions necessary for robust plant growth. Click on the information and news below to learn about soil health and what can be done to improve it.

Preparing Garden Soil

Organic Garden SoilHealthy soil is the basis of healthy plants and a healthy environment. When garden soil is in good shape there is less need for fertilizers or pesticides. As author and respected gardener Frank Tozer writes, “When building soil you not only improve your plants health, but you can also improve your own.”

Organic soil is rich in humus, the end result of decaying materials such as leaves, grass clippings and compost. It holds moisture, but drains well. Good organic garden soil is loose and fluffy — filled with air that plant roots need — and it has plenty of minerals essential for vigorous plant growth. It is alive with living organisms — from earthworms to fungi and bacteria — that help maintain the quality of the soil. Proper pH is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil. (more…)

Fall Soil Preparation

Soil PreparationAutumn’s the time to soil test, clean out pests, and add amendments.

You’ve heard it said a thousand times, many of those times on these very pages: the key to a great garden is great soil. Working the dirt in autumn can be a relaxed, pleasant experience, not as intense or rushed as the heavy-turning, fine-tuning soil preparation of springtime. The things you do now, in the days of fall, go along way to ensuring a quick, healthy start come next growing season.

You’ve cleaned out this year’s garden (or are about to), disposed of any plant debris that may harbor disease or insect pests and composted the rest. Here’s what we like to do ahead of putting our plot down for the winter under a protective blanket of mulch. (more…)

Mulch Hits the Big Screen

Back To Eden FilmDocumentary film on master gardener Paul Gautschi’s got the spirit.

In the battle over what constitutes healthy food, it’s no longer surprising to see the documentary film as an effective weapon, most often deployed on the side against corporate agriculture and for public health and well-being. Films including Food Inc (watch it here), 2004’s Supersize Me, a month of nothing but McDonald’s, and most recently Fed Up which implicates a government-corporate collaboration to promote and reward refined sugar, are all convincing, visual arguments of the dangers of the commercial food culture.

Broadly about food, these films are specifically about processed foods, organic and locally raised farming, the health consequences of certain refined foods and fast-food diets. Related films include GMO/OMG , a study of the corporate takeover of farming through seed production, GMOs, and related pesticides. Now even documentaries championing organic gardening are getting into the act. (more…)

New Technology and Old Time Gardening

Edyn Garden SensorSolar-powered monitoring and control of garden conditions holds promise.

Developing and using new technology has been part of gardening since ancient peoples first started fashioning stone tools for digging. Nearly all advances in agricultural development, from the first use of antlers as a hoe to the gas-powered roto-tiller (and its big brother, the tractor and plow) have come from technological development. Not all of them have necessarily been good. But most of them are done in the name of advancing the science and craft of food production (some seem done purely for selfish profit-motives).

In terms of home gardening, technology hasn’t really changed that much since our grandparent’s days. And most of the recent advancements, things like electronic soil testers and digital moisture meters are useful advances that help make it easier to gather the information we need for best growing conditions. Some technical advancement, like this and this, are purely mechanical, things that grandpa’s crazy inventor neighbor probably thought up but never brought to market. Then there’s these things, devices that made an ancient practice easier, faster, and all-around more convenient. (more…)

Farm-To-Table, GMO Ban News

Farmer's MarketSupporting locally grown food means supporting local farms; time line of GMO measure.

Farm-To-Table Controversy: An ongoing discussion erupted into a full-scale controversy over the weekend when Dan Barber, co-owner of New York City’s ground-breaking, local-sourced Blue Hill Restaurant, published an opinion piece in The New York Times that seemed to accuse supporters of the farm-to-table movement of being naive. How dare he?

Turns out that Barber was just taking a deeper look at something that we’ve come to accept as absolutely good: small farmers bringing their crops directly to consumers. He uses his own experience — Barber is also on the board of directors and runs the restaurant at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York’s Hudson River Valley — to discover just what we’re leaving out of our conception of the farm-to-table revolution. But first — and this is the part that surprised many people — he starts out with a contradiction. (more…)

No-Dig Gardening

No Dig GardenHow working less makes growing easy (and maybe better).

Grandpa always said there was no such thing as a lazy gardener. And he was right. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make gardening easier while still making it effective. “No-dig” gardening also known as “sheet mulching,” is one of those ways.

Right now, no-dig is all the rage. It was originally popularized in the 1970s when Fukuoka Masanobu, an organic gardener who pioneered ways for growers to be more productive, published his book One Straw Revolution. You can find a good history of no-dig vegetable gardening as well as an in-depth how-to, can be found over at Treehugger’s excellent blog. (more…)

Springtime Garden Soil Preparation

Preparing Garden SoilEven if conditions aren’t yet right for planting, there’s plenty to do to get your garden ready.

We’ve come to believe that the oh-so-common planting directive “as soon as the soil can be worked” is almost meaningless. Workable soil is important to planting but other conditions — including amendment additions, pH conditions, and soil temperature — have to be considered as well. Your friendly and eager Planet Natural blogger has often advised patience when it comes to spring planting. On the other hand, there’s plenty to be done before the point of workable soil — in other words, when it’s safe to stick seeds in the ground — is reached. And that work can help make your soil workable sooner.

Sure some of our friends in warmer climes have already “got their gardens in,” as my grandfather used to say. But many of us are still waiting (forecast for Saturday night here in our hometown of Bozeman, MT is for snow). Maybe we’ve put in a row of peas along the northern border (with its southern exposure) knowing that the peas we’ll plant in a week or two will probably catch up. Still, planting time is right around the corner, even here in the norther tier states and when that hits we want to be ready. And there’s plenty to do around the garden ahead of spring planting that will facilitate garden sowing and (maybe, weather depending) even help bring that time on sooner. (more…)

Vegetables Not To Start Indoors . . .

Directly Sown Seeds. . . and why (plus how) to start them indoors anyway.

Your friendly, impatient Planet Natural Blogger has a hard time waiting for the ideal time to start seeds, especially those that do best when directly sown in the garden. We’ve all heard how some vegetables shouldn’t be started indoors. Peas, beans, corn, and most definitely root vegetables (carrots, beets, turnips, and the like) do best planted right in the ground where you want them to grow. Starting them indoors can be a frustrating waste of time. And for different reasons. (more…)

Soil: America’s Greatest Resource

Healthy SoilA recent project looks to catalog the earth beneath us.

We were fortunate to have had a middle school teacher (when middle school was still called “junior high”) who when teaching American history gave a lot of attention to the the dust bowl years of the 1930s. This fine instructor — if only we could remember his name! — not only discussed the destruction of farm land, the migration of displaced farmers from Texas, Oklahoma, and other states, and the huge black clouds that rolled into cities as far away as St. Louis, but the causes of the disaster; not just drought but the wrong-headed, unsustainable farming practices that turned once verdant farm and pasture land into what today would be called an environmental disaster area. (more…)

Patience When Planting Peas: The Payoff

Pea PlantsWait for the right soil temperatures and conditions before planting peas.

This time of year we’re thinking peas. Peas are always the first thing to go in our garden and the common wisdom — “plant as soon as the soil can be worked” — is our cue to get into the garden as soon as the soil dries enough that it doesn’t ball up when squeezed in our fists. Peas are also a cool weather crop, doing best in spring and early summer but also planted in late summer-early fall in places where winter doesn’t jump the shark as soon as October comes around.

Not only great eating — we were all about serving curls of fresh pea shoots in salads before it became popular in gourmet, farm-to-table restaurants — peas serve another purpose that promotes well-being in gardeners. They give us something to do in the weeks (and months ) ahead of when the rest of the garden goes in.

If you’re like me, you’re chomping at the bit once March rolls around and garden season is imminent. It’s like waiting for Christmas when you’re a kid. Sometimes you just can’t keep your hands off the presents even before the big day. (more…)

Agricultural Water Use and the California Drought

Agricultural Water100 billion gallons of water, in the form of alfalfa, shipped to China. How can we use less water to grow the produce needed in this country? (Hint: small, sustainable, organic farms.)

Here’s one effect of the drought in California and elsewhere: there’s been a lot of fascinating reporting on water use in commercial agriculture. And the amounts of water that go into some crops, and where those crops are headed, has created something of a controversy. (more…)

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