My neighbor says growing organic apples without using chemical sprays for disease and pest damage is impossible. Is it really that difficult? What are some methods for growing apples organically?
We beg to differ with your neighbor. Beautiful, organically grown apples are now widely available at farmers markets and supermarkets, and you can grow them, too! The organic approach always starts with the soil and selecting the right apple varieties.
First, be sure your intended planting site receives full sun, has good air circulation and is not located in a frost pocket. Work on improving the soil now so that it will be ready for planting next spring. Amend the planting area with plenty of compost, and plant a fall cover crop to add organic matter to the site. Also, test your soil to see whether you need to correct any major nutrient deficiencies.
Over the past 20 years, many excellent disease-resistant apple varieties have become available, but you need to know the best ones for your climate. Getting the right rootstock is important, too, because this influences the tree’s size, winter hardiness, disease susceptibility and drought tolerance. To find the most disease-resistant varieties and best rootstocks for growing organic apples in your region, check with your state cooperative extension office — many offer online publications specifically dedicated to this topic. Also note which varieties organic growers sell at your local farmers market — and which taste best.
To provide broad-spectrum protection against pest damage, many commercial operations growing organic apples rely on a spray regimen that includes timely applications of Surround crop protectant, which is a nontoxic, clay-based product that forms a thin film on foliage and fruit. The chalky barrier helps protect apples from plum curculio, codling moth, apple maggot, apple sawfly and other pests, as well as from sunburn and heat stress. Some studies show that it also suppresses powdery mildew and fire blight disease. Surround is the only product of this kind currently registered for horticultural use.
Sulfur fungicide sprays can also be used to control powdery mildew and scab disease. Other effective organic control methods include bagging individual apples soon after petal-fall to prevent pest damage (see Better Than Apple Tree Spray for more information), hanging sticky traps and lures to control apple maggots, growing certain flowers and herbs nearby to attract beneficial insects, and letting chickens hunt and peck soil-dwelling orchard pests.
For more information on growing apples organically, we highly recommend Michael Phillips’ book The Holistic Orchard. Another good resource is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service publication Apples: Organic Production Guide.
Above: Choosing disease-resistant apple varieties that are suited to your area is one of the steps that will help you grow bushels of organic apples.
Photo By Jerry Pavia
What are some good beekeeping resources for new beekeepers?
Two books we like are Keeping Bees and Making Honey by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, and The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. (Flottum also blogs about his beekeeping; search for his name on our website to find his posts.)
Both books are good, basic how-to references — they each provide information on raising bees sustainably anywhere, and explain how to use honey and wax to make candles, beauty products and tasty treats.
Nebraska beekeeper Michael Bush has a terrific, in-depth website that includes expert advice for beginners on raising bees, as well as information on sustainable beekeeping practices, at Bush Bees Home.
Another helpful website is www.BeeSource.com, where you can find links to other beekeeping resources and organizations.
Above: After you have the background knowledge, beekeeping offers sweet rewards.
Photo By Janet Horton
Organic fertilizers can be wildly expensive. Can you suggest some lower-cost options?
Many good, inexpensive organic fertilizer alternatives are available. In fact, your fertilizer can be free! Grass clippings are 2 to 5 percent nitrogen and make an excellent fertilizer. Just be sure you collect them from lawns that have not been treated with herbicides.
If you aren’t able to get grass clippings, then your best buy will probably be large bags of alfalfa meal from a farm store. See a chart that compares the prices of various organic fertilizer types and brands online at Build Better Soil With Free Organic Fertilizer!.
If you’d like to make your own blended organic fertilizer, we recommend a recipe developed by Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When It Counts — find the recipe at A Better Way to Fertilize Your Garden: Homemade Organic Fertilizer. You can also make homemade liquid fertilizer by following our instructions at Free, Homemade Liquid Fertilizers.
Above: Why buy expensive fertilizers when you can get grass clippings free?
Photo Courtesy Dreamstime/Mikhail Olykainen
Can you suggest a nontoxic, protective wood finish for the unfinished exterior of my wood-sided home?
Several lines of wood finishes protect exterior siding, decks and fences from water and sunlight damage without the toxic solvents or heavy-metal drying agents found in many commercial wood protectors.
Architect Paula Baker-Laporte, president of EcoNest Architecture and author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House, recommends two brands: Rubio Monocoat Hybrid Wood Protector and Weather-Bos’ “The Boss.” “Both are natural oil products that don’t off-gas any more than salad dressing does,” she says. “Because they are oils, you just reapply them every few years, without doing any stripping between applications.”
These and other natural wood finishes, such as Earthpaint’s Rainforest Sealer and Eco Safety Products’ Acri-Soy, emit few or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This new generation of natural wood protectors contains plant-based oils and resins — just like traditional linseed oil and tung oil do — but they’re more durable and require fewer coats per application.
Above: Natural wood finishes emit few or no volatile organic compounds.
Photo By Fotolia/bradcalkins
We’ve accumulated a lot of wood ash over the winter. Can we add it to our garden soil or compost pile?
Whether using wood ash in the garden is a good idea depends on your garden soil’s pH and fertility levels. If a soil test has shown your garden soil’s pH to be below 6.0 (meaning it’s moderately acidic), adding wood ash could be beneficial, says Garn Wallace, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is general manager of Wallace Laboratories in El Segundo, Calif.
In acidic soils, wood ash can increase soil fertility by increasing the availability of phosphorus and potassium as well as some micronutrients — although wood ashes won’t supply any nitrogen. Also rich in calcium, wood ashes are effective for raising soil pH — a potential benefit in places where pH is below the ideal level for most vegetables (6.0 to 7.0).
“Moderation is the key,” Wallace says. “People tend to over-apply nutrients. And after you add something to the soil, you can’t take it away without replacing the soil. If you apply wood ashes without a soil test, it is possible to ruin soil in just one year.”
If, after testing your soil pH, you decide to add wood ash, start with a thin dusting across the soil surface, then work the ashes deeply into the topsoil, because most nutrients won’t move much in the soil. A Purdue Extension publication suggests that gardeners whose soils are below a pH of 6.5 can safely apply 20 pounds of wood ashes per 100 square feet if the ash is worked into the soil about 6 inches.
The following year, test the soil pH and nutrients again. If the pH is still low, work in another thin layer as you did the previous year. When your soil pH has reached 6.5 to 7.0, stop adding wood ash. If you add too much wood ash, you risk raising the pH over the neutral 7.0 to 7.2 range, which can tie up essential nutrients in the soil. Continue to test the soil every two to three years, and adjust soil amendments according to the test results.
As for composting the wood ash, it depends on what stage your compost pile has reached. Adding small amounts of ashes to a new compost pile is probably OK. If the compost is at or near maturity, however, adding wood ash would raise the pH and could increase the availability of heavy metals to harmful levels. “You want these minerals in minute amounts — too much of them is never a good thing,” Wallace says.
One last caution: Never use ashes from treated wood in your garden. Treated wood contains copper, arsenic, chromium and sometimes boron, and ashes that contain these heavy metals could harm soil, plants and animals.
Wallace Laboratories tests soil, water and plant tissue. For more information, email Info@WLabs.com.
— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor
Above: Moderation is key when using wood ash.
Photo Courtesy Spectrum Photofile/James Jeffreys
I’m confused by the descriptions I see on oil labels — cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, extra virgin, etc. What do these terms mean, and which terms indicate quality?
Your confusion is understandable. Oil labeling is complex, with a few terms that have legal meaning, many terms that are mere marketing hype, and some terms that are downright misleading. Like most foods, oils are most flavorful and nutritious when they are fresh and minimally processed. But manufacturers are always looking for ways to do things faster and cheaper and make foods last longer on the shelf.
Four processes are used to extract oils from nuts and seeds: grinding, pressing, heating, and applying chemical solvents. Corn, soy and canola oils are typically processed using the chemical solvent hexane. Olive, avocado, walnut, peanut and most other oils are usually expeller-pressed.
Here’s how Spectrum, a leading producer of high-quality oils, explains expeller-pressed vs. cold-pressed:
“Expeller pressing is a chemical-free, mechanical process that extracts oil from seeds and nuts. This method of oil extraction is an alternative to the hexane-extraction method used for many conventional oils. The temperature reached during pressing depends on the hardness of the nut or seed. The harder the nut or seed, the more pressure required to extract the oil, which in turn creates more friction and higher heat. There is no external heat applied during the expeller pressing. Delicate oils, or those in which flavor nuances are a key component, need to be treated with greater care in controlling processing factors. Oils that are cold-pressed are also expeller-pressed, but in a heat-controlled environment to keep temperatures below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.”
According to Spectrum, Europe has rigorous standards in place for the terminology of cold-pressing (“fully unrefined oil extracted at temperatures below 122 degrees”), but the phrase “cold-pressed” has been used erroneously in the United States for a number of years, often employed as a marketing technique for oils that have been expeller-pressed or even refined (which exposes the oil to temperatures of up to 470 degrees).
The term “extra virgin” is also not regulated in the United States. A 2012 University of California, Davis study discovered that 86 percent of imported olive oils labeled “extra virgin” actually weren’t, failing the criteria because of oxidation, adulteration or poor manufacturing methods. Nine out of 10 California olive oil samples, on the other hand, were properly labeled.
Unfortunately, because most terms to describe oil processing are not defined by law or enforced, consumers just have to find brands they can trust. The UC Davis study includes charts indicating which brands were properly labeled “extra virgin.” California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive, Kirkland Organic and McEvoy Ranch were among the brands that sell legitimately labeled olive oil.
What are “day-neutral” strawberries? Do they have different requirements from regular June-bearers?
Day-neutral strawberries, also called “ever-bearing” strawberries, flower and fruit when temperatures are between 35 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. So instead of picking a single large crop of strawberries in June, you’ll pick smaller amounts of berries (and smaller berries, usually about 1 inch in size) over a longer period of time. That’s a nice benefit if you prefer fresh berries to preserved berries, for which you generally want a larger crop all at once.
Compared with June-bearers, day-neutral strawberry varieties also produce fewer runners and are a little easier to manage in the garden. Use the “hill system” when planting them in the ground: Make mounds of soil about 8 inches high by 24 inches wide and as long as you like. Within each hill, set plants in double rows, spacing the plants about 12 inches apart in a staggered pattern. Mulch the bed with straw to prevent weed growth and retain soil moisture. Remove all plant runners that appear the first year.
The roots of day-neutral strawberry plants don’t grow deep, so provide at least 1 inch of water per week during the growing season. In late fall, replenish straw mulch to a depth of at least 2 inches, covering the crowns of the plants. Pull back the mulch in spring, after temperatures have risen above freezing, to expose the crowns and encourage new growth.
Because day-neutral varieties usually bear fruit the year they’re planted, they can be grown as an annual crop. If you’re establishing a perennial bed, however, remove all flower buds that form before July 1 in the plants’ first year to help them become better established. Check with your county extension office for recommended varieties for your area.
— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor
Above: Day-neutral strawberries are smaller and easier to manage than June-bearers..
Photo Courtesy Dreamstime/Tamara Muldoon