Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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8/20/2014

Bulgarian Farmer With Fruit

This photograph, which I took in Deva, Romania, always makes me happy. Spring. Travel. The surprise of the unexpected. We entered the farmhouse courtyard of this Romanian subsistence farmer through a door in a wall. One never knows what these private spaces will reveal. In this case, the courtyard was dominated by the glowing personality of the country woman whose farm it was. I asked to be shown her kitchen garden. It was a step back in time. In addition to the plants being grown for food were the plants staked for seed saving. I recall in particular a row of staked bolting lettuce. As country people tend not to waste time, while showing me the garden my host took the opportunity to harvest an immense kohlrabi for her afternoon meal. She carried the kohlrabi out of the garden to a chopping stump where she trimmed it with a hatchet and then, in what was virtually a single movement, tossed the trimmings over the chicken coop fence. I can still recall the sense of awakening as I saw the kohlrabi leaves dropping down into the coop. Here were whole systems, simple, elegant, ancient.

From the coop we went to see the bread oven. It was located in the barn. Small, rudimentary in the extreme, it was made of crude bricks with no insulation. Like the chipped plate in the photograph on which she is offering me fruit, the oven was a sign of the material poverty in which she and her husband lived. I took photographs of the oven and was then taken back outside and sat down on a chair in the shade of a tree. My host returned a short time later, smiling, with the berries and flowers you see in the photograph. Her husband poured a round of plum alcohol and we drank to friendship.

While the grinding work of a Romanian subsistence farm isn’t anything that I would choose for myself, there are aspects of the life that are attractive. In particular, the practices that I think of as the circles of life — eating food one has grown oneself, saving seeds, feeding poultry with garden scraps, and then eating their eggs (or them), and preserving a fruit harvest to cement friendships with strangers.

Having no choice in life is awful. Having to depend entirely on the food one raises to eat because one has no other choice is not an appealing life. Young people have fled the Romanian countryside. But having virtually infinite choices has its problems, too. My own urban vegetable plot ebbs and flows in productivity depending on my life, but as a rule, there is always at least something that can be harvested. I find it fundamentally reassuring when the answer to the question of what salad there is for dinner is simply the lettuce growing in the garden. And when it bolts (selecting the plants that bolt last), stake them and either gather the seed for replanting before they blow away or let the seeds scatter in the wind to become garden volunteers.


8/19/2014

Fall garden

August is a fairly hot month throughout the United States. Don’t let that deter you from planting a fall garden. There is still time to have fresh homegrown produce for fall. Most fall crops are started from seed in May, June and July. In August, if you haven’t already started seeds for fall, it is best to buy established plant starts. Most plant nurseries sell plant starts for fall gardening.

Fall Garden Vegetables

The following plant starts can be planted now for a late fall harvest: scallions, squash, cucumber, broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, and pumpkins.

The following greens do well when planted now from seed for fall: spinach, kale, chard and lettuce.

The following root crops can be planted now for a late fall harvest: carrots, beets and turnips.

Radishes can be planted now as well and are typically ready to harvest in 30 days. What we plant now in the Midwest for next years harvest: Garlic can be planted in late October of this year to be ready for early July Harvest. Carrots and spinach can also be planted in October for an early spring harvest next year.

lettuce

Head lettuces and other hardy greens will overwinter well. Perennial herbs can be planted now. The following annual herbs can still be planted to enjoy in late summer/early fall: parsley (actually a biennial), cilantro, basil and dill. Because of the hot weather in August, be sure to either use drip irrigation, or water regularly. Straw bales work well to mulch vegetable crops.

Sheet mulching, or lasagna gardening, is an excellent way to keep your garden bed weed-free. Sheet mulching is essentially layering compost, leaf mulch, grass clippings, newspaper, more compost, and straw or mulch around each of your garden plants to help suppress weeds, add nutrients and retain moisture. Compost is a gardener’s best friend! A simple compost bin can be made using reclaimed materials such as pallets or an old wire fence panel. Pallets make excellent garden beds.



8/15/2014

Provider bush beansWhen you look at the details of seed varieties, one of the bits of information you will find is “days to maturity.” That is the expected time it will take from planting the seed or transplant in the ground until you can expect a harvest. In my garden planning DVD and in my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, I advise you to use that number of days when determining when you might expect to begin harvesting the crops you are planting. You could record that information on a Plant/Harvest Schedule so you know what to expect throughout the season. Until you have more experience with the specific varieties you are growing, that is a good way to begin. If you keep even the most minimum of records, such as writing on a calendar when you planted something and when the harvest started, you will begin to have a more accurate guide for your garden planning.

My mind was on days to maturity this summer when I had to plan to grow the snap beans for our son’s August 2 wedding. You can find out more about that wedding planning at HomeplaceEarth. I usually grow Provider bush beans to can. It is quick maturing (42 days in my garden) and reliable. I am comfortable with the two week harvest window and pick four times during those two weeks. The harvest is a little lighter on the first and last pickings, but not significantly. When I worked things out on the Plant/Harvest Schedule, I realized that I would have to plant these beans as soon as we returned from a week-long trip. Knowing things can pop up unexpectedly that might delay planting at that time, I wanted to put the beans in the ground before we left. I needed to find a bean that would mature a week later.

The seed catalogs list Provider at 50 days. I decided upon Jade and Gold Rush to grow for the wedding feast. They were both listed at 55 days. Since Provider beans are actually ready to harvest at my place after 42 days, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the first picking of Jade and Gold Rush happened on 47 days after planting. The seed catalog had listed them as maturing five days later. What I wasn’t prepared for was quantity of Gold Rush beans I would have that first picking — two thirds of what would be the total harvest was ready that day! The following week, on day 54, the harvest yielded two thirds of what would be the total harvest for the Jade beans. I suppose if you were used to growing these varieties, you would look forward to, and plan for, a bulk harvest such as this. For me, I’ll go back to growing Provider beans.

I think I will grow yellow beans again, though. I used to grow them long ago and don’t know why I stopped. I liked to can them with some of the green beans. I remember yellow beans as maturing later than the green beans I was growing in my market garden. I could can the green and yellow beans separately whenever they come in, but it would be fun to can them together. In that case, I would want to make sure the harvests overlap. If I planted Provider and Gold Rush at the same time, the bulk of the Gold Rush harvest would come in the middle of the Provider harvest window. Another variety may have a harvest that would be more spread out. Gold Rush had straight pods that I wanted for the wedding, since the beans would be cooked whole. For canning they would be cut up, so curled beans would be fine if a curled variety would better meet the harvest times. If I found a yellow variety that would have a two week harvest, with amounts the same as Provider, I would pay attention to the days to maturity. If they matured a week later, I could plant them a week before Provider beans and be picking both varieties at the same time.

When you begin gardening, the particular varieties may not be as important to you. A harvest of any kind of snap beans would be welcome. Once you notice all the nuances of each variety, life can get more interesting. My focus here was the harvest window and days to maturity. Other things to pay attention to would be taste, color, and shape. Sometimes it is a memory that drives you to grow a certain variety. If wonderful memories of your grandmother handing you a ripe tomato in her garden when you were young pop into your mind when you encounter tomatoes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the variety you would choose for your garden.

Learn more about what Cindy Conner is up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.



8/14/2014

late fall gardenGardeners dreaming of frost-touched collards, sweet winter roots, crisp fall lettuce and huge heads of broccoli need to get busy planning and planting now. Here in central Virginia and further north it is already time to start transplanting cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings started earlier in late June or July. Lettuce, winter roots, kale, Oriental and other leafy greens can be planted starting in July and continuing into September. Gardeners in the Carolinas, coastal Virginia and further south still have enough time to start all Brassica seedlings. For more precise planting dates in your area talk with experienced gardening neighbors or consult a fall planting schedule from your local Master Gardeners or state extension service. For some great tips and detailed info on fall timing in Virginia and the Carolinas see Southern Exposure’s Fall/Winter Growing Guide by Ken Bezilla or catch his Zero Degree Gardening workshop at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 13, 2014. 

To keep the harvest coming through summer into fall and winter is a real juggling act. Begin by reviewing your plans for summer successions and starting seedlings for fall and winter vegetables. Take into account special considerations for fall: impending frosts and the decreasing temperatures and daylight. The liberal use of transplants helps with the transition from summer abundance to fall plenty in our Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial garden beds. See our earlier post on Fall Planning and Planting for more tips on calculating the right time to sow and choosing the best crops for your fall garden.

Take care of the soil before you plant. Successfully growing multiple crops in one year means paying extra attention to building the soil. Before fall planting add generous amounts of compost and any other amendments recommended by your most recent soil test. 

Cover crops are especially important for four season organic gardeners. Ideally set aside one or more beds for summer cover crops like crowder peas, sun hemp, or buckwheat. Avoid bare soil in the fall and winter garden: plant fall and winter cover crops like oats, rye, vetch, or winter peas in any areas not being used for crops. We under sow corn and broccoli with clover to get a head start on our fall cover crop. In summer, we plant buckwheat in areas that will be open as little as 5 weeks to suppress weeds and add organic matter. Harvey Ussery points out some of the special benefits of these quick growing warm weather plants in Best Summer Cover Crops.

What to Plant in Late Summer

In Virginia, North Carolina and nearby states summer planting for fall and winter harvest starts in June with Brussels sprouts and accelerates in July with sowing seed for broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, cauliflower, and oriental greens to be transplanted to their final location after four weeks. Lettuce and Oriental greens are ready to move in only 2-3 weeks during mid-summer in Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Seedlings for fall plantings can be started in flats on benches high enough up (3 feet) to deter flea beetles, under spun polyester row cover, or in an enclosed shade structure. At our Southern Exposure Trial Gardens in Central Virginia we prefer to use outdoor seedling beds well supplied with compost in a location shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. The north side of a stand of corn, caged tomatoes, or pole bean trellis makes an excellent choice. Outdoor seedling beds should be covered with thin spun polyester row cover or the newer Proteknet row cover to guard against flea beetles and other insects. Transplanting makes for a faster turnaround when garden space becomes available. 

Don’t forget to plant a last summer succession of quick maturing beans, corn, squash, and cucumbers in late June or early July to mature and harvest just before frost. Keep plants growing fast and reduce risk of disease by providing regular and adequate moisture (1 inch per week).

In July and early August we direct sow chard, creasy greens, carrots, beets, winter radishes, and other roots. In the cases of lettuce and carrots summer succession plantings meld seamlessly into our fall garden plantings. Later in August and early September sow kale, arugula, turnips, rutabagas, spinach, and lots more lettuce. Make a late September sowing of kale and spinach to winter over as smaller plants under row cover, then make rapid growth in the lengthening days of early spring during what used to be called “the hunger gap” in March and April. Use row covers, cold frames or later plantings in a greenhouse to further extend the growing season. Leave plenty of room in the garden to plant garlic and perennial onions mid-October through Thanksgiving.

Ira Wallace works, lives, and gardens at Acorn Community Farm home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange where she coordinates variety selection and new seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and Virginia Association for Biological Farming. She is a frequent presenter at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and many other events throughout the Southeast.  Her new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is available online and at booksellers everywhere.



8/14/2014

Red Malabar SpinachWhile we are in the midst of hot summer weather it is a good time to reconsider what is growing in our gardens. It is also good to think about the time we actually have to spend there, in the midst of other activities. Notice what is doing the best as the summer progresses, especially with little attention other than picking. Some crops tend to shut down if the temperature gets too high. For Malabar spinach, however, the hotter the better. It is a tropical plant that loves the heat.

The brassica crops, such as kale and collards that I grow for greens from fall till spring, do not hold up well in Zone 7 to our warm summer nights (in the 60s and 70s)) and hot days (regularly in the 90s). Lettuce likes cool weather, also, but can be coaxed along in the summer with some shade and lots of water. Malabar spinach doesn’t need that kind of attention.

What you see in the photo is red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Basella rubra). There is also a green-stemmed variety (Basella alba). I prefer the red for climbing up the trellis in my garden. You can find some nuances of the red and green varieties at Homeplace Earth. In his upcoming book, Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, David Kennedy suggests that you can grow Malabar spinach in hanging pots. That sounds interesting and if I had limited space I might consider it. But then I’d have to remember to water the pots; something I’m not too good at. Could you imagine walking out to your deck and cutting the leaves and stems for your stir fry just before cooking dinner? They would just be hanging there waiting for you!

Malabar spinach can be eaten raw, but is often eaten cooked. The texture of the leaves is a little mucilaginous, which I don’t find to be a deterrent. That makes it good for your digestive system. As you are making notes of what to have in your garden next summer, if you haven’t grown Malabar spinach yet, I hope you put it on the list of new things to try.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.



8/11/2014

Four years ago I began experimenting with the idea of growing as much of my family's food as possible, which would include growing my own protein on a small scale. I live in Tennessee, definitely the south, and we are blessed with a long growing season, and pretty dependable rains. You really can raise enough food to feed a family on a relatively small piece of land. I started by thinking about what types of foods people in the South ate before mass transportation made it possible to ship food from all over the world, something that will become less and less affordable in the decades to come. I also thought about what were the staple foods that Native Americans relied on to feed themselves from this land, and the answer became obvious: beans and corn. I remembered back to the late '70's, when I lived for two years among the Mayan people in the highlands of Guatemala. There, black beans and maize are still the primary sustenance for most families.

Over the last several years I have had successful harvests of pinto, kidney, navy and black beans. Last year I planted two rows 75 feet long and harvested nearly 30 pounds of dry beans.

rows of black, pinto and kidney beans

black beans in their green stage

The young black beans start our crisp and green.

Because of the humidity and summer rains in Tennessee, on many years I cannot let the pods stay on the bush to dry because often they will either mold or begin to sprout. I also want to get them picked and off the vine as soon as possible to avoid losing them to insects (boring beetles) or filed mice and rats.

I pick the pods every other day right after they turn from green to purple (black beans), brown (pintos), or yellow with purple stripes (kidney). The shell changes from a crisp green to soft and leathery, letting me know the beans inside are now basically ready. 

bean patch drying as they mature

The yellow leaves tell me the plants are fully mature and starting to dry out.

This year I followed an approach related to the Native American "Three Sisters" method (beans, corn and squash), planting the beans directly in my rows of corn. This allowed the beans to climb up the corn stalk, using them as a natural trellis to support the vines. My winter squash is planted adjacent and its vines wind their way through the corn as well.

2014 was a wet summer with plenty of rain, so I never needed to do any additional watering. However the weather turned dry towards the end of July, allowing the pods to fully mature on the vine. The dry, brittle pods were very easy to shell by hand.

black beans the dry pods

Dry black beans pods among the corn stalks.

After shelling, I spread all the beans out in the trays of my dehydrator and run them through this overnight to remove any extra moisture. This insures that none of the beans mold or go rancid in storage.

black beans dehydrator

As an added measure, I keep all of the dried beans inside a freezer for my long-term storage, eliminating the possibility of a moth infestation.

When I think about the amount of land it takes to raise a protein source like cattle, space for the pasture, acres for hay to feed them in winter, still more acres for the corn and beans that make up their feed, it seems clear to me that it takes a lot less land to grow the corn and beans for ourselves.

When we think about what it will take to be sustainable, not just on our own homestead, but on our planet, we have to consider the amount of resources it will take to support all life. Beans, are believed to be one of the oldest, cultivated plants and are definitely a truly sustainable source of protein!



8/7/2014

Collards by Julia LontKale. It’s everywhere. The preferred leafy green. The darling of the local food movement. The inspiration for “Eat More Kale” bumper stickers. I grow kale — six plants, started in February, planted out in early March, eaten as salad greens in April and for dinner in June. It is a lovely plant, until mid- July, when it attracts every aphid in a six mile radius.  Then, the leaves curl up on themselves, warp, and wither. For years, I tried to kill off the aphids. I used the always recommended spray of water (big-time failure - Aphids do not wash off), soapy water (pain in the neck with intricate leaves), ladybugs (they flew off), and cayenne pepper. The aphids remained. When I asked Shepard Smith, our local compost tea guru, why I had so many aphids, he allowed that the plants had a weak aura that attracted pests, and that compost tea was the solution.  I pulled the plants in early July and tossed them into the chicken run. Chickens don’t like plants covered in aphids, either.

The next year, I was reading the Territorial Seed catalog, one of my favorite January breakfast rituals. Their seeds are all tested about seventy miles from my house, so they grow in the Pacific Northwest. Collards. My partner Mark grew up in the south. He loved collards, especially cooked with a ham hock. I was prejudiced against the plants myself. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the collard patch rustles around the kids when they are sneaking up on Boo Radley’s house. Who would want to eat a leafy green that rustles loudly? But, for two fifty a packet, I added them to the list. An experiment. I started them inside in early April, with the chard and vines, and planted them out about a month later. I’m a convert.

Reasons to Grow Collards

No aphids in July. These plants stand up to hot weather and do not send out distress signals when the temperature rises above 80.
Winter hardy. My collards made it through this winter, which was bitter cold (zero to ten degrees Fahrenheit for a week). I had to trim away to dead leaves, but the plants survived. The kale did not.
Nutrient dense, especially when grown in organic soils.
Tasty.  And flexible. It can be a tender young salad green or two huge leaves, chopped fine and sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a shot of vinegar, can be dinner. It is really good with black eyed peas.
Does not rustle.
Beautiful plant … the leaves are greeny grey, like most brasiccas, but they grow upward and curve inward, like hands at prayer, protecting the heart of the plant.

I still grow a few kale plants. I love them in the early spring, before the other greens are growing. The chickens consider their tougher, not buggy,  leaves a treat. And, now that I am not trying to rescue them from aphids, they are doing better. I turn off the water in their raised bed by late July, when I’ve harvested everything. Some years, they hang out, tired and weepy, until late September, when the rains begin, and then put on new growth. And, until that happens, we always have collards.      

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog at http://21ststreeturbanhomestead.blogspot.com. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to www.julialont.com and www.bluecamaspress.com.









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