Organic Gardening

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


4/14/2014

This year, I hope to obtain land to create my own patch of homesteading paradise. As I mentally gear up for the prospect of transforming a piece of raw land into a (hopefully) beautiful, abundant haven of food, animals, and handmade buildings, I am simultaneously seeking stories from folks who have been through (or more likely continuing to go through) that process. Though I am attracted to a rural locale, where development is less, the land is more open, and the restrictions fewer, it has been an enlightening and poignant reminder that not everyone is so fortunate to have access to such circumstances. In fact, it may not even be necessary to live in the country to eat well, grow delicious organic food in quantity, and live the good life.

Paradise Lot: Creating a Slice of Eden in the Suburbs

This is a fortunate time for backyard gardeners and suburban homesteaders, as the literature dedicated to those folks in the suburbs who want to provide more for themselves has been on the rise. One notable book that turns the idea of needing lots of space to grow an incredible diversity and quantity of food on its head is Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Toensmeier and Bates detail the incredible story of the transformation of their 1/10th acre suburban lot into a slice of permaculture goodness, proving that you don’t need huge amounts of space to do so, and that the suburbs can in fact be productive.

The book starts with the duo buying a duplex in Holyoke, Mass., where they soon establish a perennial garden full of multifunctional herbs, shrubs, vines, and trees. Incredibly, Toensmeier and Bates prove that permaculture principles are viable in a suburban setting, even when the forecast is grim, and that a small parcel of land can yield abundant food and nutrition, and even have a bit of space for a few animals, too.

Paradise Lot is no doubt a story of the journey and less of a how-to, but that doesn’t mean the text isn’t brimming full of valuable information and tips for the prospective suburban gardener and permaculturalist. Really, Toensmeier’s plant knowledge is dripping from every page, and you’ll likely find yourself reaching for a highlighter or folding every other page corner because of the abundance of excellent information. Perhaps most valuable is the massive inspiration the book imparts – that you don’t need a whole lot of land to work some incredible gardening and food magic, and that anyone can turn even a scrap of abused land into something beautiful.

Gaia’s Garden: Bringing Life to Your Home and Garden

Another favorite book of mine geared towards home-scale permaculture and food production is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, which when combined with Paradise Lot, makes for an excellent two-punch guide to getting your land to be productive, regenerative, and beautiful. Hemenway’s book is full of practical information that will set you on the path to a self-renewing garden. One of the main premises of permaculture – working with Nature, instead of against her, is always the goal, and Hemenway describes in detail how to make that theory a reality.

Gaia’s Garden gets into the nitty-gritty of water management, guilds, forest garden design and layout, and recommended plant species suitable for a perennial food and medicine garden. Whereas Paradise Lot doesn’t dwell on the instructions for replicating a regenerative garden, Gaia’s Garden provides ample ideas and directives for creating healthy soil, making use of small spaces, and taking advantage of natural conditions. It’s practical, based on a lot of experimenting, and overall it’s an excellent addition to the library.

While I’m not about to move back to the suburbs to put these home-scale permaculture ideas to the test, I appreciate other people’s work in experimenting with these ideas. There’s a much better chance for getting our towns and cities across the country a little more productive and brimming with life with excellent books like Paradise Lot and Gaia’s Garden around(Both are available from MOTHER EARTH NEWS.) Maybe we can re-create Eden in the suburbs after all.

Photos by Chelsea Green Publishing



4/14/2014

Monarch Butterflies

The collaborative efforts of Terroir Seeds, The Xerces Society and Painted Lady Vineyard have spent the past 2 years growing southwest native milkweed seed to reintroduce the Spider or Antelope Horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula) to home gardeners, garden centers and native plant nurseries across the southwest. This story is especially poignant right now with the massive declines in Monarch butterfly populations and the resounding recovery push by several conservation groups alongside private citizens, students and scientists.

Milkweed is Critical for Monarchs

Cindy Scott and Brianna Borders

The milkweed plant plays a critical role in the monarch life cycle. Each spring Monarchs migrate across the United States, laying eggs on native milkweeds - the only food plants suitable for newly hatched monarch caterpillars. The North American Monarch Conservation Plan recommends planting native milkweed species to restore habitat within the Monarch butterfly’s breeding range. 

For the past 3 years, the total area occupied by overwintering Monarchs in Mexico has dropped by almost 50% each year, continuing a decline that has lasted for the past decade. The severe drought seen across Texas and Northern Mexico has been a large factor, combined with wildfires across the entire southwest. The biggest contributor is simply the loss of land that supports the Monarch’s food source and hatchery – the Milkweed plant. Much of the land has been converted to commercial herbicide tolerant corn and soybean production or developed into housing. Overuse of persistent chemical herbicides and roadside mowing for weed control has also created loss of milkweed habitat and thus reduced Monarch numbers. 

Producing Milkweed Seed

Milkweed PlugThe Xerces Society is working to increase the availability of native milkweed seed and encourage restoration using milkweed in California, the Great Basin, the Southwest, Texas, and Florida. These are important areas of the Monarch’s spring and summer breeding range where few commercial sources of native milkweed seed currently exist. Brianna Borders, Plant Ecologist, contacted us about growing out a small sample of Spider or Antelope milkweed seeds that had been collected in central Arizona to make it commercially available.

Painted Lady Vineyard is a small wine grower in Skull Valley, AZ where Fiona Reid has been growing milkweed and saving the seed for a few years, so she was the perfect fit for our reintroduction project! One of her passions is native plants of the area, with an emphasis on butterfly attractants. The Painted Lady is a beautiful, ephemeral butterfly that happened to visit the vineyard in droves as the initial vines were being planted, thus the name for the vineyard came about. 

Planting Milkweed PlugsA California native plant nursery propagated the seeds into plugs, which were shipped to Painted Lady Vineyard. The tiny milkweed plugs were planted over a long and hot weekend in the middle of June 2012 after much work over many weeks preparing the ground to receive the fragile plugs. There were no financial rewards for any of the volunteers for the hours spent bent over in 100°F heat planting over 2,000 fragile plugs. Many of the people helping were native plant enthusiasts, some were butterfly lovers, but a significant number had were helping see a project to fruition on nothing more than the basis of it is the right thing to do. There were over 320 hours of volunteer labor, not counting Fiona's time, from start to finish.

Hard Work, but Worth It

Planting Milkweed PlugsIn an email to everyone, Fiona said, "It has been an amazing community effort and I have had the pleasure of working with a great group of people, children included. As we began to close in on the finish yesterday I was almost overcome by the understanding that people don’t have to involve themselves in such hard work – sometimes backbreaking work, sometimes knee-breaking work, and always hot work. They could sit at home in the cool, or an office somewhere, and do good for someone else. But none of you did that. You came knowing it was going to be outside in the heat; knowing you would kneel and bend; knowing you would get dust in your nose and eyes; knowing that – as Rachel Carson said – “there is something beyond the bounds of our human existence” that matters. You also know that you won’t get any thanks from the butterflies that find all the little milkweed gardens that will eventually grow from this project."

Carpenter BeeShe finishes by saying, "We don’t get paid dollars for doing this. What we get is priceless. One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures – a butterfly – will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there. Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the northward journey. We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that’s OK – we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on earth."

Lessons from Milkweed

Bagged Milkweed PodJust over a year later, in July of 2013, we visited once again to check in the seed production and record some of the process. On this visit, we learned several things. First, milkweed is an on-going production plant, it doesn’t set all of its flowers at once. There aren’t a crush of seed pods to be bagged, but there are little bunches of pods that always need bagging, so it is seemingly never done. Second, there is no real seed cleaning equipment available for the small scale grower to process and separate the seeds from the floss. There is large scale equipment that costs as much as a house, but nothing for the smaller grower. Third, there isn’t an established market for a regionally adapted milkweed seed of a specific species, as there hasn’t been any available up until now.

Since then, we have almost sold out of all of Painted Lady's seed production, mostly to home gardeners but many garden centers and native plant nurseries are growing the seedling plugs or plants around the southwestern US. There is still Milkweed seed available! A number of school gardens, community gardens and Master Gardener groups have stepped forward to help re-establish the milkweed populations in their areas. We are honored to be part of such a project and amazed at the positive impact a decentralized, non-governmental, independent group of individuals that have mostly never met one another can have on such a large scale challenge.

More Varieties on the Way 

Cleaned Milkweed Seed

One of our dear friends, Gary Nabhan, gave a talk at Prescott College recently in collaboration with Make Way for Monarchs and we will be extending our collaboration with several growers of almost a dozen more southwest native species of milkweed that is being grown in southern Arizona this year. 

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. They believe in a world of healthy soil, seed, food and people. Everyone has a fundamental need for vibrant food and health, which are interrelated. They welcome dialogue and can be reached at Seeds@UnderwoodGardens.com or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more education like this!



4/11/2014

beeyard 2014

After a year without honeybees, we have two new hives. Our previous bees did not survive the 2012/2013 winter. There has been a tree or two that needed to be cut down near the beeyard and you’d think that we would have gotten that done in the past year. It was the upcoming arrival of our new bees that motivated us to cut that tree and remove the lower branches of other nearby trees. It was a nice thing to do on a warm dry Saturday when it was still too early and wet to work in the garden. We took care of any other chores in the area that we had neglected when we previously had to watch out for bees.

During our cleanup of the beeyard I pulled an old metal wagon out to near the hives. It will serve as a bench to place hive bodies on when I’m switching them around, rather than putting them on the ground. The hive bodies can be heavy at times—all the more reason to keep myself in shape. Some beekeepers have gone to using medium boxes instead of deeps, but I don’t believe there is enough room in the shallower boxes to maintain a cluster.

However, I am getting older and those boxes do get heavy. When time allows, I would like to build a top bar hive. Managing a top bar hive will bring new learning experiences, with the advantage that you only lift one comb at a time. The combs the bees build hang from one wooden bar at the top, with no wooden frames surrounding them. Given the opportunity, honeybees will lengthen the comb in a medium frame to fill out a deep box. You can see an example of that at Homeplace Earth. We keep bees for our pleasure. They pollinate things in the garden and give us honey—usually. I won’t know the efficiency of extracting honey from top bar combs until I actually do it. Since we don’t sell honey, the efficiency of honey extraction is not as much of a concern.

Meanwhile, I have all the equipment for the Langstroth style hives, so that is what is housing my two new bee colonies. I started them each in a deep hive body. Soon it will be time to add the second hive body to each colony. After they fill out that box, I’ll put a shallow super on each hive to capture the extra honey. Since I had all the equipment in the beeyard left from the hives that we used to have, during the cleanup I prepared the boxes I will soon need and left them there with a hive cover on top. It is good to anticipate your needs and have enough equipment for an extra hive. You never know when you have the opportunity to capture a swarm. I wish you well with your bees this year.

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



4/10/2014

Close-up bramblesReprinted with permission from the Organic Broadcaster newspaper, published by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)

Bramble berries—raspberries and blackberries—can be great additions to the diversified market farm or orchard. They are a favorite at farmers markets, in CSA boxes, and at pick-your-own operations. They are a perennial crop that will produce for many seasons if cared for properly. Successful bramble production depends on several factors, including soil and cultivar selection.

As organic growers, we know we must build and steward the soil to grow nutrient-dense, health-sustaining, disease- and insect-free crops. Healthy soil is especially important for growing bramble berries since half of each plant resides in the soil. What we see above ground is nearly a 100 percent reflection of what transpires below ground, in the soil environment. We can only do so much about the above-ground environment— temperatures, rain, winds, etc.—but we can do a lot about the environment in which half of our plants live.

Insects and diseases are not the primary cause of problems in berry production. Of greater importance is the environment in which the plants are grown, and no part of the environment is more important than the soil.

Brambles are adaptable and can be made to thrive in most soils. However, it will help us make the wisest site choices if we keep in mind the most basic biological needs of plants. The number one need by far is air. Neither you nor I nor bramble plants can function when this basic need is restricted.

The most expensive machine I have on my farm is a large Imants spader that aerates the soil 17 inches down. It is our primary soil-building tool. Long before I think about other nutrients, I think about air. No amount of NPK or other elements can make up for the lack of air—the most important plant nutrient of all. Faithfully using green manure crops, especially those with massive root systems such as Sudan grass and winter rye, goes a long way in rapidly raising organic matter and thus bringing air to the roots, even after massive rains. (Don’t expect to read about air management because it can’t be patented, bagged or easily sold!)

Practically all pathogenic soil organisms (animal and human) thrive in an anaerobic environment and are naturally suppressed in an aerobic one. That’s true even of cancerous cells. By building aerobic soils, we not only favor our bramble plants, but also eliminate the environment that fosters root diseases—killing two birds with one stone. To top it all off, we also support the soil biology that in turn feeds out plants. Thinking ever more WHOLE-istically will lead us to craft our soils to enable them to produce healthy plants and a healthy return on our investment.

Minerals play a vital role in a plant’s susceptibility or resistance to diseases. The American Phytopathological Society recently published an awesome 280-page book entitled, Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease, authored by scientists from around the globe. Though academic by its very nature, this book provides great insights into plant nutrition, disease, and health. The bottom line from this book is that practically all diseases in plants, animals and mankind are caused or facilitated by mineral deficiencies or imbalances. This illustrates why the most important thing growers can do for the health and quality of their crops is to build, care for and steward their soil.

Cultivar Selection

When selecting plant cultivars (cultivated varieties) for your farm, there are several important aspects to evaluate. The Upper Midwest is one of the harshest environments in which to grow tender fruit like raspberries and blackberries successfully. We can have extremely cold winters—sometimes with a lot of snow, sometimes with hardly any. We can have ferocious winds. We have floods and droughts. We have extreme mid-continent heat in the summer. And, we have drastic fluctuations in all of these to the point where Minnesotans are heard telling their guests, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute!”

Let’s make one thing clear at the outset: there are no perfect cultivars for anywhere, much less for the Upper Midwest. Each choice involves a series of compromises. Finding the most suited cultivar for each area is best done by a process of elimination. My suggestion is for growers to become familiar with various cultivars by trying 10-20 plants, then deciding which best suits their needs and performs best in their area and soil. The issue of winter hardiness trumps all the others. If plants don’t consistently survive to produce a marketable crop, there is little sense in growing them.

With raspberries and blackberries, winter hardiness concerns only summer-bearing cultivars because their canes grow up one year, must overwinter well and produce their crop the subsequent season. With the fall-bearing type, we don’t care about cane cold-hardiness. Nearby fellow-growers and extension service can be valuable resources to help choose proven cultivars. For central Minnesota and similar areas the list of cultivars is quite limited. I share my experience with these later in this post.

Factors to Consider

Choose cultivars that will provide berries that match your intended uses. Ask yourself: Why am I planting my berries? What use am I planning for them? Do I intend to process them into wine, jam, jelly, juice, syrup, toppings, chutney, ice cream? Do I plan to sell them retail, pick-your-own, wholesale or freeze them for local processors? Do I want a summer or fall crop? Finally, what colors of berries am I looking for and why?

Also consider when you want to harvest berries. You have two choices: a summer crop, lasting approximately 3 weeks—the first 3 weeks in July in the Upper Midwest—and a fall crop, typically lasting 5-6 weeks—mid-August until the end of September. There is a much greater maturity span with fall-bearing cultivars than there is with summer ones. During the sum­mer, these tender berries need to be picked at least every second day. The cooler fall tempera­tures give growers a bit more picking flexibility. However, with the advent of the SWD (Spotted Wing Drosophila) every effort should be made to pick ALL berries as soon as they are ripe.

Disease Resistance

When you have a choice, select cultivars that have genetic strengths against the major raspberry diseases. With the limited choices for the Upper Midwest, this is less of an issue than if we grew brambles in California or the Pacific Northwest. We have reasonably good genetics in the varieties listed below—especially the newer ones. Summer-bearing varieties will show their weaknesses more readily, possibly because the canes are around for two seasons. For example, Killarney is beginning to manifest some serious foliar weaknesses under certain summer conditions. With fall-bearing cultivars, the canes and foliage are around only for one season, so they all tend to remain quite healthy.

Fungal diseases can be largely controlled by cultural practices: soil stewardship, plant density, air circulation, proper pruning and trellising, and even harvesting. Viral diseases are best dealt with by securing clean stock, genetic resistance and eradicating nearby native brambles. All growers should apply regu­lar nutrient and compost tea sprays throughout the season. The healthier the plant, the more resistant it will be especially against fungal and bacterial diseases.

Best Hardy Raspberries and Other Brambles

For many of these varieties, use the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Seed and Plant Finder to locate mail-order suppliers.

Raspberries: Summer Bearing (Floricane)

The canes of these plants grow up one season, overwinter, produce a crop the second season, then die and need to be pruned out.

Red: ‘Nova,’ ‘Encore,’ ‘Prelude,’ ‘Killarney,’ ‘Latham’

Black: ‘MacBlack,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Bristol’

Purple: ‘Royalty,’ ‘Brandywine’

Raspberries: Fall-Bearing (Primocane)

Commercially, these plants are chopped or cut down to the ground in late winter or very early spring (before they break dormancy) to “force” the plant to grow new canes that produce their crop during the first fall.

Red: ‘Autumn Britten,’ ‘Caroline,’ ‘Joan J,’ ‘Jaclyn,’ ‘Heritage,’ ‘Autumn Bliss’

Gold: ‘Anne’

Black: coming soon (from Peter Tallman, Colo.)

Blackberries: Summer-Bearing (Floricane)

The canes of these plants grow up one season, overwinter, produce a crop the second season, then die and need to be pruned out. Generally we don’t think about growing blackberries in Minnesota or Wisconsin because the bearing canes of even the most cold-hardy ones don’t survive above the snow line.

‘Doyle’ – There has been some success with this extremely vigorous, thornless cultivar in the southern half of zone 4.

‘Illini Hardy’ is an erect and thorny variety. This is likely the most cold-hardy cultivar, and can be grown in zones 5 and warmer.

‘Chester’, a widely grown thornless cultivar, is superior to ‘Illini Hardy’ in a variety of ways, but a little less cold hardy. Best for zone 5 and warmer.

Find your zone.

Blackberries: Fall-Bearing (Primocane)

‘Prime Jim’ & ‘Prime Jan’: Both cultivars are extremely spiny and too late to produce a crop in zone 4, but worthy of trial for zone 5, which has a longer growing season.

My Cultivar Choices for Growing Raspberries

Raspberry, Summer, Red

For us at Natura Farms, located in the north­east fringes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area in zone 4b (negative 25 to negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit), our most consis­tent performer has been ‘Nova.’ It has a round, bright red, firm fruit, with coherent small drupelets that pick easily and hold up well after harvest. The canes are sturdy, vigorous, and nearly spineless, the fruit is tasty, and the plant is resistant to most cane and foliar diseases. It can be grown also in zone 3.

Next come varieties like ‘Killarney’ (but very spiny and some foliar disease susceptibility); ‘Latham’ (a 100-year old Minnesota heirloom, mildly spined, good tasting cultivar, and can be grown in zone 3); ‘Prelude’ (the earliest to ripen, with very good flavor, that also bears a small fall crop); ‘Encore’ (the latest to ripen, nearly spineless, good flavored, with coherent, large berries) and ‘Lauren’ (not quite winter hardy enough for us, but we like its long season and good flavored, large fruit).

Raspberry, Summer, Black (Very spiny)

‘Mac Black’ is the latest ripening and all around best performer for us. ‘Jewel’ is mid-season with very large berries. ‘Bristol’ is the earliest ripen­ing, an heirloom, with very good flavor, but is only marginally hardy for us.

Raspberry, Summer, Purple (Quite spiny)

‘Brandywine’ is unsurpassed for jam, jelly, syrup, toppings and pies because of its intense flavor and tartness. ‘Royalty’ is for those who love the taste of purple raspberries (the result of crossing blacks with reds), but want a sweeter berry. It is very productive and can be picked in the red (almost ripe) or purple (ripe) stage.

Raspberry, Fall, Red

‘Autumn Britten’ has replaced Autumn Bliss for us and is still our number one choice for its earliness, quality and yield, but there are a growing number of contenders, each having its specific attractions. ‘Joan J’ and ‘Jaclyn’ are two other great early varies. ‘Caroline’ is a superb, produc­tive, mid-season cultivar with very vigorous plants and berries of intense flavor. ‘Heritage’ is the good flavored, firm, medium-sized, mid-late season workhorse that brought fall-bearing raspberries to the world scene in 1969. Before then there were no commercial fall raspberries. When the early fall cultivars start winding down, ‘Heritage’ kicks in and carries us through until the short days and frost end the season.

Raspberry, Fall, Yellow

‘Anne’ is for us the only yellow raspberry to grow. It is mid-season, highly productive, has sturdy canes, and is large-fruited, with excel­lent sweet flavor.

My suggestion is for growers to become familiar with all of them, by trying 10-25 plants, then deciding which best suits their needs and performs best in their area and soil.

For a chart of Berry Varieties at a Glance, see page 15 of the 2014 Nourse berry catalog.

Photo by Fotolia/Elena Moiseeva


Reprinted with permission from the Organic Broadcaster newspaper, published by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)



4/9/2014

If you are someone that doesn’t want to have to plant every year to have home grown fruits and vegetables, grow perennials! Believe it or not, perennial vegetables do exist. After you plant a perennial, it comes back year after year with no effort.
French Sorrel

There is a long list of perennial vegetables, particularly greens. Many are hard to find the seed for or a starter plant. There are several that are easy to find, though! Spring or fall is a great time to plant any perennial.  Perennials are the first up in the spring.

Perennial Vegetables for Midwest Gardens

The perennial vegetables we currently grow in our Zone 6 Midwest garden:

French sorrel (good for soups, steamed or a salad green)
Blood-veined sorrel (striking salad green)
Chard (perennial if grown in a sheltered area)
Garden sorrel (soups, steamed or salad green)
Corn salad (salad green) **Radicchio (good steamed, roasted or a salad green)
Good King Henry (spinach relative, use as a salad green)
Salad burnet (taste somewhat like a Granny Smith apple, use fresh in salads)
Egyptian walking onion (use fresh for cooking or salads)
Leeks
Garlic

Potato onions (stores well)Potted orange, kumquat, and fig
Perennial kale (good steamed or as salad green)
Chives (salads or flavoring cream cheese, butter, sour cream, dips)
Arugula (peppery flavor, great for salads)
French, Italian and American dandelion (great for salads)
Daylily (flower buds can be eaten like green beans, flowers in salads)

Other popular perennial vegetables you may want to add are sea kale, rhubarb, lovage, groundnut, asparagus, artichokes, collards, or Jerusalem artichokes.

Most fruits are also perennials:

Apple, pear, cherry, peach, pawpaw and fig trees
Blueberry bushes
Grape, goji berry, passionflower, kiwi, raspberry and blackberry vines
Strawberries

Lavendar

Then there are the herbs.  Most herbs are perennials.  Here are ones we are growing.

Oregano
ARP and Barbeque rosemary
Thyme
Sage
Chives
Hyssop
Horseradish
Mint
Lemon balm
Lavender
Winter savory
Tarragon

Chives

Eggplant, tomatoes, okra, and peppers are also perennials, but only in tropical areas. You can bring them indoors each winter and put them back out in the spring after all danger of a hard frost is past. You will get fruits a month earlier than starting with new plants. We brought in a potted cayenne pepper plant a couple of winters ago. It flowered and fruited up until January indoors and restarted flowering in May once outdoors.



4/7/2014

SoftneckWhen perusing the gourmet garlic at your local Farmers Market you may notice that the bulbs, although often bearing a cultivar name such as 'Music' or 'Inchelium Red,' tend to be of two distinct types: those that have a stiff stalk attached to the bulb, and those that do not.

Classifying Garlic

In the early 1990s, Ron Engeland proposed that garlic be separated into two subspecies based on their ability to bolt. Bolting strains were classified as Allium sativum subsp. ophioscorodon and non-bolting as Allium sativum subsp. sativum. Later research proved that classifying garlic was much more complicated (for a comprehensive overview, please refer to The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith), however the rough separation originally proposed by Engeland is still popular, although less formally and more commonly referred to as ‘hardnecks’ and softnecks’.

The Difference Between Hardneck Garlic and Softneck Garlic

The most obvious difference between hardneck (above) and softneck (below) garlic is their appearance. Hardnecks are so-called because of the long flowering stem growing through the center of the bulb. Called a scape, this stalk produces an umbel, a terminal pod within which bulbils are produced. Bulbils can be removed from the scape when mature and planted in the same way as cloves, although they usually need two or more season’s growth before they produce a differentiated bulb. The bulb surrounding the scape of a hardneck variety consists of a single layer of regularly-shaped cloves. The number of cloves vary between hardneck cultivars, but tend to fall between four and twelve.

Hardneck

Softneck cultivars on the other hand, yield a greater number of cloves and a generally larger bulb. Usually softneck varieties produce between eight and twenty cloves per bulb, while some cultivars contain cloves numbering in the high thirties. Irregular in shape, the cloves are present in two or more concentric layers, each wrapped in their own skin. This much higher number of cloves is likely a reproductive compensation for the lack of a flowering stalk - rarely will a softneck cultivar produce bulbils. Under stressful conditions a softneck type may partially bolt and grow a short pseudostem which will subsequently produce a small number of bulbils. These bulbils can be seen bursting out just above the bulb, or even be found clustered within the bulb itself.

Generally speaking, hardneck varieties tend to grow and thrive better in regions with more severe winters. They require a greater period of vernalization than softneck cultivars, so a prolonged period of cooler weather is ideal. In turn, softnecks tend to perform in regions where the winters are significantly milder. We are extremely lucky in our location in British Columbia: our weather is cold enough to amply accommodate our hardneck cultivars, yet mild enough that we get good results with our softneck cultivars as well.

This information, though interesting to the grower, holds little intrigue for the consumer. What may pique their interest, however, are the culinary differences between the two groups. For starters, the scapes of hardneck varieties are edible, though often underutilized in Western cuisine. Also referred to as garlic spears, stems or shoots, they are cut for eating while they are still young and tender. Scapes are versatile as both a vegetable and a seasoning due to their fresh, delicate garlic flavor, and are slowly but surely gaining in popularity.

Comparing Garlic Flavor

Hardneck cultivars tend to have a more complex flavor profile than softnecked ones, being richer, spicier, and generally more ‘garlicky’. Hardneck cultivars also tend to have a larger average clove size, which, due to their plumpness, regular shape, and thicker skin, are easier to peel. Softneck varieties on the other hand, tend to be milder and more vegetative in their taste. Although delicious when eaten fresh, a great proportion of softneck garlics are used for processing into products, including garlic powder, and as the garlic seasoning in many processed foods. The cloves of softneck cultivars are also more difficult to peel, given their irregular shape and tight, thin skins. That being said, there are few more mouth-watering sights than a big beautiful softneck, drizzled with olive oil, roasting on the BBQ.

Storing

The tight layered skins of the softneck cultivars, while slightly more inconvenient when peeling an individual clove, also mean that these garlics tend to store longer than hardneck types. Some varieties of hardneck store for as little as four months, while many softnecks, in the right storage conditions, will stay in good shape for up to nine months, and even to a year in optimal conditions. This is good knowledge to have if you are having trouble deciding which of your bulbs to eat first!

Hardneck and softneck garlics each contain multiple subtypes, which in turn contain many distinct cultivars.

In my next blog post, I will begin discussing the various subtypes within these two groups. Though arguably subtle, there are differences in between these subtypes that may make choosing your cultivars, both for growing and eating, a little easier!



4/7/2014

Become Active in Local Agriculture

Tray of Blocks

Becoming active within local food systems can be as easy as mixing soil and water. It can also be a great way to meet local farmers, reduce CSA membership fees, and learn about organic gardening.

Learning how to make a soil block is a simple skill capable of permitting one to become involved within their local CSA or farm and may be used as a key to open doors to other food systems, local or worldwide. Once making a soil block is learned, it can go on the resume and traveling by organic gardening may one day be an open door. Or the next family trip.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a trial day at my local CSA, Fertile Grounds, for a chance to work in their greenhouse. I can now work for an hourly credited rate towards membership fees or value-added products sold at the farmers market, also known as greenhouse work exchange. This is where I learned how to make a soil block.            

How To Make A Soil Block

The soil block making area consists of pallets laying on top of blue, plastic barrels inside the greenhouse. The barrels are filled with water to increase thermal mass. Saved plywood is placed on top of the pallet to form a flat table surface. Cement blocks are available to stand on.

First, know where there’s water and soil mix. A lot of both will be needed. Second, gather as many 5-gallon buckets as possible. Fill two buckets with soil mix and the rest with water and carry them all to the soil block making area.

Next, all the soil needs to be wet, so start pouring water into the buckets filled with soil mix. As buckets filled with water are emptied, fill them up with dry soil mix and continue to pour in water. Use one, 5-gallon bucket of water for every two, 5-gallon buckets of soil mix. Once the water bubbles to the bottom it can be lifted and dumped on top of the table. Gloves come in handy.

Level the pile of wet soil somewhat and prepare to make mud. Well, almost. Create a hole in the middle and pour in more water. Fold the ingredients. The batter should be almost soupy. There should be excess water on the table surface. It’s perfectly fine if it’s running off the back and front. It should be. The excess water usually soaks into my t-shirt and pants, leaving me looking like a messy cook with no apron.

Soil Block Maker

The tool used to form the soil into blocks is called a soil block maker. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the one at Fertile Grounds makes 4, 2-inch blocks at a time. Take the soil block maker and push it into the almost soupy soil a few times to make sure the soil is compact in each block mold. Scrape the bottom of the soil block maker on the table surface to level the soil if too much is pushed in. This way, all the soil blocks will be the same height – 2-inches.

Next, take a germination tray lined with a layer of newspaper on the bottom and begin to fill the tray by pushing out the soil blocks from the soil block maker. Each tray holds 50 soil blocks.

If the soil block is too dry, it may discourage germination or make the greenhouse manager have to water too frequently. And watering is not too fun, according to the greenhouse manager. If the soil block is too wet, it will not form into a block and more soil mix must be added. When the soil blocks are pushed out of the soil block maker it is good to see water oozing out from the top. I like watching the excess water be absorbed back into the soil block. That tells me it’s a good one.

After filling up a tray, it is carried to the other side of the greenhouse where seeds will be sowed. Some other tasks of greenhouse work exchange may include setting up pallets inside the greenhouse, watering seedlings, and sowing seeds. Or anything else the greenhouse manager may ask.

Key Benefits of Greenhouse Work Exchange

Other than the obvious benefit of working off some of my membership fee, it feels good to work for food that is organically produced. Before each seed is sowed it must have a soil block to grow in. Being part of that initial step somehow makes me feel more whole inside.

As a member of a CSA I can expect to receive produce I’ve either never heard of, never seen in the grocery store, or would never try if I was not a member. This forces me to cook new foods and eat them. Now I also get to learn and watch how over 40 different crops are started from seed and grown.

And now that dream trip to faraway lands is becoming more realistic. With a few more practiced skills in the greenhouse, I may one day be ready for an entry-level traveling organic farming position. Until then, feel free to see what I’m growing at home in Pennsylvania.

Click here to find a CSA near you.









Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.