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

Starting Corn Indoors Can Extend the Growing Season and Raise Productivity

Progress of Corn

My father-in-law used to find great mirth at the fact that I start my corn indoors. I do, after all, live in the heart of corn-growing country and he was a lifelong farmer of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

I started this practice more than 20 years ago when we lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was told that most folks didn’t have much success with growing sweet corn there because of the shortened season. Since I love a challenge, I set about trying to lengthen the growing season without adding costs or constructing cold frames.

My puzzle-loving brain settled on using empty toilet paper tubes for containment because I assumed the length of the tube would allow for less root disturbance—the issue most commonly stated as the reason for failure of transplantation. I also assumed that the tubes would compost and allow for fairly quick freedom of the roots once planted. My method worked well and we enjoyed several meals of sweet corn that summer.

When we later moved to south-central Ohio, I decided that I would continue my toilet paper tube reuse practice because of the high success rate. I also tried some direct seeding in an adjacent bed the first year so that I could see if there was a difference. Interestingly, that year I had 99% germination for the seeds indoors and only about 75% from the seeds that I put directly in the ground. I haven’t direct-seeded corn again even though my method is a bit more time-consuming than the traditional way.

The first photo (above) shows one season’s progression in the garden. I put the plants in the garden near the end of May that year. Each plant was nestled carefully into a hole in the bed. It was easily knee-high by mid-June with beautiful ears formed by the end of July. I find it necessary to cage my corn for the first few weeks so bunnies and cats don’t mistake it for a salad bar.

Corn in toilet paper tubes

I’ve discovered three things that are essential for such a high success rate. The tubes must be held closely together from the start. Soil must fill any gap spaces between tubes. It’s best to start the corn no earlier than three weeks before transplant date.

I have left the corn in their tubes and also removed them upon transplantation—both of these methods have yielded the same success rate as long as I make sure to bury the entire tube if keeping them intact. Interestingly, the tubes wick moisture out of the soil. For this reason, it’s important to carefully monitor moisture while indoors and to completely cover the top of the tube when planting the seedlings outdoors. The tubes will decompose by the end of the season and are well on their way by just a few weeks in the ground.

As you can see in the photo above, the corn has no problem sending its roots right through the thin cardboard. With a bit of care, the roots that have gone wandering in the bottom of the larger container can be kept intact. Even if they break off, there are plenty of other roots to maintain the health of the plant.

Most of the corn I grow now is for dry use rather than eating off the cob. Since I have my nifty Wondermill for grinding the perfect corn flour and meal, I went a little overboard with corn babies this season. Until I added this appliance to my pantry, I had a dickens of a time grinding my corn. Now, it’s a whiz! I have 180 happy little plants—five different varieties—in various parts of the garden. Most of my corn beds have at least one squash family member keeping them company with beans nearby to round out the three sisters of Native American Indian practice (corn, squash, and beans).

I have no doubt that this year’s harvest will yield an abundance of new recipes. My mind has already begun to muse on the possibilities, and my fingers are itching to wander the Internet for inspiration. I’m thinking there may be more than the usual delicious cornbread to warm our hearts, souls, and tummies come Fall and Winter.

Dried Glass Gem corn

Photos by Blythe Pelham

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Delicious Sweet Collard Sprouts

sprouting bolting collards

We get into ruts. We tend to grow the same vegetables every year. And we tend to grow them in the same way, and we also tend to harvest them at the same point in their life cycle. For example, most of us think of collards as a leafy green, so we grow them for their leaves. 

One way that I am challenging myself to expand my gardening method and approach to vegetables is by reading old books on vegetable gardening. The raised bed system that is popular today was developed in Europe hundreds of years ago. 

There are many wonderful gardening books dating back to the 1500s. For a long time I was puzzled in these old books by the common reference to "sprouts." My first thought, of course, was Brussels sprouts. But, that turned out to be wrong. It turns out that English vegetable gardeners often allowed brassicas to bolt in order to harvest their immature flower buds. Broccoli didn't become a common English garden vegetable until the 1700s. Before that, gardeners harvested the broccoli-like sprouts of cabbage, kale, and other brassicas and ate them like, well, like broccoli. They boiled the stems in salted water and served with fresh butter. Fresh sprouts dropped into boiling water within hours of harvest and served with a good butter is a treat.

This photograph is of a collard plant that is beginning to bolt. You can clearly see the side-shoots. I personally feel that the side shoots of collards are the best of all the brassicas, including that of broccoli. Collard sprouts are often very sweet and the plant can also be very sprout productive. The photograph here is of a modest sized collardt. I have had plants grow to six feet high and as wide. 

My suggestion to you this year is to harvest collard greens the way you usually do, but then, when the leaves are getting super large and tough= sit back and relax while your plants begin to move into their flowering phase. Keep up the water and care. Each plant will shoot up and broaden. Harvest sprouts as they reach maturity. 

I also suggest that you leave a few sprouts on plants to flower. Collard flowers adds color to your garden, offers a refuge in  for bees and other pollinating insects, and provides cut flowers for your house. 


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Insect Hotels: Encourage Beneficial Native Insects to Check into Your Garden

Beneficial Insect Hotel Structure 

Why would you want to offer lodging to insects, you ask? As organic gardeners, drawing in beneficial insects as pollinators is a great way to increase production in our backyard garden or small orchard. Beneficial insects also help to deal with the not-so-beneficial insects. So, we get to avoid chemicals and attract pollinators. That is a win-win in my book.

How do you make an insect hotel? The purpose is to provide a structure filled with natural materials for beneficial insects and pollinators to lay eggs in, as well as hibernate in. In our area in Kansas, we are hoping an insect hotel will attract mason bees, beetles, lacewings, ladybugs, wasps, and spiders. Not all sound like nice guests, but all are friends of the gardener. Attracting native pollinators is more important than ever with the decline of honey bees. We all need to make our garden a place of hospitality.

Basics. When we set out to build ours, we kept these two rules in mind: face the open side of the structure to the south so that insects will benefit from the sun's warmth, and cover the top to protect them from wet weather.

Structure. We gathered lots of natural, recycled materials. We started with an old wooden crate that had been hanging out in our shed. It was perfect, because it was only open on one side. We used discarded boards for making shelves and a pitched roof.

Building the rooms. Then came pine cones, old logs, twigs, bark, terracotta shards, and some materials that we gleaned from yard and garden clean up. This is the kind of project you can be as creative as you want with — so let those creative juices loose! You can also purchase components for insect habitats and even purchase complete habitats. We were able to build ours completely from materials we had lying around and spent nothing on it.

Drill holes. Here is our finished project. See all the nooks and crannies for the insects. Drill a variety of sized holes about 6 inches deep (don't drill all the way through as insects like a closed chamber to hibernate and lay their eggs in). Use a variety of sizes to attract lots of different "guests" (mason bees like their holes 5/16 in diameter, for instance).

Site the hotel. We set our completed hotel in a raised garden bed where we grow herbs. The mason bees love that bed and it is right next to where we always grow a big stand of sunflowers (also popular with the bees). We hope we have lots of "guests" check in. Make sure you put it where it can be easily observed, Ours is beautiful in our garden and we enjoy a view of it from our home's large picture window.

This would be a great project to do with kids. We plan to make a second one when we have grandchildren visiting this summer. That way they can help with the building and observe the one we already have in the garden. We hope it will be buzzing with activity. And maybe they will want to have their parents help them make one at home.

DIY Garden Insect Hotel

Photos by Gail Blain Peterson

Gail Blain Peterson is owner and chief soap maker at Kansas Prairie Soap. She garden and develops recipes on her rural Midwest property. Connect with Gail at Kansas Prairie Soap, on Facebook and Instagram.


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Accommodate These 3 Beneficial Insects in Your Garden for Natural Pest Control

Ladybug Swarm On Persons Hands 

Ah, organic gardening: juicy tomatoes, sweet strawberries and crisp kale — it’s perfection, right? It can be, especially with the help of beneficial insects to do some of your dirty work for you. Organic gardening, also known as gardening without the use of toxic chemicals, can bring a host of pests such as aphids, white flies and tomato hornworms. These pest populations can seem daunting and tempt you to spray harmful chemicals in your beautiful garden. But wait, before you do that, let’s talk about natural ways to manage damaging insects in your garden.

Ladybugs. Enter beneficial insects like ladybugs (or Lady Beetles) and Praying Mantis. These garden friends feast on the damaging pest populations while leaving your garden veggies alone and thriving for your harvest, not theirs. One ladybug can consume 5,000 aphids over their lifetime! As an adult, they will lay a cluster of yellow eggs on leaves and stems to hatch future generations of aphid eaters, who will hopefully take up residence in your garden long term. Not to mention, I love finding ladybugs around our farm!

Praying Mantis Nymphs On Finger

Praying Mantises will eat flies, beetles, aphids, moths and more, they aren't picky. They can grow to up 6 inches long and make a great addition to your garden. Your local nursery most likely will stock these insects in the spring as gardeners begin their seasonal gardens. Praying Mantis is the only insect that has a head that is able to rotate a full 180 degrees, which helps them seek out their prey from all angles. The female praying mantis will spin an egg case in the fall to overwinter her eggs, it looks similar to a dried fig. In spring, warm weather brings the hatching of 100 to 200 newborn praying mantises, known as nymphs. It’s a fascinating thing to watch hundreds of ladybugs being released, or witnessing a praying mantis egg case hatch up to 200 nymphs at one time. If you can’t find these beneficials at your local nursery, many online companies will ship directly to you.

And don’t forget the Mason Bees! Mason bees are solitary bees that live in small holes in trees or posts. They will lay eggs in these holes and then plug them up with mud until hatching. Once your ‘colony’ has laid their eggs and done their job pollinating in your garden, you can harvest the cocoons for the following season. If stored in a cold environment, such as your refrigerator, they will hibernate until they are exposed to warm weather, which wakes them up. They do not produce honey, but they are friendly and do not sting. Mason bees can also boost your yield of crops as one mason bee can pollinate what would take 100 honey bees to do...they are super pollinators! Mason bees can also be ordered online during the winter and spring months.

Beneficial Insect Hotel For Garden

Make your garden beneficial insect friendly by planting flowers and building or buying them a “bug hotel”. Things like hollow bamboo or tubes, stacked bark and logs with drilled holes all make a welcoming spot for all of those lady bugs, praying mantises and mason bees to take up residence and start managing your pest control organically.

Nicole Wilkey transitioned from a corporate job to small-scale pastured meat farmer in 2015. Since then, she has run her Californian Flicker Farm to accommodate Juliana pigs, sell goat’s milk soap and lotions, and raise all types of free-range poultry. Connect with Nicole on Instagram and Facebook.


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Faces of the Fair/Asheville, NC

Asheville Fair

Faces of the Fair

When deciding which booths and presentations to see during the Asheville, NC Fair (WNC Agricultural Center/Fletcher) we take into consideration 'Faces of Home'. Who is there to represent not only our state but someone who is also bringing recognition of topics of today. Someone who networks outside our state as well.

My first thought is Jeanine Davis, an extension specialist and researcher in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University. She is located at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Asheville in western North Carolina.

Hemp and Home

One of many research projects is 'Growing Hemp'. I asked Jeanine about the project. She said they are experimenting with growing the hemp for fiber, seed and oil.
She says the seed is a good nutritional product and has a nutty flavor. According to her, most seed product you hear referred to as 'seed hearts' where the outer covering has been removed. The research on the oil product will come later.

Hemp vs. Marijuana

 I hear so much fuss from people who say "we can't start growing marijuana here". First, hemp is NOT marijuana. Yes, it is in the same family but does not contain high levels of THC ( psychotropic/medicinal purposes). Hemp is an agricultural product; whereas Marijuana is grown as a horticultural product.

New Crop or Old Crop

This is very good news for farmers who are looking for a new 'specialty crop'. Actually, Hemp is NOT a new crop to the mountains of Western North Carolina! Jeanine and I discussed the fact that farmers actually farmed hemp years ago. I had found an old Agricultural Census (1850 Yancey County) which listed hemp and the various ways it was sold.

Here is how just that part of the Census was listed: 36. Produce during the year ending June 1, 1850 - Hemp - Dew rotted, tons of; 37. Produce during the year ending June 1, 1850 - Hemp - Water rotted, tons of.
Jeanine said, "We are just re-inventing the wheel".

For more information on the projects at the Research Center please refer to the links in this article. You will also find information on growing hops, which was also grown in NC in the 1800's. You can find info about growing Truffles . This is a great resource to help find internships, temp work or just information. Go to: https://newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that have been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience).


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A Conference in The Center of the Organic Universe

MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, holds its annual conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin every year in February on the banks of the Mississippi River at the La Crosse Center.  Put this event on your calendar and your bucket list now.  Save the date for MOSES 2019, Feb, 21-23 in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The conference has an array of speakers and subject matter that unequalled in my experience attending conferences from the straight world of industry to the reincarnated new age conferences featuring what they now call the “thought leaders”.  This is all done in the most unpretentious and down home manner that is an ingrained attribute of the Midwestern and great plains heritage so well described by Garrison Keillor in his Lake Wobegon stories that were part of his Prairie Home Companion.  Conference audio recordings can be seen here.  Keynote videos can be seen here.

Arena Floor

The exhibit floor was in the arena at Lacrosse Center with more vendors and information than can possibly be absorbed in three days. 

 Conference Presentations 

The first lecture I attended was probably one of the most important for the future of farming in this country.  The Farmer’s Guide To Winning The Farm Bill, presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition was an overview of the Farm Bill, the programs that will impact young, small-scale, and organic producers, and how young farmers can have a voice shaping agricultural policy.  

NYF Logo

The 2018 bill maintains important provisions for beginning farmers, such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, but it would phase out programs that are critical to young farmers, compromise farmland conservation, and hurt the consumer safety net. The next step in the farm bill process is the agriculture committee markup.  The National Young Farmers Coalition is urging farmers to raise their voices and tell Republicans and Democrats what amendments and fixes are needed to get this bill into shape. More information can be found here.  The future of American agriculture depends on young farmers because the average age of a farmer is 58 and by 2030 one-quarter of the nation’s farmers will retire.

Revitalization of Indigenous Food Systems

The Intertribal Agriculture Councilconducts a wide range of programs designed to further the goal of improving Indian Agriculture. The IAC promotes the Indian use of Indian resources and contracts with federal agencies to maximize resources for tribal members.  A fascinating aspect of this presentation was the history of the use of corn in the upper Midwest.  The corn varieties used by the indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America) are shown below as used today by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and many other tribes.  Native American seed varieties are discussed in Mother Earth News here and here.

Indigenous Corn

Purple Pitchfork

Purple pitchfork

Purple Pitchfork Consulting with Chris Blanchard produces Farmer to Farmer Podcasts.  In his keynote speech analyzing the consciousness of organic farmers Chris discussed how to get balance and quality of life while farming. The bottom line is to design your farm so that it serves your life, rather than you becoming a servant to the farm, a quote from David Hambleton.  Create a schedule that limits your time to a set number of hours per day.  Knock off at five and go do something else.  You will find that you become more productive.  It deepens your commitment to planning and not wasting time.

Changing Climate 

The climate has been changing as the plant hardiness zones move north.  I put in my two cents in a previous blog explaining the change in terms a middle school student could understand:

Why Life Exists on Earth: A New Perspective on Carbon Emissions.     Kenny Blumenfeld is the senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climatology Office.  His talk, Coping with a Changing Climate, presented the data that shows that climate change has already impacted the Upper Midwest’s weather and climate.  The largest effect is that extreme cold events are becoming less severe leading to extended pest ranges and plant disease pressures.  Rainfall extremes are larger and more frequent.  The only good news in his presentation was that heat and drought in the summer is not increasing at this time, but he did say that with continued CO2 emissions from fossil fuels he expected that heat and drought would eventually become an issue for farmers. 

Climate Table

Conference Vendors

I spoke with a number of vendors about their products.  Here is a brief summary of some of the many vendors.

Rodale Institute

It was good to catch up with the activities of the Rodale Institute.  J.I. Rodale and his wife Anna were the forerunners of organic gardening and the back to the land movement.  The institute published Organic Gardening magazine until recently.  The magazine and books were owned by Rodale Inc. which is a separate company and not part of Rodale Institute.   Organic Gardening magazine changed to Organic Life magazine and has moved online. Here is website: http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/.

Rodale

Dianna Martin and Rick Carr brought the latest research and updates from Rodale Institute to MOSES.  Rodale’s Pastured Pork Production and on-site water purification are two of the newest initiatives undertaken by the Institute.  A thirty page introduction to onsite water purification is available here.<--

I WANT ONE

Jang Seeder

This comes under the header of I Want One.  Too bad I don’t have an acre to use it on.  The Jang Seeder, manufactured in Korea by theJang Automation Company, can be seen in operation here:  https://youtu.be/K59h04IS3Fo.  The North American Distributor is the American Transplanter Company which has one, three, or six row versions.

GMO Detection.

We’re playing whack a mole with GMO’s. They pop up everywhere.  I recently spoke to an inspector working for an organic certification service who told be the story of non-certified organic grain crops being shipped from Turkey to the United States through Canada and somehow along the way the grain mysteriously receives a USDA organic certification.  Inspectors were on their way to North Dakota to test for herbicides and pesticides and hopefully GMO status.  If you want to test for GMO crops, this his is the equipment required for testing corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, and rice.  The system can also test for mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins are natural substances produced by molds and fungi, which are common in the farm environment.  Mycotoxins can affect the bottom line of any livestock operation causing reduced feed intake, digestive disturbances which results in loss of income dues to a decline in production of milk, meat and eggs.

GMO tester

Meals at Moses

Topping of the MOSES conference was the best food you will ever get at a conference.  Local and organic.  How can you beat a lunch like this? BBQ sliced pork shoulder, spring greens, steamed green beans and mixed peppers, brown rice and kale salad, olive-oil-roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, strawberry sweet bread with vanilla glaze or for Vegans: Grilled tofu and vegetable skewers, brown rice, kale salad, and roasted Yukon Gold potatoes.

Meals

And when dinner comes around, how about: Caraway-dusted chicken breast, spring greens, German-style potato salad, sweet-and-sour red cabbage, maple-roasted root vegetables, lemon pound cake and for the Vegans: Caraway-dusted seared tofu, sweet-and-sour braised red cabbage and maple roasted root vegetables.

The Staff at MOSES

The Moses staff put together and excellent conference from start to finish.  The conference program can be downloaded here. 

MOSES Staff

The organized and helpful staff running the conference. Back left-right: Stephanie Coffman, Bailey Webster, Cathy Olyphant, Matt Leavitt, Tom Manley.  Front left-right: Audrey Alwell, Sarah Broadfoot, Lauren Langworthy.  Not pictured: John Mesko (at an annual board meeting)


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Hawaii Bans Toxic Chlorpyrifos Pesticide

hawaii pesticides

Hawaii has become the first state to ban the toxic pesticide, Chlorpyrifos, from its fields. Chlorpyrifos has been proven to be a highly toxic neurotoxin that causes brain damage, particularly in the developing brains of children. During President Obama’s presidency, the EPA proposed that the toxin be banned in all agricultural uses, but the EPA has recently reversed this course of action. Hawaii’s move to ban the pesticide is the first significant step towards protecting the public form this harmful chemical.

In addition, this new bill requires that any users of Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) report their usage, and mandates that at least a 100-foot no-spray zone is used spraying around schools during school hours.

In addition to banning Chlorpyrifos, SB3095 requires all users of Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) to report usage of these pesticides, and mandates a minimum 100-foot no-spray zone for RUPs being sprayed around schools during school hours. Initially, the bill only called for certain school areas to become no-spray zones, but was eventually expanded to ban the pesticide outright in school areas.

Sylvia Wu, attorney for the public interest group Center for Food Safety, believes that this law is the first stepping-stone for stronger legislation in all states. Hawaii is also taking action against Pruitt’s EPA by listening to its citizens and fighting for the protection of their food and environment.

“By taking the first step towards pesticide policies that will provide for more protection for children as well as more transparency, the Hawai'i State Legislature is acknowledging that it must protect its residents from the harmful effects of agricultural pesticide use,” said Wu.

Since some of the largest agrichemical companies, such as Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta, grow and test their chemically engineered crops in Hawaii in school areas, the students in these schools are commonly exposed to pesticides on a regular basis. Studies show that these companies spray thousands of gallons of pesticides on their crops annually, within miles of young students attending schools nearby.

The bill goes into effect in July 2018, with the Chlorpyrifos ban taking effect by January 2019. Anyone who wishes to continue using the pesticides must apply through the state for an exemption, with no exemptions being granted after 2022. The mandatory reporting and no-spray zone provisions are effectively immediately with no exemptions.


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