Organic Gardening
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Horticultural Vinegar for Weed Control, Part 2

 

The advice on horticultural vinegar presented below is republished with permission by Miriam Kritzer Van Zant, President/CEO of Community Conservation Botanical Garden of Southern Illinios. You can reach Miriam and the Botanical Garden at ccbgsi@gmail.com with questions about this recipe and what works in your locality.

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on on using horticultural vinegar. It gives instructions and formulas for making herbicides and includes new formulas which work in acidic wetland soils. Part 1 explains the reasons to use horticultural vinegar, why new formulas are needed, and considers other relatively non-toxic methods of weed control.

How to Use Concentrated Vinegar

Put on protective gloves and eye protection to handle strong vinegar. It is dangerous to get directly splashed in an eye. In case of getting it on you, rinse off with cool water as soon as possible. You may wish to drink water before and after handling concentrated vinegar to offset the drying effect on the throat.

General Information for Handling Vinegar Herbicides

For mixing herbicides, gently pour vinegar, dish soap and additives of choice together, and either mix them with a stirrer, or also securely cap the mixing bottle and shake the ingredients together. For larger batches, use a funnel to pour mixed vinegars back into the same bottles for storage. Mark them as pre-mixed, and what you've added. Pour into 32-oz hand sprayer bottles, or other sprayer. Write down your formulas elsewhere as well.

The defoliant solution may soon smear what was written on storage bottles. Wear protective eyewear, such as sunglasses or goggles during application. Set the sprayer to a gentle fine mist. Later in the season, additives may become increasingly important, as plants can thicken waxy cuticles on mature leaves.

Spray the solution directly on leaves, from a few inches away. Include undersides if you can. Reapply as needed. Be careful about getting defoliant on the wrong plants, or of it splashing back at you. Exposure to small amounts of residual spray may wilt part of a leaf but will rarely permanently damage neighboring plants, so no need to panic if a little gets on a plant you want to preserve. You may want to rinse a neighboring plant if you’re really concerned about residual spray. I’ve never needed to.

Rinse off and store sprayer heads separately from bottles between uses. Having a spare spray head will get you through the moment when the other sprayer head eventually fails.

Equipment for Mixing Vinegars

• 2 or more spray bottles
• 2 or more spray heads to fit the bottles
• dish soap caps to close spray bottles between uses
• funnel to fill bottles
• pail or empty gallon container for mixing larger batches
• stirrer for larger batches
• measuring spoons for adding herbal oils
• measuring cup in case increments are lacking or hard to read on the spray bottles (optional)

Defoliant Ingredients

C1-C10 are explained below:

• 30% vinegar- use as half or more of total
• C2 dish soap 1-2 Tbsp depending on other additives
• 5% vinegar to top off mixtures
• C1, C3 cooking oil
• C1, C4 orange oil or orange oil soap- 2 Tbsp/32 oz
• C1, C5 unadulterated alcohol, vodka or gin 2 Tbsp/32 oz
• C1, C6 14% citric acid powder or 12% lemon juice
• C1, C7 clove oil
• C1, C8 molasses or yucca extract (probably agave syrup)
• C1, C9 RARELY USE epsom salts
• C10 NEVER USE sodium chloride

Comments on Ingredients

C1 is optional.

C2 - use a liquid, biodegradable, low-phosphate soap, like Ecos Dishmate® or Dawn®, or any similar soap that suds well.

C3 Cooking oil can be fresh or rancid. Oil can be previously used for cooking, then strained through a coffee filter. Cooking oil is usually less expensive to use than orange oil or any of the herbal oils. Oils that are hard at room temperature, such as coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, lard, Crisco and others containing cross-linked fats are unsuitable as they will likely clog the sprayer.

In our preliminary experiments, 10 oz of oil was too much for 32 oz total, and even seemed to provide protection to some leaves while simultaneously wilting other leaves quickly.

Four oz of oil was too little for 32 oz total as it took a couple of days for leaves to wilt as well as with 6 oz. That longer wilt time rendered the spray ineffective on many leaves, if it rained during the period between application and wilting. It may be that some other amount between 4 and 10 oz is even better than 6 oz, and this may change during drier weather or for different conditions and target weeds. Please let us know.

Six ounces of cooking oil per 32 oz total has worked the quickest so far, during breaks in rainy weather. After a couple of weeks with no rain, it seems this same formula does not wilt as quickly as it did during wetter periods. However, the few surviving plants only continued to grow very slowly. Perhaps the oil formulas are more strongly tied to rain or higher water tables or other moisture than some other formulas, as previously mentioned.

Please remember, this is all still preliminary research. When there is a conservation botanical garden in southern Illinois, with full time staff, it will be a good place to run statistically significant double-blind trials on different vinegar defoliant formulas under varied conditions.

C4 Orange oil or orange oil soap were good additives though cooking oil (see C3) is cheaper to use.

C5 Alcohol can be grain alcohol, sold at liquor stores and some grocery stores. Please don't spray isopropyl rubbing alcohol on your garden. Rubbing alcohol sold in drug and grocery stores contains toxic adulterants to keep people from drinking it, including acetone, denatonium benzoate, and methyl isobutyl ketone. These are not appropriate for any gardens, let alone organic ones.

I tried grain alcohol once as an additive but it was during a period of heavy rain and didn't work as well for me as the oil formulas. Naturalist Charlie Pitts told me he swears by a vinegar-alcohol formula effectively used for poison ivy in Belleville, IL, so it is given below. He may be working in soils that are a little less acidic with a lower water table than where I experimented in southern Illinois.

C6 I've only tried citric acid with 5% vinegar, and found that ineffective against poison ivy. It may work well with stronger vinegar as citric acid increases acidity. Lemon juice has citrate in it, though it is more expensive to use than citric acid powder. Higher acidity can be an issue for alkaline soils, like those common in central and northern Illinois and in some wet areas such as Florida. Southern Illinois soils are mostly acidic to begin with. Many garden vegetables and flowers prefer soils with some acidity.

C7 For clove oil or any appropriate herbal oil try starting with 2 Tbsp/32 oz and adjust it from there.

C8 Molasses or yucca syrup help plant leaves take up the mixtures. Their use is probably less of a good idea in a wet environment like southern Illinois, as molasses and other sugars also feed plants and plants may recover quickly from wilting under wet conditions. They are included in MaestroGro’s formula which was taken off the market because of pesticide licensing issues.

Honey, molasses and other sweeteners, diluted well, can be sprayed on compost piles, to speed up bacterial action. Raw organic honey especially was recommended for this purpose by Gorden Montgomery, owner of Agri-Life in Goreville, IL. Dilute the honey or other sweetener to 3% and spray your compost pile.

C9 Epsom salts consist of magnesium sulfate which binds calcium and other minerals in soils for years. Sulpher can also cause problems in soils (see FAO report link under C10). I was able to drop orange oil or orange oil soap and epsom salts after adjusting the amount of cooking oil that I was using. You may see epsom salt recipes or need to add magnesium to a small group of specific crops. I decided after much internal debate to finally offer my epsom salt recipe improved for effectiveness in southern Illinois below, as an organic asparagus grower had requested it. Any defoliant would have to be used before asparagus emerges in the spring. However, please use the other recipes instead unless you know you need to add magnesium to a crop. Also see orange oil (C4 above) and the epsom salt recipe below.

C10 Please, never use sodium chloride on soil. Earlier civilizations salted the soil of enemy civilizations so they could not rise again. There are several parts of the world today that have soil problems as a result of human activity resulting in salt deposits on soils, and/or accumulated natural saline deposits. More on the effects of salt on soil:

Physics Forum

Straight Dope column

Food and Agriculture Organization

Most Effective Vinegar Defoliant Recipes to Date

Miriam Kritzer Van Zant's July-August 2017 best defoliant recipe

Tested for poison ivy in southern Illinois

Per 32 oz bottle:

• 16 oz 30% horticultural vinegar
• 6 oz cooking oil- see C3 above
• 2 full Tbsp Dishmate dish soap
• 8 oz 5% vinegar

Fill a 32-oz sprayer with the above ingredients, shake just before spraying. Apply on dry days, or within a few hours of rain as it wilts leaves quickly. Check again for the next two days for newly opened leaves and spray those as well. Check again and spray if needed every few weeks. The amount needed, if any, will be reduced each time. I now mix four 32 oz bottle at a time and leave them capped and ready to go.

Miriam Kritzer Van Zant's improved epsom salt recipe for southern Illinois

Only for use in beds for magnesium-loving perennial plants like asparagus

• 1⁄2 cup epsom salts MgSO4
• 1 Tbsp Dishmate dish soap Either
• 2 cups 20% vinegar plus
• 2 cups 5% vinegar OR 1 and 1/3 cups 30% vinegar plus 2 and 2/3 cups 5% vinegar

My epsom salt defoliant recipe was based on two internet recipes: Lifehack's weedkiller aka 'Weed B Gone' and Mark Thomas Builder's recipe with stronger vinegar than Lifehack recommended. I had been using Maestro's 20% vinegar when developing this recipe so offer it for 20% or 30% vinegar.

Neither of the internet recipes I started with worked as well in southern Illinois against poison ivy as my own epsom salt blend. Recipes using only weak vinegar probably only work in very arid climates or with much lower water tables.

Naturalist Charlie Pitts Alcohol-Vinegar Recipe

Recommended for use against poison ivy in Belleville, IL

For 32 oz bottle:

• 2 Tbsp grain alcohol, gin or vodka
• 1 squirt (1-2 Tbsps) dish soap
• 20% vinegar to fill (or 10 oz water and 20 oz 30% vinegar)
• Maestro's Blackjack21
• 1 gallon 20-21% vinegar
• 10-12% (12.8-15.36 oz) molasses
• 1-2 oz (1.28-2.56%) orange oil
• 1-2 oz dish soap

Maestro sells 20% vinegar out of Texas. They had a mixture called Blackjack21 that they took off the market as they ran into problems with herbicide distribution licenses. Now Maestro sells plain 20% vinegar and shares their recipe. Blackjack21 works in southern Illinois but not as quickly or as well as my own recipes, above.

Diluting Blackjack 21 50/50 with 20% vinegar helped. However, even the 50/50 dilution still took about 24 hrs to wilt poison ivy leaves in southern Illinois in years with more normal rainfall. It only took my above oil recipe a few hours to wilt poison ivy leaves in 2017 between rains. The Maestro recipe is reported to work well in Texas. Similar recipes have been given good reviews for Australia.

Effective weed control has also been reported in these places with 10% vinegar. However, in my experience 10% is too weak for southern Illinois, with its frequent rain and high water tables.

The Blackjack21 recipe is a good example of how to use some of the other additives from the list above, and may be good for some gardens in drier areas such as those in higher altitudes. Maestro has several interesting natural gardening products.

CCBGSI did better with 30% vinegar from a different distributor, as shipping costs are the same for both strengths. Maestro is acknowledged for their pioneering work with horticultural vinegar. It is hoped they continue to do well in their part of the United States.

CCBGSI is asking you to experiment to find the best formulas for your property, conditions and target weeds, and to share that information with the rest of us. Please send your best effective formulas to ccbgsi@gmail.com. To join the CCBGSI mailing list, donate to CCBGSI, or for information on obtaining horticultural vinegar via donation to benefit CCBGSI, please send an inquiry to the e-mail address above.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

A Homegrown Supply of Berries

New Raspberry Patch

Our three children have a real taste for fruit. However, unlike a daily supply of fresh eggs or the relatively quick turnaround of annual vegetables, producing your own fruit can take years. For us, the wait is worth it - being able to produce our own fruit outweighs the time and effort the endeavour requires. Simply put, homegrown food is fresher, and therefore, tastier and healthier. Growing as much of our own food as possible is also in line with our goal of improving our self-reliance.

This past year we broke ground on our permaculture orchard and planted 24 fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, apricots, and plums). All of our trees are semi-dwarfs, so we’re looking at three to four years before they produce fruit. Berries, on the other hand, are a lot more (ahem...) fruitful a lot sooner than fruit trees. Since berries are among my family’s favourite snack, we’re growing and eating our own strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. We’ve also undertaken a blueberry venture and are attempting to grow blueberries from seed.

Strawberry

Our first attempt at strawberries was a 3 by 25 foot row. Our strawberries are an everbearing variety and we had a respectable harvest in June, followed by smaller harvests through the remainder of the growing season until the first hard frost. The June harvest was large enough that we could freeze the extra berries. The berries that ripened over the rest of the summer were plucked off and eaten. Any over-ripe berries were tossed to the expectant chickens milling nearby.

In the two years we’ve grown strawberries we learned a key lesson: use netting to protect the berries from hungry birds! The first year’s harvest was piddly compared to the second year because our netting was ineffective. In year two, in addition to netting directly over the row, we also erected poultry fencing around the patch to keep the chickens away from the strawberries entirely. The double layers of fencing worked to keep the birds away, but next year we’ll need to find a way to deter the beer beetles that find the ripe berries before we do.

Raspberry

We enjoy both wild and cultivated raspberries on at country home. The wild raspberries grow prolifically along the hedgerows and we watch in eager anticipation for them to ripen to a deep purple before we don our protective clothes and wade into the thorny, mosquito-infested brambles. I consider the effort worthwhile if I can pick enough to freeze two to three cups of berries and let my children enjoy eating the rest fresh from the canes. As my little ones grow older, I hope their contribution to the amount we freeze will increase. Presently, I’ll try to find conciliation in the thought that I am training them for future berry-picking-glory when I consider the measly two cups stored in our freezer.

We were fortunate to have a patch of everbearing raspberries already present when we moved to our property. However, the patch was steadily dwindling under a growing canopy of hardwood trees and was producing a meager harvest from its scraggly collection of canes; it was obviously time to transplant. In mid-April, we prepared a bed in a full-sun location and set about digging up the canes and moving them over. Come September, we enjoyed daily harvests of berries until a hard frost. The canes continued to produce berries into November, but a combination of the frigid nights and the weakening sunlight resulted in berries that were hardly worth eating they were so low in sugar compared to those from a month prior. At least the little ones still liked to pluck them off the canes and pop them into their mouths. Come next year, we’re hoping our newly-established raspberries will be even more productive.

Blackberry

We also planted three blackberry roots that over three years have grown into sprawling, thorny monsters that are in need of a new home. The fact is, a healthy blackberry plant will spread three to four feet wide and will be very good at colonizing via underground runners that sprout up five or six feet away from the parent plant. Where our canes are currently growing is unsuitable for such vigorous plants and a future project is trimming back the canes, digging up as much of the roots as we can, and re-planting them where they will have room to ramble - at the back of our pasture. The lawnmower will take care of any pieces of root that re-sprout.

Despite their present poor location and proclivity to thorniness, we do enjoy picking the dark, purple berries from mid-August to mid-September. I would estimate that the three bushes yielded 16 to 20 lbs this season. We’ve enjoyed them fresh, baked into pies, and were even able to store some in the freezer.

Blueberry

 As I write this, our hopes for blueberries are resting within the peat moss of 23 pots, sitting under a grow light. So far, 17 seedlings have broken ground. If we can succeed in germinating and growing blueberries from seed, we have a spot ready for them. Again, we tilled a strip in the same sunny location as the raspberries, but instead of buying and planting blueberry shrubs, we tilled in peat moss and coffee grinds (both lower soil pH, which is what blueberries prefer) and covered the row with a strip of silage tarp. The tarp creates a warm, moist environment that causes any weed seeds to sprout, only to be starved of sunlight and soon die, thus removing the majority of weed seeds from the prepared soil prior to planting.

Blueberry Seedlings in bags

Blueberry seedlings in bags.

Here’s hoping those seedlings keep growing! I would like to bake some Blueberry Buttermilk muffins with homegrown blueberries.

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Horticultural Vinegar for Weed Control, Part 1

 

The advice on horticultural vinegar presented below is republished with permission by Miriam Kritzer Van Zant, President/CEO of Community Conservation Botanical Garden of Southern Illinios. You can reach Miriam and the Botanical Garden at ccbgsi@gmail.com with questions about this recipe and what works in your locality.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on using horticultural vinegar. Part 2 gives instructions for making vinegar defoliants and includes new formulas, developed for the acid, wet soils of southern Illinois.

Horticultural vinegar, diluted to 15 to 20 percent acetic acid, is used as an ingredient for making defoliants for controlling weeds, including poison ivy. Horticultural vinegar can also be diluted with water to 6 to 10 percent for cleaning. Horticultural vinegar is usually sold by the gallon at concentrations of 20 to 30 percent. USDA allows the sale of unadulterated vinegar at these concentrations as an inert ingredient. However, once mixed into a defoliant, pesticide licensing regulations affect availability, distribution, and increase costs. Therefore, horticultural vinegar is usually offered as is.

Most defoliant formulas now available on the internet promise great results, and were developed for use in arid regions, such as Texas, California, and Australia, known for well drained soils. University studies of acetic acid-based defoliants have shown mixed results in other locations. These include experiments in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Community Conservation Botanical Garden of Southern Illinois (CCBGSI) is a 501 (c)(3) charity working to establish a conservation botanical garden and sustainable tourism trail in southern Illinois. CCBGSI emphasizes conservation of local native plant varieties and best organic gardening methods for the region.

CCBGSI has been encouraging experimentation with horticultural vinegar to develop more effective defoliant formulas for the acidic wetland soils of southern Illinois. (The best of these are in Part II.) Experimentation is continuing and may yield better formulas still for variation in altitudes, drainage, soil types and target weeds.

Why Use Horticultural Vinegar for Weed Control?

Acetic acid is biodegradable, so unlikely to build up to damage soils in the manner of acid rain. Acetic acid is a byproduct of bacterial fermentation of sugars and ethanol — it is continuously being produced in all living soils and is a byproduct of the breakdown of all plant and animal tissue. Horticultural vinegar containing defoliants can be used in place of carcinogenic and other agricultural chemicals for controlling weeds that harm wildlife, pets, and all of us.

Glyphosate/Roundup® is considered a probable carcinogen. Other herbicides are often confirmed carcinogens. Recent research on glyphosate in Sweden, acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO), has furthered its recognition as a possible carcinogen. Carcinogenic chemicals are not appropriate for use in organic gardens, or around pets, children, cancer survivors and cancer susceptible individuals. Mutagenic carcinogens can compromise the health of wildlife including fish, frogs, butterflies and more.

Systemic herbicides are likely to destroy fungi beneficial to plants, such as those forming mycorrhizal networks that are connected to roots. Bacteria needed by beneficial fungi, or otherwise involved in maintaining soil health, can also be destroyed by systemic pesticides. It takes many years for slow-growing mycorrhizal networks to grow back.

Weed killers are necessary in the battle against invasive species, and to produce enough food for all people. Glyphosate is a natural product, originally found in a soil bacterium. As with all poisons, quantity makes a difference. However, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects are a concern for human health, and the health of natural systems, even with natural products.

Vinegar may not provide the solution for every weed situation, but it is a good start for many and reduces the use of more harmful substances in our shared environment. The decision to use vinegar for weed control promotes thinking on these issues, and builds markets that can lead to even better methods. Used properly, horticultural vinegar-based defoliants work. Hopefully, farmers, gardeners, ecologists battling invasive species, and others who know about these issues, will try this alternative method for weed control with an open mind.

Effectiveness of Horticultural Vinegar Solutions for Weed Control

Horticultural vinegar solutions soften the waxy cuticle that protects leaves. The sun then wilts the leaf. Attached wilted leaves is the most desirable outcome from ecological burns. Wilted attached leaves help to exhaust root stores, as plants frequently try to revive them. As for any defoliant, using vinegar solutions requires more patience, and more applications, than systemic herbicides. This is especially true in wet years like this one.

Weed control in 2017 was made more difficult by spring weather that effectively began in February instead of March or April. People living on higher ground than myself, may not need to spray as often as I have had to this year. If you're starting to use horticultural vinegar-based defoliants later in the season during 2017, there's no doubt that less frequent and lighter rain in late summer has caused the water table to drop faster after rain, than in April.

This should help with better overall results. However, plants have had additional time to establish food stores in their roots, so may still require multiple repeat applications. If one stops treating the problem as needed, especially in extreme wet conditions, weeds that appeared completely wilted may still recover. If kept up, less and less defoliant is needed as the season progresses. Some plants stop re-sprouting sooner than others.

Some solutions of horticultural vinegar have been said to work better when plants begin to grow again with the next rain after application. In my experience, that can be the case, though not always. In southern Illinois soils, rapid follow up, through re-treatment for newly opened leaves on recently treated plants, has given good results. Poison ivy has cuticles that seem thickest on some leaves when they have barely emerged. For these leaves, cuticles seem to become a little thinner as the leaf grows.

So, some young leaves wilt easily, as soon as they appear, while others only wilt when leaves are a little larger. It may also be that after treatment, some new leaves receive thicker cuticles then earlier leaves had. This is hard to predict. You can expect different leaves to have different wilt rates, even at the same stages of growth. Your eyes will tell you which leaves wilted and which need re-treatment.

To counter variation in effectiveness of vinegar defoliants and leaf responses to them, check for at least three days after treatment, as some sprayed leaf buds continue to open and develop. Follow that up with weekly checks until plants appear to have no unwilted leaves. Continue to check at least every two weeks throughout the growing season, if possible. Spray new growth as soon as you can. Poison ivy roots with stored food remaining may send up new shoots nearby, even after treated shoots are completely wilted. In some cases, there will be a delay of several weeks before new shoots appear.

Other Ways to Control Weeds

Fire is effective for wilting leaves but dangerous, especially near homes and wooden structures, more so in untrained hands, and without proper safety equipment. Fire is unsuited to non-fire resistant trees such as American elms. Vinegar gives similar results more safely.

Steam is effective for wilting leaves, however, very slow going with a home steamer as it is necessary to stand in each spot for several minutes and inch along. Plus steamers use electricity and have to be plugged in. Works well on grasses and many weeds but poison ivy only wiggled like it was being tickled by the steam. Super-heated steamers are permanently mounted on truck beds for use for road-side weeding in some counties in California and in Australia. Not practical and too costly in time and money for use by the weekend gardener. It may be that super-heated large steamers will work in southern Illinois but it will cost a bit to find out.

Black plastic is useful over cut down woody and tall weeds. Cover stumps and persistent roots with black plastic and weight down the plastic with stones or bricks. This is about light deprivation so be sure light is really keep out. Leave the plastic in place for several weeks. Use the best vinegar solution for your area to catch any re-sprouts after that. Be sure to reuse or recycle leftover plastic sheets. There are drawbacks. Most plastic can only be recycled so many times before it won't melt down for reuse anymore. There may also be some nasty additives to make it persistent and dark. Plastic used outdoors soon gets holes that allow light to get in.

Corn gluten meal is supposed to prevent weeds from emerging. Can only be used when planting plants, or prior to planting seeds. Researchers at Iowa State University reported good results, Oregon State University (OSU) researchers could not get the same. Southern Illinois shares rainfall patterns with Corvallis where OSU is located though the southern Illinois water table is usually higher. Most southern Illinois soils have considerable clay, like those in Iowa and unlike most soils in Oregon. However, southern Illinois soils tend to be wetter than Iowa soils. I've never tried corn gluten in the garden. It's not particularly cheap to use and probably more cost effective with drier soils.

CCBGSI is asking you to experiment to find the best formulas for your property, conditions and target weeds, and to share that information with the rest of us. Please send your best effective formulas to ccbgsi@gmail.com. To join the CCBGSI mailing list, donate to CCBGSI, or for information on obtaining horticultural vinegar via donation to benefit CCBGSI, please send an inquiry to the e-mail address above.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Growing and Seed Saving Can Be Done on a High-Elevation Mountain Homestead

Bright Yellow Squash Blossom

When my son was a toddler and wanted to do big-kid acrobatics on the play equipment, I'd tell him, “no, you can't do that.” He'd look up at me, smile sweetly, and say persistently, “just try, Mommy, just try!”

That “Just Try” became a bit of a mantra for me in ridiculous situations.

We live at 8,300 feet in a mountain draw in the Rockies with screaming winds. It's accepted knowledge in these parts that “you can't grow food in the mountains.” This makes perfect, logical sense. But we did try, we kept trying, and we've been doing it now for over 25 years.

Saving seed has helped us create local varieties of squash, onions, kale, garlic, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers (the latter two in a greenhouse) that can actually survive here.

Learning to Break Seed Saving Rules to Breed Our Own Vegetables

Seedsman Bill McDorman, founder of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, tells the following story:

“Our friend Dima who lives in Novosibirsk, Siberia, grows watermelons. Al though most knowledgeable agricultural experts in Siberia will tell you that watermelons do not grow in Siberia. Dima, after several years, produced a single, small, tennis ball-sized fruit. He carefully saved the only two seeds produced by the melon and planted them the following spring. Success again. Dima saved several seeds from the largest fruit. When we met Dima 10 years into his "melon adventure" his garden was consistently producing kilo-sized melons.” (SeedSave.org)

In Breed Your Own Vegetables, author Carol Deppe discloses that it took professional breeder Calvin Lamborn of Rogers Brothers Seed Company, the developer of 'Sugar Snap' peas, only two years after the original cross to pop those sugar snaps into his mouth. It took eight more years to develop enough seed to produce enough material to sell it commercially. But he was able to eat them much sooner than common wisdom would have us believe possible.

Just Trying with a Short, 60-Day Corn Variety

At a recent seed exchange, Torrie Rae of SEED Brown County in Indiana, gave me some seed for a corn variety that grows only 2.5 feet tall but produces mature ears in 60 days. 60 days is perfect for us, but this variety is from a wet, high-latitude coast, the opposite growing environment from the semi-arid Rockies. So I said to her, “that won't work at my house.” She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Just try, Pam, just try!”

Come Spring, it's going in the ground. With plants I will never say “never.” I will just smile and give it a try.

Do you have a story of  a few improbable seeds that grew where the rules say they shouldn't,  a breeding project that took less time than the rules say it should have, or any other instance where your seeds have “broken the rules” when you “just tried?”  Please let us know how it went and how it's going at your house.

Photo by Steve Sherman

Pamela Sherman is a regenerative food growing educator and high-elevation homesteader in Colorado who facilitates community workshops, dialogues, learning, networking, and events related to growing food regeneratively and seed savin. She holds certifications in permaculture and applied agroecology, and is a seed saving teacher trained by the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. Connect with Pamela at Wildflowers and Weeds and on the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance Facebook page.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Make a Winter Salad Mix

We are excited that our winter salad mix season has started! During the summer we have heads of lettuce and the warm weather salad crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. But now we've had a couple of frosts and we are starting to harvest many types of salad greens, mostly from our hoophouse. You could use cold-frames or thick row-cover on hoops outdoors for growing salad greens in suitable climates. Winter salad mix is also known as mesclun or spring mix (even though we are growing it in the winter).

Freshly harvested home-grown salad mix: spinach, Tokyo Bekana, Bull's Blood beet leaves and a speck of Ruby Streaks. There is no lettuce in the picture.Photo by Pam Dawling

Our harvesting includes cutting the outer leaves of various crops into ribbons, snipping small individual leaves from other crops and mixing the ingredients. Our general salad mix harvesting approach is to mix colors, textures and crop families. I like to balance green and red lettuce of different kinds with chenopods (spinach, baby chard, Bull's Blood beet leaves) and brassicas (brassica salad mix, baby tatsoi, thinnings of direct-sown brassicas, chopped young leaves of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh or other Asian greens, mizuna, other frilly mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills). In October and early November we harvest the last of our outdoor lettuce and mix that in. Later we use lettuce grown in the hoophouse.

 

Ruby Streaks and mizuna. Photo by Kathleen Slattery

Brassica salad mixes (also called mustard mixes) are easy to grow. There are various mixes you can buy, to complement your baby lettuce mix. It doesn't work well to mix lettuce seed and brassica seed together when sowing, as the crops grow at different rates. It is better to grow separate patches and customize your mix when you harvest. Wild Garden Seed has Wild Garden Pungent Mix, and the mild Pink Petiole Mix. Some seed companies now sell individual crops for mixes (see Johnnys Selected Seeds or Fedco Seeds Asian Greens for example). We mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable, except very bristly-leaved turnips or radishes. Here in central Virginia, we sow between early October and mid-November for winter harvest, and from early December to mid-February for March and early April harvests. Even if you don't plan to grow brassica salad mix, keep it in mind as a worthwhile backup plan if other crops fail, or outdoor conditions are dreadful and you need a quick crop to fill out what you have.

I prefer to harvest and chop as I go, mixing everything at the end. It might seem easier to harvest first and then cut and mix, but that requires handling the greens a second time which causes more damage. Incidentally, tearing damages more than cutting, so just get a good pair of scissors and keep them sharp. I cut and gather until I have a handful of leaves, then roll them lengthwise and cut into ribbons. The width of the ribbon depends on the crop. I like to have different size shreds. Mild flavor and plentiful items I cut on the wider side, stronger flavors narrower. I also want every bowlful to get some red highlights (no mere mixed green salad), so if red leaves are in short supply that day, I cut those thin.

 

Bull's Blood beets growing in our hoophouse. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

To harvest baby lettuce mix or brassica salad mix use scissors, shears or a serrated knife, and cut an inch (a few centimeters) above the soil to spare the growing point of the plants for regrowth. Some growers use a leaf rake to pull out debris after each harvest of baby leaf lettuce, and minimize the chance of including bits of old rotting leaves in the next cut. For small plants, it works fine to pinch off individual leaves, provided you are careful not to tug--small plants may not be very firmly anchored in the soil! Small leaves can go in the mix whole.

Baby lettuce mix can be cut 21 days from seeding in warm weather, but from November to mid-February, it may take two or three times as long from sowing to first harvest. Cool season lettuce mix may provide four or more cuttings, but in warm weather it will only provide a single harvest. Excessive milkiness from the cut stems is a sign of bitterness. You can also test by nibbling a piece of leaf. Our winter salad mixes end at the end of April, when our outdoor lettuce heads are ready for harvest.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at www.sustainablemarketfarming.com, Pam's blog is on her website and also on facebook.com/SustainableMarketFarming.


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6 Proven Strategies for Year-Round Harvests

winter greenhouse

Photo by Getty Images/alisbalb

1. Extend Your Growing Season

Choose sheltered, sun-facing walls to help create a warmer microclimate that will keep tender crops such as tomatoes and peppers going for longer. Use row covers, tunnels, and cold frames to provide additional warmth and shelter.

2. Overwinter Vegetables

Some plants can keep cropping all winter. Grow salads leaves such as winter lettuce, leafy greens such as kale and spinach, not to mention carrots, parsnips, and leeks.

Space plants generously to encourage good air circulation and to maximize the amount of sunlight reaching every plant. Use a greenhouse or cold frame to help protect crops right through the winter in colder regions.

3. Close the ‘Hungry Gap’

The period when the last year’s crops are done but before the current season’s are ready is known as the “hungry gap.” Careful planning can avoid this. For instance, plant broccoli, cabbage, and late-season leeks in summer to stand over winter. Some perennial crops will also provide a harvest in spring, including asparagus and rhubarb.

4. Make an Early Start

Sow early under a cold frame, in a greenhouse or hoop house, or on a sunny windowsill. Get an even earlier start using grow lights.

Sow onions and peas in plug trays from late winter to transplant into beds in spring. For others, pre-warm the soil by placing row covers, tunnels, or cloches on them prior to planting to bring the sowing date forward by two to three weeks.

5. Spread Your Harvests

Sow little and often throughout spring and summer, and select a mix of early, mid, and late-season varieties to spread out the harvests as much as possible.

6. Plant in Succession

Plant succession crops from midsummer onwards for autumn and winter harvests. Plant crops that are suitable for storage such as maincrop carrots, plus quick-growing favorites such as bush beans.

Make space for a dedicated nursery area in a greenhouse or cold frame, or in pots in a sunny, sheltered spot, and raise succession crops from seed. This means you’ll have them ready to plant as soon as space becomes available in the garden, so you don’t waste any of the growing season.

Plan for Year-Round Harvests

Our Garden Planner has a number of powerful features to help you plan your harvests. For instance, the Succession Planting feature helps you see where and when gaps will appear. The Custom Filter button can be used to see what can be sown or planted during a specific month; and the Plant List shows recommended sowing, planting, and harvesting times for all the plants in your plan, and it automatically calculates how much your cold frames, greenhouses, and row covers will extend the season by.

Learn more about year-round harvesting in this video.

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Weird or Wonderful? Growing Food in Unusual Places

plants in shoes

Photo by Getty Images/TT

Many edible crops can be grown almost anywhere, so even if you don’t have much space, you can still grow food. Try out some of the ideas below and make the most of your garden!

Quirky Containers

• Old items of clothing and footwear
• Furniture — for instance, an old chest of drawers
• Wooden crates
• Anything else that will hold soil!

Recycling

• Car tires for potatoes
• Raised beds made from large tractor tires
• Old burlap sacks with holes cut into the sides for planting through
• Growing bags used for tomatoes, cut open and planted up with winter salad leaves
• Pallets

Vertical Gardening

• Attach pots to walls and strong fences.
• Purchase or make tower planters, planting pockets, or hanging baskets.
• Lengths of guttering can be used to grow strawberries and pea shoots.
• Grow cucumbers up a trellis.
• Grow pole beans on wigwams.
• Train squashes up an arch.

Flower Garden

• Grow vegetables with colored stems and leaves among flowers.
• Allow vegetables to flower to produce seed and enhance an ornamental display.
• Mixing flowers with vegetables attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Front Gardens

• Grow edibles in the front yard and leave the backyard for playtime and relaxation.
• Create a strong design that will look fantastic year-round.

Roofs and Balconies

• Roofs of houses, outbuildings, and sheds can all be used to grow food, but may need reinforcement to take the weight.
• Grow pots of fruits, veggies, and herbs on balconies.

Learn more about growing your crops in unusual places in this video.

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.