Tag Archives: organic gardening

Sorry, Southern Gardeners, Insects Undeterred by Cold

So, Southern farmers and gardeners, you thought that with all this cold weather, it would knock back the insects and help you make a better crop this year.
Not so! Says an Auburn University professor quoted in this month’s Alabama IPM Communicator.

If you were hoping that the cold weather would kill off the bugs that call your garden home, that's unlikely, says an Auburn University entomologist. (Photo: Brown Stinkbug, www.ent.uga.edu)

If you were hoping that the cold weather would kill off the bugs that call your garden home, that’s unlikely, says an Auburn University entomologist. (Photo: Brown Stinkbug, http://www.ent.uga.edu)

“Some crops, fruit trees and even livestock animals may fall prey to cold weather, but insects can survive even record cold,” says Dr. XingPing Hu, an Alabama Extension entomologist and Auburn University professor of entomology.

Mosquitoes aren’t affected, she said, pointing to Alaska and Minnesota, which have extreme cold — and extreme mosquitoes when it warms up.

Not even the dreaded fire ant is much affected by the type of cold weather the South has experienced this year.

“Fire ants need two weeks of temps below 10 degrees Fahrenheit to have any effect on the number of ant colonies,” she says.

Darn!

For more, see: http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/I/IPMNEWS-0075/IPMNEWS-0075.pdf

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Garden Has Too Much Compost? Or Not Enough?

Just finished reading a fascinating article on soil fertility by Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) that notes that gardens can “abused” by too much compost. Is there such a thing?

Frank, owner of International Ag Labs, a private soil testing firm (www.aglabs.com) gives examples of gardens “abused by too much compost” and gardens with “neglected/abandoned soil.” (See illustration)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can "abused" by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can be “abused” by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Frank posits that if you want to have maximum nutrient density in your crops, then you should ignore humus (as it will sort itself out with proper mineral content), and should have:

— Nitrogen: manage by crop needs and conductivity;

— P and K: 200-300 pounds each, 1 to 1 ratio; increase K slightly for Potassium-loving plants;

— Calcium: 3,500-4,000 pounds per acre; calcium to magnesium ration from 7-15:1;

Conductivity: 400-600 micro Siemens/centimeter — and he gives amendments necessary to correct that (for more, see the article).

I say it’s a fascinating article because, honestly, after wracking my brain, I can think of few gardens that suffer from “too much” compost. I do remember one friend’s garden that I suspect was “too much.” The soil was so moist and rich that it probably could have served as a worm bed for all its amendments.

But even Frank notes that the solution to a garden “abused” by too much compost is simply to grow more without adding more. Maybe “abuse” is too strong a word for the issue of adding compost. Additionally, given the fact that it takes so much raw vegetative matter to create so little “black gold,” I doubt too many gardens are approaching the “abuse” stage.

Nonetheless, the figures Frank gives are instructional. Looking at the soil report I obtained for my garden from Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service (see earlier blog), I can see that there are some interesting figures that conflict with Frank’s interpretations.

Mind you, this garden is brand new; my landlady said the backyard was used as a garden many years ago, but not in the past 10 years or so. My test and the MSU interpretation vs Frank’s interpretation:

Phosphorus — 132 lbs per acre (MSU: high) – Frank says this is low and should be 200-300 lbs. I suspect that, with adding compost, that figure will rise;

Potassium – 156 lbs per acre (MSU: low) – Frank says this is just below the 200-300 pounds that’s ideal. Again, I suspect that compost will raise that.

Magnesium – 369 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – linked to calcium by Frank;

Zinc – 97.9 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – Not considered most important by Frank. That could fall, if I’m growing green manures (cover crops), which I expect to do;

Calcium – 3706 lbs per acre – Falls within perfect number for Frank and within the proper ratio to Magnesium he gives.

Everyone who has a garden/farm and pays attention to soil tests probably has his/her own ideas about what the proper ratios should be and how to go about fixing them.

MSU, in my soil report, for example, suggests 34-0-0 pre plant (high nitrogen) fertilizer and 0-0-60 (high Potash) fertilizer — synthetic chemicals. In my opinion, shared by most organic growers, such a course of action would burn the soil, killing earthworms and microbes that keep the soil environment healthy.

Rather, what I intend to do is plant the seeds with a fish emulsion to provide nitrogen, then side dress (adding more natural liquid fertilizer) and foliar feeding after the plants are up. In addition, I plan to plant clover between the rows and on unused soil to build nitrogen for my fall planting.

I don’t know if this falls within Frank’s ideas or not; but I agree with his overarching conclusion that it’s the “pattern” of nutrients in the soil that’s more important than the figures alone. Visual symptoms of the plants themselves will tell you what’s going on with the soil.  And: “Your role as steward of the soil is to create the right pattern in the soil.”

I would say that I disagree on his view on humus; in my opinion, developing proper humus ensures better availability of nutrients, which is what he’s aiming at. You can’t build tilth with minerals alone; you must build humus to create the environment for plants to efficiently process available nutrients. Proper humus assures adequate water retention, oxygen in the soil, and ease of root and fungal growth. This is done by rotating crops, plowing under green manure, adding compost and soil amendments, as needed.

As he notes, plants grown directly above a limestone bed can show a calcium deficiency, but biologically available calcium is as much a product of good soil structure (in my opinion) as the ratio of other minerals that can be tested in the lab.

It may be a question of which end of the microscope you are looking through; the goal — and ingredients — remain the same. But soil structure, humus, tilth, are issues that a organic gardener/farmer can readily see and control. To ignore that end of the equation may be just as much a “neglect” or “abuse” of soils as any scientific test may reveal.

For the average gardener, what does this mean? Give your soil the love it richly deserves, using natural, sustainable and organic growing methods, and it will richly reward you with healthful, nutritionally dense foods.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Spin Composters Can Create Quick Compost

You may have noticed in looking at pictures of my garden in this blog that I have several spin composters, also called barrel composters, rotating barrels or compost tumblers. At least online, gardeners either seem to love them or hate them. I love mine.

Spinning or barrel composters aren't for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Spinning or barrel composters aren’t for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The reasons people say they don’t like them is because, they claim: 1) they smell; 2) they don’t hold much; 3) they get heavy when they get full, too heavy to spin. And more.

I would counter that spin composters aren’t the be all and end all of composting. They have their limitations and, once you realize those limitations, then they simply are another tool that is appropriate in certain circumstances.

I would say: 1) they don’t smell any more than any other compost pile if you have them correctly balanced “brown” and #green”; they hold half of the capacity of the container and, beyond that 3) they are too heavy to spin.

So, consider, if you have a 60 gallon composter, you can start with a minimum of 30 gallons of (undigested) compost, which will digest down to maybe a little more than half of that, 15 gallons — a good amount for a small garden. That’s a lot smaller than, say, a 4-foot by 4-foot fixed bin, but  it’s not a fixed bin. Presumably, you bought a spin composted for quicker compost and the convenience of having it close to the garden or moving it where you want it.

A spin or barrel composted can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

A spin or barrel composter can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I can attest that it makes good compost. I’ve had these for about four years. Mind you, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a fixed compost bin. Years ago, I had one compost bin  made from wooden pallets wired together that was about 4-foot by 4-foot that I used for about 15 years and it just got better and better. I also used to just dump stuff in it and forget it. That’s fine, too.

At our farm, we had one big bulk pile out near the field where we dumped all manner of matter to be composted from a dump truck. If you are growing several acres, that’s the way to do it. You can turn it with a pitchfork or turning fork or with a tractor, if need be.

But if you only have a garden or small plot, a spin composter works fine. We had these four composters next to two plots where we grew greens: one about 2,500 square feet, the other about 800 square feet. (Note: we did not broadcast the spinners’  compost across the plots, like we did composted horse manure, which we dumped by the quarter ton to build up the soil; but we did use it to build up the rows where we tilled and planted.)

We put those spinners out there behind the house so we could have a place to put kitchen scraps and yard waste from those gardens without having to walk out to the field for the big pile. They fulfilled their function perfectly.

What I do is keep putting stuff in one until it is about half filled; then put duct tape across the top with the date when it was sealed, and continue to spin it once a week while I start filling and spinning another one. That way, I know when it will be ready (in 30 days or more from the date on the duct tape).

Since I have four composters, when they are all going, they are staggered so that I always have some compost, if I need it. It doesn’t hurt if you go over long on it. If you’re too short, you’ll notice when you open it (it will smell bad, or like ammonia, or items in it will not be digested, or it will still be hot).

In the fall, you can go heavy on falling leaves for the spinners if you’re planning on letting them overwinter until spring. These spinners had leaves in them from last fall.

Mix “brown” and “green” materials about equally for best results.

Green materials are what the term implies: fresh stuff, like vegetable food scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags or leftover tea.

Brown materials are dry stuff, like shredded paper, wood chips, old leaves, etc.

Don't throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Don’t throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Be careful what you put in them: nothing toxic (like sawdust from treated lumber or dead plants sprayed with poisons). Consider your compost bins like living beings. They are digesting material that you could not so that you can return to the earth the materials she produced to feed you and your family once again. It’s all a big Circle of Life.

Some advice: 1) err on the side of brown or dry, to avoid bad smells; 2) avoid manures. Yes, I know, manure (especially cow and horse manure) is great for the garden, but I personally would prefer to have it further from the house and also I would err on the side of caution in composting: longer composting time.

We always got our composted manure from a neighbor who kept horses; the manure was from a pile that had been mucked out the previous season: one full year of composting. (Note: If you are going be certified organic, there are specific rules that must be followed regarding compost, including records of ingredients used, turnings, and temperature readings outlined in Section 205.203(c)(2) of the NOP; rules regarding composted manures are quite stringent; for more info, see: http://tilth.org/certification/frequently-asked-questions/producer-farm-faqs).

Spinners are good for quick compost from household and common materials. Although some people say they can get good manure from a spinner in 15 days, I’d go 30 days minimum: raw compost can harm your crops, not to mention fail to digest weed seeds. Some people also suggest letting the first filling of the spinner sit for a week or so to allow it to heat up before starting to spin.

Thirty days is not gospel; it depends on the materials in the spinner (some items, such as limbs, may take longer), the ambient temperature outside (microbes that break down matter slow or even shut down in cooler temperatures), and the amount of matter to be digested, as well as whether it’s rotated properly, can affect the maturation of the compost. Moreover, materials may be too wet or too dry or clump up in the spinner (just keep spinning; it will break down; if too wet, add more “brown,” too dry, add more “green.”)

 

For bigger projects, if you have the space, in addition to the spinners, designate a back corner of the yard for longterm compost: such as tree limbs, manure, bulk waste.

Turn the barrel once a week, at least. It’s not the end of the world if you forget; but, presumably, you have a compost bucket in the house which you are emptying every day (to avoid smells, bugs, etc.), so presumably also you should be spinning your spinner, too.

In my opinion, some people get too uptight about compost. While it’s true that you want to err on the side of caution regarding manures, even the stringent National Organic Program standards don’t restrict adding raw plant material to your garden. If you’re just composting coffee grounds, newspapers, egg shells, leftover tea, newspapers and yard waste that you know hasn’t been treated with any chemicals, you should be fine. And spin composters can really help with that.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Taking a Soil Sample for Testing Step by Step

Following up on my previous post about testing for soil fertility: For those who don’t know how to take a soil sample, it’s real easy. Here’s a step-by-step walk-through with photos.

The process: Tale a shovel, small trowel or just a spoon and collect a soil sample, send it off with your payment to the soil laboratory you select, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results. If you don’t have an “official” box, that’s fine. Just use any clean container. For example, I used a box that held cans of catfood.

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it's not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it’s not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Go around your garden and take a small amount and put it in the box. Dig below the rootline; you don’t want grass or turf or weeds in it; but just an inch or so deep, so you are getting topsoil and not the harder, more compact subsoil.
Go to another area and do the same.

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Crumble it all up and mix it up and either take it to your local extension service office or send it off. Most states have a testing facility, usually affiliated with a university, university cooperative extension service, or a state department of agriculture or natural resources.

In Mississippi, the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis. For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local county extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

Land grant universities nationally are dropping soil testing programs. So, if you are reading this in a state where it is no longer available, here is a list of commonly used private labs compiled by Colorado State University: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/00520.html

Collecting a soil sample is required annually for certified organic growers; but if you’re not organic, it’s still a good idea to see what’s going on with your soil. As stated in my earlier blog, when I first started sending off samples in Lena, because we lived in a terrain with red clay and sandy soils basically only good for growing pine trees, the tests came back showing high acid in the soil, in the 5.0 range.

Over several years, amending the soil with tons of composted horse manure and growing cover crops year round to build up vegetative matter (called “green manure”) and balance out the acid soil, we managed to bring the soil to a neutral level: 6.6 pH. That was a huge success.

Additionally, by digging a soil sample each year before you plant, you also get a good idea of how your topsoil is doing. Each year, your topsoil should be thicker, the consistency of the soil showing better tilth, and the fertility of the soil greater. If it’s not, then you should address that with more soil amendments and crop rotation.

You want to add humus and composted material to hold moisture and build tilth, increase fertility and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Garden Update: Soil Sample Back, Second Tilling

My garden is coming along as it should – even better than I had hoped.

I was able to do my second tilling, which puts me about halfway toward planting a crop of some kind this spring.

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I'm just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won't be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn't require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I’m just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won’t be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn’t require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Yesterday, before the cold rains and sleet came, the weather was beautiful with sunny skies and balmy temps — up to the 80s, in fact!

It was so warm, I was able to ride my bike down to the post office, to the grocery and around town before coming home, stripping off my shirt and tilling the garden bare chested to the warm, gentle, caressing breezes.

There’s nothing like getting your hands in the soft, moist soil and working vigorously in the garden! It’s a whole body affair. After wrestling the tiller, and spreading compost, my whole body is sore today. Quite a workout!

I had last tilled my new garden on Jan. 31, with the intention of coming back for a second tilling a couple of weeks later. But the weather has been so strange — ice storms, sleet, snow accumulations and heavy rains — that it didn’t dry out enough to till until yesterday.

You never want to till your garden when it’s soggy. Some people might say, why not? It’s because, if muddy, the soil will create clods that are difficult to break down. Sure, you could go over it repeatedly later, but that’s inefficient and, besides, human nature being what it is, one might be tempted to just overlook some clumping. If so, you are dooming your garden to failure or at least subpar production before you started. Gardening is all about patience.

The goal of the natural, sustainable or organic garden is to provide good tilth. That means soil that crumbles easily, has consistency and some vegetative matter in it. The reason you want light, airy, crumbly soil is so that the roots of the plant and the microorganisms that serve the plant can breathe easily.

Wet, hard or clumping soils suffocate plants or prevent them from easily accessing nutrients they need to thrive.

‘Conventional’ is a Killing Cocktail of Chemicals

The greatest threat to farmland today is not so much its infertility, but the fact that the chemical soups being used on them kill all the microorganisms and collapse the soil, so that roots struggle, plants are anemic and the soil turns to hardpan. Infertility comes form neglected soil health and no amount of artificial chemical means can reverse that.

If you talk to “conventional” (read: chemical) farmers today, most will tell you a major problem they have is with the composition of their soils. They don’t hold moisture, making them susceptible to drought; they are hard, with topsoil that blows away. That’s why so many farmers are now interested in growing tillage radishes as cover crops – to break up the subsoil and create aeration in the soil.

If they didn’t use so many chemicals that kill all life except the GMO seed varieties bred to withstand such poisons, they wouldn’t have such soil problems to start with. But the big chemical/seed manufacturers have sold farmers on the idea that the soil is simply an inconsequential growing medium for a killing cocktail of chemicals.

Natural, organic and sustainable farmers know that the opposite is true. If you have good healthy soil (read: tilth) then you’ll have good healthy plants.

Soil Sample

If you are certified organic, then you know that the first step each year is to take a soil sample and send it off for analysis. Last month, it just so happened that I was going to attend a national forum on cover crops sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mississippi State University’s Cooperative Extension Service at the local county extension office. So, I took my soil sample with me in order to drop it off while I was there.

They all kidded me when I arrived; the only guy at a soil conference who brought his own soil! (And, yes, they know me as “the organic guy.”)

The local Rankin County office was just great in packaging it up (I had brought it in an empty cat food box) and sending it off. And last week I received the report.

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a high fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a highly fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The report was actually better than I had hoped. It just so happened that one of the participants in the forum was the state agronomist and he took one look at my soil and identified it at Black Prairie. I told him that I thought Black Prairie was only around Meridian, extending east into Alabama, and north into Monroe County in Mississippi. He said there were pockets of it in the state, as well, including the Pelahatchie area.

The soil is distinctive for being black in color and sandy. Really nice soil.

The report showed that my soil is high in phosphorus, which is good, and slightly acidic at pH 6.3. For comparison, neutral is 6.6 to 7.3; where I used to live in Lena, an area covered in red clay soil and pine trees, the soil was highly acidic in the 5.5 to 5.7 range. After years of dumping literally tons of horse manure and growing cover crops year round, I was very pleased to have my fields test out at 6.6.

So, I’m thrilled with 6.3!

I’m still mulling over what I’m going to plant. But I’ve got a good start!

More later …

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Time to Start Work on Garden, Bees

For gardeners in the South, now is the time to at least start planning your garden this year; if you grow organic, or raise bees, it’s maybe even getting a little late.

Even though it's cold outside, it's time to start work on your garden in the South, if you have a new one or are expanding. Here, I ran a first pass over my backyard. I've moved to the city and am putting in a new garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Even though it’s cold outside, it’s time to start work on your garden in the South, if you have a new one or are expanding. Here, I ran a first pass over my backyard. I’ve moved to the city and am putting in a new garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Why so? If you’re a beekeeper, and you need to replenish a hive or start a new one, you should have ordered your bees in November. That’s sort of a traditional time to order, so that bee breeders can know what to expect. Moreover, if you wait until spring, all the available queens, nucs or packaged bees may be sold out.

That’s especially true of people who follow natural beekeeping, or keeping bees without chemicals; there are fewer commercial breeders. (And before you email me, I recommend two: BeeLicious in Hattiesburg, MS, and Beeweaver in Texas.)

Regarding gardening, it’s somewhat the same story if you’re an organic gardener.

You want to plant as early as possible after frost in order to try to get a leg up on the bugs. I usually start planting the week after Easter (in central Mississippi).

I’ve just recently moved to “the big city” — well, it’s a small city, population 1,400 — but it’s “big” for me after living in the country for the past 15 years. (You can read more about it in my newsletter: http://mad.ly/36ff64?pact=20069131533&fe=1)

With the permission of my landlady, I’m putting in a garden. I managed to get a first pass with my tiller on January 31, to break up the roots of the turf grass. I’ll give it another pass in a week or so; then, add compost and till it.

The proposed garden has good black soil. I'll have it tested by the state soil lab just to see what's in it. If you're an organic grower, you need to test your soil every year. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

The proposed garden has good black soil. I’ll have it tested by the state soil lab just to see what’s in it. If you’re an organic grower, you need to test your soil every year. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Not sure what I’m going to plant yet. I’ll send off a soil sample to get it tested and find out what it needs, if anything. Regardless, I plan to build up the soil with compost and might boost it with “green manure” (a cover crop).

We’ll see….

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Urban Ag: Backyard Market Gardening

Just a short note: I’ll be speaking on Backyard Market Gardening on Thursday (Nov. 14, 2013) at the Mississippi Fruit & Vegetable Growers Convention.

Even a small plot can make big dollars if done right. I'll be speaking at the Silver Star Resort in Choctaw, MS, Nov. 14, 2013 on Backyard Market Gardening. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Even a small plot can make big dollars if done right. I’ll be speaking at the Silver Star Resort in Choctaw, MS, Nov. 14, 2013 on Backyard Market Gardening. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Held at the Pearl River Resort’s Silver Star Conference Center in Choctaw, MS, near Philadelphia, the conference features a host of experts on various agricultural practices.

Specifically, my talk will be on how to turn your home garden into a profit making enterprise, or take a small garden and expand it into a small farm — complete with marketing tips.

It’s an honor to be asked to speak. Some may recall that I’m a former president of MFVGA; I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones!

Those who read this blog regularly probably will recognize some of the information — and photos! — from my writings over the years here. Nevertheless, you may not have seen all the info presented at one time.

So, you if get a chance, come on down. Here’s registration info:

http://www.msfruitandveg.com/

See you there!
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Grafting Tomatoes ‘The Next Big Thing?’

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Southern organic gardeners are discovering what could be The Next Big Thing in tomatoes: grafting.

If you grow tomatoes, you know that it often seems nature conspires against you. If it’s not too much rain causing root rot, or too much heat causing flowers to fall off, or too much humidity causing blight, then it’s something else. This heat and humidity thing can make it almost impossible to grow tomatoes in the South some years, with disappointing harvests. (Nor are tomato problems confined to the South: Northeastern gardeners well remember the late blight fiasco of 2009 that decimated crops.)

But now, some gardeners are reporting great success by grafting new and tasty tomato varieties onto perhaps less tasty but more disease resistant root stocks.

Dr. Brian Baldwin and Dr. Rick Snyder of Mississippi State University gave a hands-on workshop on tomato grafting at last November’s Mississippi Fruit & Vegetable Growers Conference. But it’s not just agricultural producers looking for greater yields and less disease who can benefit. In fact, grafting is tailor made for small gardeners who actually may enjoy “fussing” with their plants and even experimenting with new varieties.

Essentially, you are growing two different tomato plants on one stalk. You plant them the same, but once started, carefully cut off the tops and clip the variety you want to grow (the scion) onto the rootstock and plant that one in your garden. The result is a plant that had both qualities.

Try it! It may be “just the thing” for this year’s conditions.

Here’s a grafting “how to” from Johnny’s Select Seeds: johnnyseeds.com/Assets/Information/TomatoGrafting.pdf

Here’s a YouTube video from Ohio State University: youtube.com/watch?v=tHnOYcI6B44

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Do’s and Don’ts of Buying Garden Plants

April 10, 2013

Do’s and Don’ts of Buying Garden Plants

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Would-be and weekend gardeners are flocking to stores this time of year with hopes of finding already-started plants to put in their gardens. Some of those offerings have been in stores for weeks and now look a bit bedraggled. Often severely marked down, are they really a bargain? What should consumers look for in selecting a plant?

First, choose plants that come from certified organic seeds, which were developed to grow in the home garden, not thousand-acre fields of industrial agriculture.

If not available, the second-best option is to choose heirloom varieties.

Heirloom seeds are called “heirlooms” for a reason. They are treasured because of the flavor, taste, size, color and other characteristics of the plants they produce that make them worth handing down.

Big seed companies are focused on developing hybrids or varieties they can patent. That ensures bigger annual sales because patented seeds must be purchased anew every year. Heirlooms are stable (meaning they produce offspring that resemble the parent), are open pollinated (meaning they are not artificially manipulated) and have at least a 50-year history as a distinct variety.

The giant seed companies go so far as to create genetically engineered seeds that cannot be found in nature. Such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can contain genes from bacteria, viruses, insects and even animals inserted into their DNA.

GMOs are prohibited in certified organic. So, when purchasing a plant or seeds, you want varieties that are open pollinated (non-hybrid) and untreated (not dyed or contaminated by chemicals, such as anti-fungals), and marked as being either certified organic or heirlooms.

A few companies even sell certified organic heirlooms, but they are extremely rare.

List of Don’ts:

Don’t choose tall spindly plants or, conversely, stubby plants that are “woody” on the stems. Both are examples of plants that have exceeded their prime.

Don’t choose plants that have leaves that are spotted, off color or rimmed with white (examples of various rots, fungus or other maladies).

Don’t buy plants with obvious signs of insect or other attack.

Don’t buy plants that have weak root systems: Stick your finger in the pot; if it’s wet and the roots are rotting, that’s a difficult condition to overcome.

Don’t buy plants that have roots that are wound around the inside of the pot or sticking out through the bottom. To replant it, you’ll damage the root system, which also will retard growth.

Don’t buy plants that already have flowering buds or small produce on them. You may think you’re getting “a head start,” but in fact, you are getting a plant that has been stressed into fruiting. If you buy it, pinch off the flowers or fruit once it’s planted. That way, it can more efficiently allocate its resources.

A Big ‘Do’

Finally, if the nursery or garden center offers a “sale” so that plants with any or all of these maladies are offered with big savings, do keep walking! It’s no “bargain” to waste time on plants that are already half dead. Stressed plants invite bugs and disease if they don’t already have blights on their leaves or in their soil. Don’t buy trouble!

Buy healthy plants for a healthy garden. You’ll have enough to do keeping your garden a happy place without 
importing problems.

Build an Organic ‘Jim’s Plot’ for Earth Day!

Earth Day is April 22. What better way to celebrate than by creating a small organic food garden–especially one that can serve others!

Certainly, you know there are elderly people who would love to grow their own organic vegetables or herbs, or perhaps a kitchen garden, by their back door. Or teach a child how to grow food, instilling life skills like self-sufficiency.

Start by outlining a 4-foot-by-8-foot area and enclosing it in nontoxic materials, such as synthetic lumber or materials on hand such as concrete blocks. Or, simply mound up the soil as a natural boundary, or use cedar or redwood lumber.

In the plot, dig up the soil, 4 to 8 inches deep, using a tiller or shovel (if you’re elderly or incapacitated, enlist a hardy neighbor or relative to do the work). Add bagged soil (check that it’s approved for certified organic use) or dig from areas of the yard where leaves may have accumulated over the years to provide loamy soil.

Voila! You have your garden. Add plants, and start keeping a compost bin to add to the plot periodically and to build up the soil.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Certified Organic Seeds

Want to know if a brand of seed is certified organic? See the Organic Seed Finder website, hosted by 
the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies: organicseedfinder.org.

Are Your ‘Green’ Products Really Green?

Consumer Reports has an online resource for quickly looking up product labels using your smartphone to determine if a product at the supermarket is really “green.” You can search by product, category or certifier.

Visit greenerchoices.org/eco-labels.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

DIY Potting Soil Gives Organic Plants A Big Boost

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Good Friday is traditionally the time for those who plant “by the signs” in central Mississippi to put seeds in the ground, but for most home gardeners, now is a time to prepare seedlings (or “starts”) for transplanting.

Until the soil warms and the last chance of frost is past, gardeners may find themselves surrounded by trays or cups filled with potting soil and seedlings. One way to maximize daylight is to take the plants outdoors during the day and bring them in at night. An easy way to do that is to use a wheelbarrow; just wheel it out in daytime and wheel it back into the garage at night. Allowing seedlings outdoor time also “hardens” the plant, so that it becomes accustomed to harsher conditions.

Seedlings start best with good potting soil; look for certified organic brands in local stores. Most commercial potting soil is a mix of peat moss, perlite and synthetic fertilizer. Not only is that not organic (the synthetic fertilizer part), but it’s not Earth friendly, with peat moss most often derived from environmentally sensitive areas. So, what’s an organic gardener to do?

Even Earth savvy gardeners may not stop to think about it, but if you are composting, you have nearly half of your potting soil issue already resolved. Essentially, the “mix” for potting soil should have water and air holding capacity and fertilizer of some kind. A common “recipe” for DIY potting soil for seedlings would be 40 percent compost mixed with 20 percent vermiculite or perlite (available at garden stores; both are inorganic minerals that provide structure and drainage) and the rest a light air and water-absorbing vegetative material, such as composted bark or coconut coir (a renewable resource).

Each “recipe” is as individual to the gardener as a chef to food.

If you are a diehard homesteader, you can experiment with found materials, such as: one part compost or screened leaf mold, one part garden topsoil and one-third sharp or builders sand (some people use creek or river sand, but it may contain nematodes).

For more, see: http://www.extension.org/pages/20982/organic-potting-mix-basics

Organic Root Stimulants

When planting a seedling, it helps to use a transplant agent. However, most on the market are not approved for organic growing.

The general rule is that if a product or ingredient is listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), then it’s OK for certified organic use. Root Tone product, for example, is not listed on the OMRI site, nor is its active ingredient: idole-3 butyric acid, or indolebutyric acid; neither is the other most popular ingredient on the market: napthalacetic acid. Both are synthetics.
However, there are a number of organic root stimulators that are approved; including products such as Hygrozyme and Biorhizotonic. For more, see:
http://www.omri.org/simple-opl-search/results/root — or look up the name of the product. OMRI does not list synthetic products.

Farmers themselves often have their own “secret” natural concoctions that may include fish oil, blood meal or other natural fertilizers. (We use a mixture of water, kelp meal and fish emulsion.) Just use your finger or a trowel to poke a hole in the soil, dip the roots of each start in the mixture and plop it in, gently patting the soil around it.

Avoid Hottest Part of Summer in the Garden

Something to consider when planting is when the plant will mature. Look on the seed package and it will tell you: 80 days, 90 days, 110 days or whatever. So, if you want to be finished with your garden by August’s sweltering heat, count back the number of days until fruition in choosing the varieties you want to grow.

Native & Heritage Varieties Making A Comeback

Many Native American seed varieties believed lost are making a comeback as the popular interest in sustainability grows. Foremost in the field is Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit promoting seed conservation. It is focused on Southwestern seeds. Some work in the South, others not so well. See: http://nativeseeds.org/

Another, for profit but pioneering company is Sustainable Seed Company. It actually sells certified organic heirloom seeds (a rarity) and has been tracking down Native American varieties, selling seed corn derived from the Oscar H. Will company at the beginning of the 20th century. It also has a grain restoration project, bringing back diverse local grains. See: http://sustainableseedco.com/

For more, see:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/native-american-seed-zm0z13fmzsto.aspx

Join me at Rainbow Natural Foods at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 7. I’ll be giving a reading and signing in my new book, Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Refreshments will be provided by High Noon Café. The event is sponsored by Rainbow and the Conscious Living Project.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Great Organic Gardens Start With A Plan

Photo Courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds

Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Great Organic Gardens Start With A Plan

Organic gardeners may be eager to get out and garden, but it’s still too early to plant summer crops. We can start planning, though, savoring the bounteous crop of garden seed catalogs arriving daily in the mail. Planning should include deciding on the plants we want to put out (and where), and preparing the soil to plant.

Plowing or tilling a time or two before planting time can make the soil good and crumbly, if done when the soil is suitably dry. Wet soil creates clumps that lock up nutrients. Well-tilled soil makes it easier for roots to access food and water.

Make sure you have plenty of vegetative matter worked into the soil to provide “tilth,” a mix of soil and matter that holds nutrients and water even in prolonged dry spells. This matter is especially good for the earth if it’s recycled: Try plowing under your cover crops for “green manure,” or using last year’s lawn clippings or last fall’s crumbled-up leaves, mixed with kitchen compost that you have been saving.

Too many people just buy inputs–such as bags of sphagnum peat moss–and dump it in their gardens. Although peat is widely sold, if consumers knew how critical and rare the material was, they wouldn’t treat it so cavalierly.

Some scientists say that the world’s peat bogs are as vital and endangered as the rainforests. Not only do they hold moisture in their indigenous habitats as a protection against local droughts, they provide habitat for wildlife, and they also hold prodigious amounts of carbon–which protects the planet from climate change. Using peat moss in the garden releases that stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Many people who routinely used peat are now turning to renewable organic matter, such as cocoa shells.

While you are planning your garden, make sure you have fertile soil by taking a sample down to the extension service to be tested. That will tell you precisely what you need to add to your soil to grow good crops and what elements are in abundance so that you don’t over fertilize. We want healthy soil in organic gardening, without artificial inputs or runoff that will harm the environment.

One issue that came up during the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association workshops last November was the experience of some organic farmers in north Mississippi who were baffled by their plants failing to grow.

They discovered, to their horror, that the hay they had bought for mulching had herbicide residue that was killing their plants. The moral: Be careful about your inputs.


PEAT MOSS

For more on the use of peat moss, see this post on Natural Life Magazine’s website, “Does Peat Moss Have a Place in the Ecological Garden?” by Wendy Priesnitz: jfp.ms/peatmoss

COMPOST ADVICE

The Rodale Institute provides great tips on composting, including answers to common questions about antibiotics and heavy metals. Visit jfp.ms/compostingtips.

Or, you can look back in my previous articles and blogs by searching: 
ShooFlyFarmBlog.

ANALYZE YOUR SOIL

The Mississippi State University Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis. For more information, see msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, or visit your local extension office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State; or call 662-325-3313.

SEED COMPANIES TO TRY

The most luxurious full-color catalog is by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Some people call it “garden porn” because of the lavish pin-up-like pictures of fruits and vegetables. To order a catalog, visit rareseeds.com or call 417-924-8917.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds is an organic mainstay. Johnny’s is where Eliot Coleman, the quintessential “deep” organic intensive gardener at Four Seasons Farm in Maine, sells tools he has designed. Johnny’s announced in this year’s catalog that the company is now 100-percent employee owned. We buy our lettuce mixes from them. To order a catalog, visit johnnyseeds.com or call 1-800-854-2580.

High Mowing Organic Seeds is relatively new, but seems committed to organics. To order a catalog, visit highmowingseeds.com or call 1-802-472-6174.

MORE FAVORITES:

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, 1-888-784-1722; Grass Valley, Calif.

Seeds of Change, 1-888-762-7333; Santa Fe, N.M.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, 540-894-9480; Mineral, Va.

Seed Savers Exchange,  563-382-5990; Decorah, Iowa

WATCH YOUR SEEDS

Remember to use certified organic seeds. As noted in a previous column, the practice is not merely to promote organic, but because the seeds are bred to grow differently. Standard “conventional” varieties, unless stated otherwise, are developed for industrial agriculture, producing uniform height, size, fruiting, etc. So, if you want a tastier tomato or corn, buy seed varieties bred for the home gardener.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Organic Growing Heals The Earth

Dec. 19, 2012

I serve on a number of conservation and environmental boards of directors, and a question that has been coming up a lot lately has regarded growing plants under contaminated conditions — a topic of interest to urban homesteaders and those wanting to practice urban agriculture.

In one case, a wind drift inadvertently sprayed an organic grower’s crops with chemicals that would render his crop worthless organically. In another, a grower thought he was following organic guidelines and fertilized his fields with biosolids (human waste), a practice not allowed in organics.

These are serious issues for organic growers. The rule is that in order to be organic, fields used in conventional agriculture must be idled for three years so that the toxins used in chemical agriculture can break down.

What many growers — and consumers — may not know is that we now live in a chemical-soup world and contamination is an ongoing concern. A farmer may be growing perfectly organic and inadvertently contaminate soil like these instances, or the water itself can be contaminated without the grower’s knowledge.

In addition, the act of farming can bring unknown contaminants to the surface, such as heavy metals and PCBs from previous land uses.

Some lands are “contaminated” naturally. Ancient seabeds, for example, can hold metals such as selenium, boron, molybdenum, mercury or arsenic, that can come to the surface. Where land is heavily irrigated, plants take up irrigation water, leaving salts to build up in the soil.

Moreover, when people plant in urban settings, such as parks, abandoned lots, etc., a host of contaminants — from mechanical solvents to toxic wastes to household chemicals  — can be built up in the soil.

Nature is a great housekeeper and provides the means for cleaning up even heavily contaminated soils. The process is generally called phytoremediation — using plants themselves to clean the soil.

More specifically, it’s called phytoextraction. Growers can use plants (and trees) to absorb contaminants through their root systems. Depending on the type of contaminant, the toxins are then either stored in the roots or by natural actions transported into the stems and/or leaves. After harvesting, the soil will have a lower level of contamination.

Plants especially good at removing toxins are called hyperaccumulators. Some plants can even be used for mining elements, called phytomining; and even sewer water can be reclaimed for drinking using plants.

These aren’t exotic plants, either.

Popular food plants like sunflowers and mustard plants (indeed, the entire brassica family) work, as well as legumes like alfalfa, alsike clover and peas. Trees include hybrid poplar, willow, cottonwood, aspen, mulberry, apple and osage orange. (Source: Ground Remediation, University of Iowa: www.clu-in.org/download/toolkit/phyto_e.pdf )

The lesson is that nature heals her own, even the mistakes and toxins humans introduce. By growing organically, without synthetic chemicals and poisons, we are healing the earth.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

For Organic Garden Use Organic Seeds and Here’s Why …

Dec. 19, 2012

The Skinny on Seeds

If  you are already thinking about what you want to grow in your garden  next year, start out right with organic seeds. They can make a much  better garden.
Conventional  seeds — the kind normally found at seed stores and in catalogs — are from  plants that are grown in what is considered a “conventional” setting:
with the use of synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.
Organic  growing, of course, rejects the use of such chemicals. Seeds labeled “certified organic” are produced from plants grown in organic settings,  without
those conditions.
Moreover,  many of the seeds that gardeners plant are used in broader agricultural  settings: the vast acreages of monocultures that today constitute what  we consider to be farming. They may have coatings on the seeds for  faster germination or fungicides that are not allowed in organic  farming, or they may be genetically engineered for certain  traits — including toxins produced within the plant to kill certain pests.  These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed in organic  farming.
In  addition, certain conventional seeds are bred for produce that looks  good or has a long shelf life to survive transportation over long  distances and
sitting in grocery bins, or are uniform in size so that a  consistent price can  be charged by the food distributor. But the primary  concern for organic gardeners is that the plants will grow better. One  big difference is early growth, where plants pop up out of the ground to  get a head start on pests.
They are bred for vigorous growth (that may  not be uniform with other plants in size) and for taste (as opposed to  shelf life or appearance in color or shape).
If  you start with organic seeds — or heirloom seeds that have consistent  desirable qualities — you could develop hardier strains uniquely suited  for your growing conditions and preferences quicker than using varieties  developed for other “conventional” settings.
What  about keeping seeds for growing the next year? Is seed saving better or  worse than organic seeds? Seed saving can have the same effect,  tailoring plants for your unique growing conditions. Organic seed gives  you a leg up; you already have some of the qualities you want to  develop. So, while seed saving is preferred over buying every year, buy   organic seed and then save seeds to more efficiently develop the traits  you want to keep.
Mind  you, certified organic seeds are not readily available for some  varieties of crops. Organic growing allows for some use of seeds that  are unavailable in certified organic varieties; just make sure they are  not GMO or coated.

Online Certified Organic:
Seeds  of Change has a good certified organic variety, some 1,200 varieties selected for the home gardener or small market gardener:  seedsofchange.com
For  more, read “A New Age for Organic Seed,” an interview with Adrienne Shelton, Department of Agronomy, University of Wisconsin, at http://ow.ly/ghRoh

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Let Trees Do The Work For Next Spring’s Garden

Oct. 10, 2012
Honor the Tree: Let it do the Work for next Spring’s Garden

People  who garden can always find things to do. Sometimes, it seems we have too little time to actually enjoy our gardens. So why waste time, or a  season, for that matter? You can get a head start on next spring’s  organic garden now
and free yourself for relaxation and enjoyment.
How? Take advantage of “free” vegetative matter to build up your next year’s garden bed with leaves.
Fall  brings leaves by the ton, not only in our yards but around our neighborhoods and, well, everywhere there’s a tree. People are busy  raking and
bagging them up, in fact, so they can be picked up in urban  areas to be thrown away. Country folk often just pile them up and burn  them. Why let this free vegetable matter go to waste? Or, worse, add to  pollution?
Think  for a minute: The trees took nutrients from the soil last spring and mixed with sunlight, air and water came up with these glorious leaves to  shade us all summer. That’s a lot of energy expended. That’s a lot of  soil nutrients.
Why dump it in a landfill?
Honor  the tree. Recycle! Ask your neighbor (if you are sure he or she hasn’t been spraying trees with poison) if you can take those piled leaves.
You  can just dump them in your garden, as thick as you like, and cover them with plastic (black or clear, doesn’t matter), and next spring you will  have
nicely composted leaves with added nutrients from the other yard(s) to your garden—free imported fertilizer. It should be decomposed  enough to mix with compost you have saved also to provide a rich, dark,  loamy growing medium ready
to plant.
It’s  also a great way to expand your garden. If, say, you have a 4-foot by 8-foot Jim’s plot and want to double it in size, just put down cardboard  or
layers of old newspapers (to block weeds) in the new area, and put  leaves on it and cover it with plastic. When you uncover it in  the spring, voila! New
garden!
It’s  called “lasagna gardening.” That is, layering paper or cardboard and leaves like lasagna to create a raised bed for plants. No tilling. No  muss, no
fuss.
Some  purists will say that one type of leaf—say oak, or pine or pecan—is too acidic or whatever to use in this way. Don’t worry about it. If you, as  I
always recommend, take a soil sample each spring to be tested for  fertility, pH, etc., you can determine exactly which amendments are  needed to produce the food you want to grow.
The  main thing is to not waste this opportunity. Now is the time to prepare for spring. Let the seasons do the work for you, so you can enjoy your  garden come spring.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Create ‘Climate Change’ in Your Backyard: Prepare for Frost

Oct. 10, 2012

Create ‘Climate Change’ in Your Garden: Prepare for Frost

Some  folks may remember that first frost came early for central Mississippi last year, at the end of October. While frost is a pleasant milestone of  the
seasons for most people, it can be tragedy for fall gardeners. At  least, without precautions.
Commercial  growers use a lightweight, white material called Agribon to protect their crops from frost. It comes in different thicknesses for ever  greater
frost protection, some as much as 8 degrees below freezing.
You  can order it from any of a number of commercial suppliers online. A 50-foot by 83-inch roll costs about $20 at growerssupply.com.
Unfortunately,  if all you are trying to protect is 4-foot by 8-foot Jim’s Plot, that’s  something of a waste—unless you cut it up and give away what you
don’t  need to friends or neighbors. Get a smaller size (two 14×14-foot pieces for $39.99 at Peaceful Valley: groworganic.com.)
Urban  homesteaders are always looking for a cheaper way to use, reuse or repurpose what’s on hand, so they shouldn’t feel obligated to spend  money to protect from frost when it can be done for free. Such a route  is to use old bed sheets or a light blanket, just enough to keep the  frost off tender shoots.
The  main concern is that the covering must be light so that it doesn’t  crush the plants. If the weather is really cold, rather than just  throwing it on at
night, it should be white or translucent to allow some  sun to penetrate and hold heat if it’s left on during the day. (You  don’t want to smother your
plants.)
Some  farmers use Agribon as a seasonal cover that performs multiple tasks: keeping plants protected from frost; acting like a mini-greenhouse,  holding in solar heat for greater soil temperature; and protecting from  insects. They usually use the lighter weights of Agribon, rather than  the heavy, thick versions. It won’t protect much below 32 degrees, but  it does offer protection from a dip in temperature and/or biting winds.
That  should be enough for any cold snap we might get now. We normally don’t get a hard, killing frost until around the end of November to the first  of
December. As winter approaches, more intensive measures may be  required.
For  example, a simple way to keep winter greens from freezing is to simply take a few plastic soft drink bottles or milk jugs, fill them halfway  with
water, and put them between the rows of your plants. That passive  solar heating will keep the plants from freezing below the level Agribon  alone offers and especially if placed under Agribon with the plants.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Re-energize Your Soil For A Better Garden Next Year

Sept. 26, 2012
Re-energize Your Soil For A Better Garden Next Year

Now that fall is officially here, a lot of gardeners think their work is done. Well, not quite. That is, not if you expect bountiful harvests next year.

The reason? Soil fertility. The big agribusinesses talk a lot about “inputs” when producing crops because there are a lot of “outputs.” The “outputs,” simply put, are the fresh fruit and vegetables (and weeds) that your garden produces. When you pull these plants out of the garden, you are removing nutrients in the soil contained in the plant.

If enough of these “outputs” occur, without any new “inputs” of new nutrients, the soil becomes exhausted. That means, unless you work to keep your soil fertile, you may only have stunted plants, puny produce and lots of disease and insects.

Big industrial farms dump synthetic fertilizers as “inputs” to boost production, but without soil-building practices, future yields suffer, and farmers have to use more chemicals on the soil to fight diseases and insects, while the nutrient value of the crops declines.

Organic growing, however, is holistic: The soil is as important as the crop, so we want to ensure that our soil is healthy, so that our produce is healthy, what we eat is healthy, and we are healthy.

The easiest way is to simply keep a compost pile and add compost periodically to the garden. That way, you are at least putting back into the garden what you take out.

Another easy way is to use “green manure.” That is, don’t throw away the weeds you pick out of the garden; instead, compost and return them. You can also plow under any plants that you don’t harvest.

Now is the best time for this method: Plant a cover crop that will actually add fertility to the soil over the winter. Clover is a great winter cover crop, adding nitrogen at the rate of 60 pounds or more per acre.

Another suggestion: Why not use a cover crop you can eat?

Fava beans (which actually are a type of vetch) are filled with essential nutrients, especially phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A and iron. They are low in sodium and high in fiber and, for women, contain phyto-estrogens that herbalists say ease menopause. Fava beans are routinely listed as among the top 10 anti-cancer foods, as they contain herein, which research has shown to block carcinogens in the digestive tract.

The best news for your garden is that they can produce a whopping 200 to 300 pounds per acre of nitrogen. They can withstand temperatures down to 10 degrees, so they make a great cover crop in Mississippi.

Cover crops are often called the keystone of organic agriculture because they do so much while the farmer does so little. They crowd out weeds, provide habitat for beneficial insects, return fertility to the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air into the soil and they help the planet’s climate change by sequestering carbon. Not only that, but when they finally succumb to winter or live out their cycle and are turned under as “green manure,” they improve the texture of the soil by adding organic matter as well as fertility.

Quite a lot for a little work, huh?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Four-Season Growing: A Garden Cornucopia

Sept. 26, 2012
Four Season Growing: A Garden Cornucopia

Now that you are either tending or contemplating a fall garden for freshly grown, organic crops, you might consider four-season farming for year-round food. If the weather cooperates, it can be fairly easy—and can be done even in the urban setting of a small yard or next to a patio.

Today, because of industrial agriculture, we think that farming is all done out in rural areas and large tracts of land, but that actually is counter to historical fact.

In America’s cities across the land prior to the mechanization of farming following World War II, small plots of land were located throughout population centers—complete with chickens and livestock! This was common in most urban areas globally. For example, Paris at one time devoted 6 percent of land to food production and produced 100 percent of its fresh vegetables.

One of the more popular methods of growing during winter was to heap horse manure and then build an enclosed structure on top of it for growing. Called a “hot house,” the removable top kept vegetables protected from the elements while the decaying manure provided heat from below.

Today, horse manure in cities is no longer an abundant, cheap source of soil fertility. Moreover, for health reasons regarding soil and plant contamination, I wouldn’t recommend trying to recreate such methods using uncomposted manure as a heat source without thorough study of safe designs. However, modern urban farmers—as well as homesteaders, suburbanites and rural folks wanting easy access to homegrown food—can nearly match that production by using cold frames.

Simply stated, a cold frame is a box similar to a 4-foot by 8-foot “Jim’s plot” but has a removable, clear glass or plastic top. Consider it a mini-greenhouse. Just make sure to vent the top during the day. At night, keep the cold frames closed, and they’ll retain heat.

Cold frames can be simple DIY projects, such as planting between a few square bales of hay and recycling old windows or shower doors as the removable tops. You can also purchase pre-made kits from local garden stores or online.

You can build a cold frame anywhere; just make sure it has southern sun exposure. Even a small frame can produce a lot of leafy vegetables if you correctly prune them: Pick old leaves first, in effect pruning the plant so that its energy goes into new leaves.

If you have more space, here’s another option using the same principle that can contain more crops. Hoop houses, also called high tunnels, work by using layers of plastic to trap warmer daytime air inside and minimize heat loss from the system at night. They don’t have to be big or towering affairs. You can bend plastic pipes over metal rebar spikes pounded into the ground and cover them with plastic.

Hoop houses can range from small tunnels—perhaps 3 feet tall and any length you prefer—to large edifices that you can make portable with wheels. You can even pull them with a tractor to rotate crops.

For more information on hoop houses, visit msucares.com/crops/hightunnels/index.html.

Growers in Mississippi who use high tunnels will be meeting to share tips at the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the Mississippi Agritourism Association conference in Jackson Nov. 28-29 at the Hilton Hotel on County Line Road. For more info, visit msfruitandveg.com or email info@msfruitandveg.com. You can also contact Candi Adams at 662-534-1916 or cadams@ext.msstate.edu

For winter growing info, read “Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long” by Eliot Coleman (Chelsea Green, 1992, $24.95).

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Beneficial Insects in the Organic Garden

June 27, 2012

Good Bugs, Bad Bugs

Now that summer is in full swing, gardeners have to deal with pests.

While industrial agriculture uses chemicals to control insects, it’s a scorch-the-earth policy that kills both good and bad bugs indiscriminately.

In organic growing, we strive to live in harmony with the plant and animal nations. As such, we want to grow plants that repel unwanted insects and invite beneficial insects to take care of those that might want to feast on our plants.

Several plants can be useful in controlling unwanted pests, such as alyssum, buckwheat, coriander, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace, sunflowers and common yarrow. Not only do these plants look great, they attract the kinds of insects that will help protect your garden. Some, like sunflowers, act as a “trap crop,” luring pests to them and away from the rest of your garden. Others, like dill, fennel and coriander, are herbs that you can use in your food. Buckwheat is incredibly appealing to pollinators such as honeybees and butterflies.

American Indian tribes have traditionally considered yarrow to have mystical and magical properties—from love charms to warding off negativity. The Latin name for the plant (also known as millfoil) is Achillae, named for the Greek warrior Achilles. Legend has it that Achilles gave the plant to his troops to stop bleeding. The Chinese have used dried yarrow stems for I Ching divination for centuries. And gardeners who use the principles of biodynamic farming use yarrow as a basic ingredient to invite spirit elementals to the garden.

Placing beneficial plants in your garden isn’t difficult and you don’t have to follow a specific plan; plant them here and there, wherever the mood strikes you, in and around the garden or along a ditch. They should all grow quickly.

To provide a little help for the humans in your garden, plant something that will help naturally ward off mosquitoes. Mother Earth News tested a number of plants and these were the top natural repellents: lantana, rose-scented monarda, lime basil, catnip, sacred basil and thyme (see tinyurl.com/74gwysm). Again, these plants have other uses as well—including happy cats! Planting them in pots or other containers allows you to place them on your porch or patio, as well.

Find heirloom or organic seeds for all of these plants at your local garden store—or, at this time of year, look for full-grown plants on sale at a discount.

In addition to attracting beneficial insects with plants, you can simply purchase them. Those little red beetles with black dots, affectionately called ladybugs, are popular. Ladybugs are capable of consuming up to 50 or 60 aphids per day, and one ladybug can consume many as 5,000 aphids in its lifetime, according to Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply (groworganic.com), which sells the little critters online. Ladybugs also eat a variety of other harmful insects and larvae including scales, mealy bugs, leafhoppers, mites and various types of soft-bodied insects.

Next year, you might consider the praying mantid (or mantis). These big green bugs eat aphids, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, moths, caterpillars, wasps—generally, any insect it can catch. A praying mantid’s egg sac can contain up to 40,000 eggs, which usually hatch in spring. Find them for sale online and from stores such as Costco.

Finally, if you are finding strange plant symptoms or pest invaders, check out this handy online resource for finding safe, non-toxic pesticide solutions that are Organic Materials Review Institute, or OMRI, approved: The Ecological Pest Management Database (bit.ly/g6Eqgu). It covers solutions for everything from diseases to weeds to mollusks. The database is maintained by the Butte, Mont.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Call them at 1-800-346-9140.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Summer Planting for Fall Harvest

June 27, 2012

Plant Now for Fall Harvest

One of the benefits of living in the South is that we can extend our growing period through at least three seasons just by timing our planting, and four seasons if we put a little work into it. For example, right now is a good time to plant for your fall harvest.

One of the most highly desired foods when summer ends is tomatoes; and if you plant now, you can have a good fall crop. However, tomatoes come with a bit of a caveat. Because of Mississippi’s hot, moist conditions, tomatoes frequently begin to fail in deep summer. Fruit doesn’t form above 94 degrees and high humidity discourages pollination. During prolonged periods of drought or high temperatures, tomato plants will just shut down.

A few varieties of tomatoes will do well in southern climes, including:

  • Homestead24 (certified organic; for hot, humid weather; from Florida)
  • Neptune (certified organic; for hot, humid weather; from Florida)
  • Arkansas Traveler (heirloom; for hot, humid weather)
  • Cherokee Purple (heirloom; hot weather tolerant; from Tennessee)

If you can’t find seeds locally for these varieties, contact TomatoFest (Box 628, Little River, Calif. 95456, store.tomatofest.com) for these and other types of heirloom and organic tomato seeds.


Protect Your Skin

If you are going to be outdoors a lot, remember to wear sunscreen. Ultraviolet radiation may promote skin cancer.

Consumer Reports tested 18 sunscreen products, but rated none “excellent” for all conditions. In its tests, All Terrain Aqua Sport lotion rated best, scoring 88 of 100 possible points. Thirteen products scored 70 or higher. It gave “best buy” kudos to No-Ad with Aloe & Vitamin E SPF 45 and Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50. For more information, visit consumerreports.org/cro/sunscreens/buying-guide.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

What Gardening Dads Really Want for Father’s Day

How Many Green Beans for That?

June 13, 2012

Father’s Day often presents a problem: What to get Dad? If he’s into gardening, the answers are easy.

I’m a dad, and I think I’m fairly typical. I love to look through garden magazines, especially the sections on tools and gadgets. (My wife believes the annual Northern Tool + Equipment catalog that comes out each winter must be men’s secret porn, because it seems so many of us covet it!)

Johnny’s Select Seeds catalog features all manner of cool rakes, broadforks and cultivators (some designed by legendary organic grower Eliot Coleman) that just make my heart sing.

My problem is the cost. I measure purchases for gardening on a rather personal calculus based on how much physical labor it takes to pick a dollar’s worth of produce. A $349 cultivator, for example, costs about 110 pounds of green beans, and that’s a lot of green beans! Besides, I already have a hoe. I bought it at a local garden store for, I think, less than $25. (Eight pounds of green beans—still a lot of picking.)

The reason dads, some of us anyway, stare at those cool catalogs isn’t necessarily that we actually want to buy those things, only that we think if we happened to have one or two, it would be pretty cool.

It usually goes something like this: Staring at a new tractor, I think, “If I had that, I’d have to have more land. … We’d have to move somewhere else. … Wonder if the growing is good in, say, the Bahamas?”

In other words, Dad probably doesn’t want the $30,000 four-wheel drive, air-conditioned, enclosed-cab tractor with the satellite-guided, laser-row projectors so much as he wants a sunny beach where the living is easy—before he gets back to hoeing, anyway.

Which brings me to the point: You don’t have to spend a lot of green beans to make Dad happy on Father’s Day.

During a recent tour of local garden stores, just to see what they had, I found all kinds of stuff. Some of it, while really cheap, are still things that a dad might like, such as a rain gauge. I saw one for $3 (and bought two). Or how about a straw hat? Why not tell Dad he looks like Indiana Jones with it on (instead of Goober from Mayberry)?

You’ll find all manner of tools that maybe aren’t designed by organic farmer and author Eliot Coleman but will do good, long useful service: rakes, hoes, hammers, trowels—you name it. They will probably last a lifetime, giving Dad a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing you picked it out for him.

And don’t forget stuff that he needs. Maybe Dad just doesn’t like forking out the cash for some things, or it’s something he might not buy it on his own, like certified organic fertilizers or pricey containers that hold, carry or store stuff.

Why not just ask him, “Dad, would you like a wheelbarrow for Father’s Day?”

He might surprise you. Will it work in the Bahamas?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.