SUSTAINABLE ORGANIC GARDENING WITH COVER CROPS

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oats and field peas cover crop

Healthy, living soil is a vital component of an organic garden.  Soil covered with growing things draws carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in roots, stems, and leaves.  In sustainable, earth-friendly gardening /farming we do not allow land to fallow, but keep our soil covered with actively growing or dormant plants all year.  This is a win-win situation for your garden; you can have abundant crops yet at the same time help reduce the amount of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere. 

Cover crops build and protect your soil by increasing humus and nutrients.  Cover crops will add organic matter, smother weeds, prevent erosion, break up  compacted soil, provide livestock forage and attract beneficial insects.  In dry summers or dry climates cover crops provide a kind of living mulch, preserving soil moisture. 

The timing of planting and turning under of cover crops is varied, depending on climate, soil requirements, and time of year.  Here in the north (Western Montana) our growing season is short so we have to be precise in our timing of planting, cutting and turning under cover crops.  After vegetables are harvested in the fall a cover crop can be planted immediately.  First, remove vegetable debris; second, till or rake and prepare a six-inch deep seedbed; third, irrigate to moisten soil; and finally, plant your cover crop.  Fall planted cover crops might include: hairy vetch, field peas, crimson clover, summer alfalfa, Mammoth red clover, annual rye grass, winter cereal rye, winter barley, winter wheat, winter oats ,or winter triticale.  Peas or hairy vetch planted together with one or another of the fall/winter cereal grains will add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.  Oats and peas planted together or hairy vetch and winter rye together are quite effective combinations for fall cover crops.  The grain will protect the legumes somewhat from winter damage, though peas will probably winter kill.  Hairy vetch will vigorously regrow in the spring and can be mown and turned under.  Any cover crop of the grass family, such as cereal grain or annual ryegrass needs to be turned under at least three weeks before a vegetable crop is planted.  Some cereal grasses are allelopathic, which means they release growth inhibiting chemicals that prevent seed germination of other species.  It takes three or more weeks for the chemicals to dissipate.  Since our spring is often late, and short, and sometimes wet, the timing of turning under your cover crop is very important.  In a home garden, if you plan to plant some cool-weather crops early, such as onion sets, cole crops, or spinach, you can pull up or chop out a (non-grass family) cover crop in early spring just before you plant.  It is easy to hoe out hairy vetch by cutting it off below the crown.  You can then prepare the soil and plant immediately. 

Several cover crops can be planted in spring if you have about four to six weeks’ time before you plan to plant a crop.   An example might be if you plan to put in a warm-season crop such as peppers or tomatoes.  A cool-weather cover crop could be put in as soon as the soil could be worked (sometimes as early as April 10 or as late as May 5).  Some useful, early spring cover crops include: crimson clover, medium red clover, Mammoth red clover, white clover, or field peas.  If you have four to six weeks growing time plus three weeks’ time after taking down a cereal grass before you plant you could put in spring oats and field peas, or annual ryegrass.   The plot would be ready to plant your vegetable crop by mid to late June in our Montana climate.  This would limit your choices to fall-maturing cool-weather crops such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, carrots, etc.

If you plan to have a cover crop during the warm season, buckwheat , mustard, turnips or phacelia all work well in our climate.  Remember to cut mustard or buckwheat when in flower so it will not reseed.   Phacelia will reseed also, but has a long blooming season and is a great pollinator attractant.  Turnips are biennial, so will not reseed the first year. 

In a home garden cover crops need to be considered in crop rotation.  It is best not to plant a cover crop of the Brassica family (Cole crops, such as turnips, mustard, radish, cabbage, etc.) where cole crops are to be planted the following season.  The rule of thumb is to rotate crops so that members of the same plant family are not grown in the same spot for three years or more.  In our certified organic market garden we use a nine year crop rotation plan.  A more practical home garden rotation plan might be only four-years. 

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A RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA FOR MISSION SAN FERNANDO REY DE ESPANA

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A RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA FOR

MISSION SAN FERNANDO REY DE ESPANA

SAN FERNANDO, CALIFORNIA, FOUNDED 1797

By James J. Sagmiller

 

HISTORY

During the period of Spanish exploration of North America (1542-1769) and the Spanish Colonial period (1769-1821) the area we presently call California was known as “Alta California,” which translates to “Upper California.” Baja California, or “Lower California” retains its original name today. The policy of the Spanish crown was to establish Catholic missions to convert native peoples and exploit them for labor. Priests were sent out in pairs, usually with regional support of the military. The first successful, permanent mission in the area was founded in Baja California: Mission Nuestra Senora de Loreto Concho, on Oct. 9, 1697 by Jesuit priests. The king of Spain expelled all the Jesuits in 1768, responding to rumors they had become too powerful. The Jesuits were replaced by Franciscan friars who, as part of the philosophy of their order, are required to take a vow of poverty. Around this time, the Spanish crown decided to establish missions and develop ports in Alta California. Mission San Diego Alcala was the first of these, founded July 16, 1769.

FOUNDING THE MISSION

Several criteria were important for a successful mission: fertile soil, water available for irrigation and drinking, standing timber for building, and a native population that could be converted to Christianity and used for labor.

Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded September 8, 1797 by Padre Fermin Fransisco de Lasuen. It was the seventeenth of the missions founded in Alta California. A man named Francisco Reyes already had a ranch at the site of the mission and it was worked with Native American labor. He decided to donated his land to the church. At an elevation of 1,100 ft., with reliable spring water, a mild coastal climate and twelve inches of rain a year, this was an excellent place to start a mission. The native population originally were hunter gatherers who exploited the rich flora and fauna of the area. Several tribal groups lived nearby, but the two most numerous were the Gabrielino and Tataviam Indians.

THE SITE

The site plan of Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was of a design typical for Spanish missions. The main focus of the mission complex was the chapel, with its rectangular central nave with altar, and a bell tower adjacent. Other buildings, mostly workshops, were arranged in the pattern of a quadrangle around a large patio (now known as the East Garden).  A soldier’s quarters were located behind, next to the chapel, and a cemetery to the north. A building designed as priest’s quarters and for guest lodgers was the well-known and much-photographed structure with an arched arcade known as the “convento.” The arrangement of buildings in the compound was designed for efficiency but also for protection from bandits, wild animals, and livestock. Irrigated gardens benefited from this protection and were convenient to the kitchen.

The buildings at the mission were built of adobe bricks, made from a mixture of mud and straw and had very thick walls made to support heavy beams and tile roofs. Pine logs were used for beams and the rafters made from sycamore. Eaves were very wide, to protect the adobe from rain.

ECONOMICS OF THE MISSION

The mission was, of necessity, primarily self-sufficient. Natives were trained in many trades, including: blacksmithing, farming, ranching, carpentry, weaving, leather-making, brick-making, and soap-making. Wine was made from grapes and olive oil as well. By 1804, 1,000 Native Americans lived and worked at Mission San Fernando Rey, producing hides, fine leatherwork, tallow, soap, cloth, and wine as well as all the crops needed to support so many. By 1819 there were 12,800 cattle, 7,800 sheep, 176 goats, 45 pigs, 144 mules, 780 horses. The mission was a popular resting place for travelers on El Camino Real (the Royal Road).

HISTORIC MISSION GARDEN

Every mission had to produce as much food as possible to feed its large labor force and create a reserve to act as insurance for famine. Each of the missions planned extensive gardens. These gardens were not the primarily ornamental ones we see today at the missions, but were subsistence gardens of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, all grown together. A garden of this type was referred to as a “huerta.” A literal translation would be “orchard garden.” These gardens looked quite different than modern gardens. They had geometric beds set into dirt or gravel paths, filled with plants grown together in a practical fashion, watered by flood irrigation from “acequias,” small irrigation ditches of gravity-fed water. There was no lawn grass. Everything grown was used for some purpose, such as for food, medicine, dye, cosmetics, wine, or oil.

MISSION GARDENS TODAY

An early photograph shows the East Garden in a ruined state before the workshop buildings were reconstructed. A fountain was originally in the center of the garden, but it was moved about 30 feet to the west and the original design of the garden obliterated as the workshop buildings were rebuilt. What we see now in the East Garden are cement paths set into grass, with various hedges and shrubs, and olive, pine and palm trees. I am presenting here a design for the reconstruction of the huerta that originally occupied the space that is now the East garden, as it might have appeared circa 1804.

A RECONSTRUCTION OF THE EAST GARDEN

In my design for a reconstructed huerta at the mission, the fountain would be returned to the center of the design, with paths leading in four directions from the fountain as well as a path to each of the four corners of the quadrangle. All lawn grass would be removed, and original gravity-fed irrigation ditches, called “acequias,” would be reconstructed as well. The mature olive, palm and pine trees would be left in place, as the use of those species were very much a part of original plantings at the 1797 mission. Paths would be made of ¼ inch gravel and geometric beds would be flood irrigated just as they originally were. Every effort would be made to source seeds and cuttings of original plants known to have been grown at the California missions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Plants requiring irrigation were the most likely candidates to be grown in the huerta, such as fruits, flowers and vegetables.

HISTORIC PLANTS GROWN AT THE MISSIONS

Wheat, corn (maize) and barley were grown at Mission San Fernando Rey, but most probably in outer fields or dryland farmed.  Vegetables that were probably grown in the irrigated huerta and appearing on mission records include: peas, beans, fava beans, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, onions, tomatoes and chili peppers. Several fruits were grown at the mission: oranges, melons, pears, grapes, pomegranates, apples, quinces, plums, peaches, apricots, figs, olives, avocados and watermelons. Wild plants were also used at the mission. Presumably the Native Americans introduced the padres to them, for they are an excellent, readily available food source. Wild plants and seeds known to have been used at the mission are: chia (Salvia hispanica), sunflowers, acorns, pine nuts, sage, tunas (the fruit of Opuntia spp. cacti), clover, screw beans (mesquite; Prosopis spp.), “nopales” (leaves of Opuntia spp. Cacti) and agave. The chia was probably brought from Mexico.

In a reconstruction of a huerta for Mission San Fernando Rey it was advantageous to consult historic documents from other, contemporary California missions. Records from Mission San Diego dated 1769, reveal that corn (maize), cauliflower, lentils and garlic were grown there. By the 1770s grapes, barley, wheat, lettuce, figs, peppers, squash and pumpkins were grown. By the 1790s, records show that apples, pomegranates, oranges were grown as well. Herbs grown at Mission Santa Barbara included: anise, basil, borage, cilantro, cumin, dill, epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), horehound, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, and valerian. Father Junipero Serra brought the castor oil plant to Mission San Diego in 1769 and the plant was used for its oil. Other early introductions grown at many of the missions (Padilla 1962; Streatfield, 1994) were: calla lilies, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), the Castilian rose (Rosa x damascena bifera), the musk rose (Rosa moschata), jasmine, pennyroyal, wild cherry (Prunus illicifolia), Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), date palm Phoenix dactylifera), Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) and native fan palm (Washingtonia filifera).

Utilitarian plants known to have been grown at most of the missions include: agave, cotton, flax and hemp—all used for fiber. Teasel was used for making combs to card wool. Indigo was grown for dye and palm fronds were used for roof thatching and for making brooms. The giant reed (Arundo donax) was used in ramadas to provide slatted shade. Gourds were raised to be cured and carved into bowls and spoons and cat’s claw acacia and Peruvian pepper tree were used for glue.

At Mission Santa Barbara, Tina Foss, Curator of the mission museum and Jerry Sortomme, Professor Emeritus of Santa Barbara City College have been actively restoring a huerta in the mission grounds. They have sourced several plants that can be traced to one or another of the early mission gardens. A cutting from a grape plant known to more than one hundred years old from Gypsy Canyon Winery was tested for DNA. The plant was shown through the tests to be the original ‘Mission Grape’ (known as the ‘Criolla Chica’ in Argentina,’ ‘Negra Corriente’ in Peru, and ‘Pais’ in Chile; Robinson, 1999). Another (untested) grape cutting was obtained from San Ignacio Mission in Baja California from a grape vine known to be more than 250 years old, thus dating from the time of the establishment of the missions.  Ancient cuttings of pear trees from La Purisima Mission in Baja (circa 1800) and from Rio Hondo may prove be the original pear variety ‘Padre.’

Some varieties of vegetables originally grown at the missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s are still available in commerce, and some might be sourced from other historic collections. Most of the herbs are still available; several old varieties of beans, squash and maize are still to be found, as well as lettuces, gourds, melons and chili peppers. Very few peas, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, and tomatoes have survived; however, I have sourced at least one late eighteenth or early nineteenth century variety of each of these.

DRAWINGS OF CURRENT GARDEN AND A HISTORIC RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA

The drawings I have made show: first, the original layout of structures at the mission, taken from drawings made in a survey of the site in 1933. The second drawing shows the current, historically inaccurate East Garden with cement paths, grass and the fountain moved about 30 feet east of its original location. Third, my plan for the reconstructed huerta, showing overall design of paths and beds, with the fountain restored to its central location. My fourth drawing shows a detail of one of the beds with mixed vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, typical of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Spanish Colonial style. Existing large olive, palm and pine trees have been retained as part of the reconstructed design. The fifth illustration is a watercolor painting showing what the restored huerta would look like.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

AthanasiusSchafer.com. Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana.

Glybok, Shirley, 1972. The Art of the Spanish in the United States and Puerto Rico. NY:                  McMillan.

Brenzel, Katherine, Ed. 2001. Sunset Western Garden Book. Sunset Publishing, Menlo Park, CA.

Hayes, Virgina, Jan. 23, 2007. “A Huerta for Mission Santa Barbara” Santa Barbara Independent.

Padilla, Victoria, 1961. Southern California Gardens. Los Angeles: University of Caliifornia Press.

Los Angeles County Library.org. Mission San Fernando.

Rivera, Jose A and Thomas F. Glick, 2003. Local Control and Discretionary Authority: Protecting     the Acequia Bordo. From a paper presented at the 51st Congreso Internacional de Americanistas,         Santiago Chile, July 14-18, 2003.

Robinson, Jancis, Ed., 1999. The Oxford Companion to Wine. NY: Oxford University Press.

Streatfield, David C., 1994. California Gardens: Creativity and a New Eden. New York: Abbeville     Press.

 

 

RECREATING A HISTORIC GARDEN

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RECREATING A HISTORIC GARDEN 

By James J. Sagmiller 

Every state in our nation has a number of historic sites.  The oldest are locations of Native American habitation dating to times before the Colonial Period—these are termed “prehistoric” rather than “historic.”  In order to recreate or restore a very early Native American garden, researchers must rely on archaeological evidence and oral traditions to determine what was grown and how it was grown. One such example is the Kipahulu Living Farm in Hana, Hawaii.  Plants grown in Hawaii by Native peoples prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 have been collected and preserved at this garden. Gardens like this are a fascinating, educational experience to visit.  Anyone seeking to recreate or restore a garden from the Colonial Period or later would be able to consult written records of various types as well as archaeology and oral traditions.   

The United States National Park Service has developed methods and techniques for the preservation, restoration, reconstruction and rehabilitation of the gardens and architecture of historic gardens.  Charles Birnbaum ((1996) has written a book for the National Park Service outlining four defining methods of approach to restoring and recreating a historic garden.  In the approach of preservation, nothing is added or taken away from the garden; what is there is protected and preserved for the future.  The William Gibbes House garden in Charleston, S.C., designed by Loutrel Biggs in 1929, has been carefully preserved in its original form to the present day.  A second approach is restoration, in which a garden is made to accurately reflect the landscape at a specific time period of historical significance. The Borroughs Plantation in Hardy, Virginia (where Booker T. Washington lived as a slave around 1860) is a good example of the restoration of a living historic farm.  Reconstruction recreates a garden or part of a garden that has since disappeared, except perhaps for the knowledge of where it was located.  This has been done at Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA., where the historic mission huertaor orchard garden, has been reconstructed using cuttings and seeds of plants grown at the mission in the late eighteenth century.  A fourth and final approach to a historic garden is rehabilitation, which brings elements from the past history of the site and applies them to a new use of the property—an adaptation to its use in a new way. This has been done in many places in the U.S., such as in Monterey, California where private businesses have been allowed to occupy as well as preserve historic buildings and gardens.    

There are several research processes we can undertake to restore or recreate a period garden around a private dwelling or a national historic site.  The site should be surveyed, that is measured and carefully studied.  If possible, the garden should be observed over the period of several months to a year to take note of plants that may be dormant, or not visible part of the season.  An example might be spring-flowering bulbs that appear in March, go dormant and disappear by the end of May.  The site might be studied for architectural features such as remains or indications of paths, walls, fences, fountains, irrigation ditches, and the layout of beds.  Lawn grass may grow shorter over buried paving, paths, or fallen walls.   

Early engravings, photographs or postcards are invaluable for reconstructing historic gardens to a specific time in the past.  Occasionally, newspaper clippings, garden plans and/or plant lists are available as well.  During the 1870s many counties in the U.S. published atlases of important residences in their area.  These can be extremely useful in reconstructing a garden of that time period.   

Old herbals and antique catalogs can be consulted to identify plants still existing on heritage sites.  The style of the building(s) on the property will lend information to the period of the garden, or plants still remaining after buildings have disappeared can be studied and placed in historic context.  Rose or peony plants are frequently easier to identify than old perennials, because of the greater amount of contemporary information available.  The practice of ordering plants through the mail became common after about 1850, so old nursery and seed catalogs are valuable in determining what was obtainable. Period gardening and landscaping books will inform how plants were used and often include garden plans or designs.   

It is important to recognize that gardening styles as well as the purposes and use of gardens has changed and continues to change as time passes.  California mission gardens were created for subsistence—that is, for food (grains, vegetables and fruit) and for all the materials needed for medicine, the manufacture of trade goods and fodder for livestock.  The few ornamentals included were probably used for decoration of the altar, quite unlike the gardens we see at most of the missions today, which are strictly ornamental.  A historic garden that is recreated as living history would necessarily require a good deal of research and should be maintained with the tools and techniques of the specific time period it represents. A historic garden made for a period property and lived in by a modern family could be more easily maintained with modern tools and techniques, though an approach using organic methods would be both more in keeping with historic practices and better for the planet. 

Present day organic methods are not necessarily historic, though the use of chemicals did not begin until the late 1800s.  Nicotine was used as a pesticide from the mid-nineteenth century, and Bordeaux Mixture (copper sulfate) as a fungicide around the same period.  The great increase in the use of garden chemicals began in the 1940s and so is not really a significant element in garden care before that time.   

In the coming weeks I will present some research designs for several historic gardens of various time periods, including plant lists, site plans, and maintenance techniques.       

 

 

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM PEAS ORGANICALLY

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Above: The Blue-Podded Pea, dating to before 1596

Peas love good, rich, moist loamy soils.  Gypsum may be added to heavy clay soils to lighten them, and organic compost is excellent for building mountain and valley soils poor in nutrients.  Fish bone meal, alfalfa meal, and kelp meal are amendments that will provide the complete range of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash to your garden plot necessary for successful vegetable production.  Remember that organic soils are alive with microbes, so food tastes better, is more nutritious, and is safe to eat.  Also, organic soils capture carbon out of the air, reducing heating of our planet’s atmosphere. 

Peas have been grown as a garden crop for centuries and seem to have been a popular vegetable through all that time.  Several heirloom varieties of peas still exist:

‘Blauwschokker’ (Blue-Podded) pea is an ancient variety so old it was described in Gerard’s Herball  written in 1596.  Plants are very healthy and productive.  The pods can be eaten as snow peas when picked early, used as shelling peas later, and dry well for use as soup peas.  The vines of the Blue-podded pea grow 60 to 72 inches tall and require a trellis.

‘Alaska’ is an heirloom pea from 1880.  It is early, ripens all at once, and like many heirloom varieties will dry and keep well.  It is excellent for soup.  The vines grow about 30 inches tall.

‘Tom Thumb’ heirloom pea from 1854 is a miniature pea variety that does not need to be trellised.  The vines grow to 8 or 9 inches tall and are suitable for containers and for growing in cold frames early and late in the season. 

‘Lincoln’ is a famous variety from 1908 that is adapted to warmer American summers.  The vines grow to about 28 inches tall and the pods produce 8 or 9 peas each. 

‘Wando’ is very adaptable to differing climates.  It is more heat resistant than most peas and can be planted later.  ‘Wando’ dates to 1943 and the vines grow about 30 inches tall.

Because peas can take some frost, even while quite young, they can be planted early.  Some people living in milder climates than Montana’s plant their peas on St. Patrick’s Day; 17 of March. 

 Here in Western Montana we make our first sowing April 15 to 20 depending on the weather and the soil temperature.   A second sowing usually is made July 1 (after first crop is harvested.)  It is efficient use of space and easy picking if trellises are set up in the garden bed.  The first crop bears from around June 15 -July 1, and the second crop bears from about September 15-October 25.

Plant your peas in full sun for best production.  The ideal growing temperature is 55–70 F., with 60-65 F. being ideal (peas prefer cool weather).  The optimum soil pH for peas is 5.5-7.5.  Peas will germinate between 40-85 degrees F., but 60-75 F. ideal.  Germination may take 6-17 days.  Direct-sow pea seed 1 inch deep and 1 inch apart.  Plant a few extra at the end of the rows to fill in later as mini transplants.  

Water well; keep the bed moist, not wet.  For the second (midsummer) planting, plant seeds 2-3” deep 1 inch apart, otherwise the same as spring.   Do not let plants dry out at any time, especially during flowering!  Water peas early in the day only, allowing leaves to dry early in the day–steady moisture is best.    

Some pests of peas are: gophers, aphids, birds, mice, cutworms, mites, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, pea weevils, and various caterpillars.   Powdery mildew can be troublesome also, especially if soil becomes dry and air circulation and sunshine is limited.

To harvest: pick peas when the first pods reach full size: 4”- 5”, not smaller.  Pick snow peas before seeds start to swell.  Snap peas need to be picked when pods are full size, fat, and round with peas inside.  Check and pick every 3 days to keep plants producing.  The first peas ripen at the base of the plant—remove them carefully to not damage plants.  The harvest period should be 4-6 weeks long, for each planting.  Pick all (ready) pods to keep vines producing.  After harvesting keep cool, in high humidity and out of the sun. 

Keep freshly picked peas cool, in high humidity and out of the sun.   Store them in a cool location or in the refrigerator.  Picked pods last only 5-6 days.  Peas do freeze well and most varieties dry and store well. 

 

APRIL NOTES

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APRIL GARDENING CALENDAR GENERAL

This winter was a “longie” with lots of snow, a situation which voles love!   In our market garden we discovered damage from voles on Campanula medium (Canterbury bells)—just the ones stored in pots in sawdust, but not those in the ground.  Also some potted Primulas, strawberries, and Echinaceas were completely eaten.  It was the same case with these last few; plants in the ground were unharmed, those in pots in sawdust were eaten.  It may be because plants all stored together serve a sort of “banquet” for voles, while those in the ground, mixed in with other plants are harder for the little critters to find.  I am experimenting with inter-planting Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperials) with plants that tend to be vole favorites, to see if they will help deter them.  Fritillarias are very odorous, and rodents do not eat them. 

April tasks:

Finish pruning and grafting of fruit trees if not already done.  Plant grapes and other fruiting perennials, shrubs and vines; fertilize and prune raspberries and blackberries.  Start many flowers inside for transplanting out and direct sow the last hardy annuals.  Direct sow many vegetables late in the month and into May.  April is characterized by ups and downs in temperature—watch for frosts!  Protect frames at night and admit air daily.  Place row covers on newly transplanted, slightly tender plants. 

VEGETABLES

If not done already, sow indoors, for transplanting out early in the month: basil, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, head lettuce, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, Asian cabbage, leeks, greens.  After the 15th, sow watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers into peat pots for easy transplanting. 

Direct sow these outdoors once weather permits and soil temperatures are above 45 degrees:  beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, thyme, oregano, sorrel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach, Swiss chard.  Sow corn (after the 20th). 

Harden-off vegetables in frames, or by exposing them outdoors a few hours at a time.  Transplant the following hardy vegetables outside around the middle of the month (they can take some light frost): asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, endive, leeks, lettuce, onion sets and plants, Asian greens, parsley.  

FLOWERS

Sow indoors April 1 for transplanting out: Chinese asters (Callistephus), Cerinthe, Celosia, Craspedia, Calendulas, annual Centaurea, Cleome, Cosmos, Cynoglossum, Eragrostis, Panicum, Pennisetum, and annual grasses.  Late in the month: sow zinnias indoors. 

Direct sow outdoors all month: annual alyssum Lobularia maritima), Bupleurum, carnations, pinks, sweet Williams, Cynoglossum, stocks, rose campion, wall flowers, Lychnis, lupines, lavateras, columbines, valerian, polyanthus, auriculas, Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, honeysuckles, rockets, honesty, fox gloves, snapdragons, sweet peas, poppies, larkspur, cornflowers, nigella, Lavatera, poppies, valerian, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate, dill, morning glory, sweet peas and wildflowers.   

Weed and clean borders.  Divide perennials early in the month: carnations, Bellis, Achilleas, Asters, mums, Campanulas, Centranthus, Coreopsis, Dicentra, Dodecatheon, Echinops, Euphorbias, Gauras, Gaillardias, Gentians, Helianthus, hellebores, daylilies, Heucheras, Hostas, Lobelias, Papavers, Oenotheras, Phlomis, Monarda, Liatris, and Marrubiums

Start dahlia tubers this month and make cuttings if possible. 

Shade auricula primroses from intensifying spring sun.   This is when auriculas need the most water, but remember— never waterlog the compost.  The month of April is their peak bloom period and hybridizing can take place now.  Shows are held this time of year. 

FRUIT

By April 15, finish pruning /grafting/planting fruit trees; spray Bordeaux mix on fruit trees suffering from fire blight; check fruit trees for pests.  Spray superior oil on dormant trees (before leaf out).  Lime-sulfur will control anthracnose or blight on raspberries if applied when the buds first show silver, or on currants and gooseberries at bud break.  Wait three weeks if you decide to spray lime-sulfur (use caution) as a fungicide on roses, lilacs, dormant shrubs, fruit trees, evergreens. 

Weed fruit trees, strawberries, cane fruits.  Set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.

TREES, SHRUBS AND ROSES

Lay out lawns by either direct-seeding or purchase turf and roll it out.  If the weather gets windy and dry, water your new lawn frequently. 

Finish transplanting roses and other shrubs (the earlier the better).  Prune established roses after severe frosts.  Cut out all dead and crossed wood, and seal the cuts with water-based glue to prevent the drilling wasps from destroying canes.   Dress rose plants with Epsom salts, wood ashes, compost, manure, alfalfa meal, bone meal, kelp meal, bunt earth, spent hops, etc. , but keep fertilizers 2 inches away from the canes at the base of the plant.  

 

ORGANIC GARDENING NOTES FOR SPRING

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GREAT WESTERN, HYBRID BOURBON

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DOUBLE WHITE, PIMPINELLIFOLIA (SPINOSSISSIMA)

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LAURE, CENTIFOLIA

 

ORGANIC GARDENING NOTES FOR EARLY SPRING

The ground is thawed in the valley and soon the foothills will be snow free.  As soon as the earth dries out and wet turns to moist, you can work up the soil.  Dry organic amendments can then be forked into your beds.  Organic blood meal (13-0-0) is an excellent source of nitrogen and is quickly taken up by plants.  Alfalfa meal (3-1-3) will enrich soil with a moderate amount of nitrogen, small amount of phosphorous, and a moderate amount of potash.  Ground fish bone meal (5-16-0) also contains moderate amounts of nitrogen, but is a terrific source of phosphorous.  

Well-rotted manure (usually about 3-1-1) will add a good amount of nitrogen and smaller amounts of phosphorous and potash, but adds lots of beneficial, moisture-holding organic matter.  Be careful in sourcing manure as it may contain high levels of salt (especially if sourced from feed lots).  It is safest to use one year old, well-rotted manure on food crops.  Too fresh of manure will burn crops and can contain pathogens.  In our USDA Certified Organic market garden we are only allowed to use manure from grazed land that is at least one year old; and it must be applied at least 120 days before crops are planted.   Another option is to use manure that has gone through a heat of at least 160 degrees F. for 3 weeks; this kills harmful pathogens.  Compost may be spread on a USDA Certified Organic farm or garden but it must be made only from vegetable matter—no meats, dairy products or eggs, etc.  

If you are starting a new garden bed, spread cardboard, rotted moist straw, or tarps to kill grass out.  Newspapers will dry up and blow away unless anchored by rocks or chunks of turf.  You can till right into the turf to prepare your spot, but weeds will be present and you will have to keep after them.  Try to till only once, pull weeds out, add amendments and mulch the soil until ready to plant.  Too frequent tilling destroys the structure of the soil and causes it to release carbon.

Remember that healthy organic soils are alive with microbes and fungi that help plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.  By gardening organically you are helping the earth to gather and store carbon dioxide.  This is exactly the opposite environmental effect of conventional gardening, which uses chemical fertilizers and often features bare soil.  Chemical fertilizers require large amounts of carbon to make and bare soil causes soil organisms to die; with the result that soils lose carbon rather than pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. 

Forest, grassland and hedgerow soils pull the most carbon from the atmosphere of any land ecosystems.  In your garden, you can help this process by setting aside areas for wildflowers and grasses, shrubs, shrub borders and shelter belts or groups of trees with wildflowers and/or groundcovers underneath.  You will be providing habitat for endangered native bees, butterflies, birds and reptiles as well as building carbon storage. 

Now is the time to start your peppers, onions, leeks, tomatoes, tomatillos, and eggplants from seed to set out in May.  Wait until late April/early May to start squash, pumpkins, watermelons, canteloupes, etc.   If you plan to set out cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli or other cole crops in mid-to late April, start them from seed inside now also.   A soil free organic seedling mix can be made from: 3 parts peat, 2 parts vermiculite, and 1 part perlite.  Heat mats placed under flats will aid germination of crops that like warm temperatures, such as peppers and tomatoes.   An east facing window is satisfactory, or fluorescent lights hung a few (8 to 10 inches) inches above the flats. 

Soon containerized fruit trees, shrubs, roses, bulbs, perennials, plus annual flowers and vegetables will be available in your local organic garden shops.  This year, I have grown several varieties of Certified Organic shrub roses on their own roots, found on old homesteads here in the Mission Valley:

‘Great Western’, a Hybrid Bourbon shrub rose is a long-time favorite in our area.  This rose was introduced in 1838, named after one of the first transatlantic steam ships.  It blooms for about three weeks in late spring/early summer. The plant is tall and wide, about 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide.   The flowers are fully double; a blend of rich reds and purples, with wonderful fragrance.  My grandmother grew this rose and there are plants at the museum in Ronan.  ‘Great Western’ is a hardy, easy to grow shrub rose.  The plant spreads slowly. 

‘Laure’, a Centifolia rose from 1837, was found in Ronan, at an old home built in 1913.  It is a rather short plant, with fully double, fragrant, powder pink blooms.  It is also a once bloomer, with a flowering period lasting about 3 weeks in late spring/early summer.  The plant spreads once established, but this is an advantage if your garden has an abundance of voles.  When a young plant is put in, a vole cage could be placed around the roots, but the plant will eventually spread outward and in later years a plant with an abundance of root stems will survive vole trails.  

‘Double White Scotch Rose’ introduced in 1808, is another locally found variety.  It has pure white, double, fragrant flowers in late spring.  It is of the same rose family as ‘Harison’s yellow’ the popular, thorny, hardy yellow shrub rose.  ‘Double white is equally hardy and trouble free, and spreads on its own roots to form a beautiful large group of plants.  I have seen established plants about 7 feet tall and spreading to about 8 or 10 feet wide.

Have a great spring!

 

GROWING ORGANIC KOHLRABI

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GROWING ORGANIC KOHLRABI

Kohlrabi is a delicious vegetable that is easy to grow in the intermountain climate, yet it is  relatively unknown.  It is a form of cabbage, in the mustard family, the Brassicaceae.   It is botanically classified as Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes.   Kohlrabi is more well-known in Europe and Asia than in the U.S. and well deserves better recognition and use here.  This vegetable takes less space than other cabbage family member, is easy to grow and it is more tolerant of heat.   Insect infestations do not directly affect the most desirable part of the plant, the swollen stem.  Yes, the sweetest, juiciest part of the plant is its stem, which swells with moisture and goodness as the plant grows.  The leaves are edible also, and can be used like cabbage, but the spherical stem can be peeled and cut into cubes; or shredded; or sliced to eat fresh alone or in salads.   The stem is also good cooked and can be used in casseroles and soups. 

Several varieties of kohlrabi are available today, several of them open-pollinated heirloom types.  ‘Early White Vienna’ (55 days) has been grown since the 1850s and is probably the most popular one in gardens.  Early Purple Vienna’ (60 days) from before 1860, is a purple variant of the white.  Both types are remarkably heat and cold hardy for Brassicas.  ‘Superschmeltz’ (65 days) is a giant kind of kohlrabi with stems weighing up to 10 pounds.  This last variety can be left in the garden longer than the other two as it does not tend to become “woody”.  Consistent watering will improve the sweetness and tenderness of this vegetable.  Mulching kohlrabi with 3 or 4 inches of rotted straw will preserve moisture in the soil and will enable you to have great results with less watering, while keeping soil microbes alive.   It is noteworthy that mulched soils are living soils, with abundant soil fungi and microbes that can capture carbon out of the atmosphere.   Keep in mind that bare, un-mulched soils dry and erode, and actually release carbon rather than capture it. 

Organic production of kohlrabi is not difficult.  If you end up with an abundance of cabbage loopers and aphids, the swollen stem will be peeled and so is less affected visually by insects.  However, production will be much higher if you place row covers with breathable insect fabric over your crop and mulch heavily.   Your other Brassicas will benefit from this technique also—there will be no holes in cabbage leaves or worms in the cauliflower and broccoli.   BT, or Thuricide  (Bacillus thuringensis) can be used, but it is better for the environment to simply cover all crops rather than spray.  Insects develop resistance to BT over a few generations, so it should  be reserved for use in special circumstances.  

In Western Montana, we direct sow kohlrabi out April 21-May 1 depending on weather, for harvest in July-early August.   Plants can be started inside about March 1 to be set out around April 15, and harvest would begin in late June.  A second crop (in the same space in the garden) could be direct-seeded around July 15-Aug. 1 following the first crop’s harvests.  Some gardeners plant a new row of kohlrabi every three weeks all season long.  It is ok to plant in the same space within one season, but remember to rotate your crops year to year.  Do not plant the any members of the cabbage family in the same place they grew the previous year; in fact for the previous three years.  A four-year rotation of vegetable crops in your garden will feed your soil and reduce insect and disease infestations.

The germination temperature for kohlrabi is 40-100 degrees F. with 45-95 F. being ideal.  Germination time is usually 3-10 days.  In my experience the percentage of seeds of kohlrabi that sprout is usually low, so plant extra seed in pans or outside when seeding direct.   Water regularly, steadily, and evenly; keep moist, not wet.  Be sure to thin the plants if you direct seed, and mulch when they are about three inches high.  Pests include gophers, root maggots, aphids, cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, diamond back moths, and flea beetles.  Diseases that can appear are: clubroot, alternaria blight, blackleg, black rot, downy mildew, fusarium wilt and wirestem.  It has been shown that soils with a higher pH will reduce the chances of some diseases.  The best soil pH for Brassicas is 6.0-7.5.   Kohlrabi grows best in cool summers, but we still had a great crop last year, which was during the hottest summer any of us remember here in Western Montana. 

 

 

 

LOWER YOUR PERSONAL CARBON FOOTPRINT

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LOWER YOUR PERSONAL CARBON FOOTPRINT

Every day we see news reports or read about the devastating effects of climate change and frightening predictions of damage to our planet’s ecosystem.  Most scientists agree that the earth’s climate is warming due to massive carbon dioxide emissions.  Many of us feel powerless to affect changes, but each one of us, as individuals, can make choices to limit carbon dioxide emissions.  We can do this by our own, in our day to day lives.  I have put together a list of 10 things each of us can do to help limit increases in CO2 emissions and even help to capture emissions out of the atmosphere.

  1. Reduce your air travel. Airplanes produce a huge amount of carbon. Take the train, or a bus, or travel with others in an automobile.  One air flight from Los Angeles to New York adds about 25% to the yearly total of the average person’s carbon emission footprint.
  2. Purchase meat produced locally from animals that have been grass-fed on pastures. Try to determine that the land has not been overgrazed. Healthy, well-managed grasslands actually capture a huge amount of carbon dioxide through the growth of grasses, which pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in their leaves, stalks and roots.   Locally purchased meat means it was not shipped over long distances using fossil fuels, so the total carbon emissions are much lower. 
  3. Inspect your home heating system and your home’s insulation. Replace old heating units with new, energy-efficient models. Block drafts, install storm windows or double-pane windows, and add more insulation if needed, especially in attics and floors.   Insulating curtains are helpful in winter to conserve heat. 
  4. Replace any older, inefficient appliances and maintain those you have. Replace older incandescent light bulbs with new LEDs (light-emitting-diodes). Consider adding solar or wind-powered technologies to assist or even replace your power source. 
  5. Maintain your automobile and farm equipment so that all machines run efficiently (thereby using less fuel). Make fewer, more efficient trips in your vehicle and try to car pool with others to save fuel. Having just one more person with you in the vehicle reduces your carbon footprint by half on that road trip.
  6. Use principles of conservation farming on your farm and in your garden. These techniques actually capture CO2 out of the atmosphere!   Forests, hedgerows and grasslands are huge carbon sinks, because growing plants pull carbon from the air and store the excess in their stems, leaves and roots.  Protect the carbon-holding ability of your soil by reducing tilling or not tilling at all.  Rotate crops every year, use organic fertilizers, such as composts and manures, taking care to not over-apply nitrogenous fertilizers that may be washed into water systems.  Do not leave soil to fallow (this causes degradation of soil animals which help plants capture carbon).  Use cover crops as these build soil and capture carbon.  Do not overwater as this smothers soil animals and washes CO2 out of your soil.  Do not overgraze pastures as this reduces carbon capture significantly. 
  7. Consume less by buying fewer, but better products that last longer. Making any one new product uses a lot of carbon. Avoid heavily packages foods and one-use (disposable) products.  Try to purchase products in biodegradable plastic containers and recycle whenever possible. 
  8. Buy locally-produced food. Much carbon is wasted shipping food thousands of miles from where it was grown. Avoid items that have been flown in by air as they have an enormous carbon footprint.  If you garden, try preserving your own food by canning, pickling and drying.   Dried foods are the most efficient and use the least carbon, especially if a solar food dryer is used.  Vegetables and fruit can be stored and kept in a root cellar with a passive ventilation system, which uses no power.
  9. As much as you possibly can, buy any and all products from companies that support committing to a low-carbon future. Because our businesses in our economy are so sensitive to demand, carefully choosing low-carbon footprint products may affect change more quickly than anything else.  
  10. Consider turning part of your lawn into a wildflower garden (make sure this uncut area is at least 12 feet away from the house for fire safety). This will gather more carbon than a regular, trimmed and cut lawn and will promote the growth and presence of native insect pollinators, and reptiles and birds. Plant hedgerows, trees and shelterbelts on your property using well-adapted and native species.  Hedgerows and forests gather the most carbon of any ecosystem on our planet.  Using organic gardening methods will protect and nurture your soil.  It has been estimated that if the entire world switched to organic farming and gardening practices, enough CO2 in the atmosphere would be collected to lower CO2 to preindustrial levels in only three years!

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ingram, Dr. Julie, Best Practices for Soil Organic Carbon Management in Agricultural Systems, Countryside & Community Research Institute, UK , 2017

Goode, Cecile M., et. al. Understanding the Impacts of Soil, Climate & Farming Practices on Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration, Australia, 2016

Muchmuller, Megan B., et. al., Emerging Land Use Practices Rapidly Increase Soil Organic Matter, USA, 2015

Zhang, Limimg, et. al, “Toward Optimal Soil Organic Sequestration With Effects of Agriculture Management Practices & Climate Change in Tai-Lake Paddy Soils of China,” In Geoderma, 2016

Smallwood, Mark, Regenerative Organic Agriculture & Climate Change, Rodale Institute, 2013

GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

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ABOVE: A PICTURE OF ‘CAYENNE LONG SLIM’ HOT PEPPER

GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

Peppers are one of the garden crops that must be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, when weather has warmed.  Years ago, people grew more sweet peppers than hot, but now hot peppers are very popular here in the northern Rocky Mountain and plains region.  I will discuss some pointers on how to start and grow your plants organically and I will include some information on the many varieties available today. 

Peppers (Capsicum annuum) prefer warm days and nights to grow and produce well.  In our mountainous area, with a short growing season and cool nights, peppers benefit from protection from cold early and late in the season.  So, we time our planting for after the last frost (usually around May 15 here at 3,000 feet altitude) and find it beneficial to cover our plants for the night until temperatures warm.  Row covers, hot caps, even cardboard boxes will collect heat from the soil and release it during the night.  The warm conditions promote faster growth.  Organically enriched soil and the use of organic fertilizers will also speed up growth. 

Hot peppers take longer to germinate than sweet peppers.  Seeds of both types will germinate between 60-95 degrees, but 80-85 degrees is ideal.  The germ time for sweet peppers is 7-14 days; for hot peppers, 14-28 days.  Here, we usually start our plants in February.  A mix of peat, vermiculite and perlite makes a great seed starting mix, as it is sterile (no soil-borne diseases).  Peat pots are great for starting seeds as they can be planted right into the ground when plants are large enough.  A solid flat with a dome cover will keep the seeds moist until they sprout.  Pepper seeds do not need light to germinate, but lights over the plants will promote sturdy growth and prevent spindly, “leggy” growth.  If you do not have lights, put the plants in a warm spot in a south window as soon as they sprout. 

Nights should be 55 degrees or above before planting out into the garden.  (If you are at a high elevation, use row covers.)  Make sure to harden plants off before planting, by putting them outside for a few hours at a time (in shade).  Gradually give the plants more time outside and brighter light for about a week of time.  When you are sure weather has stabilized, plant them out.  If they are in peat pots, make sure the peat pots are very damp and plant the peppers deeper, with about 2 inches of soil over the pots, so they will degrade.   If not covered, peat pots tend to dry out and a plant cannot pierce the pot with its roots.  Protect your plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings.  Water regularly, keeping them moist, not wet.  Water early in the day only; allowing leaves to dry early in the day.  Watch for aphids, their worst pest.  A preventative spray of Garlic Barrier will deter aphids.  Follow directions and use garlic sprays very early in the day, so as to not interfere with the activities of bees and other beneficial insects.  You will only need to spray garlic three times in a whole season.  A foliar spray of liquid organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest Fish fertilizer will greatly increase the size and productivity of your plants.  This type of fertilizer is very low in salts, an important feature.  Worm castings will increase nitrogen levels in your soil and silica will strengthen stems. 

Insulating row covers (protection blankets) are very useful to extend our season for about 3-4 weeks.  These are more effective at lower temperatures than using poly film.   Mulch your peppers after soil is warm— June or early July, with red plastic or 2” organic straw.  Trim off all flowers until June 22, to enable plants to produce more heavily; otherwise, plants put all their energy into ripening an early crop and seasonal production is much lower. 

Here in the Mission Valley we put our peppers out about May 21-June 1 as weather permits.  Plant peppers about 14” apart.  Plant in full sun.  The growing temperature range for peppers is 55–85 degrees, with 75-80 being ideal.  Optimum soil pH is 5.5-7.0.  Peppers like even steady moisture—not wet soil conditions.  Try to practice regular, even watering; early in the day.

Pests of peppers include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, leaf miners, hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, pepper weevils, mites, nematodes and aphids.  Diseases include: early blight, southern blight, anthracnose, bacterial spot and verticillium wilt. 

Harvest peppers when full size, 4-5 weeks from pollination + 4-5 weeks to ripen (about 9-10 weeks).  If the summer is cool, more time will be needed.  Harvest by cutting the fruit from the plant.  Check/pick every 3 days.  The first peppers should be ready about September 1 or earlier.  After harvesting keep cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun.  Harvested fruit last about 7 days when stored out of the sun. 

Varieties (all open-pollinated, so seed can be saved each season):

‘King of the North’ heirloom sweet pepper (57 days to green, 65 days to red).   An early variety, grown for seed in the Mission Valley.  Fruit are 3-4” and production is good in our cool climate.

‘California Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (65 days to green, 75 days to red).  Another popular variety here, maturing a little later than ‘King of the North’, but more productive with larger fruit. 

‘Golden Cal. Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (60 days to green, 75 days to golden yellow).  A good, sweet variety for cool seasons, with large, 4” fruit. 

‘Purple Beauty’ sweet pepper (55 days to purple, 75 days to red).  A very productive, early variety with 3-4” fruit.

‘Chocolate Bell’ sweet pepper (70 days to green, 75 days to brown).  An interesting, early pepper that matures well and is grown for seed here in the Mission Valley. 

‘Jimmy Nardello’ heirloom sweet pepper (75 days to red).  A popular, 6-9” long, thin-skinned sweet pepper great for frying or drying.

‘Anaheim’ heirloom mildly-hot pepper (80 days to red).  The best pepper for stuffing.  An 8 inch long, thick-walled pepper that can be roasted, fresh dried, canned or stuffed and baked. 

‘Tesuque Chili’, Estacano Chili’, ‘San Felipe Chili’ heirloom chili peppers (about 70 days to red).  These three chili peppers are from Native American Pueblos in the Southwest.  They all are thin-walled, and excellent for drying.  They are excellent to use dried, ground up and added to dishes.  

‘Early Jalapeno’ heirloom hot pepper (60 days ).  The most popular hot pepper, used fresh and pickled.

‘Cayenne Long Slim’ heirloom hot pepper (70 days to red).  This pepper grows to about 6 or 7 inches long, is quite hot, and dries well.  Plants are very productive and early. 

‘Viet Hot Chili’ (95 days to red).  A very hot pepper grown locally (Mission Valley, Montana) for seed.  Plants must be started earlier than other peppers as they sprout slowly and mature slowly.   The fruit dry well.

‘Habanero’ heirloom chili pepper (95 days to red).   One of the hottest peppers available, it requires a long season, but is tops for flavor. 

 

 

ORGANIC GARDENING CAN REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS

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THE LOW CARBON FOOTPRINT OF ORGANIC GARDENING

 

We have all heard about rising carbon dioxide gas (CO2) levels in the earth’s atmosphere, which is causing heating, resulting in world-wide climate change.  The atmosphere holds about 800 billion tons of carbon at present.  Another 560 billion tons of carbon is stored in living plant life.  However, the soils of the earth hold the most carbon, about 2,500 billion tons!  Forest and grassland soils contain the most carbon, and soils degraded by chemically-drenched agricultural practices hold the least.  Rainforest soils can contain as much as 10% carbon of total mass, while the poorest and exploited soils have been reduced to as little as 1% of mass.  The process of photosynthesis by plants pulls CO2 out of the air and stores it in living tissues, excess carbon is released through the roots into the soil where it is stored.  This process is known as carbon sequestration.  Plant roots use living soil fungi (mycorrhizae) in the process.  Degraded soils have reduced numbers of these fungi, slowing their ability to sequester carbon.

It is estimated that the world’s agricultural soils have lost 50-70% of their original carbon. Most of that carbon has become CO2 and was released into the earth’s atmosphere.   If that carbon could be returned to the earth’s soils, the carbon in the atmosphere could be reduced enough to mitigate global warming and limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  We could do this by changing to organic gardening and farming practices. 

Gardening and farming practices that degrade soil are: fallowing, stubble burning, frequent tilling, overgrazing, monoculture cropping and excess application of synthetic fertilizers.  All of these reduce the soil’s carbon-holding capacity, soils dry and erode, and CO2 is released into the atmosphere.   

Organic gardening practices build living, healthy soils able to sequester much higher levels of carbon.   Farming trials in several countries around the globe have shown a rapid increase in carbon in soils where organic gardening and farming methods were employed.  A key to this is increasing organic matter in the soil. 

Methods known to restore soil’s ability to process and store carbon include: tilling as little as possible or not tilling, mulching, using cover crops, management of crop residues, crop rotation, and proper irrigation. 

If you are preparing a new garden space, place a heavy mulch of rotted, damp straw and compost or manure (or bedding from livestock stalls) onto the space for your garden plot.  This will smother existing plants and is best done in fall to be left in place all winter.  In spring, till the garden space, turning the straw and manure under.  This should be the only time you will need to till the soil.  Plant your garden crops immediately, and any areas to be planted later can be seeded to a cover crop.  A thick cover crop will smother weeds and will pull carbon from the air while it builds your soil. 

Rotate your garden or field crops in a four-year (or more) rotation.  (Each kind of plant is grown in a location in the garden or field once every four years.)  This will discourage pests and diseases.  Mulch your garden; this keeps soil animals alive and keeps soils moist and cool.  (Heated or dried soils lose carbon.)   As you weed, either compost the weeds or incorporate them into your soil.  The best time to add manures or compost is in spring or fall.

Plant shelter belts or hedgerows near or around your garden.  These will become homes for pollinators, birds, snakes and other animals beneficial to your garden.  Forests, hedgerows and grasslands hold the most carbon on the planet, so hedgerows and shelter belts help reduce emissions.   

Do not overgraze or till grasslands, because that will reduce the carbon-holding capacity. 

In flower beds and borders, prepare your soil the same way as for vegetables and plant perennial ground covers to act as living mulches.  In low-water landscapes, sedums or creeping yarrow planted between larger plants will act as living mulches.   

Changing to the regenerative methods of organic gardening and farming will result in lower CO2 emissions, healthy foods, heathy wildlife, clean air and clean water. 

 

Bibliography:

Ingram, Dr. Julie, Best Practices for Soil Organic Carbon Management in Agricultural Systems, Countryside & Community Research Institute, UK , 2017

Goode, Cecile M., et. al. Understanding the Impacts of Soil, Climate & Farming Practices on Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration, Australia, 2016

Muchmuller, Megan B., et. al., Emerging Land Use Practices Rapidly Increase Soil Organic Matter, USA, 2015

Zhang, Limimg, et. al, “Toward Optimal Soil Organic Sequestration With Effects of Agriculture Management Practices & Climate Change in Tai-Lake Paddy Soils of China,” In Geoderma, 2016

Smallwood, Mark, Regenerative Organic Agriculture & Climate Change, Rodale Institute, 2013