ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

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ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

By James Sagmiller

The benefits of gardening organically are many.  First, food grown without dangerous pesticides and herbicides is safe for us and our children to eat.  Second, using organic methods protects our natural environment: soils are healthy, waters are protected from dangerous runoff, insects, birds, and water creatures are all unharmed by dangerous chemicals.  With organic methods, your soil becomes alive with organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, which, through a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, increase a plant’s ability to uptake moisture and nutrients.  These fungi, along with beneficial soil bacteria, create an ideal, sustainable environment for crops—exactly the opposite of degraded soils exhausted through repeated use of chemical fertilizers. 

At first, planning to “go organic” might seem difficult, but I assure you the rewards are worth the time taken to learn easy ways of gardening organically.  Siting, fencing, and soil building are first steps.  Find a location for your garden that receives full sun, preferably one with wind protection.  If a site is windy, you can put lattice or privacy webbing on your fence to slow down the blast.  Shelter belt plantings of native trees and shrubs are excellent too.  Because deer are so prevalent nowadays, an 8-foot high fence is the best way to shield your garden.  Other methods are less effective.  I made my fence out of game fencing and 10-foot metal posts.  A 6-foot fence that hides what is on the other side will work also; if deer cannot see what is on the other side, they will not leap over.  Deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough! 

A soil test is very helpful before you begin your garden spot.  You can immediately see what nutrients you have in your soil and which ones you need to add more of.  It is also good to know the analysis of purchased soil amendments (marked with the letters N-P-K on fertilizer labels).   For high nitrogen contents (N on the label) choose blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and composted manure.  Amendments with high phosphorous (P on the label) include fish bone meal and rock phosphate.  Potash (K on the label) is abundant in kelp meal, alfalfa meal and wood ashes.  Keep in mind wood ashes and bone meal become alkaline (higher pH) as they decompose, and cottonseed meal becomes more acidic (lower pH).  It is helpful to have a test kit and know your soil’s pH and NPK content.  Nitrogen promotes good green growth, phosphorous promotes flowering and fruiting, and potash encourages root growth and ripening of fruits and seeds.

To kill out grass and weeds for a new garden spot, use something safe that will shade the ground.  Some options are: landscape fabric with weights on it, newspaper covered with moist, heavy organic straw, or black plastic weighted down.  It takes a few weeks to kill out most plant material, but some perennial weeds will remain and seeds will sprout again.  If you are planning well ahead, you can immediately plant a soil-building cover crop to shade the soil until you plant vegetables.  If you need to start right away, till the soil, add organic amendments, plant your seeds and transplants, then mulch. 

When you plant seeds, choose organically certified seed if possible, especially for food plants.  Heirloom seed varieties, which are all open-pollinated, are excellent for organic gardening, because being generations-old, they are well-adapted to climates where they have been grown for a long time.  Heirlooms often ripen in succession rather than all at once, frequently are more nutritious, have exceptional taste, and seed can be saved from them to plant next year.  Another plus is that many heirloom varieties were developed to last well in storage—a valuable trait for local sustainability and for gardeners who want to be self-sufficient.

Mulching your garden is important to conserve moisture and provide for living soil organisms.  Landscape fabric, organic straw, compost, or composted grass clippings work well.  (Fresh grass clippings or other fresh greens will draw nitrogen out of the soil rather than add nitrogen.) 

Be sure to include a home for pollinators in or around your garden.  Native wildflowers are best; they will attract and foster native species of bees and other insects.  Another effective tactic is to release ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantises and other pest-eating bugs in your garden at proper times.  It is helpful to provide bird, bat houses and Mason bee houses.

Most gardeners new to organic gardening have anxiety about controlling pests and diseases.  Healthy, thriving plants, combined with preventative methods are the most effective ways to begin.  A diversity of crops will help confuse damaging insects (the scent of marigolds, for example confuses some pests).  Crop-rotation will prevent a host of pest and disease problems.  Plan your vegetable layout so that the same kind of plant is not grown in the same spot for at least 4 years.  Collars made from toilet paper rolls or plastic cups will deter cut worms.  Netting will prevent birds from eating strawberries.  Light insect fabric on row covers will protect all cole crops from cabbage loopers; and straw mulch around tomatoes will make a home for beetles, which will eat aphids off the tomatoes at night.  Garlic spray over your vegetables will confuse most damaging pests and prevent infestations if timed at monthly intervals.  Safe pesticides and fungicides, such as BT, horticultural oil, neem oil, insecticidal soap, pyrethrum, and diatomaceous earth are each effective for certain listed pests.  Always follow directions and precautions to the letter with any pesticides or herbicides. 

Take advantage of the latest technologies to assist your organic garden.  A few of these include: season-extending high or low tunnels, solar-powered heating and cooling, and frost-protection fabrics.  Using tunnels and row covers can improve yields significantly because you get a month to 6 weeks longer season of growing and harvesting!  Automatic solar vents for cold frames, greenhouses and high tunnels will save you labor and worry—especially in our volatile climate, with its ups and downs in temperature, alternating clouds and sunshine, and sudden winds that occur in a typical Montana spring.  Solar powered fans will kick on automatically when the temperature gets too high in a tunnel or greenhouse, and will not contribute to the overabundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  I wish you the best of luck and success in your organic gardening!

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES

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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.

 

April Gardening Calendar

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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Controlling Cut Worms

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In my organic garden of heirloom plants here in Oregon, we have several pests: deer, raccoons, dogs, squirrels, rats, slugs, cabbage looper larvae and cutworms.  Cutworms have been the most consistently damaging of the group.  Typically, they sever the stems of young transplants, a preferred food of theirs.  They also eat most of the plants I grow; all vegetables, but especially plants of the Brassica, Dianthus, Primula and Viola families.  Here, they are a year-round pest, perhaps because of the mild weather of the region.  Cutworms belong to the family Noctuidae.  Note that the Latin root word here “noctu” refers to night—the time when these insects feed.  They come out about two hours after dark to feast, then disappear under the soil for the day.  Some cutworm eggs overwinter and hatch in spring, but others can hatch at any time after, as long as it is not too cold.  Evidently there is one generation per year.  The adult moths emerge in late summer and lay eggs which can hatch at varying times of the year.  Several species exist: the Army cutworm, Black cutworm, Variegated cutworm, and a new species here in Oregon, which is active year round, the Winter cutworm.  The first picture above shows a cutworm that appeared on heirloom petunia seedlings while they were on a bench in my greenhouse.  The plants had been transplanted two weeks before, so I was surprised that the cutworm was able to climb so far!  the photo was taken in May, so this was probably the variegated cutworm, which we have spring, summer and fall.  The second picture shows another cutworm on the edge of a patio planter, three feet above the ground.  The other three photos reveal damage on in-ground plants made by Winter cutworms in December, January and February.  Cutworms typically leave black droppings on your plants; the photo of the cauliflower shows this.

An organic gardener’s best first defense against cutworms is prevention.  A week before plants are to be set out, prepare your bed by cultivating heavily to dislodge and destroy any worms in the soil, then cultivate again.  When you plant your transplants, place collars around the plants to make it difficult for the worms to get to your plants.  Collars may be made of paper (milk cartons work well), plastic, metal or cardboard.  Here it rains so frequently that I choose to use plastic milk jugs or cans with the bottoms cut out of them.  After planting, spread one or more of the following sharp-edged deterrent mulches over the soil, around the plants: diatomaceous earth, eggshells, wood ashes or sharp grit.  The rough surfaces of any of these will discourage cutworms from crawling to your plants.  Another preventive method is to wait until two hours after dark, take a flashlight, search out the larvae and use the squish-bug technique for control.  Continue to cultivate around your plants to dislodge hiding larvae.  One other way to fight the battle is to attract or purchase beneficial insects to control cutworms.  Ground beetles, parasitic nematodes and tachinid flies attack cutworms.  Pollen-laden flowers, (don’t forget about native wildflowers) will help draw beneficial insects to your garden.

A next recourse for severe infestations is to use biological pest controls.  The bacteria Bacillus thuringensis kurstaki (known as BTK) made into a liquid spray is effective in controlling cutworms as long as you do not have continuous rain, as we often do here in western Oregon.  The damaged cauliflower, cabbage and primrose in the photos above show the effects of cutworms in winter, during a three month-long period of rain.  Dry BTK can be mixed with moistened bran to act as a bait and will last a few days until washed away.  Of course one can use the handpick squishbug method, but it might be difficult to keep up!  BTK cannot be used over and over without enabling cutworms to develop resistance.  Take care not to spray anything other than the very plants you need to protect when the larvae of butterflies are present.  Organically approved pesticides containing pyrethrin may also be used for heavy infestations.