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!

 

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!

IMPROVING YOUR SOIL

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The quality of your garden soil is an important consideration in growing heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers as soils come in a wide variety of textures and materials.  Soil texture describes the size of the mineral particles in your soil.  Soil particles in order of size, from smallest to largest, are: clay, silt, fine sand, medium sand and coarse sand.  The ideal garden soil (for most plants) is a loam soil, which carries particles of clay, silt and sand, plus organic matter.

Soil structure refers to the way soil particles bind together to form clumps.  In soils with good structure the spaces between particles are large enough to ensure good drainage but do not dry too quickly.  The best garden soil, loam soil, drains fast enough for root health but retains enough moisture for continued satisfactory growth.  Adding amendments to soils will improve its structure and provide food for beneficial microbes.

Another consideration to address before you add amendments to the soil is to test the pH— the measure of acidity to alkalinity in your native soil.  A pH of 7 is considered neutral and many plants are adapted to this condition.  A pH above 7 is considered alkaline while a pH below 7 is considered acid.  A pH test can serve as a guide to which plants you might be able to grow with ease and others that might be more difficult.  It is easier to make soils more alkaline, but difficult to acidify them.  Even though you may add sulfur or aluminum to your soil to acidify it, the subsoils beneath will remain alkaline and eventually the alkalinity will return, especially if your water is alkaline.  This makes it difficult to grow plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas (which prefer acid soil) in regions with alkaline soil and water.  Adding lime or crushed shells to acid soils will increase soil alkalinity.

One consideration in growing heirloom plants is to research soil amendment ingredients and practices used in the 19th century, as most of the plants still in existence from that era and before were selected under those soil conditions.  I am an organic gardener using these time-tested methods and believe that building your soil is crucial to long term success.  By amending your soil with such things as greensand, sulfur, bone meal, kelp meal and manure, you will enrich it and create a productive environment for soil bacteria.  You can choose from composted cow, hog or horse manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal and guano or chicken manure to add significant nitrogen to your garden soil.  These all contain small levels of potassium and potash.  Bone meal, hoof and horn meal are excellent sources of potassium.  Kelp meal, wood ashes and greensand are significant sources of potash.  Greensand also contains many trace minerals.  Keep in mind that bone meal is somewhat alkaline and wood ashes are quite alkaline.  Home made compost is always valuable and usually contains a fair amount of nitrogen with smaller mount of potassium, potash and trace minerals.  Another option to improve soil is to plant cover crops and till them under.  Clover, rye, lentils, field peas, vetch and buckwheat are some examples.

This is the time of year to plan for improving your soil.  As soon as the ground thaws you can test the pH and as soon as soil becomes workable (not too wet to dig) you can add amendments.  It is important to learn as much as you can about what type of soil each plant you plan to grow prefers, for long term success.  For example, brassicas (cole crops like cabbage) have fewer pest problems and greater production in slightly alkaline soils.