Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What is Organic Gardening?

In my not-vast-but-not-tiny experience of talking with other gardeners, I have found that the word "organic," as applied to gardening, seems to be not well understood. There's a good reason for that; the definition isn't easy or brief, but I am offering here a simplified explanation.

When we refer to organic gardening or farming, we mean growing food using a specific set of principles and inputs that are as close to the natural state as possible in a way that maintains a living soil with a diverse population of micro and macro-organisms. Spraying anything for pests and diseases is the LAST option for resolving garden problems, even if an organic-approved spray is available.

There's some significant overlap between organic and conventional gardening. Plants need nutrients, soil/support, water, sunlight, air in the root zone, and good air circulation around the leaves and stems, and those are the basics that good gardeners using both systems provide.

There are huge differences, too. In conventional gardening, soil is viewed as a substrate with important physical and chemical properties that affect how nutrients and water move through the soil. Fertilizers tend to consist of salts of various essential nutrients, which are available for uptake by plants as soon as they are dissolved in water. Many chemical options are available for diseases and pest control, and correct use of inputs (fertilizers, for example) depends on some simple math and basic guidelines.

In organic gardening, soil is viewed as home to an abundant and diverse community of tiny life forms. The physical and chemical properties are important, too, but more important is that nutrients are made available when released through the action of those microbes, fungi, and other tiny lifeforms that live in the soil. This action is, essentially, the decomposition of organic matter and other soil amendments. Maintaining the health, abundance, and diversity of this community underground is essential to having a productive organic garden. There are very few spray-on options available for pest and disease control, and those that are available don't work all that well (in general). Choosing inputs -- manures, composts, and rock powders, for example -- to maintain the abundant liveliness of the soil, takes careful thought and planning.

Looking at the differences between the two systems, and the absence of absolutes -- or simple prescriptions for what to do next -- in going organic, the big question is "why would any sane person choose organic gardening?"

Well, I can think of plenty of reasons. To start:

1. living near an ecologically sensitive area (like a stream) and not wanting to mess that up
2. wanting to provide as little support as possible for "big agriculture," for one reason or another
3. being majorly into DIY (doing it yourself), because with organic, you can
4. having small children or pets, and as a result not wanting to risk storing hazardous chemicals 
5. having a serious sensitivity to a wide variety of chemicals, and wanting to be free of rashes, fatigue, etc.
6. being concerned about losses in populations of bees and other pollinators
7. having a tendency to put food in your mouth - unthinking and without washing - while in the garden, or having a child with the same tendency
8. wanting to eat organically grown food, while at the same time having a tight food budget
9. being concerned over some of the newer, systemic pesticides used on commercial crops that can't be washed off, because they are taken up inside the cells of the plants

It is difficult to just go partway organic. Using composts and manures can be a big help in conventional gardening, improving water retention/drainage and nutrient flow/abundance, but using conventional fertilizers in an organic system is more likely to have negative effects. Some members of the below-ground community of micro and macro-organisms are very sensitive to the fertilizer salts; they will do less well if conventional fertilizers are added. If the action of those lifeforms is the major source of nutrients for your garden, their doing less well will be a problem, because your crops will also do less well.

Going organic also means that most pest and disease control is done through prevention, involving crop rotations, disease-resistant plants, avoidance strategies, cover crops, promotion of beneficial insects, and other strategies that require advance planning.

This sounds supremely complicated, but plenty of gardeners seem to be managing organic food production quite well, and we are fortunate in having a lot of information and other resources to help us along the way.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Busy Weekend: Harvesting, Processing, then Planting Some More

Late last week, the weather forecast was predicting a drop to 28 degrees Fahrenheit for Saturday morning, so I worked in the yard Friday evening to prepare for that drop, harvesting the rest of the tomatoes and most of the peppers. I left the smaller peppers -- any that would have been too fiddly to chop up -- on the plants. When we woke up the next morning, our porch thermometer was reading 36 degrees. It was cold enough that the coleus all wilted, but the pepper plants look fine, which is good news for our pepper production. There will be more!

All the peppers I brought in needed to be chopped for the dehydrator and freezer, and that took some time.

I also finally worked on getting the kernels off of the cobs of parching corn that I had brought in to finish drying way back in August. This was not, probably, the best year to grow a Southwestern variety of corn. The cool, rainy summer caused some of the cobs to get moldy before they fully matured on the plants. In the end, I had only two-and-a-half cups of kernels, but I tried parching some, and I am very happy with how the corn turned out. I will probably grow this Supai Red parching corn again next summer, instead of popcorn.

Also, the grain sorghum that I had grown and harvested was dry enough to "thresh," so I used the "no special equipment needed" method of rubbing the heads of grain between my hands to get the grains to drop out. It's been awhile since I've grown any small grains, and I had forgotten that there is so much work involved in separating the grains from the plants. I'm going to need a windy day to winnow out the chaff, but after the grain is cleaned, I should be able to pop it like tiny popcorn.

The variety that I planted is Tarahumara Popping Sorghum. I had planted it much later in the summer than I should have, and I ended up with about three cups of the grain. Next year I will try to get it into the ground sooner, to see if that improves the yield.

On Sunday afternoon, I finally planted the garlic, shallots, and multiplier onions. They went into one of the long beds in the side yard. If all goes well, the little bulbs will be sending up green shoots in just a few weeks.

Here in the metro area, temperatures can vary widely over a fairly short distance. A friend who lives in Canton, not too far north of here, had a very definite frost that put an end to her summer crops. I am guessing that other gardens in the area had the same experience. The good news is that the cool season crops get better and better, in terms of flavor, as the fall weather continues. I'm looking forward to sweet carrots and greens in the coming weeks.

Hope other gardens out there are doing well!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great Things about Late October

Fried okra
Cubed butternut squash, sauteed in olive oil with garlic and black pepper
Tomato chips, made crispy in the dehydrator
Thinking forward to next year's seeds
Planting garlic
Thinly sliced radishes, lightly salted
A heaping basket of sweet potatoes on the kitchen floor
Falling leaves
Firing up the wood stove
Pansies, all happy-faced in bloom
Trains getting louder 
Peppery nasturtium seeds
Knowing that carrots are growing underneath those feathery leaves
Bok choy
Return of the barred owls to the woods behind the house

It seems like a short list, considering that I am thankful for so very much, but these are specific to this time of year.

I'm sure there are great things going on in the lives of other gardeners, too!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tracking the Harvest on World Food Day: September 2013

Today is World Food Day, part of the effort to end hunger around the world. My contribution to today's effort is the loan of my broadfork to the Plant-A-Row-For-the-Hungry project (for which I was a volunteer, before I got the new job) in Kennesaw; the group is going to use it in harvesting sweet potatoes that will be donated to The Center for Family Resources in Marietta.

Vegetables -- foods full of essential vitamins and minerals -- are especially important foods to provide to low-income families. When a food budget is tight, fresh veggies usually don't make it onto the family menu, but they can contribute a lot to good health.

In my own yard, this month's harvest has been a little skimpy. The saddest part is the sweet potato total, since the bed those were in was so totally chipmunked. If we were depending on my garden for all of our fresh produce, we would be in trouble, because we like to eat a lot of veggies every day.

The following harvest weights for September are in kilograms:

Tomatoes, ripe
Bush beans, green
Potatoes, sweet

September 21.85 kg =  48 pounds, 2 ounces
Running total January through September = 166.1 kg =  366 pounds,  3 ounces

I don't know whether the total is going to make it above 400 pounds this year. It will be interesting to see how the fall vegetables do. Right now, many of them are being nibbled fairly persistently by chipmunks and/or rabbits. The carrots and radishes are doing well enough, but the beets and assorted greens seem to be losing the battle.

Wish me luck?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mostly Ready for Fall/Winter

Most of the garden is ready for fall and winter (finally!). You'd think that by now I would know exactly what it's going to take to get that all done, but I'm still a little surprised that there is so much work in clearing away the summer and making the start on fall and winter.

I cut down the buckwheat cover crop that has been growing in the top half of the beet and spinach bed to let it wilt down before turning it under, and I've planted a mixed cover crop of winter rye and Austrian winter peas in a couple of beds. Before those cover crops could go in, there was a general clearing-away of summer crops, then I brought compost out from the backyard compost pile, spread that on the beds, mixed it into the top few inches of soil, leveled the beds, then broadcast the seeds and "pounced" them in with a rake. The bed where the garlic and shallots will go in a couple of weeks has also been made ready.

Over the past ten-or-so days, I also replanted seeds for some of the lettuces, carrots, beets, spinach, and radishes, because the sweet potato bed isn't the only one that has been chipmunked. The rascally rodents have been having way too much fun in my garden this year; somehow, they've gotten the impression that it's their own little party place.

My neighbor across the creek has two outdoor cats, and I had thought that, between them, Lily and Johnny would have put a big dent in the chipmunk population, but they don't seem to have been keeping up with the rate of reproduction. We don't have as many hawks as usual, and that may be part of the problem. I think the crows (another nuisance) have been chasing them away. Next year, I may have to work at thinning some vegetation (daylilies, azaleas, and more) that has served as protective cover for the little, striped "party animals."

Things have been busy at work. Last week, on Thursday, I was the guest on the Master Gardener Hour on America's Web Radio. The show is scheduled to be posted on the 19th of October. On Friday, I talked about "Moving Toward Organics in the Vegetable Garden" for the Master Gardener Lunch & Learn series. Have I mentioned lately that I love my job?

Hope all the other gardens out there are just about ready for fall and winter!

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