Monthly Archives: February 2018

Free Organic Gardening Book – How to Grow Beets

One season gardening used to be all I did.  Put in the plants in the spring, harvest in July, August and sometimes in September and clean up in October.  Then the price of organic produce shot through the roof and I started thinking that there had to be a way to get more out of my dirt than tomatoes, cukes, peppers and eggplant. My adventure with growing more and longer began a bit late in my gardening life but I’m glad it did.

Beets ready for transplant

Beets are easy to grow.

Truthfully, I probably will never get as far as master gardeners like Eliot Coleman of Four Season Harvest fame but I am enjoying cool weather crops like fresh lettuce, spinach and beets from March through October.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden.  Not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets.  Beautiful, round and ruby red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice.

I was in love with beets, again especially since I know how easy it is to grow them.

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Starting beets indoors is easy

I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 10 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 11 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is one of the most important requirements of beets.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with soil that’s not rich but it has to be loose.

So do some soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

Climatic Requirements
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days. They can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

Planting the Seeds
Beet seeds are outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.

Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beet seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

Transplanting
TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.

Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant. Wrong! Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do. Just wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before transplanting.

Beets and lettuce are cool weather crops

Baby beets ready to grow.

The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE!

Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a shovel full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Choggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, informed, basic growing information is the so-called “land grant” colleges like Penn State and Ohio State.  They usually offer fact sheets like the one on beets that was posted by Ohio State. http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1604.html

Try beets. No matter how you slice them…they’re a great addition to any garden.

 

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Practical Organic Gardening – Free tips on Growing Lettuce

Red Butterhead lettuce ready for harvest.

Red Butterhead lettuce makes a soft, beautiful head that’s perfect for salads.

I love raising my own lettuce.  It’s a love born out of hate.  That sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t.

I started raising lettuce when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag.  For me, that’s $18 a week for under two pounds of green leafy lettuce.

Do the math.  I was spending almost $1000 a year on lettuce!  Try doing that on a fixed income.

I hated paying the price so I stared planting and growing my own.  And guess what?  Lettuce is one of the easiest crops I have ever raised.  And, it’s a
two-fer! Save your seeds and pay no more (well maybe you’ll have to buy every 3 or 4 years).  Just keep planting and harvesting.

So, let’s start with seeds.  I am pretty particular about whose seed I buy.  I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing.

Organic red leaf lettuce

Organic red leaf lettuce grows quickly and tastes sweet by itself or in salads.

And I want flavorful leaf lettuce — not head lettuce you have to chop with a cleaver. And I definitely do not want Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.

There are three places I buy seed:

Hudson Valley Seed Library –  the variety they offer is impressive.  Their seed is  locally grown in a climate and soil not unlike mine here in Zone 6b.  And this company helps support school and community gardeners with donations of seeds.

Territorial Seeds – kind of the granddaddy of organic seed growers, this company was organic before organic went mainstream.  Family-owned, Territorial Seeds has a fantastic reputation for the seeds it sells and the customer service it brings to the table.

Grow Italian – I discovered this company more than a decade ago and it’s my go to seed company for all things Italian including lettuce and mixed greens.  When you buy a packet of lattuga from them, you get high quality, high-germinating seeds and a lot of them.

I think the hardest part of growing lettuce is picking the kinds you want to try. But once you have your seeds, planting is so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. I tend to sow the seeds right in the garden bed.

One problem when planting lettuce is that the seeds are small and lightweight and they tend to drop into the dirt in clumps or blow off my hand. I used to have a hard time getting them to spread out on the soil but here’s a trick my sister taught me.

  1. Get some soil – take it from your garden if it’s rich and light or grab some potting mix.
  2. Fill a quart jar about 2/3rds full of the soil.
  3. Put lettuce seeds in the jar.  I put different types together so I grow my own “mixed greens.”
  4. Shake the jar until all the seeds are mixed, uniformly, through the soil.
  5. Gently shake the soil out of the jar and into your beds. If you can still see some of them, put just a tiny bit of dirt over the visible ones.
  6. Water the seeds in.

Then all you have to do is water every day until the seeds spout.  Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.

A few more tips:

Don’t plant in the summer!  Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather.  You can plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.

Start lettuce plants indoors if you want.  I use 40-cell growing trays.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

And I start mine in early February.  When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.

When you cut lettuce leaves, don’t cut them down to the ground.  Cut about an inch from the bottom and you will get a second crop.

If you want to save the seeds, plant for a spring harvest but only cut the first crop.  Let the second set of lettuce leaves grow up and flower.  Then wait.  It will be tempting to take the flower heads off when they get their puffy, white hair.  DON’T.

The seeds need to mature.  Wait until the heads are dry, brown and about ready to burst.  Then pull the seed heads off, take the seeds out and let them dry in a small strainer for a couple of weeks.  I refrigerate mine once they’re dry and plant them in the fall.

Practical Organic Gardening – Growing Tomatoes!

fox cherry tomatoes

Fox Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my garden.

As promised, it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. Most gardeners, me included, rely on one summertime favorite, the tomato, to grace their gardens every year!

Why tomatoes?

Tomatoes are pretty hardy plants.  And they’re happy growing in containers.  They’ll even grow hanging from a hook, upside down.    So, even if you don’t have any space for a garden plot, even if you can’t grow anything else, you can grow tomatoes.

If you’re new to gardening, you might want to start with a few tomato plants instead of starting seed. Why?

Tomatoes from seeds

Tomato seedlings growing indoors.

Most warm weather crops  like tomatoes, should be started 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost.

In my zone, Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the second week of February.

From the moment the seeds go into the pots until I get them ready for transplant, I have to pay attention – keep them warm, water them, feed them and ensure they are healthy and happy.

So, if you’re just starting out, buying plants may be a lot easier and a lot less risky.

Tomato Basics
Before we talk about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available today, let’s talk about a couple of categories that you should know about when you pick seeds or buy plants, namely determinate and indeterminate.

Tomatoes come in both these varieties.  What’s the difference? Determinate varieties bear their crop all at once and tend to be more compact.  Don’t have much space?  Try these.

Indeterminate tomatoes bear fruit all season and grow longer vines.

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

These vines require support (staking or caging) over the growing season.   Got room and a couple of fence sections?  Try these.

I usually plant both so I can make tomato sauce, paste and barbecue sauce with the determinate varieties and eat the indeterminate tomatoes all summer long.

Now let’s talk about types of tomatoes?  From this organic gardener’s chair, I think of tomatoes as coming in three types – plum tomatoes, slicers and cherry or grape tomatoes.

 

  1. Plums – these are the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
  2. Slicers – these are great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
  3. Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – these are tiny bundles of tomato flavor that taste great right off the vine.

Again, I plant a few of all three types because I love them.  You can pick and choose the ones you like the best and plant those.

Tips on Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are warm weather plants; they really don’t like cold soil or cold air.  You can plant them out on the ragged fringe of your last frost date but putting them in the ground too early may just stunt their growth.  So tomatoes should not go into your ground until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees.

Tomatoes should be given some room to breathe.  Plants should be 2 to 3 feet apart and rows should be 3 feet apart.  This gives the tomato plants room to spread out, especially the indeterminate ones that can grow vines that are more than 9 feet long.

NOTE:  Overcrowding is a mistake I make over and over again and by August, I can’t reach my plants and bugs are having a field day dining on ripe tomatoes. Space them better and get better crops and fewer pests.  (Now to get me to follow my own advice….)

When planting tomatoes in the ground:

  1. Pick a nice sunny spot that drains well.  The slight slope in my garden ensures that the roots of the tomato plants are wet but don’t drown.
  2. Remove all containers (plastic or clay) from the plants except peat pots.  If using peat pots, just grasp the bottom and start to close your fist.  That pincer movement punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
  3. Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
  4. Make sure you dig a hole that is deep enough to bury the stem up to the very last set of leaves at the top.  Yes, I really do mean bury them deep.  The stem that you put underground will send out roots and very quickly anchor the plant and give it a lot of opportunities to take up nutrients and water.
  5. Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
  6. Water the transplants in by pouring 1 or 2 cups of water on the ground at the base of the stem of each plant immediately after transplanting.  NOTE:  You can use a very weak liquid fertilizer (2 tablespoons to a gallon of water) if you want but I don’t fertilize until about 2 weeks after I have transplanted.
  7. Mulch with straw around each transplant.  Mulching also makes for a weed free garden – the only state I want to be in when it comes to gardening.  It also ensures that moisture is retained and to make sure rain water doesn’t splash up on the leaves of the tomato plants.  Water that splashes up off the soil can cause verticulum wilt or mosaic tobacco virus, the two most common diseases in the tomato family.  By the way, never smoke in your garden – you can make your plants sick, literally.

Stake your tomato babies when you plant them.  Tomatoes grow fast so if you wait, it may be too late to get a tomato cage or a stake in place.  Staking prevents some diseases and improves your yield.  It also makes it much easier to pick once the plants start producing fruit.

staking tomatoes

Staking with found items

What should you use for stakes?  Visit any gardening or hardware store and pick up wooden stakes or, my favorite, metal stakes.  I also use old fence section and have been known to use an old box spring on occasion.

If it doesn’t rain and/or if it is very hot during the first week after transplanting, make sure to check the plants to see if they are drooping or wilting and pour another cup or two of water on them if they are.

Once your tomato babies are in the ground and have weathered the first week, there are only a couple of things you need to do to ensure a good crop:

Always pinch off the first flowers on all your tomato plants.  The plants are still trying to get established in the ground.  They don’t need babies to distract them from growing into strong, healthy plants.

When the second set of flowers appear on the plants, mix 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts into one gallon of water and use one cup for every foot of height the plant has – 2 feet = 2 cups.  Epsom salts provide magnesium and sulfur – both needed to produce chlorophyll and allow for proper absorption of phosphorous and nitrogen.  NOTE:  Don’t use too much Epsom salts.  If you do, you will get lots of beautiful, green leaves and bushy plants but not many tomatoes.

Tomatoes should get 1 to 2 inches of rain a week.  If it doesn’t rain, make sure you water them.  I use soaker hoses.  Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants.  If you see one munching through your garden and you don’t have trichogamma wasps, use pliers if you have to but pull it off and kill it.

If you have trichogamma wasps, sit back and watch the show.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

The wasp lays eggs on the hornworm. When the larvae hatch, they dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these destructive pests.

If you planted indeterminate tomatoes, take a few minutes a week to check for and remove the axillary or side shoots that come off the plant.  But don’t go crazy and strip off a whole lot of leaves.  Tomatoes can get sunburned – really – and burned fruit just doesn’t taste all that good.

So trim lightly. Keep the plants from getting too bushy. Use their energy for  production.

Fertilize your tomato plants when the fruit are an inch or more long. I use fish emulsion mixed with water and poured around the roots of every plant.  This is sometimes called “side-dressing” a plant.  Another free fertilizer is crushed eggshells. Just put about 1/2 cup of crushed shells around the base of each plant.

You can side dress the second time right after picking the first ripe fruit and make a 3rd and final application a month later.

When it comes to harvesting your tomatoes, you can do it by look and feel or you can do it by temperature.  If the average daily temperature is around 75 degrees and the fruits are red, they are ready to be picked.  And don’t refrigerate tomatoes.  The flavor and quality of the tomato will be much better if it is kept at room temperature.

One of my favorite resources for learning about tomatoes is online.  Although it is a Missouri extension office, the basic information works for any gardener, almost anywhere.

And that is how to grow tomatoes.

 

Practical Organic Gardening – Free Book – Chapters 4 & 5

Today we look at weeding and feeding!  Again, this is so simple I wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t do it. And, if you have some initiative, feeding your soil won’t cost you a dime!

Zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant being baked in the sun.

Raising your own food is easy.

FYI – this is the groundwork. Next week, we get started with  starting and growing your own food!

Weeding
Weeding is one thing that any gardener swiftly grows to hate.  And the older you get, the less fun it is to land on your knees, bend over and dig the little blighters out.  But not weeding can lead to a whole lot more pain than a sore back or a knee with twinges.

Weeds grow fast and set seeds even faster.  If you see one weed, you can bet that it’s invited about 500 of its closest relatives to join it in the ultimate comfort of your garden.  A lot of people reach for the handy spray bottle of herbicide conveniently sold at their local, big box, home improvement store.

Herbicides are fast and deadly.  But they don’t just kill weeds.

Research is beginning to unravel the reasons behind the death of millions of

bees, beekeeping, organic gardening benefits

My bees in my backyard.

honey bees, worldwide and it looks like the root of the problem is products containing neo-nicotinoids – weed-killing products readily available in this country and in Europe.

The debate over cause and effect is in full swing right now but I’m old enough to remember a similar debate about two weed-killing agents – 2-4-D and 2-4-5T.  Supposedly so safe that as little children, we were give the job of filling weed wands with this chemical adding water and running through our very big yard, barefoot, killing weeds.

So far, both my brothers have succumbed to brain cancer and my older sister is battling kidney cancer.  So that’s one reason why I don’t recommend using any herbicides in any form.

I also live in the country.  Everyone has wells.  Do you really want to poison your neighbors, downstream?  There are days when I consider it (joking) but polluting the water supply just doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do.

What to do to get rid of weeds?
I confess that in the early days of my organic gardening life, when I was still gainfully employed, I bought a flame thrower.  No, really, I bought a flame thrower and used it to burn weeds out.  But it was expensive, the propane tank was heavy, bulky and an added cost.  And frankly, I never really killed the weeds, just singed them enough to make them angry and hardy!  And I lit my house on fire…but that’s a story for another day.

Straw is an easy weed cover.

Straw virtually stops weeds.

When I found the method developed by Ruth Stout, a pioneer in organic gardening and, even more importantly, a pioneer in making it so easy, I jumped on board with both feet.  Here’s how she described her system in an interview done by Mother Earth News.

“My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.”  (You can read the full article on Mother Earth News.)

Stout’s method may sound ridiculously simple but it works so well that that most years I only spend a total of 10 hours weeding.

Every fall I cover my entire garden with wet newspaper and straw – about 8 inches of it piled up on top of the paper.  Weeds (and all their seeds) are buried alive and prepping the garden for the next spring and summer is done.  And guess what?  While you are killing weeds and saving your back and knees, you are also feeding your soil.  All that mulch breaks down and enriches the dirt beneath it. 

Sure, some weeds might poke their beady little heads up from time to time but they are so few and far between that I actually welcome the chance to break out my other secret weapon – Fiskar’s Big Grip Garden Knife – the single, best tool I have ever bought and used in my garden.  No weed gets away and because of its design, it’s easy on my hands.  Made of aluminium, this knife comes with a lifetime guarantee and does that job efficiently and effectively.

What an amazing system – no weeds, enriched soil and a back that doesn’t ache!

Feeding
Successful composting always sounded like it required a lot of work and a pretty good dose of luck.  In fact, I was so scared to try composting, I didn’t!

Then I read a small ad in our local paper.  Our county was offering Master Composting classes, for free.  What did I have to lose except this nagging fear that I really was not cut out to compost.  So I signed up.

For 4 nights, I got the chance to spend a couple of hours in the company of other, like-minded gardeners.  And I learned just how easy composting can be.

Free materials and free compsot

Composting is easy and free.

In fact, the first thing I learned was the formula for making compost.  As a Master Composter, I was told not to share it but this was probably the most significant bit of information I picked up. This formula removed all barriers and fears and let me loose in my backyard to compost.  Here it is.

Green Yard Waste + Brown Yard Waste + Water = Compost

Now you know the secret to composting and here’s one more.  I don’t even water the pile.

Composting is not a mystical process that requires an advanced degree.  It is the most natural thing in the world.  Everything becomes compost over time.  Think about that for a minute.  Where do all the leaves and twigs, pine needles and grass that fall to the forest floor go?  Does someone rush out, rake them up in a pile and watch the pile start to smolder?  Not in my neighborhood.

Want to compost?  Here are the steps:

  1. Start collecting garbage (veggie and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves but no dairy or meat of any kind) in a bucket.
  2. Troll your neighborhood in the fall and take some of the leaves your neighbors nicely bagged up for you.
  3. Rake up grass clippings and weeds you’ve pulled up (knock the dirt off the roots or they may keep growing in the pile).
  4. Dump all three in a pile.
  5. Wait…about a year.

That’s all you need to know to make compost – black gold – as most organic gardener’s (and marketing mavens) call it.  Here are a few other gems I took home from this class:

There is no rigid method that will open up the pearly gates to composting heaven.  Sure, you want to try to balance brown stuff with green stuff but even if you don’t, you will still get composted soil.

Composting is free!  You do not have to race out and buy accelerators, fancy, rotating tubs, or a compost thermometer.   You don’t even need a bin!

Magic tools and additives are not required to make compost.  You only need them if you are in a real hurry and can’t wait for nature to take its course.

Depending on how fast or slow you want to turn out compost, you don’t even have to rotate your compost – flip it over and bring the oldest stuff to the top — unless you want to speed up the process.

I like to let God do all the work so I have three bins made out of old dog kennel fencing.  I just toss all the brown and green in one of them and leave it alone for a year or two.  When I need some composted soil to beef up my garden or feed my new transplants, I just lift the stuff that didn’t break down over the wall into the next bin.

At the bottom of the pile, I always find 6 to 8 inches of beautiful dark brown, loamy soil.  I dig it out, use what I need and plant something in the bin that I just emptied.

Like everything else in the organic gardening world, composting is always treated as a mystical process; it isn’t.  It’s really just the natural process of decay.  And you can just let it sit and do its thing while you work around the yard.  When you need it, the compost will be there, waiting for you.

NOTE: if you want to start gardening right away, you can buy composted soil in bags just make sure it’s organic. Read the label. Talk to the seller. Do some research and don’t just buy from big box stores or big manufacturers like Scott’s or Miracle Gro. There is way too much latitude in what’s “allowed” in these soils.

Be cautious. Find a reputable, usually family-owned and small, nursery or garden center and ask for help.