Tag Archives: organic gardener

Grow So Easy Organic: How To Grow Great Green Cucumbers

One of my favorite, childhood memories is eating cool crisp cucumber slices on homemade bread slathered with mayonnaise.  My mom could raise just about anything but she really got a ton of cucumbers out of the dozen or so plants she put in the ground every spring.

Cucumber Flowers

Cucumber plants early in the growing season

When Mom was gardening (way back in the 50’s and 60’s), there wasn’t a slew of choices when it came to what you put in the ground.  Cucumbers were cucumbers.  Today, there are a whole lot of varieties that you might want to try.

Like tomatoes, cucumbers come in two varieties – hybrid and heirloom.  There are three general categories or types of cucumbers, too, slicing, pickling and  burpless.

I’m an equal opportunity cucumber person.  I grow and eat them all.  But if you’ve got a yen for a certain type of cuke or a bit less space than you’d like, it helps to know just how big the plants will get and what type of cucumber you will harvesting.

Let’s start with the ones that most people buy in the grocery store, the long green slicing cukes.  There are a couple of varieties that have gained popularity in the last few years.

Slicing Cucumbers
Burpless Cucumbers – burpless cukes are, according to researchers in the Department of Horticultural Research at North Carolina State University, actually Oriental Trellis cucumbers.  And they are a little less bitter and a little less prone to cause burping.  Whatever you call them, these sweeter, long hybrids grow well on trellises and are a nice addition to any garden.  But remember, this is a hybrid so seed-saving may not work.

Marketmore 76 & Marketmore 80 – this cuke likes to have a trellis to climb, too.  I use an old box spring for my cukes.  Like the burpless cucumber, Marketmore cukes are dark green and straight (unless they grow through a bit of the bedspring) and quite tasty.  And, they’re disease resistant, too.

Straight 8 –  another dark green, cuke that grows long and straight (hence its name) is a wonderful slicing cucumber.  It’s crisp flesh and mild flavor make it a favorite for cucumber salads and sandwiches.  Straight 8 is an heirloom so you can save its seeds.  Once most of your harvest is in, leave a cucumber on the vine and let it turn yellow.  Pick it, scoop out the seeds, clean them off then dry them, thoroughly.  Refrigerate and use next year.

Cukes for Limited Spaces
If you don’t have a lot of space to garden in or you’re working with container gardening, you can try a couple of the bush cucumbers.  They’ll still give you long, green slicing cukes but they’ll take up much less real estate doing it.

Bush Crop – these plants are ideal for small gardens or containers.  The Bush cucumber produces the same size cukes as it’s bigger brothers – 8 to 12 inch long – but it does it on a dwarf, mound-shaped plant.  There are no runners, either.

Fanfare is a hybrid but oh what a cucumber it is.  It’s got it all, great taste; high yield, extended harvest and disease resistant, the Fanfare produces fruit on compact vines.  It’s a great choice for someone with small gardening space or the container gardener.  The cuke is slim, dark green and grows to 8 to 9 inches long.  And it has a wonderful, sweet cucumber taste.

Salad Bush is another hybrid but it matures in just 57 days.  This tomato plant only grows that are 18 inches long but it still produces beautiful straight, 6 –plus inch long, dark green cukes. The seed is a bit expensive but if you’re garden space is small or your raising cukes in pots, this may be the one you want to try.  Direct seed the Salad Bus and sit back and wait for your beautiful, compact bush to produce beautiful, flavorful cucumbers for your table.

Pickling Cukes
Pickling cucumbers are smaller, have more spines and hold up to brining better than slicing pickles.  But I think of the pickling cuke as a “two fer.”  You can pickle them; you can also slice them and eat them right off the vine!  Here are a couple that you might want to consider but don’t limit yourself to just these varieties.

The Bush Pickle is fast to harvest – producing fruit in just 48 days.  It’s another compact plant so it’s good for container growing – no need for trellises or stakes! The Bush Pickle may be small but it produces a good-sized crop while taking up just 3 to 4 feet of space. The fruit is about 4 inches long, light to mid-green, with a crisp, tender flavor – perfect for pickles!

Carolina (Hybrid  matures just one day after the Bush Pickle, taking 49 days to produce its straight, blocky fruit.  The Carolina has medium-sized vines so you may want to trellis the plants.  Vigorous, with great yields, the Carolina produces medium green fruit that are generally about 3 inches long and a bit blocky.  The Carolina comes with spines, too and makes a great dill pickle.

Tips on Planting
Cucumbers are usually started from seed.  Like their relatives, squash and melons, cucumbers like warm soil so only plant them after all danger of frost is past.  In fact, I don’t plant my cukes until almost the end of May.  They have to have warm soil and planting them early just means the seed may not germinate.  Or if they do, growth will be slow and the plants will be small.

So, wait for the warm soil and warm air before putting cuke seeds in the ground.  The same is true for transplants.  But transplanting cucumbers is a bit tricky.

“Cucumbers resent transplanting.”  I laughed out loud when I read that sentence in Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden: Creative Gardening for the Adventurous Cook.

Then I transplanted some by pulling them out of their little plastic pots and shoving them in the ground.  Needless to say the seeds I planted in the ground on the same day grew a whole lot faster than the transplants.

Apparently, cukes have lots of little tendrils  – small branches off the central root that uptake water and nutrients and feed the plants.  Harsh transplanting damages the branches and the plant may not recover, at all.

Mine didn’t.

But since I like to have a jump on the growing season, I have worked out a way to do the least damage to the baby cuke plants while giving them about a 6 week jump on being put out in the ground.

I start seeds indoors in mid-March (Zone 5 ½) and once they get their true second set of leaves I simply place the 2 inch peat pot into a 4 inch peat pot and cover with soil.  No transplant blues, no disruption and by mid-May, when these babies hit the dirt, they are tall, healthy and frequently covered with blooms

NOTE:  when transplanting into the garden, do NOT remove from the peat pot.  Just dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the 4 inch peat pot, place the whole pot in the ground and cover with soil.

Make sure you cover the top of the peat pot with soil or, just tear the first inch or so of the top of the pot.  If you don’t, the wind will blow on the top of the peat pot and wick moisture right off the plant.

If you’re using seeds, you can put a single seed in the soil about every 12 inches and cover them with ½” to 1” of soil.  Or you can create a small “hill” of soil and put 3 or 4 seeds in each hill and cover with 1/2 to 1 inch of soil and water them, gently.  NOTE:  you MUST water these seeds daily.  If they dry out in the act of sprouting, they die.

If using the hill method. Leave 24” to 30” between each hill to give the plants a chance to grow without being crowded.  If you’re using transplants, plant them in warm soil about 12 inches apart.

I usually put transplants on one side of the trellis I use for cukes (actually an antique bed spring I found by the side of the road) and put seeds in on the other side.  This ensures that I have a longer picking season and, if I lose a plant or two to cucumber beetles, I have others to replace it.

By the way, unless you live in Maine or Canada, you can do a second planting for fall harvest by planting seeds in mid- to late summer.

Make sure you water cucumbers frequently.  They have shallow roots and have to have moisture, especially when they are setting and maturing fruit.  Try to use soaker hoses for cukes, too.

Cucumbers also like mulch – something that keeps the soil warm in early spring. And floating row covers can help keep your baby cucumbers warm, too.    Once the cucumber transplants have settled into their new home, you can side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine.

Be careful not to handle cucumber plants when they are wet as you can transmit diseases from plant to plant that way.  I only harvest in the afternoon, after the sun has dried off the leaves, top and bottom.

Next week, how to find and destroy the bugs that bug cukes and my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe

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Grow So Easy Organic – Best Gardening Resources Online

The Internet is a wonderful place!

It has made the job of finding information on just about anything a whole lot easier.  But sometimes, the Internet can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you are looking for information quickly and if you want a reputable source.

There are more than 20 million sites that talk about organic gardening.  But the odds are that many of those sites aren’t really going to provide information that organic gardeners are looking for.  In fact, a lot of them are just trying to sell you something.

I don’t have a problem with companies trying to sell me something. In fact, I really look forward to the seed and supply catalogues that I get throughout the year.  But I don’t want to read about the latest gadget for growing tomatoes if I’m in the middle of a battle with bugs and I know I’m losing.

I want to get information – fast – and from another gardener that I trust.  So that’s how I chose my favorite gardening web sites.  The sites listed below help me make my garden grow better, arm me for all the little tragedies that come along with life, make me smile,  and warm me on cold winter nights.

I hope you enjoy them.

A Way To Garden
Margaret Roach is truly one of my heroes…not just in the gardening world but in the wider world of surviving.  I met her through her book, The Gardener’s Way.  It was the cover that made me buy it.

Her hands, holding green beans, her nails caked with dirt, the clothing in the background clearly worn for work – all these told me that she was a real gardener.  She was someone who enjoyed digging in the dirt.  I was right.

A Way to Garden was her first salvo in sharing  gardening, expertise that had been refined and honed as the editorial director of Martha Stewart Living.  But it’s when Roach severed ties with Stewart’s empire, moved to upstate New York and started living on the land she bought as a weekend getaway, that she started really digging into dirt and life.

She has written a another book since A Way to Garden – And I Shall Have Some Peace There – about her country life but it’s her blog that I really, truly love.

First of all, the information on her blog is mind-boggling and top-notch.  Secondly, Roach brings in some of the tops gardeners and horticulturists in the country and asks them to share their secrets on everything from raising garlic to pruning berry bushes.

Secondly, Roach’s writing is like music to read – rich, warm, inviting and always, always friendly.  She isn’t trying to prove anything anymore to anyone.  She is really writing from the center of her gardener’s heart and I love getting her newsletter in my inbox!

The Bug Guide 
If you don’t have your own book on bugs and you want to find out what a bug is quickly, check out this site.  A wonderful guide from a reliable source and one that Margaret Roach brought to my attention.

It’s a community website called BugGuide.net – a place where naturalists ranging from amateur to expert share photos of insects, spiders and other bugs and  beasties.

BugGuide.net was started for two purposes – one to expand knowledge about bugs that they say are, “…oft overlooked and oft-maligned.”  But it was also started to help make people more enthusiastic about these critters some of which can be very helpful in the garden.

Roach says Bug Guide, “… has long been a go-to resource for me, but now I’m starting to engage further.”  The site offers a “how to” that makes using the site easier and also tells you how you can participate.

Earth Easy
I know.  This web site sells products…a lot of products.  But, if you look carefully at what they sell, all of their products are geared toward sustainable living and saving the planet.  So I’m interested in what they sell.  And I’m interested in what they are saying.

Earth Easy  is a business that was started by a family that got a chance to try sustainable living, themselves.  Living on a small island, long before sustainable living was a buzzword, Greg Seaman and his family developed techniques, ideas and processes that made their lives rich and full and much less damaging to the planet than a typical family’s lifestyle is.

At Earth Easy, you will find a ton of gardening advice for free.  But what I like even more is the stable of contributing writers that broaden and deepen the information available on this site.

The writers frequently offer tips on how to have a much smaller footprint in our lives.  For example, one of their contributing writers, Geoff DeRuiter, shared his quest to produce just one, small can of trash in a year.

DeRuiter, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Bioenergy and Biocarbon Sequestration did it.  And he offers some solid ideas and information on how all of us could help reduce the waste that streams from our houses to landfills every day.

Earth Easy also sends out one of the better newsletters you can find online.  When their newsletter arrives in my inbox, I take the time to open it, browse through it and read about all the other people and ideas that are out there, in the organic gardening world.

The Garden Rant
So, maybe this isn’t an advice site for gardeners but…it sure has some of the best gardening posts I have read in a long time.  And the writers at Garden Rant aren’t afraid of tackling political problems like Genetically Modified Organisms and “garden police” tearing up back yard gardens because they aren’t up to “code.”

Written by “…4 different gardeners from 4 different corners of the United States,” this blog makes me smile, makes me angry and just plain old makes me come back for more.

The information is spot on, the writing is friendly and easy to read and the topics cover just about everything that an organic gardener and follower of sustainable living could want to know.

The four writers have been raising cane online for 6 years now and they’ve gotten a whole lot of attention from some of the biggest media outlets in the country including the New York Times, The Washington Post and Garden Design Magazine. 

So if you want to laugh and cry and learn about everything that can and does happen to gardeners and in gardening, this is the site for you.

Root Development of Vegetable Plants
Okay, this is a real niche resource.  But this is also what I love about the Internet.  Where else could you find information like this?

Written in 1927 by John E. Weaver and William E. Bruner, two botanists at the University of Nebraska,  Root Development of Vegetable Plants is almost 100 years old but if there is anything you want to know about the roots of any vegetable plant, this is the site to turn to.

I confess I have not read it every page but if I have a question, I gleefully put myself in the hands of Drs. Weaver and Bruner.  And I have learned a whole lot about why my plants do well or do poorly just by understanding the basics of how plants work!

Grow Girls Grow Organic
This Linked In group was started by me about 3 years ago and while it’s small (only 550 or so members), it includes gardeners, growers and friends from around the world.  Less structured and more informal, I welcome anyone who has any interest in gardening from back yard vegetables to rice paddies in Thailand.

Members can post questions, provide answers or just share links to their blogs about their own gardening experiences and backyard lives.  No advertisements are allowed on the blog and I try to police this are carefully – walking the fine line between promotion and providing information on something that might make gardening life easier.

I learned about Foodie Bugle from the Grow Girls Grow Organic members, found Hudson Valley Seed Library and High Mowing Organic Seeds through this group and have picked up quite a few tips on raising some veggies I thought I was already good at.

And I’ve gotten some hearty laughs and made a few friends along the way just from gathering together a group of gardeners from the United States and across the globe.

If you’re already a member of LinkedIn just search for Grow Girls Grow Organic and join in the noise about gardening and living!  Yes, guys are welcome to join too.

Peaceful Valley
Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, aka Grow Organic, is another organic growing business that started small in 1976 and just kept gaining sales and customers.  Peaceful Valley, named after Peaceful Valley Road in Nevada City, California, is now owned by Eric and Patty Boudier.

Visit their site and you’ll find a lot of excellent information on just about every gardening topic you could wish for.  You can read their online advice and you can watch Patty do video segments on everything from pruning fruit trees to planting tomatoes.

One note of caution:  the last time I ordered, Peaceful Valley had very high shipping rates for its products.  So, although I like the information they share, I don’t like paying almost as much to ship seed garlic as it costs to buy garlic.

If you live West of the Mississippi you may find their shipping rates are lower.  But the East coast pays a premium for Peaceful Valley products that we can get from growers like High Mowing Seed and Hudson Valley.

For the last two weeks, I have shared  books and web sites that are my best friends, especially in winter.  On cold, blustery days, when all the leaves are gone and the ground is covered with snow, I spend time gazing rooting around these sites and reading my books.

I plot and plan what I will grow and draw a garden diagram I know I will never follow.  And I spend quiet hours visiting my online friends and re-reading the books by my old friends that have helped me create this sustainable life of mine.

Next week, I’ll begin delving into the plants I will plan for and plant in 2013.

Grow So Easy Organic – Best Gardening Books

Anybody whose gardened for even a year has favorite books and favorite web sites.  As a 30 year, veteran organic gardener, I have my share of favorites, too.

There used to be dozens of books on my garden shelf.  Today, there are only about 10 of them.  What happened to the rest?

I realized that although I had a ton of books to choose from, I always chose the same, select few when I had a question or needed help.  So I decided to do a bit of clearing up.  When the dust settled, there were a lot more books in the back of the car than on my shelf.

I took the rejects to a used book store where all profits are used to support senior citizens and headed home, having done my good deed for the day.  So, on to the survivors, my favorite gardening books…starting with two books I have and treasure.

The Victory Garden
My life in the dirt began when I tripped over one small book one Saturday morning about 35 years ago. Crockett’s Victory Garden.  I guess I can blame Jim Crockett for all of my gardening crimes.

More than 3 decades old, Crockett’s book is still hailed as one of the best for beginning gardeners and it still has pride of place on my gardening book shelf.

Crockett was a gardener’s gardener.  He didn’t need fancy tools or high-end gadgets.  All this man needed was some soil, some seeds, some sun and rain and he had a garden full of the bounty of nature.

And he was always so easy to listen to and learn from.  No rush, no worries, just good, old-fashioned gardening advice, that’s what you got from Crockett every week on your local PBS station.  And that’s what you’ll get if you can find one of these vintage books for your shelf.

Seed Starters Handbook
The idea of seed starting used to terrify me.  I was beset with questions.  What if I saved the seeds incorrectly and none of them sprouted?  What if the seeds I saved changed from the original plant to a Frankenplant…born out of a cross I didn’t know about?  What if I got great plants and little, tiny fruits?

Saving my own seeds and using them in my garden the next year just wasn’t something I wanted to try.  But I did, with the help of a friend I’ve never met —  Nancy Bubel.

Published in 1988, Bubel’s The New Seed Starter’s Handbook taught me how to save seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers and use them the following spring.  Getting started was so easy that today, almost 25 years later,  I raise all my own seeds.

In fact, this past summer every plant in my garden — 5 varieties of tomato, 2 types of pepper, 2 of cucumbers and 2 of eggplant and 2 of zucchini – were all started in my basement along with butternut squash, lettuce, spinach, basil and parsley.

Bubel’s techniques are easy.  No special equipment is needed and success is practically guaranteed.  In fact, seed saving is so…natural…I’m surprised everyone isn’t doing it.

Garden Insects of North America; Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
If you grow them (vegetables and fruit), they will come.  Bugs you never imagined in your wildest nightmares will show up one afternoon and you won’t have a clue whether they’re good or bad.

WARNING:  Don’t do what I did.  I wiped out a whole generation of monarch butterflies because I thought the caterpillars on my dill and parsley were “bad.”  So, look before crushing.

It’s really important to, “Know thy enemy.”  Garden Insect of North America Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs (Princeton Field Guides)  makes it possible to learn about every kind of bug you never thought you wanted to know existed.  Literally.

The images in this book are so good that I turn the pages with my fingertips and only touch the lower corners.  And the images and descriptions will help you identify what’s chewing its way through your garden and give you a flying chance at handling the critter.

Lasagna Gardening
Patricia Lanza’s book entitled Lasagna Gardening, helped me expand my knowledge and increase the size of my garden 5 fold.  There are nooks and crannies in my backyard that were wasted space before I met her and read her book.

Now, every patch of dirt is real estate to grow in.  The inside line of the fence becomes a foot wide bed where beans can be planted and trailed up the fencing.

What’s really great about Lanza’s technique is there is no expensive equipment, no digging, no ploughing, no tilling.  All you have to do is find the space gather materials like shredded leaves, manure, grass clippings, coffee grounds, newspaper and compost and start layering.

Lanza made it easy to do but what she really gave me was the vision to see where I could plant and the freedom to “dig in” without digging at all.

Grow Fruit Naturally
This is my newest book but it is also a book I reach for frequently.  If you decide to grow fruit, Lee Reich is the guy to have in your hip pocket.  Why Reich?

For one thing, the man knows what he’s talking about.  With a doctorate in Horticulture, Reich taught for a while then moved from academic to author, writing books for the everyday gardener and farmer. All of his experience shows in his new book, Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit.

Reich’s knowledge comes from books but it also comes from experience.  He lives on what he calls his “farmden” so named because it’s “…more than a garden, less than a farm.”   And he really, really knows his stuff.

His latest book, Grow Fruit Naturally, could not have come at a better time for me and my backyard orchard.  I especially love his advice on blueberries.

I started growing blueberries without knowing that they are one of the easiest fruits to raise.  In fact, 6 of my bushes are mini-miracles in themselves.  But that’s a story for a later date which I promise to tell in this eBook.

Let’s just say, I planted 12 blueberry bushes in the corner of my back yard instead of 6 and I’ve been harvesting 60 quarts of blueberries every summer…until the summer of 2012.

Weather had something to do with it – 90 degree days in April and 40 degree nights in May.  But somehow, I knew weather was not the only problem.  I was very lucky because, in 2012, one of the best experts on planting and raising bushes and trees shared the fact that blueberry bushes have to be pruned.  Who knew?

Because of this book, I will be heading out into the blueberries in October to do my first pruning, ever!

The Pruning Book
Also by Lee Reich, The Pruning Book: Completely Revised and Updated. The Pruning Book is one I’ve had on my shelf for 15 years.  I bought mine used and have read it a couple of times.  Like his book on growing fruit, Reich shares tons of photographs and drawings that make it easier to learn how to prune any plant.

Reich also shares pruning basics using a step-by-step approach.  He tells you how to prune ornamentals, vines, fruit trees and even house plants.  And Reich offers a special section on pruning techniques for espalier, topiary, bonsai, and pollarding.

By the way, if you like what you read in these Reich books, check out the others he has on sale.  I loved Weedless Gardening and still use the techniques I read in this book in my garden, today.   This wonderful writer and gardener has published many good books.  The books are easy to read, enjoyable and can teach you so much about how to grow and care for plants, vines, shrubs, bushes and trees!

4 Season Gardening
When you are ready to extend your growing season, I can think of no one more helpful than Eliot Coleman and his book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.  Coleman lives in Maine…so if he can grow vegetables year round, the rest of us should be able to do it, standing on our heads!

As it says in the new edition of this book, “It’s hard to achieve anything new in an endeavor as old as gardening, but Eliot Coleman has done it.”

In this book, Coleman shares every bit of his knowledge, his tools, his advice and his finely honed sense of the cycle of life over the course of a year.  He does so because he wants all of us to benefit from what it has taken him, literally a lifetime to learn.

Clearly written, beautifully illustrated and loaded with photographs, this book is a slow, steady path to move from just gardening in the summer to gardening all year round.  I love the fact that you don’t have to dive in and do it all, all at the same time.

Thanks to Coleman, I now use a small cold frame (made from recycled windows and wood) and have some small plastic tunnels for extending my lettuce crop.  I saved old sheer curtains and sheets and use them to provide protection from frost and I am constantly on the lookout for an old green house that I can buy or move and start growing from November to February.

I love this book and this author because of his generosity of spirit.  And I love Coleman because, as much as any other gardening guru and maybe even a little more, he has given me hope that comes from growing living things.  We don’t have to wait for spring.  We can grow despite the howling wind and falling snow.

Spring will come again but we don’t have to wait for it anymore.

Next week, web sites that I visit on a regular basis for help, advice, information and sometimes, just a little sympathy!

Grow So Easy Organic – Best Resources for Seeds

Fall is always a bittersweet time for most gardeners.

The bitter is the end of the season, the death of all the plants we nurtured from embryo and childhood to full blow adult.  The end of gazing at green dotted with red tomatoes, deep purple eggplant, multi-colored peppers and the deep blue and black of berries on the bush.

The sweet is all in the future – picking out next year’s crops and planning where these special additions will live in your garden.

Which Comes First – Picking or Planning?
This used to be a real conundrum for me so, sometimes I’d pick – sometimes I’d plan and sometimes. I do the exact opposite.  It doesn’t matter to me because I am a lot more relaxed about my garden than I used to be.  And frankly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter…except when it comes to buying your seeds.

There are a whole lot of places you can find and buy seeds.  The market place gets a little narrower if you only want to plant organic seeds and narrower still if you are only going for heirloom seeds.

As an organic gardener, I really do work hard to avoid buying seed from companies that have anything to do with GMO.  I also don’t want my seeds coated with anything or doctored in any way.  Sure, some of the seeds won’t sprout but here’s my philosophy.  If it was meant to grow in my soil, it will.

So when it comes to acquiring seeds, I shop for organic and heirloom.  And I have a few favorite places to buy them.  Since I’ve been buying seeds for many, many, many years, my criteria haven’t changed but some of my sources have, thanks to the Internet and my gardening friends around the world.

Nonetheless, I love opening my mailbox and finding the first seed catalogue in it.  It’s the signal to start browsing all the possibilities and putting in my order.  NOTE:  I know it’s fall.  I know you won’t be planting until February or March (especially if you are a seed starter).  But don’t wait to order. This is especially true if you are buying organic and heirloom seeds.

If you wait to place your order, you may be disappointed.  The latest data indicates that about 50% — half of the population – are doing some back yard gardening.  Ordering seeds now means that you will get the ones you want.

Seed Resources
The internet has opened up a whole new world of where to get the best organic and heirloom seeds.  Here are some of my favorite places to shop and a bit of a reason on why I like them.

High Mowing Organic Seeds
High Mowing Organic Seeds started as a hobby in one man’s backyard garden.  In 1996, founder Tom Stearns planted just 28 varieties of veggies. Converting his tool shed into a seed packing area, he had no trouble selling the seed he grew that first year. The unmet demand for organic seed helped Stearns expand his business, first by renting parcels of land to produce the seed he was selling through a hand-made catalog then by working with select commercial growers.  High Mowing Organic Seeds offers over 600 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed.

An Aside:  there is another reason that I just love this small and “growing” company.  They share all of their knowledge, including their mistakes and their solutions, freely, literally.  Here’s a good example of the caliber of information High Mowing Organic Seeds posts for everyone to read and learn from.  This article is on growing spinach.  http://www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/spinach-for-winter-production/

So I buy their seeds and subscribe to their newsletter.  A win for me.

Hudson Valley Seed Library
I also buy from a small but growing farm network — Hudson Valley Seed Library.

Like High Mowing Organic Seeds, Hudson Valley offers only organic seed.  Like High Mowing, Hudson Valley started small.  But this is where the comparisons stop.  Hudson Valley offers an online seed library for all gardeners…but it also offers an online seed catalog that is focused on the Northeast.   The idea that was hatched in the town library has grown to a full-blown seed farm where open-pollinated seeds are grown, saved, and packed by hand.

High Mowing has close to one thousand seed library members and it has offers a surprise with every seed packet – heirloom seeds in unique Art Packs designed and created by artists who submit art work for consideration and inclusion in this unique living art gallery.

The farms that make up this group  raise seed you can trust, that’s a given.  But the partners who started this business, Ken Greene and Doug Muller, also use artists to create seed pack covers and donate free seeds to a school garden, community garden, or garden organization  in need.

I love the seeds and I love what the company stands for so I will spend some of my hard-earned dollars with Hudson Valley to get great seeds and support a worthy cause.

Grow Italian
When I want to raise tomatoes and peppers that grace Italian kitchen gardens and enrich the already luscious cuisine of Italy, I only buy Franchi seeds.

This is a U.S.-based business but the seeds only come from Italy.  And what wonderful varieties you can find on their website and

You can get a catalogue, too, but don’t expect a glossy 5 color magazine with gorgeous photography and elegant descriptions.  Grow Italian is mostly a one man operation.

Territorial Seeds
Territorials Seeds is sometimes considered the “granddaddy” of organic and heirloom seeds.

This company started when organic was in its infancy way back in the late 1970’s.  Today, it is still owned by Tom and Julie Johns. They bought the small enterprise in 1985 from its founder Steve Solomon.  Although the business has grown over the last 20 plus years, Tom and Julie have not strayed far from the original course set by Steve.

And Territorial Seeds doesn’t just sell veggie seeds, they share information including a garden planter guide and growing guides that I still use after years of gardening, myself.

Next week, I will be sharing some of my favorite books and web sites for organic gardeners.  Also, beginning next week, Grow So Easy Organic will be published on Saturdays…now that I have a full-time job!

Organic Gardening Made Easy – How To Control Bugs Without Pesticides – Part II WMD

If you’re a gardener, killing is in the cards.

If you’re an organic gardener, you will kill, too. But you won’t kill indiscriminately.  Your Weapons Of Mass Destruction (WMD) will be kind to you and your family and kind to the environment.  WARNING: THIS IS A LONG POST…but worth the read.  Oh and some of the ideas are gruesome…but they work.

Insecticidal Soap
Let’s start with an easy weapon you’ve heard about before – insecticidal soap.

Insecticidal soap is a good way to try to control pests before they get a foothold.  You can use dishwashing liquid for your base because it is mild and, used in small quantities, won’t damage the plants.

The soap enhances the ability of the other additives to stick to the leaves of the plant for a bit longer. Soap also dehydrates the bug’s cell membranes and speeds their trip to bug heaven. One word of caution, don’t use too much soap.  If you do, you could kill your plants right along with the bugs.

RECIPE:  Home Brewed Insecticidal Soap
Here’s a base recipe for making insecticidal soap that may discourage your pests including the cucumber beetle.

INGREDIENTS
6 cloves of garlic
1 large onion
1 to 2 tablespoons of red pepper flakes or 1 to 2 tablespoons of powdered cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dishwashing soap
1 gallon water

DIRECTIONS
Put the garlic, onion and pepper in a blender or food processor and liquefy.
Steep these ingredients for an hour.
Strain through cheesecloth.
Stir the blended mixture into a gallon of hot water.
Stir in the dishwashing liquid.
Cover and let it stand for two days so the bits of garlic, onion or pepper flakes settle to the bottom.

Strain again, stopping about an inch from the bottom to keep the bits of garlic or pepper flakes on the bottom of the jar from flowing into the newly strained liquid.

Pour the liquid into a spray bottle and spray affected plants thoroughly to discourage bad bugs!

WMD In The War on Bugs
Like any good general who goes to war, you can’t just rely on one weapon.  There are a few more that really took me a couple of years to come to grips with.

Before gardening, I was a wimp.  If a bug of any variety crossed my path, I drew myself up to my full 64 inch height, screamed and ran.  Oh, yes I did.

Then I became an organic gardener.  Bugs moved from the nuisance category to sworn  enemy.  And my arsenal expanded to include some pretty weird (and previously unthinkable) weapons.

Rocks
Rocks are a favorite.  They’re cheap and readily available.  And they’re effective.  Just hold a rock on either side of a squash leaf that’s harboring stink bugs and bring them down quickly, bashing the brains out of the vine borer before it lays eggs or pokes holes in your squash, cuke or pumpkin stems.

Oh, and make sure you check the bottoms of the leaves of your zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers and pumpkins for eggs.  Once you see a stinkbug you can be sure you have a little batch of bright orange eggs stashed somewhere on the plant.  Find them, crush them and move on.

Hands
Hands do the job with a bit more finesse than rocks.  Okay, it’s a bit gross to grab a bug and squash it with your bare hands.  But smaller beetles like cucumber, asparagus and Mexican bean beetles are much more agile than stink bugs so rocks rarely work.

NOTE:  be prepared to spend a bit of time every afternoon or evening catching and crushing these beetles.    I used to come home from the office, change and go out and vent all the pent up hostility of handling my staff, my peers and my bosses by crushing as many bugs as I could find.

Finding these winged pests and their crawling, larval offspring means taking the time to shake each plant.  When they fly up and land again, squash them between thumb and forefinger while perhaps reciting the litany of crimes your co-workers have committed and the punishment you are meting out.

Be methodical.  Flip the leaves of every plant over to look for larva and eggs.  This is especially important for Mexican bean beetles.  “Where there’s one,” my Mom used to say, “There are a million.”  So be ruthless.  Think sheer volume and crush away.

Slotted Spoon & A Pot of Water
There are some bugs I just will not tackle, bare-handed.  When the Japanese beetles and their cousins, the Asian beetle and the Green Fruit beetle (looks like a Japanese beetle on steroids) come calling, I break out my slotted spoon and a pot of cold water.  Weird weapons of choice for dealing with flying beetles that can hook to your clothes and get caught in your hair but, believe me, they work.

There’s just one trick.  You have to go out to the infested plants early in the morning, as dawn breaks and before the sun begins to warm the air.  These beetles are heavy sleepers and don’t start stirring until the sun is up.  So it’s really easy to whack them into the pot of water with the spoon and wait for them to drown.  Or if you’ve got chickens, set the pot in the coop and stand back.  It will look like a Japanese horror movie as the chickens move in to eat their fill.

Sifter and flour
This is a trick my Mom taught me.  She raised a lot of cole crops – cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts.  And these plants were really plagued by things like the codling moth.  Well, Mom showed me how to use morning dew, white flour and a sifter to turn the moths and their larvae into – well, how can I say this – papier mache bugs.

The flour and water mixed together to create a paste that baked in the sun and froze this insect enemy into tiny sculptures that could no longer chew their way through my plants.  By the way, this also works for flea beetles.

Chili Powder
Here’s another ingredient from the kitchen that works, all on its own, to help control roly-polies, earwigs, and some of our other not-so-welcome bugs.  And it’s simple and cheap (my favorite combination).  Sprinkle chili powder under targeted plants. It doesn’t hurt the plants but it sure does make the creepy crawlies take off and never come back.

Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth is a blessing for any gardener plagued by slugs.  And if you plant tender lettuce and young pepper plants, you will probably have slugs coming over for dinner every night.  Like the trick for killing codling moths, I tend to put the diatomaceous earth in the flour sifter and sift it gently over the affected plants but don’t inhale it. It can hurt you, too.

I also use a spoon to lay down little circles of diatomaceous earth around the stems of my plants and around the outside of the lettuce plants.  Diatomaceous earth is made of the sharp, jagged skeletal remains of microscopic creatures. It acts like finely ground glass and lacerates soft-bodied slugs causing them to dehydrate. 

Grandsons
I don’t want to be sexist here and I was going to write grandchildren but I just could not get my granddaughter engaged in this particular game.  I paid my grandsons cash on the barrel head for Japanese beetle bodies.  And they earned a considerable amount of money some years by just banging the beetles into a pot or crushing them with rocks.

Some of the tactics seem downright cruel but, remember, this is war!

Closing Thoughts on Controlling Bugs
There will be days when you are on the battlefield, armed with your weapon of choice and you’ll still feel a bit like David to the insect kingdom’s Goliath.

Take heart and smash, bash, drown and pick until you’ve cut into the insect front line troops.  And remember that resisting a quick squirt of pesticide means knowing that your food will not kill you, your family or your friends.

Got any weird or wonderful ways to control bugs, organically?  Please share them!  Next week, composting successfully.  Composting always sounded like it required a lot of work and a pretty good dose of luck. I’ll show you just how easy it can be.

Grow So Easy Organic – Nice-to-Have Gardening Tools

The first set of tools I suggested are all useful for any gardener.  But I’m a practical organic gardener so I love the fact that most of them are found, free or inexpensive.

This set of tools are nice to have and will make your life a bit easier but you don’t need them to be an organic gardener.  If you’re new to the hobby, you might not want to invest in anything but the necessities until you know if you like gardening.

If you try gardening and like it, you can start looking over this list and pick out the tools you think you would like to add to your collection.

Tools That Are Nice To Have
Here’s my list of “nice to haves” for organic gardeners:

  1. A kneeling pad – you can make one of these or buy one.  I’ve had my small green one for more than 15 years and it really, really saves your knees!
  2. Gloves – I consider these nice to have because you really can dig in the dirt, bare-handed, and suffer no ill effects.  In fact, I don’t use gloves because I love the feel of soil in my hands.
  3. Two hand tools – both of mine are Fiskars because of the grip, the design and the lifetime guarantee. The first tool is the “Fiskars 7079 Big Grip Garden Knife. The second tool is the Fiskars 7073 Big Grip Trowel.
  4. A pitch fork – used to move the straw back from the fence sections a couple of weeks before planting so the soil can warm a bit. Also handy when digging up potatoes or garlic or spreading mulch.
  5. A watering can – very nice to have if you want to hand-water fresh transplants or apply liquid fertilizer.
  6. Peat pots – I use 2” and 4” peat pots and hate paying the price for them.  But they make transplanting easier for me and less stressful for the baby plants so I pay.  Tip:  I try to get them online rather than in a big box store where the price is always higher.
  7. A sharp knife or pair of scissors nicked from the kitchen – nice to have on hand to cut baling twine and great for cutting off produce rather than trying to pull it off.  Having lost several battles with eggplant and peppers, I tend to keep a sharp knife in my garden basket and use it with malice aforethought.

Bonus Tools You Can Use
Here’s are a few more items I’ve learned to keep on hand or invest in.  They all help to make my gardening go a little easier:

  1. A good bug book – this could be one of your larger expenses but, believe me, you will be grateful for putting out the cash.  Why?  There are a whole lot of good bugs in the garden that will do battle with the bad ones without you lifting a finger.  But, if you don’t know the good from the bad, you could be killing your soldiers and giving the enemy a chance to overrun the battlefield, i.e. your garden.  I bought Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Crenshaw and the up close images of bugs help me identify what I’m battling.
  2. Soaker hoses – using soaker hoses saves water but they can also slow down or stop soil-born diseases that are spread by spraying and bouncing water on plants.  And I found and use what I think are the best soaker hoses in the world just last year – the Gilmour Flat Soaker hose.
  3. A small propane torch – the handheld kind – I use this to burn tent caterpillars off my fruit trees.  It’s a bit brutal but it burns the nest and the caterpillars before they can strip my trees.  Oh, and you can use it to burn out poison ivy, too.
  4. Raised beds – I make mine with 2 x 12’s (NOT pressure treated) and plastic anchor joints from Home Depot.
  5. A good pair of secateurs like Felco F-2 Classic Manual Hand Pruner. These hand held clippers can cut through a 1” branch like it was butter.  They let you trim inside the plant, bush or tree instead of hacking off the outer foliage or branches.

These lists contain all tools I consider nice to have if you want to move beyond dabbling in organic and decide to grow most of your produce every spring, summer and fall.

Bit of advice?  Before you buy any of these items, look on http://freecycle.org  or http://craigslist.org  to see if you can get them for free or cheap!

Tell me about your favorite gardening tools and why you like them!

Next week, how to handle being bugged without using pesticides.

Organic Gardening Made Easy – Practical (Free) Tools You Will Use

I call this section in my book, “Practical Organic.”  Why do I think organic gardening is practical?  Just this.

Unlike traditional gardening, if you go organic, there are a lot of things you will NEVER have to buy.

You do not have to buy any chemicals or herbicides.  You don’t have to have fancy sprayers or a rototiller – not even one of those small ones named after the bug that prays.

The short list of what you need is dirt, water, seeds and sun.  If you try organic gardening and don’t like it, you’ve probably only invested a few dollars and some time.

But if you do try it and you do like it, you probably already own just about everything you might need to get started.  What you don’t own, you can usually get, for free.

So, here’s my list of what you need to be an organic gardener:

  1. Dirt – free.
  2. Seeds – cheap to buy and even cheaper if you save some for next year’s garden.
  3. A big spoon or small shovel – something to dig holes with when transplanting.
  4. Newspapers – free if you ask your neighbors and co-workers for them.  You can use them for mulch and make transplant pots with it, too.
  5. Straw – free if you find a farmer who has old or moldy straw to get rid of and which works just as well as the golden yellow stuff.
  6. Some found items that your cukes, tomatoes and peppers can climb
    Cucumbers growing up an old inner spring.

    Cucumbers like to climb and did great on this old bed spring.

    up or grow in.  When I say found, I mean things like the old double-bed spring I use for climbing vegetables or the headboard and footboard from the cast aluminum bed that I found on the side of the road.

  7. Epsom salts – dirt cheap in half gallon milk shaped containers.
  8. A bucket – free if you can get a hold of a kitty litter container or a dog food bucket.
  9. A mug – free if you liberate it from your kitchen and use it to deliver water or fertilizer right to the roots of your plants.
  10. Twine – free if you (or someone you know) buy straw by the bale, save the baling twine and use it to tie up plants.  You can also get tons of baling twine in any horse barn.  NOTE:  Do NOT use green baling twine.  It has been treated with strychnine to kill mice and rats.
  11. Old, sheer curtains, old bed sheets and even old mattress covers – free if you save yours or ask relatives and friends to give their old ones to you.  They don’t look as pretty as commercial row covers but they will keep frost off your baby plants.  And they’ll slow down all the bloody beetles that want to share your food.
  12. Access to a public library – free and there are always books and magazines about organic gardening ready for you to browse through, borrow and take notes from.Oh, and libraries have computers and internet connections. Using them is free. And online is just FULL of ideas, tips and advice on organic gardening.  All you have to do is put in your search terms and hit Go.
  13. An old 3-ring binder and some paper – can be free if you ask co-workers to save used copy paper and write on the back.  NOTE:  I consider this a requirement for my gardening.  If I don’t write down a tip or a “lesson learned”, I forget and end up repeating my mistakes again and again and again.
  14. A bit of inventiveness, a dollop of gumption and enough courage to try, fail and try again.

There’s no hurry.  You don’t have to have all of these things all at once in order to get started.  In fact, I accumulated all the items above over the years.

So, you can garden happily without most of them but there will be some challenges.   Next week, tools that are “nice to have.”  These may cost a bit up front but may also save you a lot over your lifetime as a gardener.