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Putting the Garden to Bed

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Whether your garden is just a small plot of flowers by the front door or a full-on truck patch, you’ll want to put it to bed for the winter. The purpose is to prepare the garden beds for next spring, when you’ll be planting again. Start by pulling out any weeds that you’ve let grow as summer turned to fall and garden work became less appealing. Especially pull out any weeds that have gone to seed. Then turn any finished crops or frost-bitten annual flowers into the soil with a spade. They’ll rot overwinter and help fertilize your soil. Cut perennials off about two inches above ground level and remove the tops to the compost pile, or let them lay on the ground to rot over winter. Now fertilize the beds with at least two inches—or more if you’ve got it—of well-made compost. A cubic foot of compost will cover about six square feet of soil, or shovel compost onto the beds and rake it out evenly so it’s about two or three inches deep.

Leaves are your friends. Cover your garden beds with leaves you’ve raked up. Scavenge the neighborhood for your neighbors’ bags of leaves. Cover your beds with a good six inches of leaves and wet them down with a hose. If you have the time and inclination, run your lawnmower over the leaves to reduce them to chopped mulch. If the mower is blowing the chopped leaves too far afield, chop the leaves with the mower near a wall, where the leaf mulch will collect. Then transfer it to the garden. Leaves are super-nutritious for the soil.

If you have tender plants that will need protection overwinter, such as hybrid tea roses, Make chicken wire cylinders about three feet in diameter and three feet tall. Trim your dormant roses back as you normally would—to two or three canes each about a foot long. Now cover each plant with its own wire cage. Fill the wire cages with leaves and fix a piece of bird netting over the top so rain can enter but winter winds can’t whirl the leaves away. If you live in a very cold region—USDA Zones 5 or colder—you should additionally wrap the rose canes with old cloths, old cloth rugs, or anything that will cover them against the cold, before putting the wire cages over them and filling them with leaves.

Your seed catalogs will start arriving around the first of the year. Order early to make sure you get what you want. When things start warming up in the spring, turn the overwintered leaves and compost into the garden soil and add another two or three inches of compost to the soil surface. Your garden will be ready to grow, and will start growing cold-season crops when the soil temperature reaches a steady 50 degrees F.


The term “organic” has its own watchdog agency separate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Cornucopia Institute is a non-profit organization located in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, that seeks justice for family organic farmers. Part of that task is to guard the term “organic” so it is not misused or applied to foods that are not organic. The Institute recently released an important report on breakfast cereals and granolas. It’s important enough to give you the full executive summary. You’ll note that the full report includes a scorecard of 50 cereals showing which are truly organic and which aren’t. The results may surprise you. Here’s their executive summary of the report, followed by a link to the scorecard.

Federal law requires that organic food products be produced in ways that promote ecological sustainability, without the toxic inputs and genetically engineered ingredients that are common in the conventional food system. Increasingly, these organic products are forced to compete with products that claim to be “natural.” No legal requirements or restrictions exist for foods labeled “natural.” The term, in many instances, constitutes meaningless marketing hype promoted by corporate interests seeking to cash in on the consumer’s desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable manner.

Unlike the organic label, no government agency, certification group or other independent entity defines the term “natural” on food packages or ensures that the claim has merit (other than meat, where the USDA has created some extremely modest requirements). Each corporation determines its own definition of the “natural” label. “Natural” generally is thought to mean “no artificial ingredients,” including preservatives, but the farms and processing plants that produce ingredients for “natural” foods are not prohibited by law from using dangerous pesticides, genetically engineered crops, fumigants, solvents and toxic processing aids. These agricultural and manufacturing inputs are not required by law to be listed on ingredient labels.

This report explores the growing trend toward labeling conventional foods as “natural,” focusing on breakfast cereal and granola, which are considered staples in many American households. Since breakfast cereals are popular with children, it is especially important for parents to be aware of the differences between “natural” products, with conventional ingredients, and certified organic ones. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in “natural” products but prohibited in organics. This report stresses that the terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable, and an analysis of the differences shows why health-conscious and ecoconscious consumers should check carefully for the word “organic” before putting a box of cereal or bag of granola in their shopping cart.

Section I of the report covers the legal requirements that distinguish organic claims from “natural” claims on food packages. Federal law requires that foods with the “organic” label be produced in ways that are substantially different from conventional food production. Independent USDA-accredited certifying agents ensure that organic producers follow these strict federal standards. No such legal requirement exists for “natural” labels on foods. Since no federal law exists to define and standardize “natural” claims, each company comes up with its own self-serving definition.

Section II explores several company definitions of “natural,” underscoring how vastly different they can be. For example, some companies go to the expense of procuring non-genetically engineered corn in “natural” products, while many “natural” breakfast cereals contain high levels of genetically engineered ingredients. Yet despite the substantial legal difference between organic and “natural” labels on foods, polls show many consumers are unaware of these differences.

In Section III, results from various polls show that many consumers erroneously believe that the “natural” label has merit, such as signifying that the food is free of pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients. Companies that market “natural” foods to ecoconscious and health-conscious consumers benefit from this widespread confusion between organic and “natural.”

Section IV details various tactics that have been used by companies in their attempt to appear to be equivalent to organics, intentionally blurring the distinction to mislead shoppers. To empower consumers who wish to support companies that are committed to organics, food safety and environmentally sustainable agriculture, Section V includes company profiles of organic and “natural” cereal and granola brands. This section lifts the veil on corporate owners of popular brands that sometimes actively hide their identity from their customers, perhaps knowing that consumers drawn to “natural” labels would not be interested in enriching multibillion-dollar corporations. Bear Naked®, owned by Kellogg Company, is an example: the name Kellogg appears nowhere on Bear Naked® packaging or its website. This section sheds light on corporate identities of popular organic and “natural” brands, ranging from small family businesses to multinational corporations.

Section VI explores price differences between organic and “natural” breakfast cereal and granola products. Although “natural” products are conventional (both in crop production and processing methods), they often are priced at a premium, closer to organic prices. In some cases, conventional, “natural” products are priced higher than their organic counterparts. It appears that companies are engaged in clever “natural” marketing, profiting tremendously from consumer confusion about the difference between “natural” and organic and their willingness to pay a premium for pure, wholesome foods.“Natural” marketing hurts certified organic farmers, organic competitors, and consumers who believe they are buying a truly natural product.

Section VII discusses the effects of “natural” claims on the organic manufacturers whose certified organic products are forced to compete with empty “natural” claims. Companies marketing “natural” products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco-friendliness, while undercutting the truly committed companies that walk the walk by buying from farms that are managed organically, without synthetics, genetically engineered crops or toxic pesticides. Many times “natural” companies invest in solar or wind energy to prove how “green” they are, rather than investing in organic, the safest and most environmentally friendly form of agriculture.

Section VIII discusses the effects of “natural” marketing on organic farmers. When food manufacturers shift their product ingredients from organic to “natural,” it means they buy conventional ingredients from chemical-intensive farms instead of buying from organic farms. Organic farmers have received lower prices for their grains in recent years as cereal companies drop their demand for organic ingredients when they switch to “natural” labeling and conventional ingredients.

Section IX covers differences in environmental impacts of certified organic farming and conventional farming that produces ingredients for “natural” products. As shown by poll data, many consumers believe that “natural” means the food is free of “unnatural” inputs, such as genetically engineered seed and pesticides.

Section X explores various impacts on consumers of misleading “natural” labeling and consuming conventional ingredients. Section X also provides test results showing that many “natural” cereal products, including Kashi, Mother’s and Barbara’s Bakery, are produced with genetically engineered organisms. Section X also uses pesticide residue data from the United States Department of Agriculture to show that many conventional ingredients in “natural” breakfast cereal and granola products often contain pesticide residues. Aside from chemical residues emanating from crop production on the farm, “natural” ingredients are also not protected from toxic fumigants used on crops in storage, and toxic solvents used during processing. These inputs are strictly prohibited in organic production and processing.

Consumers should be aware that “natural” products contain conventional ingredients that were produced no differently from the ingredients in other typical processed foods. Only certified organic ingredients were verified as grown and processed without the use of genetically engineered organisms, toxic pesticides, fumigants and solvents.

This report is accompanied by an online scorecard listing 50 cereal and granola brands, available on the Cornucopia website (www.cornucopia.org/cereal-scorecard).


Get Ready for Your 2012 Tomato Patch NOW!

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Believe it or not, now is the time to start planning for next season’s organic tomato patch. Why now? Because you are going to have the earliest tomatoes of anyone in your county and you need to know which seeds to order to get the right varieties and plant them at the right time.

Many home gardeners pride themselves on bringing in the first ripe tomatoes of the season, but very few know exactly how to do it. Here’s what you need to know to bring in the earliest possible tomatoes in your region, in a way that requires the least work. In fact, in less than an afternoon, you can create a tomato patch that will swamp you with fruit all season long without weeding, or even very much watering. My advice is to print out and save these directions.

Overview: Tomatoes are among the highest yielding of all our garden crops. But the earliest tomatoes—those that grow and produce well when the spring weather is still cool—are not the most high yielding types. So we need a strategy. Let’s start with the soil. A very rich soil—that is, one with an abundance of nitrogen from manures—tends to flush tomato plants into lots of stem and leaf growth, but not so much into producing tomatoes. In trials at the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, we grew tomatoes in pure compost, in soil under turf that was removed, and in unimproved field soil that had been in continuous corn crops where agricultural chemicals had been used for many years. The tomatoes produced the heaviest crops in the soil that had been under the turf. Circles of turf grass were removed and tomato plants put into the exposed soil underneath. This seemed to suit the tomato plants best, prompting them into good, compact growth with lots of fruits. If you have an area of your garden that’s 12 feet by 8 feet (96 square feet) and covered in turf grass, you can lift six three-foot circles of turf and shake the soil from the turves into the exposed soil, with two rows of three circles each. If the soil is bare or weedy, turn it up and improve its nutrition with about a cubic foot of good compost per circle. This is where your tomato garden will go.

Varieties: You are initially after the earliest possible tomatoes in your area. And so, you need seed of early varieties—those that will mature fruit when other varieties are hanging out, waiting for warm weather. But you will also want a variety that will produce pounds upon pounds of tomatoes for sauce during the warm summer months.

First, you need to understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate plants set a large crop of tomatoes and then stop growing. Indeterminate plants keep producing new stems throughout the growing season, right up to frost, with trusses of flowers followed by fruit emerging from the leaf axils of those stems. For our earliest tomatoes, we will choose one determinate variety. The other variety in our six-plant tomato patch will be indeterminate. We will also grow an extra indeterminate plant in a large pot to replace our earliest tomato after it sets its crop of fruit. Here are the varieties you need.

Purchase a packet of Oregon Spring V and a packet of a large paste tomato like Rocky. (Oregon Spring is available at Territorial Seed Co. at www.territorialseed.com/prod_detail_list/s?keyword=Oregon+Spring and Rocky is available from Tomato Grower’s Supply Company at www.tomatogrowers.com/processing.htm and scroll down to Rocky.)

Oregon Spring is a cold tolerant tomato developed at Oregon State University for home gardeners along Oregon’s cool coast. The catalogs rate it at 58 days from setting plants in the garden to maturity of its first tomato crop, but we can hasten that. Large paste tomatoes like Rocky—or old favorites like San Marzano or Roma—are indeterminate and will produce bushels of fruit all summer. Rocky is good because each tomato is large and can be used fresh as a slicing and salad tomato or it can be used for sauce. As you prepare for the growing season, start saving all your newspapers. There’ll be a good use for them later. And save all one-gallon plastic milk or water jugs.

Setting Up the Tomato Patch:

Identify your last frost date. In much of the country, that’s about May 15, with more northerly areas up to several weeks later and southerly areas up to a month earlier. Most tomato-growing instructions tell you to wait until two weeks after the last frost date to plant your tomatoes, but I’m going to tell you to plant them two weeks before the last frost date. After all, we want the earliest possible tomatoes and I have a strategy for getting the plants to produce fruit while the neighbors are still selecting their seedlings at the garden center.

Determine where your tomato patch will go. It will be two rows of three plants each for a total of six plants, which translates to a width of eight feet and row length of 12 feet, or 96 square feet. At the hardware store, buy a piece of clear plastic sheeting that will entirely cover the area with one piece. About six weeks before your last frost date, lay the clear plastic over your future patch site and shovel a little soil along the edges so heat is trapped under the plastic and breezes can’t blow it away. This will help warm the soil long before the surrounding soil is warm. If there are grasses and weeds, mow them down almost to ground level before putting on the plastic.

Starting Your Plants:

About the same time you are laying down the plastic, start your tomato plants. If you have a cold frame, warm porch, sunny bay window, or any area that gets six hours of sun a day, you’ll place your new seedlings there. If not, consider investing in fluorescent grow lights hung just a few inches above your seedlings. Tomatoes like heat and light.

Rather than use pots, you’ll need a series of paper cups—small, medium, and large. With a pencil, punch three drainage holes in the bottom of the smallest cups. Fill the small cups to within a half inch of the top with potting soil or any good garden soil. Plant two seeds of each variety of tomato in each cup. Plant two or three cups with Oregon Spring and about 12-18 cups with your high volume paste tomato, such as Rocky, marking the cups so you know which variety is in them. Place the cups in a containing tray that won’t leak and water them well.

New seedlings will show two leaves—the cotyledons—at first, and then will follow with true leaves with scalloped margins. When the seedlings show four true leaves, take the next larger size cups and punch drainage holes, then fill them with potting soil. Select the largest and strongest seedling from each of the smallest cups and transplant it to the next larger size, burying the stem to just below the true leaves. Handle the seedlings very gently, pricking them free with the tines of a fork. If you must touch the seedlings, handle them by the leaves, not the stem. The baby tomato can produce new leaves if you accidently damage one, but not a new stem. You can nick off the cotyledons with a fingernail or use scissors. Discard the runts and mark the new pots with the variety in them.

Let the tomatoes grow until they now produce a tuft of new leaves at the top of the plants. Take the next larger size of paper cup and repeat the procedure, again nicking off lower leaves and burying the stem right up to the tuft of new leaves at the top.

Tomatoes produce roots all along their buried stems, and so what you’ve been doing is creating a tomato plant with a small but strong tuft of growing leaves and a great big ball of roots. If you’ve ever purchased started tomato seedlings at a nursery, you’ll notice that they most likely have long stems and lots of leaves but very small root balls. This is because the nursery has been feeding the plants with high-powered liquid fertilizer, so the plant has no need to grow lots of roots. It’s swamped with fertilizer. When such a plant is put into the garden, suddenly it no longer gets copious quantities of fertilizer, yet it has all those stems and leaves to support without enough root system to support them. And so it sulks and hardly grows at all for a few weeks to a month, until its root system catches up with its green tops. But you have created exactly the opposite: a huge root ball and very little top. When this baby gets planted, it takes off like a rocket, with plenty of roots to supply immediate growth of strong stems, greenery, and of course, big tomatoes.

Planting the Tomatoes:

For your six plants, you’ll have one Oregon Spring and five plants of your main, indeterminate variety. The sixth indeterminate plant should go in a five-gallon pot, staked to grow there until Oregon Spring is finished, after which you’ll pull the Oregon Spring and transplant the sixth main crop plant into its space.

You can leave the clear plastic on the ground and punch planting holes through it, but I don’t recommend that. Over the summer, it will tend to break apart due to foot traffic and create a mess. So I advise pulling up the plastic at this point and storing it for later use, as you will see. Dig six circular holes a foot or more deep and a foot across. Add a handful of compost to each hole before putting in the tomatoes and mix it with the native soil. Plant them deeply enough that all of the root ball and most of the stem is buried. Run a hose on each plant on a slow trickle for at least a half hour, so they are thoroughly watered in.

Mulching the Plot and Caging the Tomatoes:

Each tomato plant will need a vertical cylindrical wire cage to which you can tie the elongating shoots. Tomatoes left to lie on the ground will rot. The wire mesh should be generous enough for you to reach your hand through the squares in order to harvest the tomatoes inside. Concrete swimming pool reinforcing wire is ideal. It will never rust out and your hand will easily slip inside the squares formed by the wire mesh. Each cage will be made from nine feet of four-foot wide wire mesh formed into a cylinder slightly smaller than three feet in diameter. And you’ll need six cages. So you will need 54 feet of wire mesh four feet in width cut into six nine-foot lengths. Form each into a circle and crimp the exposed wire ends onto the closest wire square to make each cage. This reinforcing wire is tough stuff, so you’ll need a good pair of vise grips and tough gloves for this work.

Once the cages—six cylinders four feet tall and a little less than three feet in diameter—are constructed, it’s time to go for all those newspapers you’ve been saving. Lay thick pads of newspaper on the ground over the whole tomato patch, exposing only the holes with the tomatoes in them. Use stones to hold the edges of the paper down so they don’t blow in the wind. If this newspaper mulch is good and thick, it will positively prevent weeds from growing in your tomato patch, and it will hold moisture in the ground so watering will be kept to a minimum. Newsprint will decay over the summer and you can turn it into the soil at fall clean-up, where the wood fibers in the paper will decay into a crumbly brown mass that will loosen the soil and hold water like a sponge.

Once the patch is covered with thick pads of newsprint, set one of the cages over each tomato plant. Weigh down the bottom edge of the wire with several heavy stones or bricks in at least three evenly-spaced places so the cages won’t topple over in a wind, especially after the tomatoes grow up to fill the cages and they become top heavy. I’ve also used tent pegs driven around the bottom wire of the cages to hold it firmly to the soil.

Finish the patch by covering the newsprint with good-looking mulch like sphagnum moss, spoiled hay, cocoa bean hulls, fir bark, or any other organic material. This top dressing looks good, makes it easier for you to walk on the spaces between the plants, covers the papers so they don’t blow around in the wind, and will decay so it can be turned into the soil with the newspapers to add organic matter at fall clean-up time.

Getting Early Tomatoes:

Remember that we just planted our tomatoes in pre-warmed ground before the last frost date. Now here’s how to keep the plants warm so your tomato production begins as soon as possible and you can harvest ripe tomatoes even in June!

You will need three plastic, gallon-sized water or milk jugs for each plant. Fill them with water and set three of them around each seedling inside the cage. There should be just enough room for the three jugs and the seedling growing up between them. This water acts like a thermal flywheel, absorbing heat during the day and giving it off to keep the plants warm through the night. Additionally, retrieve the clear plastic you used to warm the soil. You will need to cut six pieces, each four feet by 10 feet. These will wrap around the outside of the wire cages. Hold them in place with duct tape, especially along the top edge, so the plastic doesn’t slip down. Also cut six pieces in rough, four-foot circles, which you’ll lay across each of the top of the cages, holding them in place by lengths of scrap wood.

You’ve now created mini-greenhouses for your plants. Be aware that as days grow longer and the sun hotter, it could get too hot inside these cages. Place a thermometer in one to check the temperature of all. About 90 degrees F. should be a maximum inside the cages.  On bright sunshiny days, you can remove the top plastic, putting it back on as the sun lowers in the west.

Once you reach your last frost date, consider removing the tops permanently and by two weeks after the last frost date, remove the plastic from around the cages. Empty the jugs and store them under a tarp, strung on a wire in the rafters of a shed, or under some other cover, as direct sunlight will degrade them, and so you can re-use them each year.

Where the last frost date is May 15, your tomatoes will be well on their way to maturity, especially Oregon Spring. It should deliver home-grown, ripe tomatoes of good quality to you by the third week in June or thereabouts.

Summer Maintenance:

It doesn’t take a lot of time to set up this patch and from now on, it takes almost no time to maintain. Make sure the tomatoes have adequate water, usually a deep watering once every two or three weeks in the summer with little rain, or less where rainstorms are frequent. The plants have all the nutrition they need. Weeds won’t be a problem as you’ve covered the ground with a thick mulch of newspaper sections. You’re good to go.

Your tomatoes can be gently and loosely tied using strips of cloth to the wire cages as they grow, and some varieties will grow past the top. Rather than letting them tumble over the edge, weighed down with fruit, which can damage the stems, you can drive three 8-foot stakes into the ground spaced evenly around the outside edge of each cage, then continue tying the elongating stems vertically to the stakes.

Using this method, Susanna and I have put up 48 quarts of tomato sauce plus had plenty of fresh tomatoes for salads and sandwiches and eating out of hand all season long. Oh, and there were plenty to give away, too.

Growing Organic Nuts

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Once upon a time, I planted three filbert bushes arranged in a triangle around a large rock on my property. Over about five or six years, they grew to 12 to 15 feet tall, and sent up many trunks from their roots, so that the bushes turned into a filbert—or hazelnut as some call them—grove. And they started to bear.

The first couple of years of their bearing, I waited patiently for them to ripen their tasty nuts, secured into their green herbaceous husks with the flared and filigreed openings. But when they should have been ripe, in October, I couldn’t find them at all. They’d disappeared from the tall shrubby bushes. And then I spotted the squirrel that had beaten me to my own filberts.

So I went in the house and got my .22 rifle and went to the filbert bushes. I didn’t see the squirrel, but figured he would be listening somewhere in the woods. In a loud voice, I announced, “Hey squirrel! See this rifle? If I catch you stealing all the filberts next year, I’m going to shoot you! You can take some, but not all. I mean it!”

The next October, my daughter, who was about seven years old at the time, and I went to the filberts, pushed our way into the thicket, and sat on the rock. We brought a basket to fill with nuts, but my daughter said there weren’t any. “They don’t show themselves right away,” I said. “You have to sit quietly and pretty soon, they’ll start showing themselves. It’s like the birds. They all fly away until you are quiet, then they return.”

So we sat quietly on the rock for about five minutes. Then she said, “I see one.” And then another, and another, until she saw that the filbert bushes were loaded with nuts, their husks the color of the senescing leaves, which had made them hard to see. We filled a big basket full with the nuts and took them back to the house, where we shucked the hard nuts from their husks and put them in the attic to cure. By Christmastime, we had nuts aplenty, nicely cured in their shells. They’d never needed sulfuring, spraying, fertilizing, or pruning. That’s the way it is with nut crops.

We also had a large black walnut tree near the house. These nuts are covered with a green husk that turns black and stains your hands for weeks if you get its juice on you. The question becomes, how do you get the husks off the nuts without staining yourself and you clothing? Our driveway wasn’t paved, and there were two shallow ruts. We gathered the walnuts and tossed them into the ruts. Every time we drove our car over them, we squished more husks off the hard nuts inside. After rains and dry spells, we could lift the nuts without staining our hands. They also required curing until the holidays.

Finally, we had a large hickory tree that rained its nuts in late September. The hard nuts were encased in segmented husks. These were easy to open to get the hard nuts inside. They too needed to cure until the holiday season. While the husks were easy to open, the nuts were hard to crack and the nutmeats hard to get out of the chambers and convolutions of the shell.

All three of these nut crops grew without help from us of any kind. Year after year they did their job of supplying us with delicious nuts. You can buy varieties of filberts, black walnuts, and hickory trees that produce nuts selected for easier picking and cracking, and easier to get the nutmeats from, than the wild types.

Learn more and see nut trees for sale at the Northern Nut Growers Association (www.nutgrowing.org), at Gurney’s Seed & Nursery (www.gurneys.com), and Miller’s Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com) and click the “Figs and Nuts” tab. Hickories don’t grow west of the Rockies, but black walnuts and filberts do fine.

The Magical Substance Called Humus

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Humus is what’s left over after soil organisms finish digesting the remains of plants. Its presence in the soil is an indication of the soil’s health. It is black, crumbly, and spongy. If you garden and add mulch and compost to your soil, you are increasing its eventual supply of humus, and building the health of the soil and the plants that grow in it. And humus is magical stuff.

Humus particles are very small—the size of small cracker crumbs. But if you had a piece of humus the size of a Volkswagen beetle, you’d see that its surface was not smooth, but the opposite of smooth. It would be entirely ridged, folded, with deep channels running into the interior. If fact, if you laid the surface of the particle out flat, it would cover an area the size of a football field.

This humus surface carries a negative electric charge, which gives humus one of its most beneficial properties for the gardener. It is the prime mover in what soil scientists call the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) of a soil. Here’s how it works. You’ll remember from high school chemistry that when a soluble salt is dissolved in water, it becomes ionized. It comes apart, into positive ions (cations) and negative ions (anions). For an example, table salt (NaCl) becomes Na+ and Cl-. The cations are often metals like potassium, zinc, and magnesium. Or they are gases like hydrogen and nitrogen, or substances like phosphorus and carbon. All these cations and many others are needed by plants to build their tissues.

The Cation Exchange Capacity of a soil is a naturally-occurring system whereby these fertilizing elements reach a certain saturation in the moisture in the soil, and are held at that level. When a plant takes up a cation of potassium, for instance, the CEC takes another cation of potassium from storage and floats it into the soil moisture, keeping the saturation steady. And where are the cations stored? On the negatively charged surface of humus particles. Remember that humus particles have an enormous surface area for their size, and can store trillions of cations in a bucket of good, organic soil. Thus the CEC keeps the soil solution, as soil moisture is called, well stocked with all the elements plants need for healthy growth. And these elements are recycled in an organically-fertilized soil by the actively decaying organic matter of composted plant remains, stored on the surface of the humus produced from those plant remains, and held in just the right amounts in the soil solution by the CEC. The only thing an organic gardener or farmer has to do is to add compost to the soil on a regular basis. Nature has strong systems in place to do the rest.

Now consider what happens under conventional agriculture. Chemical fertilizers are composed of just three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are in soluble form. There is no organic matter in a bag of chemical fertilizer, and thus no humus forms. The natural CEC is non-functional. Rains wash the soluble fertilizers into the ground water and the local aquifers. The nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilize ponds and lakes, causing eutrophication, the process by which a body of water becomes polluted with nutrients from chemical fertilizers, thereby encouraging the growth and decomposition of oxygen-depleting plant life like algae, and resulting in harm to other organisms—like the whole watery ecosystem from fish to fowl. Much of the expensive and fossil-fuel-based chemical fertilizers runs off without reaching the crops it’s intended for, causing great environmental damage.

But that’s not all. Humus is spongy and holds water—a great deal of water. Studies have shown that organically-managed soils can sail through periods of drought by relying on the water held by the spongy humus and decaying plant matter. Conventional crops have no such advantage.

Further, the application of chemical nitrogen turns off one of nature’s most beneficial soil systems—the ability of certain bacteria to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into organic fertilizer. These nitrogen-fixing bacteria do the job for free. But they are sensitive to the amount of nitrogen in the soil, and only make as much fertilizer as needed by the plants. When soluble chemical nitrogen fertilizers like ammonium nitrate are used, they flood the soil with nitrogen. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria say, in effect, “This soil doesn’t need any more nitrogen,” and they stop working. And once such bacteria turn themselves off, it’s off for good. And so a perfectly good, natural, free system of supplying plants with nitrogen is replaced in conventional agriculture by one that disengages the CEC, turns off the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, forces plants into quick, weak, unhealthy growth, and runs off to pollute the environment.

So why does Big Ag continue to do this? Because you can sell a bag of chemical fertilizer, while many of nature’s systems are free.

How to Find Organic Gardening Products Online

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jeffcoxGardening season is here, and if you want an organic garden, you won’t need to buy a lot of expensive, toxic chemicals. But there are some items you’ll need to make your organic garden thrive, such as weed barrier cloth instead of herbicides; ways to deal with garden pests like gophers, deer, and rabbits, and perhaps beneficial insects to release.

There’s always Google or Bing, but a better way might be to visit www.OrganicControl.com. This long-time business, operating now for 35 years, covers the field, from beneficial insects to safe and organic insect controls, to products that repel garden-damaging animals, to mason bees that help pollinate your crops, to organic soil amendments, and much more. In addition, there’s a lot you can learn about organic gardening at their site.

Organic Control also has a Facebook page, where you can interact with the folks at the company, ask questions, and get answers. Check them out at www.Facebook.com/OrganicControl.

This company also sells products relating to organic hydroponic growing, a fast-growing field that supplies retailers like Whole Foods with organically-grown vegetables year around.


On April 26th of this year, The New York Times carried an editorial entitled, “Hiding the Truth About Factory Farms.” It’s such an important topic that I’d like you to read what the Times had to say:

“A supermarket shopper buying hamburger, eggs, or milk has every reason, and every right, to wonder how they were produced. The answer, in industrial agriculture, is ‘behind closed doors,’ and that’s how the industry wants to keep it. In at least three states—Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota—legislation is moving ahead that would make undercover investigations of factory farms, especially filming and photography, a crime. The legislation has only one purpose: to hide factory farming conditions from a public that is beginning to think seriously about animal rights and the way food is produced.

“These bills share common features. Their definition of agriculture is overly broad; they include puppy mills, for instance. They treat undercover investigators and whistle-blowers as if they were ‘agro-terrorists,’ determined to harm livestock or damage facilities. They would criminalize reporting on crop production as well. And they are supported by the big guns of industrial agriculture: Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, the associations that represent pork producers, dairy farmers, and cattlemen, as well as poultry, soybean, and corn growers.

“Exposing the workings of the livestock industry has been an undercover activity since Upton Sinclair’s day. Nearly every major improvement in the welfare of agricultural animals, as well as some notable improvements in food safety, has come about because someone exposed the conditions in which they live and die. Factory farming confines animals in highly crowded, unnatural and often unsanitary conditions. We need to know more about what goes on behind those closed doors, not less.”

Great editorial. Good for The New York Times. And the editorial writer didn’t even mention that the Constitution expressly prohibits laws limiting freedom of the press. Laws criminalizing investigative journalism, whether words or pictures, are simply unconstitutional. Times food writer Mark Bittman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, addressed the same topic the day after the editorial appeared and wrote, “Minnesota’s ‘ag-gag’ law would seek to punish not only photographers and videographers, but those who distribute their work, which means organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals.” The law is so sweeping, says Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, “that if you took a picture of a dog at a pet shop and texted it to someone, that could be a crime.”

Thirty years ago, when I was Director of Electronic Publishing at Rodale (I must have been one of the first directors of electronic publishing at any publishing house in the world), I wandered into the offices of The New Farm magazine, a Rodale publication about real-life organic farming. It had occurred to me that the cruel factory farming techniques used in the production of our meat, eggs, and milk animals was totally antithetical to the spirit of organic agriculture, and that one of the tenets of organic farming should be the humane treatment of farm animals. I suggested this to the editors—and they laughed at me. “You don’t understand farmers,” they said. “Farmers don’t care about babying their animals. They care about their bottom line.”

Well, now it’s 30 years later and the humane treatment of animals has been added to the tenets of organic farming–not because of me, but because of you, the consumers of organic meat, eggs, and milk who have demanded it. While unspeakable cruelties go on at conventional factory farms, organic farmers have become far less cynical in the past few decades and have made humane treatment of animals part of what it means to be organic. Because organic farmers take better care of their animals, we all become more human.

Now do you see who’s behind the push to make it a crime to take pictures of factory farms?

How to Grow an Organic Sweet Melon

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jeffcoxThere’s an old saying that you can tell the quality of a gardener by the quality of his or her melons. I make no claims for my quality as a gardener, but I have grown sweet melons successfully. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it.

Melons don’t like to be transplanted. They sulk and become garden laggards if you try. Wait until the soil is nice and warm—around the last week of May in most of the country—and plant them into hills spaced six feet apart in full sun. These hills are mounds, 18 inches in diameter, of native soil heavily enriched with compost, rotted manure, or other actively decaying organic matter. Plant three seeds in each hill and thin to the strongest two at about three weeks of growth. Melons like to wake up where they want to grow–in rich, well-drained soil kept constantly moist (but not sopping wet) in full sun. They tolerate no setbacks if they’re to make sweet melons. Continual good, strong growth is what you want.

Touch them as little as possible so you don’t spread wilts or fungus. Spray them after their first true leaves appear with a mixture of one tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in a gallon of warm water, and re-spray the leaves and stems after every rain. Wilts and fungus and white mildew on the leaves clog the plants’ plumbing system, and the leaves are the plants’ sugar factories. Clogged plumbing from the sugar factories means your melons will never get sweet.

Consider planting radishes six inches apart in every direction where the melons will grow. This will deter striped and spotted cucumber beetles.

If you still see greenish striped or spotted cucumber beetles on the flowers, suck them up with a cordless vacuum and dispose of them. Or cover the melons with floating row covers after you chase out the beetles—which works but may slow down ripening as the covers reduce sunlight. If you see squash bugs—grey, shield-shaped bugs—soak one pound of cheap tobacco (Bugler) in a gallon of water, and spray the tobacco tea where you see the bugs. Check the underside of the leaves where you see squash bugs for areas of tiny, amber-colored eggs and remove them. They are eggs of the squash bugs. Or make a mulch of heavy-duty aluminum foil and lay it down where the melons will grow just before you plant the hills. Place it so the reflective side is up. This repels many insects and bounces more light up into the leaves which can hasten ripening.

Spray the melon leaves every two weeks with fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, or compost tea. And pour some compost tea on the roots as well. This will encourage strong, steady growth.

Melons often look like they’re wilting in the hot mid-summer sun, but check them at dusk. They should have straightened up again by then. If they stay wilted, you may have stem borers. Check the stems near the hills and look for little holes about a quarter of an inch in diameter. Take a sharp knife and slice open the stem for a few inches outward away from the roots and toward the shoot’s tip and look for a small worm. Dispose of the worm, close the slice up and wrap the stem with a Band-Aid or piece of masking tape.

The melons want lots of nutrition, lots of sun, and lots of water—until the growing fruits are about three to four inches in diameter. Then reduce watering but don’t let the roots dry out. The reduced watering helps the melons sweeten up.

If all this seems like a lot of work, remember that you will be able to harvest your melons when they are truly ripe. Melons in the store are picked early, before they develop full sugar, in order to ship well. You, on the other hand, will pick your melons when they slip easily from the vine and are packed with sweet flavor. This means that if you give them a slight tug, they come off their parent vine easily. There are some melons that don’t slip. In that case, look at the leaves nearest to the fruits. If they are yellowing, the melon is most likely ripe.

Which melons to grow? There are hundreds of kinds. I prefer the little French ‘Charentais’. Look for heirloom varieties in the heirloom catalogs, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Just google around. You’ll find them. In the southeast, or wherever summer humidity is high and mildews and wilts are a problem, consider planting some resistant varieties like ‘Sugar Queen’, ‘Sweetie”, and ‘Savor’.


In other news:

For 50 years, Dr. Don Huber has been a scientist studying plant diseases in the U.S. and around the world. He spent 35 years at Purdue University as Professor of Plant Pathology. He also has a 41-year military career (he’s now a retired colonel) evaluating natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. He coordinates the “Emergent Diseases and Pathogens Committee” as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System under Homeland Security.

Food Democracy Now, a progressive group formed to warn people of dangers to our food supply by corporate agriculture, recently interviewed Dr. Huber about a newly emergent threat caused by Monsanto’s “Round-Up Ready®” genetically altered seeds. You can view video of the interview and learn more here:


Here’s what Food Democracy Now has to say about this threat:

“Round-Up Ready® seeds are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s top selling weed killer Round-Up, which is made up of Glyphosate and a trademarked formula of component chemicals. In 2007, more than 185 million pounds of Glyphosate were sprayed on America’s soils and crops and that amount has only continued to rise as more weeds develop resistance to Glyphosate.

“A growing body of scientific evidence has shown that the overuse of Round-Up and Glyphosate has created severe micronutrient deficiencies in the soil and plants causing an epidemic of diseases, such as Goss’s Wilt on Round-Up Ready® corn and Sudden Death Syndrome in Round-Up Ready® soybeans.

“Recently a team of top U.S. scientists discovered an organism associated with this rise in plant diseases in Round-Up Ready® corn and soybeans which form the foundation for animal livestock feed in the U.S. The organism is observable only by an electron microscope, and was previously unknown to science.

“This new organism, along with nutritional deficiencies in the Round-Up Ready ® GMO corn and soybean feed, has been associated with a sharp rise in animal infertility including a 20 percent failure to conceive rate among cattle and hogs and up to a 45 percent rate of spontaneous abortions within cattle and dairy operations.

“In response to the published and emerging science, Dr. Huber wrote a letter to Secretary Vilsack asking him to delay his decision to approve Round-Up Ready® alfalfa expressing his grave concerns about the long-term implications of more Round-Up Ready® crops on the market.”

Vilsack and the Obama administration’s response was to give Monsanto the go-ahead to distribute and plant Round-Up Ready ® corn, soybean, and alfalfa seeds. This decision is a disaster for organic farmers, for once the rogue genes in the GMO seeds are grown out and their pollen is blown by the wind, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and alfalfa can become contaminated with the GMO genes, after which they will no longer be able to be labeled organic. Monsanto has shown a willingness to then sue farmers who inadvertently grew GMO contaminated crops for patent infringement.

In the video, Dr. Huber explains that Round-Up reduces a plant’s ability to withstand disease. The new organism, evidently as-yet-unnamed, is exceedingly small, ubiquitous in the environment, and finds easy pickings on plants genetically altered to withstand Monsanto’s weed killer. According to Dr. Huber, these damaged plants make poor fodder for farm animals. I’ll keep you posted as I learn more.

Plant a Row for the Hungry

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jeffcoxAbout a decade ago, one of the members of the Garden Writer’s Association of America (GWA) came up with a good idea. We all know there’s hunger in America—something there shouldn’t be in this fruitful land. What food is given to food banks tends to be canned. So the garden writer suggested that the members of the Association encourage their readers or listeners or viewers, as the case may be, to plant a row for the hungry.

When setting out the vegetable garden, it doesn’t take much to plant an extra row of a vegetable. If you are going to plant six tomato plants for your own use, plant a seventh and deliver its bounty to the local food bank. Fresh tomatoes will be much appreciated.

Not every vegetable is suitable. Loose leaf lettuce, for instance, is so perishable that by the time it got to the needy, it would be limp, if not spoiled. But root crops like carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, radishes, and celery root will hold up just fine and be even more appreciated, because they are packed with good nutrition.

Asian greens of all types, chard, kale, broccoli, asparagus, European head cabbages, collards, and mature spinach plants with the roots intact will all last just fine in the trip to the food bank and from there to those in need.

Summer and winter squashes are perfect choices for that extra row. Just plant the bush types rather than the squashes that produce long runners and you’ll conserve a heap of space in your garden.

And what will be more appreciated by those in need than summer-ripe, sweet melons. Imagine bringing a basket full of orange- and green-fleshed melons to the food bank.

The point is that you don’t have to plant all these vegetables yourself. Pick one, and when you put in your garden, plant a row for the hungry. You’ll feel satisfied if you do.

The First Fruits of Summer

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As spring morphs into summer, the strawberries come ripe.

The best strawberries, in my opinion, are the tiny, native wild strawberries of North America that grow east of the Rockies (Fragaria virginiana). In the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, they ripen in the second         week of June. The fields around my boyhood home were carpeted with them—they grew prolifically in the poor shale and clay soils of our hilltop. When the hot June sun baked these fields, great clouds of strawberry fragrance would rise to meet me and I spent many happy, sweaty hours down among the grasses and weeds, eating them straight from the plants. The berries are only the size of your little fingernail, but each packs all the intense strawberry flavor of a full-size hybrid berry—and then some.

I was lucky to be back in that vicinity a few Junes ago and drove to that hilltop to see if I could find some wild strawberries. I hadn’t tasted them in probably 30 years or more. As I entered an open field near my former home, I was greeted by the familiar smell of strawberries, and looking down, saw them dangling red and ripe from their little plants by the hundreds. I got a small paper cup from the car and quickly filled it, then drove down to the village diner where I had my first job (washing dishes) and ordered a scoop of vanilla ice cream. When it was set in front of me, I poured the wild strawberries over it and dug in. Though time has, I’m sure, dulled my senses somewhat, they were still as rich and luxurious a flavor as I remembered.

the art of waiting

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There was something so soul-satisfying about waiting for summer produce when I was young. As I think back about delicious summer food, all of my memories are about perfectly ripe fruits and veggies! There were no jets flying raspberries around the world in February and no grocery stores full of tasteless melons in March. It was a waiting game.
When I was a small child, there was a wild cherry tomato vine that sprawled over a rock wall in our backyard in Kentucky. I have never forgotten how those tiny tomatoes tasted, warm from the sun. Years later, summers were spent working as a camp counselor on the California coast. On my days off, I would buy bags of ripe peaches and eat them, one after another, until I finally had my fill. Then I’d start on the plums.
Even as an adult, a friend and I would spend a few August afternoons filling buckets with warm, sticky blackberries that grew around the creek near our homes. Most of them made it into pies, full of the crunchy seeds that wild blackberries have.
Now I have to convince my kids that, no, we don’t eat watermelon in December, we eat oranges. No, we’re not buying nectarines in April. Some things are just worth waiting for!

Tomatoes from the Garden

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nothing says summer like a just-picked tomato

nothing says summer like a just-picked tomato