Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Twisted Roots of a Manic Gardner

I’m a wannabe Westerner, a city girl in search of greener pastures, always climbing trees just to get high, climbing the mountain to see what I can see.  My father claims that my first word was “horse,” an unfortunate choice on my part since I grew up in Manhattan—not the town fifteen miles from where I live now in Bozeman, Montana, but the island between the Hudson and East rivers.

So it’s got to be one of life’s great ironies that here in the wide open West, I’m struggling to raise vegetables on a small urban lot with more than its share of trees. Is this fair?  Is this right?  I mean, really.  I spend my NYC childhood reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and dreaming of the West, and I finally get here, I make it, I SUCCEED, and here I am, in a quintessentially Western town, all ranches and skiing, and I have less space than I did at my halfway-to-Montana house, in Minnesota.

Nonetheless, I persevere—bravely, nobly, humbly.

—Kate Gardner

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50 Gardening Tips from Eric

Quick note: Eric is Eric Vinje, founder and owner of Planet Natural, the Bozeman-based organic gardening outlet which recently sold ten pounds of ladybugs to a couple of apartment complexes in New York City to control aphids and other pests, a move into organic pest-control that was written up in the NY Times and then nationally.

Eric is also my boss, sort of — more on this in the upcoming entry The Accidental Interview — and my personal gardening guru, the guy I go to about leaf miners in my spinach and chard and gnats in my house; he’s who I ask about the best foliar fertilizers, and he hands me some sort of jar and says, "Here, try this," and generally it works pretty well. These are his tips below.

Kate Gardner


Few pursuits are as rewarding as growing your own organic garden. However, it’s not always an easy task. With this in mind, and a large coffee cup in hand, I’ve put together fifty of my favorite organic gardening tips.

1. Harvest herbs early in the morning just as the dew evaporates but before the heat of the day, so leaves will still be full of their own essential oils and flavors.

2. Coffee grounds make excellent mulch around acid-loving plants.

3. When growing in containers, plants should be sized to the pot and pots should be sized to the space available.

4. Dry herbs at the end of the summer by tying sprigs together to form small bunches. Tie them with a rubber band and hang, tips down, in a dry, dark place. Keep the bunches small to ensure good air circulation. Store dry in labeled canning jars, either crumbled or whole. Freezing is also a good way to preserve herbs.

5. Garden soil that has been well mulched and occasionally amended requires only about a 1-inch layer of compost yearly to maintain its quality.

6. For successful peas, start them indoors. The germination rate is much higher, and the seedlings will be healthier and better able to fight off pests.

7. Garlic, leeks and shallots make great outdoor container plants. They have very few insect and disease problems, have shallow roots and take up very little space.

8. Know your insects. Learn what the different life-cycle stages look like for both beneficial insects and pests – you don’t want to accidentally "rub out" the good guys.

9. When growing roses, fertilize after each flush of blooms and then stop fertilizing about two months before the first frost.

10. Most indoor plants are killed by over-watering. Watch for yellow leaves, and do not water until the surface of the soil is dry..

11. Try to water plants deeply and thoroughly. Frequent, shallow waterings train your plants to keep their roots near the soil surface, making them less hardy and more likely to suffer when deprived of water.

12. Plants native to your area are naturally adapted to the pre-existing growing conditions. They will require much less work to stay healthy.

13. Keep dirt off vegetable leaves (thus preventing molds and fungi) by spreading a 1-2 inch layer of mulch around each plant. This also helps control weeds and prevent moisture loss.

14. Add comfrey to the compost pile. Its leaves are rich in nitrogen and help break down organic materials.

15. Garden vegetables that become over-ripe will attract some pests. Remove them as soon as possible to avoid detection.

16. As a general rule, indoor plants will thrive when temperatures are between 65-75° Fahrenheit. Temperatures can fluctuate by 10° Fahrenheit from this range without harming plants.

17. When purchasing tomato starts for your garden, look for healthy green plants with thick stems and no tomatoes or flowers.

18. Organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly, allowing garden plants to absorb nutrients efficiently.

19. Indoor seedlings require plenty of light. Use a grow light (up to 18 hours per day) or keep them in an area that receives plenty of sunlight.

20. In general, thinner-leaved plants need more water to stay alive, while thicker-leaved plants need less.

21. Water your garden in the early morning to conserve moisture loss and to help avoid fungal diseases that are often spread by high humidity levels.

22. Milk jugs, soda bottles and other plastic containers make great mini-greenhouses to place over your plants and protect them from frost.

23. When growing indoors, watch closely for signs of nutrient deficiencies. Remember, every time you water, nutrients are leached out of the soil.

24. Paint or purchase garden tools that have brightly colored handles. They will be much easier to find when left behind with your plants.

25. Weekly applications of compost tea will improve plant health and ward off many fungal diseases.

26. Do not use softened water when watering plants. The salts can build up in the soil and kill plants.

27. If you’re not confident in your seed-starting abilities, one of the best places to get organically started vegetables is your local farmers market. Very often the person selling them is the person who grew them in the first place.

28. If roots are found coming out of the drainage hole located at the bottom of the plant’s container, it’s probably time to repot the plant.

29. When planting tomatoes, cover the stem with soil all the way up to the first set of leaves. This encourages strong root growth, which produces healthier plants.

30. Compost bins and piles can either be layered – alternating layers of greens (grass clippings, vegetable scraps) and browns (leaves, peanut shells) – or the ingredients can all be thrown in together and thoroughly mixed. Either method will work!

31. Disease-prone plants such as roses should be planted in areas that receive plenty of morning sun. It helps evaporate dew more quickly, which keeps leaves dry and fungal diseases at bay.

32. Avoid using railroad ties and pressure-treated wood near your vegetable garden; the chemicals used as preservatives are considered to be toxic.

33.  When tomato plants grow to 3-feet tall, remove many of the leaves from the bottom third of the stem. These leaves receive very little sunlight and are often the first to develop fungal problems.

34. In most cases, collect herbs for cooking right before they flower. This is when they have the most flavor.

35. Earthworms are beneficial to both soil and plants, increasing air space in the soil and leaving behind worm castings for plants. Do what you can to encourage earthworms in your garden.

36. Many soft-bodied pests such as spider mites, aphids, thrips, and leafhoppers can be knocked off plants with a strong hose spray.

37. Pick off spent flowers to encourage more flowers.  Once a plant forms seeds, it figures its flowering days are done.

38. Do not compost fats, pet droppings, or animal products. They will not only smell, but will attract pests to the pile and can spread disease.

39.  Select a simple container to showcase an exotic looking plant or a flashy pot to make an ordinary plant stand out.

40. Brew compost tea by mixing equal parts compost and water and let it sit. Pour the tea directly onto the soil around growing plants. Dilute this to 4 parts water to 1 part compost for use on seedlings.

41. Do not use garden soil as a potting mix. It may drain poorly and is likely to contain insects, diseases, and weed seeds.

42. When planting containers, fill them with soil to within one inch of the top to allow room for watering.

43. A simple five percent increase in organic material (compost, well-aged animal manure) quadruples the soil’s ability to store water.

44. Botanical insecticides (pyrethrum, rotenone) are derived from plants, and can be more toxic than some chemical pesticides. They are, however, better for the environment and its inhabitants because they break down quickly and are less likely to accumulate in the food chain or leach into the water table.

45. Plant vegetables in a different garden spot each year to help reduce pest and disease problems, as well as correct nutrient deficiencies and excesses.

46. Pest control begins with healthy soil. It produces healthy plants, which are better able to withstand disease and insect damage.

47. Compost is not a fertilizer. It builds up organic matter in the soil.

48. If you have a small garden space but want a lush look, try staggering your plants instead of planting them in rows. You’ll be able to fit more plants in while still giving them enough room.

49. Attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings by raising nectar-producing plants such as fennel, parsley, and dill.

50. If you want to try companion planting, grow basil next to tomatoes. It really helps to slow down the bugs

Garden Glossary

Ever feel out of place while on a garden tour or lost during a discussion with gardening friends? Well, never again! My garden glossary has all the words you’ll need to know (and more) to at least sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Acidic: Soil with a pH between 0 and 7.0. Sometimes referred to as "sour" soil by gardeners.

Aeration: Any method of loosening soil or compost to allow air to circulate.

Aerobic: Describes organisms living or occurring only when oxygen is present.

Alkaline Soil: Soil with a pH between 7.0 and 14. Sometimes referred to as "sweet" soil by gardeners.

Anaerobic: Describes organisms living or occurring where there is no oxygen.

Annual: A plant whose life cycle lasts only one growing season, from seed to blooms to seed.

Atrium: An interior area that provides plenty of light for plants, often skylighted. Many homes have built in atriums.

Bare Root Stock: A plant that is prepared for packaging and shipping by removing all the soil around its roots.

Batch Composting: A single pile is built and composted at one time without adding additional materials.

Beneficial Insect: An insect that benefits your garden by eating or laying its eggs in other insects, thereby controlling their population.

Biennial: A plant that completes its full life-cycle in two growing seasons. It produces leaves in the first and flowers in the second.

Biodegradable: Able to decompose or break down through natural bacterial or fungal action. Substances made of organic matter are biodegradable.

Biodynamic Farming: Made popular by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming combines organic methods, including crop rotation and composting with special plant, animal, and mineral preparations and the rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

Biological Control: Using living organisms such as beneficial insects or parasites to destroy garden pests.

Bio-Solids: The nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of sewage sludge. Often found in commercial compost and may contain concentrations of heavy metals.

Bolting: A term used to describe a plant that has gone to seed prematurely.

Bone Meal: Finely ground fertilizer composed of white or light gray bone that adds phosphorus to the soil.

Bordeaux Mixture: A fungicide made of a mixture of hydrated lime and copper sulfate.

Botanical Insecticides: Derived from plants, these organic pesticides provide a powerful "knock down" to a large number of pests. They leave no residues and breakdown quickly in the environment.

Brassica: A family of cold hardy plants such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Bulb: A short, usually round, underground stem that stores energy and food for the plant. Some are fleshy and some have papery coverings.

Chelation: A process by which certain micronutrients are treated to keep them readily available to a plant once they are introduced into the soil.

Chemical Control: To reduce pest populations by using chemical solutions.

Chlorophyll: The green pigment in leaves. When a plant is healthy it is very prominent.

Chlorosis: A yellowing or blanching of the leaves due to lack of chlorophyll, nutrient deficiencies or disease.

Cloche: A low transparent cover put over young plants to protect them from cold.

Cloning Gel: A commercial product used to seal, protect and initiate root cell formation in cuttings.

C/N Ratio: The ratio of carbon to nitrogen in a compost pile. Microbes thrive in the compost pile when their food source provides a C:N ratio between 15:1 and 30:1 — meaning that for every 15-30 parts of carbon (brown materials), 1 part of nitrogen (green materials) must be added to the pile.

Cold Frame: An unheated structure, usually made of wood and covered with glass or plastic. Cold frames are used to protect plants from frost and are helpful season extenders.

Cole Crops: Any member of the crucifer family, including cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli.

Companion Planting: The sowing of seeds in the garden in such a way that plants help each other grow instead of competing against each other.

Compost: Completely decayed organic matter used for conditioning soil. It is dark, odorless and rich in nutrients.

Compost Activator: An accelerator that can expedite the natural decomposition process. Their purpose is to increase microbial activity.

Container Gardening: Growing plants in pots and planters instead of in the ground.

Corm: The swollen base of a plant’s stem serving the same function as a bulb. Crocus and gladiolus "bulbs" are actually corms.

Cotyledon: The first leaves to emerge from a seed, which often store nutrients for the growing seed.

Cover Crop: Vegetation grown to protect and build the soil during an interval when the area would otherwise lie fallow.

Crop Rotation: The planting of a specific crop in a site different from the previous year.

Cultivar: A plant variety that is cultivated, not wild.

Cultural Control: The practice of modifying a growing environment to reduce the prevalence of pests. Examples include changing irrigation methods or selecting resistant plants.

Cuttings: A portion of a plant (stem, root or leaf) taken to propagate a new plant.

Damping Off: Decay of young seedlings at ground level following fungal attack. Often the result of soil borne diseases and over watering.

Dead Heading: The act of removing spent flowers or flower heads for aesthetics, to prolong bloom for up to several weeks or promote re-bloom, or to prevent seeding.

Deciduous: A plant that annually sheds its leaves.

Decomposition: The breakdown of organic materials into smaller particles by microorganisms.

Direct Seeding: To sow a seed (not a seedling) into the ground or container where it will spend its life cycle.

Double Digging: A method of preparing the soil by digging down two feet then putting the soil from one row into the next row.

Drip Irrigation: A method of watering plants where small tubes or hoses are used to deliver water to the plant’s roots. The water is not sprayed into the air, so the plant’s leaves remain dry, which reduces fungal diseases.

Fertilizer: An organic or synthetic material added to the soil or the plant, that is important for its nutrient value.

Foliar Fertilizing: A technique of feeding plants by applying liquid fertilizer directly to plant leaves.

Forb: A broad-leafed, herbaceous plant typical of a grassland or meadow, but is not a grass.

Frass: Excrement left behind from boring insects.

Frost Date: This is the average expected last frost date for your area. Frost dates are important to know for your gardening zone or planting area.

Fungal Disease: A large group of fungi that attack plants. Affected plant parts often show signs of mold, rotted tissue, wilting, rusts, scabs and blotches.

Fungicides: Compounds used to prevent the spread of fungi in gardens and crops, which can cause serious damage to plants.

Germinate: The process of a seedling sprouting from a seed.

Germination Rate: The percentage of seed that will germinate under normal growing conditions.

Green Manure: A crop that is grown and then incorporated into the soil to increase soil fertility or organic matter content. Usually turned over into the soil a few weeks before new planting begins.

Ground Cover: A group of low-lying plants that will spread outward, eventually covering all surrounding bare soil.

Growing Medium: The material used to grow a plant or germinate seeds.

Growth Bud: A small, raised mark on a stem or branch containing an undeveloped leaf, flower, or shoot.

Grub: The larval form of some beetles.

Hardening Off: The process of acclimatizing plants grown under protection, in the greenhouse for example, to cooler conditions outdoors.

Heavy Soil: A soil that contains a high proportion of clay and is poorly drained.

Herb: A seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue, but dies down at the end of a growing season.

Herbicide: A substance used to kill weeds or unwanted plant growth.

Humus: A dark, loamy organic material resulting from the decay of plants and animal refuse. Healthy soil will consist of about 3.5-5% of this soft, sweet-smelling and crumbly organic matter.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM): A strategy for controlling pests in which least-toxic methods are applied first and usually in combination with other control methods.

Larva: The wingless and often wormlike stage of insect development after the egg and before the pupa (cocoon) and adult.

Layering: A propagation technique where a portion of a branch or stem is encouraged to grow roots while still attached to a plant, and then removed and planted as a new plant.

Lime: Often used to increase pH. Lime is especially useful when added to compost piles made up of acidic materials, such as pine needles.

Loam: Fertile soil, usually easy to work, with equal proportions of silt, sand and clay and with a high proportion of humus.

Macro-Nutrients: The nutrients identified as absolutely necessary for plant growth. See N-P-K below.

Mechanical Control: Hand picking, vacuuming or physically killing pests. Insect traps and barriers are also effective mechanical controls.

Micro-Nutrients: Some mineral elements are needed by plants in very small quantities. If the plants you are growing require specific "trace elements" and they are not getting them through the soil, they must be added.

Mulch: Any organic material, such as wood chips, grass clippings, compost, straw, or leaves that is spread over the soil surface (around plants) to hold in moisture and help control weeds.

No-Till-Gardening: This type of gardening calls for no cultivation (or tilling) of the soil after the initial tilling. In its place, regular mulches are added and plants are planted through the mulch. This saves on labor and eliminates weeds, which might germinate as a result of tilling.

N-P-K: An abbreviation for the three main nutrients that have been identified as absolutely necessary for plants are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). These three are also known as "macronutrients," and are the source of the three numbers commonly found on fertilizer labels.

Nutrient Solution: A liquid fertilizer applied to the leaves of plants or as a soil drench.

Nymph: An immature stage of development in insects, often similar in appearance to the adult form, but with no developed wings and smaller in size.

Open Pollination: Refers to seeds produced from plants which are allowed to pollinate primarily through insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms. The seeds of open-pollinated plants will produce new generations of those plants. This is in contrast with hybrid plants, which are artificially cross-bred varieties that do not produce reliable seed.

Organic: Refers to something derived from living organisms and is made up of carbon-based compounds. It is also a general term used for a type of gardening using no chemical or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Organic Gardening: A method and philosophy of gardening in which no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or additives of any kind are used or applied to the soil or plants.

Parasite: An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host. Beneficial insect parasites include trichogramma wasps and whitefly parasites.

Perennial: A plant that grows and flowers for years. They are either evergreens or may die back to the ground but will grow again the following season.

Perlite: A volcanic glass that greatly expands under intense heat. Used in gardening for the loosening of compact soil while still having high water retention qualities.

Pest: Any organism considered detrimental to a living plant.

Pesticide: A general term for chemicals used to destroy living things that are considered pests.

pH: A scale from 0-14 that explains the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the water or soil. Soil pH is very important because it affects the availability of nutrients to plants and the activity of microorganisms in the soil.

Photosynthesis: The process by which green plants use energy from sunlight to produce sugar and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water.

Potting Mix: A potting medium consisting of soil, sand, peat, leaf mold, or other ingredients.

Predator: As used in horticulture, a beneficial insect that preys upon pest insects. Predators include ladybugs and praying mantis.

Propagation: The process of naturally or artificially distributing or spreading plants.

Pruning: Trimming or cutting off undesired or unnecessary twigs, branches, or roots from a tree, bush, or plant.

Pupa: The stage of development between larva and adult in insects with a complete metamorphosis.

Rhizome: A fleshy underground stem or runner. Creeping grasses spread by rhizomes.

Season Extender: Any technique or piece of equipment used to extend the growing season in both spring and fall. Examples include; row covers, greenhouses, hotbeds, cold frames, and products such as Wall O’ Waters.

Seed: The part of a plant produced by a flower that may grow into a new plant.

Sheet Composting: Spreading undecomposed organic matter over the soil’s surface, then working it into the soil to decompose. Sheet composting is done at the end of the gardening season because the materials need time to break down in the soil.

Soil Amendment: Material added to the soil to improve its properties. This may include; water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration and structure. Soil amendments are mostly organic matter or very slow release minerals and are typically worked into the topsoil.

Soil-less Mix: A light-weight medium for growing plants in containers. Usually includes combinations of ingredients such as peat moss, composted pine bark, sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Does not contain soil.

Soil Test: A measurement of the major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) and pH levels in the soil.

Spice: A dried root, seed, fruit, bark or other vegetative substance applied in nutritionally insignificant quantities as food additives for the purpose of flavor.

Succulent: A fleshy plant that holds water in its stems or leaves, such as aloe or cacti.

Sucker: A shoot that sprouts from the roots or trunk of a tree, shrub or bush and drains its energy.

Sustainable: Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.

Tilth: Describes the general health of the soil including a balance of nutrients, water, and air. Soil that is healthy and has good physical qualities is in good tilth.

Topdressing: Applying fertilizers or some kind of soil amendment after seeding, transplanting or once the crop has been established.

Transplanting: The moving of a plant from one growth medium to another.

True Leaves: The first leaves grown by a plant after the cotyledons.

Tuber: A swollen portion of an under ground stem from which new plants may form.

Vermicomposting: The use of red worms to convert food scraps or other organic materials into worm castings.

Vermiculite: A natural mineral that expands with the application of heat, it is typically used in gardening as an additive to potting soil to increase its aeration.

Weed: A plant that is growing where you don’t want it to grow.

Worm Casting: The digested organic waste of red worms. Gardeners consider them the most nutrient dense organic compost available.

Xeriscaping: To create a low maintenance landscape with native plants and small or non-existent areas of turf grass. One of the primary goals of xeriscaping is to reduce landscape water use.

Garden Organizations

Whether you need some advice about azaleas or just want to talk tomatoes, garden organizations are a great way to meet growers of all skill levels and abilities. Here’s a list of some of my favorites.

American Community Garden Association – Works to promote and support all aspects of community food and ornamental gardening, urban forestry, preservation and management of open space, and integrated planning and management of developing urban and rural lands.

American Horticultural Society – One of the oldest national gardening organizations in the country. Since 1922, they have provided America’s gardeners with the highest quality gardening and horticultural education possible.

American Rose Society – Members of the American Rose Society encompass all levels of experience with roses and are committed to promoting the rose in all its diversity. If there’s one thing that all American Rose Society members have in common, it’s a love of roses.

American Society for Horticultural Science – Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticultural research, education, and application.

Garden Club of America – Stimulates the knowledge and love of gardening and works to restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment.

Garden Conservancy – A national, nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to preserve exceptional American gardens for public education and enjoyment.

Herb Society of America – Focuses on educating its members and the public on the cultivation of herbs and the study of their history and uses, both past and present. The motto of The Society, "For Use and For Delight," is taken from the 17th century herbalist, John Parkinson.

Local Harvest – Provides a website to find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.

Men’s Garden Clubs of America – Offers a variety of gardening programs which make members better gardeners and lovers of green spaces.

National Arbor Day Foundation – Inspires people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees.

National Garden Clubs – Provides education, resources and national networking opportunities for its members to promote the love of gardening, floral design, civic and environmental responsibility.

National Gardening Association – An extensive gardening resource that promotes home, school, and community gardening as a means to renew and sustain the essential connections between people, plants, and the environment.

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) – Funded under a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, ATTRA provides information and other technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States.

New York City Compost Project – Develops and conducts many innovative programs to encourage residential and institutional composting.

North American Native Plant Society – Dedicated to the study, conservation, cultivation and restoration of native plants.

Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides – Protects the health of people and the environment by advancing alternatives to pesticides.

Pesticide Action Network – Works to replace pesticide use with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives.

Plants For A Future – A resource center for rare and unusual plants, particularly those which have edible, medicinal or other uses.

Rodale Institute – Works with people worldwide to achieve a regenerative food system that renews environmental and human health working with the philosophy that "Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People.

Royal Horticultural Society – Established in 1804, the Royal Horticultural Society is now the UK’s leading gardening charity dedicated to advancing horticulture and promoting good gardening.

Seattle Tilth – Inspires and educates people to garden organically, conserve natural resources, and support local food systems in order to cultivate a healthy urban environment and community.

Seed Savers Exchange – A non-profit organization of gardeners who save and share heirloom seeds. Since 1975, their members have passed on approximately one million samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners.

The Cucurbit Network – Dedicated to promoting conservation, and understanding of the plant family Cucurbitaceae through education and research.

U.S. Composting Council – Dedicated to the development, expansion and promotion of the composting industry based upon science, principles of sustainability, and economic viability.

USDA Plants Database – Provides standardized information about the vascular plants, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens of the U.S. and its territories.