Saturday, May 28, 2016

Learning to be an Organic Gardener

When I was growing up, penicillin was considered  a wonder drug. It was widely prescribed to save lives and reduce morbidity.  Similarly, pesticides were considered to be a farmers friend, widely used to reduce loss of food to insects and improve quality.  I'm painting with a broad stroke here, but suffice it to say that the benefits of pesticides in improving the food supply were considered to outweigh the negative aspects associated with their use.

In my earliest memories of gardening, DDT was still in use. After it was banned due to its harmful effects on the environment, my family switched to using sevin and malathion. We considered it a blessing to have food unblemished by the ravages of insects and grubs. We were always careful, however, to use the recommended concentrations for each plant and also not to eat the plants until the appropriate time had elapsed since the last time the point was sprayed. Knowledge of the application schedule of the pesticide enabled us to refrain from eating the food while it still had pesticide residue in it. 

Monitoring pesticide use is not something one can do in when foods are purchased from a market. Any market, not just a large commercial one.  Just as an example, I went to a farmers market last week and purchased beautiful, yellow squash from a farmer who had grown them himself, locally. I told him that squash vine borers had attacked my squash. I asked him what he used against them. He replied that he has never had a problem with vine borers, because he sprays with sevin.  How much sevin?  When?  If he's spraying the stems down where vine borers get, that means he's also spraying the fruit!  Anytime we purchase food from a third-party, we are relying on everyone in that chain of distribution to have engaged in safe practices, which we must largely accept on faith. Sometimes that faith is warranted, and sometimes it is not.

This has been a long and winding way of explaining that I was not raised as an organic gardener.  Even if one is not organic, the benefits of knowing what and when has been sprayed are significant.  However, there are a lot of other reasons to go organic, and I've tried over the years.  I haven't always known what I was doing, and so I've had mixed success.  For example, a memorable moment was the time I invited my grandparents for a meal of veggies all cooked fresh from my garden.  I don't remember everything I cooked, but I remember how proud I was, the care I took in preparation and presentation, and then "the moment."  My grandfather pointed out to me the worms that were in the carefully grown, washed, and prepared broccoli.  In spite of my care to search the broccoli for worms, they had been the same color as the plant, and I had not seen them.  During cooking, they grew lighter and were now clearly visible!!!  I'm glad we could laugh about it, and it was indeed a learning experience!!    The techniques of organic gardening are something I've had to learn on my own, gradually and through trial and error.

Insects seem to love the plants in my garden as much as I do!  When one is gardening on a very small scale, one simple measure is to take the time to inspect each plant daily. It is somewhat yucky, but when a caterpillar, grub, or insect is found on each plant, take it off and destroy it. Sometimes caterpillars are very well camouflaged. A close inspection is needed, including looking for telltale signs of their presence. For example, look underneath leaves for eggs and squish the eggs, and also watch out for little black specks on the plants, which can be a sign of caterpillar poop. The larger one's garden, or the less time one has, the more bothersome this daily chore becomes.  One wishes for a bit more efficient method .... especially when there is a full scale, frontal attack as has happened this year to me. 

The first assault on my garden this year was the attack of the flea beatles on all of my brassicas (bok choi, broccolini, etc.), as shown in the photo below.  I learned, too late, that the best way to protect my crop from them was by using netting that lets sun and water in but keeps insects out.  Once they were on my plants, it was too late. to stop the assault from the air.  Some other plan of action was needed. 

My first move was to go to the store and purchase some Insecticidal Soap.  Marketed as safe for organic gardeners, it worked like a charm.   I later learned there are also sticky traps that catch the beetles when they jump or move from plant to plant, but I didn't pursue that because the soap had already done the trick.  (After these dudes do their nasty work above ground, another part of their life cycle apparently involves becoming grubs and eating the roots of plants!)  Then, aphids attacked my sugar snap peas.  Cabbage worms attacked my broccolini some more.  Various bugs began chomping on other plants.  It looked like I was going to be needing a lot of the stuff!  After purchasing and using up three small spray bottles of insecticidal soap, I began looking for a recipe I could make from home and reuse the spray bottles. 

The Internet is such a great resource. I use it all the time to look up information about gardening. I just happened upon this webpage, for instance, which has 12 recipes that are helpful for a home organic gardener: 

The recipe I followed this morning for insecticidal soap is from a different webpage, slightly different from the webpage above. The key ingredient in both is a small amount of liquid soap mixed into a quart or gallon of water (depending on quantity needed). The ingredient must be soap, and not detergent. This is because the fatty acid in the soap is what kills the insect. Detergent does not have the same ingredient.

Insecticidal soap is safe for humans, plants, animals and the ecosystem.  Using ingredients that are found in an ordinary household, it kills bugs by dissolving their outside covering and entering their vulnerable cells. Insecticidal soap works best on small insects with soft bodies.

If you have a small garden, you can re-use a hand pump spray bottle.  If you have a large garden, I recommend a pump sprayer devoted to your garden "chemicals."  (Be sure to label your chemicals appropriately,  as well, include a yucky face picture so small children will know not to drink it!)

Here is one recipe for insecticidal soap.  I am thinking that because it makes the plant taste like hot pepper and soap, it might also be a deterrent for other critters like rabbits or deer, but I can't make a guarantee of that! 

Measure four cups of water into a container.  (I suggest using a container you can pour from, like a pitcher.)  Then, add the following:
  • 1 teaspoon liquid Murphy's Oil Soap
  • 4 Tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil
 Mix well.  Use a funnel to pour it into a spray bottle.  

Anything that's not good for one biological creature is likely not to be beneficial to another.  Meaning, the chemicals contained in the soap are not particularly friendly to the leaves on your plants.   As you can see, nothing in the soap itself is inherently poisonous, but your body would not be too happy if you drank it.  Similarly, your plants may thank you if it protects them from getting eaten alive, but the chemicals in the soap is not what a plant would naturally choose to be bathed in!   If insecticidal soap is put on plants that are stressed, or if it is mixed in a form that is too concentrated, it can damage the leaves of your plants!

Before applying insecticidal soap, it would be wise to test it on a small area of a plant to make sure it doesn't burn the leaves of your particular plants.  Additionally, time of day of application can make a difference.  Apply insecticidal soap after plants have been well watered, during a cool time of day, when the plants are not stressed by sun, heat, or drought.  

Also, don't spray insecticidal soap on flowers or on the good insects that you are relying on as pollenators for your garden.  Bees and other pollenators are most active in mid-morning.  Spray insecticidal soap either very early, or late in the afternoon after the bees have gone to bed.  This will also coincide with the time of day when your plants will not be stressed by intense sun.

A bee on a cucumber blossom in my garden

Insecticidal soap will be washed off in a rain or every time you water your plants.  Use this information to your advantage.  If it rains, you may need to reapply.  Similarly, once it does its job of killing bugs, you may choose to wash it off the plants.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My 2016 Tomato Selections

Enjoyment of delicious, homegrown tomatoes is one reason to grow a kitchen garden. Some people who have room to grow only one item in a pot choose to devote their space to a tomato.

In the Deep South, where I live, people love their "'mater sandwiches." The simplest way to make one is to smear white bread with mayonnaise, add a giant, sick slab of fresh, homegrown tomato from a giant tomato, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Of course, there are variations. Some people toast the bread and add bacon and lettuce to make a BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich. I personally enjoy adding fresh basil and a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese to my tomato sandwich, with a touch of balsamic vinegar.  In the Deep South, we also enjoy slicing a tangy, firm, green tomato into thick slabs, breading it with some salted cornmeal, and lightly frying it, to make fried green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes are usually served with a topping similar to hollandaise sauce. 

When I was a child, my mother grew cherry tomatoes, in addition to the larger ones. To me, these tasted sweeter as well as tangier. I could never get enough of them. As an adult, I compensate by growing extra. As many get eaten in the garden as make it into the kitchen.

While common varieties that ship well (and hence can be sold at markets) are adequate, connoisseurs rave over this or that heirloom variety.  While some heirloom varieties are also available in farmers markets, they are also expensive. People who grow their own tomatoes don't just save on cost. They also get to savor the superior texture and taste that can be achieved from a home garden.

Tomatoes take at least 75 days to produce fruit from seed. They require warm temperatures to germinate, but they stop producing when temperatures go above 90 or 95 degrees F.  (When choosing varieties, pay attention to heat or cold tolerance, something I learned this year.)  Because of these temperature demands, most gardeners either start their seedlings indoors (when it's still too cold for them outside) or purchase plants in order to get a head start on the growing season. If they can be kept alive, tomatoes also produce fruit when temperatures are cooler in the fall, up until the first freeze. In addition to nitrogen, they like potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium in their soil.

This year, I purchased a half-dozen Better Boy tomato seedlings from Lowes (some are shown in the picture below). 

I also ordered some heirloom varieties that I started from seed, outdoors after the weather was warm enough. 

Relying on the Better Boys for basic red tomatoes, the seeds I ordered were Prudens Purple, Aunt Ruby Green, and Blueberry. The skin of the "blueberry" tomato is actually blue when ripe.  I also purchased one each of a Cherokee and a yellow plum (cherry) tomato at a specialty garden shop. Hence, if all goes well, I will have tomatoes that are red, yellow, green, purple, and blue! 

More of the ongoing tomato saga to follow later .... 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Three Personal Benefits to Me of Growing a Kitchen Garden

In two previous blog posts I have discussed practical benefits of kitchen gardens (cost, health, and taste) and collective benefits (environmental, sustainability, and building community). Today, I would like to discuss six more personal, intangible factors that keep me returning to my habit of kitchen gardening.

Slower Pace

I have a "day job" that can be fast paced and stressful. Committing a half hour per day to gardening helps me carve out personal space, engage in an activity very different from my other vocation, and restore a work life balance.  

Introspection Time

 For me personally, gardening time is quiet time. It is a long moment of silence. It is a time to look at some item in detail, whether it is weeds or bugs or dirt or new plants. It involves focusing attention on something that is not related to work or stress or other things in life. It allows for creative interruption and regrouping of ideas in a way that benefits the way I think in other areas of life.

Connectedness With Land

Watching a garden grow, on a daily basis, sometimes feels akin to waiting for a pot to boil. (I am alluding to the adage, "a watched pot never boils.")  Indeed, gardens grow even slower than the water boils! They take months, sometimes years, to reach maturity! Yet, grow and change they do!  Inexorably, plants grow, mature, wilt, and die. It doesn't hurt us to experience this cycle of life, change, and death, on a different pace than what we see in our daily, hectic, industrial lives. It is good to remember that even when things seem to be standing still, they are in fact moving forward. This leads to seasonality and connection with changing seasons, as well. Gardens remind us of seasons. They remind that seasons are real, that there are times for doing things and times for refraining.  They remind us to be patient. And they also remind us that fruit comes to those who do their part and wait. 

Self Sufficiency

There is something simply satisfying about providing food for the table. Whether it is a sprig of basil on a sandwich, parsley in a tabouli, or a curry made all from home grown vegetables, there is a satisfaction that comes from being able to say, "I grew this." 

Connectedness With Heritage

My first memory of gardening was when my mother showed me how to weed the corn seedlings that were popping up in our garden. She showed me which plants to pull up and which to leave in the ground. Then she sent me to work on my row, while she did hers. When she came back, I learned that I had pulled up all the corn seedlings and left the weeds! Fortunately, there was still time to replant, and one must admit that it was a memorable mother daughter time! Other memories of gardening involve my grandparents, my uncles, my father. All passing along their collective wisdom and a heritage that includes growing plants and living a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle. This is not the only connection with the past, however. My grandparents learned their farming practices from their parents, who learned from theirs, etc. When I pick up a hoe to weed, I imagine many ancestors before me who used an almost identical tool to do almost the same thing. The fact is, that I am a hobbyist whereas they were working to provide table sustenance through long winter months. Nevertheless, gardening connects me with them, with that heritage, and with the skills of self-sufficiency that they passed along to me.

Connectedness With Future

Just as my parents and grandparents passed their skills and ideas along to me, so I also want impart those to my children. I have wonderful memories of sharing the preparation of soil, planting of seeds, harvesting, cooking, and eating garden produce with my own children. As such, the heritage of my past lives on into the future, passing memory and family story to the next generation. Gardening facilitates the sharing of values and things that I value with those whom I particularly value.

Community Benefits of Growing a Kitchen Garden

In an earlier blog post, I listed cost, health, and taste as three basic reasons to start a kitchen garden. Those are individual benefits.

Today I want to mention a few ways that our kitchen gardens benefit our communities.  This is significant, because collectively our kitchen gardens increase sustainability in a world where it's important for each of us to live lives that reduce drain on world resources. 

As of 2016, the world population is close to 7.4 Billion people. We can't help it that each of us needs to eat, but if we live more sustainably, we collectively can stretch the earth's resources and maintain our blue planet as a place of beauty for all people now and for future generations. Current industrial agricultural practices don't do that. 

The list of damaging industrial agricultural practices is too long to write about here! If you didn't know it already, in the USA the traditional model of the small time, family farm is dead. It was impossible, economically, for the small scale farmer to compete cost-wise, with large scale, industrial agriculture. 

 To make farming profitable, large scale Ag relies on planting fields of crops that are genetically homogenous, often with genetic modifications that enable them to resist herbicides so that herbicides can be applied that will kill weeds but not the genetically modified plants. Machines and / or low cost labor are used in a relatively highly mechanized way, to tend and harvest the crops, which are then sold to commercial distributors. These distributors then ship from their hubs to far flung distribution centers, where they are then purchased by third party sellers. Even the guy who stocks your local roadside stand more than likely purchases some or all of his produce from a distributor. 

Our current system results in unprecedented efficiency and a steady supply of relatively safe food. However, it also has significant negative environmental impacts and relies heavily on petroleum products. Individual gardeners, acting collectively, can retain benefits of industrial agriculture (e.g. have access to strawberries even when they're out of season here), while reducing reliance on big agriculture, thereby reducing  environmental impacts and also increasing sustainability. 


The pesticides and herbicides used by industrial agriculture to prevent pests also get into the ecosystem and cause collateral damage to the environment. For instance, it's estimated that neonicontinoid pesticides are contributing to decimations of bee populations  worldwide. We are hearing that residue from the Monsanto herbicide "Roundup" is appearing throughout the food chain.  We can fight against this by purchasing organic and non-GMO foods at the store, but we also collectively can have a significant impact when we adopt environmentally friendly practices in a home garden. Individually, I am just one person, but if enough of us make small changes the impact can be significant. 


In recent decades, California farms have been some of the most productive cropland in the world, supplying USA consumers with bountiful vegetables and fruits, which are shipped to every corner of the United States. Unfortunately, this appears to be coming to an end. Why? Because irrigation has been used in an unsustainable way. Groundwater that has been used for irrigation has been depleted to a point where it soon it will be no longer available.  If you don't believe me, do a Google search for "drought in California." For purposes of this blog post, take my word for it! 

After the plants are produced on these large scale farms, harvesting and getting the produce to market relies on machinery and shipping, which requires fossil fuels.  And then there's the packaging. And sometimes there are abusive labor practices.  These practices all have negative impacts. 

Growing veggies in our home gardens enables us to bypass much of the negative, unsustainable side of industrial agriculture, even more so when we compost and reduce our reliance on chemical fertilizers.  We increase long-term sustainability when we grow food ourselves (or when we source locally and from small suppliers), when we use heirloom varieties of plants, when we implement more sustainable agricultural practices in our own sphere, when we increase plant genetic diversity, when we provide safe habitat for bees and butterflies, and when we reduce reliance on the fossil fuels used for shipping. 


Another benefit is obvious: the opportunity to share. We build up communities and each other not just by sharing food with our neighbor or our local food bank, but by sharing knowledge and seeds and mentoring and visits with friends in our gardens.  Indeed, in this sense of building community, the garden itself can become a community activity, cultivating leaders as well as plants. To see a longer list of benefits of community gardening, check out this site:

In summary, in addition to being cost-effective, healthy and tasty, growing a home vegetable garden reduces the environmental impact of industrial agriculture, contributes to a more sustainable footprint, and builds local communities!  So now, in these two blog posts,  I have given you six pretty good reasons to think about growing your own kitchen garden (on whatever scale you wish, small or large). These six reasons are: cost, health, taste, environment, sustainability, and community.  In my next blog post, I will talk about some things that are more personal to me which add enrichment to my own gardening experience.

Practical Benefits of Growing a Kitchen Garden

I have a small, suburban garden plot. Why? I plan to blog on the topic of gardening for a while. This is the first installment of several.

There are many reasons for even a city dweller to grow some of their own food. Which reasons come to mind, for you? (Leave a comment!) For me, the reasons are both practical and philosophical. Let's start with the most basic reasons:


Growing your own food can save on your grocery budget, of course. If you are like me, and have only a small space in which to garden, budget issues are a good reason to focus your growing efforts on expensive foods. The smaller your space, the more closely you will want to focus on quality as opposed to quantity.

In my own garden, some of the things that I grow that are more expensive to buy in the grocery store are things like tons of cherry tomatoes,  fresh basil, colorful peppers, and sugar snap peas. 

Some expensive foods, like asparagus,  can be incorporated into your landscaping, planted once, and then will produce year after year.  Besides asparagus, other examples of plants in this category are blueberries and raspberries. 

I recently paid $3.50 for a pint of blueberries in a standard grocery store. A mature blueberry plant will produce several gallons of blueberries per year and produce fruit for many years. Further, in my region, early, middle, and late varieties of blueberries can be mixed. If blueberry varieties are selected according to a staggered ripening season, a home gardener can have fresh, homegrown (and free!) blueberries all summer long. 

Perennial plants and trees, like blueberries or apples, are not free, so there is an initial investment in plants. That leads back to the issue of cost effectiveness.  

To some extent, out-of-pocket costs on the front end of establishing good plants can be reduced by making a few trade-offs. For instance, a blueberry plant that is one year old from the nursery will be substantially less expensive than a blueberry plant that is several years old. The trade-off is that purchase of a smaller plant will require one to wait a couple of years for a more bountiful harvest.  

There is also a cost involved in getting started in growing plants that last for just one season, such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers. A beginning gardener will need some how-to books, tools such as a spade and hoses, soil enrichment, and seeds or starter plants. Indeed, in some cases it may seem that investment in things like raised bed materials, soil, plants, etc., can make the investment less than cost-effective. 

For this reason, set a budget and stick to it! Perhaps in year one, only invest in a few items and equipment, focusing on a few simple, low maintenance items that you love. If you are successful, find you enjoy gardening, and want to do more, then gradually invest more in equipment as time goes by (raised beds, soaker hoses, composting bins, gardening tools, etc.). After the initial investment in getting started, future costs will be lower. As with many things, the more years you do it the more you learn and the more efficient and cost effective you become. 

Reducing out-of-pocket grocery cost is not the only reason to grow your own food, however.


Many home gardeners who have small space focus their efforts on growing crops that are known to have high concentrations of pesticides and other chemicals when grown commercially.  If you do a Google search for "dirty dozen vegetables," you will find web pages that have lists of fruits and vegetables that have high amounts of pesticide and chemical residue in them. One example is strawberries. Another of these vegetables, believe it or not, is potatoes. This is because commercially grow potatoes are treated with chemicals that prevent fungus and also prevent them from sprouting.

The ability to grow organic, chemical free food is a significant reason to have a home garden. I admit, I was not raised doing organic gardening, and I am on a learning curve. This year, some bugs attacked my greens. I responded by spraying them with insecticidal soap. (The label says it is suitable for organic gardening.)  Although I did use chemicals, I knew exactly what I had sprayed on my plants and when, and so I knew when it was safe to pick and eat them. I do not have the same level of trust with regard to chemicals used on commercial crops! 

Even if a gardener does not use organic techniques in growing a garden, we know what chemicals have been used on the crops, and when they were used. The home gardener can use this knowledge to understand when the food is safe to eat without fear of pesticide residue! 

As more and more information is learned about long-term effects of pesticides on the body and the dependence of  industrial agriculture on pesticides, this has become more and more of a factor for me, personally. 


A third reason to grow your own vegetables and fruits, is simply quality and taste.  Growers who are producing foods for shipping and mass marketing are limited in the types of plants they can produce. Namely, plants produced for mass marketing must be able to stand up to rough handling by laborers, trucking over long distances, and must have a long shelf life once they are in the store. Delicate varieties of fruits and vegetables cannot hold up to this type of handling. 

Peaches are one example of a type of fruit where the difference between a variety grown for shipping and a variety grown for home use is striking.  There's simply no comparison between peaches that will stand up to shipping and the luscious, fragrant fruit that drips nectar when you slice it and would bruise if you looked at it the wrong way. 

However, there are many more fruits and vegetables for which the difference between  produce grown for mass production and the varieties available to the home gardener is striking. Some veggies, in fact, are not even available commercially. In my garden, I grow a couple varieties of plants that are not readily available in standard grocery stores, such as small white Thai eggplant and thin purple Chinese eggplant. An example fruiting in my garden right now is Swiss chard, which does not ship well. Here is a photo of some Swiss chard I recently picked from my garden:

There are many more reasons to garden, but I will talk about those in another entry another day! In the meantime, happy gardening!