Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Organic Vs. Non-Organic

Believe it or not the term "dirty dozen" does not refer to the egg market. Which seems to be in hot water these days. It refers to the dirtiest (as in pesticide) fruits and vegetables at the market. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that a consumer can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80% by avoiding the most contaminated produce and selecting only the cleanest produce that are non-organic. The EWG has been publishing guides of the "dirty dozen" of most pesticide contaminated foods since 1995, based on statistical analysis of testing conducted by the USDA and the FDA. (By the way these tests were done after the produce was washed, rinsed and peeled, Yikes) In their most current list there is a handy little cut out that you can take shopping with you. In this PDF it also explains the potential harm pesticides have on the body, fetal development, and in early childhood development.

Here are some of the links to research connecting pesticide residue to potential health problems: Prostate Cancer, Childhood cancer, ADHD in children, Central nervious system, Menstrual cycle and many more.

The EPA estimates that 40 percent of children tested in CDC’s national biomonitoring study from 1999 to 2002 had amounts of OPs (organophosphate pesticides) in their bodies at levels exceeding standard margins of safety, relative to levels shown to be harmful in laboratory studies (Paynes-Sturges 2009). Another study in support of organic diets done by EHP proves that an organic diet significantly lowers children's exposure to Agricultural pesticides.Why are many studies on the effect of pesticide on human development done on children?  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that infants and children may be especially sensitive to the residue of pesticides for several reasons listed below,
  • Their internal organs are still developing and maturing,
  • In relation to their body weight, infants and children eat and drink more than adults, possibly increasing their exposure to pesticides in food and water.
  • Certain behaviors--such as playing on floors or lawns or putting objects in their mouths--increase a child's exposure to pesticides used in homes and yards.
What about non-organic produce from other countries? Many are not approved by the FDA and slip through customs as they are undetectable by the human eye, nose and taste buds. EWG writes,

Between 1996 and 2006, 1.6% of domestic crops violated pesticide safety standards in FDA inspections, while imported crops earned violations at 2.25 times that rate. FDA inspectors target suspected problems, but still inspect just a small fraction of produce on the market, and test for just a fraction of pesticides that could contaminate it. Many violating products likely make it to the produce aisle and the kitchen.

In conclusion, your diet does not have to be 100% organic.This information is gathered to enlighten and help consumers stay informed. We can all use a little extra cash these days. If you follow these four tips you can save money, eat cleaner and practice sustainable living.
  1. Use the Dirty Dozen list to shop for Organic produce (It is better to buy local  to reduce, "Think Globally, Eat Locally.")
  2. Supplement your diet with the Clean 15
  3. Shop for local product in farmers markets. Get to know your local farmers and ask what they use for pest control on their produce. Many small farmers do not use any pesticides or sprays but can not afford to be "Certified Organic".
  4. Grow your own produce, especially the dirty dozen.
Small steps toward a clean diet can make a big difference.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Price of Home Grown Produce

I did not start gardening to save money, I did it to feed my passion. Every spring I feel a strong magnetic tug to pull weeds from the soft earth and plant seeds. There are many reasons why a gardener gardens, some more fulfilling than others.

The other day I was at Barnes & Nobel and I spotted an interesting book called, The $64. Tomato (excerpt) it got me thinking.... If I put a price tag on my garden, what would it read? I started to do some research and came across some very enlightening articles that would help me get an idea of its value. I really enjoyed reading an article by Roger Doiron from Kitchen Gardener titled Whats a Home Garden Worth? He spent six painstaking months weighing, calculating and recording all the produce he grew in his home garden. He then compared prices in a nifty chart of his produce with those he bought at Whole Foods,  his local grocery store and the farmers market. In his experiment he concluded big savings in growing his own vegetables.

Another interesting read was an article by Jane Thomas titled Can You Really Save Money on Growing Vegetables? Her article explains that if you garden "right" you can save money. I agree with her analysis, there are many ways to cut costs in the garden so that you don't end up with a $64. tomato. A few rules of thumb when gardening to save money are,
  • Grow from seed 
  • Make your own compost and pesticides
  • Grow produce that have an expensive price tag in the supermarket (see Jane Thomas's list)
  • Drip Irrigation
Jane Thomas also provides a handy list on common high price vegetables you can grow yourself.
Neal Templin from the Wall Street Journal wrote an article called How Much Green Can Growing a Vegetable Garden Save You? He writes about a study done by the nonprofit National Gardening Associations and they found that the average home vegetable gardener spends $70. a year on gardening and produces $600. worth of Veggies. Wow, now that is some serious saving.

 So, I have concluded that even though there is an initial investment in building a garden, the overall value of having a backyard vegetable garden is priceless. I could calculate how much my garden is worth but I know it is worth much more then the production of its vegetables. Here is a list of all the benefits that I did not see listed in these articles
  • Free therapy
  • Sustainable living
  • Fresh produce
  • More flavorful produce
  • Custom shopping list
  • Organic produce
  • Pride in growing your own
  • Education and connection to where food comes from
One can clearly see many pros of a home garden and yes there are some cons but once you have tasted your first homegrown heirloom tomato or sunk your teeth into fresh corn you will forget the cons. It is a lot like having a newborn baby, in retrospect those tough times are sort of a blur when you look into the eyes of your smiling child.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Organic Fertilizers Vs. Synthetic

I was one of those..... The gardener who loved the effects of synthetic fertilizers. My plants would be wimpy one day then hopped up on that blue juice the next. Yes, you get some really fast and amazing results, but at what cost?

Beside my own experience in the drastic transformation of the health of my garden soil I have read some very interesting articles on the long term effects of synthetic Nitrogen fertilizers on soil. One of the great articles I most recently read was on grist:the nitrogen dilemma. I think it is a must read for any gardener, but you can draw your own opinions regarding this topic. In summary, the article explains the argument against the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. It explains the negative impact of synthetic nitrogen on soils health and in our environment.

How does Synthetic Nitrogen work to destroy our soil? The article explains that a team of University of Illinois researchers led by professors Richard Mulvaney, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth found that nitrogen fertilizers stimulate soil microbes that feed on organic matter. They explain it is sorta like a tread mill effect where the ravines microbes that feed on organic material (ie. minerals, garden and animal compost) create an accelerated decline in the organic matter which then results in the inability for the soil to store organic nitrogen. It creates this never ending dependability on more synthetic nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers actually deplete and destroy the natural process of the soils health.

Contrary to synthetic fertilizers, Organic fertilizer builds the soil. Organic fertilizer is the product of plant, animal and mineral origin. The nutrients are gentle on plants and are released slowly over a period of time. This process is slower, but it is balanced so the soil health improves over time. Some great organic fertilizers to try are, Bonemeal, Alfalfa meal, soybean meal and seaweed meal or any other complete organic fertilizer . In addition I use organic chicken manure and garden compost. Other organic soil enrichment includes, Leaf mold, worm composting, green manure and other animal manures.

In addition, this article explains how the additional nitrogen not be used up fast enough by the microbes in the soil is lost to runoff. This excess nitrogen is finding its way to our waterways and poses a variety of collateral issues. From what I have read there are many negative impacts when using Synthetic fertilizers and countless benefits to using organics. Try it out, you will see!

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Just like a bear coming out from a long winter hibernation, stretching an yawning, so to am I. Like the bear and me, my garden has been hibernating and this blog post is focused on getting a jump start on summer garden preparations. Let's start with two important topics, what to plant and where.

As a professional landscape designer I like to experiment with plant combination, yes you can do this with vegetables and herbs as well. However, did you know that there is a more scientific approach to planting order? Planting plants which like each other actually helps neighboring plants thrive. This technique is called companion planting. Just like people, plants benefit from good, healthy companionship. It is believed that plants will yield more, grow better, taste better and in my opinion as a designer look better.

In most cases it is best for the gardener to experiment and find out what works best for their garden. To get you started, here are some general rules to get your Match.com friendly garden started,

Just like in any healthy relationship avoid the negative.
Some plants which do not pair well together are:
  • Corn and Tomato,
  • Tomato, peppers, potato and eggplant
  • Cucumbers, Squash and Melons

In a healthy relationship it is best to accentuate the positive. Here is a great chart by Our Garden Gang of plants that do well together. This chart has a very organized way of listing beneficial and non-beneficial plant relationships. Garden Ablaze has planting charts broken down into more specific ways your garden can benefit from companion planting such as companion planting for larger yields, companion planting for pest control and companion planting for attracting beneficial insects.

Another benefit to companion planting is mixing it up to keep it interesting. The further a pest has to travel from feast to feast, the greater chance the insect will loose interest or become a feast to another predator. Mixing up the plants also gives you the opportunity to try some more aesthetically pleasing plant combination. One can experiment with plant color, texture, size and shape. For example, if we look at our (above) charts we can experiment.

What about planting tomato, basil, and marigolds together. What a beautiful combination, the red of the tomato against the yellow marigold with a splash of delicate white flowers or purple leaves from the basil.

Another great combination would be eggplant, rocky top lettuce mix and carrots. The purple eggplants are a beautiful and dramatic backdrop to the chartreuse leaves of carrots and the purple and chartreuse variegation from the lettuce mix ties both together nicely. Here we are mixing color, shape, texture, and size.

So it appears that practicing the companion planting method has many benefits, not only will you be promised a big harvest, less pests and healthy plants, you will also be rewarded with an aesthetically beautiful garden.....Who wouldn't want a companion like that?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Garden Pest Warfare-The Organic Way

My vegetable garden is in full swing and usually about this time each year I am faced with a few unwanted guests. I am talking about insects and creatures of the night who seek out my prized, perfectly ripe heirloom vegetables and devour them. It is warfare alright, but it does not have to be toxic (to humans).

There are some really good products out there which are organic and/or safe to use on your edibles. Below is a list of typical garden pests or diseases with some organic or safe solutions. Click on each unwanted guests name (below) to identify and follow the links to the organic solution.

Ants- Boric acid potion mix 2 Tb boric acid (drug stores carry it) mixed with a sweet liquid/jelly (think they used apple or mint jelly) to make a paste. Put the paste in 8 oz. margarine tubs with holes in the sides (to keep pets out).
Aphids-ladybugs are a great and organic solution to aphid control. you can also use Neem it is a oil and soap concentrate that when added to water can be sprayed on pest to kill by suffocation. This product can also be used for controlling fungus (i.e. powdery mildew).
Powdery Mildew- Use Organacide which is a concentrate you can mix with water and spray on leaves. I have used this product a few times this year on my summer squash and it works overnight.
Blossom-End Rot- Blossom end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant and can be corrected with quick action. First, pick all fruit that has been damaged (see image for identification). Second, mulch the soil around plants to provide more consistent moisture after temperatures rise. One of the causes of BER is uneven moisture, so mulching helps retain moisture. Third, there is a product called Blossom-end rot spray by Green Light (found at most big box stores) that can be sprayed on the foliage for quick results. I have used this in the past and it has worked!
Caterpillars- Mockingbirds. Hand pick off plant. Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) targets and eliminates bad bugs while not harming beneficial bugs. The way b.t. works is actually quite interesting. B.t. is a natural occurring soil bacteria that acts sorta like a stomach virus to the caterpillar. So which essentially it is a "bug" for the bugs. B.t. comes in liquid and powder form and is quite economical. The product is not just for killing caterpillars it will also destroy tent caterpillars, cabbage loopers, cutworms, gypsy moth larvae, budworms, corn borers, tomato hornworms, leafrollers, peach tree borers, webworms, codling moths, and other caterpillars. B.t. is also available for controlling the larvae of black flies, mosquitoes, and fungus gnats, in addition to potato beetles and certain leaf beetles.
Tomato Horn Worm
-Hand pick off plant. Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.)
Mice/Rats- Mouse traps and rat traps
White Fly-Use Neem it is a oil and soap concentrate that when added to water can be sprayed on pest to kill by suffocation. This product can also be used for controlling fungus (i.e. powdery mildew).
Grasshopper-Neem (nymph stage), Diatomaceous Spray-Mix one cup (240 ml) of diatomaceous earth with one gallon (3.8 l) of water along with two tablespoons (30 ml) of blackstrap molasses. Spray this onto the plants. Grasshopper Pathogen (Nosema locustae)- it is a spore that causes blood poisoning which brings on death. When other grasshoppers feed on the dead infected grasshopper the disease is spread. it is important to start this treatment early in the nymph stage because it takes awhile to see results.
Earwig-Diatomaceous earth (see above). Damp newspaper rolls-roll up damp sheets of newspaper and place in the garden over night. At sunrise the earwigs crawl into the wet newspaper to take refuge. Collect the bundles before they dry out and throw them out in a secure plastic bag.
Grubs-Milky Spore Powder
Birds-Birds can be extremely beneficial to the garden so I only use bird netting over my tomatoes. Make sure there are no holes for birds to get in and get trapped.
Raccoons, Rabbits and Squirrels- I would recommend trapping the little critters and moving them to another location. We have tried repellents and they have not worked for us.
Slug and Snail- Tuna can and beer-Fill a empty tuna can with beer and bury it with soil. The slugs love the taste of beer and will crawl in and drown, Diatomaceous earth and Sluggo.

Beneficial bugs in the garden is the least toxic and a great way to fight bad bugs in the garden. ATTRA has created a list of beneficial bugs and a way to attract them into your garden. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"You say tomato, I say tomahto"

Like the old song goes "You say tomato, I say tomahto", everyone has their own interpretation of what it takes to grow and harvest tomatoes. I have read about the planting the plant on its side trick, or the planting the tomato plant with a dead fish trick or the question of whether to plant a determinant or indeterminate variety, the list goes on and on....There are so many tricks and rules you may just feel like calling the whole thing off.

Tomatoes are an easy plant to grow, anyone can do it. I have always had a successful crop of tomatoes and my secret has been to have four main ingredients:

  • Water
  • Fertilizer
  • Support
  • Sun
Water - Like most plants tomatoes need regular water. I use automatic drip irrigation for three great reasons. The first reason is because it delivers consistent moisture to the plant. Tomatoes (and other vegetables) do not like to be over watered or dry out, especially when it happens inconsistently. The second reason is drip irrigation waters the root zone not the leaves. Overhead watering (especially in the evening) can cause moisture born fungi and disease (e.g. Powdery mildew ) to develop on leaves. The optimal time to water is early in the morning when leaves have a whole day to dry off before temperatures drop and humidity rises. The third reason is because it saves water (better for the environment and easier on the wallet). With overhead watering, much of the water is lost through evaporation and run off. Basically, I water my vegetable garden in the morning three times a week for ten minutes with drip irrigation. Mulching around the the plants will help conserve moisture and keeps weeds at bay.

Fertilizer- Any complete vegetable fertilizer will do. I use an organic fertilizer such as E.B. Stone's Organic Vegetable and Tomato Fertilizer. I also use fish emulsion, which is a liquid fertilizer mixed with water. Fish emulsion liquid fertilizer is the fastest way the plant can receives nutrients and is known as foliar feeding.

-Most Tomato growers would agree, there are two main methods of support for tomato plants staking and cage. In Pat Welsh's book Southern California Gardening a month to month guide She explains the two techniques in great detail but I will give you the shorter version.

The cage method- bend a 6 1/2-foot length of 5-foot-tall, 6-by-6 hardware cloth or cement-reinforcing wire to make a round cage 2 feet across. Place the cage over the tomato plant (make sure it is anchored down to withstand wind). With this method no pruning is involved, just let the branches climb up inside the cage. With this method the fruit will be smaller but you will get more fruit.

The next method is the staking method. Stake each tomato plant with one 8-foot-tall stake that you embed in the ground. Prune all side suckers and allow only one main trunk to grow. This method takes a lot of work but you will get larger and earlier fruit but less of them.

Sun-Like all plants that produce flowers and fruit tomatoes need at least seven hours of direct sunlight in order to flower then fruit. Without the sun exposure you may have a plant that has great green foliage but has no or little fruit.

So, it is that simple and before you know it you will have tons of beautiful and tasty home grown tomatoes that you can brag about.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What's Growing in The Garden Now!

Success!!I have found the secret to germinating bean seeds without them rotting. Simply soak the bean seeds for 2 hours prior to planting. Next, place the seeds in wet paper towel and slide into a plastic bag. Next, label and wait a few days. When the seeds start to germinate (grow roots) place each seed (eye up) into soil, cover and water.

In just a few more days I saw my seeds emerge. I have always thought that was the beautiful thing about seeds, within that hard exterior there is so much life.

In my garden I have planted three types of beans this year. Here are the descriptions taken from the Baker Creek Web site:

Dragon Tongue
This famous Dutch heirloom bean has an incomparable flavor. The tender and superbly delicious 7" pods are yellow, with amazing purple streaks! Also makes a tasty shelled bean. Popular with chefs and gourmets. Compact plants set high yields.

This is the bean that is said to have come to America with the Pilgrims in 1620. This old cutshort green bean has great flavor and the red/white beans are quite tasty. A long-time staple in the Carolinas.

California Blackeye Pea
70 days. An old standard variety; vigorous, high-yielding vines. Thomas Jefferson grew Blackeye Peas in the 1770s. Originating in Africa, cowpeas are easy to grow and are very popular in the South; a very ancient crop.