Not growing enough of your own food? Join a local, organic CSA

Poona Kheera Cucumber from Open Lotus Garden

Not everyone can grow enough of their own food to satisfy their nutritional needs.  Many of us have full-time jobs, multiple jobs, families to care for,  hobbies, or we lack the land, tools, disposable cash or even the personal interest to grow a substantial portion of our own food.  If you fall into one of the above categories, it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of the agricultural revolution.

Consumer demand is finally beginning to exert positive influence on the way our food is grown—a lot of us are now looking for food that’s diverse, nutritious, tasty, and—most importantly—safe.  We’re not able to get this sort of food from industrialized agriculture, in which “farmers” have to manage vast tracts of monocultures, spray herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, and plant seed that’s been compromised on a cellular level in a labratory somewhere just to keep their heads above water financially.  It’s not a fair game for anyone.

The cool news is that small local farms can become hubs for community interaction, involvement and support of a people-centered reform that can make life a lot healthier and happier for all of us.  In the video below, small-farmer Katie Brandt talks about some of these possibilities:

Katie Brandt grows over 100 vegetable varieties on just 7 acres of rich soils at Groundswell Community Farm in Zeeland, MI. This organic farm feeds 120 Community Supported Agriculture members and their families, investing everyone in the risks and rewards of tomatoes & kale, floods & droughts, cooking & weeding. Members volunteer on the farm and pay for their food months before ever getting a bite to eat. That kind of patience may offer a key to thinking more clearly about our environment and economy. Katie studied anthropology at the University of Michigan and is continuing her studies at GVSU, pursuing a Masters in Biology.

Here’s to contributing towards positive change!

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Open Lotus Garden: June Garden Update

Wow, it’s mid-June already!  The spring has flown by, as it always does once I get busy with the garden beginning in early March.  Things in the garden are growing like crazy, and we can hardly keep up with it!  Some of the corn has tassels (the organic Blue Jade, which is a shorty variety topping out at 3-4 feet) and the rest is way taller than I am (the Oaxacan green dent variety we plan to make wicked good masa to make tamales with).  The pole beans and cucumbers are happily coiling themselves up the corn stalks and groping around like a bunch of teenagers for even higher tendril-holds.

planting corn

Planting corn weeks and weeks ago

open lotus garden corn tassels

The first corn tassels on the blue jade corn

The sugar snap peas are delicious, there are plenty of little (and some not-so-little) tomatoes growing all over the place. Several rows of bush beans are putting out their short-lived, but plentiful crop of crunchy sweetness, too.

open lotus garden sugar snap peas

Fresh sugar snap peas

The first-year asparagus plants are a froth of delicate fern leaves (since I’ve successfully resisted eating them), the dill is three feet high and has flower buds, and the artichokes are looking happier than I’ve ever seen them.  It seems that the squash in their new hills toward the back of the garden are thriving and conspiring to take over the world, too.

And did I mention berries?  The blueberries are finally starting to ripen up, there are a couple of strawberries forming, and the raspberry bushes that we transplanted with the help of some friends two years ago are putting out a nice amount of fruit this year.  Figs, one of my personal favorites, are on the way, too.

Garden problems?  Well, powdery mildew, the bane of gardeners in the South, has overtaken the remainder of plants in the cold frame bed—particularly the turnips and the collards.  It’s also bothering the sweet pea vines, which are still flowering despite the imposition of the mildew:

open lotus garden june sweet pea

Sweet pea

But the lacinato kale is being a real champ, and despite the constant 90-degree heat, it hasn’t gone to flower.  (You may note that earlier I posted a photo of the two-inch-tall kale seedlings weathering a snowy transplant just as tolerantly as they do the heat now.  These plants are wickedly versatile and robust—I’m in total love this veggie!)

We’ve also had to take out 4 tomatoes so far (out of 35+ total) because they’ve gone wilty and sick-looking.  We learned our lesson the hard way last year, when we lost all—ALL of our tomato plants to what appeared to be southern blight.  It was heartbreaking, and we don’t want to have a repeat, so it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to sick-looking plants.  When we pulled the more recent pair out, they did have a damaged stem around the base of the plant, which is a tell-tale sign of several plant diseases rather than any sort of nutritional insufficiency in the soil—so we sure are glad we pulled them.

open lotus garden fresh-picked late-may greens

Fresh mixed greens, including the ever-amazing lacinato kale in the back

In the animal world, we’ve got a healthy balance of garden pests and predators.  The most recent addition to the garden has been a mockingbird nest in the arbor that the trumpet vine’s growing on.  The parents are bringing an incredible assortment of bugs, worms, grubs and caterpillars to those babies every 3-4 minutes from sunrise to sundown.  Each day their chirps become louder and more insistent, and passing under the nest a few days ago, I caught a glimpse of a downy little chick’s head.  They’re so sweet, and they’re eating up a lot of things that would otherwise be eating the plants and vegetables! Win-win.

There’s also a little rabbit who shows up in the early evening each day now, and I can only hope and hope (or—ahem—delude myself into thinking) that he’s just nibbling on the leftover cover crop of clover we’ve been too busy to take out in a few places around the garden.

open lotus garden june sunset

Everything growing in June

All in all, things are g(r)owing just splendidly here for a June in Georgia.  Seeing the little seeds I tucked into the soil months ago grow, flourish, and begin to flower reminds me how grateful I am for the garden, and for the quiet magic of life itself.  It’s a new miracle, a new challenge, and a new surprise every day.

How are things growing in your little patch of green this time of year?

open lotus garden red lily june

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Growing Healthy Soil for a Successful Garden

A little earlier on, I wrote a post  or two about why soil is critically important when you’re growing your own organic food.  Basically, aside from the sun, air, and water, everything else that makes a vegetable or fruit tasty and nutritious comes directly from the soil!  It’s pretty amazing if you think about it—plants take solar energy (an energy form we’re just beginning to be able to harness directly as humans, and even then, not very efficiently), along with some rainwater, and the minerals and organic matter from the soil, and then these amazing plants turn it into stuff that we can eat, and derive our own energy from.  I, for one, am extremely glad for edible plants!  In addition, healthy soil helps plants keep themselves healthy, which improves their resistance to pests and diseases, overall yield, and their nutrition content.

So I suppose the natural question to ask now is, “Okay…well, what exactly makes for good soil?”  It’s an excellent question, and I’ve learned that there are actually a handful of factors, and they all interact with one another to determine the overall capacity of your soil to grow abundant, healthy food.  So I’ll share a bit about what I’ve learned about each of the major factors that contribute to soil quality below.

compost from the worm bin

Compost from the worm bin, complete with eggs and baby worms. Great for the garden!

1. Macronutrients

Three basic nutrients that plants need in order to flourish are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). All three are found in all-purpose fertilizers in some form or another, whether organic or otherwise.  The amount of each that you may need to add to your garden soil depends somewhat on the particular plant species.  For example, some plants are really heavy feeders when it comes to nitrogen (like corn) while others require much less.

According to my well-worn copy of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith,  other macronutrients that plants need in considerable amounts are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium and sulfur.  Some of these elements are readily available from the air and water, while others will occur in sufficient amounts naturally.  Still, some others may need to be added to the soil through various amendments.

2. Micronutrients

In addition to the nutrients above, there are a handful of other minerals that plants need in smaller quantities in order to carry on the business of growing and thriving—namely, iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc and molybdenum.  Like the macronutrients, these elements will be present in soil in sufficient amounts most of the time.  But if they aren’t, your plants may show it through different disease-like symptoms like wilting, yellowing, small fruits, or stunted growth.  That being said, it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on your garden soil’s nutrient content from year to year.  And keep in mind that too much can be just as bad as too little.

3. pH Levels

pH is a scale that goes from 0 to 14 which measures the relative acidity of a substance.  A pH of 7 would indicate a neutral substance, while a lower pH would indicate acidity, and a higher pH would indicate that the substance is basic in nature.  To get a bit more science-y with it, the pH scale actually measures hydrogen ion concentration. (Low pH means high hydrogen ion concentration, and a high pH indicates lower ion concentration.)

That’s pretty neat and all, but what sort of soil pH do garden plants like?  There’s isn’t one magic pH level that will work the best, but there is an optimal pH range for each type of plant.  The vast majority of plants will grow well in the 6-7.5 range, including artichoke, beans, beets, brussels sprouts, cabbage family plants, cantaloupe, peas, spinach and squash.  Asparagus has a wider range, tolerating soils with a pH of up to 8, while potatoes like fairly acidic soils that range in pH from 6 down to 4.5.

Most garden stores have DIY soil test kits that you can bring home and check your soil with.  The one I got this year cost about $10, and I can do two tests of each for pH, potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous.  There’s also a reusable electronic soil tester that you can get, which will tell you the soil pH as well as the overall fertility (which I have to assume is nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous combined).  The problem with this sort of test of course is that it won’t tell you what particular nutrient is lacking, so you’ll have to go and get a chemical kit to check the individual nutrients anyway.  I’ll admit it is handy for checking the pH, since you can use it indefinitely, and pH can vary quite a bit from one garden area to the next.

A basic soil test kit like one I've used in the past, available in garden stores and Amazon.com.

So how do you adjust the pH of your garden soil to best suit the plants that you want to grow in it?  First bit of advice is to work on the pH before you put any plants in there.  To make soil less acidic (to increase the pH for plants like asparagus), we use dolomitic limestone (garden lime) in Open Lotus Garden.  To make soil more acidic (to decrease the pH for plants like potato and blueberries) we often use cottonseed meal, which also increases the nitrogen content in the soil at the same time.  When adding amendments, you can expect to use more if you have clay soil, and less if you have sandy soil.

4. Organic Matter

Organic matter is pretty much what it sounds like: anything that was once living that breaks down and becomes a part of the soil.  This includes leaves, branches, fallen trees, bark, grass, last year’s annuals, grass trimmings, and even dead animals of all sizes.

Everything that is living eventually returns to the earth, and becomes part of the all-important organic matter that’s found in the earth’s topsoil.  Without organic matter, you’d basically have either rock, clay or sand (or a combination of those three)—and that’s it!  Organic matter plays an important role in the texture of the soil, helping to maintain billions of tiny pockets of air that the microorganisms, sundry soil bugs, and plant roots all need in order to grow and prosper.  Organic matter keeps the other elements of the soil from getting too compacted, which is important for soil drainage, water retention, and healthy root development in plants. Organic matter is a bit like a fiber supplement for constipated soil. (Apologies for the digestive analogy, but it’s completely fitting!)  Most healthy soil should have enough “fiber” in it naturally, but depending on the history of your garden soil and your local geography and geology, it might benefit from a bit of help from you, the gardener.

cover crop

A mixed cover crop in the garden of crimson clover and hairy vetch.

So how can you increase the amount of organic matter in the soil?

  1. Add compost (whether from a hot pile, cold pile or from vermiculture, all of it is a
    great addition to garden beds. It’s pure, unmitigated organic matter goodness!)
  2. Turn some dry leaves into your veggie beds in the fall or spring.  The worms will be happy to do the rest!
  3. Incorporate any mulch (straw, hay or lawn trimmings) into your beds at the end of the growing season.
  4. Plant cover crops in the fall, winter or early spring, and then turn them into the soil as “green manure” just before they go to seed. (Allow at least 2 weeks for partial decomposition before planting anything else. Allow more time if the weather is cool, as decomposition slows substantially in cool temperatures.)
  5. Add other amendments to the soil like peat moss or coir (coconut husk fiber.)  The drawback here is that it’s rather expensive, it may require a lot of product to amend your entire garden, and peat moss can actually affect the pH balance of your soil (making it more acidic). I would only use this as a last resort if you’ve got some serious soil texture problems and you don’t have the means to implement any of the other methods mentioned above.

Screened compost and soil...headed for the garden beds.

5. Soil Vitality

Having living stuff in your soil is really important.  Everything from earthworms down to microscopic soil bacteria and fungus can help by maintaining soil aeration and allowing plants to readily access nutrients in the soil.  While soil vitality is definitely a component of healthy soil, it’s also a very reliable marker of healthy soil:  if you have good soil, you’ll have lots of soil life; if you have poor soil, the number and variety of dirt critters will be much lower.

Take a hand trowel and go out and have a look into the soil of your garden beds, down to a depth of about 6-8 inches.  What do you find in the area of a square foot?  Are there a variety of different kinds of bugs and worms in there?  How do the worms look?  Are they healthy and happy?  Or is the soil too compacted to serve as a good environment for macroscopic soil life?  Microscopic soil life is nigh impossible to discern by visual observation, but if the soil texture is good and there are plenty of bugs that you can see, odds are that there are plenty of the other smaller, but necessary living components in the soil like mites (which often feed on molds), springtails, mycorrhizae, nematodes, and the like.

What’s the fix if there aren’t a lot of living creatures in your soil? Just gradually work on increasing your organic matter, and balancing your soil nutrients and pH as necessary.  The eventual appearance of more abundant and diverse soil life will indicate you’re on the right track.

For more about alternative soil amendments (i.e. those that aren’t used typically in standardized industrial agriculture), have a look through this info on ATTRA’s National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website by Preston Sullivan.  Good stuff!

compost

Compost

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You know what they say about quitting your day job…

That you’ll be busier than you’ve ever been in your entire life!  (Or, when it rains, it pours.) And after this week, I can officially vouch for this.  Full-time, short term work plus freelance writing gigs on top of it?  I didn’t even feel this harangued while I was a full-time college student!  But it’s all good—I’m just putting out my metaphoric buckets to catch all of the water that I can while it’s pouring down.

The only drawback to this is that I’ve been a bit of a slug in getting posts up on the blog, and for this I’ve been sad and frustrated. I enjoy writing this blog and sharing it with y’all almost as much as I love working out in the garden.  Almost.  So thank you for reading, and hang in there…I’ll be back full force real soon!

Until then, here are some shots of what’s “growing on” in Open Lotus Garden these days:

Speedwell

Pinky-purple Speedwell, though I forget which variety

Artichoke Seedling

Wee Artichoke with Tomato Volunteer

New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, which is awesome and I'll write a post on real soon!

Asparagus

First year asparagus...so tempting to pick and eat it, but it needs to stay put!

Cold Frame Going to Seed

The cold frame crops are going to seed in a major way with the warm weather.

Late spring tomato

Beautiful little tomatoes on the way on three or four different plants!

Happy gardening, y’all! 🙂

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Growing Soil – The Root of the Problem

In a perfect world, the soil in any specific location on this planet would be exactly what it needs to be for the plants that are naturally inclined to grow there, and vice versa. The soil of a deciduous forest is moist, soft, and rich with humus created from the centuries of leaves that have decomposed there.  Trillium, fern, violets and mosses thrive in this particular soil beneath the canopy of trees.  The native grasses of the great plains, like big bluestem and switchgrass, have root systems that can reach 7-10 feet long, which make them perfectly adapted to the range of soil and moisture conditions of this biome.

I Heart Dirt

However, when it comes to nature, we humans have a habitual tendency to intervene and well, mess things up.  We’ve done this with soil in a pretty major way. In the Midwest, we’ve gotten rid of much of the native deep-rooted grasses so well-suited to that land, and we have planted shallow-rooted cereal crops like corn, wheat and soy.  These crops require extensive irrigation because of their inferior root systems, and literally tons upon tons of pesticides and herbicides when they’re grown on such a large, uniform scale.  The latter two—pesticides and herbicides—essentially kill life.  They kill weeds (both the “good” and “bad” ones) they kill bugs (both the “good” and “bad” ones) and they eventually kill the naturally-occurring microorganisms in the soil. Needless to say, we don’t want to be putting this stuff into our soil if our aim is to enrich that soil in order to grow healthy food and encourage a more vibrant ecosystem.

In addition, even more of those native prairie grasslands have been cleared out to make room for the massive feedlots from which much of our meat comes. (From animals that are fed, not incidentally, not the grass and other plants that they would naturally eat, but corn, because it is bountiful and inexpensive…see the eye-opening documentary King Corn for more on this.)

In developed areas where humans reside, like cities, towns, and suburbs, the natural landscape has been systematically steamrolled to make way for houses, buildings, pavement and the most dreadful waste of good land we humans have come up with yet—the lawn.  An unblemished, 100% grass lawn is just about the most unreasonable, unattainable, pointless thing mankind has ever attempted to accomplish.  Even colonizing the moon would be more practical and acheivable.  Where else—outside of the modern lawn and industrial agriculture—do you see a half-acre of absolutely nothing but one plant variety?  It’s completely unnatural and contrary to the laws of nature which promote adaptation, evolution, and biodiversity in natural spaces.

But then again, the modern lawn is hardly a natural landscape:  First, the grass must be planted (once the preexisting vegetation has been completely cleared away, of course).  Then, it must be fed and watered regularly, because it has high demand for both nutrients and for moisture.  And on top of that, if you want a picture-perfect, model lawn, there will be the inevitable issue of weed control.  Enter the sundry scheisters that will be happy to weed, feed, mow and blow your lawn for you at a nominal price each month.  It might cost three times your monthly car insurance, but they’ll promise your yard will be the envy of all your neighbors.  These guys will happily kill your soil in short order, and keep feeding, reseeding and chemically weeding your yard straight into biological oblivion.

Even the optimists regarding soil recognize that we’re in a sad state of affairs today.  Soil, the very flesh of this living earth, is in many ways sick, thanks to us humans, our big brains, and our reckless ways.  The good news is that nature, as a living system, can be incredibly strong and resilient under the right conditions.  And one of the primary roles of the organic farmer and gardener is to facilitate the restoration of soil and ecosystem vitality and diversity.  The next post in this series will cover the basic components that make for healthy soil, and in subsequent posts, we’ll move on to talk about some of the different practices that you can use to help heal and restore the soil that you grow in, with benefits that will be enjoyed by all of the parties involved—whether human, plant or animal.

If you’d like to learn more about soil and the danger of how we treat it today, be sure to watch Dirt! The Movie (available on Netflix, and probably other places on the web, too).  It’s an excellent documentary that explains the problem quite clearly with interviews from experts that come from all the different facets of the soil issue.  Here’s the trailer:

*A Note: When I say “we” and “our” throughout this post, I mean it in the most sincere way: we are buying into the current system that degrades the world’s soil through our food purchases and lifestyle choices, and so we are complicitly involved in the large-scale destruction of soil.  So, as humans, as citizens, as consumers, as parents, and sons, and daughters, and gardeners, and farmers, let’s pool our influence and put it towards some  change. There’s a lot that we can do.  🙂

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Successful Gardeners Grow Dirt First

Ask an organic gardener or farmer what she grows, and there’s a good chance her answer will be “dirt.” Beautiful, sweet-smelling, dark chocolate-colored dirt filled with humus, rich with minerals, and teeming with millions of bugs, worms, and microogranisms.  Repeat after me: Dirt is the single most important living element in the garden.

composting in India

CC Attribution: Find Your Feet on Flickr

And believe it or not, you can spend all the time you want fussing over your plants and pouring Miracle Gro on them, but if the dirt isn’t rich, healthy and alive, the garden isn’t going to flourish.  Miracle Gro and other fertilizers its ilk are basically the equivalent of steroids for plants.  You pump them up with it, and they get all leafy and big, but in the long term you’re contributing nothing helpful to the soil or the garden ecosystem.  (And I’m not even going to go into what I think of the Scotts Miracle Gro corporation.  Yuck.  Maybe another day.)  So in summary, don’t shoot your plants up with electric blue ‘roids, okay? Okay.

Small-scale organic farmers and gardeners think of the soil as a living organism that is part of the larger ecosystem of their garden and surrounding land.  To illustrate, the soil in Open Lotus garden is just as alive and important as the pepper seedlings and the asparagus, just as alive as the oak tree in the back of the lot, and just as alive as the hawk looking down at me from that tree.  Each element has its role, and each is critically important.  The oak tree gives the garden late afternoon shade during the hottest part of the day through the summer, and it also gives us leaves at the end of the fall to turn into compost which  will be turned into the wonderful material that we amend the garden beds with next spring, which helps our garden grow abundantly.

Considering this idea, it’s no surprise that organic food producers get a little bit obsessed with their soil.  They put their sweat and love and labor into it, they wear it on their clothes and their skin, they touch it, they smell it, they taste it.  It’s not unlike being in love.

In order to give you a sense of the organic food garden as part of a beautiful, complex ecosystem, I’m going to be sharing a series of posts about the main components of the garden ecosystem and talk about different methods we, as food growers, can employ to maximize the vitality (or life energy) of our growing space to produce abundant, nutritious food.  And this week, it’s going to be all about the dirt, so go ahead—get excited, and stay in touch!

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The Amazing Perennial Peppers

Back when the first frosts were hitting last fall, there were still some lovely pepper plants in their prime in the garden—lush green leaves, lots of fruits, just wonderfully happy plants.  (Go ahead and blame it on me for starting them too late.)  I have a soft spot for my plants, and I’ll readily admit that I can get rather attached to them.  So, rather than leave the peppers outside to succumb to the sting of a fall frost, we dug them up, stuck them into some biggish pots, and put them inside along the south facing windows of the house.

They looked pretty pathetic all winter long, but they never outright died, so I kept watering them and fed them occasionally with compost tea that we made from the contents of the worm bin.  I didn’t expect anything, but I wasn’t ready to leave them for dead.

Lately, the weather here in Atlanta has been glorious, and we’ve moved all the plant starts and the “survivor” peppers back outside.  And wouldn’t you know—the warmer temperatures and an abundance of sunlight has started a pretty amazing process.  The peppers are growing fresh, shiny new leaves, they’re making flowers again, and they’re even putting out new peppers!  So much for thinking of peppers as annuals!

Open Lotus Garden Perennial Pepper

The amazing, perennial thai hot chili pepper!

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