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Selecting the right plants for a successful organic garden

Our garden is finally plowed and tilled. I’m working on making tomato cages out of strips of old fencing and figuring when I can go ahead and plant. This young lady weighs heavily on my mind.

See how she’s looking so longingly at my garden? She sees it the same way I do, as if it were already green and lush and heavy with produce. And she isn’t the only one. Cabbage moths, grasshoppers, hornworms, aphids and countless other pests, some of which are too small to even see, are all hanging out in the soil, the surrounding plants, the air and possibly on my transplants themselves waiting for their take of my harvest.

Winning the battle against these unwelcome intruders begins long before they are actually a problem, however. In fact, it begins before you even plant your first seeds. It begins by choosing the cultivars most appropriate for your area. That advice may be a little late for most of you, but it is never too early to start planning for next year.

How to choose the best plants for your area:

Decide what plants you want to grow.

Get to know your county extension’s website. All those glowing descriptions in the catalogs don’t mean half as much as a recommendation from someone whose job it is to compare the success of various cultivars in your area.

Know your USDA Hardiness Zone. Remember that this is only a general guide. Just because I’m in Zone 5 doesn’t mean everything labeled Zone 5 will survive a Nebraska summer. Or a Nebraska winter. Or the Nebraska wind.

Know your first and last frost dates. This is important for timely planting, but also for ensuring that your growing season is long enough for the plants you favor.

Know the microclimate of your area and where your garden will be located. Is it on a south facing slope or near a warming structure such as a retaining wall or the house? You may be looking at plants normally grown a little further to the south.

Know your soil. Is it clay? Sandy loam? Full of rocks? Is it acidic, neutral or a little alkaline?

Watch your garden and see how many hours of sun it gets. Is it enough for the sun loving tomatoes you crave? Do you have a little shade to help keep your lettuce going longer into early summer?

Know how many freeze hours are typical for your area. This is really only relevant if you are interested in fruit trees.

Choose disease resistant varieties.

Be willing to change your garden plans. We had our hearts set on blueberries, but according to our research, there just aren’t any good cultivars for our area. They require too much soil amendment and about the only way to grow them is in a container buried in the ground. That sounds like a plan for years of fighting against nature to maintain an ill-suited plant.

If you look beyond national chain stores, you will find a wealth of cultivars allowing you to grow your favorite garden vegetables in a wide variety of climates and soil conditions. As you learn more about your area, you may even find plants you had never considered before.

The most important thing to remember in organic gardening is to work with the local environment as much as possible rather than against it.

For more in this series on beginning organic gardening, just click on the button. And please share your gardening experiences! How did you select your plants? Where are your favorite places to purchase seeds and young plants?

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What is organic gardening?

The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to American life, drawing more and more people off the farm and into cities. The internal combustion engine allowed tractors to take over the work of horses (and many field hands). The development of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides did away with the need for expensive and time consuming land management practices and increased the productivity of farms run by fewer and fewer people. In the 19th century, for example, the ideal size of the family farm was 160 acres, the basis for the size of claims in the Homestead Act. By the end of the 20th century, the size had increased to over 400 acres, with each acre increasing in its productivity.

Science, it seemed, had solved the problem of supplying our ever-growing cities with food.

Or had it? Already in 1926, Sir Albert Howard began studying the relationship of healthy soils and healthy communities while in India and found their “traditional” agricultural practices superior to the industrialized agriculture of the West. He went on to develop organic farming techniques and influenced other scientists and farmers. In 1942, Jerome Rodale introduced the magazine “Organic Farming and Gardening,” with Sir Albert Howard serving as his associate editor. The Victory Gardens of World War II brought gardening back to the masses, and “Organic Farming and Gardening” brought knowledge of organic principles into the mainstream.

Well, almost, anyway.

Today, we have less faith in the science and technology that has brought us incredible yields at a lower cost. The demand for chemical free food is growing as awareness of the potential dangers of long term exposure increases. With this has come a standardization of practices and a legal definition of what can be considered “organic.” From the USDA National Standards Board Definition (1995):

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

While I doubt many of my readers are interested in actually becoming certified organic growers in order to put more healthy salads on their tables, it is important to note that the legal definition of the term “organic” refers only to food, and not even all types of food. The use of the term for honey or seafood, for example, is not regulated. It is up to the producer to decide what organic means in these cases, and oftentimes their practices are no different than standard agricultural practices. The law also does not define what organic means for garden products so do not assume that because a fertilizer or pesticide is labeled organic that it is any different from any other fertilizer or pesticide on the market.

The most important aspect of organic gardening is its attention to the health of the soil and the chemical free approach to pest management. There is a lot more to maintaining a healthy garden, however, than a good compost pile and refraining from spraying any chemicals. It is a whole system of management, emphasizing the integration of cultural, biological and mechanical practices. And even if you plan to spray for garden pests because you just can’t bear to lose any more cucumbers, your garden will benefit from implementing other organic practices.

Organic gardening really is about good gardening . . . good stewardship, of our land, which oftentimes makes spraying unnecessary because a healthy plant has its own defenses against pests and disease.

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Getting started with organic gardening

Tomorrow, I’ll be starting a series on beginning organic gardening and would love your thoughts and experiences!

Some of the issues I am looking at covering are:

In the mean time, I’d love to know about your experiences with organic gardening. Have you tried only to cede your garden to the bugs? Or have you found your garden to be relatively healthy? Why are you interested in organic gardening?

Feel free to share links to your blog as well if you’ve written about your experiences and concerns regarding gardening. I’d love you to join the discussion so we can all learn from each other!

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Our gardening adventure: A mix of planning and discovery

Taking the lead from Freedom Lover’s Academy and Living Our Way, I thought I’d share some pictures of our garden in progress.

First, our hired help. My husband’s baby. The Ford 9N tractor:

He actually left me with specific instructions for staging the photo.

“Make sure you get the barn in the background. But not the water heater.”

I think the model makes the picture, but that’s a mom speaking. For my husband, it is all about the toys. Er, tools.

Hey, you can even see the aforementioned water heater along with the plow and the blade. We don’t have much use for a snow blade in April, but they are cheaper out of season. And my husband has regraded our driveway twice, now. You can also see the hosta. What a surprise to walk out to the barn one morning and find a neat row of beautiful hosta.

One of our neighbors told us this place used to be “done up real nice.” Evidence of that is all around, peeking through an unkempt field…

…and fighting for space within the confines of an old flower bed.

We have found the outlines of several such beds in the field and my daughter has taken it upon herself to revive them. She’s collecting papers to lay down around the flowers to kill the grass and beginning to plan what she wants to add to each.

Shielding us from the farmland to the south is an entire hedge of lilacs.

Lilacs which are filling the spring air with their perfume.

Then, there’s the garden we’re working on. I wanted to take some video of my husband plowing with his new toys, but unfortunately the camera batteries were dead. The sight of him on his new tractor, the anticipation of breaking the first ground, and the hilarity of watching tractor tires spin at the attempt shall forever be etched in my memory but I lack any photographic evidence.

A few tries, however, and he started to learn his machine. The finished product, nicknamed “the Grand Canyon” by the children who love to jump from clod to clod:

Obviously, we aren’t quite ready for planting, which means we have probably missed potatoes for this year and my peas will have to wait for fall. I do, however, have a window full of tomatoes and peppers and a few onions that have survived, waiting on a freshly tilled garden and our last frost date.

It actually measures over 3,000 square feet which is why I’m not out there with a hoe. We found a disc harrow for the right price, but lacking a pickup is proving a bit of an inconvenience in purchasing tractor implements. If we can get delivery worked out, I’ll share some video.

How is your gardening going? I’d love to see pictures, so please feel free to share links to entries describing your spring gardening!

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Free March planting calendar for zones 3-10

I finally took some time over the weekend to plan out my spring planting calendar and was pleased to note that the only vegetables I had missed starting on time were those in the brassica family I have vowed never to plant again. At least until next year, when I plan to have a screened box to protect them from those inane little worms that left my broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts nothing but green skeletons last year.

For those of you who would like a little help with what to plant when (believe it or not, you aren’t supposed to start seeds the minute they’re available at WalMart, nor plant them the first sunny day after they’re available), I decided to make my planting calendar available as a free download.  It is actually color coded for zones three through ten, though I know absolutely nothing about gardening in warmer climates. Do y’all even start seeds down there? If you are further north, you may want to actually start seeds earlier than I’ve indicated due to a shorter growing season. Who wants their tomatoes to die back a week after they start really coming on? The dates on the calendar were achieved by counting backwards from the last frost date in each zone and comparing that to the charts in Square Foot Gardening.

If you are not sure what zone you are in, Burpee has a nice map on their website that even lets you enter your zip code for an immediate confirmation that you can indeed read your location correctly.  You then take that information and look at my March planting calendar and notice the bottom where each of the zones are printed in a different color. Say you are zone 5, like me. You will notice that “zone 5” is green. Just follow the dates printed in green for a rough estimate of when to start or plant seeds.

“Start” refers to the date you should start seeds indoors. If you have cold frames or some other method of warming the soil and protecting young seedlings from the cold, you can start the seeds there…but if you are that far along in your gardening experience, you probably do not need me to tell you when to start your seeds. “Plant” refers to the date you should plant either the seeds or your seedlings outdoors.

March is a pretty easy month for us northern gardeners. Here in the great Midwestern swampland, it is still too wet to even think about tilling. It is, however, a good time to think about starting a compost pile if you don’t have one already.  You can also map out your garden on paper and start a garden journal to keep track of your successes and failures to learn from next year.  Next week, I’ll share some ways to extend the growing season a little into those tempting, Springy mornings we are currently getting without having to worry about the fact that we are still a long ways away from that “after all danger of frost” date printed on the back of the seed packet.

I will also put up April’s calendar by the first of April to help you through your gardening chores for next month so remember to come back if you find this at all helpful!

Also consider sharing in the Share the Harvest challenge! Plant a little extra to share with a neighbor, friend or family member who could use it and enter to win $15 in free seeds! You can also download my free e-book, Developing Christian Character Through Gardening, to help turn you garden into a summer lesson on The Parable of the Sower.

Any questions? Is there any information that would be helpful to include as I start working on subsequent calendars?