Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mustard Season

Just in time for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by the talented Pille, we celebrate the beginning of the fall and winter greens season with some heirloom lettuce and a great salad greens that is often overlooked: mustard!

The cool weather coming in is the best time for growing delicious green things for salads, sandwich layers, and garnishes. Our lettuces, which hid from the summer heat, are starting to peek out from where they self-seeded. In the meantime, we'll plant to make up the difference!

Pictured here, on top of some Early Girl tomatoes (which are ripening late, under floating row cover), are fresh leaves of Forenschluss and Cimmaron romaines, and a crinkly red mustard leaf.

Mustard is the great "sleeper green" of the instant gourmet and adventuresome home gardener. Leaf mustard, unlike mustard grown for seed or as a cover crop, has broad leaves that range from mildly zingy to mule-kick strong. The variety I chose, sheerly for robust good looks, is Red Giant, and falls somewhere between those two extremes. I find the leaves by themselves too strong, but they layer nicely between a couple of romaine leaves in a lunchtime sandwich. The zingy pick-me-up of mustard leaves can let one skip the prepared mustard or mayo, handy for a bag lunch brought to work.

If you can grow lettuce, you can grow leaf mustard. Look for it on racks of Botanical Interests gorgeous illustrated seed packets, where Giant Southern and Giant Red are prominently displayed, as well as Mizuna, a sawtooth-leaved oriental cooking mustard green. In your local Asian market, look for "Gai Choi". Mustards come in a gorgeous palatte of colors and textures, too. High Mowing's Organic mustards include the stunning Purple Osaka and their striking "Hotshot" mix.

I picked up six-pack sets of lettuces and mustards at our community garden's fall plant sale. Forenschluss, which means "Speckled Belly", is a beautiful variegated romaine with an upright, compact habit. The bronze tones of Cimmaron go very well with Forenschluss, so I've planted them in alternating rows in my garden.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Strawberry Woes: Compost to the Rescue

Most commercial strawberry growers rely on heavy applications of methyl bromide or similar fumigants to combat black root rot, an endemic problem for strawberries. New agricultural research shows that growing strawberries in compost medium can substitute for soil fumigation. Fumigants, in addition to their toxicity and negative effects on the soil ecosystem, are increasingly expensive. Many small-scale growers cannot afford fumigants, yet the poorer yields of associated with black root make going without it unaffordable as well.

Mesh tube bags, sold commercially under a variety of names, were filled with compost and set up with drip irrigation. The strawberry plants were set directly into the compost tubes, and did not pick up the black root from the infected soil. Yields were increased a whopping 16 to 32 times!

Photo courtesy of USDA

In a lovely example of synergy, not only does this represent a more natural and affordable method for strawberry culture, the method frees growers from the ubiquitous use of black plastic. Acres and acres of black plastic are used to mulch between rows in large-scale operations. The tube bags, sometimes called "socks" are available in a wide variety of materials, including natural materials such as cotton or burlap, and biodegradeable plastic meshes.

In the photo above, I've taken a wide shallow planter and used some landscape edging to add a second tier to it. Making a multi-level strawberry planter with compost in mesh tubes would be even easier. I could try adding strawberry plants in a compost mesh tube as a raised edging on my planter beds, or around the base of the beds on top of the chip mulch I use to suppress weeds. I'll have to try that!

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A is for Avoiding Arsenic

We're starting a new series, the "Garden ABC". I thought we'd begin with a little scary information about ways that arsenic could be getting into your garden. That may sound bizarre, but actually arsenic is dangerous at very minor levels. The amounts to which we're exposed, from sources as diverse as coal-fired electrical plants to pressure-treated lumber to municipal water to chicken dinners, add up rapidly. Arsenic is a potent carcinogen, as well as a direct poison. The Safe Water Act would have lowered municipal water levels of arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb, but it was struck down by the current administration.

We hope that arsenic is not entering your garden through your water supply. If you suspect that it might be, you can request the Consumer Confidence Report on your water supply. The other way that arsenic can sneak into your garden is via commercial chicken manure.

Not Just Chicken Feed

Here in the USA, commercial chicken feed contains roxarsone, an organic (in the chemistry sense) arsenic compound that suppresses bacterial infections in the chickens' guts and makes them gain weight faster. Unfortunately studies are showing that it's secreted in the toxic, inorganic form. As one article so aptly put it, Food for Chickens, Poison for Man. It's banned in the EU and ought to be banned here.

The rate at which bacteria convert roxarsone to toxic arsenic has been widely underestimated until the recent publication of new evidence linking chicken litter and toxic arsenic. The chicken waste is pelletized and sold as fertilizer to commercial farmers. Chicken manure is also sold in dried or composted form at hardware and garden centers. Studies show that fields which are spread with this material are getting noticeable amounts of arsenic.

If you know folks who are giving you chicken manure, check to see if they're mixing their own 'scratch' feed from grains or using a pre-mixed feed that might have roxarsone. There are numerous suppliers of certified organic chicken feed and mash if one prefers a pre-mix.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Gardening as Environmental Stewardship

Take a little patch of earth and make it a garden. Even if you only grow one thing. Even if it's a hardscrabble piece of bare dirt along the side of a wall, or a pot on a balcony, or a milk carton in a windowsill. That's what I'd like you to come away with, today on Blog Action Day, when we are all talking about the environment. Because WE are an integral part of the environment. Our human actions.

Being involved with maintaining the life of plants will involve you more intimately with the life of the planet. Even better if it's a plant you can eat, because you won't want to eat poison and you'll be more careful about what you use to keep other things from eating that plant.

We started our garden when we moved in, in February 2005. The ground was baked, cracked clay, utterly bare, without even weeds. The previous owner had torn out the dead sod, the lawn that nobody had watered while the place was for sale before he'd bought it. For three and a half years, he never got around to putting in a lawn, a garden, even any ground cover. So the bare ground sat and baked. No worms, no bugs, nothing.

After almost 3 years of hauling in compost, planting, putting down wood chips, letting things go to seed and spread, we now have a little ecosystem all our own. Every year we see new critters not previously encountered. Some of these new neighbors are not so great, like plant-damaging soldier bugs. Others are unexpected delights, like the giant salamanders, the little lizard I saw drinking from a soaker hose, and of course the hummingbird regulars who now understand that peas or beans will be flowering here most of the year (and that our neighbor's hummie feeder will take care of the wintertime).

We've gone from seeing a few bees here or there to hosting a wide array of pollinators: honeybees, to be sure, but also big black carpenter bees, ground-nesting bumblebees, and sleek metallic hoverflies. And we're still learning.

This year we're putting in mustard and vetch as a cover crop on some of the beds, with fall-winter fava beans. We've established alyssum that self-seeds, and cornflowers, and borage, along with plantings of lavender, to try to provide a year-round supermarket for our native pollinators.

We realized that even after just a couple of years, things don't grow so spectacularly as they once did-- we've been putting our virgin clay soil-grown, mineral-rich, organic tomato and bean vines in the city compost bin and getting back lawn-clipping gruel, even if it IS composted. Every eggshell that we've thrown in the trash is a bit of calcium that could have been useful in the garden. I have a few dozen eggshells, crushed into the bottom of a clean milk jug, drying, waiting to go into the garden now. The top of the gallon milk jug is a warming cap for a broccoli plant, and will nurture pepper seedlings this spring.

This fall we bought a lightweight 'leaf shredder' that uses a modified weed-whacker in a big funnel, and we shredded up our plants at the end of summer and mulched them into the beds. I could bang my head on the wall thinking of the cubic yards of tomato plant, squash vine, bean plants, etc that we've stuffed into the city 'yard waste' bin and sent away, but at least we're doing it differently now.

It starts with just a little patch of ground, even a single plant. If you do nothing else for the environment this year, plant a garden. You'll find out that it was really for you, too.

Yes, these are all photos from our backyard. The one below is what it looked like in November 2005. We've come a long way, baby!

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