Friday, May 14, 2010

Helping Honeybees in Your Backyard

The kind people at Care2 recently asked me to write for their new sustainable food channel, Real Food. My inaugural post, published earlier this week explores how the mysterious honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and other environmental stresses currently affecting insect pollinators threaten not only honeybees, but also the sustainability of America's food supply.

Though honeybees were not originally native to the Americas — they were brought over the Atlantic from Europe by some early European colonists with a craving for honey — in the centuries since honeybees' introduction, they have become an integral part of the American landscape, and many common food crops depend on honeybees for successful pollination. In fact, about a third of the plant foods we eat every day in the United States are produced with the help of honeybees. Strawberries, watermelon, cherries, blueberries, and peaches are among the many foods that may one day become scarce if both honeybee populations are not protected.

Read my post over at Care2 if you'd like to learn more about our dependence on bees, and the current threats to them.

Over the past few years, I have taken several steps to make my own home garden more friendly to bees and other pollinators. I stringently avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides, not only in my organic vegetable and herb gardens, but also in my yard as a whole. I have allowed bee-friendly "weeds," like clover, violets, and wild strawberries, to creep in among the grass in my backyard to provide both honeybees and wild native bees with a good source of pesticide-free food.

And I have deliberately planted several herbs and flowers that attract and sustain both bees and butterflies with their flowers, including rue, hyssop, germander, thyme, mint, and lemon balm. Planting a wide variety of flowering plants that attract bees helps ensure that one or another sort of flower is in bloom in my yard from the earliest weeks of spring through the end of autumn, providing a steady source of healthy food for pollinators.

Working to make my yard an attractive and safe place for honeybees to rest doesn't just help the environment — the effort also pays off in my vegetable garden. After all, bees that come for the clover and thyme often stick around to sample the nectar of my watermelon and tomato plants. More safe, healthy food for the bees means more safe healthy food for me. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

Good Thing We're Growing Our Own Lettuce

Two summers ago, when the FDA issued a massive tomato recall over fears of widespread salmonella contamination, I said to my husband, "Wow. It's a good thing we're growing our own tomatoes."

This week, when I heard that 25 states had issued lettuce recalls as a consequence of several people being seriously sickened by lettuce contaminated with E. coli, I said to my husband, "Wow. It's a good thing we decided this year to grow our own lettuce."

Several summers ago, when I grew my first tiny homegrown tomato crop, I confess — I felt a little nervous about biting into that first ripe red fruit from my own garden. After all, I was new, a total amateur at this gardening thing. I wasn't sure I really knew what I was doing. What if my tomatoes had bugs inside them? What if there was something wrong with the soil? What if my pots had lead in them?

As I stood for a moment anxiously contemplating all the possible things that could be wrong with the lovely fresh tomato in my hand, I suddenly realized how absurd my feeling of nervousness was. I bought tomatoes at the supermarket every week without knowing what the growing conditions had been where they had come from, or how many hands had touched them along the way. And I ate those mystery tomatoes without a second thought.

Yet here I had in my hand the product of a plant I had personally watched over and cared for daily from seed to fruit, and I was actually nervous that something might be wrong?

It's amazing to me now, to consider how easily I used to take for granted my unquestioning trust in mass-produced fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, and how equally ready I was, once to doubt my own ability to grow safe food. I often wonder how many other Americans who grew up on store-bought, processed food would be more nervous about biting into a homegrown tomato just picked from a yard than a canned tomato processed halfway around the world.

I'm grateful, this week, that I got past my own hypocrisy on food safety, and found the confidence to grow my own lettuce.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Grass Is a Weed

Recently, after much diligent re-seeding and weeding and aerating and fertilizing and poisoning of moles, a home on my block has achieved that glossy, green suburban dream: the perfect grass lawn.

Once merely a well-tended expanse of mostly-nice grass punctuated with occasional patches of persistent clover, this year, through an impressive show of sheer gardening force, my neighbor's back yard has been transformed into a smooth, uniform carpet of pure golf-course green worthy of feature in a home and garden magazine. Sure, we may share a rusty chainlink fence that's a little past its prime. But my neighbor's lawn? This lawn is the stuff of fertilizer advertising poetry. This lawn is an achievement.

The other day I was having a pleasant conversation with the very amiable neighbor who created this phenomenal lawn over our shared rusty fence — about our perennial plans to Do Something about said aging fence, about our childrens' schools, about When To Plant Tomatoes. And my neighbor with the newly perfect lawn — who has always admired my hosta beds, my lilies, my decorative herbs, my productive vegetable plot, and the nearly flawless zoysia lawn in front of my home — may have — may have — made a good-natured joke about my own back yard's anarchic descent into riots of wild violets and wild strawberries.

I laughed, and wasn't offended. But what I didn't tell my neighbor with the perfect lawn is that I like my yard this way.

In my front yard, I keep truce with my suburban community's traditional standards by growing a Good Lawn. A smooth, square, carpet lawn. A lawn that old ladies smile at and neighborhood children can't resist playing soccer on.

But in my back yard, I welcome the violets, and the clover, because I welcome the bees that come to visit those plants, and stay to pollinate my squash and tomatoes. I welcome the wild strawberries, because I welcome the swooping cardinal's red flash and the mournful call of the dove. I welcome the wild plantain because I welcome the rabbits eating that instead of my lilies, and I welcome the wild garlic because I eat it myself.

I welcome the two-foot garter snake, with its candy-bright stripes, that sets up quiet residence in my pesticide-free yard every spring, keeping mice and rats and rabbits in check. I welcome the box turtle that showed up last year, thrilling my son who had never seen a turtle before outside of a glass cage at the zoo, and the crickets that sing under the shelter of violet and strawberry leaves, and the fireflies that light up the night every June, and the butterflies.

I have my own idea of the perfect lawn, and my back yard comes pretty close. And though I truly admire my neighbor's lovely green grass, he can keep it. I can't help but prefer my own little field of wild things.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Growing Basil

It seems to me that sweet basil is a sort of gateway herb for pre-gardeners. Many people I know who have never touched a tomato or squash plant in their lives and shudder slightly at the idea of deliberately covering their hands in dirt have nevertheless confessed to me at some point a secret desire to grow their own sweet basil.

And who can blame them? Though it's common knowledge among cooks that nearly all culinary herbs taste best when fresh picked, many common kitchen standbys, like rosemary, or thyme, retain a fair amount of their original flavor in dried form. But dried basil tastes nothing like fresh basil. Drying seems to transform basil into an entirely different herb.

And what with a meager plastic packet of chilled "fresh" basil leaves costing about as much at the grocery store as a live potted basil plant (and much more than an entire packet of basil seeds), if fresh basil is a regular guest at your dinner table, the economic argument for attempting to grow your own at home is practically unassailable.

With that in mind, I'm happy to offer a few quick tips for aspiring basil plant tenders. A warning, though: if your experience with this gateway herb goes well, before you know it, you'll be trying chives and oregano. 

Tips on Growing Sweet Basil:

First, make sure you are picking the kind of basil you want: Sweet Basil is the kind generally used in classic Italian dishes, and has a sweet flavor and an aroma reminiscent of cloves. The varieties of basil used in Asian cuisine, including Thai Basil and lemon basil, have a more astringent, less sweet flavor, and can be quite citrusy.

The broad-leaved, bright green culinary basil you most often see in American grocery stores is Genovese Sweet Basil.

It has been my experience that basil grows much larger in the ground than in a container, but you can certainly get a healthy crop of leaves for a container plant if you take the right steps. Make sure you select a pot that truly large enough for your plant, and be prepared to transplant your basil plant to a larger container at least once during the growing season. A basil plant that is 4-5 inches high will do fine in a pot that contains about a gallon of soil; however, once a basil plant is 8-10 inches, it will need a container with a volume of at least 2-3 gallons.

If you are planning to grow your basil in a container, make absolutely sure you get your plant enough light. Ideally, your plant should live outside for at least a few hours a day. A sunny patio or balcony will do just fine.

If your basil plant will live indoors, place it near your sunniest window, and turn it often to make sure all of its leaves get exposed to the sun. For best results, you may need to improve the plant's access to light by by placing a bright indoor lamp near the pot.

If you will be planting your basil directly into the ground, select a spot with good drainage that gets at least 6 hours of good, strong sunlight -- the sunnier, the better. Sweet Basil in particular is is a Mediterranean cultivar that prefers warm weather, so make sure to wait to plant your basil until all danger of nighttime frost has passed, and the soil outside is quite warm. In Missouri, this generally means planting in May.

When your basil plant begins to produce flower buds, pinch them off.

I am serious about this. You may be curious about what the flowers look like (I will tell you: they are pretty). You may feel like pinching off flower buds is being mean to your plant. (Suck it up. You're planning to eat this plant, remember?) If you really want a nice crop of fresh shiny basil leaves, do what I say: pick off the buds. Preferably before they even start to bloom.

As soon as a basil plant starts producing flowers, it will put all of its energy into making huge, foot-long spikes of flowers, and then seeds. It will stop producing new leaves. The plant will grow rangy and stringy and the leaves that remain will start to lose flavor.

But if you pinch off the buds, your basil will produce whole new stalks full of leaves in an attempt to start over with the reproduction business, making a stronger, bushier, tastier plant. At the very end of the summer, you can let the plant flower for show if you like (or to create basil seeds you can save for replanting). The flowers are edible, and so are the basil seeds. 

If you find yourself with a bumper crop of basil at the end of the year, just before the first frost, I recommend you make pesto. Or, alternatively, you can chop fresh, washed basil leaves coarsely in a food processor, press them into an ice cube tray, freeze them, and then store the cubes in a freezer-safe plastic bag, to be used whenever you want to add a hint of summer flavor to your food.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Preparing Garden Beds for Spring: The Tall Tomato Secret

Many of my neighbors have asked me what my secret is for growing the six-foot-tall, four-foot wide tomato plants that have adorned my yard every summer since I moved into this house. My street's resident Chief Plant Lady (whose bed of stately irises yearly ignites the envy of every flower-growing soul in a three block radius) once haughtily accused me — in public, no less — of "Dousing them Juliets in syn-thetic fertilizer. Hmph."

I've always said there's no secret, really: I choose healthy seedlings; I plant my tomatoes in the sunniest spot in my yard (which, fortuitously, happens to also be the place where a French drain that carries rain water away from my foundation empties); I plant in a raised bed, which improves drainage; I use sturdy tomato cages to prevent wind damage, and I check my plants frequently for insect pests, which I remove by hand.

That's it, really. That's the basis of my Secret Formula for Growing Really Huge Tomato Plants That Make Mild-Mannered Neighborhood Plant Ladies Snark at Me in Public.

But, there is one special ingredient I often neglect to mention that may by giving me a bit of an edge over my less lucky neighbors when it comes to the successful supersizing of Solanum lycopersicum .

What is this secret, special ingredient that I have begun to suspect may well hold the key to my unprecedented tomato success?


Seriously. Burlap.

Every spring, when I prepare my garden bed, after adding whatever organic soil amendments I think I may need (like compost, for example), I cover each of my beds entirely with burlap. On top of the burlap, I generally add a one inch layer of hardwood mulch.

I tried this the first year I built my garden beds at this house, almost entirely on a whim. I was looking for something to help me suppress weeds in my vegetable garden, because I'm lazy weeder. But I didn't like the idea of using black fabric weed blocker, as this is generally made out of plastic. I saw some rolls of burlap for sale one day in the garden section of my hardware store, and thought, "Hey! That's not plastic!" And I bought it.

Was it a coincidence that that summer I grew the largest tomato plant I had ever personally seen?

How many tomato plants are in this picture? Oh, just one. ONE.

Burlap is made of jute, which is a natural vegetable fiber, and therefore totally biodegradable. This makes it great as an all-natural weed suppressant.

But another benefit to covering my garden with burlap, as far as tomatoes are concerned, is that the thick fabric fibers actually insulate the soil, warming it to a higher temperature. Tomato plants prefer warm soil, and while many gardeners recommend pre-warming your garden beds with black plastic to create ideal conditions for tomatoes (because the color black absorbs sunlight so well), I've found that a layer of burlap topped with wood mulch works rather well to keep the soil warm despite its lighter color.

Also, the jute fiber used for making burlap cloth is acidic, with a pH around 6 or so (7 is neutral). And tomato plants prefer acidic soil. I'm no chemist, so what I'm about to say is pure speculation. But I think that as burlap breaks down, it probably dumps a nice dose of natural acids into the soil. The burlap covering I lay out each spring biodegrades quickly enough that it's almost completely invisible by September. So I leave it in the soil, where I assume nutrients from decomposing jute fibers will continue to do my tomato plants good the following spring.

So, if you're looking for the secret to tomato success, I'd recommend giving burlap a try this year.

If nothing else, it will cut down on your weeds.

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