A New Year’s Resolution for Gardeners: Making Informed Choices About Gardening Practices and Products to Support a Healthy, Natural Environment…

January 5th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

We  ♥ Mother Earth

The new year often brings about a desire for change and personal reckoning. We make promises, resolutions and plans to better ourselves and the world around us. Over the past couple of years, many people have committed to building environmentally conscious, self-sufficient lives. As a result, gardening, particularly vegetable gardening, has re-emerged as a popular interest and hobby.

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This return to the earth is a good thing. But it is important to remember that even in our backyard vegetable plots and tiny rooftop potagers, the way we garden, and the products and practices we choose for our gardens, all have lasting consequences for our environment. Every action we take in the natural world must be considered carefully. Words like “organic”, “green”. “sustainable” and “eco” are being tossed about freely these days. Buzz words can sometimes be confusing and misleading.

Perhaps the single most important thing we can do as gardeners is to educate ourselves. There are many websites, magazines and books written to help inform gardeners about environmentally sound horticultural practices. If you are new to gardening, or even if you have been tending a plot for decades, publications such as Organic Gardening Magazine, and books, particularly Linda Chalker-Scott’s The Informed Gardener, and Jeff Gillman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line, are essential for up-to-date, accurate scientific information. I will be writing much more about this topic come springtime, but winter is also a great time of year to read and research these important topics, before you begin planting your garden.

If I can send one message out to new gardeners it is this: just because a product or practice is organic, it doesn’t mean that it should be applied or adopted indiscriminately. Take organic pesticides for example. Even OMRI, (Organic Materials Review Institute), approved substances such pyrethrin, rotenone and neem, can be harmful or deadly to beneficial insects, including honeybees and ladybugs. All pesticides, even organic products, should be used sparingly, and only as a last resort in gardens. The best way to avoid diseases and harmful insect infestations is to provide garden plants with the growing conditions they require, and to avoid mono-culture, (growing large numbers of only a few kinds of plants), and environmental stress.

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For new gardeners, I highly recommend learning the basics of vegetable gardening from respected teachers and authors. Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (10th Anniversary Edition), is an excellent place to start. In addition, Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver, by author Fern Marshall Bradley, can serve as helpful reference to all gardeners. Also remember to take advantage of free, reliable online resources, such as beneficial insect identification sites. Three great online pages: The easy and fun Insectidentification.org, the comprehensive Texas A&M University Vegetable IPM site, and of course Cornell University’s Vegetable MD Online all offer excellent photographs and descriptions to help gardeners recognize natural allies and pick up on small problems before they become large and unmanageable.

I am not a big New Year’s resolutions kind of gal, but January is a good time to turn a new leaf, (even if the trees are still naked). So if you are planning your first vegetable garden this spring, or even if you have been growing your own food for many years, I hope the first leaf you turn this year dangles from the tree of knowledge. Education is a life-long process. With the help of solid, scientific information, we can work with nature to cultivate a safer, healthier garden environment for all…

The Nasturtium Seat in the Potager at Ferncliff

Early Greens in the Potager at Ferncliff


The Informed Gardener by horticulturalist, Linda Chalker-Scott

Rodale’s Magazine, Organic Gardening (2-year)

Jeff Gillaman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line

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Article and photographs are copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

This article originally appeared as a guest post at The Honeybee Conservancy Blog, please pay this important non-profit cause a visit !

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written consent. Please do not use article excerpts or photographs featured here without contacting me first. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Thank you !

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Simple Pleasures & Hard Won Treasures

July 30th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Salad of sun-ripened ‘Orange Blossom’ tomatoes and basil. The beautiful gunmetal-glaze plate is by artist Aletha Soule.

There is nothing in this world quite like the flavor of a sun-ripened ‘Orange Blossom’ tomato picked fresh from the garden. For my lunch today I enjoyed a salad of home grown tomatoes and basil, seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh ground black pepper; one of my favorite simple pleasures. In honor of the first ‘Orange Blossoms’ harvest, I served my salad on one of artist Aletha Soule’s beautiful ceramic plates, decorated with purple and green basil leaves. Isn’t it amazing how such a simple thing can feel so special?

This year, I almost think I should rename my favorite tomatoes ‘Gold Blossom’, for they certainly have been a hard-won treasure. It has been a tough summer for growing tomatoes in New England. Last year at this time, I had a bumper crop of tomatoes. I harvested four different heirloom varieties as well as ‘Early girl’ and ‘Lemon boy’s to beat the band. ‘Sungold cherry’ tomatoes were so abundant I was giving them away to anyone willing to take them off my hands. No such luck this year. My tomatoes went in early this summer, (protected by small hoop houses), and were off to a fantastic start. But a cold, rainy June and soggy July soon followed the removal of my protective hoops. The weather in the northeast hasn’t been good for warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. My vegetable plants were all slow to establish. Then just as the tomatoes began to blossom, and in spite of all my preventative measures, I noticed the tell-tale yellow spots of early blight on my tomato foliage. Fungus is a real problem in the garden this year, and though my tomatoes have so far been spared the dreaded late blight, I am carefully keeping watch. Cherry tomatoes have been appearing on my table for about a month now, but I only began harvesting ‘Orange Blossoms’ (pictured below), last week, (late for me), and so far my yield is significantly lower. Is it human nature to want what is less plentiful? Maybe its just me, but this precious crop seems to taste even sweeter and more delicious this year.

orange blossom tomatoesOrange Blossom Tomatoes

I garden organically, and of course the best way to deal with fungal infections like Alternaria solani, (the cause of early blight), is to prevent them before they start.  I began applying copper fungicide early, (see photo below), and reapplied after every rain. However this year’s weather, (the constant wet with little sunshine), created ideal conditions for early blight. By the first week of July, I began to notice yellowish spots on the lower leaves of my tomato plants. Immediately I pruned out the diseased foliage, and removed it from the garden. I will continue to snip off diseased leaves as spots appear throughout the remainder of the season. I am certain that my methods are helping to contain the spread of early blight and preserving the unripe fruit, even if my storm-battered plants are looking less-than-stellar this year. And though I may have fewer tomatoes, I can not really complain. Due to the cooler temperatures, this is the first year I have a steady supply of snow-peas in late July, as well as abundant arugula and lettuce. I will take the greens thank you, and try to be grateful for what nature provides.

organic fungus controlSerenade and Bonide fungicides for organic gardeners.

For further information on identifying and controlling diseases and pests in the vegetable garden, see the Vegetable MD Online.  This excellent resource is available to all of us courtesy of Cornell University. You will also find the Vegetable MD link on the sidebar to the right ,(beneath garden resources and vegetable gardening headers). Many thanks Cornell !

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Article and Photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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Stop! Put Down That Hoe, and Let’s Eat! Great Food Blogs to Stir Your Imagination and Wet Your Appetite…

July 1st, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

11June harvest: red chard, arugula, oak leaf and red rumple lettuce..

As I walked back from my kitchen garden on this wet afternoon, colanders and baskets filled to the rim with chard for rissoto and mixed greens for salad, I felt a deep gratitude for all that I have in this life. I can not pretend that this focused awareness is with me all of the time, and I will not paint you some rosy picture of perfection. Still, on this day, after reading news of more uprooted families and lost homes, I am keenly aware of my good fortune in the midst of tough times all around.

It is no secret that with the arrival of this economic recession, vegetable gardening has seen a remarkable surge in popularity. People everywhere are looking to save money, simplify and learn new skills. Growing a few basic crops, perhaps some tomatoes and lettuce in raised beds, has become a popular place to start. From the neighbors down the street to First Lady Michelle Obama, it seems that just about everyone has planted a backyard potager this year. And now that June has arrived, hopefully all of that hard work, planting, weeding, and battle with mother-nature, has produced something edible in those little vegetable plots. It comes as no surprise to most green-thumbs that with this fresh, new crop of gardeners comes a renewed interest in home cooking. The direct link from hand to mouth is a natural one for gardeners, and for many of us, consuming organic produce can be as simple as washing and tossing a salad of new greens or steaming a bowl of broccoli on the stove. Somehow though, I have a hunch that all the bright colors, fresh fragrances and delightful tastes in the garden are stirring more creative culinary urges.

Like most vegetable gardeners, I am interested in learning the secrets of kitchen-alchemy that will turn my organic produce into gourmet gold. But in all honesty, Giada De Laurentiis I am not. With a busy schedule and competing demands of work, home and garden, lately I find myself searching the internet for simple summer recipes and inspiration.

Food sites have become incredibly popular on the web; so much so in fact, that New York Times writer Mark Bittman recently ran a post in his column, Bitten, requesting recommendations from readers on favorite culinary blogs. In my own experience, late night web-log-surfing has resulted in some delicious discoveries for both mind and palate. My new-found love affair with food blogs began with the Edible Boston website and Facebook page. It was there that I discovered a link to one of my favorite new food blogs, Poor Girl Gourmet. Poor Girl Gourmet is written by Amy McCoy, a talented photographer, culinary-whiz and soon-to-be-published author of a new cookbook from Andrews McMeel. The recipes on Poor Girl Gourmet are imaginative, but easy to follow. And best of all, in these challenging economic times, Amy McCoy is indeed frugal-minded. Yet for me, there is more. Beyond the great recipes, what truly separates Amy’s blog from the virtual sea of online cooking journals is quite simply her engaging, entertaining style of writing. Poor Girl Gourmet is witty, conversational and fun. As a gardener, I caught myself laughing-out-loud while reading methods of squash-bug control in her recent post “Memories of Zucchini Blossoms Past“. Recipes on the site are always served up with a perfect side dish of short stories and personal anecdotes. From the beginning, the combination was enough to stir my appetite and imagination, and to keep me coming back for more. I am eager to try all of the new recipes on Poor Girl Gourmet as the gardening season marches on. In meantime, I can now personally recommend her delicious French Breakfast Radish Bruschetta, and also the delightful Toast with Sour Cream and Jam, (with fresh thyme from your garden, of course).

While visiting Poor Girl Gourmet, I happily discovered some other internet gems; among them, the incomparable Orangette.  Although the author, Molly Wizenberg, is currently taking a break from her blog-writing, the site and accompanying archive are worth visiting for the evocative photography and addictive journal entries alone. The posts on Orangette are exquisitely written; as poetically rendered as any novel I have ever read. But there is so much more to this gorgeous blog, and I haven’t even touched on the recipes yet ! For a quick look at what Orangette has to offer, click on over to her recipe index. Vegetable gardeners, (like most of you, dear readers), will love the quality, variety and ease of the author’s selected recipes. Her site will help you make use of your tender greens, sun ripened tomatoes and just about anything else you harvest from your potager. Molly has also published a book, “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table“, and you can bet it is already on my wish-list. Equally compelling, the writing style of Tea and Cookies is at once mysterious and personal. With a cup of Earl Grey and a warm blanket, cozying up with Tea’s journal feels like an intimate tete-a-tete. I can imagine sharing evening hours in my garden room with the author, swapping stories and homemade delicacies. This blog is simply delicious.

There are so many new sites I have yet to explore on rainy weekend afternoons. But another spot I must mention here, Sassy Radish, is also becoming a personal favorite. This snappy web log is written by the lovely and talented Olga Massov, a Russian immigrant with a flair for “all things pickled, herring, pelmeni, cabbage and sour cream”. Like the other blogs recommended here, what makes this one a stand-out is the combination of great, easy-to-follow recipes and distinct, personal style. Olga’s entries are charmingly conversational. Within a few posts I felt like a new friend; a virtual guest in her tiny on-line kitchen, listening to her sweet stories while watching her prepare exotic, European-inspired dishes. The memory of her latest post,”Pasta with Stinging Nettles and Ramps Pesto”, stopped me in my tracks yesterday afternoon as I was about to string trim a weedy patch at the edge of my meadow. “Why waste those nettles”, I thought, newly educated, “when they can clearly become a great meal”?

On each of the sites mentioned above, (as well as on the fabulous 101 Cookbooks, and Cheap, Healthy, Good, or the myriad others popping up on my blogroll under the cooking section), you will find lists of more like- minded cooking blogs. Search these fantastic sites for ways to creatively use the fruits of your kitchen-garden labor. Along the way you may encounter the names of a few new vegetables, herbs or fruits you might like to try-out in next year’s potager.

For now, I will leave you with an early summer favorite from my own recipe box. Although it will take a bit more sun, (please!), before I can harvest my beloved sungold cherry tomatoes and basil from the garden, I certainly have a bumper crop of arugula on hand!  Hopefully the weather here in the Northeast will improve, as I am eager to taste the sweet and spicy flavors in this quick no-cook recipe I copied with minor adaptations from Martha Rose Shulman‘s original on the New York Times website last year. Bon Appetite !

arugula-and-sungold-cherry-tomato-pasta

dinner from the vegetable garden…

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Pasta With Sungold Cherry Tomatoes and Fresh Arugula


1 pint sungold cherry tomatoes, (halved, or if larger, quartered)

1 plump garlic clove, minced (more to taste)

Salt to taste (try coarse sea salt or fleur de sel)

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 cup arugula leaves, chopped coarsely

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3/4 pound fusille or farfalle pasta

1/4 cup freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese, (more to taste)


Combine the cherry tomatoes, garlic, salt, balsamic vinegar, arugula, basil, and olive oil in a large bowl. Set aside at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Taste the mixture and adjust seasonings accordingly.

While the mixture rests and flavors blend, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a salt and cook the pasta al dente, (still firm to the bite). Drain the pasta, and toss with the tomatoes. While the pasta is still hot, sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and serve.


Serves 4 as a light dinner or first course.


*** Article and Photographs copyright  2009  Michaela H.  ***

Help, my garden has been slimed ! Organic methods for controlling slugs and snails…

June 22nd, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

slug-on-spinach

S L U G S  !

If you live in New England like I do, you are more than ready for a dose of sunshine ! The east coast has been having a long stretch of rainy weather this month, creating many wet-weather challenges for vegetable and flower gardeners. One of the most destructive groups of garden pests, slugs and snails, thrive in warm, wet conditions. Slugs over-winter in the garden, and when the ground thaws, they slowly emerge to begin a new life cycle. Slow moving in cool weather, slugs and snails are rarely a problem during early spring in cold climates. But come June, when the temperatures rise and when moisture and leafy greens are abundant, slugs can become devastating. Slugs and snails are usually dormant during hot, dry spells and during the daytime. On warm, humid nights and during rainy periods, these garden pests slither from their cool hiding places beneath the cover of mulch, stones, logs and other spots and begin feeding on our produce and flowers. In a single stretch of rainy nights, slugs can chew holes through row upon row of lettuce, consume entire morning glory vines, ruin a backyard crop of strawberries, and devour beds of vegetable and flower seedlings.  The tell tale signs of slug damage; shiny trails, the slippery remains of seedlings, and slimy foliage with irregular holes, will be visible the morning after a feeding frenzy.  Sometimes, when the weather is particularly rainy, slugs can even be spotted feeding in the daytime.

In order to control slugs once they have invaded, a gardener needs to act quickly and remain vigilant. Recognizing minor slug damage, (photos one and two), and responding immediately will save a garden from major destruction and crop loss, (photo three).

slug-damage-on-spinach

Minor slug damage on a leaf of spinach.

slug-damage-on-lettuce

Slug damage on a head of lettuce.

slug-damage-on-broccoli-severe

Severe slug damage on broccoli.

The most labor-intensive method of slug control is handpicking at night. When done consistently, this is very, very effective. Sometime after nine p.m., grab a flashlight and a pail of soapy water, (wear rubber gloves if you are bothered by slime), and head out into your garden. Starting at ground level, check plants, turning leaves to inspect the undersides as you go. Look through mulch and around the base of plants, and check your compost area and weed baskets too. Collect all the slugs you find and drop them in your pail of soapy water to drown overnight. In the morning, you can dispose of the dead slugs by digging a hole, dumping them and covering them with soil or compost.  You can also try luring slugs into false-shelters, such as scrap wood propped up by pebbles. Leave these traps out overnight and check them in the morning when slugs will retreat from the sunlight beneath shelters. When checking for slugs during the daytime, look beneath logs, rocks and stones, and in beds of ground-cover such as vinca and ivy.

If slugs are becoming a severe problem in your garden, try pulling mulch back away from plants, and look for slugs and eggs during the daytime. Leave mulch turned over to expose slugs and eggs to sunlight and predators like beetles, frogs, snakes and birds. Be sure to keep your garden tidy. Remove all pulled weeds, garden debris and thinned seedlings to the compost pile. Regularly empty all weeding baskets and be on the look-out for any potential slug-havens, such as the bottoms of flower pots and garden furniture.

Sometimes barriers can be effective in dealing with slugs. Many gardeners find that rough-surfaces are unappealing to snails and slugs, and laying a stretch of pine needles, coffee grounds, crushed shells, sawdust and/or wood shavings around planting beds can be enough to deter them. If you try this, be sure to replace the barrier frequently. Other barrier methods include organic, oily soap products and even copper strips. When the slimy surfaced slugs encounter strips of copper, they are hit with an electric current. This shock isn’t strong enough to kill them, but it has been shown to work as a deterrent. If you garden with raised beds, adding a strip of copper flashing along the top of the wood can be a very effective method for controlling slugs.

Many organic gardeners trap slugs in beer cups as a method of slug control, or as part of an overall plan of attack on these pests. Slugs are attracted to beer or sugar/yeast solutions in water.  If plastic cups are set into multiple 4-5″ holes dug in the soil around the edge of the garden and filled with an inch or so of beer or yeast solution, slugs will slither in to investigate, consume the liquid, and drown.  In order for this method to work, a gardener will have to take a disciplined approach and have a strong stomach. It is important to dump the cups of dead slugs into a hole in the morning, and bury them with soil. Replace the fluid nightly and repeat during wet-weather spells. Beer traps will be needed throughout the garden for this method to be successful.

Organic slug-bait is also available if you choose to use it. Many organic slug controls contain mined iron phosphate in wheat gluten bait. Iron phosphate is organically acceptable, and this kind of bait is non-toxic to pets and people. Be sure to check labels in order to be certain that any slug bait you use is approved for use by certified organic growers. And always wear gloves when distributing bait with iron phosphate, as it can irritate your eyes. Organic bait does NOT contain metaldehyde, as this substance IS toxic to people and pets.  Chelating agents are sometimes used in slug baits. Be aware that these ingredients are not approved for certified organic growers.

If your garden is prone to slug infestations year after year, it may be time to consider removing all old mulch straw and replacing it with a fresh, dry load next season. Perhaps adding pea stone or gravel paths and raised beds is something to consider if your garden area tends to be very wet. In cold climates, one generation of slugs per year can be controlled by combining all organic methods mentioned here in the early-middle part of the garden season. In warmer areas, slug-patrol will be necessary year round, and creating a drier garden climate is critical in order to protect your crops. Some slug damage is usually inevitable in an organic vegetable garden, the key is to stay on top of a small slug population in order to avoid large-scale losses of young plants and produce.

With all the wet weather in the New England forecast this week, I will be stocking up on flashlight batteries, dish detergent and cheap beer for my slimy garden “guests”.  Cheers !

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Article Copyright 2009 Michaela H.

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