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Growing Organic Heirloom Vegetables— 4/22/09

With soaring prices and decreasing quality of food, we are seeing the return of the family vegetable garden.  The high quality of organic food (Alleman, 1999) and the ready supply of small plots of land or even containers make organic vegetable gardening feasible and desirable in both urban and rural settings.

Start with dirt.  Good garden dirt should contain minerals, organic matter, and animal manure or compost.  Good garden dirt has good “tilth,” which means that, when moist, it can be pressed into shape in a fist but falls apart easily when the hand opens (Bradley and Ellis, 1992; Denckla, 2003).  Clay is sticky red-to-black dirt which is rich in minerals but needs to be lightened with organic material (leaves, pine needles, wood chips, sawdust) or sand to make it airier.  Sandy soils may not hold enough water and need added clay.

The best soil comes from woodlands and prairies, where it has been steadily growing generations of trees or grasses, breaking down dead plants into humus, a rich, dark, fertile soil.  We can compost and make our own humus by piling plant food scraps with organic matter such as grass clippings, leaves or pine needles and a manure from any animal, including humans.  Especially when “humanure” (Jenkins, 1999) is used, the pile needs to sit for at least two years to insure bacterial breakdown and decontamination.  Alternatively, when no humanure is used, the pile can be turned frequently to provide more air and decompose more rapidly.

Moisture, tilth and good drainage can be enhanced by planting in dirt mounds, terracing small areas or constructing raised beds.  Use whatever building  materials you have—boards (do not use lumber treated with arsenic), rocks, old tires, etc.—to raise the planted area one inch to one foot above the surrounding ground.  Handicapped gardeners benefit tremendously from raised beds, even building them in trays on stilts to accommodate a wheelchair.

Container gardening (Hillier, 1995), used more in apartment and urban settings, needs constant attention to watering and adequate drainage through holes in the bottom of the containers.  Metals such as aluminum and lead will leach into the dirt and from there into the plants, so a variety of containers is preferable.  Almost any sturdy pot or deep tray, or even old shoes, will do.  If the container does not have drainage holes, place a layer of stones or gravel or sand in the bottom and be watchful that the contents do not get too wet.

A lawn or other open space can be turned into a productive garden by different methods:  (1) spading, in which the area is hand-spaded and each clump turned vegetation-side down for soil enrichment; (2) tilling or plowing, or (3) “lasagna” bed-making, in which grass and weeds are smothered with newspaper or other biodegradable material, then layers of topsoil, peat or straw, and humus added and spread to a depth of 6-12 inches.

Light is essential for plant growth and photosynthesis.  The sun is strongest on the south side in the northern hemisphere and is weakest on a north-facing slope.  A north-facing slope, however, can be adapted to south-facing garden plots by constructing terraced or raised beds and tilting them toward the south.   Some vegetables require more light than others, but almost all do best in full sun.  Summer food, such as tomatoes, eggplant, beans and peppers need the most light.  The longer the day, the bigger the fruit; Alaskans produce huge vegetables!

Healthy and healthful seeds (Ashworth, 2002) are essential.  Obtain seeds of heirloom (open-pollinated) varieties of vegetables so that you can grow and store this year’s seeds for next year’s garden.  Do not use hybrids, for the seed from hybrid plants will be sterile and not sprout, will revert to a parent species or will grow but not fruit.  Hybridized vegetables have been bred for marketing and higher sugar content, so older varieties with less sugar take a little adaptation.  Also be careful to avoid genetically engineered (GE) grains and other seeds.  GE food is not labeled in the U.S., is nutritionally inferior, and is harmful to eat.  In addition, the seeds are sterile, and new seeds must be bought yearly from the corporate agricultural industry.  The freshness and healthfulness, and sometimes the sweetness as well, of fresh heirloom vegetables and fruit are unsurpassed.

Select seeds from plants which are easy to grow in your part of the country.  The growing season, from last frost of this winter to first frost of next winter, varies greatly and is expressed as “zones” in seed catalogs.  Locate your zone and select accordingly.

One does not need a greenhouse to raise plants from seedlings, just a little good soil, warmth and as much light as can be provided—a south-facing window or “grow-lights” with sunlight or broad-spectrum capability.  Start with almost filling cubed plastic trays or any deep undivided tray with potting soil, or a mixture of humus, vermiculite or sand, and peat or other organic material.  In general, press the seed to twice its diameter in the soil and cover it with loose soil.  Check planting directions with the seeds or in your seed catalog.  Occasionally seeds require light to germinate and should not be covered.

Vegetable plants commonly started from seed indoors are tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, broccoli, and cauliflower.  Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi and broccoli raab are members of the Brassica family and enjoy cool weather and light frosts.  These can be started indoors during mid-winter and transplanted outdoors in the early to mid-spring.   Coffee grounds and crushed eggshells around the plants may prevent cabbage worms.  Tomatoes, peppers and other hot-weather plants are started in late winter and transplanted outside well after the threat of frost has passed.

Germination means sprouting from a seed.  Most vegetables and herbs germinate within one or two weeks, but some, like basil, take much longer.  Germination is also slowed by cold and the presence of a husk, or protective covering.  Many vegetables look similar when they sprout and develop the first pair of leaves, but these leaves are soon replaced by those more typical of the species.  Seedlings should have at least two pairs of specific leaves to transplant and then need very gentle handling and frequent watering.

When transplanting, place the seedlings in a cooler, protected environment (the side of a house or outbuilding, for example) and expose them to direct sunlight 1-2 hours the first day, 2-4 hours the second, 6-8 hours the third, and then a full day.  They are ready to then be set out in the garden on a low-wind day.  Leave adequate space between plants for access when they’re mature:  1-2 feet for tomatoes, 1-1 1⁄2 feet for peppers.

Most other plants can be seeded directly in the garden.  Sow lettuce seeds fairly thickly (1/2 to 1 inch apart) for cutting (“cut and come again lettuce”) and 4-6 inches apart to form heads, or thin seedlings to give them room to grow.  Individual lettuce plants can be transplanted to “head up,” or grow a bunch of leaves together; head lettuce is harvested by pulling up the whole plant or cutting the head at soil level.  Root vegetables do not tolerate thinning and should be sown 2-4 inches apart, depending on the end size desired. Think about how you will cultivate.  If you have a large garden and use a cultivator to keep the weeds down, plant seed in rows, leaving at least a foot between rows.  If you prefer to sit or kneel to weed, planting in wide rows or patches may make more sense. Intuitive planting appeals to some gardeners (Wright, 1997).  It is important to know what vegetables are compatable with each other, which prefer each other’s company, and which are bad neighbors.  Familiarize yourself with companion planting (Riotte, 1975) to optimize your garden’s health.

Peas, pole beans, cucumbers, and other vine vegetables need a trellis.  If the plants grow only 2 feet high, small tree branches stuck among them will suffice.  Most need a higher trellis of fencing, string, rope or wood to support a plant plus its fruit to a height of 6 feet.  For older gardeners, selecting vine varieties and maintaining sturdy trellises will provide easier harvesting with less bending, less weeding and less horizontal space required.  Trellises should be placed so that they do not shade neighboring plants.

Good soil makes strong plants with fewer pests.  Organic gardeners do not use chemically-based pesticides but concoct plant-based sprays when needed. These often contain garlic, cayenne pepper and tomato or feverfew leaves and should be applied with a hand sprayer in the early or late part of the day and reapplied after rain.  Commercially available salmon sprays are an excellent alternative, keeping some animals as well as bugs away, and acting as a “foliar” (absorbed through the leaves) fertilizer.  Other methods of pest control are (1) hand-picking bugs and destroying them by squashing, feeding them to chickens or drowning them in soapy water; (2) covering rows or individual plants with a barrier fabric; (3) providing a “trap” crop that bugs like better than your vegetables; (4) leaving the bugs to the birds, and (5) providing ladybugs, lacewings or other friendly predators.

Animal pests—moles, voles, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, woodchucks, raccoons and deer—may be more difficult.  Having dogs roam in space around the garden helps deter these critters.  Other methods are (1) an 8-foot vertical fence or laying chicken wire flat on the ground around the garden; (2) salmon spray (alternate with another offensive scent every 3 months), (3) applying coyote or human urine around the perimeter, and growing onions or garlic around the perimeter of the garden.

Weeding the garden means pulling up undesirable plants around the preferred plants.  Weeds must be pulled up completely, roots and all, or the gardener is simply pruning them to reappear twice as thick a month later.  Identify weeds with a grass or wildflower handbook.  In general, if you cannot identify a potential weed, leave it until it becomes identifiable—it may be your beans or your grandmother’s favorite flower!  Many weeds, such as dandelions, chickweed and lamb’s quarters, are edible greens.  Feed weeds to chickens or rabbits, or compost them, or pile them thickly around the plants as mulch.

Mulching is the best way to retain moisture and keep weeds to a minimum (Campbell, 1974).  Almost any biodegradable material can be used for mulch—straw, “second-cut” hay (contains far fewer seeds than first-cut), grass clippings, rocks, boards, newspaper, cardboard, seasoned wood chips or shavings, and pulled weeds.  My personal favorite is chopped dead leaves, applied heavily in autumn and left as a mulch during planting.  Leaf decay makes perfect humus and delivers natural nutrients and “tilth.”  Planting and weeding are not completed until a mulch several inches thick has been applied.  Paths and walkways can also be mulched.  The following year, rake the disintegrated mulch back into the plant beds.

Soil can be “sweetened,” or the pH raised, with a sprinkling of wood ash or lime.   Spinach, chard, and asparagus particularly like more alkaline soils.  Irish potatoes and blueberries enjoy acid soil.  Most vegetables grow well at a neutral pH—6.8-7.2.  A good all-purpose nutrient is dust from a marble or granite quarry.  Greensand, mined from the ocean floor is another.  Seaweed, salmon sprays or fish emulsion are others, but use fish products sparingly to avoid the possibility of mercury poisoning or toxicity from additives used in commercial fish farms.

Protect fruit for seed-saving before the flowers open.  When plants begin to bud, select a plant and cover it loosely in a light fabric which lets in sun and moisture but not insects.  When the flowers have self-pollinated and set fruit, take off the bag and tie a string on the branches to mark the fruit for seed-saving.  Let the fruit ripen and scrape the seeds onto a piece of paper before eating the food.  Spread out the seeds on the paper and let them dry, then rinse them free of fruit pulp.  When they are dried and well separated, they can be kept in a sealed envelope and stored in a dark cool place, where they last one to four years.  Germination rate decreases with storage, so check it by sprouting a few seeds in wet paper or a damp container for a week before planting.

Select seeds by considering fresh eating or storage, as well as your personal taste. With squash as an example, yellow crookneck or green zucchini can be eaten fresh, but is much less appealing canned or frozen.  Butternut squash can be eaten fresh but also has excellent storage capability.

Harvesting is a busy time, for much of the garden matures around the same time.  Early morning is the best time to harvest, when vegetables taste the freshest.  If they are not to be eaten immediately, rinse them and pack them in air-tight bags in the refrigerator until they are eaten or processed for storage.  Vegetables that can be eaten raw include sugar and snow peas, green shelling peas, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, tomatoes, summer squash, cabbage, carrots, peppers and cucumbers.  Asparagus, brussel sprouts, and winter squash must be steamed, boiled lightly or baked before eating.  Cooking water from preparing vegetables is very nutritious and can be used for soups, vegetable drinks or watering house or garden plants.  Wilted or decayed food can be composted or fed to animals.

Preservation of harvested food is a major reason for growing food and can be accomplished by drying, freezing, canning or whole-food storage in a root cellar (Costenbader, 2002).  Drying food is easily done in hot, dry geographic areas, but more moist climates require a dehydrator or a warm oven.  Color can be maintained by light steaming or rinsing in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) solution prior to drying.  Drying racks and screens should be constructed and placed for optimal air movement and protected from insects.  Dried foods can be stored in dark, dry areas for many months.

Freezing is easiest but also the most expensive, so an energy-efficient freezer is imperative.  Many foods, such as berries, peas and sweet peppers, can simply be washed, cut if necessary, and sealed in small air-tight bags for freezer storage.  Others, such as green beans and squash, freeze better if lightly steamed first.  Leftover table vegetables and soups can be frozen immediately in small containers.

Canning is a time-honored tradition for preserving fruits, soups, jellies, relishes and some vegetables.  Fruits contain enough acid to can by the water-bath method, in which sterile jars are filled with food, packed in their own juice or water with 1/4-1/2-inch space left at the top, then sealed and boiled in a large flat-bottomed pot to establish a vacuum in the jars.

Vegetables are usually canned by packing into sterile jars in water, sealed, and boiled specified times in a pressure cooker of water.  Always check details about methods and times of every food canned so that the jars are never contaminated by potentially deadly bacteria. Consult a good reference book or the information with jars and lids before eginning any canning.

Pickling is also a time-honored preservation method for cucumbers, beans, onions, peppers, cauliflower and relishes.  Foods are packed in vinegar/water/sugar solutions and boiled in a water bath for tasty winter meals.

Fermentation allows foods to soak in brine for days to weeks, then freezing or canning them for future use.

Smoking or curing is mainly for meats and fish.

The root cellar (Bubel, 1991) is the best method for storing winter squash, potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, beets, carrots and parsnips.  In general, green tomatoes can ripen on a window sill or wrapped in newspaper.  Irish potatoes, beets, carrots and apples require slightly moist, cool sealed compartments, such as a traditional underground space or refrigerator drawer.  Always separate apples from potatoes when storing.  Winter squash, garlic, onions and sweet potatoes store best in a warmer, dry area.  Improvising areas of living space can often provide suitable storage areas.

It is possible and fun to create vegetable gardens for winter.  In warmer climates, many cool-weather plants—chard, kale, collards, arugula, cabbage, and brussel sprouts--will “winter-over” nicely.  These hardy crops can hide under snow and be available for fresh eating all winter.  In colder areas, they can be planted in containers, flats or beds in an unheated room of the house, an unheated greenhouse exposed to maximum sunlight, or a cold frame (Coleman, 1999).

Being an organic gardener means nurturing and protecting plants, continuously handling and building soil, enjoying physical movement and being outdoors, using natural materials at hand, relishing the fruits and vegetables of co-creative labor, and eating the most nutritious and freshest vegetables from your own yard.


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End Notes—Organic Heirloom Gardening

Alleman, Gayle Povis, The Healing Garden—GrowingYour Own Natural Remedies Indoors or Out.  Publications Int. Ltd., Lincolnwood, IL, 1999.

Ashworth, Suzanne, Seed to Seed—Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners.  SeedSavers Exchange, IO 2002.

Bradley, F.M. and Ellis, B.W., eds., Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening--The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardener.  Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA,1992.

Bubel, Mike and Nancy, Root Cellaring—Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables.  Storey Books, VT, 1991.

Campbell, Stu, The Mulch Book—A Guide for the Family Food Gardener.  Gardenway, Charlotte, VT, 1974.

Coleman, Eliot, Four-Season Harvest—Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.  Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction,VT, 1999.

Costenbader, Carol W., The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest.  Storey, VT, 2002.

Denckla, Tanya L.K., The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food. Storey Publishing, North   Adams, MA, 2003.

Emoto, Masaru, The True Power of Water—Healing and Discovering Ourselves.  Beyond Words Publishing, Hillsboro, OR, 2005.

Hillier, Malcolm, Container Gardening Through the Year.  Dorling Kindersley, NY, 1995.

Ho, Mae-Wan, The Fluid Genome.
Genetic Engineering—Dream or Nightmare?  Ibid.

Jenkins, Joseph, The Humanure Handbook—A Guide to Composting Human Manure.  Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 1999.

Mother Earth News magazine, Topeka, KS.,

Smith, Jeffrey, Seeds of Deception.  Yes! 2004.                  
Genetic Roulette.  Ibid., 2007.

Wright, Machaelle Small, Co-Creative Science—A Revolution in Science--ProvidingReal Solutions for Today’s Health and Environment.  Perelandra, Ltd., Warrenton, VA, 1997.

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