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Organic Gardening

by Mary Kraft

Interest is growing in gardening organically (that is, with the least possible dependence on commercial pesticides and fertilizers) for reasons of health, resource protection and conservation, and restoring habitat for animals. And what grabbed our attention? Such facts as these: American home gardeners dump more agricultural chemicals into the earth and its waters than ALL commercial farmers combined; even with greatly increased chemical use, there is more insect damage to plants today than before World War II; farmers must be trained and licensed to use the same products that gardeners are allowed to use willy-nilly; vegetables grown in a nutrient poor soil on a chemical diet contain few vitamins and minerals. These are a few reasons; there are many others.

So let’s start with an easy lesson: healthy plants need organic matter. Organic matter improves soil tilth, prevents compaction, provides a favorable environment for earthworms and beneficial microorganisms; slows erosion; and releases nitrogen and other nutrients to growing crops. Add horse, cattle, or sheep manure to your soil (NEVER manure from a meat-eater). Make sure they’re either composted first for six months to a year, or spread in fall, plow under in spring. Compost your lawn clippings, leaves, and other plant materials, and kitchen scraps (EXCLUDE dairy and meat). A well-balanced compost pile has no foul odor.

Use organic fertilizers such as compost “tea”, fishmeal, bone meal, seaweed, cottonseed meal. To control disease, have healthy soil, buy resistant plants, rotate crops, clean up plant debris (don’t put any diseased material in your compost pile). Plant in good soil with good drainage and appropriate sunlight. Add organic matter each year to build soil tilth and fertility. Encourage earthworms. Pull off diseased leaves as soon as you notice them to prevent further spread of disease. Don’t overcrowd plants. Water from BELOW, not above. Plant vegetation that encourages beneficial insects (ladybirds, green lacewings, trichogramma wasps, syrphid flies, etc. Learn the GOOD GUYS! Grow some Indiana native plants and heirlooms; they are hardy and many don’t need watering or fertilizer! Learn about organic pest control-beneficial stuff!

Inerts

“Inerts”. Hmmm…..are they? There’s controversy surrounding the word “inert” on the labels of some garden products (especially pesticides). My sources tell me that the government does not require any but the major ingredients to be listed on a label for, say, an insecticide. And yet there are some ingredients included in the inert category that are not considered particularly safe. It behooves us, therefore, to look into these things before we dump stuff on our lawns, veggies, and other plants (and ultimately into our ground water, streams and rivers!).

A relatively new product, “Abound,” has a different mode of action than the usual DMI (demethylation-inhibiting) fungicides. Its active ingredient is azoxystrobin. Azoxystrobin was synthesized based on the chemical structure of a group of naturally occurring fungicides called strobilurins. Strobilurins are found in various wood-decaying fungi and offer valuable inhibition of the spore germination and mycelial growth of powdery mildew. They supposedly are non-oncogenic, with no evidence of reproductive or neurologic toxicity. It has a favorable environmental profile.

‘Elexa’ is a naturally derived, non-toxic bio-fungicide that inhibits a broad spectrum of fungal infections in a variety of fruits and vegetables. The active components that induce the plant’s defense response are commonly referred to as ‘elicitors.’ Elexa is a complex carbohydrate that appears to elicit the plant’s defenses in response to fungal attack.

Organic Products

No endorsements here, and no guarantees, but here are a few new products or ideas that are supposed to be handy to use and ecologically sound.

 

  1. “Barnyard Tea”  from Lee Valley Garden Tools is a blend of manure that is packaged in standard tea bags. The drying process preserves the nutrients while removing the odor so you can use it indoors as well as out. (Place one bag in two quarts hot water; let it steep for a day. If you’re in a hurry, though, steep one bag in half as much water for about an hour. Each box of bags makes 13 gallons of fertilizer. Personally, I think it’s a great idea, but I already make my own compost tea! May be just the thing for someone short on manure (no comments, please!).
  2. Dramm Corp. sells Drammatic Organic Plant Foods, such as Liquid Fish Hydrolysate (fish ground fresh daily, cold processed, fine filtered). This is different from some fish emulsions (fish heated to loosen the oil & protein for other products, leaving a brown gummy emulsion). They also offer Liquid Fish and Kelp Blend. (www.FishFertilizer.com; fish@dramm.com; 800-258-0848)
  3. The Espoma Co. introduced their Espoma Organic in 1929 (known today as Plant-tone). Now the family owned company produces 27 varieties of specialty plant food. All the raw materials used as ingredients in their products are first tested by an independent lab for proper nutrients, foreign matter, etc. Tests are also performed on the finished products. (www.espoma.com; mlacey@fcfschmidtpr.com; 800-634-0603)
  4. Milorganite is sludge separated out from sewage, and is sold by at least two municipalities: Madison, WI, and Philadelphia, PA. It is controversial, as some organic growers are suspicious that not all the heavy metals that are in our community waste are totally eliminated. The jury is out! But it’s worth studying at www.milorganite.org (800-287-9645; jvogt@mmsd.com) It’s slow release, so doesn’t burn, increases earthworm activity, in addition to other features.
  5. St. Gabriel Labs in Virginia (www.milkyspore.com, stgl@msn.com, 800-801-0061) has several products to choose from that are earth and people friendly.
  6. Of particular interest to all of us that is not garden related, necessarily, were free access web sites where property owners could obtain free lists of toxic releases in their neighborhoods, including maps. As of August, 2011, the only one that can still be accessed is: www.scorecard.org.
  7. Coast of Maine, Inc., manufactures “Fermented Salmon,” an all-purpose liquid organic fertilizer that got a rave review from a garden columnist for the Connecticut Post, who says it’s great for houseplants, outdoor plants, and is 85% effective repelling deer, rabbits, woodchucks and squirrels. The oil residue adheres even after heavy and repeated rains for 5 to 6 weeks. Even got rid of blackspot on his roses! He says it smells really bad, so wear gloves!

Nontoxic Preservative for Untreated Wood

If you wish to preserve untreated wood for raised beds, decks, picnic tables, or swing sets, the USDA suggests the following nontoxic preservative. Studies show it to be as effective as the highly toxic preservative pentacholorophenol, and it endures for 20 years.

3 cups exterior varnish or 1 1/2 cups of boiled linseed oil

1 ounce paraffin wax

Enough solvent (mineral spirits, paint thinner or turpentine at room temperature) to make a total volume of 1 full gallon.

In a double boiler, melt the paraffin (do not heat over direct flame!). Away from the heat vigorously stir the solvent, then slowly pour in the melted paraffin. Add the varnish or linseed oil and continue to stir thoroughly. Apply by dipping the untreated lumber into the mixture for 3 minutes or by applying a heavy coat. The wood can be painted when thoroughly dry.

From The Organic Gardner’s Home Reference by Tanya Denckla