A few weeks back I did a short presentation in Pine City, Minn., on how to build good, healthy soil, and a woman in the audience asked: “How do I know if the compost I’m using is safe?”
I’ve been wondering that same thing, I told her, explaining that I’ve been researching the topic so I have some answers, but many more questions, too. This prompted more people to weigh in on the subject, asking: Was it important to use organic compost, especially when growing edibles? How do you know that even organic compost is safe?
Does composted manure from conventional farmers contain pesticide and herbicide residue that could cause problems in their gardens? Should you have compost tested to find out what’s in it before you use it on food crops and, if so, where? And what about GMOs? Is it safe to use composted manure produced on conventional farms on which cows eat things like Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa?
Complex questions like these are difficult to answer definitively for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there aren’t many studies, if any, on a particular topic. Or maybe there are numerous seemingly reputable studies, but many of them conflict with one another. For example, as a journalist who interviews people for a living, I can tell you that for every scientist I’ve talked to who dismisses the French study that came out last year linking a genetically-modified strain of maize to huge tumors in rats, I’ve got another scientist saying the study should be given serious consideration.Read More»
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
I admit it. I have Home and Garden Show envy. I read blog posts by gardeners all over the world who talk about the innovative gardening products and to-die-for plants they just saw at their local Home and Garden Show. (Most of them post great photos, too, so I don’t think they’re lying.) Inevitably, their exuberance makes me feel excited about going to Minneapolis’ Home and Garden Show, which is ridiculous because I already know that our local show is totally lame. Lame, lame, lame! Year after year, I go because I get free tickets with a garden magazine I subscribe to. And every year I walk away complaining about how lame it is that people have to pay $11 per ticket, $13 at the door, to walk around a hot, windowless arena packed solid with trade show booths offering the same array of stuff: granite countertops, gutters, expensive kitchen gadgets, hideous bathtub and shower inserts, outdoor gazebos, patio furniture, flooring and hot tubs. So many hot tubs—$16,000 hot tubs.
Seriously, they should pay people to attend this event. Or at least let people in for free: the hope being that once they’re inside folks will buy some mini doughnuts and cheese curds followed by copious amounts of beer. Enough beer to, say, allow them to throw down a credit card for a hot tub as big as a Volkswagen. “Ah, who the hell cares where we’ll put it, honey. Let’s just get it!”
Okay, if you’re not a local, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, it’s not like anyone is holding a gun to people’s heads to make them go to this home show thing.” But you’re wrong. There is a gun, and it’s called winter. In Minnesota, by the time March rolls around, most of us would pay any amount of money to go anywhere to see anything different than what we’ve been looking at for five months indoors. Add the word “garden” to the name of the event, and you’ve got yourself a crowd. Even people that don’t give a hoot about plants will fork over cash just to see something ALIVE, maybe smell some dirt, see some flowers. We are a desperate lot.
But therein lies the problem. There ain’t much Garden in our Home and Garden Show. Yes, there are some interesting gardening talks given by local gardening gurus, as well as some of my fellow master gardeners. But those are usually off in some airless side room far from the arena’s main floor. To see actual plants you have to thread your way through countertops and hot tubs and super-absorbant sponges to get to one small area in the back of the arena where mostly lesser-known landscape design firms have their displays. Some years are better than others. This year, though, was just plain weird. For reasons I am completely unable to fathom, there seemed to be some kind of TV show theme to the booths. This would have been bizarre no matter what, but why Fantasy Island, Miami Vice and Gilligan’s Island? Did the organizers of this event swear off TV in the 1980s? Are the TV shows of my adolescence already so kitschy they’ve actually become cool?
Were people worried that visitors would be bored looking at some dumb, old plants outside the context of a TV theme? I don’t get it. Do you?
So, tell me. Do you have a good garden show in your city? If so, please email me a photo so I can live vicariously through you. Or, hey, maybe I’ll send them to next year’s local planning committee. They could use some ideas.
Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting “safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.Read More»
Why does life need a soundtrack? I wonder this all the time because, as you’ve probably noticed, you can’t buy groceries, shop for clothes, pump gas, eat a meal, ride an elevator or even go to the bathroom without some sort of musical accompaniment. Why is that? Are the designers of public spaces worried about what will happen if we are left alone with our thoughts? Do they suppose that we don’t have thoughts?
Or is it that people think we need music in order to conjure up the appropriate emotions for a given situation? This thought came to mind last week when my husband Mike and I were visiting my family in Arizona, and we took a short sightseeing cruise with my dad. We had just taken our seats aboard the Dolly Steamboat for an hour and a half nature cruise around Canyon Lake when the peaceful sound of paddlewheel against water was drowned out by Enya’s 1988 hit “Orinoco Flow.” Booming out of the boat’s crackling speakers, the song was both fittingly epic and completely cheesy in a not altogether disagreeable way. But why not enjoy the sounds of nature on the nature cruise? we groused to each other.
Touted on the brochure as Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon,” Canyon Lake feels like an almost surreal oasis in the middle of the otherwise rocky, dry and cactus-filled Sonoran Desert. And it is, really, since the man-made lake was formed in 1925 when the Mormon Flat Dam trapped water from the Salt River. The steep canyon walls are the main attraction on the tour, and the boat’s captain explained how many of the rock formations we could see were the result of volcanic eruptions dating back as far as 15 million years. We brought along binoculars, hoping to see some bald eagles but, instead, we spotted several bighorn sheep defying gravity as they made their way along the face of the cliffs.Read More»