Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obamas are Eating the View

I have been pleased to be part of the "Eat the View" Campaign, a petition asking the Obamas to plant a garden at the White House to showcase the many benefits of gardening: economic, nutritious, physical, emotional, and environmental. 

Michelle Obama is going to break ground at the White House on the South Lawn for the first formal vegetable garden in decades. 

Bravissimo, Michelle! 


Monday, March 9, 2009

Newpaper Seedling Pots, Gardening for Your Fellow Folks, and Unemployment

February private-sector job losses are worse than expected, as expected.

In the NYTimes:

ADP said private employers cut 697,000 jobs in February compared with a revised 614,000 jobs lost in January. The January job cuts were originally reported at 522,000.

Economists had expected 610,000 private-sector job cuts in February, according to the median of 23 forecasts in a Reuters poll, which ranged widely from a drop of 730,000 to losses of 500,000.

About 700,000 new people are going to need your help. Food banks are already pushed to the limit, and they need more help.

It's time to plant a garden for your fellow folks.

If you live in the North, it's time to start your seedlings. Below the fold is a video showing how to make easy origami newspaper seedling starting pots. They're free, biodegradable, and organic. I made two dozen last night during American Idol.

Starting seedlings indoors is one of the best ways to start your garden early. I shoveled 1.5 feet of snow off the driveway yesterday, by hand, with a shovel, so I really want spring to come so I can plant my flippin' garden. Seedlings are at least something pretty and warm and growing in the house.

Winter Garden

Now, we should plant our gardens on the cheap, as the point of these gardens is not to grow $3 Lima beans. If you're going to spend $500 growing $200 worth of food, it's better to just donate that money to the food bank. They'll know what to do with it.

Seedling starting kits run $8-$40 at my local HD. And they look puny.

Newspaper seedling pots are free, biodegradable, and organic.

Newspaper Origami seedling pot

Plants you should start from seedlings: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. Squashes are also good to start.

These newspaper pots are quick and easy, plus they are only two sheets thick on two sides and the bottom, so you can plant the whole pot in the garden and the roots will quickly penetrate the newspaper and turn the whole thing into biodegraded mush.

They also have nifty flaps to label what you planted in each one.

After I fold them, I store them stacked under a heavy book to press the folds even more. That makes them even sturdier when you fill them with starting soil and plant those seeds.

Pots under book

I nestle them in a big, plastic tray or a low cardboard box lined with a lawn and leaf bag.

(Hee, hee. You can see my pajamas under the glass table.)

Happy planting!

TK Kenyon

Friday, March 6, 2009

Companion Gardening: Reduce pests, disease, and vermin organically

Unemployment has reached 8.1%, a staggering figure and the highest since 1983.

Really, it's even worse than that.

When you include people who have stopped looking for work but would like to work, the percentage rises to a 9.1% unemployment rate. (Click through the slide show on the front page for these numbers on a graph.)

When you include the underemployed, meaning people who are working part-time who want to work full-time, the figure jumps to 14.8%.

In addition, people are out of work longer. Almost 40% of those who are unemployed have been unemployed for 15 weeks or longer. That's the highest number of long-term unemployed since WWII.

Time to plant that garden. If you don't need it, people you know or food banks will.

Below the fold: Gleaned from the excellent book Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte and sources on the internet, here's a listing of vegetables to interplant to reduce pests and disease.

As organic farmers know: monoculture doesn't work. Just planting the same plants interspersed with each other reduces the amount of pesticides and antimicrobials you'll need to use.

Some plants help each other ward off pests and even vermin by masking scent or providing a physical barrier. "Companion planting," as detailed in the excellent book Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte, available at Amazon and in local bookstores and libraries. This book goes into much more detail about each vegetable and its beneficial and inhibitory companions.

I've grouped plants together for easy reference:

First Group: The Three Sisters

Pumpkins and winter squash (like butternut)

To Native Americans of the Southwest, corn, beans, and squash were known as the "three sisters," composing a majority of the diet.

Plant corn in the middle, at least 7 rows of it, then plant beans or peas at the base of each corn stalk. The beans will climb up the corn, anchoring it more firmly. Plant pumpkins and squash around the stand of corn to deter predators like raccoons. The broad leaves will create a barrier. Cucumbers enjoy the shade on the ground from the tall corn.

If you aren't growing corn due to space limitations, use poles or trellises for the beans or peas.

Second Group: Salad and Herbs


Plant tomato seedlings in the center of the garden, no closer than 30 inches from each other, preferably 4 feet apart. This reduces disease incidence.

Plant salad vegetables under and around the tomatoes. Plant lettuce where it will get some afternoon shade from the growing tomatoes. Intersperse aliums (onion types and garlic) between the vegetables.

Plant herbs around the perimeter.

Third Group: Getting A Head (Cabbage Family)


Intersperse aliums and herbs with cabbages to repel pests and varmints.

Fourth Group: Melonheads

Melons (all types)

Intersperse a few aliums or radishes to repel pests and vermin. Placing a square of waxed paper under melons will keep worms from tunneling up through the dirt and into the melon.

More Articles:

Tomato Primer for Growing Tomatoes

More Tomato Wisdom from DailyKos Tomato Mavens -- Taken from excellent comments to the above DailyKos post.

Why plant a garden? (Garden of Eatin' post)

Why is TK doing this?

TK Kenyon

Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte

This is a simply wonderful book that promises reduced pest and disease problems just by interspersing vegetables rather than planting monoculture. What a great idea! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Shade-Loving Garden Vegetables

Big, beautiful trees increase your home's value, shelter your house from the sun in the hot summer, and are beautiful. 

Unfortunately, shade is the bane of gardens. The vast majority of vegetables need a "sheltered, sunny spot." 

We're trying to make the most of our gardening, however. Sometimes, a really nice spot for a garden gets less than full sunlight. 

So, what can grow in the shade? 

Cucumbers: keep well watered, especially when flowering and fruiting. Sow in rich soil with lots of manure or other high-nitrogen compost. 

Zucchini: same advice as above. Support vining varieties as necessary. Yes, zukes are the fecund bunnies or HeLa cells of the garden. You don't need 1000 zucchini, so don't overplant. 

Spinach: as spinach does not do well in hot conditions, shade during the afternoon is beneficial to this fast-growing crop. High-nitrogen fertilizer or compost increases yield. 

Peas: peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas prefer damp, cool, shaded spots. Apply lime if your soil is acidic. Compost or aged manure helps peas grow. Support vines with twigs. 

String beans: sheltered, light shade is preferred. Keep the soil very moist, especially during flowering. String beans have deep roots and prefer deep soil. Pick often, as this encourages more beans. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

What's a Garden Worth?

This excellent essay was recently published in the Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI) newsletter. 

The calculations below are exactly why I'm promulgating that we all need to stick a few seeds in the ground for our friends and neighbors who are going through a rough time. Donating a few dollars to a food bank is a good idea. Donating hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of food is a great idea. 

Isn't that a great photo? Kitchen Gardeners Int'l is a great website with lots of great info. I encourage you to sign up for their e-newsletter, as I have. 

What’s a home garden worth? With the global economy spiraling downward and Mother Nature preparing to reach upward, it’s a good question to ask and a good time to ask it. 

There isn’t one right answer, of course, but I’ll give you mine: $2149.15. Last year, my wife Jacqueline suggested to me that we calculate the total value of the produce coming out of our garden over the course of the growing season. Initially, the thought of doing that was about as appealing to me as a recreational root canal. I remember replying something like: “OK, so let me get this right: in addition to raising three busy boys, managing two careers, volunteering in a school garden, and growing most of our own produce, you’re proposing that we weigh every item that comes out of our garden, write it down in a log book, and spend a few leisurely evenings doing math?” Jacqueline, an economics major in college and a native French speaker, answered with a simple "oui" and so the project began. 

There was a lot of work involved, mostly for Jacqueline, but as with gardening itself, it was work with a purpose. It didn’t take long for our log book to start filling up with dates and figures. Although we started eating our first garden salads in late April, we only began recording our harvests as of May 10th, starting first with greens and asparagus. Our last weighable harvest was two weeks ago in the form of a final cutting of Belgian endives forced from roots in our basement. 

By the time we had finished weighing it all, we had grown 834 pounds and over six months worth of organic food (we’re still eating our own winter squash, onions, garlic, and frozen items like strawberries, green beans, and pesto cubes). Once we had the weights of the 35 main crops we grew, we then calculated what it would have cost us to buy the same items using three different sets of prices: conventional grocery store, farmers’ market and organic grocery store (Whole Foods, in our case). The total value came to $2196.50, $2431.15, and $2548.93 respectively. For the other economics majors and number crunchers among you, you can see our crunchy, raw data here

There are things we didn’t include like the wild dandelion greens which we reaped but did not sow, the six or so carving pumpkins which we ultimately fed to our compost pile, and the countless snacks of strawberries, beans, peas, and tomatoes that never made it as far as our kitchen scale. There were also things we forgot to weigh like several pounds of grapes which turned into about 12 jars of jam. As with any growing season, there were hits and misses. The heaviest and most valuable crop was our tomatoes (158 lb/72 kg for a total value of $524). In terms of misses, our apple tree decided to take the year off and very few of our onions started from seed made it requiring me to buy some onion plants. 

On the cost side, we had $130 for seeds and supplies, $12 for a soil test, and exceptional costs of $100 for some locally-made organic compost we bought for our “This Lawn is Your Lawn” frontyard garden (normally, we meet most of our soil fertility needs through our own composting). I don't have a scientific calculation for water costs, but we don't need to water much and, when we do, water is relatively cheap in Maine. Also, I mulch my beds pretty heavily to keep moisture in and weeds down.  Let's say $40 in water.  So, if we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2431, that means we had a return on investment of 862%. The cost of our labor is not included because we enjoy gardening and the physical work involved. If I am to include my labor costs, I feel I should also include the gym membership fees, country club dues, or doctors’ bills I didn’t have. 

If you really want to play around with the data, you can calculate how much a home garden like ours produces on a per acre basis. If you use the $2400 figure and consider that our garden is roughly 1/25th of an acre, it means that home gardens like ours can gross $60,000/acre. You can also calculate it on a square foot basis which in our case works out to be roughly $1.50/ft2. That would mean that a smaller garden of say 400ft2 would produce $600 of produce. Keep in mind that these are averages and that certain crops are more profitable and space efficient than others. A small garden planted primarily with salad greens and trellised tomatoes, for example, is going to produce more economic value per square foot more than one planted with potatoes and squash. We plant a bit of everything because that’s the way we like to garden and eat. 

Clearly, this data is just for one family (of five), one yard (.3 acre), one garden (roughly 1600 square feet), and one climate (Maine, zone 5b/6), but it gives you some sense of what’s possible. If you consider that there are about 90 million households in the US that have some sort of yard, factor in the thousands of new community and school gardens we could be planting, this really could add up. Our savings allowed us to do different things including investing in some weatherization work for our house last fall that is making us a greener household in another way. Some might ask what this would mean for farmers to have more people growing their own food. The local farmers I know welcome it because they correctly believe that the more people discover what fresh, real food tastes like, the more they'll want to taste. In our case, part of our savings helped us to buy better quality, sustainably-raised meat from a local CSA farmer. 

The economics of home gardening may not be enough to convince President Obama or UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to plant new gardens at the White House or 10 Downing Street, but the healthy savings their citizens could be making and then reinvesting in their local economies could. 

In the end, it might come down to the language we use. Instead of saying "Honey, I'm going out to the garden to turn the compost pile", perhaps we should say "Honey, I'm going outside to do a 'green job' and work on our 'organic stimulus package.'”  I bet that would get the attention of a few economists, not mention a few psychologists!