Category Archives: Organic Gardening

A Strange and Wonderful Growing Season

Well, I said I was going on hiatus from the blog for awhile but I guess this is what hiatus looks like…

It’s the last day of September 2012, but by looking at our rooftop you’d swear it was the first week of June. In the Great Lakes region we’re lucky to have one full growing season, much less two. But that’s exactly what it’s turning out to be- at least here in Chicago, 4 stories up.

Like the rest of the garden, these Atkinson heirloom tomatoes were an anomaly this year. I couldn’t get them to hold blossoms all summer – too hot? – but now in September I have plenty of fruit arriving at all stages from blossom to red ripe.

Green Bell Peppers were absolutely prolific this year and are still going strong. Each plant has more fruit than they can hold – and with new flowers blooming, there’s no sign of stopping. Will probably yield a crop of smaller peppers well into October.

Like the peppers, these Chinese eggplant were fantastic this year. In August the plants seemed to be on their way out. Leaves were yellowing and dropping. But when day time temps got milder, new growth sprouted and now flowers. Will easily have a crop of small eggs in a few weeks. They grow quite fast and can further ripen indoors if the risk of frost threatens the young’n’s.

What? A double season of squash? Now that’s a new one for me. This Dwarf Hubbard squash grew very quickly this month after the plant was surely about to dry up and blow away with the wind. Not thinking the season would support them to maturity, we actually had a September meal of squash blossoms. Glad I left one on the vine!

Another surprise – a third round of strawberries. These Ozarks are bound and determined to hold onto every last ray of sunshine this year. Fine by me!

It probably comes as no surprise that the Japanese Shishitos gave us more than we could handle this year. We ate, and ate, and ate, and gave away, and pickled. And guess what? Yup, another round of foliage and blossoms popped up this week. I think I’m going to start leaving them on people’s doorstep at night. Here’s a jar of pickled peppers that yielded amazing flavor.

Extra Dwarf Pak Choi did great in the spring but a second planting in the summer was quickly snuffed out by the heat. I planted these seeds a week and a half ago and expect to have several meals over the next couple weeks. Perfect weather for brassicas.

Mildly warm days and cool nights is ideal weather for late season greens like this arugula.

A flourishing Autumn herb garden? This cilantro seems to think so. So do its companions parsley and dill.

Not to be left out, this California poppy plant that had fully died back after its summer show is making a resurgence.

Attempting to upstage the entire crowd, this floribunda ‘Moondance’ rose towers over the garden in its 3rd blooming cycle of the summer. Am I going to have white roses at Christmas?

This year the news was full of stories about drought and poor farming conditions. Here in Chicago, it’s just been bizarre. If you felt this year’s season was strange too, I’d love to hear your story in the comment section.

Alright I really must put an end to these distractions. So back to work… unless I find more surprises up there.

Self-irrigated Planters and City of Chicago Gardening Rebates

I’m just about to head out to buy potting mix and then get the last of my seeds in. Aside from the inevitable wind & hail that spring will bring, the weather is looking great for the garden. In fact, just harvested my first batch of dwarf bok choy (pak choi) today. This variety from Kitazawa grew so quickly it was ready to harvest in just a few weeks:

Dwarf bok choi grown in an EarthBox. From seed to table in just a few weeks.

Last night at Home Depot I found a slightly cheaper alternative to EarthBoxes. The self-irrigated planter called “City Pickers” is made in the U.S. by Emsco Group. It was $29.95 which is a few bucks less than the online price of EarthBoxes, plus you save on shipping. Also, they claim the plastic is recycled & recyclable. The box measures 24″ x 20″ and holds 1.5 cubic ft. of potting media. Like EarthBox, Emsco suggests adding granular fertilizer and dolomite (lime). City Pickers comes with a mulch cover, aeration screen, fill tube, and, unlike EarthBox, the casters are included at no extra cost. Looking forward to comparing the two. The only other immediate difference I see is that the Emsco box has a shallower but wider surface area for root systems.

Since I’m sending in my rebate forms for Chicago’s “Sustainable Backyards” program this week, I thought it would be a good reminder for city residents to look into this program if you haven’t already.  The city will reimburse you up to 50% of the cost of certain landscaping plants, rain barrels, and composters that are purchased locally. After the rebate, my double chamber composter will only cost $50! The program runs until the end of the year.

Growing Potatoes in a Pot

Potatoes are one of the easiest things you can grow at home, regardless of how much space you have. And if you have any potatoes in your pantry, you’re halfway there already. All you need to do is plunge a few of those potatoes into a container of soil and wait few weeks. Here is today’s before and after picture of a few organic supermarket potatoes that I planted exactly 2 months ago. So in a matter of 8 weeks you can grow your own meal of garden fresh new potatoes:

Potato foliage reached about a foot and a half in height in a matter of 2 months.

A handful of new potatoes harvested from 3 starter potatoes from the pantry.

How to Grow Potatoes At Home:

1. Gather a few potatoes from your pantry or buy some from the supermarket. Look for ones that have “eyes” starting to form or sprout. The eyes are simply those white protrusions on the surface of the potato- usually there are several.

2. Fill a container with soil rich in organic matter. Any standard patio planter will work as long as there are holes in the bottom and room enough to accommodate the growing potatoes. Potatoes like well-draining soil, especially if it’s amended with manure, compost or even whole kitchen vegetable scraps mixed in. Beyond this, they won’t require additional fertilizer.

3. Bury 2 or 3 potatoes several inches down into the soil. Alternatively, you can carve out the sprouting “eyes” from the starter potato, leaving a small chuck of flesh around each eye. The eye will sprout into the root system and foliage as seen above. Each eye you plant will produce an individual plant, so the more eyes you start with the more potatoes you’ll end up with. But remember they need room in the pot to handle all their newborns!

4. Water well and place in a location that will receive plenty of sun once the foliage emerges. Water regularly when the soil starts to dry, but don’t make your potatoes live in soggy soil. Potatoes are hardy and can tolerate a fair amount of abuse.

5. After 8 weeks, when foliage reaches 1 to 2 feet in height, gently pull the soil away from the base of the foliage to explore the size of the new potatoes. Harvest if they are a size you want to cook with or cover them back up and wait a couple more weeks if you want more mature potatoes. When harvesting, explore the soil well as the potatoes may be scattered throughout the container.

6. After harvesting the potatoes, you might place some of the small or imperfect ones back into the soil to start the process all over again.

Spring Planting for 2012 Rooftop Gardening

With weather returning closer to average for April, I’m relieved I didn’t do any premature direct sowing back when the temps hit the 80s (other than spinach that likes cool temps). As recently as last week Chicagoland has received freeze warnings. This coming week looks to be quite warm, but it’s still too early to plant many varieties outside due to nighttime temps still dipping into the 30s and 40s. Even if the cold temperatures don’t kill the seeds/seedlings, it can stunt growth and cause poor performance later in the season.

Potatoes planted in March are thriving on the rooftop- they can handle cool night temps. Turns out, potatoes make great container plants.

Yesterday I sowed several seed varieties indoors. Competing with the high winds on the rooftop and lack of space indoors made growing from seed a challenge last year. Without much space indoors to accommodate proper lighting, it’s difficult to grow hardy seedlings that can then handle the hardening-off transition to outdoors. If we don’t get hurricane force winds and marble hail like we did last year in Chicago (literally) then I may have more success than I did last year.

Strawberries are also great container plants that thrive in the midwest, and despite the harsh conditions on a rooftop. With them getting an early start this year, it looks like we'll have our first crop in May.

Here are the seed varieties I planted yesterday along with the varieties I’ve added to the calendar for direct sowing in May & June:

Late April seeding for June transplants:

  • Cantaloupe (seed saving from an organic store-bought melon)
  • Tomato (Atkinson, heirloom)
  • Green Peppers (California Wonder, freebie seeds)
  • Green Pepper (Big Dipper, freebie seeds)
  • Eggplant (Tiger, Thai hybrid)
  • Eggplant (Chinese long)
  • Sweet Peppers (Shishito)

Plastic produce "clamshells" (left) make good countertop sprouting containers and come with lids to keep seeds warm and moist for quick germination.

Seeds for direct sowing this week:

  • Extra Dwarf Pak Choi, bok choi
  • Pai Tsai, bok choi
  • Tasoi Savoy, bok choi
  • Cucumber Lemon (heirloom)

Seeds for direct sowing when night time temps remain a bit warmer:

  • Malabar spinach
  • Green beans
  • Acorn squash

We’re planning to supplement these seeds with seedlings from a local nursery that sells heirloom organics… especially if the wind mows down my young ones!

Don’t Get Fooled By Unseasonable Weather! Zone 5 Planting Calendar

With the weather in the 70s all week in Chicago, my fingers are just itching to push down some seeds into the soil. But I can’t forget that it’s only March 14th. So I wanted to pass along this simple but extremely helpful gardening calendar for those in zone 5 (Chicago, that’s you). If your zone runs a little warmer or colder, you can adjust by a week or two. Thanks goes out to Tim’s Square Foot Garden for putting this together.

Weekend Recap: Pretending It’s Spring

The first official day of Spring is over a week away, but don’t tell that to this weekend. It’s been a gorgeous weekend in Chicago, especially compared to rest of the week which I spent in the Upper Peninsula of MI.

Yesterday was major grocery shopping day. If you’re in Chicago and are not familiar with Stanley’s Fruit & Vegetable Market on North & Elston, for sure check ’em out. The store is divided into half organics and half conventionals. Most of the organics are so affordable you can even buy them in bulk without going broke. Check out their spinach- longest spinach stems I’ve ever seen in my life!

Whole Foods surprised me with cartons of these bright organic sweet peppers (grown in Florida) for only a couple bucks each. I’ll be trying out this pickled pepper recipe tomorrow. Refrigerator pickles in March!

We still managed to spend about $200 in groceries yesterday, so needless to say we didn’t leave the house today. I spent a few hours on the roof (and yes, it was the first day of the year that I wore sunscreen) prepping soil and even putting in a few potatoes that had started sprouting in the kitchen. Last year I grew potatoes in regular round plastic planters and they did great. I didn’t even buy seeding potatoes, I used what was emerging from my pantry! It’s quite early for planting, but potatoes like the cold and I can always carry them inside if we get extended freezing. If you have kitchen scraps or manure, throw them in a pot and cover with your potting soil. Spuds thrive in the gunky junk. Here are some other potato planting tips.

Last year’s strawberry plants are sprouting up and the roses are pushing through their burlap winter coats. It will be interesting to see how this early warmth will affect the garden. I don’t imagine the harsh weather is over yet, so I’ll have to keep my hands out of the dirt for awhile longer. But today sure felt good!

Next weekend I’ll be checking in from the Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier.

 

Choose Heirloom or Choose Monsanto?

Without jumping too deeply into the political fray, I just want to share a few links that will help home gardeners choose their seed supplier this year. This is particularly timely, with a gigantic class-action lawsuit pending against Monsanto by a collective of farmers and the wild popularity of the movie Food, Inc.

If you want to avoid genetically modified seed varieties while supporting sustainable options like organics and heirlooms, then here is a link that lists which seed companies are owned by or sell Monsanto/Seminis seeds: http://www.garden-of-eatin.com/how-to-avoid-monsanto/. That link also shares alternative sources for non-Monsanto seeds.

[Note: Seminis is a child company of Monsanto and according to Wikipedia is “the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.”]

In addition, the Council for Responsible Genetics lists seed companies that have signed the 2012 Safe Seed Pledge.

Make your own pledge to stay informed and make your vote (money) count when you make purchases this year. While it may be fun and nostalgic to thumb through the annual Burpee, Jung or Park Seed catalogs, just know that they are all supplied by Monsanto.

Now, hopefully nobody wearing a black suit knocks on my door this week…

[UPDATE] Not 5 hours after I published this post, did the New York federal court toss out the lawsuit against Monsanto. Back to the drawing board.