Why Garden Organically?

The reasons for being an organic gardener are many: concern for the environment, desire for self-sufficiency, and the joy of eating fresh food, to name a few. For me, gardening organically over the last twenty years has been both a cost issue and a nutritional choice. Organic, versus conventional, fruits and vegetables are less expensive to produce in the home garden, and they provide better nutrition.

1. First, let’s take a quick look at the price of using chemicals in a garden. With price, there are the obvious, monetary costs: $10 per gallon for all-purpose fertilizer, $156 per gallon for broad spectrum herbicide, $40 per half gallon of fungicide, $20 to $100 for a hand-held sprayer (prices are approximate and were obtained from a national retailer of garden and home products). Chemical costs can definitely add up over the years. Is the cost worth paying? I think not.

Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West (Fulcrum, $24.95, ISBN: 978-1-55591-725-8) by Jane Shellenberger (publisher and editor of Colorado Gardener) makes this interesting point: “Two world wars, plus the Korean and Vietnam wars, provided not only many of the chemicals adapted and marketed for postwar agricultural use, but also the mindset necessary to convince farmers and the public that we needed to do battle to overcome nature and her ‘pests,’ at every turn employing a chemical arsenal.” I definitely do not want chemicals in my garden that were originally designed to kill people, no matter what the agricultural adaptation has been.

In addition to the monetary costs, chemicals exact a very high price from the soil and its myriad organisms. Each teaspoon of soil holds hundreds if not thousands of living creatures, including microscopic worms, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi, such as the water bear (below): “Water bears are named for their slow-faited walk. Also known as tardigrades, these microbial extremophiles can survive a range of temperatures from near absolute zero to 304 degrees, plus 1,000 times more radiation than other animals.” (Organic Gardener’s Companion, p. 30).

When a gardener uses chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers, they may solve a garden problem, but the short-term solution destroys the biodiversity of plants and animals that make a self-sustaining garden possible. Soil and its creatures, weeds, and desirable plants create a biodynamic system in every garden. While occasionally the system can become unbalanced, resulting in a garden problem, an overabundance of dandelions is far better than a chemically burned yard full of “dead” soil.

2. Another reason to grow vegetables and fruits organically is that they’ll provide you with more nutrition than conventionally grown food. For years I didn’t have the scientific verification to prove the better nutritional value in organically grown versus conventionally grown vegetables. Then, on February 13, 2009, Science News published an article by Janet Raloff titled “AAAS: Stress Can Make Plants More Nutritious.” In the article, Alyson Mitchell of UC–Davis “compared identical cultivators grown on certified organic plots versus those where standard fertilizers and pesticides were being applied. And as a rule, organics far surpassed their conventionally grown kin for vitamins and beneficial micronutrients, such as antioxidant flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol.” Mitchell found that the extra stress that organically grown plants experience causes their “defensive secondary metabolites” to kick into action in order to fight off pests. These secondary metabolites are also the mechanism that plants use to produce “phenolic acids, flavonoids, alkaloids, and terpenoids”—these natural plant pesticides and sunscreens function as important micronutrients and vitamins for humans. “And one potential bonus: Better taste. Some of the secondary plant metabolites break down into flavor compounds.”

So, next time you’re gardening and see a moth nibbling on your cabbage, forgo spraying pesticide and remember, those little holes indicate a higher vitamin content! For additional information on organic gardening, I suggest you visit your local library and look for a copy of Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West by Jane Shellenberger. Copies are also available from the bookseller of your choice or at www.fulcrumbooks.com.

Posted by Ingrid Estell, veteran gardener and Special Sales Manager at Fulcrum


Gardening in the West: A Little Help from Jane Shellenberger

We recently spoke with Jane Shellenberger, publisher and editor of the regional gardening magazine Colorado Gardener (now in its 15th year) and recent author of Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West (Fulcrum, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-55591-725-8) about the challenges and triumphs of organic gardening. Jane is a lifelong eclectic gardener who first learned about plants from her botanist mother, and her new book guides both veteran and newbie gardeners through growing the best fruits and vegetables in the semi-arid, high-altitude West. The book is written in Jane’s accessible and humorous style, and also features vibrant color photos from her own gardens.
Fulcrum: How long have you been gardening organically and why should one follow such methods?
JS: I’ve always gardened without using poisons. It just seemed like common sense, especially when it comes to edibles. I don’t have a strong desire for controlled perfection. The ever-changing, transitory nature of gardening is what makes it interesting. I’d rather have a garden that attracts life any day than a sterile, insect-free plot. There are far more beneficial insects (and fungi and bacteria) than there are pests, and you usually can’t kill one without harming the other. Food that’s grown organically also tastes better, is more nutritious, and doesn’t pollute water or harm soil. In fact, building soil is one the satisfying pleasures of organic gardening. If gardeners step back and view their yards and gardens as part of a much larger whole, they’ll better understand the importance of gardening organically. The collective negative effect of each person using “just a little bit” of toxic pesticide can be huge, and likewise, an interconnected network of many individual organic yards and gardens can create a safe haven for many pollinators and other critters that once had a place to survive in the wild.
Fulcrum: What are some of the unique challenges of growing vegetables (or gardening in general) in the West?
JS: Most western native soils are lean; plus, we have many more sunny than rainy days, so supplemental, regular irrigation is a must. Drought recurs at regular intervals. Even when it does precipitate during the growing season, it often comes all at once or, even worse, as hail that violently pummels the garden. Then there’s our intense UV light at high altitude, coupled with drying western winds that suck all the moisture out of plants. Nights are often too cool for warm season vegetables like peppers, while summer days can be too hot for cool season broccoli and salad greens. Mountain conditions are even more extreme, with very short growing seasons. Some knowledge of which varieties can survive or thrive in the West will come in very handy. Did I mention deer?
Fulcrum: What vegetables are good “starter” veggies for those of us who have limited/no gardening experience?
JS: Cool season greens like arugula, chard, mustard greens, chives, and cilantro are great crops from seed for beginners. Garlic is super easy but best planted in the fall. As long as temperatures don’t get too hot, I find broccoli is always a winner — and delicious!  Plant it early (March or April) from seed or starts and keep it mulched. Broccoli likes our bright light and cool nights, and keeps on producing lots of side shoots after you harvest the main head. Zucchini is a relatively easy and very productive warm season vegetable. It needs warm soil to get going, so wait until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees at night before planting.
Looseleaf “cut and come again” lettuces like mesclun mixes are simple to grow. They can be trimmed for eating and will continue to grow for months. Bronze Arrowhead and Deer Tongue are very slow to bolt in hot weather and don’t turn bitter like some varieties. There are many, many varieties to try. Seed catalogs and seed company websites can be a wealth of information, especially those located in the West. If you’ve prepared your beds with good soil, everything will be easier to grow.
Fulcrum: What should gardeners in the West be doing right now to prepare their gardens and planning for growing season?
JS: It’s been dry and windy in January, which isn’t atypical. That’s why I like to cover my vegetable beds through the winter with dried fall leaves and hay mulch to keep the soil from drying out and blowing away.
Now, while it’s still wintery, do some research on varieties by reading seed catalogs and talking to gardener friends. Decide what you’d like to grow and where, how you’re going to water, and what you plan to use for mulch. Sketch out a plan for your garden to help yourself get organized. Even if you don’t stick to it, you’ll learn something during the process. Buy some seeds.
If you haven’t already prepared your vegetable beds by adding chopped-up leaves, compost, and other organic materials, pick a warm day and start now so you’ll be ready to plant when the time comes. Water the beds afterward to help the soil microbes and earthworms start the breakdown process. If the process seems overwhelming, get some help. Gardening is more fun and more productive with a friend. If you prefer to work a community garden plot, call your municipality or organizations like Denver Urban Gardens and Pike’s Peak Urban Gardens to reserve one now.
Thanks, Jane! Happy gardening, everyone!

Summer Vegetable Fun

It’s been a little while since we’ve checked in with our friend Renee Wilkinson, author of Modern Homestead and creator of HipChickDigs.com, a wonderful blog filled with inspiring homesteading ideas. After Jack and Carolyn’s post earlier this week on their incredible garden, I’ve had gardens and veggies on my mind, so I headed over to Renee’s blog to see what she’s been up to. Renee’s post from last week, Good Haul, is just beautiful. I just love her vivid photographs of delicious-looking vegetables. And I must admit, it’s hard not to be a little envious when she says, “I am almost getting buried in the harvest this summer!” How fun is that?! I would love to have more homegrown vegetables than I know what to do with…

Renee’s blog post from yesterday, Cool Summer Eggs, got my stomach grumbling as she shared ways in which she’s been using the abundance of chicken and duck eggs from her backyard homestead. With three chickens and four ducks, you can imagine you’d need to get a little creative to find ways to use all those delicious eggs. Renee shares some yummy recipes for deviled eggs and egg salad. I think I know what I’ll be making this weekend!

And now, I’ve got some exciting news to share. I admit I am a complete gardening newbie, so don’t laugh…but we have our first red tomato on our tomato plant! We have ten little tomatoes on the plant,(our first try at growing tomatoes), and just two days ago one finally started to turn red!

Fulcrum gardening blog

Red tomato!

Look at that beauty! Well…she’s not perfect, but once fully ripe, I’m sure she’ll taste divine.

Modern Homestead red tomato

I imagine we’ll be able to bite into it in just a few short days. With a 70-90 day gestation period for tomatoes, it is a long, slow process waiting for the plant to start growing fruit, but boy is it exciting when you finally have something to enjoy from it!

Do you have anything exciting going on in your garden? We’d love to hear about it if so!

Garden Boot Camp

Fulcrum has published some really great gardening titles over the years, and now it looks like we’ve got a couple of Colorado gardening experts right here in our office. Carolyn and Jack were kind enough to share photos and the lessons they learned from working on their beautiful (and inspiring) garden this summer. Whether you are a veteran gardener or you are contemplating growing your first herbs or vegetables this summer, I know you will enjoy Carolyn and Jack’s experiences below, especially the adorable puppy photo. Happy gardening!

Jack: The last time I had a vested interest in a garden, I was about ten years old. Now that I finally have a space to get back into it, I’m realizing that memories of my mom’s methods are not sufficient to achieve success. Thus far I’ve been going on my gut, and this year has really taught me the value of a good resource.

Carolyn: I begrudgingly agreed to try a few veggies in our garden last year. Our crop of lettuce (so freaking easy to grow, people!) was pretty big, and so my instict this year was to to go big trying lots of different veggies and techinques.

 Read about a few of the things we’ve learned…

1. Pups love carrots, and carrots love tomatoes. Our goal this year was to grow carrots. Duncan, our last pup, loved carrots, and we had planned on growing them for him. He passed in February, a couple of weeks after we’d bought seeds.

I was reading online about gardening and heard about this great book on companion planting called Carrots Love Tomatoes. Based on the info in the book, we ended up spending four hours planning the perfect garden layout. We had a really complex scheme of how everything would fit together, so come June we managed to get our seed starts planted out fairly quickly. (We’d also planted a number of cool-season veggies back in April.)

Garden in mid-June, newly planted starts

We weren’t really thinking we’d have that much success, so we didn’t expect things to grow in as they did.

Garden at end of July

We did get carrots, but they’re on the smaller side. We’re wondering if we didn’t thin them out enough or if we need deeper soil—probably a bit of both.

Nonetheless, our new pups seem to be enjoying them, so we’re happy. (One is munching on the White Satin variety here.)

Carrot time!

2. Beans climb vertical supports, peas use horizontal. Last year, we made our very first veggie garden together, and we tried a limited number of things: lettuce, tomatoes, and peas. We had a decent crop of peas, but we found the spot to be too sunny for this cooler-weather crop. This year we learned from last year’s mistake and planted those cooler crops in a shadier spot, and we tried beans where the peas had been, intending to use the nice trellis we had going for the peas since they’d worked so great.

Both peas and beans got off to a good start, but we found them all languishing after a few weeks. I consulted our copy of Your Farm in the City, which we’d only recently purchased, to find this exact lesson. Should’ve consulted it earlier! (I highly recommend this book, by the way. The design is fabulous and accessible, and the information is straightforward.) Just remember that they’re called bean tipis, not pea tipis.


Did you know you can trellis many types of cukes to save space? These are almost six feet high!

Luckily, our bush beans (in a lovely purple variety) were less affected by our blunder.

Eat 'em fresh and raw!

Beans, beans, the magical fruit...

3. More pollinators, please. We have a sort of inferno strip at the front our house that’s pretty much just looked like crap for the last five years. It’s hot, it’s dry, and the “grass” that used to be there would die by the third week of June. We finally reimagined it this spring, planting the whole area with xeric plants.

I’ve relied on Durable Plants for the Garden for past plant selection—with great success. (My favorite plants recommended there are the fragrant agastaches, or hyssops.) This book features the selections of Plant Select, most of which you can find at local garden centers, making it supersimple to find beautiful, hardy, drought-tolerant plants for your garden. I return to this book again and again.

But this spring I’ve also been editing Organic Gardener’s Companion by Jane Shellenberger (pubbing next spring), and I’ve been horrified at the plight of the pollinators she details there. If you want to grow veggies, you need pollinators, so we wanted to factor in her guidelines for the xeric plot, even though it’s not right next to our veggie beds. She recommends planting a whole section of a single bee-friendly plant to keep the bees’ work efficient (they have to “relearn” how to access pollen for each type of flower, so a single kind of plant means less relearning). We planted a bunch of salvia, and I’m ecstatic about how many bees I see visiting the grouping. Take that, beepocalypse!

Pollinators, ho!!!

Bzzz bzzzz

4. Save your seeds for hardier plants. I’ve also been reading about saving seeds from your veggies to use in subsequent years. As your plants start to adapt to the specific growing conditions of your area, those adaptations will be passed on to future plants. We plan on saving our seeds from our veggies, especially since we had a lot of success starting nonveggies from saved seed this year. (From a nearby park we purloined a stalk of a lamb’s ear that had gone to seed and grew these fabulous specimens—each one twice the size of my head.)

They're bigger than my head!

Three lamb's ears

5. Not everything’s going to work. This lesson is kind of liberating. There is no one way to garden, so it’s okay to learn by trial and error. Last year we overestimated the sun one spot of the yard, and our tomatoes struggled. This year, our Chinese cabbage was off to great start, but it’s looking less than appetizing…next on our list is to find out what little buggers thought otherwise.

Not bad!


What's eating my cabbage?


Homesteading Summer

Modern Homestead

This blogger’s adventures in modern homesteading took a turn for the surreal last night when a hailstorm struck. Worried about our egg-layers, we gathered up Mr. Darcy Chickenator and her sister-hen, Megan Fox, and brought the biddies safely inside to sit on a towel and watch The X-Files with us while the storm raged outside.

Though my seasoned farmer family members might scoff and say that chickens are hardy enough to weather a summer storm, I say that chickens who watch David Duchovny lay finer eggs. And, dare I say, that bloggers who watch David Duchovny write better posts?

I also have some news to share on the Modern Homestead book front:

For fans on Goodreads, I was tickled to see that the Modern Homestead cover had earned a place in the prestigious “In the Palms of Hands” group, alongside Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. It’s nice to be trendy.

On July 30, Renee Wilkinson will be speaking on her book Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create at In Other Words Feminist Community Center in Portland, OR. The event starts at 4 p.m. Perhaps some of our readers recognize In Other Words as the location of Portlandia’s “feminist book store” sketch:

Also, if you haven’t been reading Renee’s blog, Hip Chick Digs, she’s been posting some great recipes recently, and her posts on her duck Milt’s…erm…insatiable appetite have been hilarious.

Fulcrum’s Own Homesteading Tips

Modern Homestead

Spring is upon us and the summer growing season is nearly here. Green-thumbs or soon-to-be green-thumbs all around the country are starting to buy seeds, clean up their yards, and plot out their summer gardens. Last week we asked our blog readers to share their best homesteading tips and ideas as we prepare for the release of Fulcrum’s newest spring title, Modern Homestead, and in honor of the always welcome change of seasons. (FYI, the Modern Homestead giveaway contest has been extended to April 5th, so comment on our blog with your best homesteading tips to be entered to win a free copy of Renee Wilkinson’s new book!)

It’s been so much fun hearing from our readers that Fulcrum’s special sales manager, Ingrid Estell, became inspired to share her own homesteading tips. Ingrid, an avid gardener and canner in Missoula, Montana, discusses what it’s like being a gardener who hates tomatoes, gives tips on what to do when a cold summer leaves you with 100 pounds of green tomatoes, and shares her wonderful recipe for salsa verde. Yum!

Ingrid: I am a gardener who hates tomatoes. Yes, I hate tomatoes. The plants give my arms and hands a rash if I don’t wear long sleeves and gloves when I’m around them. The ripe fruits are a wonderful color, but disgustingly slimy when cut. The fresh juice, just like the leaves, gives my skin a rash and can make my lips look like a botox treatment gone horribly wrong. So, I am a gardener who hates tomatoes, but I am also a gardener who loves homemade salsa and tomato sauce. Lucky for me, once tomatoes are peeled, diced, cooked, and spiced, they become the food of the gods.

I plant anywhere from 10 to 16 plants a year to feed my salsa and sauce habit: yellow pear for mellow sauce, San Marzano for homemade ketchup, Stupice for an early crop, and Costoluto Genovese and Brandywine for amazing sauce flavor. The yellow pear tomatoes I grow in pots on my deck; the rest I grow at a local community garden plot I’ve had for years.  Each plant can easily produce 10 pounds of fruit, sometimes considerably more.

I garden in Montana, and last year’s weather conditions were not the best for tomato ripening but were very good for fruit set. (Fruit set: once a flower is pollinated, it “sets,” or begins to produce the vegetable or fruit that is later eaten. Some plants have both male and female flowers, but only the female flowers produce fruit or vegetables.) The summer stayed cool; only a couple of days reached 90 degrees. Night temperatures hovered between 45 and 50 degrees. So what? you ask. Well, tomatoes are particular about what temperature they like for each part of their growing process. Soil temperature must be between 70 to 90 degrees for seeds to germinate, and plants are happiest if soil remains at 70 to 90 degrees throughout the growing season. Generally, fruit set happens between 59 and 68 degrees air temperature. Fruit ripening happens at 70 to 90 degrees air temperature that holds steady—meaning, no drops in nighttime temperatures. In 2010, the weather conspired with my tomato plants to produce many, many tomatoes, but to ripen very, very few. As cold fall weather approached, I had at least 100 pounds of green tomatoes on the vine.

What to do with 100 pounds of green tomatoes? Well, first, I picked the crop and laid it in a single layer on newspaper in a cool room with just a little light. That old adage of “ripen on the windowsill” will result in rotten tomatoes. Also, when ripening, the tomatoes cannot touch each other—just like toddlers, they spread disease and mayhem to each other. Most of the slightly red tomatoes quickly ripened up and I made them into sauce or ketchup. But many stayed a vibrant, glossy green. So, in the interest of actually using my garden’s produce, I learned to make several canned green tomato products: Piccalilli Relish, Green Tomato Chutney, and Salsa Verde (my favorite).

Here’s the Salsa Verde recipe I used:

Makes six 8-ounce jars or three pint jars. Recipe doubles easily.
7 cups chopped, cored, peeled green tomatoes
5 to 10 seeded and finely chopped jalepeño, habanero, or Scotch Bonnet peppers (for a milder salsa, use milder peppers: Anaheim, yellow wax, etc.)
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup lime juice (bottled works best)
1/2 cup loosely packed, finely chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Prepare canner, jars, and lids. If you don’t know what this means, please check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation at www.uga.edu/ncfp/how/general/recomm_jars_lids.htm.

2. Peel and core green tomatoes: make a small x in the bottom of each tomato, then drop into rapidly boiling water for 60–90 seconds. Then transfer the flash-boiled tomatoes to a bowl of ice water (or sink filled with ice water). Once they’re cool enough to touch, the skins should peel off easily with a small knife. To core the tomatoes, use a paring knife to cut out the top end (where the tomato was attached to the plant), taking out about 1/2 inch of the core.

3. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and lime juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in cilantro, cumin, oregano, salt, and black pepper. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

4. Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace (headspace is the distance from the top of the salsa to the top of the jar, the rim). Remove air bubbles (run a knife or small rubber spatula around the inside of the jar to break-up any air bubbles—this is important, as air bubbles can harbor bacteria) and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim, make sure the rim is absolutely clean before putting the lid on. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.

5. Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process both 8-ounce and pint jars for 20 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store.

6. Be sure to label and date your jars of canned goods. In general, home canned products are good for a year.

(Recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. Toronto, ON: Robert Rose Inc., 2006.)

Salsa Verde is wonderful with chips, on tacos, or mixed into chicken noodle soup! Here’s a quick and delicious pumpkin soup recipe using a pint jar of Salsa Verde:

Serves 4–6
1 large can pumpkin (32 oz.)
1 quart vegetable broth (or chicken)
1 can black beans (16 oz.)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 pint Salsa Verde
Sour cream, for garnish (optional)
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

1. Place pumpkin and vegetable broth in a blender and combine (or whisk together in a stock pot).

2. Pour pumpkin and broth into a medium/large stock pot.

3. Add drained black beans, corn kernels, and Salsa Verde and heat through over medium high heat (5–10 minutes).

4. Ladle soup into bowls and top with sour cream and cilantro, if desired.

5. Serve with warm tortillas or with tortilla chips crushed and sprinkled on the top.