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!

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?