Excerpts from the
organic gardening articles by Mort Mather in suggested reading order for beginner organic
from the Garden Spot by Mort Mather
The Garden Spot
part of organic gardening published by Bald Mountain Press
Q & A
The organic gardening subjects covered at
the Garden Spot include: organic gardening, articles, essays, advice, organic,
garden, gardeners, beginner, beginners, beginner organic gardeners, farmers, farm, organic
farming, farming, permaculture, gardening without chemicals, spray, pesticides, poison,
poisons, Animals, Arizona Worms, Book, Carrots, Catalogues, Cold, Erosion, Fickle Frost,
Flowers, Frost, Frost Out, Harvest Frustration, Keep catalogues, Leaching, Midday Sun,
Newspapers, Onions, Organic Books, Peas, Planting Dates, Radishes, Records, Spinach,
Spring, Stew, Succession planting, Tomatoes, Ugly, Weeds, and Worms.
- Thinking of earthworms reminds me of a
conversation from about 20 years ago. The local chapter of the Maine Organic Farmers and
Gardeners Association sponsored talks in those days and one we sponsored was on marketing
produce at a roadside stand. We invited a local conventional farmer who had a stand on
Route One. In those days many conventional farmers thought organic farmers were, at best,
a couple of bales shy of a full load. I'm pleased to say that organic farming is the most
rapidly growing sector of agriculture in Maine right now.
- Worms. First I will tell you that I don't
generally recommend bringing animals (as in animal, mineral or vegetable) into the garden.
The plants we put in gardens are pretty good at staying there. Animals--worms, ladybugs,
lacewings, etc.are free to go where they wish which is where the habitat is best for
them. Ladybugs, for example, will clean out the aphids in a garden in short order and be
gone. Worse than that, they throw off the balance so that a smaller population of ladybugs
in the area may also have to leave for aphidier pastures.
- For Christmas I received two similar garden
Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control and Rodale's
successful Organic Gardening Controlling Pests and Diseases (both Rodale Press,
Emmaus, PA). Sometime last summer I mentioned that I needed a good book on disease
identification. Barbara remembered.
In the realm of insect and disease identification there are two important things to look
for. First, is it easy to find the problem you are trying it identify? To do that you
should be able to look up the plant on which you found the problem and that should lead
quickly to the problem. It is like translating from one language to another. We know the
names of our plantscan translate the physical plant that we are looking at in the
garden to a word. We then take that word and, with words, identify the condition we find
on the plant, its possible causes, and then find pictures of the possible causes which we
can then relate back to our own plants. The Handbook
does that well.
- There is only one weed control that is stupid
or worse and that is the use of herbicides. It is stupid to spray poison around the food
you will eat or on the soil in which that food is growing. It is stupid to spray poison on
the lawn where it will be tracked into your house or your children will play in it. It is
stupid to spray it on sidewalks or driveways where it will wash into streams to poison the
life there. May the people who advertise that garbage as being benign rot in hell. I
frankly don't know how they can sleep at night.
- Now is the best time to start planning for
next year's garden. Not just because there is no time better than the present but because
this year's successes and failures are fresh in your mind. Perhaps you will remember all
of the thoughts you had while gardening this year when it comes time to draw up next
year's plot, order seeds, start seedlings, fertilize, begin working the soil. If so, you
have a much better memory than I.
- Catalogues I
- I have had a running disagreement with Harris
Seeds over their use of fungicides. The fungicides they put on their seeds are unwelcome
in my garden. I have written to them to express my desire that they make untreated seeds
available. They usually write back that I shouldn't be concerned about the seed treatment
as it is such a small thing. The amount of chemical that would reach my garden that way
probably is a small thing but the amount that is manufactured and put into our environment
needlessly is not small. I like to smell and handle my seeds but not when they are coated
with chemicals. Some years they have carried untreated seeds and then I get careless and
find myself with treated seeds in a subsequent year. This year they are offering untreated
seeds for their most popular varieties and they are clearly marked.
- Catalogues II
- Since one of the joys of leafing through seed
catalogues is looking at beautiful pictures of vegetables and flowers one needs a
catalogue with same. For that Burpee is my first choice. Looking at those beautiful deep
red tomatoes does more to raise my desire for a tomato than anything I ever see in a
supermarket. I can almost feel the sun on my back, the firm roundness of the tomato in my
hand and that special smell that tomato plants give off when disturbed. Is there anything
more beautiful than an egg plant reflecting light from its purple-black shiny skin?
Wouldn't you like to dive into that slice of watermelon consuming it until the rind was
brushing against your ears and watermelon dripped from your chin?
- If you buy seeds from a catalogue, the chances
are you are either buying favorite varieties you have grown before or you have been
influenced by the description in the catalogue. If the latter, keep the catalogue handy to
remind yourself why you chose the varieties.
- Boy, my garden looks ugly today. It is
probably, to the eyes of most people, an ugly garden in winter. Today it is covered with a
couple of inches of slush. The corn stalks are most prominent sticking up the tallest
though not at full height. They are broken off at mid stem or bent in varying directions.
We didn't harvest all the corn this year. Planted too much. What we didn't harvest was
left on the stalk for the birds. The jays fed on it for quite a while. If there were any
insects in the stalks, I hope birds have found them as well.
- The first measure to take against erosion is
to plant rows across the slope, not up and down. This will help keep water from running.
Three inches of rain in thirty hours or so will soak all but the most porous soil and when
that happens to tilled soil the water that accumulates on the surface will find a way to
- The rest of the stuff in the bag in natural
fertilizer is organic material that is food for soil microorganisms. In the chemical bag
it is inert ingredients. The organic material and the microorganisms do not leach out of
the soil nor are they very likely to be carried away by runoff though some organic matter
may float away. The microorganisms keep right on breaking down organic matter into soluble
nutrients. That is the beauty of organic fertilizers. The advocates of chemical
fertilizers talk about how much more potent their fertilizer is and how less has to be
spread. They will also tell you about side dressingadding fertilizer during the
growing season. Organic fertilizers can be added during the growing season, too, but if
you have a good organic soil going, I can't see any reason to do it.
- Spring is always a little bit difficult for
me. The garden doesn't look like it will ever get started. That is because of the way I
fertilize. Not because I am organic because there are a lot of different ways to fertilize
without using synthetically produced chemicals. I know one farmer whose barn is set up
with drains which drain all the cow urine into a holding tank. He dips it out and side
dresses his garden plants with this rich, highly soluble fertilizer.
- There are several things involved, the
temperature at which the seeds germinate, the hardiness of the plants, the temperature in
which the plants are happiest and the length of time it takes for the plants to mature.
Peas, spinach and lettuce like to grow in cool weather and so will generally produce
better if planted early. Their seeds will germinate in a soil temperature of 45 degrees.
That is why we try to plant them as early as possible which is defined as as soon as the
soil is dry enough to be worked.
- Succession planting is a way to get double
your money's worth out of your garden space. There is cabbage planted in the space where
the spinach was this spring and carrots where the early lettuce grew. Barbara planted kale
in the space occupied by the early peas. I took the rest of the pea vines to the compost
pile yesterday and took down the fence they grew on. Today I'll plant lettuce in that
space. I'll also throw in some radishes. This will be the third planting of radishes. If I
think of it, I will plant some more in mid to late August. Radishes are about the only
veggie that will reach maturity between August and the first frost.
- Mulch can serve several purposes in the
garden: weed control, moisture retention, temperature modification, soil texture
improvement and plant nutrient. My favorite mulch is grass clippings because they do all
of the things listed plus they are easy to spread, easy to turn into the soil if desired
later and they look good. Hay, leaves, straw, plastic, newspapers, pine needles and bark
are also all reasonable mulch materials. I listed them pretty much in my order of
preference for a vegetable garden.
- Last year my wife, Barbara, changed the
complexion of one of her gardens because, well here is a quote from her garden diary:
"Columbine is punking out. Whole area between house and sidewalk has a mind of its
own. This season I'm letting it do what it wants. Lots of Black Eyed Susans, Daisies,
grape vine, Queen Anne's lace, vetch. In '97 I should move any astilbe that manages to
survive." The area was beautiful and lower maintenance than her other plots. The plot
already had some ferns that she transplanted from the wild and she thinks the grape vine
came with that transplanting.
- Midday Sun
- "Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out In The
Mid-day Sun." So wrote Noel Coward in a song. That comes to mind as sweat pours down
my neck while I work in the garden in the mid-day sun. I am of English decent so I guess
the song title doesn't need to be changed but there is a reason for my madness. I don't
remember who wrote the song "In the cool, cool of the evening tell 'em I'll be
there," but black flies and mosquitoes were certainly singing me that tune yesterday
evening as I tried to get in a little gardening. Their time of day is also the cool of the
morning. They are no fools. They hunker down during the heat of day.
- A neighbor stopped by last week to ask if I
knew a herd of deer crossed the road coming out of my garden every morning about 2 AM when
he was getting home from work. I said yes, they had been trampling my garden. After a bit
of thought I asked how recently he had seen them. Just last night, half a dozen of
them. That was news because there haven't been any fresh tracks in the garden since
I put up the electric fence.
- If you are looking out your window in March at
whatever the weather is, it is snowing outside my window as I'm writing this, and wishing
you could eat a fresh carrot from the garden right now; read on. We finished our last
carrots this week. There were more but they were too limp to be much fun. However, we
could still be eating fresh carrots until it was time to dig the first parsnips if I had
prepared to do same.
- Someone told me of onions rotting in the
ground because it was too cold. Not true. You could plant onion sets in the fall just
before the soil froze and they would get going at just the right time the next year. In
fact, that is the absolute best way to plant another member of the family, garlic.
- We have been planting one of two varieties of
regular peas for over twenty years. After comparing varieties for several years we decided
that Lincoln and Green Arrow are the sweetest peas, grow nicely and are fairly easy to
harvest. Which we plant is determined by price and availability. We jump around between
seed companies. Each company tries to get you to buy all your seeds from them by giving
volume discounts and by charging for shipping and handling. It is more expensive to order
from several different companies but different companies have different varieties. To beat
the system we usually buy most of our seeds from one company one year and another the
next. Most seeds can be saved for several years so we will enough of a seed that is
exclusive with one company to last until we feel like ordering from them again.
- I like to mix radish seed with the carrot seed
when I plant carrots. The radish seed helps me space the smaller carrot seed better in the
row so there is not so much thinning necessary. The radish seedlings pop out of the ground
in just three or four days. Their baby leaves are broad and it is easy to see them which
marks the row for me. This is important for my next job which is to cultivate the row in
ten days. Without the radish seedlings showing me where I planted cultivation would be
- Finally I got around to thinking about what
might make the plant unhappy. It likes cold weather so that wasn't it. The ground is
certainly not dry in the spring. It had to be fertility but everything else in the garden
did well. I fertilize the garden a year in advance with mulch and other low nutrient
organic materials and rely on soil microorganisms to convert the organic matter to
fertilizer. The soil life pretty much comes to a frozen halt during the winter. What if
the microorganisms didn't get to work soon enough to provide sufficient nitrogen for the
young spinach? This year I fertilized the spinach patch with blood meal which is high in
soluble nitrogen. It looks the best it has in many years.
- The earliest tomato I am planting this year is
Glacier which is supposed to produce in 56 days. It is a small tomato and as early as
sub-arctics which I have planted before. Sold by Fedco Seeds (perhaps the only source)
Fedco says "Glacier's rich tomato flavor relegates the insipid sub-arctics to the
compost pile. It is also far superior to the highly touted Siberian tomato..."
- This time of year can be difficult for a
gardener. How can that be? No planting. Weeding is not necessary unless you are trying to
keep some weeds from going to seed. Sure, harvesting can be a lot of work for a farmer but
for a gardener? Let me relate a conversation between my wife and I that occurred at lunch
- Fortunately soil temperature changes fairly
rapidly unlike water temperature which is much slower. But this kind of weather may really
raise hell on the crops we want to plant in a week or two. I planted corn May 21 last year
and I have planted it even earlier. The rule for planting corn is that it is comfortable
to walk in the garden in bare feet. Corn is critical for gardeners who do not like to use
chemicals. If the corn seed doesn't germinate quickly, soil microorganisms will eat it. We
say the seed rotted. I think that is something we all need to be aware of this year unless
the temperatures get dramatically warmer and don't drop back into a sustained state of
cold and clamminess again. The optimum range for corn to germinate is 60 to 95 degrees but
it will germinate at 50 degrees.
- The frost has been toying with me this year.
Arriving home from Common Ground Country Fair after dark September 21st I hurried to the
garden to throw sheets and other covering over the tomatoes, eggplant and my cucumber
experiment. It was crystal clear and the time I usually get my first frost. It didn't
- Owen Grumbling called to see if I thought
there would be a frost. "Yes, I think so. But what do I know? I had a light frost a
week ago and I thought there would be a heavy frost two nights ago and brought in a bushel
of green tomatoes, the basil and the last of the summer squash, eggplant and
- Frost Out
- Snow and rain Saturday night and yet I am
still out in the garden Sunday, April 13. Will the ground be ready to be worked so I can
plant the peas by April 15 as is usually the case? To test the soil to see if it is ready
to be worked take a handful and squeeze it into a ball. Then hold the ball of soil between
a finger and thumb and squeeze. If the ball falls apart, the soil is ready to work. My
soil just barely passed the test this morning. I made two passes on a 25 foot row with the
spading fork and will go back an do some more this afternoon. The soil is sticking to the
fork a little but not enough to make the job difficult. When I turn a forkful and hit it
it breaks apart nicely. I would not use a tiller on soil this moist, however. The tiller
with its less gentle action would leave clots of soil and it has a compacting effect.
- Proper storage for the potatoes, carrots and
rutabaga is near but not below freezing with high humidity. Our cellar was perfect before
I put a furnace in there. It has a dirt floor which is always moist. I can hear Wayne and
Naomi who service my furnace exclaiming "Moist!!!" You see, there is a little
ditch meandering through the cellar to a little settling pond. Overflow from the pond
exits the basement through a drainage pipe. There is no water running in the ditch now but
there is for most of the year. That keeps the humidity in the cellar pretty high.
- Gardening for
- Read the forward and bios of Mort's book.