Organic practices widen path to greater bounty
It's pretty easy to find Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery in Wilkinsburg. The huge greenhouse gives it away while driving up Center Street.
Since 2000, owner Mindy Schwartz has been offering organic plants, gardening products and food for gardeners. On this 46th anniversary of Earth Day, there's nobody better to talk to, along with production and operations manager Hanna Reiff, about the continually growing trend of gardening without chemicals.
As the greenhouse fan whirls in the background, the two sit on a picnic table near their demonstration garden, soaking up the sun on what is one of the smallest farms in Pennsylvania, sited on just two city lots.
“Using chemicals is a short-term result,” Schwartz says. “It's not the long view. It's extractive when you do things organically, its value building on every level.”
The 50,000 seedlings grown here are all USDA-certified organic, and many are unique varieties chosen to grow well in our region. There are cool-weather crops ready for the garden, but they might be known best for their wide variety of tomatoes, growing more than 70 types. They grow just about any vegetable, herb or flower a gardener could want.
Schwartz, 51, has been gardening organically since high school.
“It wasn't a matter of philosophy or any deeper beliefs other than when I didn't use chemicals in my garden, things looked healthier, it thrived, they had more vigor,” she says with a smile that comes easily. “It just seemed like it was a path to greater bounty.”
Reiff, 33, has never grown any other way.
“I just wasn't ever introduced to a chemical way of doing things,” she says.
Looking at the thriving seedlings on the greenhouse benches, it's obvious they are doing something right.
Home gardeners can use the same techniques used here in their own gardens. The first step, Reiff says, is to figure out what's going on in the soil and then improve it.
“Get a soil test, and then figure out what you need put on your soil,” she says. “Don't just dump anything on it, even if it's organic.”
The Penn State Cooperative Extension offers one of the best tests, and it costs around $10.
“Ninety percent of your energy should go into the soil,” Schwartz says. “I'm a big believer in double digging and digging really deep. It just allows the ecology of the soil to really flourish.”
When the soil test results return, the pH and fertility of the soil can be amended. It's organic matter such as compost and other things combined with our clay soils that give the plants everything they need, and that's the key, they say.
“These plants are actually more vigorous and able to withstand pest and disease pressure better because they don't have these crutches of chemical fertilizers,” Reiff says.
At Garden Dreams, they are letting the good bugs eat the bad bugs, which produces a balance in their gardens.
“We have absolutely started to rely on beneficial insects as our No. 1 pest control,” she says.
Reiff has lots of ideas for gardeners wanting to bring in those helpful insects. The first is to keep the lawn as long as possible and don't cut it as often.
“Let dandelions grow, let a little clover grow; that goes a long way toward helping beneficials,” she says.
Grow plants such as sweet alyssum, dill, cilantro and fennel, which will entice the good guys into your garden.
“People are just really interested in this,” Reiff says, “I think people know that we can't continue down the path that we're going forever. They want alternatives. They want tips and tricks.”
She hopes gardeners won't panic when they see an insect and instead learn what it is before dealing with it. The first thing is to find out if it's a good bug or bad bug. Taking time and observing the plants in the garden can go a long way when figuring what's wrong and how to fix the problem.
Reiff learned a good lesson early on in her gardening career as she struggled with an eggplant growing in a container that wasn't big enough. The stressed plant was covered in spider mites and aphids, so she reached for an organic spray called neem to deal with the pests. When she turned the leaf over, Reiff realized she had covered a ladybug and her eggs with the organic pesticide. They would have taken care of the problem eventually.
“If I would have just looked, I would have seen that. I said, ‘I'm not doing that anymore, I'm going to look and learn,'” she says.
Plants that are growing strong will fight off pests and diseases, says Reiff, who likes to give them a supplemental feeding of liquid seaweed fertilizer, which is sprayed on the foliage.
Every gardener should be overjoyed at how she deals with weeds.
“I let them go,” she says. “I love weeds, and pollinators love them, too. A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place. If they are not in our way, I'm not on the warpath to get rid of them.”
Of course, everyone gardens differently.
“For me, I like weeds but I want them to grow at the woodland edge,” Schwartz says.
Both remove invasives, though, and don't let their weeds go to seed. They agree that mulch is the best weed preventer.
Schwartz favors a tool called a stirrup hoe for not only weeding, but preparing beds for seeding too. Reiff relies heavily on a Japanese hori hori knife for lots of jobs in the garden.
“I can't imagine a better job,” Reiff says. “I get paid to be outside and reconnect with nature.”
Mindy Schwartz and Hanna Reiff offer their favorite garden tomatoes:
‘Rose de Berne' 4-ounce to 8-ounce fruits are a rose, pink color and have an excellent sweet flavor.
‘Green Grape' The cherry-sized fruits are lime green inside and have chartreuse, yellow skins and rich, sweet and zingy flavor.
‘Sungold' Prolific sweet, orange, cherry-sized fruits are like candy.
‘Pineapple' Big (up to 2 pounds) yellow fruits have red marbling through the flesh and are very sweet and fruity.
‘Box Car Willie' The heirloom 10-ounce to 16-ounce slicer tomatoes are smooth, bright-orange red with distinctly delicious, well-balanced flavor.
‘Cuostralee' The French heirloom has red, blemish-free, ribbed tomatoes that have intense, balanced, old-fashioned tomato-y flavor.
‘Juliet' The 1999 All America Selections winner has prolific, 1-ounce sweet fruit that won't crack. It is best picked when fully ripe.
‘Jaune Flamme' The orange/apricot-colored slicer has a perfect, fruity blend of sweet and tart.
‘Caspian Pink' It is an incredibly sweet and juicy pink beefsteak from Russia.