Friday, July 23, 2010

How to plan and plant your organic garden

After many hours clearing and tilling the soil of my future vegetable garden , the next step was planning the layout and planting the variety of herbs and vegetables.

I decided to start with seedlings from pony-packs, rather than seeds. My reason was that, because weeds grow quickly and I am not an experienced gardener, I might not be able to differentiate between new sprouts and weeds. Additionally, starting with seedlings allowed me to better line the garden up in the tidy rows I'd envisioned since the idea of a vegetable garden first popped into my head.

While a seed is significantly cheaper than a potted seedling, everything was so relatively cheap to begin with that this small extra cost was worth it to me. For those plants that grow from bulbs – such as onions and garlic – I started simply with the bulbs.

I bought the seedlings at good prices (about $2 on average per plant or pony-pack) from the garden center in Walmart and also from a local garden shop and greenhouse. I also purchased several bags of composted manure from a local dairy farm (). Because it was composted manure there was no smell; it looked and felt like dark rich soil. You can also use compost made from kitchen produce scraps layered with woody "brown" material, or buy organic compost at a garden supply store locally or online.
For more info on compost, see

With a pen and paper I drew out a map, plotting out where each section of plants should go. It's impressive how many herbs and vegetables ultimately fit into that 20' x 15' space ! I planted mint, horseradish, chives, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, basil, Thai basil, tarragon, sage, parsley, lavender, two varieties of tomato, Serrano peppers, jalapeno peppers, green bell pepper, orange bell pepper, red bell pepper, kale, red onion, white onion, garlic, two varieties of eggplant, yellow squash, cucumber and strawberries.

For each plant, I dug a hole about the size of my head, filled it with the composted manure and tucked the plant in, gently padding down the soil around the base. After planting each herb or vegetable, it's important to water it shortly afterwards. I next made labels, penning the name of each plant with permanent marker on the top of a popsicle stick and planting each popsicle stick next to its respective plant.

Preparing the garden had been an incredible amount of work, and so being able to step back at this point and see the small plants in neat rows was quite rewarding.

--by Lindsay Kurz
Graphic artist and website designer

Editor's Note: On Planning what to Plant

For advice on what to plant in your climate, and when, contact your nearest USDA agricultural extension office.

Tools and Materials:

Potted seedlings:
Seeds of Change /product_details.aspx?item_no=PS17981
Walmart ()
Local garden store
Composted Manure, or homemade or storebought organic compost
Garden shovel, gloves
Popsicle sticks and permanent marker

For more info and tips on living healthily and sustainably, including editorially vetted products and shopping lists, please visit our website,, sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter, and check out Do One Green Thing,the lifestyle book by GreenerPenny founder Mindy Pennybacker.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Synthetic Air Fresheners' Toxic Taint

In winter, when homes are sealed to keep drafts out, make sure you're not breathing toxic chemicals! High on the list of indoor air pollutants are commercial air fresheners. A study published on July 10, 2010 in Environmental Health found that women who used more household cleaning products, including air fresheners and mold removers, had a 2x higher risk of breast cancer. Many aerosol refreshers are tainted with toxic phthalates, which have been linked to birth defects and reproductive harm. A 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study found that the hormone-disrupting compounds in 12 out of 14 common air fresheners and none of these products listed phthalates on their labels. Many of these products were labeled “natural” or “unscented.” Febreze Air Effects Air Refresher, unlike thirteen others in NRDC's tests, was found to be free of toxic phthalates, which have been linked to birth defects and reproductive harm. In response to the tests, Walgreen’s pledged to remove all phthalates from its branded air fresheners. For the list of phthalate-tainted products, including Glade Air Infusions and both Febreze and Glade scented oils, go to Of course, there are many dozens more air fresheners on the market that haven’t been vetted for phthalates. What to do?
1. Look Before You Spray. Read labels. If you see the word “Fragrance,” it’s likely that the manufacturer is taking an advantage of an FDA labeling loophole that allows users of synthetic fragrance to avoid mentioning specific ingredients—including phthalates, used to disperse synthetic scents. Look instead for specific essential plant oils, preferably organic.
2. Do a Sniff Test. Before buying any fragranced product, natural or not, spray some from a tester to see whether it produces sneezes or itchy eyes. Strong fragrances, particularly citrus or pine, can provoke irritation and allergic/asthmatic reactions. And remember, when it comes to any perfume, a little goes a long way, so you needn’t overdo it.
3. For greener products, see Pass this info on to your odor-phobic college student, teen or preteen, mom, mother-in-law.
4. For greener cleaning brands, free of the most-toxic ingredients, click here. 5. Here are a "Choose It" list of safe d.i.y. cleaning ingredients, including plant essential oils for air freshening, and a "Lost It" list of ingredients to avoid.
• Baking Soda
• Borax
• Cornstarch
• Hydrogen peroxide
• Lemon juice
• Plant essential oils
• Table salt
• Vegetable oil
• Washing soda
• White vinegar

• Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs)
• Ammonia
• Chlorine Bleach
• Fragrance (synthetic, likely contains phthalates)
• Glycol ethers
• Lye
• Nonylphenols (NPEs)
• Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
• Terpenes
• Triclosan (antibacterial)

Excerpted from my book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices

For the dirt on glycol ethers in cleaing products, particularly when they react to other ingredients such as terpenes, click here.

Phthalates, suspect hormone disrupters that have been connected to reproductive system deformities in male infants and obesity in adults, have recently been linked to attention deficit disorders.

For more info, go to and sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter, plus the chance to win green giveaways!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Coffee: Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly certified

You can't go wrong with one of these 3-star certified coffees: All are certified Organic, certified Fair Trade and either certified Bird-Friendly or Rainforest Alliance, which means they're cultivated in the shade of forest canopies.

Arbuckle Organic Line

Audubon Breakfast Blend


Cafe Canopy

Cafe Ibis

Cafe Moto


Catskill Mountain

Coffee AM

Deans Beans Birdwatchers Blend

Elan Organic

Higher Ground

Jim's Organic

Marques de Paiva

Montana Coffee Traders

--The above list is excerpted from Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices, by Mindy Pennybacker (St Martin's Press, 2010).

Visit our website,, for lots of fresh green living tips and the skinny on new studies and products.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Getting started growing my own food

Up until a mere 10 months ago I lived in a small, but charming, one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. My kitchen was minute, and my garden consisted of a window box in which I unsuccessfully attempted to grow basil, parsley and rosemary for the occasional homecooked meal. I spent Saturday mornings browsing the farmer's market at Union Square, eyeing the beautiful displays of luscious fruits and vegetables. Someday, I dreamed, when I have more land than a window box, I'll plant my own organic vegetable garden.

This spring, after my husband and I moved to a small town in upstate New York, I decided to act on my dream.

There is a small 20' x 15' patch of land next to our garage that at one time must have been a well-kept garden, but had long since gone to weeds. Armed with advice from friends and neighbors and a few borrowed tools, I began. The first task was to clear the land and till the soil. So far this has proved to be the most arduous step, taking three consecutive weekends in late May. I removed wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of weeds to add our compost heap. Once and a while I would discover a small sapling, buried bulbs or a patch of overgrown herbs (primarily mint and horseradish), that I would save to transplant elsewhere.

Once the land was cleared, I tilled the soil with a pick-ax and shovel. This was a strenuous task. The dirt was heavy and clay-like, and desperately needed the aeration. There were also many rocks and small boulders that had to be removed. Luckily, previous owners of our house had kept a compost heap, which provided a source of dark rich soil to be churned into the garden.
Now the soil was prepared, the fun part--planning the layout and variety of vegetable and herbs-- could begin.

--by Lindsay Kurz

Next week: Planning and Planting the Garden.

Editor's Note: On Planning what to Plant

It's already mid-summer--too late, if you live in a climate where the ground freezes to start a garden from seed. But depending on your climate, you can at least grow herbs or cultivate (and harvest from) a well-established plant, while laying in some seedlings, like eggplant and chard, for harvesting in a couple of months and into the warm, if cooling, days of fall.

For advice on what to plant in your climate, and when, contact your nearest USDA agricultural extension office.

To order organic seeds, go to Seeds of Change

To order packs of organic seedlings--right now, eggplant & Swiss chard are still available!--go to Seeds of Change.

Tools + Materials for clearing land and enriching soil
•Garden gloves

Where to order garden tools & supplies

Organic fertilizers, nontoxic pest control, composters, tools, can be got from Planet Natural or Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply
, which also has canning supplies, potted fruit trees and an irresistible henhouse (watch out or you'll order it, even if you don't have chickens!) and sends you a gift of organic seeds with each order.

For great easy, funny instruction: Talking Dirt: The Dirt Diva's Down to Earth Guide to Organic Gardening, by Annie Spiegelman.

For the dirt on pesticides and other non-organic additives, a list of the most important produce to buy organic, and conventional produce that has fewest pesticide residues, plus green food storage and cookware and tons of resources for all categories of sustainable living, see Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth through Simple, Everyday Choices, the new book by Greenerpenny editor Mindy Pennybacker, in bookstores now!

For more seasonal green living tips and news, please visit our home page,, where you can ask Mindy questions and sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter (and prizes).