Have you begun your spring planting yet? We’re gabbing with Jackie Marie Beyer, The Organic Gardener and host of the Organic Gardener podcast about how to grow successful, healthy and chemical free gardens. Jackie, along with her husband Mike are passionate environmentalist devoted to helping people develop earth friendly gardens that produce nutrient dense food with the least amount of time and energy possible. A few years ago, Jackie would have told you she had a brown thumb, and could barely keep a geranium and a basil plant alive. Growing up, it was her mother who had the green thumb while Jackie hated the heat, sweat, dirt and weeds that came along with gardening. Today, she and her husband live on 20 acres of what they lovingly call the “Organic Oasis,” which includes an organic garden, small orchard and mini-farm near Glacier National Park in Montana.
Crediting her husband for teaching her everything she knows, Jackie defines organic gardening as, “using natural compost to enhance your soil, not spraying any kind of chemical fertilizers on your plants, (and) doing what you can do to create an ecosystem that makes your plants grow in a natural way.” Because of her commitment to chemical-free gardening, a large portion of Jackie’s audience consists of young people in their early twenties and thirties. Millennials are naturally drawn to organic gardening because of the value they place on caring for the environment and people. She often refers to her audience as “Green Future Growers” because of their dedication to growing a greener future.
A fun take-away from one of her recent podcasts is that 60% of the new farmers in Pennsylvania are women between the ages of 24 and 35. This makes sense as women seem to be the ones most interested in healthy eating. Pregnancy and raising children radically changes how you think about food and the importance of the quality of food that goes into your body. Marla adds that people today not only have a big concern about what goes “in” our bodies, (healthy food), but also what goes “on” our bodies (personal care products), as well as where are bodies live, which is our homes. Health and sustainability work hand in hand and are intrinsically interrelated.
Soil Health & Composting
The biggest theme Jackie addresses on her podcast is soil health. Whether you’re growing herbs in a pot, planting a few vegetables or flowers in a couple of deep beds or putting in a huge garden, it starts with the health of the soil. Healthy soil can be expensive; however, composting, also known as “Black Gold,” is a simple, inexpensive way to farm your own nutrient rich soil. Marla adds that a big issue right now is how the health of our soil is affecting the quality of our food and that composting is a relatively simple solution. Jackie recalls growing up with a cardboard milk container on the kitchen counter where her mother collected kitchen scraps such as egg shells, coffee grounds, tops of radishes, fruit rinds and banana peels. When the milk carton filled up it would be taken to the compost area; it was just a part of daily life. Now with every kitchen having a garbage disposal the days of counter-top composting has faded away. Jackie encourages people to give it a try, stating there are several ways to compost; there’s year-round composting where you start in the spring, adding to it in the summer and putting it to rest in the fall. This allows it to sit or “bake”, in preparation for spring planting. Or like Jackie and her husband that maintain larger growing areas, they have several compost bins and barrels.
The first thing to do is to choose a receptacle and start dumping in the food scraps or biodegradable leftovers. A good container might be a gallon ice cream carton, an old porcelain pot or plastic bucket. The key to non-smelly composting is making sure it gets enough air and has a good balance of browns and greens. Brown material includes fall leaves, non-chemical treated dried grass, wood products, paper and straw. Green material includes fresh non-chemical treated grass clippings, fresh cut weeds and plant clipping and most kitchen scraps.
Native Landscaping and Seed Saving
Another common topic on Jackie’s Organic Gardener podcast, is native landscaping. Researching and embedding plants native to your region is a good way to guarantee your garden or landscaping will thrive, having been naturally acclimated to the climate. Native landscaping is more economical, helps plants grow better and extends their growing season. Marla remarks that bringing tropical plants into an arid region for example, is going to require a lot more work and extra resources such as water, fertilizer and soil conditioners. Marla added, “If you plant the way nature intended, it’s less work and hassle.” Also, choosing to plant larger garden areas and less lawn is a more sustainable way to landscape as well.
It’s also important to consider from where you procure your seeds. Locally grown seeds tend to perform better. Consequently, if you choose to purchase seeds, it’s best if they are naturally adapted to the climate where you live and plan to plant. Seed co-ops, seed exchanges and seed libraries are excellent ways to grow organic gardens. Seed libraries are a collection of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that you can borrow to plant and grow at home with the promise of bringing back what you’ve borrowed.
In general, Heirloom seeds are at least 50 years old, and are often pre-WWII varieties that have been handed down for generations in a certain region or area. These seeds have been hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait such as color, shape and/or taste. All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. Heirlooms tend to remain more stable in their characteristics from year to year and are known to have a more robust flavor than hybrids.
Seed saving is another art form of organic gardening that ensures not only healthy, nutrient rich produce but guarantees the next generation’s access to independent food sources as well. The idea is to save the best seeds from the best tomato or cucumber and keep replanting with the thought of each year’s crop being better and better. Jackie insists that one of the best resources for how to save seeds is a book called, “Basic Seed Saving,” by Bill McDorman.
For people who don’t garden, Jackie addresses the chemicals people put on their lawns where pets are running, toddlers are learning to walk and kids are playing hide and seek. Animals and children’s bodies are much closer to the ground and much more intensely affected by the pesticides and other chemicals people put in their yards and gardens. Not to mention the contamination to our water tables. She also encourages people to let the dandelions live! Dandelions are the first food the bees eat and bees are vital to our environment and food sources.
Even if all you do is plant a couple of flowers or put in one fruit tree, you are providing a much-needed healthy habitat for birds, butterflies, bees and other necessary insects and animals. Jackie states, “It’s amazing what one tree or garden can do to help the environment simply by providing an inviting place for nature to dwell.”
In addition to gardening, painting and podcasting, Jackie is also a second-grade school teacher. Last year she took her class on a fieldtrip to Glacier National Park. A park ranger played a conservation musical chairs game with the kids where she lined up several chairs instructing the children to hop from chair to chair to chair. The chairs represented the habitats the birds, bees and animals could go to find shelter. At first it was easy as there were many chairs that were placed close together. Then the Park Ranger began taking away chairs, each representing the building of a mall or factory and the kids had to jump further and further between each chair. Eventually there were only 3 chairs spaced 15 feet apart and no one could make the jump. The Park Ranger asked the children, “What can we do to help the birds and the bees who are losing a place to live?” The kids suggested planting gardens or putting in ponds and with every suggestion the Ranger put a chair back providing a very impactful visual illustration of how all of us can provide healthy habitats for our birds, bees, and butterflies.
Favorite Podcast Guests
Some of Jackie’s most downloaded episodes and favorite guests include Alissa LaChance who started, DIRTRich Composting in Montana, a food-scrap, residential and commercial composting pick-up service and JM Fortier of Canada, author of The Market Gardener: A successful Grower’s Handbook for Small Scale Organic Farming, who shared tricks and tips for growing big crops on small spaces and the story of how they were able to feed 250 families from produce grown on about an acre and a half of land. Jackie’s favorite Millennial is Mandy Gerth, of Lower Valley Farm in Somers, Montana, who together with her husband and three young sons grow high-quality, organically grown, vegetables for a 100+ member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and local Farmers Market. The most unusual guest Jackie remembers was Jacqueline Freeman from Friendly Haven Rise Farm in Venersborg, WA, who is a pioneer in the emerging field of natural beekeeping. She was featured in the documentary called, “Queen of the Sun” which depicts her caring work as a gentle swarm rescuer. Her book, Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World takes the reader inside the world of the honeybee to rediscover the bond humanity has enjoyed with bees for thousands of years.
Like the bees, Jackie and Marla have a common bond and passion in that they both fervently care about growing a greener future and leaving a healthy sustainable legacy for today’s children and future generations.
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