27 November 2011

How to Build a Root Cellar

 Unfortunately for many of us, winter is coming.  However, that doesn’t mean you have to harvest every single item out of your garden and worry about it spoiling before you can eat it all.  For those of you that have grown root vegetables, you can easily store your bounty in a root cellar.  What’s that, you don’t have a root cellar you say?  Fear not.  You can build your own outdoors, right in your garden if you like!
I have researched several different types of root storage spaces and actually, there are many of them.  I tend to like one in particular as it seems a sure fire way to keep out rodents as well as water.  You will need to first know the amount of vegetables you will be storing as this will determine the amount of storage space you will need.  Find a location that is slightly uphill if you have one.  This will help water to drain away from your storage area.  You will need a clean garbage can with a lid, fresh, clean straw and a good shovel for digging.  You will also need a couple of pieces of extruded polystyrene foam (for insulation) , cut several inches larger than the diameter of the can, along with an exterior grade piece of plywood that is about ¾” thick and about the same size as the foam.
Dig a hole a few inches larger than the diameter of the garbage can and deep enough so that the can’s lid will sit about 6 or 7 inches below the soil line.  Set the can inside the hole and line it with straw, alternating layers of straw with your root vegetables.  Cover the can with the lid and pack in the soil around the outside of the can, flaring the soil away from the top edge of the can.  Cover the lid with the two layers of foam you’ve cut and then with the plywood.  Set a large stone or weight of some kind on top to keep the board in place. The foam will insulate the storage space from frost and the plywood will help to keep it dry.  Long keeping root vegetables will store quite well for you over the course of the winter this way.  One word of caution, you can also store good quality storage apples like this, but allow them their own storage container, as the ethylene gas the apples give off will shorten the storage life of the vegetables.
A few tips:  you can store potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets, etc. in the same storage unit, but if you have the room, allowing them their own space makes it easier to retrieve them.  Also, mark the storage spaces with stakes, so once the snow flies, you will be able to locate them more readily.

How to Build a Terrarium

When I was a little girl, my mother kept a terrarium in our home.  It always intrigued me; seeing plants growing inside a glass tea kettle was really cool.  It was like a miniature rainforest!  Terrariums are a great way for those of us who are busy to have lush plants in our homes without having to remember to care for them so often.  As the plants in the terrarium transpire, the moisture collects on the sides of the terrarium (condensation) and flows back down to the soil.
A terrarium is basically any enclosed or partially enclosed clear container which houses its own micro-ecosystem of plants, and sometimes animals too, such as small lizards or turtles.  For our purposes here, I will focus on plant terrariums.  You can use any clear container of plastic or glass, such as an aquarium or fish bowl, a hurricane jar, bottles or glassware.  Be creative and look around your home before you spend money.  Chances are you’ll find something.  You will also need small pebbles, gravel or coarse sand (NOT beach sand) for drainage, clean, fresh potting soil, a collection of carefully chosen plants, some sphagnum moss and finally, activated charcoal, like you would use in an aquarium filter.  Fertilizer is not necessary as we don’t want the plants to outgrow their surroundings.  Be sure all items are clean and free of disease or bacteria.  Wash your container and drainage medium with hot water and air-dry.  If you are using any materials to decorate with, such as larger stones or wood, you should rinse those items with hot water as well.  Also be sure your plants are free of disease and insects. 
To begin, place about one to three inches of sand or gravel (depending on the size of your terrarium) evenly across the bottom of the container.  Next, add an even layer of activated charcoal.  This will serve to minimize odors from decomposition as the terrarium establishes itself.  Next cover both layers evenly with a thin layer of sphagnum moss.  This will keep your potting soil from spreading into the drainage layer and interfering with proper drainage.  The last layer is your potting soil.  This should be fresh and sterile, as you don’t want to introduce any possible diseases to your new plantings.  You can purchase special terrarium soil, or just add one part coarse builder’s sand and one part humus to your usual potting mix.  Be sure to add extra sand if you are creating a desert type terrarium. 
Whatever plants you choose, you’ll want to be sure they are of compact growth habit and compatible; they should have the same lighting, humidity and water requirements.  Having plants of differing heights and textures adds interest to your terrarium.  Plant them evenly spaced apart and away from the sides of the container.  Do not place your terrarium in direct sunlight as it will overheat.  Mist the sides of the container after planting to clean any stray soil and water the planted soil lightly.  Cover your terrarium and watch it for signs of dryness.  If the soil seems dry, add a little more water.  If you are seeing large droplets of water on the walls of the terrarium, then open the lid to avoid excess moisture from accumulating in the soil.   If at some time later in your terrarium’s life, the plants look like they are lacking nutrition, provide a weak solution of houseplant fertilizer for them.   
Over time, you may need to replace some plants if they become too big or die off, but all in all, your terrarium should provide many years of enjoyment with little care.

05 September 2011

How to Preserve Vegetables and Fruit

There are many different methods for preserving fruits and vegetables.  As your gardens overflow and you wonder if you can eat all the bountiful harvest, home food preservation is a great way to capture it all for use later in the season.  It is also a fun activity for the entire family and everyone will be proud of their accomplishments! 

There have been many methods used for preserving food over the years.   Many older methods have since been deemed to be unsafe and now, only several methods are recognized as safe.  They are the boiling water method, the pressure method, freezing and dehydrating. 
The boiling water method is used to process high-acid foods at a temperature of 212°F for the period of time specified by the recipe used.  This method is used to destroy molds, yeasts, and certain bacteria as well as to de-activate enzymes which could spoil the food.  The boiling water method should not be used to process low acid foods as the temperature would not be high enough to kill certain bacteria and their toxins which could cause botulism.

The pressure canning method utilizes a pressure canner.  In order to destroy bacteria and spores that could potentially produce toxins, low-acid foods must be processed at a temperature of 240°F and held at that temperature for the time specified by the recipe.  There are two different types of pressure canners.  Pressure canners fitted with a dial gauge must be tested for accuracy every year and must be monitored during the entire processing period to ensure the proper temperature is being maintained.  Pressure canners fitted with a weighted gauge do not need to be tested for accuracy but should the gauge be damaged in any way, the gauge must be replaced prior to use.
Generally, most recipes are written for use at altitudes at or below 1000 feet above sea level.  Because barometric pressure is reduced at higher altitudes, it changes the temperature at which water boils.  Both methods of canning would need to be adjusted to take this increase in altitude into consideration.  The Ball Blue Book® Guide to Preserving has a chart showing the necessary adjustments.

Another method of food preservation is freezing.  Most frozen vegetables may be stored for up to one year.  The fresher the vegetable, the better the quality product you will end up with.  Vegetables being frozen must first be blanched.  Blanching is critical to remove surface dirt and microorganisms, brighten the color of the vegetables, retain vitamins and reduce the action of enzymes which might otherwise destroy the freshness and flavor after just four weeks of storage.  Blanching is done by lowering the selected produce into boiling water for the amount of time specified by the recipe. 
Dehydrating food is probably the oldest method of food preservation.  It is very simple to do but does not follow exact methods, so some trial and error processes may be necessary.  Drying times will vary based on any given day’s climate.  Most vegetables and some fruits benefit from pre-treatment prior to dehydrating, such as blanching vegetables for the same reasons mentioned earlier, or dipping fruits to prevent browning.

The Ball Blue Book® Guide to Preserving includes directions for all of these methods, pre-planning tips and many, many recipes. 

29 August 2011


Okra is a wonderful vegetable...now that I know how to cook it properly! :-)  My first experience with okra was as a college student...my roommate and I went grocery shopping.  Being one who likes to try new things, I purchased some frozen okra and followed the label directions, which stated it should be boiled.  I was astonished to find the okra inedible due to the severe ....sliminess...of the vegetable.  Yuck!  I vowed never again to eat it.  However, things change over the years and now that we grow it on the farm....lots of it....I have tried it in new recipes and now I absolutely love it!
Okra has many nutritional benefits, including cleansing the body of toxins!  It is the mucilage in the okra that can be slimy, but this is the substance that cleanses the body, as well as acting as a thickening agent in soups and stews like gumbo and succotash.  The mucilage also binds cholesterol and the fiber in okra helps to regulate blood sugar levels.  To retain okra's many nutritional benefits, cook it as little as possible.  Below are some nutritional values from a website mentioned just after:
Okra Nutrition (half-cup cooked okra)
  • Calories = 25
  • Dietary Fiber = 2 grams
  • Protein = 1.5 grams
  • Carbohydrates = 5.8 grams
  • Vitamin A = 460 IU
  • Vitamin C = 13 mg
  • Folic acid = 36.5 micrograms
  • Calcium = 50 mg
  • Iron = 0.4 mg
  • Potassium = 256 mg
  • Magnesium = 46 mg
A plethora of information and recipes for okra can be found here, as well as other resource links:  http://www.physiology.wisc.edu/ravi/okra/
To freeze okra, select tender pods and wash and separate by size...those smaller than 4 inches and those longer than 4 inches.  Remove the stem ends and blanch the small pods for 3 minutes and the larger pods for 5 minutes.  Drain and cool.  You can leave the small pods whole, but it is recommended to slice the larger pods into 1 inch lengths (after blanching).  Place the okra into plastic freezer jars or other freezer containers and place in freezer.  Most vegetables can be frozen for up to one month. 
I fried my okra last week using a mixture of cornmeal, flour and pepper.  First I sliced it, then dipped it in buttermilk and rolled or tossed it in the cornmeal mixture.  I fried it in oil in a pan until brown on all sides.  It was so delicious!  Here's another recipe for Okra and Tomatoes:
Okra & Tomatoes
1 pound small okra (about 1 – 2 pints)
¼ Cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 small Leek, chopped
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped (1/2 quart)
1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 TBSP lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Oregano leaves, to garnish
Cut stalks off okra, but do not pierce pods.  Wash pods, drain and pat dry.
Heat oil in large skillet.  Add onion and leek and cook 7 minutes or until softened and lightly colored.  Add okra and turn carefully to coat in oil.  Cook for 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper.  Cover pan for 10 minutes or until okra is tender and sauce is reduced and thickened.  If sauce reduces too quickly, add a little water.  Garnish with oregano leaves and serve hot or warm.  Yields 4 servings. 

16 August 2011

Organic Farming vs. Conventional Farming

Organic food.  When you hear those words, what do you think?  Do you think it must be good for you? Do you think it is good because it's free of chemicals and toxins?  I am not opposed to organic food.  What does trouble me is the fact that most people, not all, who seek out "organic" food think that all conventionally grown food is bad for you.  I believe this is because media and marketing have created many misconceptions.  Everyone loves to hear that “all natural” is good and that chemicals and synthetic compounds are bad. My goal with this article is to educate consumers, not to knock organic farming.  To evoke thought and make your own informed choices.

Years ago, we were happy to have food, whether it had lumps and bumps or somehow was otherwise misshapen, it didn’t matter.  We still ate it and it was good.  These days, agriculture has had to conform to consumer desires.  Produce has to look perfect when displayed for sale.  Tomatoes have to be perfectly shaped with no blemishes, bell peppers should be blocky and not pointy, eggplant needs to have thinner skin.  Agriculture has had to evolve to keep up with the consumer, in quite a large way.  To effect this change, genetics, disease resistance and other factors have played a part in scientific development of new cultivars.  Some changes have been good, others no so good. Fertilizers and chemicals have evolved and there are always new ones being marketed.
Farmers, whether “organic” or not, are the true stewards of the land.  It is their livelihood and it is important to them to operate responsibly and keep their land healthy and environmentally sound.  Farm families live on the land and drink water sourced from aquifers on their land; they are very careful about how things are done and what products are used to grow their crops. 

"The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides." (Dunning, Brian. "Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Aug 2009. Web. 15 Aug 2011.
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166. Well, if that were true, it would be extremely difficult to raise crops with all the challenges farmers face with insects, nematodes, soil type and fertility, etc.  There is a “National List” for which some of it specifically applies to organic farming allowances. There are some synthetic materials allowed for use in organic farming on that list. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/org_fert/#WhatCanI

ALL fertilizers, whether labeled for organic use or not, utilize the same three elements. nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.  The difference is the way they are sourced.  To make both organic and non-organic fertilizers in commercial volumes, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to the same desired chemicals.  (Remember, all nutrients are in chemical form and nature is a very complex model of biochemical processes.)  Some small organic farmers and home gardeners may instead use worm castings, manure, or fishmeal, for example.  All of the latter are fine for use on a small scale, but very costly on a large scale.  Much of the organic food in the grocery stores comes from the same large corporations who produce conventionally produced food.

Synthetic nitrogen is extracted from the atmosphere.  Potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits and seawater extraction.  Phosphorous is mined from phosphate rock and also extracted from seawater.  Organic fertilizer chemicals are not sourced the same way and must come from post-consumer and animal waste. While the processing is different, the end product is comparable to synthetic fertilizers.  The many various forms of synthetic fertilizers giving farmers a more precise control over nutritional programs.  Some organic fertilizers, mainly chicken manure and other animal manures, are processed and dried, sometimes into a pelleted form.   If you remember from previous articles, different forms of fertilizers go through chemically different steps or processes to become available for use by the plant.  Some are more readily available to plants than others. 

As for pesticides, there are pesticides that are labeled for use in organic farming, some safe and some not so safe.  One such pesticide is rotenone and it has been used for years.  It is derived naturally from the roots of certain tropical and sub-tropical plants.   Rotenone is a selective, non-specific insecticide, aracnicide (spider and mite killing properties) and piscidide (fish killing properties) used in organic farming and home gardens for insect control.  It is also used for lice and tick control on pets and for fish management. Rotenone has been linked to Parkinson's disease.  (See the rotenone factsheet at http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Actives/rotenone.htm).  As it is non-synthetic, its USDA-NOP status is "allowed" for use in organic farming as stated in a fact sheet from Cornell University (http://web.pppmb.cals.cornell.edu/resourceguide/mfs/11rotenone.php).  Again, education is important.   It is important to note also that detrimental effects that occur from the use of synthetic or non-synthetic chemicals, whether pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, are because of mishandling of the chemicals by workers and that less than 1% of those cases occur in the United States.  (Dunning, Brian. "Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast.Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Aug 2009. Web. 15 Aug 2011.  (http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166)  It is also important to note that much of Mother Earth's contamination is from other activities and businesses and not from farming.  Ice melt and salt applied to roads in the winter and run-off from factories and mills are two such examples.

Organic farmers must follow strict regulations as to their farming practices; they must always look to care for their crops first through preventative, cultural, mechanical and physical methods before using "non-synthetic” compounds.  Farmers, whether organic or not, do that anyway. Again, farmers are stewards of the land.   Farmers and their families live, work and play on the land.  It is important to them that their land remains in a healthy state for many years to come.  Farmers are all about environmental impact and enhancement.  Describing soil management as part of the organic process  (again, another "organic" misconception) sometimes makes it seem as if conventional farmers do not manage their farmland properly, and that is simply untrue.  We certainly do not want ourselves or our families to ingest anything harmful.  My husband actually kicked a chemical salesman off of our farm because he wanted us to use a new insecticide with systemic properties on our cucumber crop.  This would have meant that the plant would absorb the chemical into its system and it would end up in the cucumbers.  As you know, I have always stated that one should stay away from systemic chemicals. We don't use them and don't think they are safe or good for the crops. 

There is a lot of controversy between organic and conventional farming.  I am an advocate of doing your own extensive research and speaking with the farmers you purchase your food from if you buy local.  Beware that not all articles are accurate; look at both sides of the story and know your sources.  Something more to ponder...all food is organic, whether it is organic or not. :-)

02 August 2011

Solanaceous Diseseases

Because of the wet season we have had earlier this season, your vegetable gardens have been susceptible to many diseases for which you should be aware of.  Be on the lookout for the following: Septoria, early blight and late blight, which affect solanaceous plants such as tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes; Powdery and Downy Mildew, which affects vine crops such as cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash, winter squashes, pumpkins, etc., Alternaria and Downy Mildew (different species of mildew than the first) which affects cole crops such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts and kale. 

Septoria is a fungus which causes leaf spot on tomatoes (most commonly) but can also affect eggplant and potatoes.  It is found all over the world where tomatoes are grown and can occur at any stage of plant development.  The disease can occur on the stems and undersides of older leaves on plants ready to set fruit or can also occur on young seedlings.  The symptoms of Septoria look like spots with tan or grey centers and brown margins.  As the fungus progresses, the spots may coalesce and enlarge and then form pycridia (brown pimple-like structures which are the fruiting bodies of the fungus) as the pycridia mature, spores are produced and released, thus further spreading the fungus via wind, cultivation, pickers who handle the plants or spread the spores as their clothing touches them.   It takes about 2 weeks from initial symptoms to the production of more spores.  Warm, humid conditions favor the development of this disease and left untreated, heavily infected leaves will yellow, dry up and fall off the plant, resulting sun-scalding of the fruit.  Treatment can usually begin by mid-July, unless conditions are favorable and symptoms appear earlier. Treatment is similar to that of blight.

Although the fungus does not inhabit the soil, it can remain from year to year on infected leaves and weeds left in the field or garden soil.  If you have been dealing with infected plants, it’s best to remove them and all associated debris from your garden in plastic bags and discard them in the trash.
Early Bight is a disease most commonly found on potatoes, but can also affect tomatoes and other solanaceous crops.  If left untreated, it can spread rather quickly and lead to severe defoliation and low yield of your crop.  Symptoms of disease can first appear in early to mid-July, when warm, wet conditions typically occur here in New York.  Lesions on leaves can first appear within 2 or 3 days of infection and most commonly on older, less vigorous, lower leaves.  Lesions appear as dark brown, leathery spots with concentric rings giving a “target spot” effect.  The spots can enlarge to about 1/2” in size and are generally bound within the leaves veins, but can coalesce and produce more spores which are then spread as we discussed earlier with Septoria.  Lesions on tubers tend to form more slowly and will cause the tubers to become corky in texture.   Tuber rot may not become sever until later in the storage season, but can pre-dispose the tuber to secondary infections.

Late Blight lesions occur about 3 or 4 days after infection and will produce more spores if favorable conditions are present;  wet leaves with moderate temperatures ranging from 60°-70°F and lasting ten or more hours.  Both tomato and potato fruits are susceptible to the disease and stem lesions are capable of producing spores for a longer period of time.
Healthy plants will be more resistant to disease, therefore it is important to keep fertilizing your plants and during rainy seasons, a preventative spray program is recommended.  Please know what you are using on your plants for treatment of any disease.  We do NOT recommend using anything systemic, as it will eventually end up on your plate.  For all diseases, it is wise to consult your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office for the latest information on resistant varieties and disease management. 

Plant Maintenance

I thought it would be a good idea to go over some basic plant maintenance for this issue, being that many of you have your plants already planted and are in the process of maintaining them.  Fear not, if you haven’t planted yet, you still can.  It’s not too late and many growers still have great plants to choose from.  It’s sale time too….we don’t want to maintain spring plants in the greenhouses any longer than we have to and many growers are looking to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

I cannot stress enough….and my husband tells me to mention it in every article….plants need to be fed on a regular basis for best performance in your gardens and pots.  There are many people that still do not realize that very important but simple concept.  Plants need their nutrients just like people do, especially if they are expending all that energy flowering or producing a quality crop to harvest.  I have mentioned before, during the heat of the summer, with all that watering going on, nutrients not only get used up by the plants, but can also be leached out of the soil simply by having to water frequently.  It is best to feed your plants at least once a week, possibly more often if you are having to water frequently.  Many plants flower on new growth and in order to keep them growing, you have to feed them. 
Once again, there are three main elements that you will see concentrations for on the fertilizer bag. Those are N-P-K, or Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, respectively and the numbers (i.e. 15-15-15)    tell what percentages those macronutrients are in.  Nitrogen is mainly responsible for vegetative plant growth and strong roots, phosphorous for root expansion and flowering, and potassium for metabolism, leaf expansion and the quality and size of the fruit or vegetative parts of the plants that are harvested. Potassium is also responsible for the intensity and development of pigments and color in flowers.   Try to find a well balanced fertilizer that also contains some micronutrients as well.  The process by which these elements work together and are taken up by the plant all rely on each other. 

Many of you prefer organic nutrients, and that’s O.K. as long as you know what you are doing because nutrients depend on each other for proper absorption.  You have to be certain you are providing everything the plants need.   Have you ever seen so called “organic” apples with dimpling in the skin?  That happened because of a lack of nutrition. If the fruit or vegetable lacked proper nutrition during the growing season, then it definitely lacked nutrition at harvest time and therefore, you are not getting the proper nutrition when you eat that organic produce. 
Watering will encourage root growth as the roots will follow the water into the soil.  The stronger the root system, the stronger the plant will be.  Water accordingly with the weather; less frequently when cool and more when hot.  Be careful not to overwater or keep the soil wet and soggy.  Too much water will deprive the roots of oxygen.  It’s O.K. to dig down with your hands to check the moisture level if you are not sure.  If you prepared your garden plot well you should have adequate drainage and aeration for the roots. 

Some plants, such as bedding petunias (not “wave” petunias) will need to be dead-headed regularly to encourage more blooms and keep the plants full and bushy.  Do not simply remove the spent flower, but rather pinch off the entire flower stem back to the main stem.  This will allow the plant to spend its energy producing more blooms and more plant growth and keep it from getting long and leggy.

Your Garden's Drainage

Good drainage is essential to planting a successful garden or landscape.  Plants’ roots (and this goes for ALL plants) need oxygen.  If plants are kept in an area that is continuously wet, the roots will be starved for oxygen and the plant(s) will eventually die.  There are many different ways to improve the drainage around your yard and gardens.

If you have potted plants or container gardens, make sure you have several drainage holes in the bottom of your pots.  If you have ceramic pots, adding gravel or styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of the pot prior to adding planting mix will also help. 
Prior to planting your garden, you should till the soil well.  This will loosen the soil and break up any large clods.  The soil will be better able to drain this way than if it were left hard and compacted.   Rototilling in between the rows of an already established garden not only removes weeds, but also increases drainage and encourages root growth.

You may need to consider putting in raised beds if you have poorly draining soil.  A raised bed is simply a framed in garden bed that sits atop your soil, effectively elevating your planting area.  Raised beds are fairly simple to construct and you can utilize different materials that suit your taste to frame the bed.  Because you are adding soil to the bed, you can control what type of planting medium you use and this will allow for better drainage.    If you can, till the area where the raised bed will be constructed to allow for additional drainage.
If you have more extensive drainage issues, determining the source of the problem, how the water is accumulating and in which direction it is running, if any, will help to determine the type of drainage system you will need to correct the problem.  It may be necessary to install drainage pipe, drainage trenches or the like to manage the water-logged areas. 

While we are speaking of drainage, let’s also talk about proper watering of your plants.  Very often I am asked how to know when to water a plant.  Take for instance hanging baskets and planters.  The amount of water needed very much depends on the conditions of any given day.  Is it very windy, is it sunny or is it cloudy, cool and raining?  The best way to determine if your basket needs water is to check the soil and the weight of the basket daily.  If the soil is moist and the basket feels heavy, leave it alone.  Don’t just water for the sake of watering.  If the basket remains wet all the time, the roots will starve for oxygen and the plant will die.  Checking the soil is very important here; a plant that has been overwatered will droop and look wilted, as if it needs more water.   Let the basket or whatever container you have your plants in dry down a bit in between watering.  When watering in the garden, again, check the soil.  Newly planted material needs to be watered more frequently than well established plantings.  Plantings, such as trees and shrubs, need about an inch of water weekly….check the plant tag.

23 May 2011

Hardiness Zones

There seems to be confusion at times among some gardeners as to the definition of perennials and annuals.  For those of you that this applies to, this posting is for you! J

The definition of “perennial,” simply put, is a plant that continues to grow in your garden year after year.  The simple definition of an “annual,” is a plant that needs to be planted each year.   Perennial plants can be perennial in some areas and also annual in other areas.  To know if a plant will be perennial in your area, you need to know what hardiness zone you live in.
The USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map helps us determine which zone we are in.  This hardiness map is based on winter temperatures and each zone has a span of ten degrees.  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map was first introduced in 1960 with the last revision in 1990.   This map divides the U.S. and Canada into eleven separate zones.   The temperatures for each zone are based on the average annual minimum temperatures for a given area.   Zone 1 has the coldest winter temperature averages while zone 11 has the warmest winter temperatures, generally 40 degrees.  For our purposes, the picture shown illustrates zones 2-10 for the United States only.
So if we look at a plant tag that states the particular plant is hardy in zones 5 through 8, and you live in zone 5, then that plant should be hardy for you.  It will also be hardy in zones 6, 7 and 8.  Likewise, if the plant tag states it is hardy to zone 3, the plant will also be hardy in zone 5.  These same zones that apply to plants also apply to shrubs and trees.  There are some things to take into consideration here as well. 
First, the map is effective for plants that are actually planted in the ground.  It may not hold true for plants that remain in pots above the ground as ground temperatures are typically a few degrees warmer.  Temperature fluctuations will usually result in the pot freezing and thawing several times over the winter, decreasing the plant’s hardiness.   A suggestion would be to plant the entire pot in the ground so that the top of the pot is level with the ground.  This will insulate the plant and you can dig it up, pot and all, in the spring if you plan on keeping it above ground for the growing season.
Sometimes a plant that is not listed as perennial in your zone (by a one zone difference) may also be hardy for you.  This may be possible due to certain areas of your garden being a few degrees warmer than the rest of the area.  Areas near your house, such as the foundation, retain more heat and I have seen annual plants left in the ground continue to grow the following spring. 
For more information and to see what zone you live in, please visit http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/index.html

02 May 2011

Increasing Your Garden's Fertility & Productivity

Adding organic matter can be the best thing you can do for your garden soil.  It is the only amendment that affects both fertility and texture of the soil.  Organic matter is simply dead or decaying animal or plant material;  i.e.  animal manure, green manure such as a cover crop planted specifically for tilling into the soil, or garden compost such as grass clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps.  Organic matter provides nutrients for your soil and also provides beneficial microbes, which help make the nutrients readily available for your plants as well as helping to keep disease from your soil. 
It is usually best to allow organic matter to decay for a period of time.  If using manure, allow it to decay until it turns dark brown in color and has no odor.  Nutrients found in manure are generally readily available, but if overused, can provide excessive amounts of some nutrients.  A good example of this would be ammonia.  Excessive amounts of ammonia can burn your plants and while fresh manure is great for heavy feeding crops such as corn, it may not be best suited for use on crops such as greens.  Also with fresh manure, is the possibility of crop contamination.  If you are planting greens or root crops, then you’ll want to compost the manure for about three months prior to spreading to avoid the possibility of contamination.  If you are planting flowers, or taller crops such as staked tomatoes or corn, then this is not a concern. 
Composting bins provide plenty of nutrients for your soil also.  Do your research as there are many different types of composting bins and certain types of scraps and waste should be added in certain proportions.  You can even make your own composter.  Kitchen scraps, recyclable papers, twigs, hay, straw etc can be added to the compost pile.  Compost should be turned weekly and some gardeners turn their compost after every new addition.  Aeration, moisture and warmth are all important in the composting process.
A great way to speed up your composting  is by investing in a worm composter.   Most gardeners realize the presence of worms in the garden indicate a nutrient-dense soil.    Worms can live in a worm composter while eating and breaking down your kitchen waste and recyclable paper and turning it into compost for your garden.  One pound of worms will consume about one pound of food daily.  Worm composting bins are self-contained systems and the worm compost is virtually odorless.  There are even small worm composters that you can keep right in your kitchen!   Red worms have the best appetite and breed quickly, thus are the most popular for this purpose. 
There are other types of bins and composts worth looking into as everyone’s needs differ.  Work your compost into your beds well before planting and you will have nutrient-rich, well developed soil and a more productive garden.

06 April 2011

Purchasing Spring Plants

Last time we talked about starting your spring plants indoors. If it’s too much for you to consider, or you just don’t have the room, you can always visit your favorite local garden center to purchase plants for your garden in the spring. You should keep in mind a few points while making your choices.
Look for local growers as their plants will adapt more readily to your garden since they are grown here. There are many retailers who bring plants in for sale from out of the area, usually from areas where they have longer, earlier grower seasons. Because diseases and insects have specific life cycles, and because the growing season begins earlier in these other locations than here in the North, there is the strong possibility that plants from these regions can transport diseases and/or insects into the Northern zones, before their natural cycle would normally begin in our area. Such was the case with Late Blight just a short time ago in 2009.
Late blight is a fungus of which mainly tomatoes and potatoes are susceptible. It can also affect other vegetation within the same family (Solanaceae). The Late Blight we suffered in 2009 had been linked to plants that were brought in from a southern region supplier. It began earlier in the season than is normal for our area (it usually arrives after our tomato season has ended) and the excessive wet weather and humidity we had that season further exacerbated the problem, wiping out most family gardens and farmers’ tomato crops for miles around.
Many smaller, local garden centers and growers grow their own plants or purchase plants from other local growers. Develop relationships with the owners and staff. Learn where their plants are from if they are not growing their own. It’s always a great learning experience and many local growers and garden centers are happy to share that information.
Another important tip is to ask if the plants have been hardened off. This is the process of acclimating the plants to our outdoor climate prior to planting them in your garden. This is done by opening up the greenhouses and increasing air circulation while they are still protected in the greenhouse. They are allowed exposure to cooler temperatures in order to help lessen the transplant stress once they are placed outdoors. This step is vital to successful performance in the garden.
Also keep in mind the requirements your garden has for specific types of plants. Is it sunny, shady, or a combination of the two? Is the soil wet or does it have good drainage? Some varieties perform better under certain conditions than they do others. Do you have a need for trailing plants or plants with height? Knowing these specifics will help the staff at your local garden center to better be able to assist you with choosing the right plants.
Keeping these points in mind should better help you plan for and plant a successful garden.

Soil Fertility

Soil fertility is a key component in growing healthy plants.  There are many different factors which affect soil fertility and as a result, the soil makeup is constantly changing.   There are at least 16 nutrients which are necessary for plants to grow and complete their life cycles.  Of those 16, non-mineral elements are used in the largest amounts and are found in air and water.  Those non-minerals are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.   Plants rely on the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen) and water (hydrogen and oxygen) into food.  This process is known as photosynthesis.   The rest of the elements (minerals) are known as macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients and can be either found in the soil or added as fertilizer or lime. 
The 3 primary macro-nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).   These are most commonly supplied as fertilizers and come in different ratios to accommodate different needs.  The three secondary macro-nutrients, calcium, sulfur and magnesium, are needed in smaller quantities than the primary nutrients.  Sulfur can usually be supplied through fertilizers and calcium and magnesium are usually present in lime and gypsum.  Lime and gypsum are typically used to effect changes in soil pH or as buffering agents to neutralize acidity. 
There are seven micronutrients; boron, copper, chlorine, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc.  While these nutrients are found in even smaller quantities, they are just as important to the functioning of plants as the primary and secondary nutrients.   Deficiencies in micronutrients affect plant growth, vigor and production.
Nutrients take different forms; liquids, solids or gases.  These elements react with each other differently and these reactions in turn, affect the absorption of the nutrients by the plants.  Plants utilize certain nutrients in certain forms, but to speak in detail about this now is well beyond the scope of this article.  Other factors affecting nutrient uptake include soil pH, microbial activity and the condition of the soil, such as aeration, temperature and moisture. 
Soil pH affects microbial activity, which is needed to convert nitrogen and sulfur into useable forms for the plants.   Using lime will raise the pH of the soil.  Ideally, soil pH should be 6.0–6.5.   At this pH, microbial activity increases and nutrients are more readily absorbed by the plants.  (If using artificial medium, i.e. peat moss, pH should be one point lower because there are no soil components to act as an exchange site for the elements.)
Soil type affects the absorption of nutrients by plants as well.  In general, the macro and micro nutrients are dissolved in water and taken up by the plants’ roots.  Soil type varies with the makeup, or texture, of the soil.  That is, the proportions in the soil of clay, silt, sand and organic matter.  Soils with higher amounts of sand have increased drainage.  This drainage causes a washing away, or leaching, of the nutrients in the soil, creating a lack of nutrients for the plants.   Ideal soil types would have equal proportions of clay, silt, sand and organic matter.
As you can see there are many factors affecting soil fertility.  It is very important to feed your plants on a regular basis.  Just as people need food, so do your plants.  With the proper nutrition, your plants will thrive and flourish.  

28 March 2011

Farm Fresh

Did you know that purchasing your food locally has many benefits, not only to you, but to your community as well?  Here is a short list of the benefits of buying food directly from the farmer:

1.       Produce and other products are much more fresh and nutritious because they have been recently harvested, usually within 24 hours.
2.       It strengthens your local economy.
3.       It benefits the farming family.
4.       It helps provide food to underserved communities.
5.       You learn about how and where your food is raised by getting to know the farmers.
That being said, there are many ways you can purchase local food fresh.  One is by going directly to the farm.  The majority of farms in this county are family owned and operated and the growing trend for smaller farms is marketing directly to the consumer, rather than selling wholesale to a broker. 
Another is by purchasing a share in a local CSA.  CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is an arrangement where the consumer purchases a share or shares at the beginning of the year for the upcoming season’s harvest.  A mix of freshly harvested produce (some also include meat and eggs) is dropped off at a community location for the shareholders to pick up regularly.  This arrangement also benefits the farmers because it provides necessary income early in the season to purchase seed and supplies.
Visit your local Farmers’ Markets.  Farmers’ Markets are growing by leaps and bounds and not only  provide a way for the consumer to purchase directly from the farmer, but many also provide family entertainment, have festivals and offer a great place to socialize with friends.  Check with your local Cooperative Extension Office or Town Hall to find Farmers’ Markets in your area, or visit the following website if you are in New York:  www.nyfarmersmarket.com .
Farmers’ Markets also provide a means for low-income families to purchase fresh, high quality produce through local programs that provide financial assistance, such as WIC and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.  Check with your local social services agency for further information or the State of New York Department of Agriculture and Markets.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to educate yourself on where your food comes from and how it is raised.  Local family farmers are stewards of the land.  We live and raise our families on our land; we work hard to protect our open spaces by keeping the land in agricultural use and preserving natural habitats by maintaining forests and wetlands as well.  We care about the animals we raise and treat them humanely.   We eat off our land the same produce we sell and we know exactly what has gone into to growing those crops and also what has not gone into those crops.  Good nutritional programs used in raising crops are important and go a long way in keeping the crops healthy and disease resistant and also in providing the consumer with nutritionally balanced food.
So eat healthy, eat local and support your family farms.  Without agriculture, this great nation would not be.

25 March 2011

Plant Health

Many diseases of plants can be kept at bay with good cultural practices.  Keeping plants healthy actually begins with choosing the right plants for your location.  It also includes proper watering and nutrition and cleaning of plant material and the surrounding areas.

When choosing plants for your garden, what type of lighting conditions prevail where you are planting?  Is it shady all day or is it sunny?  Perhaps the area only gets sun in the morning or afternoon for part of the day.  This affects not only the types of plants that will perform well in those conditions, but also how much watering you’ll need to do during the season.  If the area remains wet all the time, it will predispose the plants and soil to disease.  So for a shady garden, you will not need to water as frequently as you would for a sunny location.  It is also important to water in the morning, or at least well enough in advance so that the plants are not wet at nightfall.
Fertilizing your plants during the growing season on a regular basis is important to plant health and the plants’ resistance to disease.  Just like people, plants need nutrition to stay healthy and perform well.  Flowers will probably need a fertilizer with different concentrations of elements than will vegetables or fruit plants, so it is important to choose the right type of fertilizer for your needs.

Disease can also spread quickly if plants are not kept clean and free of weeds and leaf droppings, especially in poor weather conditions, where high levels of humidity and excessive wetness for prolonged periods of time further promote disease.
It is essential to clean up dead leaves and other plant material that may be lying in the pot or on the ground around the plants.  This is important not only during the growing season, but also at the end of the season.  Some diseases, like certain types of fungus, can overwinter on infected leaves and once the weather begins to warm up, the spores they produce become active again and you may end up starting the season with unwanted disease problems.

Weed control is also important.  Weeds can carry disease and also harbor pests of the insect variety which can spread to your plants.  A great example of this is the insect known as the “whitefly.”  There are over 1500 species of whiteflies throughout the world.  Whiteflies are normally found on the underside of plant leaves and will feed on the leaves, causing the plants to wilt if the infestation is not controlled.  Whiteflies can also spread disease among plants.  Keeping your garden free of weeds will help to discourage this problem.
You can check with your local garden center or Cooperative Extension office for help in identifying diseases and insects and finding the best treatment.  Keeping your plants healthy helps your plants to stay more naturally resistant to disease, and that means less work and more enjoyment for you.

Buying Plants for Your Garden

Last time we talked about starting your spring plants indoors.  If it’s too much for you to consider, or you just don’t have the room, you can always visit your favorite local garden center to purchase plants for your garden in the spring.   You should keep in mind a few points while making your choices.

Look for local growers as their plants will adapt more readily to your garden since they are grown here.    There are many retailers who bring plants in for sale from out of the area, usually from areas where they have longer, earlier grower seasons.  Because diseases and insects have specific life cycles, and because the growing season begins earlier in these other locations than here in the North, there is the strong possibility that plants from these regions can transport diseases and/or insects into the Northern zones, before their natural cycle would normally begin in our area.  Such was the case with Late Blight just a short time ago in 2009. 
Late blight is a fungus of which mainly tomatoes and potatoes are susceptible.  It can also affect other vegetation within the same family (Solanaceae).  The Late Blight we suffered in 2009 had been linked to plants that were brought in from a southern region supplier.  It began earlier in the season than is normal for our area (it usually arrives after our tomato season has ended) and the excessive wet weather and humidity we had that season further exacerbated the problem, wiping out most family gardens and farmers’ tomato crops for miles around.  

Many smaller, local garden centers and growers grow their own plants or purchase plants from other local growers.  Develop relationships with the owners and staff.   Learn where their plants are from if they are not growing their own.  It’s always a great learning experience and many local growers and garden centers are happy to share that information. 
Another important tip is to ask if the plants have been hardened off.  This is the process of acclimating the plants to our outdoor climate prior to planting them in your garden.  This is done by opening up the greenhouses and increasing air circulation while they are still protected in the greenhouse.  They are allowed exposure to cooler temperatures in order to help lessen the transplant stress once they are placed outdoors.  This step is vital to successful performance in the garden.

Also keep in mind the requirements your garden has for specific types of plants.  Is it sunny, shady, or a combination of the two?  Is the soil wet or does it have good drainage?  Some varieties perform better under certain conditions than they do others.   Do you have a need for trailing plants or plants with height?  Knowing these specifics will help the staff at your local garden center to better be able to assist you with choosing the right plants.
Keeping these points in mind should better help you plan for and plant a successful garden. 

Running Creek Farm Greenhouses, LLC
Valatie/Greenport, NY

25 February 2011

Indoor Sprouts

OK…we’re getting a break in the weather finally and starting to see some warmer temperatures than we’ve had all winter. This makes most of us itch for spring so we can get out in the garden. There are many seeds that you can start indoors and then transplant outside when the air and soil temperatures are warmer and there is no longer the threat of frost.
Start by gathering some seed catalogs or look online to get some ideas for your area. Germination rates, seedling growth, transplant dates and time to maturity or flower vary by the plant. Check the descriptions in the catalogs or on the seed packets to see how soon you’ll need to start the seeds indoors before they are of sufficient size to plant outdoors in warmer weather.
You’ll need the proper growing materials as well. Seedlings are very delicate; you should purchase sterile planting medium, such as a seed starter mix or compressed pellets that expand when watered. If using last year’s containers, they should be sterilized. You can purchase seed starter kits in the store, which make it easy to get started with as they generally come with everything you need such as containers, a shallow tray to set the containers on and a see-through lid to hold in the humidity.
Warmth is necessary for germination and growth. Germination is when the embryo emerges from the seed. Soil temperature for germination generally ranges from 50°-72° depending on the crop. You can purchase special heating mats specifically for germinating seeds. Some seeds need to be covered with perlite or vermiculite to germinate; others need light and should not be covered. Once the seedlings have sprouted and are about half an inch tall, they should tolerate room temperatures of about 60°-75°.
Water is important during both the germination and growth stages. Sow the seeds in adequately moistened mix and keep the see through cover on to keep humidity in. Once the seedlings emerge, carefully remove the covering and provide adequate water from the bottom, being careful not to overwater the seedlings. Too much moisture will cause them to “damp off” (a fungal disease) or may possibly dislodge them from the planting mix. Be sure air circulates freely around the plants to keep disease at bay.
Seedlings need adequate light or they will be become spindly and weak. If you don’t have enough light from your windows, purchase grow lights to ensure vigorous growth. It’s important to use special grow lamps and not regular incandescent light bulbs, which may be too hot and not give the seedlings the proper lumens and wavelengths necessary for growth. Depending on the light source used, you may choose to set up the lighting so that it can be raised as the plants grow, keeping the lighting about 3 or 4 inches from the plants depending on the light used.
If all this is too much for you, then wait until planting season and purchase transplants from your local greenhouse or garden center, which we’ll cover next time.

Running Creek Farm Greenhouses, LLC
Valatie/Greenport, NY

13 February 2011

Pest Control in and Around the Garden

Many times I am asked how to rid gardens of pests of the four-legged variety. This can prove to be a very challenging task and I like to recommend that gardeners contact their local Cooperative Extension office once other methods have failed.
I have done some research and offer you the following tips for keeping pests out of your garden. It is important to remember here that it is best to combine different strategies with stubborn pests and to rotate them so that the animals in question do not get used to any one particular defense.
The first is repellent that can be sprayed. You will likely find several types at your local garden center or hardware store. Be sure to read labels carefully so you are purchasing the correct product for your needs and applying it properly. Many repellents will need to be reapplied after a soaking rain or if, during the growing season, the plants have outgrown the efficacy of the product.
You can also use sound deterrents, such as ultrasonic or sonic devices that emit sounds on a regular basis. One that varies the frequency and pitch is better than one that makes the same sounds over and over.
Visual aids work well and it is important to be sure that there is some type of movement. For example, strips of iridescent foil can be hung on fence posts, trees and the like surrounding the garden. As they blow in the wind, they will catch rays of sunshine and produce different colors and patterns on the ground. In addition, they will also produce a metallic, rattling sound that should scare away the unwanted guests. Another type of visual device that may work with smaller critters such as bunnies and chipmunks would be a plastic owl or something with owl-like properties. It is important to be sure this type of device has movement associated with it so that the “prey” does not become used to it being there so that it becomes non-threatening to them. You could also try a brightly colored holographic sphere that will appear to move when a creature looks at it from different angles. By mounting this object on a spring, it will also move in the wind.
A few other options: there are physical barriers, such as netting, that work well and you could create access doors through the netting with Velcro if need be. You could try pepper sprays to keep the offending critters from eating certain plants. Items with strong odors may work well also, such as predator urine (like coyote urine…try a hunting shop for this) and organic fertilizers such as
Milorganite ®. If using Milorganite, ® be careful not to over-apply other sources of Nitrogen as Milorganite® is already higher in Nitrogen.

Blight Disease

Late blight is a fungus of which mainly tomatoes and potatoes are susceptible. It can also affect other vegetation within the same family (Solanaceae). Late blight was a factor in the Irish Potato famine of the 1850’s. Late blight is produced from a pathogen that is known to survive from one season to the next in infected potato tubers. This pathogen produces such a great number of spores that they can then be carried via the wind to both neighboring gardens and farms and also many miles away.

Late blight can only survive on live tissue, therefore it is important to be careful that you plant only healthy transplants or certified potato seed to lessen the chance of infection. If you have a small amount of plants and they become infected, it is necessary to destroy the plants by cutting them off and immediately bagging and disposing of them. If you have a large amount of infected plants, then either thoroughly till them under or cut them off and bury them to avoid having them produce large numbers of spores that could potentially infect neighboring gardens and farms.

The Northeast had such a tremendous problem with late blight two years ago because of all the wet weather we had. Try not to overwater your plants; let them dry in between waterings, do not water over the tops of the leaves but rather water at the base of the plants and water in the morning rather than at night. Most diseases thrive under wet, humid conditions. By watering in the morning, you can take advantage of the sun and air currents to dry off the plants and keep disease at bay.

There are preventative fungicides you can spray; be sure to read the label carefully and make sure what you choose is labeled for blight. Alternatively, you can try spraying a one percent solution of hydrogen peroxide to the plants once a week as a preventative measure; every three days if you start to see lesions.

For fact sheets and pictures of late blight, visit Cornell’s website at:


You can also contact your local County Extension agent and can find them at the above website address.