29 August 2011

Okra

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.