Friday, April 24, 2015

Keeping the plants covered

If there's one thing you learn after living in Maryland for a while, it's that spring is variable. (Not just in Maryland, of course, but that's where I am.) Just when we've had some brilliant sunny days in the 70s and even 80s, the cold hits again and makes you think you're back in winter. This week we've had nights dipping into the 30s, and some plants that were happy a week ago are not so sure they want to be outside.

And then of course there are the plants you want to put into the ground (or outside in pots to harden off) nice and early for a head start, before you can be sure temperatures are going to stay above freezing, and the ones that need protection against the insects that are already flying around - and you really have to think covers and protective devices. There are lots of these on the market, and we've posted about quite a few. Here are some I've used just this spring.

The good old basic floating row cover is what I reach for first. This one is a summer-weight insect barrier, protecting cabbages from the butterflies that want to lay eggs on them, but even this lightweight cover helps to keep plants a little bit warmer, and stops some of the drying effect of those fierce winds we've been having. (Just make sure it's held down well.)

We also use other materials to keep insects off, including this wedding netting that works perfectly over a wire frame in containers.

I was curious this winter about a product called HotKaps, so I ordered some and used them over my seedling cabbages when I first planted them in my community garden (this photo is from March). The plants now have row cover over them, but I had neglected to order more of that, oops, so had to go with these mini-covers made of wax paper. My conclusion is that I don't like them, but they may do well for you if you have nice even friable soil that you can pile around the edges of each cap to hold it down, though I'd advise using soil staples as well. I was putting them down on a windy, rainy day, and had lumpy soil and compost plus leaves to work with, and only enough staples to use one per cap. They were finicky and annoying, and they keep the rain out so need to be lifted so the plants can be watered. Supposedly they are reusable, but I threw these out after removing them.

I may have mentioned in a previous post that I ended up with huge Sweet Mojo tomato seedlings because I mistook the seeds for those of peppers and put them in too early. (My other tomato seedlings are still inside, and a well-behaved four to six inches high now.) Well, I got tired of trying to accommodate these three huge plants, and took them out to harden off and then be planted out, two in the demo garden and one in my home garden, just before our drop in nighttime temperatures. We are experimenting with two protection methods for these way-before-Mother's-Day tomatoes. This red one is a Kozy Coat - similar to the Wall-o-Water device. You fill the plastic channels around the outside with water, which both holds the tube down and creates a little greenhouse to keep the plant warm. I checked this one today and it is doing fine, as is the one in my slightly-less-windy home garden.

For the other plant, we made a mini-tunnel out of a perforated plastic material that lets air in but keeps the plant warm. It won't protect against a hard frost, but it also shouldn't fry the plant unless temperatures go way up. Here's a close-up:

We should be able to remove these devices in a week or two, depending on the forecast - and I'll keep some of the plastic around to pop back on if we have another of those mid-May frosts. Tomato plants planted outside this early, even with protection, don't tend to grow much, so I don't consider this an ideal situation or even an advantage, just a necessary improvisation - I simply had no place to put those plants! If my cold frames were taller, I'd stick them in there.

Speaking of cold frames - here are mine pictured last month when the cabbages were still hardening off -

- I love them, but I was reminded of the disadvantage of lightweight aluminum and plastic yesterday when I went outside to close them for the night (they've got some flower, lettuce, and mung bean seedlings in them now) and stopped, dumbfounded, swearing that I had possessed two cold frames last I looked, wondering if there was a cold frame thief operating in my neighborhood... until I realized that one of them had blown completely away and was lodged a few feet downhill by my garden fence, luckily undamaged. It's now weighted down by a plank of wood.

What are your favorite ways of protecting plants when they need a little extra help?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Garden update

About four weeks ago I posted about planting one bed (70 feet long by 4 feet wide) in my garden. The front half was was planted in tatsoi, arugula, radishes, turnips, two types of bok choi, cabbage, lettuce and broccoli.and covered with row cover.  The back half of the bed was planted in sugar snap peas and fava beans that were pre-sprouted to assist with germination in the cold soil.

Well, the results have been spectacular, except for the peas which germinated sporadically.  All the transplants survived and the arugula, radishes and turnips have germinated. The transplants are showing good growth and I have been eating stirred fried bok choi several times a week.

The peas and favas are several inches tall and yesterday, I put up my pea fence.

Last week, I planted about 200 onion transplants, a third of those a red variety called Red Zeppelin and the other two-thirds a variety called Copra.  The onion transplants are planted about 4 inches apart and some will be pulled for green onions during the spring to provide more spacing for larger onions.  I will side dress the plants later as they start to bulb.  Information on onions along with other vegetables can be found on the GIEI plant profiles. Both Copra and Red Zeppelin are long day varieties which start bulbing when day length reaches 15 to 16 hours.  Copra is a good storing variety and Red Zeppelin are great for fresh eating.

I also planted 50 feet of one of my beds with two rows of potatoes.  The varieties are Carola, Banana and Austrian Crescent. Looking forward to trying the fingerlings in potato salad this summer.

Last year's kale is still providing fresh greens, although it will probably go to flower pretty soon.  The late planted (late October) spinach is doing wonderfully and my favorite spring salad.

Garlic, planted last October is also doing well and should be fertilized now.  See vegetable profiles garlic.

So, you are probably wondering where all of these vegetables go, well most of my family just comes over and helps themselves.  Anything left over goes to my local crisis center, Grassroots.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Food Safety Biology 101 for the Home Gardener

Last month I discussed three types of hazards that can occur anywhere along the food production process including during the growing, harvesting, handling, storing or serving of fruit and vegetables. These include physical, chemical and biological hazards. Today’s post will explore biological food safety risks that can cause foodborne illness or what’s commonly referred to as food poisoning.

Food poisoning is caused by tiny living organisms called pathogenic microorganisms. These microorganisms can be either bacteria, for example Salmonella or E. coli, a virus (like norovirus) or fungal in nature like the mold that grows on an old cucumber that sat in the fridge for too many days. Parasites, like Giardia, can also cause foodborne illness. Microorganisms are found throughout the natural world and even on the food we eat. However, some microorganisms are more dangerous than others, and when given favorable conditions they can multiply to levels that can make people sick if ingested. Therefore as food gardeners it is important to know how they are introduced into the food system and the conditions that favor their growth.

In the garden environment these microorganisms are most often introduced through either soil, water or poor hygiene on the part of the gardener. In soil, the original source is almost always fecal matter. This can be from an animal like a cat or a raccoon leaving droppings in the garden.  In farming, it is recommended that farmers not harvest produce within a 5 foot radius of an animal dropping. I follow this practice in my home garden too. Last year I did not eat from one of my raised beds because my dog did her business in there.  The feces of both wild and domesticated animals can harbor serious pathogens and must be removed.  It is important to protect yourself when you remove these feces and take precautions like wearing gloves. Ideally you will have fencing to keep animals out of your garden. (I'm adding another raised bed this year to this section of my yard and some fencing!)

Pathogens in soil can also come from manure that has not been properly composted.  If I use manure I get it from a commercial source. Certainly many people use manure from their local farmer in their vegetable garden without incident. However, there is no way to know if the manure is 100 % safe unless it is commercially processed. If you are going to use manure from a farmer friend in your vegetable garden, it is best to use it on crops that will be cooked before eating. 

Water is another part of the garden landscape where microorganisms can exist and grow. Standing water is your greatest concern since this presents a favorable condition for microorganisms to reproduce. This means that you should avoid watering your vegetable plants with water from rain barrels or ponds. Remember, only use potable water you would be willing to drink.  It is also important to make every effort to avoid standing water in the form of puddles in your vegetable garden. Lastly use watering containers that you can wash regularly. Would you drink from a cup that’s been sitting outside for three weeks? Probably not. For the same reason you want to make sure your water your plants from containers that are clean.

Good hygiene practices are another essential aspect of keeping your garden safe. Always wash your hands before harvesting or handling plants and wash your gardening gloves regularly. On a similar note use clean and sanitized harvesting containers. I harvest my vegetables in plastic bowls that can go into the dishwasher or I use reusable clothe grocery bags that can go in the washing machine. One more good practice is to never work in the garden when you’re sick. Always wait at least 24 hours after symptoms of (diarrhea, vomiting, fever) have subsided before returning to the garden.

Proper storage and handling of produce is also key to preventing food safety issues. That will be the focus of next month’s blog post.


UMD Extension. Pet Waste and Water Quality. Though this is about water quality it provides some safety issues with regards to pet waste and advice for cleaning it up).

Cornell Extension.  GAPS: Wildlife and Animal Management. This article is designed for farmers but provides great advice on preventing and dealing with animals in the food growing environment.

Maryland Department of Agriculture. Maryland’s Manure Resource Page.

University of Wisconsin Extension. Safely Using Produce from Flooded Gardens. I mentioned standing water is a food safety risk. This article goes into much more detail about this and specifies what can be salvaged if your garden is flooded.

University of Maryland Extension. Hand Hygiene 101. Check out the tab on the left for more food safety tips!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Don’t Rush the Harbingers - Guest post by Susie Hill

Susie Hill is a Frederick County Master Gardener and former HGIC Horticulture Consultant.  This article originally appeared in the  Frederick News Post on April 2, 2015.

“When do you think things will green up?” a friend asked me this week, her voice filled with anticipation. While one answer came out of my mouth- something related to the calendar, another thought popped into my head. And that was…

”Ugh.” I must be the only avid gardener I know who doesn’t eagerly await the harbingers of spring. As a matter of fact, I would like to hit the pause button in February because I find the change of seasons to be bittersweet. I love springtime as much as gardeners and non-gardeners alike. I just don’t want to say goodbye to my friend Winter. Here are my reasons….

Susie's daughters enjoying the winter landscape
  1. I love the restfulness and quiet of the wintertime. 
  2. I love that Orion greets me in a dark sky when I get home late after driving the kids all over town.
  3. I love how the white bark of the sycamores pop against a blue sky as the sun rises in the morning. 
  4. I love the shape of naked trees in the landscape and the contrasts of  yellows, browns, blues, and greens. 
  5. I love that evergreens get to steal the show for a change. 
  6. I love that I can distinctly hear the call of the barred owl at sunset.  “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?”
  7. I love watching how much the birds appreciate eating the seed heads of all the weeds I failed to pull or clean up in the fall. 
  8. I love that cold weather kills lots of brown marmorated stinkbugs.
  9. I love that during the winter, I am in a dreaming state… all things gardening are possible. Seeds germinate as I anticipate, the weather cooperates, weeds are submissive to my superior gardening methods, and great bounty and beauty spring forth from every corner of my property. 
  10. I love that in my mind’s eye, my yard and garden look like Longwood Gardens.

As I sit looking out the window, I hear spring rains on the tin roof. A small flock of tufted titmice are picking off the last of the dogwood berries and a mocking bird is eating the persistent berries off the Highbush cranberry. (The cranberries don’t taste very good, but they’ll do in a pinch.) A pair of bluebirds is building a nest in my birdhouse.  And this week, I heard the spring peepers.  For me, peepers are the ultimate harbinger of spring. Their song brings lightness to my heart and puts a spring in my step. The animals, like most gardeners and non-gardeners alike, are surely ready for spring.

I met a Persian woman recently and she told me that in Iran, they celebrate the New Year at the Spring Equinox. A New Year’s celebration is traditionally a time for reflection and appreciation as well as a time for anticipation and renewal. Saying goodbye to Winter is like bidding adieu to a dear friend after a long visit. I am grateful for the rest and beauty of this past winter so I don’t want to rush the harbingers of spring. Reluctantly, I will say goodbye to my friend Winter. At the same time, I will gratefully welcome another equally dear friend, Spring. The crocuses and daffodils will be here in no time. While we are waiting, it’s time to raise a glass.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How to get kids into gardening: Guest post by Kurt Jacobson

You might have seen bumper stickers saying kids need to know about farms and where their food comes from. The question arises on how do we get kids interested in playing in the dirt for something more than making mud pies? Perhaps the easiest way is to be on the lookout for kids in your neighborhood and ask them if they would like to learn how to grow flowers or vegetables. Ask their parents to get on board too. Then start showing them the magic of how a little bitty seed becomes this amazing gift that not only can feed many but provide hundreds of new seeds to start it all over again. Tell them they can help grow vegetables for their parents to put on the dinner table and start them out with something simple and easy to grow like a salad tray.

Of course it’s harder these days to interact with kids especially if you are a male gardener. This makes it more important than ever to get the parent’s permission for the kids to come over and help in our gardens. Schools are more like locked down prisons these days than what I remember, making it quite a challenge to interact with kids in school, but it’s possible and a great way to reach several  in one session. There are two programs I have learned about recently that open the doors to getting kids in the garden. One is the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation (RAMEF) and Chefs Move to Schools (CMS). I have reached out to RAMEF as a chef to mentor high school kids on cooking and hope to include vegetable gardening. With the farm-to-table craze gaining ground most new professional cooks want to know more about vegetable farming. 
Lettuce growing in a simple bushel basket
If I find a small farm to buy into working with RAMEF I’ll have a perfect match. The farm needs labor, and the cooks-to-be need to learn more about growing vegetables. Pair them up and you have a win-win situation. A cook that has a direct relationship with a farmer has a leg up on their competition for the best produce and happy customers. The farmer gets a new customer that buys all or most of certain crops. One of the signs of a well-run farm-to-table restaurant is a chalkboard or menu mentioning the farmers and small batch producers the restaurant gets their supplies from. Woodberry Kitchen is a great example of this practice with their chalkboard showing menu items and where some of the ingredients were sourced. This leads to more awareness in our farmers and helps preserve our small farms and maybe even plants the seeds for future farmers.

Chefs Move to Schools is working on improving kids diets by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. They also welcome chef volunteers to teach kids about where their produce comes from. While most of the focus is on working in the kitchens with the school’s cooks I was glad to see that CMS wants kids to know more about vegetable and fruit growing and encourages chefs to teach kids about growing veggies. I hope to get a local school to let me come and teach about backyard veggie growing. I could definitely use some help if anyone is interested in joining me as I am not an expert on gardening.
Kurt's backyard veggie garden

In the four years I have been growing veggies in my small back yard I've had three kids from next door enthusiastically helping. Some years they are more into it than others and I welcome their help whenever they are willing. It’s so rewarding to send them off with veggies in their little hands for their parents and grandparents that they helped grow and harvest. When you bring a bit of pride to a child it helps build self-esteem and everyone wins. Nothing quite like earning self-esteem than having it handed to you. Last week brought a new boy in my garden to help with my seed planting. It was great to hear from his mom that he had a fun time and wants to come back soon. From that session another neighbor’s kids saw what we were doing and now they want to come over to help. Kids talk about these things with other kids and that will help gain momentum.

I encourage you to find a way to start something that brings kids into the natural world of growing food, flowers, trees and shrubs. We will all benefit from it for years to come if we are successful.