Under the Cover of Green Manure

We’re all familiar with that wonderful brown substance we call manure, or, as I prefer to call it, “fruit of the butt.” Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for our growing plants, and it can also serve as a mulch. Yes, without manure, life would be pretty sh…, well, you get the idea.

Now, I’d like to introduce you to a different kind of manure. This kind does not come from a bovine or equine backside, but it grows right out of the soil. These are various plants known collectively as cover crops or green manure. Green manure plants are grown for the sole purpose of being killed by cold weather, chopped up, and worked into the soil. Like the other kind of manure, it provides nitrogen, but it does a whole lot more. Green manure crops can crowd out weeds, reduce soil erosion, and improve the overall condition of the soil.

Green manure crops are generally planted in late summer or early fall, then chopped up and worked into the soil in the early spring. Alternatively, they can also be planted in spring or summer, and then tilled into the soil before planting a vegetable crop. They can also be planted in place of a vegetable crop and then worked into the soil to condition it for the following year’s crops.

Green manure crops consist of both legume and non-legume plants. Legumes such as field peas or vetch are planted for their nitrogen-fixing ability while non-legumes – grain crops like rye or wheat are planted for their ability to crowd out weeds. A wide variety of plants can be used as green manure crops. The table below lists some common ones.

The University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension gives these instructions for planting. To plant a cover crop or green manure, first clear the planting area of any large stones and other debris.  Rake the area smooth and broadcast seed according to the seeding rate given in Table 1 or as recommended by the seed provider.  Rake the area again to incorporate the seeds into the soil, and lightly water the area. To prevent the cover crop from self-seeding in other areas of your garden, and to utilize the cover crop to its fullest potential, cut down plants when, or just before, they start to flower.  You can cut plants by hand, or by using a trimmer, brush cutter, or mower.  Cutting before flowering not only prevents the cover crop from going to seed, but also stops the plant from taking up nutrients from the soil to store in its seed.  Once plants have been cut, incorporate the plants into the soil (using a shovel, pitch fork or rototiller) where they can more readily decompose.  Allow approximately two to three weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting your vegetables into the soil. (Source: University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension)

So if you are looking for a way to improve the condition of your soil, and the brown manure isn’t doing the job, then why not try the green?

How Do I Know Which Mushrooms to Grow?

So you’ve decided to grow your own mushrooms. Congratulations! Mushroom growing is a wonderful hobby, and like gardening, there is a certain feeling of pride that comes with producing your own fungal treasures.

But now comes an important question – where do I begin? Just like when you were a beginning gardener, you should start with something easy. Once you’ve mastered coaxing a decent yield out of the substrate of an easy-to-grow species, then you can move onto something more challenging. But which species are easiest to grow? And what other factors are there to consider?

Some species require a great deal of maintenance, and thus should be avoided by the beginner. Maitake or hen of the woods, for example, requires a cold shock, 10-20oF (5.6-11oC), followed by a period of initiation under high carbon dioxide and humidity, and then followed by a high dose of oxygen. It can be tricky to create all of those conditions, not to mention the expense required to procure all the right equipment to make it all happen. So maitake mushrooms should probably be avoided by the beginning grower. On the other hand, oyster mushrooms are very easy to grow – indeed you can purchase specialized kits that require you to put in no more effort than slitting the side of a box and keeping it moist for a week or so, resulting in a quick yield of some tasty mushrooms.

Here are some other factors to consider.

Ease of identification – how easily you can tell your cultivated mushrooms apart from “weed” fungi. This is more of a factor with mushrooms grown outdoors on wood chips.

Substrate specificity – what kind of medium is required to grow a particular mushroom. Oyster mushrooms, for example, will grow on a wide variety of substrates — wheat straw, coffee grounds, hardwood conifers, agriculture waste, etc., all things that are fairly easy to obtain. Your local bakery would probably more than happy to give you all of their food waste that you can handle, and your oyster mushrooms will be perfectly happy growing on it. Maitake, on the other hand, will grow only on oak logs or oak wood chips. To be sure, you can get wood chips from a nursery, but they probably won’t be oak.

Temperature range and sensitivity – Just as you would not attempt to grow a plant from USDA Hardiness Zone 10 (average annual low 40oF-30oF) in Zone 6 (average annual low 0oF-minus 10oF), you would want to make sure that the mushroom species you wish to grow can survive the climate in your area. So if you live in the Chicago area, with that Zone 6 average annual low, then a hairy panus mushroom, which grows at tropical temperatures of 86-100+oF, would not be a good species to start with. Instead, try a shiitake or an oyster.

Time to maturation and yield – Some mushroom species are slow to produce, while others will fruit quickly. If you’re the impatient type, then you probably don’t want to start with truffles (10 years) or even king stropharia (4-6 months). Oysters take only about 10 days to produce.

Infrastructure – If you choose to start from scratch instead of growing from a kit, your choice of what to grow will be limited by the amount of physical space you have and substrates available to you. If logs and tree debris are all that you can get, then you will be limited to shiitake and whatever else grows on logs. If you can obtain wood chips from your local arborist, then you can grow king stropharia. If you can spare an extra room, such as a bathroom or closet, then you can have an indoor growing operation, using those extra rooms for colonization and fruiting.

So start with easy to grow species right for your climate on whatever substrate you can easily obtain, and will have improved the odds that you will get a bountiful harvest of delicious and nutritious mushrooms.

A Green Cure for the Winter Blues

Scientists and medical professionals tell us that we are in for a long, cold, COVID-laden winter. In an effort to avoid exposure to this terrible disease, most of us will hunker down in our homes, avoiding contact as much as possible with anyone outside of our household. And since most of the bars, restaurants, stadiums, casinos, etc. will be shut down by state authorities, there will be few places for us to go anyway. So the next three or four months do, indeed, look quite bleak.

But there are things we can do to mitigate some of the boredom and loneliness, and one of the best is to grow and cultivate some greenery. A few well-placed houseplants can provide some color to brighten up an otherwise dull indoors and improve the blah feelings brought on by a bleak winter landscape. You can even grow some edibles – sprouts, microgreens, herbs, lettuce to provide you with some fresh and nutritious food to offset boring stews and pot roasts.

And then, when you’ve finished all of that, start thumbing through the gardening catalogs that will soon be hitting your mailbox or peruse their websites and see all the new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you can plant in 2021. Then get out a sketch pad and/or some graph paper and start planning out that beautiful productive garden. It may not change the winter landscape outside your window, but in your heart, snow will melt, skies will clear, and for a few minutes at least, you’ll find yourself feeling a whole lot less miserable. Yes, indeed, nothing chases away a blue mood and lightens the blackness in one’s heart like a bracing dose of green!

Milk It For All It’s Worth

Milk. It’s the major ingredient in cheesemaking. Without milk, there can be no cheese. But when shopping for milk, the home cheesemaker will find him or herself confronted with a wide variety of different milk and milk derivatives that can potentially be used for making cheese. So which kind is right? Which milks will give you a smooth, firm, and flavorful cheese and which will result in a whole lot of nothing? Well, allow me to help sort this out for you.

Raw milk – this is the milk that comes directly from the animal and is filtered and cooled. Think of it as “milk on tap.” Because it has not been subjected to the heat of pasteurization, all of the protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. are intact. Some will claim that raw milk has a flavor that is fuller and richer than that of pasteurized milk. These same folks will also claim that raw milk gives you a much better cheese. Raw milk, however, can also harbor some nasty bacteria — Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Brucella abortus, Brucella melitensis, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, so you have to be very careful when using raw milk. Under US law, raw milk cheeses must be aged for longer than sixty days before they can be sold commercially.

Homogenized milk – is milk that has been heat-treated and pressurized to break up the fat globules. This keeps the cream in solution and prevents it from rising to the top. If you use this kind of milk to make cheese, it will produce curds that are smoother and less firm than those from raw milk.

Cream-line milk – the opposite of homogenized. Here the cream portion separates from the rest of the milk and rises to the top.

Pasteurized milk – milk that has been heated to 145oF and cooled quickly. Pasteurization kills all bacteria, both the harmful ones and the natural microflora that are useful in cheesemaking. This is why, when making cheese with pasteurized milk, we have to add our own starter cultures. Pasteurization also denatures proteins, and denatures some of the vitamin and mineral content of milk.

Ultrapasteurized milk – has been heated to 191oF for at least 1 second. This is done to give the milk a longer shelf life, but it absolutely destroys everything within – protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. As a result, ultrapasteurized milk is worthless for making cheese!

Ultra-Heat-Treated (UHT) milk – This product is created by flash-heating milk at a temperature of 275-300oF. This is the milk that you see packaged in foil-lined containers on grocery shelves. Unlike ultrapasteurized milk, UHT milk can be used for cheesemaking, but only for making soft cheeses.

Whole milk – contains all of its original ingredients and has a fat content (from cream) of 3.5-4%. This is the most typical milk used in cheesemaking.

Nonfat (Skim) Milk – Most of the cream has been removed from this type of milk, which reduces the butterfat content down to 1-2%. Skim milk does have uses in cheesemaking, including making prepared starter culture, as the main ingredient in hard grating cheeses such as Romano and Parmesan, and for making lower-fat soft cheeses, In addition, skim milk can be used to make other dairy products such as buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, etc.

Dry Milk Powder – these are dehydrated milk solids. This product is useful if you happen to find yourself someplace where you cannot get access to fluid milk. Simply mix 1-1/3 cups of dry milk powder in 3-3/4 cups of water, and you’ll have one quart of fluid milk. And there’s no need to worry about bacterial contamination, because the dehydrating process inactivates any bacteria that may have been present in the milk solids.

Nut and Bean Milks – are processed liquids made from beans such as soy and nuts such as almond and cashew. Nut and bean milks can be used to make soft cheeses and other dairy products, however, final products from batch to batch are much less consistent than those of mammalian milks.

Buttermilk – Buttermilk was originally the liquid drained from a churn after butter was made. The buttermilk purchased in stores is a cultured buttermilk that is made by adding bacterial starter culture to pasteurized skim milk. This cultured buttermilk can then be used to make soft cheeses.

Cream – This is the fatty portion of milk. For cheesemaking, only two kinds of creams are useful – light whipping cream and half-and-half. Do not attempt to make cheese with heavy whipping cream; the excess fat will interfere with the cheesemaking process. And there you have it – a guide to the right milk to use for the kind of cheeses you wish to make. I hope you’ll find this information udderly delightful.

The Overarching Importance of Water

Water. We all need it. Plants, insects, animals, humans – without water, we would perish very quickly. But have you ever stopped to think about how exactly water plays its part in the growth of green plants?

Water dissolves plant nutrients in the soil. Nearly all of the nutrients necessary for plants to survive and thrive are in a solid form unable to be absorbed by a plant’s roots. When these nutrients become immersed in water, the water molecules surround the nutrient molecules (i.e. dissolution) rendering them more readily able to pass into plant roots to then be transported to every living cell that makes up that plant’s structure

Water plays an important role in plant biological activities. We all know that photosynthesis occurs when light strikes the chloroplasts in plant cells, but water is also necessary for this important chemical process to occur, as shown in the chemical equation below.

6CO2 +6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2

Water is also necessary for building and breaking down DNA and various plant proteins.

Water is important as a source of hydrogen. Plants cannot absorb hydrogen from the atmosphere. They can only get the hydrogen they need through the water in the soil.

Water is needed to keep plants cool. Without water, a hot dunny summer day would be the finish of most, if not all plant life on this planet.

In nature, plants get the water they need from rain, snow, surface drainage water, and underground water. In our gardens, we need to supply the majority of the water that plants need, as rain, underground water, and surface drainage water on their own can’t supply enough to meet the plants’ needs. And garden plants don’t grow in snow. So remember this the next time you pour water out of a can or turn the hose on your garden plants. You’re not just giving the plants a drink. You are sustaining the biochemistry that is the very foundation of plant life.

Never Be Ashamed of Your Gardening Mistakes

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

-from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Mistakes. We all make them. All of us. Every one of us has done something we later wish we hadn’t; not done something we later wish we had; or executed an action that seemed to be right at the time, but later proved to be wrong. And so on and so on. And few places are as wrought with the consequences of wrong action as in our very own gardens.

How do we make mistakes in the garden? Let me count the ways.

  1. We get overly ambitious and try to plant beyond our degree of experience, and wind up overwhelmed
  2. We plant something without researching it first, only to find that it fails to grow or grows so well that it crowds out the rest of your vegetables
  3. We don’t properly prepare our soil before planting
  4. We fail to protect our crops from marauding critters that eat everything down to the roots
  5. We plant our garden where there is not enough sunlight
  6. We plant our crops too close together, which causes mold and fungus to attack our plants and either kill them outright or severely reduce the yield we get from them

I’m sure we’re all familiar with these, and I’m sure some of you are familiar with more of these than you care to admit. Some of us, especially the beginners, are apt to feel disappointed, dejected, or even outright humiliated when our hard work comes to naught. Some of us might feel so awful that we’re ready to throw in the trowel and never garden again. Well, don’t. One mistake, one failure, does not define you as a black-thumb gardener.

A very wise man once said to me, “If you’ve never been fired, it means that you never try anything new.” In a similar vein, if you never fail at anything, it means that you never attempt anything new – never try to stretch beyond your comfort zone. And this also holds true in gardening. If you’ve never had a gardening failure, it means that you never attempt anything innovative in your gardening efforts. So don’t waste time lamenting your so-called failure. Take some time to curl up and lick your wounds, if you must. Then give yourself a hearty pat on the back for attempting something new – whether that’s a brand new garden or a brand new plant in an existing garden. Then, and this is the important part, try to figure out where things went off the rails. There is a solution to every gardening problem, and with enough investigation and soul-searching, you’ll find it. Yes, you made a mistake or two, but you made it for all the right reasons. And you’ll be far more knowledgeable and savvy than the timid one who never fails but never grows beyond the confining dimensions of his or her comfort zone.

Clean It Up

As the end of gardening season approaches, our gardens will, no doubt, be strewn with dead plants, bent or broken supports, and other assorted bric-a-brac. It’s late in the year, and as far as you’re concerned, you are done with gardening for the season. As for the debris? “Ahh, I’ll clean it up in the spring,” you say.

Bad move. Leaving a garden full of junk is a poor practice – one that will hinder your future efforts to have a healthy garden full of high-yielding vegetable plants. Leaving a garden full of weeds, damaged trellises, dead plants, and God knows what else is like sending out an invitation for all the vermin and pests to come spend the winter in your garden – and never leave.

Certain insect pests can survive the winter all cozily nestled up in the debris you refused to clean up. Did you have a problem with cabbageworms? Guess what? They’ll be plaguing your next year’s crop of cabbage thanks to the winter home you provide for them. Did cucumber beetles chew up a good portion of last year’s cucumber crop? Well, don’t expect winter weather to be their last hurrah, not as long as they have some nice dead plants for them to stay warm in. And were you and your tomato plants blessed by some of those fat green tomato hornworms? Don’t shed any tears for them; they’ll spend the winter as pupae all snug and warm in a pile of dead tomato plants. Then come spring, the moth will emerge and lay eggs on your tomato plants. Hello tomato hornworms! Goodbye tomatoes!

But it doesn’t have to be this way as long as you follow this simple three-word instruction – clean it up! Gather up the spent plants and dead weeds, and either toss them out or put them in your compost pile (as long as the plants weren’t infested with disease). Removing this garden junk leaves the pests with nowhere to hide, run, or overwinter. This will help reduce the odds that next year’s vegetable crops will be overrun with plant-devouring larvae or adult insects. Insects can be a severe problem in your garden. Don’t carry the problem into next year by giving these insects shelter over the winter so they can come back next year and render all your hard work in vain. Clean up your garden now, and give those insect pests the boot!

The Changing Moods of Autumn

Those foxes barking at the moon
Tell me easy weather will soon be gone
Frost is in the air
Change is everywhere, darling
This time of year, a change comes over me

-Dillon Bustin

As autumn leaves begin to fall, days change from long to short, and weather changes from warm to cold, many of us, to paraphrase Dillon Bustin, feel a change coming over us. A change of clothing, a change of activities, a change of meals to be sure, but many of also feel a change from happiness and serenity to one of sadness and despair. We lament the disappearance of “easy weather” and dread the long dark nights, chilly temperatures, piles of blowing and drifting snow, and hazardous driving conditions. And this year we also lament all the spring and summer fun and frolic that COVID-19 has stolen from us, and we fear that that winter weather will only exacerbate this terrible pandemic.

But we gardeners know that, in the words of Audrey Hepburn, “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Yes, spring and summer do not last forever. But neither do fall and winter. All seasons have their time and when that time is concluded, the next season takes hold. Yes, autumn and winter can often be miserable and depressing. But they will eventually pass, spring and summer will once more take hold, temperatures will change from cold to warm, days will change from short to long, and we can once again be outdoors with our faces to the sunshine and our hands in the soil.

In the meantime, we can soothe out misery with some sadness-busting activities. We can write letters to family and friends – real letters, not e-mails or texts. We can relax and meditate. We can grow herbs, sprouts, and microgreens indoors. We can cook delicious meals with the garden vegetables we’ve preserved. We can eagerly anticipate the new gardening catalogs filling our mailboxes, and then we can look through them to plan out next year’s garden. Doing some or all of these can greatly help to make winter’s misery a lighter shade of blue. So cheer up, my gardening friends. Autumn and winter may bring on some sadness, but only for a short while. Soon, spring and summer will be at your door with a fresh delivery of joy!

The Month Of Unrealized Dreams

The beginning of any new year is always a time of excitement. We gaze out at the days, weeks, and months to come and eagerly make our plans of all the wonderful things we’re going to do. Some of us plan housing renovation projects, others plan dream vacations, while still others eagerly look forward to upcoming weddings, confirmations, bar- or bat-mitzvahs, family reunions, college and high school class reunions, etc. All in all, we look forward to a wonderful year of fun and accomplishment.

Then, come September, we realize that many of the dreams we’ve dreamed and the plans we’ve made have gone unfulfilled. We’ve allowed day-to-day minutia and/or events and circumstances, anticipated or otherwise, to hinder fulfillment of January’s plans and dreams. And this year, of course, we’ve had an additional wrinkle – a protein-spiked virus called SARS-CoV-2, which has wreaked havoc on so many lives – perhaps even those of friends, loved ones, or even you yourself.

So it’s no wonder that for some of us, when September arrives, we look back at the emerging life and warmth of spring and the long days and easy weather of summer with regret, disappointment, and even sadness. Then we look ahead to the upcoming months of fall and winter with a sense of doom and foreboding and wonder if we will ever fulfill our dreams and achieve our goals.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you’re happy, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” Sounds rather depressing at first, but look below the surface. What it means is that nothing lasts forever. Good times, good feelings, and easy-weather seasons don’t remain forever. Sooner or later, they end, and less than perfect feelings, situations, and seasons arise. But the flip side is also true. Bad times, bad feelings, and bad seasons don’t last forever either. They, too, have their conclusion. It may be hard to believe when you’re right in the thick of winter snow and freezing temperatures, job loss, the fallout from the actions of a wayward child, or the devastation of a pandemic. But in the words of an old gospel tune, “clouds and storm will in time pass away; the sun again will shine bright and clear.” All of the garbage that’s happening right now – whether it be the world’s garbage or your own personal trash, will eventually come to an end. The storms will pass and we will see sunshine again. And when we do, we will dream new dreams, and rise up again with new determination to fulfill them. And then, when another September rolls around, we’ll look back with joy and happiness and say, “What do you know? I did everything that I so carefully planned out at the year’s beginning.”

We who grow gardens know this very well. Every spring, we eagerly plan out what we want to grow and how we’re going to arrange it. We prepare our soil and put our seeds and plants in the ground. We water them, feed them, and weed them. And then, in September, we look at the results. Does everything always go according to plan? No, it does not. Sometimes, weather conditions are not always favorable to our efforts. Sometimes, we try some new plants or new varieties of familiar plants, and the results fail to live up to our expectations. Sometimes insects and animals tear through our garden like a cannonball through toilet paper and leave us with nothing but dead or dying plants. And yes, we gardeners are subject to the same kind of disappointment and regret that anyone else who didn’t take that vacation or never started that home repair project might feel. But we gardeners also have a never-say-die attitude. We mourn the unfulfilled results of our labors, but then we pick ourselves up and we say, “Next year will be better.” And then when the next year rolls around, we plan, prepare, plant, and cultivate anew. And then come September, we say, “What do you know? I got a bountiful harvest this year.

So don’t let the regret of what you didn’t accomplish this year get you down. There will always be new opportunities for new plans and new successes. Keep dreaming about and planning out those goals, projects, vacations, and, of course, gardens. And then you’ll wake up one September morning and realize that you are living in a month of fulfilled goals and realized dreams.

Brown Gold for Your Garden

The leaves of brown came tumbling down
Remember
That September
In the rain

-Harry Warren and Al Dubin

The shortening days of autumn signal the leaves on the trees to stop producing chlorophyll. This, in turn, causes the green to slowly fade revealing the remaining colorful pigments. Soon, even those begin to fade away, and the leaves soon fall to the ground and start to decompose.

Most homeowners will merely rake the leaves into piles, toss the piles in bags, and bring those bags to the curb for the recyclers or garbage men to take away. But we gardeners know better than to do that. Instead of letting those leaves take up space in a landfill where they are no good to anyone, we use these leaves to enrich our garden soil and restore the nutrients that our garden vegetable crops have taken away. And unlike real gold, this brown gold costs nothing to “mine and refine.”

So how do we make the best use of this brown gold?

  1. Pile whole leaves on top of the soil as a mulch to protect bulbs such as garlic, onions, or even flower bulbs such as tulip, snowdrop, and crocus.
  2. Chop them up finely, add them to a compost pile, and let them decompose along with the rest of the material in there. Chopping is necessary, as it creates more surface area and allows the bacteria to decompose the leaves in less time. If your own trees aren’t producing enough leaves to give you sufficient compost, offer to take some from your friends and neighbors. I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige, unless of course they want them for their own compost pile.
  3. Chop them up finely and work them directly into your garden soil. During the following three or four months of winter, the soil bacteria will break down the chopped leaves and release the nutrient material in those leaves into the soil. When spring arrives, you’ll have looser, lighter, more nutrient-rich soil all ready for spring planting.

So don’t waste this precious nutrient-laden material that Mother Nature gives us for free every autumn. Let’s recycle this precious organic material back into our gardens. It’s going to decompose and release nutrients no matter what we do or don’t do. So let’s work with Mother Nature. I promise you that if we do, then Mother Nature will work with us.