Smile, Though the Season’s Ending

Me with Sue and Judy's Garden

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking

“Smile” by Charles Chaplin, John Turner, and Geoffrey Parsons

Another gardening season is slowly but steadily drawing to a close. Soon the garden implements will be cleaned, oiled, and put away for the last time this year. The hose will be rolled up and stored away, and the last tomato eaten. Seven months of planting, cultivating, and harvesting – and now it’s all over. Soon, the patch of ground which you tended with great care and joy will be covered over with a mass of cold, white misery. And cold and white in great abundance will be the theme for the next three or four months.

Sound depressing? Well it is – if you choose to focus on the misery of cold and snow. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” So let’s heed his wise advice and smile. Smile as the snowflakes blanket the patch of ground that once blossomed with bright and colorful fruits and vegetables. Smile as you turn up the heat and throw on another sweater. And smile even when you’ve had it up to here with the holiday season. Because, my friends, you have a lot to smile about. You have a cupboard filled with pickles, chutneys, jams, and jellies. Your meals crackle with flavor because of all the herbs that you harvested, dried, and added to the food. You have fresh produce in cold storage in your basement, window well, or buried in the ground to be savored whenever you choose. And every time you bite into one of these carefully preserved fruits and vegetables, the misery of winter disappears for a few moments and a glint of summer comes shining through.

And very soon, the seed catalogs will start filling your mailbox, starting as a trickle in December and turning into a flood by March – which brings us to a final, smile-inducing reminder that cold, ice, and snow do not last forever. The earth will once again tilt towards the sun, the days will start getting longer, and the weather warmer. And before you know it, it will be time once again to start tilling the soil, planting seed, and preparing for another season of gardening.

So smile, my friends. Gardening never truly ends. It just takes a short hiatus. But it will always come back. Always.

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If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Grow Peppers

 

Carolina Reaper

Some like it hot. No, I’m not referring to the movie. I’m talking about the way people like to spice up their meals. When it comes to heat and spice, people’s tastes run the gamut. Some prefer their meals bland, with very little spice, while others prefer their meals gut-burning, furnace-fire hot.

One of the best ways to heat up a meal is to add in hot peppers. But how do you know which peppers will give you the right amount of heat?

The spiciness/heat of peppers and other spicy foods are measured on what is known as the Scoville scale. Named after Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), this scale measures the amount of capsaicin (8-methyl N-vanillyl 6-nonenamide) and other similar compounds (capsaicinoids). It is these compounds that make peppers “hot” (as well as any meals or sauces to which they are added).

Sweet peppers, which have little or no capsaicin, register zero on the Scoville scale. Others like the habanero, blaze in at 300,000 Scoville heat units (SHU).

Just how hot is hot when it comes to peppers? According to Pepperhead.com, the ten hottest peppers are as follows:

  1. Red Savina Habanero 500,000 SHU
    9. 7 Pot Red (Giant) ~1,000,000 SHU
    8. 7 Pot Barrackpore ~1,000,000 SHU
    7. Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia) 1,041,427 SHU
    6. Naga Viper 1,349,000 SHU
    5. Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” 1,463,700 SHU
    4. 7 Pot Primo 1,469,000 SHU
    3. 7 Pot Douglah 1,853,936 SHU
    2. Trinidad Moruga Scorpion 2,009,231 SHU
    1. Carolina Reaper 2,200,000 SHU

So if you want some spice in your rice and heat in your meat, then mix in some of these babies. In the words of the comic book superhero The Human Torch – FLAME ON!!

It Ain’t Over ‘Til You See the White of the Frost

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By now, many of you are beginning to see the sun setting on the horizon of your gardening season. You’re beginning to think about (or perhaps have already started) harvesting the last of the fruits and vegetables, throwing away (or composting) the spent plants, enriching your soil with humus and compost, turning it all over and mixing it in, washing and putting away your tools, and calling it a season. And you can do that if you so desire. But gardening does not have to end just yet. There are still vegetables you can plant and get a final harvest before the frost sets in and the snow flies.

Remember the cool season crops you planted in the early spring? Well, guess what? They work equally well in the fall. Lettuce, spinach, brassicas (kale, mustard, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.), and root crops (parsnip, leek, rutabaga, salsify, etc.) can all be grown in the fall. And should a light frost occur, it will have little or no effect, because these plants can take it. Frost actually improves the flavor of kale and parsnips. In addition, some root crops can be left in the ground over the winter months. So if you have a sudden hankering for parsnip leek soup in mid-February, just go out to the garden, dig up some parsnips and leeks, and brew yourself a feast. Note: please do not announce to your household that you are going out in the garden to take a leek.

Remember, gardening does not have to come to a screeching halt come fall. There’s still some life left in the growing season. Why not make the most of it?

Take A Stand For Gardening And Spread The Word

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Why do we garden? Well there’s lots of reasons why – fresh food, exercise, cost, etc. But perhaps the biggest driver of our desire to garden can be summed up in one word – refusal. We refuse to put up with rock-hard, bland-tasting, vitamin- and mineral-depleted fruits and vegetables that are the standard fare at most grocery stores. We refuse to fill our mouths and bellies (and for that matter, those of our children) with pesticide-soaked, herbicide-infused, laboratory-altered produce. And lastly, we refuse to shell out our hard earned money for all of the aforementioned. We want our fruits and vegetables to taste fresh and provide a full complement of natural nutritive factors that our bodies need to survive and thrive. And we don’t want to live in fear that the produce we are putting into our mouths has been doused with cancer-causing chemicals or disease-laden poop fresh from the animal’s butt. When we grow fruits and vegetables ourselves, we know we have absolute control over what goes on it – or more importantly, what doesn’t go on it.

“What’s your point, Mark,” you may be saying to yourself. “I know all this already. I’m a gardener for the very reasons you just mentioned. And so are my family, my friends – heck, I belong to a whole club full of gardeners. You’re preaching to the choir.” And you’re right, I am. But there’s a reason for that. I want to first remind everyone why we do what we do. And then I want you to carry it one step further.

There’s a whole world out there that’s still dining on bland, pesticide-soaked, industrial produce. But we, as dedicated gardeners, can change this. How? By spreading the hobby of gardening among your family, friends, neighbors, and communities. And then by convincing your communities to spread it among other communities.

How can you accomplish this? Well, you can start by the simple act of sharing. Share your excess produce with your extended family, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone else you can think of. You’ll be showing them what real food tastes like. After they bite into a fresh, home-grown tomato, it will be hard for them to go back to the bland, store-bought stuff.

Second, convince them to start their own garden. Encourage them to create their own production center for fresh, wholesome, pesticide-free food for their family. And then, just like the 1980’s commercial for Fabregé Organics, have them encourage two friends – then have them encourage two friends, and so on, and so on…

Just think what would happen if we became a nation of gardeners and stopped purchasing all that tasteless, pesticide-laced produce. We could bring all of those industrial producers to their knees by hitting them where it hurts – in the profit zone. Then maybe they’d start growing better fruits and vegetables.

A pipe dream? Probably. But certainly a goal worth aiming for.

One more thing. If you do convince your friends, neighbors, community, etc. to start gardening, and they find that they need some help, well, just tell them to contact your friendly neighborhood Garden Troubadour. Have trowel, will travel!

Cheese Cheese Everywhere

Accasciato

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” – Charles de Gaulle

Ah, cheese. That decadent, delicious dairy delight that we all love to consume. But how many of us have really experienced the world of cheese? How many of us have truly all the different varieties of cheese that are out there? Very few of us, I’d wager. When it comes to this culinary delight, the majority of us are trapped in our own little bubble of cheddar, American, Mozzarella, Parmesan (usually in pre-grated form), and a few others. And this is unfortunate because there’s a whole world of cheese out there just waiting to be enjoyed. And when I say world, I mean all around planet Earth. Nearly every nation around the globe has one or more cheeses that are unique to their piece of geography. You’re probably familiar with Gruyere and Emmental from Switzerland, Parmesan and Romano from Italy, or Brie from France. But have you ever tried Vacherin Fribourgeois? That’s another cheese from Switzerland. How about Accasciato and Bel Paise from Italy or Cendre d’Olivet from France? Or why not get really crazy and serve Ackawi, Baladi, Kanafeh, Kashkaval, and Shanklish at your next dinner party. Those cheeses are all from Lebanon.

Okay those last few are a bit exotic and probably not available here in the US. But it still illustrates my point – that when it comes to cheese, there’s an infinite number of ways to provide some new sensations for your palate.

So if it’s cheese you want and love, then I encourage you to think outside the cheddar box and try some new varieties. Your palate will thank you. Note: if you have to think outside the Velveeta box or the Chez-Whiz can, then you’re beyond help.

Insecticides, Piscacides, and Homicides

Insecticides

We all want a successful garden. We all want our vegetable and fruit plants to yield large quantities of wholesome, intact, fresh fruits and vegetables. So when we see insect pests turning our plants, fruits, and vegetables into Swiss cheese, we immediately think of three things – kill, kill, and kill again! We want those intruders dead, and we’re willing to go to any lengths to do this. We’ll go to the nearest big box store and purchase the first bottle of unpronounceable chemicals we find. As long as it promises to kill those garden pests, that’s all we care about.

But before you start spraying that stuff on your plants, please stop, take a deep breath, and think about what you’re about to do. You will be introducing a synthetic substance into the environment that may have long-lasting harmful effects. Furthermore, that stuff may hang around for a long time and multiply those harmful effects. These products not only kill the insects that are eating your plants, but they may also kill or otherwise cause great harm to a whole host of other living creatures.

Meet the rogue’s gallery.

Malathion – Malathion is an organophosphate insecticide used to control leaf-eating insects such as aphids, leafhoppers, and Japanese beetles on flowers, shrubs, fruits, and vegetables. It’s also used for large-scale mosquito control. It is available for home use under the brand names of Ortho MAX Malathion and Spectracide Malathion Insect Spray Concentrate. Malathion is highly toxic to fish and bees and mildly toxic to birds. If ingested, the human body converts malathion to malaoxin, which may be strongly toxic to humans. Malathion may also be carcinogenic.

Carbaryl – Carbaryl is the third most widely-used pesticide for home gardens, commercial agriculture, and forestry and rangeland protection. It is most commonly sold under the name Sevin. Carbaryl is used to control aphids, fire ants, fleas, ticks, spiders and other types of garden pests. The EPA considers Carbaryl “likely to be carcinogenic in humans,” due to laboratory studies showing increased tumors in mice exposed to it. Toxicity is low for fish, birds, and other animals, but high for bees.

Acetamiprid – Acetamiprid is a neonicotinoid used to control sucking-type insects on vegetables, fruits, cotton, and ornamental plants and flowers. While classified as “unlikely to be a human carcinogen,” nevertheless, like Malathion and Carbaryl, it is highly toxic to bees.

Permethrin – Permethrin is a dual use product. Medically, it’s used to treat and prevent head lice and as a treatment for scabies. Permethrin is listed as a “restricted use” substance by the EPA because it is highly toxic to aquatic life. It’s sold commercially as Ortho® Bug-B-Gon MAX® Garden Insect Killer Dust. While it’s not toxic to mammals and birds, it is strongly toxic to cats and fish.

Metaldehyde – Metaldehyde is used to control gastropod pests such as slugs and snails. It is sold commercially as Ortho® Bug-Geta® Plus Snail, Slug & Insect Killer. At 50 ppm, it is considered mildly toxic and a breathing irritant.

It’s important to remember that these products are designed for one purpose only – to kill. And they don’t do a good job in discriminating between the “bad” bugs and the “good” bugs. In addition, they do not break down in the environment very quickly, so they tend to stick around inflicting their toxicity for a long time after initial application. So I recommend going easy with these products, or better yet, don’t use them at all. Doing the latter will help insure that we do not cause undue harm to the world around us.

 

It Themes Like a Good Idea

Pizza Garden

 

As much as we all love gardening, there are times when it starts to get a little – well, dull. This is especially true when you find yourself planting the same kind of vegetables in the same space in the same patterns. Year after year, you know exactly what to expect. And it’s starting to get a bit boring.

Fortunately, there is a cure for this. It’s called the theme garden. With a theme garden, you choose a particular concept that you want your garden to reflect, and then you fill it with plants that fit that theme. A pizza garden, for example, would contain the plants of vegetables and herbs that you would typically find on a pizza, such as oregano, onions, basil, parsley, and tomatoes. A healing garden would contain herbs that have medicinal uses.

Here are some other ideas for themes around which you can build a garden.

Heirlooms – a garden of open pollinated, non-hybrid fruits and vegetables

Unusually-Colored Vegetables – fruits and vegetable cultivars that have a color that you don’t normally associate with those vegetables. Some examples would be Purple Dragon carrots, Black Krim tomatoes, Lemon cucumbers, Hopi Blue corn, and Rainbow chard.

A Garden of Song – fruits, vegetables, and other plants that show up in song titles. A flower garden of song, for example could include roses (“Rambling Rose”, “Roses of Picardy”); tulips (“Tiptoe Through the Tulips”), buttercups (“Build Me Up Buttercup”), and begonias (“Scarlet Begonias”)

Alphabet Garden – fruits, vegetables, and flowers that begin with each letter of the alphabet. If you have young children, this can be both fun and educational.

Those are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. If you’d like more, then check out the website of the NC State College of Design, https://naturalearning.org/theme-gardens. And with a little brainstorming, I’m certain that you, too, can come up with some interesting garden themes. Then you can take your garden from snore to roar!

Themes. The cure for the common garden.

Jump the Equinox

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Don’t try to tell her she has to wait for robins to sing.
Don’t ever say she’s jumping the gun by pushing the spring.
She’ll wave a dirty trowel and say, “So what if I do?
If you had spent your life fighting winter, you’d push it too.”

Pushing Spring Tango, by Peter and Lou Berryman

It’s coming. In fact it’s “just around the corner,” to use the cliché. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the vernal equinox (a.k.a. spring) will arrive on March 20th at 12:15 PM EDT. Oh happy day! Spring will be here at last! Time to put away the snow shovels and winter clothing! Time to dance in the sunshine and warm weather! And, of course, it’s time to get out in the garden, dig up the soil, and begin planting!

Uh, not so fast. We humans with our artificial time measurements may have decided that spring has arrived on a certain day, but Mother Nature may be a little behind us. It is still possible to have snow in March and April and even remotely in May. And temperatures have not yet risen to “let’s hit the beach” levels yet. The soil will be too cold and hard to dig, and even if you do succeed in planting something in it, I can almost guarantee that you’re going to get a whole lot of nothing.

“But I’m so tired of being cooped up in the house and being surrounded by nothing but snow, cold, and miserable wet weather,” you say. “I can’t take it anymore! I want to get out and plant – now!”

Oh ye of little patience. But fortunately there are solutions for eager beavers like you. They are called season extending devices. Collectively, they are physical structures designed to insulate tender seedlings from harsh weather and allow you to get an early start on the growing season and keep on growing after the season officially ends.

There are many examples of season extending devices.

Plastic milk cartons – These are probably the simplest and cheapest types of season extending devices. Simply take a washed empty plastic milk carton, cut off the bottom two inches and use the remainder to cover each individual plant.

Plastic Milk Carton

Bell cloche – These are structures made out of glass and shaped like a bell. They work the same way as plastic milk cartons. They are beautifully constructed and tend to be more aesthetically pleasing than plastic milk cartons. However, they are still glass and will still break if you drop them, so be careful.

Bell Cloche

Row covers – Row covers are fabric blankets that come in a wide variety of thicknesses. They are placed over growing seedlings and supported by metal or plastic hoops. Heavy fabric row covers are used to insulate plants from cold temperatures; lighter weight fabric row covers are used to protect plants from insect pests.

Row Cover

Cold frame/hot bed – Cold frames are mini-greenhouses. They consist of a wooden structure with a hinged transparent lid (the transparent portion is usually made of glass surrounded by a wooden frame. They function the same way as true greenhouses, namely that sunlight shines through the glass top and warms up the inside. The heat cannot escape so the inside remains warmer than the surrounding atmosphere. On warmer days, the lid is opened slightly to allow excess heat to escape. If supplemental heat is provided, then the cold frame becomes a hot bed.

Raised Bed

Wall o’ water – These consist of series of plastic “pockets” that, when filled with water, create a teepee-like structure that surrounds the plant. The water filled tubes absorb the heat of the sun during the day and releases heat to the plants at night. If the temperature should drop to zero and the water freeze, then more heat is released to keep the plant warm (remember, water has to release heat in order to freeze). On some cold nights, it’s not unheard of to see steam rising out of the walls o’ water.

wall-o-water

So if you truly cannot wait for warmer weather, then go ahead and plant. But if you want your seeds and seedlings to actually grow, then I strongly recommend investing in a season extending device such as the ones listed above.

Heal the Crick, Raise the Bed

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Snap! Crackle! Pop! No, these are not the sounds that come from your Rice Krispies when you pour milk on them. These are the sounds that come from your back and your joints every time you bend or squat. And it’s not only the sound, but it’s also the fury – the fury of pain that makes it more difficult to lower yourself down and lift yourself back up. Unfortunately, in-ground gardening requires that you do just that. For many people who can no longer bend or squat without pain, gardening seems like a pastime that’s now past its time. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can’t come down to the garden, then let the garden rise up to you.

I’m talking about building raised beds. Raised beds are a system of gardening in which the soil is formed in 3–4 foot (1.0–1.2 m) wide beds, which can be of any length or shape. Inside the bed, the soil is lifted above the surrounding ground and is held in place by a frame made of wood, rock, or concrete blocks. Raised beds can be as high or as low as you want them to be. If you can bend a moderate amount, then maybe you only need to raise the soil a few inches. On the other hand, if bending even a small amount yields an overabundance of discomfort, then you can raise the soil waist or chest high if need be. With a raised bed, you can still garden without having to bend or squat.

Raised beds also have several other advantages over conventional in-ground gardens. The soil in them warms up faster than that of conventional gardens, which means you can get your vegetables in the ground sooner. Raised beds are also easier to care for, as you don’t have to spend a lot of time watering and weeding them. And because they tend to be only about 3-4 feet wide, you can easily cultivate them without stepping inside and compacting the soil.

So if you find that your back and knees don’t take so kindly to bending anymore, don’t feel that you have to give up gardening entirely. You may just have to bring it to a whole new level.

All Together Now

 

On a few occasions I’ve been asked, “Mark, I know that you do both fruit and vegetable gardening and home cheeesemaking. Are those two distinctly separate topics, or can they work together?”

Most definitely, yes, they can work together! In fact, if you combine the two just right, you create wonderful foods that can enhance your dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here are some suggestions.

Salads – You can enhance a salad of homegrown garden greens by sprinkling it with some of your homemade Feta cheese. Or how about using your homemade Blue cheese to create your own Blue cheese dressing to pour on your salad?

Infusing cheese with herbs – When making your own cheese, how about creating something distinctive by mixing some herbs into the curds before putting those curds into your cheese press? Some typical herbed cheeses include Caraway Swiss and Havarti with Dill.

Incorporating vegetables into cheese – The sky is the limit when it comes to making vegetable infused cheeses. How about adding some sun-dried tomatoes to your homemade cream cheese? Or a cheddar cheese infused with finely-chopped onions?

Wine-infused cheeses – At first glance, this sounds off topic. What, you might ask, does making a wine-infused cheese have to do with incorporating fruits and vegetables into cheese? Well, if you grow the grapes yourself, make your own wine, and soak your newly-pressed cheese in the wine for a few weeks, then, in a roundabout way, you are combining fruit and cheese. And if you substitute vodka for the wine you now have infused your cheese with a potato byproduct.

“Gee Mark, I’m not sure about this,” you say. “This sounds rather unusual.” Well, I have a one word answer for you – experiment. Try different combinations of fruits, vegetables, and cheese. After all, that’s how new foods are discovered.

“But what if I create something that looks awful and tastes worse?” Seriously? What if you create something that looks pleasing, tastes even better, and wins Cheese of the Year? Isn’t that worth the risk of maybe creating something awful? And if the worst happens, and your Limburger with Brussels sprouts tastes like the inside of a garbage truck? Then you simply toss it away and try a different combination. No one has to know about it but you.

So go ahead. Experiment with different fruit-cheese-vegetable combinations. And embrace the results – good, bad, or otherwise!