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?

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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!

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!

Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMO’s

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You see the terms heirloom, hybrid, and GMO tossed about quite a bit in gardening catalogs, garden publications, and elsewhere within the mass media. These topics are discussed and debated, but are often misunderstood by the general public. In an effort to clear up this misunderstanding, I’m going to define exactly what these terms mean.

Plants that are labeled as heirloom, or pure strain, are plants that “breed true.” Seeds produced from these plants will produce new plants that will be very similar to the parent plant. However, these plants must be pollinated by the exact same cultivar in order to keep the genetics pure. Example: a Brandywine tomato plant is a pure strain cultivar of tomato plant. Seeds from the fruit of Brandywine plants will produce a new generation of Brandywine tomatoes, and the plants and fruit will closely resemble that of the Brandywine tomato from whence those seeds came. The term heirloom also refers to the fact that the cultivar is often passed down through generations of families or communities, just like passing down furniture or jewelry. The term open-pollinated is sometimes used to describe an heirloom or pure-strain cultivar, but this can be misleading. Technically, an open-pollinated plant is one where pollen is transferred from flower to flower via wind, insects, birds, humans, or other natural means. This might result in pollen being transferred within the same cultivar, but it could also involve cross-pollination with another cultivar, resulting in mixed-genetics or hybrid offspring. All heirloom cultivars are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated cultivars are heirloom.

Hybrid cultivars are plants that have been created by cross-pollination – putting the pollen from one cultivar on the flower of a different one. This can occur randomly in nature, but is usually done by human beings under controlled conditions. Example: the Brandy Boy tomato cultivar was created by crossing the Brandywine cultivar with the Better Boy cultivar. Hybridization often results in a stronger, higher yielding plant that can have the best of both worlds of the parent plants. The Brandy Boy tomato has all of the flavor of the Brandywine combined with the disease resistance of the Better Boy. However, the genetics of the Brandy Boy are not pure, this the seeds cannot be saved from generation to generation. If you were to try to save and plant the seeds from a Brandy Boy, the resulting plant and fruits would not look like the parent. The taste might also be different and the disease resistance less vigorous than expected.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO’s are living entities (plants or animals) that have had their genetic material altered in some way. Here is where the semantics gets tricky. The very act of cross-pollinating one plant with another is a form of genetic modification. This is a perfectly natural process, whether it occurs in nature or by humans. The resulting plants, fruits, and vegetables are perfectly natural, and excepting minor genetic differences, are no different from their pure strain counterparts. A Brandywine and a Brandy Boy tomato in the end are still tomatoes, and at the cellular level, still contain tomato DNA. Genetically engineered organisms, on the other hand, are living entities that have had their genetic structure altered in the laboratory. Example: inserting genes from a fish into the genetic structure of a tomato would result in a tomato plant that has both tomato and fish DNA. This does not occur naturally, and it is this form of genetic modification that has many people up in arms.

I am not going to debate the merits and detriments of genetic engineering. That’s a whole other topic that’s outside the scope and intent of this article. My intent here is to clarify what all of these terms mean so that when you do get into debates about them, you can make sure that you are clear on the meaning of what you are debating. Whether you are for or against doing anything with genetics, remember that all genetic engineering is genetic modification, but not all genetic modification is genetic engineering. If you grow a hybrid plant you are growing a GMO. But this is not the same as the GMO that is often denounced as “Frankenfood.” That is the result of genetic engineering, an entirely different kind of GMO.

I hope I’ve succeeded in clearing up any misconceptions you may have had regarding these terms.

The Food Of The Gods

Apollo

 

In many of my classes and presentations, I often refer to cheese as “the food of the gods,” and not just because of its wonderful and complex flavors, aromas, shapes, and colors. While not on par with ambrosia, the drink enjoyed by the gods of ancient Greece that also had the power to confer immortality on any mortal who drank it, cheese has indeed played a part in the rituals and ceremonies of the many religions that have been part of the history of mankind.

In Greek mythology, the god Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, was taught by nymphs the art of cheesemaking and beekeeping. After mastering these arts, he then passed this knowledge on to mankind.

Homer’s sang the praises of cheese in his Odyssey and describes how the Cyclops was producing and storing sheep’s and goat’s milk and cheese.

In ancient Britain, the architects of Stonehenge would offer cheese, milk, and yogurt to their deities as part of their religious ceremonies, while keeping meat for their own consumption; meat was viewed as impure and not suitable for deities. Milk itself was viewed by many tribes around the world as being a symbol of purity because of its white color.

Cheese is also mentioned three times in the Bible.

And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp of thy brethren. And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge. — 1 Samuel 17:17-18

And honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine, for David, and for the people that were with him, to eat: for they said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness. — 2 Samuel 17:29

Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? – Job 10:10

So if you ever questioned whether or not you should be eating cheese, I’m here to tell you that the answer is most emphatically yes. If it was deemed worthy of being offered to the ancient deities of Britain, given to man by a Greek god, and served to the armies of the biblical Israelites, then it should be good enough for us.

If You’re Not Elite, Then Your Cheese Won’t Be Sweet

Cheeses

 

Cheese is a living food. No, I don’t mean that cheese is capable of rising up off the plate and dancing the mambo. And if your cheese is dancing the mambo, then you may want to consider cutting back on the wine you’re drinking with it.

By “living” food, I’m referring to the thousands of microorganisms (bacteria and mold) that play a part in turning milk into cheese. Nearly all types of bacteria will coagulate milk, but not all will produce a coagulated product that will look, smell, and taste good enough to become cheese. So you have to be selective about the kind of bacteria you allow into your milk.

When you make cheese, you are, in a way, hosting a very exclusive party. Sound silly? Well then let me ask you this. When you throw a party at your home, do you throw open your front door and shout to the neighborhood, “Hey, I’m throwing a party here! Everybody’s invited, and be sure to bring along your friends and relatives!” No, of course you don’t. Because if you did, then God knows what kind of riffraff and miscreants you’d be allowing into your home. When you throw a party, you privately invite the “right” kind of people – friends and family members whom you like and whom you trust will contribute to a fun evening without drinking all your booze or wrecking your home.

The same concept holds true for cheesemaking. If you left a carton of milk setting around for two weeks, you’d have a carton of coagulated milk, but one that would look awful and smell worse. It would not be something that you want to even attempt to turn into cheese. That’s because when you opened that carton, you invited every kind of bacteria in the air — the good, the bad, and the mightily awful — to come in and coagulate your milk. Any good bacteria that coagulated the milk into something tasty were overshadowed by the bad bacteria turning it into something disgusting.

When you make cheese, you only allow in certain kinds of bacteria – bacteria that have been scientifically proven will coagulate milk in such a way that it will produce curds that look, smell, and taste good. That is why we add starter cultures to our milk. These cultures contain these scientifically-tested microorganisms that will contribute to the look and taste of the finished product. Furthermore, certain kinds of cheeses require other types of bacteria or mold to make them into specific cheese. If, for example, you want to make Blue, Gorgonzola, or Stilton cheeses, you will need a mold — Penicillium roqueforti. Only Penicillium roqueforti can provide the bluish color and specific flavor that turns your block of curd into blue cheese. Want to make Swiss, Gruyere or Emmenthal cheeses? Then you’ll need Propionic shermanii bacteria, because they are the ones that form the holes.

So if you want to make cheese, then you have to become a bit snobbish. Don’t allow just any bacteria into your milk-house. Only allow the elite bacteria. The “correct” bacteria will give you the right cheese.