If They Plant It, They’ll Eat It

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Vegetables. We know they are good for our bodies – especially the bodies of growing children. But as any parent knows, getting children to eat vegetables is a task that makes the twelve labors of Hercules seem like a picnic in the park.

There are many ways to encourage children to eat vegetables – mixing them in other foods, spicing them up, leading by example and eating them yourself, etc. But perhaps one of the best ways to encourage kids to eat vegetables, is to get them involved with them from start to finish. And that means introducing your children to the wonderful world of gardening. Let them help you as you prepare the soil (what kid doesn’t love to play in dirt?), plant the seeds, and water the developing plants. Or better yet, allow your child to “sharecrop” a portion of your garden by giving them a space that’s theirs and theirs alone to plant whatever they wish. As the plant grows, the child’s excitement and interest will grow along with it. After all, they planted it and took care of it. Their pride is now at stake. When the time comes to harvest the rewards of their labors, the child will become even more proud and excited to see the fruit or vegetable that came into this world because of their efforts. And maybe – just maybe – they’ll be interested and intrigued enough to take a bite – or two – or more.

Look at it another way. Many children are rather wary when a strange person approaches them. Even if the person is known to their parents and the parents say it’s okay, the child may still be reluctant to approach this individual. In the same way, when we dump strange looking foods onto a child’s plate, they may be quite reluctant to eat it even though mom and dad say it’s okay. But a vegetable that they grew themselves becomes a known entity and not a stranger. A child may be more willing to eat something that’s known and familiar to them.

So if you want your children to eat their vegetables without a fuss, then get them involved in the growing process. Because gardening is the fuss-buster!

Loaded “Guns” in Your Childish Hands

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Homeowners throughout the United States are wanting the grounds surrounding their homes to be aesthetically pleasing. So they invest in bushes, trees, flowering plants, hardscape, and maybe even a vegetable garden. Then, to keep them looking nice, they water, fertilize, prune, trim, and whatever else they can to maintain the beauty of their territory.

And then one day, while strolling through their grounds, they spy a six-legged something on a bush, tree, or tomato plants, and they immediately fall to pieces like a Jenga game with the wrong piece pulled out. “What is that thing,” they cry in horror. “It’s eating my bushes on which I spent so much money!” Or maybe they spy some weeds that had the audacity to spring up in their otherwise pristine lawn. “This must not stand,” they exclaim to themselves. “I will not tolerate anything marring the perfectly coifed beauty of my yard! I must go to my local big box store and purchase something to spray on the offending intruder that will punish it with death for its brazen invasion of my property!”

May I inject a little sanity into this situation? First of all, calm down. It’s probably safe to say that you’re not dealing with a locust swarm that threatens to devastate all your food crops and cause you to starve over the winter. Second, before you start indiscriminately spraying chemicals all over your yard, I suggest that you first take the time to identify exactly what it is that is setting on your landscape or growing in your lawn. Take a picture or capture it live, look it up on the Internet, or bring it in to your local Cooperative Extension office and ask someone there to identify it for you. You may discover that the creature is harmless or maybe even beneficial. Or even if it is a pest that could potentially defoliate bush, tree, flower, or vegetable, there are more than likely many environmentally friendly ways of dealing with it.

“Don’t talk to me about that ‘preserve the environment’ crap,” you might be saying. I want a beautiful lawn, trees, and bushes, and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to make that happen! Besides, if my yard isn’t perfectly pristine, what will the neighbors think!?”

I have no idea what your neighbors will or won’t think. But I do know that if you start randomly spraying chemicals on the first insect or weed you see, then you are like a child with a loaded gun. And just as a child firing that loaded gun has no concept of the carnage and damage he could cause, he who indiscriminately sprays chemicals has no idea of the environmental harm he could cause. Used improperly, these chemicals can kill bees and other beneficial insects, leach into our groundwater and poison fish and other marine life, and potentially promote cancer or other life-threatening diseases in your pets, your children, and you. Using environmentally friendly means of pest and weed control is more than just nice words. It can ensure that the flora and fauna on this planet (including you and your loved ones) can continue to survive and thrive and that you can leave a world for your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren that’s better than when you entered it. And that’s far more important than what a random collection of neighbors might think — that is, if they actually think of you at all in the first place.

The Three-Legged Stool of Disease

Three Legged Stool

 

Plant diseases can be a serious problem in fruit and vegetable crops. Diseases can stunt plant growth, reduce yields, and sometimes even kill the plant. There are many methods for keeping fruit and vegetable plants free of disease, but they all boil down to one concept. In order for plants to be infected with a disease, three things must be present – the disease causing organism, a susceptible plant, and favorable conditions for the disease agent to develop. You can think of each factor as one leg of a three-legged stool. All three legs must be present for a successful disease infestation to occur. If just one of these factors is missing, then the stool collapses and no infestation occurs.

Diseases are caused by a variety of agents – bacteria, fungi, mycoplasma, nematodes, and viruses. These can be carried by insects, weeds, or plant debris. Some diseases like verticillium wilt of tomatoes can live in the soil for as long as ten years. So one good garden practice to prevent disease infestation of your plants is to clean up all the plant debris at the end of the season. This will remove a potential source of contamination. No disease-causing agent, no disease, and the stool collapses.

Keeping plants well-watered and well-fed will insure that they are healthy and strong. Healthy and strong plants are better able to survive a disease infestation than stressed and weak plants. The disease agent may be present and the conditions may be favorable to it, but plants that are well-cared for are better able to resist the disease. No susceptible plant, no disease, and the stool collapses.

Some diseases can be transmitted by insect pests. Cucumber beetles and leaf hoppers, for example, can carry the organisms that carry bacterial wilt and yellows, respectively. Controlling these insects can remove a source of transmission of these diseases. The conditions for development may be present and the plants may be susceptible, but if the organism is not present, then infestation cannot occur. No disease-causing agent, no disease, and the stool collapses once again.

Buying disease-resistant cultivars is an excellent way of insuring that your plants aren’t felled by an infestation. Better Boy tomatoes, for example, are bred to be resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. That means that the organisms may be present and conditions for development may be present, but if the plant is bred to resist these organisms, then the plant is not susceptible t0 the disease. The stool collapses yet again.

Many weeds can act as hosts for disease-carrying organisms. Keeping the garden free of weeds, whether through handpicking or hoeing, or laying down mulch to prevent them from growing in the first place, can remove an agent of disease transmission. Conditions may be right for the disease to develop and the plants may be stressed. But if the organism isn’t present, the disease cannot develop. Crash goes the stool!

Watering your plants in the early morning gives them a chance to dry out before nightfall. As a result, the plants will be dry instead of cold and wet. Cold and wet plants are breeding grounds for disease- carrying fungus. Fungus, however, is less likely to breed on dry plants. The fungus may be present and the plants may be a bit stressed, but conditions aren’t right, so the fungus cannot grow, so no disease occurs. The stool collapses once more.

In conclusion, keeping plants healthy and strong and your garden dry, clean, and free of weeds will go a long way towards keeping the stool of disease infestation in a permanent state of disrepair.

Mailbox Sunshine on a Cold Winter’s Day

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As I write this, I’m gazing out my window at the gently falling snow. Aggregations of flakes coat trees, bushes, and manmade structures like white fungus on a rampage. Spinning tires, stalled engines — ah, the joys of winter. For us gardeners, who like nothing better than to be out in the bright sunshine and warm weather carefully planting and cultivating our fruit and vegetable crops, it’s difficult not to feel a little depressed under these conditions.

But take heart! Rays of sunshine are piercing the gloom, and they are coming out of your mailbox! Postal sunshine, to warm a gardener’s heart on even a most miserable winter day.

I’m speaking, of course, about the gardening catalogs, those aggregations of glossy photos and glowing descriptions of new vegetable varieties and old favorites. Catalogs that for a few brief moments take our minds off of the desolation of winter and give us hope in a glorious spring of mild temperatures, gentle rains, and bright sunshine-filled days!

Sure, some of those photos are a bit too slick and those descriptions a bit overblown. But for the moment, we’re willing to believe anything they say. Because these catalogs give us hope that winter will not last forever and that before we know it, sunshine and warmth will eventually chase the white stuff away.

So peruse those catalogs, circle your selections, order those seeds, and dream green and sunshiny dreams. They will come true, I promise.

The Flowers That Bloom on My Onions

The vegetable crops we grow have specific parts that are edible. For example, we grow tomato, cucumber, eggplant, etc. for their fruit. For these plants to produce fruits, they have to produce flowers. Those flowers must then be pollinated. Pollination brings together two sets of chromosomes, which results in viable seeds which can be planted next year to continue the species. Pollination also causes the ovaries which contain these seeds to swell in size. These swollen make up the fruits – the tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, etc. – that we consume as fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, we grow other vegetable crops not for their fruits, but for other edible plant parts. Onions, for example, are grown for their fleshy bulbs (which are actually modified leaf tissue). We grow carrots and parsnips for their roots, and we grow greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, etc. for their leaves. We do not want flowers on these plants. If one of these plants produces a flower, the edible quality of those plants is reduced, since the plant will then put all of its energy into the flower and less into the leaves, stems, and other edible parts.

Under certain conditions, plants such as onions, carrots and greens will produce a flower. This can arise due to cold temperatures (onions) or hot temperatures (lettuce, spinach, and other greens). The unwanted production of a flower is known as bolting.

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So how do we prevent bolting? For greens, bolting can be prevented by planting and harvesting them during the cool weather seasons. Lettuce and spinach grown in hot weather have a greater chance of bolting than does spring or fall-planted spinach.

Onion flowering can occur at low temperatures, a process called vernalization. This can happen when planting onion sets that have been stored at temperatures of 40-50oF for two or more weeks are planted right away. To prevent vernalization, expose them to 80oF temperatures for 2-3 weeks, or make sure to plant them early in the spring. To further reduce the chances of growing flowers instead of bulbs, plant onion sets that are half an inch in diameter. These smaller sized sets lack the necessary food reserves for flower production. Larger sized sets have a greater quantity of stored food and are more subject to vernalization. These, however, can be grown for green onions.

Carrots are biennials. They will produce stem, leaves and taproot the first year. If left in the ground over the winter, the following spring, they will produce a flower similar to that of a Queen Anne’s lace. Usually we never see flowers on our carrots because we harvest the roots the first year. However, if you leave carrots in the ground to overwinter, make sure you dig them up before they start to sprout, otherwise, if allowed to flower, the roots will not taste good.

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Flowers are beautiful and necessary, but only on certain garden plants. If you want your greens, bulbs, and root crops to be tasty, then don’t let them flower.

Variety is the Spice of Your Garden

 

On many occasions, when people talk to me about their gardens, they will often ask me about why a certain vegetable crop they planted failed to perform as expected. Perhaps their tomato plants produced little or no fruit, or their cucumbers had a white powdery growth, or their beans failed to grow at all. When I’m asked why they didn’t do well or what they did wrong, I’ll often ask them what cultivar or variety they planted. And nine times out of ten, the answer I get is some variation of, “Oh I don’t know what variety they were; they were just tomato plants I bought at Wal-Mart.” And therein lies the problem, or at least a good portion of the problem.

Allow me to ask a question. When you need to purchase personal transportation, do you go out and buy “a car?” When you need a reliable communication device, do you purchase “a cell phone?” When you need a machine to automatically clean your dishes, do you buy “a dishwasher?” The answer to all three questions is no. You don’t buy a car; you buy a Ford or a Toyota. You don’t buy a cell phone; you purchase an iPhone or an Android. And you don’t shell out your hard earned money for a dishwasher; you buy a Maytag or a Whirlpool. And furthermore, you carefully research your purchases before you dole out your dollars to make sure you are getting something that has all the features you need with a quality that will last at a price you can afford. And why? So that you can be assured that you can drive safely, communicate effectively, and get your dishes sparkling clean. Now if you’re going to go through all this trouble with machines, wouldn’t you want to put at least this much effort into the food you grow and eat?

Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and other garden vegetables all have what are known as cultivars. These are different genetic versions of the same plant. These different genetic variations result in different colors, shapes, sizes, hardiness, flavor, and disease resistance within the same type of plant.

For example, a Sweet 100 is a small cherry tomato, while a Big Zac is large, meaty Beefsteak tomato. A Thumbelina is a small, round, yellow carrot, while a Purple Dragon is a large, long, purple carrot. A Thumbelina and a Purple Dragon are both a carrot, yet they’re quite different from one another.

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So why does this matter? Because just as you want to choose a brand of car that’s suits your lifestyle and driving habits and preferences, you want to choose cultivars of garden vegetables that will have the color and flavor that best delights your eye and tickles your taste buds, resistance to specific diseases (if you’ve had past problems with those diseases), and overall, the greatest chance of success in your garden.

Have your tomatoes produced poorly due to late blight? Then you’ll want to plant a cultivar such as Defiant, which is specifically bred to resist late blight. Do you want to grow a drought-resistant flour corn? Hopi Blue will meet your needs. Do you have hard blocky soil? Planting a standard carrot will result in forked, misshapen roots. Thumbelina carrots produce small, orange, almost round roots that are perfect for firmer soils.

The point of all of this is that if you want a garden that yields large amounts of tasty, mouth-watering vegetables, you’ll have to do a little more than throw some seeds into the dirt, water them, and hope for the best. You’ve got to put as much thought and care into buying your seeds and plants as you would into buying a car or a dishwasher. You’ve got to decide what vegetables you want to plant and then find the cultivars of those vegetables that have the traits that will best meet your wants and needs.

Doing this will most definitely improve your odds of having a successful, high-yielding garden.

Store That Cheese

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You’ve done it! You’ve succeeded in making your very own delicious cheese! You’ve carefully coagulated the milk, separated the curd from the whey, compressed the curd, soaked it in brine, and aged it under just the right conditions of temperature and humidity. You’ve tasted it and it tastes delicious. You’ve shared it with friends and family and they also think it has a wonderful flavor. Now you’re ready to store what’s leftover so you can serve it again – and again, and again until it is finished. Now comes the deciding moment. How do you store this cheese so that it remains as flavorful later as it is today?

First of all, it is important to remember that cheese is a living food. Those same bacteria that you used to make the cheese are still in there and still roaming around inside. You may be done with the cheese creation process, but the bacteria are not. Your cheese will continue to ripen and age, even in your refrigerator. The firmer the cheese, the longer it will keep. If properly stored, cheeses like Swiss, Manchego, Blue, and other hard cheeses can be stored for many months. Softer cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, and others can only be stored for about two weeks before they have to be discarded.

Temperature and moisture are the critical factors that determine how well a cheese stores. Cheese should be stored in your refrigerator at a temperature of 38-42oF in one of the vegetable bins or elsewhere on the bottom of your refrigerator so that it is out of the airflow as much as possible. Wrap your cheese in aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or wax paper to further seal in the moisture. And check your cheese frequently to make sure that the cheese hasn’t dried out or become moldy.

If you see mold on a soft cheese, then throw it out immediately, since that mold will be all the way through. On a hard cheese, however, you can merely cut off the moldy part, since that mold will only be present on the surface.

If your cheese dries and cracks, fret not. All is not lost. It is possible to re-moisten the cheese by wrapping it in a damp towel for 1-2 hours. You can also cover it in a cheesecloth that has been soaked in wine or salt water and wrung out.

Follow these guidelines, and you can be assured that your carefully made cheese will continue to delight you and your guests for many months.

Your Waste is My Bread and Butter

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Waste. The very word implies something that is unwanted or not needed. Call it leftovers, trash, byproducts, garbage – it all means the same thing – something left over from something else after all of the useful elements of that something else have been extracted.

What do we do with that waste? Well, most of the time, we discard it. We throw it away without a second thought and feel assured that it’s gone forever. Not so. As Mike Nowak, a Chicago radio gardening show host once stated, our planet is a closed system. Everything you discard still remains on Earth somewhere. There is no such thing as “away.”

Much of this waste also ends up back in our bodies, sometimes indirectly in the air we breathe or substances we absorb through our skin, but sometimes directly and by design. What do I mean by this? Allow me to elaborate.

What do we mix into our soil to help boost the growth of our vegetables? Manure. What is manure? You know good and well what it is. It’s POOP! Yes folks, cows and horses are excreting the unusable portions of the food they eat (a.k.a. poop) out of their butts. And we willingly collect it, dry it, spread it onto our vegetable gardens, grow vegetables, put those vegetables in our mouths, chew them up and swallow them. This is considered a good thing – and it is. But whether it’s via tomato road or jalapeño highway, in the end, we are still eating poop.

Nauseated yet? Well, to paraphrase that tune by the Carpenters, I’ve only just begun. Do you like cheese? You know how cheese is made, of course. Bacterial culture is added to milk, which causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. We then extract the whey, compress and age the curds, and that gives us cheese. But what do the bacteria do? Some bacteria is used to start the cheesemaking process. They will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and excrete that lactic acid into the milk. The acid lowers the pH of the milk and creates the right conditions for coagulation of the milk. Other bacteria roam through the ripening curd, chew up the material inside and excrete salts and other acids. Well what is all this stuff that the bacteria are excreting? You can call it salt, acid, whatever pleases you. But bottom line, it is still waste product that the bacteria expel from their little bodies. In other words – bacterial poop! And we consume it with gusto!

Now I tell you all this not to disgust you. Well, maybe a little. Fine, I admit it. I’m rolling on the floor as I imagine the looks on all of your faces as you’re reading this! We all need a hobby, and I’m working mine. But all kidding aside, it’s important that we remember that food – real, honest to goodness food – does not spontaneously erupt from the shelves of your local grocer in neat and pretty packages. There is real work, effort, and ancient knowledge that goes into the development of that food long before it ever reaches the grocery store. To the urbanized eye, it is not all neat, pretty, and sweet-smelling. But without it, we would all have no choice but to eat the packaged, artificially created, chemically laden stuff that’s already a large part of most of our diets. And what those excuses for food can do to our bodies is a lot more disgusting than a little poop could ever be!

Here Comes the Bride, All Dressed in – Herbs?

Wedding bells are ringing out for some happy couple somewhere. And it’s time to decorate the church, synagogue, mosque, or wherever it is that the wedding is being held. And how shall we decorate it? Why, with flowers of course. And with herbs.

Wait a minute, you’re saying to yourself. Did he just say – herbs? At a wedding? Yes, that is exactly what I said. And no, I haven’t been sniffing any of those “other” herbs. This is not a new idea that I just invented. The use of flowers and herbs in wedding ceremonies is thousands of years old. In ancient Greece, brides carried fresh marjoram bouquets and wore fragrant myrtle crowns. In ancient Rome, brides wore rosemary and roses in their hair. In 17th century England, brides had gilded branches of rosemary tied with silk ribbons carried before them during the wedding ceremony. And in the Middle East, brides were adorned with gilded wheat and fragrant orange blossoms, symbols of wealth and fertility.

Why not borrow some ancient cultural wisdom and use herbs as part of your next wedding ceremony? Where to start? Here are some ideas (wedding planners, take notes.).

Rosemary – Rosemary was used in weddings for at least 2,000 years as a symbol of fidelity, loyalty, and remembrance. There are a variety of ways to decorate with rosemary. They can be placed in the bride’s bouquet, the groom’s boutonniere or in the flowers carried by the parents. Pots of rosemary can also be placed near the altar or in the reception room.

Sweet Marjoram – A symbol of joy and happiness, sweet marjoram was favored as a wedding herb by ancient Greeks and Romans. Brides carried it in bouquets; the wedding paths were strewn with it, and it was also used to crown the heads of the wedding couples. The Greeks also burned it in special temples as an offering to their gods.

Myrtle – Many cultures have used myrtle for weddings and other festive occasions. In ancient Greece, myrtle was an ancient emblem of the goddess Aphrodite, and was a symbol of love and passion. The Bible refers to myrtle as a symbol of divine generosity. In England, myrtle represented peace, home and restfulness, and sprigs of it were added to bridal bouquets. And in Germany and Switzerland, brides wore myrtle crowns on their wedding day.

Rue – Rue was believed to be an herb of vision, virtue, and virginity. In Latvia and Lithuania, rue was considered to be the most important of all the herbs. Brides wore crowns of herb leaves on their wedding day, and after the wedding, the bride carried a pot of rue from her mother’s home to her new home.

Ivy – Ivy was revered as a symbol of friendship, fidelity, and marriage. In ancient Greece, Ivy was sacred to Hymen, the god of marriage and the wedding feast and Dionysus, the god of wine and festivity, and bridal alters in ancient Greece were wreathed with strands of ivy. In modern times, many brides use it in their bouquets without knowing its 2,000 year history.

There are many ways to incorporate herbs into a modern day wedding. For starters, herbs can be added to the bridal bouquet. Make sure to choose herbs that will complement the flowers. Fresh or dried herbs can be added to flower petals in the flower girl’s basket. Herbs can be placed in bags and given to the wedding guests to toss in place of rice. Use roses for love, rosemary for remembrance, marjoram for happiness, and lavender for devotion.

Herbs can be a wonderful addition to any wedding. Why not use some in yours?

Turn That Black Thumb Green

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On several occasions, when I’ve brought up the subject of gardening to someone, they will tell me that they have a black thumb and, in so many words, they are incapable of nurturing anything green. Well, in the words of an old George Gershwin song, it ain’t necessarily so. You may not have been successful in the past with your gardening endeavors, but it doesn’t mean that it has to always be this way. With a few minor changes, almost anyone can get on the road to successful gardening.

First, do you want to garden? Sometimes, “I can’t garden” may really mean “I’m really not interested in gardening.” If that’s you, then you don’t have a black thumb. You have a beige thumb – indifferent and uninterested. Any activity undertaken without desire cannot have any outcome but failure. In this instance, you’re better off devoting your time and energy to something that you do enjoy. But if the desire is there, then success is possible. That beige thumb can be turned to green.

Second, what are the conditions of your yard and the soil? Have you ever had your soil tested? A soil test may reveal that your soil pH is too high or too low, or that the soil is lacking in one or more nutrients. If that’s the case, then the solution is a simple matter of amending the soil with compost, lime, or anything else that will change it from horrible to healthy – and capable of supporting life.

Do you have trees that block out much of the sunlight? In that case, you can solve the problem by doing your gardening elsewhere. Perhaps a neighbor or friend with a sunnier yard will allow you to “sharecrop” a portion of their backyard to do your gardening there. Or if your hometown park district rents out garden spaces, you can take advantage of that.

What have you tried to grow in the past and what happened after you planted it? Was it felled by disease? Or did it fail to germinate in the first place? In this instance, it may be necessary to do a little research and find vegetable cultivars that are more suited for your yard’s growing conditions. I’ll tell you what I tell all of my classes. Gardening is a fun hobby, but it does require some homework. You still have to determine the conditions of your yard and then determine what crops and what cultivars will thrive there. Did a disease destroy your tomatoes? Then I recommend planting a disease resistant hybrid like Better Boy. Did your beans weave their way throughout your garden and interfere with the growth of everything else? Then I recommend setting up a system of poles for them to grow on. Or try growing one of the low-growing bush cultivars. Did you purchase a plant while you were vacationing in Florida and then attempt to grow it in your garden at your home in North Dakota. That’s a sure-fire guarantee of failure. Next year, try growing crops that are more suited for your zone.

So you see, a black thumb doesn’t have to remain that color. With just a few simple changes in techniques, you can turn your black thumb a brilliant shining green.

And if you think you could use the services of a good garden coach, I just happen to know one that would be more than happy to help your thumb change color (hint, hint.)!