So what are you up to on this very rainy day?

I’m listening to “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer on CD.

Her voice is soothing, strong and simply mesmerizing. There is a balance of spirit and science in her words. And with the pouring rain outside this is a good time to snuggle  in a comfy chair with a warm cup of tea.

Kimmerer is good company.

A Native American storyteller and a botanist, she manages to weave together both sources of knowledge with tenderness and power.  She explains how the essence of ancient legends is relevant today,  how there is an increasing need for ecological consciousness and the basic understanding of how all things are related.

This morning, I put in the first CD and went about doing inside chores. But very quickly, I put aside the vacuum cleaner and just listened.

I was captivated. This is one of those books I will have to buy in paperback so I can dog-ear pages and mark passages to read again and again.  It’s that good.

The CD copy I will pass along as this is a book to be shared with friends. If for no other reason than wanting to be able to say, “What did you think about …”

I thank Barbara, the friend who shared it with me.

“In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Tomato ‘Flowers’ on Quiche Nice Garden Party Idea

 

flower quichelight

It’s still a little too chilly for a garden party,  but the warm weather will be here soon.

I was making quiche for two lady friends today and decided to have a little fun with the tomatoes.

Before baking, I sliced grape tomatoes in half and arranged them like flower petals.

Looks pretty doesn’t it? And so easy to do.

 

 

Want to Grow These?

If only we could!

Happy April Fool’s Day!donutseedThe inspiration for these seed packets came to me at the breakfast table.

Always the gardener, I looked down into the bowl of cereal and thought, “These little rings look like donut seeds.”

So I made a bunch of different donut seed packets for the fun of it and have used them for garden party favors.

Accessible Raised Beds Can Make Every Gardener’s Life Easier

There are many reasons to want tall, 24 inch high raised beds in the vegetable garden.

• They keep rabbits, moles and voles out.

• You can manage weeds more easily.

• You don’t walk in them so you avoid soil compaction.

• You can control water input and drainage.

Raised beds also warm up faster in the Spring and stay warmer longer in the Fall making for a longer growing season.

Having the plants at a height where you can sit to tend them is more than a convenience for some. It can be a necessity.

I recently spoke with Carol Whitelaw, a horticultural therapist with Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Unlimited Garden in Ballston Spa.

She has worked with handicapped and special needs gardeners for more than two decades. Her suggestions came from her experiences making gardening possible for everyone.

What should be included in a garden designed for handicapped accessibility?  What height was best for someone in a wheelchair, what pavement surfaces worked well, what tips did she have?

But our conversation got me thinking about the needs of all gardeners as we age. Friends of mine have arthritis in their hands, painful joints, back aches or trouble getting up and down because of a bad knee. Whitelaw noted older gardeners are a driving force behind the availability of tools, raised beds and specialty items designed to help gardeners keep on gardening. She said the baby boomer generation has made popular garden catalogs consider what older gardeners may find useful, especially if they are planning to age in place and continue enjoying their hobby.

Garden Priorities 

Whitelaw’s suggestions can be applied to any garden.

To begin, she said, firm and stable pathways are essential. This can be accomplished with pavers, concrete or compacted stone dust.  Having an edging to keep the stone dust from drifting outside the path makes for a neater, tidier look.

For a handicap garden, she recommended 8 to 12 foot wide pathways. A wheelchair user needs five feet of space to turn around.  Two people walking side by side need about six feet. Of course, the space you are working with will dictate width, at least to some extent.

These concrete drain pipes make excellent planters. Note the space for toes at the base. For people with balance concerns, this is important because you “can get right up to the planter and lean against it for support,” said Horticultural Therapist Carol Whitelaw.

Whitelaw noted that many people are sensitive to the “coffin look” of raised beds especially in winter and she included concrete pipe planters and triangular beds at the Unlimited Garden to break up the rows of  rectangles. There’s nothing to say that raised beds need to be rectangular.

I have been thinking of using livestock watering troughs as vegetable containers and after talking with her, I started thinking creatively about their placement. With the right space, you could arrange oval troughs in a circular pattern to create a daisy petals and use a round concrete pipe as the center.

In this concept, the orange “petals” are 24 inch tall livestock watering troughs and the yellow center is a concrete pipe.

The ideal height for raised beds is between 24 and 30 inches. One problem Whitelaw has found in our cold climate is the damage done by poor drainage in early Spring when the ground is still frozen, but the soil within the wooden beds has thawed. The retention of water within the bed causes rot and pushes the sides outward.

“Most of our wooden raised beds have needed repairs because of the thawing,” she said. They’ve also needed sanding to keep them splinter free over the years.

Her suggestion was to incorporate a perforated PVC pipe drainage system into the design of tall wooden beds. In the case of the standard 24 inch tall metal troughs, if you drilled holes in the base and placed the trough on concrete pavers to elevated them a little more, you get a bit better height and better drainage, which may mean longer lasting troughs.

Whatever raised beds you choose, fill the base with a layer of gravel, then sand and then a soil/compost mix.

One other take away from my visit to the garden, was to make a cart  24 inches tall with big wheels that could be set up right next to the gardener, eliminating the need to bend over. The cart acts like a wagon and becomes a shelf for plants, an easy to reach place for tools and an easy way to transport both. I can imagine many uses for a cart like this in and out of the garden. Garden party server, for example.

Who hasn’t misplaced a tool in the garden? Whitelaw said lightweight, brightly colored tools work well as does a pegboard organization system. Note how the tool shapes are outlined on the board.

Whitelaw also noted that tools can make gardening easier for everyone. There are petite trowels and narrow rakes with long handles or ergonomic designs.

Other suggestions: Replace those round wheel faucet handles that can be hard to turn with levers that are easier to use. Lift up the different watering wands while shopping and look for very  lightweight wands with squeeze lever controls about 30 inches in length. Dramm makes one and they are available at hardware stores, Amazon and big box stores.

“Children’s tools are the perfect size and brightly colored plastic tools can make gardening easier for the visually impaired,” she said. Another idea, go for a 1 gallon watering can instead of a large watering can.  “Water is heavy.” she noted.

By the time I drove away my head was sprouting idea after idea. These ideas will be put into action. There’s nothing like getting tips from a professional passionate about keeping gardeners growing.

If you have other tips that make gardening life easier, let me know.

Starting from the Ground Up

 

MCG-May2014

Get seeds off to a good start by knowing your soil and how to enrich it organically.

I’m often asked, “What does in mean to grow food organically?”

At its most basic, organic gardening means growing your crops without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And, not using herbicides in the garden.

Even if you have never tried growing this way before, you can begin this season.

How?

In the garden, everything starts with the soil.

The organic gardener’s goal is to have a soil rich in nutrients and microbes that will nourish strong, healthy plants able to resist pests and disease.  This doesn’t mean there won’t be some issues that arise. What it does mean is your plants will be more robust and able to survive setbacks.

To begin, learn about your soil.  Have it tested for pH. Know the soil’s composition. Is it sandy? Clay? This is your starting point.

Enriching the soil

Organic growing nourishes the entire ecosystem through sustainable gardening practices that start with the soil. There’s a reason gardeners call compost “black gold” for it provides a wealth of benefits throughout the growing season.

Compost can be decomposed plant material, food scraps (no meat, bones, dairy), thoroughly decomposed animal manures and bedding.  You want your compost to be healthy and weed-free so if you make your own, you wouldn’t add diseased plants or weeds with seeds.

Here’s a link: Earth easy on starting a compost pile. It is easy to do and well worth the effort. The key is to balance carbon and nitrogen-based materials. The rule of thumb is two-thirds brown (leaves, egg shells, peat moss) and one-third green (grass clippings, kitchen scraps, manures).

As the weather improves in Spring, add compost to the existing garden beds. This amending of the soil improves it by increasing the moisture capacity, making essential nutrients in the soil available to the plant roots and supporting beneficial soil microbes. Soil microbes are what turn organic matter into food for plants – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

Next time, I’ll write about organic fertilizers.

Livestock Troughs as Planters

Anyone have experience with using galvanized steel livestock troughs as raised garden beds?

I’ve been pricing materials for raised beds and searching online for what other gardeners have used: the costs and designs. One idea that caught my eye was using livestock troughs as planters.

Online, I’ve seen 20 gauge galvanized steel livestock watering troughs measuring 3 feet by 10 feet, 24 inches tall for about $240.

Advantages: Less expensive than using some long lasting wood boards, ready to use, taller beds make gardening easier for all. The height of the bed should discourage rabbits and the bottom should keep voles and moles out. Lifespan: 5 to 20 years.

Disadvantages: Some websites posted concerns about zinc leaching into the soil. So I did what journalists do, I researched.

Source One

Alana Hochstein, a corrosion Engineer with the American Galvanizers Association noted in an emailThe Food and Drug Association (FDA) has approved the use of galvanized steel for food preparation and conveyance for all applications with the exception of foods that have a high acid content, such as tomatoes, oranges, limes, and other fruits. For more information, see our website:

https://www.galvanizeit.org/hot-dip-galvanizing/how-long-does-hdg-last/contact-with-food

Source Two

The National Gardening Association (https://garden.org/about/intro/president)

I emailed NGA President David Whitinger about whether zinc was a concern. He wrote: “Plenty of people use galvanized containers for gardening and I’ve never heard of anything to suggest that it’s not safe.”

I also noted online that community gardens and restaurants are using galvanized steel as beds. Still, I needed more information.

Third Source

I looked for data from Cornell University. Cornell soil extension agent Robert R. Schindelbeck emailed: “The zinc can leach from the metal object into the soil. Generally this is OK as zinc is relatively “safe.” He referred me to this link titled Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities:

http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/Metals_Urban_Garden_Soils.pd

Excerpts follow.

“What levels of metals are acceptable in garden soils?

“There are no standards protective of public health specifically for metals in garden soils in NYS, but there are guidance values developed for other purposes that gardeners can consider.”

Zinc is naturally occurring. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the NYS Department of Health developed guidance values. The guidance values for zinc are 2200 parts per million (PPM). Levels found in NYS soils in rural areas were 10-140 ppm and in urban areas 64-380 ppm.

“Human health: Small amounts of zinc in the diet are essential for good health.

“Plant health: Zinc is an essential micronutrient for plants, but it can be toxic to plants at higher soil levels, even below those that are a concern for human health.”

That begs the question: What are the zinc levels for soil in a galvanized trough? This question gets answered by the fourth source: Rodale’s Organic Life article written by Deb Martin, November 13, 2014

http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/when-sheet-metal-meets-soil

Is it safe to use galvanized sheet metal to build raised garden beds? —Susan Taylor, Monticello, Utah

Over time, compounds used in the galvanizing process will leach from galvanized metal into surrounding soil. Climate and soil conditions such as moisture and salinity affect the rate and the amount of leaching. While the by-products of corrosion are unlikely to occur in amounts that pose any risk to human or plant health, gardeners who are considering growing in galvanized containers or metal-framed beds should be aware of the potential for zinc and other materials to transfer into the soil.

Zinc, the main ingredient in the galvanizing “bath” used to prolong the life of steel, is an essential micronutrient that occurs naturally in North American soils at an average background level of 0.07 milligrams of zinc per gram of soil. For the sake of comparison, the Daily Value (an approximation of our dietary need) for zinc established by the FDA for adults is 8 to 11 milligrams.

While studies of zinc levels in the soil next to galvanized structures have found increased amounts of the element, those levels often are comparable to background levels and within EPA guidelines, says Dan Barlow, a corrosion engineer with the American Galvanizers Association.

Zinc does not migrate readily through soil, so elevated zinc levels tend to be found only in the immediate area of a galvanized container or structure. Soil pH, organic matter content, and other soil characteristics affect zinc’s ability to be taken up by plant roots. As much as 90 percent of zinc in soil may be unavailable for uptake by plants.

Due to zinc’s limited bioavailability in soil, there is little chance of ingesting too much zinc through plants grown in proximity to galvanized metal, says Eric Van Genderen, Ph.D., manager of environment and sustainability for the International Zinc Association. “You will likely never get even your recommended daily allowance from your produce, much less too much,” he says.

Because galvanized metal corrodes faster as pH decreases, Van Genderen says it’s probably not the best container material for plants that require acidic conditions.

Other corrosion by-products may show up in the surrounding soil, Van Genderen says. He notes that levels of other metals found in galvanized surfaces, such as nickel and bismuth, typically would be “so low that you’d probably never see a difference in the amount coming from the galvanized metal versus the background levels.”

The health of beneficial soil microorganisms that are exposed to galvanized metal is another consideration. “There is no question zinc can kill some of the soil’s microbes and that others love it,” says Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition (Timber Press, 2010), and Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition (Timber Press, 2013). “I am willing to let the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi take up excess zinc, feed the plants what they need, and hold the rest,” Lowenfels says. His research has convinced him that “any damage done to the soil food web [by excess zinc] is quickly corrected by it if the soil food web is a healthy one.”

Troughs in the Garden

Want to see more? 

If you search Google, you’ll find dozens of examples of troughs that have been painted and made pretty.

The nicest I’ve seen is at http://www.nwedible.com/the-most-attractive-veggie-garden-ever/. Check it out.

Tips on Painting a trough: https://www.gardenista.com/posts/steal-this-look-water-troughs-as-raised-garden-beds/

Tips on making a trough self-watering.

http://www.insideurbangreen.org/2011/07/galvanized-horse-or-cattle-troughs-make-cool-looking-planters-but-ive-never-seen-them-converted-for-sub-irrigation-aka-erro.html

 

 

 

 

School Gardening in the Northeast

sowing seeds

Puzzler: How to create a school garden that produces vegetables, flowers and fruits before the end of June and after Labor Day in the Northeast?

The weeks in the middle are actually our prime time for gardening here in upstate New York but this is also when schools are closed. This can present a challenge for schools that want to have a garden.

Here’s a possible plan I put together for a garden club meeting this morning at a local elementary school. Turns out, this garden has found creative ways to deal with some of the challenges other school gardens experience.

School Garden Plan

The following planting plan includes plants that perform while school is in session.

In late May, plant rows of sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, bachelor buttons, Jerusalem artichokes and marigolds. These plants will still be blooming in September and attract beneficial insects and butterflies.

The Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) have edible underground tubers that can be eaten raw or cooked and have yellow flowers attract beneficial insects.

If soil is moist, plant swamp milkweed for the monarch butterflies. Also include larvae plants such as dill to create a habitat. When possible, plant the pollinator garden where it can be viewed from classrooms or hallway windows. Add birdhouses for even more enjoyment and learning opportunities.

In an area designated for perennials, plant rhubarb. And, if there is someone to diligently weed the first year, plant an asparagus bed. This will be harvested before school ends.

When school is back in session in September plant garlic, which should be ready to harvest the end of  June. A school garlic sale could be a great fundraiser for the garden program.

Also, plant lettuces, mache, sorrel and spinach which will be “salad” ready to harvest in six weeks. Walking onions are another possibility.

Plant Pansies. They are an edible flower that you can add to the salad. And pansies bloom until hard frost.

In October, plant spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and scilla. These are in their glory before the school year ends.

If there’s room, an apple tree orchard using dwarf trees would be an asset. This would bloom in the spring and fruit in the fall. Perfect timing for a school garden.

sow seed twoSchool Garden Club 

Today, I was invited to visit the Division Street elementary school garden club in Saratoga Springs. They are ahead of the game. They have an established garden and have some summer help keeping the garden growing.

The school district also has a grounds supervisor committed to creating school gardens and educating the next generation about what it takes to grow healthy food.

Today a group of young gardeners planted kale and beans in seed trays. Kevin Templin, grounds supervisor for the Saratoga Springs school district, talked about the plants and showed the club members how to sow the seeds.

It’s an impressive group. One seven-year-old was able to explain cross pollination. Several others were experienced gardeners having grown vegetables and fruits with their families.

Along with a high level of enthusiasm, this south facing school garden has two other advantages. First, it is well situated. It has a courtyard feel with brick walls on three sides. This will help to extend the garden season and protect the garden from animals and strong winds.

The gardeners already have garlic growing in the ground. They also plan much more,  including a pollinator garden that draws butterflies and beneficial insects.

And they have volunteers willing to tend the garden during the summer months when school is not in session. In addition to staff support, families of the garden club members are asked to adopt the garden for one week during the summer. Sharing the responsibility in this way has worked well for them.

If you have other ideas on how to create and maintain a school garden, please share them.

Your experiences are valuable as we all work to teach the next generation about growing food and cultivating a healthy lifestyle.

Thank you to the young gardeners and their leaders for welcoming me today.