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Fall – Time to Get a Soil Test

Soil Testing

Tracy Allen, Supervisor of Soil Testing Lab at Umass

“This is the best time to test your soil,” Tracy Allen, supervisor of the University of Massachusetts Soil Test Laboratory, told me as she showed me around the very clean room filled with lots of boxy equipment and various kinds of glass beakers. “We run about sixteen to eighteen thousand soil tests a year, and most of those requests come in between April and June. We are really busy then, and people won’t get their test results as quickly.”

She showed me the many different types of equipment used from the ovens that dry the soil samples when they first come in, the sieving machine that shakes out sand and gravel, and the machine that creates the soil extracts that are tested by a spectrometer to identify 16 nutrients in the soil. It became clear to me why it takes time to get an accurate and useful test result.

During our years in Heath I sent an occasional soil sample to the lab. Instead of spreading around a 5-10-5 fertilizer around, I knew I was adding my own N-P-K fertilizers. There was nitrogen from my composted chicken manure, phosphate rock for phosphorus, and greensand for potassium, but I didn’t know whether my soil needed more of specific nutrients. The Umass test results not only told me the measurements of these three main necessary nutrients, they gave me a measure of the important trace elements like magnesium, manganese and boron, as well as the organic material in my soil. They also gave recommendations for improving the soil. One of the advantages of using organic fertilizers is that they work slowly, feeding plants over time, not giving them a big rush all at once. The brief saying “feed the soil, not the plant” has been my guide.

The Umass soil testing lab makes it possible to efficiently choose fertilizers to improve your soil. It also gives warnings of lead or other heavy metals that might be in the soil. If you are growing vegetables, you do not want them taking up these heavy metals and serving them at the dinner table.

Soil Extracts ready for the spectrometer

As we walked past the various machines Allen explained that while at least 50 percent of the test requests were for home gardens, they also got requests from landscapers, golf courses, and construction companies. I could understand the needs that landscapers and golf course staff would have but Allen had to explain that construction companies needed to know the soil composition before they put down any paving. The lab has special tests for greenhouse operators who need to know the makeup of the soilless media they use for their crops.

The lab has a website which offers a downloadable test form and complete directions for taking a soil sample. It is important to take your sample carefully. Use a clean pail and clean tools to collect 12 samples from different areas of your garden. Each of these sub-samples should be six to eight inches deep. Do not take samples when the soil is very wet.

Mix all the sub-samples together, removing stones and other debris. Take a cup of the mixed samples and spread on a piece of clean paper to fully dry in the air. Do not use heat to dry the soil. Place the cupful of air dried soil in a labeled zip lock plastic bag. Print and fill out the downloadable submission form. Label your sample. I used my last name and the designation ‘vegetable garden.’

The routine soil analysis costs $15. The results will list pH, nutrient levels including phosphorous and potassium, as well as the important trace elements of calcium, magnesium, iron manganese, zinc, copper and boron. The test will also measure the heavy metals lead and aluminum. It is these measures that make it possible to give recommendations for adjusting pH and adding fertilizers.

There are additional tests. I always wanted to know the level of organic matter in the soil. This test costs an additional $6. Farmers might be interested in other more specific tests. If you are asking for multiple tests, for example if your front and backyards seem to have very different qualities, there is a cost for each sample bag.

Downloadable testing request forms are available at http://soiltest.umass.edu.

The lab does not accept credit or debit cards. Send a check with your sample for the proper amount made out to the University of Massachusetts to 203 Paige Laboratory, 161 Holdsworth Way, Amherst, MA 01003

Umass has other resources for the home gardener through the Extension Outreach programs available through the soil testing lab website. These include various Fact Sheets, and a subscription to Clippings newsletter. You can also send your garden questions to greeninfo@umext.umass.edu.

UMass Garden Calendar

UMass Garden Calendar 2018

Gift giving season is upon us. UMass Extension puts out a beautiful and useful calendar every year. There are gorgeous flower photographs, and useful information for every day of the year. The 2018 UMass Garden Calendar includes a featured article about Insects to Look for in Massachusetts which, along with a short segment on beneficial pollinators, presents key information on, and photos of current invasive insects of note. Calendars are $12 each. You can order online with a credit cared by going to https://ecommerce.umass.edu/extsales/. Add shipping of $3.50 for one calendar and $2.00 for each additional calendar up to nine.

An Early Bloom Day – before hard frost

Sheffield daisies

Sheffield daisies

Will my garden be blooming on November 15. the official Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Maybe not. Therefore, I went around the garden today taking photos of the flowers blooming this very unusually warm November day. We have yet to have a hard frost although some plants were bitten and succumbed. This is what’s left on this gloomy day with a temperature of 50 degrees at 4 in the afternoon

Knockout red rose

Knockout red rose still budding

Thomas Affleck rose

Thomas Affleck rose in a languorous pose

Limelight hydrangea

” one of three hydrangeas blooming

Nasturtiums

Annual nasturtium still sending out new blossoms

Butterfly Argyanthemum frutescens

Proven Winner Butterfly still blooming

Toad lilies – Tricyrtis

Red winterberry

Winterberry – holiday color if not a bloom

English holly

English holly right by the front steps

Daylight savings left, Eastern Standard time arrived and so did the 5 o’clock dark. But winter is not here yet so I celebrate this bloom day.

Flowers That Bloom in the Fall – Hooray!

Sheffield daisies

Sheffield daisies

If I asked a gardener to give me a list of flowers that bloom in the fall, she might sigh and run out of names after chrysanthemums and asters. But there are many plants that will bloom well into October.  Not only perennials bloom in the fall, but even a few annuals like my nasturtiums and marigolds.

We are all familiar with the potted chrysanthemums that are available in September and October at garden centers and supermarkets. These exclamations of brilliance in shades of gold and ruby are not really intended for the garden. These potted plants are grown by the thousands to be sold in full bloom and then set on porches or tucked between foliage plants in the garden for an instant application of brilliant color. They will certainly continue blooming well into October and maybe vie with jack ‘o lanterns for attention on Halloween

However chrysanthemum are natives of China where they have been bred into many species that can grow quietly in our gardens until midsummer and then begin a great show of color and form. Garden catalogs like Bluestone Perennials and King’s Mums will give you a large selection of the many mum cultivars. I have grown Alma Potschke in my garden for many years. She is a substantial lady, three feet tall or more and loaded with brilliant red/pink flowers into mid-October when she will be done in by a light frost.

I’ve also grown spoon and quilled mums like the golden Fine Feathers, and spider mums with graceful, thin florets that have a more delicate grace than the more familiar mums.

The very late blooming Sheffield daisy is a chrysanthemum and it’s one of my favorites. The Sheffies with their pink petals around a yellow center don’t start their rambunctious blooming until October but I think they are worth the wait. They will bloom until a hard frost. They are strong growers and I have been able to divide clumps just about every year and donate them to friends and plant sales.

Dahlias, natives of Mexico, are sometimes mistaken for chrysanthemums, but they are a bit more tender than mums. They grow from tubers, not root clumps, and cannot be planted until the soil is warm in the spring. As I write they are blooming in a magnificent array of colors on the Bridge of Flowers and in a friend’s Greenfield garden. Some dahlia varieties can be so tall and so laden with blossoms that they need to have sturdy staking provided at the time they are planted.

Asters are familiar fall bloomers. While I think of asters as being tall I am very happy to have the Wood’s Blue aster acting as a green ground cover until it turns into a river of blue in late August and blooms through September. This is a good spreader.

Boltonia

Boltonia

Boltonia is a false aster, but it is beautiful in fall. It begins blooming in late summer and continues until frost, producing clouds of small white aster-like blossoms with yellow centers. It blooms exuberantly on the Bridge of Flowers but also tolerates wet sites and can be included in a rain garden.

Toad lily tricyrtis

Toad lily – tricyrtis

Less familiar bloomers are tricyrtis, toad lilies, autumn crocus and colchicum. I always seem to forget about my planting of toad lilies tucked in near some low growing primroses. The clump of these late bloomers has become substantial, with three foot tall stems and deep green leaves. My toad lilies are spotted blue and white, but there is a pink and white variety as well. Sprays of about ten flowers are carried on the tall stems. This flower should be planted at the edge of a border where the complicated flower can be fully appreciated and admired.

Colchicums and autumn crocus look very similar and bloom at the same time, but colchicums belong to the lily family and autumn crocus to the iris family. Both should be planted in August. The first summer they are planted they will bloom in the fall when temperatures begin to cool. They will not have foliage but send up stemless blossoms of blue/purple or pink. Each bulb will send up several shoots and each will have a blossom. Because there is no stem these flowers are only about six or eight inches high. The following spring they will send up foliage which will die down and disappear sometime in August. Then, once again, the flowers suddenly erupt with springlike verve.

Cooks should be aware that the Saffron Crocus can grow in our area. Like the other autumn crocus they should be planted in August. They will bloom later in September and then the little stigmas can be harvested and dried for use in recipes calling for saffron. American Meadows, located in Shelburne, Vermont, sells Saffron Crocus. They say that a bag of 15 bulbs will produce 30 stigmas, or maybe more. However, they also say that these bulbs may only blossom a year or two. Even so, if it is the saffron you want the price of about $17 for a bag of 15 bulbs would be worthwhile. This is something to remember when you are making up your plant order in the spring.

While we will soon say farewell to this year’s blooms we can enjoy thinking about new blooms for a long season next year,

Between the Rows  October 28, 2017

Fall Clean Up and Cold Compost

cold compost

Cold compost ready for spreading as mulch

Leaves are falling, some flower stalks have turned brown and brittle; it’s time for the fall clean up.

I have been cutting back iris and daylily foliage which was looking less and less attractive every day. Cutting back is one way to make the garden look neater and a bit more serene. It is also a way to see clearly which clumps will be ready for dividing in the spring. Where can these divisions make the most impact? Or maybe the divisions can be sold at spring plant sales like those for the Bridge of Flowers or the Greenfield Garden Club.

I also started to cut back the large stand of six foot tall chelone, turtlehead. Cutting back the waning but still tall or spready perennials in the garden make it easier to see the plants with autumnal and winter interest like winterberry.

All of these large leaves and plant stalks go into a special big compost pile. In the spring we will turn the pile, and with a little luck the bottom half of that pile will be good compost to put on the garden beds.

Walking through the autumn garden shows the spots of failure. My sweet peas didn’t get enough sun. The stringbeans didn’t get proper support and were too crowded. The smaller honeysuckle wasn’t as small as I thought; it needs a real trellis. My wanderings show that the vigorous and twining Grandpa Ott morning glory is also going to need careful removal from the honeysuckle.

cold compost

time to load up the cold compost

Fall clean-up doesn’t happen in one day, and it doesn’t need to. Unlike chores in the spring which seem to happen all at once, I feel we have more time in the fall, especially this year because the weather has been so mild. The leaves fall and have to be raked. Then more leaves fall and they have to be raked. Fall clean up encourages a slow and steady approach.

Our biggest problem with clean up this year is the dead brown leaves of our big horse chestnut. We noticed other horse chestnut trees in town also shedding their big brown leaf clusters early. I have tried to do some research to confirm or disprove the rumor we heard that there is a fungus attacking these trees, and that the fallen leaves should be collected and removed, not put in the compost pile.

Our horse chestnut is very tall and branches are not within reach. I cannot see the leaves clearly until they fall off. I did find examples on line of leaf blotch which is caused by a fungus, but I am not able to see my leaves early enough in the fungus development stage to see if they develop as shown in the photos. In any event, we are trying to rake up as many of those leaves as possible, bagging them up and putting them out for the trash collector. The leaf blotch fungus, Guignardia aesculi, can overwinter in a compost pile and be a threat next year.

While we are doing our best to get rid of the horse chestnut leaves, we welcome the sycamore, Japanese lilac, and river birch leaves as well as the maple and oak leaves from our neighbors’ trees. There are plenty of these over the course of the fall. I collect them and put them into a five foot tall wire cage, pressing them down as the season progresses. We can watch the pile melt down and stand in awe of the speed of the rotting process.

I did not invent the idea of a big wire bin. That was the late Larry Lightner’s idea. He was a marvelous gardener and years ago was responsible for many of the gardens on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus. He collected leaves and made what he called ‘cold compost.’ The compost bins that many of us use for our kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and weeds, use the heat created by the rotting process to make compost. In a different process leaves break down in their aerated wire bin without heat. It does take a full year, and sometimes longer to be usable, but it is valuable compost.

Lightner even planted in his cold compost bins. He made them about two or three feet tall,  sometimes circular or of any other shape that suited him. He kept adding leaves all fall until the bins were full. In the spring he would top off the planting bin with cold compost from another bin. The newly full bin was ready for planting. He would make an indentation in the cold compost, add about a quart of soil, and then plant a vegetable or plant start. One big bin could hold numerous starts. These bins did need to be kept well watered, but plants got plenty of nutrition from the still rotting leaves and thrived.

We just pulled our wire bin up and off the rotted leaves we collected all last fall. Unrotted leaves remainrd along the outside edges, but  the rest of the leaves have rotted into good compost. I am spreading that compost over my beds as I cut back and weed.

cold compost

spreading cold compost

As soon as I spread all of that finished compost, we’ll set up the bin again and pile in this year’s crop of leaves. This is a wonderful cycle. It makes me happy to know that I can look forward to a compost harvest every fall.

Between the Rows  October 21, 2017

Ben Grosscup and Soil Restoration

Ben Grosscup

Ben Grosscup

Soil Restoration is important. I don’t always understand the science behind good garden practices, but an afternoon with Ben Grosscup helped me think about my soil in new ways. Grosscup began working with the Northeastern Organic Farming Association NOFA) right out of college. He was part of the efforts to organize putting bans on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and efforts to label foods if they did include GMO’s. He organized educational events and seminars for farmers and others interested in the quality of our food supply. Over the years he learned about carbon restoration of our soil.

I went to see Grosscup’s in-town half acre garden to get a better understanding of what carbon restoration means and the role of microbes in the soil. The first thing we did was look at the cover crops, radishes, vetch and winter rye, that Grosscup planted after his vegetable crops were harvested. “I plant a variety of cover crops in one space because each species of plant calls a different microbial community,” he said.

I had understood that cover crops like radishes, winter rye, peas, and oats had enough time in late summer to cover the soil over the winter protecting it from erosion while the roots went deep in the soil to bring up valuable nutrients. I also knew that winter rye would send up shoots that survived the winter and continueto grow in the spring while annual crops like peas and oats would die.

Radish, vetch winter wheat

Cover crops, radish, vetch and winter wheat

I did not understand how you could plant in a bed that was full of winter rye in the spring or any other cover crops. All was about to be revealed. First, there are two types of cover crops, perennial and annual. Winter rye is a perennial crop in that will survive the winter and continue to grow in the spring. When it is nearly time to plant new vegetable crops in the spring Grosscup pulls up the winter rye, covers the bed with newspapers and lays the harvested winter rye on top.  He supplies the newspaper barrier to prevent the rye from re-rooting.

He uses three techniques when planting the newspaper covered rows. First he waters the newspaper well, and the soil beneath. Then he can puncture little holes in the newspaper and insert his vegetable starts. Or he can plant his hills of cucumbers, squash, or beans by making the holes in the paper for the seeds. Or he can create a shallow long trough through the paper to plant seeds. As in any planting he needs to keep it well watered until the seeds or young plants are well established.

Annual ground covers like peas and oats will not survive the winter. Their roots will bring up nutrients and the dead plants will compost in place giving organic matter and nutrients back to the soil.

There are three goals: to cover the soil and protect it from erosion, to enrich the soil, and to avoid disturbing the soil which would release carbon into the atmosphere.

We all have to remember that soil is alive. It is full of fungi, bacteria, nematodes and many other invisible creatures. It has been estimated that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on earth. Grosscup explained that these creatures need sugars created by photosynthesis.

Of course I needed to give myself a little review course about photosynthesis. Chlorophyll in green plants takes the energy from sunlight to break up the water (H2O) molecules in the plant. The plant breathes some of the oxygen back into the atmosphere. The saved molecules are bound to carbon dioxide molecules (CO2) to ultimately create simple carbohydrates like glucose (C6H1206). “These sugars are exudated into the soil through the plant’s roots” Grossup said.

“What the microbes give back to the soil is the ability to metabolize the crystalline formations (stones) that are a part of the soil and turn them into a biologically active substance like trace minerals that are important and usable by the plant.”

The tools of what we now call conventional agriculture include fertilizers which are attempting to give the soil the nutritional elements that plowing and tilling has removed. We gardeners see this when we buy a bag of fertilizer and notice the identifying NPK numbers 5-10-5 or 5-4-1 which refers to  the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in that fertilizer. What these fertilizers do not do is provide food for all the microbial life in the soil which is so vital.

Grosscup has a large sunny vegetable garden next to his house. He says he and his partner rarely have to buy vegetables, and they have three chickens to provide eggs, and compost. They also have fruit trees and berries, as well as a section they call a pollinator garden, filled with perennial flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

Honeyberry surrounded by cover crop

Honeyberry surrounded by cover crop

The sloping area in back of the house is very much a project in progress.  Norway maples were taken down and removed. Some spaces have been covered with cardboard to kill all the weeds growing in the area. Other spaces are farther along in the process and have been planted with annual cover crops with the intent they be ready for planting in the spring. Other areas have been planted with honeyberries, gooseberries and goji berries and a few fruit trees. The ground around them has also been planted with annual cover crops to keep building the soil.

I always say the garden path leads to many fields. This week I explored a path that led into some fascinating science.

Between the Rows   October 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – October 15, 2017

The Fairy Rose

The Fairy rose

This Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day arrives during a very mild October. We have had a very few fold nights with temperatures going below 40 degrees, but the daytime temperatures still reach well into the 70’s and even over 80 degrees. It has been fairly dry except for a couple of welcome rain we got as hurriane Nate touched us for a couple of days.  The Fairy rose will stand in the the sprinkling of other rose blossoms, Folksinger, Peach Coral Drift, Purple Rain and Red Knockout.

joe pye weed

Joe pye weed

We still have a few good pollinator plants blooming and filled with the buzzing of the bees – of all sorts. The bees have had to bend down a bit because when we have had rain it has come down hard and many of my plants are bent over – but it doesn’t seem to matter very much, except that you might notice my plants langour in my photos.

hydrangea

Limelight hydrangea

The hydrangeas are doing very well, and  showing their interest in providing a living fence between my garden and my neighbor’s driveway.

Firelight hydrangea

Firelight hydrangea

calamint

Calamint

We’ll run through the rest.

toad lilies

Toad lilies lying in the grass

Asters

Asters

Grandpa Ott

Grandpa Ott morning glory

Snake root

Snake root

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/wh_snakeroot.htm

Sheffield daisy

Sheffies – Sheffield daisy

The Sheffield daisy blooms very late in the fall.

nasturtiums

Nasturtiums

The nasturtiums show up all over the garden because I used them as a kind of temporary ground cover.  I love them because they are so cheerful.

red winterberry

Red winterberry

Though winterberries aren’t blooming at this time of the year, I had to show off my red winterberry and

Gold winterberry

Gold winterberry

my gold winterberry.

I thank Carol over at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Bloom Day and making it possible to see the gardens in bloom all across our great land.

Pumpkins for Eating and Decorating

Pumpkins

Pumpkins for sale at Butynski Farm

Pumpkin Season is here!  Jack o’ lanterns seem as American as apple pie, but pumpkins, squash and gourds, along with tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cocoa, are native to Central America and Mexico. Over time they migrated to North America and Europe. In fact, New World foods are essential to a large portion of the African population.

We don’t often think about the important nutritional value of pumpkins. Pumpkins are all about Cinderella’s coach, Jack ‘o lanterns and pumpkin pie. However, the many species of pumpkin are low in calories but are a good source of fiber, vitamins A and C. These all support vision, heart health, and reduce the risk of colon cancer. Even the seeds provide health benefits. When was the last time you added some nutritious pepitas to your salad? Happily pumpkins and squash are delicious so it is no hardship to fit pumpkins into your diet.

Pumpkin is the essential ingredient in pumpkin pie (of course) but the menu is much larger including pumpkin bread and pumpkin pastries, pumpkin ravioli, risotto and soup. We went to a party last year where they were serving pumpkin beer!

Pumpkin pie is a great dessert for the fall. It need not be kept just for Thanksgiving. I have bought canned pumpkin for my pies, but I have just been informed that most canned pumpkin is really squash. I guess I should read my labels better.

The best pumpkins for pie have familiar names like the New England Pie Pumpkin, but less familiar are Baby Pam, Long Island Cheese, Long Pie Pumpkin, Baby Bear, Ghost Rider and Spookie.

The first thing to remember about pumpkins and winter squash is that pumpkins, and winter squash are long season fruits and need a long warm season, Many gardeners use floating row covers or sturdier plastic over hoops early in the season to protect them from the weather as well as cucumber beetles or other pests. They also need a rich soil with lots of organic matter to help retain moisture, a pH of 6 to 6.8 as well as a lot of sun and a lot of room. Their vines can run amuck in the garden.

The All America Selections Cinderella pumpkin is also known as the Rouge Vif d’Etampes because of its color and shape resembling Cinderella’s coach. It will send out 10 foot vines and the fruits can weigh up to 20 pounds. Sorcerer pumpkin, another AAS winner, is similar in size with similar vines, but a deeper, dark orange color.

There are bush varieties like Gold Nugget Squash which looks exactly like a pumpkin. This All America Selections squash can produce up to ten fruits per plant weighing about one or one and a half pounds.

Over the past few years ghostly white pumpkins have come on the scene. There are a number of varieties. Baby Boo is a miniature white pumpkin that might especially appeal to children. Flat White Boer Ford is bone white and its flattened shape is similar to the Cinderella pumpkin. It will reach 30 pounds is a good pumpkin for cooking. Lumina will grow to 20 pounds and is a smooth round squash that is good for carving and also good to eat. It is notable that these white pumpkins often need some shade to keep them from turning yellow.

The white Pumpkin Super Moon is an AAS winner. It can reach up to 50 pounds and was chosen by AAS for its disease resistance, vigorous growth, early fruit development and flavor.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds offer large selections of very unusual pumpkins like Galeux d’Eysines which is a pale pink and covered with rough ‘warts.’ It grows on a long vine and will weigh about 15 pounds. It can be a stunning decoration, or it can be eaten in stews and soups.

Giant Pumpkin

Giant Pumpkin – 1st prize winner grown by Sue Chadwick

Pumpkins provide a lot of fun in many ways including growing a giant pumpkin. I once attended a Giant Pumpkin club meeting and learned all about the trading in giant pumpkin seeds, and how to pamper plants over the spring and summer with shelters from the cold or wind, how to arrange proper watering and fertilizing. They also talked about various pumpkin events. I was enchanted by the idea of a pumpkin race. Contestants hollowed out pumpkins large enough to sit in, and then raced each other across a pond! I always think of that race when I admire the giant pumpkins at the Franklin County Fair.

I’m planning on some fun with a pumpkin too, but it doesn’t involve a pond. I bought a pie pumpkin at the Greenfield Farmers Market and I’m ready to make my first pumpkin pie from scratch – beginning with cooking the pumpkin. I’ve been told to cut the pumpkin in half, cut off the stem, scoop out all the seeds and scrape away any fibers. Then lay the pumpkin halves cut side down on a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes. It’s wise to test by inserting a paring knife here and there to make sure it is cooked through. Then remove it from the oven and let it cool for an hour. Scrape out the cooked pumpkin flesh, put it in the food processor and process for two or three minutes until there is a smooth puree. The puree can be refrigerated for five days or so, or kept in the freezer for three months. Bon appétit.

.Between the Rows   October 7, 2017

Dreaming of trees

American sycamores

American sycamores on both side of the street

Since moving to Greenfield we seem unable to get through a day, or night, without thinking and dreaming about trees. When we bought our house, which was surrounded by nothing more than lawn, our attention was taken by the giant American sycamore on the tree belt in front of our house. I called an acquaintance, Dennis Ryan, who is a retired arborist and professor at the University of Massachusetts. I described our tree which we believed was a sycamore, but were not sure. He asked if it shed lots of bark as well as leaves. I gritted my teeth and said yes, it was always shedding bark. American sycamore it is, not a London plane tree which has a similar and handsome mottled bark.

The only other tree in front of our house is a lilac tree. This Japanese lilac tree is a true syringa. When it bloomed after we took possession of our house in  June 2015 we were thrilled with the large white panicled blossoms that were so fragrant they perfumed our who yard. It took a little research to discover its name, but I soon began to notice that a number of Japanese lilac trees are being planted in town. It doesn’t seem to be on many lists of recommended town trees but I think it should be. It grows to about 25 feet tall, with a similar spread and blooms through June in our region.

Japanese syringa

Japanese lilac tree in mid June

roadside maple trees

Roadside maple trees

We got those beauties with the house, but we wanted trees for the back garden as well. The first concern is to plant the right tree in the right spot. Our choice was river birch because it loves wet soil. River birch has exfoliating bark, a clumping habit, and will grow to 40-70 feet. It has grown well and is now about 20 feet tall. We liked it so much we planted another in the same bed.

Trees are an important part of our domestic landscapes, providing shade and interesting form and color to delight our eyes as it dances in the wind or changes color from delicate greens in the spring and brilliant color in the fall. While there is no denying the aesthetic delight of trees, there are the services that trees provide. They clean our air, provide oxygen, cool our cities, create barriers for unattractive views, muffle the sound of busy streets, and provide food for insects and birds that eat the insects, as well as a dozen other benefits.

Trees are important to the streetscapes of our town. Greenfield has tree wardens who can work with residents who want trees on their street. In addition, Greening Greenfield is a community organization designed to increase the sustainability of our town. One element of their goal is to increase the number of trees lining our streets.

Like all of us, trees have a lifetime. Once there were giant elms marching up and down Main Street providing beauty, shade and a sense of stability. Then Dutch elm disease hit Greenfield’s Main Street, and elms all over the country. There are ongoing efforts to replace the street trees in Greenfield. I’m sure we have all seen young trees planted by the town on the tree strip or on the front lawns of residences with their watering bags.

My neighbor Wendy Sibbison and I are interested in getting more trees on our street. When Sibbison was on the town council 20 years ago she was instrumental in getting a number of trees planted on our street, but some of them have died. Other trees on the street are simply old and failing. We met with the town tree wardens, Paul Ratskevitz and Mike Duclos, and they gave us a list of the trees that the town usually plants. They explained that residents can request a tree, or trees for their street and their name will be put on a waiting list. There is not a lot of money for street trees in the town budget so it is hard to say how long residents will have to wait. It is also possible for a resident to buy a street tree themselves and the town will plant it, and maintain it for a year with a water bag. In that case it is possible that the tree will be planted much more quickly.

Sibbison pointed out that the trees on our street are planted on residents’ lawns where the tree roots are less constricted and there is less stress from road salt. Paul Raskevitz said they prefer planting trees on lawns for that very reason. In fact Massachusetts General Law (M.G.L.) Chapter 87, Section 7, specifically allows towns and cities to plant trees within 20 feet of the public right of way. These trees are considered to be ‘public shade trees’. Aside from the benefit to the tree, planting on a lawn lessens the problems of hitting public utility lines under the tree strip, or the power lines above it.

Between the Rows   September 30, 2017

The Art of Farming – A fundamental human endeavor

Nancy Hanson

Jason Dragon, Nancy Hanson and Pete Solis (L-R)

Where do people learn the art of farming? Farmers used to raise farmers as well as crops of hay, wheat, potatoes or other vegetables. Children learned the art of farming at their father’s – or mother’s knee.

Then came a time when the farms got bigger and bigger, and more expensive, as did farming equipment, but the farmers became fewer and fewer. And yet we all need to eat. Where do our farmers come from now?

Recently I met with Nancy Hanson, Director of Farm Programs at Hampshire College at the barn where students and staff come to pick up their CSA order for the week. We were surrounded by bins of beets, pepper, carrots and other vegetables waiting for the week’s allotments to be collected. Hanson is a woman who grew up on a farm started by her grandfather, then passed on to her father. In the mid 1980s the federal government created a program to control milk prices by offering money to dairy farmers if they would sell their herds. Hanson’s father accepted the offer.

Carrots

Carrots for CSA pickup at Hampshire college

Hanson hadn’t wanted to be a dairy farmer, but she did want to work with plants; After high school she took jobs working with ornamental plants. “After some years I learned what I didn’t know in those jobs and eventually was accepted into the University of Connecticut and earned a degree in ornamental horticulture,” she said.

She continued working with ornamentals in Boston and Maine. For a couple of years she was the estate horticulturist in Manchester by the Sea. “A couple bought an estate that was in disrepair. They renovated the buildings, pruned and replanted trees, and perennials.”

Hanson said that it was during those couple of years that she leaned to think about design and aesthetics in ways that were new to her. As part of her job she cared for a quarter acre vegetable garden. “That’s where I was the happiest, and that’s when vegetables became a passion.”

In the 90s Hanson learned more and more about organic growing. “This was interesting to me because it meant you had to understand the whole system,” she said. In 1999 she applied for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) position at Hampshire College, and she has been there ever since. Hanson works with two other professional farmers. Pete Solis mostly works with livestock like sheep, pigs, beef and hens, while Jason Dragon is mainly in charge of the vegetable fields. All three work with each other, and with the students.

Flock of sheep

Sheep flock at Hampshire College

Hanson explained that they have six students working full time in the summer with crops that are chosen to be ready for fall harvest. Work study students work on the farm in fall and spring. Some of those students do see farming as their life’s work, but others have different levels of interest in raising food.

“The goal is not to train farmers,” Hanson said. “Students work within academic programs like the introduction to food systems. We want them all to appreciate the goodness of fresh vegetables. This is the 26th year of our CSA. About one third of the harvest goes directly to the cafeterias serving the nearly 1500 students, and college faculty and staff.”

Hampshire’s program is not designed like a major in other colleges. Hanson explained that HampshireCollege was founded in 1965 by the other four valley colleges, the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amhers tCollege and Mt Holyoke College. Through the 60’s the administrations of these colleges felt the waves of new theories that were worthy of exploration and practice – but didn’t fit into their own academic visions. Thus was 800 acres of farmland bought and Hampshire College opened in 1970.

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

To this day HampshireCollege remains an experimenting institution with students creating their own self directed programs that usually include study related to societal or community problems. There are no exams or grades given. For example, the CSA program was designed and put in place by two students who made it their senior capstone project.

Hanson said that they try to bring the farm into other study fields. Art students come to the farm and one teacher brings students to look at water systems. They give tours, and this year they made bouquets with their own flowers to sell to parents bringing in the new freshmen. The bouquets sparked everyone’s interest in the gardens.”

Hanson said it is the combination of farming and teaching that makes her happy.

“I’m still here because as a teacher there is always some smart alec who asks me a question I can’t answer – and keeps me learning about something I’ve been involved with since I could walk. Some students are familiar with farms, but to some the farm is a totally new thing. I want them to realize that farming is a fundamental human endeavor. It is great to watch a student get it, when things start clicking.”

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Recently I talked to Ben Grosscup about a Pollinators and the Urban Homestead workshop where you can learn the key principles of gardening for pollinators on Ben’s urban homestead and emerging food forest. Sponsored by Western Mass Pollinator Networks, this free, in-depth workshop will be co-led by landscape designer Tom Sullivan (pollinatorswelcome.com)  Sunday, October 1, 9:30 a.m. to noon. 195 Chapman St., Greenfield.  PLEASE REGISTER by emailing your name to wmassbees@gmail.com. ###

Not All The Essentials for the Apocalypse

What are the essentials for an apocalypse?

The New York Times listed essentials for the apocalypse in the September 24, 2017 issue. I did note  that these are essentials as deemed so by a certain affluent group of Americans.

Author Alex Williams lists 13 things to have on hand in case worse comes to worst, what with daily threats from North Korea – and our own White House.

essentials for the apocalypse

Silver (mostly) essentials for the apocalypse

Is money one of  the essentials for the apocalypse? At first glance it seems reasonable that you might want to put in a stock of silver – and in nickels, dimes and quarters “because silver coins come in small enough denominations to barter for a loaf of bread or a socket wrench.” Of course, there is an assumption that someone will be around with extra loaves of bread or socket wrenches.

Stocking your own food seems sensible since you can also include your favorites libations. Are you a Scotch person or a bourbon afficianado? I thought a really great essential was rabbits, that are not fussy about what they eat, and will make up to 50 babies a year. Rabbits are very nutritious.

These affluent survivalists could also get numchucks or brass knuckles or the “100 Deadly Skills” book written by Clint Emerson, a former Navy SEAL. A folding kayak can fit in a closet, JetPacks that will carry you away may soon be commercially available.

With all these valuable resources, only one of  which mentions food – those rabbits – I can’t help thinking of a different apocalypse – climate warming which will change the foods that can be grown and where they can be grown. I also see an unmentioned danger to seeds.

The Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault was built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. It contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide failsafe protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.’

However, this past winter’s unparalleled warm temperatures caused melting of the permafrost which went into the seed vault. Fortunately, none of the seeds were affected. This time.

Clearly there are many events that can get survivalists scurrying for something that will save them, but I wonder how many unforeseen and unintended consequences are waiting for us.